The Search for Sam, Page 5Pittacus Lore
“Ran late. I’m doing an afterschool program at the Nursery now. ” The Nursery is what some of us call the piken pens in the underground complex. Pikens are bred in the labs down there and conditioned for combat. “I think I’m going to be a trainer when I graduate. They say I have what it takes. ”
“Oh,” I reply. “That’s great. ”
I can’t believe how dumb I sound, how tentative. Back in the hornets’ nest of Ashwood, and I’m scared of my own kid sister. It’s pathetic.
“Whatever,” she says. “So listen. Congratulations on surviving and stuff, and for coming back here. But, you know, having you dead was embarrassing enough. Now I have to explain to my friends that my loser brother is back. You’re basically ruining my life. ”
I’m stunned by her callousness, but I understand. In Mogadorian society, dying in combat is not afforded the prestige it is among most human cultures. And failing in combat and surviving is hardly better than being a traitor. My mother’s relief at my survival won’t be shared by my sister … or anyone else at Ashwood.
“I’m just telling you this so when I ignore you in front of the others, you don’t freak out, okay?”
“Fair enough,” I say.
“Okay,” she says.
She leaves, without a good night, much less that hug.
I shoot One a despairing look.
She quickly covers her expression of pity with one of her best, most sarcastic grins. “Welcome home, Adamus,” she says.
A kid a little older than me named Serkova comes to get me in the morning. According to the General, he’s a promising young surveyor in the Media Surveillance division. My father assigned him to bring me up to speed and put me to work.
We ride the elevator down to the underground complex together. He gives me a sidelong glance. “Heard you bit it in Kenya. ”
“Yeah,” I concede, feigning sheepishness.
“And now you’re angling for a position as a surveyor?”
“That’s the idea,” I say.
He snorts. Serkova has a generic trueborn face, but there is something gross and oddly piggish about his nose that’s even grosser when he snorts.
“I didn’t know we were in the business of giving failed soldiers second chances. ” He turns his stare on me. “Guess there’s an exception for the General’s son. ”
The elevator doors open and we stride into the hub at the center of the underground complex. The domed ceiling and orb-like fluorescent light fixture give it the feel of a massive—and massively ugly—atrium.
Trueborns and vatborns stride in every direction in and out of the various tunnels radiating out from the hub. I feel them react to my presence: the trueborns avoid my gaze, while the vatborns sneer at me with naked contempt. Word sure traveled fast, even down here.
We make our way past the entrances to the Southeast and Northeast tunnels on our way to the Northwest tunnel. With the exception of the General’s briefing room, I’ve never been granted access to any of the tunnels off the hub before. But it’s fairly common knowledge that the tunnels lead in one direction to combat training facilities, and in the other direction to weapons stores and bunkers for the vatborn. We’re heading down a third tunnel, to the R+D laboratories and the media and surveillance compounds.
I struggle to keep pace with Serkova. It’s obvious he doesn’t like me and resents being saddled with the job of babysitting me.
“What’s your problem with me?” I genuinely want to know: the Mogadorian worldview has become foreign to me so quickly. “So I’m being given a second chance. Why should you care?”
Serkova turns to me, a contemptuous sneer on his lips. “You think I don’t get enough shit as it is from the combat Mogs for being a surveyor? They already call us tech wienies. Now we’re being forced to take on a proven loser in combat. So the next time they say we’re only surveyors because we’re not good enough for combat, they’ll be right. All thanks to you. ”
I follow him into the Media Surveillance facility, a large room lit only by the screens of the twenty or so computer monitors throughout the room. No one looks up as Serkova leads me to my monitor. Thanks to his outburst, I don’t have to wonder why.
He explains to me what our job is, then sits down at the console next to mine. “Good luck, Adamus,” he says, with evident sarcasm, then gets to work.
I turn to my monitor.
A steady stream of links scrolls across my screen, in color-coded text. The Mogadorian mainframe scours satellite and cable TV, radio transmissions, and every last corner of the internet, 24/7. A certain amount of automated culling occurs before these links reach our screens: most human interest stories are weeded out in advance, as are most articles or news segments devoted to U. S. or international politics. But a significant majority of what remains—weather reports, natural-disaster coverage, police blotters—makes it to our screens as a veritable geyser of hyperlinks.
Our job is to sift through the links on our respective screens and sort them, moving material that is clearly of no pertinence to the Mogadorian cause to the “Discard” directory, while kicking material that might have some bearing on our interests up to the “Investigate” directory, where it will be assessed personally by the lead surveyor before being dismissed or moved up the chain to Command HQ. We are also supposed to tag and grade the material we move to the “Investigate” directory according to our judgment of its possible relevance: “PV” for Possible Value, “HP” for High Priority, and “EHP” for Extremely High Priority. Items we flag with an “EHP” rating are simultaneously routed to the lead surveyor and to a small cadre of analysts over at command HQ for immediate review.
Ultimately, if Command HQ is persuaded a news item is a legitimate sign of Garde activity, reconnaissance teams are dispatched.
All three eliminated Garde members were located with some degree of surveyor assistance. But despite our importance, we’re really just data monkeys. Exciting stuff like reconnaissance and combat occur outside our purview as surveyors.
Not that it’s easy work. Within minutes of struggling through this endlessly updating data stream, I miss the clarity and simplicity of my physical labor back in Kenya. Jumping all over the place on the internet—from a story about the birth of quintuplets in Winnetka, Illinois, to a grainy web-video from a Syrian insurgent—without getting involved in what I’m reading or seeing is a challenge, and after just twenty minutes of wide-eyed staring at the monitor, my eyes feel like they’re going to bleed.
Then it gets worse.
At the end of the first hour, a little digital bell sounds and a tab pops up on the upper right-hand corner of my screen. My heart sinks.
“Oh yeah,” says Serkova, managing to smirk at me without looking up from his monitor. “I forgot to mention. We get ranked hourly. ”
Our individual results are tabulated at the end of every hour and broadcast to all the terminals. Number of Discards, number of Investigates, as well as a provisional computer-graded percentage score for accuracy.
There I am, all the way at the bottom, in last place: twenty-seven Discards, six Investigates, and a provisional accuracy ranking of 71 percent. I scan up the list to see Serkova in second place, with a whopping eighty-two discards, thirteen Investigates, and a provisional accuracy ranking of 91 percent. I’m going to have to go a lot faster.
“What was that you were telling your father?” Serkova cracks.
I’m too distracted to respond. I need to improve my score, and I resent Serkova’s ability to work and needle me at the same time.
“Something ’bout what a great tracker you are, how much better you’ll be at surveying than we are?”
Ugh. Not only has the General given me an impossible task, in which failure will result in my death, he’s also poisoned the well with my new coworkers by reporting what I said about my superior tracking skills.
But I don’t bo
ther to respond: I don’t have time.
I get back to work, fighting against my own dismay. One reason I manipulated the General into placing me in the Media and Surveillance facility was because I thought I might have enough downtime to use my console to hack into the servers of the adjacent laboratories, do some digging into Dr. Zakos’s research. I know that One’s only hope lies in those files. But if I don’t pull my ranking up soon, my father could justifiably terminate our agreement: I’d be killed before I even got a chance to help One.
I need to improve my score.
I manage to go faster. The trick, I learn, is not to process any of the information I encounter. Instead I let my consciousness skim just above the text or video, then let my judgment occur without thought or reasoning. Basically the trick is to accept that I am just a cog in a data-combing machine.
Finally, I feel myself getting into a groove. In the next hourly ranking, I’ve climbed two positions. In the one after that, I’m position thirteen out of twenty.
“Luck. ” Serkova sniffs.
I glare at him. I know I’m not here to compete with this jerk, but I can’t help it: wanting to knock him down a peg drives me on. By late afternoon, I’ve climbed up to position eleven.
I figure I’ve bought myself enough of a cushion to give myself five minutes of snoop time. I quickly page away from the hyperlinks and try to access the hub’s central servers.
But doing research with a ticking clock hanging over my head proves disastrous. I enter in searches for phrases like “mind transfer,” “Dr. Anu,” and “Dr. Zakos,” but they all lead me to restricted areas on the server, and I don’t have time to hack into them. I try to be more general. Remembering what Arsis said about humans in the lab, I do a search for “human captives. ” Instead of directing me to anything about Anu or Zakos’s research subjects, I’m led to some internal, hub-wide memo about a broad new policy regarding human captives. “Whenever possible, humans suspected of aiding and abetting the Garde shall henceforth be held at the government base in Dulce, New Mexico. ”
A government base? Why would the U. S. government have anything to do with the Mogadorians?
I put it aside for now. It’s an interesting—and unsettling—tidbit, but it’s not going to help me save One. Before I even have a chance to enter a new search, my five minutes is up.
I turn back to my work. Predictably, that short diversion cost me, and my hourly rank plummets. Regretfully, I accept that I can’t afford any more “independent research” today.
We finish at seven p. m. , replaced by the night shift, who we’ll relieve at seven tomorrow morning. My body aches from remaining hunched and sedentary, and my eyes feel like they’ve been blasted with sand. I’ve finished the day back in the middle, at position eleven.
“Not bad,” admits Serkova, getting up from his chair. “But hardly what you promised the General. ”
He’s right. Landing right in the middle of a group of twenty can hardly qualify me as a master tracker. I can only hope my ranking is enough to let me live another day.