Do you know who I am?
Do I know who you are?
See we one another clearly?
Do we know who we are?
They had blue soda bottle-shaped leaves and orange bark, but they were definitely trees. The bushes beneath them had soft finger-length needles and the scattered flowers strewn between might have come from any tropical rainforest. Around everything else and under our feet, blue grass grew.
The Shalash kept an acre of garden in the middle of their battleship.
At least a dozen metres over my head, bright spots on the ceiling radiated what I guessed to be the natural sunlight found on the Shalash homeworld, assuming that was where the plants all came from. Not really an outdoor person, I’d never been that keen on bright light and this variety made me squint a little.
The girls ran ahead, determined to smell the flowers. Martin stayed beside me, scuffing at the grass with one foot. Faced with a garden, even an alien one, he’d rather have stayed in our cabin to watch TV. I understood the impulse, but had reminded him of his age and blocked as much of the wall screen as I could until he clicked the off button on the remote.
“It’s beautiful.” Sharon’s breathy whisper surprised me even if I agreed. Her hand, clutching mine until we reached the doorway to the park, relaxed.
When I asked for a family tour, I never expected to end up in a park and said as much to Commander Rizuk. The muscles around his left eye made the skin crinkle. In a human, I don’t think I would have noticed such a tiny change in expression. For Rizuk, I just wished I knew what it meant. “It is one of five. In addition to the practical consideration of atmospheric cleansing, at which plants are extremely proficient, it provides a quiet, natural space for all crew members to enjoy. Green spaces speak deeply to many Shalash. Even a small controlled environment such as this grants much relief from stress when we are far from home.”
“Nature is important to our people, too, Commander.”Sharongaped at the tiny patch of alien nature, eyes tumbling from plant to plant even as she kept the girls in view. “I think we’re only starting to realize how much. Thank you for showing us this.”
Rizuk dipped his head. “It is my duty and pleasure.”
A high voice interrupted. “I am gratified you find the space pleasing.” We turned to find Ambassador Mahyul walking across the grass toward us from a different entrance. “Please allow your offspring as much freedom in this place as makes you comfortable. You have my promise that they will find nothing harmful.”
I watched Emily trying to boost Sarah to the lowest branch of a knobby, climbable tree. “Except maybe gravity.”
The Ambassador’s jaw muscles twitched when her eyes flicked to the girls. “Perhaps.” Her strange, pale eyes came back to mine, and I tried to read something, anything in them. “I join you as my schedule allowed, Intermediary. Commander Rizuk suggested you are unhappy in some fashion.”
“I didn’t know he’d said anything, Ambassador, but thank you for coming.” I squeezed Sharon’s hand. Please trust me. “I’m still trying to absorb everything, but managing. My wife—my mate—is having difficulty adjusting.” Sharon squeezed back, hard. That would normally indicate a later discussion I hoped to avoid.
“That is unfortunate. Is there something we may do to remedy the feeling?”
I glanced down at my son. He didn’t look like he was paying attention—he never did—but not much made it past his ears. “Martin, can you see if the girls need help?”
His head tilted a little. Only a nine-year-old could glower like that, and the thought in his head was plain in the expression. ‘Take me away from the TV and then ask me to help my sisters with some baby activity? You’ve got to be kidding me.’
Pretending I didn’t see the disgust, I put a hand on his shoulder and smiled at him. “Please? I’d really appreciate it. That tree might be a little difficult for them.”
“All right.” A big sigh pushed the words out of his mouth and he slouched toward the tree. He gave each of the girls a boost, Sarah higher and Emily onto the lowest branch, then hauled himself up after them. I caught the smile before he stood up and I lost his face behind the leaves. Commander Rizuk moved a little closer to the tree, obviously concerned about the length of the limbs on my monkeys, or lack of length in his mind.
I looked back at the ambassador to find her staring down at me like she hadn’t looked away. “He’s coming into an age where if it isn’t based around television or video games, he thinks he shouldn’t enjoy it.” I shrugged. “It’ll pass in a few years, I hope.”
She nodded. “There are times when the young require guidance but are unwilling to ask for themselves.”
That was a different way to look at it. “Right, well, when I asked you to bring my family, I only thought about their safety and security, not about what they’d do when they got here. My children are having fun, for now, but I think the size of the television you’ve provided has something to do with that, and they’re usually thrilled to be somewhere that isn’t home. Sharonneeds more than television, though. “
Mahyul tilted her head to the left. “I think I do not understand.”
“Before you landed, I went to work and did things with my family. Most of my friends are connected to work. If I change jobs, most of them are replaceable.” With a deep breath, I took the plunge. “Sharonis really the primary caregiver for our children, has a part time job and does volunteer work.” The bones in my hand started to grind together. “She’s far more social than I am, not to mention much, much smarter, and I brought her here to be isolated, an alien among strangers. I get to go places and talk to people. Apparently, I’m going important things.” My mouth twitched on one side. “And I’ve more or less locked her in a cabin with three kids and a television. Not exactly fair.”
“Perhaps I do understand, Intermediary. I will return to my question: is there something we may do to remedy the feeling?”
I took a deep breath. “I’m not sure I know how to answer that, Ambassador. I don’t want to be separated from my family, but it’s selfish of me to keep them here with nothing to do and no social network around them. I did have one thought though. Is the position of Intermediary necessarily for only one person?” Sharonsucked in a breath and I thought she might break my fingers.
Shaking my head, I squeezed back and looked her in the eyes. “Cliché alert. Marriage is a partnership, even when it’s inconvenient on the surface. I’m the geek half of this marriage.” I swept an arm around behind me, trying to take in everything. “This I kinda get, but I don’t do politics and I don’t do the news and I don’t always get the real world. You do and I think I’m going to need to know what’s going on in the real world a little more. A lot more. I don’t think I can figure out both halves of the equation by myself.” And I know it’s not enough, but it’s something, it’s the best I’ve got, and I need you, Sharon.
She bit her bottom lip and I wanted to kiss her to steal that doubt away. “Ian—”
“I don’t want you to be my shadow. I’ve never wanted that.” I’m happier as yours, but how do I say that?
“I know.” One side of her mouth curled up and I wondered what promises she was going to extract from me later. “It’s a start.”
I turned back to Mahyul. “Ambassador, I would welcome Sharon’s viewpoint in the task you’ve asked of me.”
She remained silent, head still tilted, through the brief exchange and for a long moment after. “By definition, there is only one Intermediary. However, I see no reason why that One may not have an… associate or partner. It is fitting that your mate should have that capacity. Perhaps some space could be reserved as a working environment for both of you.”
For just a heartbeat, I’d been afraid she’d suggest a staff. I didn’t want to say just how good I wasn’t at managing people. Talking to people if I had to, but I sure didn’t want manager as part of the job requirements. “And maybe a babysitter. I don’t think that’s exactly what Commander Rizuk signed up for.”
“If I understand the term as additional child supervision, I am certain that can be arranged.” Mahyul’s eyes drifted over my shoulder and both sides of her mouth moved up a little.
Shalash reactions weren’t quite as obvious as human ones, and they weren’t all the same, but I’d learned we shared smiles and frowns, and I thought I might be starting to notice other things, too. I needed to be careful not to attach meaning to every tiny gesture or to humanize them too much, but I read something like pleasure in Mahyul’s tiny smile.
I half-turned to see two small Shalash, one nearly my height and the other a little shorter than Martin, approach the kids’ tree from across the garden. Both had paler skin and hair than any I’d seen so far and wore clothing in browns and blues, a big departure from the metallic colours that had started to seem almost normal. Civilian dress as opposed to uniforms? Off duty clothing?
“Are those children?” Sharon’s words stabbed me somewhere deep in the brain and I felt my mouth drop open.
Note: “Turn the World Around” is released on lanceschonberg.com under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 Unported License. It can be shared, copied and distributed in its current form, but not changed or sold.by