I wait in the outer office for the meeting. This isn’t right, it doesn’t pass the smell test. Why would the head of Terran Exploration be involved in hiring a com-tech?
All I know is Terran Exploration has been negotiating with the Whaw for mining rights on their home planet. As a neutral planet, Luxor agreed to host the negotiations. A recreation world, Luxor already has a human ‘entertainment zone’ and an ‘entertainment pond’ for the Whaw, an aquatic species. A room, half atmospheric and half aquatic, was built for face-to-face negotiations. Negotiations broke down after the Infostellar translating device kept saying, “I can’t hear you.”. They want me to find out why.
Patrick Sullivan, Terran Exploration CEO, looks up as I am shown into the room. He waves to a chair. I sit and wait.
“What do you know about the Whaw?”
“Just what has been on the telecasts. An aquatic species, they look like intelligent cuttlefish and communicate the same way, changing bars and stripes running across their body.”
Sullivan slides a thin folio across his desk. “This is all the Luxians sent us about them plus the report from Interstellar. The Luxians are up to something, I want to know what.” Passing me a security chip, “You report directly to me. This will give you secure access. . . . Any questions?”
“Why me? I’m just a comm-tech.”
He looks at me as if to say we both know that isn’t true. I nod. Not many people know I have worked for Empire security in the past.
Sullivan says, “The Whawians are leaving in ten days. I need to know why. . . . There is a ten thousand credit advance in an account on Luxor for you. I’ll double it if you can get them back to negotiations. Triple it if we can sign a contract before the annual general meeting next month.”
In the taxi on the way back to my ship, I read the Infostellar account of what happened. It is sparse:
“In response to the Whaw negotiator indicating they couldn’t hear their human counterpart, the local Infostellar technician increased the brightness of the panel mimicking the Whawian body colours. When that didn’t work he placed a transducer on the glass partition that separated the two chambers and sent the audio directly into the Whawian tank.
At that point, the Whaw retreated to their pond and broke off face-to-face communications.”
My ship is a two-person speedster. What it lacks in creature comforts, it makes up for in speed. After filing a flight plan, I receive a priority message from the Luxian government:
“You are cleared for a high-speed path to low orbit.”
Two days later I’m on Luxor.
Selene, a female pleasure android I spent an evening with five years ago, is waiting for me at Customs.
“This is a pleasant surprise. But I can’t afford your company.”
She cooed. “The government is paying. I am to be your assistant.”
I know, anthropomorphising. Although she was made in a factory, is part computer and can change her appearance to anything I desire, to me, Selene is a she, not an it.
Her voice sends a shiver down my spine. “Would you dial back the sex appeal? . . . What is the government’s interest?”
“They are paying for both negotiating teams to stay here. They thought it would be good publicity, now it is just running up costs. . . . I am to take you to see George Scott, the Terran Exploration negotiator.” She tilts her head downward and gives me a seductive smile. “Then I am to assist you with whatever you need.” She looks up grinning, fully aware of the effect she has on me. “The government is trying to get you to see the Whawian representative.”
Her explanation doesn’t sit right, the government wouldn’t pay what she normally charges. I let it pass for now.
George Scott is a heavyset man in his early fifties. He seems to take an instant dislike to me. He eyes Selene, who is walking a half step behind me, with all the lust of a wolf eyeing a spring lamb. Her eyes say ‘You can look, but don’t touch.’, which seems to excite him even more.
Without taking his eyes off Selene, he says, “I want this settled as soon as possible. If those Godless creatures don’t negotiate with us, we might just take what we want.”
That is a lie, the Empire would never allow direct action. He thrusts an info disc at me. “The videos of the negotiations are on here.” Taking a last look at Selene, he rushes from the room.
I turn to Selene to see what has got him so rattled. She has changed her looks. She now has an hourglass figure, a ‘come hither’ look, and the top button of her blouse threatens to let loose. The personification of the New Church’s idea of a Jezebel.
Selene laughs. “He’s a pig. The few of us that will go out with him charge him twice as much.”
Androids are Luxian citizens and independent contractors. Not, as many people believe, government property. They set their own employment terms.
Selene returns to her natural form. Or at least the one I am familiar with. She tells me the government has reserved a room for me at an upscale hotel. We go there to review the videos.
With Selene giving a commentary on what is happening, we start to watch the video. The problems start right from the beginning. Scott walks to the front of the tank with the Whaw representative. The Whawian lowers his tentacles and slightly dips its beak.
Selene says, “Dipping the beak is a sign of respect.”
Scott stands ramrod straight as if watching a military review. I have seen men like him before, ex-diplomats whose unofficial motto is ‘We bow to no one.’ He introduces himself. There is no response from the Whaw. He introduces himself again, louder this time.
Selene pauses the video. “Watch the Whawian. It will rock from side to side so its full body can be seen. . . . Whaw don’t have names. Everyone has a unique pattern which identifies them. A secondary pattern on the head shows their rank. This one is the equivalent of an ambassador.”
Selene is giving me information that isn’t in the file. What is really going on? How much can I trust her? I stop the video. “Why did you meet me at the spaceport?”
“I told you; I am working for the government.”
“Not good enough. Why you and not someone from the diplomatic corps?”
I didn’t think an android could look embarrassed.
She says, “They asked me. They said it was because I already knew you.” She looks down, speaks softly, considering every word, “I said yes because I wanted to see you again.”
That doesn’t sound right. I wait for an explanation. “We can erase memories of our encounters. Erasing the way we feel is harder. Most men are OK, they just want us to act out some fantasy. That’s OK, that is what we get paid for. Others, the bad encounters, they just see us as exotic sex toys. They take away our dignity.” She stops to gather her thoughts. “I had only been working for three months when I met you. Had some real bad encounters. They always want the new ones. I was feeling pretty bad about myself. . . . Then I met you. . . . You treated me like a real person. You treated me like a lady. . . . You made me feel good about myself again.”
I don’t know what to say. Part of me is whispering ‘She’s an android, this is an act.’ while another screams ‘She is a real person with real feelings.’ I reach out and hold her hand. She looks up. “I never erased our encounter. I replay it whenever I have a bad one. It makes me feel good.”
As I watch, she starts to change, her face more seductive, her voice breathier, becoming every man’s fantasy. “I am yours for the night. What do you want to do with me?”
And all I want is to rip her clothes off and throw her on the bed. Instead, I yell “Stop it. Not with me–not ever again.”
Once more, she returns to the form I am familiar with. The form that, God help me, I love. She is not the only one to replay that evening in their mind.
She looks contrite. “I’m sorry. . . . Most men want that. . . . Maybe I should leave.”
“No, we are going to go out for dinner. Then we have some work to do. I need your help.” I smile, “After that, well, we’ll see.”
After dinner, I show her the file that was sent to Sullivan. She shakes her head. “It should be at least a hundred pages plus a number of videos.”
“Can you get the original files and find out who they were sent to?”
It only takes a minute for her to get what I need. I sent the files and message to Sullivan:
“These files were sent to George Scott. Do I have your permission to start negotiating for Terran Exploration?”
After sending the message to Sullivan, I sent a message to my broker to sell everything I have at market price and use it against shorting Terran Exploration.
Sullivan’s answer arrived the next morning:
“Yes. Scott has been relieved, his assets on Luxor frozen. Good Luck.” An outline of what they want from the negotiations is attached to the message. I don’t show Selene the attachment.
I send a message to my broker to cover my short when Terran Exploration is down fifty percent and start buying blocks of one thousand shares each time the price drops by five percent. If things go well, I am going to be fairly well off, if not–I’ve been broke before.
Selene looks at the message. “An off-worlder unable to pay their bills is a serious offence on Luxor. Scott is in a lot of trouble.”
“I am going to order breakfast. Then I need a crash course on Whawian culture. Do you understand their language?”
Selene laughs. “No. But I can download the program.”
While Selene updates her programming, I call the Infostellar tech that installed the translator. He is quick to say he had warned Scott that the Infostellar system wasn’t ready and he should use a Luxian translator. Scott had insisted on using the Infostellar system.
A Luxian representative calls, the Whawians are adamant, they will not return to the bargaining room. I am running out of time. It is time for a bit of groveling. In the past, I have used small gifts to gain access to people who didn’t want to see me. Something unique, but small enough not to be seen as a bribe. I know what to get.
I send a message to Sullivan with what I wanted, emphasising I must have it by tomorrow. Then Selene and I craft a grovelling letter to the Whawian negotiator asking to be allowed to visit their pond to apologise for my predecessor’s actions. I will send it when I know it won’t be delivered until the following morning. I need time to get the package from Sullivan.
Selene gives me a course in Whawian customs, culture and history. Now that she understands the language, we start to watch the video again. I jump to the part where the device is saying “I can’t hear you”
Selene says, “The Whawians don’t communicate with sound. It is saying either ‘I don’t understand you’ or ‘I can’t see you’.”
I skip ahead once more to where the technician put the transducer on the tank.
“That pattern makes no sense.”, she says. “Everyone is flashing the same pattern. . . . There is a legend of a predator that stunned its prey with sound.”
I interrupt. “So some sort of primordial panic signal?”
Selene goes home that evening. I miss her.
Selene joins me for breakfast. After breakfast, with nothing to do but wait for the Whawians to answer, she shows me around the entertainment zone. Their answer comes shortly after lunch. They will meet with me the next day. Selene can be my translator.
After reading the message, she starts to laugh. “What is so funny?” I ask.
“Remember how Whawians introduce themselves.” I nod. She says “No clothes.”
I’m not ashamed of my body, but the thought of standing naked in front of aliens makes me uneasy. Selene seems to enjoy my discomfort and reminds me the meeting will probably be a news item on Luxor and Whaw. On the plus side, she will be naked too. None of the human viewers will be looking at me.
Sullivan’s package arrives in the afternoon. It is exactly what I wanted. Selene and I go over Whawian etiquette again. We craft an introductory speech, which I soon forget.
Selene spends the night. There is so much riding on the next few days I can’t sleep. It isn’t the thought of losing my life savings or the fate of Terran Exploration that is keeping me awake. It‘s that once the job is finished, I may never see Selene again.
She can erase me from her memory. I don’t have that luxury.
We arrived at the pond a half hour early. A Luxian technician shows me how to use a rebreather. Selene doesn’t need one. The rebreather will let me stay underwater indefinitely. A throat microphone and earpiece allow Selene and me to communicate. Selene has the Luxian translator board that will let her communicate with the Whawian. We won’t need weight belts, guide fish will tow us to the right place, vines will attach themselves to our feet so we won’t float away. A narrow bench will be in front of us. I can place my gift there until after introductions.
After the guide fish tow us to the Whawian negotiator, I bow my head and do the introductory dance then present my gift. I explain that it is a fossilised trilobite, a two hundred million years old Terran sea creature; that it was sent by the head of Terran Exploration as a token of respect and to apologise for the actions of the former negotiator.
Their negotiator asks me what I do. I tell them that I help different species communicate. We are on our way back to the surface after less than fifteen minutes.
All I can do is wait and spend one more precious day with Selene.
The next morning, I receive a message that the negotiator will see me again, alone. I decline, saying Selene must be allowed to accompany me. They agreed to see us that afternoon. I send a message to Sullivan that negotiations are starting and to send the bonus to my broker.
The Whawians will have their own Luxian translator. I asked Selene to translate. what their negotiator is saying to the Luxian translator. It is considered rude to watch a private conversation, but she agrees.
As we get ready for the meeting I ask her “Are you reporting everything I do to the government?”
“Yes. Is that a problem?”
“No.” It is what I suspected. It was apparent the government had hired Selene because they thought I would trust her.
At the meeting, I explained I can only negotiate the basic agreement, the details would be worked out later. They agree and ask what Terran Exploration wanted. I gamble, I give them an outlandish request that should have broken off negotiations. It didn’t. Selene relays what the Whawian is saying. It is confused by the outlandishness of the request and asks the Luxian translator how to respond.
I interrupt them, “Is the translator also negotiating for Luxor?”
They are shocked that I know that. I continue, “Can we now stop wasting each other’s time and do some serious negotiating?”
Three days later, with Selene acting as my translator, we have the framework of a joint venture that is fair to everyone. It is substantially more than what Terran Exploration expected. Sullivan was ecstatic and arranged to come to Luxor to sign the agreement. When I told him he would have to be nude in the Whawian pond he laughed “I would sing Up Terra naked in Time Square for that contract.”
My last day on Luxor, Selene and I are at dinner. She asks “How did you know the Luxians were part of the negotiations?”
“They made it too easy for me. Special landing permissions, a beautiful helper who got everything I needed, it was too much.”
“Paid by a rival company.” I stare at my plate. I have to try. “Have you ever thought of doing something else?”
She looks disgusted. “Please, don’t spoil the evening by trying to save me.”
I laugh. “Don’t be silly. . . . Seriously, have you ever thought of doing something else?”
“No, not really. This is the only thing I know how to do.”
I shake my head. She is wrong. “When word gets out of what we did here, I am going to have a lot of work.”
She is puzzled. “We?”
“I couldn’t have done it without you. . . . I could use you as a partner.”
“To do what, entertain your clients?”
“Maybe. But I was thinking more like helping me with negotiations.”
“In what way?”
“Having a beautiful, intelligent woman, who speaks every known language and has an eidetic memory as a partner would be useful.”
“I’m not a woman, I’m an android.”
“A minor technicality.”
“What kind of partnership?”
Grinning, she says “Fifty-fifty, and you might get some extra benefits.”
“Fifty-fifty, and I definitely get some extra benefits.”
She lifts her wine glass. “To partnerships.”| |