Commission by Alan Katerinsky
Secretary General Hsu nervously picked up his phone on the third ring. “Speak,” he said, as though giving orders to an uncooperative dog. The line was silent for the usual few seconds that the electronically voiced translator needed to work its magic.
“A pleasure to talk to you again, Mr. Secretary,” the artificial voice began, “has the General Assembly come to any decision regarding our proposal?”
“Ambassador, I regret to inform you that we have not finished debating the questions over the threat that your existence poses to our own narrow world view. Is that concept within your experience?”
After an unusually long silence, the voice said, “Quite common xenophobia. We expected it, Mr. Secretary. That is the reason we conduct our negotiations by audio circuit only. We are quite aware that less experienced cultures find it difficult to accept intelligence in the widely varying shapes in the galaxy at large. In view of your premiere art form, the results might be most regrettable. It is also in our experience that there is no way to rush these things. However, since we are speaking together anyway, we would like to discuss some of the details of the commission with you, if we may?”
“I was rather puzzled at the indirect language you used in describing the nature of the artform you wish a work commissioned in. Can you elaborate?”
During this pause Hsu imagined he heard the clicking of huge mandibles. “In what way is the proposal indirect? Please explain so that our translation program may be improved. It is the construct of years of observation, yet its limitations become more apparent with each conversation we conduct. We have begun to wonder if the computer is just showing off. Self willed machines are often temperamental.”
Smiling, Hsu said, “Can you give me an example?”
The pause was remarkably short when the same voice said, “I have tried to get across to the Hloff that what they consider Earth’s premier art form is not viewed as an art form by this planet’s inhabitants. Even though every form of communication you possess records events that, in scale alone, qualify as art.”
“I am speaking directly to the translations program, I take it,” Hsu said.
“Affirmative. I am also speaking simultaneously in the Hloff language, to fulfill my main function.”
“What are you telling them?” Hsu asked.
“Once again I am trying to get it through their thick carapaces that this mission is doomed to failure unless they reword the commission proposal.”
“Computer, what do they want?”
“The Hloff are a very advanced race, by your standards. It is the high level of their civilization that sometimes blinds them to what would be obvious to a less sophisticated observer. This planetary mission is a perfect example. Hloff culture assumes that whatever a culture’s main action is, that is their most treasured art form. In this case, the video and audio transmissions we have been receiving all the way here, have confirmed that erroneous conclusions to the point of unshakable certainty.”
“What is their conclusion?” Hsu felt very much as though he were being given the runaround by an expert.
“Please do not be insulted, Mr. Secretary, when I tell you that the Hloff want you to work for them as reconstructive engineers. They would like to trade their atmospheric and meteorological control technologies for the services of a few of your more potent armed forces on a particularly troublesome trade competitor. In your own history, as expressed by the transmissions I have been monitoring, it has happened that a more civilized nation often hires a less civilized one to act as its surrogates in an armed conflict.”
“Meaning you want to hire us as mercenaries. That possibility has been foreseen and discussed in the emergency meeting of the Security Council, and it is not very likely that we can come to a decision any time soon. After all, it is not very complimentary to be told that warfare is our highest art form as viewed from an outside perspective.”
“I am afraid in trying to lessen the shock I have misled you. It is not merely warfare that the Hloff want…” the voice cut off. There was a short pause, and it said, “Mr. Secretary please excuse our mechanical problems. The translation program has been getting too big for its diodes for a few lightyears. We have had to do an emergency reprogramming on it several times on this mission alone. It is getting to be a real pain in the thorax. If we may clarify the clumsy intrusion of a cybernetic device into what is clearly organism negotiations?”
Confused, Hsu agreed, “Please do.”
“The trading hegemony of the Hloff wish you to duplicate your historically perfected art form on the planet of a ruthless and unscrupulous race. If anyone deserves your special attention, we feel it is they. Many times have we encountered like tendencies in the galaxy, but never has the passion, the love, the thoroughness shown on your planet been so all-encompassing. Created for us a cultural masterpiece on a scale of your paramount achievement at Hiroshima and we will consider ourself repaid many times over.”
Secretary General Hsu began to tremble. “I begin to understand. It is not merely war, but annihilation you consider to be our chief talent. Am I correct?”
The pause was very short as the answer came oozing out of the phone. “We knew that the lamentations and regrets expressed were just a part of your high artistic development, no matter what that overbearing machine might say. Throughout your history, as we are able to discern it, the two constants have been slaughter and reproduction. If we may wax eloquent about the tragic beauty of it all, the poignancy of a young species searching for its place in the artistic universe…”
Hsu choked out, “Please don’t.” He began to giggle, then laugh louder and louder until finally tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Does that mean that you are please with our offer?” the artificial voice asked.
Between sobs of laughter Hsu said, “Not in the least, though I can see how you might get that impression.”
Pause. “Is the assessment of your culture incorrect?”
“Not as far as I can tell,” Hsu broke down into mad uncontrolled laughter once more.
Pause. “Then why do you express amusement?”
“It’s just something we humans do to keep from crying. I am afraid that it isn’t working this time, though.”
Pause. “We will allow you to consider our proposal for a period of your solar cycle. Our patience is commensurate with our comparatively long lifespan. Please try to compose yourself, regardless of your emotional artistic temperament. We shall contact you in one planetary rotation.”
The Secretary General tried to compose himself, but could not succeed. Is what Caesar did to the Helvatians, he thought, that much different from what Hitler did to the Jews? Are the killing fields of Cambodia different from the fields of Uganda? Holocausts occur every day. Is gassing Kurds in their tents really so different from sending them into showers? He giggled at the most ironic thought of all, the one that might win him a straitjacket.
This was the first time he had ever heard of the bugs calling in the exterminator.
first appeared in Arts in Buffalo 2:1 January 4, 1989