Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Chapter 26. A Meeting of Minds

Monday was warm and sunny again, but with a hint of cloud away to the south-west. It was going to be the most crucial day of the whole project. What we agreed in today’s meeting would strongly affect, not only our own futures, but also the futures of everyone on Earth.

We assembled in the room I used for my Pulling and Pushing. It was number 13. It was a comfortable, spacious and well air-conditioned Earth style hotel room, with the window facing west.

Now, imagine the scene. I sat at a small desk near the south-west corner of the room, with a Pedia terminal to communicate with Harv’I. Bart Vorsprong in his climbing-frame was in front of me, under the window, close to where my chalk circle had been. Beyond Bart, towards the north-west corner, the Tuglay on their skateboards. And Michael and Gabriel sitting on the bed. Gabriel, further from me and nearer the bed-head, had the Pulling and Pushing machine, and several mescaps. Michael, who I had asked to be secretary of the meeting, had another Pedia terminal, this one with a printer.

“Let us begin now,” I said on the stroke of the 9. “First, let us check our communications with Balzo and Harv’I.”

Gabriel Pushed a mescap, with a message of greetings to Balzo from all of us. I typed a short message into the Pedia, and Harv’I replied instantly. “Good day to you all, and cordial greetings to Balzo and Bart,” was his message. I read it out to those assembled in the room.

It took Balzo several minutes to reply, and when he did, his message was rather longer. Gabriel read it out to us.

“I greet u all, Bart, Harv’I, Nil, Gabrel, Michael, Tuglaydum and Tuglaydee. U have successfully reached my personal office.

“I have with me Lohman. He is my assistant, and a champon Pusher too. He will Push my mescaps to u by the direct protocol. I have also with me Olgal. She has voluntaired to help on this project. I think her expairence of what happened on Skobar will be ooseful to us.

“First administrative matter. Who will lead the meeting, and who will be recorder?”

“I will chair the meeting,” I said. “I have already asked Michael to be secretary. Is everyone here happy with that?” General assent.

We had no scanner, so I had to type a summary of Balzo’s message for Harv’I. Meanwhile, Michael typed a message about my role and his, and printed out the result. He handed it to Gabriel, who Pushed it in a mescap to Balzo. He also copied it into Harv’I’s area, so Harv’I could see what we sent to Balzo.

“Good,” was Balzo’s reply about a minute later. “Second administrative matter. How much of our time do u need, and what meeting protocol will u oose with us?”

I was a bit at a loss what this meant, but Bart unwound part of himself for the first time, and said, “What we usually do in meetings by mescap is batch up ideas and questions to be sent to the remote party. Then we send them at regular intervals. I would suggest we start by sending Balzo a mescap about once each Perinent hour. We can change the timing later if we need to.”

“That sounds good,” I said. “It has the advantage, too, that to Balzo, Harv’I – though he too is remote from us – will not appear any different from those in this room.”

“Balzo is also asking how long we will continue today,” said Michael.

“My plan,” I said, “is to try to discuss as much as possible today. But to leave aside anything needing further research. We can deal with those things in the remaining days Bart is here. We will also need at least one break. I suggest we set our hours from the 9 to the 12, then the 13 to the 16.”

“I am happy with that,” said Bart. “Neil, you are a hard master,” said Michael. “But yes, Bart’s and Balzo’s time with us is limited, so we must use it as best we can.”

“Good,” I said. “Michael, can you summarize what we have just agreed, for Balzo? I would like us all – including Harv’I – to hear or see it, and comment before it goes.”

Our reply must have answered Balzo’s questions, for his next mescap said, “This protocol is good to us. I, Lohman and Olgal will be available today until 16 of the Perinent 22.

“Now, third and final administrative matter. What do we have to discuss?”

I had already prepared a printed agenda. It was based on the list of questions from my speech two Fridays before. I had added to it, with help from Harv’I, questions about how long it would take to do each of the things we needed to do. I had primed Gabriel to send this agenda as soon as Balzo asked about it. So it went within ten seconds of Balzo’s message arriving.

A minute later, there came another reply. “Bart told me,” Gabriel read out, “u Hoomans have much execitive ability. He spoke truth. I wait, now, ur next mescap. In about one hour.”

“Do you think,” I said, “we should use a similar protocol with Harv’I? But much more frequently, obviously. If I have to relay to Harv’I everything we say in this room, my slow typing will be holding up the whole meeting.

“Should we send Harv’I a summary, and bring him into the discussion, every ten minutes or so? Then I will only need to type for about one minute every ten. What I send to Harv’I should be helpful for Michael’s records, too.” Michael nodded. “And there is no problem in the other direction – Harv’I is very quick to answer.”

“That is a good idea,” said Bart. I put the suggestion to Harv’I, and he agreed.

“To business,” I said. “Let us begin with my first question. How do we pick the particular individuals to be Pulled for punishment?”

Bart used his nose to open a small chest attached to his climbing-frame. “I have prepared,” he said, “a preliminary list.” Dipping in, he came out with a scroll in his mouth. He reached over and laid the scroll on the bed beside Michael. Michael opened it and passed it to me. It was in English – fortunately. I ran my eye down the list of about 150 names, with countries, cities and positions, to within a few tens of metres, of their homes, offices or both. It contained most of the expected suspects, and a few I hadn’t heard of. My respect for Bart went up – he obviously knew a lot about what was happening on Earth.

I gave it back to Michael. “Good work, Bart. Let us enter this list into the Pedia after the meeting,” I said. “From my side, I have two Team members, John and Galina, finding out as much as they can about events on Earth, and keeping our knowledge up to date. A third, Sabrina, has volunteered to keep dossiers on the individuals we are to Pull.

“I understand we have space to punish a little less than four hundred.” Michael nodded. “So we will need to be selective about our choices. We could take every head of state on Earth if we wanted to, but that wouldn’t leave much space for other baddies. So I think a first wave of 150 or so is a good start.

“By the way” – I turned to Michael – “do you know when the furnishings for the Punishment Pit are due to arrive?” “In a little over a week from now,” he replied.

“I think,” I went on, “that we can leave the question of exactly which individuals are to be punished to a later meeting with the Team. Is everyone happy with that?” Assent. “Please record that, Michael, and I will send it to Harv’I also, with a request for any ideas he has.”

“My second question. How do we know where these individuals are most likely to be at any time? We can get their general locations from Bart’s list or from the news we Pull, but we need to be more specific. We can find out much by tracking them to their homes and observing their habits. But that is a lot of work.”

“I know it well,” said Gabriel with a grimace. “Michael and I had to do exactly that for the Team, before we picked you up from Earth. It took the two of us about four Earth weeks, working at six hours a day.”

“You mean to say,” I said, aghast, “that you were spying on us for almost a month before picking us up?”

“Yes, we watched you, it is true,” said Gabriel. “But we did not spy on you to catch you out, like Earthly governments do. We were not interested in the detail of what you were doing. We recorded nothing except whatever was strictly necessary for us to work out where you were likely to be, when it came time to pick you up.”

Bart sent a clearing of the throat. A strange thing for an anaconda to do, you may think; but it made it obvious that he wanted to move on. “I know,” he said, “that Balzo and his team monitored the Skobar exactly as you describe. However, we must consider another question too. Do you want to Pull them all at once – as Balzo did – or one by one? If one by one, since they are virtually all public figures, there will be times when you know exactly where they will be. If all at once, then I fear you must put in many weeks of monitoring work, to know where they are most likely to be at the particular moment.”

“That question,” I said, “is one of the most important for our project. And I don’t want to try to answer it yet.”

Then, “It is time to bring Harv’I into the discussion again.” His view was that Balzo had likely got his strategy right with the Skobar, but we should keep both options open for now. And he had no strong suggestions to offer on who we should Pull for punishment.

“Let us consider another question,” I went on. “How do we pick the individuals to be trained? Before that, how many can we train? And before that, even” – looking at the Tuglay – “how long will it take to train each?”

“Our standard Galactic values and leadership course takes about eight Perinent weeks,” replied Tuglaydum. “We can teach two classes at a time, with up to about 32 in each class. Then there are individual sessions beyond that. But some will learn quicker than others. I think you should allow ten to twelve weeks for each trainee, if we have two classes of 32 here at once. Slightly less if the classes are smaller.”

I continued, “OK. Now, there are 64 human rooms in the hotel. The Team occupy seven. I prefer to leave the five machines in unallocated rooms, so different people can use them for monitoring work. Remember, anyone in the Team can do monitoring – they don’t need to be able to Pull.

“That leaves us with 52. All the rooms have double beds. So we can train up to about 12 couples and 40 singles. That makes up your 64, Tuglaydum.”

“We could train more, if we did it in two or more waves,” said Bart.

“Yes,” I replied, “but what do we do with the ones we train first? We could send them back to Earth to wait for the second lot, but that would put them in an impossible position. We can’t keep them here. Is there anywhere else we could house them, till we are ready to send them back to Earth?”

“That, I think, is one to ask Balzo,” said Bart. All of us agreed.

I brought Harv’I into the discussion again. Even if we sent the first group back to Earth all together, he said, it would still make sense to have a second group in training. As reinforcements for later, and as a backup if things with the first group went seriously wrong. “An excellent point,” I said.

“Let us consider, now, how we select the trainees. Bart,” I said – hoping beyond hope – “have you done any work on this?”

Bart lifted his head, then made a stately bow. Everyone laughed. “Yes, I have done some work,” he said. “As you know, I picked the Team in the first place. This task was several times larger than that, but from all the information I had, I managed to squeeze a shortlist of possibilities.” More laughter.

Bart put his head in the chest again, and came out with a second scroll. He gave it to Michael, who opened it and handed it to me. It had about 75 names on it, with the same details as the other list. In addition, some of them were marked as having partners who would be worth training too.

“Time out,” I said. It was 10 and a quarter of the 22, about fifty minutes since we had sent the last mescap. “We have 10 minutes to put together our next message to Balzo. Michael, please use the summaries we prepared for Harv’I as the basis for what we have agreed so far. Please include Harv’I’s contributions.

“We have only one question for Balzo so far. Can we house a group who have completed training, without sending them back to Earth, while we train another?”

It was done and sent, then Michael said “Tea break,” got up and left the room. I had asked the kitchen team to have tea ready at all times, so it was less than two minutes before he returned. He had water for Bart and the Tuglay too, as he knew only he, Gabriel and I would take tea.

Balzo’s reply came. “Ur progress is excellent, and I concur with all ur thinking,” it said. “As to housing trainees after training, it is a matter of budget. I cannot say possible or no, until the plan is more detaled.”

We continued. In the second session, we agreed that we would invite everyone in the Team to suggest anyone they knew who might be suitable for training. For we now expected to have to look for two waves of trainees totalling over 120 people, while Bart’s list had only about 75, plus 20 or so partners.

We discussed whether we should tell the trainees anything before Pulling them. Bart’s opinion was no, it would not gain anything, and might be a security risk. Harv’I and Gabriel concurred. I was not so sure. My main worry was, what to do with someone who decided after we Pulled them that they did not want to co-operate. “We cannot send them back to Earth until after the project is over,” I said. “They would know too much.”

“If that happens,” said Bart, “though I think it unlikely, we could send them on a holiday to some Galactic resort, until our project is finished.”

We discussed whether we should let the trainees communicate with Earth while on Perinent. We decided to do as Balzo had done with the Skobar, let each send one message to family or friends telling them they were safe, and to wait for their return. “But not by mescap,” I said. “I don’t want to send any more mescaps to Earth. Sheets of paper will do. I certainly don’t want us Pulling mescaps back from Earth – that is a major security risk.”

We broadened the topic, and discussed supplies in general. “Pulling our food and drink from Earth works fine at the moment,” I said. “But if we continue, it will become harder with time, as those we take from increase their precautions. Also, I am concerned how much time our Pullers would spend each day scouring Earth for supplies for eighty people. Particularly when the machines would be better used in monitoring those we plan to Pull later. Is it possible,” I asked Michael, “to have packages of fresh supplies for us put together on Seraph, so we can Pull, say, a day’s worth in one go?”

“Yes, it is possible,” said Michael. “In fact, it is what we originally intended.”

“Then let us do that from next week,” I said. “Except, of course, we will continue to Pull Earth’s finest for special occasions.”

In the last mescap before we broke for lunch – but that was a misnomer, for none of the participants ate a midday meal – I asked Balzo three questions. One, how did he think we should best deal with anyone, whom we Pulled for training, but who refused to co-operate? Two, how had he ensured the safety of the trained after they were sent back to Skobar? And three, was there anything about the Skobar project that he would do differently if he were doing it again?

* * *

Having made Balzo work while we rested, we had his reply when we resumed. I have paraphrased it below.

There had been two Skobar Pulled for training, who were reluctant to undergo the training and to become leaders. As Bart suggested, they had been sent instead to a resort for a holiday. But they were laughed at when they finally arrived back on Skobar. In our case, we must try our hardest to persuade the unwilling to carry on, but if not, we would have to do the same. It certainly wouldn’t be an expensive resort, though.

And if he had the Skobar project again, the two things he would change were already dealt with on our project. One, he would not have Pulled the Skobar team to Perinent; he would have taken them there by ship. And two, he would have used Tuglay teachers instead of Avallin.

Also, he would not wish to change the order he did things in. Pulling all those for punishment in one go, so causing one great panic instead of many smaller ones, had worked well with the Skobar. Olgal agreed with this.

As to the trainees, his team had Pulled them one by one. He had kept them all together on Perinent until the great panic, and then sent them all back in one wave. They were safe because they were the only Skobar offering a believable solution (“solushun”) to the troubles.

But, Balzo added at the end, he was not qualified in human (“hooman”) psychology. He would defer to Bart and me on whether this was the best way forward for us.

In the next session, we discussed our plan. We sketched out two alternatives. In both, we would Pull the trainees one by one over a few weeks, so not to arouse any more suspicion than we had to. But, when they were all trained, the two plans diverged.

In Plan A, we would send the first group back to Earth on a Galactic ship – Harv’I’s suggestion. Then we would Pull a second group of trainees, and train them. When the first group were near Earth and the second trained, we would Pull as many of the individuals to be punished as we could at the same time, in one concerted operation.

Following this, we would monitor the panic, and Pull for punishment any politicals that tried to take advantage of it to make more trouble. We would then Push the second group back, timed at or shortly after the arrival of the first group on Earth. Whatever Galactic vessel or vessels delivered the first group to Earth would be around to give hell to anyone that tried to harm any of our people.

Plan B was simpler and cheaper, but less sure. We only had one group of trainees, instead of two. As in Plan A, we would Pull those to be punished in one operation. We would then Push the trainees back as soon as possible. If we could have a Galactic ship near Earth to guarantee their safety, we would use that. If not, we could send the one interstellar ship we already had allocated to the project, Harv’I’s.

Harv’I was somewhat reluctant about this idea. Though he confirmed his ship could reach Earth from Perinent in a few weeks, and it (and he) had enough firepower to do the job.

I tried to enthuse Harv’I about landing in St. Peter’s Square, showing off his father’s trick, and then telling the pope what he thought of him. But he thought I was joking. Perhaps I was.

* * *

In the final session of the day, we went through the plans with Balzo. “Plan B is well within our budget,” he sent, “if Harv’I is willing to be policeman. Otherwise it depends on what vessel can be nair Earth at that time. I doubt any Seraphimobiles are schedooled to be there, and to send a Naudar’I ship would be far too expensive. There might be a third-party opshun. I will have to check what is feasible.

“But I like Plan A better,” he continued. “We get twice as many trainees. And to send one group by ship while u train and then Push the second group, I find plain and elegant.”

I picked up Balzo’s joke – even leaving aside Pushing, three means of transport all in the same sentence. And he had made a brave try for a fourth – elephant. Bart and I exchanged amused glances.

“The extra resources u need for Plan A are three,” continued Balzo. “One, travel in a standard class Naudar’I ship from Perinent to Earth for up to 64 Hoomans. Two, transport for them from the ship’s docking stashun to Earth. Three, protecshun as needed when they reach Earth.

“That looks to me like one 64-passenger, fully armed Seraphimobile. And two Seraphim to pilot it. I am not certain up to now, but I think Plan A can work.”

“I know Avor’I,” said Bart quietly to me. “Balzo means he will approve Plan A. We should not spend too much effort on Plan B.”

“So, the pope will be denied his audience with Harv’I?” I replied. Bart laughed.

* * *

We ended by agreeing on a further meeting beginning at 9 of the 22 on the Friday. Four Perinent days was close to three Avoran days, so that was convenient for Balzo. It was also convenient to Bart’s timetable. Balzo would find out the costs of the options we had outlined. In the meantime, Bart and I would produce draft plans A and B, with timescales against each activity. We were to send them to Balzo by mescap on or before Thursday.

After the partings were completed, I suddenly felt exhausted. Michael was sweating. Gabriel looked under stress. Then Bart said, “In my long time in the Company, I have never before been in a meeting like this. Usually it would take a week or more to achieve such progress. Even with Avor’I involved. But as a result, even I am weary.” And he flexed himself in his climbing-frame.

“Let’s meet at the 9 tomorrow morning to follow up,” I said.

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