Category: TtWA

Turn the World Around, Part 24

Turn the World Around, Part 24

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Chapter 20

Video cameras.  Microphones.  Flashes.

Safe behind one way glass and hopefully protected from any eavesdropping devices, I looked out over an ocean of reporters, questions to come from all over the world.  Anyone who could afford, or almost afford, to send a representative had someone there, and usually more than one.  If I hadn’t known the guest complexes were beyond capacity with government representatives, I’d’ve thought they were filled with reporters.  I didn’t know whereGuineafound space for the press.  National leaders across the globe waited on standby so they could jet in if it looked like something big might be in the offing.

I tried not to ask for a count of bodies in the press gallery, finding the sight intimidating enough.  Talking in front of a group of people was far from my favourite thing—just ask the people who’d come to my wedding—but over the past few months, I’d learned to do press conferences, or at least stand close enough to the microphones that they picked up my mumbled speech.  Maybe I’d even gotten a little better, but this was the biggest stage I’d ever stand on and maybe the biggest audience anyone had ever had.

St. Hivon cleared his throat, pulling my attention from the crowd.  “What are you going to tell them?”

I shook my head and tried to laugh, but the two-syllable chuckle sounded bitter to me.  “I have no idea, Antoine.”

Away from the recorders, when we’d finally found our voices, Manuel, Talya and I expressed a lot of colourful feelings.  It took a couple of minutes to wind down before we started trying to decide what to tell the world.  We hadn’t come to a real decision beyond saying negotiations had begun.  We weren’t obligated to give details, and certainly didn’t want to.  Two things fell in our favour.  First, that the three internal reporters hadn’t been granted translators.  All three races felt those reporters existed in the Chamber purely for documentation purposes.  Giving them translators would interfere with the Intermediaries’ duties.  We could tell the press anything that fit the footage, keeping it as vague and calm as we could.

Second, that the aliens were alien.  We’d played the ‘different body language’ card many times and it might keep helping us today.  Take away the words, and I knew Mahyul was pissed, but I hadn’t had enough time with either other species to have any idea what they might be feeling without vocal cues.

Of course, the reporters in the room were witness to our reactions, but there was nothing we could do about that.  At least we’d managed to hold onto our tongues until they’d left to file their own initial reports.  In the end, the three Intermediaries agreed to do everything we could to get the Ambassadors back into the Chamber, not that any of us had a clear idea of anything we could do.  Before the Chamber fiasco, we’d agreed to rotate the press conferences, and I’d drawn the short straw for the first day of talks.  Lucky me.

With a deep breath and a wordless prayer, I opened the door and stepped through onto the stage to stand under and just in front of the huge United Nations banner.  Stretching a good dozen metres, it lent credence to the illusion of global inclusion, that the nations of the world were all represented here instead of the handful of powers that had actually contributed the resources.  Representation aside, the final list of negotiated benefits would be shared across the world, so the UN banner seemed appropriate.

By now they should all have seen the footage.  I’d watched it twice, wincing at the trip to my chair both times, covering the awkward opening before skimming through the hour of calm talk to focus on those last three minutes when everything fell apart.  Raised voices coupled with changes in manner and expression could easily lead human eyes to infer anger in spite of the alien bodies, but I hoped I could present the same view as mild frustration at worst.

The murmuring crowd fell silent by the time I got to the small podium with the ridiculously large cluster of microphones.  I leaned in, picking the one in the centre and hoping to avoid feedback.  “Good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you all for coming.”  Yes, thanks for coming to sit in a huge, overcrowded, under-air-conditioned room to hear me lie to you.  “The opening of negotiations between the Shalash, the Asoolianne, and the Hoon went more or less as expected.  The ambassadors sat down together for the first time for what had to be a difficult, stressful hour for each of them, and agreed not to rush the pace of the peace talks.”  Because the talks weren’t over if I had anything to say about it.  “Contrary to what some of you may have been inferred from the video, there’s no danger of anyone packing up and leaving.  You may have noticed that none of the shuttles have yet left the compound, and they won’t until the Intermediaries are aboard.  This is just the first day.  There are many more ahead and a lot of talking to do.”

People started shouting questions.  It was a jumble of words and accents, and probably languages, with nothing intelligible reaching the stage.  I picked the three questions I wanted to hear, whether anyone had shouted them or not, and held up a hand for quiet.

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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 23

Turn the World Around, Part 23

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Chapter 19 (conclusion)

Brief glimpses at Talya and Manuel showed the same confusion that probably decorated my face.  Manuel’s eyebrows dropped into a deep frown and that worried me a little.  He’d shown nothing but patience in the months we’d been talking.  I chalked it up to the stress of the moment.

Snap, snarl, spit.  Before the Hoon Ambassador finished speaking, my translator began delivering stilted English.  “This is strange.”  Was that a break with tradition, the Hoon going first?

Mahyul nodded, her thin head almost slicing through the air.  “I am forced to agree.  My blood is hot being this close to you, even in the cause of peace.”  She spoke Shalash, letting the various translators render her words as needed.  I heard the high pitch of her natural voice but the translator gave the words a different tone than if she’d used her implant to speak English, still female, but lower and almost, well, generic, with even less inflection or feeling than I’d gotten used to.  Pulling out the left earpiece might give me a few clues to emotional content, at least with Mahyul, but I might lose bits of Hoon or Asoolianne speech in turn.

The Asoolianne ambassador gargled, or maybe yodeled, and I wondered if I’d ever manage to pick individual syllables out of its language.  “I am filled with distaste for both of you.  Only the hope that my children might one day not share that feeling keeps me at this table.”

Another long silence before the Hoon leaned forward, again breaking the tradition  of lateness.  “I am Gargltch nahg Krg and I speak for the Hoon.”  Breath poured out of my mouth and my spine relaxed just a little.  Someone had finally remembered what they were supposed to say, but I wondered if the unscripted comments might be more helpful.  Feelings in the open could be discussed and dealt with.  Just ask any talk show host.

“I am Anissal wektun Mahyul and I speak for the Shalash.”

“I am Riptalektik’fa and I speak for the Asoolianne.  We come to end the bloodshed.”

Mahyul placed her hands on the table.  “We come to see the future.”

Gargltch growled.  “We come to forge a peace.”

After that, they followed the formula, taking turns to speak in general terms about misunderstandings and communication and how things might have been, about battles won and lost, about friends, family, and comrades fallen.  They stepped around the horrendous and inhumane acts of war and none of them mentioned any particular atrocity or death toll.  Finally, they each spoke of the hope for a future without war when families could all be together, and a greater understanding could be sought between all three species.

After that first tiny hiccup, the meeting went very well, as far as I could tell, at least until the three stood to leave.  Riptalektik’fa yodeled and I heard something very different than the scripted comment that, twice echoed, would have released them to the long break.  “I cannot return today.”

Gargltch leaned forward, putting basketball sized fists on the table.  “Already?  The very sight of us roils your stomach?”

“Of course not.”  The Asoolianne ambassador shook his head along with his upper body.  “I find that I am tired and need rest.  The stress of preparing for today—”

“Ha!”  Mahyul’s back straightened.  Paper thin, she still towered over the other two.  “The stress of being near your enemies without trying to kill them is something you should have been prepared for, expected.  I may not like you, but I will sit at the table and discuss the future with you.”

Riptalektik’fa flicked both left hands.  “Do not deny you would cheerfully slit our throats given the opportunity.”

“With my own claws.” Claws Gargltch chose not to show us, but the table creaked under the pressure of his fists as he leaned forward.  “But we are here to end that if we can.  Why do you insist on making it difficult?”

“Why do you insist on misinterpreting fatigue?  Nothing would please me more than peace!  Do you think I would throw it away on a nap?  If so, then you are as stupid as my people generally believe.”

I snapped my mouth closed and lurched to my feet.  This couldn’t be happening.  Arguing and trading insults?  How did it go wrong?  How could it be set back on track?  I looked at Manuel and Talya, but they stayed in their chairs, frozen in place.

Mahyul, the calm, reasonable, restrained Shalash woman I’d met with almost daily for months, quivered with barely contained rage.  I’d missed several comments completely and had no idea what she was responding to, but she snarled at the Hoon ambassador.  “You are a pathetic excuse for a sentient being.  I cannot believe we thought it possible to negotiate in good faith with your kind.”

“My kind!”  Gargltch’s chest ballooned.  “We sought the stars when you were still picking fruit from the ground to eat.”

Riptalektik’fa’s head bobbed up and down.  “Ah, the mighty Shalash, overlords of all that is good and right, as long is it conforms to their view.”

“You are so different, then?  Savages.  World killers.”  The pink being stiffened at Mahyul’s venom, fists clenched and all four elbows locking open.

Gargltch turned his back and stalked away, feet vibrating the floor with each step.  “You are both the same.  Slaughterers of babies.  Destroyers of worlds.  I do not know why we thought this could work.”

Both hurled an insult at the retreating Hoon’s back before turning for their own doors.

Months of work thrown away in a few seconds by three trained, professional diplomats, trading insults like spoiled children on an unsupervised playground, eager to get verbal revenge for imagined slights.  But the slights the ambassadors remembered were in no way imagined, wounds of the soul that could never be forgotten, or it seemed even put away for more than an hour.

We Intermediaries stood there, staring at each other while the cameras kept running.  I dropped into my chair and reached for the water, suddenly feeling very, very dry.  I filled the glass when it was empty and drank half of it again.

What the hell happened?

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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 22

Turn the World Around, Part 22

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Chapter 19 (cont)

The Hoon and Asoolianne ambassadors stood waiting, maybe even holding their breaths.  I turned to greet the swish of glittering fabric as Ambassador Mahyul stepped through the door.  From the corner of my eye, the Asoolianne representative hopped to stand beside Talya.  The Hoon, still in my view as I pressed my knuckles together while bowing to Mahyul, waited for a second or two before thumping into the room to Manuel’s side.

The Hoon are always late. Captain Razush’s words came back to me from Landing Day.  Or was it a day or two after?  Months ago now, but it seemed like years.  I had no direct experience with the Hoon before now, just strained electronic communications, but what I did have made me wonder if they’d developed lateness as a habit, being last because the other two species expected them to be.

The humans set the pace to guide our Ambassadors to the three-sided table in the centre of the chamber, getting them there all at the same instant.  We’d practiced for days in stolen moments, starting at spots that should have been worn into the carpet and taking identical steps down identical aisles. Sharonwatched us for a full half hour as we counted out loud in three different languages and tried to match our steps to each other.  She never once laughed or even cracked a smile, but after the kids were tucked in that night told me it looked like some kind of bizarre wedding march.

Our duty fulfilled, we each took a large step backwards before turning for our own seats.  I caught my foot on something, probably nothing more than a loose thread in the carpet, and nearly provided comic relief to start the proceedings with.  I turned around, my face hot enough to cook on, and looked at the other Intermediaries.  Talya pretended she hadn’t seen anything, and maybe she hadn’t since we’d been walking away from each other, but Manuel winked at me.  I bit my lower lip and dropped into my chair as quietly as I could, feeling it mould to my body.  The chair would be a second home to me for as long as the talks went on and I resolved to find out who had provided the smart material so I could thank them for what I hoped would be an utter lack of physical discomfort.

Mental discomfort couldn’t be helped.  Tough as things had been to set up, from here on in I really had to earn my keep.

The main table had similar chairs of appropriate dimensions for each ambassador, a completely independent computer terminal linked directly to the home vessels for making notes or calling up data, plus a pitcher of water, chilled to preference, and an acrylic drinking glass that would fit comfortably in his or her hand.  A small side table provided the same amenities for each Intermediary, except our computers only worked for translation backup and notes.

We had a script.  It didn’t dictate anyone’s exact words, but the general gist of the conversation had been negotiated through the human Intermediaries, and it had taken a lot of work to put together.  The first session, scheduled to last a bit over an hour, would be little more than introductions and a statement of purpose and hope from each Ambassador.  Then we’d adjourn for the morning, starting the negotiations for real after lunch and a suitable de-stressing period.

That was the plan.

More than once, as several minutes passed in silence, I forced myself to let out a breath.  We had a script.  The first lines should be easy for all three, but none of them said anything.  Eyes shifted back and forth as they stared at each other.  The war had stretched across decades and hundreds of solar systems.  Could face to face encounters really have been so rare they couldn’t even open their mouths?  How long would they spend looking for the enemy in the others’ eyes, for a reason for the millions of dead and wounded, for some sign of how it started and if today was the beginning of the end?

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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 21

Turn the World Around, Part 21

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Chapter 19

Money—and probably far more of it than I heard about from any of the ambassadors or government officials I met over the course of eight months—greased the wheels of construction.  I should have had more faith in my own species, at least in our capability to respond under pressure.  Given the ultimatum of ‘have it done or all three alien species leave and we get squat for our trouble’, money from every nation that could squeeze it from the budget flooded into Guinea and created an instant boom in construction.  No one talked about what would happen to the boom when things finished, but I suspected some of it would roll into renewing the country’s tourism industry, whether or not the aliens found peace here.

But it had been a near thing.

Sitting in the Negotiation Chamber, in a chair actually built for my body, I sighed.  Nearly hidden vents carried a distant hum to my ears as the building’s air circulation system worked hard to steal the fumes, but I could still smell the paint.  Hopefully, the smell wouldn’t bother any of the extra-terrestrial representatives coming to the party.  I figured I’d probably stop noticing it before long.

Leaning forward a little to look at my watch made my headset slip again, the wireless bud popping free of my left ear.

Considering the amount of time that went into creating and adjusting an external version of the Shalash implant to fit my ‘bizarrely-shaped’ human head, it should have caused me far fewer problems.  Advanced technology?  The wrap-around earpiece on my right ear chaffed and the bud in my left shifted or came loose every time I took a breath, opened my mouth, or turned my head.  Miracle of engineering it might be, the real miracle would be if I got to the end of the first day of negotiations without accidentally dropping it on the floor and grinding it under my foot.  Receiving the translation in both ears at the same time was supposed to minimize the distraction of the actual languages spoken, but I started thinking a little inconvenience might not be so bad about five minutes after I stuck the bud in my ear.  I should have brought my own headphones.

But the annoying piece of technology had been programmed not just with the Shalash, Asoolianne, and Hoon standards, but also with Mandarin, Russian and Spanish.  I’d live with it.  With a little luck, I would be able to understand a lot of people present at the Conference who didn’t speak English.  Conversation might be a bit more difficult unless the other being wore a translator, too, or had the human variety handy.  But if I wanted the Shalash implant to help me speak other languages, that would involve getting an actual implant and, much as I liked and trusted the Shalash, I didn’t feel quite ready for brain surgery.

A trio of soldiers, representing all three species, conducted multiple detailed and personal surveillance sweeps of the equipment and every nook and cranny of the room.  I watched each of them pay particular attention to any spot a previous sweeper hesitated or stood still for longer than absolutely necessary.  You couldn’t trust those shifty aliens not to plant something while you weren’t looking.  They couldn’t trust you, either.  Paranoia ran deep.

I don’t know if the sweepers found anything or not.  Maybe they could deactivate spy devices remotely or maybe none of the delegations actually planted anything.  Maybe no human political entity had either.  Really, it seemed kind of silly to bug the room when we’d all be recording every moment of the proceedings anyway.

Which made me wonder if they might actually be sweeping for explosives.  That worried me a lot more and I tried to keep my mind from it by looking at the other people already in the chamber.  Besides the three soldiers, only the humans with permission—Intermediaries and reporters—had arrived yet, and we all sat patiently, at least on the outside, hardly sparing a glance for each other.  Taking into account the three yet-to-arrive delegates, we made up the edges of three identical triangles.

The reporters each had their own comfortable space, if slightly crowded with equipment.  None of the aliens had seen fit to put restrictions on that recording equipment, but all three reporters had signed an agreement forbidding them to speak or act without permission.  No interference of any kind would be tolerated, even to the point of shining a light on someone, and live broadcasts had been rendered impossible by alien technological means.  They were there to document, period, reporting and commenting only after the day’s deliberations were over.  And they didn’t get translators or translations even after the fact.

The Canadian reporter wasn’t a big name, or even someone I recognized, and Jennifer Salace seemed young enough that I’d wondered if she’d finished journalism school before or after the Shalash had landed.  St. Hivon told me she’d been hired specifically for the conference, which made for an easy place to lay blame if something went wrong and the aliens followed through on the threat of expulsion from the proceedings.  She was expendable, but doing a good job would set her up for decades.

Salace seemed technically competent, setting up her equipment with a minimum of effort and noise, then dropping into her chair to wait, fingers flying over the tiny keys of some kind of PDA or smart phone.  I knew the room wouldn’t allow a transmission out so it had to be just something convenient to make notes on, a space saver so she wouldn’t have to carry a laptop with everything else.  For a moment, I imagined her tweeting the proceedings and wondered what the conference would look like a hundred and forty characters at a time.

Sitting in their own corners, the reporters from China and Argentina looked just as young and I wondered if they’d been chosen the same way.  Hopefully they’d all manage to stay quiet today, and for all the days to come in the process.  I didn’t have any illusions of a TV peace conference:  a quick chat with everyone going home happy.  At least, I didn’t have those illusions any more.  Six months of sharing fragments of galactic history with Manuel and Talya wiped those hopes clean over and over.  With millions dead on each of the side of the conflict, the three alien species would need plenty of time just to put their initial positions on the table, never mind hammer out the details of a lasting peace agreement.  It would take a lot of time, months at least, and I found myself more than ready to sit here every day for however long it took.  As long as they were talking, they weren’t killing each other and maybe on some level I figured the longer it took, the closer I could get Sharon and the kids back to something resembling a normal life.  Well, except that I’d be shuttling back and forth to Guinea almost every day.

But sometime in the future, I hoped they’d all sign, or mark, or thumbprint some great and impressive final document.  Then we’d have a big celebration.  After that, they’d each take the Treaty back home to their governments to be ratified and everyone would be happy.  Well, happier.

At least, that was the dream.  Reality might not go so smoothly.  The Shalash, each far more reserved than the average human, barely restrained expressing open hatred and distrust whenever either of the other species were even mentioned.  I could only wonder how expressive the Asoolianne and the Hoon were, having only second hand information to go with a few brief conversations over the last eight months.  Very brief.

I went to stand next to the Shalash door, in the centre of one of the room’s six walls.  Manuel and Talya took similar positions, the three of us making the points of an equilateral triangle.  Balance.  We still had a couple of minutes before the moment the doors would slide open, but none of us made any move to do more than smile encouragingly at the others.  Our last pre-conference meeting went pretty late, talking around and around everything being miraculously complete and ready and us having no real idea of what to expect from the opening day of talks.

The talks that were about to begin.  Inside my head, and probably moving my lips, I counted down the final seconds before the doors, keyed to a timer, would open.  No surprise, I counted too fast, whispering zero to myself five times before the doors slid apart.

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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 20

Turn the World Around, Part 20

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Chapter 18 (conclusion)

I set the second disk down and slid it across the table.  No one jumped to grab it this time, but St. Hivon, computer already open, popped the drive open to be ready to swap disks.  “Not as comprehensive as they’ll need to be, but the Shalash, Asoolianne, and Hoon are more than willing to leave the details of design and construction to us.  The disk just has the basic requirements.  General sizes and dimension of things appropriate for each species, including climate control, furniture, and sanitary facilities.  Some of it conflicts and they’re leaving it to us to work out the kinks.  The key thing is that absolutely everything has to be done in threes without any kind of preference shown.”

“So there needs to be three landing pads all an equal distance away from the main building.”  Cunningham put his elbows back on the table and leaned forward, supporting his chin with both thumbs.  “Measured as precisely as possible.”

“And all at the same height relative to the room negotiations will take place in.  Yes.”  I held up a hand to stop three different deep breaths.  “It has to be thought out to that level of detail.  If we put one on a hill top and the other two on flat ground, the hilltop site will be seen by all three as both an advantage and favouritism.  Wouldn’t be a good idea.  The aliens’ illusion of our neutrality has to be maintained if they’re to work out any kind of treaty and we’re to see any return on the investment.”

“Three landing pads.”  Chong tapped fingers on the table.  “Three separate residential complexes.  Three entrances to the main building.”

Verngiol nodded.  “Three doors into the main conference chamber.  Three seats at the table.”

“Three of everything.”  Henderson-Jones looked away from the laptop screen.  “I think I begin to understand.  This could be a very interesting set of negotiations.”

“Very.”  I sighed, not quite prepared for what I had to tell them next.  “Because I think you’ll find a couple of things in the requirements that no one will like.”

Cunningham frowned and I hoped it wasn’t a resurgence of the first personality I’d seen.  I’d just started to not hate him.  “Such as?”

“A serious limitation on human presence, including an almost complete lack of media coverage.”  He opened his mouth for what I thought would be a bellow, but then shut it again, hard enough I heard his teeth clack together.  No outburst, no explosion, nothing more than a nod.  I tried to look sympathetic.  “Sorry.  They don’t want a media gallery or balconies for observers while their negotiations are going on.  In Ambassador Mahyul’s words, they’re here to make peace, not to entertain us.  There will be one media representative chosen by each nation hosting a landing site and they’ll be present in a strictly observational capacity.  The slightest interruption from one of them will be cause for the expulsion of all of three.”

“That’s a little harsh.”  St. Hivon didn’t put much emotion into the words, but I could almost hear the wheels turning in his mind.  Canada, as the host nation to the Shalash, would get to pick a media representative.  First choice of who recorded the alien peace talks.  How much exposure and influence would that give theCBC?  How much pressure would there be to send someone from a major network, CNN or the evenBBC?

“What about government representatives at the complex?”  Cunningham, deprived of media coverage, might still place himself in a position to receive the earliest information.

Why was I so ready to think the worst about him?  I thought about the first impression I must have given St. Hivon.  What decisions had been made about me based on it?  And yet it was a question that Mahyul anticipated.  “Any guest complex will be tolerated only outside the grounds of the official conference facilities.  We’re welcome to build one, or several, but it’s not to interfere in any way with the Peace Conference.”

“And the three Intermediaries?” Verngiol touched himself between the eyes then blinked, maybe pushing up glasses he no longer wore.  “Will you be attending the conference?”

“Absolutely.”  I gave them all a lopsided grin.  “We haven’t been given a choice.  It was included in what we agreed to when we said yes to the job.  The three of us have to interpret things for the media and for governments.  We’ll have full access to everything and our own set of recording devices, but we only get to talk when we’re told it’s okay.  I get the impression that there will be days we’ll be told to keep our mouths shut or the deal’s off.”

Chong steepled her fingers and pressed until they stood apart.  “Do they have a time frame we need to be aware of?”

I took a deep breath.  “They want to start talks 256 days from now.  We need to have everything completed by then.”

Cunningham frowned.  “That’s an odd number.”

Verngiol made the connection first.  “Four to the fourth power days.  Why not three to the third?  Wouldn’t that balance better?”

“It would.”  I sighed, blowing what I thought had to be a great gust of air across the table.  “And it would have been impossible.  Twenty seven days?”  I tried to chuckle, but it came out more like a breathy grunt.  “Each species independently offered eight-one days, three to the fourth, as a compromise, but I argued eighty-one would still be too much of a hardship.”

“You were right.”  Cunningham leaned back.  “With unlimited money, I don’t think I could get it done in my backyard in eighty-one.  Half way across the world in a country that probably doesn’t have an awful lot of heavy industry in only eight months?  That’s going to be a test of commitment.”  I had to agree because I still wasn’t sure it was possible.

He shook his head.  “How did you get them to more than triple their compromise?”

“I argued that while there may be three species involved in negotiations, it’s going to take four species to make them work.”  And between the three of us, the Intermediaries had made the argument stick, not that it had been at all easy.

Cunningham’s eyebrows went up.  “That was well-played.”  And with that, my opinion of the man went up several notches in my eyes.  It’s amazing what a little well-placed ego-stroking can do sometimes.  Something I needed to learn.

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Turn the World Around, Part 19

Turn the World Around, Part 19

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Chapter 18 (cont)

I took another deep breath and tried not to bit my lip.  “I’ve actually had three meetings with Ambassador Mahyul regarding the list.  Recognizing my inexperience in the field of interspecies negotiations, she takes great pains to explain the Shalash point of view behind everything.”  I shook my head at Cunningham’s opening mouth.  “Before you suggest it, sir, I don’t feel like I’m being taken advantage of and I have no reason to suspect her of being untruthful in any way.”  I did have the feeling Mahyul didn’t provide the whole truth on certain subjects, but what could I do about that except keep asking questions?  I opened the small pouch on my Shalash-provided belt—I refused to wear the platinum and silver jumpsuits, but the belt didn’t stand out too much, and was pretty handy—and took out a plastic case with a mini-disc inside.  “If one of you has a laptop with you, I have the assurances of the chief computer technician aboard the Shalan Triumphant that this will be compatible with any mainstream portable computer.”

St. Hivon snatched up the case before any of the other ambassadors could even raise a hand.  He pulled his laptop from a bag under the table and the machine came out of standby mode in a few seconds.  The disc dropped into theDVDdrive and they all waited for the autoplay to kick in.  No fancy multimedia presentation, no exciting graphics or sound, what came up would be disappointing to any child and most adults.  A four-panel split of the shopping list appeared and I looked at two tiny reflections of it in Henderson-Jones’ glasses.

Each panel would expanded at a click to show details on the fragmented list my discussions with Mahyul had divided into four categories: things they would not trade, things they felt we would develop on our own within the next couple of decades, things still up for negotiation, and things representing their opening position.  The fourth panel contained only two items: a carbon trap that didn’t involve long term storage of CO2 but rather its dissolution into oxygen and graphite, and a genetic analysis of HIV.  I listened and watched as they clicked each of the four panels in turn.

St. Hivon’s eyebrows went up.  “That’s it?”

“So it would seem.”  Chong frowned, but kept further thoughts to herself.

“It’s outrageous!”  Cunningham spluttered, the first time I’ve ever seen someone do that outside of a movie, and did so for several seconds before finding his voice again.  “Completely unacceptable!  How can they possibly think that we’d agree to so little?  Why the social upheaval alone—”

Verngiol interrupted.  “Would be more than balanced by the lives saved if an HIV cure resulted from the genetic analysis they provide, assuming the virus can actually be isolated.”  He shrugged, his head tilting to the left at the same time.  “And the Carbon Dioxide trap, if viable, would do a great deal to slow the progress of the climate change your government has recently begun to believe in.”

Henderson-Jones stroked his blond goatee with a thumb and finger.  “It is only an opening position.”

“But—”

And then I interrupted the American ambassador before he could start on an actual tirade.  God, how did politicians get anything done?  I expected better logic and behavior from my kids and nearly always got it.  “Exactly.  It’s an opening position.  And really, is it any more absurd than the list of things you asked for?  The Shalash aren’t here to cure all the problems we’ve created for ourselves over the course of modern history, and they’re certainly not here to pass along all of the accumulated knowledge and technology they’ve gained since being at our level just because we smile and say please.”

I found a sudden ally in Ambassador Chong, but wondered if it was only because I’d stood up to the American ambassador.  “The Shalash, Hoon, and Asoolianne are each here to seek a path to peace with two other species they’ve been at war with for an unknown time period.  If we benefit from their presence at all, it will only be because they want us to.”

St. Hivon smiled.  “I’d suggest we’ve benefited just from their arrival.  We have a definitive answer to one of the great questions of history.  No one will ever ask again if humanity is alone.  We’re not and now we know it.  That gives us a reason to move ourselves forward and out into the stars.  If they’re willing to give us more, then we should take whatever they offer without whining that it isn’t enough.  We’re not spoiled children and we shouldn’t act like it.”

Hearing my own argument used by someone who’d originally rejected it brought me up short for a moment.  I had to rethink my relationship with St. Hivon.  “Thank you for the support.”  I reached into the small pouch and pulled out another disc, holding it up but not passing it to anyone yet.  Smiling at Ambassador Cunningham, I wiggled the disk between two fingers.  “Now, if you really want something to scream about, the host nation for the peace talks has been selected and it’s not represented by anyone sitting at this table.  It’s inAfrica.”

His reaction didn’t disappoint. “Africa?  What the hell is inAfrica?”  Cunningham half stood with the words, then sunk back into his chair when he caught himself.

I tried to keep smiling, but was sure they could all hear the pounding of my heart from the other side of the table.  And I had to resist the urge to wipe my forehead.  No wonder I never won at poker.  I hoped Manuel and Talya were having an easier time.  “The geographic centre of the triangle made by the three landing sites.  Balance seems extremely important to all three species and none of the them is likely to give pride of place to either of the other two. Guineais equally inconvenient for all three parties.”

“Coincidentally, it’s equally inconvenient for anyone who might have to provide resources toward the construction and maintenance of the facilities needed for such a conference.”   I had a hard time reading Verngiol’s smile.  “I’m certain that the beings of any of our guest vessels would not wish one of the poorer nations of Earth to cover all expenses, even if it were capable of doing so.”

Cunningham growled, actually growled.  “How would that make the rest of us look?  Of course we’re going to pay for it, whether we like it or not.  The question is, how much are we going to pay for construction and how much will go for bribes?”

“I am not fully briefed on the current political and economic situation ofGuinea,” Ambassador Chong said.

“I doubt any of us are, but I would say that will have to change.”  Henderson-Jones scratched at his chin.  “I believeGuineacan be best classed as poor but stable.”

Leaning back in his creaking chair, Cunningham sighed.  “ForAfrica.”  Not bitter, the words were almost toneless and I wondered what he really thought ofAfricain general.  What did most of the developed world think, really?

Henderson-Jones nodded.  “Perhaps, but I am certain any infusion of cash and work would be welcome to the country.  It is a chance to include an African nation in a major positive event, a rare occurrence outside the General Assembly.  While convenience is not high on my list of chosen words, I cannot see this as a bad thing overall.”

Verngiol nodded.  “I find I agree.  Add to this that one of the first things offered in exchange could lead to the relief of the suffering of millions on that continent… if given to the media properly, this can be a significant positive move for everyone concerned.”  The French ambassador focused his gaze on me.  “I assume you have at least the beginnings of requirements for the needed facilities.”

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Turn the World Around, Part 18

Turn the World Around, Part 18

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Chapter 18

Materializing on the jetty for my next government meeting, that uncomfortable feeling settled in for what looked to be a nice, long visit.  Far too many suits waited under the shelter.

“Mr. Cotta.” St. Hivon stood and stepped out from behind the table to shake my hand.  “I have some introductions to make.”  Four other people stood with him, three men and a woman, all in expensive suits and with serious expressions. “Ambassador Cunningham, appointed from the United States.  Ambassadors William Henderson-Jones and Nicole Vergniol, representing the European Union.  Ambassador Chong So, of the People’s Republic of China.”

I shook hands with each and exchanged meaningless greetings.  They all made strong eye contact with me, sparing only quick glances for my security escort.  We sat at a larger table in more comfortable chairs without their eyes leaving my face while I tried to maintain a friendly expression.  My heart started vibrating like I’d just bet real money on a weak poker hand and figured everyone else knew it.  I tried to keep my game face on and my breathing regular.

St. Hivon, as the Canadian representative at the table, may have felt a bit of the same tension, but I hoped he had more experience with this type of situation.  Well, minus the aliens, though he’d seen them a few times now.  I tried not to make a face when it occurred to me that two of the powers now at the table—the United States and China—would certainly not have allowed anyone else near the aliens if the landing had happened on their soil.  Canada, as a middle power, probably felt it had no choice but to include the Americans.  The European delegation was a nice touch at inclusiveness to balance things out, but including China could only be an economic decision.  Sharon had been willing to bet the Chinese would manage a presence at every landing and I’d just laughed.  I should have known better.  I should have believed her.

“You’ve probably already guessed that this meeting is going to be a little more formal.” St. Hivon smiled, sort of.  “The people now at the table represent the major powers contributing to the shopping list I gave you at last meeting.”  Now remembering other things Sharon had told me, I was pretty sure all three ‘major powers’ represented here would also be represented at two similar meetings on different continents, or already had.  I wondered who else had found their way to those and who else had tried to slip into this one.  There were large portions of the world unrepresented in the group, left out on what basis, I couldn’t begin to guess.  “They—we have the most to gain from whatever negotiations you’re able to conduct with the Shalash.”

“I see.”  A nice, stalling-for-time phrase.  I caught myself biting my lower lip and stopped.

Ambassador Cunningham leaned forward, both elbows on the table and his hands clasped in front of him.  “We’re looking for a progress report, pure and simple.  What have you got to show for your efforts and our expended resources?”  Did they notice my back stiffen?  Ambassador Cunningham obviously didn’t have a great deal of diplomacy in his past.  I wondered what his previous experience was.  It could hardly be more unsuitable than mine, except I obviously had more experience talking to people as something other than minions.  Why did my first impression of the man have to be as a stereotype?

Ambassador Chong’s barely accented voice reached across the table.  “While our American friend put it somewhat less than delicately, he is essentially correct.  These strange beings have come to our world, changing it merely by their existence.  In and of itself, that does not merit compensation, but it is they who have come to us for a service.  We merely wish to know what they are offering in trade.”

I couldn’t find my voice, looking from one ambassador to the next without any idea what to say. Cunningham wore a smile so smug I wanted to smack it, but couldn’t even gather enough brainpower to be irritated until one of my Shalash escort scuffed a foot on the asphalt behind me.  The reminder sparked a wave of comfort and confidence.  Whatever my original qualifications, or lack of them, might have been, the Shalash had chosen me to represent the interests of each party to the other, the go between from them to everyone else and back.  Whatever my experience, whatever my competencies, whatever my feelings, I had accepted the job of Intermediary to the Shalash.  Even if it meant talking with both feet in my mouth, I had to talk.

It took another deep breath to steady my nerves.  “The Shalash have said outright that they are not interested in benefiting any one nation or group of people.  Whatever they do trade will be given to all the nations of the world.”

Henderson-Jones cocked his head to one side.  “Many nations are not in a position to do anything with whatever information they might be given.” The quiet words struck a raw nerve through hundreds of years of barely remembered history.  Or maybe they just reminded me of my bank.  We know best.  Trust us.

Cunningham nodded.  “And there are certainly some nations who don’t deserve anything.”  Even without Sharon’s help, it didn’t take much thought to pick the top few nations on his list.  The other ambassadors might have different lists, but if I thought only about governments, my list probably had a lot in common with Cunningham’s.  But a nation was more than its government, and I’ve never been a believer in the old saying that people get the government they deserve.  It’s not always that easy.

By the tiny twitches around the table, from everyone but St. Hivon, sharing needed to become a lot more acceptable.  “If you’re concerned about military applications sneaking up on you, don’t be.  Ambassador Mahyul didn’t mince words on that subject.  The Shalash have no interest in arming us any more than we already are.  Anything with immediate military potential disappeared from the list in my first conversation with the ambassador.  Not that there was much; the list was obviously very well thought out.”

Cunningham flushed and his jowls shook out of time with his head.  “That’s not what I mean at all.  Off the top of my head, why should North Korea benefit from something we’re doing without them?  Especially considering the threats they’ve issued?”

Chong’s expression went completely blank, as impenetrable as most Shalash.  “I do not believe this to be the appropriate forum to discuss North Korea.”  I wondered what thoughts churned behind her flat gaze.

Ambassador Verngiol nodded and spoke in a level voice.  “I agree.  Perhaps the heart of the matter for the Shalash is as it should be for us:  why should the people of any nation suffer additional hardship because of the short-sightedness of their government?  If benefit can be gained for such nations’ people in spite of those governments, is this not a good thing?”

Cunningham flipped his right hand and shook his head, moving his eyes from the other ambassadors back to me, his initial thrust parried, if not by anything I did.  I waited for the new attack.  “I’m not as interested in the distribution of things as I guess I’ve made you all think.  North Korea, or Sudan, or Trinidad, or whoever.  None of them are in a position to take advantage of most of those items, anyway.  But I am very interested in what the Shalash liked about the list.  Mr. Cotta, you said you’ve had at least one meeting with the Ambassador discussing its contents.  What is their opening position?”

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Turn the World Around, Part 17

Turn the World Around, Part 17

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Chapter 17

Manuel, as the only Intermediary with security experience, gained over thirty years of military service, took the lead and agreed to be the primary interface with the government of Guinea, the centre of our triangle, in that regard should we someday be able to get into contact with them.  “Looking at each of the requirement sets, I find that they are remarkably similar, with only small differences from one side to the next.  It will be harder to balance things three ways—who will conduct first sweeps, and so on—but it will be an interesting challenge.”

Talya seemed happy to give up that portion of the organization, more interested in protocol and precedence.  “We will have to find some way for the three Ambassadors to enter the room at the same time.  I do not think any of them will give up priority of place.”

I nodded.  “A switch or signal that opens three doors simultaneously shouldn’t be too much to ask.  Something that won’t open until all three have indicated readiness.  Or maybe something that opens at the appointed time so no one can stall everyone else.”

“Wonderful idea!”  Talya actually clapped her hands.

“I also don’t think there’s any reason for Guinea to foot the bill.  The more developed nations might spare a little bit of money and technology to make this happen to everyone’s satisfaction.  It won’t cost that much.” I bit my tongue and grimaced.  “Actually, it probably will, but if all of the rich countries throw in a little, it’s not going to break anyone’s budget, especially considering the potential pay off.”  Talya and Manuel both nodded.  Properly presented, I doubted any government would bat an eyelash, unless to score political points.  I took a deep breath.  “And on the subject of technology and compensation, I have an idea I’d like to discuss.  On the face of things, it might seem a little dishonest, but I hope you’ll agree with my reasoning.”

Talya’s frown was hard for me to read.  “You give an ominous sound to this idea.”

Manuel shook his head.  “Forgive me, for I do not know you well, but that doesn’t sound like you.”

“I must agree.”  Leaning forward, Talya’s image got sharper.  “What is it?”

The left side of my mouth crooked up, not in a smile because I really wasn’t sure how they’d receive the idea.  Sharon’s reasoning was sound, but I needed to try it out loud on someone else.  “The Shalash have straight out told me they want anything they trade for our assistance to benefit as many people as possible.  I have the impression that they won’t allow any of it to go to any one agency or government.  They’ll make certain everyone gets it.  The whole world, if they can.  I’m working under the belief that both the Hoon and the Asoolianne feel the same way.”  I made eye contact with both of my counterparts and drew in a deep breath as they nodded.  “I think we should ask each of our hosts for different things in trade.”

Silence greeted my suggestion.

“My friend.”  Manuel shook his head and the translator gave his words a little more volume then his whisper.  “Dishonest it may be, but it is brilliant. And so obvious in hindsight I wish I’d thought of it myself.  I do not know how much this Peace Conference is truly worth to them.”

I smiled, a little relieved.  “Most people would say that no price is too high to end a war.”

“Most rational people,” Talya agreed, her eyes shining.  “But you don’t have to look far into our history to see people are not always rational.

Leaning back in his chair, Manuel blew out a long breath.  “Very true.  Still, the things that they would give are probably not so huge to them, yet could make a huge difference to us, to our world, and especially to our poor.  The Hoon like us, I think, and Ambassador Gargltch has said he believes we have potential, but would prefer not to overly interfere in our natural path.”

Talya’s chin bobbed up and down.  “The Asoolianne say similar things.  Mr. Cotta, I believe you have discovered an important idea.  It does not make sense to ask each of our host species for the same items.  If the three of us work together, we can be of far greater benefit to our world.”

Our world.  Our people.  We used the words so easily; they just fell from our tongues as if we’d always spoken that way.  Had the aliens just gotten really lucky in their choices of Intermediaries?  Or had that been part of the logic of the strategy, randomly selecting the first person their scanners came across to get average people?  People who would actually talk to each other.

“I have to confess it wasn’t my idea.  My wife suggested it to me last night.”  That statement led me into a long explanation of how Sharon and the kids had come with me onto the Shalash warship, and while I talked I had the uncomfortable feeling that this was going far too smoothly.

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Turn the World Around, Part 16

Turn the World Around, Part 16

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Chapter 16

Ambassador Mahyul, having finally made the time for a meeting lasting longer than five minutes, asked me to read through the details of the shopping list rather than read it herself.  She’d refused to let me give it to her ahead of time, explaining that there should be no pre-existing bias.  I wasn’t sure how my reading it aloud would eliminate the bias.  What bit of Shalash psychology made that make sense?  What context did I need to understand?  A subtle reminder that I was way out of my depth, but at this point I just had to push through.

As I read, I edited a few things out and threw a couple in.  What good was it being the Intermediary if I didn’t have any influence on the dialogue?  If the Shalash only wanted an errand boy to run messages back and forth, they shouldn’t have expressed things so I felt I was expected to use my brain.

When I finished, Mahyul remained silent for a moment.  One side of her mouth twitched as if she bit her lip from the inside.  “This is a rather long list.”

I almost laughed and did have to smile.  “That’s more or less what I said when I first saw it.  They don’t expect the entire list in return for whatever cooperation they end up giving.  It’s only an initial position, a traditional method of bargaining: ask for far more than you could possibly get.  They expect you to be equally absurd but in a minimal fashion.  Negotiations proceed until a middle position is achieved that is satisfying to both parties.”  I’d practiced that for about fifteen minutes until it sounded natural.

“I am familiar with the concept of bargaining, Intermediary, but with a list of this magnitude, I am uncertain of where a mutually beneficial midpoint might be.  Half of what you have just read is still quite a long list.”

Nodding, I closed the folder and set it on the table in front of me, well out of Mahyul’s reach.  I didn’t want to her to see what I’d left out.  “I think the expectation is for you to laugh and send me back with nothing, or nearly nothing.  That’s the first round.”

She kept her face neutral, easy for any adult Shalash, it seemed to me.  “How does your government expect delivery of the technologies we finally agree on?”

“Something else to be negotiated.  I’ve explained to my government liaison that secrecy is unlikely.”  Actually, during the afternoon check in with St. Hivon, I think my exact words were something along the lines of broadcasting to the world.  He hadn’t been surprised.  Or impressed.

She nodded, slow and deliberate.  “That is good.  Our desire is for all of the beings of your planet to benefit from what we agree to in payment for your hospitality and assistance.  The compensations we agree on would need to fall into that line.”  Mahyul paused and I had a sinking feeling I knew what she’d say next, at least in an approximate way.  All nations were not created equal and how do we plan to deal with that?  “Your world has a number of climate and environmental issues, does it not?”

There was no way to keep the surprise from my face, but I think I recovered quickly.  “It does.  We haven’t always… developed in a way that cares for the environment.”

“But you are learning.”  She smiled, just a little.  “You should not be surprised at my opinion.  We have access to your media, and so your history.  Slowly, you come to respect each other and the world around you.  This is a hard lesson.  The list of environmental technologies was strategically placed at the beginning of your recitation and they showed specific thought to specific problems, many of which are in our past, but I think it likely that most of those items will result from your own technological development in the next twenty or so orbits.  You are learning and very quickly.  While we have no interest in interfering with your development, there is one thing that might be a possible negotiation point, and that is methods of wild carbon capture.  I believe you may take that back as a serious possibility.”

I flip open the folder and draw a circle around that point, wondering if Mahyul realizes just how big a thing that might be.  Similar problems in their own past, but she probably only had a historical perspective on climate change.  “There are also a couple of serious medical issues.”

“I recall.”  She leaned back slightly.  “While we would love to see a reduction of suffering, we are not able to cure your diseases for you.  The group of diseases you call Cancer is something within our experience.  Some research directions might be suggested.  The disease you referred to as HIV/AIDS is something different.  An immune system deficiency, I believe you said.”

AIDS.  Not quite the specter it was twenty years ago, but it was still a death sentence.  People lived longer with it every year, except in large parts of the developing world, of course, especially Africa, where it remained the grim reaper in viral form.  A plague, a pandemic, a killer.  A lot of people tried not to think about it.  Most of the time, I was one of those people.  “We’re not asking you to cure it for us, but your technology is so advanced compared to ours.  The most basic analysis you can do on the virus might save our scientists years and avoid numerous dead ends in research.  You could save millions with only a little effort.”

“I cannot say yes, at this time.  I will not say no.”

That statement gave me the first real flavour of the negotiations.  The Ambassador would use me as a sounding board for what might be offered.  I would be the arbiter of what those offers might be.  Things I wanted for the world could form the basis of Earth’s compensation package, if I spoke well enough for them.

I would be the Intermediary.  And that scared the hell out of me.

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Turn the World Around, Part 15

Turn the World Around, Part 15

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Chapter 14

“Wake up, Ian.”  Lying in the larger than king-size bed with three sleeping children sprawled around me, I had a hard time prying my eyes open even with Sharon shaking my shoulder.

She had the wall on, volume turned far down to avoid waking me or the kids.  Probably the news.  My wife had a fondness for early morning news that had stopped bothering me a long time ago.  Now she hardly ever had the news off and I got everything she thought I might need to know in short, simple sentences I’d understand.

I could hear the low grumble of the anchor’s voice but wasn’t alert enough to pull words out of the stream.  Never a morning person, the soft comfort of the Shalash bed made it even harder for me to get up.

“Dammit, Ian, open your eyes!”

I tried, really, and almost got one open twice before I settled for just working ears.  “Too early.  I’m still asleep.  What’s the matter?”  I picked the word explosion out of the newscast.

“Someone attacked the Asoolianne!”

“The Asoolianne?  What?  Talya?”  Eyes watering with the effort, I pushed up on one elbow to see the screen and tried to focus on the video.  The barely audible commentary was easy to ignore as another recap began.

Each alien ship had dozens, or more likely hundreds, of news and amateur cameras focused on it every second of the day.  They never shut off except to swap batteries.  If something moved nearby, the world knew instantly.

In the early morning, just after dawn in Xining, a bunch of those cameras caught the bright explosion near the front—back? —of the shimmering Asoolianne vessel.  Fire and smoke, but no sound.  A few seconds later, a second flash, more brilliant than the first and lasting longer, made me blink several times.  When it faded, the dissipating smoke showed an alien ship remarkably free of damage.  At least it didn’t look any different than it had before the explosions.  Did we even have anything that could scratch it?  What level of arrogance or stupidity did it take to attack a warship that could travel between the stars?

The screen split, image of the Asoolianne ship shrinking to occupy the upper right corner of the screen, less than a quarter of the view.  In the remainder, we watched a group of nine four-armed Asoolianne in pale blue combat armour marching eight men in black fatigues to the edge of the security cordon.  The apparent leader of the Asoolianne unit spoke briefly and the network provided a subtitle translation.  “Do as you will with these.  See that this does not happen again.”  When the Chinese army had control of the men, the Asoolianne soldiers disappeared, proving that transporters weren’t a purely Shalash device.

The prisoner turnover shrunk to the same size as the Asoolianne ship and slid across the screen to sit underneath it.  Both sequences began to loop, but that was the extent of the actual footage.  The explosion played through several times then held on a still image of the undamaged Asoolianne ship until the prisoner sequence began again.  In the remainder of the screen, a respectedCBCnews personality interviewed whoever he’d found to answer questions at six o’clock in the morning.  There would probably be a lineup of politicians, military leaders, political scientists, and other experts over the next few hours, none of whom would have any real idea what to make of the situation.  The Chinese media, far more important to the world at large than it had been a few weeks ago, apparently had nothing to add, or nothing the CBC hadn’t already played.  Only the video itself really mattered to me at the moment.

We watched for a few loops before Sharon turned the sound off.  I spoke before I could yawn, before she could be worried out loud.  “It can’t happen here.”  Squeezing my eyes shut for a couple of seconds, I cricked my neck to each side then let the yawn out.  My cheek brushed against a small blonde head and I looked at the clock in one corner of the screen.  6:07 and three children still slept in the bed.  In our bed.  We probably had fifteen or twenty minutes if we could stay quiet.

“How do you know?”  The strain in her voice pulled me a little closer to being awake, and I slid myself up high enough that I could wrap an arm around her.

“Because this isn’t China.”  A simple answer.  A simplistic answer.  Also the right answer, I hoped.  It couldn’t happen here.  If the Shalash suffered an attack, it wouldn’t be by a small group of people with a small bomb, but with all the military might that could be thrown against them by the aggressor.

I thought about China, and Xining’s location in more or less the middle of the country.  I remembered Tibet and didn’t come up with any of the countries touching its borders other than Mongolia and Russia.  Jealousy and fear could prompt an attack, I supposed, but China was a superpower more or less.  Who had the ability or willpower?

I thought about Canada, with one real neighbor: the United States.  Neither country would allow anything or anyone through the security cordon.  The Canadian military could be counted as effective, but it’s a big country with a small population for its side.  How much of our military had concentrated around Kingston?  How much of the city had been evacuated?  To satisfy my wife at the moment, not enough and not much, in that order, but the States, I knew, had plenty of assets just out of my sight.  I wasn’t worried, much.

I doubted anything short of a nuclear weapon could do any real damage to the Shalash ship, but there were plenty of people around, and not just soldiers.  Doubts sprang into my mind, paranoia and human nature asserting itself.

Nothing would happen here.  It couldn’t.

Chapter 15

Captain Razush gave me a very human shrug.  “I find I can bear any hardships the Asoolianne encounter remarkably well.  Equally the Hoon.  It can only be laxity on their part.  Such an attack could not happen here even if the attackers managed to slip through the perimeter set up by your human forces, which I find unlikely.  Our sensors have pinpointed every projectile or explosive device in the city.  Their technology is at a similar level to ours.”

“What about improvised devices?”

The Captain looked at me, as expressionless as always.  “Such devices would require a detonator which is also an explosive device.  It would not get close enough to the Shalan Triumphant to be allowed to detonate.  If, for some reason, we let such a thing happen, I do not believe any of your portable explosive devices would be adequate to do more than scratch our hull.  There is no need for concern.”

And that was that, apparently.  The confidence was reassuring, but I had to wonder just a little.  Had it been laxity on the part of the Asoolianne?  Maybe, like the Shalash, they didn’t believe we had the capability to damage them at all. If that was the case, would they bother keeping such a close watch?  The Shalash did, or Razush said they did.

Or maybe I wasn’t thinking about this the right way.  Maybe the bomb had been allowed to reach the Asoolianne ship.  They knew we were harmless, but we didn’t.  Ignoring the bomb and then delivering the bombers a few minutes later would make a pretty effective demonstration of strength.  That actually made a lot of sense in a twisted way.  Some people might take that message away from the morning events in Xining.  A couple of days ago I wouldn’t have been one of them.

But whatever the Asoolianne reality happened to be, I was reassured by Captain Razush’s confidence.  A little.  Enough to reassure Sharon, Maybe.

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