The Four Rules
With a tingle of excitement, Malila realized Sunprairie could be converted into a decisive stroke against the outlanders.
Like most decisive strokes, if she promoted this up the hierarchy, it would fail. One faction or another would get wind of it and find it easier to denounce her than join the effort. If she tried it solo, then again she would fail. She needed help from officers of her own level who would betray her in an instant if they thought it would gain them an advantage. If she were successful, all of them would appear to be part of a conspiracy. The comm’nets loved the idea of conspiracies.
“Small conspiracies fail, and large conspiracies are betrayed.” Analects of Juan Fugit.
Really, Edie? I am busy here. Shush!
And her help needed to be just the right size.
Malila started a list and collected six, with herself making seven. She reread the list and struck off the second-to-last name.
Better to leave him out of it entirely.
Miramundo Morales had shown, of recent days, a little too much undeserved confidence. Not brilliant and with no notable accomplishments, he displayed too much arrogance for a young lieutenant. It smacked of a concealed liaison with a senior officer, and Malila was not going to share the fate of those who exposed delicate secrets of the top brass. Six was sufficient for her purposes.
Edie started sending the summons for the meeting.
Moving down the sinuous, shining mental corridors of her O-A display; passing the choke points; giving the right passwords and countersigns; bringing up data, statistics, images, maps, and video, Malila collected the elements of her story. Rule 1: The story has to be absolutely true.
Colonel Sophia Henchly, one of her first patrons, had taught her the four rules. Sophia had been a very crafty lady indeed.
In another portion of the CORE, an officer of the Democratic Unity Forces for Security sent a memorandum to his superior officer. This was all well, proper, and … invidious. He reviewed it with pleasure.
TO: Lt. Gen. V. Suarez
FROM: Lt. Col. E. Jourdaine
RE: Administrative actions in re. Unity Sensor Station 43.11.0/97_89.13.56/41 (SUNPRAIRIE)
As reported previously, failures at SUNPRAIRIE continue. Second Lt. Chiu is the officer responsible in re. SUNPRAIRIE operationality.
It has come to my attention that Lt. Chiu is contravening protocol in as:
She has inaugurated an ad hoc committee of inquiry for the failures at SUNPRAIRIE whose members include:
Herein the gray man included a list of a seven young officers of the DUFS.
Included for effect, if not for accuracy, was Second Lieutenant Miramundo Morales.
If Jourdaine’s information and his conclusions were correct, Morales’s name on the list of petty conspirators would trigger Suarez’s outrage, plummeting young Lieutenant Chiu into the depths of the command structure. Like a great and unequal lever, Chiu’s abrupt descent would elevate the slim gray man the short distance to the interior of Suarez’s staff.
An incessant pinging alerted Malila that all her committee members had arrived, each represented by a headshot looming in her O-A. The faces floated in and out of prominence as one or another factor played out in her thoughts. She started:
“Greetings to you all. I am pleased by your prompt response.”
Stock greetings, as expected, cascaded in, but even so, Malila detected the fleeting grimaces of several of them. They had come to get information, but they did not have to like it.
“Here is the situation as we now understand it. Station Sunprairie is down for the third time in three months.”
Malila listened to the rising babble, the faces surging in and out of prominence as one or another of her colleagues made or deflected accusations.
These people would fight each other until there was nothing left unless she gave them the setup. She rapped a mental gavel and killed all the audio outputs except her own.
Rule 2: The setup makes the story sing. A good setup arranged facts, simplified them, augmented them where needed, and gave the right facts structure and weight.
“Our best understanding about this outrage is that a dangerous new ideology has arisen among the barbarians. The natives have apparently decided that Sunprairie represents a gift from their spirit guides. They have gained ingress to Sunprairie, we have found, by sacrificing victim after victim to the pulse cannon, depleting the magazines, and using their stone weapons on the door. I cannot describe what obscene ceremonies are most likely being performed within this ‘sacred precinct’ even as we speak.”
Malila opened the audio, and the babbling among committee members accelerated right on cue. Malila smiled to herself.
“Hold your questions until the end, please.
“We believe these events represent the rise of a new and radical band of shamans among the savages, a force that, we think, must be thwarted as soon as possible.”
Rule 3: Don’t confuse people with too many choices. If she chose the right setup, told it correctly, then narrowed the options, subtly slanting her audience, they, like sheep, would come together into one box, all facing a blank wall … with but one gate. Once she opened that gate, the flock would crowd in, anxious not to be last to go through, lining up to be trimmed.
Now was the time to call in her “black capital,” the mass of missteps and misdemeanors she’d collected on everyone. A little snapping at the heels to encourage them on would be proper.
“Unfortunately, and, Jorge, you may want to take note of this for the future, munition deliveries have been slow this month. That delayed our regular maintenance trip for three days. With this last attack, we did not have full magazines in the pulse cannon.”
“Yes, but you see, Lieutenant Chiu—”
“Moving on,” she said, “we have the matter of security upgrades that needed installing. Hari? You’re taking over for Fillipa there, aren’t you? I think I talked to her about that some time ago. She may have left notes. I’d check it out if I were you.”
This time just a nod and no objections.
Malila went on from one to another, alluding to deficiencies of one or another department as she did. She would mention a name. A head would come up, looking startled, the look deepening as its owner apprehended the vulnerability, each face solidifying as the brain behind it evaluated its chances.
There were always deficiencies in the operation of these large departments. It mattered very little that the magazines were short a few rounds. The attack had emptied the entire magazine within two hours. No security upgrade would have protected the station once the savages had gotten close enough. Each of the half-dozen accusations, while true, was neither new nor outrageous.
Malila smiled to herself. At the end of her presentation, not one of her coworkers was able to meet her eyes. She could lead them where she wanted to now.
“I think if we cooperate, we can come out of this unscathed, all of us. Moreover, we can get rid of a nuisance that is no longer serving the best objectives of the Unity.”
“If this is such a good idea, why not send it up command and have them pass on it?”
“Oh, come on, Torq. You know the answer to that one. One faction or another will decide it is easier to attack any good idea than it is to cooperate,” she replied.
Torq Hagken from Signals Procurement—tall, blond, and with a ready laugh—would under other circumstances be a good candidate for Malila’s first liaison without patronage. Now he needed to be brought up a bit.
“Let’s not be foolish. We represent here maybe three or four of the strongest factions, and all of us cooperate on a daily basis. Our bosses don’t.”
There was generalized shaking of heads and wry smiles.
“Okay, saying that could be an accurate statement sometimes, maybe, what do you have in mind?” replied Torq.
Malila took a deep breath and said, “Let me see if we can sum this up. Sunprairie is the farthest station. It sits in an uninhabited, untraveled wilderness. In the long run, the DUFS will probably abandon it.
“However, the DUFS can’t be seen to retreat before the savages. Agreed?”
There was the expected bobbing of heads.
Rule 4: Don’t be greedy. Let everyone win, and you can trim them again later.
“If the outlanders are so intent on Sunprairie, let’s let them have it. Fix it up, get it running, pack in C24 until the walls bulge, then back away slowly. The savages break into it again, and while they are hooting and drooling, the C goes off, leaving a message even they can actually read.
“We kill off these shamans. The survivors think it is their own evil spirits that have jibbed them. In a stroke we get the barbarians to back off, cut the head off their leadership, and rid ourselves of a liability. Questions?”
“What about the loss of property. You are advising we blow up an entire installation to kill off a couple of hillbillies?” asked Sharon DeWhit from Logistics.
“Look at the costs we have expended so far this year on fixing the place, Sharon. The operation would pay for itself in four rotations. The truth is we cannot hold Sunprairie. We either lose it for no gain, or we get some advantage from it and stop the hemorrhaging.”
“The loss of a facility is not going to go unnoticed. What happens when our bosses start looking into this?” asked Hari.
“If”—Malila looked each of the others in the eye—“we stick together, it will be, at worse, only bad planning on Jorge’s and my part: Jorge for overfilling a request for C24 and me for leaving it at Sunprairie. The best is that we … all of us … are given commendations. I will see to it that we all get rewarded.”
“Why are you so willing to sacrifice yourself—and me—for this? What’s your angle?” asked Jorge.
That was the question, wasn’t it? Sometimes to lead is to lose, she thought.
“To tell the truth, I think your part in this is the least advantageous, Jorge. I can’t see how we can blow up the station unless we get the C from you. That will always leave a trail. If things go south, you will take a hit before anyone else. At the same time, due to considerations not herein under discussion …”
Jorge almost immediately looked as if he was going to vomit. Most of the others experienced enough of his dismay through their shared O-A connection to turn a little green themselves. Jorge’s black-capital account with Malila was reaping dividends. Malila sent an encouraging message and documentation that his debt would be reduced … in part. He subsided.
“… I believe Jorge will stand nobly by my side in this hour of need.
“But,” Malila continued, “what’s my angle? It is a legitimate question. Here goes: One, I think this will work. It will be seen as a victory, and I will get a lot of the credit. I will risk the fallout if it doesn’t work. Two, it is the best for the DUFS. Sniffer stations are a bad idea, fixed fortification and all that. We would be better off patrolling the outlands in person … and that means more combat missions for all of us. Our bosses have trouble making compromises. We need to do this. Three, if any of you rat me out, I promise you, I will rat out the rest. Do I make myself clear?”
In the end, the committee made their peace with her. They would all be extraordinarily helpful in getting Sunprairie up and running one more time. They would all take a little heat from their superiors about their actions, if discovered, but it would not be career bending. Malila had just started the self-congratulatory preadjournment phase when Edie spoke up in her little-girl voice.
One and then another of her audience looked up, spoke a few unheard words, and disappeared, the image replaced by the Unity logo, an eagle grasping a fasci in one claw and lightning in the other. Just then her own O-A went blank. She felt as if she had been struck blind. The subtle noise of circulation fans in her room stopped. Behind her, the portal latch locked with a snick.
Her heart surged, pounding in her ears, as her palms greased with sweat. Malila waited. It came almost as a relief when her vision filled with the looming face of her division commander, Lieutenant Vivalagente Suarez. With steel-gray hair cut severely and pulled back into a flat braid, emphasizing a hawk nose, severe eyes, and a hard mouth, it was a harsh face and not a happy one.
“Second Lieutenant Chiu, Malila E., E11, S24, 59026169, attention!”
All her resources, of the CORE and her own person, came to taut singularity.
“Sir, yes, sir!”
Then, to her horror, slowly, Malila sensed herself pressed down, crumpled from her posture of attention, bent, submitted, and reduced, kneeling before the image.
Her denunciation had started.
Observing through his O-A, Jourdaine thought it was the most profoundly humiliating seppuku he had ever witnessed. He quickly muted the emotional inputs. The discovery of Suarez’s attachment to Miramundo Morales was reaping a richer bounty than he had hoped. Suarez viewed Malila Chiu as a dangerous but lightly armed adversary. Taking each of Chiu’s sins, other than the real one, Suarez identified and cited the appropriate regulation. On her knees, Chiu was forced to recant, to plead, as every dignity and privilege she had rightfully earned was ripped away.
Suarez, even in her rage, never mentioned Morales’s name, and Chiu would never know it had been added to her list of committee members. The real cause for her denunciation would be a lifelong mystery for Chiu.
Jourdaine had spent a great deal of time and influence uncovering Suarez’s weak spot. Current Unity policies had not helped. Sexual liaisons of any imaginable number, composition, or equipage were tolerated. The only remaining sins, it appeared, were greed, failure, and favoritism. Suarez was inconveniently ascetic and awkwardly successful. However, to Jourdaine’s surprise, Vivalagente Suarez was blessed with a younger brother.
Somehow, Suarez had been able to identify and connect with her sibling. She had arranged for his advancement well ahead of any demonstrated ability on the boy’s part.
If seeming to include Morales in a plot, any plot, made Suarez react, it would confirm his suspicions. Her reaction to this counterfeit danger was so wildly out of proportion that it simultaneously confirmed Jourdaine’s theory about Morales and ingratiated him with Suarez.
And Malila Chiu had paid for all the heavy lifting. No doubt, after rehabilitation, she would become a perpetual ensign in some outer district until retired. By then, Suarez would be a bad memory and Jourdaine himself a Solon … or better.
The immaculate poignancy of his success made Eustace Jourdaine laugh.
 Rods bundled around an ax; the emblem flanks the Speaker’s chair in US Congress and is the source of the word fascism.