Fri Mar 03 2023 (Updated: Fri Mar 03 2023) - 10 min read
SUBJECT: ESANDRA VAILLES 32. Finished 16oz coffee in 3 minutes 22 seconds 33. Files Show: Will have been admitted for legal practice 5 years next standard week ● Note: Congratulate her if this goes well 34. Visibly tired of wrangling engineers 35. Files Show: Specifically requested Crimson Mican as her assistant for this job ● Hypothesis: Prefers to work with older androids because they don't ask many questions 36. Files Show: Did NOT request you for this mission ● Note: Only congratulate her if this goes very well 37. Half of her skull enhancements have been updated since last contact ● Note: Her Medusa communicators are still an outdated model. See if she's interested in an upgrade later ● Hypothesis: Could afford one if she wanted it, will probably say no 38.
"-Anton, mostly just stand back and look impressive."
Anton Saelim only half tuned back in at the sound of his name. Esandra had already run through the plan five different ways on the shuttle trip over, and he was starting to understand how his AIs felt when he tried to explain lying to them.
"I'll do most of the talking. Mican, you're on notes duty, ping my implant if you catch anything contradictory. Anton, don't say anything unless they get any of the technical stuff wrong." She pointed at him for emphasis.
"Then rip it apart?"
"To shreds. I will cut you off if you step on an NDA."
Esandra's cranial enhancements included a short-range "FedBak" emitter, that allowed her to send short overwhelming feedback bursts to any non-protected enhancements in a range of five feet. It was great for cutting people off. He was hoping to avoid experiencing it until the line was discontinued next year. "I'll have my own notes as well," he offered instead.
"Great, we'll compare at the end. Alright, chins up. This shouldn't be too difficult, Binderburg can't get away with holding people prisoner if they plan to keep operating anywhere civilized. They aren't Everliving." She laughed.
Anton just hummed. The joke struck him as strained.
The prisoners in question were a full squadron of Gelecek pilots and engineers, who'd strayed a bit too close to a Binderburg facility and been captured as a "raiding party". Their true target was something else entirely, of course. It'd been designated "The Bludgeon" by someone on Gelecek's internal forum - a massive anomaly, rivaling a super-carrier in size. The vessel, or whatever it was, had been appearing and disappearing randomly around the region for a month now, occasionally giving off massive pulses of radiation while deflecting all attempts to make contact or scan its systems, and communicating with its own swarming offshoots through some so far undetectable method. Immune to hacking, armed with a battery of plasma-encased rockets, constantly breaking apart and then reforming around damage inflicted; the two biggest bets on the forums were aliens or interdimensional travelers. Calling it the main reason Anton had volunteered for this errand was an understatement.
He didn't know any of the pilots, but their data was indispensable. Anton was big enough to admit that he was jealous, and very nearly offended that nobody had approached him or Isadora to join the research team to begin with. The very thought of unraveling the tech behind The Bludgeon's missile battery made both his extra robotic arms twitch, little bursts of oxytocin indicating their own AI-adjacent enthusiasm. Anton would do terrible, unethical things to get his flesh or metal hands on that thing's blueprint, if anybody at Gelecek would let him.
Alas. Until they formed an actual raiding party, he'd take what he could get.
Their ride to the meeting was a chunky green hovercraft with no roof. There was no practical reason for this omission as far as Anton could tell, besides maybe making sure they weren't obscured from orbital drones. It did allow a nice view of the growing fields however, as they sped an inch above the top of yellow rice stalks.
Anton found Binderburg's Green-Stations fascinating, if not somewhere he'd want to stay longer than an hour. Only the unnatural cast to the sky and slightly lower gravity hinted that they weren't on a planet anymore. Even the smell felt authentically alien: overwhelmingly wet, like the field was in fact the edge of a lake. The sharp herbal notes of the crops couldn't quite overpower the stench of whatever putrid slop they used for fertilizer here. Nothing like Bizim, with its comfortable mix of fuel and fission and the wafting steam of a few thousand street vendors.
A quick thought through to his neural interface set Arm Alpha on trying to analyze the particles in the air. If they found anything interesting he could scrape a larger sample off his mask's filter later. Granted, he wasn't sure what use he'd have for Binderburg's secret fertilizer recipe, but he was sure there'd be something.
The ride from the approved shuttle pad to the company headquarters was unnecessarily long. Esandra muttered something about intimidation tactics that he didn't fully process while concentrating on Arm Alpha's status update, but eventually they reached their final destination.
The wet smell failed to dissipate even inside. They were directed through a large entryway towards a small conference room with no windows, where a middle-aged man in a denim jacket waited to greet them.
SUBJECT: THOMAS WHITTACKER 1. No visible enhancements ● Possible exception: Unusual for an easy smile to naturally stretch that wide 2. Male 3. Sandy-orange hair 4. Files Show: At least 12 years experience Binderburg PR management 5. Files Show: The head of this pack of jackals
"Ah! If it isn't our counterparts from Bizim. Nice to meetcha, nice to meetcha, come on in. I'm so glad we can talk this out reasonably, come meet my team."
He gestured to a mostly full conference table of men and women in matching uniforms. They all smiled and stood to shake hands and pass out their names like business cards.
All except one, in the back.
SUBJECT: NAME UNKNOWN 1. No visible enhancements 2. Female 3. Mid forties, dark hair 4. Binderburg R&D uniform 5. Files Show: ID not found 6. Bored 7. Annoyed 8. Remained seated ● Hypothesis: Exempt from company policy ● Note: Binderburg is not known for their policy exceptions
He sat on Mican's far side to get a better view down the table, stretching all four arms and trying to look "impressive", whatever that meant. The Binderburg employees didn't look particularly intimidated, based on how they all kept smiling.
Esandra took her own seat, and launched into it immediately. "Thank you for agreeing to this, I trust it won't take long. We're here to clear up some misconceptions, de-escalate the situation, and work out a path forward for releasing the Gelecek employees you are holding in custody."
"Of course, of course, nobody wants a repeat of that situation with the mechanisms," Whittaker said earnestly. "And I'd love to lay this all to rest, we simply have some serious concerns about your fleet repeatedly encroachin' on our stations, and using these alleged, undocumented anomalies as an excuse."
Anton twitched slightly at the word alleged, braced himself, and then deliberately tuned them both out. If Esandra didn't want him snapping at bait, then Arm Alpha's recording device could synthesize it all into a reasonable length for him to review later. Meanwhile, there must be a reason they invited R&D to a hostage negotiation, and he was going to crack it.
If this was Benedict, or Isadora, or really any reasonable Gelecek employee, he'd send a chat request to her implant right now. Maybe the engineers could actually work something out while corporate sat around and argued like usual. Unfortunately, even the Binderburg researchers were frustratingly unenhanced. She had a tablet screen sitting in front of her, though. A quick ping from Arm Beta confirmed it wasn't set to accept wireless data dumps. Maybe he could quickly hack it? Surely if he only sent message data through the firewall without accessing any files it wouldn't count as a serious security breach-
His thoughts were ground to a halt by a tell-tale buzzing in his ears and the feeling of both his robotic arms suddenly attempting to detach from his body.
Esandra was looking at him sternly from the corner of her eye. Ah. Right. FedBak. He tuned back in to Whittacker's rambling.
"...if something actually has stealth equipment like that, it's probably just the Tianchao yanking your chains. God knows they've been oddly silent as of late."
"No, that was an early misconception," Anton broke in. "Tianchao stealth works by redirecting most detectable waves around their ships, but you can still pick them up using extremely long form radar or very exact equipment with no interruptions. The Bludgeon periodically drops off all scanners, like it never existed. The running theory is that it's somehow detecting and actively counteracting our methods of detection in real time. It also never engages first, which is abnormal for any kind of Tianchao ambush," he added as an afterthought.
Whittaker stared at him for a moment. "Facinatin'."
Somewhere down the table, Arm Alpha picked up someone muttering "convenient" under their breath.
"Listen, you can say whatever you like over at Gelecek," Whittaker said. "The point is, this is the third time in a month we've found you folks sniffin' around our territory with armed warships."
"Defended research vessels, pursuing a clear target-"
"Speedin' towards a civilian installation whose scanners detected no such anomaly-"
"Because of the stealth," Anton said.
Whittaker held up his hands defensively. "Believe me, the Binderburg Conglomerate has no desire to provoke our treasured business partners, but if you continue to overstep our clearly established boundaries we will have no choice but to start retaliatin'. It'd be a shame if Gelecek's greed was to break this fragile peace we've all given up so much for."
Esandra's jaw tightened. "One would assume if the Conglomerate was that attached to their boundaries, they'd also be interested in policing the massive supercarriers constantly dipping in and out of their space."
"This is ridiculous! The ships you are currently holding were actively engaged with The Bludgeon when your fleet arrived! All of their systems should have highly valuable, indisputable records of-"
"There are no records."
All eyes swiveled to the far side of the table as R&D finally spoke up.
"Most of your researchers," she enunciated the word pointedly, "had their hard drives and black boxes completely wiped shortly before we took them into custody."
Even Mican blinked at that. "That does not make sense, why would they-"
"A fascinating question." Her eyes glinted. "It could be a hereto unknown form of data corruption, triggered by getting too close and attempting to scan an experimental vessel clearly equipped to defy easy categorization. Or, it could be to obscure the fact that such a vessel never existed, and you sent an ill-prepared squadron to raid a Binderburg research station."
"Alternatively, you wiped the drives yourselves after downloading the data," Mican offered.
Whittaker jerked back to attention. "Are you accusing Binderburg of deliberately sabotaging vital black box safety equipment?"
"No," Esandra said.
"It's just a hypoth-" Mican cut off abruptly with the telltale wince of a FedBak hit.
"I would hope not, espionage is a serious charge-"
"No one is accusing you of-"
"We would be perfectly willing to submit to a full inquiry from the Lunar Directorate-"
"Enough." R&D rubbed at her temples, and all at once Whittaker slunk back in his seat.
"The Department is willing to release all Gelecek employees in our custody this time, unharmed, provided that we are allowed to keep their ships as scrap, and in the future your researchers actually abide by the no-go policy we've had in place for almost fifty years." Her smile was more like a baring of teeth. "As a show of good faith, we'll even return all proprietary Gelecek technology from the ships, untouched, with your people. Is that acceptable, counselor?"
"That is all we've asked for," Esandra said grimly.
With a distracted nod, the woman jabbed at her tablet. "Here, I've made some minor edits to your proposed agreement based on our discussion today, and highlighted the relevant parts."
"And in a format you can physically sign," Whittaker added, pushing his own tablet in front of her. "Once you've reviewed it to your liking."
Anton was impressed that Esandra managed to scroll through the document without rolling her eyes at the ancient distribution method. "You'll drop the raiding accusations."
"Of course, that's in section three."
Esandra nodded slowly, hesitantly, and that was it. Incredible. The lack of concrete data was infuriating, but they might be able to get something from the pilots' implants, and even the possibility that Binderburg wasn't lying about the hard drive wipe was fascinating. The Bludgeon didn't run on any known form of communications network, the idea that whatever it was using was universal enough to still sync up with most of their ships was…
Anton's brow crinkled. "Most."
"Hm?" Whittaker asked. He ignored him, focusing on the R&D woman.
"Most of our researchers had their drives wiped, you said."
For just a moment, so fast he wasn't sure he saw it, the corners of her lips twitched up. She tapped something on her own tablet before responding. "Well, obviously, we can't account for your casualties."
"Casualties?" Esandra paused, straightening from over the tablet. "We were given the impression you took our people in alive."
"Minus the few that violently resisted detainment, of course."
"The terms of the agreement were very clear that you would turn over all our employees, unharmed."
"...Esandra," Anton glanced at Mican, and the android's camera eyes twisted in a way that suggested they had recorded and processed the same thing.
"'All employees in custody.'"
Whittaker nodded. He watched Esandra take a slow, stabilizing breath. "...How many of our people did you kill?"
"I don't have those numbers on me. The billing office would likely have the combat records if you're interested in submittin' reparations."
"Absolutely not! This changes the situation entirely. Gelecek is not going to pay you in ship parts for wrongfully killing our employees-"
"It's unfortunate you feel that way," The woman cut in, voice nearly monotone. "However, I can make out both of your initials on the signature line, and by Lunar standard law, that is all we need."
Esandra looked down at where her hand still hovered over the half completed signature. In the back of the room, somebody stifled a snicker.
"Thank you so much for your time, someone will be in touch, I'm sure. Thomas, see them out."
R&D turned away without another word, Whittaker stepping in front of her exit. Anton just watched her go, feeling the storm cloud brewing around Esandra next to him, until Arm Alpha pinged an alert and security stepped into the room behind them.
SUBJECT: NAME UNKNOWN 9. Smiled when caught in a lie of omission ● Note: Confirmed from Alpha Arm footage 10. Name deliberately excluded from proceedings 11. Received final say on agreement terms 12. Hostile and confrontational ● Hypothesis: Actively trying to provoke a fight and break down communications ● Note: Why?