Short Story: “Spokesmen”

If life’s a negotiation, who do you speak for? More importantly, who does your counterpart speak for?

by P. Orin Zack

Mindrol, the Ghkloxian trade envoy, studied his terrestrial counterpart curiously. “Then they shouldn’t accept receipt. I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal about it.”

Edgar Penn glared out of the holo image in disbelief. “A big deal? You think I’m making a big deal about the intrusive ads your trading block has been subjecting the people of Earth to for the past six months?”

“What else are we to think, sir? After all, every one of the ads you’ve listed follows Ghkloxian laws on this matter assiduously. No actual product or service offers are made if the recipient does not agree to the receipt of them. And, as I have said before, not one of the people from your world who has been exposed to the sales brochures our block has presented has made even the barest of gestures against their transmittal.”

Penn held up a finger, and leaned out of frame.

Mindrol had seen the non-verbal request for a brief pause before, and accepted it graciously, but nonetheless was intensely curious about its origin. As performed by Penn, it suggested the drawing of an identity function between the person’s face and the proffered finger. He had made this connection because the human always started by placing his finger directly in front of his nose, thus centering it on the sensory cluster employed for communication. Then, having substituted the finger for the face, while holding the finger still, he could shift his attention to another person without risking the affront of discourtesy. It was a crude amalgam of meaning, but Mindrol was satisfied that he understood the purpose behind the symbolism. He therefore waited until the now-symbolic finger was lowered.

The Ghkloxian to his right sat very calmly, idly tracing the intricate design in a medallion with the thumb of the long-fingered hand it rested in.

‘I assure you, Your Excellency,’ Mindrol said in the hollow of his mind, ‘there will be no problems.’

The thumb stopped circling the medallion’s ancient inscription. The barest hint of a satisfied smile graced the robed Ghkloxian’s face.

After a few moments, Penn returned wholly to frame, although he was still engaged with whomever he’d sought advice from. “Perhaps…” he said, and then paused to lower his arm, “perhaps we should revisit the negotiated settlement between us. My colleagues here believe that this is a matter that could be handled through some sort of compromise.”

Mindrol signaled his assent, though he was unsure whether the humans even registered obvious things like the cant of an ear or a psychic concavity, so he belabored the point by answering verbally as well. “That would be acceptable.”

“Good. In that case, we should begin by establishing the common ground over which we can negotiate. What appears to have happened is that whatever mechanism your block are using to offer the opportunity to opt out of the transaction is not being recognized by the target demographic, in this case the people of Earth. So I think that is where we should begin.”

“Once again, that would be acceptable.”

Penn glanced out of frame briefly, but thankfully turned his attention back to Mindrol before his discourtesy became an issue. If he were to do so many more times, however, the piecemeal accumulation of annoyance might rise to an actionable level. “How is this currently being offered,” he asked, apparently unaware of his affront.

“In the same way that the ads themselves are offered, through direct cognitive insertion.”

“Come again? I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the phrase.”

Mindrol examined Penn’s expression, and lightly touched into his thoughts to determine whether he was being honest. Among his own community, such an intrusion would have been punished severely, but it appeared that the people of Earth were largely insensate to direct cognitive interaction. This helped to explain why the ads which had been transmitted thus far would have been painfully loud had they been directed at someone from Ghklox.

“If I remember the term correctly, you have what are called mind-readers in your culture?”

A confirmatory nod.

“Well, using that metaphoric base, my block use what you might then call ‘mind-writing’, except it’s all done without the need for Ghkloxians to be directly involved. The message is directly inserted into the consciousness of the target audience.”

Penn frowned, and held up his hand again, only this time his palm was open and his fingers were all extended.

Mindrol froze, unable to decipher the meaning of the new hand-sign. “Is there a problem Mr. Penn?”

“No, sir. I’m trying to translate what you’ve said into terms that my associates might better understand. The best I have been able to do is to equate these messages to a class of commercial visual intrusion that came to be known collectively as pop-up spam.”

The Ghkloxian repeated Penn’s last word. “Is that not a processed food product from a defunct Earth-based company?”

“That is correct. But now that I have a way to think about the distribution method, I can speak more clearly about it as well. Companies on Earth once used an analog to this technique, but their potential customers soon armed themselves with the means to filter the pop-ups, because there were too many to respond to individually. Is there an equivalent blocking technique available to the people of Ghklox?”

Mindrol gaped. “Something that would prevent receipt of…” he glanced to his right, “of all… cognitive insertions?”

“Essentially, yes.”

The envoy hoped that the ripple of revulsion triggered by Penn’s suggestion was not reflected in any form recognizable to humans. There were Ghkloxians, of course, who intentionally closed off all psychic contact with others, but the sacrilegious perverts did not generally reveal their fascination outside of their subculture. He did his best to calm himself before replying.

‘It must not be allowed.’ The voice in his head was firm. When he glanced towards its source, the medallion, holy symbol of the Order, was being presented to him face-on, between thumb and forefinger. The meaning was clear: a reminder of past transgressions, and the harshness with which they had been dealt.

“I think,” he said, careful to control his tone, “I understand how you might consider that as a possible solution, but it would never be acceptable to the trading block. Indeed, if we were to agree to allow your people to block all cognitive insertions, we would also be honor-bound to declare war against you. I do not think that would be a wise course of action, and I heartily recommend against pursuing it.”

Penn wet his lips repeatedly, his face turning progressively redder until he suddenly jabbed his finger before his nose and the holo image vanished.

Mindrol quivered in his seat.

‘Need I remind you, Envoy,’ the soundless voice pressed on, ‘that it has been several lifetimes since a holy war has been fought to safeguard access by the divine into the hearts and minds of the unconverted? A return to such barbarism would not be pleasant, but if you fail, it may become necessary.’

‘Please bear with me for a while longer. I am certain that I will prevail. And when I do, you will see that preserving access through the subterfuge of advertising is a brilliant stroke of synchronicity. It will benefit both the Order and the trading block. You will see that there truly is a path which can both do God’s will and also line the pockets of His followers.’

When the image finally flickered back to life, Penn’s back was to the camera. The small crowd he’d apparently been speaking with nervously glanced at the camera before rushing to whatever tasks they’d been assigned. Then, after what Mindrol guessed to be enough time for a calming exhalation, Penn turned around.

“We have discussed the quandary we find ourselves in, and would like to offer a possible solution. Please remember that this is only a suggestion. We will refrain from action until we have reached an agreement, you and I.”

Mindrol sat quietly and waited.

“As you do not appear to have any objection, I will proceed. We acknowledge that the Ghkloxian trading block wish to retain cognitive access to the people of Earth. The potential commercial value to you of this access is quite clear to us. We wish only to negotiate the conditions of this access. At present, it is being used to present opportunities to establish a business relationship with potential customers, but in a way that your potential customers do not know how to respond to. Consequently, they have not acted as required to opt out of subsequent insertions. Have I characterized the situation accurately, Envoy Mindrol?”

“Thus far, yes.”

“Thank you. Now what we would like to suggest is that the initial contact be made using a communications method with which the people of Earth are more familiar. If they agree, then the block would be granted access to that person for a length of time which we would have to agree on.”

“I’m afraid that will not be acceptable, Mr. Penn. Your entire population must be simultaneously available to cognitive insertion. Perhaps a representative sample could be used for this gateway process?”

“Are you suggesting that if some small number of pre-selected people agree to the arrangement, then the whole of humanity would become available for receipt of your messages?”

“I am. I believe there is precedent in your culture for this sort of arrangement. It’s called representative democracy, if memory serves. Is that not so?”

Penn coughed uncomfortably. “You appear to have studied our history, Envoy Mindrol.”

He smiled. “I am certain that those of your world wishing to implant a message in the minds of potential customers would do no less. Is this arrangement satisfactory, then?”

“I don’t see how we could refuse, especially if it is presented in that way. That leaves only the matter of duration, of how long this access, which would be approved by a specially selected group of potential customers, is to remain open.”

Penn signaled for a break again. Once he lowered his finger, he leaned towards the camera slightly, giving the exchange a conspiratorial air. “We could limit access to a specified period of time. Or… the length of time could be set according to the duration of the messages you wish to transmit. In our own forms of commerce, we have tended towards the latter, because some messages, such as infomercials, are longer than others.”

“The latter choice would be preferable. We now come to the selection of the representative sample. Since the purpose of this is to accommodate the needs of our trading block, I believe that we should make the selection. Of course we would need to interview many people in order to build that population. You should be able to arrange this, should you not?”

“Easily, sir. Then we are in agreement. I will inform my associates. Good day.”

Once the image vanished, Mindrol turned to the robed man to his right. “It is done. Please inform the hierarchy that another planet is being prepared for conversion.”

Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack


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