On a walk during his lunch break, Ian Cotta watches a fiery alien ship land in the harbour. Moments later, he learns he’s been chosen as an Intermediary, a neutral representative to help negotiate the end to a decades-long three-way interstellar war.
There’s no way he can possibly say no, but Ian’s brain catches up to his responsibilities just quickly enough that he manages to talk it through with his wife.
And his family’s lives change forever.
Jim Henson, Harry Belafonte, and everyone who had anything to do with a particular episode of The Muppet Show: thank you.
Silver and gold, the fire bird pushed down through the clouds, reflecting enough light to make it hard to look at, even through a tight squint with one hand blocking the sun. I couldn’t make out much detail, but the brilliant, smooth curves gave me an impression of speed beyond anything familiar. No human hands had drawn those lines and no computer had rendered them for a video game. Jerking my earbuds free, I watched it settle into the water and tried to keep my mouth from hanging open.READ MORE
I pictured the whole world coming to a stop a little at a time as the news and images spread. Every person on Earth with access to TV, radio, or the internet would have their world view shattered and expanded by this one simple event. Confirming wildest dreams or deepest nightmares, one thought expressed in a multitude of ways: we are not alone.
And then I was not alone.
On the edge of the jetty, in a direct line between my eyes and the spectacular vessel, the air shimmered for a few seconds as three figures took shape. Human. Well, human-ish. Elves. The word leaped into my head. Elves, but taller and thinner. Not one of the three stick figures stood less than seven feet tall. They each had straw blonde hair, tied back to pull it away from long, thin, and very, very pale faces. I looked at their clothing, platinum and silver spun into fabric, much too light for early fall in southern Ontario.
The elf in the center–the shortest, a small, helpful voice in the back of my head supplied–raised a hand with four triple-jointed fingers and a thumb stubby by comparison, palm outward. “Be not afraid.” The voice wouldn’t have raised eyebrows coming from a four-year-old girl or one of Santa’s helium-voiced helpers.
I’ve always been too quick with a smartass comment and it’s gotten me into trouble a few times when I didn’t manage to censor myself in time. Face to face with space elves, self-control was in no way on option, but it took me a couple of seconds to manage the major accomplishment of using my voice. “I’m not afraid.”
The hand lowered. Vulcan eyebrows pushed deep into a high forehead. Weird. Its head couldn’t be more than two-thirds as wide as mine. “Are you not?”
I shook my head. “If you’d intended to hurt or abduct me, this is a ridiculously public way to go about it. Why tell the whole world?” Maybe it took me a few seconds to get going, but I’d make up for lost time. Was first contact supposed to feature a smartass office worker on his lunch break?
“I agree.” A short response, license to continue digging the hole.
“Stunned is a better word. Probably why I’m just letting my mouth run and haven’t managed to say something profound for the biggest moment in human history. I hope it’s not too late to say welcome to Earth.” I barely stopped myself from adding, “Home of the Whopper.” I had no idea where that came from. Well, no, I knew exactly where it was from, but why it popped into my head at that moment would probably be a mystery for the rest of my life.
The lead elf nodded. “It is not, and I am sure you will think of something suitable to tell your historians.” It met the gaze of each of its companions before making eye contact with me again. Did some communication pass there? Telepathy would be nice and advanced, I supposed, not to mention scary. What would they read from my mind? “We are the Shalash. We hope our stay on your world will be brief, but while it lasts, we require an Intermediary between our peoples. Will you consent?”
Was that stone under my chin? I didn’t get my mouth closed fast enough to prevent, “Is the Pope Catholic?” from sliding out. Thanks, Dad.
“I do not know.”
My brain really needed to catch up and throttle back my mouth. “I’m sorry. What I mean is yes, I will certainly consent.” Job? I’d find another one. Family? That brought me up short. No one in my life would grudge me this opportunity, but it’s always best to keep your spouse in the loop. “I should ask what’s involved.”
“The Shalash will speak to humanity through you. Your life will be left as intact as is possible.” It cocked its head to one side. “You have a mate? Offspring?”
“I do.” The Shalash would speak to humanity through me? Sharon and the kids would completely understand my jumping at this. Well, except Sarah, but she was four and wouldn’t notice as long as I wasn’t gone much more than usual.
“If you need to confer—”
“I can do that by phone, but I’d like to know what to tell her. My mate.”
“Of course.” It looked behind me. “Yet this is not the best place for us to confer. A crowd gathers.”
I glanced over my shoulder. At least a hundred people stood around the end of the jetty, threatening to spill out onto it but with no one quite ready to approach. Soon, though. Who could resist for long? There would be more, a lot more, and fast. I turned back as it whispered something to its wrist. “You’re probably–”
“–right. Um, yeah. Not what I was expecting.” No transition, no warning. Also no October breeze, no tiny lapping waves, and no horde of excited people about to run up behind me. Nothing. I stood in a small pink room with the three aliens. Shalash. I needed to start thinking the name.
Mouth pressed flat, the middle alien cocked its head to the left. “You are not claustrophobic?”
I shook my head. “The room’s not that small.”
“You find the color distressing?”
“No. Odd, maybe, but not distressing.”
My eyes roamed the walls of the tiny room. Soft light came from the ceiling itself, but I couldn’t see anything like a control panel or a man in a red jumpsuit. How could I help thinking about Star Trek when I’d just been beamed up? “How–”
“It is controlled from elsewhere.”
I looked around again. The room stayed small and pink.
It nodded. “We are aboard our battleship, yes.” Should think of it as a he? It seemed dangerous to assign genders or anything else yet. My mind grabbed the word ‘battleship’ and I hoped it would turn out to be something missing in translation. Except he, or it, didn’t seem to need translation. The Shalash leader spoke English. That scared me a bit and at the same time made the experience a little surreal.
I turned my body a little to follow it, or him, through the door and the other two Shalash fell into step behind me. The walking pace had to be a courtesy to my short legs since I didn’t have any trouble keeping up and not having to hurry gave me a chance to look around as we walked a winding path. A few open doors flashed by, tantalizing glimpses into alien rooms, most with one or more Shalash inside. None worked at anything identifiable in those fleeting glimpses and only a few bothered to look up as we passed, as if a human wandering around was normal.
Was there a point in trying to keep track of turns through the tight corridors? Well, not that tight, really. I could easily have walked beside someone else my size without either of us scraping the walls, but the space still made me thankful I wasn’t claustrophobic. No one spoke but my brain churned too much to stay quiet. I cleared my throat. “The, um, walls. They’re very pink.”
It, he didn’t look at me. I settled on the masculine pronoun to clear my own confusion, good until proven otherwise. “They are. The designers felt something neutral to be appropriate. My preference would be for a different neutral, but I was not consulted.” His head bobbed to one side. A shrug, maybe? “I understand every ship in the class is a slightly different interior shade.”
“Of pink. Unfortunate, but true.”
“And you obviously haven’t had time to repaint anything.”
“Too much work to be done.”
“No battle ready ship ever passed inspection.” Sometimes I really wished I could keep thoughts to myself. I didn’t mean for the words to be part of our conversation, but maybe battleship hadn’t been a mistranslation.
We stopped. Well, he stopped and I managed not to trip over him. He looked down at me, a strangely human frown pulling its eyebrows together. “I do not understand the statement.”
Next time I’d bite my tongue. Really, I would. “Umm. Old human military saying.” I think. At least, I’d read it somewhere. “‘No battle-ready ship ever passed inspection. No inspection-ready ship is ever prepared for battle.’ You’re unlikely to be polished and ready for a fight at the same time.”
He stayed locked his eyes on mine for several seconds. “Interesting, and possibly applicable.” Using his entire arm, he pointed at the doorway we’d stopped beside. “A more comfortable place for discussion.”
The seat facing the doorway held another Shalash who stood as we stepped into the room. My brain tried to label this one female, but without the obvious human anatomical differences, it was hard to decide why. The two who hadn’t spoken stayed outside the door and I finally clued in. I’d had a security escort, not part of the official first contact or whatever conversation I was about to have, but present to protect everyone else from the potentially dangerous alien.
My speaking escort gestured to one unoccupied chair and moved to stand behind the other. “Introductions are due. I am Kanid sen Razush, Captain of this vessel, the Shalan Triumphant.”
I tried to sit. Comfortable, meaning a chair too tall and skinny for my human-sized ass. I knew I carried thirty pounds more than the supposed ideal for my height, but the chair squeezed those extra pounds and all the wiggling I wanted to do didn’t make much difference. At least it was beige, along with its two mates and the small, triangular table, but my feet didn’t touch the floor. Deck.
The other Shalash pressed her hands together, one on top of the other, and nodded. “I am Anissal wektun Mahyul. Your language inadequately renders my title as Ambassador.”
Very ambassadorial. “Um.” Then again, I felt the inadequacy of my command of English at that moment, and of my current career. “I’m Ian Cotta, Data Analyst.”
They looked at each other, then back at me, and the ambassador clichéd. “We have come to Earth in search of peace.”
“Let me get this straight.” Sharon’s voice, flattened a little by the cell phone, held that tight edge she used when holding her temper or trying not to panic. “The aliens have landed, which I actually believe because it’s on everything but a couple of the kids’ channels, and they want your help to negotiate a peace treaty with other aliens. Tell me why again.”
“Earth is a pre-interstellar culture with no previous extra-terrestrial contact, so there’s no way we can have any interest picking the winner. We’re neutral ground.”
“I can poke lots of holes in that. Why you?”
Looks from the captain and ambassador didn’t help me. I couldn’t read the expression on either face, or their body language. How much human communication was non-verbal? Both expressions looked blank to my human eyes. Maybe mine did to them, too. That would be good right now. “I think, well, because I was there.”
She stayed quiet a lot longer than any normal conversational pause, long enough that I started to worry. “Sharon?”
“Um, I don’t suppose the aliens have access to cable or satellite TV? There’s another ship landing.”
I pulled the phone a few inches away from my mouth. “Can you tap into satellite communications? She says there’s another ship.”
Captain Razush nodded once, his sharp chin splitting the air. “We are aware. It is the Asoolianne.” But he whispered to his wrist and one wall of the small room turned into a TV, view screen, whatever, and it thrilled my Canadian soul that they picked Newsworld. No sound so no reporters’ voice, but, “Live from somewhere unpronounceable in China,” stood out in the standard CBC font above the headline ticker.
The Shalash ship had descended like a giant bird of prey. The new vessel flowed from sky to ground like a blob of honey sliding down the outside of the jar, except it was dull orange. I had a hard time focusing on any part of the ship, even after it settled into the grassy field, and a harder time trying to define its shape. Long and thin, lumpy and bubbly, it had bulges in the center and at one end. This was an interstellar warship?
“Earth to Ian.”
“Huh? What? Sharon?” Had she said something before?
“What are you doing?”
“Umm. Watching the other ship land.” Razush and Mahyul ignored the Asoolianne ship–they’d seen plenty of them before, I guessed–and stared at me instead. Not exactly the most comfortable gaze I’d ever been under. “Sharon, are you okay with this? I’m pretty sure I can still say no but thanks for the opportunity. They can put me back somewhere quiet and out of the way.”
She didn’t say anything for what felt like a long time. “Ian this is the biggest thing that could ever happen to anyone. You’d never forgive me if I asked you to back out now.”
“Of course, I would. It would just take a week or two.”
She laughed. It didn’t quite take the edge from her voice, but I was glad to hear it. The two Shalash kept staring at me. The weight of the combined stare finally tripped a switch inside my brain and I jumped into high gear. “Get the kids from school.”
“Throw some clothes in a suitcase and pick up the kids.”
“Go somewhere. Not to your parents.”
“Ian! Slow down.”
“Sorry.” I sighed, licked my lips. “Part of the job the Shalash have asked me to do is talk to the earth government representatives. The media will figure things out pretty quick. When that happens, you’re going to be very popular.”
“It’s what they call themselves.” A dozen media scenarios played themselves out in my head, none of them pretty. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” She had to jump ahead of the situation. I needed to find some way to let her.
“Reporters.” How many meanings did she put in that one word? I tried not to add any of my own. God, should I warn my parents, too? And Sharon’s? Why stop there? I should probably call everyone I’ve ever known.
“Big show under the big top.”
In my mind, I saw the look on her face as that sunk in, felt her come to a decision across the distance separating us. “I’m packing. Can I call you back?”
I tried to make eye contact with both aliens at the same time. “Can my mate contact me again?”
“Mate?” Sharon stifled a giggle, almost breaking the tension in the signal.
I lowered my voice. “Their word.”
Razush nodded. The gesture surprised me even as I realized he’d done it before. Was it something we shared or a conscious effort on his part? “We will allow your communication device to function until it becomes an inconvenience.”
I focused back on Sharon. “Translation: until the media works things out and starts calling me all the time.” And maybe I had a better idea to fool them. “You can call for now, but I’ll probably call you first. Pack fast.”
“Already have the suitcases out. Love you.”
“Love you, too.” Usually an automatic response, but not so automatic today. I didn’t want to think about what I’d just done to her stress level, and how much higher it would get before long. And what about my stress level?
I snapped the phone closed and stuck it back in my pocket, trying to ignore the Asoolianne ship as I sat back down. It took a moment to pull in breath for the words I needed. “Ambassador, Captain, I consent to the offer of the position of Intermediary for the Shalash completely and for as long as you need me.” My mouth was suddenly dry and swallowing didn’t help. I needed to start the negotiations early. “But I need one small thing first.”