Ambassador Mahyul, having finally made the time for a meeting lasting longer than five minutes, asked me to read through the details of the shopping list rather than read it herself. She’d refused to let me give it to her ahead of time, explaining that there should be no pre-existing bias. I wasn’t sure how my reading it aloud would eliminate the bias. What bit of Shalash psychology made that make sense? What context did I need to understand? A subtle reminder that I was way out of my depth, but at this point I just had to push through.
As I read, I edited a few things out and threw a couple in. What good was it being the Intermediary if I didn’t have any influence on the dialogue? If the Shalash only wanted an errand boy to run messages back and forth, they shouldn’t have expressed things so I felt I was expected to use my brain.
When I finished, Mahyul remained silent for a moment. One side of her mouth twitched as if she bit her lip from the inside. “This is a rather long list.”
I almost laughed and did have to smile. “That’s more or less what I said when I first saw it. They don’t expect the entire list in return for whatever cooperation they end up giving. It’s only an initial position, a traditional method of bargaining: ask for far more than you could possibly get. They expect you to be equally absurd but in a minimal fashion. Negotiations proceed until a middle position is achieved that is satisfying to both parties.” I’d practiced that for about fifteen minutes until it sounded natural.
“I am familiar with the concept of bargaining, Intermediary, but with a list of this magnitude, I am uncertain of where a mutually beneficial midpoint might be. Half of what you have just read is still quite a long list.”
Nodding, I closed the folder and set it on the table in front of me, well out of Mahyul’s reach. I didn’t want to her to see what I’d left out. “I think the expectation is for you to laugh and send me back with nothing, or nearly nothing. That’s the first round.”
She kept her face neutral, easy for any adult Shalash, it seemed to me. “How does your government expect delivery of the technologies we finally agree on?”
“Something else to be negotiated. I’ve explained to my government liaison that secrecy is unlikely.” Actually, during the afternoon check in with St. Hivon, I think my exact words were something along the lines of broadcasting to the world. He hadn’t been surprised. Or impressed.
She nodded, slow and deliberate. “That is good. Our desire is for all of the beings of your planet to benefit from what we agree to in payment for your hospitality and assistance. The compensations we agree on would need to fall into that line.” Mahyul paused and I had a sinking feeling I knew what she’d say next, at least in an approximate way. All nations were not created equal and how do we plan to deal with that? “Your world has a number of climate and environmental issues, does it not?”
There was no way to keep the surprise from my face, but I think I recovered quickly. “It does. We haven’t always… developed in a way that cares for the environment.”
“But you are learning.” She smiled, just a little. “You should not be surprised at my opinion. We have access to your media, and so your history. Slowly, you come to respect each other and the world around you. This is a hard lesson. The list of environmental technologies was strategically placed at the beginning of your recitation and they showed specific thought to specific problems, many of which are in our past, but I think it likely that most of those items will result from your own technological development in the next twenty or so orbits. You are learning and very quickly. While we have no interest in interfering with your development, there is one thing that might be a possible negotiation point, and that is methods of wild carbon capture. I believe you may take that back as a serious possibility.”
I flip open the folder and draw a circle around that point, wondering if Mahyul realizes just how big a thing that might be. Similar problems in their own past, but she probably only had a historical perspective on climate change. “There are also a couple of serious medical issues.”
“I recall.” She leaned back slightly. “While we would love to see a reduction of suffering, we are not able to cure your diseases for you. The group of diseases you call Cancer is something within our experience. Some research directions might be suggested. The disease you referred to as HIV/AIDS is something different. An immune system deficiency, I believe you said.”
AIDS. Not quite the specter it was twenty years ago, but it was still a death sentence. People lived longer with it every year, except in large parts of the developing world, of course, especially Africa, where it remained the grim reaper in viral form. A plague, a pandemic, a killer. A lot of people tried not to think about it. Most of the time, I was one of those people. “We’re not asking you to cure it for us, but your technology is so advanced compared to ours. The most basic analysis you can do on the virus might save our scientists years and avoid numerous dead ends in research. You could save millions with only a little effort.”
“I cannot say yes, at this time. I will not say no.”
That statement gave me the first real flavour of the negotiations. The Ambassador would use me as a sounding board for what might be offered. I would be the arbiter of what those offers might be. Things I wanted for the world could form the basis of Earth’s compensation package, if I spoke well enough for them.
I would be the Intermediary. And that scared the hell out of me.
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