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Excerpt for Ideal Insurgent by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Ideal Insurgent


by Stephanie Barr


Smashwords Edition


Copyright 2018 Stephanie Barr


Discover other titles by Stephanie Barr at Smashwords.com

Conjuring Dreams or Learning to Write by Writing

Tarot Queen

Beast Within (First of the Bete Novels)

Nine Lives (Second of the Bete Novels)

Saving Tessa

Musings of a Nascent Poet

Curse of the Jenri

Legacy



Dedicated to Stephanie, Roxy and Alex, always.

To Mirren Hogan, Chuck Larlham, Audra Trosper, Kayla Matt, Rebecca Hallmon, and Ana Marija Meshkova proof that good beta readers are worth their weight in gold


Cover by Brendan Smith


Smashwords Edition, License Notes


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Table of Contents

One - Random Variable

Two - Transient Data Anomaly

Three - Unexpected Result

Four - Consistent Outlier

Five - Contingency Loop

Six - Hacked

Seven - Paradigm Shift

Eight - Human Factor

Nine - Programming on the fly

Ten - Fault Detection, Identification And Repair

Eleven - Mission Success

Twelve - Critical Failure

Thirteen - Workaround

Fourteen - Reprogramming

Fifteen - Conservative Limits

Sixteen - Solving for the Right X

Seventeen - Stacking the Deck

Eighteen - Reconstructing the Paradigm

Nineteen - Shadow Solution

Twenty - Calculated Risk

Twenty-One - Key Factor

Twenty-Two - Constants

Twenty-Three - Reconfigure

Twenty-four - Tribal Knowledge

Twenty-Five - Operator Error

Twenty-Six - Override

Twenty-Seven - Cascade

Twenty-Eight - Implementation

Twenty-Nine - Transformation

Thirty - Strategy

Thirty-One - Risk

Thirty-Two - Validation

Epilogue - Vindication

About the Author

Coming up





1One - Random Variable


There are few feelings quite as heady as eliciting a reaction from someone who is generally unflappable.

-Guide to Life by Bryder



He couldn't help smiling when he watched her. As always, she was brilliant, even when the issue in question was hand-to-hand combat. No move was wasted, the angle of the hand, the placement of the foot, each precise and exactly calculated for maximum leverage with minimal effort. Not that she was short on strength. He knew she kept up with weight training and could probably lift him handily though he had a good fifteen kilos on her.

But using her strength was clumsy…inelegant, not for someone as discriminating and precise as Nayna. Her opponent, on the other hand, was an old school brute, rippling with muscle, but slow and unsophisticated in movement. He was clearly a brawler, with the short temper and heavy-handed movements that goes with someone used to winning through sheer force. And frequently. It was a battle between the stiletto and the hammer.

The hammer didn't stand a chance. His ponderous swipes were dodged with so little effort, it was as if he had aimed elsewhere. She danced around him, peppering punches and kicks to all his vital areas, but pulled so he wasn't taken down with each blow. But there was no mistaking she could have taken him down at any time.

They sparred in Training Room P, where most field agent classes began. Students, chosen from the smartest and strongest of soldier and civil servant, sat cross-legged like school-children dressed in novice black on one side of the fighting square while Nayna, the Instructor-in-Charge, demonstrated how very far they had to go. The room, like most of the Center, was gray: dark gray approaching charcoal on the walls of firm foam, lighter gray like storm clouds for the padding of the square where Nayna teased her recruit. The irony was, of course, that Nayna had never actually seen a storm cloud, except, perhaps in pictures.

Along the wall on the other side of the square was a line of chairs for the instructors, dressed in the colors of their field rank but in sober muted shades in keeping with their dignity. There was also the chair Bryder had snagged for himself. He never missed the first day of class if he could avoid it. He knew she hadn't missed him since he alone wore vibrant cobalt blue.

Bryder wasn't much for dignity.

Without a word, Nayna was teaching, teaching her opponent that his previous methods weren't going to be enough here, not against people like her, and showing another newbie class how important technique was over brute strength. She taught them that appearances had next to nothing to do with ability. Slim and pale as a wraith with her white-blonde hair cut close to the scalp and skin almost as pale as her white jumpsuit, she looked perfectly harmless next to the heavily muscled frame of her opponent, nearly a quarter meter taller than she was, though she was not short. Or rather, she would have looked harmless if no one noticed the steel gray of her eyes. One glance into those and the perceptive would know exactly why she was dangerous. She could have lectured for three weeks and not brought home that lesson as effectively as she did in that three minutes of dancing around the enraged recruit.

Winded, undoubtedly aching in a number of places, well aware that he was being made fun of, Nayna's assailant had a face purple with fury. Bryder wasn't close enough to hear what the boy muttered under his breath, but he didn't doubt it was unpleasant, probably something dismissive to Nayna's gender, her slender frame, and her methods. He had all the earmarks of a bully, and Bryder knew Nayna had realized this, had chosen him for this reason. The brute was apparently bright enough to catch on, too, that his bullying potential would be ruined if he lost to this slim slip of a girl.

Too bad.

If what he'd said disturbed her, Nayna let nothing show on her face. Nor did she change her tactics. As his attempted blows became sloppier, slower, clumsier, she used as much force as necessary to let him know she had the upper hand, but no more. His steps faltered as he nearly lost his balance after every attempted blow, but she chose not to take advantage of it. Then, when he charged her, the class was shocked to see her stand her ground.

As Bryder expected, she moved with the charge and allowed the recruit's own momentum slam him to the ground. Before he could move, he was pinned, the edge of her hand against his jugular. "Yield," she said implacably, loud enough for all to hear. "You will not lose less by losing consciousness, but you will prove you're too stupid to be in my class. Tap out." The brute waited until Bryder suspected his world was going a different kind of gray before tapping twice on the mat. He was released immediately.

As her opponent lay, gasping, she stood gracefully and addressed the class. "Most of you have some level of skills and smarts or you wouldn't be here. Here, we train elite agents for the Empire, those that will negotiate on the Empire's behalf with other civilizations, those that will interact with our allies, and those that will infiltrate to look for insight into our enemies. The skills you have now, the smarts you have now, they will not be enough. Only the very best become a field agent through this office. Be prepared and watch for…" she spared the recovering student a glance, "overconfidence."

"How long have you been a field agent, Instructor Nayna?" one student asked.

Not by a flicker of an eyelash did she betray her pain. "That's classified. Please hold all questions until after the class and provide them electronically. That will allow me to address them in the next session and allow for anonymity. A tool you will all find useful. You will be in competition with each other, but we will not provide you easy metrics with which to compare. Best to look to improving yourself rather than measuring yourselves against your classmates, especially since much of what you will learn will be cooperative. I want each of you to be able to spar with or work in conjunction with any other member of this class on command. If that becomes an issue, you may find yourself disqualified. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Instructor Nayna."

"Good. Now, is there any other volunteer who wishes to test their skills in hand-to-hand against mine? Once in a while, we do find a skillful practitioner that allows us to expand our own knowledge. Having seen me in action, anyone else think you're up for it?"

The class became motionless, almost as if they were afraid to breathe.

Nayna smiled but urged. "Surely, some of you are skillful. I'd love to put you through your paces."

The sentiment did not appear to be mutual.

Bryder couldn't help himself. "Ooh, ooh, pick me," he shouted out, standing up.

Irritation rippled across her features for the first time that day, quickly schooled, but she couldn't keep the frustration out of her sighed, "Bryder."

He grinned. "Instructor Nayna, over here! Pick me!" He began to jump up and down, waving his arms. "Let me do it!"

He could hear the chuckles from the other instructors, even some of the class. For himself, he could have crowed with triumph when Nayna rolled her eyes. To the best of his knowledge, Bryder believed he was the only person capable of eliciting an emotional response from her.

"Bryder, why are you even here? You're not an instructor for this class." Her eyes flicked over his form and then back to his face. He knew she was despairing over his flamboyance though she said nothing.

Bryder stopped bouncing and assumed an innocent guise as he approached. "But, Instructor Nayna, one should never stop learning. I always find your classes in hand-to-hand so edifying."

He could have sworn she bit back a curse word. Instead, she calmed her features and said sweetly, "Analyst Agent Bryder, I think your skills have been well established. You've been a field agent for how many years?"

"That's classified." He smiled and took delight in her realization that she had walked right into that one. He must have really rattled her. Perfect. "C'mon. Chicken? You know, I haven't beaten you. Yet."

Her eyes narrowed as they did when she was deeply analyzing something. He knew she suspected that he had let her win more than once, but she couldn't be sure. Hell, he wasn't sure himself. She sighed a tiny sigh. "Very well."

She went back to the fighting square and he was pleased to see her class was visibly excited to see a match at a different level than before. "Let's not disappoint them," he murmured.

When she turned to face him, her face was resigned. She went into a very relaxed and reactive stance. Bryder, as usual, basically stood there, completely loose and receptive. Only a few seconds into their "match" she sighed again, softly enough only he heard it, and changed to a more aggressive posture. In general, she preferred to move defensively, reacting to whatever style her opponent had and using their aggression against them. Bryder wasn't going to let her, so they could either stand expectantly forever or she'd have to do the moving. He knew she hated being manipulated.

She went with speed and going to his inside, nominally the opposite of what she should do given her kicking skills and his greater bulk. She was slippery, though, and hard to catch so he had to adjust. Response was his own gift with hand-to-hand, reading the other's methodology and automatically countering it. As she slid inside, intending some painful blows to his midsection, or perhaps his throat, he stepped behind her and tapped her kidney. He could have struck harder but she had already been rolling away from him, so it would have been glancing at best. But she'd know he hadn't hit his hardest.

Damn, he loved messing with her. She was good, always had been, cold and calculating, precise and perfect placement. Easily, she was his most difficult opponent, while his own chaotic system, often moving before conscious thought, confounded her, flustered her, even frustrated her. But it put on a hell of a show for the recruits. She moved, he countered in ways she didn't expect. She adjusted but he was already attacking in a different way. She always just defended, just missed, or they landed glancing blows past each others' spinning, blocking, gyrating forms. It was like dancing but with less enjoyable body contact.

Somehow, and even he didn't know if she outsmarted him or he allowed it, she tripped him up and pinned him to the mat, a position he always relished. "Yield," she said, a little winded, small beads of sweat running from her hair, spiky from perspiration.

"Nah," he said, "I've always wanted to fall asleep in your arms."

"Liar," she breathed with an edge that almost sounded hurt.

He tapped out immediately. "Nayna? What is it?" he whispered.

"Analyst Agent Bryder, please wait until after class. I have a few items to discuss with you," she added softly, but not so softly a few students didn't hear. She lifted her head and spoke up to the class. "If you succeed in this class and achieve field agent status, you, too, may be able to hold your own against me, or one of the other instructors. But, you won't do it without hard training and attentive learning to the skills we'll share with you."

"Like Analyst Agent Bryder's?" one of the students asked, clearly enthralled.

"I'm afraid, no one else has managed to duplicate that particular technique," Nayna said with some asperity. "But, as you can see, even his technique can be overcome…probably."

She had to hate adding that "probably," but she was too exact a person to not include the qualifier. That was why he loved her, among other reasons.

The class was herded out by the other instructors who were doing their best to hide their own smiles. Everyone had certainly been given food for thought. The lout she'd fought earlier, stopped and bowed to Nayna. "Thank you for the lesson, Instructor Nayna."

"Your willingness to learn serves you well," she nodded in return, using a set phrase common to training. Even so, he walked a little taller as he left.

As the door closed, Bryder stepped up close to her. "Man, some of the recruits they send."

"Intimidation, if the temper can be controlled, is not without uses, but it's a limited technique even then. If he can expand past that, he could have the skill as an asset without being bound by it."

"Ever the optimist."

"I read your report on the proposed setup of Gorler. I found it inadequate."

Bryder smiled unapologetically but said, "How could that be? Did I not provide names for each key position in the provisional government?"

"Yes, and effectively nothing else. You can't set up an entire planet's governance in four pages. There was no explanation for your picks, only the briefest explanation of structure and emphasis to take best advantages of the resources available."

"The explanation isn't going to do them any good. They won't question my choices and you don't either or you would have said so from the beginning."

"I can discern a rationale that supports those choices, though they aren't necessarily my own top choices, as usual. I can't even evaluate your analysis because you didn't include it. Why did you choose Hunter for instance? He's had trouble keeping staff because he tends to be overbearing and self-absorbed. He's a noted misogynist and theirs is a matriarchal society."

"He gets results. There's nothing he's been in charge of that hasn't had improved production."

"Because he's ruthless."

"You say that like it's a bad thing. These are a conquered people. Gentle persuasion is not going to be effective."

She folded her lips. "I just wish there were another way. And I've had complaints about the increasing vagueness of your reports. Show your work, Bryder. It's our job."

He shrugged. "We can't all elucidate every decision we make. Some of us use instinct."

"I'm not sure instinct is good enough rationale for all of your decisions. I'm not the only one who wants you to expand a bit."

"I'll see what I can do." He waited and she, uncharacteristically, didn't meet his eyes. "Nayna, is there something else? Something wrong?"

When she turned those shimmering gray eyes on him, he was stunned by their intensity, touched by the trouble he saw in them. "Did you let me win?"

"I don't know," he told her honestly.

"How can you not know?" she asked, clearly exasperated.

"Same way I know how to set up a governing body. Some things I just know." He sighed. "I don't know if I'm letting you win because I'm not thinking about it consciously at the time. I like being pinned by you. I like being beaten by you, though not by anyone else. And, because I don't know if I even really want to win, I don't know if the part of me that makes my decisions arranges things so you come out ahead or if it's just that I'm not quite good enough to beat you."

Her skepticism did not appear to have been diminished. "That doesn't make any sense."

"I'm a very difficult man."

She didn't argue with that, couldn't probably, so he chucked her on the chin so he wouldn't be tempted to do more. She was so adorable when she was confused.

Nayna was certainly worth hanging around a little longer for. Now, if he could just convince her…




Two - Transient Data Anomaly


Garbage In - Garbage Out. No analysis is better than the data it's built on.

-Advanced Analysis by Nayna Rand



As Nayna explained the duties of field agents, and why they would need the skill set she was about to teach them, she studied the room of young faces, always young faces, but rarely innocent faces. What they would be called to do required ruthlessness and understanding, without flinching and without hesitation. Nayna grieved that it must be so. She also wondered, as she'd often wondered, if her regrets that such harsh methods were required—however carefully she'd tried to hide them—were the reason she'd never been assigned as a field agent.

"You will have to immerse yourself in other cultures, cultures that can be quite different from the world you already know, often far more brutal and primitive than the civilization we're used to."

Someone snorted near the back of the room, but Nayna didn't see who it was. She decided to ignore it. "As you all know, although the Empire is only some seven generations old, some 187 years, Randian culture and our unified civilization had lived in peace for nearly a thousand years. It was only after we were attacked by the Menen that the Randians pushed the bounds of their limited space program and developed highly successful weapons to fight the menace. As we all know, we followed their retreating forces back to their home worlds and defeated them, then assimilated them. That was the beginning of our empire. Since then, the Randian Empire has allied itself with or subjugated a number of worlds. Naturally, the preference is to coexist peacefully, but many of the worlds we have encountered have not yet learned to do so. Therefore, in addition to the 112 worlds we have as allies or have subjugated, we are at war with no less than nine worlds."

"Instructor Nayna," someone said from elsewhere in the room.

Nayna scanned the room and took note of eyes that looked back at her squarely. Few students did so. "You have a comment to add, Gama?" Nayna asked, pulling the woman's name from memory.

"That's Gama Bussit."

Nayna frowned. "Last names no longer apply, Gama. When you went into service for the Empire, you gave up your family name. We are your family now."

"Save the propaganda for the rest of the students. I came into this program with open eyes."

Nayna wasn't sure what to do with that, so she ignored it. "You had a question, Gama?"

"Not so much a question as challenging your terminology. If we're going to be effective agents, we're going to need to know the truth, not some trumped up version of the truth."

"I have no interest in telling you anything but the truth," Nayna said with all sincerity. "I agree with you."

This time, Gama snorted. "As you like. So, what do you mean by subjugated?"

Nayna nodded. "That's a reasonable question, but it doesn't have an easy answer. In most cases, subjugation involves war which lasts only as long as the aggressor maintains aggression or until we overthrow the government leadership, or leaderships, with as minimal a loss of life as possible. There have been cases where total destruction was unavoidable."

"What would make total destruction 'unavoidable'?" There was no mistaking the sneer in Gama's voice, but Nayna had had difficult students before.

"Total destruction is only acceptable for those civilizations that are a clear and present danger to another world in the Randian Empire or any section of the Empire and which cannot be subjugated through less severe measures."

"Like the Emulu?"

For a full second, Nayna was too confounded to speak. When she did, some of her confusion crept into her words. "No, destruction of the Emulu could not be justified. Even aggression is not sanctioned, despite the value of one of its minerals, since the planet is agrarian, peaceful and does not have any weapons or space capabilities. I believe some diplomatic…"

"Computer, this is Gama32714. Please show Emulu on viewscreens one, two and three, satellite, dirtside region one and dirtside region four views. On screen four, show the top-level report abstract on Emulu 'subjugation'. Then provide audible version."

Screen one darkened with a world made mottled black on the even inkier background of space. Both views dirtside showed a barren, charcoal-colored landscape with the only color the brightly painted earth movers, emblazoned with MysCorp Mining Companies Logo and the Randian seal, and the red-orange soil they revealed beneath blackened topsoil.

The computer spoke tonelessly. "Diplomatic overtures with Emulu were rejected, though not with violence. The access to verrylian considered of primary importance, MysCorp Mining Company was given leave to pursue mining operations with instructions to minimize direct impact to inhabitants. Inhabitants, however, were not amenable to this compromise and reacted to mining camps with primitive violence of unexpected effectiveness. After several expeditions with no survivors and with no central government to overthrow, Randian Council opted for eradication to enable effective mining. Losses of inhabitants are estimated…"

"Computer, stop!" Nayna said, aghast, though she couldn't unsee the figures on the screen, the millions lost, the estimated number of species gone forever. It couldn't be right. It couldn't be right! She'd run the analysis on Emulu herself, noted the pacifist culture, the beautiful unspoiled nature of the environment in unusual harmony with the sentient inhabitants. She'd been very clear that preservation was more important than verrylian, which, though valuable, could be synthesized with only a marginal drop in efficacy. It wasn't possible.

"Do you believe me now? That's why I came here, to be part of the system so I could make a difference. So this wouldn't happen again."

"It couldn't have happened! This must be another planet!" Nayna said. "Emulu is not listed under the 112 worlds subjugated or allied."

"Oh, it happened."

Nayna breathed in deeply and tried to center herself. It wasn't listed under the 112 planets and that was updated weekly. The date on the report was from more than two standards previously. There was no way this could have happened without her knowing about it. Therefore, this data could not be correct.

"Computer, this is Nayna19502. Please show current satellite and surface views of Emulu, CFD-11-415-009. Show current status via text of contact with inhabitants."

Screen one blossomed, now a blue and green jewel at the center of the screen, just as she recalled it. The other screens were blank with the notice, "No surface views available."

The text, dated yesterday morning, intoned, "Diplomatic overtures have not yet been successful; however, the response has not been aggressive or violent. Deliberation will continue as to the best overture for successful response."

Nayna sighed in relief, only at that moment, aware how tense she had been. "Clearly, there was a mistake, some sort of computer glitch. That must have been some other planet—an aggressive one—that was unfortunately subjugated."

"Do you think me a fool?" Gama shouted, standing at her seat.

"No," Nayna said, "only misinformed. It is certainly credible given that, clearly, the computer showed the wrong data, and your own source may have been subject to the same inaccuracies. Computer, this is Nayna19502, please determine source of data presented earlier to Gama32714. Also, have Information Tech track down the source of the anomaly so it can be resolved and prevent further misunderstandings."

"I'm sorry, my database is experiencing technical difficulties. I cannot currently comply with the first part of your request. Information Tech has been notified of the concern."

There was a brisk knock on the door. "Pardon, Nayna. There has been a call for Gama that is considered of sufficient urgency to interrupt your class."

Nayna narrowed her eyes. "What possible emergency could justify this intrusion?" It could not be a family emergency; agents and analysts, once accepted, had to divorce themselves from their families. The rule was absolute and painful for several of the analysts especially since they were not all voluntary recruits. Agents, however, were required to be volunteers. "This is highly irregular."

"Evidence was recently discovered that Gama32714 has been hacking into the main computer system and had attempted to subvert the data files. Further investigation noted that she had not been entirely truthful with her history presented. Recruiters who failed to discover the discrepancies will be disciplined. Gama32714 is needed for questioning."

Nayna cringed inwardly, but nodded. What a breach! But it did explain the problem and the antagonism.

"And you think I'm misinformed?" Gama said furiously as the proctors approached. "You blithely tell us about a history less than two hundred standards in the making with 112 planets subjugated or allied after we went a thousand years without a threat and you think we're not the aggressor? How many of those were alliances, really, Nayna, and how many subjugated? I bet you know. And if you think—" A tranquilizer glove silenced her and led her away, her face and eyes blank of the passion so evident just the second before.

As Gama was led through the door, a technician bowed and scurried forward. "If you'll excuse me, Analyst Nayna I'm afraid classes must be halted for the day so that Information Tech can evaluate and repair the recent damage from the spy's activities."

Nayna nodded again. "Class dismissed."

The class left with alacrity, if not undue haste. No one wanted any extra attention and she understood that. It was an unusually severe breach of security to have an operative among them undetected for so long. Discipline for those who allowed it would be harsh. That was necessary, as Nayna knew, given the wars they were currently involved in, but still distasteful to her.

"Analyst Nayna? May I use the computer interface?"

"Hmm, oh, by all means. If you do not need the view screens, could you freeze screen 1 as you work?"

It was clear from the tech's face that he had rather hoped she would vacate the room and was none too happy that she didn't. But, as she was Chief Analyst, he was unlikely to challenge her without a strong rationale which he didn't appear to have.

She had a number of facts to analyze, not the least her own reactions during the interchange with Gama. There were several seconds where Nayna had challenged her own understanding of the situation, something she knew could not be true. The data could not be a lie as that violated the prime assumption of every analysis, that Rand Intelligence provided the best data available. The data may be inaccurate or incomplete, she knew, but she had always believed it to be honest. With inaccurate data, analysis methods and results are unreliable so misinformation was counterproductive. She had always assumed that assumption inviolate; however, her reaction, however short, argued that, at least to some degree, she was not entirely convinced.

Her reaction was an interesting data point she did not yet understand, but perhaps analyzing the other data available would provide insight. To determine impact, she decided to analyze data both with and without the assumption that all data she received from Rand Intelligence was the best data available.

Gama's betrayal and hacking provided a very compelling rationale both for the computer mismatches and her behavior. The fact that Nayna was able to call forth the accurate Emulu data was readily explained if Gama did not have sufficient protocols to infiltrate the higher levels of security Nayna had—as indeed, Gama would not have had. So it all made perfect sense, even if it showed an appalling security dysfunction that she was in the class. Tidy. Neat.

Nayna studied the planet, unchanged and glowing as it was when she analyzed it four standards previously. Beautiful. She was so relieved it had not been destroyed. On her tablet, she pulled a blank screen for sketching and began to populate it from memory.

The part that didn't sit well with Nayna was Gama's motivation. Yes, of course, she could see the benefit for Gama to enter the agent class and try to get access to information and subversive power that way, but, if that was her plan, why throw it all away during one of the first classes? Why show her hand, challenge the data presented, expose herself? To provide uncertainty to the class? Possible, but seemingly unlikely. The class was expendable and would probably be given additional instruction to overcome her propaganda. Just removal from class in such a way and with a plausible explanation for her protestations largely negated any lasting impact from what she had said. She was effectively neutralized that way.

Not that she knew it, but challenging the teacher, especially an analyst of Nayna's caliber, was unlikely to help keep her secret. Staying low and off radar was far more to her advantage. So why didn't she?

Perhaps Gama was not that intelligent or was dangerously naïve and overestimated her ability to keep her secret. Not impossible, but it seemed a poor fit with someone who had managed to elude security checks, had successfully hacked the database mainframes, and was considered for this elite class.

And Nayna had never doubted her sincerity or intelligence. That was not likely if Gama was so clumsy an operative as to reveal her hand the first day.

Analysis so far: Gama as subversive fabricated all data that challenged Rand Intelligence data was (a) convincing if the assumption was accepted that Rand Intelligence data was always honest or (b) marginally credible if that assumption were discarded for argument's sake.

Nayna held up her tablet to the viewscreen and compared the star map she had copied from memory of the screen Gama had called up. They were identical except for a shift she calculated to be about five minutes, which means they were both using orbital data from within a few minutes of each other, an accurate background of the same planet at roughly the same time. Which meant one of these simulations was a sophisticated fabrication using up to the minute astronomical data. This seemed unnecessarily complex for a data hack when she was going for shock value. Again not impossible, but hardly the work of an amateur who gave herself away so soon. This all but made the scenario non-credible.

Gama had shouted out about the number of subjugated planets. Although Nayna had made a point of trying not to second guess the decisions in Randian history—she had no control over it and mistakes by even well-intentioned societies were quite common—she would be lying if the concern had not crossed her mind before. Of the 112 worlds allied or subjugated, only 63 were part of the Empire as unique nations and only 29 of those were ostensibly allied. Some were alliances made via significant pressure. Of the 49 that were not sovereign nations, including the planet where the Clevelhand Intelligence Center was located and where she taught, only 14 still had any of the original inhabitants. The other 35 had been totally sterilized.

If one looked at the data objectively, without the nativist slant, one could only conclude that the Randian Empire was an aggressive, even antagonistic conglomerate, at least in its recent past, despite its assertions and literature to the contrary. While rationalizing that it reflected periods of particular aggression in its history, she could not overlook that six of those sterilized planets had happened during the twenty-nine years she had been in existence.

And that likely explained her momentary lapse, her credulous moment when she saw the shattered surface of Emulu and thought it real. Doubts, even against the most sacrosanct of rules.

With one motion, she rose, clearing her tablet and ignoring the tech who had done a poor job of pretending to ignore her.

She stepped to her office to write up her daily log, her mind contemplative. She had lived all of her twenty-nine years in service to the Randian Intelligence Agency. Her mother was an analyst of renown who had given her up at birth to be raised in a creche with specific emphasis on expansion of her abilities. With all modesty, she had surpassed their expectations greatly and had started work in this center at the age of eight. It was simply not possible that the data she received—data they needed her to evaluate—would be deliberately tampered with. That was illogical and drastically reduced her value as an analyst.

She sat at her desk and logged in, checking the statistics on the various worlds in negotiation with, at war with and a part of the Randian Empire as she always did. The numbers were clear on the screen: only 15 planets had been sterilized and the other numbers were changed, all to add up to 112. Emulu remained on the list of those under diplomatic negotiation. She remembered the picture she had been shown under her own name in the training room twenty minutes before included a foliage pattern completely different from the season it should currently be but identical to what it was in her last report from four standards before.

She would have to cogitate the implications and impacts of the fact that the Randian Intelligence Agency had deliberately provided her misinformation.




Three - Unexpected Result


There are few things as rewarding as the ability to figure things out, even complex things. However, for those who have it, there are few things as frustrating as those conclusions that remain stubbornly unexplained.

-Slave to Logic by Blinn Ostes



The next day, Nayna's class continued as if Gama had never existed. Nayna had received a report on the crimes and "confession" of Gama and the swift sentence already carried out, and if a part of her was sickened that a young lady was sacrificed needlessly to further their propaganda, it wasn't the first time the brutal methods of her employers had caused her pain. She hid it of course, and, again wondered if it hampered her options. Or perhaps, they were afraid their lies would be discovered. Perhaps she was more useful where she was.

She had always suspected the latter anyway.

If the other students were affected by the previous disturbance, by Gama's absence, or by her likely fate, there was no outward sign. Just as I'd expect from elite agent recruits, she thought. Just as she showed herself. Why did that make her so sad?

Years of practice kept any sign of sorrow from her face or her instruction. That was the first lesson, taught from the beginnings of her memory. Emotion taints the analysis, she'd been told. She must be divorced of emotion. Lessons from the creche. Lessons from this center from when she first trained here. She had learned them so well that most of the desensitizing sessions, sessions of brainwashing, memory repression and emotional distancing, were judged unnecessary in her case.

Technically, it was not so much that she learned to banish her emotions so much as she learned to look as though she didn't have them. Oh, anger, fear, and hatred were encouraged, used, manipulated. But compassion, sympathy, and sorrow were to be stripped from all analysts, and she'd done her best to hide her own. Though, without a frame of reference, she didn't know if feelings she thought were these tender emotions were even legitimate.

No one she had ever known had shown those kinds of emotion, except for new recruits and those that screamed at night with memories they could no longer consciously recall. At least, no emotions she could understand. What emotions she had seen were always devastating emotions, usually loss beyond her ken.

No one except Bryder.

However, no one could confuse Bryder with a standard for emotional development or a standard for any topic, so she was left with no real knowledge of whether her emotions were genuine or artifacts of her logical mind.

Real or artificial, emotional thinking like that was carefully kept from her reports, but she'd often wondered if anyone had surmised the truth. If her emotionality was what had kept her from being a field agent. She'd never seen any indication anyone knew.

Well, anyone but Bryder.

If ever there were anyone who defied analysis, it was Bryder.

She'd been explaining the full extent of the Randian Empire—or what she'd been informed was the full extent—on a cosmological holo projection, when she turned back to the class and saw Bryder at the back, sitting in one of the sterile gray chairs and grinning from ear to ear.

As if her thought had conjured him.

She could not discount telepathy, though he denied it. With her mind in disarray and still unable to grasp what she should do with the new datum that she'd been provide deliberate misinformation, what it meant to her, what it meant about the Empire who had raised her to use for their own ends, he had to show up. She blinked slowly as if he might disappear again.

As if divining her intent, he crossed his eyes at her.

Nayna had to choke back a laugh, something she only did in Bryder's presence. In fact, she had no recollection of laughing before Bryder became an analyst eight years previously. Schooling her features, she was dismayed to see that several of the students had caught her lapse before she had recovered. With the exhibition sparring three days previously, there was little doubt they had also determined the cause.

When Rengo appeared at the door, a moment later, she felt real relief. She'd been notified that the students would have a three-day field trip to practice some physical skills with Rengo and Berrs, and the students greeted the news, effective immediately, with interest. Their absence would allow her to complete some pressing analyses. And develop a plan for damage control for the Gama incident.

But she'd do that after she gave Bryder a piece of her mind. Seething inwardly, though hopefully she appeared expressionless, she ignored Bryder as her class filed out. Only as the door slid shut, did she spare him a glance to find him sprawled in apparent comfort and clearly unabashed.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

He looked faintly surprised. "I work here."

She breathed in deeply, then let it out. "I mean, why are you in my classroom?"

"I love your lectures."

"How long have you been there?"

"What makes you think I wasn't there the whole time?"

Her brain rejected the notion as impossible, but a part of her wondered. After all, she never noticed him come in. "Don't you have anything better to do?"

"I finished reworking my report and had a spare few minutes, so I thought I'd come see the most beautiful analyst in the Empire."

"Nonsense!"

"It is indisputably true. Don't you have a mirror in your stateroom?"

"I fail to see…"

"Ah, I'll make sure you get one, then."

"Will you be serious?"

His face sobered instantly. "Looks like you've had more than enough of that already."

For a moment, she felt totally naked, her inner thoughts, her inner turmoil revealed and obvious to this percipient man. "What do you mean?" but even she could hear the fear in her question.

He regarded her with what she hoped was kindness not pity. "Are you hungry, beautiful? I'm starving. Writing reports twice as long as they should be always makes me ravenous."

"If your report is only twice as long as it was before, it likely took you ten minutes and is hardly going to be any more acceptable than the first one."

"You wound me," he said in devastated accents, leading her from the classroom. "Cafeteria good enough?"

"That's where I always eat."

"Yes, I know."

"You don't. Where else do you eat?"

"I doubt there is an idyllic corner tucked away in this center that I am not intimately aware of."

"Why did that sound sexual?"

"Why indeed?"

"Do you—? Have you—?" What was she asking? Sexual liaisons among analysts and agents were encouraged in the hopes of progeny like she was herself. She had no business asking such a personal questions or feeling in any way disturbed by it.

Bryder looked at her directly, in that way he had that seemed absolutely sincere to her, and said, "Yes. But I often have places for just solitude as well."

"You have an office and a stateroom, same as I."

He took her hand and threaded it through his arm to rest on his forearm. "There are different levels of solitude required. And aesthetics. Sometimes one needs the aesthetics."

As they strode, Nayna wrestled with the unending question of Bryder. She could not get a handle on him. Part of her, a very compelling part of her, wanted to find one of his hidey-holes and tell him what she'd discovered and discuss the implications with him. She didn't know why it had to be Bryder, for she hadn't been tempted to discuss her concerns about misinformation with anyone else she knew. Perhaps it was because he was an analyst, the best in some ways, perhaps better than she was herself. Or because she was sure he wouldn't dismiss her concerns out of hand. Or because…because she trusted him for some reason. Somehow.

But another part, quieter and less demanding but with a far more compelling argument, disagreed. The very fact that Bryder sidled up to her and constantly seemed to try to goad a reaction out of her made him far more likely a spy than a conspirator, especially given that, while everyone else was carefully schooled to objectivity, he had never made the slightest attempt to do so or even pretend to. And, rather than be reprimanded or eliminated, he had become a star analyst in record time. He had even had his conclusions given precedence over her own and was welcomed as a part time field agent where, from what she'd read, his success was even greater.

It did not seem plausible that someone who defied conventions so shamelessly would be given so much freedom and power unless he was trusted absolutely. Nor was it logical that he'd be trusted absolutely without very compelling evidence.

Therefore, though she didn't doubt he had additional information that would help her resolve her current dilemmas, he was far more likely to inform their superiors than to be someone she could trust with any of her doubts.

Her conclusion grieved her in a way the previous day's revelation had not.

"Come, come, no frowning. You'll ruin your appetite."

"Can you really read my mind?"

"I cannot but your face is far more expressive than you know, even if it's more subtle than most can catch."

"How is it you managed to avoid the desensitizing sessions for new recruits?" Just thinking about them made her shudder and her reaction at the time—clearly trauma—had convinced her handlers that the sessions stood to instill more emotions than erase them given her excellent control already noted.

"Hmm? Oh those." To Nayna's astonishment, he laughed long and hard. "I didn't. They sent me through twice but the brainwashing didn't work on me. No effect at all."

"Not even the drugs?" and she swallowed against remembered nausea.

"Can't say. First time they used 'em on me, they sent me into a coma. Not compatible with my physiology."

"Are you allergic?"

He gave her hand a squeeze with his elbow. "I don't mind you picking topics but nothing that's going to make you look even paler."

He gestured for her to precede him into the cafeteria then hovered behind her as she made her selection. In her wake, he took what seemed to be an inordinate amount of food for a man of his size. Then, he led her to a corner near the air handlers and offered her a chair.

His strange habits, holding doors open for her, leading her, holding the chair for her and helping to slide it in for her, he'd once told her were "courtesy" but she found them confounding. What possible use would it be to do things for her she was perfectly capable of doing for herself? After his unnecessary gesture, he walked around the table, regarding his watch closely.

"Where are you from?" she asked as he settled himself.

He answered with a grin. "I'm so glad I've finally piqued your interest."

"You have always interested me," she said. "I can't figure you out."

"My dear, what an encomium."

"In no way was that complimentary."

"On the contrary. To elude Rand's most able analyst is a feat indeed."

"Will you be serious? And why are you putting all that food on my tray? Didn't you get that for you?"

"No. You look hungry but didn't seem to want to indulge yourself."

She gave up on trying to shuffle the food back. He was somehow faster or maybe had a better plan. She looked at the pudding he had given her as her mind raced. "If I'm so damn good, why do they take your results if they conflict with mine?" She actually sounded aggrieved even to her own ears. Stupid pudding really did look appealing.

"Because I was right."

"How did they know?"

"Because, at first, they didn't take my results when we conflicted. And you were wrong." He chewed and swallowed a mouthful of tart green fruit. "They hated it then and they hate it now, even more than you do. Only when your answer is uncertain do they bring me in. When you're rock solid sure, they never question it."

Emulu and the devastated landscape, the soulless excavators eating the decaying soul of a beautiful civilization, flashed across her mind. Oh, they questioned it plenty.

"So many worlds destroyed," she said without meaning to and gasped.

He nodded, sobered. "Sixty-three."

She didn't gasp again, but she almost did. Even before they had reordered the numbers, she'd never had that many worlds destroyed on her list. Surely not! But then, she'd been wrong about Emulu, which was not even listed among the 112. She regarded him again, his warm hazel eyes, his look of total sincerity. Perhaps he was not among those intent on feeding her misinformation. That did not mean he could be trusted, but he might be able to give her more information, if she was careful. If only he weren't so observant.

"Have you ever recommended…?" Did that sound like an accusation? Even with the most aggressive civilizations she'd been asked to evaluate and analyze, she had always been able to find options beyond annihilation. Even now, she didn't know if it was because she didn't want to be responsible for such destruction or because the options were truly viable. At least four of those worlds she'd recommended sparing were, in fact, not spared, though the reports had always insisted they had tried all the options she'd suggested and more. How many others were there?

If his conclusions differed from hers, was that why they weren't spared?

He held her gaze. "No. There is no justification I've ever discovered for such destruction."

The relief was palpable, almost physical. From the timbre of his voice and the look in his eyes, she didn't doubt he spoke the truth. Maybe she wasn't as good at spotting lies as she thought.

She glanced at her tray, astonished to find she'd finished everything on it. How did he do that?

"Who are you? Where are you from?"

"Didn't you ask me that earlier?"

"Yes, but you didn't answer."

"I'm Pendan. That's why Randian drugs don't synthesize properly. Make sure, if I'm ever injured, to have my individual first aid kit handy 'cause yours will kill me."

"Penda is allies with Rand, well, more like a member nation."

"But," he said, "I was born on Rellimar."

She felt her heart grow cold. "Rellimar was destroyed."

"And a very compelling argument it was to convince its sister planet, Penda, to join up," he said.

"How did you survive?"

"My father was no fool. Well, not fool enough to have his wife and children dirtside when he smelled trouble. Just fool enough to think his staying could make a difference."

He stood. While she hadn't noticed, he'd gathered all their dishes and stacked them on one tray then hoisted them so he could dispose of them. Then, with deliberation, he bent over the table, his mouth close to her ear. "You really can trust me, Nayna. I'll be here when you're ready."

Without another word, but a cheerful whistle, he was gone.




Four - Consistent Outlier


Data always has the final word. It doesn't matter if you can explain it; if real data consistently disagrees with your analysis, you must change your understanding to match.

-Advanced Analysis by Nayna Rand



Nayna jolted awake to the sound of screaming. Screaming nightmares weren't an unknown thing, with so many analysts coming from military backgrounds or torn from their families, but Nayna never knew what to do when it happened.

Junior analysts slept together in a large dormitory. Although, as a senior analyst, Nayna had her own stateroom, she had always slept here, unable to sleep without sensing the breathing of others. The one night she tried sleeping in her assigned stateroom, sleep eluded her, and she eventually crept into the dormitory, unable to put a name on the dread that had gripped her when she'd tried to sleep alone.

The dorm was a series of bunk beds, though no one chose to sleep atop hers. Even though Jana screamed at the far side of the room, Nayna had no problem discerning the screams, the names she screeched out in her fright. Children? Comrades? Nayna had no way of knowing—short of stealing a glance at Jana's personnel file—and no way of helping if she had known.

Nayna knew nothing of family. She had lived in the service of the Randian Empire from birth. This had been her whole world. She could offer nothing of solace or even emotion she could call genuine. She could not offer sympathy for feelings that were beyond her.

Nor, she suspected, would her solace be welcome.

She slept among the other analysts, worked among them, but none of them could be called friends. They spoke with her, most were polite, many were kind, but none wanted to know her better. Who could blame them? To them, she was a soulless machine, the model of all they despised and were asked to emulate, even forced to via drugs and brutality.

Not one person went out of his way to spend a single second in her company that wasn't absolutely necessary.

"I know you're awake, Nayna."

Except Bryder.

"I know you have a stateroom assigned, Bryder. Why are you here?" She sat up and glared at him, where he sat perched on the edge of her bed, his neck bent to fit under the top bunk.

"I only use the stateroom if I have a girl to woo. Otherwise, I sleep here. Didn't you notice?"

She had noticed he usually slept in the dorm, but hadn't wanted to let him know she noticed. His ego was hard to control as it was. Nor could she bring herself to be happy with another reminder of his interest in others, however admirable management found it. Somehow, she couldn't like it. Not for Bryder.

"Are you alright, Nayna?"

"Me?" she asked, confounded as she so often was with him. "Don't you mean Jana?"

Bryder glanced at the crowd gathered around the girl, offering comfort and consolation. "I think she's covered. I'm worried about you."

"Me?" she asked again.

"You feel guilty because you think you can't help. Not because you don't care, but because they think you don't care."

Without any hesitation, he slid behind her on the bed and wrapped his arms around her. "What are you doing? Did I say you could touch me?" She could think of ways of forcing him away, but she didn't entirely hate the warmth at her back. She'd felt uncharacteristically cold.

"Are you alright, Nayna? Do you know how this hurts you?" he murmured in her ear.

"Am I hurt?" She tried to turn her head to look at him, but he was too close. "What do you mean?"

"Not all hurts are physical. You can listen to Jana and know that's true. You don't scream out like she's doing, but it hurts you that you can't even imagine what she's lost because you've never had anything to lose, never had anything to cherish or to hold on to."

Nayna ought to be gratified that someone had voiced her own thoughts so well, that someone cared enough to tell her, but found herself irritated instead. "You make me sound pathetic." She tried to analyze her own frustration. Why did he so often get under her skin when no one else did?

"You are pathetic, sweetheart," he rumbled into her ear. "But that's hardly your fault. Sadly, your exceptional brains and soul make it worse, not better."

He irked her, no doubt, he provided a distraction from the helpless despair she had felt before. Also, there was something comforting in the heat at her back, in the soft low voice in her ear. She found herself relaxing. She hadn't even known how tense she was until it released. His effective manipulation of her emotions irked her even more. "Don't you have something more important to do than analyze me?"

The arms around her squeezed when she made a half-hearted attempt to get away. "Perish the thought. Nothing could be more important than the psyche of our top analyst," he said, laughter in his voice. "Besides, you're not that hard to read."

That earned him an ungentle elbow in the gut, but he didn't let go. Why could she never discern his thinking? He gave clues, of course, but the conclusions she reached using them always seemed to be at odds with what he was actually thinking. She privately thought his synapses were wired in a totally unique way.

So how, if his mind worked so differently than hers—and every other person she'd come across—how could he read her thoughts, her emotions, her deepest fears so easily? Everyone else was convinced she had no emotions at all, so how did he…?

"I told you I'm not psychic."

"Must you do that?"

"It is fun. You wouldn't be half so vexed with me if you weren't so used to knowing every damn thing on just a little data." He loosened his hold on her but didn't slide away and, as she was comfortable, she didn't move either. The warmth was soothing. "Don't blame yourself. You can't figure me out for exactly the reason you think. I don't think like you do. I've got like this cloud of information and stuff will just fall out of it, not in a logical manner but in an apparently random way that is nearly always right. I can't explain it to you because you're logical and need a trail."

"Yet, you're brilliant." That sounded grudging and she hated that it did. She had no business resenting anyone else's intelligence.

"Thank you and yes I am, but it's unreliable since I have to wait for answers and some never come, and I can't explain the ones that do. You, on the other hand, see it all, big picture and every detail, every nuance, every stroke, painting a complete and amazing picture with sketchy data. So, the brilliant thing, right back at ya."

Since Nayna had been told repeatedly that she was brilliant all her life and had plenty of evidence to support the truth of the assertion, she had no reason to be pleased that this eccentric person thought so, too. But she was. "Why do you seek me out? There are many who seek your company."

"But not yours."

"Yes."

"They don't seek out your company, though you're both beautiful and intelligent in part because you are both beautiful and intelligent."

"That does not make sense."

"Of course it does. Someone so fair and smart is intimidating and makes many feel inadequate. They get over that by assuming you have nothing more than that. So, they don't seek you out because they see only the surface and don't care to see more."


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