Truth in Repetition

My fellow negotiator circled the map projected on the broad table in the center of the pool, her tentacles sloshing small, briny waves over my knees. I watched her movements, the way her lower limbs acted with complete independence from the upper arms.

If I hadn’t decided to work for the company, I could have joined one of the science teams coming to study her people. Instead, I knew just enough about them to convince her to sign a mining contract. I told myself, like I had on the other worlds, that she’d forgive me when she found out the truth.

It was one of the lies I repeated so often I almost believed it.

My encounter suit had the latest technology, the cost of which came out of my pay, but the chill of the water crept through to numb me to mid-thigh. The cold drained color from my skin, which helped me in these talks. With the environment safe for humans, at least for a while, I’d left the encounter suit open at the top so she could see my face, neck, and chest. For them, covering the skin during a negotiation showed dishonesty.

I’d spent the nine months of my journey studying what the company’s research teams had learned about her people. If I didn’t succeed, this would be my third failure. I’d be fired, debts unpaid.

A faint iridescence chased over her flat, gray torso. Her face had no brows to furrow, no nose to twitch. Her black eyes had no discernable pupils to dilate. Instead, her people looked at the colors on their skin as an emotional compass.

“I do not understand.” Finally, she spoke. Her mouth took in air and pushed sounds back through tubes on her back to hum through the air and water.

The translator bot was reliable but spoke without emotion. I looked to her skin to gauge her mood. Flares of yellow and orange stood out from the gentle swirls of color on her skin. Annoyance, and curiosity, which I could head off if I did everything right.

“Why would you stay such a short time, and only for this land?” She waved a webbed hand, thick and stubby and not human, at the map. “You offer us the technology and experiences of a hundred worlds, for a rock.”

I listened to the clicks and whistles of her speech and felt the vibrations from her voice. The complicated triumvirate of communication using skin pigmentation in addition to auditory signals that also caused vibrational patterns was entirely unique. Their art, their music, would be astounding. Non-human artistic expression had been my specialty. I could have learned so much if I’d kept on a scientific path.

It wouldn’t have paid my loans, which were accruing interest as we spoke. I took a deep breath to keep my heartbeat steady. A flush in my skin would put her on alert. The red color, to them, would mean anger or shame, emotions I should not be feeling. The wrong reaction and she would send me back.

“The land marked in blue is where we would like to buy from you.” I pronounced each word to be sure the translator bot would capture it as well as it could.

“I can read your language, and I understand this map. Better than you do, since it is my world.” Her speech tubes buzzed angrily, and orange flared down her neck and chest.

I couldn’t stop the flush this time and bowed my head, acknowledging regret, until the agitated hum faded from her breathing tubes. Even with my trained patience, I had to struggle to stay relaxed. If I could convince her to sign, I’d get two percent of the profits from selling this planet’s rich fields of beryllium ore. The success would be enough to pull me out of the hole I’d climbed into. If not, I’d have no way to pay off what I owed to school and company until the seven-year non-compete period ended. By which time the interest rate would have ballooned the sum to a number I couldn’t imagine.

I’d spend the rest of my life living in a charity pod so small I’d only be able to lie down one way. I swallowed hard to choke down the thought of what I’d have to do to stay alive. Human life was cheaper than robots, which left ways to earn money that would wear you down to nothing. The chill in my gut had nothing to do with the water or the wind off the ocean waves beating at the walls of the room. I never intended to be a liar, but when I had to choose between lying and the fear of a life of pointless pain, that’s exactly what I did.

“Beryllium is very valuable to our technology,” I said. “You don’t use it. The field of ore is in that area, so we don’t need to go anywhere else. We estimate it will take five sun cycles to extract most of the ore, at which time we can make further arrangements, or we could move on. You would own the ocean above, and we would limit our presence to the land nearby. As you can see, my people aren’t made to move in water like yours.”

I gestured to my legs, thick and clumsy in the waves. She watched me, unblinking. The edges of her solid black eyes crinkled. Darkness flickered amongst the iridescent swirls that flowed against her silver skin. That meant heavy thought, usually concern. Reasonable emotions, in this situation. No need to worry.

“A regret.” She opened her jaws to show a glimpse of pointed incisors – her people’s way of smiling. “We could teach you, if you stay.”

My heart lurched. There it was – the chance I’d have once given everything to take.

She moved again, passing between me and the map as she circled the room. I avoided looking at her, tongue tied and glad my skin wouldn’t show conflict.

“Perhaps.” It was all I could say.

“What if we do not approve of your work?” She moved on. “What if we want you to leave?”

An easy answer, one I’d rehearsed that allowed me to keep a hold on my emotions.

“Your people would observe as much as they wanted. You can halt the project at any time,” I said. “Everything is in the project proposal.”

“What you do is safe?”

Her body flipped in a graceful arc to turn to look at me, one pair of lids blinking as she leveled her stare. I imagined those eyes going dull, the chasing rainbows on her skin decaying to a sickly green. The natural, briny scent of the ocean changed to one of rot and chemicals in my nose. I knew that smell now, from visits to planets at the ends of their contracts. The fine print did not specify how the minerals would be extracted, only that it would be done “safely, with minimal impact.” The company chose planets that were part of no alliances and would not know to ask for specifics. With a contract willingly signed, they had no legal recourse with our government.

“We have done this many times, and safety is our first concern,” I said, the approved words stumbling from my lips while I tried to think.

“This is the truth?” She watched my skin, not my eyes, waiting for it to give me away. All I had to do was to let my heart beat faster and she would know when I lied.

The truth was that her people would be poisoned by the process of extracting minerals. Beryllium particles would float through the water and into their lungs. Only some would die, but their world and their society would be changed forever. The truth was that the company specified a five-year period because they estimated, from experience, it would take that long before they couldn’t hide what they were doing to the planet.

If I told her, she might expel me for the lies. The company would fire me, and I’d fall into a slow death, and for what? I’d be replaced with someone else as they moved to the next planet on their list.

Or I could tell the truth and ask for sanctuary. I could expose the company to anyone who might care. I could do what I’d always wanted and stop lying.

Wind came in from the sea outside, as cold as a splash of ice water. Nothing in the file told me if she would be merciful and let me stay. But I knew exactly how merciful the company would be.

I looked up and smiled. My breath came easily, steady with confidence in my choice. The warm beginning of a flush faded from my skin. As she watched me, yellow whorls of doubt dissipated from her body.

“Of course it’s safe.” I smiled and lied to myself that I didn’t feel regret. “You have my word.”

Elizabeth Rankin is the daughter of a librarian and grew up telling stories in the stacks. She worked in publishing before transitioning to marketing for a company that makes technical materials, which provides lots of story ideas. When not writing, she might be trying out new recipes, volunteering for more than she should, or playing with her dogs. She lives with her husband in their eventual dream house in Cleveland, Ohio, USA


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