Shop Talk

I recognized my antagonist right away; I didn’t know who he was, but I recognized him. Or her. Too early to tell.

He walked out of the night into the bar, wearing a long woolen winter coat. The locals thought this was cold weather, and to fit in, people like my antagonist and I dressed the part.

I sat at the far end of the bar, right near the corner, with a view toward the door for reasons exactly like this, although, in decades of doing this job, I’ve never once run into my counterpart. Or anyone from the other side, for that matter. But when my antagonist walked in, I immediately knew who he was. We can always recognize each other, no matter how good the disguise. If humans had been paying attention, they might have noticed the telltale signs, but they rarely noticed people like us.

He recognized me, too, and for a moment, I could see that hyper-alert look flash across his face as he decided whether he was going to flee or kill me. But the bar was crowded, and there were too many humans in it; no one wanted that kind of scene.

I nodded back in a gesture that said, “Truce?” and gestured to the empty stool at the bar next to me.

My antagonist paused for a split second, wondering if this was a trap. It wasn’t. I was genuinely desirous of an evening of conversation. I didn’t get those often enough — certainly not any interesting conversations. Humans were always so concerned with mundane things. To be honest, they’re among the most boring conversationalists in the galaxy.

He crossed the bar and sat down next to me, occupying the adjoining corner.

He looked at my drink. “Scotch?”

“Bourbon,” I said. “Want one?”

He shrugged. I gestured to the bartender and got his attention. “Another for my friend here.”

“Friend?” my antagonist remarked. “This is quite the time-out.”

“I was thinking ‘truce,’” I said.

The bartender arrived with my counterpart’s drink. “I’ll drink to that,” he said, although without any real cheer. Of course, that’s not his fault. His whole side is kind of joyless. At least the ones anyone from my side has ever met. They tend to be ideologues and purists — not the most pleasant beings.

He sipped his bourbon with an expression approaching something like enjoyment.

“Not the worst,” I said. “One of the perks of this posting.”

“Ehn,” he replied. “Does this backwater have any perks?”

“A few,” I said, somewhat more defensively than I’d anticipated. I was in no danger of going native among these primitives, but I was reasonably well-disposed toward them. After all, the whole point of being here was to win them over to our side.

“You got a name?” I continued.

My counterpart looked around cautiously. “Too many.”

“Of course. I meant your name.”

His eyes narrowed. “Ah,” he said. “Shteroth.”

“That’s a Kyrrejjan name, isn’t it?” I asked.

“This was a mistake,” he replied and made like he was about to get up.

“Wait, wait, wait,” I said. “If I’m right, then Shteroth is also an incredibly popular Kyrrejjan name—one that could be used for males, females, or blends. You haven’t really told me anything.” It was true. He might as well have told me his — or her or their — name was Smith. He sat back in his chair.

“I’m Lirathinur,” I offered. “That’s Ithnari.” Having attained a kind of parity placated my counterpart somewhat. Though he had no more clue about me from my name than I did about him.

“How long have you been…” — I paused — “…here in town?” I said carefully. I’d almost said, “On world.” I don’t make that kind of mistake, but three minutes with another offworlder, and I’d nearly slipped up.

He took my meaning. “Seventy Local.”

“That figures,” I said, doing the math in my head. “The Reichstag fire.”

“Yup,” he said, sipping on his bourbon.

“I knew someone new had to be on the scene — your predecessor was more cautious, and that was a risky one. It bordered on violating the Compact.”

“Maybe. It worked.”

“It sure as shit did,” I replied with a mix of awe and disgust. “I could never figure out whether that was something you’d done or whether the humans had just handed you a victory by accident.”

“They did plenty of that. We’re not responsible for all their murderousness. A lot of that is… homegrown.”

He wasn’t wrong. This was one of the more curious postings I’d ever had. These creatures were brilliantly creative. They were artistically inclined and produced some of the most compelling works I’d seen anywhere. And it’s not a particularly popular opinion, but humans make some of the best music in the galaxy.

They were inventive and clever, but they took insane risks. For example, my homeworld had powered flight for three hundred Local Years before we ventured into space. These lunatics landed on their moon a mere sixty-six years after the first airplane took its short flight.

But that creativity in art, music, literature, and science was matched with a singular talent for violence. The conflict that my counterpart had played a part in precipitating had cost this world over eighty million people by the time the violence and accompanying disease and starvation had taken a toll.

It was one of the reasons that this world was of such interest to the Sovereignty and the Concordat. Its citizens would be a formidable force if added to either side. It’s why my counterpart and I were here, after all.

We sat for a few moments in silence, sipping our drinks. I broke the silence first.

“Do you ever have qualms about the death toll? I mean, since it didn’t work out for you in the long run anyway.”

“Deaths? No. That’s a part of the job. Wasted deaths? Perhaps. We got awfully close on that one. If Hitler had won, we could’ve wrapped up our operations within a few decades.”

“But Hitler lost, and the Reich went with him.”

“True. That was a net loss for our side,” he said, chagrined. “But the Soviet Union followed. We could do a lot with that.”

“Yeah?” I asked, probing. “Anything you’d like to share? We’re just talking shop. It’s all water under the bridge now.”

My counterpart’s usually impassable face betrayed just the slightest hint of emotion when I said that. Using idioms like water under the bridge was necessary for deep cover, but he clearly found my adoption of human idiom distasteful. Nevertheless, he leaned forward and, in a conspiratorial manner, said, “I gave Julius Rosenberg’s name to Aleksander Feklisov.”

“What?!” I said a little too loud. Some people at the bar near us turned their heads in our direction but soon returned to what I am sure they — falsely — assumed were their own far more interesting conversations. “How did you know?” I asked more quietly.

“I didn’t,” he replied. “Got lucky. Sent a lot of names to Feklisov. But that one paid off well.”

“I’ll say.” That little intervention had given the Soviets American nuclear secrets and restored the balance of power post-war.

“Well,” said my counterpart. “Your turn.”

I took a long sip and drained the remainder of my glass. I caught the bartender’s eye and indicated that I’d like another. He came over and refilled my glass. I waited until he was back out of earshot in the crowded bar before continuing.

I took a deep breath. “I edited a will.”

My counterpart looked at me suspiciously. “Whose will?”

“James Smithson’s.”

“God-DAMMIT!” shouted my counterpart so loudly that nearly every head in the bar turned toward us. But as he followed it up with no further outbursts, their attentions returned to their previous matters of interest.

I was taken aback by his outburst — it was by far the most emotive he had been the entire evening. So emotive that he didn’t even notice that he’d used a very human expression.

“So, I take it you understand the reference.”

“Yes, I understand,” he said bitterly — though not toward me. “I’m just frustrated because I have now just lost a fortune to a colleague who bet me that had to be a Concordat operation.”

“You all have bets on these things?”

“Kind of,” he said, still clearly smarting. “Most of the time, we never know one way or the other, so they never come to anything.”

“But this was something you thought might be an op?”

“Yeah, of course. An English scientist decides to donate his estate to the United States to found an ‘establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men’ even though he’d never been to the United States, talked about it, or had any other connection? Of course, we wondered. But I was sure it was just a coincidence. A freak chance. After all, how could you have known his nephew would predecease him and there’d be no other heirs? Unless — wait… you didn’t—?

“No, we didn’t. We got lucky. Same as you and Julius Rosenberg. There were at least six other wills around the world that would have done the same thing, but in all of those cases, the other relatives outlived the decedent.”

My counterpart looked irritated. Not just at having lost his bet but at the whole thing.

“It was twenty Local Years before anyone on our side had even noticed it. And when we did, no one believed it was possible. It was just too subtle.”

I turned to my drink and tried not to smile too broadly. Hearing him say that his side hadn’t even noticed for twenty years made me elated. It was the kind of information I would have loved to have shared with my superiors if I could have figured out how to explain how I knew.

See, under the Compact, worlds have to be given a choice as to whether they’d like to ally with the Sovereignty or the Concordat. We are no longer allowed to simply conquer them and incorporate them the way we used to; we have to convince them. This process is pretty straightforward for worlds that have reached a certain level of technological sophistication and space flight: all-out lobbying and persuasion campaigns.

But the Compact does not allow us to do anything of the kind with primitive, developing worlds. Communication with primitive worlds is forbidden, and direct interference of any kind can bring about the Sanction, which, given that the last planet Sanctioned has only returned to habitability now after five hundred Standard Years, is not something either side is anxious to experience. 

Somewhere along the line, someone figured out that the Compact did not prohibit “priming” worlds to be sympathetic to one side or the other. Ever since that realization, both sides had begun placing agents on all developing worlds, trying to steer them either toward the democratic ethos of the Concordat or the authoritarian ethos of the Sovereignty. If you could turn them into democrats or authoritarians by the time they emerged on the galactic scene, the question of which power they would ally with would be settled.

The only downside to this strategy was that subtlety rarely had wide-ranging effects. If it was the kind of manipulation likely to have significant results, it was also the kind of manipulation the enemy was likely to notice and counter.

That’s what made the Smithson bequest such a masterstroke: they never saw it coming; they didn’t notice it while it was happening. They were even still unsure as to whether we’d done anything. That was the best kind of op: increasing the scientific and intellectual resources of Earth’s democratic powers and entrenching an institution for that purpose before the other side even suspected we’d done it. Back at HQ, we had a chart of all of the scientific and intellectual advances the democracies had attained as a result of our tweak and the Smithsonian Institution that followed: grants flowing into discoveries, flowing into technological advances, flowing into new academic fields of study, flowing into more findings, flowing into more grants, and on and on.

I could see my counterpart was feeling dejected. If he hadn’t been the representative of a power that would bind every last world in the galaxy to tyranny, I might have even felt sorry for him. But as I was feeling pretty good, I could afford to be magnanimous. After all, I now knew that the Sovereignty wasn’t anywhere near our level of sophistication when it came to priming these worlds. They had gotten lucky a few times, and their interference levels were relatively heavy-handed, like setting fires to parliament buildings.

“Tell you what,” I said amiably. “Drinks are all on me.” I gestured to the bartender, who came over right away.

“Another for my friend here. Whatever he’d like.”

My counterpart indicated that another bourbon would be fine, and the bartender obliged. I put some money on the bar to settle the tab.

“It was a pleasure, Shteroth,” I said. “Maybe we can do this again in another seventy Local.”

He grunted and lifted his glass slightly in acknowledgment and grudging appreciation. I patted him on the shoulder — an earth gesture I was sure would irritate him — and headed out into the night. I felt pretty good, and the city’s lights felt exceptionally bright this winter night. I could see the United Nations building just a few blocks away, and I was filled with hope for what the Concordat might accomplish here.

Our priming of this world could really bear some fruit. The humans would be a fantastic addition to our side in the great galactic struggle. The usual sense of dread and suspicion that I had walking these streets was absent, and my feet felt lighter as I walked along.

My mood was so improved that I failed to wonder what had brought my counterpart into the bar in the first place. It didn’t occur to me that it could have been anything other than a chance encounter. And so I failed to keep an eye on the bar after I left, and in the glow of my strategic triumph, I never noticed the network executive, looking for ideas for a new reality show, entering the bar as I exited. I never saw him spot my counterpart, make his way to the end of the bar, and sit at the seat I had vacated mere seconds before.

Twenty years later, I would really wish I had.