Disclaimer: I do not own Infinite Stratos.
Chapter 4: Conflicts of Interests
Day after Operation Fortune, Andorra, Secret Caduceus Base, Living Room.
"Today, officials say a certain package delivered by the US to France has been intercepted and stolen by a terrorist organization called Phantom Task, who fired several missiles at civilian concentrations in the process. This package, according to officials, contain sensitive IS related information. However, our own sources have concluded that it was not just one terrorist organization, but two terrorist organizations that attempted to steal the package. The first, Phantom Task, stole the package until it was stolen from them by the second. Our sources also indicate that the package isn't just sensitive information, but a prototype IS unit made by the US and Israel. When we asked a government official whether or not this is true, she simply said, 'no comment'. In the process of the theft, officials explain that Phantom Task overwhelmed their own and the IS academy's IS units with fewer but more advanced IS units, all of which are stolen by Phantom Task from either Britain or China. However, our own sources contradict this, stating that although Phantom Task did engage the security forces with IS units, the second terrorist organization wiped out both the security forces and Phantom Task with conventional weapons, specifically aircraft. This is a clip from our news crew who spotted the aircraft in action…"
The TV shows an Artemis Combat Drone firing on [Blue Tears], and then zooms out to reveal several ACDs firing in concert.
"…and we have another clip taken from a bystander's phone, showing an unidentified IS unit supported by several of the same aircraft…"
The TV shows [Golden Wings] engaging three [Xi Long] units supported by concentrated fire from several ACDs.
"…when we showed officials these videos, they once again said, 'no comment'. During this debacle, the entire combined French, US and IS academy security force was wiped out. Although no one was killed, some personnel sustained light to medium injuries, and the IS units of the entire combined French, US and IS academy security force were damaged and in need of extensive and expensive repairs. The political consequences of this incident are likely to be big, and officials say that the eradication of Phantom Task is now all nations' top priority. Back at you Kate."
"Thank you Jennifer. On related news, the Dunois Corporation has transferred hands from the Dunois Family to a Private Equity group called Caduceus Financiers. A full report will be submitted by our reporter Nathan Rockwell. Nate…"
"Thank you Kate. The Dunois Corporation already in turbulent times has hit rock bottom yesterday when their stock value plummeted by 500 points to about 5 dollars per stock, at which point Caduceus Financiers bought the majority of the stock shareholders are desperate to sell, including the Dunois Family's stock. Now with a majority of the shares, Caduceus Financiers plans to thoroughly liquidate the company's physical assets and only keep the research data, as said by Gray Geoff, spokesmen of Caduceus Financiers. When we asked whether or not the company name is going to be sold off too, the spokesman said that they have not decided yet. Back to you, Kate."
"Thank you Nate. Thank you, dear viewers, for watching IS Global News…"
"We really kicked as, didn't we?" I ask.
"Hell yeah we did. Seriously, we got the [Golden Wings], we completely destroyed every single fighting force above France aside from our own, and we are in the process of fully liquidating the Dunois Corporation. Hey, anybody want to know how much we are making right now?" Gray asks.
"35 Billion US Dollars and counting… my projection state that we will at least get 200 billion US Dollars in total… it's quite normal really, for a subsidized enterprise. 'National Champions' usually have a lot of assets but little results to show for. We should probably target more of these 'National Champions' for liquidation."
"I'll think about it," I reply.
"Boss, how about a party… I think this living room would be big enough for all six of us to party. I mean, we also have a bar right over there."
"I'll ask everyone else for their opinions."
"Boss, we need to talk."
"I can't keep covering up your conflict of interests forever. Right now our sole target should be to raise the value of Caduceus Central Stock by accumulating capital. In other words, our sole objective is to profit. I can understand with stealing research data since that still has monetary value… but picking fights with terrorist groups? Why in the world should we do that?"
"Well, it would be unprofitable for us if those terrorist groups attack us… so we'll preemptively strike them first."
"And the chances of them deliberately picking a fight with us are what, nearly zero? Boss, seriously, we're corporate officials, not heroes. I can cover up acts of heroism if they are profitable, but other purely altruistic acts I will have trouble covering up from Caduceus Equity. I'll back you up, but I can't do it forever."
"I know, I know. It's just…well…"
"You don't want your sister to grow up into being a ruthless dictator, so you're trying to at least set an example of a decent person. I get that, but there are times where your interests for your sister do not align with the interests of the shareholders. Hell, there are even times where your interests for your sister do not align with her own interests for herself. These conflicts of interests are dangerous, and I suggest you come up with a decent way to justify your non-profitable acts."
"Will my justifications really convince the guys at Caduceus Equity?"
"No, but it will at the very least make it harder for them to justify firing you."
"Fine, I'll do that. I'm going to… go find the others and inform them of the party. Should any of us buy drinks or food?"
"No need, I'll get those for you guys. Just come to the living room in… let's say nine? That should be late enough for us to party past midnight. Parties are just not complete if we don't stay ridiculously late."
"Alright, I'll do that."
I leave the living room.
Day after Operation Fortune, Andorra, Secret Caduceus Base, Gym.
I enter the gym to find Bryce. Apparently, he's doing some kind of martial arts training by elbowing a punching bag. From what I seen, his martial arts techniques seem to focus exclusively on elbow strikes, arm strikes and grappling moves, with virtually no fists or kicks utilized.
"Hey Bryce, what's up?"
"Just doing some combat practice, Commander."
"Party at nine, living room. Wanna come?"
My eyes rest of the metallic bumps underneath his singlet. Those are his Direct Neural Interface Connectors, a device which directly connects to the spine of the subject to allow neural control of an outside object. Aside, from that, 8 tubes, 4 on each side, are also connected to the device and buried in between his ribs. These are his Biocomputer tubes, which not only interface with the DNIC (and thus his brain) but can also interface with outside objects. These cybernetic augmentations are compulsory for 'Apparition' agents since interfacing via faint electrical signals running from the skin is deemed too inefficient.
"Are you still using those Biocomputer packages or your DNIC?" I ask.
"So why not remove them with surgery? I mean, after the war they offered free removals right?"
"They did, but I refused. I thought this might come in handy someday. Besides, I'm proud that I was once an Apparition agent."
Silence. We stayed silent for about thirty seconds, with Bryce still attacking the punching bag.
"I heard rumors from the Commandos," Bryce says.
"Really? What rumors?"
"They found out through your Control AI that you took a nap after knowing your victory is ensured."
"This reinforces their belief in you that you are a cold, calculating, nearly infallible commander who is never swayed by emotions that will bring them out of battle alive every time."
"They have also, as I have found out, ignored the part where you said 'wake me up if something happens' and the overall tone of your voice as being full of worry."
"You don't have to deceive anyone to seem calculating, Bryce. The Commandos are doing it by themselves."
"Commander, I know that you act cold, uncaring and calculating in front of the troops to give the assurance that everything is within your calculations, and this is roughly good for morale, but I have to worry about your confidence in yourself if you have to constantly remind your troops. Simply speaking, who are you trying to deceive, your troops or yourself?"
"Myself, probably… nothing went as planned in the previous operation."
"So? We won with zero living casualties and a few downed drones. We… You did great."
"Thanks a lot."
"Everyone in this branch has faith in you… why can't you have a little bit more faith in yourself?"
"I do have faith in myself… I just know my discouraging limits, unlike others who think I can solve any problem."
"Let's leave it at that, then."
Another stretch of silence. Bryce is still pounding the punching bag. I decide to sit down on a bench.
"Commander, do you still remember Eastern Russia Campaign? When we have just captured Vladivostok, and it turned out to be a trap? We were promptly surrounded by enemy infantry, armor and artillery concentrations, as well as a naval blockade with enemy naval artillery pounding us from the sea. Remember that?"
"Yes, but I doubt how reminding me of such a colossal mistake can help me boost my confidence."
"I'm just reminiscing. Anyway, you were the General of Field Army 4 at that time… and you were stuck with your army at Vladivostok. If I'm not mistaken, you ordered the Army to set up a defense."
"Yes I did."
"I still remember you acting calm and composed while sharing your luxuries with the troops. I remember seeing you give your jacket full of military medals to a freezing grunt. Said grunt nearly choke on his soup when you put your jacket over his shoulders. You then simply walked away coldly as if nothing happened. That day, you got the reputation of being both the friendliest and coldest general at the army."
"I remember that. I was trying to increase the morale of my army by making myself seem cold and calculating yet close and not distant."
"I know… I know. You went to ridiculous extents to keep up the act sometimes, though."
"Like when you slept inside your private room while under heavy deafening bombardment. Your reasoning is that the enemy can't attack while bombarding, lest they risk killing their own troops, so the time the enemy spends bombarding is a great time for everyone to rest. Of course, nobody could rest, or even more surprisingly, sleep, under such earthshaking and earsplitting barrages of explosive shells. When the troops opened the door to your room to inform you that the bombardment is over, they found you asleep. Rumors circulated that you were too cold and calculating to factor in your own body's protests."
Bryce laughs again.
"I believed that too, until I found a few sleeping pills missing from your drawer. When I asked an army doctor for his opinion but not to reveal it to anyone else, he said that the amount you ingested is far too much for a safe dosage and that you're an idiot for risking your life just to maintain an image."
Bryce laughs even louder.
"Good times… good times," I say, also in the mood of reminiscing.
"Hey Bryce, I have an offer to give to you."
"I'm listening, Commander."
"Would you like to serve Caduceus as an Apparition Combat Agent instead? I can tell you prefer being on the field rather than paper pushing. I can have Gray head the CARE department. It will increase efficiency by directly connecting funding and production too."
Bryce stops pounding the punching bag and looks at me.
"But mostly you just want to cater to my wishes, correct? You're a good friend, commander."
"Thanks. So your answer is?"
"If you can find me a proper Apparition Combat Suit, I'll accept."
"Consider that done. I got to go and invite the other guys to the party."
"See you later, Commander."
Day after Operation Fortune, Andorra, Secret Caduceus Base, R&D Laboratory.
"Hey Alex, party at nine, living room," I say to Alex.
"I'll be there boss," he replies.
I stop and stare at some kind of jet black exoskeleton. I think it's an IS… so this is what he did with the [Golden Wings]?
"You really outdid yourself this time, Alex."
"Thanks, boss. I challenged myself with this project. Since the IS core is pretty much the only thing that outstrips our technology… and probably the subspace storage technology and instant data to matter conversion, I thought that building an IS unit from ground up using our superior tech should lead to favorable results as long as those three technologies are still present."
"So you made this? Damn, Natasha will definitely love this! How good is this thing?"
"It cruises at Mach 3 and can go as fast as Mach 5 using its twin Pulse Detonation Engines. There is also an afterburner system to allow it to go at Mach 8 for a short period of time. I also included an [Ignition Boost] system to allow it to move at Mach 12 for a second or less, useful when trying to close in with an enemy IS. I scrapped most of the weapons and the barrier generator for a more interesting approach. Instead of an energy barrier, I tried to make a defensive AIC barrier instead. The problem with the AIC system is that it can only cancel the inertia of one object at a time… but I thought that if I use my trademark technology, biocomputers, to enhance the pilot's focus and couple it with the Hypersensor technology, I should be able to allow the pilot to stop all objects at a 10m radius around the IS. I had simulations run… and so far all results point positive. To counteract possible distraction tactics, I also included an AIC autofocus program inside the operating system. To enhance calculating efficiency, I also replaced the old binary computer with my own ternary design. This way, instead of blocking projectiles with an energy shield, the IS automatically locks on and stops projectiles with its AIC, which is about 80% more energy efficient than having a constantly activated energy shield…"
"Sorry to interrupt, but how about energy weapons like lasers? I don't think any computer can calculate the trajectory of a laser fast enough."
"I thought of that too. A weak AIC barrier is constantly generated around the IS. It takes only 10% as much energy as a constantly generating energy barrier. Since photons have negligible mass, they also have very small inertia, allowing the weak AIC barrier to stop them without any problems. The total energy savings of this AIC defense system when compared to an energy barrier system is around 75%, give or take, thus increasing survivability of the IS unit. For its weapons, since most IS versus IS battles occur at visual ranges, I decided that short range weapons with a high rate of fire and high damage instead of an accurate long range weapon is preferable. The enhanced AIC of this IS unit can neutralize an object 2Km away without compromising its autofocus program, so it should not be hard to close in for the kill anyway. This IS only has two weapons, the first is a longsword. Now, you know metamaterials right?"
"Yes, I do. It allows materials to have a negative refraction index, thus bending electromagnetic waves around an object and allowing invisibility, yes?"
"Correct. I, however, have developed a new type of metamaterial to be used as a weapon."
"Well, you heard of the meta-armor project right?"
"Yes, I did. A project aimed at bending bullets around a metamaterial as if it's light. They succeeded, but it makes the already ridiculously expensive metamaterial cloaking system look like pennies in comparison to the new armor. Not to mention the armor is ridiculously fragile and prone to scratches which will interfere with the armor system. In the end, it was one of the most expensive failures in military research history."
"Well, I found a way to get around the fragility and scratch problem, although the costs are even higher. This sword is made of a new kind of metamaterial. It's hard and strong enough to be used as a weapon, and all matter bends itself around the metamaterial. In other words, even with its dull edge, it can cut through everything regardless of hardness and strength simply because matter bends itself around it. Although it cannot cause energy to fully bend around it, it can still cause enough bending to severely damage energy shields with each slash. It is truly the greatest close quarter weapon ever devised, at least in my opinion."
"Aaah, I see where you're going. Long range AIC freezes the enemy IS, Mach 12 [Ignition Boost] allows this IS close in on the target, and the sword cleaves the target away with impunity. Brilliant tactical doctrine… I'm surprised you even thought of one. Usually your inventions have no tactical considerations in their design whatsoever."
"I learnt from you, boss. By the way, the other weapon is twin shoulder-mounted laser shotguns, one on each shoulder. They individual laser beams that form a single volley are spaced in such a way to minimize blooming and maximize damage at fifty meters, although they can be automatically adjusted in battle to change its optimal range."
"Glad to know that. I need to know, though, just how much does this IS unit cost?"
"Well… the sword costs about 2 billion US dollars…"
"2 billion! What the hell! Shit, if two billion dollars suddenly disappear from the treasury, I would have known! How the hell did you hide this thing from me?"
"I buried the costs under multiple budgets including the annual budget for basic necessities and toiletries."
"Is that why I'm always getting reports of a shortage of toilet paper from the R&D department?" I ask.
"That, and I found a new hobby of making origami with toilet paper."
"Forget I ever asked that. By the way, what's the name of this IS?"
"I don't know… how about Darth Vader? I could modify the hypersensory visor to imitate Darth Vader's mask if you want…"
"Never mind, let's just let Natasha decide."
At this point, I realized that Alex's interests have nothing to do with profiting, and has more to do with satisfying his personal curiosity and his eccentric hobbies.
I should berate him for it… but hell; this is Alex we're talking about.
Day after Operation Fortune, Andorra, Secret Caduceus Base, Living Room.
I walk back to the living room. I still need to find Natasha and Callista… but I think I can do that later. I personally installed a grand piano in the living room, mainly because playing music is my hobby. I'm really good at it, too.
I wonder… If I didn't enter the army and become a General, I could've spent my days being a professional pianist. I won't have to worry my sister diving into a world of danger, too.
I play Liszt's La campanella on the piano. I personally like this song's light hearted quick paced nature, it allows me to relax and focus entirely on playing.
I finish playing the song. I hear the sound of claps behind me. I turn my head and see Natasha leaning on the wall and clapping.
"Nat, party at nine in this room, wanna come?"
She's trying to say something, but she's thinking whether or not to say it. I can wait.
"Umm, Commander, I have a proposition."
"We should focus on attacking and eradicating Phantom Task and other terrorist groups."
"And why is that?"
"Because doing so will score us political points, not to mention that Phantom Task has some serious research and finances… basically, we can indirectly, through political means, and directly, through financial means, profit from the destruction of terrorist groups."
"Alright, good enough. What's your real reason?" I ask her while throwing her a questioning look.
Natasha squirms under my gaze.
"Well… let's just say its better on my conscience that way."
"…Although the United States did fire me, I'm still an American citizen… and I don't want my parents to find out I joined a terrorist organization. If we make terrorists our main targets, I can at least explain to my parents that I joined a shady yet ultimately good organization."
I sigh and give her a tired look.
"You do realize that the motivations underlying your proposal might possibly corrupt the interests of this corporation should it undertake said proposal?"
Natasha gives me a blank look.
"Conflicts of interests," I explain, "Your proposal and this corporation's interests may be aligned, but the motivations of both parties are certainly different, and your motivations might corrupt this corporation's motivations."
"Aah… so although attacking terrorists might be profitable to Caduceus, I did not propose attacking terrorists because it's profitable, although that is the reason I said Caduceus should attack terrorists. I don't understand why this is a problem, given that in the end…"
"No, it's not a problem in the short run," I cut her off. I know this is rather rude, but I really need to explain this, "But in the long run, if we keep attacking terrorists, the interests of this corporation might change because we will keep aligning ourselves to your interests, and when that happens, this corporation will no longer serve the interests of its shareholders, which will create a hell lot of problems. Natasha, I know you still have a sense of loyalty to your country, and I know you have second thoughts of our less than legal activities, but you have to understand that Caduceus is supposed to profit, not to fight crime and ease your conscience. I'm sorry Natasha."
"Oh," she replies, dejected.
"But I'll consider it."
Natasha looks at me, eyes wide and mouth agape.
"But you just said…"
I cut her off again, "As far as I am concerned, I represent the interests of Caduceus Equity. But remember, I will only lead Caduceus to clash with terrorist groups if the benefits outweigh the immediate costs, risks, and opportunity costs."
"I understand," replies Natasha, hopeful.
"Good," I reply while smiling to her.
We stay silent… I wonder why Natasha is still here. I mean, she has all her questions answered, right?"
"Umm, may I ask a question, commander?"
"You may, Natasha."
"I'm not prying or anything… but those dog tags you wear around your neck… why do you wear them? I mean, you don't even wear the same amount every day…"
"I assume Callista explained that we are from another world?"
"Yes she has."
"Well, I was a General once… of a faction called The Commonwealth. I commanded Field Army 4 in World War 3. The dog tags are either copies or originally of the soldiers that died under my command. I wear the dog tags of dead soldiers who die in the current day… so, for example, today I wear the dog tags of the soldiers who died this day. Overall, twenty four thousand soldiers died under my command."
Natasha looks down as if ashamed that she let her curiosity get the better of her.
"It's fine, really."
Natasha looks at me.
"You must have been through a lot."
"More than what I want to for my entire life."
"Do you regret being a General?"
"I regret some of the decisions I made… but I don't regret serving the military. Funnily enough, that war gave me more friends than all the years of peace time combined. I don't regret making those friends, even if some died due to my decisions."
I try to conceal the grief I am feeling because of remembering my worst mistakes.
Judging by the regretful stare I am getting from Natasha, I'm probably not doing a good job at it.
Natasha leans forward and gives me a peck on my forehead. I blush… what the hell? It's not exactly anything, but aside from my sister, no girl has kissed me before.
"That was my apology of bringing up something you're not comfortable with."
"I see," I say, dumbfounded.
"And this…" she gives me another kiss, this time to my cheek, "Is my 'feel better' present."
I must be looking pathetic, blushing only because of playful kisses and nothing romantic.
But I still find myself blushing like mad.
Natasha walks to the door, but before she exits, she throws me a questioning look.
"One more question, Commander, do your interests align with the shareholders'?"
I think for a few seconds before answering her.
Day after Operation Fortune, Andorra, Secret Caduceus Base, Outside of Callista's room.
I always consider three questions before making a decision.
First, what are the ends I wish to achieve?
Second, what are the means I have in my disposal?
And lastly, how do I minimally spend the latter to maximally accomplish the former?
In fact, I use these questions to guide my every move when commanding an army. The third rule specifically is a key principle in warfare, economy of force.
However, right now I'm using these questions to decide the best policy to achieve my own interests.
The ends I wish to achieve are simple; I want to spend the maximum amount of time with my sister and hopefully divert her from her life threatening goals.
Unfortunately, there are secondary objectives that I need to accomplish to secure my preferred ends. These are: To avoid getting fired by Caduceus Equity and to keep this corporation afloat. The latter greatly influences the former.
An idiot might think that in order to avoid getting fired, I must please the shareholders and keep them happy with my existence. That is not only unreasonably hard, but it would force me to allocate more time that I would like to otherwise spend with my sister. The principal of Economy of Force dictates that it is necessary to allocate a minimum of essential combat power to any secondary efforts.
In fact, I don't necessarily have to please the shareholders as much as I have to make them unable to justify relieving me of my duties. As long as there is no good reason for them to fire me, I can use the courts to retain my job regardless of circumstance.
In other words, as long as this branch of Caduceus Corporation performs well above the standard imposed by the shareholders, I can indefinitely keep my job.
Now that I know my objectives, it is a simple matter to allocate resources efficiently to accomplish them.
Sort of... there is a good chance that I have to change my priorities soon.
I knock at the door of my sister's room.
"Callista, it's me, your brother."
"Come in, the door's not locked."
I enter my sister's room.
"Callista, I've been reviewing your performance, and I would love to give you a failing grade, like a zero out of ten," I say, immediately getting to the point.
Callista stares at me with teary eyes.
"Unfortunately," I continue, "Objectivity compels me to grade you only with you performance in mind and not consider the fact that you're my sister and I don't want you to take this career path. And again, unfortunately I am compelled to give you a ten out of ten, given that you have creatively improvised despite limited intelligence."
Callista is about to squeal in delight, but she has more self control than that.
I pass on a folder to Callista.
"The Crossbow Detachment, formerly a temporary detachment, will be a permanent one if you choose to accept being its commander. You will have two full squads of War Wolves Commandos, specifically Gladius and Spatha. You will also have full logistical and orbital support and an IS, piloted by Natasha Fairs, to command. I will also give you partial jurisdiction to call in artillery, armored and air support. You may also add units to your detachment accordingly to the points given."
"What do you mean by 'points given'?"
"You have fifteen points to spend, and each unit in our arsenal costs a few points. You can spend those points on units to include in your detachment. I pretty much made up the points system just so that you have some leeway onto modifying your detachment to suit your own command style while still having constraints imposed."
Callista pulls her eyes away from the folder's contents and throws a smile at me. She then runs towards me and hugs me tight.
"Thanks brother!" she chimes.
"I'd like to say 'No problem', but I really do have a problem with this," I say jokingly.
"But you accept me as who I am?"
"That, and with this arrangement you will, at the very least, have some prior experience before forming your own private security company,"
We stay silent for a while, Callista still tightly hugging me.
I look at the clock. The party's going to be soon.
"Callista, we have a party at the living room at nine… just the six of us."
"Sure, I'll come! I'll wear my best clothes! I expect you to wear your medals, brother!"
I laugh at her suggestion.
"It's just the six of us, no one to brag to."
She smiles at me.
"Just wear them, anyway. And wear your old military clothing too. Sure, it's pointless, but it's nice to be able to show off such an awesome brother, even if it is to no one."
I suspect Bryce put her up to this.
"Did Bryce put you up to this?" I ask her.
"Yes he did, but I think it's a good idea anyway. Besides, it'll help with your confidence problem."
I smile at her. She's such a dutiful sister, caring about her brother to such an extent. Sometimes I find myself questioning just how she can be so sincere. I left her for the war in a relative's house… and she still loves me when I returned three years later. I never contacted her, never sent any letters, never any calls, nothing. And yet, as I have discovered after the war, every day she waits for me for an hour at the airport from precisely four to five at the evening, the time I left her and boarded my plane. Every day she brags about me at school.
When I returned, I was a nervous wreck with a hell of a confidence problem. I failed a lot of those under my command. Returning to someone proud of me despite failing to return her really shook me. After returning home, she's the one who slowly mended back my confidence. Apparently, sometime during the war she found out about my deteriorating mental health and tried to self tutor herself on psychology in order to help me after the war. A psychiatrist neighbor was generous enough to give her free lessons on psychology when he heard of it.
Such a dutiful sister… such a person does not deserve to go through the ordeals I went through.
But we are not in a war, so perhaps most of those ordeals could be avoided.
"Well, I don't see how showing off to only six people can boost my confidence," I finally say.
This time, Callista smiles at me in a mischievous manner.
"I heard there has been a change of plans in the location of the party, and also of the guests who will be attending…"
The Laser shotgun works with individual laser lenses per shotgun, in this case twelve lenses. Physics dictate that when a laser beam hits a target, part of the target evaporates, creating dust which reduces the damage of the laser beam in an effect called blooming. Because of this, stronger laser beams do not correspond with more damage proportional to the strength of the laser beam, or in other words the strength-damage ratio of a laser beam is subject to diminishing returns. Having smaller laser beams that all align to a single target averts this problem as long as the laser beams do not all target a single point at the target, which is pretty much why the laser shotgun is used instead of a laser cannon. Another way to reduce blooming is to 'phase' the laser.