Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 62
Failing Constructs
by Alter S. Reiss
Pinedaughter's Grove
by Ville Meriläinen
The Robots Karamazov
by Marie Vibbert
For a Rich Man to Enter
by Susan Forest
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
A Crash Course in Fate
by Eric James Stone
Bonus Material

Failing Constructs
    by Alter S. Reiss

Failing Constructs
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

Everything about Tenth Division Street--the awnings, the posters plastered on posters plastered on crumbling walls, the bars on the shop windows, the barrels of fish and clams and pickled beets--looked the way it should. But without the crowds, it was the corpse of a street, and like any corpse, it looked the same as the living thing, but different and wrong. Like any corpse, Vozsi didn't want to see it. Tenth Division Street looked like it had right after the Dissolution, when the generals had declared martial law in Marakov, and tried to take the reins.

The actual corpses had been taken away before Vozsi arrived, but there were still blobs and splashes of gore on the cobblestones and advertisements--again, like those weeks after the Dissolution. Vozsi had come to look at a few twists of straw and fragments of blackened, half-melted plastic.

"Bastards," said the paratroop assigned to Vozsi.

"Who?" asked Vozsi.

The paratroop shrugged. Big and blonde, with a dangerous, uninvolved innocence. "Confederation Army," he said. "Who else would leave things like that unexploded?"

Vozsi picked up a bit of faceplate from the cobblestones. "Modern plastics," he said. "Confederation arsenal didn't have anything like this in it."

"So it's an adapter," said the paratroop. "I'll radio that in."

Vozsi knelt on the pavement. It might have been an adapter, a military construct that could copy the appearance of nearby constructs. It might have been a military construct that parasitized another construct, riding along until the trigger was flipped. It might have been a regular construct, detonated by some remote enchantment. It might have been lots of things. He found the fragment of chest plate he was looking for. No sign of an adapter, or a ride-along, or anything else. Just a few trailing remnants of magic, and serial numbers.

The paratroop was back. "Chief says that there was nothing about the victims, nothing worth targeting here. Just more ordnance decay. Bastards."

Vozsi nodded, copying the serial numbers to his notebook.

"We're going to open the street now," said the paratroop, and after a pause, Vozsi nodded again. He wasn't police, he wasn't army. The Technological Ministry had to be called in when a labor construct exploded and killed people, and he was high enough ranked and low enough status to be the one who showed up. He could make a fuss, but out past the green-blue-green-blue flashing lights of the military barricades, the street was packed with people and trucks and constructs who had to go down Tenth Division.

Any one of them could have the sort of pull that would mean trouble for a delay, as could any of the shopkeepers who'd been forced from their shops, and who'd count every second of investigation as money lost.

He stood and brushed his knees clean. As the street filled around him, whatever was left of the labor construct was trampled down with all the other trash.

"How many?" he asked the paratroop.

"Fifty-seven casualties," said the paratroop. "Eight dead. Bastards."

"Bastards," agreed Vozsi, and pushed his way through the crowds, down to the metro. Since the Dissolution, the streets had been so full that cars didn't move much faster than walking. Say what you wanted about the provisionals (and you'd be wiser not to say what you wanted about the provisionals, if you didn't want to wind up suffering an accident, or going on a long trip and never coming back), industry was blooming all over Marakov, like it never had under Confederation.

The metro was full, but it moved, and got Vozsi back to the ministry offices in time to learn that his report had already been typed up, and approved, and was waiting for his signature.

"Unquestionably an adaptive anti-personnel device from the Imperial Confederation Army," was his conclusion, apparently. "The generals and politicians who fattened on the decaying resources of the once noble Confederation," etc., etc., right up to, "while the danger must not be minimized, stores of these weapons have been greatly reduced under the supervision of the Provisional Republic."

Everything was fine. Or at least, it would be, once he signed off. Vozsi sat at his desk, started flipping through the books of serial numbers and manufacturing plants. It wouldn't be long before someone started in on him, but until then he would do his job.

It wasn't long before someone started in on him. First it was Nessya, from the secretarial pool, who needed the signed report to be filed before the afternoon break, and who was not happy when he told her that he wasn't going to be signing. And as inevitably as thunder followed lightning, Otteg came out of his office, not a minute after Nessya went into it.

"What the devil!" he shouted, slamming the unsigned report down on Vozsi's desk.

"I am not convinced of the conclusions I am supposed to have reached," said Vozsi.

"So?" asked Otteg. "The new port facility is to be opened in two days, where I will meet with the Technologies Minister. Our office is in the top fifth in efficiency, and I will like to discuss that, not the drop in efficiency because of the convictions of failed adepts. What do you think this was? A foreign assassin after a pickle-vendor?"

"Perhaps it is a flaw in the manufacture," said Vozsi. Until then, there had been the general chatter of the office behind them, the usual gossip and bitching. After he said that, it was as though he had made a particularly loud and melodious fart. Everyone fell silent, waiting to see if Vozsi would produce anything else similarly remarkable.

"A flaw," said Otteg, dangerously.

"It is a possibility. I intend to find the place of manufacture, and to interview the workers, both those who assembled the casing, and those who cast the spells that motivated the laborer."

Otteg grabbed the papers from his desk, crossed out Vozsi's name, and signed his own, with a flourish. "There you are," he said. "Freed of such obligations. Take the rest of the afternoon as a vacation, why don't you? Spend some time with your family."

That was a cruel cut, and Otteg knew it. "Thank you," said Vozsi.

Otteg threw up his hands. "Fools," he said. "Poltroons! Everywhere, fools and poltroons!" He took Vozsi's report--his report, now--and dropped it off on Nessya's desk.

Taking Otteg at his word, Vozsi went and got his coat. The matter was finished, officially, only it wasn't--Otteg had assigned him to investigate the matter, and while there was something marked a final report, he still had his directive. Canceling a directive took a great deal of paperwork, which left the sort of trail that Otteg didn't like leaving. Otteg was done, but Vozsi wasn't done. He had the manufacturing plant, from the serial numbers, and he had their roster of sorcerers as well.

But he also had an afternoon off, and those were rare enough that they were worth taking. Of course, Otteg hadn't been casual with that dig about spending time with the family. It was the last day of Spring Term; the boys would be at home with Reyra, dressed in their uniform jackets and caps, only instead of Vozsi frowning at their grades and tousling their hair, it would be Adekhin. The church had granted an annulment, Reyra was married again, and the boys had a father again. Not the father they had been born with, but in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the church, that had all been a mistake, something that had never happened.

This time, Vozsi wasn't going to spend his free time drinking alone in his flat or drinking alone at a bar. He was going to spend his free time drinking alone in a graveyard.

It had been the last day of Spring Term when Fenna had gone out with the other university students, to march against the generals. Vozsi hadn't told her no, and to her credit, Reyra never blamed him for that. Vozsi wasn't even sure he blamed himself; he'd marched too, and bad as the provisionals were, if the generals had held on, everything would be worse.

So, he marched, Reyra marched, Fenna marched, and they shot Fenna and left her to bleed to death on the street. They cried and cried, and when the tears dried, other things were gone. Vozsi had been too angry and too hurt to continue as an adept, and Reyra was too angry and too hurt to continue with Vozsi. Even if Fenna would've listened if Vozsi had told her not to march, he wouldn't have told her not to march. He was proud of what she had done, but he wished that she hadn't died. So he went to her grave and drank cherry brandy, in the hope that if he drank enough cherry brandy, everything would be right again.

Everything wasn't right again, but nobody could fault him for not having tried hard enough.

Afternoon had turned into evening while he was working on the project, and the darkness made it hard for him to find his way back out of the cemetery. The way the ground kept rolling and pitching didn't help.

There were lines of soldier's graves, straight and solemn, all alike. Then small monuments for poor people, and big ones for rich people. Beyond that, there was the graveyard outside of the graveyard fence, for suicides and heretics and people who'd gotten divorced or hanged, and who could not lie in consecrated ground.

There were more of those graves every time he was there. Little plastic markers out beyond the cemetery gates, names misspelled by the religious authorities.

Most of those misspelled names had the name of some village for a last name, or some old-style patronymic shoehorned clumsily into a family name. Confederation had encouraged the rural virtues, but Marakov had no time for that, now that it was free. Men and women who'd grown up knowing nothing more complicated than a combine harvester were thrown into the teeth of the cities, and they were chewed and swallowed. And when that was done, they killed themselves, because they'd sold their farms to get to the cities, and had nothing left.

Vozsi staggered on past the endless rows of suicide markers and went back to his flat. If he'd cared about advancement, he'd be fretting about Otteg's anger and disappointment, and resolving not to be so stubborn. But Vozsi wasn't ambitious. All he wanted was an office to keep him busy during the day, and a paycheck to keep a roof over his head at night. Otteg could rant all he wanted, but he wasn't well connected enough to fire a civil servant who showed up to work, so Vozsi would do what he damn well pleased.

The next day, Vozsi checked in at the office at its official opening time, which nobody did, so he could leave a note explaining that he was off to examine the factory at which the exploded construct had been constructed. No way that Otteg would like that, but regulations had been followed.

The factory manager wasn't happy to see him, but the foreign buyers liked to think that there was someone checking the work in Marakovian factories. So the ministry had written up a protocol, and if a factory manager didn't follow ministry protocol, well, there were always people who wanted to sit in a manager's chair. Those were comfortable chairs.

The line was like any other line. The assembly workers stamped things out, steel and plastic, and as they moved down the line, they were shaped and stuffed with straw, and checked for defects, and then enspelled, and then the spell was tested for defects.

Only the spells weren't tested for defects. No way they could be; it'd take twice as long as the enspelling, and would require someone who understood theory, not the sort of backwoods wizards that you got on factory lines, who'd been taught one spell, or two, and then gone up to the city to make their fortune.

There was someone there to test a random selection of the units that came off the line. In theory. In order to test all possible problems with a casting as complicated as a manual laborer, the tester would have to be a grade four or higher, and the war ministry, and the interior ministry, and so on--they all had better things for grade four adepts to do with their time. So there was a name on the chart that was the same as that of a grade four adept, there was a check written to that grade four adept every month, and there was someone there frowning at the constructs. Unfortunately, a name, a look, and a frown did not actually check the constructs.

No point in making a fuss about that. It was the normal way of things, and the manager would've greased sufficient wheels that blame for getting caught out would attach to someone who had nothing to do with it. Besides, Otteg wouldn't sign off on any fuss of any sort. Everyone knew that Marakov had suffered under Confederation rule until the Dissolution, so the foreign buyers wouldn't mind too much when they heard that some shopkeepers had gotten massacred by some old regime munition. On the other hand, a fuss about inspections not being carried out would raise eyebrows. So yes to Confederate munition discharge, and no to that fuss.

There wasn't anything Vozsi could do about it, with or without support from Otteg. Accidents happened, and there just weren't that many grade four adepts. But while a lack of proper oversight explained how a failure had gotten through, that wasn't why the construct had failed. What Vozsi needed to do was to talk to the man who'd cast the spell. And that fellow proved difficult to find.

All the names on the rotation were rural, just about. One or two Stiemes and Russas, but all the other names were country, not city. He was looking for an Efren Gruyiason, at least according to the log sheet and serial number. Only there were four Efren Gruyiasons on the line, and none of them was the one who had stamped the serial number that Vozsi had seen on the exploded construct.

The manager had been annoyed enough when Vozsi had decided to traipse out onto his production line. He practically turned purple when Vozsi wandered into his office and started looking through his files. Not that he could do anything about it but seethe, and maybe call up the person who'd gotten him the position, and then that person would yell at Otteg. That might get Otteg so mad that he'd send Vozsi home early again.

Instead of trying to avoid that dreadful possibility, Vozsi looked through the files and found the Efren Gruyiason who had put together the construct that had come apart so dramatically on Tenth Division Street. And he learned that the gentleman in question had hanged himself, earning a place outside the graveyard, and a cheap plastic marker.

So, end of trail, go back to the office, and see what Otteg would have to say about his findings. Only there had been so many of those markers. Vozsi decided to further irritate the manager by finding a random Efren Gruyiason's contract--one of the surprisingly large number marked "CANCELLED - DEATH - SELF-INFLICTED"--and looking it over.

It was as unpleasant as the scene on Tenth Division Street. Once he had the figures down, Vozsi took his leave of the factory, and on the metro back to the ministry offices, he worked them out.

Given the amount of money that various Efren Gruyiasons were paid for each completed construct, and given the speed of line, they'd have had an extremely difficult time paying for luxuries like food and shelter. And there were penalties for failed constructs, equivalent to two weeks wages.

The longer someone worked under a contract like that, the worse off they'd be. There were government loans available for low-grade adepts, but those would simply delay the problem; those loans carried low payments at first, but the payments did not stay low.

It had been a long time since Vozsi had worked as a factory line adept, but the rates he had been paid had not been so bad. They couldn't all be that bad, or the factories wouldn't be able to hire anyone, after a while.

Back at the office, Otteg was out. The Technologies Minister was going to be opening a new port facility--two thousand laborer constructs, new cranes, new berths, new everything--and Otteg was making certain that it would all look right for the cameras; it now seemed that the prime minister would be there as well.

Which gave Vozsi the freedom to look through files that someone of his rank ought to have been allowed to look through, but which Otteg would never have shown him.

It showed more or less what he had expected to find. There were four contracts offered to adepts who applied for work at the factories. The one that the unfortunate Efren Gruyiasons had signed was the one that the ministry preferred, and recruiters were given a bonus for each of those contracts they managed to unload on people. Two of the others were less preferred, and more reasonable; someone who understood what his labor was worth could get a reasonable contract, with opportunity for advancement.

Unless he disclosed the details of his contract, at which point, he would be legally bound to a contract even worse than the ones imposed upon the rural sorcerers who were washing into the cities in droves. It was an elegant system. It kept production up, costs low, and so long as that tide of rural adepts didn't let up, they would get eaten, and the factories and the bankers would turn a profit on each of them. Just about every "CANCELLED - DEATH - SELF-INFLICTED" recorded showed years of labor purchased for next to nothing, most of which had gone to the banks and remained there.

Vozsi had started as a line worker. But while production lines were mechanical things, sorcery wasn't. Unavoidably, the moods of the worker slipped into the products of his work. Vozsi had not cast a spell since the day that Fenna had died, and he did not intend to start; too much helpless rage would go to the construct, and there would be no telling how it would manifest.

There were labor manifests for every regional office, and they were all too full and too poorly indexed to be of use to anyone. And Vozsi wasn't looking for one particular piece of information--he was looking for a pattern. It was hard to find; there were constructs that were shipped abroad, or which simply fell off the lists, there were dozens of line workers who all had the same rural name, all that. But he was able to find a half-dozen line workers who'd committed suicide, and a half-dozen incidents involving the last constructs that they had produced. Those incidents involved a total of thirty-seven deaths.

It wasn't proof, exactly--it could, of course, have been Confederation munitions which happened to choose those constructs as targets. Or a sudden and powerful windstorm; those were the official conclusions reached by the Technological Ministry as to the reasons for the deaths associated with those constructs. But Vozsi had a feeling that perhaps he was right, and that the missing container ship had not met with a sudden and powerful windstorm.

Not all of their products had failed, of course; not even most of them. But the last one they had made, before walking off the line to end their lives . . . it was a clear problem, with a simple solution. And since Otteg was still trying to ingratiate himself with the Minister for Technology rather than supervising his office, when Vozsi wrote his order and signed it, the secretaries typed it up and sent it out. As soon as a line sorcerer killed himself, all the constructs he'd finished in the last week were to be pulled from circulation until given a "severe tolerance test," which was code for actually being looked at by a grade four adept, and the final construct off the line was to be pulled and destroyed.

Then it was close enough to quitting time that he headed on home. There were other things that could be done. If Vozsi were actively political, he might have done some of them. But he wasn't, and he didn't know anyone who was--after they shot Fenna, he had withdrawn from politics, withdrawn from association from anyone who hadn't withdrawn from politics, so there was simply nobody he could turn to for advice on what he might do.

Another of the things that he might have done was to spend the night in the familiar company of a bottle of cherry brandy, but instead, he brought home a sheaf of papers, which proved less cheering and less numbing than brandy. What he decided to do with those papers required more skillful manipulation than even a second bottle of brandy would've, after the first had given him two extra hands, and kept varying the size and shape of all four of them.

He returned to the offices while it was still night, put everything where it needed to be, and then snoozed a bit at his desk, waiting for the explosion.

It didn't take long. Otteg came in early, for once. He was probably hoping to leave early, to make it to the opening of the new port. Then he discovered what Vozsi had ordered, and his hopes of an afternoon of praise and glittering company vanished.

He was not pleased about that and was less pleased when Vozsi refused to recant his orders. Otteg's patron was the Minister for Technology, and he wasn't close enough to the Minister to fire civil servants who he didn't like. But something like this, where Otteg could show both cause and a possible threat to the Ministry, that would get Vozsi gone. Nonetheless, Vozsi was not going to send those laborers back into general circulation without an inspection.

"You realize the embarrassment?" said Otteg. "They are fine; they are all fine, and you know it. This is merely an attempt to aggrandize yourself, and cast aspersions on my work, and on the contracts written by the minister himself."

"Then cancel the orders," said Vozsi. "They are not fine--every last one of those final constructs is going to detonate, and every last one of them is going to kill people when it does. The--"

"You think I will not cancel the orders myself?" said Otteg. "You're a fool, Vozsi. We are all of us sorry for you. A man who lets his wife leave like that, marry someone else? It's like seeing a one-legged dog in the street. We are all trying to protect you, and you throw it back in our faces. If you cancel it, it never happened, you understand? No records. If I cancel it, it did happen, and when the minister looks at my files, he sees that I have a worker who is casting aspersions on his work, on all of our work. When that happens, you are lucky if you're fired; fired is the least of the things he would do."

Vozsi had seen exactly what the Minster for Technology could do--he'd read the contracts and seen how they were canceled. But nonetheless, he would not sign, so Otteg spent his morning chasing down the papers that Vozsi had sent out, restoring to service the constructs that Vozsi had pulled.

Finally, it was done, less than an hour before the port facility was to be opened, and so many things had been left undone while Otteg was undoing Vozsi's work that he had no hope of attending.

For lunch, Vozsi bought fried leeks and pickled sprats, and he ate them out in the park. Marakov had its problems, certainly. But the parks were lovely, late in the spring. Tulips and spring roses, and the sour-apple trees still in blossom. When he returned to the office, Otteg had his resignation drawn up, ready for Vozsi to sign.

Vozsi read through it, twice, making sure he understood everything that had been written.

"It's this or the minister will take more permanent measures," said Otteg. "And since I don't want that on my record, either you sign it, or don't--your signature will be on it either way."

"I see," said Vozsi. "Only . . . well, it's not important."

"I'm sure it isn't," said Otteg, clearly wanting it to be over, and Vozsi to be gone.

"Perhaps, perhaps. Only, well. What if I was right?"

Otteg sighed. They were in his office, the door shut. "So another pickle vendor or two dies. The constructs would go up before they reached the export market, anyway. How many people die if we don't have the export market, eh? How many people die if the factories stop producing labor?"

"Yes," said Vozsi. "Of course. Only, what if two of those laborers who you returned to circulation were delivered to the new port facility?"

There was a moment, just a moment, when Otteg didn't even understand what Vozsi had said. Then his eyes widened, and the blood left his face.

"As you say, perhaps I worry too much," said Vozsi. "Perhaps I was wrong. And there's certainly no reason for those suicidal line workers to bear any animus for the Minister for Technology, and . . . well, if there was such a reason, perhaps that animus would pass to the constructs, but you've assured me, nothing could come of this."

Otteg's mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out.

"Of course, if such a thing could happen, there might even be an investigation. And then . . . well, there's one name on the orders to pull the laborers, and another on the order to release them back for work. That might attract some attention. One name on the order to investigate, another signed on the conclusion. But that is nothing! Just the regular way of things. And surely your friendship with the minister is sufficient to protect you if so unlikely a thing were to happen. He will certainly be present to defend you. Where would he have gone, after all? A government minister dying from an accident? Certainly not; that is only for pickle vendors. And perhaps nothing has happened. Yet."

Otteg's eyes flashed at that 'yet.' He seized on the thought, bursting from his chair, going for the phone. It started ringing before he reached it.

Vozsi left Otteg's office, tipping his hat, as his superior stood frozen and gray. It had not been easy, massaging the laborer assignments so that the gaps would be where they needed to be. It seemed likely that there would be an investigation, and it could be they would find Vozsi's hand in the manipulated assignments. If they did, well--the hangman's noose was no gentler and no harsher than a riot policeman's bullet.

More likely, they wouldn't. Much like Minsters for Technology, police investigators were more interested in the quantity of their output than in its quality. The story that they would see when talking to people in the office and looking through the filed reports would pin the blame on a mid-level administrator and a dead Minister. That would satisfy their requirements for a live villain who couldn't cause too much trouble, and leave them time for an early dinner.

Vozsi had not signed his resignation, and he had not been dismissed early. And yet, both Vozsi and his resignation left the office early. As far as the others knew, he had just lost his job, so they watched him leave with pity. Well, there was no harm in people having pity, whether or not it had been earned.

Fenna had died trying to make Marakov into something that it wasn't. It still wasn't, even though she'd died, which didn't seem fair. Vozsi could hardly claim to have finished Fenna's work, but he'd made a start. He went out to the cemetery, and he burned the resignation at her grave. And then he drank cherry brandy, until the police came to collect him, to confirm the story that he had crafted, and which they had already released to the press.

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