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?