Read an Excerpt
The Human Division #9: The Observers
By John Scalzi
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 John Scalzi
All rights reserved.
Episode Nine: The Observers
"Lieutenant Wilson," Ambassador Ode Abumwe said. "Come in. Sit down, please."
Harry Wilson entered Abumwe's stateroom on the new Clarke, which was even smaller and less comfortable than it had been on their previous spaceship. "This is cozy," he said, as he sat.
"If by 'cozy' you mean 'almost insultingly cramped,' then yes, that's exactly what it is," Abumwe said. "If you actually meant 'cozy,' then you should have better standards of personal comfort."
"I did in fact mean the first of those," Wilson assured her.
"Yes, well," Abumwe said. "When you have your spaceship shot out from under you and your replacement starship is half a century old and put together with baling wire and gum, you make do with what you have." She motioned to her walls. "Captain Coloma tells me that this is actually one of the more spacious personal quarters on the ship. Larger than hers, even. I don't know if that's true."
"I have an officer's berth," Wilson said. "I think it's about a third of the size of this stateroom. I can turn around in it, but I can't extend both of my arms out in opposite directions. Hart's is even smaller and he's got a roommate. They're either going to kill each other or start sleeping together simply as a defensive maneuver."
"It's a good thing Mr. Schmidt is using his vacation time, then," Abumwe said.
"It is," Wilson agreed. "He told me he planned to spend it in a hotel room, by himself for a change."
"The romance of the diplomatic life, Lieutenant Wilson," Abumwe said.
"We are living the dream, ma'am," Wilson said.
Abumwe stared at Wilson for a moment, as if she were slightly disbelieving the two of them had actually just made a commiserating joke together. Wilson wouldn't have blamed her if she was. The two of them had not really gotten along for nearly all the time he had been assigned to her mission group. She was acerbic and forbidding; he was sarcastic and aggravating; and both of them were aware that in the larger scheme of things they were hanging on to the bottom rung of the diplomatic ladder. But the last several weeks had been odd times for everyone. If the two of them still weren't what you could call friendly, at the very least they realized that circumstances had put them both on the same side, against most of the rest of the universe.
"Tell me, Wilson, do you remember the time when you reminded me we had something in common?" Abumwe asked the lieutenant.
Wilson frowned, trying to remember. "Sure," he said, after a minute. "We're both from Earth."
Abumwe nodded. "Right," she said. "You lived there for seventy-five years before joining the Colonial Defense Forces. I emigrated when I was a child."
"I seem to recall you not being particularly pleased that I reminded you of the connection," Wilson said.
Abumwe shrugged. "You made the connection right as the Earth and the Colonial Union had their falling-out," she said. "I thought you were making some sort of implication."
"I wasn't trying to recruit you, I swear," Wilson said, risking a little levity.
"I wasn't under the impression you were," Abumwe said. "I simply thought you were making a joke in terrible taste."
"Ah," Wilson said. "Got it."
"But as it turns out, this shared connection has landed us an unusual assignment," Abumwe said. She picked up her PDA, activated it and pressed at the screen. An instant later, Wilson's BrainPal pinged and a note popped up in his field of vision; Abumwe had sent him a file.
Wilson unpacked and quickly scanned the file, closing his eyes to focus. After a minute, he smiled. "The Earthlings are coming," he said.
"That's right," Abumwe said. "The Colonial Union is worried that the Earth still has a lack of confidence in the transparency of our dealings with it. It's worried that the Earth will eventually decide to go it alone, or even worse, start negotiations with the Conclave to join its ranks. So as a gesture of goodwill, it's going to allow a party of observers unimpeded access to one of its current set of diplomatic negotiations. They've selected our upcoming trade talks with the Burfinor. I am told that the secretary herself believes that my personal connection with the Earth — and the connection of my staff, meaning you — will have a meaningful positive impact on the relationship between the Colonial Union and the Earth."
"And you believe that line?" Wilson said, opening his eyes.
"Of course not," Abumwe said. "We were picked because our negotiations with the Burfinor are inconsequential. It looks good because we're trading for the Burfinor's biomedical technology, which will be impressive if you've never seen something like it before, and the Earth people haven't. But it's not something that's particularly sensitive. So it doesn't matter if the Earth people watch what we do. The bit about you and me having a history with Earth is just show."
"Do we know if these people are actually from Earth?" Wilson asked. "Captain Coloma and I had a run-in with fake Earthlings not too long ago. The CDF was passing off former soldiers as representatives from Earth in order to find a spy. We've gotten played before, ma'am. We need to know whether we're being played again, and if so, what for."
Abumwe smiled, which was a rare enough thing that Wilson took special note of it. "You and I had the same thought on this, which is why I ran this past some of my own people at Phoenix Station," she said. "Everything I can see about these people checks out. But then again I don't have the same familiarity with Earth that you do, so there might be something I'm missing. You have the entire file on all five members of the observer mission. Go through it and let me know if something stands out for you."
"Got it," Wilson said. "Might as well let my personal history actually work for us."
"Yes," Abumwe said. "And another thing, Wilson. You left Earth only a decade ago. You're still close enough to how people from Earth think and do things that you can give us insight into their state of mind regarding the Colonial Union and their relationship to us."
"Well, that depends," Wilson said. "I'm from the United States. If the observers are from elsewhere, I'm not going to be any more useful than anyone else."
"One of them is, I think," Abumwe said. "It's in the files. Go ahead and see. If there is, then make friends with that one."
"All right," Wilson said. "This is the part where I officially note to you that I am supposed to be doing other work for you on this mission, specifically examining the equipment the Burfinor are giving us."
"Of course," Abumwe said, slightly irritated. "Do your actual job, and do this. In fact, combine the two and invite one of the observers to help you run your tests. We will score additional transparency points for that. All the while you'll be learning things from them."
"Spying on them," Wilson said.
"I prefer the term 'observing,'" Abumwe said. "After all, they will be observing us. There's no reason not to return the favor."
* * *
The humans from Earth constituted a carefully selected group, the members chosen to represent the entire planet, not only a single continent or political group or interest. From Europe, there was Franz Meyer, an economist and author. South America yielded Luiza Carvalho, a lawyer and diplomat. From Africa, Thierry Bourkou, an engineer. North America offered Danielle Lowen, a doctor. Asia presented Liu Cong, a diplomat who was the head of the observer mission.
Ambassador Abumwe welcomed them warmly to the Clarke, introduced Captain Coloma and Executive Officer Neva Balla and made introductions of her own staff. Wilson was introduced last of all, as the liaison between the observer mission and Abumwe. "Whatever you want or whatever questions you have, Wilson is here for you," Abumwe said.
Wilson nodded and shook hands with Liu and, as agreed to by Abumwe, addressed him in standard Chinese. "Welcome to our ship, and I look forward to assisting you however I may," he said, to the diplomat.
Liu smiled, glanced over to Abumwe and then turned his attention back to Wilson. "Thank you, Lieutenant," he said. "I was not made aware that you spoke anything other than English."
Wilson waited for his BrainPal to translate and then thought up a response; his BrainPal translated it and gave him the pronunciation, which he then attempted. "I don't," he said. "The computer in my head is able to translate what you say and offers me a response in the same language. So you may talk to me in whatever language you like. However, I ask that you let me respond in English, because I am sure I am mangling your language right now."
Liu laughed. "Indeed you are," he said, in unaccented English. "Your pronunciation is terrible. But I appreciate the effort. Can you do the same trick for my colleagues?"
Wilson could and did, conversing briefly in Brazilian Portuguese, Arabic and German before bringing his attention to Lowen.
"I don't believe I need to do the translation trick with you," he said to her.
"Répète, s'il vous plaît?" Lowen said.
"Uh," Wilson said, and scrambled to respond in French.
"No, no, I'm just messing with you," Lowen said, quickly. "I'm from Colorado."
"We've known each other thirty seconds and already I can tell you're difficult, Ms. Lowen," Wilson said, testing.
"I prefer to think of it as challenging, Lieutenant Wilson," Lowen said. "I assumed you'd be able to handle it."
"I don't mind," Wilson assured her.
"You sound midwesterny to me," Lowen said. "Maybe Ohio?"
"Indiana," Wilson said.
"Did you hear about the Cubs?" Lowen said.
Wilson smiled. "I heard something about that, yes."
"They finally won a World Series and the world did not end," Lowen said. "All those prophecies, shot to hell."
"Disappointing, really," Wilson said.
"Not to me," Lowen said. "The Earth is where I keep all my stuff."
"You and Lieutenant Wilson seem to get along, Doctor Lowen," Liu said, watching the exchange between the two.
"We seem to speak each other's language, yes," Lowen said.
"Perhaps you wouldn't mind being our point person with the lieutenant," Liu said. "It would be easier to route all our requests for him through a single person."
"If you like, Ambassador Liu," Lowen said, and turned back to Wilson. "That work for you, Lieutenant?"
"Will you submit all your requests in French?" Wilson asked.
"If you really have a hankering to experience my genuinely atrocious high school French any more than you already have, then, sure," Lowen said.
"Then we have a deal," Wilson said.
"Merveilleux," Lowen said.
Wilson glanced over to Abumwe, whose expression was caught between amusement and annoyance. Well, you wanted me to make friends with the American, Wilson thought.
* * *
The negotiations with the Burfinor did not go well.
"We regret to inform you that our minister in charge of trade has said that the initial conditions for our negotiation are, in her mind, too unfavorable toward us," said Blblllblblb Doodoodo, whose first name was most accurately pronounced by humans by rapidly moving their finger back and forth on their lips and then crooning the second half.
"That is indeed regrettable," Abumwe said. Wilson, who was in the back of the conference room, ready to give a report that he now suspected he would not give, could see the set in Abumwe's jaw that signaled her irritation at this unexpected speed bump, but he did not imagine it was noticeable to anyone who hadn't been with her for some time. At the very least, none of the observers from Earth seemed to notice. They seemed far more engaged in Doodoodo. Wilson reminded himself that the Earthlings were still new to spending time in the company of alien species; the Burfinor might be the first intelligent non-humans that any of them had ever seen in person. "Could you give us some further context to explain this change in opinion?" Abumwe asked.
"There is no doubt that the Colonial Union will benefit from the biomedical scanners we have offered to you," Doodoodo said.
"Wilson?" Abumwe said, not looking at him.
"I've run the preliminary diagnostics on the machine we were given for review," Wilson said. "It performed as advertised, at least for the time I had to work with it, which means it has an order of magnitude higher diagnostic ability than our own bioscanners. I'd want to spend more time with it, and I haven't gotten to the other items we're negotiating for. But in a general sense, the scanners do what they say, say what they do."
"Precisely," said Doodoodo. "These are of immense value to your colonies."
"And so are our spaceships to yours," Abumwe pointed out. The Colonial Union was hoping to sell five recently-retired frigates to the Burfinor in exchange for several hundred of the scanners.
"But there is a fundamental mismatch in the technologies, is there not?" Doodoodo said. "The technology we are offering you is state of the biomedical art; what you are offering us is a generation or more behind your latest ships."
"The technology is robust," Abumwe insisted. "I would remind you that we arrived here in a ship that is several generations older than the ships we are offering you. It's still spaceworthy and in fine repair."
"Yes, of course," Doodoodo said. "We're well aware how the Clarke is intended to be an advertisement for selling us these discounted goods. Nevertheless, the minister feels that the imbalance is too great. We seek a renegotiation."
"These are initial terms that your minister originally sought out," Abumwe said. "To make these changes now is highly unusual."
Doodoodo tugged at the base of his eyestalks, gently. "I believe the minister is of the opinion that circumstances have changed." One of Doodoodo's eyes, possibly unconsciously, swiveled to take in the Earthling observers.
Abumwe did not fail to catch the implication but could do nothing about it in the moment. Instead she pressed forward, hoping to have Doodoodo go back to his boss with a request to reconsider her change in the negotiations. Doodoodo was exceedingly pleasant and sympathetic to his human counterpart but promised nothing.
During all this, Liu and his Earth counterparts said nothing and gave no indication of whatever they might be thinking. Wilson tried to catch Lowen's eye for an indication of her thoughts, but she kept her focus forward, at Doodoodo.
Negotiations for the day ended shortly thereafter, and the humans, frustrated, rode the shuttle back to the Clarke in silence, and dispersed from the shuttle bay equally quiet. Wilson watched Abumwe stalk off, followed by her assistant. The other members of Abumwe's staff on the shuttle milled about uncertainly for a moment before heading out themselves. In a corner of the bay, the Earth contingent huddled together for a moment, talking; at one point, Lowen popped her head up and looked in Wilson's direction. Wilson tried not to read anything into it.
Eventually, the Earth cluster broke up and Liu and Lowen walked directly toward Wilson.
"Greetings, Earthlings," Wilson said.
Liu looked politely puzzled; Lowen smiled. "How long have you been waiting to use that?" she asked.
"For at least a dozen years," Wilson said.
"Was it everything you wanted it to be?" Lowen asked.
"It really was," Wilson said.
"It was an interesting trade session you had today," Liu said, diplomatically.
"That's one way of putting it, yes," Wilson said.
"So what happened back there?" Lowen said.
"You mean, why did a routine trade agreement fly off the rails, embarrassing the Colonial Union in front of the observers whom it wanted to impress with its diplomatic acumen?" Wilson said. He noted Liu's expression to his summation of the day's events, discreet though it was.
"Yes, that would be the event to which I was referring," Lowen said.
"The answer is implicit in the question," Wilson said. "You were there. The Burfinor know something of the Colonial Union's predicament with Earth. I suppose they figured that we would be motivated to make a deal of any sort in order not to embarrass ourselves in front of you."
"It didn't work," Lowen said.
"Yes, well," Wilson said. "The Burfinor don't know Ambassador Abumwe very well. She's persistent, and she doesn't like surprises."
"What will happen now?" Liu asked.
Excerpted from The Human Division #9: The Observers by John Scalzi. Copyright © 2013 John Scalzi. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.