Short Story: “Intent”

How much do you really know about the last person you negotiated with?

by P. Orin Zack
(June 2003)

“Thank you, Envoy Ha’akned. We will consider your offer.”

I’m glad that’s over. The sight of these Earth people makes me queasy even without all that obscene facial hair. And those wrinkles. Don’t they know how nice a home those things make for bacteria? Disgusting.

“You seem troubled, Srren.”

“Lakti’sh. How is your throat bladder?”

She stroked it gently. “It still hurts when I talk. I’m grateful that you offered to handle the negotiation for me. I could never have produced some of the harsher sounds in their language. But I’m concerned about you. Is something wrong?”

“I don’t know. I hadn’t expected our first contact to go so smoothly. Translating this English of theirs was child’s play compared to interpreting the layers of subtle reinforcement and misdirection inherent in their cultural matrix. It wasn’t so much the verbal inflections that I had trouble with as the visual ones.”

“But you solved it, didn’t you?”

I trumpeted my gratitude. “In a manner of speaking. Instead of transmitting an image of my own face, I used a synthesized version that could be manipulated in ways I hoped that they would recognize.”

“You mean the facial contours you showed me?”

“Yes. Humans exchange a great deal of meaning non-verbally, just as we do, but because of the anatomical differences, their facial expressions are impossible for us to mimic. I was afraid that I might cause some confusion if I spoke directly with them, so I used an image to present the subtext I wanted them to see. That was why the exchange was so heavily scripted.”

“But then, what was the problem?”

“I’m not certain, Lakti’sh. I’ve monitored their transmissions and studied the difference between real and fictional content. I’ve cataloged their expressional dictionary and evaluated the effectiveness of the actors in their fiction. But something still bothers me about the President’s part in our discussion.”

She examined the frozen image on my screen for a moment. “Then what is it, Srren? Do you think he was acting? That he wasn’t really the President?”

I crossed to the image of Earth and it’s moon on the viewplate, and stood with my dorsal ridge to her. “No. It’s not that.”

“Then what is it?”

“Deception, I think.” I turned around. “His expressions were forced. I think he’s been coached, trained in ways to present an ambiguous message, so that competing factions of his own kind would interpret what he said in vastly differing ways.”

“What was his overt message, then?”

“Nothing that I hadn’t expected. The usual timid assertion of global dominance, the assurance that he spoke for his entire planet.”

“Which you discounted, of course.”

“Naturally. What else could he have said under the circumstances? But I was still bothered by the fact that he felt the need to make such a bold point of it.” I glanced again at his image, and jabbed an extended claw at it. “There was someone else. I’m certain of it. He is merely the persona.”

Lakti’sh turned suddenly, and began to laugh.

“What is it?”

She nearly choked on her bladder. “Turnabout.”

I helped her to catch her breath. “What do you mean?”

“Whoever it is that really speaks for the people of Earth just did exactly what you did, only they used a real person, not an image to speak through. Tell me something, Srren, what did their President propose?”

“A trade agreement. Why?”

“I’d be very careful about agreeing to anything that they proposed, at least until you have the chance to speak with the real power brokers on that planet.”

“It’s too late. I already made them an offer.”

“Of what?”

“An exchange of technology and knowledge of course. What else is there to trade?”

“I don’t know. Tell me, what do they use for a medium of exchange?”

“According to my research, they once exchanged precious metals for goods and services. More recently, the metals were supplanted by tangible symbols of their existence imprinted onto sheets of processed plant matter. As I understand it, these paper symbols represented a promise of payment, and they freely exchanged these paper promises.”

Lakti’sh rocked rhythmically for a time, considering the implications. “If what you say is true, then these Earth people have unintentionally bred the social memes for subterfuge. Did the President offer these symbols to you in exchange for something he wanted?”

“No. The paper symbols they call ‘money’ are still in use, of course, but they no longer claim to represent anything. Instead, the money is actually considered to have intrinsic value. As I understand it, they more frequently use hypothetical constructs to represent the value alleged to reside in their money, and then exchange it simply by adjusting their respective value counters.”

Her bladder deflated in incredulity. “And that’s what he offered? That we adjust the value of a counter in exchange for actual knowledge and technology?”


“And what did you tell him?”

“I could never have done this myself, you understand. Even if they didn’t know how to interpret my expressions, they would likely have suspected something. Fortunately, my synthesized self was well-composed and exuded the honesty they were seeking.”


My facial tone must have flushed, because I felt the prickly sensation wash over me. “In exchange for their offer of numerical adjustment, I promised an unlimited supply of goods, either at or above their present technological level.”

“Then it worked?”

“Yes. We’ve found our new garbage dump. But I’m still concerned about the possibility that I wasn’t speaking with whoever is really in control there.”

“Why? What can we lose? It sounds like a perfect scheme to me.”

“Too perfect. That’s what I’m worried about. What if we just got suckered into a sting? What if the power brokers weren’t from Earth at all? There are laws, you know.”

Copyright 2007 P. Orin Zack


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