Merdokk sat back, nodding understandingly.
“A very reasonable concern,” he assured the diplomats, “and not an unexpected question. And again, I fully expect you to treat my response with the suspicion and scrutiny it deserves. As it happens, though, this is a question that was answered some thousands of years ago.”
“This has happened before?” Eugon asked.
“There are very few new and unexpected developments in the field of new Corporate contacts,” Spider said. “My lawyers assure me that the case of the High Council versus Great Bokar Bloodgullet – ahem,” he smiled apologetically, “please excuse the dramatic name, I am led to believe that Bokar was something of an explorer and surveyor for a number of companies and … it was a different time,” he continued, “but the case of the High Council versus Bloodgullet ended in the ruling that a dumbler race – excuse me, again, but that is our term for … not primitives, as such, but those unaware of the existence of the larger urverse – a dumbler race cannot be held responsible if it is,” he coughed once more, “taken in by the wiles of an unscrupulous criminal element that has decided to do a little bit of exploring, colonising, general interference.”
“Our collaboration and profit in your criminal act does not count against us, but only against you?” one of the elected representatives summarised.
“Exactly,” Merdokk said. “You are in the happy position of being immune under dumbler treatment legislation that assumes you are hopelessly naïve and I am leading you astray. There are exceptional cases where newly-discovered species have turned out to have abilities enabling them to take advantage of Corporate or other non-dumbler contacts, but this is very clearly not the case here. Unless you have telepathy or other talents that you are hiding from me.”
“You mean, like magical powers?” the second elected representative asked, in what Spider took to be a sceptical tone.
“And if we did have such abilities, would we tell you?” Eugon added wittily.
Merdokk grinned in appreciation. “Quite so. But no, these cases are very rare and you are very safely within the tolerances of the High Council versus Bloodgullet precedent. Indeed, if we continue with this partnership and you profit from it, it is considered to be part of the legal consequence against me, since I am the one giving up material goods. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say any gifts I give you will be deductible from my ultimate sentence, but I do have excellent lawyers,” he spread his hands. “But I invite you, as I say, to establish the truth of this independently.”
“How might we do this?” Eugon asked, “given that anything you might say in answer still requires our faith to be placed in your information?”
“It is a difficult situation,” Merdokk acknowledged. “Since the High Council know little of your presence here, you have the opportunity to discover the facts for yourselves, and decide what steps you wish to take in revealing yourselves. However,” he went on, “the greatest problem with this situation is one, sadly, that I have brought upon you,” he shrugged helplessly, having noticed that Fliei had an analogous gesture in their own body language. “The High Council know I am involved, even though they cannot currently locate us. They will mention this to the Tanturians, and the Tanturians will know that the second group making contact is Fliei. At that stage, they will most likely take steps of their own,” he paused judiciously, and looked down at his decorative new clothes. “As far as creatures like this can take steps, of course.”
There was nervous laughter.
“So you are free to act as you please,” Spider concluded, “and I will cooperate fully. I will even arrange transportation, if any of you or the other representatives wish to travel to our capital and see for yourselves, precisely what procedures will be followed. We can arrange meetings with independent advisors and specialists, although of course there is always the possibility that any and all of these individuals will actually be on my payroll. It is, I am not denying, a delicate case. But you must be aware that, as of the moment I contacted you and the High Council contacted the Tanturians, time had begun to run out.”
The Fliei exchanged another set of unreadable looks.
“Time, pecha-Merdokk?” Eugon asked. Some of the honorifics and slang of the Fliei were giving the translators trouble, but only because appropriate Xidh phrases did not exist. It gave the conversation a charmingly stilted atmosphere, and Merdokk would have been interested to hear his own statements from the Fliei standpoint.
“Yes,” he replied sombrely. “The unpleasant truth of this matter is, it is not the disapproval of the Corporate High Council you need to worry about. It is annihilation by the Tanturians.”