Being a man of abnormal optimism, I did not allow myself to remain in the doldrums because of unappetizing rations. After all, I had survived many an Imperial banquet, where, I recall, I might have been far happier with a survival bar than the exotic viands that chefs had made to tempt the taste buds of the noble guests. I remembered the wedding feast of my cousin Olthiorus Kinago and his lovely bride, Demarca, who though human hailed from a formerly Gecko system on the edge of the Autocracy. As the main course, we had been served large, black-shelled insects, boiled and adorned with a sprig of herb as if the creature was clutching its own last meal when it died. The flavor of this sad arthropod was no better than its appearance. None of the subsequent celebratory meals was any more appetizing. I had made it through that week of festivities. At least for this ordeal I did not have to wear formal attire, smile constantly or dance with any of my aunts. I merely had to erase, report and try not to chuckle out loud.
As my fair guide had said, I found numerous repetitions of the stories that had so tickled my funny bone on my first shift, and many more in the same vein. I found myself rehearsing under my breath how I would tell such stories when I returned to an audience who was unfamiliar with them. I pride myself that I can tell a joke well. It’s an innate behavior, not really a learned one, and I had enlivened many a party by my store of humorous material.
“. . . all right! Now, where’s that fusion reactor I’m supposed to marry?” I muttered to myself, reading off the screen. I chortled aloud.
“Pardon?” asked Ensign Dicox, an Uctu in Lt. Wotun’s clutches for three days for the crime of allowing a burst pipe, an item within his realm of responsibility, to destroy half the supplies in a cool-room storage unit. His bright blue eyes were surrounded by purple rings, a sign of exhaustion and worry among his people. “You are smiling. That is smiling, isn’t it, human?”
“I am.” Honesty compelled me to own up to my facial expressions.
The skin between his eyes wrinkled. “Then are insane, you?”
“I hope not,” I said.
“Then talk to self, why?”
“Well, er,” I stammered, unable to explain myself. Lt. Wotun heard our whispers and turned to come and discipline us. I ducked my head, unwilling to be removed from my studies or to attract the lightning of the admiral’s wrath once more. “Frustration, really.”
“I speak as you,” Dicox said, though I feel certain not for the same reasons. I was about to draw his attention to the joys of our shared task, when Wotun arrived, wrath writ large across her face. He lowered his nose and rolled his eyes meekly up to her. “Apologies.”
“My fault, ma’am,” I said at once, attempting to diffuse the blame from the innocent Gecko, fixing eyes just as large and blue upon her, though not independently capable of movement, as his were. I smiled. My smile was often enough to reduce this fierce officer to at the very least a return of the expression. “I emitted a sound. I am afraid it drew Dicox’s attention.”
Wotun paused, her fearsomeness on hold. I fancied that seldom on her watch did wrongdoers admit to their crimes. She shook her head.
“Just get back to work,” she said, and turned her back on us.
Dicox let out a wheeze of desperate relief and bent over his screen. I released the breath I had held behind my teeth, and went on to trying to memorize a story about an airlock and a load of nitrogen capsules. That one might take extra explanation to my elderly relatives, but I assured myself they would find the punchline was worth the trouble.
Most of the messages stored on the circuits were ordinary missives, an incredible load of them, something over half of them directed toward home, a few to vendors, system operators and nonpersonal connections, and the rest to other naval personnel. The preponderance of these last tended toward the quotidian: gripes about shifts and meals, comments about fellow servicebeings and complaints about one’s superiors. I grinned quietly to myself over pithy observations, for example, comparing Admiral Podesta to a steel leg-trap, in which it would be preferable to gnaw one’s own limb off rather than remain in its clutches. As I couldn’t agree more, I made a mental note.
While deleting all the repetitions and casual replies, I was hoping for exciting news of conflict between our ship and enemy craft. Sadly, the fleet had had few encounters with other ships since the last flushing of the communication system, so there wasn’t much in the way of accounts of bravery at battlestation to be found, no matter how far back I traced the conversation trees.
I was a little disappointed. I hoped that I would see some action. Not to be killed, or even gravely wounded, but returning to the homeworld with, say, my arm in a modest sling would do wonders for my reputation among my fellows. According to the notes I had received from my old friends, they were all on patrol around our main system, with far less chance at heroics. It behooved me to plot my way back into the good graces of the admiral so that I could place myself into an advantageous station should we see action. But that would have to wait until I was no longer on active punishment.
With the eight-digit code, I was able to match the messages to the Infogrid files of the senders. By law, every citizen of the Imperium old enough to enter code was required to have a file on the Interstellar Intelligence Information Grid, or Infogrid for short. Birthdate and birthplace were the first pieces of data recorded in such a file, along with a photo image that was required to be updated no less frequently than every six months, more often in the case of physical changes such as accident or cosmetic alteration. That and government notes regarding the individual were locked away from public scrutiny, behind the most secure of ever-changing protective code.
As the Infogrid contained everything of importance about an individual, it provided a useful clearinghouse of information for the use of government, law enforcement and medical staff. It was also punishable by death, one of the few crimes that attracted that penalty in this enlightened age, to appropriate the details in an Infogrid file to assume a false identity or steal by means of falsehood. Over the last four thousand years, attempts had been made by subsequent governments to get rid of that Geckonian response to what was considered a bloodless crime, but resurgent crime waves always caused it to be reinstated by legislatures besieged by a desperate and angry constituency.
The rest of the official transcript contained items that were in public records: family trees, school transcripts, attainments, run-ins with the law including cross-references to court records and incarceration schedules if appropriate. I prided myself that I had escaped custodial sentences for what few peccadilloes I had committed. My kinsmen and I tended to exceed speed limits and commit minor acts of vandalism, mostly when we are young, but I was proud to say I had fewer blots on my official record than most of my relatives and friends. I put it down to the Kinago charm.
Infogrid also tracked an individual’s travel, making note of departure from and arrival in a system, along with spending records so that the tax entity of one’s homeworld would have a record for use taxes. I thought that was a trifle unfair. I checked, and indeed the Infogrid had made a note of the four thousand credit loss I had sustained on a casino station floating outside the heliopause of Dobrish mining system a year ago. I had hoped no one would ever know about that, but Infogrid saw all, and recorded all. The eight-digit code I had, I realized, was the key to endless sources of blackmail data. No wonder the strictures against retaining data for personal use were so . . . well, strict.
Then there were the public streams: private correspondence, entertainment and participatory elements. The Infogrid had been established partly to facilitate connectivity among citizens spread out across hundreds of light years in every direction. Considering that my fellows spent one of the three ten-hour shiptime shifts on duty and another asleep or doing personal maintenance, their on-circuit output was astonishing, amounting to terabytes of data every day. One crewmember appeared to be dictating even during anti-grav tennis sessions. Normally, the code signature of anyone who read an item was recorded, but thanks to my classified form of entry, I passed unseen among the missives.
Over the course of a few shifts, I had begun to observe the writing styles of the various correspondents, and I became curious to see who had written what. Extended and humorous metaphors about the futility of our everyday duties that bordered upon professional comedy came from my Uctu tablemate, Redius. I treasured his wit whenever I came across it.
Anstruther’s commentary, as her letters back home, was matter of fact and devoid of detail, as if she was afraid of letting any of her personality shine. In her school reports, I saw that her teachers had noted the tendency toward shyness, but she was a hard worker who earned praise for precision and diligence. I made a note to myself to find something to praise as often as I could. The gesture could help lift her toward greater efforts. I would be proud to have her as an executive officer on a future command of my own.
I regretted that my current situation prevented me from spending quality time with my fellow junior officers outside of the dining room, or making the acquaintance of the other brilliant minds whose work I felt a trifle guilty about erasing.
I respected the admiral a good deal more after reading through official dispatches he sent back to the Admiralty. He was precise, intelligent and possessed of a dry wit that must have been on the short list of how he attained command of the North Star Fleet. I had to remind myself he was corresponding with my mother. Even the admiral could fall into dullness when engaged upon the necessary bureaucracy of his position. Knowing that thanks to my password I would not be detected if I read his mail, I sought to dip into the private section of his Infogrid page.
The list of messages sent, even since the last purge, was long. His personal correspondence was nearly as copious as my own. I thought I wouldn’t be able to resist, but respect kept me from opening any of the messages. It had been enough to skim the list of his correspondence. I was about to leave the section, feeling perhaps that a man with as many cares on his mind as Podesta was entitled to keep his personal thoughts private, when I spotted a familiar address. The admiral was corresponding with my mother! This could bode no good for poor Thomas, I thought in alarm. I brought up the segment to read.
“Dear Tariana,” it began.
Honk! Honk! Honk! Sirens blared out of the speakers surrounding my station. The screen turned red, obscuring the print thereon. Everyone in the room turned to look at me, and Wotun came running. Scarlet as the display itself, I sprang to my feet.
“It was an accident,” I said as Wotun swooped past me.
“I very much doubt that, Mr. Kinago.” With a single wave of her identification stud, she brought up a usage history on my station. I reddened further when she realized how much I had been reading of the other people’s confidential Infogrid files. She met my eyes squarely. “Please stop exercising your curiosity, Ensign. You are here to delete the files in the common pool.”
“Yes, ma’am!” I exclaimed, slamming the side of my hand into my forehead.
Wotun tilted her head to one side, her lips twisting to one side. I felt sweat bead on my face. Would she report me? Would I end up on worse punishment duty? My stomach twisted at the thought of a careerful of survival bars and isolation.
“The admiral,” she added, pointedly not looking at me as she closed a series of screens and returned me to the chat files, “has a restricted file, as do several other officers on this ship. There is a device on the top left of the screen, a blue shield. Keep that in mind. No more interruptions.”
“Yes, ma’am! Thank you, ma’am!”
I sat down, surprised and elated. She hadn’t forbidden me to snoop, just to remain out of certain boundaries. I took the point. I would confine my research to those of my rank or thereabout. I sent an admiring glance after the Junoesque officer, offering her silent devotion. She understood the ordinary longings of a curious mind. As long as regulations were nodded to, there was a good deal of leeway. I would approach my job with meekness, knowing that she was capable of mercy as well as sternness.
My finger tapped the delete command with the regularity of a woodpecker pursuing insects. I could see why the task plunged the average being into despair. The majority of the messages were ordinary to the point of being tedious. It took all of my concentration to stay on point as I was following the ramblings of a biomedical engineer to her friends, even though she was excited about the breakthrough she had made, and to her it was the most absorbing subject that had ever existed. All I had to do was make certain that protocols were adhered to, and that classified material was kept classified.
Some of the entries I located along the way did trouble me slightly. The odd message I encountered did skate dangerously close to flouting those regulations that Lt. Wotun had ordered me to follow. Here and there a correspondent had inserted an image of his or her workspace. In one very detailed image I realized that I could clearly read the settings on the pictured screen. Other messages listed technical statistics that seemed copied whole out of a manual, and had little or nothing to do with the cheerful gossip that flanked it. I acknowledged that there could be a perfectly innocent explanation for the cut-and-paste, such as the writer having taken those details for use on his station and forgotten into what file he had copied them, but that was not my call to make. I duly flagged those items and continued.
It was inevitable that I began to recognize the writing styles of the finite number of servicebeings on the ship. Out of curiosity, I would guess whose message I was reading, then follow the code number back to its file. A human, noncommissioned officer in engineering (I guessed from context) had sent messages to a relative at home in the Ramulthy system in which he spoke obliquely about the weapons emplacements on board the Wedjet which, I judged from his complaints, he had to repair. His spelling was poor, as was his pronunciation. I assumed that he had risen to service on a major Imperial destroyer because of his skills. His lack of communication skills would keep him from rising farther. It was not difficult to distinguish the same being in other transmissions.
But some of those emplacements were considered classified, not only the location, but their very existence. During my brief training in Wedjet’s fire control section I had been instructed that these were secret, experimental units. They emitted no stray ions or radiation as long as they remained unused. I followed the train back to the sender’s Infogrid file, which was not protected from my scrutiny, and found all these messages were coming from the same human. He showed precious little judgment on matters of importance. The personal videos and images of himself he posted were ill-considered if he meant to spend his career in the Navy.
Since my meal breaks consisted of the inevitable survival bar, I had no reason to leave my station. I sipped water and chewed my tasteless bites while perusing the Infogrid files on the message-makers I found the most interesting. I could not conceal my research from Wotun, but I made certain to have an innocent screen ready to bring up should one of my fellow penitents pass by my station.
Lt. Alianthus served the three days left of her sentence without speaking to me. The Wichu, Dicox, still toiled away at the station beside mine. He never looked up at anyone else. I read the Infogrid on each of them, too, and learned a little about their lives. All of them seemed a trifle dull, or so I thought at first. I should not have been so quick to judge, even of those who were less well born than myself.
The crew of the Wedjet came from all over the Imperium. Most had excelled at their studies, and not a few graduated top of the class (among my fellows, the valedictorian was the one who had skipped the fewest sessions, and was top student by default rather than design). They were devoted to their families, sports, hobbies (as well as the blistering array of jokes), and with surprisingly penetrating things to say about their fellow beings. I promised myself to search out and befriend several of them who sounded interesting. To my delight, not a few of them already shared my table at dinnertime.
Sitting at the ensigns’ table that evening, with my survival bar on my plate, I regarded my companions in a new light, as the real nourishment. They were complete beings, not the one-sided junior officers they had at first appeared to me. Many of them were deep thinkers. With hidden tragedies. Redius could probably attribute his clownishness to having seen his mother shot dead by a crazed human from an inner system who hated all Uctu, not because ill had ever befallen him because of one, but simple, blind prejudice. I regarded him with sympathy, something that he had no means of understanding the source of. I realized I had to put away the information in a tight little compartment, instead drawing him out about his humorous observations about something else.
“Rising to appropriate station, I,” Redius replied, when I asked him about his duties. “Honored to oversee lowly spacers scrape and re-enamel the floor of the fighter bays, as was done before me just last week, and the week before. Getting most attached, me, to long pit in floor where recorder drone exploded many months ago, but said plate not due for replacement. Its dimensions becoming most dear to me. Should it change, a shock it would be.”
I chuckled. “I am getting used to the bulge in the padding in the back of my chair in Records,” I said. “It hits me just under the right shoulder blade. But enough about me.” I turned to Anstruther, who was toying nervously with her protein entrée. “What news on your project?”
She seemed surprised. “I, uh, well, we, uh, tested the energy outputs of the power plants. I calibrated the gauges. They were off by three microns.”
Xinu let out a snort. “And that will kill how many people?”
Anstruther looked hurt. I swooped in to her rescue. “It could be fatal, in battle situations,” I said. “Three microns represents three hundred thousand kilowatts, doesn’t it? Her precision is admirable. I’d never spot it.” Anstruther blushed with pleasure.
“Your diet’s making you boring,” Nesbitt said, lowering his brows at me. I was taken aback. He was correct. I was not behaving as I usually did.
I took a bite of my survival bar to give myself time to gather my wits. “Sorry not to be more fun,” I said plaintively. “It’s the food. It distracts me to smell those savory aromas and be unable to sample even a bite.”
“I’d give you some,” Anstruther said, bravely.
“Don’t!” I protested. “You’ll bring down the wrath of the admiral upon yourself. It’s bad enough I had to suffer it.” I tried to look pathetic.
“You brought it on yourself,” Xinu, my dark-avisaged friend, said. He waved a forkful of his dinner under my nose. I almost swooned. “You hide behind punishment to avoid showing me how superior you are in tri-tennis.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed, blithely. “Normally I would have gotten off by now. I prefer to let you flounder in anticipation, so you will make plenty of faults when I finally face you. Too bad that there’s only a twenty-seven-fold grid here. I’m used to much better than naval issue.”
“It’s the best court in the fleet!” Xinu exclaimed.
“Oh, well, that makes it the largest frog in a small pond,” I said. “You’ll see.”
“If anyone is a frog, that big mouth of yours makes you look more like one than I do!” Xinu and I launched into our customary banter over skill and sportsmanship. I couldn’t tell him how I ached to try what was reported to be an excellent tennis grid, even by civilian standards, or any of the other sports facilities on board. I had sent my cameras out and about where I could not go. I regretted not having taken advantage of the Wedjet’s marvels before getting into the admiral’s bad books.
“You wouldn’t care to lay a small wager, would you?” I asked, as casually as I could frame the question. “First recreation period after my duty is done in Records, and I will scatter points around you like a whirlwind.”
“I’ll take that. You’re all talk. You nobles all are just talk.” Nesbitt smirked, spooning up the last of his fruit dessert. That was better.
We sensed rather than heard the admiral rising from his place and sprang up to attention as he departed the room. I felt myself sigh with relief. Another day of having Podesta ignore me was a good day in my books. Now that service was over, ordinary roboservers moved in to clear the tables, freeing the living staff to depart for their rest periods.
I felt guilty. I had not revealed a single word of what I had seen in the files, but my behavior was colored by it. I had deliberately pressed myself to behave as I had before. My knowledge of them must not come out in any way. That eight-digit code had changed me. The problem was that I knew too much, an ailment that I can truthfully say has never troubled me before in my life.
Before I could commit another fault, I felt a familiar tapping upon my shoulder. As usual, Parsons had managed to sneak up on yours truly. I didn’t jump far, being accustomed to it, but the severe look on his face gave me cause for concern.
“What is it, Parsons?” I asked.
“The admiral wishes to see you, sir,” he said. My tablemates smirked.
“I haven’t done anything!” I protested. My conscience was clear. I had not written down a single joke, and I had controlled myself mightily on the subject of my friends’ hidden pasts.
“You are not in trouble,” Parsons assured me. “He wishes to give you the assignment you have been awaiting.”
All my panic turned to preening, and my companions’ smug expressions sank into open, rampant jealousy. I wished them all a good night, and followed Parsons with alacrity. My mission! If I couldn’t see a spot of war, then an individual mission was good for bragging rights when I started to message home.
* * *
“. . . And you understand the limitations of your brief?” Admiral Podesta asked, as if he believed me incapable of comprehending the words he had spoken.
“I do, Admiral, sir!” I exclaimed, saluting neatly. I continued to stare at the wall ahead of me. Young Thomas would not be caught out again in a lack of military etiquette. “I will be honored to represent the Imperium and your good self to the militia of Smithereen, Admiral!”
Podesta looked weary, I could see out of the corner of my eye. His eyebrows floated mid-forehead, too exhausted to arch high or scowl low. “All you are doing is reviewing the volunteers, Ensign. It is not a vital diplomatic or military assignment. As we are passing by this mining colony, it behooves me to send a representative to show that the militia is not forgotten. That is all. Commander Parsons assures me that you cannot foul—that this is well within your capabilities. I am taking his word for it. Don’t prove him wrong.”
I shot a look of gratitude to Parsons, who stood near the door at attention, his expressionless mien gazing toward nothing, then snapped my eyes forward again. “I won’t, Admiral! You will be proud of me.”
“At least don’t give me cause to send a message to your mother, that is all I ask,” Podesta said. “Report to the shuttle bay at oh-seven-hundred. Dismiss.”
“Sir!” I executed another brain-scrambling salute and spun on my heel.