“. . . And this is your console,” Lieutenant Michele Wotun concluded. She waved me toward a gray keyboard and scope in the darkest corner of the dimly lit chamber. Lt. Wotun was a husky, dark-skinned woman of middle years, with silver tinting her close-cropped curly hair. The rest of the room was gray, too: gray walls, gray chairs, gray dividers, gray backgrounds on every screen. Her voice had deep, musical overtones that I allowed to distract myself from the dire woe of my situation. I was glad to have something to do at last. When the Admiral had sent me to her station, he did not specify that she was on duty there as yet. I spent a miserable hour standing at attention staring at the wall in the corridor outside. Movement was a relief. “Any questions?”
“How long will I be assigned down here?” I asked, hoping the desperation I felt did not come across in my voice. “Not that I shirk my responsibility, Lieutenant!”
“Yes,” Wotun chuckled richly. “I’m sure you won’t from now on. I saw you come into the dining room an hour ago. Ten minutes late! You were lucky the old man didn’t lock you up. Probably letting you slide because you’re the new boy on the ship. Sometimes he lets newbies have a gimme, but it won’t happen again, I promise. You’ll be assigned to me until the admiral believes that his lesson has taken firm hold on you.”
“Believe me,” I said meekly, “it has taken. I won’t be late again. Or,” I added, with a tender mental probe at the bruises on my dignity from the very thorough dressing-down, “any of the other points to which he drew my attention.”
“He doesn’t believe in deathbed conversions, and neither do I,” Wotun crisped out. “I’ve explained your duties. Now, do them.”
“Aye-aye, ma’am,” I said. I saluted, then waited until she turned away to see to one of the other thirty stations in the low-ceilinged chamber before lowering my arm.
I felt eyes upon me. I turned my head and caught the young female lieutenant nearest me glancing my way. She had that rare, porcelain-white skin that combined with her deep, midnight blue hair absolutely invited appreciation. I winked at her. Her eyes widened, then hastily returned to her screen, and she began to type furiously on her keyboard.
The charm offensive was failing on all fronts, I thought disconsolately, then turned to my own station. A touch on the screen brought up my identification slate, with eight dashes below my serial number.
“This is a master-key console keyboard,” Wotun had explained. “Through it you have access to all long-term storage of personal messages in the ship’s databases.” I felt very powerful, knowing that only eight characters stood between me and the secrets of every man, woman and alien on board the vessel. On the other hand—“Your job is to go through the stored messages, beginning with the oldest, review them, and judge whether they ought to continue being stored on the server, i.e., personal messages, trivia, media entertainment; or if they contain any improper information. The first you erase, if it is over ten days since it was received. We need the memory. The second you report to me. I’ve given you the parameters for what constitutes improper. Follow them to the letter. You don’t talk about what you see, and you don’t copy anything for your personal use later. Your job is to review, delete and report. Before you sit down, you check your ship-comp and any other personal data devices at the door. Got that?”
I had “got” it. Nothing to it, really. How hard could it be? While I deplored snooping through everyone’s mail, feeling that privacy in one’s correspondence was one of the few privileges remaining to servicebeings on board a naval vessel, but I understood at that moment I had been wrong. Every facet of a being’s life in service was subject to scrutiny. Not too hard to understand, really, when you thought about it. Electronic communication was so simple: if a spy had managed to place him or herself on board, not a mechanical bot or a computer program, vital secrets could be shipped out to the spy’s masters long before anyone would detect such a transmission. Lt. Wotun had also informed me that communications from passing ships were occasionally picked up and stored, even if they had not been transmitted to anyone on board. Stray emissions from our servers could also be read by those ships, if the security programs glitched or were breached in any way.
Well, if there were any leaks, I would find them. Call me Thomas Kinago, Forensic Plumber!
I disposed of my personal electronics, including my precious cameras and my pocket personal appointment reminder or viewpad, as we in the Navy called it, in the thumbprint-coded safes near the entrance to the Communications Center and advanced upon my station with vigor. Sliding into my seat, I queued up the messages in order of age, and plunged into my first perusal.
To say that what she had assigned me to do sounded tedious was to suggest that space was wide and deep. Communications had its utility, certainly, not only the vital business of sending and receiving of information from HQ and other ships, including the transmission of personal messages, sources of entertainment, research, warning, translation, and a host of other functions that fell under its auspices, but I was certain that none of these functions really required my personal attention. True, I added to the quantity of messages transmitted every day throughout the Imperium, but didn’t we all? The law required that each of us maintain an Infogrid file, and add to it as personal circumstances changed. The Infogrid facilitated communication among us. And communicate we did, in prodigious quantity, sending notes, observations, jokes, comments and uplifting anecdotes. It seemed my shipmates put in their fair share of bulk to the files. I started reading them more closely.
Six hours later, I could barely function under the onerous restrictions that Lieutenant Wotun had placed upon me. My head spun with the endless messages and files that I had read. My fellow crewmembers had stored so many life-threateningly funny anecdotes, stories, quizzes and puzzles that I was itching to scrawl some of the punch lines on my cuff with my own blood, if need be, against the desperate hope that I could recall the body of the jokes from those references later. One howler, that involved Geckos and the words “fire extinguisher,” was my outright favorite. It was a wonder no one had called for a medic. I’d had a terrible time suppressing my laughs and grunts of merriment, so as not to attract attention from my supervisor or fellow toilers in the fields of data. I could stand it no longer; I reached around for a stylus. My groping fingers encountered only empty desktop. I moaned.
“Miserable job, isn’t it?” my neighbor asked, sympathetically.
“Terrible,” I agreed. “How any normal, living, breathing, intelligent life form can do this day after day without losing one’s wits is beyond my comprehension.”
“It won’t last forever,” she offered, with a kind smile. I noticed how like a couple of forget-me-nots her lovely blue eyes were. “It’s punishment duty, but Wotun hardly ever leaves anyone on it for more than a couple of days.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I said desperately, plunging my hands through my hair. My cameras were out of reach in the lockup. My datapad was in my cabin. Besides, I had given my word not to duplicate the screens that I was reading. Could I scratch the words “fire extinguisher” into my skin with my nail? I bared my wrist and made an attempt.
My neighbor looked at me in alarm as red weals rose on my flesh. “No! It’s not supposed to be torture,” she said. “If you’re really stressing out on it, you can ask Wotun to reassign you next shift.”
“No, don’t!” I exclaimed. At her open stare, I explained, “I don’t want to be taken off this duty. This is the greatest source of humor I’ve come across in years! It’s the veritable mother lode. The very wealth of it is overloading my neurons. I love jokes. There is nothing better to while away the endless hours of official formal parties than a shaggy dog story or two in a corner with a circle of friends. I am always looking for material to stave off boredom. Some of these are the best things I’ve ever heard, and they’re nearly all new to me, so I’m going out of my mind trying to memorize them all. Look, do you suppose you could remember the words ‘fire extinguisher’ for me until the end of the shift?”
Her eyes widened, and she began to laugh. Tears dampened the forget-me-nots of her eyes, and her dainty hand slapped the desktop.
“So that’s it!” I must say that she chortled. “I know that joke. It’s really old, but you’re right, it is a hoot. I first heard it years ago. It keeps making the electronic rounds, probably whenever someone new comes aboard. Everyone sends those attachments to one another.”
My heart filled with hope. “Then you wouldn’t mind?”
She shook her head. “We’re not supposed to pass any kind of information. Wotun would have my intestines!”
“Oh,” I said, disappointed. “Please? It’s just two words.” I fixed her with my most melting gaze, guaranteed to warm the heart of any woman. Her shoulders relaxed and her head tilted sideways as she reveled in my regard, and she began to look wistful. “I would consider it a real favor.” The corners of her mouth turned up and her eyes unfocused. Her lovely lips parted. I leaned in a little. She leaned in, too. I could smell the faint aroma of perfume. I thought it was Silver Lilac, one of my sister’s favorite scents. I smiled. “Pretty please?”
Her eyes dreamy, she nodded.
At that moment, something plastic clattered to the floor. Her eyebrows flew up in alarm, and we both looked in the direction of the disturbance. Another officer on punishment detail sheepishly retrieved the stylus he had been twirling in his fingers. The mood broke.
“Oh, afterburners!” she swore. “Back to work! Here comes Wotun.” She fixed me with a sympathetic expression. “Look, everyone sends those things all the time. After reading them a few times you ought to be able to memorize them just out of sheer repetition, shouldn’t you?”
I shrugged. “That’s true. I hope. Are you sure you couldn’t . . . ?”
“Hush! Here she comes. Buy me a drink later, and we can talk.”
I returned to my screen.
I wondered if there was any way to rig the station so it performed my job for me, without my having to pay attention to it. Not that I would dare to suggest out loud that I could streamline the operation of a department in which I had so recently arrived, nor under such a cloud. Perhaps after a shift or two, I’d be in a position to offer my notions of efficiency.
It was a blow that I couldn’t record the items I wanted, but my attractive neighbor was right. I had a good memory for a humorous anecdote. I should be able to ingrain those stories after a few more rounds. Now that the onus of trying to store up funny material was off me, I could concentrate more deeply on the fine points of erasing message files. Each person aboard an Imperium Navy vessel was issued with a communications device, the viewpad, for which a pocket was provided in the small of the back or, in the case of Gecko recruits, to one side of their ridged spines. All personnel received orders on the small scope a minimum of one time per shift, usually text. An implanted conduction speaker somewhere on the skull provided multiple audio channels that could not be heard by anyone close by unless they were sitting cranium to cranium. Mine was behind my right ear. A few messages contained full video and audio, often when one communicator was sending a piece of entertainment to another, or something special that was worth sacrificing the bandwidth, such as the picture of a newborn child.
The usual method, though, was text transmission. Where silence was necessary, one could finger-spell one’s message into the device, either by stylus or a series of contortions of the fingers before the video capture lens. Like Morse code, which had survived these many thousand years from Old Earth because of its simplicity, the Sang Li hand signs had become indispensable in the centuries since pocket comps were invented. The software translated the signals into text readable at the other end of the circuit, and an experienced speller could carry on a rapidfire conversation by comp as swiftly as if he, she or it was speaking aloud. Subvocalization was the last of the most commonly used means of conveying information. The software picked up those subtle sounds made within the closed mouth, as well as dozens of other methods. The whole purpose was to convey information from one person to another. These people liked to communicate. Frequently. And in detail. They sent messages during off-shift hours, but also during mealtimes, meetings, and—daringly—during training exercises when many of the senders complained of carrying heavy or dangerous equipment. I was impressed.
I scrolled quickly through reminscences and commentaries, consigning those that were appropriate to the disposal bin of eternity. It was up, Lt. Wotun had instructed me, to each “logger” to record his or her daily log into a permanent, personal nonline database. The essence of the ship’s circuit was ephemerality. The dilatory among the diarists were out of luck. I was certain by the witty nature of many of the entries that the authors downloaded them on time. I came across countless observations that were so well thought out that I wished I’d made them, had I been in the same situation at the same time. I learned a great deal about the inner thoughts of my fellow officers and servicebeings. To my surprise, I decided that they would be interesting to know. I’d had little contact with those below my station. I am sure I wondered how different they were from my friends and relatives. I discovered they worried about the same things, fell in and out of love, made bad decisions for good reasons, argued about culture and mass media with the same fervor as anyone with whom I had grown up.
The time-codes embedded into each message didn’t take into account the particular conversants, alas. I found myself reading multiple exchanges going on at the same chronological time. Most, if not all, were silent gripes over the useless nature of a meeting or a course of duty. Replies, which I deleted without hesitation, consisted almost invariably of agreement, laughter or sympathy. The ancient symbols appeared in serried rows descending from the original statement. “Yup.” “Yeah.” “Me, too.” “(g)” “Grumble, grumble.” Just for fun, I kept track of the number of “grins,” and came up with 1,243 before Wotun’s voice jerked me back to the present.
“You’re making progress, Mr. Kinago,” she said approvingly, noting the time-code on the latest “Yup” I was erasing at the time.
I glanced at the chronometer and discovered that four hours had passed since I had discovered the entry containing the first breathtaking joke. I had overstayed my shift by two hours. I should have felt annoyed for missing out on some of my leisure time, but the truth was that I had enjoyed myself greatly in the process.
“It’s a very interesting task, Lieutenant,” I told her, from the depths of my heart.
She peered at me, approval giving way to suspicion. “Sucking up doesn’t impress me, Mr. Kinago.”
“I’m not . . .” I protested.
Her full lips twisted sideways and one eye narrowed. I saw that any attempt I made to persuade her otherwise would fall into the pit of excuses she had been offered by previous consignees to her care.
“Fine,” she said. “Then you won’t mind reporting back here tomorrow morning at oh-eight-hundred.”
I stood up and snapped my hand to my forehead. “Aye, ma’am!”
I left her shaking her head.
* * *
I sat in the officer’s mess, nursing a cup of very strong coffee from the endlessly refilled pot sitting on a heat element near the door. The contents of the screens that had passed before my eyes were a jumble in my memory. Desperately, I cast through them, hoping to resurrect even a single quip, a humorous remark, or a notable observation that I could cherish and pass along to my friends at home, but all I could see before my mind’s eye was a series of grins and dittos. I could not remember a single thing. I ground the heel of my hand into my forehead, and a moan escaped my lips. Ten hours, and not a decent joke to show for it!
“Fire extinguisher,” a voice suddenly whispered in my ear. “And you didn’t hear it from me.”
I looked up in surprise and delight. The fruits of my labors came rushing to my memory at once. The attractive lieutenant sank gracefully into the chair opposite me in the officer’s mess. I reached for my pocket secretary and scrawled into it as many of the jokes I had learned as I could. The lady waited patiently until I saved my file and glanced up, the frenzied moment having passed. She smiled.
“Better?” she asked.
“I owe you a debt,” I said, fervently. “The beauty of your countenance is surpassed only by your kindness. By the way, my name is Thomas Kinago. Ensign.”
“I’ll take that drink you offered instead,” she said. She extended a hand. “Sedona Alianthus. Lieutenant.”
I entered an order for each of us into the table screen and touched my wrist insignia to the block to pay for it. The screen turned red and began to flash.
“What did I do wrong?” I asked.
“Violation of protocol,” Lt. Alianthus said, scrolling the screen with a finger. Lines of print came up facing her. She read through them, her lovely features sinking into a frown. “You shouldn’t even be in here, Ensign Kinago. I should report you, or I’ll get in more trouble.”
“More trouble?” I echoed, then wished I hadn’t. Of course! She didn’t work in the Records Department, any more than I did. She was there on punishment duty, too.
“Must you?” I asked. I leaned forward, invoking all my charm in the wistfulness of my expression. I didn’t want to refer to the fact that she had already bent the rules on my behalf once just a few minutes before. That would be ungentlemanly. “Please?” The lovely lady hesitated, but her features hardened. She didn’t want her punishment expanded for any reason, no matter how appealingly wistful. My heart sank as I pictured the inside of the admiral’s study once again. I dreaded the aftermath if I should have to be brought before Podesta again. I had no doubt that he would take the promised action. I would never get to see my personal ship, and I would go home in disgrace. My mother would send me into exile, perhaps to my Uncle Laurence’s wilderness cabin on a nameless planet in a lonely system at the far end of the galaxy. “It was an honest mistake.”
“You are responsible for knowing all pertinent naval regulations,” the lieutenant said, her lily cheeks hardening into porcelain. She touched the screen with her identification, and a console pattern appeared.
I was in despair. Admiral Podesta would not hesitate to drop the boom, as it were, upon me. I could feel the long arm of the military police dragging me off to the brig. No, that was a real sensation. A hand had applied itself to my shoulder and tugged upward.
“There you are, my lord ensign,” Parsons said, face and voice expressionless as usual, as I rose unwittingly to meet his eyes. “It was good of you to wait for me. I regret my tardiness.”
“No fault of yours, Parsons,” I said, pulling my wits into some semblance of order. “May I introduce you to Lieutenant Alianthus?”
“Is he in your custody, Commander?” the fair lady inquired, ignoring me as if I was the table between them.
“That would be the perception,” Parsons said, calmly. “We must go now,” he added to me.
Alianthus, for her part, looked relieved and wiped the images off the table. She seemed to have no more interest in reporting me to the admiral than I had in being reported. I allowed myself to be carried off into the corridor.
“Whew!” I said, permitting myself a low whistle of relief once out of earshot. “You saved the day, Parsons. I forgot that the officer’s mess would be off limits to me while I was in Admiral Podesta’s bad books. I just wanted a drink before dinner.”
“The admiral’s strictures on your activities were fairly comprehensive, sir,” Parsons said, steering me firmly toward a lift. “You must stay in your cabin except for meals and work.”
“Meals, yes!” I exclaimed. I put my hand to my stomach, which I fancied felt flatter than it usually did. Pangs duly appeared to remind me of hunger. “What is the time? I missed supper.”
“I observed as much, sir.”
I ignored his smug tones. “And I didn’t stop for a moment while on duty just now, for nourishment or any other form of bodily relief, not through my entire shift. Not that it occurred to me. I was too wonderfully occupied. By Forn, Parsons, you would not believe the marvels I have just beheld!”
An eyebrow mounted that epicene brow. “Marvels?”
I went aloft on rhapsodies of bliss. “This ship, Parsons, this ship! It is the repository of the finest collection of untapped anecdotes that it has ever been my pleasure to experience. Some of them replete with music, video, and minigames. I regretted that I was there as a destroyer of data, when I should have been placing the very best of them into the Emperor’s library itself, as memorials of the gigantic wit of his most loyal subjects—most loyal with the exception of the noble houses, of course,” I corrected myself.
“No doubt,” Parsons intoned, steering me leftwards toward the door of my cabin. That large object removed itself meekly into the wall to its right, and I passed inside. I kicked off my shining new boots and flung myself on the bed. With my hands behind my head, I contemplated the ceiling.
“I shall make a difference here on the Wedjet, Parsons,” I said, feeling a trifle smug. “It seems clear that no one has ever mined the depths of delight in the common consciousness for the common good. I shall. I know just the kinds of search parameters that ought to be applied to that amassed knowledge.”
“Bearing in mind that you are not to retain any information or benefit in any way from the information observed during your task?” Parsons asked.
I sat up, my reverie brought to a crashing end. He was right. I felt my heart sink again, the second time in the space of half an hour, but this time from disappointment. Wotun’s instructions had been crystal clear. I was not to make use of the bounty I had perused. “You do have a way of casting a veil of magnetic dust over one’s viewport, man,” I protested. “It’s only a regulation, after all. I’ll figure out a way around that.”
“Indeed,” Parsons said, projecting more doubt into those two syllables than they had a right to contain. I ignored them. Something greater was uppermost in my mind.
“Punishment in the Navy’s not nearly as bad as I feared it would be. In the meanwhile, I feel as though my esophagus has been amputated. I hardly ate lunch, and two shifts have passed since I last ate anything substantial. Nourishment has taken the spot at the forefront of my mind.”
“In that, sir, it would be my pleasure to assist you in obtaining what you require,” Parsons said. “If you will remain here?”
I rubbed my mental hands together in anticipation. I had not had a chance to sample the cuisine in the officer’s mess, but the enticing aromas offered promises of a superior culinary experience.
In rather shorter order than I thought possible, considering the distance and time that might be required for the task, he returned with a covered silver dish on his outstretched hand. I sat down at my desk. He placed it down before me and whisked away the cover.
I stared and blinked.
“Is this a joke?” I asked, with pain in my voice.
“Not at all, sir,” he said, his face as bland as if he was telling me the temperature. “Admiral’s orders. Until he considers that you have come to a state of penitence and obedience required to understand your actions in light of his authority.”
I lifted and let fall the single survival bar that had occupied the plate. It was gray with a faint touch of tan mixed in, coarse in texture, with rough edges suggesting it had been cut by a bandsaw. It looked like a rectangular chip of wall insulation, but not nearly as appetizing. It smelled—I lifted it to my nose to confirm—it smelled of nothing at all. Nothing. The comparative chip of wall insulation had more of a native aroma.
“I take it back, Parsons,” I said sadly. “At least fifty percent of me is penitent, above and beyond the admiral’s requirement.”
“Then you have only fifty percent more to attain, sir,” Parsons said, gliding smoothly toward the door as if on magnetic slides, leaving me to my lonely repast.