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.

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