Thursday, March 31, 2016

Broken Record - Chapter 19 - "Bad Break-in"

          My progress back to the pet store took on a strangely familiar cast.  The familiarity came from more than just retracing the route I had taken, while investigating a few days before.  It wasn’t just from the smell of smoke or the feeling of walking into yet another trap.  The familiarity came, in part, from the dwindling gauze of a Hrotata’s secretions.  It felt like I’d taken steps like this before: barely escaping an intoxicated interview, racing off against time, going to a dangerous place without proper protection, and feeling that my case was coming to its conclusion.

          The procedure shouldn’t have felt so final; even if I succeeded at framing Shtvtsk and freeing Tskksk, there would be more dangers, more questions, and more work to resolve.  If I failed on either or both counts, I’d have to fight guilt and grief along with healing my physical injuries.  The original question - who killed Vzktkk? - was still completely unresolved.  And wherever Pack Vzzrk figured into all this, I’d need to identify the players, their partisans, and the degree of ongoing hazard to myself and my reputation.

          That was assuming I’d have any reputation left afterwards.  Everything could go wrong with the constabulary before my actual enemies got a chance to ruin me.  I had Detective Nrissilli’s temporary forbearance, but she was one officer out of hundreds.  It would take only one overzealous underling to notice my activities and force my arrest.  Even if I was cleared of actual wrongdoing, I could still have my license revoked for technically legal improprieties.  Not to mention, I really was guilty of several illegal acts, just in the past few days.

          I didn’t feel guilty on those counts.  If I played strictly by the legal codes, I’d accomplish very little.  No disrespect to the stalwart investigators like Nrissilli, but the same problem plagued the constabulary: they either bent the rules or failed to solve crimes.  There was plenty of both flaunting and failure going on; the citizenry just hoped that a minimum of legal flaunting resulted in a maximum of worse criminals getting caught.  That’s not just a Layafflr City problem, or a Chttkttp problem, that’s the case in every city, on every planet, in every society. 

          Sorry, but the noble, by-the-book cop who still manages to catch the bad guy is a fantasy character.  There are a few noble constables like that – I’d met some – but they often as not file cases as unsolved, after hitting a legal blockade.  Sometimes I resolve the problem for them, giving not only plausible deniability but a completely ignorant denial of wrongdoing, while I do what needs to be done to identify the criminal.  There are also officers who claim to be pristine, while having unofficial agents – like me – knowingly doing their dirty work.  Some break the rules, personally, and just lie about it.

          There are a thousand shades of ethical greyness.  Personally, I’d rather see laws that protect wrongdoers broken, whether that protection was an accidental effect of an otherwise worthy law or a deliberate use of the law as a shield by a cunning or powerful criminal.  That seems more ‘ethical’ than strict obedience.  But that’s me.  And maybe my willingness to discard one set of rules is no better than those who toss aside imperatives not to lie, cheat, abuse, steal, and murder.

          I’m an investigator, not a philosopher.  I chose my methods long ago, or rather re-chose them, after seeing the hurtful effects of my original creed.  Now, I act however seems best and let outcomes evaluate whether I chose well.  At least I don't ignore one set of outcomes in order to justify others.

          For example, what I’d done to Tskksk stung hard.  If I knew for certain that burning my future would ensure hers, I’d have handed myself over in a moment: to the constables or to the murderer.  Murderers? 

          Again, I had to wonder just how complex a conspiracy I was really dealing with, and what its goals actually were.  Were they – or he or she – also dealing with the aftermath of a plan gone wrong?  Had I disrupted something, or was I playing along as expected?

          There was no way of knowing, not yet.  The points of fact I assembled thus far failed to outline any solid shapes.  In fact, some of the lines I tried to draw crossed over one another, observations conflicting and contradicting one another.  Was Tskksk victim or collaborator?  Was Shtvtsk a murderous seductress or a conniving bystander?  Was Pkstzk a grieving widow or a mate-killer?

          The web could extend beyond these three females.  What about the housekeeping service Shtvtsk had mentioned?  She hinted that the company had criminal ties, probably shadow control from some gang.  She also said that Vzktkk helped her and Pkstzk get out of their employment with the company, which might have been difficult otherwise.  Was that act of defiance the source of the present violent rampage?

          It would certainly explain our enemy's access to bombs and assassins.  Generally you needed personnel and money to manage the level of threat I’d seen recently.  Pack Vzzrk, for all their willingness to commit violence, currently did not have the membership or resources to mount such a campaign.  Unless Rsspkz had some very loyal friends I knew nothing about, he’d be hard pressed to hire even a single mercenary or buy a single explosive, even assuming he had someone to contact and some way to place the orders.

          Pkstzk was the most logical point of contact, if Pack Vzzrk were somehow involved. 

          I stopped there.  I’d stepped into that mental mire once already.  Trying to wade further into the morass of our filthy past wasn’t going to help my present needs.  I could keep the possibilities in mind, pending future information, but for right then, I needed to focus on immediate problems.

          I made it to the pet store without collapsing.  The Hrotata toxin was almost completely gone, but my pain medication was still going strong.  Really good stuff.  I’d hate going back to generic analgesics after my prescription ran out.  Then again, I’d rather avoid the circumstances that led to me getting the ‘good stuff’: severe injuries in questionable circumstances, which got me transported to an upscale hospital on the public bankroll.

          If I’d gotten myself blown up at my old apartment, I’d usually expect to wake up stitched with gut, lying on a cot, and grudgingly pumped with narcotic painkillers.  I exaggerate, but the contrast was stark enough.

          Kkk, enjoy it while it lasts, right?

          A crime scene barrier was still intact in front of the pet store.  I learned to bypass those while I still had egg-teeth.  Then there was a new lock on the side door: a warded lock needing a physical key.  That was trickier; it took me a decad and a snapped claw-tip to work out the tumbler sequence.  The constables long ago learned that solid-state, analog locks were slower to override than maglocks or other digital solutions… but only by a matter of degree.

          If you want to know, the best security is multi-part: a deadbolt and a magnetic seal, each activated by some combination of biometric scanner, analog key, and a unique chip card with redundant coding.  By the time an intruder has managed to find or forge duplicates of all three keys, they’ve already exceeded the cost of almost anything you might lock inside.  They've also wasted enough time that you could have moved your valuables elsewhere.

          To any professional, this warded lock was only a speedbump: a big, painful bump, but only a nuisance otherwise.  While I worked, I proved to myself that I could learn from more recent experience: I scanned the hallway for hidden cameras.  I assumed that the constabulary couldn’t afford miniature jobs.  If they were planting micro-cameras now, I’d never spot those.  But I didn’t see any lenses or boxes for standard surveillance equipment.

          I might have been observed entering from outside.  There was nothing I could do about that.  However, when I went inside, I also checked the outer room of the pet store thoroughly.

          I was unsurprised to see that the show floor had been swept clean.  I mean that literally; it looked like someone had wiped up all of the dust and litter, not to mention blood and animal corpses.  Any evidence from Vzktkk’s killer, if not collected by the constables first, was certainly gone, along with any evidence of the starved, dead animals previously imprisoned there. 

          Even the wall displays were stripped, cleared of hooks, tags, and other commercial debris.  There wasn’t much in the room to hide a camera behind.  I didn’t feel safe, exactly, but it was unlikely the constables had left anything behind, surveillance or hazards.

          The clean floor also meant that I wasn’t leaving footprints, though I knew I was tracking outdoor grit inside.  Forensics would know someone entered, even if I was careful not to leave genetic debris and tell them who had come in.  That presumed anyone would think to check here.  I had tried to tip off Detective Nrissilli about where to look, but she could have missed the point.

          I couldn’t waste much more time.  Besides potential recordings, my entry might have tripped a silent alarm.  I was probably giving the constables too much credit, again, but assuming the worst was still a good policy. 

          Opening the door to the back room, I couldn’t help a certain amount of cautious apprehension.  There was probably nothing back there, but I’d thought that before.

          The second time, there really was nearly nothing in the back room.  The rktpk corpses were gone, of course, but so were the stacks of empty food bags, the dirty animal cages, and even the old desk I’d seen before.  All swept away into an evidence locker, presumably.  And what the constables didn’t take, the criminals might have.

          Somewhere in this room was a false floor panel with a cache beneath.  Funny that the constables had searched so thoroughly and yet missed that secret.  Then again, they might have found the space with nothing inside.  Nothing said the killer couldn't return after the scene was searched and drop off the murder weapon then.  It was actually a pretty cunning plan: hide the evidence somewhere already searched.  Few detectives would think to go back and check a scene again later.

          But they might, if they thought something was missed the first time.  Cunning or not, there was a certain amount of dumb risk associated with using a former murder site for later plans.  Why not destroy the weapon or keep it in a third, completely unknown location? 

          Obviously, the laser was kept for this frame-up.  Putting it in the pet store was probably done so that I could retrieve it, from a location I already knew and could access.  How far in advance had this plot been devised?  Were the players chosen from the beginning… or was my involvement a later scheme?  Once again, there was a whole spectrum of possibilities, ranging from Shtvtsk being the intended target all along, to her being a convenient scapegoat identified by my investigation.

          I lowered myself to the floor as best I could and searched along the faux-wood tiles for a seam, a catch, or some other access.  On a hunch, I started near the former location of the missing desk.  Sure enough, at the back corner of the room in that area, I spotted a ‘knothole’ which had no purpose in artificial wood.  Inserting a claw tip, I levered the tile upward with a little exertion.

          Underneath was a neatly paneled cache box, built out of the same laminate material as the floor tiles.  The owner had probably stored credit slips, spare keys, or other valuables down here.  As security measures went, it wasn’t bad.  I hadn’t thought to look for it before, though I had some distractions earlier.  As unlikely as theft was in a pet store, even a dedicated burglar might miss checking the floors.

          Inside the box was, indeed, a laser pistol.  It was small, simple, and neat, a high-powered mass-produced weapon used mostly for personal protection.  Getting shot anywhere but a vital organ was painful but survivable, and the beam wouldn’t penetrate anything sufficiently thick and opaque.  That property made such firearms ideal for use aboard starships, since they were unlikely to damage protected systems and completely unable to breach a hull.

          Against an armored target, a hand laser was nearly useless.  It didn’t have much ‘stopping’ power, unless you had excellent aim.  But in a close situation with a normally-dressed opponent, you could hurt them a lot without worrying about accidental death due to blood loss.

          The other properties the laser had in its favor were plenty of range and loads of ‘ammunition’.  You could fire one of these over and over at multiple attackers or hold down the trigger and sweep the beam over them, just hoping that you’d hit something vital.  Alternately, in the hands of a trained user, a simple laser was obviously sufficient to deliver a fatal hit with just one shot.

          Was it the weapon that killed Vzktkk?  It certainly looked like the right type.  I had no doubt that forensic tests would produce an impact effect identical to the hole in Vzktkk’s skull.  Even if it wasn’t the exact same gun, it was close enough to be believable.  With Shtvtsk’s traces on its handle and her relationship to Vzktkk established, having this weapon found in her home would give the judicial system a quick conviction.

          I retrieved the pistol gingerly with the tips of my claws.  If I’d had time, I would have brought gloves or at least a cloth to avoid any transfer of my own.  As it was, I didn’t even have a bag or other container to carry the frosted thing away unseen.  The only way I could transport it without handling it was to put it in my own empty holster.

          Placing the laser in Rtrtr’s former spot felt like cheating.  I actually prepared a little apology to my beloved heater, telling it I wasn’t replacing it, just temporarily holding another weapon out of necessity.  I wasn’t even going to use the laser, I promised, just carry it a little way.  I hoped Rtrtr would understand.  I already felt terrible for leaving it locked up so long, but what could I do?

          I wish I was joking.  At least I prioritized the hostage situation involving a real, living victim above the one with my firearm.  Sacrifices were necessary; I would do everything I could to pull off my ‘orders’ successfully. 

          Carrying the laser openly actually wasn’t a bad plan.  It would be visible, but only someone who knew what they were looking for would be suspicious.  Otherwise, it looked like I was carrying my own, personal weapon.  Hidden in plain sight, one of the classic subterfuges.

          On that note, I strode openly out of the pet store, pausing only to lock the door again behind me.  Not that there were any witnesses out on the street, but if there had been, my confident demeanor would convince them I was going about business as normal, everything legitimate, no illegal activities going on here, none at all.

          My purposeful strut was spoiled only by a slight limp in my complaining leg and a hunch in my abused back.  I was also feeling a little light-headed from all the chemicals and my continuously empty stomach.  Vislin can go quite a while without eating… but only after a big meal.  My full room service at the hospital had been nice, but wasn’t quite a feast I could subsist on for two days running.

          I’d treat myself to a nice lunch after this caper was done.  I’d definitely feel like eating after framing someone for murder.  The stress of possibly being caught would help, too.  Nothing stimulates the appetite like anxiety, right?

          But seriously, I needed to eat soon.  I might even be tempted to steal a few things from Shtvtsk’s undoubtedly well-stocked kitchen.  Why not?  A little petty theft was minor compared to other intended violations.  And like those violations, it would be for a good cause: my continued health and survival.

          If the sarcasm isn’t coming through, I wasn’t going to steal anything, no matter how starved I felt.  I might tweak the law and preach about having good reasons for my offenses, but just taking whatever I wanted, for my own needs, was a good place to draw the line.  That was where roguish misbehavior crossed into selfishness.  I might be going further down a bad path, but I didn’t need to backslide into past corruption.

          Into the apartment building, up the stairs – the elevator would record any key use, and I wanted to avoid being recorded – to the fourth floor, apartment 401.

          I was there; I had the weapon; I had the key.  Now, was Shtvtsk home?  There was no reason she should be out, in the early morning hours following the tumultuous day before.  But there was also a chance my controllers, Tskksk’s kidnappers, had cleared the way for me by luring Shtvtsk away.

          There was only one way to find out.  I pressed the signal button to alert anyone inside that a visitor was waiting.  Six hectads passed with no response.  I signaled again, then tapped on the door.  Another twenty hectads and still nothing.  She might be inside, dead asleep.  Could I get inside and plant the pistol without waking her?  Sss, and get some of her genetic material on the weapon, as well?

          The best option for the latter challenge was to check her bathroom for shed scales.  If she used a scouring powder, her trash can might be full of abraded material I could use.  Despite the caller’s insinuation, I wasn’t going to try and collect any bodily fluids.  Suddenly jumping into Shtvtsk’s nest after the scene yesterday should raise plenty of alarms, even if she proved willing.

          I remembered the waiting room cameras before I tried opening the door.  I’d have to deal with those, as well.  That meant taking a few decads to search the room, hopefully finding all the hidden devices before I continued.  Kkk, the removal, destruction, or deactivation of those units would be a point in Shtvtsk’s favor if her arrest went to trial.  She could claim a setup on the basis of that negative evidence; someone had clearly broken into her apartment to plant the weapon.

          Unfortunately, I couldn’t screw up in her favor like that.  I had to remove any sign of the cameras’ existence, so that her claims about them would be unprovable, maybe even treated as an attempt to sow doubt in court.  It was possible that the kidnappers would hold Tskksk until Shtvtsk was convicted, in which case I had to do my best to make sure she was found guilty.  Shtvtsk could be released later once the verdict was overturned on new evidence… but if we didn’t find Tskksk before the trial was done, I might have to rely on getting Shtvtsk falsely convicted.

          Removing the cameras was also in my own best interest.  It remained possible that I could squeak out of arrest and/or ruin once this mess was done, but not if there existed hard evidence of my involvement in an undeniable criminal act.  Detective Nrissilli wouldn’t jeopardize her career trying to cover for me in the face of such evidence.

          So when I let myself into the apartment, I immediately scanned the room for any lens reflections, visible wires, glowing lights, etc.  I also listened carefully for sounds of movement or disturbed slumber.  The door to the nesting room was closed, which was both boon and problem.  If Shtvtsk was inside, the closed door might muffle my noises enough to keep her dormant and would hide me if she opened her eyes.  But I couldn’t know for certain if she was in there, until she made a loud enough noise to hear.

          I had to assume the worst and proceed with stealth.  My aching arm and leg made that doubly difficult.  I had to pick my way around the room, lifting objects to check behind and under and even inside, while limping slightly and favoring one arm.

          While moving aside a digital image frame, I got a good look at the displayed image.  As I saw before, it looked like Shtvtsk posing with two other Vislin of uncertain gender.  Their attitude looked like friends or coworkers out for a drink.  More employees of the infamous housekeeping service?  Other acquaintances?  Pack mates, maybe?

          I was struck anew at how little the Shtvtsk in the picture looked like the vision of grace I knew.  Perhaps she had metamorphosed from mediocrity to glamour in the intervening years.  Surgical reconstruction, exercise, better diet, and lots of practice becoming a desirable escort could account for some of the transformation.

          But the female in the picture was different in several ways: snout shorter, nostrils wider, eyes greener, crest less perfectly aligned.  It was only Shtvtsk by process of elimination, not a clear match.  For all that the pictured female resembled the current Shtvtsk, the image could be someone else’s, even a default sample used to demonstrate the digital frame while on sale.

          The frame didn’t conceal any cameras, so I put it back down and moved on.  Yet the incongruity lingered, ticking at my brain, joining and reinforcing all the other unexplainable details I’d been accumulating. 

          I really, really, wanted some answers, and soon.  My impatience at dealing with ambiguity and anomaly was becoming a dangerous force all its own.  If I didn’t collapse with pain or fatigue, or die during another murder attempt, I might self-destruct from the pressure of all the intellectual aggravations.

          I kept looking for cameras, all the while wanting to go back and check the picture again.   I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was important.  It was probably just my data-starved brain hoping that something would provide a key to the case: some kind of solid matter that would precipitate my stirred, dissolved life.

          Finally, I found one small camera box, nestled in a houseplant, mounted on a small stake.  It looked like a deep-set peering eyeball within a furry green face.  It was entirely self-contained, with battery, recorder, and memory bead all in one package.  I wondered, belatedly, if it also had a wireless transmitter.  If Shtvtsk were smart and tech-savvy, she would have remote storage somewhere backing up everything her cameras collected, or maybe even a cloud account to protect her recordings from destruction.

          If she did, there was little I could do right away.  I wished, not for the first time, that I was more skilled in the technological arts.  I hadn’t a prayer of hacking even a local system, much less a globally distributed account.  That’s where someone like Tskksk could be a huge asset.  Sure, after I saved her from being killed, by grossly violating the law and an innocent sapient’s freedom, she’d be thrilled to associate with me further.  It actually wasn’t impossible, but I wouldn’t want to work with me, right then.

          I completed a circuit of the room, poking into every corner that could conceivably hide another camera.  I found nothing else.  Was that one unit, half-hidden, really the extent of Shtvtsk’s surveillance?  It could be; that one camera would have cost a few hundred credits.  If her business was as poor as I suspected – not as affluent as she boasted – she might not be able to afford another camera.

          Still, I made another round just in case I missed something, looking in even less likely spots: beneath a chair, between two bookcases, in a closed drawer.  I cringed every time I bumped something hard enough to produce a noise, freezing to listen for any response.

          The apartment, including the nesting room, was utterly quiet.  I started to doubt that Shtvtsk was there.  I might be wasting valuable time by moving so slowly and thoroughly.  After the second pass of the outer room, I decided I’d done the best I could, and started to move toward the bathroom to check on ‘genetic material’.

          I passed the troublesome image again.  My eyes were unavoidably drawn to it.  It was in the context of the bathroom trash, the kitchen, Shtvtsk's income, a cleaning service, and its workers, that I realized what I was missing.

          I picked up the picture again and looked more closely.  That was it.  Shtvtsk in the picture didn’t look like Shtvtsk now, but she did look familiar.  She looked like… the idea was ridiculous, almost impossible, but undeniable the more I studied her face.  She looked like Ktchvch, my pack mate Rsspkz’ sister.

          I remembered Ktchvch now, a youngster I'd spotted around Rsspkz’ home the few times I visited.  Usually, those visits were only to pick up my pack mate before going out for a day of mischief.  Ktchvch was a little female, too young to bother with, even if talking to her wouldn’t be offensive in her brother’s presence.  By the time Pack Vzzrk broke up, Ktchvch was independent of her brood, with her own pack and a job.

          Food service.  I remember she’d had culinary interests.  When I checked up on her later, once after I’d started my investigation business and a second time just a few days ago, she’d shown up as a line cook for a restaurant.  Not quite a chef, but on that track.  If Ktchvch was Shtvtsk, that information was false… or at least, outdated.  And she’d changed more than her appearance; she’d changed her career. 

          Wait, that was assuming Shtvtsk/Ktchvch didn’t have a separate day job.  Maybe she cooked by day and escorted by night.  Being a good cook would certainly augment her value as a surrogate mate.  My stomach gurgled just thinking about the subject.

          All those possibilities assumed my perceptions were correct and I wasn’t just seeing illusions again.  Yet if Shtvtsk was Ktchvch, that would explain the connections to Pack Vzzrk.  Maybe Rsspkz was striking out at a sister he perceived as disloyal.  Or maybe someone else, someone separate, was striking at Pack Vzzrk through its outliers.  Ktchvch.  Pkstzk.  Me.

          I really wanted to open my compad and search for new connections.  Was Rsspkz’ other sibling, his brother Zfzptk, really out on an asteroid mining team?  Had some accident befallen him, even out in open space?  At what restaurant was Ktchvch supposedly working, and could they identify her by that name and her new face? 

          I had a disturbing thought that perhaps Ktchvch/Shtvtsk worked the back kitchen at Kzztkrt Tk, the same restaurant where Pkstzk waited tables.  That could be another useful fact Pkstzk had been unable to pass along… not to mention something Shtvtsk avoided mentioning.

          Maybe I had something fundamentally wrong.  Maybe Shtvtsk had a picture of Ktchvch for other reasons… maybe the two females were separate but related in some other way, like having worked together once.

          There was enough physical resemblance to pull me toward the identity theory, but maybe there was another explanation for that, too.  Maybe they were cousins.  Vislin don’t necessarily associate between siblings after joining packs, and contact between more extended relatives is rare… but not impossible.  Influence from the Hrotata and other mammalians led more Vislin to maintain and even enjoy extended family ties.

          I considered stealing the imager for reference.  The picture was one of those solid points that might unlock other secrets.  But its absence would create more problems than its possession would definitively solve.  So I left it on the shelf and reluctantly continued into the bathroom.

          That part was easy.  I found discarded scouring dust in the garbage, just like I’d hoped.  Using the corner of a towel, I lifted some dust and tapped it over the handle of the laser pistol.  Then I brushed off the excess, without wiping down the weapon too thoroughly.  I didn’t want to undo my work, but I also didn’t want to make it look like obvious planted evidence.  Hopefully, just enough scale fragments would cling to the weapon for identification… and hopefully, the forensic techs wouldn’t note the suspicious presence of scouring powder.

          Now, where to plant the weapon?  I couldn’t put it out in the open or anywhere else Shtvtsk would spot it right away.  Imagine finding a laser pistol randomly placed in your home!  Even if you didn’t connect it to the recent murder of someone you knew, you’d instinctively be horrified by its unexpected presence.  Shtvtsk likely would get rid of the laser right away and probably do a better job of it than the real killer.

          A kitchen drawer?  Perhaps less noticeable, but a little odd.  Not the place the ‘real killer’ would hide key evidence against herself.  The most plausible spot would be in the nesting room, maybe in the material of her nest… but that wasn’t an option, for obvious reasons.  Leave it in the bathroom?  There weren’t any real concealment spots there, short of the toilet tank.  I didn’t have a plastic bag to seal it in, for that to work.

          That left the waiting room.  Not the best choice, but at least there were a few options for hiding spots.  Under a couch?  In a side table?  Behind a bookcase? 

          While I tried to decide, I heard the scratch of claws on a door.  I froze as I realized the sound hadn’t come from the nesting room, but from the front door.  Someone was coming in… probably Shtvtsk. 

          I chose the nearest available hiding spot for the laser: in a drawer I had left open while searching for cameras.  I managed to slide it closed and drop myself into the adjacent armchair as the door opened.

          I did my best to compose my expression, trying to look like a love-sick stalker rather than a scheming intruder.  Maybe Shtvtsk would buy my presence as a creepy attempt to win back her affections.  I wouldn’t buy that story, but who knew with her?  I’d been selling flimsier stories all week, with surprising success.  Even if she got suspicious, I could try revealing what I knew about her and Ktchvch (not much with certainty, to be honest), and using that as a cover to explain why I broke into her apartment again.

          The door finally opened and a female stepped inside the room… but it wasn’t Shtvtsk.  It also wasn’t Detective Nrissilli or another constable, which would have been my second guess.

          It was Pkstzk.  Not only was her presence unexpected in the extreme, her appearance boggled my already-abused mind.  She was wearing sleek, black tactical armor, not exactly the same as my attackers at Taburket’s wore, but similar enough.  She wore no helmet, which is how I knew it was her.  She also carried a small plasma pistol, drawn and aimed.

          Once she entered and looked around, she spotted me and froze.  Her weapon followed her gaze, pointed right at my head.  She wasn’t just unhappy to see me; she looked like she was prepared to permanently end my investigations. 

          Her evident confusion echoed mine.  We stared at one another for long moments, like actors in an overwrought drama.

          I decided to break the silence.  “Pkstzk.  Hello!  Should I ask what you’re doing here… or should I go first?”

Friday, March 18, 2016

A Bureaucrat's Tale - Chapter 9

          I realized, with fleeting regret, that I was already well into my work day, three hours earlier than normal.  Between breakfast and the three messages we’d reviewed, Aika and I were fully engaged.  I could have been an absolute monster and called my assistants, Jacq and Tlalosseth, to join us… but I decided to let them sleep.  They could be rejuvenated and ready to pick up my workload whenever I slowed down.

          If anything, the sleep deficit, combined with caffeine, was giving me spiky, erratic energy.  I resisted the urge to dash off replies to the Terran and Mauraug governments.  As much as I felt confident and cunning right then, I knew that such official contacts had to be crafted with more skill than force.

          My mood was actually more appropriate for an acknowledgment reply to Defense Commander Grissakh.  From that message, I could ease into my updates to the Collective Offices of Justice and Communications.  I decided to compose the messages in that order, despite Communications’ greater perceived urgency.  My concerns for Defense would segue easily into the criminal cases Justice would pursue.

          Communications was dealing with an ever-expanding mass of media entities screaming for updates, but none of those demands were pragmatically urgent.  Getting the news of Locust Colony’s demise disseminated more quickly across the Collective wouldn’t salvage its remains any faster nor bring swifter justice to its dead.  At best, media coverage might reduce the chances of another colony suffering the same fate, but I doubted the Apostates – or whoever was truly responsible – planned to strike another site anytime soon.  We’d be spinning the news to discourage any similar joint Terran-Mauraug colonies, and that was a practical means to prevent future massacres, but even the proposals for such a thing were hopefully a long way off.

          I stopped speculating in favor of action.  “Aika, start a message for Commander Grissakh bash’Ruushid, please.”

          “Standard or express delivery?” she checked.

          I thought about it a moment.  Was there anything urgent enough to justify use of another Ningyo courier? 

          “Standard is fine,” I decided, “Give the Commander a few days to gather more facts and reach conclusions on its own.  If anything is more urgent than we realize, it will contact us first anyway.”

          I was honestly expecting the flow of revelations to slow down at that point.  If surveys of Locust Colony hadn’t turned up anything critical by then, any remaining clues would require extended excavation of the colony’s remains or investigation elsewhere.  As it turned out, I was understandably but utterly wrong.

“Defense Commander Grissakh bash’Ruushid,” I began, “Thank you for your prompt update regarding conditions on Locust Four. I will be providing your information to our colleagues in the Justice Office of the Collective so that extended investigations into the missing salvager can proceed quickly. Pursuit and reprisal against the perpetrators of the colony's destruction will be left in Defense’s hands... eventually. I do not mean to downplay the seriousness of either that greater tragedy, nor the subsequent loss of Saving Grace, but these crimes must now become the business of other Offices. My primary focus is upon the number and identity of survivors, with identification of casualties a sadly parallel priority. Secondary to this goal will be an accounting of material losses and supplies recovered, so that these resources can be returned to appropriate parties. Please devote some of your staff to observation over the remaining salvagers so that no further discrepancies occur… we should not lose any more survivors or salvage now that you are on site. This duty will become less urgent as additional Collective service vessels join the recovery effort. For the present, however, please refrain from emphasizing pursuit or punitive actions, both in your action plans and in your contacts with other government representatives. The cooperation between Defense and Settlement, as always, is much appreciated, particularly as embodied in yourself.”

         I signaled to Aika to stop recording.  She looked thoughtful, lips pursed in distaste.  Finally, she spoke without waiting further for my thoughts: “I’m not sure the Commander will grasp some of the nuance you stuffed into that message.”

          I shrugged in response.  “I don’t expect it to.  Some of that was for other audiences.  We’re officially out of the military part of this operation.  Now that the proper channels are engaged, Settlement is focusing on the colony and the settlers.”

          “I’m not sure what other audiences you’re speaking of.  I doubt anyone other than the Commander will view this message.”

          “Not directly, no.  But its actions – and reactions – will be noticed.  If it complains about being restrained, that reflects well on us.  If it shifts resources toward the colony and away from surrounding space - at least until Defense gives orders otherwise - then any observer will see that Settlement is engaged in our proper business, not trying to gather intel or abuse our authority.”

          “And the diplomatic tone?” Aika prompted.

          “To be honest, I’m tired of trying to adjust for Mauraug sensibilities.  Maybe using a more Terran idiom will emphasize my dominance better than translating my demands into the Mauraug preferred format.  It might not tickle subliminal cues the same way, but it makes my point more strongly for not bothering with subtlety.”

          “So are you being forceful… or just lazy?” Aika asked, with legitimate curiosity.

          “Can’t it be both?” I moaned, yawning theatrically.  “Do you think it needs a rewrite?”

          “Not much,” Aika admitted.  “I just wanted to make sure you understood how you sounded, not to mention the implications of your choices.”

          “I’m still on-line, even if I want to crash,” I reassured her.  “I wasn’t just posturing about the shift in priorities.  Frankly, being more conscientious helps contrast our true goals against the insinuations we’re bound to hear from the Terran and Mauraug press secretaries.  The Collective in general will see that we’re not playing games… we’re trying to get our duties managed, by whatever means are available.”

          “So you’re plotting a ploy to convince them you’re not playing a game,” Aika teased.

          I grinned back at her avatar.  “Exactly.  Because the only way to lose is not to play.”

          “And the way to win, apparently, is to pretend you aren’t playing and don’t care.”

          “I didn’t make the rules.  As I recall, I’m the subordinate here, only an apprentice.”

          Again, stupid prophetic irony.

          I won’t exhaust your patience by recounting the full text of my updates to Justice and Communications.  Most of those messages were a rehash of facts already in evidence, with the newer data from Locust attached.  I reiterated Settlement’s official positions regarding termination of the colony, uncertainty about the identity of the attackers, and tentative identification of a few survivors.  I also wove in the new narrative about Settlement’s focus on survivors and material salvage, with criminal and military matters being redistributed to Justice and Defense, respectively.

          This last part, more than a deflection of responsibility, was a redirection of official attention.  I was saying that, if Communications wanted more detail on the ship theft, they would have to ask Justice.  I was telling Justice that we were releasing claim on the hijackers as settlers; they were no longer considered residents of Locust Colony.  I was informing them both, as I had told Commander Grissakh, that Defense would have to decide how to pursue the enemy, whoever and wherever they were.  Settlement was not going to play detective or prosecutor; we were now officially the victims’ counsel.

          While I was at it, I typed out a short internal message to Secretary ChiTakTiZu.  I informed my superior of ‘our’ official change in policy, as prompted by the set of newly arrived updates.  I doubted that my decision would come as any great surprise to the Secretary, but he would want to know about the shift so that he could reflect the same attitudes in his personal contacts, possibly when talking to his counterparts in other Offices or in reports to higher officials within the Collective. 

          The Secretary sent back an acknowledgement, with his encouragement to continue addressing the crisis at a high priority.  He did not explicitly approve or disapprove of my direction; besides being politically cautious, his neutrality more likely came from the fact that he hadn’t had time to review all of the relevant data.  Besides this particular lost colony, he was dealing with lesser crises on any number of other newly settled worlds.  Hands-on management was why he had an Assistant, so I didn’t resent being used to handle the more uncomfortable cases.

          By that time, I had fully caught up on my task list from the previous day.  I still had plenty of work waiting for the next day, which was technically the same day, but my work day wasn’t scheduled to start for another hour and a half.  So what should I do with the remaining time?  Get a head start on the next set of tasks?  Hurry back to my bunk for an hour’s nap?  Indulge in some rare personal recreation?  Or perhaps I could just handle some of the backlog of non-Locust-related work that was piling up.

          I realized I should decide quickly; in just under two hours, my assistants would report in, expecting to be pointed toward their daily assignments.  I could defer the actual assigning to Aika, but it would set a poor example if I wasn’t present, in person, at the appointed hour. 

          I decided that, while I couldn’t risk going back to bed, I also didn’t want to exhaust myself early with extra work.  I elected to take a more comfortable extended breakfast, actually hiking down to the galley to get a hand-cooked meal: baked fish, sweetened rice, and raw shredded coconut.  Along with me came my portable compad, loaded with several interactive fictions I’d ignored for weeks.  I doubted anyone else would be eating at such an early hour, so I wouldn’t have to decide between conversational politeness and my reading.

          Per Collective A.I. policy, Aika couldn’t come with me, even on the portable device.  It held enough memory to house her and was pre-approved as a A.I. residence, but Brins aren’t allowed to inhabit more than one system at once.  I needed Aika back at the office, monitoring for new developments.  She could message or call me, like any physical sapient; we were in contact, but she wasn’t actually present.  She couldn't manifest an avatar or obtain direct sensory inputs from my location.

          You can imagine the scene, then: me, sitting alone, happily eating my preferred fare, catching up on leisure reading, determinedly not thinking about Locust Colony, its dead former residents, their affiliated governments, or anyone officially connected to any of the above.

          And then the ‘pad chimed with an incoming call.  Aika.  I knew she had a good reason for interrupting, but I was still annoyed.  I couldn’t get a full night’s sleep and I couldn’t even have breakfast in peace.

          “What’s the newest trouble?” I answered, flippantly.

          Aika said only, “Hori, you have an urgent message.  I’d rather not address the details publicly, but you should hurry back.”

          Again, I wanted to protest, but I knew Aika well enough to trust her estimates of urgency.  That she didn’t say who the message was from or give any sense of its contents told me that it required complete privacy.  I still wondered what that secrecy could mean.  Had one of our fellow Offices identified the internal leak to Terra?  Worse, had Aika discovered a security breach here, within Settlement?  The ‘urgent message’ might be from Aika herself, delivered in person to avoid detection via the internal network.

          I ran through more possibilities as I cleaned up my tray and started back toward my office.  Perhaps the Mauraug Apostates responsible for Locust Colony’s destruction had been tracked or even destroyed.  Or else another culprit, other than Apostates, had been identified.  Either outcome would be a significant shift in events, news that would need a carefully controlled release. 

          There was also some possibility that Saving Grace had been located or even captured.  Learning more about that ship’s actual fate and the purposes of its hijackers could be informative in several regards.  I would be very interested in speaking to its crew, myself… both the original and the later crew.

          The mystery would be unveiled soon enough.  I paused for a refresher in the restroom nearest my office, then keyed myself inside.  Aika was waiting, already manifested in her most realistic avatar form, almost believable as a Human assistant of anachronistically pure Asiatic heritage.

          “All right, Aika, what’s the emergency?”

          “You have a follow-up call from Defense Commander Grissakh bash’Ruushid.”

          “Huh?  I thought you sent our message by standard courier.  It’s far too soon…”

          “A follow-up to his original message,” Aika clarified, eerily patient. 

          “I see.  So something happened after he sent his first summary.  Sorry.  A little punchy.”

          Aika’s expression was almost patronizing, but she avoided insulting me by sounding ‘understanding’.  “I can see that.  Well, this should wake you up.”

          “You read my mail, huh?”  I joked, trying to return to our usual verbal habits.  Aika always read my messages, especially when I was out of the office. 

          “Considering the source, yes.  Stop stalling, Hori.  I know you had a rare taste of downtime, but Locust is a First Priority…”

          I cut her off, getting the point: “I know, I know.  Hai, go ahead.”

          My workstation’s screen lit up with a picture of the familiar, grim, simian face of Commander Grissakh.  If I read the Mauraug’s expression properly, it was even more grim than usual.  It stared hard into the camera and spoke without shifting gaze or blinking, as if challenging the viewer to look away first.

“To the Office of Settlement, Assistant Secretary Hori Jeetah. Shortly after my initial report was submitted, I uncovered new information regarding a surviving settler from Locust Colony. Specifically, a Terran survivor named Wallace Harmon, a member of the colonial Defense force, was retrieved by my colleagues on Shomuth. Their failure to immediately notify me of this detail will be addressed in subsequent messages to the Collective Offices of Justice and Defense. Justice will also address the issues of unwilling detention and inappropriate treatment of a rescued victim.” 
Shomuth’s leadership held citizen Harmon against its request for transfer to a different ship. It was also coerced – via means I will discuss further with Justice – to disclose information regarding the destruction of Locust Colony, its duties within Terran Defense, its co-workers in that department, and the circumstances of its survival. None of these interrogations revealed any unexpected or significant findings.”

“However, the reasons for Shomuth’s extended detention of citizen Harmon were the location and circumstances of its retrieval. It was found just outside of the Terran portion of the colony, injured and exhausted, in a ground transport belonging to the missing ship Saving Grace, not far from the landing footprint of that salvager. Thanks to the persuasion of Shomuth’s medical officer – another issue for Justice and Health to address – citizen Harmon revealed that it was present at the time and place of Saving Grace’s theft.”

“I relay their findings in the interest of sharing pertinent information, not as endorsement of their acts or methods. Citizen Harmon, once recovered from Shomuth’s custody, refused to provide further details or verify their account of its testimony. Unless ordered, I will not demand further testimony from it; I will await determinations from Defense, Justice, and your Office before deciding upon its ultimate custody.”

“What citizen Harmon told Shomuth officer Orekhtin bash’Vezillat is as follows: It was patrolling the neutral border between the Terran and Mauraug portions of the colony when the Apostate attack occurred.  Seeking other Defense personnel, it traveled north, encountering two Mauraug: Suufit bash’Topith, as previously identified, and Voshtig bash’Kenet, a Defense subordinate also assigned to border guard, on the Mauraug side.  Harmon also provided the name of Voshtig’s superior: one Soloth bash’Soloth, who was also among the group who stole Saving Grace.  Suufit and Voshtig allegedly assaulted and captured Harmon and transported it to their base, an unauthorized border outpost.  There it encountered the other survivors identified among the hijacking group: Terrans Evgeny Lerner, a fellow Defense member, and Mikala Turell, whom I will return to; also the confirmed Luuboh bash’Gaulig and two other Mauraug: Gaalet bash’Rubesh and Karech bash’Uulivas.  We assume the last two were also Defense personnel under Soloth, but Harmon could not confirm with certainty."
“Harmon claims that originally, the Terrans were captives held under the dominance of Soloth bash’Soloth.  Even the colony administrator, Suufit, was subordinated... strange given Soloth’s moderate rank. However, Evgeny Lerner eventually managed to assert dominance, through a combination of strategy, good fortune, and a surprising grasp of Mauraug philosophy. Harmon stated it was Lerner’s idea to meet with and later to steal the salvager, after they discovered the original crew stealing personal property and neglecting the search for survivors."
“Citizen Harmon described the theft as an act of opportunity and emotion, a mistake that could not be corrected once it had occurred. I suspect it is sympathetic to the other survivors and overstating the justification for their acts. Its account describes itself as innocent of any wrongdoing, having parted ways with the other survivors rather than escaping with them in the stolen ship. In any case, its testimony was coerced and not directly admissible; Justice will have to handle a more appropriate interrogation."
“Here is one more concern for your attention, an issue about which I will need specific orders: citizen Harmon revealed suspicions, under its original forced disclosure, that Evgeny Lerner was not actually the chief architect of Saving Grace’s capture.  Instead, it hinted that Mikala Turell, rather than being employed as a mining engineer as per her parent’s Artificial Intelligence, was either a clandestine Defense agent – a spy – or possibly an agent of another intelligence service.  I have no evidence to either confirm or disconfirm this assertion.  The Artificial Intelligence denies the accusation." 
“If, in fact, an unidentified agent of the Terran government was operating within Locust Colony, and survived this Apostate attack, and impelled the theft of a salvage vehicle in order to escape the planet… I believe you understand the repercussions." 
“Again, I am advising the offices of Justice and Defense regarding this new information. Please advise if Settlement has any pertinent orders or further information to offer, regarding the dispensation of this Terran citizen or in response to his story. For now, I hold the citizen in medical custody, in full comfort but without liberty.”

          The message cut off there.  Among the maelstrom of thoughts provoked by this volatile message, I found myself surprised at Commander Grissakh’s neutral and diplomatic tone. Then again, it had reverted to Mauraug idiom when referring to the captive, Wallace Harmon. ‘Citizen’ and ‘subordinate’ and neutral pronouns were all signs it was seeking a comfortable mode of thought.  It also made several outright assertions, rather than hedging the way a diplomat would.

          But for all that, it displayed skepticism both toward Harmon’s story and toward Shomuth’s wayward leadership. I suspected that Grissakh was as outraged as I was, after hearing that a Collective citizen had been held illegally and subjected to what sounded like chemical coercion in order to extract information.

          Such treatment wasn’t torture, not exactly – that kind of behavior would get every cognizant crew member on Shomuth put into corrective detention – but it was decidedly past the lines of civilized behavior.  The Dominion might approve of such measures and perhaps had even requested them, depending on Shomuth’s degree of contact back home, but the Collective would never sanction them.  Commander Grissakh knew that.  It also knew that the behavior of its fellow Mauraug reflected poorly upon it and its command.  It might even disapprove or loathe such horrible acts.  It certainly had seemed appalled.
          Sadly, its official disapproval could be an act for appearances.  I was growing tired of the necessary cynicism required for government work.  In a way, it would be nice to deal with ignorant simpletons who wore their nastiness openly, rather than conniving political creatures… like myself.

          I had to be careful and conniving right then.  An accusation about a clandestine Terran agent working within or even against the Locust Colony had to be handled cautiously.  I very well understood the ‘repercussions’ if news of a potential saboteur got out. 

          The public outrage over Locust Colony’s demise was largely focused toward the Mauraug Apostasy.  That was preferable for the Dominion, of course, but also acceptable to the Collective bureaucracy.  If nothing else, such currents kept the population from turning against Settlement for its perceived failings or the Collective as a whole for ‘inadequate protection’ for the colony.  As I’ve said, such accusations are garbage and, in fact, completely misguided.  If anyone, aside from its actual destroyers, was culpable for the failure of Locust Colony, it was the two cultural governments that created the provocation.

          If any credible evidence suggested that Terra set up the colony to fail, internally, all the building outrage would turn against them.  The two cultural governments would hurl accusations at one another, joined in battle by large swathes of their populations.  Other Collective member-states would be drawn into the conflict on one side or the other or else distance themselves from both competitors.  The Mauraug leadership would have to decide whether to allow rancor to shift away from the Apostasy, or else link the Apostates to some imagined conspiracy within the Terran sphere.

          It wouldn’t be the first time such allegations surfaced, not even publicly.  Some Mauraug viewed the Apostasy as a kind of fifth column operation created by other species, probably financed within the Collective, in order to undermine the Dominion.  Considering that the Apostasy, and groups much like it, had always existed in opposition to Dominion orthodoxy, such accusations were ignorant nonsense at best, propaganda at worst. 

          That said, it was possible that individual elements within the Collective were supporting the Apostates here and there.  In fact, the resilience of the present ‘dominant heresy’ made many suspect that the Apostates had non-Mauraug sympathizers.  But the idea that another actual interplanetary, ‘cultural’ government would risk working with known murderous revolutionaries, the sworn enemies of the publicly accepted – if not externally respected – government of the Mauraug sphere… that was unlikely.

          “The real problem here,” I said aloud to Aika, “is that the entire thing might be true.”

          My ever-sympathetic aide and confidant nodded knowingly.  “It would explain the leaks to Terra.”

          “It would, simply and neatly.  An on-world agent would fit the timing and details of both Representative Jocasta’s and Councilor Webb’s information.  For one thing, it fits with the point at which their intel was cut off.”

          “When Mikala Turell and Saving Grace left the planet,” Aika finished for me. 

          Keke.  We can’t dismiss this as manufactured.  Too much detail, too well crafted.”

          “You need to advise the Secretary,” Aika recommended.

          I agreed, though I hated to alert my superior until I had more definite conclusions available.  A lesser sapient might relish sharing their misery, but I preferred to keep the being in charge of my career as happy as possible.

          I tried not to whine as I asked, “Immediately?”

          “Do I need to calculate the catastrophe graph for you?”

          “No, I hear you,” I answered Aika.  “Potential trouble increases exponentially with time.  Immediate action in a crisis holds the highest value… barring the possibility of errors due to haste.”

          “Of which I predict none.  Now stop stalling,” she scolded, pointing a matronly finger at my monitor.  The comms program was already dialing a full audiovisual call to the Secretary’s home number.  Aika wasn’t kidding around, if she was taking the decision out of my hands.

          I decided to take the situation with equal gravity, rather than seeking to disperse tension.  I arranged myself as professionally as I could.

          Of course, the call was answered quickly and directly.  One of the problems with working for a Zig superior is that they sleep lightly, oversleep rarely, and almost never take sick days.  Trying to live up to ChiTakTiZu’s example was a challenge in itself.

          “Assistant ChiTa, what is your concern?” the Secretary answered, without other greeting or preamble.  I noted the similarity of his manner to my own when addressing Aika.  Like it or not, the Mauraug had a point about the fundamentality of dominant-subordinate relationships.

          “We have received two messages from local Defense Commander Grissakh bash’Ruushid following its arrival in Locust System,” I began.  “The first was a general statement of conditions as found and confirmation of received orders.  It also devoted extensive time to discussion of the missing salvage ship, Saving Grace.  Originally, our accounts of that ship came from its former crew, discovered stranded near the Terran portion of the colony.  They accused a group of colonial survivors of commandeering the salvager away from them.  You should read through the details; the message is flagged for your attention on our internal network.”

          I continued in a rush: “More urgent is the second message from the Commander.  It reports recovery of one of the survivors, a fellow conspirator with the group that hijacked the Saving Grace.  This Human, Wallace Harmon, was found near the last location of the salvager, by the crew of the Mauraug freighter Shomuth.  The Mauraug apparently interrogated Harmon using illicit means, extracting a statement about the attack and about his activities afterward.  Fortunately, Defense recovered Harmon and has him in custody, tending to his medical needs but also holding him pending legal advice from Justice.  That Office, as well as Defense, have their own reports from the Commander.”

          “Sir, the reason I contacted you immediately upon receipt of Commander Grissakh’s message is that Harmon’s statements contain allegations that one of the survivors, a Mikala Turell, was an unannounced, illegal agent of the Terran cultural government, and that she may have been the instigating factor leading to the theft of Saving Grace and its subsequent flight from Locust Four.  Nothing indicates that she was involved in any way with the actual attack on the colony, but you can see how this matter could escalate.”

          As I wrapped up, I could see the Secretary’s gaze move across his screen, away from direct attention to my image and toward some other display.  I assumed he was reviewing Commander Grissakh’s missives even while I summarized their contents.

          I concluded, “Worst of all, the possibility of an internal Terran agent fits with patterns I’ve observed in our communications from Terran Representative Tomas Jocasta and Councilor May Webb, especially when contrasted with the message from their Mauraug counterpart… and matched with the pattern of media release of information from Locust.  I was suspicious of a leak from one of our fellow Collective Offices, but a direct contact from Locust to Terra fits the observed pattern, makes more sense, and matches the timing between when Saving Grace would have left Locust and when the Terrans stopped getting ahead of us.”

          The Secretary listened patiently as I finished, but it was clear he had completed his scrutiny of the local Defense Commander’s messages well before I was done.  He also, apparently, had done some thinking and reached a decision.

          “Thank you, Assistant ChiTa,” he acknowledged.  “I appreciate your diligent and thoughtful work on this difficult matter.”

          But.  I could hear the disclaimer loudly before it was spoken.  Aika, projected in front of my desk, out of the video pickup’s range, signaled me silently to maintain my composure.  She knew what was coming, as well.

          “But given these developments, I believe I need to take a personal hand now.  Your duties regarding the Locust Colony matter are ended, including any assignments delegated to your own subordinates.  Please return to your normal work prioritization; I will have other projects delegated to your desk, so that I may devote myself to this singular challenge.”

          He wasn’t criticizing my work or me, personally.  In fact, the Secretary entirely avoided any hint of blame, either in word or attitude.  Yet the reassignment stung like a rebuke.

          At first, I felt like he was saying I couldn’t handle the magnitude of difficulty involved.  Yes, this crisis could unfold into an intergalactic uproar if not properly managed.  Yes, that management was better left to a sapient with years more experience and a genome tailored toward social interaction and leadership.  And yes, I was Terran and therefore potentially biased in my advocacy.  But I still felt I could contribute substantially to any efforts to quell the coming troubles.  I might need the supervision of the ‘master’, but I could manage my own part well enough.  I didn’t need to be severed from the project entirely.

          Then I realized that Secretary ChiTakTiZu’s dismissal might not be a comment on my ability, at all.  He could be cutting me out of the data stream in order to create a layer of plausible deniability.  He might be planning actions that could backfire and was actually insulating me from backlash against our Office.  Besides reasons practical and altruistic, he might just want to take over the issue personally for his own comfort.  I could trust my own associates implicitly, but some matters I still preferred to undertake alone, without the need to explain, delegate, or review reports on everything.

          Then again, if I really wanted to work alone, I’d have to do without Aika.  Her exaggerated expressions in the background were slightly annoying, but she did keep me mindful of my own presentation.  She could be, simultaneously, an obnoxious critic and a helpful partner, even without speech.

          Once my emotional reaction to the Secretary’s orders was suppressed and digested, I ventured an overt response: “I understand, Secretary.  Are you certain you need no further support… possibly the minutes of our ongoing deliberation while composing press releases and other communiques, yesterday?  My insights on each of the messages received?  Our probability…”

          My superior cut off my offerings, which was just as well.  I was verging close to embarrassing myself.  “No, thank you.  I would rather you take a half-day off to rest.  It appears you were awake early, if not working through your entire rest cycle.  I would prefer you return prepared to work at your full capacity, rather than pushing yourself further.  Your subordinates can handle daily business until you return.”

          “Yes, sir.”  Secretary ChiTakTiZu’s tone made it clear he would accept no further argument.  I was off the case. 

          I ought to be thrilled; I really was tired, now that the rush of stress hormones was fading.  I could set aside the entire thorny tangle, at least for a while, and relax.  I was absolved of further responsibility. 

          Yet the part of me that had been engaged throughout the crisis, the part that enjoyed untangling this puzzle from afar, the part that looked forward to verbal combat against our foolish, intransigent, provincial foes… that part was deeply disappointed.  I had been removed as champion of Settlement.  The master stepped in to meet the growing threat, but also claimed the thrills of battle.  I would no longer experience the rush of this particular challenge… nor would I likely learn its final outcome.

          Because, beneath all my other rationales for why Secretary ChiTakTiZu wanted to handle the Locust Colony case personally, I suspected that the real reason was political.  I knew my superior well enough to know he had friends and enemies far beyond the Collective's Offices.  He had done something to earn his position, with all its power and responsibility.  I had done plenty of hard, dirty work to get my own nomination for employment here; I could only imagine how much harder and dirtier ChiTakTiZu had fought to be nominated and approved by the Collective overseers.

          This matter was going to get intensely political.  Not that it wasn’t intrinsically politics all the way down, no matter how much we were dealing with the lives and fortunes of real, individual sapients.  But now, with the situation shaping up the way it was, the fight would get uglier.  Its stakes had gone higher.  And the need to contain information and shape the narrative was that much greater.

          I, along with the vast majority of the Collective, would probably never know the full truth about Locust Colony and the fate of the Saving Grace.  If a Terran internal agent was involved, that government would be only too grateful to have that dangerous detail buried away.  If I knew my boss, he would extract a high payment for that secrecy.  Hell, he would probably command concessions just to downplay the suggestion of illicit activities, whether or not Mikala Turell was really a spy or saboteur.

          As for the Saving Grace itself… or was it the Scape Grace now?... it might disappear into the black depths of space, an embarrassment never to surface again.  I wasn’t sure whether the dissident settlers aboard deserved my scorn, my pity, or my envy.  Their act of local outrage could become the nexus of intergalactic chaos, unless it was handled properly.

          But it wasn’t my mess to handle anymore.  I signed out of the conversation with ChiTakTiZu and turned toward Aika.

          “All right, funny face, you can stop the pantomime.  We’re done here.  Time to go home.”

          “Just like that?” Aika asked, unexpectedly rebellious.  “No more questions?  No more investigation?”

          “My orders were definite,” I responded, figuring Aika was just checking my resolve.  “Completely done.  I’m not going to test the Secretary’s patience by poking around.  Besides, sleep sounds really good.”

          “I suppose I’ll rest as well.  I won’t need more than a tenth of my processing capacity to keep up with Jacq and Tlalosseth.”

          I grinned.  “No reason to go easy on them.  In fact, you have my permission to keep them distracted with other work… just in case they can’t resist the temptation to check the Locust system messages.  Not everyone has my steely resolve.”

          “I won’t give them time to stray,” Aika promised.  She added, “Steely resolve, my kawaii oppai.  You’re acting virtuous now, but I give it one day, at most, before you’re eavesdropping on the network traffic.”

          I shook my head, no longer joking.  “If this situation is heading the way I think it is, I want to stay well clear.  You’re right that I’m disappointed, but I trust ChiTakTiZu’s loyalty to his subordinates; he deserves the same in return.  If he thinks this matter is better handled directly and alone, I’m not going to interfere.”

          Aika’s avatar looked me over appraisingly before answering.  “I think I’m impressed,” she finally pronounced.  “You’re not usually this comfortable with releasing control.”

          “Maybe you’re right, and maybe it’s just the lack of sleep,” I demurred.  “I might get curious later.  I just figure that if I say it out loud right now, I’m more likely to stay honest later.”

          “Not a bad thought.  Oyasumi, Hori.”  Aika waved and then turned off her projector, her avatar winking out, visibly converted back into streaks of colored light before vanishing.

          Oyasumi nasai, Aika,” I answered, formally.  Though her program still remained in the office, alert and listening, I shut off the lights as I exited.  I ‘left’ Aika at the office whenever I went home, though I was still only a compad call away.

          As I left, I wasn’t sure how I felt.  Did I hope for a quiet day at home, to sleep and catch up on my reading?  Or would I be waiting for another urgent call to draw me back to the office, proclaiming the need for my services once again?

          I might be a minor functionary in a vast interstellar bureaucracy, but I still have pride in my talents.  I relish conflict and challenge.  I need the thrill and the glory of battle just as much as any warrior, be they a hulubalang of my own heritage, a Vislin commando, or Mauraug warlord. 

          Ah, well.  Sadly enough, another crisis would come along on another day.  Other colonies would fail, perhaps even through atrocities like the one that befell Locust Four.  More fools would berate and attack Settlement for our perceived failings.  And I would have the chance to parry their accusations and return devastating counter-arguments.

          But those are other stories.  I think we’re done here.  After all, I did promise not to work on the Locust case any further.