Materializing on the jetty for my next government meeting, that uncomfortable feeling settled in for what looked to be a nice, long visit. Far too many suits waited under the shelter.
“Mr. Cotta.” St. Hivon stood and stepped out from behind the table to shake my hand. “I have some introductions to make.” Four other people stood with him, three men and a woman, all in expensive suits and with serious expressions. “Ambassador Cunningham, appointed from the United States. Ambassadors William Henderson-Jones and Nicole Vergniol, representing the European Union. Ambassador Chong So, of the People’s Republic of China.”
I shook hands with each and exchanged meaningless greetings. They all made strong eye contact with me, sparing only quick glances for my security escort. We sat at a larger table in more comfortable chairs without their eyes leaving my face while I tried to maintain a friendly expression. My heart started vibrating like I’d just bet real money on a weak poker hand and figured everyone else knew it. I tried to keep my game face on and my breathing regular.
St. Hivon, as the Canadian representative at the table, may have felt a bit of the same tension, but I hoped he had more experience with this type of situation. Well, minus the aliens, though he’d seen them a few times now. I tried not to make a face when it occurred to me that two of the powers now at the table—the United States and China—would certainly not have allowed anyone else near the aliens if the landing had happened on their soil. Canada, as a middle power, probably felt it had no choice but to include the Americans. The European delegation was a nice touch at inclusiveness to balance things out, but including China could only be an economic decision. Sharon had been willing to bet the Chinese would manage a presence at every landing and I’d just laughed. I should have known better. I should have believed her.
“You’ve probably already guessed that this meeting is going to be a little more formal.” St. Hivon smiled, sort of. “The people now at the table represent the major powers contributing to the shopping list I gave you at last meeting.” Now remembering other things Sharon had told me, I was pretty sure all three ‘major powers’ represented here would also be represented at two similar meetings on different continents, or already had. I wondered who else had found their way to those and who else had tried to slip into this one. There were large portions of the world unrepresented in the group, left out on what basis, I couldn’t begin to guess. “They—we have the most to gain from whatever negotiations you’re able to conduct with the Shalash.”
“I see.” A nice, stalling-for-time phrase. I caught myself biting my lower lip and stopped.
Ambassador Cunningham leaned forward, both elbows on the table and his hands clasped in front of him. “We’re looking for a progress report, pure and simple. What have you got to show for your efforts and our expended resources?” Did they notice my back stiffen? Ambassador Cunningham obviously didn’t have a great deal of diplomacy in his past. I wondered what his previous experience was. It could hardly be more unsuitable than mine, except I obviously had more experience talking to people as something other than minions. Why did my first impression of the man have to be as a stereotype?
Ambassador Chong’s barely accented voice reached across the table. “While our American friend put it somewhat less than delicately, he is essentially correct. These strange beings have come to our world, changing it merely by their existence. In and of itself, that does not merit compensation, but it is they who have come to us for a service. We merely wish to know what they are offering in trade.”
I couldn’t find my voice, looking from one ambassador to the next without any idea what to say. Cunningham wore a smile so smug I wanted to smack it, but couldn’t even gather enough brainpower to be irritated until one of my Shalash escort scuffed a foot on the asphalt behind me. The reminder sparked a wave of comfort and confidence. Whatever my original qualifications, or lack of them, might have been, the Shalash had chosen me to represent the interests of each party to the other, the go between from them to everyone else and back. Whatever my experience, whatever my competencies, whatever my feelings, I had accepted the job of Intermediary to the Shalash. Even if it meant talking with both feet in my mouth, I had to talk.
It took another deep breath to steady my nerves. “The Shalash have said outright that they are not interested in benefiting any one nation or group of people. Whatever they do trade will be given to all the nations of the world.”
Henderson-Jones cocked his head to one side. “Many nations are not in a position to do anything with whatever information they might be given.” The quiet words struck a raw nerve through hundreds of years of barely remembered history. Or maybe they just reminded me of my bank. We know best. Trust us.
Cunningham nodded. “And there are certainly some nations who don’t deserve anything.” Even without Sharon’s help, it didn’t take much thought to pick the top few nations on his list. The other ambassadors might have different lists, but if I thought only about governments, my list probably had a lot in common with Cunningham’s. But a nation was more than its government, and I’ve never been a believer in the old saying that people get the government they deserve. It’s not always that easy.
By the tiny twitches around the table, from everyone but St. Hivon, sharing needed to become a lot more acceptable. “If you’re concerned about military applications sneaking up on you, don’t be. Ambassador Mahyul didn’t mince words on that subject. The Shalash have no interest in arming us any more than we already are. Anything with immediate military potential disappeared from the list in my first conversation with the ambassador. Not that there was much; the list was obviously very well thought out.”
Cunningham flushed and his jowls shook out of time with his head. “That’s not what I mean at all. Off the top of my head, why should North Korea benefit from something we’re doing without them? Especially considering the threats they’ve issued?”
Chong’s expression went completely blank, as impenetrable as most Shalash. “I do not believe this to be the appropriate forum to discuss North Korea.” I wondered what thoughts churned behind her flat gaze.
Ambassador Verngiol nodded and spoke in a level voice. “I agree. Perhaps the heart of the matter for the Shalash is as it should be for us: why should the people of any nation suffer additional hardship because of the short-sightedness of their government? If benefit can be gained for such nations’ people in spite of those governments, is this not a good thing?”
Cunningham flipped his right hand and shook his head, moving his eyes from the other ambassadors back to me, his initial thrust parried, if not by anything I did. I waited for the new attack. “I’m not as interested in the distribution of things as I guess I’ve made you all think. North Korea, or Sudan, or Trinidad, or whoever. None of them are in a position to take advantage of most of those items, anyway. But I am very interested in what the Shalash liked about the list. Mr. Cotta, you said you’ve had at least one meeting with the Ambassador discussing its contents. What is their opening position?”
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