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in the interests of intragalactic cooperation

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PART ONE
EARTH

It takes six months, more than 4000 reports in over a hundred languages, a tweet war between three world leaders and two captains of industry, and a twelve-day cold war between France and Spain for the United Nations of Earth to arrange a mutually-agreeable list of staff for their first Galactic Council appearance.

The final list is produced, signed, and publicly circulated six months and one day after Earth was served with a requirement to attend and answer for its lack of environmental responsibility. It turns out that sending random space objects to float eternally through the long dark, potentially causing injury to, or damage to the property of, any member of a space-faring race who might happen to be travelling through its path is an offence punishable by a fine of not more than three trillion credits, a term of imprisonment of no longer than the Council equivalent of 47.5 Earth years, or both.

Alix Campbell is not particularly pleased to be on the list.

She was at the bottom of it, really, a career public servant who was tacked on at the last minute during negotiations between Canada and the United States of America, agreeable to both due to (a) New Zealand’s position as a member of the Commonwealth, and (b) New Zealand’s status as a member of ANZUS. It came down to her and an Australian, and she suspects the Australian was faking a cold during the interview process.

Sure, meeting aliens at some sort of Galactic Council sounds interesting—the chance to meet new people! Hear new languages! Find out the mating habits of the space whales!—but Alix has little-to-no experience in criminal law, and has spent most of her career thus far concerning herself with the intricacies of the frozen meat trade. Nothing in her three overseas postings or uncounted trade summits has prepared her to front up a defence for humanity under the intergalactic version of the Resource Management Act 1991.

“You did volunteer,” her boss Tim tells her, not unsympathetically, as she packs up her desk to prepare herself for a journey the Council representative helpfully informed Earth would take no longer than “one fifth of the time it takes your planet to circle your sun, adjusted for gravity.” Does that mean something other than slightly over 2 months? Alix doesn’t know, and the scientists didn’t make a lot of sense when she asked for clarification.

“That doesn’t mean I thought I’d be picked,” Alix replies. “I thought, you know, good of the nation, public service, dedication to the human cause that is all of us, et cetera, except that obviously they’d send a bunch of useless billionaires and we’d all die.”

“I see there’s a fairly high quotient of billionaires on this trip,” Tim says. “Chin up, you’re probably not going to be personally responsible for the death of our civilisation.”

Alix sighs, and places what is absolutely an office stapler into the filing box she stole from the stationary cupboard. “Yeah. That’ll be a comfort, I’m sure. Look, I’ll send an email, I guess.”

Tim looks at her. Frankly, a lot of her colleagues are looking at her. In their place, she would be too. “From space?” he asks.

“Space has wifi, apparently,” Alix says.

*

The packing requirements for space journeys are stricter than Alix would like, and specifically prohibit her from bringing any weapons, or anything that might be used as a weapon, on board for the duration of the flight. Her main problem with this is the obvious logical flaw: almost anything, given enough creativity and motivation, can be used as a weapon. At any rate, it’s only mildly annoying; the much more important restriction is the one on media, which will prevent her from taking to space the massive collection of pirated reality TV she’s collected over the last two decades. What better time to revisit the wonders of season one of Survivor than while trapped in a metal box hurtling through the infinite blackness of space, surrounded by strangers?

While she’s busy writing futile letters of complaint about this to the UN Committee in charge of supplies, other people have been busy designing inoffensive and allegedly universally comfortable uniforms for staff, packaging a wide range of space food, and making sure the Galactic Council-provided spacecraft is, in fact, fit for human habitation. She moves into preparatory dormitories a month before takeoff, to begin a truncated training programme and meet her future colleagues, and it’s the first time this century that she’s lived in such close quarters. It isn’t fun. Happily, many of her colleagues aren’t that pleased about it either, which makes for something to talk about during mealtimes.

The dormitories have been provided, the literature says, on the twin bases of equality and personal freedom. Alix is doubtful about both of these things, given that there’s a curfew and she’s heard rumours that all of the billionaires have their own suites, rather than the poky bedroom she’s got. A lot of the paperwork she has access to is a lie, Alix suspects, which doesn’t bode well for humanity’s success during its day in court. There’s rarely anything to gain from keeping things from officials.

The “universally comfortable” uniforms also turn out to be a lie, given that they did not seem prepared for Alix’s breasts, but a shitfit in the Committee offices and a few quick trips to the uniform manufacturer sees the problem fixed by the magic of knit fabric and darting. It doesn’t delay takeoff, but it’s a close call. “You’re the reason the uniforms got redesigned,” some English guy tells Alix at breakfast the day before they leave.

“Yeah,” Alix says.

“It almost delayed us, I understand,” the man replies.

She looks at him. “The uniforms didn’t fit,” she says.

The man scoffs. “They can’t possibly have been that bad. The fabric was space-age!”

“The cut wasn’t,” Alix says. “So they fixed it. And now everyone has clothes that fit them. Problem solved. You’re welcome.”

“I hope you’re not the sort to make trouble,” the man says. “I’m sure this whole thing can be sorted out reasonably quickly, but not if our own staff can’t be trusted to hold the line.”

Alix squints at him. “Whose staff?”

The man coughs. “Humanity’s,” he says, but it doesn’t sound like it comes naturally, and that’s how Alix meets Sebastian Highmoor, English tech billionaire and inventor of a well-known gambling app.

*

Mr Highmoor is far from the only entitled prick to come aboard the Milky Way Express. Luckily, most of them appear content to have collectively taken over the largest 5 offices and the breakroom with the best views, where they congregate to talk about blue-sky thinking, agility, resilience, and whatever other buzzwords the worldwide collective of management trainers have decided are fashionable this decade.

It’s easier to get things done when they’re out of the way.

The Galactic Council has provided a vast amount of material to assist Earth in preparing its case—something they provide, apparently, to all first-time offenders who were not otherwise aware of the Council’s existence. Unfortunately, none of the original texts are in any human language, and the rough translations the Council has prepared based on Earth’s radio transmissions are, Alix suspects, lacking in specificity.

The office space left to the public servants on board was ostensibly carefully divided up by the planners. Within a week of heading out into space, though, people start rearranging themselves. Saito Kasumi decides in the first three days that she wants no part of the portholes and swaps desks with Karim Maroum. Alix finds herself sitting mostly amongst other English speakers simply out of convenience, and the people who are highly fluent in multiple of the Compulsory Language Options are huddled together in a group arguing about vocabulary.

It’s very like every single public sector office Alix has ever worked in, except in space.

*

Space turns out to be less exciting than the vibrant and easily-walkable streets of Wellington. Given that Wellington, while lovely, is by far the least exciting capital city Alix has ever had to work out of (with the sole exception of Canberra), that’s saying something. Technically, the Express has several mess spaces, but they all serve the same boring space-appropriate nutritionally-exacting food; and while the billionaires no doubt brought along all sorts of entertaining substances, they’re not getting used anywhere Alix has access to.

Without even the comforts of season 16 of American Idol to keep her company at night, Alix is forced to do work and talk to people.

*

“Don’t you think it’s exciting?” asks a young Englishman over lunch. He’s got one of those plummy but not exceptionally posh accents that’s a hallmark of New Zealand public service middle management, but he is in fact straight out of the UK’s Home Office. His name is James Caermorton, Alix is pretty sure.

“Being in charge of saving humanity from intergalactic death?” Alix asks. She’s the only one at the table apart from James, so she must be who he’s talking to.

James grins. “Not so much that part, but getting to meet aliens? Travelling through space at faster than light speed? Exploring the universe?”

Alix shrugs. “Sure, but the saving humanity thing is something of a dampener on my sense of wonder.”

James nods. She thinks it’s meant to look grave but he’s obviously fighting not to laugh. “Understandably so,” he says.

That afternoon, though, he spends five solid hours hunched over his computer, where he’s apparently working on a programme along with a team of linguists and a sociologist to reverse-engineer some of the alien languages, so the lawyers can get a better sense of what exactly they might face. So he is serious, he just doesn’t show it. Alix can appreciate that.

*

Kasumi is a prosecutor from Osaka prefecture. She’s constantly, she confesses, mildly nauseous, space gravity being not quite the same as Earth gravity; and she’s scared off three of the billionaires by quoting grim Russian literature at them in their own languages. She’s on the legal team, working with Alix and the rest of them to formulate some kind of argument that they might, hypothetically, be able to sustainably present.

Alix suspects it’s going to boil down to “we knew not what we did, have mercy”, but over several days of examination and in much more flowery language. She thinks most of the other lawyers agree.

Kasumi seems pretty dour for the entire first five weeks, until Mikhael Guentchev, Bulgarian business magnate and creepy octonogerian, makes the mistake of grabbing the ass of Lindsay Fischer, a perky FBI agent straight out of Quantico. Kasumi watches as Lindsay breaks his index finger, and then cackles until Guentchev’s billionaire friends arrive to walk him down to the medical centre. “You did well,” she tells Lindsay, and all the women in the room (and some of the men) share long looks of satisfaction.

“He’ll make me pay for that,” Lindsay says.

“Yeah, probably,” Alix says. “But you made him pay first.”

“And we’ll stick together,” James adds. “We have to. Can’t let the Highmoors of this world think they’re running the show.”

“You’re wrong,” Kasumi says. “It is imperative for those men to think they’re running the show. We have to make them think they are, but not actually let them. Much more difficult.”

And that’s how Alix makes friends in space.

*

One of the great debates, back on Earth, had been how to accommodate an international group of public servants when Earth has hundreds of languages and the Galactic Express had limited space. In the end, after much contention, they’d decided that every person on the manifest would have to speak at least one of Arabic, English, Mandarin, and Spanish, with everyone on board fluent in at least one other language. Alix’s other languages are Samoan, Mandarin (she is very familiar with the words used to describe whey proteins), and conversational Farsi.

It means she’s staying far away from the interpretation crowd, and spends most of her time hanging out with the lawyers, the negotiators, and the people who are desperately trying to coach the billionaires into staying out of trouble for at least one hearing.

One of the problems they’re trying to untangle is how, exactly, the Galactic Council works. There’s been information provided—there’s been a lot of information provided—and that’s part of the trouble. It’s hard to find a needle when the haystack you’re facing is so large you can’t even begin to pull out pieces of straw.

After much wrangling, some brilliant programming from James and company, and a drunken speech from Liu Wencheng, Chinese industrialist, about the need for solidarity of purpose, the crew manage to produce significant improvements to their translation matrix. Suddenly, a lot of things become clear, primarily that very few civilisations first become aware of the Galactic Council via criminal indictment. It’s not a good start, but Alix finds, in the depths of an Augliian law archive, the first shining glimmer of hope: first environmental offences which don’t extend far past the home system of the offender usually only result in a small fine and some carefully-worded apologies.

PART TWO
NEUTRAL CITY

They land at the Neutral City of Galactic Cooperation (that translation, at least, the linguists are sure of) in the morning, Alix thinks. She doesn’t know what day of the week it is, or what time of day it is—according to her watch, still set to GMT+12, it’s 3 in the morning—but things look to be bustling.

A lot of the people, at least those of whom are wearing clothes, are dressed in shades of grey, navy, and brown. It makes her wish she’d been able to bring some of her ordinary work wardrobe with her: she’d fit right in. But that’s the only thing which is really familiar.

Oh, there are surfaces that are clearly roads, and they’re separated into bits which are used by vehicles (although many of the vehicles float) and bits that are used by people walking or gliding; there are buildings, which look to have been built for efficient function rather than grand design; and there are street-level eateries at which grey-clad people buy food from counters before moving with speed and purpose back into one of the office buildings. It’s clearly and obviously a capital city.

It isn’t a human city, though. “Oh my lord,” James says, standing beside her. They’ve come off the ship in waves, transported by alien bus to their alien accommodation. Every effort appears to have been put into making sure they’d be comfortable: the seats are human-sized, and the atmosphere is oxygen-rich and clear. But those seats have been built to spec, and the atmosphere in their hotel rooms isn’t quite the same as the atmosphere in the corridors or the lobby— and the outdoor air is different again, good enough to be breathable but almost sulphurous.

They’ve all been watching the videos for months now, trying to prepare themselves, but there’s nothing like getting out and doing something to make it real.

*

The first thing Alix really pays attention to, once they’re on the streets of Neutral City, is the signage. She can’t make her brain properly comprehend the people yet, so for now she’s concentrating on the things around her: the surface of the footpath, smoother and lighter than anything she’s seen on earth; the unfamiliar scrawls of writing on almost every surface; the wide array of what she thinks at first is street art until she notices they’re being sat upon by people of all different shapes, configurations, and sizes. And the signage, a lot of it moving in the alien equivalent of neon and LED, but in combinations of colour her eyes skitter over. Some of it seems so badly-lit she wonders why they’d bother, until she walks past a small person with big eyes staring at it with what might be hunger.

She wonders what’s around her that she can’t see at all, and who it’s for. These aren’t thoughts you need to have in a human city, because human cities are built for humans, with human capabilities and limitations. Neutral City hasn’t been built with a single species in mind: the planet, close to the galactic mean in gravity and with a very basic atmosphere, was terraformed by the Galactic Council a couple of centuries after its inception to create a permanent bureaucratic base and avoid the incessant infighting about which language/planet/species was prime. It’s a melting pot of languages, peoples, cultures, norms—all filtered through the constancy of politics.

It is the strangest place Alix has ever imagined, right up until they’re brought into the office space the Council is kindly loaning them. It’s a large, rectangular room with windows on two walls, a bank of elevators which could have come from any modern office block on Earth, rows of standard-sized desks and bland office chairs, a kitchenette along one of the windowless walls, a set of glass-walled meeting rooms along the other wall, and what looks to be a grouping of break-out spaces under some of the long windows. In short, it could be any public service office on Earth refitted in the last fifteen years. “We accessed some of your Government procurement guidelines in order to properly design this space,” their guide says. “Do let us know if the accommodations are insufficient in any way—we wish for you to be comfortable.”

“Of course,” Sebastian Highmoor replies, before he and some of his cabal take over the row of meeting rooms to engage in transformational thinking and make sure the rest of the staff are properly synergized.

*

Kasumi, Alix, Lindsay, James, a German attache named Klaus Voigt, and a Senegalese policy analyst named Malik Ndir make up one the groupings of desks. Klaus and Malik bonded on the trip, apparently, over their mutual loves of cheese and football—which are hobbies the rest of them are fully prepared to get behind, notwithstanding the lack of ready access to either in Neutral City. It’s a comfortable working arrangement, actually, better than Alix had anticipated, even if the Highmoors of the place are still largely refusing to accept that corporate brilliance does not equal diplomatic flair.

On the ninth day, Alix decides to take the stairs rather than the lifts up to their floor. The stairs are an odd height, slightly shallower than Earth-standard and slightly narrower too, but still useable; and there are handrails at three different heights, including one level with her shoulders.

It’s on the landing between the second and third floors that Alix bumps into the alien. They’re about as tall as her, but finer boned: not quite what a fantasy novel would describe as an elf, but something close to it, perhaps. The person has pointed ears and large eyes which tilt up at the outside corner; a small nose; pale, slightly iridescent skin; a mouth that looks like a human mouth; two arms; two legs. “I’m sorry,” Alix says, reflexively, before remembering that nobody outside her own delegation is familiar with English.

The alien stares at her and says a long something. There’s a pause, and out of a small, crackling box at the person’s waist comes a voice, coldly electronic and with an unfamiliar accent. “There is no problem. I am not offended. I did not see you, and I too apologise if that is appropriate in your culture.”

Alix sits down on the stairs. “You’re—that’s a better translator than the ones we had on board the Express, I think,” she says.

“Yes,” the alien says. “We have been improving it continuously. I am Belgah. It is usual in Neutral City to introduce yourself by whichever of your names is used with strangers in your society.”

“I’m Alix,” she says. It’s surreal. “I’m from Earth.” The string of syllables that comes back out of the translator in the alien’s language includes a close approximation of “Alix”, and has an entirely different name for Earth.

Belgah’s eyes widen. “The pollution case! I am fascinated. You did not know of us before you sent things out into the Galaxy, I understand.”

Alix nods. “Well, I definitely didn’t know there was a Council,” she says. “I would have made sure we sought resource consent first.”

She doesn’t think it will translate, but apparently some concepts are universal and planning requirements are one of them. Belgah lets out a rough, sawing sound: a laugh, Alix realises. “You have such requirements?” they ask.

“Sometimes,” Alix says. “It depends on the country. It’s complicated, really.”

“How interesting,” Belgah says. “Your people keep to themselves. Is that a cultural requirement?”

“No? I mean, of course we don’t want to prejudice our case by talking to our opposition, but I think it’s more that we don’t speak the languages and don’t know anybody,” Alix says.

Belgah looks thoughtful, or at least what would look like thoughtfulness on a human face, and is quiet for a minute. “I am not associated with the process or outcome of your case through the Galactic Council,” they say. “I work in the environmental sector of the Council, mainly in atmospheric conditions. If it would be acceptable, I will bring myself and some colleagues to your floor at end of day time and we will seek out beverages with yourself and your colleagues, in the interests of intragalactic cooperation.”

“We’d like that,” Alix says. She’s not sure if she’s lying or not but it seems to be an acceptable answer, and they part ways.

*

Belgah, while a member of a major species known as the Drascne, is a fourth-generation native of Neutral City, a career bureaucrat who has gone offworld only to attend a culturally-significant coming-of-age celebration on the Drascne homeworld. She’s married with two children, lives in a nice apartment overlooking a park, and has thirty-four staff and a significant budget.

She brings three of her team and a couple of linguists along for the night and takes them all to what is apparently a very popular local establishment for embattled civil servants, whereupon Lindsay and James go up to try to explain alcohol to the bartender, and Belgah’s most senior staff member very quickly gets involved in a conversation with Malik about water rights.

Their own translator technology is swiftly improving; some of the Earth linguists have managed to touch base with local manufacturers of such products, and are working hard to produce something that will translate between any of the four common languages of the Earth delegation and the six common languages of Neutral City.

(This is commonly done for species new to the Galactic Council, their chief guide, X’r informs them. X’r is of one of the aquatic species present in Neutral City. He isn’t a local, he tells them, but he’s been employed by the Council for the last period of his career and is familiar with all the local delights. He also travels around the streets of Neutral City in a large plexiglass tube with an umbrella on top to prevent debris, does not share any aural or visual range with humans, and communicates with them via two levels of translative technology, one of which makes soft light patterns on the sides of his jar which echo the light patterns of his tentacles.

As a natural guide for bipedal mammals, perhaps X’r was not the most obvious choice, but he seems very kind and is very patient with the endless questions from the terran biologists.)

The name of the establishment Belgah has brought them to translates, in English, to “the [large water-dwelling mammal native to the area]’s [classical weaponry]” and, it becomes clear, has a wide range of mildly intoxicating substances to sell for consumption to any number of digestive systems, including good old human-compatible ethanol.

*

Neutral City begins, slowly, to become a more familiar place. The rhythm of it is different to anywhere Alix has ever been, but the pulse of it is still a seat of Government: still politics, still backroom dealing, still people with flashy smiles or their anatomical equivalents talking in platitudes for the cameras. And behind those flashy smiles and formal attire is the same army of officials, brandishing notebooks and speaking points and spare accessories.

The group of officials who regularly brief Galactic Council representatives—of whatever relevant national governing body—are not quite the same as the group of officials who make administrative decisions, although there's a lot of overlap. The Galactic Council representatives have authority to raise policy matters, devise solutions, seek the advice of any Galactic Council official, and vote on legislative matters. Most relevantly, representatives each have a vote on the liability of Earth with respect to the charges it is facing. There are 3 representatives per relevant governing body, although precisely what counts as a relevant governing body has become the subject of an entire body of intragalactic law over the last three millenia.

The other floors of the building in which the Earth delegation has offices are entirely filled with Galactic Council bureaucrats, several of whom are senior enough to be regularly seen walking the six short city blocks to the main Council precinct, where the representatives are located.

It takes Alix, James, and Malik two weeks to set up a Cross Cultural Working Group with members of Belgah’s team and the Earth delegation. Meetings take place in a casual dining establishment that serves a wide range of mild stimulants and breakfast delicacies. Three weeks after that, soon after version 4.5 of the Earth-language translators have been released and some of the alien translators have been adjusted to sync up, the group has grown to a crowd of about 15, most of them non-human.

“Your matter is coming to the Council for a resolution in twelve days,” an official named Scarra tells Alix one morning. “I have just briefed my representatives.” Scarra is a Proliian, almost 7 feet tall, hollow-boned, and able to fly. Her mild stimulant involves worms, and her voice is a husky whisper that sounds like susurrations to human ears.

“That soon?” Alix says. “We haven’t been told.”

Scarra’s feathers rustle. “Your delegation has most certainly been informed. I have seen the paperwork.”

*

The billionaire’s club deigns to appear in the official’s dining hall that evening, after dessert has been served when people are usually just chatting about TV they wish they were watching. They’ve been given various entertainment options to amuse themselves while in space, of course, but Alix still wants to know what’s happening on the latest season of Project Runway and that she can’t get answers for.

Sebastian Highmoor, wearing a set of clothes he definitely had made bespoke in Neutral City, climbs on top of a table and claps his hands together to get the attention of the room. “Excellent news, people! We have managed to negotiate a time for our hearing! Earth will have its day in court in twelve days, following which we will continue to press for full membership in the Galactic Council. It’s a new dawn for humanity, and you have myself, Mikhael Guentchev, and Liu Wencheng to thank for it.”

The entire room stares at him. In the sudden silence, a quiet voice is heard to whisper “What the fuck?”

*

Kasumi quickly takes charge of the planning, with all the verve and quiet confidence of a woman who has prosecuted several murderers and a self-professed cannibal. The billionaires and their associates already have a plan for who will speak to the Council, of course, having taken a leaf out of Mr D Trump’s book and chosen, out of the very best of humanity, a team of shady mob lawyers and former crooked politicians to do all the heavy lifting. This is only happening insofar as Highmoor and friends managed to each bring a couple of staffers to act as their “team” on board the Express. But even the shady mob lawyers apparently know when they’re out of their depth, and are happy to accept that it isn’t actually a conflict of interest to take further, more detailed, instructions from other members of the official delegation, of which they themselves are of course a key part.

She is incredibly good at convincing people senior to her that their life would be simpler and less fraught if they just went away and let her get on with things. Alix, who has never been good at managing up, is in awe.

The plan is simple and hopefully fairly bulletproof: make sure the billionaires don’t say anything fatal. They will achieve this through a mixture of flattery, information diets, the continuation of the Cross Cultural Working Group, and making sure that the lawyers and other officials who have been invited to attend Council chambers with the billionaires are appropriately informed.

*

“Mr Highmoor has been heard saying some unfortunate things,” X’r tells Alix, three days before the hearing. X’r’s tentacles are turquoise and copper today, which the translation technology informs Alix denotes mild concern with a hint of resignation.

“Oh, for fuck’s sakes,” Alix says.

The pause is longer than usual for a conversation with a tentacled being who communicates through bioluminescence. “You are not surprised, but you are worried,” X’r says.

“Yeah, yes,” Alix says. “Look, I don’t know what it was but I’m sure it was offensive. I hope you know he doesn’t represent all of us.”

X’r’s tentacles wave in their plexiglass. “But he does,” he says. “You are all here to represent your people. You are all here only to represent your people, so that the galactic community can see who you are.”

Alix’s first instinct is to get defensive, but she’s experienced enough to know to take a deep breath and ignore it. Getting angry at someone who has done you a kindness is rarely a good idea. “We’ll talk to him,” she says. “I don’t know that it’ll achieve anything, but we really do want to win this.”

X’s translucent eyes slowly rotate. “Is it that you want to win, or that you want to belong?”

Alix stares at him. She doesn’t know if he can see it. “Is it a choice between the two?” she asks.

X’r’s tentacles pulsate once, and then still. “Not necessarily, but it is not a state that can be maintained indefinitely.”

*

The psych tests to get on board the Express in the first place were both tiring and intense. A large part of it was making sure that people wouldn’t freak out when faced with sapient creatures who weren’t human, though in retrospect the tests barely got at the reality of it. Maybe that was the point.

The psych tests are completely irrelevant if someone doesn’t have the brains to refrain from referring to their guide as a “space octopus” or comparing various other species to their closest nonsapient Earth equivalent. That someone is Sebastian Highmoor, and it’s caught on with all of his clique, or at least the chortling, cigar-smoking, sexually-harassing part of his clique.

“It would be best, Mr Highmoor,” Kasumi says, very carefully, “if you did not offend our hosts.”

“Earth has nothing to apologise for!” Highmoor retorts, which is definitely not on the list of prepared statements he’s been supplied with. “We didn’t know there was anyone out here, and we just wanted to find out.” That one is on the list, but combined with a complete lack of humble regret makes Earth and all of its inhabitants look like assholes. It’s a fine line to walk, and nobody is sure that Highmoor will manage to pull it off on the day.

Alix sighs, and Highmoor turns to look at her. “Yes?” he asks.

“Look, we’re not in a position to deny our offending,” she says. “We’ve told you that. On the facts, we have left a bunch of space junk out there, we don’t know exactly where it’s heading, and we didn’t know at the time whether anyone was around to run into it. We’re pleading mitigating factors.” She doesn’t add that Highmoor has been told this half-a-dozen times, but she’s pretty sure it shows on her face.

Highmoor rolls his eyes. “Yes, yes, I’ll tow the party line in Council, don’t worry.”

“That’s all we ask,” James says. It isn’t true, but Highmoor seems to believe it.

*

“Well, he’s a fucking liability,” James says over drinks that night. They’ve become regulars at the Local Water-Dwelling Mammal’s Classical Weaponry, which is a nice place to be surrounded by other people who hate all their senior management and wish profoundly that all the stupidity and bullshit would just disappear for a week so that they could get some real work done.

“They’re all liabilities, and we’ve known that from the start,” Malik replies. Their little crew has expanded in recent weeks, and they now take over four booths, humans sitting next to a whole array of other peoples, all consuming biologically-appropriate materials of their choosing.

“You are worried for the hearing,” Belgah says. “You are right to be, but that is not the whole process.”

“It’s just—we send these people, and they think they know everything, and they just don’t listen,” Alix says. “Story of our lives, I guess.”

Belgah tilts her ears. “And yet they are here?”

“They’re powerful,” Alix says. “They’ve got money, social status, enough to basically convince the world that—that who better than a bunch of rich assholes to represent us to the universe.”

“Why do you give them power?” Belgah presses.

Alix shrugs. “I don’t know. They just seem to get it? You get enough money and you can do practically anything. Surely that isn’t unique to humanity?”

X’r, who has had a concoction poured into his plexiglass tube and is spinning his tentacles around, turns lime green at the tips. “No, it is not,” he says. “It is common to many advanced species.”

Alix looks gloomily down at her Almost A Margarita. “They probably come to a bad end too.”

“Some of them,” Belgah says frankly. “But not all. It is not all about who has power in your culture, but how it is kept in check. That is what the Council looks for.”

Alix looks up, blindsided. “Should you be telling me this?”

X’r’s tentacles turn brighter. “If it were not appropriate for you and your companions to know, you would not have the information.”

*

The morning of the hearing dawns chillier than usual, enough that Alix takes out her regulation scarf for the short journey down to the Chambers. She won’t be in the Chamber proper, of course—she and some of the other officials who have managed to make friends outside their own species have been invited to take part in a working group for the day, presumably because the rest of the galaxy feels sorry for them and wants them distracted.

There are a bunch of screens on the wall, each displaying the Council happenings in different light frequencies and languages. Alix keeps one eye and one ear on it for a while, but then someone starts complaining about how the Alvthar meat trade to the United Planets of Urr isn’t going as well as the Alvthar had anticipated, causing great consternation and maybe even a diplomatic incident or two.

“Well, what’s the problem?” Alix finds herself saying. “Incompatible regulation? Particular cultural or religious requirements?”

“You have experience in this area?” a tiny, pale blue person asks in an equally tiny, piping voice.

“You could say it was my speciality, back home,” Alix says. “My country is a major meat exporter, and we’ve been trying for several decades to break into various new markets. It’s always difficult; some people in my country have been absolutely horrible about the slaughtering requirements necessary to sell in some nations, there are always quality assurance and transportation problems, and of course you want to be confident that you’re selling an acceptable product. Plus, you know, tariffs, export duties, entry certification, that sort of thing.”

“Perhaps you can help us,” the blue person says. “We wish to assist the Alvthar and the United Planets of Urr to achieve resolution in this matter as quickly as possible, so that fusion war may be avoided.”

Alix nods. “We also try to avoid fusion war, back on Earth,” she says awkwardly, but it gets a laugh, and then they’re off, dragging in a bunch of interpreters and associated staff while Alix finds herself mediating between the demands of the United Planets of Urr and the Alvthar’s less formal but equally-insistent series of apparently non-negotiable factors.

In the middle of sipping her water, she overhears Highmoor telling the Council that they’re very sorry, they didn’t mean to do it, they won’t do it again, and they’d like to avoid galactic bankruptcy if at all possible, please. He has a look on his face like he’s sucking a lemon. Alix doesn’t know if the Council members are finding it convincing at all, but at this point she can’t do anything about it and has more interesting things to do anyway.

*

The hearing lasts exactly the length of time it was set down for, not a minute more or less, and then the Earth delegation is told to just wait while a decision is made. It doesn’t matter much for Alix, or indeed for many of her friends: following the success of the Alvthar/Urr negotiations, which had taken just 5 days to come to a mutually-agreeable point, they’ve all been dragged into a number of other disputes, minor treaty negotiations, infrastructure development programmes, and other such bureaucratic minutiae.

It’s the most fun she’s had at work since the heady days of the late nineties, where as a junior solicitor she formed part of New Zealand’s first delegations to the World Trade Organisation. She’ll miss it when it’s over, but for now it’s a blast. The Cross Cultural Working Group has caught on amongst most of the species represented amongst the permanent bureaucratic class of Neutral City, and she’s becoming familiar with several anatomical equivalents to the eyeroll.

“I’ll miss you guys, whatever happens,” she tells X’r and Belgah. They’re not friends, exactly, but at this point they’re certainly reliable network contacts and sometimes colleagues.

X’r’s tentacles wave. “Perhaps,” he says.

*

Everything is a screaming cacophony of relief and joy the night the verdict comes in. It’s not exactly a success, in that of course Earth was found guilty, but it’s as close as anyone realistically thought they were going to get. “They’ve slapped us on the wrist with a wet bus ticket,” Highmoor is telling anyone who will listen.

The officials let the statesmen have their glory. Alix and her friends sneak out after a little while, and take over a small meeting room to drink cheap bubbly and eat Neutral City-style fried carbohydrates. “He knows that won’t work twice, right?” James asks.

“No,” Kasumi says. “But the Council is confident that we know it won’t work twice, and that’s what matters to them.”

PART THREE
EARTH

Six months after their delegation arrives back on Earth to much fanfare and several parades, Alix receives an invitation to attend the 441st Galactic Trade Conference, held biannually in Neutral City. It takes much less effort than expected to get her manager to sign off on it.

She doesn’t have to wear a uniform this time.

THE END