Sunday, February 14
Idea popped into my head for a story set in the Mina Smith universe. Mina's a customs agent, but this time our protagonist is an accountant. As much an accountant as Mina is a customs agent, anyway.
Just a snippet that I'll likely never finish, but anyway...
I wandered out onto the balcony, letting the door whisper shut behind me and dim the tinkling chatter of the party. A cool, sweet breeze was drifting up from the harbour as the heat of the day ebbed, and one hundred and fifteen floors below me the three road levels were slowly draining of traffic. Below even that, the sprawling subway system that linked the entire Northeast would be quieting again. Across the river, a late flight for the West Coast climbed silently into the evening sky.
This New York was an amazing human achievement.
And it was all quite impossible.
Someone was fiddling the books, and I was here to find out who.
That's my job. I'm an Accountant.
The Audit request had come through the system from one of the branch agencies, hit Central, been routed through three entirely distinct and separate bureaucracies, and finally been ticketed to our team because the Commander was on someone's bad books again. It was a fairly normal anomaly, as such things go; grade five resource consumption by a grade four culture. That meant that either they were due for collapse, or due for reassessment, and in my experience things went either way about equally.
Tech had doubts right from the start.
"This can't be right. Local year is 2117, according to Survey. But shear in this region is running at less than twenty percent -"
"That would still take us out to 2140 or so." That was Admin.
"Sure, on the far deviation. But then we'd be talking about a separation after 1800 baseline, probably well after. So why are we looking at a grade four this late?"
"They're slow on the uptake?"
"If they're that slow, what are they doing with all those resources? Dammit, why can't they get some decent Stats people out to Survey? These reports are so vague they're practically useless."
"Transit in five. Lock it down, people." That was the Commander.
Tech sighed and pocketed her slate. Then she turned to me and tilted her head that way she had.
"You're being awfully quiet, 'Counts. What do you think?"
"I think Central have very probably dropped us in it again."
And no-one really had any reply to that.
Transit by ship has got to be one of the most thoroughly unpleasant experiences it is possible for a human being to undergo. I've seen grade three cultures up close, where cholera and dysentery were still endemic, and let me tell you, they have nothing on undamped transit.
Pilot was the first to come out of it, which is why she's a pilot.
"Any damage, people?"
I somehow managed to thumb comms, though every bone in my body appeared to have suffered multiple random indignities.
"Nuh... No, we're good. Admin was sick, but she's breathing okay."
"The rest of them are still out, I take it?"
"Um." I glanced around again, and regretted it as dark dots threatened to devour my eyeballs. "Yeah."
"Okay, give us ten to plot an orbit and we'll be back to help out." Comms pinged and went out. So the Commander was up and about as well. Best to try to get things cleaned up before they were finished up front.
The sanitary wipes were in a convenient pocket beside each seat, so it took no more than five minutes of arduous toil to unbuckle myself, retrieve them, and begin tending to the unfortunate Admin. I was about done when Tech's eyes popped open.
"Hang on." I stowed the soiled wipes in a convenient baggie. Admin was starting to stir anyway. "Lift your head a little. Huh."
"Sort of a - I don't know, aqua? Turquoise, maybe? Rather striking."
Tech is a sensitive. That means she changes a little on every transit. For her, it's eye colour, which is a common one. They used to screen sensitives out of the Agency entirely; now they just make things difficult for them on general principle. That meant that for Tech to get assigned to an Audit team, she had to be damned good at her job, and indeed she was. Fortunately too, eye colour was easy enough to disguise.
Comms pinged again.
"Tech, five points." The Commander.
The door to the bridge slid open and she came through. Pilot glanced back and quirked an eyebrow at me before the door closed again.
Tech was blinking furiously to settle her contacts.
"What've we got, Commander?" Admin was with us again.
"We're entering lunar orbit now. It's mostly night on the planet right now, from our perspective." She thumbed her slate, and sprawling constellations of light spread across a darkened circle behind her.
"Wait, that's our target?" Tech. "No way that's a grade four. I'd put it closer to -"
"Grade six, yeah." The Commander wasn't happy. "You called it. Either Survey screwed up royally -"
"Wouldn't put it past them." Admin.
"Or - they're right and we have a Situation." She had the knack of pronouncing capital letters. "That's not the only thing." She brought up comms. "Transfer that data straight to Tech, please."
Tech looked from the Commander, to her slate, and blinked several more times. Then prodded it with her stylus. The Commander didn't actually tap her foot.
Tech shook her head. "There's a lot of radio chatter. And I mean, a lot. The useful frequencies are saturated, maybe beyond saturated. I wouldn't want to have to build a tuning circuit to pick out a clear channel from this hash."
"And?" Clearly something was up.
She looked at me. "It's all analogue, all broadcast."
The Commander nodded. "That's what it looked like to me." She waved her hand at the image floating behind her. "That sea of lights, has to be eight, ten billion people down there. We're picking up no sign of digital traffic, no sign of comm satellites. We won't be able to do a full scan until we go into planetary orbit, but we're not picking up any satellites at all."
I'm an Accountant. Numbers speak to me. And eight to ten billion people says a grade five or higher. And that says computers and advanced comms.
"Land networks?" I ventured.
Tech shrugged. "Sure, I guess. But even so, they're spraying radio in every direction. If they had satellites, the signals would mostly be going down, not out. So whatever they're doing, they don't have space access, and that makes them a grade four."
Admin had her own slate out. "Might be in early stages. If they haven't commercialised yet -"
I shook my head. "That would mean stage five cusp. And that" - I waved my hand at the lights - "isn't what I'd call cuspy."
A pink splotch appeared beside the Commander's left ear.
"That's the Japanese shrimp-fishing fleet." Tech was at work. "And that" - a long line of lights turned red - "that is the trans-Siberian railroad. And this." Big yellow patch.
"Yeah?" She was clearly digging for a response.
"That's the Takla Makan desert."
She grinned. "Got to be a city of twenty million at least. Major industrial base, by the patterns."
Admin waved her hand between us. "Hold on a minute. No satellites means they're grade four. Grade four cultures only build cities in deserts if there's a damn good reason. Most of those points correlate with baseline well enough, but there are some that are just out of nowhere." She prodded her slate, and more points changed colour. "Here, in Tibet. Here, that would be Mongolia, what's that doing there? And here, and here. What does it mean?"
The Commander's mouth quirked. "It means we have a job to do."
By the time the Big Three went public, they had already become almost unimaginably wealthy owing to the very specialised form of trade they had independently discovered. Why pay for milk when you have a cow? Indeed, why pay for anything when you can conjure it out of thin air?
But unimaginable wealth from unaccountable sources leads to uncomfortable questions, and the Three sought to forestall this by means of unprecedentedly creative accounting. This effort was assisted by the fact that their operations were by no means cheap to run, and that their very nature required they be located in some of the most remote and inhospitable places on Earth. Their respective accounting departments quickly learned how to persuasively map enormous expenses onto even more enormous profits without ever saying exactly how the two were related. And even after the entire operation went public, the bulk of the business, and indeed, the bulk of the profit, was still sourced from places where the public had no notion that any of this was going on.
Today's Agency was formed out of those small but intensely imaginative accounting teams, and all of the wealth and wonder of our civilisation depends on them. The life of an Accountant is correspondingly luxurious and glamorous, and hardly ever involves wading through mud deeper than, say, the mid-thorax.
"God dammit." Admin is rather shorter than the rest of the team, and so she had ventured up to her shoulders on more than one occasion. She was not entirely happy with the affair. "Fucking leeches."
"They're on your suit. They can't get to you unless you plan to open your helmet and take a swim." Tech, being taller and proportionally less beslimed, was taking the situation better.
The Commander raised a hand to signal quiet. Ordinarily we would have crouched down for cover, but that was impractical under the circumstances.
We were in a swamp on the Atlantic Coast, about thirty miles south-west of what would be the city of Charleston, Carolina in baseline. There was a city on that spot here, too, larger if anything, and the unpopulated nearby wetlands had presented a perfect opportunity to make an unseen entry. The ship had landed out at sea, and had withdrawn there again after setting us down.
The only problem with this plan was that whatever you call it, when you put large amounts of plants, water, and insects together in one place, what you have is a swamp.
"That's the road up ahead." The Commander indicated the slightly elevated row of trees.
Admin sagged with relief, then pulled herself up again as she started to sink into the mud. "We proceed as planned?"
Tech had spent a happy morning - by the time of the part of the world facing us - decoding the radio and television signals being so extravagantly broadcast. We'd ascertained that this region of the globe did indeed contain the United States, that the populace did indeed speak English, and that the accent and dialect were not that dissimilar to our own. Which was fortunate, because we were starting to see larger discrepancies the closer we looked. India spoke, of all things, Italian - at least in their official broadcasts - and Australia, far more heavily populated here than baseline, had gone Dutch. We'd opted for the most familiar of the remaining options.
Tech had a drone out now, scouting ahead of us. She turned from her slate and nodded to the Commander. "We're clear."
The Commander nodded. "Unless anyone has a better idea? Right. Move out."
Posted by: Mark at Sunday, February 14 2010 02:59 PM (bBxKr)
It kind of reminds me of H. Beam Piper's Paratime Police stuff. Not bad at all.
You wrote this the same week you were trying to write your own SQL language? The Handicapper General's gonna come get you if you're not careful, Harrison.
Posted by: Mitch H. at Tuesday, February 16 2010 03:03 AM (jwKxK)
There's an awful lot that our accountant friend doesn't know, for all his advanced tech.
It's not a SQL language, though, just a programmatic database with some nice query-by-example features. Intentionally not Turing-complete. Though of course every protocol evolves until it is...
Posted by: Pixy Misa at Tuesday, February 16 2010 03:37 AM (PiXy!)
Posted by: Kean at Monday, February 22 2010 02:40 PM (+Zca6)
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