Category: TtWA

Turn the World Around, Part 33

Turn the World Around, Part 33

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Chapter 30

Heart is of the river

Body is the mountain

Spirit is the sunlight

Turn the world around

We are of the spirit

Truly of the spirit

Only can the spirit

Turn the world around

Paper had significance for everyone.  That was something we all had in common.

Electronic copies of the Treaty, and all its codexes, would go forth and multiply.  Aside from spreading across Earth, it would become the mostly widely read document in history on all the worlds settled by the Shalash, the Asoolianne, and the Hoon.  At least, all three ambassadors were quick to say so whenever someone talked about the document in their hearing.

But an electronic copy was still only a copy.  Months of talks culminated in four originals of the basic Treaty, printed on the highest grade archival paper human technology could produce, all to be signed by each Ambassador and witnessed by the Intermediaries.  One would go with each Ambassador to his or her respective home world and government.  The fourth would remain on Earth, sealed in a case resting on a four-sided pedestal in the room directly above the negotiating chamber, a permanent monument to what had been accomplished inGuinea.

The Signing took place early in the morning before the brilliant West African sun poked more than its upper third above the horizon.  Dozens of world leaders and scores of representatives were in attendance, along with hundreds of delegates, envoys, and diplomats representing more governments than I’d thought existed, plus the United Nations.  They overfilled stands built on three sides of the platform expressly for the Signing.  On the fourth side, a sea of reports crouched, sat, or stood to film the proceedings.  The quiet hum of so many cameras, a strange electronic symphony, brushed against my ears like waves from the distant coast.  So many faces blurred together in that crowd, more than we could have crammed into a dozen of the visitors’ complex press galleries.

I watched the Ambassadors sign each copy, starting with their own to give pride of place to those copies returning home with each of them, shifting positions after each signature.  As always, balance remained important in the extreme.  The Ambassadors’ signatures appeared as the points of a large triangle.  A second, smaller triangle below the first would hold the Intermediaries’ signatures, using the same positioning as the Ambassadors we’d served for.  On Earth’s multi-lingual copy of the Treaty—English, Mandarin, and Spanish—the alien signatures held equal rank, appearing on the same line, and the Intermediaries would each place theirs below the appropriate ambassador.  We waited our turn then signed in the same way they had, all at the same time.

A murmur rippled through the press as we stepped back.  In a mixed crowd or any other profession, the murmur would have become a cheer.  After a few seconds, applause began to spread through the stands as the leaders and representatives stood to recognize the achievement.  It didn’t matter that it was far away, farther than anything anyone in the crowd had imagined outside of a story not much more than a year ago, peace had been won.  Three governments needed to ratify that peace, but the ambassadors assured everyone it would happen.  All three species were tired of war.  They needed it to stop if only because they’d finally learned to talk to each other.

It gave me a burning hope for my own species and I wanted to think a lot of other people shared it.  I really wanted everyone to share it. Sharon, still drinking in the news channels, not that that would ever change, told me most conflicts across the world had slowed or paused in the last week.  Maybe the enemies in some of them would find a way to stop and talk to each other too.  Maybe we could learn from someone else’s problems.

If we did or if we didn’t, life would never completely return to normal after the ships left, not even for a while.  We knew now we weren’t alone and if there were three other sentient species out there, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to find out there were more.  Earth had a lot to think about.

And our position as a ‘neutral’ planet might have continued benefits.  Small embassies had been suggested with small staffs.  We already had this convenient complex.  Gargltch had suggested it might be possible to talk about more than just peace.  Riptalektik’fa wondered if they could find a way to someday discuss trade.  Mahyul mused out loud that she could see herself just talking to the other two.  The Intermediaries agreed to make themselves available should any such conversations warrant their inclusion or if any of the ambassadors wished them present.

The universe, or at least our little corner of it, seemed to be overflowing with hope.

Sharon and I could theoretically return to our jobs, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to.  I’d told Antoine I’d been happy in a cubicle doing work I enjoyed, but too much had changed in the last year for me to expect my old work life to be satisfying.  Neither Talya nor Manuel had mentioned their plans to me yet, if they had any.  Could she go back to being a teacher?  Could he return to his quiet retirement?  Our futures might be very, very different.  Mine would have to be if for no other reason than the kids had made new friends.  So had I, and not just among the Shalash.  The Intermediaries wouldn’t easily fall out of touch.  The world probably wouldn’t let us.  St. Hivon had already hinted that there might be work for us.  So had Ambassador Cunningham.  Our interesting times probably weren’t over yet, and that didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would.

As we stepped back from the table, I threw an arm around each of my counterparts.  I supposed it made a good photo op, but I just wanted to express some affection for the two people who’d become my closest friends.  “It’s been a strange ride.”

Manuel looked up at me with a lopsided grin.  “My friend, you speak as if it’s over.”

Talya smiled too, letting her reserve slip just a little.  We’d all gotten used to the cameras, I guessed.  “I am certain we have much yet to do.”

I almost laughed.  “You’re probably right.  And a lot to learn.”

“About the world and each other.”  Manuel looked out over the crowd of reporters, maybe wondering at the torrent of questions held at bay only by distance.  “And perhaps about our friends from the stars.”  Or maybe wondering about something else entirely.

“Do we know who we are?” Talya elbowed me in the ribs and I had to laugh.

“Maybe not, but we’ve got lots of time to start finding out.”  The script started to reassert itself as a few shuffling footsteps moved up behind us.  We broke apart and took our places beside the Ambassadors.  Let the new ride begin.  The applause grew louder, almost loud enough to drown out Mahyul’s voice in my ear.

“I will say it many times, Intermediary, but thank you.”

My face heated up and I tried to speak without moving my lips much.  “I’m just happy things are starting to work out, Ambassador.  I expect you’ve still got a long road.”

“A very long road, but at least now we are moving in the correct direction.”  She hesitated a moment before leaning down to whisper in my ear.  “It slipped my mind earlier, but I have received confirmation.”

I bit the inside of my cheek and fought the childish impulse to kick her ankle.  With clear emotions, I didn’t think anything ever slipped the Ambassador’s mind.  “Thank you, Ambassador.  That brings me a great deal of joy.”

The reception started in half an hour and I had no idea what I’d say to Harry Belafonte.

Oh-ho!  So is life!

Abateewah-ha!  So is life!

End

Index * First * Previous

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.

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Turn the World Around, Part 32

Turn the World Around, Part 32

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Chapter 27

As a kid, I saw every episode of the Muppet Show, most of them more than once, most of them again as a teenager, and a third time as a father with my kids.  It had never occurred to me before just how important a part of my life the Muppets were.  A background part, sure, but still important, and probably millions of people across the globe could say the same thing.

But I only ever saw the Harry Belafonte episode once and it might even have been the first time it aired where I lived.  From that one viewing, the song stayed with me, almost intact, for thirty years.  I could have sung along with most of it and not mangled the lyrics too badly.  The song stayed with me until I needed it.

Harry performed “Turn the World Around” for the show’s closing number.  It involved a specially crafted group of African-mask Muppets and eventually expanded to include as many Muppets as they could find people to work them.  All of the major cast members, including the grouchy hecklers on the balcony, eventually sang along with the chorus as the show came to an end.

I picked the start time to include Fozzie’s talk with Harry leading into the song.  I thought, hoped, the conversation might help make my point, and do it far better than any words I could ever find.  As the video started, I hoped the gathered aliens would all understand the idea of Muppets and that the deeper meaning would come through into three separate alien languages.

I shouldn’t have worried.  Jim Henson was a genius.  So was Harry Belafonte.

Chapter 28

The media player went dark and I folded the laptop.  No one spoke for at least a minute.  None of the ambassadors looked at each other or at me, staring instead at the primitive computer.  The silence went on long enough to worry me.  I started holding my breath and it took conscious effort to let it go again.

Gargltch let out a sigh that could have blown up half the balloons for Martin’s party and turned his pumpkin-sized head to face me.  I felt pulled into contact with the too-round eyes.  He spread the four baseball bat fingers of each hand wide then pressed his palms together in front of his chest and bowed to me, so low I saw the back of his wrinkled head.  “Intermediary Cotta, you have brought a wisdom to this conference that we have left behind.”  Rising, he walked back to his own side of the triangle, lowering his compact bulk into the chair.  “Ambassadors, see we one another clearly?”

“Do we know who we are?” A shiver ran through me at Riptalektik’fa’s answer.  Screw the Prime Directive, I’d made the right choice.  The Asoolianne ambassador turned to me, placed his upper hands on my shoulders and bent to touch his forehead to mine.  He stepped back one pace before returning to his side of the table.

“We do not.”  Turning, Mahyul smiled wider than I’d seen any adult Shalash smile in the entire time since the Landing.  She pressed two fingers to the centre of her forehead then used the same fingers to touch the centre of mine.  “But perhaps we may come to.”  She faced her counterparts across the table, still smiling, and sat.  “I think we have much to discuss.”

Chapter 29

“I can’t believe you ended a war with the Muppet Show!”

Sharon and I lay in bed in the Intermediary’s Quarters in the Shalash third of the Peace Complex.  I wondered why we hadn’t stayed here more often during the talks instead of flying back and forth on the shuttle every day.  Not exactly a convenient commute, but more equally inconvenient for everyone I supposed.  There had been a lot of that going around.

The kids all slept in the next room, each in their own bed, at least for the moment.  Martin especially had been thrilled to be up at three o’clock in the morning.  Time zones, and the fact that he’d be getting up sometime around local noon, didn’t signify.  And sleeping until noon might be a different kind of benchmark for him, anyway.

“It’s not over yet.”  I tried stroking her hair with my right hand, but with her head on my elbow, I didn’t manage much more than fingertips.  She snuggled in closer and her hair somehow trailed out of reach.  I gave up and let my hand flop back onto the mattress.  “There’s a long way to go before they have an agreement.”

Fingers drummed on my chest then traced a few wavy lines.  “I watched the afternoon recordings with the benefit of a translator.  Yesterday, they hated each other.  Today they spent a solid six hours talking to each other with only a short recess for lunch and not a single insult or tantrum.  It’s over.”

“It was a good day.”  I yawned.  “They might make a little more progress now, at least for a while.”

“Probably enough to figure out they can learn to not hate each other.”

Another yawn escaped.  “Hope so.  Today’s distraction worked so well we’ve decided to make the cultural media presentation part of the opening every day.  Manuel deferred to Talya for tomorrow and he’ll take the next day.”

“Not so much a distraction as a wakeup call.  And, if they still plan to take every fourth day off, you only have three days to come up with something to top Harry Bellafonte singing with the Muppets.”

And if they didn’t take the day of rest, I only had two.  “What could?  I’ll find something completely different, something just for fun.”  And as soon as the powers that be figured out it wasn’t a one-time thing, we’d have a new source of pressure.  “Not everything has to have a message.  I can’t wait to see what they come up with, though.  Talya and Manuel, I mean.  This could be a really interesting learning experience for me, too.”

“Are you going to limit yourself to video played on that sad little laptop Antoine gave you?”

“It’s actually a pretty good laptop.”  I tilted my neck a bit to look at Sharon, but her face was turned almost away from me.  The one eye I could see didn’t look open.  “What do you mean?”

“I’ve got a couple of ideas.”  I could see her smile, though.

“I can’t wait.”  I yawned again, big enough and long enough that my ears popped.  “But I don’t think I’m awake enough right now.”

“Get some sleep, o saver of worlds.  There’ll be plenty of time to talk about it tomorrow after the talks.”

Index * First * Previous * Next

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.

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Turn the World Around, Part 31

Turn the World Around, Part 31

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Chapter 26

My heart hammered so hard everyone in the chamber should have been able to hear it beating.  The laptop tucked under my arm weighed twenty kilos, or felt like it, and I felt self-conscious carrying the thing.  Mahyul didn’t mention it during the shuttle ride, didn’t even glance at it, although she had to be curious why I’d bother with a piece of human technology when I had access to far better.  The Shalash were nothing if not curious, but they were ridiculously polite about it.  I didn’t draw attention to the laptop, so she couldn’t.  Very strange.  Manuel and Talya had looked at me oddly when I carried it into the conference chamber, but we’d landed barely in time and they didn’t have the chance to ask about it before the doors all slid open.  I just smiled and let myself be reassured by the heavy plastic under my arm and what it contained.  Well, I tried to.

Standing in the conference room, I interrupted the proceedings the moment the Ambassadors finished the now ritual greetings, the only part of the talks that seemed genuine or positive anymore.  Every eye in the room turned on me.  Three sets of camera equipment focused to preserve my actions for broadcast to the entire world and for as long as a backup copy existed somewhere.  Since I’d be speaking English instead of some unknown alien language, the world would get to hear what I said without having to guess.  I assumed the Shalash, Asoolianne, and Hoon were all recording as well as the Intermediary systems.

The laptop felt very heavy, but there was nothing to do but dive in.

“Ambassadors, if I might have your indulgence for a few moments before you begin the day’s deliberations.”  I couldn’t believe how my voice could be so firm.  “In your time on Earth, you’ve seen very little of its people and its cultures.  I understand the reasons for this separateness and they are good ones on the surface, but remaining in your vessels or in this complex has kept you from experiencing the incredible diversity of our planet.  With your permission, I’ve prepared a small demonstration that might be the first tiny step toward remedying that.”

Alien the three may have been to each other, but enough alike that the debate happened without a word exchanged, nothing more than a shared look passing between them.  Three separate gestures of acceptance came a moment later: a human-style nod from Mahyul, a four-palms-up shallow bow from Riptalektik’fa, and a pair of barrel-fists quickly pressed together from Gargltch.

I didn’t have time to try to remember if they’d agreed on anything else in the last week.  “If I may approach the table?”  The same three gestures repeated and I moved from my position to stand beside Ambassador Mahyul.  I set the laptop on the table and flipped up the screen, waking it from sleep mode to present a folder containing the one file Antoine had put on the laptop for me.  I didn’t know what favours he’d had to call in or promise in order to get it delivered to me at 730 that morning.  It was only one media file on one laptop, so it couldn’t have been too bad.  I hoped.

A double tap on the touch pad and the file opened but I stopped it from playing and set the time index to where I needed it to be, then looked up at the other two ambassadors.  “I’m afraid this is fairly primitive by any of your standards.  There is no projection, only a screen best viewed from straight on.  You’ll all have to be on the same side of the table to see effectively.”  Still without speaking, Gargltch and Riptalektik’fa moved to stand on either side of Mahyul, an amazing act all by itself, but I was her Intermediary after all, so I guessed it was somehow appropriate for them to come to her.  I did notice they maintained as much personal space as possible.

The three ambassadors blocked any view theCBCreporter might have had, so I didn’t feel obligated to ask if the other two reporters could move to see.  There wasn’t room anyway.  Manuel and Talya slipped quietly forward to try looking around or over my shoulders.  Their close presence was reassuring and I fought the urge to step out of the way so the two of them could have an unobstructed view, wishing I’d had the chance to warn them.

I had the ambassadors’ attention, but still waited for a few seconds to smile at each and make sure they were focused on me and not each other.  “Please enjoy.”  I moved the cursor over the play button and tapped the pad.

Index * First * Previous * Next

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.

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Turn the World Around, Part 30

Turn the World Around, Part 30

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Chapter 25

Do you know who I am?

Do I know who you are?

See we one another clearly?

Do we know who we are?

I bolted upright in bed, out of a sound sleep and a dream that ran away but must have held the epiphany.  “Jim Henson was a genius!”  Epiphany.  Now that I’d had one, I really understood what the word meant.  My subconscious had been so slow to tie things together, but at least it hadn’t waited until the middle of tomorrow’s ambassadorial rumble.

Emily wiggled deeper under the covers. Sharon groaned, flinging an arm over her eyes as if I’d turned on a light.  “Is it morning yet?”

My watch said three-oh-nine.  Technically morning, but not what she had in mind.  I bent over and kissed her.  What I got back was weak, reflexive imitation of a kiss, but completely understandable given the hour.  “No, love.  Sorry I woke you.  Go back to sleep.”  She shifted, rolling away from me to curl an arm around Sarah.

I slipped from between Sharon and Emily, managing not to disturb either of them more than I had already.  Predictably, Emily slid into the warm spot I’d left without a trace of guilt.  Martin wouldn’t come padding in from his own small room for a couple of hours yet.

Walking to the main room of our suite, I stretched and kinked my neck to both sides, getting a couple of satisfying cracks.  Arching my back gave me a few more.  I figured there was no harm since I had no hope of going back to sleep before morning.  Sometime early in the day the lack of sleep would catch up to me, but my brain spun with too many thoughts now.  Unfortunately, I was about to ruin someone else’s sleep, too.

I sat down at the computer table, not that I’d ever learned to see what made the computer part of it different from the table part.  It all looked the same to me.  When I wiggled my fingers over the communications pickup, a quiet, high Shalash voice I didn’t recognize answered.  “May I be of assistance, Intermediary?”

I took a deep breath, but kept my voice low.  Anyone who woke up now would want to watch TV.  “Yes, please.  I need to get in contact with Antoine St. Hivon.  It’s fairly urgent so I’ll wait.”

It took several minutes of foot tapping and finger drumming before I heard a yawn from the speaker.  The first words blurred a bit until it ended.  “You’ve got to be kidding me, Ian.  It’s three o’clock in the damned morning.  I’ve only been asleep since midnight.”

A brief flash of guilt, but I didn’t let it slow me down.  “I’m sorry, Antoine.  I wouldn’t have woken you if I didn’t think it was critical.  I’ve got a crazy idea to shake things up at the talks and I need something as fast as you can get it.”

A long silence followed by a deep sigh.  I pictured him pressing fingers into his eyes.  “This can’t wait?”

I shook my head as if Antoine could see me.  “I honestly think this might be it.”

“All right, I’m booting up my laptop.  What do you need?”  I told him what I had in mind.  It took him at least a minute to stop laughing and, somewhere in the middle were a couple of breathless words that were the first bit of French I’d ever heard him speak.  I waited out the silence that came after.  “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely.”  And the sooner, the better.  How else could I push the urgency at him?  “For the next session?  The shuttle leaves at seven minutes after eight tomorrow.  Today.  This morning.”

“Whatever.”  Another short silence while he came to a decision.  “You’ll have it.  I don’t know how yet, but you’ll have it.”

“Thank you, Antoine.”

“Not yet.  Wait until morning then shower me with gifts of coffee.  Strong, black coffee.”

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Turn the World Around, Part 30

Turn the World Around, Part 30

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Chapter 25

Do you know who I am?

Do I know who you are?

See we one another clearly?

Do we know who we are?

I bolted upright in bed, out of a sound sleep and a dream that ran away but must have held the epiphany.  “Jim Henson was a genius!”  Epiphany.  Now that I’d had one, I really understood what the word meant.  My subconscious had been so slow to tie things together, but at least it hadn’t waited until the middle of tomorrow’s ambassadorial rumble.

Emily wiggled deeper under the covers. Sharon groaned, flinging an arm over her eyes as if I’d turned on a light.  “Is it morning yet?”

My watch said three-oh-nine.  Technically morning, but not what she had in mind.  I bent over and kissed her.  What I got back was weak, reflexive imitation of a kiss, but completely understandable given the hour.  “No, love.  Sorry I woke you.  Go back to sleep.”  She shifted, rolling away from me to curl an arm around Sarah.

I slipped from between Sharon and Emily, managing not to disturb either of them more than I had already.  Predictably, Emily slid into the warm spot I’d left without a trace of guilt.  Martin wouldn’t come padding in from his own small room for a couple of hours yet.

Walking to the main room of our suite, I stretched and kinked my neck to both sides, getting a couple of satisfying cracks.  Arching my back gave me a few more.  I figured there was no harm since I had no hope of going back to sleep before morning.  Sometime early in the day the lack of sleep would catch up to me, but my brain spun with too many thoughts now.  Unfortunately, I was about to ruin someone else’s sleep, too.

I sat down at the computer table, not that I’d ever learned to see what made the computer part of it different from the table part.  It all looked the same to me.  When I wiggled my fingers over the communications pickup, a quiet, high Shalash voice I didn’t recognize answered.  “May I be of assistance, Intermediary?”

I took a deep breath, but kept my voice low.  Anyone who woke up now would want to watch TV.  “Yes, please.  I need to get in contact with Antoine St. Hivon.  It’s fairly urgent so I’ll wait.”

It took several minutes of foot tapping and finger drumming before I heard a yawn from the speaker.  The first words blurred a bit until it ended.  “You’ve got to be kidding me, Ian.  It’s three o’clock in the damned morning.  I’ve only been asleep since midnight.”

A brief flash of guilt, but I didn’t let it slow me down.  “I’m sorry, Antoine.  I wouldn’t have woken you if I didn’t think it was critical.  I’ve got a crazy idea to shake things up at the talks and I need something as fast as you can get it.”

A long silence followed by a deep sigh.  I pictured him pressing fingers into his eyes.  “This can’t wait?”

I shook my head as if Antoine could see me.  “I honestly think this might be it.”

“All right, I’m booting up my laptop.  What do you need?”  I told him what I had in mind.  It took him at least a minute to stop laughing and, somewhere in the middle were a couple of breathless words that were the first bit of French I’d ever heard him speak.  I waited out the silence that came after.  “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely.”  And the sooner, the better.  How else could I push the urgency at him?  “For the next session?  The shuttle leaves at seven minutes after eight tomorrow.  Today.  This morning.”

“Whatever.”  Another short silence while he came to a decision.  “You’ll have it.  I don’t know how yet, but you’ll have it.”

“Thank you, Antoine.”

“Not yet.  Wait until morning then shower me with gifts of coffee.  Strong, black coffee.”
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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.

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Turn the World Around, Part 29

Turn the World Around, Part 29

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Chapter 23

It worked for almost three weeks.  Clearing a throat here, offering refreshments there, later on suggesting some time to reflect.  After a while, the three ambassadors started talking about real issues:  root sources of conflict, resources, territory.  But any time one of them started to move toward the idea of surrendering some place or planet gained by blood and destruction, tempers flared, insults flew, and the past came howling down from space.  Gradually, tempers took over and the small human voices of reason couldn’t penetrate the arguments.  Each day saw less time at the triangular table and progress marched backward faster with every sunrise.

And we all felt the alien stress levels start to go up around us.  The script, whatever it might have been, took a darker turn.  No amount of Shalash reserve could hide the growing tension on the Triumphant; I could see it in every pale, narrow face and even the kids were quieter, reflecting the mood of the adults around them.  Add that to the mounting frustration of the talks falling apart and our meetings weren’t quite as calm and productive as they used to be.

“They are like children!” Talya slapped a palm on the table.  “Tiny children, barely able to speak but spoiled enough to want everything for nothing.  Fully credentialed diplomatic representatives of supposedly advanced sentient species.  Ha!  They only want to blow each other up.  We should let them!”

After a particularly short negotiating day, the three of us slouched in their chairs around the conference table, uncomfortable in the ill-proportioned furniture and uncomfortably aware that unless we came up with something, it wouldn’t be long before the ambassadors wouldn’t come back at all.  All the work, all the effort by so many people, all for an empty three-sided table.

Manuel sighed, leaning on both of his elbows, the squat Hoon chair making him look like a toddler in need of a booster seat.  “I don’t know what else we can do.  They slip further away from each other each day, no longer coming with the intention of making progress.  Instead they arrive prepared with old grievances and new insults.  It is almost like they do not want peace now.  What can we do?”

I slumped in the skinny Shalash chair.  They must still want peace.  Why would they have come here and involved us, involved the whole human race, if they didn’t?  Why would they keep coming?  On some level, they had to still want the killing to end.  “I don’t know.  We’ve got to keep trying, but I don’t know.”

Chapter 24

The kids had the wall set to the Muppet Show when I slunk into our cabin.  I smiled, mentally casting thanks again to whatever Shalash genius intercepted the satellite TV signals.  Not exactly legal, but how could the offended company fine the aliens?  And I wasn’t going to say anything.

I didn’t talk to Sharon about the day’s news or an update on the Political climate or what the latest polls said.  Everything was dark and angry.  No one had much hope left.  The aliens had stopped trying so why should anyone care anymore?

Kermit welcomed Mark Hamil as I slid onto the couch between the girls and I smiled, wrapping an arm around each.  Maybe not my favourite episode, but definitely in the top five.  Gonzo as “Darth Nadir” and Miss Piggy dressed as Princess Leia made all of us laugh.  Funny to me for different reasons than my children, at least at first glance, but something we could all enjoy.  The Muppet Show and Star Wars were both significant in my childhood and I started sharing them with the kids early. Sharondidn’t object, but I caught an eye roll now and then.

I’m sure I saw every episode of the Muppet show as a kid and most of them more than once.  During the Fraggle Rock Revolution in high school, I probably caught more than two-thirds of the shows again.  As an adult, I’d seen at least pieces of most of them watching with the kids.  And I couldn’t imagine something further away from my current responsibilities.  The Muppets seemed like exactly what I needed to pull my mind from the peace conference.

I missed the genius of Jim Henson.  The world was a poorer place without him.

Index * First * Previous * Next

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.

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Turn the World Around, Part 28

Turn the World Around, Part 28

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Chapter 22 (conclusion)

“What can we do?  We’re really only observers at the sessions, aren’t we?”  The way Manuel’s voice trailed off made me wonder what might be going through his head.

“I’m not certain.”  Talya reached to her right, her hand disappearing as if it had been chopped off at the wrist then coming back with a thick folder.  She opened it up and riffled through papers until she found the page she wanted.  “We are ‘to assist their respective ambassadors when required and to interpret each session and its results to the human governments and media representatives.’  The section goes on, requiring us to attend every session, limits our motion during the sessions, and specifies that we are not to speak out of turn.  It is rather vague but more or less matches the job description I was originally given as Intermediary for the Asoolianne.”  She tapped a finger against her lips several times.

Mine, too.  But it seemed like there might be a little wiggle room.  “‘When required’.  Who determines that?”

One side of Talya’s mouth started to turn up.  “The agreement does not specify.  Perhaps we can use this.  We don’t have to sit there in silence.”

“Ah, but what was that about not speaking out of turn?  I do not think we can just do as we please.”  Manuel smiled.  “It is something, but I doubt it is a solution to the problem.”

Talya cleared her throat.  “Speaking out of turn is an interesting phrase.  It doesn’t mean we need permission to speak, only that we do not speak inappropriately or inconsiderately.  Whether it was intended or not, I think that we do have the ability to participate in a small way and perhaps prevent what happened today from happening again.”

Silence.  Were we about to give ourselves permission to take part in treaty discussions?  Manuel cleared his throat.  “That must go beyond the intent of the agreement.”

Yes, yes we were.  “Maybe it does.”  I shrugged.  “Maybe it doesn’t.  I like Talya’s reading of the Agreement.  It gives us the ability to help.  Maybe today was just a little bump in the road and nothing to be worried about.  But if it looks as if we’re coming up on another bump, I think we can try to redirect the energy in the room.”

Manuel, licking his lips, tried the idea on slowly.  “I think I might feel comfortable suggesting a brief recess for tempers to cool.”  He smiled and looked like he might be biting his tongue at the same time.

“Are we—” Talya clucked her tongue once, shaking her head.  “Are we Earth’s voice in the conference as well as its interpreters?”

Another stunned silence as we looked at each other.  I swallowed and sucked in a deep breath.  “Wow.  That’s just… wow.  I think you’re right, Talya.  We absolutely are Earth’s voice.”  Intermediary.  Mediator?

Manuel shook his head.  “Earth doesn’t need a voice.  We don’t have a stake in the outcome.”

“Don’t we?  If they walk away and the war continues, who do you want to win?”  He didn’t answer, but it didn’t take much effort to see the discomfort on his face.  “I’d pick the Shalash.  So would a lot of people in the West.  I bet most of South America sides with the Hoon,Asiawith the Asoolianne.  I guarantee that almost everyone on Earth who cares at all has a favourite and don’t tell me that the aliens couldn’t find a way to exploit that if they wanted to.  Sure, we’d benefit just from hosting the talks, but we could get pulled into a war that really doesn’t affect us.  Except it does.  Now that we know the little green men aren’t little or green but are definitely out there, we’re going to focus on joining them a lot sooner.  Knowing the human race, we’ll land ourselves right in the middle anyway.”

Talya snorted.  “Completely unrealistic.  You have too much imagination.”

I leaned back in my chair with a big grin.  “You could be right.  My wife tells me that all the time.  We’ve got no way to know how far beyond our technology interstellar travel is, but we’ll be looking for it a lot harder now that we know it’s possible.  But ignore that and ignore that most of us would naturally pick sides because it’s what humans do.  Would you settle for the fact that we’ll get a lot more interesting and helpful technology if they don’t go back to war?  Maybe even continued contact and benefits for everyone after this is all over?  Manuel, isn’t that a stake in the outcome?”

“Enlightened self interest.”  It’s a slow nod, but looks like agreement to me.  “Yes, it is.  Forgive me, my friend.  I am having a difficult time letting go of the idea of neutrality, fictional though it may be.  I will agree that we have interest in the result of the conference and—” he blew a sigh “—we are in a position to influence that result.”  He straightened.  “Better, I will accept a moral obligation to improve the lives of billions of beings of all four species, a far better motivation than technological gain.”

“I would agree.”  Talya looked back and forth between the two of us.  “We are obligated to act for the greatest good.  The real question becomes: how do we ensure they remain at the table talking?”

The question caught me inhaling to speak and I stopped, letting out the breath very slowly.  It takes two longer breaths before I come up with an answer for her.  “Any way we can.”

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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.

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Turn the World Around, Part 27

Turn the World Around, Part 27

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Chapter 22

“Gargltch is unhappy, but he will return tomorrow.”  Manuel didn’t look all that happy himself.  The creases across his forehead seemed a lot deeper than they had that morning at the conference and he looked more his age than I’d ever seen.

Talya nodded.  “Riptalektik’fa was difficult to convince.”  It amazed me every time how easily the syllables of the Asoolianne ambassador’s name rolled off her tongue, but then I couldn’t even catch full sound of the ambassador’s name when he said it.  “He believes himself to be the wronged party in this incident, but I think I have convinced him he is taking the moral high ground by returning to the negotiating table.”

“Peace is difficult to throw away so long as it is truly desired.”  Manuel sighed and slumped back in his chair, slouching so far the pickups made him look fuzzy.

“Mahyul would only agree to a short session tomorrow, what would have been the afternoon session today, at most.”  Some scrap of a thought in the back of my mind tried desperately to work its way forward but slipped away as soon as I tried to latch onto it.  “I’m missing something.  The ambassadors all seemed pretty upset when they left the chamber.  I know that, theoretically, we’re the only ones recording the proceedings, but those recordings are available to the media almost as soon as things are over for the day.”

“Without translation.”  With a stifled yawn, Talya leaned forward, putting her elbows on the table.

“So?  I’m pretty sure all three species don’t need us to provide translations and you know they monitor our media in fair detail.”  I shook my head.  “The Shalash are pretty tight with their thoughts and feelings, but I didn’t have even the tiniest impression anyone on board thought anything had gone wrong.  Did either of you?”

Manuel shook his head, the motion looking jerky, but he didn’t move closer.  “Not at all, now that you bring it up.”

Eyebrows raised, Talya tried to grimace at the same time.  “A brief stall in negotiations.  I’m sure no one was really surprised.  They may even have expected it.  It will not surprise me again.”

“Treaties on Earth have been thrown away for less.  The aliens are more like us than I would have thought when they first landed.  All of them.  But they’re not human.  They don’t always react like we would.”

“Of course not, Ian.”  Manuel laughed and straightened in his seat.  “This isn’t Star Trek, after all.  They are aliens.  But you’re correct.  They are more like us than not.”

Talya frowned and I wondered if she’d gotten the Star Trek reference.  Maybe she just ignored it.  “And yet very much unlike us.  There are times when I find the Asoolianne almost incomprehensible, even after being in their company nearly exclusively for so long, for things and reasons that have nothing at all to do with their appearance.  They do not look at the world the same way we do.  Whatever else they may be, they are not humans in costumes and makeup.”  Star Trek was pretty close to universal, I guessed.

“No, they’re not, but not one Shalash other than the Ambassador acted any differently than on any other day.  It makes me wonder if they’re following a script, just not the one we negotiated.”  That felt right as soon as I’d said it out loud.  Had I hit on something?  Manuel’s eyebrows shot up, but Talya shook her head.

“I do not know the Shalash as you do, but I think you may be reading too much into this.  There are children on board and children are less good at keeping things hidden than adults.  I’m sure that’s as true of the Shalash as it is of humans. The Asoolianne children aboard are no less exuberant and bouncy than yesterday.  Could they have kept to such a script without slipping?”  She shook her head again.  “I am inclined to believe that such a first day was anticipated and we would have been far too lucky to avoid it in any case.  And you have said many times the adults are very reserved, that their emotional reactions are limited at best.”

“I’m not saying anything different now.”  I felt the frown on my face and tried to smooth it out.  The three of us fighting would accomplish nothing and I might really being reading too much into the situation, whatever my feelings.  “They are very reserved.  Their reactions are visually limited most of the time.  They do react, but the emotional suppression is a learned behaviour.  The children are more like human kids than I would have thought possible.  My son has spends time with Mahyul’s every day.  They’re nearly inseparable.”  I sighed.  “Maybe you’re right and I’m trying to justify, but the Shalash are acting more or less normally as far as I can tell.  No one is tense or worried or surprised.  There’s no impression of crushed hopes or dreams, or even mild concern.  It’s like this is what they expected.”

“Perhaps Talya is correct.  Perhaps it is what they expected.  The Hoon don’t seem concerned, either.”  Manuel shrugged again, his palms turning up.  “They are loud and emotional, but that’s hardly unusual, and they made no effort to leave, after all.  None of them did.  These can hardly be the first attempted talks if the war has gone on for so long.  Maybe this is how things usually go.”

Maybe they didn’t have much hope left.  “Which means there’s worse yet to come.”  I let it go, at least out loud.  Neither of my counterparts seemed worried, so I’d be the odd man out in silence.  “Okay, then.  What do we do when it happens again?”

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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.

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Turn the World Around, Part 26

Turn the World Around, Part 26

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Chapter 21

Sharonstood on the other side of the shuttle’s airlock door when it opened.

It had been a quiet trip back with Ambassador Mahyul refusing to speak to or even look at me during the flight.  She stood before I even realized the shuttle had landed and blew past me to get out first, destroying any remaining hope of conversation I might have had.  I got to the hatch in time to see my wife smooth out a frown and turn a smile on me.  She stood there alone, the ambassador’s retreating footsteps still echoing down the corridor.

“What happened?”Sharonfolded me into a hug as if I’d been gone for weeks.  “Half the media is reporting a complete breakdown of talks while the other half wants everything to be over so we can get back to normal already.”  I returned the fierce hug.  What did my near omniscient wife think of the situation?  Sometimes I wondered how she could stand to watch the news from either side, but she had this weird ability to figure out major events as much by what went unreported as by what the talking heads said.  She was the one who ought to go into politics, if Antoine ever asked, except she’s probably too outspokenly honest.

“I don’t know.”  I dropped one arm to slip around her shoulders and letSharonstart walking the path back to our quarters, or the park, or wherever she wanted to take me.  With a few exceptions, we’d long had more or less free run of the ship andSharonhad a much better sense of direction than I had, a much better sense of most things, really.  She’d guide me back to Commander Rizuk and the kids–even odds that he had them at the park–or back to our cabin to talk about what I needed to know of the media play.  I didn’t worry so much about the kids as I used to.  Rizuk was a careful guardian and in the past few months, Martin had picked up far more Shalash than my embarrassing French.  His sisters weren’t far behind.  “They followed the script until it was time to break for lunch, then everything blew up.”

Nodding, she turned us left from one thin corridor into another.  “I gathered that much from the video everyone is playing.  Without your commentary, it is a bit ambiguous, but it’s easy to assume anger.”

I told her about Riptalektik’fa’s apparent fatigue, the insults, the tempers, the closed ears and minds.  “It’s the last thing I expected.”

Sharonelbowed me in the ribs.  Her lips twitched into a crooked grin as she looked up.  “You’ve been enlisted to help negotiate the end to an interstellar war.  You expected it to be easy?”

I snorted.  “No.”  But the thought stuck in my head.  Maybe I had.  Aliens came to me for help and on some level I figured I’d solve it like I had just about everything else in my life, without thinking about it too much and getting it right the first time.  But I’d never tried to do anything difficult before.  Not really.  It occurred to me that maybe I liked easy things so I tried to make everything easy, and this wasn’t.  It hadn’t been all that easy so far, really, had it?  But I suddenly realized that the easy part was probably behind me.  All the talk of so much work ahead wasn’t just talk.  We’d have to work at this.  A lot.  “I just didn’t expect things to fall apart on the first day of negotiations.”

Sharondidn’t press the issue and I didn’t keep track of the route she picked through the corridors, letting my mind wander a bit as she took me for a walk.  Remarkably patient woman, I didn’t know if she wanted to talk about something or thought I did, but she let me find my own mental path back to the surface.

What I did notice walking that path was that on the surface nothing seemed different on the ship.  Any of the Shalash crew we passed acknowledged us as always, with the typical nods, slight bows, and occasional spoken greetings.  Not one crew member we passed showed any outward sign of worry or even mild concern over the talks.  But were their spines stiffer?  Their muscles tighter?  My own point about body language came back to bite me in the ass.  How would I know?  The Shalash kept an excellent lockdown on their emotions to the point they would have done well cast as Vulcans, but they talked to each other and the battleship wasn’t so big that rumours wouldn’t fly through it.  Either there weren’t any rumours yet, which didn’t work for me for a lot of reasons, or there was no need for concern, which I found equally hard to believe.  And in fifteen minutes of walking the Triumphant’s corridors, I didn’t see any signs of imminent departure, not that I’d necessarily recognize them, but I still felt like the Shalash didn’t want to leave just yet.  They all knew something was wrong, but also that it wasn’t wrong enough to start shooting again.

“I’ve got to talk to Ambassador Mahyul.” I don’t know why it suddenly seemed so important.  Had Mahyul had enough time to cool off?  Had I?

Sharonsqueezed my waist.  “You need to relax a bit first and we need to talk about something.”

“Does it involve me relaxing?”

“It’s not on par with an interstellar peace treaty, but it is important.  To us.”

I laughed.  “Martin’s birthday, you mean.  And it’s completely on par with an interstellar peace treaty.”

We turned left and she nodded.  “It is to him.  Ten is a huge birthday.”  She sighed.  “This has been an incredible experience for the kids, but it’s not exactly a normal life.  They don’t get a lot of socialization except with the Shalash kids on the ship.  A few escorted visits home or to see their grandparents here and there.  Martin was used to seeing Aaron every day, not once or twice a month with photographers lurking outside.  The girls miss their friends, too.  I think it’s why they all end up in our bed every night.”

“They used to do that before.”

“Not every night.  Well, Sarah almost, but she’s not quite five.”

I sighed, not mentioning that it had to be hard onSharon, too, but she was specifically not saying it so I couldn’t.  I thought about the problem almost every day now, in odd moments or in between conversations involved in my job.  My job, to save the universe.  But not at the expense of my kids’ mental health.  Every dad wants his kids to have a happy, normal childhood, but I’d tossed that out the window in favour of a spectacular one when the Shalash came.  I’m not sure how much farther from normal we could get than living on an alien space ship floating in Lake Ontario unless the ship suddenly took off for destinations unknown.  It occurred to me that things probably wouldn’t approach normal for us again until at least a year after the Shalash left.

No, things would probably never be quite normal again.  They’d always be the kids who lived with aliens.  How much guilt was I going to carry for that?  “At home or on the ship, he’s going to want Mishuk there and at least a couple of the other kids on board.  Plus Aaron and friends from school he barely sees any more.  Could be interesting.”

“Communication won’t be much of a problem.  Mishuk has as much English as Martin does Shalash.  No interpreter required anymore and Mishuk is pretty intelligible even if he does sound like a gerbil on helium.”  She paused for several steps.  “Do the Shalash have birthday parties?”

I shrugged.  “I haven’t heard of any happening on board.  Birthdays, certainly.  Whether they’re marked or celebrated in any way, I’ve got no idea.”

“Could we bill it as a cultural exchange?”

Chewing my lower lip, I nodded.  “I think that might work.  Martin will have a party.  Sarah, too.  I’d like to hope this will all be over before Emily’s next birthday.”  I doubted it even though the landings had come just a few weeks after her last one.  “But I don’t want her to feel left out.  We’ll do an early one if we have to.  How we’re going to arrange those parties, I don’t know yet, but I think it gives me an in to talk to the Ambassador after dinner.”  I looked down atSharonto find her smiling up at me.

“Maybe over dinner?” She turned us down the corridor that would lead us to Mahyul’s quarters.  “The kids would love it.”

I squeezed her against me.  “You really are the other half of my brain, aren’t you?”

“Mm-hmm.  And everything else.”

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Turn the World Around, Part 25

Turn the World Around, Part 25

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Chapter 20 (conclusion)

“Why did they adjourn early?  Honestly, this peace conference is a huge event.  It may be the biggest thing that’s ever happened on Earth, but remember that these three species are trying to stop an interstellar war, and one that’s been going on for decades.  There’s a lot of bad feeling on all sides and it’s going to take time for them to get comfortable with each other.  As I said, the Ambassadors agreed to take things slow.  The closest human comparison I can make is World War II.  How long did treaty talks between the Allies go on once the fighting stopped?  They’ve been at war for a long time and we can’t expect them to solve things in one sitting.”

I paused to take a deep breath, leaning back from the microphones.  That had been easier than I thought.  I didn’t have to bend the truth much.  But the shouted questions started again before I exhaled and it took both hands over my head for a dozen or more long seconds before they settled again.

“Why did they all look so angry at the end of the session?  I’m not sure they did.  What might look like anger to human eyes, I’d be more likely to describe as frustration.  None of the three have the same body language we do.  There’ve been a lot of actions on all sides that are hard to let go of for the victims.  Right now, at the very beginning of talks, a lot of these things are in the front of the Ambassadors’ minds.  It’s going to take time and patience before they start moving to the back.  That’s not going to be easy for any of them and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

I didn’t lean back from the microphones this time, didn’t give them time to start shouting again.  “Will talks resume tomorrow?  The ambassadors just need a little cooling off time, a short break.  Do you think they’ve come all this way, enlisted our aid, put so much effort into having the talks, just to let things break down in one morning?”  I shook my head, and plastered the biggest smile I could on my face.  “Thank you again for coming, but if you’ll excuse me, I have a shuttle to catch.”  Stepping back from the podium, I walked to the door ignoring the roar of voices, stopping to wave before I opened it.

On the other side, I sagged against the door as St. Hivon step forward and slapped my shoulder.  “There are a lot of people inOttawawho need to watch their backs if you decide to go into politics after this is over.  That was really well played, Ian.  Like you’ve been doing it for years.  There’s nothing you said that’s even slightly untrue. Not spin, exactly, but close enough to reality that it will play very well.”

It hadn’t been that good.  It hadn’t been good at all.  And I had lied, once.  The Ambassadors hadn’t agreed to take anything slow, or even to come back to the table.  And as I walked off the stage, I’d been sure everyone could see that in my face.  “I’m glad you enjoyed it, Antoine, but I feel like I need that bucket, now.”

He pointed to the floor beside me where a bright red plastic bucket waited, just in case.  I didn’t reach for it quite yet, but would have if he’d reminded me how often I’d be standing at the podium for the next little while.  I looked back up and he shrugged.  “Thought you were joking, but I didn’t really want to take the chance.  The real question is: are they coming back to the table tomorrow?”

I let out a long sigh.  “I hope so.  The three of us will be up pretty late tonight talking strategy and we’ll pull every trick we can come up with to get the Ambassadors back in the room.  They’re not making any motions to leave without us, so there’s still hope.  If not tomorrow, then the next day.  I’ll keep after Ambassador Mahyul until she kicks me off the ship.”

The question in his eyes, the one he didn’t want to ask out loud, was why did I care so much?  A good question, and one I’d asked myself plenty of times.  The benefits to Earth only partly hinged on a successful conclusion to the peace conference.  If the aliens did pack up and leave tonight, we’d still get a handful of things that would have immediate and long term benefits across the globe.  In their eyes, we’d invested time and resources and so should be compensated.  Sure, we’d get more if the aliens held it together long enough to sign a treaty, but we weren’t off to a promising start and Earth didn’t really have anything invested in the war ending.  We were a long way from interstellar travel ourselves.

Sharon told me a lot of polls said a significant fraction of humanity didn’t care how things worked out but just as many were prepared to take sides.  Silly, but it was human nature to pick a winner or a favourite based on appearance, proximity, or some instinct that only made sense if you left it alone.  My thought was we’d have four winners, us included, or one, and the one might be up for debate.  If the conference failed, would any of our visitors try to convince us to take sides?  Would we wait for them to ask?  I didn’t want to think about either question.  And even if they didn’t, we’d be out there someday and they’d remember our choices.

Antoine smiled and told me I was persistent.  “You’ve come a long way from that day on the pier, Ian.  You were wasted in a cubicle.”

I laughed and it was an honest one this time.  “Maybe, but I enjoyed what I did and I was good at it.  Some days I even miss it.  And look what it took to bring me out of the cubicle.  If I hadn’t taken that walk at lunch, I never would have known any better.”

“Sometimes, it’s all about timing.”

I had a difficult time arguing with that.  My stomach clenched and I eyed the bucket again, wondering if I should take it with me.

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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.

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