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Director Salis

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Starfleet Intelligence Headquarters, Stardate 2690.

Garan stalked down the line of comm booths. All the beings inside trembled as he passed, as they well should. In their lustrous shells, they refused to bow down to Starfleet regulations and use uniforms as everyone else. He himself had commissioned the design of robes that would cover their pyramidal upper shell, like a proper shirt, but they had alleged that was their head, not their torso, and they wouldn't be able to identify each other if it was covered. As they shouldn't! He certainly couldn't tell most of them apart, even though these were his students. His! But the Director had sided with them, and he'd been humiliated once more. So the crabs used only some flimsy coverings for their four legs, with their clawed feet bare, and a simple sash with rank and insignia across the shell, where the shoulders might have been if they were humanoid. And Garan had to memorize each morning which one would be where, so he could know what to expect of them.

"Forty-seven!" He exclaimed.

"Good morning, Supervisor Lantham." The monotone synthesized voice was the same as always, but Garan was certain the crab was mocking him. One of its stalked eyes, on the top of its upper shell, raised to watch him approach, but the being didn't react otherwise. Its two manipulator arms continued to fly over the console, pressing buttons and switches with its four-fingered hands, as it monitored the screens closely, with black beady shortsighted eyes that sat over where the arms were attached to its body's diminute forward segment.

Irritated, he stopped at the booth's entrance, his large frame blocking the passage and looming over the console. He was head and shoulders taller than the crab, but it didn't seem intimidated. The flashing blue light that had attracted his attention turned off for a moment before starting again, while it continued in its efforts to deal with whatever emergency that meant.

"Report," he asked, voice flat.

"The Enterprise requests an ID verification on a Doctor John Smith, who claims to be a consultant for Starfleet Intelligence," the crab replied, without pausing its operation of the console. Not again, Garan thought. That annoying Vulcan should have known better after the last time, months earlier. Garan had checked himself, there was no record of any individual with that name and description assigned to an SI mission, even as a cover ID. But that couldn't be the reason for the emergency alert and that took priority right now.

"And the emergency is?"

"There is no emergency," was its monotone reply. "The computer is malfunctioning. The alert turns itself back on whenever I disable it."

"You idiot!" Garan cried, incensed. "It's more likely that you bungled it up! I must turn it off before someone comes down to see what the fuss is all about."

He pushed the crab to the back of the booth and took its place over the console. There were no seats in the booths on this section, since the crabs had no use for them, so he had to bend over the console. He reached for the button that turned the alert off, but the light simply resumed flashing after a second. Frantic, he pressed it again and again, with the same result.

He panicked. He knew there was a high level meeting right now, with the Director's presence. He had no idea about the reason for all that secrecy, and he wasn't looking forward to having to explain why the Director had to interrupt his meeting because of a simple computer malfunction. And all that because a darned crab didn't know how to operate the computer correctly!

He turned and began berating the thing in the back of the booth, demanding to know exactly what it had done, barely leaving a pause to let it say something.

He still hadn't got an answer when he heard a firm "Supervisor Garan Lantham" from behind him, and he froze.

A few minutes earlier, Geonas Salis, the Starfleet Intelligence Director, had been listening to yet another team leader contributing with whatever information her team had managed to acquire regarding the current crisis. Things were finally coming to a head, after all the preparation he'd put in ever since he'd learned of the possible infiltration of the Federation Council by agents of an unknown power.

"Therefore, we can confirm that Councillors Ge'nark, Amarante and Thellos have all been manipulated, each by a single member of their research staff, who'd systematically filtered and distorted the information available to them in order to influence their votes regarding both Starfleet's budget and contact rules and the Step Forward Initiative," said Laiana Torres, one of his best senior agents.

These were the last names in the list of Councillors under investigation, all of which had been confirmed as compromised, either through bribes, blackmail or, as with these three, subtle manipulation. They'd all assumed political positions that seemed, on the surface, to be unrelated to each other but, seen as a whole, pointed to a concerted long-term effort to weaken the Federation, both militarily and politically. But Geonas was very much unhappy in having those suspicions confirmed, though he couldn't discuss his doubts, not even with his closest advisors.

"Said personnel are being kept under surveillance," Laiana continued, "in order to identify their handlers. We've also started investigating the citizens' organizations in their worlds that provided them with the political justification for said votes. However we haven't been able yet to positively identify the persons behind these groups, and the degree to which they are articulated with our enemy," she concluded.

Whoever this unknown enemy was, their goals seemed to be years, possibly decades, away. But that only made him warier of the Resshlian, who'd appeared out of the blue to warn them of the threat and offer their help. Even their timing was suspicious, since they'd appeared just as his own plans were in place, ready to uncover the infiltration without raising suspicions about his prior knowledge. Now, more than ever, he couldn't risk exposing the existence of the sentient computer that resided in his office, who'd been the one to first assemble the clues and alert his predecessor. He couldn't trust the Resshlian, and Rodrigo's capabilities were his best trump cards in this dangerous game. Everyone else seemed convinced of the trustworthiness of their new supposed allies, and he never felt more alone.

The next presenter, Sernak, the Vulcan who headed the analysis team, stood and began talking, but Geonas'd already read his report. He focused instead on the audience's reactions to his conclusions, while wondering what he could do to counter the Resshlian's 'suggestions' for their next steps. These went much further than simple counterintelligence, encompassing various policy changes and a significant expansion of Starfleet. If their unknown enemy seemed bent on undermining the Federation, their new allies wanted to push too far in the other direction, risking alarming their neighbors, or even alienating them. Sernak's analysis underlined that they had little beyond their word to justify the need for such measures. Nonetheless they'd most likely be accepted, almost in their entirety, once the results of the current investigations were revealed. Rodrigo's own analysis suffered from insufficient data to go much beyond Sernak's, unfortunately, though the sentient computer was at least as suspicious of the Resshlian's motivations as himself. If only former Director Maliky had accepted his invitation to return, as a temporary assignment, to lead the whole operation. Her own recommendations would've had enough political clout to counter the Resshlian. But she'd refused, saying that her new charity organization couldn't do without her presence. She was nothing if not focused.

Then the flashing light in his padd, and only his padd, interrupted his thoughts. He read the description there, frowning. Why would the computer direct an ID check warning to him? He tried to disable the notification but it turned itself on. So he read it, finding that the warning had been rerouted from his office's computer. Of course. He requested the ID record in question, and there it was. The Doctor. He'd forgotten about his predecessor's mysterious friend, the one she'd said he could count on, whenever the situation was grave enough. An ally, from an old, advanced but reclusive, civilization, who reportedly had abilities and resources unavailable to anyone else. Perhaps the Doctor might be able to help him in this situation. However Maliky's description of him had enough warnings to make him wary. Geonas wasn't fond of the idea of trusting an unpredictable alien to help with the future of the Federation. But it wasn't as if he had plenty of options to choose from.

He instructed his aide to schedule a break before the next presentation and hurried out of the meeting room, unnoticed by most.

From the platform where the executive turbolift left him, the Director could see the whole elliptical hall. Right now it was quiet, the lighting muted, with an almost palpable atmosphere of peace pervading it. He'd worked here, early in his career, as his initial enthusiasm for going out there clashed with the reality of almost insurmountable obstacles before humanity and their allies. He'd been lucky, he felt. Most of his colleagues never saw beyond the routine of their training assignments, and had been happy to return to their careers as regular Starfleet officers. But the monitoring hall had made a lasting impression on him, not that he'd had much time lately to visit it. It was fortunate that it'd been needed only for minor crises in the last decade or so. The central holographic display of the galaxy would be turned on every so often, but mostly for practice drills. He missed it, missed the contrast between the areas where the Federation and its immediate neighbors bickered about, and the rest of the enormous galaxy, of which little was known besides what the long-range scanners and probes could tell them. And that was only their galaxy, of the untold billions, or was it trillions, in the visible universe.

After two seconds, his sight drifted away from the central dais as he noticed the small blinking light down one of the aisles. It was on one of the middle rows, the comm booths where much of the routine work was done. Striding down the ramp towards it, he tried to recall who was manning that section of the booths at the moment. That must be the class of mihoqin trainees. He'd been positively surprised by their first results. They were highly promising intelligence officers, much more suited to it than to most other Starfleet postings, with the possible exception of the research divisions. He'd already contacted their government on Zyhiat to ask for another three classes of them. Their communal social structure was weird, as was their non-humanoid anatomy, so Starfleet had to adapt a lot of regulations and equipment, but it was worth it. Their performance had already helped to convince some of his departmental heads, who'd been initially doubtful about spending so much effort on a newly-affiliated species. The mihoqin were not natural fighters, and their analytical minds were especially adapted to collating and inferring from a large volume of facts. In that they were distinct from others, such as the Vulcans, who could produce deep logical analyses, but who'd sometimes fail to account for diverging evidence. Sernak himself had remarked on that, supporting his decisions against the majority of the council. However the Vulcan supervisor assigned to them would still, all too often, dismiss their sometimes timid suggestions. They'd need more work, and more time, to learn to work together. Time which was right now in short supply.

He had almost reached the booth in question when he recognized the figures inside it. Garan Lantham, one of the two senior supervisors for the 48-strong mihoqin class, and the only human, was standing over the crab-like form of his trainee, as if trying to intimidate it. Geonas sighed, it seemed that Lantham hadn't bothered to study the wealth of preparatory material they'd received on the mihoqin. Or he didn't put much stock in it. The trainee had already seen him, but the supervisor was too worked up to notice the raised eyestalk tracking him. He synced his earpiece so he could hear what was transpiring inside the sound-cancelling limits of the comm booth, and blanched. Such language was not to be used among agents, and definitely not towards a trainee.

"Supervisor Garan Lantham," he enunciated, standing just behind him.

Geonas listened while, flustered, Lantham stumbled again trying to explain himself. It'd been a matter of just a couple of button presses before he managed to stop the annoying alert. He knew exactly what he needed to do to stop it, since it wasn't a malfunction after all but the sentient computer inside his office calling for his attention. Now he had to deal with the message and decide what to do with his senior supervisor.

"Sir, I was trying to explain procedure to this crab," Lantham faltered as Geonas frowned, "er, Forty-Seven here, to deny recognition of the ID and order this individual's apprehension so we can investigate his misuse of an SI card."

Geonas had quickly checked that the mihoqin had composed a reply but hadn't sent it yet. It had first tried, correctly, to identify where the original ID record had been issued from, since it was authentic and valid but was missing from the regular database. Lantham hadn't paid enough attention to pick it up, though. His supervisor clearly had a problem. But he had his own priorities. And right now Lantham's cluelessness was fortunate.

"Enough. Lantham, you and Forty-Seven, step out of the booth. I'll take care of it myself. This man was a consultant to my predecessor. For her sake, I'll handle it."

They both stepped out of the sound-cancelling field, the mihoqin watching him closely, while Lantham's face displayed warring emotions. As soon as he was alone in the booth and no one else was looking over his shoulder, Geonas checked the follow-up message, addressed to him directly. The mihoqin had noticed it, though it couldn't open it. Whatever subspace anomaly it was that was interfering with communications with the Enterprise, it was unpredictable enough that the second message, sent over two hours after the first, arrived only a few minutes later. The Enterprise's first officer was asking the Director for confirmation of his assignment as the Doctor's handler, and was also telling of his decision to detain the man until more was learned about what was going on. Geonas didn't have the time to check the secret records on the Doctor's ID, something he only wanted to do in the secrecy of his own office, but he couldn't afford to risk upsetting this possible ally, so he hurried a response. He only hoped his reply would arrive quickly enough to forestall any conflict between this Spock and the Doctor, or, worse, before the Doctor managed to slip away from their sight, as he apparently liked to do. Who knows when he'd surface again, if that happened.

After sending his reply through the highest priority channel, he commanded the console to erase all records of the last few minutes, after transferring them to his office's high-security database. He frowned. Having to protect both Rodrigo's secret and, now, this 'Doctor', was making him feel like an infiltrator in his own agency. He needed allies. He wondered how Director Maliky had managed it.

Once he was finished, he moved out, locking the booth temporarily out of service. Now he had to deal with Lantham. And the mihoqin trainee. The human was dangerous, but he should be easy to distract. His strengths didn't lie in his observation skills, but rather in his tenacity and leadership qualities. It was a pity that he was being blinded by his prejudices and his wounded pride. Geonas thought he had the perfect position where he might find his legs again. Now, the mihoqin was another matter. Curious, inquisitive, and persistent, that was how they were described by the first Federation envoys. This one would most likely have these qualities in spades. It had already seen too much, and wouldn't be easily distracted. He'd need to watch this one closely.

"Director, I-"

"It's solved now, Lantham." Forty-Seven watched as the Director cut off his subordinate and left the booth, a small smile plastered on his face. It required training, but most m'Ihoq'In that had to deal with humanoid bipeds eventually learned to interpret their subtle postural language. As a highly social amphibious species relying on visual cues for close coordination, that was a key communication ability. And they had to do it consciously with a different species. Forty-Seven was one of the most experienced m'Ihoq'In in dealing with humanoids, and right now it was clear from the tenseness in his steps that the Director was displeased with the whole situation, perhaps even fearful, but was striving to avoid letting the other human perceive it. He was probably ignoring the m'Ihoq'In completely in this.

"It was all a mistake, Supervisor Lantham," the Director continued. "This John Smith was operating alone, and no one remembered to tell him," he winced visibly saying that, a bit too forced perhaps, maybe a non-verbal cue to his human subordinate, "his mission was no longer necessary."

"That's a bit irregular-" the Supervisor tried again.

"Not really," Director Salis interrupted him again. "Director Maliky had a number of consultants running special missions beyond the borders of the Federation. But that program has closed already. Now," and Forty-Seven watched as the Director collected himself, "I know this task has been hard on you. It's never easy to handle the mutual learning involved in working with new allies," and at this point it was Lantham who winced, "but I had no one else who I could trust with this task. Now, however, I need a senior agent to work with a very secret project, and I'm sorry, but I'll have to reassign you. Do you think Supervisor Vishin is ready to take over from you in training the mihoqin?" Of course, as most humanoids, the Director couldn't pronounce their species name correctly.

"Well, yes, sir, but if you want my opinion, Supervisor Horan has shown remarkable ability for that; he's been an invaluable help with this class of trainees."

"I see," the Director mused a bit, before continuing, "Vishin has the seniority, and is qualified enough, so it'll be her job completing the training for this class. But I'll consider Horan for one of the next classes, thank you for the recommendation."

It seemed to Forty-Seven that both humans had forgotten its presence next to them. That suited it, so it stayed immobile nearby as they talked. Most teachers of its class had been receptive and helpful to their new trainees, with the exception of Lantham, who'd been hostile right from the start. Forty-Seven had made a point to divert this human's attention from its classmates to itself, to spare them his anger. Vishin, on the other hand, was a great teacher and it was happy to hear she'd take over. Horan had been the one among the teachers to follow Lantham's lead, so it was also happy to learn the Director wasn't about to take Lantham's recommendation at face value. Perhaps some time away from Lantham's influence would give Horan a chance to become a better teacher.

"If you don't mind me asking, sir, where will I be placed?" Lantham asked.

"Not at all, Lantham, you'll be assigned with Senior Agent Oliveira's team. Their mission has been extended, but Oliveira has already requested her retirement. I've asked her to stay with it for a few more months, enough to train her replacement. That may be you. If you accept, of course."

Lantham brightened considerably at that. "I'll be honored, sir. I've never worked with her, but she's said to be one of our finest investigative agents, ever."

"That she is, Lantham. It's a pity we're losing her so soon. Anyway, I'd ask that once this shift is over, you go to Deputy Director Rogers for details on your mission. And if you see Vishin, please send her to my office. I'd like to talk to her myself." The Director gestured to Forty-Seven, and it obeyed, silently moving closer to him.

"Of course, sir. But again, if you don't mind me asking, what will you do to, er, this mihoqin?"

So neither of them had forgotten its presence. Forty-Seven shifted its stalked eyes to watch each human. Both were casually relaxed and looking at the other, as if continuing to ignore it. Forty-Seven interpreted that to mean there was a lot more they didn't want to communicate to it. Or each other.

"One of my aides has asked to be assigned to a position in their homeworld. I'll need a replacement, and that's as good an opportunity as any to see first hand how a mihoqin would perform in the many chores an intelligence agent may have to do."

Lantham smirked. "I see. Good idea, sir."

"Thank you, Lantham, and good day. Come with me, Forty-Seven." The Director turned and walked down the aisle, the m'Ihoq'In following him, one eye turned back watching the still smirking supervisor.

The Director stopped at a small alcove out of the way, near the entrance to the executive platform. He turned, face somber, and looked at the m'Ihoq'In.

"I'm sorry if I haven't asked you first, Forty-Seven. Are you all right with that?"

It noticed that the alcove also had a sound-cancelling field. It was probably meant for such discreet conversations. It also meant that whatever the Director wanted to say, it was something he didn't want the supervisor to know.

It inclined one of its stalked eyes, in a sort of nod. "Yes, it is all right. Forty-six is mature enough to take over the class leadership," it informed, its synthesized voice losing its monotone in favor of a modulated voice closer to human speech patterns, since it no longer needed to cover for the few still untrained class members. The Director nodded, unsurprised. So the human knew enough of its culture. That was reassuring. This new mission looked promising.

"What about Forty-Eight?"

"She will be leaving the program, once she completes maturation as a Matriarch."

"I see." So he didn't know that. Not that they made a point of publicizing their private customs. "On that, I hope you'll have no problem traveling away from Headquarters for a few days, maybe a week at a time. I'd need you to come with me when I have to visit other planets."

"It won't be a problem. We can withstand up to a couple of months away from a Matriarch. More than that if we're not traveling in groups."

"Good. I'd also like to ask if you could choose another public name. As I understand it, 'Forty-Seven' will no longer be descriptive if you're not in the class. But it'd be better if you chose a more, well, humanoid-sounding name, rather than something like 'Third Aide'."

It clicked a few times, amused. After thinking a bit longer, it said, "You may call me Sseri'ho."

"That's a mMressghit name, isn't it?" The mMressghit were humanoids, and also the closest warp-capable civilization to Zyhiat. As such, they were the ones to first contact the m'Ihoq'In when they began to explore space. They had grown into a close friendship, much closer than the humans seemed to have achieved with the Vulcans.

"They gave me this name, when I was assigned as one of the contacts with their first envoy mission." Over twenty Earth years ago, it didn't say, but the human most likely knew. He'd have to readjust his estimation of its age, if he didn't ask directly. Though all m'Ihoq'In grew larger with age, their diverse populations varied so much in their average sizes that non-m'Ihoq'In had trouble estimating an individual's age by size alone.

"Sseri'ho. What does it mean? 'Purple seed', isn't it?"

"Yes. That is the literal translation." It paused, then straightened its legs, raising taller. "It also means 'Life's Advocate'. This meaning is secret. I'll thank you to keep it private." A mMressghit custom very few outsiders knew about.

"Of course, Sseri'ho."

"One question, sir?"

"By all means. What do you want to know?"

"Supervisor Lantham seemed to imply that he didn't see this appointment as your aide as a very good one. He doesn't like me, and he seemed happy with it."

"Ah yes." The human sighed. "That's the other thing I need to explain to you. Well, the story is, normally being a Director's aide would be considered a prestigious assignment. However my predecessor assigned as her aides many agents who eventually ended up either being kicked off service or resigning themselves. She could be very demanding. You see, I was myself once an aide to Director Maliky, for a very brief period, mind you. Therefore, for a long time, anyone being appointed as the Director's aide would face it with dread. Ever since I succeeded her as Director, I've had many aides, and none so far has stayed for long. Two of them even resigned themselves, and that served to confirm in the mind of many that I'm just as strict with my aides as she was. So Lantham probably thought that this assignment would be a sort of punishment. I'm sorry."

Sseri'ho considered it briefly, then said, "Thank you for your candor, sir. In light of this, I'd need to know what you'll expect from me."

The Director seemed to consider it for a while, hands tucked in his pockets. "I'll be frank with you, Sseri'ho. One of the reasons to have you as my aide is exactly what I told Lantham. I'd like to see mihoqin finding your place in the work Starfleet Intelligence does. It's just that I believe you can help us much beyond the mundane secretarial work that's most of what a personal aide would normally do. I've noticed that humans, perhaps most humanoids, have trouble interpreting non-humanoid behavior, and as result tend to ignore their presence in most situations. So if you don't contradict their assumptions, and behave as a, I'm sorry, 'dumb' aide, you may serve as my eyes and ears in places where I can't be without attracting attention."

"Do you distrust your colleagues?" Sseri'ho asked bluntly. That was an aspect of humanoid behavior that was hard for it to understand.

"Not quite," Salis winced, "but that's not too far from the truth. There have been some blunders, the result of missing clues that are obvious in hindsight. There are also some agents that may have grown too comfortable in their job. Starfleet Intelligence is crucial for the safety of the Federation, and I can't tolerate narrow-mindedness, or personal interests, putting it at risk."

"Internal affairs? There's something like that mentioned in humanoid fictional literature."

"That is one of the jobs of the counterintelligence division, though we're considering instituting a specialized internal affairs division in the near future. Anyway, it'll not be your job uncovering poor behavior, but rather to give me another perspective on what's happening, beyond what's in the official reports. You have the advantage of coming from a completely different perspective, so I'll expect you to give your sincere opinion on whatever you see relevant, and ask questions if you don't understand something. I'd also ask you to research some topics on which I may need a different opinion."

"Very well, sir. Anything I should research right now?" It could see that there was something bothering the Director. Maybe he didn't know how to approach the subject. In Sseri'ho's experience, bluntness would often help in that case.

"First, I need to emphasize that whatever you come to learn as my aide can't be shared with your mates. I understand it's hard for a mihoqin to keep secrets from the ones closest to you, but as intelligence officers that's something you all will have to learn."

"We have discussed this in our class, sir. That's the reason our future Matriarch chose to participate in the initial training. She'll understand the need for secrets, and help us with any conflict that arises because of it."

"Good. Then, as your first mission, I'd like you to go over emerging civilian movements on these planets," the Director said, typing some commands on his padd and showing Sseri'ho the resulting list, "and see if you can identify any sort of pattern. You can use all publicly accessible media and news, as well as the reports from the local SI offices."

Sseri'ho examined the list. "Director, why exactly those planets?"

"Do you know something about them?" he asked back.

"I recognize some of the names. Maybe most of them. Humanoid planets, showing a marked deviation in the last few years towards a pacifist stance."

"How do you know that?" The Director frowned, staring at the m'Ihoq'In.

"Our xenosociologists have been researching cyclic social patterns predicted to occur in humanoid cultures," it tried to explain. "Since we're now members of the Federation, we need to understand how it evolves with time. A majority of Federation member species are humanoid, so our people became very curious about humanoid culture. Our scientists have published a series of articles claiming that, since the establishment of the Federation, the various cycles in humanoid cultures have tended to synchronize among themselves, with some exceptions such as the Vulcans. The main evidence comes from the last cycle that started around seven years ago, almost simultaneously in many Federation planets. It has been identified both in local cultures more preoccupied with local problems and in others more interested in interstellar relations. Be it fear of Federation government interference in their planets or a commitment to peaceful contact with Federation neighbors, the one thing that's common to them all is a rejection of violence and aggression in all forms by a significant, and growing, part of the population."

The Director seemed more than surprised. Frozen, openmouthed, which Sseri'ho interpreted as shock. After a couple of moments, he closed his mouth and stared into Sseri'ho's eyes. "Tell me, those studies, where were they published?"

Sseri'ho crouched closer to the ground, defensive, its stalked eyes emerging only slightly from their sockets. "They are public results. Available to anyone who wants to read them. Copies are sent to all the main libraries of the Federation. But perhaps not many would think of reading them..."

"No, I wouldn't think so. And if anyone did find them, I'd wager they considered them quaint speculations from an alien civilization who really doesn't understand humanoid cultures."

If possible, Sseri'ho crouched even further. "I believe you are right, sir. It's pretentious of us, to believe we could develop a theory of humanoid social cycles. Though the original idea came from a human sociologist, one Fergus Amargosa, around the time the Federation was founded. A few of our researchers liked the idea and tried to apply and expand upon it, with surprising success. I'm sorry-"

"Stop, Sseri'ho. I'm not angry or insulted. What surprises me is that you caught something that you really shouldn't have." It perked up a bit. "Perhaps, since the idea didn't seem ludicrous to you as it is to us, you thought it worth pursuing." He breathed, staring at the corner where a small amber light glowed. "What you found seems to be true. The facts, at least. There have been pacifist movements active in some of these planets, and they caught our attention, but you seem to imply that it's much more widespread than a few small, organized groups. Tell me, how did you get this evidence?"

"We have cultural exchange teams on most humanoid planets around the Federation. They circulate among the public, and talk with anyone interested, gathering their opinion on a range of topics. It is their job. Their reports are widely circulated among us, including the data they acquire, their interpretations, and the speculations our researchers make upon them. Everyone is interested in this subject, from the creche to the oldest Matriarchs."

"I'd like to read those results. Later. Right now, what you must know is that they're almost certainly not a manifestation of sociological cycles."

"How can you be certain, sir?"

"I can't tell you, not yet. Except that someone has been using various means to attempt to weaken the Federation. In particular by restricting Starfleet's strength and mission. That's what I want you to look after, any clues that could point to who they might be, and how they're doing this manipulation of public opinion that you've detected."

"The Federation is being attacked?"

"Unfortunately, yes."

Sseri'ho paused, thinking. "I cannot tell the others they are wrong, can I?"

"No, you can't. I'm sorry."

"Then there's something else I have to tell you. Our xenosociologists made a series of predictions based on their theories. In particular, they predicted than in a few years there would be an opposing trend, with a more aggressive, universalist stance, and a desire to expand the Federation. A week ago, the first results were published, with evidence of such an emerging trend in at least five humanoid planets in the Federation, earlier than predicted. Everyone is talking about how this confirms the theory, though the xenosociologists have been cautioning us we'll need a couple of years of observation, on many more planets, before we can be sure. In two of the planets, this shift in public opinion has already surpassed by far any pacifist tendency." Sseri'ho paused, trying to interpret the Director's taut face. "If the first movement was artificially induced, then this one probably is too."

"If it is confirmed, I'm afraid you are correct, Sseri'ho."

"Then maybe we're not the target of the attack, but the s'jost between two squid-sharks." What it left unsaid was that, no matter what the result was of the dispute between the two squid-sharks, the s'jost always ended up eaten.