As I ate, I reflected on the oddity of Collective history that led to the term ‘cultural government’. Each of those conglomerates of affiliated worlds and species actually contains a multitude of ‘cultures’, as the term translates into its Terran form. ‘Terran’, itself, is a catch-all denoting either the most prominent language and cultural practice among Humans (and Brins, by extension)… or else all of the languages and cultures contained within the worlds of the Terran sphere. My Indonesian heritage, from the original Terra itself, is quite different than the Neuswitz background of Betacent, yet we are still considered the same ‘culture’ by the Collective.
Each of the spheres within the Collective has a largely different governmental structure, calling their internal organization by a variety of names. The Terrans, having joined the Collective well after its inception, simply termed their unifying body the Terran Cultural Office, in mimicry of the terminology already in place.
That ‘Office’ was not universally welcomed, by the way, and still faces attacks from the governing bodies of several worlds, Terra itself among the naysayers. Only its value for interface with the greater Collective has prevented its member-states from pulling down the intermediary ‘cultural’ government. Most of the resistance manifests in the form of debates and power struggles over who will occupy the seats of that body. Sometimes separate worlds try to slip in puppet managers who will preferentially favor their interests. Sometimes those representatives deliberately insert candidates who oppose and sabotage Collective cooperation. Frankly, our ‘culture’s games in this arena tarnish Terra’s reputation among the other Collective member states.
When they joined the Collective, the Mauraug already had their overarching Dominion. They just added subordinate branches to reach out, however distastefully, to the wider universe’s power structure. Mauraug, as far as they let on publicly, no longer have any diverse subordinate cultures: the best has become the norm. I suspect this is untrue, with divisions existing and conducting their struggles for recognition quietly, in private.
In a way, I can be proud of Terra’s ability to forge unity out of blatant, contentious variety. Our internal struggles are analogous to the problems I and my counterparts within the Collective face: creating order and harmony out of disorganized and disharmonious parts… sometimes deliberately disharmonious.
When they started forming the Collective, the Zig also had an interplanetary organizational body, all very precisely and efficiently worked out. That structure formed much of the model for the Collective itself, though modified for its different constituency and objectives… logically.
I don’t idolize the Zig and their organization, but I have to respect the evident robustness of the system itself. Their very use of the concept ‘cultural’ to describe each of the member spheres of the Collective is a neat piece of social engineering. It keeps each group distinctive, not insisting they subordinate their unique contributions to a homogenous whole. By focusing on what that group had internally in common, separate from their external partners, calling each organizing body a ‘cultural government’ increases the likelihood that individual sapients will identify with and support that government.
It's like the artificial teams in a sporting league. Your team is ‘yours’ because of shared geography, colors, mascot, etc. It is therefore better than the other teams, because it is yours. You start to recognize the players, identify with them, and root for their success… for no other reason than shared affiliation. In the meantime, the league itself prospers, as long as the same team didn’t win every season and make the fans suspicious that the games are rigged.
Perhaps in some era, the need for such ‘teams’ will decline, and the groupings determined by spatial geometry, history, biology, etc. will dissolve as well. Until then, we work with the limits imposed by our fellow sapients.
That was my job, in general as well as in that particular moment. I had to listen to a couple of near-sighted sapients complain about their unfair individual treatment, blind to the needs of the multiple trillion sapients they did not represent.
“Aika, let’s see the Mauraug representative’s message first,” I prompted when I was ready.
“Very good, Hori,” she replied, starting the message on my view screen.
Keshret bash’Brughlan, when it appeared, made me smile involuntarily. It had lovely russet fur, tufted around its visible head and neck, reminding me of a frowsy kitten. So many Mauraug I encountered had coarser, darker fur, I had forgotten the variety among their phenotypes. This Mauraug’s parent, Brughlan, must have carried a particularly dominant gene for lighter, red-orange fur or else found a mate who shared a matching recessive trait.
Its cute (to a Terran) appearance contrasted with Keshret’s harsh voice and manner. Unlike Terran Representative Jocasta’s bombastic protests, Keshret’s tone was more aggressively hostile:
“Subordinate of the Collective Office of Settlement! Your incompetence has interfered with my own operations. This is unacceptable. Immediately forward all information regarding the slaughter of the Locust Four Colony, including any determinations reached by your Office and any others who have communicated to you. I am forced to rely upon partial reports from our loyal subject in Defense and our freight ship, Shomuth. From these sources, I learn that nearly all Mauraug colonists were slain by the Apostates… which the Collective remains remiss in exterminating… except for several survivors who were forced to commandeer a salvage ship in order to escape their dead world. I expect explanations, but more than that, I expect specific data proving the breadth of this failure. This tragedy would not have occurred in a colony with sole Mauraug jurisdiction. Relay that message to your superiors and to the grieving among the Terran worlds.”
Well. The Mauraug representative was just as stupid, nearsighted, and unpleasant as its Terran counterpart, but at least more honest, on several counts. Keshret was more forthright about its sources and the limits of its knowledge. It stated outright that the Mauraug would have handled the colony differently – which they would – and agreed with me and ‘my superior’ that the joint colony was a bad idea. Whether or not a solely Mauraug colony still would have failed was a separate question, as was whether any colony, at all, should have been permitted in the disputed border system.
While it knew about the theft of the Saving Grace, it was assuming that the hijacking was a purely Mauraug-dominated operation... unlike Defense Commander Grissakh, who had acknowledged, if reluctantly, that two Humans and possibly a Brin were involved. That could either be deliberate dismissal on the representative’s part, or else it was overstating the completeness of its reports from the Dominion’s ‘loyal subject’ in Defense. Quite possibly, Commander Grissakh mentioned only the theft, and the representative getting the report second- or third-hand assumed the rest of the story.
Comparing time stamps, I could see that the Mauraug representative received its report from the Defense Commander before I did. That was annoying, if not surprising. Expecting first loyalty to the Collective was a dream of my far-off future. I supposed I should be grateful to Grissakh for even redacting a small portion of intel from its reports home. If it did, its motivation would be practical: it would lose its position if it didn't perform its duties for the Collective properly. That demotion would harm the Dominion’s influence. Therefore, Grissakh was bound to a certain level of confidentiality, if only by propriety and not ethics.
Shomuth’s captain wouldn’t have been so stinting on information, not if it wanted to stay licensed by the Dominion. For my good and the Dominion’s ill, the freighter had stayed mostly aloft, in orbit around Locust Four, rather than inspecting conditions directly on the ground. Thus its details – and therefore the Mauraug representative’s – were accordingly limited. Again, I was glad the Mauraug crew hadn’t been the ones to find the surviving Brin, Tiberius.
I couldn’t glean much more from the brief tirade. Just to be sure, I checked in with Aika: “Anything I should take away from this rant?”
“Don’t think of it as a rant, to begin,” Aika chided. “Some very real frustration lies beneath what you see as typical Mauraug aggression. Officer Keshret holds a difficult position beneath superiors demanding specific answers… not just accurate reports, but answers according with what they already believe.”
“I suppose I should sympathize,” I answered without any real contrition. “We are in similar positions, more so than myself and the Terran representative.”
Aika still looked cross. “That is true, but your superior, the one responsible for your continued employment and public reputation, is willing to accept uncomfortable truths. I suspect your counterpart’s superior is not so understanding. Keshret wants you to tell it it is right, but knows you likely will not… or cannot. Thus, it rages at you as surrogate for the demands it cannot meet.”
“Were you a therapist for a previous User?” I asked, joking at first, then realizing I might be uncomfortably accurate.
Aika only shook her head and answered, “We are speaking of Mauraug psychology, not Human. I am not analyzing Keshret, merely deducing its mental state from available cues… as you should be doing. I learn from the same sources you have available. And besides, if I was a therapist, I’d handle your pathologies better.”
“Ooh, tart this morning,” I teased back.
It was possible Aika’s former existence with a past User included mental health counseling, but it was bad etiquette to ask about such duties unless a Brin brought up the subject, itself. Not past duties, per se; a multi-generational Brin was usually proud to list its skills and accomplishments, especially when seeking a new User. But specifically, mental health information was still protected data, even for a past and passed User. If a Brin had assisted a User with their personal troubles, that was the User’s business to disclose, except when their mental disorders led to criminal behaviors.
I was glad Aika brushed off the question with humor rather than calling me out for impropriety. I'm usually better about such taboos, but lack of sleep and the present crisis was wearing my tact thin. Better to get the warning about my declining politesse privately, on a minor issue, than to suffer a complete diplomatic breakdown during an official conversation.
Speaking of diplomatic breakdowns, it was time to bite down and suffer listening to Terran Representative Tomas Jocasta once again. Call it my penance for offending my dear suffering Aika.
“All right, Aika, give me the cries from Tommy-Jo’s tormented soul,” I prompted.
True to her programming idiom, Aika showed me lowered brows and downturned lips, her forehead actually darkening slightly to indicate aggravation.
“Only if you try harder to pay attention this time… and get that impishness out of your system before you start composing replies,” she scolded.
“I promise,” I surrendered. “I’ll be all tapioca and sunshine when I answer him."
“I’ll hold you to that. Here you go…”
Representative Jocasta, in contrast to the Mauraug colonial representative, looked dour rather than hostile. He appeared almost sedate even compared to his own original message. He looked into the video pickup with a searching, suffering expression, like a pious martyr preparing to beg my contrition. He began:
“Assistant Secretary. I have received your report on the situation at Locust Four. It appears that your own native government was assigned a priority no higher than our planetary news media. I should not be seeing news segments on a subject at the same time I am reading the ‘first reports’ myself. I am curious if the rest of the Collective received the news of our colony’s demise at any longer delay. Or were they notified first, courtesy of the Communications Office? I will leave that determination for later research."
His accusations continued:
“What I do know is that the representatives of the Terran government are not only losing our patience with your Office’s sluggardly pace, we are starting to suspect that this throttling of data is deliberate. We do know that information available to the Collective is being omitted from your official reports to Terra. I will give you one further chance to correct this malfeasance. In particular, I want a full listing of all known survivors of New Gethsemane, particularly those taken off-world in the salvager ship Scape Grace.”
As he spoke the last sentence, the Representative’s expression twisted into what I guessed was self-satisfied cunning. He thought he knew something we would rather he didn’t. He was letting me know he knew, without stating exactly what it was that he knew. This subtlety was supposed to make me reveal everything I knew, in the fear that I would be found out as a liar by omission, otherwise.
Such behavior is really the problem with the Collective. None of its members realize how much better the Collective functions, compared to each of its member-states individually. That greater competence comes not only from synergy between cultures and species, as we share talents and approaches, but also from the challenge of coordinating between such disparate parts.
In short, I was a better player than Tommy-Jo because I was playing a tougher game. He wasn’t the only schemer I dealt with and not even the cleverest among the lot. Even if I, personally, were callow enough to be swayed by his pompous act, I had Aika to slow down any capitulation, and a Zig superior to check my reasoning.
So each ‘cultural’ government persists in the belief that it is either superior to, or at least equal in quality, to the Collective infrastructure. The real problem emerges when representatives of those governments attempt to bypass, subvert, ignore, or force some part of Collective functioning. If we could somehow convey their insignificance compared to the greater whole – yes, the insignificance of trillions of sapients on multiple planets, compared to an organization representing more of each by several orders of magnitude – these functionaries might stop impeding our functions.
But that would require perspective and humility, qualities in short supply throughout the Universe. Representative Jocasta underscored my point in his conclusion:
“My information shows the scheduled arrival, in Collective Office space, of a Terra-bound Ningyo packet ship, within three Terran Standard days. I will expect your reply upon arrival of that vessel. And that response should include all data available at time of transmission.”
Of course, because answering your threats promptly is our highest budgetary priority.
I closed the message manually, not bothering to ask Aika to handle it. Prodding the computer screen was the closest I could come to poking Tommy-Jo in the eye. I took a moment to let my pique fade, which Aika honored by not speaking, either.
I let her know I was ready to proceed by asking: “What do you think? Does Jocasta actually know something he shouldn’t, given the content of our original briefing?”
Aika looked at me strangely in response. I realized, after translating her visual idiom, that she was doing the ‘baka’ expression. Idiot. I was missing something really obvious…
I threw up my hands. “What? I’m not in the mood, Aika-senpai. Indulge me.”
She finally answered, starting out disappointed but softening her tone gradually: “… 'the salvager ship Scape Grace'? Hori, the missing ship is the Saving Grace. Why would he get the name wrong?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Slip of phrasing? The two sound similar. The other name sounds more archaic, though, with a lower frequency of use…”
She interrupted, “Not only that, but it’s a phrase typically used to indicate a criminal element. As in, a thief? Our original message only suggested that the ship might have been stolen. Renaming it, even as a mistake of speech, suggests that Representative Jocasta has firmly decided upon that interpretation.”
“Which certainty we didn’t have until Commander Grissakh’s report,” I finished for her. “It’s not definitive, but yes, I see your point. He probably does have a source closer to the scene than this Office. If his information is actually specific, he might be getting updates from Locust system itself. But from who? I can’t believe the Zig or Great Family crews would bother bouncing data straight to Terra, even if they were offered mega-credits. And the Mauraug… no chance. Not the freighter and certainly not the Commander or his crew. So we’re back to a leak from another Office.”
“You’re missing a possibility again,” Aika chided.
“Or the stolen ship,” I granted, “but again, Grissakh says that’s a mixed crew, probably headed by that high-born Mauraug. I doubt it would allow any communications with Terra, especially if the ship was stolen outright.”
“I wouldn’t accept the suppositions of our Defense Commander as certainties,” Aika cautioned. “Besides any personal bias, it is theorizing from incomplete data.”
“We all are. And barring any better data from an unlikely source, its determinations are the best guesses we can get, right now.”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it? An 'unlikely source'. Too bad it’s not our source. At the least, we could do more with those reports than Terra has managed,” Aika preened.
It was my turn to puncture her pride: “You mean, better than Tommy-Jo has managed. I doubt he’s the primary beneficiary of our data leak… and he’s certainly not the key thinker in Terran government. We see him as the face of the opposition, but they could be hiding a lot of secrets behind that fool's mask.”
“Well said, Hori-kohai.”