5800 words, short story
The only enjoyable part of my daily meeting with Losin was the view. One large panoramic viewport made up the far wall of his grandiose office—a perk of being the Director-General of the UN Interworld Relations Organization. Losin sat facing the door instead, so while he talked I stared over his right shoulder at the starscape beyond.
The Mask People’s starship floated in the distance, gargantuan yet fragile, a city-sized architectural latticework sprawling in three dimensions. The vessel had synchronized its trajectory with our station’s orbit, so it seemed to hang motionless against a backdrop of crawling stars. I loved the look of it—so still, so stoic. A massive, involuted shell to hide the Mask People and all their teeming emotions.
Not that it mattered how I felt. I would do my job.
Losin paused. “Are you listening, Nora?”
I don’t generally look at people’s faces unless I have a specific reason for reading them. Too late, I remembered how little Losin cared for my natural stoic demeanor.
I shifted my gaze to make eye contact and twisted my mouth into a reassuring smile. “Of course, sir.”
“It’s critical to reach an agreement with no alterations to the trade proposal. I don’t care what you have to do to convince them, I want signatures on that document as is.” He was in his third decade of politics and had both the gray hair and the attitude to match.
I played a quick microexpression of surprise across my face, followed by half-concealed disagreement. “With all due respect, sir, we’re at the start of what will likely be a long and complicated interspecies relationship. Pushing too hard at this juncture could have unforeseen consequences.” Not to mention the consequences of deliberately misrepresenting our intentions, outright lying to them, and attempting to steal from them. All of which I would soon facilitate.
“You’ll play the game the way I tell you to,” he said, flashing an unconscious sneer. He thought of me as his puppet, a glorified translator and nothing more.
A now-familiar flame of spite flared in my chest. To be fair, “puppet” was pretty much the job description I signed up for. I wore the title of ambassador purely to avoid insulting the Mask People with my negligible political status. Problem was, I couldn’t seem to shut off my brain quite the way Losin wanted.
I also couldn’t help needling him. “What shall I tell the Prime Judge if he asks to meet with you?”
Losin flinched slightly from fear of the Mask People’s hyperobservant abilities. “That might be unavoidable.”
“Maybe we could arrange a social event,” I offered, raising my eyebrows with the suggestion. “Some polite conversation but no politics beyond ‘we’re glad you’re here.’ A short introduction would be enough to set their minds at ease.”
Losin stood and poured a drink from a bottle on the credenza as an excuse to not look at me. At the same time that he resented me for every scrap of limelight he had to share, he understood I was necessary. Me with my unique deficiency, my talent for inexpression.
He swirled his scotch, trying to hide his reluctance. “Not a bad idea. I’ll have my secretary put it on the schedule.”
Out the viewport, a fleck of movement caught my eye. Sunlight reflected off an approaching short-range transport, the shuttle dwarfed in comparison to the Mask ship from which it came. They were coming, eager and well-intentioned. For a fleeting moment, I wished I’d quit politics and taken up life as a hermit.
“One more thing,” Losin said. “We’ve had a rise in threats against Mask People and the Interworld Relations Organization since the trade talks were announced. Central security has cordoned off an area of the station for the Mask People, but I want you to be extra careful, especially when you’re outside the secure zone.”
“Of course, sir,” I said, and smiled a professionally fake smile—lips a little too tight, eye muscles not quite scrunched enough. “Will that be all?”
The newest member of my personal security detail, Iman Amiri, waited outside Losin’s door. He fell into step beside me as I strode down the hallway. He had a restless bounce in his step, and after a moment he asked, “What’s our status?”
“The Prime Judge should be docking soon,” I said. “Time to meet your first Mask People.”
Protocol demanded that two more security officers meet us at the Bay Two entry hall to be present during interspecies contact. They weren’t two I was particularly fond of. They belonged to the camp who referred to me as “the robot” behind my back, as if I wouldn’t find out about something so inane. Amiri either hadn’t picked up on the nickname yet, or had decided it wasn’t worth pissing me off just to fit in with his coworkers. I hoped it was the latter; I could use someone smart to balance out these meatheads.
“New kid gets the screen,” I declared, and the meathead named Gorsky passed the large, round holographic projection screen to Amiri. I controlled the screen’s image wirelessly, which was very convenient for communicating with Mask People, but the chip behind my ear did little to alleviate the robotic reputation.
To Amiri, I said, “You can talk to them but they won’t be listening to the words—they’ll get the meaning from reading your face.”
He nodded, quick and nervous. Nervous was okay—not anything the Mask People hadn’t seen a hundred times before. Hostile would’ve been a problem, but I didn’t read any of that in the microexpressions he kept trying to cover up. The trying was okay too—they would hardly notice the false stoicism overlaid atop the true emotions.
At the opposite end of the hall, a light on the wall flashed green to indicate their arrival, and the doors slid silently open to admit the Mask People.
The first feature anyone notices about the Mask People is their enormous faces. To say that a Mask Person has an enlarged face is like saying that a giraffe has an elongated neck or a blue whale is a bit heavy. Mask People are mostly face by volume, the round surface covered in feathery, dexterous appendages that they use as their primary means of communication. The facial feathers come in bright, carnival colors—tourmaline green and iridescent violet, sanguine red and sunlit yellow—though that’s not why they’re called Mask People. Still, the feathers are hard to miss.
Most of their musculoskeletal effort goes into supporting their massive faces, with mobility only earning a distant second place, so the Prime Judge and his entourage shambled forward in a zigzag of awkward steps. I’ve overheard the spaceport brats making Mask-People-tipping jokes the way my great-grandparents may have joked about cow-tipping as children. They did look rather like it wouldn’t take much of a push.
Despite their innocuous appearance, the Mask People were far from harmless. Their starship came equipped with technologies that made humankind’s ventures into space look like monkeys throwing sticks in the air. Nothing like an imbalance of power to make trade negotiations a little too interesting.
Humanity’s only advantage was that they had me.
Following the Prime Judge, the Mask Ambassador, and their personal staff came the Mask Bearers, carrying the unwieldy cultural artifacts from which their species took their name. The masks, unlike the Mask People’s true faces, bear no resemblance to carnival dress—they are plain and blank, expressionless, and large enough to entirely cover a Mask Person’s face. Even the eye holes have one-way reflective glass, so the wearer can look out without anyone seeing their eyes. For a race of hyperexpressive beings, masks provide the only means of privacy.
The Prime Judge extended one long, skeletal arm to clasp hands in the standard human fashion, and I wrapped my fingers around his skinny digits with an appropriate level of solemnity. Their upper limbs always put me in mind of starvation victims. Good thing I never show what I’m thinking.
The Prime Judge greeted me in his native language, facial feathers dancing. Well met, Human Ambassador. Reading their language required a somewhat diffuse gaze; if I stared at any particular spot on their face, I would miss subtleties elsewhere. He was testing me, curious to see how well I understood him.
Welcome to Sol System, Prime Judge, I said, mentally puppeting the holographic Mask Person face projected by the screen in Amiri’s arms. I tailored my answer to be formal and respectful but with undertones of warmth and gladness. After years of training to be able to puppet my own body, it hadn’t been much of a stretch to adapt to the screen instead. The feathers on the Prime Judge’s cheeks smoothed flat, surprised and impressed with my grasp of his language’s emotive subtleties.
Mask Ambassador, I said, looking at the Mask Person on its left, may I present New Security.
I translated the Mask Ambassador’s laconic greeting for Amiri and he replied with a simple “Hi.” He tucked his chin and glanced up at them and down again several times, awkward and anxious for their approval. I read amusement in the slow twirl of their feathers.
The introductions continued until everyone in the room had met everyone else down to the last Mask Bearer. In their culture, ignoring someone with an unmasked face was a terrible insult—even if that person, say a human security officer, would prefer to fade into the background. The custom also meant I had to shake the hand of each person I would shortly be backstabbing during the trade talks.
By the end, I was thankful that no actual discussion of policy was planned for the day, simply a mutual confirmation of the schedule for days to come. Once the introductions were completed, the Prime Judge seemed eager to move on to his private quarters; sometimes I think they visit purely to meet new people. Did I mention how very much they enjoy their introductions? It’s the people they’ve already met they grow tired of.
Not me, though, they don’t get tired of me because they can only read what I give them. By the end of the meeting, the Prime Judge left feeling reassured and a little intrigued. An excellent first impression. I earned their trust and felt sick all the while, knowing what was to come. If my face were chained to my innermost thoughts like a normal person, I would have grimaced.
Of course, if I were a normal person, the UN never would have slapped the ambassador label on me and shipped me up here. They hired me for the job because I was the only human they could find with the capacity for becoming fluent in the Mask People’s language. Also, because I was the only human who could successfully lie to them.
We had the rest of the day free, while the Mask People settled in to their temporary accommodations aboard the station. I dismissed the two meatheads and took Amiri with me when I left the entry hall. At the first major corridor junction, I turned toward the public sectors of the station.
Amiri raised an eyebrow at that, and I said, “We’ve got to make a stop.”
The Dark Moon Café offered garish décor and mediocre-to-awful food. More cafeteria than café, it was noisy, crowded, exposed, and I loathed it. We were served lunch, and I hoped my other purpose would be served as well.
“What exactly are we doing here? This is hardly a secure location,” Amiri said from across the table, displeasure showing in the crease of his brow.
“We’re fishing for extremists. If they’ve managed to get on board, I want to know about it.” The desire to do the exact opposite of what Losin instructed me to also may have contributed slightly, I admit.
“Draw them out using yourself as bait?” Amiri thought about it. “That’s nuts, but it’s my kind of nuts.”
“If they’re here, I’d rather we find them before they get a shot at the Mask People.”
I watched the crowd, scanning for tell-tale microexpressions of hate or disgust. We both picked at our food. Stake-outs weren’t a part of my usual repertoire, and this one gave me a strange combination of boredom and anxiety.
While he kept an eye on the exits, Amiri tried making conversation to relieve the tension. “Did you hear about the new Castillo Method results?” He’d been on the job for three weeks and hadn’t yet figured me out—though he kept fishing for clues.
“Nope,” I said, giving him none.
“They’re having some luck with sociopaths.”
I moved my gaze from the other patrons—none of whom displayed hostile intent—down to my half-eaten slice of quiche without making eye contact. “You’re suggesting I might be interested in the procedure, with regards to my condition.”
“They must be making progress if they can correct sociopathy now. And neural pathway realignment is noninvasive and very low risk. So why not?”
“I’d be out of a job, for one thing,” I said. And then, when he didn’t get it, “That was a joke.”
“Oh,” he said, and let himself grin.
I took another bite, chewed, swallowed. “I wonder how the sociopaths felt about the treatment.”
He grinned again. It wasn’t a joke this time.
I scanned the crowd once more. Either there weren’t any extremists on board, or they weren’t eating lunch at the Dark Moon like half the station was. It was frustrating not knowing, one way or the other. The last thing these trade talks needed was another element of uncertainty.
I forked one more mouthful, surgically removing the filling from the soggy crust, and slid the plate away. “Come on, new kid. There are other places to check.”
My parents thought I was a sociopath for a long time.
I hardly ever cried as a baby, and I never once smiled. It almost would have been a relief, I think, if I’d turned out to be severely mentally retarded. But as it was, I developed more or less normally, except that I utterly failed to express emotional responses or recognize them in others. My parents went through an endless stream of baffled child psychologists, all the while waiting for the tortured animal carcasses to start showing up.
But the problem wasn’t a lack of healthy emotions, simply an inability to communicate them. Finally they found a school—a special and very expensive school—that claimed to be up to the challenge, and they shipped me off. I never interacted with them outside of mandatory holidays after that. To this day I don’t know if they were ashamed of me, or ashamed of themselves for assuming their own daughter was a budding serial killer for so many years.
In school, I learned most of the regular drivel, but the classes that mattered were all about facial anatomy and body language and verbal inflection. I learned how to recognize emotions analytically, piece by painstaking little piece, and how to make my own muscles mimic them.
To everyone’s surprise, I got good at it—really good at it. Like an ESL student who knows better English grammar than a native speaker, I became more fluent in emotional expression than most of the people who use it naturally. The government recruited me when I turned eighteen.
Around one in four hundred people has a natural ability to read microexpressions and body language such that they can reliably tell when someone is lying. These people have been called “Truth Wizards.” I can do what they do, but I can do the opposite just as well. I suppose that makes me the “Falsehood Wizard.”
After a fruitless afternoon of scanning for extremists, I ate dinner in the security lounge with my staff so we could go over the work schedule for tomorrow. With each successive meeting between humans and Mask People, the anti-alien factions have spewed their xenophobic propaganda louder and louder. The station’s central security screens for anyone who poses a threat, but that just means the extremists need to act smarter to slip through.
Toward the end of the meal, I was finished with the business part and the men were chatting and joking among themselves.
“Hey Amiri, check this out.” Gorsky leaned over and poked me in the arm with his fork. It hurt. They all laughed when I didn’t flinch, all except Amiri who looked distinctly uncomfortable.
I stared at Gorsky, and my lack of expression set them to laughing for another round. That sound filled me with a black hatred for humanity.
I picked up my own fork and jabbed it down into the meat of his thigh, metal tines sinking into flesh. Gorsky’s eyes flew open with surprise and he howled his pain.
“You’re fired,” I said and stood to leave. “Amiri, come with me.”
Amiri seemed frozen in his chair for a moment before he scrambled to fall in step behind me. As we left, I heard Gorsky yell, “It was a joke, you crazy bitch!”
I thought about re-hiring him just so I could fire him twice. I should have put that whole situation to rest much sooner, before it got out of hand. Not very diplomatic of me. I’ve gotten so used to being isolated and ostracized that I suppose I stopped recognizing it for what it was: suffering in silence.
Story of my life.
“That was sort of amazing, what you did,” Amiri said later. It wasn’t technically his shift anymore, but I didn’t feel like facing the others.
We were in the sitting room of my suite—him fiddling with the settings on his standard-issue stunner and me reviewing the hundred-page-long trade proposal I’d be discussing the next day.
“It doesn’t concern you that your new boss stabbed one of her other employees?” I kept my eyes on the document, half-listening for his answer.
“No offense, but if the guy can’t defend himself against a pissed-off lady with a fork, he’s not much of a security officer.” He paused. “Why’d you do it, though?”
“I decided it was time to make a point,” I said, scrolling through to the next page.
“More like four points.” I could hear the grin in the timbre of his voice.
By page seventeen, I was treading water in an endless sea of legalese. The Mask People want to purchase asteroid mining rights, which is complicated enough on its own given that no one actually has a legal claim to the asteroid belt. And if they agree to trade their propulsion technology, then the very same mining resources suddenly become accessible and potentially desirable to humans, too.
Amiri interrupted again. “Wouldn’t things be easier if you pretended to be normal all the time? I’ve seen you working, you can mimic expressions perfectly. Why not just do that with everyone?”
“Because the act is a lie.” I set aside the document and looked up at him, curious to see how he’d react to my answer. “I never feel like smiling—I feel happy, and then I switch on a smile, like a robot executing an if-then command. It may look all warm and fuzzy and genuine to you, but it’s not.”
He cringed slightly at the robot reference, but he said, “If nobody can tell it’s a knock-off, what does it matter that it’s not the real thing?”
“I would know.” Sometimes it made me angry—the constant expectation that I pretend to be someone I’m not for the comfort and convenience of everyone else—but not right now. He was new and still trying to figure me out, which was more than meathead Gorsky ever did for me.
In the morning, I went early to the reception room to see Director-General Losin before the Mask People arrived. His back was to the door when I came in, but I caught him unconsciously wiping clammy palms on his trouser legs. Terrified. I held out a hand to tell my security detail—Amiri and Wellinger—to hang back, and I walked up beside Losin.
“They’re not psychic, you know.”
He jumped, then glared down at me for startling him. “What?”
“They can’t read your mind, just your face. All you have to do is stay focused on safe thoughts, safe emotions.”
“I know what I have to do, Nora.” Losin shifted his weight, restless, probably wondering how badly he could screw up his precious trade agreement with a single expression.
I admit, I was enjoying his discomfort. “Don’t worry. They’ll get bored with you pretty quick, so long as you don’t look like you’re hiding something,” I said and smiled sweetly.
Losin got back at me by assigning one of his own security detail to hold my screen, effectively tethering me to his side to serve as his personal translator for the morning. A small crew of central-security-approved caterers were already set up, and the other human guests began to arrive in ones and twos—whatever dignitaries Losin could manage to round up on short notice.
The Prime Judge, the Mask Ambassador, and their sizeable entourage arrived at the reception hall precisely on time. Within minutes, a few of the Mask People tired of Losin’s dignitaries and began to harass the caterers for introductions instead, offending the former and confusing the latter. I wished I could kick back and watch the hilarity ensue. But given that the average person could learn to recognize only a few of the most basic expressions in the Mask language, I was needed for any complicated interactions. My duties occupied my full attention.
Or almost all of it.
A movement in my peripheral vision distracted me. Across the room, one of the caterers walked with too much tension in his step and clutched his tray nervously. He was not here with the sole intention of serving appetizers.
I caught Amiri’s eye, then transferred my gaze quickly to the suspect and back again. He quirked a questioning eyebrow, not able to see the signs I saw. I widened my eyes and tilted my head down, insistent. A twitch of his shoulder, ceding the point, and he slid through the crowd in pursuit.
Amiri attempted to escort him out quietly, but the caterer stood his ground and started making a scene. The room fell silent as all the humans craned their necks to see what was going on. A couple other security officers descended on the caterer, and the ruckus ended with him stunned and dragged out of the room. At the door, Amiri turned to give me a slight nod, confirming that the suspect had something on him. Not a weapon, from Amiri’s expression. Poison, maybe. I’d have to ask him later.
I turned around again, intent on resuming my translator duties, but I froze when I saw Losin. His expression screamed, That moron is going to ruin all my plans.
I kept my own expression impassive and leaned in close to him. “Take a walk. Your face is a mess.”
He scowled, I met his gaze with an expressionless stare, and after a moment he relented. He wandered off and found a group of humans to socialize with until his thoughts were back under control. Relief washed through me. At least Losin had the sense to listen when it counted.
I caught the Prime Judge watching me, and the feeling of relief evaporated. My screen-holder in tow, I closed the distance to speak with the Prime Judge.
You saw all of that, didn’t you? I said, chagrined.
It rippled its facial feathers in the Mask Person equivalent of a wry smile. Of course.
Why didn’t you point out the threat before I noticed it?
I was curious to observe how your species would handle the situation.
And? I resisted the urge to look for Losin and check whether he had his expression under control yet.
The experience was informative, the Prime Judge said with a hint of cautiousness, almost suspicion.
I wondered whether the cautiousness was a response to the threat itself, or to Losin’s too-revealing reaction. Bluntness was often seen as a virtue in the Mask culture, so I said, It is not entirely safe for you here.
Yes, it said, at once resigned and forgiving—Losin had insisted on hosting the trade talks on the station. It would have been safer to meet on the starship, where we have adequate protection.
Doubt made me pause. This was supposed to be a social gathering, not a political tête-à-tête, but I needed to know more about how they viewed their own technology. Just “adequate?” Your species could sterilize the surface of our planet if you so desired.
The Prime Judge’s feathers smoothed with genuine surprise. Possessing the ability and possessing the intention are entirely different matters, Ambassador.
Indeed. If only that answer would satisfy Losin.
I knew that it wouldn’t. Losin was committed to a course of action, and I had no choice but to proceed as he’d planned.
The afternoon was reserved for the real work: trade negotiations. Amiri waited for me to finish lunch while Wellinger went ahead to secure the conference room. This arrangement was fine by me, since meathead Wellinger wasn’t likely to forgive me the Gorsky incident any time soon. I emptied my coffee cup, tucked all the necessary documents into a slim shoulder-bag, and made eye contact with Amiri to tell him I was ready.
Before Amiri joined my staff, I used to prefer multiple escorts. They talked among themselves and I could disengage, mentally withdraw from their company. Now it seemed almost comfortable, having Amiri all to myself.
We walked the spaceport corridors toward the designated meeting space, Amiri unconsciously matching my stride. Out in public, half his attention focused on scanning and evaluating—not too vigilant to hold up a conversation, but I wasn’t exactly feeling chatty with the trade negotiations only minutes away, so we walked in silence. The hallways seemed ominously long today.
I told myself I was just doing my job. The decisions had already been made by people more important and more knowledgeable than me. I was only a messenger, and none of it would be my fault. Not really.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Amiri tense in a way that shot adrenaline through my veins, and then all hell broke loose. The first two men closed with Amiri before he could unholster his stunner. The third and fourth stepped around them to come at me from both sides.
The one on my left said, “Eat this, bitch.” The one on my right fingered the handle of his shiv and said nothing. My own fingers tensed around the strap of my shoulder bag, readying to use it as a shield.
The sound of punches landing emanated from Amiri’s general direction, and his assailants fell to the ground, first one and then the other in rapid succession. He spun to face me, threw up his arm, and the other two dropped to the floor unconscious.
God, he was fast. I never even saw him draw the stunner.
Back in my suite, I sipped from the glass Amiri gave me, hand shaking. Adrenaline—one of the few biochemicals I can honestly express, since it bypasses the brain and acts directly on muscle function.
I set the glass down so I wouldn’t drop it. “We need to reschedule the meeting.”
“Already done,” said Amiri.
“And have Gorsky forcibly removed from the station.”
“They were waiting for me. There’s a short list of people who could’ve told them my schedule, and only one who recently took a fork in the leg.”
“Point,” he said, and dialed central security on his comm.
When he finished the call, he sat down across from me and leaned forward in the way people do when they’re trying to read someone. Force of habit, I suppose. He said, “You okay?”
“Yes.” The adrenaline high was fading and I felt too worn out to put on an act for him. “Honestly, I’m grateful for the delay.”
“Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good.”
I paused, considering how much to tell him. He’d saved my life; it seemed absurd to distrust him now. “In exchange for the asteroid mining rights they’ve requested, human technicians will be given full access to their onboard systems in the starship. And we promise not to copy any of their offensive technology, of course.” I looked up, to see if he got it.
“You’re kidding,” Amiri said. The kid was smart, I’d been right about that. “They’re going to trust us not to steal their weapon designs? That’ll end well. And you’re supposed to be selling this as a good plan?”
“We’re trying to establish a relationship of trust.” Trust we could exploit, of course. Never mind that, in the process of ensuring our martial adequacy against the Mask People, we might accidentally start the very war we sought to avoid. “Besides, our technicians are scrupulous and beyond reproach. That’s the party line.”
Amiri threw me a skeptical look. “The problem with telling perfect lies is that you might start believing them yourself.”
I would have winced then, were I normal. Amiri had no idea how close he came to hitting the mark—there’s nothing I fear more than the thought of the lies starting to control me, and not the other way around.
I didn’t share that with him. It was my right not to. I’m a professional at leaving things hidden and I don’t regret it—I tell myself I never regret it. I tell myself I like holding the world at arm’s length.
“You should call Wellinger. He’s probably still waiting in the conference room,” I said, ending the conversation.
The next morning, Amiri was on duty again for the rescheduled negotiations with the Mask People. We arrived at the conference room without incident. Wellinger reported the room secure and I told him to wait outside the door, which was against protocol but he did it anyway. I needed complete control over the negotiations, and I didn’t want his negative expressions cluttering up the room. Might give the Mask People the wrong impression about me—or the right one.
The Mask People entered through a door at the opposite end of the room, a small entourage preceding the more important political figures. The Prime Judge came in last, and he was wearing his mask.
I glanced at Amiri, who watched the masked Prime Judge with curiosity smeared all over his face. I said, “Think about something else.”
“It’s extremely rude to inquire about mask wearing.”
“Your face was,” I interrupted. “Think about anything else. You can think about screwing your girlfriend for all I care, just don’t wonder about the masks.”
He hunched his shoulders a little, embarrassed, and covered it up with a wry answer. “No pink elephants either, huh?”
I couldn’t blame him though. Secretly, I liked seeing them with their masks on, peaceful and flawlessly impassive. I am like a Mask Person who can’t take off the mask. I can never have an honest conversation with my own species; either it’s not honest, or it’s not a conversation, not the kind they want anyway. At least the Mask People understand the virtue of being hidden. Safety in isolation.
The Prime Judge’s mask came off and was passed to a Mask Bearer. Then the usual extensive greetings were exchanged all around, and we settled down to business.
The first hour or so of the meeting was an overview of the trade proposal, each party confirming that we understood all of the major points. Though I didn’t look at Amiri, his presence weighed on my awareness. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, I couldn’t stand not knowing what he was thinking. I threw him a sideways glance.
He smiled back at me with his eyes. It was only a momentary tensing of his lower lids, but I read warmth and confidence there. It was a smile that said, I’m not worried because I trust you’ll do the right thing.
The smile hit me like a punch, and I was yet again grateful my reaction stayed internal. The Prime Judge only saw Amiri’s half of the visual conversation. But beneath my silent face, Amiri’s words from last night echoed around my brain.
I was born to lie, that much was inescapable. But Amiri had been right: I should make the lies, not let the lies make me. Even a liar can sometimes show the truth about themselves, embedded in the rhyme and meter of their falsehoods.
As the meeting progressed, I meticulously emoted a fraction less enthusiasm than formal Mask-Person etiquette dictated. Not enough difference for my human overseers to detect, but then the Prime Judge was ever so much more sensitive than they were. All I needed was to light a spark of suspicion.
We reached the end of the document and the conversation floated away from the particulars to less concrete matters. The Prime Judge asked, How do your superiors feel about this agreement? A question that would have seemed odd between human ambassadors, but Mask People are accustomed to always knowing how everyone feels.
They are very eager to establish economic relations, I said. Entirely true, and beyond reproach from the viewpoint of a human negotiator. But on they, I gave a subtle emphasis of detachment, expressing a desire to disassociate myself from them.
The Prime Judge paused, considering my meaning. They come with honorable intent?
They will thoroughly fulfill their trade obligations—which was also true, but not the same as a “yes.”
We are concerned that trade remain peaceful and amicable.
Your offensive technology is far superior. How could humans pose a threat to you?
The Prime Judge rippled his feathers thoughtfully. Thank you, Ambassador. I believe we have reached an understanding.
The thing about perfect liars is they can fool anybody. You can never be sure whose side they’re on.
Director-General Losin was, needless to say, extremely displeased. Shall I describe his anger? The deep scowl, the tight jaw, the jutted chin? Anger is a simple emotion to read—it so rarely tries to hide itself.
“What happened in there? You seemed to be doing an acceptable job at the start.” He’d been watching on the security cam, of course. “Then suddenly they want to back out and redraft the agreement? Explain that to me!”
I shrugged, lacing the gesture with nervousness and confusion. “I don’t know what happened, sir.”
“You damn well must’ve screwed something up.”
“They changed their minds. I have no idea why.”
“And you’re going to tell me with a straight face that you did everything in your power to convince them to approve the proposal?”
“Yes,” I lied with ease. “Now that is something I can do.”
Gwendolyn Clare resides in North Carolina, where she tends a vegetable garden and a flock of backyard ducks and wonders why she ever lived in the frozen northlands. She has a PhD in mycology, which is useful for identifying wild mushrooms but not for much else. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Analog, Asimov's, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others.