Fear of Lying
by M. Darusha Wehm
"I am experiencing an unpleasant digestive reaction to something I ingested this morning and my primary spousal relationship is suffering a breakdown which is causing me emotional distress." Ambassador Klune of Frobal arranged zir features in what I knew to be a neutral expression and gave off a slightly citrus odour. I recognized it as the formal Froba greeting scent. "And how are you today, Ambassador Szpunar?"
I plastered a smile on my face. "I am well, thank you." I reminded myself for what felt like the four hundredth time to never ask "how are you" again. Never. Nowhere. Not here, not back on Earth, assuming if they let me come back, which the way these negotiations were going, seemed like a more remote possibility every day. At least Klune could pronounce my name, which was more that I could say for half my human colleagues. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if I never got home.
"I would like to discuss your world's proposal for the acquisition of our dark energy channeller," Klune said and I made the polite hand gesture of agreement, even though it was just a formality. This was the only reason we were here.
"We think this offer is vastly unfair to the Froba. We would be providing what our research shows is a significant technological advance to your people for what is described as a planetary concession but close reading indicates is, in fact, nothing more than a [pause for translation] visitor's visa."
I'd known this would happen. When my boss Sanjit sent over the proposal, I told him that there was no way that Klune would approve it.
"But it's just the opening salvo," he'd said, "a place to start negotiation."
"You don't get it," I'd answered, leaning in toward the camera, "they don't work that way. They don't understand communication that isn't entirely sincere."
"Come on, everyone will negotiate if they want something bad enough, and we know the Froba want access to the Sol system. Just present the offer. You've got heaps of latitude to make a deal. You can do it, Lotte. I believe in you."
He'd smiled in that attractive, disarming manner that told me more about why he was Earth's lead ambassador than his extensive Wikipedia holo. He was somehow universally appealing -- he made you want to believe him, even when you knew better.
And I knew better. This was my first big assignment, my first shot at a major interspecies negotiation. I also knew that the only reason I'd been chosen was that out of the entire diplomatic corps, my facial structure was most unthreatening to the Froba. Plus, Sanjit broke his ankle playing football and couldn't make the trip.
He was right, of course. Cultural minutia aside, everyone who wants something is willing to compromise. The Froba were prepared to talk, I knew that. They'd said they were, so it had to be true. But every time I sat down with Klune, I felt like I was banging my head against the bulkhead of this starship which was the base for our negotiations.
I forced myself to look nonchalant. "This is not our final offer," I said. "It is merely a starting point for negotiations. We are willing, indeed, we are eager to find a mutually beneficial solution."
Klune did something deeply disturbing with zir features, an expression I'd never see zir make before. I guessed that it indicated confusion, but I might have been projecting. "May I ask a question that is not directly related to these proceedings?" Ze expelled a sharp-smelling gas, which my research told me indicated deep curiosity.
"How do your people find the courage to dissemble? For a Froba, being [pause for translation] inaccurate is akin to being unable to identify one's surroundings. It is worse than blindness, deafness and scentlessness combined. We cannot imagine how you live with such fear all the time."
I thought back to Sanjit's briefing before I'd gotten on the shuttle. He'd been calm and cheerful as always, but he visibly carried stress in his shoulders. And we all knew he only played football when he was trying to force himself to relax. He'd kept his tone light, but reading between the lines I knew that the Froba's energy harnessing technology was what we'd been looking for in all our meetings with new races, but had never found. This was the big one -- the deal that would change everything for humanity.
As in all negotiations, I knew what our top offer would be, but I'd been told in no uncertain terms to keep my cards close to my chest. The cheaper it cost, the better. And the better deal I got, the more likely I'd move up in the corps. Sanjit wasn't getting any younger, after all. But as of this morning, the oddsmakers planetside gave me just a 60/40 chance of reaching any agreement at all with the Froba, and much less for getting the technology we wanted.
What would Sanjit do, I thought, then immediately realized I was looking at it all wrong. The question wasn't what he would do -- the question was what Klune would do. Or not do, as the case may be.
"Honestly, Ambassador," I said, leaning back in my chair in the posture of openness, "I don't know how we live with it, either. But I do know this: we will give you absolutely anything you want for your dark energy channeller. And that's the truth."