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Optics

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 "Good afternoon, Dr. Meier. You have seventy-eight unread messages," the VI announced in a pleasantly noncommittal monotone. "Would you like me to classify them by urgency, or by sender?"

Nori didn't grace this with a response. She pushed the coffee button on the machine on her desk and elbowed her long-suffering mug under the spigot. The coffeemaker spluttered a stream of fresh brown sludge atop the congealing remnants of the previous three portions.

"My optimization algorithm suggests that, given your personality profile and work habits, the most efficient method of organization is by degree of social proximity and subjective sense of personal obligation," the VI announced in dulcet tones.

"Go fuck yourself, Doug," Nori grumbled under her breath. "Though I don't suppose that'll solve my problem." She flipped back to the first page of the dossier she had been staring at since this morning, when said dossier arrived in her inbox with great fanfare and a "Time Sensitive" header.

She'd been quite specific about not outfitting her virtual assistant with much of a personality. "As bland as you can make it," had been her specification to ExoGeni's tech rep when she had signed the contract, and they had outfitted her with a pointedly brutalist office, a corporate research account, and their obligatory executive suite and assorted productivity spyware—woefully wasted on her, since her first official assignment on Feros was still over a month away, pending clearance, and until then the productivity assessment had to limit itself to how often she checked her mail. On the other hand, this being ExoGeni, the galaxy's pioneer in Hellbound pavement initiatives, the cushy benefits came with the Digital Optimization User Guidance System, aka Doug.

Doug, hyper-attuned to even her most mumbled modulations, perked up. "I am afraid this directive is outside of my behavioral parameters, Dr. Meier. You have seventy-nine unread messages."

"Shitsticks," Nori summarized. Most of them were from her former students, asking for reference letters. A few from nonplussed colleagues from the Interstellar Sociology Association, offering awkward condolences—treating her defection from the Ivory Tower as if someone had died of an embarrassing communicable disease. The rest was marked ExoGeni Internal, and consisted of mostly ethical conduct protocols of every conceivable stripe. These were as lengthy as they were varied, covering every conceivable crack of her new corporate overlord's multifarious and expansive litigation-prone asses.

"Incoming call from Dr. Allan Saunders. My behavioral analysis system suggests that starting with communications that activate neural reward pathways may increase likelihood of subsequent follow-up. Will you be taking the call in the office or the living room?"

Nori leaned back in her chair, and stretched her protesting spine. "Put him on hold while I backup my notes, then patch him through. Give me three minutes."

"Commencing countdown, Dr. Meier."

Well. On the subject of Hell, one might as well speak of the Devil. Or to him, to be more accurate. She couldn't quite tell whether Doug was being ironic—could VIs be programmed for humor? Either way, Allan and reward pathways did not belong in the same grammatical structure. Dr. Allan Saunders had made for a brilliant colleague, a piss-poor husband—even before he had embarked upon the series of more or less sequential affairs with his graduate students—and finally settled, at the point of lowest energy expenditure, into a mostly serviceable ex. They had separated with no hard feelings and only pro forma litigation, leaving Nori with a tidy sum in her account and a sediment of amorphous relief. She supposed Allan simply couldn't help what he was—like so many academics of his caliber, he fell in love like some people weathered seasonal allergies: with clockwork regularity, and with the firm conviction that no one in the history of the known universe had ever suffered like he suffered. And since he was also the culprit behind her wasted morning and the goddamn dossier, it made him a convenient target for her ire.

The comlink sputtered before resolving into Allan's meticulously manicured, if somewhat grainy, likeness. Nori squinted at the vaguely tropical flora and ruddy skies before plastering a bland smile on her face.

"Enjoying your sabbatical?" She stopped short of inquiring as to which Jenna, or Mindy, or Karen he was enjoying it with.

"Eleonore, I know you must be very busy, and I appreciate you taking the time. Have you received my documents?"

For a brief moment, Nori considered feigning ignorance. "The Aeia case? It came in this morning, but I'm not entirely sure why..." She had her suspicions as to why, but Allan could work for it, as far as she was concerned.

He waved a spectral hand. "Right up your alley, actually. The Alliance brought us in, but what we're dealing with here..." He turned around, towards the glorious sunset and palm trees, and gestured at something outside the com's frame. "Listen, the generators here are abysmal, so this will have to be short."

Nori wrinkled her nose, but didn't comment. Of course he'd use the generators as an excuse. Here was Allan, enjoying his sabbatical on some lovely tropical world—fantastic beaches, pristine waters, a community geared to "the most brilliant minds of the galaxy, very exclusive" and all that other crap they put in the Oxford U wellness and mental health brochures. Employees exclusive, of course, complete with the hefty discount and flexible booking dates.

Brochures which she, Dr. Eleonore Meier, no longer received now that she'd gone "corpo."

 "-not...-tical..." Allan fractured and sputtered into spiky static before stabilizing. The sound remained patchy, and the reconstruction algorithm struggled to extrapolate from the faulty sequences. "...on Aeia right now..." He turned again to his invisible irritant and gesticulated in the universal signal for not now. "...mission's terrible, apologies. Anyway, Ellie, as you can imagine, the optics are just dreadful, and the Alliance bigwigs are not pleased. They told us to get an ... -ert on cults, and I immediately thought of y-... that paper on the Drell you published that won a bunch of..."

A sizable chunk was lost to the woe-betide screeching of some local fauna. Nori felt a brief pang of solidarity. Allan went on, oblivious. "We've a horrible mess on our hands, Ellie, and we need this quickly, before this is brought to the Council, which it will be now that Commander Shepard's involved."

You have a mess on your hands, Nori thought. But of course, Allan had always treated any messes that came his way like the game of hot potato was a national sport, and he was its uncontested champion.

"I'm no longer in academia, Allan," she said, opting for placating. "I can recommend at least four colleagues who can use the credits from an independent consulting gig like this, and if this goes to a hearing..."

Allan's digital likeness soured into petulance. "Colleagues are well and good, Ellie, but we need the best here, and we need it fast." He took a breath—the long-suffering-paragon-of-patience kind—though it remained inaudible. "Look, I'm sure ExoGeni is keeping you busy, but we both know they took you on for the optics. How much research do they actually have you do?"

Nori smothered the impulse to cut off the transmission and smiled—her blandest one yet. "Plenty, actually. In fact-"

Dr. Saunders, chief neurotoxicologist of the Oxford University Xenobiology Survey Unit, was not interested in her "in-facts."

"Ellie, consider this a huge personal favor, then. You're wasted at ExoGeni anyway, you're a brilliant analyst—and yes, your specialty is a bit byzantine for the corporate world, I just want us to acknowledge that, pearls before swine and so on. If you do this for us, I can have a chat with the provost's office, see if-" 

Nori lost her patience, too abruptly to do anything about it. "You do realize I left intentionally, Allan," she started, but he swatted at her objection—or maybe at the local insects, she couldn't tell.

"Of course you did. You wanted your own research unit, and they wouldn't give it to you, and the money is better, I'm not saying it was a bad decision. Listen, this-" The transmission broke again. When the signal returned, Allan was already mid-stride to his next argument. "-afford the bad rep. I can't go off the toxicology alone..." The static spiked into an angry hiss. "...now that the women are recovering..." The signal wavered. "...Taylor took some liberties, if you pardon the euphemism. Most of them don't even understand why this happened to them, the cognitive degeneration is quite severe. But he wasn't ingesting the local foods, so they'll want to determine the nature of the abuse of power, and..." 

Nori pinched the bridge of her nose. He wasn't going to drop this. She supposed it's what made Allan so successful. Part brilliance, part bullheaded stubbornness, and an unrequited passion for politics. "I wish I could help, but I can't spare the time," she lied smoothly. "I'll send you a list of names."

 "Ellie, are you still thinking of doing that project on Prothean religiosity? I remember your supervisor had made you shelve it in graduate school."

Fuck. Of course, he'd use everything in his arsenal. "I've moved on from that. ExoGeni has this thing on Feros, and the pay is excellent-"

"Nothing about ExoGeni is excellent, Ellie, we both know that, and there's seed funding for these sorts of studies now, due for approval next month. I'll have a chat with the dean of research, they'll be putting together an initiative—no teaching, plenty of room for theory, all the fieldwork funding you want, benefits, hazard pay, you name it—and they'll need people. You got Shepard to thank for it, I'm just saying..."

Maybe that screeching fauna would prove carnivorous and set its sights on the indigestible Dr. Saunders, Nori thought. "Let me get this straight, Allan. You want me to analyze the data, or make a show of analyzing the data, and then testify that this thing on Aeia was not, in my professional opinion, a cult. And in exchange, you're dangling this hypothetical carrot that hasn't even materialized yet? We both know how slowly things move, so don't bullshit a bullshitter. The documents you sent me this morning are 60% redacted, but you don't need a sociology degree to see what this Taylor fellow was up to—consolidation of power, check," she ticked off an angry finger, "monopolization of scarce resources, check; encouraging ritualistic behavior, check; exclusion of undesirable members, check; self-presentation as benevolent father figure..."

"Yes, there's no way to make this look good, but a culture is not evaluated by its successes, Ellie, you of all people should know that. It's evaluated by its failures. Planetary expansion is a civilizational test under duress, and now that we have a seat on the Council, this sort of thing..."

And there it was, the real reason behind Allan's call. He was one of those men whose brilliance in one field gave him license to expound in all others far outside his intellectual stomping grounds. And expound he did, regurgitating hackneyed garbage like "civilizational tests under duress" with all the pompousness of clueless entitlement. No matter how vapid and off the mark his ideas were. Maybe this was why their marriage hadn't worked out. Well, that, and the grad student groupies. Even at forty-seven, ten years her senior, he remained strikingly handsome—in a hydroponic sort of way, Nori thought, not without a hint of malice.

Allan, meanwhile, went on. "Listen, take a week and come see for yourself—we'll pay all expenses. Minimally, you'll get a publication or two out of it. If you ever want to come back to academia, you'll need those on your CV. I know the corporate world doesn't care about intellectual output, but I know you, this ExoGeni thing will satisfy you for six months, a year maybe, but once the well of spite depletes..." He made some other noises along the same lines, quickly drowned out in more static, and more faunal vocalizations.

Nori sighed. Her fieldwork on Feros was not scheduled until the end of the fiscal quarter, and until then, she would sit idly in her crammed Citadel flat, fielding Doug's efforts to discipline her productivity in the absence of any real purpose. Allan wasn't wrong. Her current employer had snagged her because of the PhD attached to her name. That, and a certain reputation in narrow circles.

She had never made her intellectual position about aggressive expansionism a secret, but carefully worded scholarly publications convinced no one but the choir—a very small choir, when it was all said and done. More of an acapella group, really. And Allan Saunders just happened to sing the opposite tune. Of course, this was why he had asked her, specifically. Which in turn meant that he thought the case muddled enough that she might come to an exonerating conclusion—in which case, her word would carry more weight.

Everyone loves a skeptical witness. Optics indeed.

Nori steeled her voice and cranked up the blandness to one hundred. "All expenses covered plus honorarium—at corporate rate, Allan, none of the symbolic peanuts we usually contend with. And I want access to the survivors, I'm not doing this remote. I'll do the evaluation, but on the condition that my expertise remains independent. If it quacks like a cult and waddles like one..."

"Yes, yes," he hurried on, breaking into a familiar grin—so many very white teeth—"you know where I stand, but I'm not asking you to sell your soul here, just weigh things in light of all the data. My administrative assistant will be in touch shortly. Ellie, you have no idea how much I appreciate this. We have a psych team on site, but we want a sociologist's read, and to be clear, I floated your name and everyone thought you'd be perfect. There is a ship leaving in three days, I'll forward you the information. I'll be here to meet you on Aeia until we can finalize extraction, or until the Alliance brass gets here, whatever comes first. Who knows, you might even get to meet the famed Commander Shepard. I hear he leaves an impression. Or do you still have this thing for the Drell?" Even through the abysmal comlink, his tone had descended towards the suspiciously informal, and was building steam on its way to outright flirtatious.

"Allan, I'm not one of your graduate students, if you want to sweeten the deal, tell me more about the toxicology results."

His grin turned positively beatific. "Will do, will do, you'll have plenty of reading material on your way here. Preliminary findings, but fascinating, with some interesting social implications. Maybe we'll co-author something a few years from now, hmm?" 

"Just send the files," Nori said, smothering the flare of resentment under more bland professionalism. Allan's co-authorship offers usually coded for other similarly prefixed propositions—like "copulation," and "toxic co-dependence," and maybe a generous helping of "coincidentally exploitative distribution of intellectual labor." Either way, this meant that he was between flings, and likely hoping to get some extra bang for his buck while he waited out the dry spell. Or maybe "Karen" or "Jenna" had refused to accompany him to the alarmingly toxic planet.

Asshole.

The holo offered another toothy grin and an assortment of friendly noises, mercifully drowned out in static.

"Gotta run, will be in touch," Nori said, not waiting for him to get to the "oh-by-the-way-how-have-you-beens." She disconnected and took a gulp of her now cold coffee to wash down the feeling of sudden entrapment.

Then again, the case was vile, if one read between the redacted lines.

It was terrible optics. But it was also the sort of terrible optics that might bring attention to other issues from those people whose attention mattered. Such as the rapacious mineral extraction that had killed the place she had once called home, and everything in it. The sort of slow, subtle death that never made the news. She supposed it was easy to use and throw away when one's eyes were set on an infinite expanse.

Allan would hold a grudge, of course. Then again, perhaps she was finally in a position where she could afford Allan's grudges.

"You have ninety-three unread messages, Dr. Meier," Doug piped up with unmistakably vengeful enthusiasm.

Nori decided that what the coffee needed was a dash of bourbon.