Veppa Wallers eyed her terminal carefully before activating her headset. She hated giving bad news.
“Greetings. Transport and Shipping, thank you.”
“Make it quick,” the voice engaged.
“Greetings, Markus. It's Veppa.”
“I'm en-route, hurry up.”
“Apologies, Markus. I think we're going to have a problem with this shipment,” Veppa waited until the termination of terminal-tapping on the other end indicated that Markus was finished pulling up his report.
“V. I'm staring at the details right now. It's all cleared.”
“I know,” Veppa admitted. “I looked at it too, but you really should check all the tanks in transport four.”
Markus was annoyed, “We'll miss deadline.”
“I understand. It's your call, but I'm certain,” Veppa asserted. She knew it was the third stop this cycle. The regular persistence of shipment schedule issues would start to weigh on vendors soon.
“How do you know this?” Markus asked.
Veppa always blushed when she had to explain herself. “It's the weight. Transport four looks light to me, maybe .5% lighter than the others. Check the hoses for a leak, or else one of the tanks may be sabotaged again.”
Markus yelled over the transport bay, “You heard her, transport four. Mark them all again and check the weight this time!”
“Well, you're never wrong,” Markus sighed and ended transmission.
Veppa lowered her headset and caught the sight of Elsa Clark making her way to Veppa's desk. Elsa was Veppa's long-time best friend. Elsa had in fact, gotten Veppa her job as Quality Assurance managerial specialist at Neutronic Atmospheric Transport, even though Veppa was only a Common. They had grown up together on one of the old-fashioned surface rurals and when Veppa's mother died, she had moved in with Elsa's family. Veppa ultimately received tutoring at Elsa's class level, Taper-minor. Now, Elsa was making her way with a purpose to Veppa's desk, carrying a myriad of food and drinks.
“My Highness!” Elsa cursed. “Did you see the media today?”
“Uh, no,” Veppa admitted.
“Here, take this,” Elsa dropped the pieces of nourishment on Veppa's desk and began furiously tapping at Veppa's terminal.
“Greetings, Elsa. Please help yourself,” Veppa offered sarcastically.
“Oh, stuff your face, I got you a rice muffin: your favorite.”
“Actually, I hate the muffins, it's the rice scones I like,” Veppa corrected, examining Elsa's drink options.
“Pss. You know, I can never remember what you like best. You're always changing your mind.”
It wasn't true. Veppa hadn't changed her mind since Nurturement, but then Elsa did have trouble remembering. Veppa gave up the argument when Elsa succeeded setting the terminal to media mode.
Veppa offered Elsa one of the earpieces from her headset as sounds and images of tragedy bombarded through the feed. 5,000 were dead. An entire Quadrant destroyed overnight.
“Isn't it awful?” Elsa spoke over the broadcast. “It's another Darker attack. The second this cycle, must be some kind of record.”
Veppa pulled the earpiece from her ear. “Why do they always assume it's the Darkers?”
“Veppa!” Elsa hushed, quickly eying if anyone had heard. “Who else would it be? Who else could do something like this?”
“These are dangerous times, you know, Veppa. It's not like when you and I were kids,” With that, Elsa took a bite of her scone.
“Elsa,” Veppa spoke cautiously. “I've noticed your nail-polish lately.”
“Oh?” Elsa was playing dumb, Veppa knew. The Authorities were really starting to crack down on Substance Q abuses and it was conventionally known that consumers hoping to hide their habits had begun injecting at the fingertips and coloring their nails dark in concealing efforts.
Fine, Veppa thought, I'll come right out and ask. But she instead opted the safer approach. “Is everything alright?”
“Everything is perfect. Speaking of kids,” Elsa changed the subject. “Are you, Seevan and yours still coming out to watch Raffball tonight?”
To be fair, Veppa wasn't sure. “You know, I reminded Seevan this morning, but he had to work.”
“You know I hate going alone,” Elsa complained.
Veppa conceded that she would do her best to make it.
An automated lockdown alert chimed on. Veppa startled, as always. The friendly feminine voice did little to calm her. “V. Wallers. Please discontinue all productivity and report to managerial services directly.”
“For the love of Highness!” Veppa cursed. “Can't I go just one cycle without getting on level?”
Elsa laughed. “You're just lucky Hardton likes you.”
“Yes, it's obviously doing me so much good,” Veppa responded sarcastically. “Well, my conveyor is here.”
Hardton was unusually sensitive, kind, for a high-ranking Taper. Appointed managing Chair of Neutronic Atmospheric Transport for innate genetic ability and high aptitude scores managing large projects with high attention to detail, he found himself both respected and coveted by even fellow Tapers. Veppa knew a softer side to Hardton. She had always been a source of fogginess in his world of order. He'd taken a chance, hiring a Common, and he never took chances. And then there was the affair.
No. Veppa waved Elsa away as she stepped on the conveyor and resolved to push all memories of her past with Hardton out of her mind. This was about business. He hadn't called for her in that way for over a year and all parties involved would do well to forget the event. Veppa decided to do her best to do just that.
Within moments, Veppa had arrived at Hardton'
s office. He was standing in his usual dignified manner, but with his back to the door. Veppa cleared her throat as she entered the office.
“Wallers,” Hardton's greeting was uncharacteristically distant. Veppa understood when she cleared the door.
They weren't alone. In the opposite corner sat a man clothed in red. Veppa had never seen a member from the Authorities in person, but assumed the mysterious figure fit the description.
“Is something wrong?” Veppa asked, alarmed.
“No, no,” the man stood and bowed. “Veppa, my name is Max. I'm from the Authorities. I've been asked to observe this question and answer session today for several members of the Q&A staff.”
Veppa shot Hardton a confusing look, “I'm not sure I-”
“Please, Veppa,” Max continued. “You're not in any trouble. I'm only here to observe.”
Veppa swallowed hard. His response sounded unlikely, but she knew members of the Authorities were bound to truth. Such members were genetically tested for traits of integrity and honesty, perseverance, specifically. Any testimony against individuals of the governed, like herself, help up by members of the Authorities were regarded as evidential truth and convictable. In fact, convictions and criminal investigations were the only mechanisms under which Veppa had ever heard of the Authorities's involvement.
She nodded politely and Max sat.
“Wallers, your department is experiencing high levels of efficiency,” Hardton's voice trailed.
“Sir?” Veppa didn't understand. Hardton invited a member of the Authorities to give her professional praise?
“Your immediate supervisor thinks highly of you, Wallers. She seems to attribute a large portion of your department's success to you.”
“Sir, I'm glad my management is pleased with my performance,” Veppa grew agitated. Was there going to be a criminal accusation or not?
“Your aptitude tests, Veppa,” Max stood and cut in. “Seem to contradict your level of success with your duties. Please excuse the frankness.”
“Am I completely lost to something? Since when is scoring badly on aptitude tests a crime? Isn't that kind of the point: for the Methods to place people where they belong?”
“You wouldn't be,” Max paused, but spoke pointedly. “... performing under your abilities, would you?”
“Of course not. That's impossible anyway. The Methods are proven,” Veppa regurgitated.
“Veppa, please don't fight,” Hardton pleaded.
Max smiled invitingly and paced to the opposite wall. “Veppa, I'd like for you to submit to a full-genetic scan.”
“Out of the question,” Veppa snorted.
“It is, of course, voluntary—for now,” Max conceded.
“And if I refuse?” Veppa challenged.
“Nothing. Your cooperation is only... appreciated,” Max smiled again.
“I refuse. May I return to my duties now?”
Hardton directed a grunt of annoyance to Veppa.
“Of course,” Max bowed. “By the way, my congratulations to your children.”
“Congratulations?” Veppa softened.
“To Marta and Sardin,” Max explained. “They are both staged for Delta testing at the Philosophical Academy. I apologize. I thought both parents were informed this afternoon.”
Veppa's heart sank. Her only children, her two twins would soon be tested for Delta admission. She should have been elated. It was the highest honor handed down from the Institution to the governed. Ethical training was reserved for individuals of the highest genetic quality, the highest aptitude scores; the Philosophical Academy was training for future leaders of the governed. Occasionally a Delta may retain a high-ranking political office. But no one really heard from the Alphas or Betas after examinations. These lucky individuals were dispatched to a life of rigorous training, study and ultimately became the decision makers, responsible for legislative endeavors that promote global peace. They seemed frozen in time, regarded as Saints by the governed. It seemed no way to live, in Veppa's opinion.
“I'm sure I was alerted. Thank you. My terminal is on lockdown,” Veppa responded respectfully.
“Of course it is. If I could ask one final question of you, Veppa,” Max started.
“I'm bound by law to answer anything you ask,” Veppa answered.
“Let me assure you that your cooperation is appreciated. My question is this,” Max cleared his throat. “Why do your daughters and yourself still retain your birth name when Seevan Noble is genetically proven to be their father.”
Veppa coughed beaten and lowered her head. “It's perfectly legal in this modern era of Genetic Information to retain one's birth name.”
“Of course,” Max returned to Veppa's side and placed a palm warmly against her shoulder. “I reiterate. You've done nothing wrong. Still, the break from tradition is notable to my investigation.”
Veppa inhaled deeply. “Marta and Sardin were born when I was 16. I was not yet engaged to Seevan Noble, though it is true that they were born to him. I had also promised my mother I would retain her name after marriage.”
Max raised his eyebrows as if to express genuine interest. Veppa knew her answer sounded Common, getting pregnant so young, demonstrating loyalty to family over Institutional tradition. She didn't care. She was disgusted that members of the Authorities would demand such personal information from here while not attributing any accusation of misconduct against her.
“I think that will be all today, Wallers,” Hardton cut in. “Please return to your duties.”
Veppa fought back tears, turning her face hot. She nodded in submission and allowed the conveyor to deliver her back to her station. Her headset was already buzzing when she arrived.
“Veppa? It's Elsa. Were you just interrogated by the Authorities?!”
Veppa expelled bottled up stress to her friend. “I don't know what that was.”
“What did they say?” Elsa flabbergasted.
“Nothing! Absolutely nothing.” Veppa punched in her conveyor release code.
The feminine voice chimed: “Thank you, V. Wallers. Please resume productivity.”
Veppa mocked the voice as her terminal transitioned from lockdown. She noticed that she had no waiting messages.
“Nothing? They must've said something,” Elsa pressed.
“They asked me about my aptitude scores and some bits about Marta and Sardin.”
“You weren't accused?”
“No, I'm back at work, aren't I?” Veppa seethed.
“Thank Highness for that.” Elsa's voice sobered. “Things are changing around here. Nothing is the same anymore.”
Veppa thumbed her rice muffin before taking a bite. She knew Elsa was right.