Monday, September 28, 2015

A Bureaucrat's Tale - Chapter 6

          While my staffers studied dispatches old and new, I allowed myself a relative rest by wrapping up the first round of informational calls.  The Offices of Justice and Sentience got their briefings first.  I let them know what had been relayed to the other Offices on my first pass and hinted that more would be forthcoming soon. 

          Before I talked to Information again, I needed to complete my own study of the second dispatch from Locust System.  Aika helpfully scanned and summarized the various on-site reports from the salvagers along with the data dumps they had pulled from colony systems.  Before I started reading, I forwarded her annotated copy to Secretary ChiTakTiZu.  The boss always had to stay up to date.
          The headline atop everything else was the discovery of survivors… only one of whom was actually a survivor from the colonies: a Brin named Tiberius.  The others were, amazingly, the original crew of the Saving Grace: captain Carlos Mendoza, Human; pilot Mitchell Preston, also Human; Preston’s A.I., Georgia; crew member TePenVa, Zig; and crew member Torkt, Taratumm.  There had been a fifth sapient aboard, Zig first mate KoShunTi, but she was killed on-planet.  Mendoza’s Brin, Charlotte, was missing and presumed kidnapped aboard Saving Grace.

          Per the report of their rescuers, the Great Family passenger liner Vlluti, the crew of Saving Grace claimed their ship had been stolen by a mixed group of Human and Mauraug colonial survivors.  One of the Mauraug had shot and killed KoShunTi, while one of the two Humans, a male, hijacked one the ship’s surface vehicle, took Preston hostage, and used him as leverage to enter and overcome the captain aboard ship.  Captain Mendoza was further claiming that the boarder allowed his Brin to enter and overwrite ship’s computers.

          Putting aside the incompetence of a crew who left their ship’s systems so unprotected, Mendoza was admitting to several other poor security decisions.  His two absent crewmembers, TePenVa and Torkt, had been busy excavating the mining tunnels and never knew their ship was in trouble.  Preston had been hauling salvage back and forth between their work site and the ship.  Given that they were the first ship on site, they should have expected survivors to be a little twitchy.  They also should have been wary of the original attackers waiting in ambush.
          The Saving Grace crew provided descriptions of the suspects: a dark-haired, heavily built Human male, a younger Human female, an overweight Mauraug with no visible cybernetics, a dwarf Mauraug barely two meters tall, and three other Mauraug with, variously, a spinal implant, a replaced right arm, and a cybernetic eye.  The Human presence reduced the likelihood that this motley crew came from the Apostates, but it was also unexpected for such a joint enterprise to arise from among the Locust colonists.  Before the recent crisis, the Human and Mauraug populations had been competitors, not cooperating except where strictly necessary.  It was possible that their mutual tragedy had led to a bond between survivors of both sides… but then why attack the Saving Grace?  Unless they perceived the salvagers to be connected to their enemy, there wasn’t much sense…

          A variety of possible explanations came to mind.  It was possible the ‘survivors’ were already a criminal gang, using the disaster as cover to lure a salvager ship down.  It sounded like a stupid plan, but then, the Saving Grace crew had been sufficiently stupid to make such a plot successful.

          Perhaps the hijackers were survivors and mistook the Saving Grace for their attackers, at least at first.  The proximity between the original three ships’ departure and Saving Grace’s arrival made this explanation less implausible.  Theft might not have even been the original intent, but once the first shots were fired, the raiders might have felt trapped into completing their crime and fleeing with the stolen ship.

          Another possibility was more disturbing.  The survivors might have bonded over their anger and desire for vengeance not against the original villains, but against nearer targets.  An opportunistic salvager rifling through their former homes and the bodies of their neighbors might drive any traumatized sapient to violence.  Worse, survivors might have wanted to strike out at the organization they – like so many other fools – blamed for the colony’s vulnerability: the Collective.  If the ‘Grace turned up pirate in Collective space, my hypothesis would become more believable.

          A final accounting of the ‘Grace problem would have to wait on more evidence.  Similarly, there was nothing new to identify the colony’s killers.  The A.I. survivor, Tiberius, was of limited value, having been confined to the rooms of one of the Terran colonist families.  At least it could still recite the full population manifest of the Terran side and verify identities of the retrieved dead.  Its own User, Geminus Turell, had not yet been located.

          It had been a Vlluti crewmember who found Tiberius… lucky for the Brin they retrieved him, much less talked to him.  Eh, I was being unfair again.  The Hrotata weren’t as hostile to A.I. as most non-Terrans.  An average spacefaring Hrotata wouldn’t be afraid to talk to a Brin, even if they wouldn’t want to partner with one.
          I felt chastened that I had not counted the Brin population among the casualties of the Locust attack.  The officially reported count of ‘colonists’ transported to Locust Four tallied only Human and Mauraug, about 800 of each.  That number included only ‘sapient’ designations.  If you counted sentients, instead, the death toll could be over 2350 individuals.  The Mauraug colonial negotiators, in this case, had hurt themselves by spiting Brins: the Terran colony had nearly twice as many minds among their population, even if the body count was about equal. 
          Tiberius was also able to provide maps of the colony prior to its demolition and report on the Terran side’s status up until the attack began.  Its User had been unable to retrieve Tiberius’ storage hardware before he evacuated.  The Brin asserted that its User most probably guided other Humans to the potential cover of the mining tunnels.  Given that other reports indicated that the mining tunnels were largely collapsed or sealed by bombing, Turell and any followers were probably dead and buried. 
          What Tiberius couldn’t answer was who had attacked, what their ships or armaments were like, what (if anything) the colonists had done in defense, or what happened after the attack started.  The A.I. possessed limited communications links, which were lost when the aggressors took down every comm satellite and ground-based relay.  Inside, cut off, it had been more blind and helpless than a sapient in a sensory deprivation tank.  It was fortunate that Brins rarely suffered mental disorder as a result of such isolation.
          Outside of the salvage reports, the messages included a hail from the Mauraug warship, Zhapak bash’Kettath.  They had little of value to add, other than to make Settlement aware of their presence and availability to assist where needed.  We had nothing for them to fight and no Mauraug colonists to transport, so they were as worthless as Terran military would have been.  I looked forward to raising that point with the Terran Council contact when I advised them about the Mauraug military presence.  They’re there, and it still doesn’t matter. 
          If either cultural government – or both – had stationed a warship in Locust System mere hours ago, they would still have their much-demanded colony.  A day late was worthless.  In a way, I would be pleased if they diverted ships to Locust after the fact.  They could waste resources now and have to answer at home for the expense.  Inquiries might lead to an investigation that would expose the true reasons why no defenses were protecting Locust Four when it mattered.  Vindication would be nice.  I could dream, anyway.
          Could I somehow bait Councilor Webb into sending a ship or two, even after I had advised against such an action?  Perhaps I could protest enough that she would start to wonder what Settlement was “hiding”.  I suspected simple reverse psychology wouldn’t work on the senior Councilor.  It might work on Representative Jocasta, our Office’s more direct foe, but he didn’t have the authority to dispatch Terran ships.  It was another amusing thought, but not a practical strategy.
          I needed to get back to business.  My two previous calls had given my assistants, Jacq Coombs and Tlalosseth, enough time to catch up on the original set of transmissions from Locust.  I could hear them already composing the media release I had requested.  Aika hovered nearby, not directly choosing the subjects or phrasing of the message, but doing her best to subtly influence its content, offering ideas for corrective edits.  She could have assembled the entire thing herself, without their help, but I wanted some of her capacity available for my use.
          In particular, she added expert analysis to the summary I was receiving.  Her output wasn’t just a distillation across every piece of data provided; it prioritized points, showed linkages, drew logical conclusions, and suggested important questions not yet answered.  The three of us other sentients could have done the same – and as Jacq had demonstrated earlier, we could still pull out connections that Aika would miss – but we would probably have taken three Terran days to finish the work.  Aika needed only three minutes.

          With her assistance, they were giving a ‘sapient touch’ to the press copy, yet still completing the job twice as fast.  I needed to step up if I was going to be ready for the second wave of calls as soon as they finished.
          After finishing the paragraphs of known fact, I skimmed over the remaining lines of conjecture from Aika.  These analyses might be uncertain – and increasingly lower in probability the further I read – but were much more interesting than the dry certainties.

          Vlluti reported that mining equipment had been shifted after the attack, confirming that Saving Grace crew had used the machinery themselves.  Closer inspection might reveal areas they had already excavated.  If we pressed the Great Family personnel to pay sharp attention they might discern patterns indicating what equipment (and personnel) was now missing.  It was possible the ‘Grace crew weren’t giving an honest accounting of their activities.  They should have been prioritizing their search for survivors and the collection of casualties, not gathering material goods.

          Between the accumulated reports and our analysis, Settlement was getting closer to an accounting of dead versus missing.  Over 600 Mauraug were definitely deceased, along with more than 500 Humans and 400 Brin.  Final counts would have to wait on complete excavation of the demolished settlements.  The oncoming Medical ship would likely assist with final collection, identification, and transport of remains, eventually providing a definitive list.

          Matching the current dead with Tiberius’ records highlighted some patterns.  Over 100 of the missing Humans were mining staff.  Anywhere from 50 to 100 additional Humans might have been close enough to seek refuge in the tunnels.  By contrast, the majority of the unaccounted Mauraug were listed as construction laborers or military defense.  The construction workers might have be buried deeper beneath the Mauraug structures, delaying their discovery until crews started digging.

          Explorers and security on both sides were most likely to have survived, by luck of being in the wilds when their settlements were hit.  That absence was no guarantee of safety, however.  A group of agricultural workers planting outside of the Human settlement had been strafed by plasma fire after the bombing runs.  A lone Mauraug defense outpost had been bombed separately.  One Mauraug explorer had been found dead far to the north, untouched by technological weapons, killed by a fall from rocks.  It was unknown if it was seeking safety while fleeing the attackers or suffered the accident earlier and could not be rescued.

          The unfolding pattern of destruction continued to suggest a desire to eradicate not just lives, but the colonial project itself.  That behavior best fit the Mauraug Apostasy.  No other group had both the resources needed to field three heavily armed ships, along with the grudge necessary for such mass slaughter.  Other consistent possibilities remained, but each was less probable: A raid by a culture outside of the Collective, an attack covertly sponsored by the Terran or Mauraug governments, a pirate raid gone bad, or even a complete hoax.

          There certainly were non-Collective species with the technology and psychology to undertake such acts… but they’d have to come in from outside our space, attack, and then run back beyond without pausing for fuel.  Few known enemies of the Collective had such resources to spare, much less to waste on such a minor target.  For that matter, if most competitors wanted to dispute territory, they would strike at the borders, not deep within Collective space at the Terran-Mauraug border.  There could be a more cunning plan at work, something aimed at raising tensions between Collective members, but again, that suggested deep internal knowledge.  Such sophisticated insight was less likely to be available to non-Collective cultures, especially the ones with whom we weren’t on friendly terms.

          Theories about internal sabotage would be flying thickly for a few days, no matter what the actual facts said.  Members of both the Terran and Mauraug governments would accuse one another of destroying the colony for various reasons.  Other demagogues within the various layers of the Collective would also accuse one or the other culture.  Accusers would say one side, opposing the joint colonial charter, would rather destroy the colony rather than see it succeed (jointly or under control of their opposition).  Perhaps the proposed villain expected to start a new colony on their own or under terms more favorable to their side.  Maybe the villain had opposed the colony from the start and maneuvered to have it secretly annihilated.

          If a sensible rebuttal asked why the responsible government would kill their own colonists, the conspiracist would be ready.  Of course they killed their own citizens; it would be too suspicious if one side was spared and the other destroyed.  A necessary sacrifice.  People who thought like that worried me, especially when they were already in elected government positions.  Alternately, a really depraved theorist might claim that the colonists could be privately declared traitors for having joined a joint operation.  After all, such 'collaborators' had tacitly accepted the potential jurisdiction of The Other.  Such idiocy provides much of the challenge of my work.  Sadly, I couldn’t entirely dismiss such folly.  A corrupt leader could amass enough power to send three ships to murder hundreds of sapients.  It was possible, however unlikely or unprofitable.

          As to the other points, well, there weren’t many known pirate operations with the strength to pull off such a raid.  Even if they had, they’d be more bent on collecting valuables than destroying buildings.  They’d hit one side or the other in force, gather up whatever they could, and then maybe scorch the earth afterward… but more likely just leave.  Even if it turned out Saving Grace had turned pirate, sending three combat ships to pound a target flat and then scraping up the remains with a single salvager afterward was a stupid plan.  More likely, the latter ship was an opportunist rather than a collaborator.

          There could still be an unknown pirate operation out there.  For that matter, no few mercenary ships operate in Collective space.  If someone paid enough – and promised enough cover to hide the hirelings' involvement – it was possible they could have purchased a massacre.  If something of that nature had occurred, time would gradually expose the truth.  Someone would talk to someone.  Eventually, a ship log would be found with a record of travel through Locust System at a certain date and time.

          Among the last few possibilities was that the attack was a hoax.  While highly unlikely, falsification of information was technically possible due to the limitations of message relay between systems. 

          Finally, the cause could be an ‘unknown’, some phenomenon out of current knowledge.  For example, an entity could have psychically taken over several ships’ crews, forcing them to attack a defenseless colony for unknowable reasons.  The process of logic initially excluded these last two hypotheses as requiring too many suppositions.

          Technically, such logical processes weren’t part of my job description, nor Aika’s.  We wouldn’t be mentioning any of these ideas publicly.  We reported only facts and our policy in response to those facts.  Theorizing did, however, help us determine what information was worth magnifying and what details could be left buried in the raw data when we relayed 'on-site' reports.  Theorizing about the guilty parties also helped us anticipate any wild accusations or theories that might be thrown in our direction.  Shooting down impossibilities or improbabilities quickly would make our job easier.

          Among the many challenges facing Settlement, one problem steadily rising in priority was fatigue.  I had already exceeded my normal work day.  We were past fourteen hours since the original message from Locust System.  Given the two hours I had already been present before the emergency erupted, that made sixteen hours at the office and eighteen without sleep.  In addition to my usual working lunch, dinner had also been eaten in-office.  If we wrapped around to morning and breakfast at desks, my temper and error rates would both inevitably increase.

          What work had the highest priority?  What must be done before we stopped for rest?  Defense needed the new intelligence about Saving Grace.  The ship would be reported stolen per Captain Mendoza’s statement.  She needed to be detained, wherever she next made port.  The possibility of an A.I. violation would also need to be mentioned.

          After that, the old and new press releases must go out, simultaneously with packets for the Terran and Mauraug governments.  The second round of updates to our fellow Offices could generally be managed by Aika.  I'd just have her forward the raw data.  Nothing I saw so far changed our directives to any other Office, except Defense and possibly Justice.

          I’d deal with the Justice and Communications updates after a nap.  If, Maui be kind, no new trouble arrived right away, I might even manage several hours of sleep before more decisions were required. 

          My personal apartments are located in the same building where I work, for which I am grateful on hectic days like that one.  On an average day, I can work from home, but the sort of highly sensitive information we were dealing with then precluded that option.

          Lesser players like individual reporters, private citizens, and oh yes, Representative Tomas Jocasta could wait until tomorrow for their responses.  In particular, I wanted to see what Tommy-Jo would come up with on his own, without our help.  The closer his accusations fell to our current state of knowledge and the sooner his protests arrived, the better I could pinpoint the breach in Collective information security.

          There were lots of miscreants to catch, all of the sudden: murderers, thieves, and dishonest bureaucrats.   I couldn’t help much in the identification or apprehension of the first two, but I could do my best to flush out the latter.  If there’s anything I hate, it’s a fellow bureaucrat with compromised integrity.  They make us all look bad.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Broken Record - Chapter 2 - "Kicking Old Habits"

            I tossed Pkstzk’s letter onto my couch and carried my travel case into the office.  After offloading my compad and grooming kit, I decided not to take any chances, and unpacked Rtrtr as well.

           Stalking back into the front room, I moved the offending envelope onto the floor and blasted it with Rtrtr’s lowest setting.  Destroy the evidence.  Burn the writer, by proxy.  The resulting fire left a charred mark on the plasticrete, but the property damage was worth it.  I felt a little better for indulging my feelings.

            I would need my best frenzy management strategies to deal with Pkstzk and her troubles.  Even if she stayed well-behaved – and that wasn’t guaranteed – there would still be nosy constables to deal with.  The investigation of her mate's death might stray into old, deep waters.  My past self, a more nervous, trigger-happy self, still lurked about, just waiting for an excuse to leap forward… or run away.  Swimming backward against time made it easier for younger me to influence older me.

           There were a couple of days yet before the next rest day.  Lots of time to relax.  I was glad I didn’t have to scramble uptown right away to meet Pkstzk.  I’d be able to let go of my presently agitated state of mind.  That was presuming I didn't work myself up more in the meantime.

            Despite that concern, I felt like I should do some background research.  I ought to check the history on Pkstzk and her mate.  I could review public records about the murder case.  Maybe I'd see what I could find about the old pack.

            I already knew that one packmate, Fzpktk, was dead, killed by constables while resisting arrest.  Rsspkz was in prison for life, along with Vztrrp.  The three of them had been identified on a job gone bad where sapients died.  I wasn’t sure which of them, if any, had actually killed, but as far as the law was concerned, they were all guilty of murder.

           Tklth had managed to escape the dragnet and made it off-planet.  Her trail was cold.  While I grabbed a drink and a snack, I confirmed that absence of information.  Her name turned up nothing on the news media.  She wasn’t listed in any Collective death notices.  I sent a query through the constabulary just in case, using the cover story of research for a client.  They might only give me a form response after a day or two, after skimming the public files.  I already knew that search would come back empty.  If I was lucky, the inquiry would spark some interest, maybe prompt somebody to dig deeper.  My search could backfire if someone linked Tklth and Pkstzk, but that was unlikely.  The two females had despised and avoided one another, and like I said, Pkstzk never worked jobs with the pack.

            I went through the same media searches for Pkstzk, Rsspkz, and Vztrrp, along with a few other hangers-on who weren’t part of the pack but still associated with one of us closely: Rsspkz’ siblings Zfzptk (off-planet, asteroid miner) and Ktchvch (diner cook), and Vztrrp’s childhood friend Ssptkt.  That last search turned up an interesting story: Ssptkt had apparently picked a fight with a Taratumm herd and was now paralyzed from the neck down.  I found nothing relevant to my current concerns, though.

            Nobody seemed to have an easy connection back to Rsspkz. Nobody was an obvious candidate for him to use to stalk or threaten Pkstzk or her mate.  I also didn’t see any indirect links between any of the old pack mates.

            That included me.  Back then, I didn't have any associations outside of the pack, other than my parents and their pack.  They moved away and passed away off-planet after I reached maturity.  Anyway, Vislin don’t generally maintain lifelong genetic family relationships like mammalians tend to.  I suspect that the modicum of affection adult children receive – or adult sibling affection – is a cultural imposition from the Hrotata and Taratumm.  Prehistoric Vislin were likely more like our evolutionary forbears, kicking young out of the nest to form their own packs as soon as they could hunt alone.

            Pack association is the strongest relationship in Vislin culture and society, far more important than genetic ties.  I reminded myself of this obvious fact to prepare my defenses.  Even mate bonds are secondary to the pack, although a good pack rarely forces the two allegiances into conflict.  Ideally, one mates within the pack and avoids the whole issue.

            Research is still trying to untangle all the ways pack mates bond: chemically, mentally, and maybe psychically.  Those bonds helped us survive in the past; a pack could make survival decisions and take action better than any of its component sapients.  Obviously, a coordinated pack hunts better.  Pack mates know when one of their own is in trouble and do whatever is necessary to assist.  The pack bond can even overrule frenzy in ideal circumstances.

            Even in modern times, the pack bond is still a significant asset.  The frenzy control effects can’t be discounted, especially now that there are fewer and fewer places where you can acceptably vent your anxieties.  Packs that work together produce superior results to mixed-pack work groups.  That truth applies to intellectual work as much as physical labor, which explains some of the historic technical and military advantages enjoyed by Vislin.

            What all this biopsychology meant was trouble.  I had escaped my old pack through a combination of chance and idiosyncrasy.  I was fortunate to not be involved in that last job, the one that went bad and cost most of the pack their lives or freedom.  I was also lucky to be absent when the constables came to round the others up.  Otherwise, in either case, I might have been caught up against my better judgment.  With pack mates present and in trouble – no matter that it was trouble of their own making – I’d have felt obligated to help them fight or escape.

            Even afterward, if I was ‘normal’ but avoided death or arrest, I’d have been in the courthouse standing by to help their case.  I might have threatened witnesses, destroyed evidence, even assassinated court personnel if I thought that would help… presuming I wasn’t jailed or killed first.  Even now, I might have wanted to assist Rsspkz and Vztrrp in prison, taking their calls and sneaking them contraband.  I certainly would have identified, proudly, as their pack mate, earning me constant constabulary observation.

            I am not ‘normal’, thank sun's warmth.  When things went bad, I was actually relieved.  I had been having second thoughts about the pack’s activities for years but didn’t see any way out.  Mine was the voice that encouraged them away from dangerous, violent jobs and sought opportunities for stealthy, zero-casualty crimes.  I wasn’t any paragon of virtue, but I did what I could.  Maybe I should give myself credit for finding a strong personal code of ethics.  Moral objections might have been the counteractive force that weakened my pack bonds.  It’s certainly a more comforting theory than just thinking I’m defective, unable to bond properly or capable of discarding those bonds for my own convenience.

            Where I found a ‘strong personal code of ethics’, only the Egg-Thief knows.  My parents didn’t teach me much, except how to function socially, keep myself fed, and to stay in school.  Civics was taught in my nursery, but only as a set of dry ideals, not a practical lifestyle.  My pack wouldn’t know an ethic if it burrowed under their scales.  I didn’t have a friend, mate, or even play-mate to teach me right from wrong or look disappointed about my moral failings.  I just somehow came to realize that what the pack was doing was wrong.

            Not at first, either.  When I first joined up, it seemed exciting.  We were pulling tricks on society, taking what it couldn’t protect, proving ourselves clever and quick hunters in a world going soft.  We loved rough, frontier ChtkKttp and our home town: grim, gritty Layafflr City.  Pack Vzrrk was part of a tradition of lawlessness stretching back to our colonizing ancestors.  We had dreams of scaling the walls of society and taking our rightful places among the high kleptocracy, once we had amassed enough wealth to prove ourselves worthy.  Our victims were pathetic, weak fools who couldn’t defend their possessions and so didn’t deserve to keep anything.

            In short, I now make a career out of finding and capturing the type of idiot I used to be.  That’s how I understand them so well.  It often comes as a revelation to criminals – especially thieves - that anyone else could be as clever and tough as they believe themselves to be.  I suppose you could argue that I’m so amazing because of my criminal past; that I’m not really one of the soft marks of society, unlike the clients I assist because they can’t help themselves.  I think, though, that I’m smarter and more skilled now than I ever was back when I thought myself better than everyone else.

            I managed to make a clean break from my foolish youth.  I stayed out of reach and out of contact from my pack until they were safely in prison, in space, or in the grave.  Any urgings I felt to come to their aid were quashed by my better sense.  Maybe I rationalized, at the time, that I could do more for the pack by staying free and anonymous than I could by sticking close and getting spattered with their same stink.  Such thoughts might have fooled 'normal' pack-sense for a while.  Yet even afterward, I could deny our bond without much effort.  Someday I’d help them out.  Someday it would be feasible to step out of the shadows and risk contact.  Just keep pushing that someday further into the future.  Until then, I could keep away from temptation and out of trouble.

            Apparently, that "someday" was coming up, two days from now.  Pkstzk wasn’t pack, so I wouldn’t feel those urgings toward her.  Different urgings, sure, and I had to be ready for those feelings, too. 

            Even so, she was still linked to the old pack.  Helping her might mean contact with my past pack mates.  Even without direct contact, my motivations and perceptions would still be influenced by our mutual past.  I still felt the pack bond.  I wasn’t that insane, regardless of how my neighbors or clients thought of me.  I could just push that bond aside better than most.  I had to hope that if I stayed introspective and made sure my decisions were rational, I could avoid doing something loyally dumb.

            Speaking of bonds, I eventually remembered to look up Pkstzk’s dead second mate.  I found both their public mating certificate and the record of his death.  The stiff was named Vzktkk.  From the little I could find, he sounded pretty dead even when he was alive.  Accountant… what a terrible job for a Vislin.  Office worker.  Low income, likely working his way up.  Liked to play space fighter sims.  When that’s the highlight of your obituary, you did something wrong in life.  Not like me.  I’m sure my death record will be spectacular, a tribute to my wonderfully varied existence, capped off with an explosive ending.  Yeah, not boring like poor Vzktkk.

            I suspected this guy’s herbivorous lifestyle was what had attracted Pkstzk.  He was safe, a refuge after the wild ride with Rsspkz.  He wasn’t too bad looking, either, judging from the pictures on record.  Probably would have been a great provider for her and their young.  That was a shame; she deserved that stability.  Knowing Pkstzk, though, she probably had been chewing her claws off from boredom.  Back with the old pack, she had enjoyed most of the craziness, at least until things turned bad and bloody.  It was the messy ending that scared her off.  We had that in common as well.

            Frost, to be honest, most of my current life is pretty boring.  It just gets punctuated with moments of deadly hazard and occasional frenzy.  I wasn’t as good looking as Vzktkk.  I was certainly poorer on most days.  Plus, the guy had gone out with a blast. 

           The official cause of death was listed as homicide, but the obituary didn’t go into any details.  A news article on the crime only elaborated that Vzktkk was found dead, shot once through the head with a laser, on a side street in central Layafflr City.  There were no witnesses and no evidence on the scene. The murder was thought to be a mugging or fly-by shooting or maybe a random act of pointless violence.  These things happened.  Constabulary investigating.

            The article was dated from only a week ago.  Not much time had passed since Pkstzk’s visit, maybe between one and six days depending on how long she waited before seeking me out.  I didn't find much else to go on.  Even the news article didn’t name the neighborhood, much less the street or address where Vzktkk was found.  The time of discovery and time of death were omitted.  That suggested that facts were being kept out of circulation by constabulary request. 

             On some worlds, such 'requests' wouldn’t matter to the media, but the press on ChtkKttp was conditioned to keep on the constabulary’s good side.  The government could still wield the law as a bludgeon against troublesome publications, if it chose.  Keeping the constables happy also meant easier access to information… when they chose to provide any.

            I wasn’t bound by such friendly agreements.  I’d get the details myself.  The first step was to see Pkstzk, hear what she had to say and figure out what she knew.  That was the logical choice, right?  I wasn’t just being influenced by my own desire to see her again.  I was fairly sure both motivations were involved.  I’d just keep it professional and not get personally involved.  That resolution always works (it never works).

            I had two days to fill.  What was I going to do with myself in the meantime, if I wasn’t out scrounging for leads?  Sit around the nest, hunting around the networks?  Play space fighter sims?  Go tempting fate and take a walk around my neighborhood?  There weren’t many options if I was trying to hold onto my saved credits.  Even a public aircar to take a walk in a ‘safer’ uptown park cost a bit.  Actual recreation could take a chunk out of my finances.

            Just thinking about it was wearing me out.  Between my post-vacation depression, travel lag, and the thought of enforced downtime, I was getting tired.  I stripped off and curled up in my nest for a nap.  I'd just sleep for a couple of cycles, to refresh myself before dinner and decision time.

            I woke up the next morning, confused and then irritated.  Well, that was one day down.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Bureaucrat's Tale - Chapter 5

               “What in the empty womb of Ashillata is going on over there?”

                It wasn’t a good start to my second conversation with Assistant Secretary Ayalltra.  The rotund lady Hrotata had been courteous, almost cheerful during our first discussion.  At the time, I was passing on information and asking little in return.  Her only concern was to classify that information as ‘internal use only’ versus ‘for public release’. 
                Something had changed between then and now.  I had a fairly good guess as to what.
                “Madame Ayalltra.  May I assume the media have been swarming around your ears as well?”
                “The media of three systems, plus the governments of two, plus a handful of crazies offering their own information or theories.  Did your Office spring a leak?  Do you know something more than you told me before?  Or did something bypass us both, coming from Locust System?”
                Communications is the official point of contact for Collective operations.  Any ordinary citizen can call the Comms office with a request for information or to offer data they think might be valuable.  Most such calls are handled by an automated switching program which links querents with the data they need or the file where they can deposit their offerings. 
Ayalltra also had a small army of answering agents who handled inquiries that stumped the automated system: they picked up if answers were missing or unsatisfactory or if the caller insisted that they needed a response immediately from a live sapient.  A single Brin could have managed all those functions for every caller simultaneously, but again, prejudice against AI blocked that simpler solution.
                I flattened my voice to a calm and soothing register and answered, “Not my office… up until this moment I was handling the entire Locust matter personally.  Only I and Secretary ChiTakTiZu had any local access.  Given the timing of calls, the leak must be in one of our fellow Offices.  I’m actually investigating the matter as best I can while managing other business.” 
                I was diplomat enough not to suggest that her Office could be considered suspect nor to ask whom she had favored with the news.  Actually, Ayalltra and Communications in general were low on my list of possible breaches.  As her irritation suggested, a leak would create more trouble for Communications than it was worth… they would be the target for a majority of the fallout.  The same logic worked in my favor: most of the remaining flak would hit Settlement, in this case.
                She scrunched her face up in a universal sign of disgust.  “I’ll take that as answered, but your denial covers only my first concern.  Whoever let the information out, did they know more than you told me?  Some of these accusations are more extensive, more detailed than anything you related.”
                “If you’re talking about anything from the Terran or Mauraug cultural councils, that’s no surprise.  They’ll already have their own theories about what happened, without needing the facts.  I’ll say it on record: you have everything I have.  There’s been only the one transmission from Locust System; it didn’t give specifics on the attackers nor name any survivors; there are no witness reports yet; and most of what we know comes from salvager reconstructions and interception of the original distress calls.  That’s it.  I’m hoping for a second report soon, but it hasn’t come.  Given the hint of trouble mentioned in that last report, we might expect that a comprehensive analysis would be delayed.  Medical will have ships in system in half a local day, and Defense possibly a half-day after that.  After that the reports will speed up, but until then we’re holding pattern ourselves.”
                She raised one small hand and tapped each of its claws in turn with the first finger of her other hand, ticking off points: “So there’s no evidence that a gang of saboteurs demolished the colony from inside, then stole a salvager to escape the system; no confirmation that the colonists were abducted by non-Collective sapients or Apostates; no suggestion of nerve agents, nanotech, or other illegal weapons technologies being used by either side or by the Collective or any other agency…”
                I interrupted as she paused to draw breath, “No, nothing to support any of that.  Nothing much to disprove any of it either, to be fair.  We just have the basic outline.  Please trust that I will relay anything substantial, as soon as possible, when it is received.”
                She wasn’t done worrying the issue, “And what is the possibility that information jumped past both of our offices?  What if someone in Locust System sent a report back home before filing officially with Settlement?”
                “Again, you know what I know.  It’s possible that the Mauraug freighter passed a message back to the Dominion before notifying us.  However, that hypothesis would suggest a very different pattern of spread and the reverse of the timing I’m seeing.  Our earliest inquiries were primarily Terran.  Only one Terran salvager was involved, Saving Grace, and that’s the one that went missing.  Unless you think it went straight back to the Terran sphere…”
                I knew that was a false lead, but Ayalltra was naïve enough to take my bait.  She put her hands down and answered slowly, “I see.  So there are possible answers, but none certain enough to assign blame.”
                “Exactly my point.  Thank you, my worthy peer,” I said with my best straight face and a bow to cover any tell-tale twitches. 
                “I’m still not happy.  I expect prompt updates.  You don’t want this mess to reflect poorly on your office, I’m sure.”  She was going through the obligatory steps, still searching for my triggers like most Hrotata did.  As a fellow bureaucrat and public relations manager, I could respect the attempt while still scoffing at its transparency.  In a way, Hrotata were at a disadvantage in formal Collective politics, since they saw political office as just an extension of their normal species behavior.  Paradoxically, other sapients were more wary of Hrotata mind games, and so their vaunted manipulative skill was more obvious and less useful here.
                Even Ayalltra’s anger was probably a calculated cover to dispel my suspicions and create an opening.  Everyone expected a Hrotata to be courteous and friendly and might suspect that gentility as false.  She could be trying hostility and intimidation as a counter-strategy.  I could be wrong; she could be genuinely upset.  Either way, she was trying to coax information from a reformatted data bead… I really had nothing more to give.
                I nodded amiably and replied, “No, that is one of my goals… to avoid any false perception of malfeasance by our Office or by any part of the Collective.”  Take that, my fellow Assistant.  I could make vague threats myself.  Our fates would rise or fall together, so could we just work together? 
                “Very well.  I’m sure we both have much to do.  I’ll leave you to it.  Until your next update?”  She had transitioned nicely from miffed to magnanimous matron. 
                “Of course.  Be well, Assistant Secretary.”  I signed off the call without waiting for her reply.  Whoops.  Such haste.  Very male.  So sorry.
                My own subordinates, Jacq Coombs and Tlalosseth, had entered the office toward the end of my discussion with Ayalltra.  Aika had let them in, per my earlier instructions, and had taken the initiative to start their briefing.  I was already looking forward to her replay of their reactions as they took in the reports from Locust 4.  All this pressure had been building right under their feet as they went about their daily duties, unaware.  I hoped they would discover a new respect for my labors and discretion, given how long I had managed this mess, quietly and alone.
                They weren’t disrespectful, but then again, they were good employees.  They probably made fun of me during their downtime, just like any normal office workers.  While on the job, they knew enough to say yes Sir, Assistant Secretary, Sir.  I wanted to feel like they were respectful because they knew I was experienced and competent, not because their continued employment demanded good manners. 
                Coombs was Human, of unidentified race or gender.  There had always been a certain percentage of non-gendered Humans in the past, but after our introduction to the wider galaxy and its varied sapient life, neutral gender had become easier to express.  A non-gendered Human wasn’t any more difficult to interact with than a monosexual Mauraug or a who-the-hell-knew Ningyo.  Just put whatever marker he/she/it/they requested on the forms and let Medical worry about the biology.
                Coombs also didn’t talk much about its background, except for professional training.  I was fine with that, too.   It had studied primarily history, with grounding in sociology and anthropology, and a bit of political science.  It understood the forces at work in our field and could manage the clerical aspects well enough.  We didn’t need to know each other’s life stories to work together. 
In contrast, I wore my Polynesian-Indonesian heritage proudly: in name, in face, in dress and language and a few bits of décor.  I did so mostly because my family had been immersed in those cultures and I liked the reminders of home.  Sometimes I’d even meet a fellow Terran who shared a similar background, and we’d have something to talk about immediately.  Most of the sapients I worked with couldn’t have pointed to the South Pacific on a globe of Terra, much less identified me as a native or spotted the signifiers of that background. 
                I could usually manage that much with other Terrans: pick out dominant features, identify name origin, and probably track their cultural traits back to their family’s Terrestrial roots (even if they came from extra-Terrestrial colonies two or three generations removed).  Geography and cultural studies were part of my University curriculum, after all.
Coombs was as much a mystery to me as I was to non-Terrans.  It had an evenly brown skin tone, lighter than mine but darker than northern Mediterranean.  It was unexpectedly dusty blonde on top of that, hair cut short and allowed to sprawl out at the edges in a currently fashionable style.  It had a solid, tall build and dressed in utilitarian style, slacks and toggle-buttoned pullover jackets that would fit in on any settlement from here to Centaurus.
                Sorry if I seem to obsess a little over my subordinate’s appearance.  It might be more honest to say that I didn’t need to know about its background, but I preferred to, if only to get a handle on how it might act and react.  I suppose it provided a good lesson about judging sapients individually on their own behaviors and avoiding assumptions… but I’ve found that certain generalizations are true often enough to be useful as starting data.
                Take Tlalosseth, by contrast.  He was a male Hrotata more recently assigned to my office, having come to us by promotion from Trade.  He came to us painfully in need of validation.  Apparently, Trade had nowhere upward for him to move – at least not without an advanced economics degree – but he did have solid study in population trends and logistics.  He had accepted reassignment with the ambitious bravery of a Hrotata male seeking the daughter of a wealthy foreign matron.  In other words, his choices were to go nowhere or risk shame against the chance of greater glory.  He was constantly fishing for reassurance that he had done the right thing.
                I figured I had another three or four years’ worth of earnest work out of him before he started eyeing my position.  Again, I could be off.  He might find a comfortable niche as my subordinate and be content to work steadily here.  I highly doubted it, though, given his past history and eagerness to please.  I had to wonder how much he had overheard of my conversation with Ayalltra and whether he flinched at the sound of an angry female Hrotata, not to mention my responses to her.
                Physically, I could track him to the ‘eastern’ continents of Hrotata Prime, from the auburn tones in his fur and his golden irises.  He was long for his species, coming close to my two meters’ height when standing fully upright.
                At the moment, both he and Coombs were seated in my ‘waiting’ chairs near the door, compads at the ready, reading over Aika’s summary of the collected messages from Locust System.  Occasionally they would ask questions of the Brin.  She couldn’t directly link to their compads, but she could send and receive messages via the office’s internal network.  Despite her being physically and mentally present in the same room, they were required to interact with Aika as if she were in an entirely separate Office.
                Silly.  It was a silliness I could do something about.  As I hung up the call with Ayalltra, I called out, “Aika?  Come out where we can see you, please.”
                She obliged immediately, without preamble.  Her full Human-like avatar manifested in holographic projection, with no hint of her animated version except for the color and style of her clothes and a certain facial resemblance.  Both of my subordinates had seen her before, so there was no surprise, although I noted a delay before Tlalosseth looked up to face the projection.
                I added, “You three, finish with the briefings as quickly as you can.  I want you working on a press release, to be completed within the hour.  This situation has gotten into the media and we need an official statement.  I can entrust you with that, I think?”
                Aika nodded and answered, “Hai, Hori.” 
Tlalosseth replied, “Absolutely, Sir.  We can compose as we study.”
Coombs only added, “Yes.”
“Good,” I acknowledged, “Work on it quietly, here.  I’m going to be responding to the Terran Council’s inquiry.  As you probably overheard, one of the other Offices has a leak, probably into the Terran government.  I say that because the earliest demands came from Terra.  The Council was actually third in line if we’re talking about messages coming from the Sol System itself.  Anyway, listen in on their message and my reply.  It ought to be educational.”
I had meant that they would learn about the crisis itself and the proper protocol for responding to inquiries of that nature.  I realized, as I said it, that my statement could be taken to mean something else: Learn about the fools we have to deal with and how an expert rebuffs their folly.  Oh, well.  It was true enough, even if I hadn’t meant to sound pedantic.
As Aika moved to stand between my two students, I keyed up the Terran Council’s message and switched my desk system’s speakers to omnidirectional audio.  I kept the video to myself.  Just as well.  Seeing the dried-apple face of the elderly Asian woman on the screen wouldn’t have benefited them any.
I recognized Councilor May Webb, representative from the North American Alliance of Terra.  One of the longest-serving members of the Terran Council, she had likely been appointed their voice to the Collective regarding the current troubles.  In particular, a significant plurality of the colonists sent by Terra to Locust 4 had been from the NAA. 
She was seated at the requisite antique wood desk, withered hands clasped before her.  She peered through the lens as if searching for me, pausing significantly before speaking.  A great deal of stagecraft had gone into this prerecorded message.
“Greetings to the Collective Office of Settlement from the Terran Council.  We request a full report of all intelligence concerning the colony on Locust Four.  Rumors of an attack on this colony have reached Terra.  No first-hand data is available to the Council with which to respond to these rumors.  Please send all available information immediately upon receipt of this message.  We can only assume that the Collective is taking appropriate steps in response to any trouble.  Terra is ready to assist as soon as we know what is required.  We must act in defense of our citizens.  If an answer is not received within a reasonable time frame, we will dispatch ships to Locust Four to aid the colony… in whatever capacity is assumed necessary.  Thank you in advance for your response.”
There was a lot to think about just from that short message.  First, Councilor May Webb was an estimable politician.  I could have guessed that already, but her composition was excellent.  Forceful but polite, stating facts and intended actions without resorting to innuendo or threat… except for two slight insinuations that trouble would follow if the Collective… if this Office… if I did not act properly.  “We can only assume the Collective is taking appropriate steps…”, indeed.  Yes, Ms. Webb, you can assume that correctly.  Proper steps were being taken even as you spoke, such that the words became moot as you spoke them. 
That comment about “act[ing] in defense of our citizens,” was a slight overreach.  It suggested that the colonists were still under the purview of the Terran Council, when in fact, they abandoned that representation the moment they declared themselves residents of Locust 4.  If and when that planet declared itself subject to the Terran cultural sphere, they would again be citizens of Terra, but until then they were governed by local councils subordinate to the Collective… to this Office… to my superior, the Secretary.  It was nice that Terra still cared about its emigrants.  It was nice of them to offer ships in the defense of a Collective colony and its citizens.  It was not nice if they interfered with Collective operations, particularly by sending a fleet including warships into a system containing a negotiated joint colony with the Mauraug!  Of course, Locust Four was now a former joint colony, but she didn’t yet know it was terminated.
What she intended as a strong statement of political will, I read as posturing or worse, a possible threat of unhelpful interference.  No doubt, that comment was meant less for me to hear and more for her colleagues on the Council and her constituents in the NAA.  “The Council and the Councilor will stand up in the defense of Humans, wherever they go.”  “We will watch the Collective closely to make certain Terran interests are being observed.”  In a sense, that was the job Councilors were hired to do.  The problem was, they could sometimes aid Terra better by standing back, letting the Collective work, and not presuming that Humans and Brins alone had the answers for the galaxy’s problems. 
The other insight I could draw from the Councilor’s message was that she was getting at least third-hand relays of the leaked information, if not more distant.  She did not have any definite details of what had happened at Locust 4, not even the general outlines I was working with.  She spoke of an “attack”, something requiring a response, possibly involving the entire colony.  She did not suggest a culprit in this “attack” or hint at knowledge about their identity.  It was possible she was being vague on purpose, avoiding any presuppositions in her own statements.  Saying that she had heard “rumors” rather than “reports” suggested skepticism about the value of her own information. 
I was fairly certain that our first complainant, Representative Tomas Jocasta, was closer to the recipient of our leaked reports, if not the direct contact of the leaker.  He had been better informed than Councilor Webb.  He also had reason to want an ear on the inside of the Collective, particularly one positioned to hear something about the Locust Colony… not to mention a half-dozen other colonial projects.  Even so, Representatives are part of the internal government of Terra rather than the multi-system governance of the Terran Council.  I made a note to myself to look up his constituency, voting history and legislative interests.  Why was he so interested in getting Humans off Terra? 
While I thought, I started to compose a response.  It started as a few typed notes and then became an outline.  Once I felt ready, I split off a copy of Aika and instructed her to record my response, prefacing its opening with directions to my staff:
“Okay, everyone, quiet in the background.  Here’s my reply to the Council:”
I looked into my screen, seeing my face mirrored, so that I was holding a conversation with myself.  I didn’t bother with the dramatics the Councilor had employed.  My act was that of a harried government functionary doing the basic minimum necessary to meet his obligations, while obviously overburdened by the demands of a thousand petitioners… among whom the elder matriarch of a multi-system government was just one more person.
“Greetings to you as well, Esteemed Councilor Webb.  A full report is attached to this message, including all data received by this office from the Locust System.  Your request was unnecessary; this report would have reached you at the same time with or without demand.  Since notification of the crisis on Locust Four, the Office of Settlement has been arranging all necessary responses at the fastest possible dispatch.  Unfortunately, as you will see, there is little left to defend.  My hope is that the first responders on-planet will provide us with new news, either about survivors or about the parties responsible, well before Collective ships arrive in-system.  While the offer of assistance from the Terran sphere is appreciated, it is sadly unnecessary.  The Secretary has declared the Locust Four Colony terminated.  There are no known survivors at this time.  The responsible parties have not been confirmed; you will likely reach the same conclusions as we have based upon the data.  This Office will be releasing an official media statement shortly, distributed through the Office of Communications to all outlets.  I hope this will assist the Council in dealing with any misinformation among its citizens.  All reports will be updated as soon as new information arrives from Locust System.  Thank you for your concern, Councilor.”

I tapped a key to stop the recording and looked up at my assistants: Brin, Human, and Hrotata.  Aika was looking smug, Coombs pensive, and Tlalosseth brightly attentive. 
Aika spoke first, “I’d like to omit that third sentence, ‘Your request was unnecessary.’  It’s needlessly combatative.  The Council has some influence over Collective policy, you know.”
I grimaced at her but finally nodded, “Fine, just make sure the edit is smooth.  I just wish we could retrain these politicians to stop making pointless calls and gestures.”
“She knew it was pointless, Hori,” Aika rebuffed, “But she’s obligated by her position to say something anyway.”
“Then we need to retrain the voters…,” I stopped and grinned, “Ok, right, not my job.  We just move the voters around.  Best we can hope for is they get a little perspective on a new planet.”
Our exchange took some of the luster off of Tlalosseth’s expression, and he looked away uncomfortably.  He buried his dismay in his compad screen.
Coombs continued to chew over some problem and glanced at me, searching for an opening.
“What’s the trouble, Jacq?” I offered.
“Some things don’t add up.  These first transmissions from the Saving Grace say they were searching the Terran side for survivors.  They mention checking the mines and finding bodies in there.  Then they say they’ve spotted unidentified sapients outside the colony.  Then nothing else.”
“Yes, their messaging cut off just before the ship lifted and left system.  That’s a big question mark.  We’ll need to find that ship before we get a full accounting of this disaster.  I was already aware of that problem.”
“Not just the odd behavior.  Given the timeline we’re constructing, that salvager was the first down on the planet after the attack ended.  They arrived…” It checked several files in sequence before completing the thought, “… yes, less than an hour after the attacking ships left system.”
“Where do you have that?” I asked.  I didn’t think I had missed any significant records – or at least, Aika shouldn’t have – but I didn’t recall any information about the attackers' actual movements.
“It’s in the records provided by Shomuth from their search of the Mauraug side.  They found output from surface atmospheric sensors… meteorological monitors, really.  They show major disruptions consistent with a ship liftoff at eight-twenty-three local.  Saving Grace reports landing at nine-thirty-two.”
“So they were close.  Very close.  Were they scheduled through Locust System for any reason?”
Tlalosseth spoke up to offer, “I can check their shipping records.  It’s a salvager, though, so they might just have been prospecting.  At best, we might get the receipts from their last port.”
Hey, exchanging staff with Trade might turn out to be useful.
I decided to check our work and risk sounding slow-witted: “What we’re getting at is that ‘Grace looks suspicious not only for leaving early, but for arriving early and going straight for the colony site.  I wonder if they didn’t expect any survivors and were spooked when some arrived, inconveniently.”
“Collusion with the Apostates?” Coombs offered, matching my tasteless theorizing. 
“Or worse, cleaning up after a false flag attack.  There are a lot of hooks here for a conspiracy theory.  I don’t envy the Council dealing with their crazies.”
Aika intruded while we fanned our few embers, but not to dampen the fire.  She had received another shipment of fuel.
She declared, “New reports have arrived via courier from Locust System.  We have completed salvage reports and associated data from VasKoTaCho, Shomuth, and Vlluti, plus greetings from Zhapak bash’Kettath, Dominion warship, responding to the original distress calls from Locust Four.”
I allowed myself a few seconds to stare at the ceiling and digest this mouthful. 
“All right, Aika, give me a summary on my screen and append those messages to the reading for Jacq and Tlalosseth.  New lesson, class.  We’re going to write one press release based on what we used to know, ignoring what we’re seeing now.  Then we get to make another round of calls with the new information, followed by the release of a second media update.  Hopefully we can get all that accomplished before a third dispatch hits us from Locust.”
I turned to take in the expressions on my subordinates’ faces.  They were clearly thrilled.  Welcome to my job, friends.  You sure you still want it?