That same evening
Apartment, Delaney Row, Foltcha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“And he listens so well! He made me feel…special!”
“Ooh, he sounds like a keeper. You gonna lure him in and catch?”
“Why do you Humans make everything so…”
“Well, yes, but I already used that word today.”
“Try ‘barnyard’ next time.”
“Wh—my point stands! He’s not some prize beast!”
Melissa chuckled into the phone. “Yes he is! He’s an actual stud and all pretty boys are dirty and gross and awful and wonderful. They’re great, every one of ‘em, but they only wanna do one thing and don’t you ever forget it!”
“He’s different.” Melissa distinctly heard a sniff on the other end.
“Niral, you’re adorable, you’re both adorable! Just promise me you don’t break each other’s hearts, okay?”
“And details! I wanna hear what he plans!”
“We’ve not even arranged our next date!”
“But there is a next date, right?”
“…right. Okay! I’ll tell you everything. Now I gotta go, we’re short-handed and they need someone in the crèche. Good night!”
“Good night, girl.”
The remote end disconnected.
Melissa chuckled to herself, genuinely happy for them both. But Niral was a diplomat and Meereo was a Champion, which she knew from her briefing card was a high-priority target. That wasn’t something she could leave alone.
She sighed, rolled over to her laptop, and composed a message to Control.
Admiral Sir Patrick Knight
Giving the Brief never grew routine. And that’s what it was. It was the Brief, the one that changed everything. The American Lads referred to it as the Red Pill, though Knight had never seen the movie it was referencing.
He had seen clips on the internet, however. Red Pill was apt.
Meereo sat perched on his chair while Genshi sized him up, for lack of a better phrase. They sat uncomfortably for a long moment, contemplating.
“Do you have any questions, Meereo?”
Meereo woolgathered. At length he asked, “These biodrones, they all had some form of wormhole communicators, yes?”
“Indeed. We’ve not cracked the technology on them yet, sadly.”
“We might be able to help…”
“Appreciated, but this alliance needs a bit more time and trust, first.”
Genshi spoke up. “After this ‘Revelation?’ I looked that word up, by the way. It took a while to grasp its meaning through the religious connotations, but there’s genuinely no word in Gaori that would suffice.”
“I certainly can’t think of one.” Meereo still seemed a bit shell-shocked, the poor thing. Knight had nothing but sympathy.
“Indeed. You would share such ‘Revelation’ but are worried about this?”
“Compartmented concerns, Genshi. I have no doubt you understand.”
“Yes. You can’t blame me for trying, though.” It was a humorous levity understood by everyone.
Meereo jumped back in to the conversation. “Have you ever observed them move without these effectively magical communications channels?”
“That’s a bit beyond my technical skill, but my understanding is no.”
Meereo looked at Genshi, who nodded. “We have, Templar.”
Both Powell and Knight stiffened and focused their full attention on Meereo. “What do you mean, exactly?”
Meereo paused for a moment, than explained. “We didn’t know what they were at first. We had thought them some new malware inspired by your digital underworld. That was largely an unfounded fear, thankfully, since our digital domain is considerably in advance of yours. But now that I know this, and considering people’s behavior? I am almost certain I can identify these Ghosts as they move through our network.”
“Ghosts? That seems an odd word choice for a Gaoian.”
“We have our myths just as you do. In this instance, we’d seen these extremely large, well, transfers moving into and between people’s implants. There weren’t many, but there was always a fixed number in circulation and they never behaved like any malware we’d ever encountered before. They were almost…alive. And that had us referring to them as Ghosts pretty early on.”
“WAIT.” Genshi interjected. “Who is ‘we’ in this case?”
“My trusted NOC staff. In my Clan, the Champion does not run the NOC, but he appoints its members and sets direction. Every member on the team was put there by me.”
“None. Verik had one in the beginning, but if you watch enough malfunctioning computers at scale you start to mistrust them. He had his implants out before the end of his first year.”
“Did he know about the Ghosts?”
“No, not until he’d had the implants out. We’d become…superstitious about the Ghosts. We didn’t know anything about them and we didn’t want to do any harm. For all we knew, it could simply be an update process for the translators! Or it could be some new form of ransomware that lives in people’s implants. And prying any information out of the Corti for basic network engineering purposes is like yanking tail. And frankly, their updates can be huge.”
“So you didn’t do anything.” Genshi said it without accusation.
“No, because it claimed the same application ID as the update process, and again, the Corti are painfully difficult to work with. So we just wrote a signature to accommodate the behavior and let it be while keeping a close nose on it. But still…the way it acted was spooky. We were starting to worry if we were going crazy, really. And now…our wildest theories were right.” He shook his head as if to clear the insane thoughts in his head.
“Aye, but they’re real. What now?”
Meereo had a sudden steely look to his eyes. “We know what they are and how they move, and we’ve got a pretty good signature. We can stop them dead on the infosphere.”
Genshi raised an eyebrow. “At what cost? That will only alert the Hierarchy that we’re noticed their misbehavior. At best they’d change tactics and continue. At worst, they’d think they were compromised, and that would not end well.”
“But we must stop them! With what they can do—!”
“It won’t mean anything unless we can stop them everywhere at once and purge them from Gao, which we can’t because we—” Genshi stopped dead in mid-sentence, blanked for a moment, than made eye contact with Knight.
Knight knew where that was going immediately and he did not like it.
“That won’t be easy, Genshi.”
“There is no other way. We will only have one chance to secure Gao.”
Meereo looked at the two, confused. “What are you talking about?”
Powell sighed, “Sommat that won’t go un-fookin’-noticed.”
Knight nodded sadly, already dreading his next visit to SCERF.
Councillor Vedreg of the Nenug Herds
ZKZK VRTZZ00 DE ORQ31TV F 022119Z-GAO AUG FM CONTROLfirstname.lastname@example.org// TO BAKERemail@example.com// INFO TEMPLARfirstname.lastname@example.org// STAINLESSemail@example.com// T O P S E C R E T DEEP RELIC ORCON BT SUBJ/(U) GAMETIME-FOOTBALL-PREGAME//
Vedreg grumbled and flashed a livid green. He’d hoped he would never receive a message in this format or from those authors.
(TS//SAR-DR//OC) We must call in a favor and ask for three FOOTBALLs, and we need them quickly if we are to secure DISNEYLAND.
(TS//SAR-DR//OC) [attachment: briefing.pdf]
CL BY: OCA-SCA-CONTROL; REASON: 1.4(a,d); DECL: 75X1
He sat for a long moment, composing his thoughts, then set his plan into motion.
Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest
Meereo seemed conflicted as they walked towards the Whitecrest Enclave. Genshi sent a message ahead to prepare appropriately for a visiting Champion, but to keep it as discreet as possible. After all, they had much to discuss.
It was quite late and the nightly rains had subsided, bring with them a pleasantly chilly temperature. Genshi found the late Cimbrean evening the best time to walk about and explore; being a bit of a night-thinker, he’d always preferred the dark, when things were mysterious and relaxed.
Meereo wasn’t relaxed at all. He seemed as if he wanted to say something but didn’t have an opportunity, or perhaps he was simply thinking. No matter. Genshi did what he did best, and prompted some conversation.
“It’s been a heavy few days, as you might imagine.”
“Yes. I begin to understand your behavior as of late.” Meereo said it with a resigned and conciliatory flick of his right ear. That was as close to an apology as Genshi was ever likely to get and he reveled in it, but it would not do to be anything other than graceful. He duck-nodded quietly and walked on in silence.
They arrived. The Brothers had arranged a very comfortable and private little meeting space for the two, with warm Talamay and various light snacks at the ready. The brothers left their subtle signs in the room as well, marking their work. Clean of electronics, discreet privacy field, and so on.
They sat on the cushioned floor as equals, a posture Genshi was very careful to maintain; Gaoian males had egos and he could not risk any further damage to their relationship. He offered some Talamay and waited while Meereo thought.
Meereo went straight to the point. “What do we do next?”
Genshi nodded. “I have the beginnings of a plan. You will forgive me if I exercise some compartmentation here…”
“I understand. I understand everything, now.” His ears drooped slightly.
Damn. That had an effect on Genshi he wasn’t expecting. “I wish it didn’t need to go like it did. Sincerely.” He chittered mirthlessly, “It seems that’s something I’ve been saying a lot lately.”
“And something I will need to get in the habit of saying. I can tell already I am going to need to bring my entire NOC in on this.”
“You trust them implicitly, of course.”
“Absolutely. They’ve seen and managed a great many things with discretion. We’re in a position of deep trust, almost as much as the Straightshields. We cannot afford to compromise that so all the NOC Brothers are sworn to absolute secrecy.” He flicked his ears ironically, “And as I’ve said, they’re all without implants. And after this, probably with even less wearable technology.”
“Yes. So, here’s my plan for now. Brief your Brothers and devise whatever measures you think necessary to stop these Ghosts dead in their tracks when the time is right. We need to stop them all at once.”
“We can do more than that, I wager. But we’ll start with that. Like Templar said, it won’t matter if you can’t seal off Gao. I can block and filter at the infosphere border since we have no real-time exchange with anyone…”
He was fishing for information but Genshi wouldn’t fall for that.
“Indeed. I have a solution and I bet you can guess what it is, but I need to hold that close to the heart for now. Understand, this doesn’t reflect judgment…”
“I understand.” He seemed slightly disappointed.
“Anyway,” rolling through, “I must now purify my Clan, and do so quickly. About that query I want to run…”
Meereo gave a sly little yip of amusement. “Did I not say I would do all you ask and more besides? You know what we can do and I have already arranged it.”
“…I must wonder. Do you do similar services for other Clans?”
“Of course, you know our guidelines. Confidentiality, limited to a Clan’s domain, and only for the benefit of Gao.”
Genshi gave him a hard look. “Your Clan really does wield tremendous power.”
Meereo rose to the challenge. “As do all the major Clans. Yours could kill us in our sleep. The Stonebacks and the Females control the ancient history and genetic surety of our entire race. The Emberpelts could quite simply deny emergency services, and they’ve got warriors of their own, and persuasive numbers, too. The Highmountains could lead us into ignorance inside a generation if it came to it. The same story goes for Openpaw, Goldpaw, Shortstride, One-Fang, Ironclaw…every major Clan, in their own way, could devastate our fortunes if they so desired. The Humans have a phrase: ‘Mutually Assured Destruction.’ Effective, isn’t it?”
“I prefer ‘Mutually Assured Cooperation’ myself.”
Meereo paused thoughtfully. “Y’know, I think that may be better.”
“Well, here’s to that.” He raised his cup of Talamay solemnly. Meereo did the same. They drank, and they plotted the nucleus of their conspiracy.
The next morning
The Clan of Females, Alien Quarter, Foltcha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Sister Niral of the Clan of Females
Niral was awoken abruptly by her fellow Sisters in the early morning. She uncurled groggily and peered at the window; it was barely past dawn. She stretched in place and complained, “So soon? It’s barely light out!”
“Yes but he insists on seeing you immediately. He says it’s urgent.”
“…‘kay, I’ll be right down.”
It took her a moment to wake but diplomats were accustomed to all sorts of strange encounters at odd hours, and Niral was long used to rude awakenings. By the time she made it down to the front gate, she was completely awake.
Meereo was jittery and clearly stressed. It was such a change from the previous night’s suave, collected and confident male it made her immediately run up to him and hug.
He looked down at her intensely, and for reasons she didn’t understand he stared at the top of her head for an uncomfortably long while. Warily, he asked, “Do you have any implants?”
Now that was an odd question. “Yes, a standard translator. Why?”
“Would you be willing to get it removed?”
“What? Why? I am a diplomat, a translator is, y’know, pretty useful.”
“I know. I’m only asking about implanted translators. Would you consider it?”
He was very good at controlling himself, but Niral was an excellent read of expression. Something had spooked him and he didn’t seem like someone to be easily frightened. Was it to do with the meeting with Genshi? Possibly. Whitecrest were honorable males but they had their claws on evil currents in Galactic society. She summoned her skills in diplomacy and analyzed the situation. A portable translator wouldn’t be too bad…what does he know?
Still. “…What’s wrong?”
“We’ve become aware of a potential issue.” He paused, considering his words. “I can’t get into what the issue might be…but I really, really like you. I know we just met but…please? It would assuage some fears of mine.”
She calculated and decided to haggle. “Okay, this is important to you. Why?”
He fidgeted in place, “Niral, I can’t discuss it. I promised, I just…” he deflated, then, seemingly defeated. “All I can do is ask.”
She caught his nervous scent. He was deeply worried and he clearly knew something. Niral barely knew him, but he was a Champion, and he was perhaps the most intelligent male she’d ever met, so…
“If I get it removed, can you tell me why?”
“I can’t even promise that. All I can promise is I will do what I can, and I can only do that if you promise to keep this quiet.”
“I would be crippled without a translator, Meereo.”
“No implants at all. I think, over time…you’ll see they’re not so great for us.”
He does know something.
“How badly do you want me to do this?”
“Badly enough I’ve, um, already scheduled an appointment for you. And paid.”
“That’s incredibly presumptuous!”
“Yes it is.” He agreed to the charge readily. “But it worries me enough I’m willing to take the risk. Call it…paranoia, perhaps.”
He’s trying to tell me something. The tone he used was suggestive enough she re-considered the situation. Meereo was a little reclusive as Champions go, since his domain wasn’t something at the forefront of the public conscious. He was no flexing, strutting monstrosity like that Daar—even if the legendary Stoneback was probably the sexiest Gaoian ever—but she had read some of his writings in the technology-oriented newsfeed and a few of his political opinion pieces as well. He was possessed of a razor-sharp mind and a subtle wit. And who was she to ignore sound advice? Like her Mothers taught her: when a male is both cunning and intelligent, consider their opinions carefully, for those are the rarest and most valuable allies of all.
Right now, he was frightened for her (though maybe himself by proxy), and he was willing to risk her ire to mitigate whatever risk he perceived.
And after all, she could always get another.
“Oh, fine. Let me guess, it’s soon, right?”
His relief was palpable and immense. “Yeah. The Locayl said he would do it right away if we go.”
“You’re in a real rush, aren’t you?”
“Yes, because a clock is ticking.”
“I’m hoping you never find out. Come, let’s go.” He walked away, noticed she was standing still. To his credit, he did turn on the charm. “I’ll treat you to breakfast! You like pancakes, right?”
“Pancakes, Gaoian style. We make ‘em better.” And after all, she was hungry…she padded after him.
He chittered happily, “But with Human-style bacon!”
She nodded sagely. “See, if you had led with pancakes and bacon, I would have agreed to almost anything!”
“Good to know!” He said with a sly little set of his ears. She close-claw swiped at him playfully, and they walked out of the compound, and before she knew it she was implant-free and they were happily eating breakfast.
He seemed much, much happier. She wished she could say the same. One way or another, she needed to get to the bottom of his worry.
Champion Genshi of Clan Whitecrest
Genshi awoke to a pinging from his secure terminal.
ZKZK VRTZZ00 DE ORQ31TV F 030711Z-TRA AUG FM CONTROLfirstname.lastname@example.org// TO OFC THE CHAMPIONemail@example.com// INFO TEMPLARfirstname.lastname@example.org// T O P S E C R E T DEEP RELIC SACRED STRANGER ORCON BT SUBJ/(U) GAMETIME-FOOTBALL-1ST QUARTER//
That was fast, his blurry morning thoughts cleared quickly as he decrypted and read the message.
(TS//SAR-DR//OC) The FOOTBALLs are ready and will require a RECEIVER.
(S//SAR-ST) The pass will require significant capability. We recommend STAINLESS be brought into this mission. Maintain deniability for SOR; no NtN on the specifics.
(TS//SAR-DR-ST//OC) Your earlier correspondence indicated a useful asset in play. We have arranged the pass on the playing field you prefer, with BAKER’s full assistance. Please prepare YOGI as best you can. We recommend you preserve YOGI’s deniability to SOR as well.
(TS//SAR-DR-ST//OC) [attachment: briefing.pdf]
CL BY: OCA-SCA-CONTROL; REASON: 1.4(a,d); DECL: 75X1
Genshi reviewed the mission specifics and noted the timeline was remarkably short. He would have less than a month to arrange this and it wasn’t a sure bet he could reach “Yogi” in time. Genshi still marveled at the silliness of his asset’s nickname; Darcy told him it was because “Your boy seems smarter than the average bear.”
He spent a moment waking up properly, performing his morning exercises and meditation, and then he set feverishly to work. Firstly, he needed to get the Whitecrest on Cimbrean purified. He didn’t have time to wait for peer pressure to work its magic like he’d earlier hoped; he needed to be blunt and direct. This wasn’t without risk but he was out of time and he needed agents now.
Some quick messages to the Enclave started that process rolling. He kicked off his query as well, trusting in Meereo to do all he promised. With luck he would soon have useful data. Now he contemplated his first major challenge.
He needed to instigate a piracy crisis.