MacKenna: A Knight Of Ghosts And Shadows

"Chapter One"

"Ancestors save us," E'treBin muttered as he surveyed yet another storeroom packed solid from floor to ceiling with paperboard file boxes.

"When will this end?" V'demEdr groaned as he arched his back and rolled his head from side to side to get the kinks out of his neck.

E'treBin gave him a sour look. "What makes you think it will ever end? We're doomed, my friend. Even our Ancestors can't help us now."

"All right you two, get on it before I saddle you with another hand of days," the Worthy yelled from down the corridor.

"See what I mean?" E'treBin grumbled.

He took small comfort knowing they brought this on themselves: sixteen days each on defaulters; him for being overly fond of TiHiuta berries, V'demEdr for overstaying release pass. Their service to the Chamber Of Ancients and to the herd these days consisted of hauling bales of mouldering old personnel records for 'Grays' now long dead out of the storage bunkers where they gathered dust and vermin for several hundred years, and dragging them by the utility cart load to the trash bins parked at the building's service dock. E'treBin had eleven more days of this coming; V'demEdr could look forward to thirteen days. The Service Warden Worthy was an unsympathetic un'tdar who delighted in reminding them that this was probably the best the 'Grays' could expect from them, and no better than they deserved.

"Well, for the good of the herd," E'treBin sighed, mocking the ancient motto of the 'Grays'. He hauled another bulky carton down off the top of the stack; it came apart in his hands, showering his legs with wet paper pulp and P'grrt'p droppings. "l'cc'vn!" He cringed under the filthy deluge, then shook himself all over trying to throw the mass off. "What good are these Ancestorless forms anyway? They don't even keep these bunkers watertight."

This was one of the oldest parts of the 'Grays' Headquarters Circle, the long unvisited storerooms under the main floor where records from the old, old days were filed and forgotten. The place was a maze of narrow corridors and supposedly 'climate controlled' bunkers dimly lit by fixtures—those still working—which hadn't been used for over a century. The floors were cracked and uneven, the ancient concrete crumbling with age, and there was a fingers-width of muddy groundwater everywhere. The Engineers were down the hall in another section planning the repairs needed to keep the Circle from collapsing in on itself, to say nothing of using this maze for storage again.

The latest gossip was that the 'Grays' Headquarters Circle could no longer expand since it was in the middle of the Chamber Of Ancients' administrative complex, thus already packed in tighter than the Worthy's sphincter. Hence these old records must be shoveled out—despite monumental bureaucratic angst and theatrics—to make room for new. They'd been at it all summer, and a miserable summer it was; back-breaking labor in a dank, chilly labyrinth smelling of fungus and wet rot. There were P'grrt'ps and other, nastier vermin everywhere, and V'demEdr sported a bandage on his left forefinger from when he startled something in its lair. Shovel duty was the new favorite punishment of Worthies everywhere, and it seemed every slack-tail and ear-deficient in the 'Grays' were condemned to these miserable caves.

"l'cc'vn," E'treBin whined as he struggled clear of the mess. "Is this fair, I ask you?"

"Don't ask me, I just work here."

"I'm sure I wouldn't like the answer anyway," E'treBin muttered as he grabbed the long-handled floor brush and began herding the mess back into a pile. He heard a plastic clatter before he noticed a dull blue case amid the sludge. Curious, and bored, he picked it up. It was some sort of computer disc with a faded label:

First Secret
Authorized Access Only

"What's that?" V'demEdr asked.

E'treBin fiddled with the plastic case, noting the date on the security label. "It's two hundred years old, if you can believe it. It must have been misfiled. Can't be anything important now."

"What are you two up to?" It was the Worthy again, and he was not happy.

"I found this." E'treBin offered it hastily since that un'brapta was all too likely to make good on his threat of more work days.

"So?" Not good.

"So it's labeled 'First Secret'. It must be important."

"It must have been misfiled," V'demEdr added. It never hurts to curry favor with the Worthy, no matter how feeble the attempt.

The Worthy debased himself enough to receive it from his hand, and pondered the label skeptically. "All right, this is no concern of yours. Now get back to work and clean this mess up. And wear a clean uniform in the future," he told E'treBin. "Or we'll have a little chat with the First Degree."

That was ominous; the First could hand down a lot more than extra days. The Worthy must be hard for them. "Yes, sir," they chorussed. He gave them a contemptuous snort and stomped off.

"Right." E'treBin offered V'demEdr a weary sigh as he brushed off a last few clinging bits of slop, then fielded the floor brush again. "I'll sweep, you scoop."

"Right." That old data chip was no longer their problem.

§

The Worthy met his counterpart a little later for mid-meal. "Someone found this in the dead files." He handed the computer chip to Second Degree C'demBreg, who was poking at his meal with little enthusiasm. "It probably isn't important any more."

C'demBreg put aside his cafeteria issue uf'thoka, which he wasn't thrilled about anyway, and pondered the chip curiously. "Two hundred years?" He gave his Worthy a bemused look. "I knew it was bad down there, but I had no idea it was this bad!"

"Yes, well you can take a turn down there and see for yourself. It'll be an education for you."

"Um...I'll be happy to once I get the paperwork cleared up."

His Worthy greeted that with a weary sigh of resignation. C'demBreg and their mini-herd of clericals were busy at ever more meaningless make-work while he and the cc’v'renk dregs he was saddled with dug out the old. It was the endless Cosmic cycle, Egg Unto Egg Eternal.

"So what do we do with this?" He gestured pointedly at the ancient data disc, which was emitting a faint foul oder. "It's First Secret after all."

C'demBreg replied with a derisive snort. "Someone's idea of a First Secret from two hundred years ago. I doubt even the Ancestors know what it's about now." He laid it aside and went back to eating. "I'll take care of it."

"And you'll take a turn downstairs tomorrow?" his Worthy griped. He wasn't looking forward to going down into that cesspool again, but cosmic justice being what it was, he'd probably retire from there.

"Yes, yes, all right."

Mid-meal was no big loss. The Worthy finished first and headed back to the stygian depths while C'demBreg lingered over his V'liz as long as he dared, then headed back to work. As he stood up, he noticed the disc and tucked it gingerly into his pouch, intending to drop it in the nearest trash receptacle, after which it would no longer be his problem.

§

And that would have been the end of it, except C'demBreg forgot to toss the disc in the trash, and found it in his pouch later in the evening when he got home.

"What is that, love?" His bondmate, L'gevMemb, asked.

"This?" He handed it to her with a dismissive ear twitch. "Someone found it in the vaults today. No one knows what it is, but it's lain buried in the defenders' files for at least two hundred years."

"Really?" She glommed onto it and studied the label eagerly, her ears full forward. They were an unlikely pair. He was a plodding low-level staff bureaucrat in the 'Grays' and she an associate Learnéd of history with a major museum here in the World Nest. They met several years ago when he was overseeing the disposal of obsolete service hardware, and she was shopping for artifacts. He had orders to get as much as he could; she had a limited budget. Their bargaining became a battle of the sexes in which the 'Grays' came out second best, and he wound up in a relationship which his superiors looked askance upon and he never did quite figure out how it happened. She was lively, a bit plump, her tail a bit too short to be really beautiful, but cute and vivacious nonetheless. As much as their friends gossiped, they were inseparable.

"This is wonderful, love!" she gushed. "These old data chips are unbelievably rare! I don't think there's more than a couple hand's worth still in existence. This will make a fine addition to the museum's collection."

"Well...I thought you'd find it interesting." He had enough wit to keep his ears down when she was in a happy mood. This might prove a pleasant evening after all.

"Oh, I do! I wonder if there's anything still on it? Some old documents from the period would make a fine addition to the reference files as well."

"Um..." That stroked his residual caution, albeit late in the day. "Actually I'm not sure if you can do that. It's labeled First Secret, after all."

"Nonsense! What could be important after two hundred years? From what you said, it was in the dead files anyway, so what will it matter at this late date?"

She had a point, but then she usually did. "I guess you're right."

"Of course I'm right; perceptive of you." She smiled and gave him a suggestive ear twitch. "What would you say to some of my spiced l'ni'ddi?" She cuddled close and nibbled his ear. "We can celebrate this discovery."

That was promising. Her 'spiced' l'ni'ddi was a product of her hobby of herblore, and potent stuff. His mal instincts were stirring just at the thought of it. "That sounds fine, love." He gave her a beatific smile, and nibbled her ear in turn. Tonight was going to be pleasant indeed. In any event, that old disc was no longer his problem.

§

L'gevMemb took the disc to Learnéd A'bverMenb, the museum's Technology Curator the next morning, who greeted the discovery in his own predictable way. "It's a shame it's so dirty," he sniffed. "You'd think the 'Grays' would show a little more respect for their antiquities." He held the disc up to the light and studied it closely, his eyes not being the best any more. "And it stinks, too!" He handed it back with obvious disdain. "It would have to be thoroughly cleaned and reconditioned before we could consider it for our displays."

His fetish for being neat and tidy was a constant knot in everyone's tail since he simply wouldn't grasp the idea of antiquities being displayed in their natural state. The thought of some ancient artifact being abandoned to the ravages of time and the elements would send him into a righteous tizzy. The museum held a fair collection of Industrial Dawn Era artifacts packed away in the storerooms while expensive replicas filled the cases. Other museums often twisted their tails about their 'showroom display' of 'modern marvels'.

L'gevMemb refused to be dismayed, since A'bverMenb's quirks were well known among the staff. "There's more to this than meets the nose," she said, pointedly. "There might still be ancient documents on this chip. If we can recover them, they would be an interesting addition to both the Technology and Service History Circles."

He adjusted his spectacles and pondered the ancient artifact with no enthusiasm. "Perhaps so, but I doubt you will be able to pull anything off it. It's a shame the 'Grays' don't respect their own history."

"Let's see what Z'admBre and her 'v'thorbles can come up with. If there's anything here, I'm sure they can recover it."

"Oh, very well then, if you insist. At least it won't be my problem any more."

§

Learnéd Z'admBre took a very different view of her find, which produced a stir among the techno-fetishists in her small Modern Technology section. "Ancestors!" she gushed. "I've always wanted to get my hands on one of these!"

"We might still be able to access whatever is on it, too," L'gevMemb added.

"We'd have to custom build a reader to access it," one of her technicians said, dubiously. "That could take some doing."

"This looks like flat-face scan technology," the other said. "We can probably adapt a modern reader to pull the bulk data off, and create a software to sort it out."

"Good!" Z'admBre said. "A modern reader might even pull erased or corrupted data. It'll give us something to work with for a restoration."

"I know someone who could write a program for us. I'm sure we can talk him down to a reasonable fee for something like this."

"This might work yet!" All four of them were becoming excited by the prospect of a major historical find.

"In the mean time, we have to figure out how to open it and clean it thoroughly," first added. "We'll need to call on some of the document restoration experts to help clean the mold out of it."

"Hopefully they won't have any problems with it."

§

Said call was duly made, and the response was prompt and positive. "If this is anything like modern magnetic media, we have plenty of methods to clean it," one of the visiting specialists said as they carefully examined the ancient casing.

Their enthusiasm was contagious. "Do you think we can do it?" L'gevMemb asked.

"Certainly. These materials are a lot tougher than ancient paper or hides."

"The big issues will be abrasion and chemical reactions in the media material," his associate said. "We have a number of specialized solvents we can use. I'm sure we can find something to clean it with."

"We can test for compatibility along the edge of the disc," the first said. "It'd be a shame to ruin a find like this!"

This wasn't a big worry for any of them, since these two were famed for their restoration of the oldest known paper document, a priceless find some seven thousand years old, now perfectly legible for the few who could read the ancient squiggles.

"All right, then," L'gevMemb said. "If you're confident you can salvage it without damaging the media, then let's give it a try."

"Not a problem," she was promised.

§

Such delicate work takes time, and these two were consummate professionals. The first rumors of a major early digital tech find were already circulating through academia by the time they opened the case and perfected a safe cleaning method. That in turn took several hands of days before the recovered disc, now looking almost new enough to satisfy old A'bverMenb, could be scanned.

That was when they received their first surprise: apparently the disc was custom made, with a far greater data density than even modern storage media. Pulling the data with conventional equipment proved a major challenge. Learnéd Z'admBre and her 'v'thorbles struggled with it for two hands of days before admitting defeat. They turned to the academic community for help, but even the best minds in academia were soon stumped.

"This is amazing," one of her specialists whined. "I don't understand how something this advanced could be lost to history."

Z'admBre was frustrated as well, since this opaque mystery was an affront to her technocratic hearts. "Can you think of anything we haven't tried?"

The other technician shook his head. "We're completely tail-knotted over this one."

"We need help," the first said. The mystery was bugging them all to the point where they would grasp any possibility, no matter how remote.

"Right. We better look beyond academic circles for this."

"Um... You might want to bring in the legal circle, then," L'gevMemb added. "We should establish our Discovery claim before announcing something this important. Then we don't have to worry about future problems."

§

So they turned to the recording industry, who greeted the news with disbelief. The find drew in a hand's worth of top research specialists who were every bit as baffled by the origins of this mystery as the museum staff were. They fiddled with the museum's setup for a solid day before giving up in defeat.

"I've never heard of the like," one of the most prominent industry Learnéds complained. "I can't see how such amazing technology could simply vanish into history without a trace."

"However it happened, it's high time the process was rediscovered," one of his counterparts said. "But we can't do much in this limited facility. We need to take this back to our laboratory for proper testing."

That evoked a storm of protest from the others, each of whom were determined to claim this find for their employers. Things were getting completely out of hand when the Legal Circle decided to intervene.

"This is a significant and valuable find, and the museum exerts Right of Discovery over it," the Legal First said. "Since there is no record of who created it way back then, and any Writ of Discovery must surely have lapsed by now, we have filed claim on it. In the interest of fairness, we will license the technology to whomever takes part in unraveling this mystery. In the mean time, the disc remains right here."

That produced another storm of protest, which availed them nothing since the museum was on solid legal ground. The industry representatives eventually went on their way, grumbling and no doubt scheming on how they could claim the prize.

"We really stirred up something, didn't we?" Learnéd L'gevMemb said in dismay as the dust settled.

"That could be an understatement," Learnéd Z'admBre said. "Assuming they decide to go along with this licensing scheme."

"They will." Legal First was certain about that. "From what you said, this is a technological breakthrough, and they'll trip over each others' tails to get in on it." He gave them a sardonic ear twitch. "I think you can all look forward to significantly increased department budgets in the future."

"Maybe, if nothing comes up to tail-knot us," L'gevMemb whined.

"Well if anything does, it won't be a legal problem."

§

Sure enough, the project received a massive grant from a joint industry consortium, as all of the major players were eager to grab a piece of this amazing ancient discovery. The museum's modest tech lab was soon humming with activity as they set about to build the ultimate disc reader using cutting edge technology, and beyond. This earned them a grumble from old Learnéd A'bverMenb, who complained that they were supposed to record and preserve history, not reinvent it. His complaint to the museum's Administrative Circle was promptly overruled when they heard how much the museum stood to gain in licensing fees.

In the mean time, they hand built a custom scanner far more sensitive than anything on the market, taking advantage of some of the most secretive research gladly yielded up by the consortium. It was a jury-rigged monstrosity, but once they got the thing running, they discovered the ancient disc was indeed loaded with data, which thrilled them no end.

But it wasn't as simple as all that. Despite their fancy jury-rigged reader, they had to scan the disc repeatedly and overlay the results to get a mostly complete transcription. By then everyone was excited over what appeared to be a long lost technical breakthrough, and what it meant for their company coffers, and for their personal fortunes.

The one cloud hanging over this glittering opportunity was the prospect of some unpredictable hang-up, but failure was far from their minds, bedazzled as they were by the bright prospects ahead. Few of them paid any thought to potential problems.

§

The first sign of trouble was when their software expert gave his initial report after the data was laboriously reviewed. "This appears to be a recording of memory engrams."

"Memory engrams?" Z'admBre exchanged confused looks with L'gevMemb. "I don't understand. Memory engrams?"

L'gevMemb was not thrilled as she pondered this unexpected wrinkle. All of a sudden the glittering promise didn't seem so shiny after all. "If I recall...wasn't there some research done way back when on recorded memories as a teaching tool?"

Z'admBre offered a sour ear twitch. "I heard something about that. Apparently they never got it to work right, which is good, I'd say. I'd hate to live in a society where peoples' minds can be programmed. It's probably for the best they abandoned it."

"So what could be on this disc? Are these the memories of some important Learnéd or historical figure?"

That got them excited all over again. "If so, this could be the find of a lifetime!" Z'admBre said. "Imagine having a verbatim transcript of an eye witness to history!"

"Or the inner thoughts and feelings of some prominent Learnéd," L'gevMemb gushed. "We'll be famous!"

But the ominous feeling could not be denied. "No doubt. But can we produce a usable transcript? We have enough trouble accessing the data at all; I'm not sure how we can translate it into a usable form."

"Hmmm... Good point. Z'admBre pondered the matter uneasily. "This is outside our sphere of knowledge. We need to bring in someone who understands these things; a Learnéd Neurologist, perhaps."

"Great! More people to share the acclaim!"

"Hopefully that will be our only problem."

§

Their next step was to bring in a distinguished Learnéd of neurology whose work in brain wave patterns produced a series of breakthroughs in treating psychological disorders.

"It doesn't appear to be one of us," she reported some time later. "I'm not sure what you have here, but it definitely isn't Ic'nichi."

"But...what? Who is it?" Z'admBre sputtered. She and L'gevMemb were both caught flat-eared by this unexpected development.

"These could be the memories of an alien being," their consulting Learnéd told them. "If so, it's outside my academic sphere. You'll need to consult a xenopsychologist."

"I...don't suppose we can find those in the phone directory?" Z'admBre mumbled.

"Probably not, since there aren't more than a hand or so of really good ones. Your best bet is to try the Institute, since they do medical research for the space program."

They offered their compliments and made their way outside, where they stopped to sort things out. "Well: isn't this a great, steaming pile of ui'DmukNa!" Z'admBre was upset, and didn't care who knew it. "This tail knot gets bigger every step of the way!"

L'gevMemb offered a morose ear twitch. "An alien race? What have we stumbled into?"

"I'm beginning to wonder why they put that First Secret label on it. We may have uncovered something better left alone."

"But it was in the dead files..."

"For a good reason, perhaps?"

"That doesn't make sense."

"What does about this?" Z'admBre fumed indecisively for some time before asking, "So what do we do now?"

"I guess all we can do is take it over to the Institute, and find out just how big a problem this is."

§

They got lucky for once, if one may call it such, since one of the very few 'really good' Learnéds of Xenopsychology was in Residence at the Institute. She greeted their tale of woe with open disbelief at first, but her skepticism was soon erased as she studied the data. "The pattern structure is definitely alien," she said. "But I don't recognize it."

That curled their ears. "Is this an unknown race?" L'gevMemb asked, nervously.

"Perhaps not. We don't have neurological studies of every intelligent species we know of. This could be something new, although I doubt it. More likely it's from the Zbraant or, who knows? perhaps the Black Sphere People."

They took precious little comfort from her words, since relations with the prickly Zbraant were non-existent, and the rumors about the Black Sphere People were the stuff of nightmares. This was even worse than they thought at first.

"But...these files are two hundred years old!" Z'admBre cried. "Why haven't we heard of this race if we've been in contact with them for two hundred years?"

Their Xenopsychologist was alarmed by that bit of news. "I know of every species of intelligent life we ever discovered. There were several contacts at about that time, but all of them are well documented...except...the Cloudworlders...and the Black Sphere People. If this is one of them, you could be squatting on a potential catastrophe!"

"Are you sure? Could this be evidence of a coverup?" L'gevMemb was shaken by the prospect of those malevolent creatures. They were seriously in over their ears here.

"You aren't one of those conspiracy-n'bna'nmn, are you?" the Xenopsychologist lectured her. "You need to grow a set of ears and quit this hro'n'nad. One can hardly 'cover up' an entire civilization! In any event, I would have certainly heard of it even if it was classified."

She was right, of course. "Sorry," L'gevMemb mumbled. "But if this is one of the Black Sphere People...?"

"Then I'd say you have a serious problem."

§

"The Black Sphere People?" Legal was appalled by Learnéd Z'admBre's report to the hasty conference called to deal with this unexpected development. "What have you gotten us into?"

"I knew this was a mistake," Learnéd A'bverMenb whined. "You couldn't just clean the thing up and put it in a case, could you?"

L'gevMemb fought down the urge to match A'bverMenb's angst and ignored him, which took some doing. "We had no idea what this thing was when we first found it!"

"What do we do now?" Z'admBre added.

"We have a whole new set of ears here," Legal said. "This may not be a useless relic after all. You better take that First Secret label seriously all of a sudden."

"But it was misfiled two hundred years ago! Obviously they don't care about it any more!"

"Misfiled, yes, but that doesn't alter its importance or its First Secret status, especially if it involves the Black Sphere People! We need to contact the 'Grays' to see what they want to do before we go any further."

That was bad news for all of them, not the least of which were the possible legal consequences. The museum stood to lose a bundle in licensing fees, not to mention souring relations with a number of steady contributors.

"Couldn't we just...accidentally erase it?" A'bverMenb wondered out loud.

Legal pondered that one with no enthusiasm. "Better not. This has drawn far too much attention already, and if word of you erasing that disc gets out, it could knot all our tails clear up to the Chamber Of Ancients."

"So what do we do?" L'gevMemb asked, plaintively. She was already ear-fallen over losing this wondrous find, not to mention alarmed at the prospect of being in real legal trouble.

"At a minimum it has to go back so we can mitigate any possible legal consequences. As for continuing to research it, you can ask the 'Grays' to declassify it, in which case it won't be a problem."

§

"...so you'll just have to take it back and get your superiors to sign off on it," L'gevMemb lectured Second Degree C'demBreg when he got home that evening.

That p'quas'tka computer chip showing up again after all this time was just what he needed to round out his little day. "I'm sorry, love," he murmured.

"You have no idea how big a smell this thing made. If we have to give it up now, the museum will have the biggest tail knot ever to deal with, not to mention the legal hassles!"

C'demBreg hardly noticed since he was preoccupied with the realization that some First Secret technology loaded with First Secret data had kicked around the local museum all summer; that academic circles were all a-buzz with it; that he was the one who dismissed it as useless and let it go; that in her present mood he was not likely to get any tonight; and that he could probably give their promotion to First Degree a fond parting ear-nibble. His worthy would not be pleased.

"Are you listening to me, C'demBreg?"

"Huh? Yes, of course, love!" The set of her ears was unnerving. "I'll take care of it right away!"

§

So C'demBreg did what all junior bureaucrats do when confronted with a critical decision: he panicked. He reached out to his Worthy the next morning, who received his litany of woe with the stoic resignation of Worthies immemorial.

"Such hro'n'nad," he complained. "If you'd thrown the l'cc'vn thing away like you said you would, we wouldn't be in this mess!"

C'demBreg winced at his tone. "I'm sorry! Neither of us thought it was important!" Like all Worthies, his could express disapproval in so many ways.

"There is that, but tossing it is one thing; giving it to your bondmate to blast all over the landscape is something else entirely."

He had a point there, but then he usually did. "We're in big trouble, aren't we?"

"'We'? This is your tail knot!" Nonetheless they both faced professional ruin since Elders and Worthies are teamed for their careers, something his Worthy was regretting at the moment.

"But what can I do?"

His Worthy sighed. "Do what you do with all important decisions: tag it 'First Finger' and kick it up-herd. By time someone figures it out, you'll be long lost in the shuffle. Then it won't be your problem."

§

There are good reasons for the multi-layered chain of command in any Service, and the 'Grays' chain was among the longest and most constricting of them all. Officially, it allowed various tasks to be compartmented into manageable units which can function on their own and pass the results up, down or sideways as needed. Unofficially, it allowed minor tail knots to be discreetly buried, thus preserving many a career.

C'demBreg typed up a brief, cryptic report on the disc, being careful to omit any mention of the Black Sphere People or anything which could come back to bite his tail. He was ready to move by mid-meal, since he had plenty of experience at this. When everyone else stampeded to the cafeteria, he stuck a blank routing form on the chip, checked the 'First Finger' box, scribbled an illegible signature on it, and discreetly tucked it into the bottom of the First Degree's 'IN' tray.

The First Degree found it two days later, and knew immediately one of his subordinates was trying to save his tail over some l'cc'vn nonsense. Strictly speaking, he should have demanded explanations, but that gets noticed from higher up, which would make him look bad. So he added his own illegible scrawl to the report and carefully misrouted it to the janitorial staff. Hopefully they would dismiss the matter and toss the chip.

Janitorial knew better since they received these things all the time; so much so that they had well-established policy to deal with such. They covered their tails with the twelve page 'Misrouted-Unknown Origin' form, and shipped it to Central Administration.

Six days later, Central Administration learned of this gift, and being perplexed by it all, trundled it over to Historical Archives with the fifty-eight page 'Miscellaneous Research Request And/Or Filing' form duly attached.

Historical Archives was not thrilled when they learned of it five days hence since they were hip deep in moldy old files being dug out of the underground storerooms. Plus there was no official 'Justification For Filing Statement' paperwork with it, so they hauled it back with the indignant 'Importance Of Proper Record Keeping' memo—only fourteen pages—added.

Central Administration duly noted, and for want of any better idea, attached a thirty-five page 'Security Breach Report-Routine' form and rumbled it off to Secure Administration.

The Ki- of Secure Administration—it reached that high by now—was perplexed by something classified that long ago, especially as there was no twenty-nine page 'Rationale For Classification' form appended. They simply didn't use this sort of computer chip any more, for one thing. He'd never seen the like, not to mention the Initiating Authority Code was for something not in their records. He did what all senior bureaucrats do in these cases: he sighed in resignation, attached the one hundred and forty-seven page 'Unclassifiable, Extraneous, Unexpected, and Inexplicable Event Or Matter Reporting' form, and avalanched it up-herd.

In due season the chip with its bulging file folder crash-landed on the desk of the 'Grays' Herd Guide, and since he had more important matters to attend to than sorting out ancient mysterious artifacts, he shoveled it up-herd in turn to the Ki-Eldest. He knew better than to let it become his problem.

§

His selfless act evoked a Command Staff conference two days later, since the Ki-Eldest was frankly at a loss for what to do.

"What are we doing with the recorded memories of a being from an unknown race?" Ki-Eldest Z'petDera toyed curiously with the antique chip. He was well versed in computer technology, but had never seen anything like it. From its stained, worn cover, it was old. Old. "And why haven't we heard about them for two hundred years?"

"Cloudworlders, perhaps?" the Herd Guide muttered as he pondered the date on the archaic 'First Secret' label.

Fleet Operations considered that distastefully. "Perhaps. They were exterminated at about that time. This could be some sort of life capsule."

Z'petDera frowned at the recollection. The one real interstellar war the Ic'nichi ever fought was against the Black Sphere People, who attacked them after wiping the Cloudworlders out. The fighting was unspeakably grim: many of the gory details were classified even now.

"For that matter, it could be the Zbraant, or maybe the Shades?" Personnel said. "Or perhaps even the Black Sphere People."

"The Black Sphere People?" The Ki-Eldest shuddered. "Just what we need!"

"So what do we do with this, sir?" the Herd Guide asked.

"Hmmm... This chip would give us some insight into whoever's memories these are if we can pull the data off it. There might be strategic significance to it."

The Ic'nichi knew of a couple hands of races, most of whom were not star travelers. Relations were good in general, but there were exceptions. The military mind is forever pondering the what-if of life. "I think we should explore this further." The Ki-Eldest gingerly handed the chip back to the Herd Guide. "Send it to the Technical Analysis Circle. Maybe they can make something of it."

"Yes, sir." Problem solved.

*****


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