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I'm pretty sure I read this in Analog, in the early 1990s. As best I can recall the story is set on Earth; technology and society are not greatly different from current, except possibly for a certain amount of imported alien tech.

The aliens came to us, but are essentially driven by commerce. They will sell us services and maybe some technology, but there must be a bargain-a contract-and some quid pro quo. I don't believe this is the same universe as the stories where the aliens are economic fundamentalists who have essentially forced the shutting down of all of Earth's governments and social structures as monopolistic enterprises. The aliens are content to let us run the Earth, and just want to make deals.

The viewpoint character is a wealthy businessman, probably a financier or the like. He has a fancy office, and every day he enters the building past a panhandler who he occasionally gives a dollar to. I believe there was some history between them, like they both served in the same military unit. He looks down on the panhandler, but still has some residual kinship.

The aliens seem to lack proprioception; they are described as moving jerkily, like poorly controlled marionettes. Their gaze is constantly darting around, watching the position of all of their extremities so they can move them properly. If I recall correctly, they have devices that allow them to jump anywhere on Earth.

After a fair bit of wheeling-and-dealing, the main character finally convinces one of them into a bargain which, on the aliens' side, requires them to remove from Earth everyone who is non-contributing. He eventually realizes that will include the panhandler and calls down to the front desk to tell the panhandler that he should be considered part of the organization, but it's too late, the panhandler has been vanished.

The main character then reads or realizes that the aliens visualize their bodies differently from us; almost as though their bodies were other and controlled like puppets with strings. So when he made his bargain with the aliens and told them it was "no strings attached" they would have interpreted that to mean that instead of just disappearing people they were actually supposed to kill them.

The story ends with an alien appearing in his office, telling him that they've come to the conclusion that his job has no benefit to society.

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    I wanted to think that the title was something like "no strings attached" but there are no science fiction short stories with a similar name published in the correct time period in either Analog or IASFM. – DavidW Aug 23 '19 at 21:35
  • So, not any of these then; isfdb.org/cgi-bin/se.cgi?arg=strings&type=Fiction+Titles – Valorum Aug 23 '19 at 21:56
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    Argh, I’ve read this story. IIRC, the aliens loved medals and uniforms for some reason related to a lack of innate connection to their physical bodies. – Adam Wise Aug 23 '19 at 21:58
  • @Valorum Wow, lookit all the visited links! ;) Actually I used this: isfdb.org/cgi-bin/… – DavidW Aug 23 '19 at 22:02
7

"The Common Goal of Nature" by Michael F. Flynn

I found the text on archive.org and here are some excerpts:

Winterman nodded and liked his lips. He returned his gaze to the window. He did not look directly at the Hraani, but at their reflections in the glass. There was no way of telling how his arguments were being received. The body language was all wrong. Hyperactive eyes in stiff, awkward bodies. None of the aliens was standing plumb. They leaned; they held their arms at odd angles. What did that mean?

"There are too many humans," he said after a moment, "who contribute nothing to our society. Or who contribute harm. Bums. Criminals. Addicts. Street people. The useless. Do the Hraani have such?"

...

He looked directly at the Advocates; at Starbuck, who stood between them and behind them, returning his gaze over their shoulders. "I have wondered whether the Hraani would contract to do the pruning for us. Take them away. Remove them from the street." He took a deep breath and let it out. There. He had said it. "That's the proposal," he concluded. "As you can see, there is nothing for me, personally. No hidden deals. No strings attached."

...

It was not that the crowds on the street grew sparser. They did not. But, as the days went by, Winterman's practised eye noted a thinning around the edges. One day there was a ragged old woman sitting on a heating grate arguing angrily with herself. The next day, she was gone. Removed quickly and quietly. There was a gang of black youths who hung around the mouth of the alleyway, shaking down passerby for change. Day by day, their numbers grew fewer, and those who remained bore a haunted look. All in all, Winterman thought, the pruning was proceeding quite satisfactory.

When the alien comes for him:

"Remove them." He had never inquired too closely into the Hraani plans so that he could deny, even to himself.

Still, he had to ask.

"What is the knife for, Johnny?"

"To cut the strings, " Johnny told him. "No strings attached. You want nothing for yourself."

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  • Excellent, thank you! Analog April 1990. – DavidW Aug 25 '19 at 1:50

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