Turn the World Around, Part 7

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Chapter 7

We come from the mountain

Living on the mountain

Go back to the mountain

Turn the world around

I’d already forgotten the government representative’s name.  His two assistants, or subordinates, or whatever, hadn’t done anything to identify themselves.  What’s-his-name rubbed one temple with his thumb and sighed.  “So let me see if I understand this.  Aliens have landed, the most important event on this planet since the invention of fire, to negotiate a peace treaty with other aliens, some of whom aren’t here yet.  Correct?”

“Sounds good so far.”  I swallowed when he arched an eyebrow, and shrunk a bit in my chair, my human-scale chair.  Less than two days on the Shalash ship and I missed furniture that fit me to the point where I didn’t care if the folding chair had been stolen from some public school’s gym.

Muscles in his jaw clenched for a moment; maybe he bit his cheek.  “Thank you.  The aliens have landed and they’ve chosen you to represent them.  They’ll only talk to you, and you have to talk to the rest of the world for them.  Governments, press, your supposed counterparts with other aliens.  Only you.”

“Right again.”  I had low opinion of public servants sometimes, of some public servants anyway.  Most of them are people just like the rest of us, but some of them seem to feel they run the world, or at least their little piece of it, and everyone else is an idiot.  This one, whoever he was and however he’d gotten the job of talking to me, was bugging me.  Maybe I was pushing his buttons, answering rhetorical questions when he was just thinking out loud, but maybe he shouldn’t be thinking out loud and instead start thinking about that spaceship out in the bay.

He sucked in a deep breath through his nose, letting it out slowly.  “They won’t talk to us at all, only to you.  I think you can see how this seems a little suspect.”

I could see his point, but couldn’t he see the two Shalash standing behind me?  Shaking my head, I shrugged at him.  “I went for a walk at lunch instead of eating at my desk and wound up on an alien space ship.  You can believe whatever you want, but I think my escort should lend a little credibility to what I’ve told you.  Maybe how we got here helps, too.”  We’d beamed in about ten metres from where I sat in the picnic shelter.  Smiling, I folded my hands in my lap and tried not to sigh out loud.  People in suits usually made me uncomfortable, since they tended to be people with too much authority over my time.  I felt like I needed to be on my best behavior, but he was making it difficult.

So was my escort, really, the escort I hadn’t wanted.  Captain Razush insisted, claiming the need to protect the Intermediary, to protect me.  I was fairly sure they could have beamed me back at the first hint of any problem, but now I understood that my guards served a bigger purpose: making it impossible for the people on the other side of the table to ignore me.  Razush and Mahyul probably had that figured out long before they’d decided to allow me out to see the government.

“Look… Mr. Cotta, wasn’t it?”  I nodded.  “The whole world is screaming for access to the aliens, waiting for them to say something.  We’ve got pressure from the Americans and Europeans to let them in, and we’re holding back thousands of reporters, demonstrators, and UFO nuts at gunpoint.  What do I tell the Prime Minister?  ‘Sorry, they won’t talk to us, but there’s good news.  They’ve picked a local data analyst as their emissary’.  You can guess how that conversation might go.”

“Intermediary.”

He blinked.  “What?”

“Intermediary.”  I cleared my throat so the rest of my response wouldn’t squeak so much.  “I’m just a go between.  They’re using me to help create a fiction of Earth as a neutral planet.  If they deal directly with governments, those governments and others will start to take sides, for and against whichever group of aliens they like or don’t, and maybe try to influence the outcome of the talks.”

A not so distant whup-whup told me at least one helicopter patrolled along with the planes I’d seen when we first materialized.  How much of the city had been evacuated?  I supposed it depended on how much of the Canadian military they’d scrambled to get move to Kingston in two days.  Planes and helicopters passed overhead frequently, and I’d also seen a couple of Coast Guard ships on the lake, presenting obvious authority but well away from the Shalash, plus a tank not quite hidden behind a closed restaurant.  I didn’t know we still had tanks.

And I didn’t have to look hard to find soldiers on foot, either.  Five of them stood on the other side of the tent, opposite my own escort.  Two idiot voices in the back of my head started to argue about who would win a shoot out.  I really needed to not think about things like that.

“Well then, Mr. Intermediary, what exactly do the aliens want?  And just as important, what are they offering in return?”  St. Hivon, the name jumped back into my head, pulled my attention to what I was supposed to be doing but didn’t get me any closer to exactly what that was.  I wondered if I could work out some kind of spreadsheet.

Talk.  Negotiate.  I hated haggling, preferring to leave price tags to my wife, and neither Captain Razush nor Ambassador Mahyul had said a word about what the Shalash might offer Earth in return for hosting whatever peace conference eventually happened.  What would Earth ask for?  What would I ask for?  I sighed.  “Honestly, I don’t know.  They haven’t seen fit to discuss it with me, but I doubt they’re planning to take orders or provide answers to all our problems.  I do have the impression that any kind of weapons technology is off limits.  The Shalash aren’t interested in starting any new wars when they’re here to end an old one.”

“Shalash?”

“It’s what they call themselves.”

“Shalash.”  St. Hivon tested the name, giving it a hint of French accent.  At least he’d have something to take away from this first meeting.  Would I?

“They’ve already given us one big gift: the knowledge that we’re not alone.”  I tried to smile.

Leaning back in his chair, St. Hivon grunted.  “Only substantial in a culturally disruptive way.  Chaos isn’t something I can offer up as payment and someone will suggest there should be extra compensation for that, I’m sure.”  He shook his head.  “It’s got to be something concrete, but how do we know what to ask for when we don’t know what they need?”  Narrow eyes made me feel like he might be sorting through his thoughts to find some kind of leverage.  Something stirred in my stomach and whatever premonition prompted me to bring my family aboard the Shalash ship suddenly felt really right.

“Come back with some suggestions and I’ll take it to the Ambassador.”  I shrugged, turning my palms up over the table.  “What the Shalash agree to isn’t up to me.  I doubt we’ll get anything until after the negotiations are over, anyway.  I think I’m really just the messenger at this point.”

St. Hivon nodded.  “Fair enough.”  The dark feeling retreated, not quite disappearing.  Maybe I’d overreacted a bit.  He’d be under an awful lot of stress to produce something, too.  A lot more than I was yet.

“Intermediary.”

The high-pitched voice cut through my thoughts.  I turned to look at my escort, trying to figure out which of the two had spoken.  One visor shimmered and disappeared to make it easy for me.  “Yes, Lieutenant?”

“I am informed the Hoon have arrived.”

“Um, thank you.”  Now if I could figure out how that helped me.

“The Hoon?”

Turning back, I caught the slack-jawed expressions on the faces of two soldiers and one of St. Hivon’s assistants.  A fair enough reaction at the first sight of an alien, I supposed, especially one who didn’t look quite alien enough.

A mission to accomplish, St. Hivon stayed focused on me, probably the only one on his side of the table not staring at the sharp, pointed face of Lieutenant Yinzik.

“The third species involved in the war.”  I felt my face scrunch up a bit.  “It’s a three-way conflict that’s lasted for several decades.  The aliens who landed in China call themselves the Asoolianne.  They’ve already picked an Intermediary and the Hoon will do the same when they land.  One of my responsibilities, by the way, is to ensure the three Intermediaries get to meet so we can start to plot out a first meeting for the alien Ambassadors.”

“That’s well beyond my authority.”  Deep crevices formed between St. Hivon’s eyebrows and I wondered if he’d started to contemplate the universe beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

“Do you have any suggestions?  If we don’t meet then they won’t and there’s no reason for them to be here.  They’ll go back to shooting at each other.”  I shivered at the thought of a real space battle.  Would it happen here, right above our heads?  “And we’ll get nothing beyond the cultural chaos their arrival gave us.”

He said nothing for what seemed like a long time.  Looking up at Lieutenant Yinzik, the woman leaned in and whispered something I couldn’t hear.  The other man just sat, staring with his mouth hanging open just a little.  St. Hivon nodded, meeting my eyes again.  “I assume your schedule is fairly clear?”

I had to laugh.  “It’s not like I’m going back to my cubicle any time soon.”

“Fine then.”  He looked at his watch.  “It’s almost one.  We’ll come back at six.  I’m betting there’s already a shopping list in the works.  It won’t be ready yet, but maybe I can get a draft copy and some information on opening communications with China and wherever the third ship is landing.”

I smiled at him, trying to look happy around the sudden fountain of nervousness.  Maybe I could call this progress.  I bit my lip.  “Um, speaking of shopping lists, I wonder if you could do me a little favour.”

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 6

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Chapter 6

I couldn’t read Ambassador Mahyul’s face.  The muscles in her jaw looked tight and her pale eyes gave me a shiver, but even if I saw the details correctly, I didn’t think she meant the expression for me, whatever the emotion behind it.  “The Hoon are late.”  Distaste?  Irritation?  “The Hoon are always late.”

Captain Razush nodded.  “Even for battle, though at times that works well for them.”

We sat in the same room or one just like it.  My escort, not Commander Rizuk who was on station at the door to our freshly-assigned suite of rooms, brought me through a series of narrow corridors that also all looked the same.  Newsworld played on one wall, a split screen showing the Shalash ship on the right.  The left half played interviews with whatever experts they could scrape up or, occasionally, the Asoolianne ship.  I’d seen the shuttle and our abandoned minivan exactly once since I’d come to the room, but my cell phone didn’t work anymore so they may have given up that angle for now.  Or maybe the interviews were about me.  The lack of sound let me ignore whatever the experts did speculate about.  I might have liked to hear the government representative, but she’d only been on for a minute or two.

I put down the glass of blue juice both of my Shalash hosts assured me was suitable for human biochemistry.  The taste reminded me of turnips, with maybe a little garlic and ground pepper mixed in.  I figured two or three more sips for politeness’ sake before I switched to water.

The words sunk in and I stopped trying to look at the screen.  Silent talking heads didn’t seem very important.  “Who are the Hoon?  I thought you came to negotiate with the Asoolianne.”

Mahyul nodded.  “And the Hoon.”

“There are three sides?”

“Yes.”  Razush looked at me, his expression completely blank.  Just filled with information, our Captain.  A Shalash of few words.

Science Fiction aside, I’d always thought conventional wisdom assumed any species advanced enough for interstellar travel would have outgrown war.  A lovely thought, but conventional wisdom seemed to have missed the boat here, with three interstellar species all fighting each other.  No joke or comment sprang to mind, probably a good thing.  Frowning, I fought off a sigh instead.  “So why do you need me?”

The Ambassador took a small sip of her own juice and I wondered about the fruit or vegetable it had come from.  She set the glass down and leaned toward me.  “We are here to meet with the Asoolianne and the Hoon.  As Intermediary, you will attend these meetings, presenting to your people what you learn.  Intermediaries for the Asoolianne and the Hoon will do the same and will also meet without us as required, with each other for organizational purposes and with representatives of your governments.  We will not meet with any government directly as such a meeting would certainly compromise the neutrality of your species.”

Sharon had worked out the logic with only a little input from Rizuk.  Randomly pick a human civilian to act as your go between.  That civilian will possess a certain loyalty to his own nation and world, but should still be neutral as far as the aliens were concerned.  If the randomly selected human was the only one to talk to the outside world about and for the aliens, a fiction of neutrality could be maintained.  The aliens could pretend that Earth was neutral, assuming all three species held to the same fiction.

“Why do I need to meet with my, or any, government?”

“You will need access to your counterparts in order to arrange a time and location for us to meet with the Asoolianne and the Hoon.”

Dropping the whole thing in my lap.  Wow.

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 5

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Chapter 5

“I can’t believe I agreed to this.”

Sharon stared at Rizuk’s back.  I hadn’t told her yet that he’d sworn to the safety of my family, mostly because I didn’t really understand what it meant and was afraid to ask.  Intermediary.  Whatever the Shalash needed, I was supposed to be, but how could I even begin to figure that out when I couldn’t wrap my ahead around what might be a basic Shalash concept?  Or was that the point?  I came up with a new question every few seconds and hadn’t had the time to ask most of them yet.

I squeezed her hand.  “If you’ve got a better idea–”

“I don’t.”

The hatch snicked shut, almost disappearing again.  Four suitcases filled with clothing had gone into a locker I couldn’t see once Rizuk closed it.  Like the panel controlling the hatch, it didn’t look any different than the cabin wall.  Shalash interior design seemed big on hiding things you didn’t need to see, at least as far as the shuttle went.

The girls, both in my lap, stared at Commander Rizuk as he sat and touched the side of his helmet.  His faceplate shimmered and disappeared.  Emily frowned at the alien soldier while Sarah kept her chin tucked against her chest, using the through-the-bangs shy look she reserved for strangers, Snuffy squeezed under her arm.  Martin, sitting beside me, did an amazing job not asking what had to be more questions spinning inside his head than I had in mine.

“Intermediary.”  The depth of Rizuk’s voice surprised me again.  Next to Captain Razush and Ambassador Mahyul he might pass for a teenager on the edge of a voice change, if I closed my eyes.  I didn’t miss my own title.  Were titles important to the Shalash?  Did that tell me something?  Maybe that I should start using them every time I opened my mouth.

“Yes, Commander.”

“These are your offspring.”  The words didn’t have enough inflection to be a question or a statement and his expression didn’t give me anything more to work with.

“They are.  Everyone, this is Commander Rizuk.”  I introduced each of the kids and then Sharon as my mate.  Rizuk didn’t offer to shake hands, but looked at each member of my family with an intensity that made me think he memorized each face, as if he’d seen enough humans to tell us apart.  His eyes came back to mine and he leaned back a bit to take us all in.

Rizuk spoke first.  “They are very… small.”

Martin, nearly four foot ten and the tallest kid in his class, jumped up to defend himself.  I fought the urge to make him sit back down, but couldn’t use any kind of vehicle-in-motion excuse since I had no idea if we’d taken off again, and I didn’t want him to be afraid of Rizuk anyway.  “I’m not small!”

A corner of Rizuk’s mouth twitched with a suppressed smile.  The Shalash weren’t emotionless machines then.  “Are you not?”  He stood and Martin craned his neck to meet the eyes three feet above his head.  “Think how you might look to my eyes.”

“And how do you look to me?”  My son didn’t like to back down.

Rizuk lowered his spindly frame back into his seat and nodded.  “Very tall.  And very thin.”

“Thin enough I could pick you up.”  I clenched my jaw to keep the laugh in, picturing the attempt.  Beside me, Sharon gasped.  I put a hand on hers to stop her snatching Martin into her lap.

And then Rizuk smiled, not big and not bright, but definitely a smile.  “If I let you.”

“Well, yeah.”  Martin crossed his arms.  “Maybe.”

Rizuk nodded.  “And you might be surprised at my weight.”

“Maybe.”  Martin flopped back into his seat, slouching enough to make it seem like he chose to look up at our guardian.  “How do you speak English, anyway?”  From my kid’s mouth, a question I’d never thought to ask, something I’d barely thought about.  I’d obviously lived in a simplified world my whole life, watched too much television where all the aliens spoke English.  A hundred more questions I should ask tried jumping to my lips all at once, gravity and air and germs and far too many other things to think about at the same time.  I had to slow my brain down and told myself to make a list later.

Rizuk pulled his helmet off, revealing hair short enough to be normal in any western army.  Turning his head to the left, he tapped a small metal disk behind his right ear.  “I have a computer implant.  Among other things, it is programmed with your language.  It reads the impulses of what I wish to say and gives my voice the sounds needed to be understood.  Similarly, it takes the sounds you make and changes them to the impulses of sounds I understand.  I do not actually speak English, and my voice seems nearly toneless to me, but it does work.  There may sometimes be delays while it considers a translation, but never as much as a second.”

“Cool!”

Rizuk cocked his head to one side and the smile returned.  “I believe so, yes.”

The being sitting across from me was not human.  I doubted I’d ever understand him, or any other Shalash, a tenth as well as I would a random stranger on the street, but I thought I might wrap my head around him enough to function, maybe.  I’d bet there were still plenty of surprises ahead, thogh.  I pulled my thoughts together just in front of Martin’s next question.  “Commander?”

Rizuk’s eyes tracked to me.  Even seated I almost had to lean back to meet his gaze.  “Yes, Intermediary.”

“You’ve made me feel a great deal better.”

“Intermediary?”

“Too much to explain between here and the ship.  Let’s just say you have my trust.”  Sharon’s eyes poked me in the side of the head.  Without looking at her, I squeezed her hand, the universal signal for ‘I’ll explain later.’  Well, maybe not universal, but we’d been married long enough that she’d know what I meant, and it might take as long to explain to her as it did to Rizuk.

The Commander managed a deep bow without rising, not difficult from his starting height.  “Thank you, Intermediary.  I will attempt to be worthy.”

“Thank you, Commander.”

It might have been as long as thirty seconds before Martin’s patience evaporated again.  “How fast are we going and why can’t I see outside?”

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 4

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Chapter 4

A lifetime of science fiction movies and television did nothing to prepare me for the Shalash shuttle.  With no engine noise, no way to see outside the cabin, and no sensation of motion, I could have been sitting in a pink waiting room somewhere.  The shuttle gave a quieter, smoother ride than I’d get sitting in my living room, and the big cushy seat was the first thing I’d seen wide enough to think of as human scale, but I guessed they’d have to hold a Shalash soldier in combat gear.

My feet still didn’t touch the floor and I wondered how long it would take to get used to that.

Combat gear.  Once I had the thought, I couldn’t get rid of it.  Out of nowhere, my mind showed me an invincible horde of Shalash marching through Kingston, such a likely place for invasion.  I hadn’t seen any weapons or armour, but I pictured them out of any randomly selected SF epic: gleaming plastic that warded off anything humanity could throw at it, guns that could shoot around corners, laser rifles.  Stupid, and it made my fingers clench the sides of the chair harder.  Trust is hard sometimes, and I was about to trust the Shalash with everything that mattered to me.

I should have been excited.  How could riding in an alien shuttle be anything other than an amazing dream come true?  But too much fear mixed with the excitement, fear and worry.

The Shalash held out a dream in their skinny, long-fingered hands, but some of the things Earth might add to that dream dug a hole in my stomach.  I pictured my family at the centre of a media circus, surrounded by the lunatic fringe and shadowy, half-imagined agencies beyond.  Too much imagination, but it scared the hell out of me.  The only way to prevent it had already passed by.  I could have said no, gone home, and watched it all unfold on TV, knowing I could have been at the centre of things and regretting it for the rest of my life.

And how could I say no, especially after Sharon told me it was okay and meant it?  The moment I spoke to Captain Razush, everything changed.

So I had to find a way to protect my family and not many options jumped out at me.  Going to the government would mean pressure to get everything I could from the aliens, and that pressure would already be tremendous, from my own and other “friendly” governments.  I didn’t like that, didn’t want it, so I had to find another way.  My solution, however, involved more trust than I’d ever given to anyone before, and I had to cross a species boundary to do it with a species I’d only known about for a couple of hours.

The Shalash officer beside me, introduced as Commander Rizuk, stood suddenly.  “We have landed.”  Some part of the helmet hiding his entire head must have contained communication gear since the pilot, if there was a pilot, hadn’t announced anything I could hear.  Or maybe the voice was the pilot.  It seemed a little low.

“Umm, sure.”  I swallowed a nervous joke about not having any proof we’d actually gone anywhere.

Rizuk took three long steps to the wall and touched a spot that didn’t look any different to me.  I heard two chimes, the second higher than the first, and the hatch we’d come in slid open, half to either side.  Uncurling my fingers from the armrests, I pushed myself up and followed him to the opening.  Blue sky, waving grass, and our green minivan parked in the almost-shade of a tall maple.

I hopped to the ground, three feet apparently not worth a ramp when you’re seven or eight feet tall, and ran to the van.  Sharon opened the door and I stepped into a rib-squeezing hug.  She kissed me hard then leaned into my chest.  “It’s real.”

“And then some.”

Kids’ voices spilled out of the back seat, a chorus of, “Daddy!”  Martin leaned forward.  “That was totally awesome!”

Still holding Sharon, I ducked down to make eye contact.  “Dude, you haven’t seen anything yet.  Everybody out of the van, we’re going for a ride.”

Trust is hard.  But once you’re there, you might as well go all the way.

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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To Haiku or Not to Haiku?

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If it’s not the question, at least it’s a question.

For reasons known to only my subconscious, I’ve been writing a lot of haiku lately, and I’ve decided to focus the efforts into a pair of poetry projects.  Some of the haiku I’ve been posted, one per day, to Twitter and Facebook, under the #dailyhaiku hashtag.  Yes, strictly speaking they’re not all haiku.  Some are senryu, some are scifiku (or scifaiku, but I don’t think the ‘a’ is really necessary and I want to pronounce it differently), and some are, well, I’ll get to that in a minute.

Crash course:

Haiku = traditional form of Japanese poetry consisting of 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively, 17 total.  Haiku need to contain a seasonal or natural reference and often catch a single thought and/or image.  There’s a lot more to it than that if you look at things in depth, and there’s been a lot written on the subject in many languages.

Senryu = traditional form of Japanese poetry consisting of 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively, 17 total.  Wait, what?  Isn’t that haiku?  Well, yes, but where haiku looks at the natural world, senryu have to do with human affairs.  Again, I’m oversimplifying, but I’m not an expert.  Many people lump them together, anyway, as evidenced by a quick Google returning 13.8 million hits for haiku but only 338,000 for senryu.

Veering back from the tangent, 3 lines, 17 syllables.  Well, in Japanese.  When you’re looking at a purely syllabic structure and porting it from one language to another, the relative information density of both languages comes into play.  English is, apparently, a little denser than Japanese.  You can have fewer than 17 syllables; 13-15 gives about the same information content in English as 17 does in Japanese, but anything up to 17 is fine.  (Russian, I’ve read, is a little less dense than Japanese, and haiku tend to the 20-21 syllable mark.)

Clear?  Ish?

So I’m calling this project Daily Haiku.  Now, a nice numerical conjunction would be to think of that 17 classical syllables and write one each day for 17 days.  But that seems a little short for a project, doesn’t it?  Well, how about for 17*17 days (289)?  Less than a year, but still a fairly hefty project, even if each individual piece of it doesn’t take very long (a couple have taken only as long to compose as they’ve taken to type).  And yes, because I am a total geek, I did stop to figure out what 1717 days works out to, and the universe will be cold and dark long, long before that many years have passed (2.266 x 1018), so no.

A non-17-syllable example from the 13th of April:

The sump pump runs hard

Trying to keep my basement

Above water

That’s haiku project Number 1, which began on April 1st this year and will theoretically end on January 14th 2012, if I feel like stopping.  Haiku project Number 2, The Star Trek Haiku Cycle, comes under the heading of Scifiku (Scifiku, by the way, to my mind constitutes a sub-class of senryu.  SCIence FIction haiKU, or SCIence Fiction hAIKU, depending on how you want to spell it).  I’m writing a single haiku for each episode and movie of the original Star Trek series.  Yes, really.  And why not?  I’m a trekkie (and you should be, too).

Will I move on to the other Star Trek series when I’m done?  Well, the animated series, probably, but if you stop to add things up across all of the shows, there are 725 episodes and 11 movies.  That’s a much bigger project.  We’ll see.

It’s hard to encapsulate an entire episode in three lines, but you can grab a moment or a concept.  Some are obvious, some not.  But see if you can guess what episode this is from:

Not morg, not imorg

Brain and brain, what is brain?

Who can say?

Haiku anyone?

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Turn the World Around, Part 3

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Chapter 3

We come from the water

Living in the water

Go back to the water

Turn the world around

“Let me get this straight.” Sharon’s voice, flattened a little by the cell phone, held that tight edge she used when holding her temper or trying not to panic.  “The aliens have landed, which I actually believe because it’s on everything but a couple of the kids’ channels, and they want your help to negotiate a peace treaty with other aliens.  Tell me why again.”

“Earth is a pre-interstellar culture with no previous extra-terrestrial contact, so there’s no way we can have any interest picking the winner. We’re neutral ground.”

“I can poke lots of holes in that.  Why you?”

Looks from the captain and ambassador didn’t help me.  I couldn’t read the expression on either face, or their body language.  How much human communication was non-verbal?  Both expressions looked blank to my human eyes.  Maybe mine did to them, too.  That would be good right now.  “I think, well, because I was there.”

She stayed quiet a lot longer than any normal conversational pause, long enough that I started to worry.  “Sharon?”

“Um, I don’t suppose the aliens have access to cable or satellite TV?  There’s another ship landing.”

I pulled the phone a few inches away from my mouth.  “Can you tap into satellite communications?  She says there’s another ship.”

Captain Razush nodded once, his sharp chin splitting the air.  “We are aware.  It is the Asoolianne.”  But he whispered to his wrist and one wall of the small room turned into a TV, view screen, whatever, and it thrilled my Canadian soul that they picked Newsworld.  No sound so no reporters’ voice, but, “Live from somewhere unpronounceable in China,” stood out in the standard CBC font above the headline ticker.

The Shalash ship had descended like a giant bird of prey.  The new vessel flowed from sky to ground like a blob of honey sliding down the outside of the jar, except it was dull orange.  I had a hard time focusing on any part of the ship, even after it settled into the grassy field, and a harder time trying to define its shape.  Long and thin, lumpy and bubbly, it had bulges in the centre and at one end.  This was an interstellar warship?

“Earth to Ian.”

“Huh?  What?  Sharon?”  Had she said something before?

“What are you doing?”

“Umm.  Watching the other ship land.”  Razush and Mahyul ignored the Asoolianne ship–they’d seen plenty of them before, I guessed–and stared at me instead.  Not exactly the most comfortable gaze I’d ever been under.  “Sharon, are you okay with this?  I’m pretty sure I can still say no but thanks for the opportunity.  They can put me back somewhere quiet and out of the way.”

She didn’t say anything for what felt like a long time.  “Ian this is the biggest thing that could ever happen to anyone.  You’d never forgive me if I asked you to back out now.”

“Of course I would.  It would just take a week or two.”

She laughed.  It didn’t quite take the edge from her voice, but I was glad to hear it.  The two Shalash kept staring at me.  The weight of the combined stare finally tripped a switch inside my brain and I jumped into high gear.  “Get the kids from school.”

“What?”

“Throw some clothes in a suitcase and pick up the kids.”

“Why?”

“Go somewhere.  Not to your parents.”

“Ian!  Slow down.”

“Sorry.”  I sighed, licked my lips.  “Part of the job the Shalash have asked me to do is talk to the earth government representatives.  The media will figure things out pretty quick.  When that happens, you’re going to be very popular.”

“Shalash?”

“It’s what they call themselves.”  A dozen media scenarios played themselves out in my head, none of them pretty.  “Do you understand what I’m saying?”  She had to jump ahead of the situation.  I needed to find some way to let her.

“Reporters.”  How many meanings did she put in that one word?  I tried not to add any of my own.  God, should I warn my parents, too?  And Sharon’s?  Why stop there?  I should probably call everyone I’ve ever known.

“Big show under the big top.”

In my mind, I saw the look on her face as that sunk in, felt her come to a decision across the distance separating us.  “I’m packing.  Can I call you back?”

I tried to make eye contact with both aliens at the same time.  “Can my mate contact me again?”

“Mate?”  Sharon stifled a giggle, almost breaking the tension in the signal.

I lowered my voice.  “Their word.”

Razush nodded.  The gesture surprised me even as I realized he’d done it before.  Was it something we shared or a conscious effort on his part?  “We will allow your communication device to function until it becomes an inconvenience.”

I focused back on Sharon.  “Translation:  until the media works things out.”  And maybe I had a better idea to fool them.  “You can call for now, but I’ll probably call you first.  Pack fast.”

“Already have the suitcases out.  Love you.”

“Love you, too.”  Usually an automatic response, but not so automatic today.  I didn’t want to think about what I’d just done to her stress level, and how much higher it would get before long.  And what about my stress level?

I snapped the phone closed and stuck it back in my pocket, trying to ignore the Asoolianne ship as I sat back down.  It took a moment to pull in breath for the words I needed.  “Ambassador, Captain, I consent to the offer of the position of Intermediary for the Shalash completely and for as long as you need me.”  My mouth was suddenly dry and swallowing didn’t help.  I needed to start the negotiations early.  “But I need one small thing first.”

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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 2

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Chapter 2

“–right.  Um, yeah.  Not what I was expecting.”  No transition, no warning.  Also no October breeze, no lapping waves, and no horde of excited people about to run up behind me. Nothing.  I stood in a small pink room with the three aliens.  Shalash.  I needed to start thinking the name.

Mouth pressed flat, the middle alien cocked its head to the left.  “You are not claustrophobic?”

I shook my head.  “The room’s not that small.”

“You find the colour distressing?”

“No.  Odd, maybe, but not distressing.”

My eyes roamed the walls of the tiny room.  Soft light came from the ceiling itself, but I couldn’t see anything like a control panel or a man in a red jumpsuit.  How could I help thinking about Star Trek when I’d just been beamed up?  “How –”

“It is controlled from elsewhere.”

I looked around again.  The room stayed small and pink.

It nodded.  “We are aboard our battleship, yes.”  Should think of it as a he?  It seemed dangerous to assign genders or anything else yet.  My mind grabbed the word ‘battleship’ and I hoped it would turn out to be something missing in translation.  Except he, or it, didn’t seem to need translation.  The Shalash leader spoke English.  That scared me a bit and at the same time made the experience a little surreal.

I turned my body a little to follow it, or him, through the door and the other two Shalash fell into step behind me.  The walking pace had to be a courtesy to my short legs since I didn’t have any trouble keeping up and not having to hurry gave me a chance to look around as we walked a winding path.  A few open doors flashed by, tantalizing glimpses into alien rooms, most with one or more Shalash inside.  None worked at anything identifiable in those fleeting glimpses and only a few bothered to look up as we passed, as if a human wandering around was normal.

Was there a point in trying to keep track of turns through the tight corridors?  Well, not that tight, really.  I could easily have walked beside someone else my size without either of us scraping the walls, but the space still made me thankful I wasn’t claustrophobic.  No one spoke but my brain churned too much to stay quiet.  I cleared my throat.  “The, um, walls.  They’re very pink.”

It, he didn’t look at me.  I settled on the masculine pronoun to clear my own confusion, good until proven otherwise.  “They are.  The designers felt something neutral to be appropriate.  My preference would be for a different neutral, but I was not consulted.”  His head bobbed to one side.  A shrug, maybe?  “I understand every ship in the class is a slightly different interior shade.”

“Of pink.”

“Of pink.  Unfortunate, but true.”

“And you obviously haven’t had time to repaint anything.”

“Too much work to be done.”

“No battle ready ship ever passed inspection.”  Sometimes I really wished I could keep thoughts to myself.  I didn’t mean for the words to be part of our conversation, but maybe battleship hadn’t been a mistranslation.

We stopped.  Well, he stopped and I managed not to trip over him.  He looked down at me, a strangely human frown pulling its eyebrows together.  “I do not understand the statement.”

Next time I’d bite my tongue.  Really, I would.  “Umm.  Old human military saying.”  I think.  At least, I’d read it somewhere.  “‘No battle-ready ship ever passed inspection.  No inspection-ready ship is ever prepared for battle.’  You’re unlikely to be polished and ready for a fight at the same time.”

He stayed locked his eyes on mine for several seconds.  “Interesting, and possibly applicable.”  Using his entire arm, he pointed at the doorway we’d stopped beside.  “A more comfortable place for discussion.”

The seat facing the doorway held another Shalash who stood as we stepped into the room.  My brain tried to label this one female, but without the obvious human anatomical differences, it was hard to decide why.  The two who hadn’t spoken stayed outside the door and I finally clued in.  I’d had a security escort, not part of the official first contact or whatever conversation I was about to have, but present to protect everyone else from the potentially dangerous alien.

My speaking escort gestured to one unoccupied chair and moved to stand behind the other.  “Introductions are due.  I am Kanid sen Razush, Captain of this vessel, the Shalan Triumphant.”

I tried to sit.  Comfortable, meaning a chair too tall and skinny for my human-sized ass.  I knew I carried thirty pounds more than the supposed ideal for my height, but the chair squeezed those extra pounds and all the wiggling I wanted to do didn’t make much difference.  At least it was beige, along with its two mates and the small, triangular table, but my feet didn’t touch the floor.  Deck.

The other Shalash pressed her hands together, one on top of the other, and nodded.  “I am Anissal wektun Mahyul.  Your language inadequately renders my title as Ambassador.”

Very ambassadorial.  “Um.”  Then again, I felt the inadequacy of my command of English at that moment, and of my current career.  “I’m Ian Cotta, Data Analyst.”

They looked at each other, then back at me, and the ambassador clichéd.  “We have come to Earth in search of peace.”

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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 1

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Chapter 1

We come from the fire

Living in the fire

Go back to the fire

Turn the world around

Silver and gold, the firebird pushed down through the clouds, reflecting enough light to make it hard to look at, even through a tight squint with one hand blocking the sun.  I couldn’t make out much detail, but the brilliant, smooth curves gave me an impression of speed beyond anything familiar.  No human hands had drawn those lines and no computer had rendered them for a video game.  Jerking my earbuds free, I watched it settle into the water and tried to keep my mouth from hanging open.

I pictured the whole world coming to a stop a little at a time as the news and images spread.  Every person on Earth with access to TV, radio, or the internet would have their world view shattered and expanded by this one simple event.  Confirming wildest dreams or deepest nightmares, one thought expressed in a multitude of ways: we are not alone.

And then I was not alone.

On the edge of the jetty, in a direct line between my eyes and the spectacular vessel, the air shimmered for a few seconds as three figures took shape.  Human.  Well, human-ish.  Elves.  The word leapt into my head.  Elves, but taller and thinner.  Not one of the three stick figures stood less than seven feet tall.  They each had straw blonde hair, tied back to pull it away from long, thin, and very, very pale faces.  I looked at their clothing, platinum and silver spun into fabric, much too light for early fall in southern Ontario.

The elf in the centre–the shortest, a small, helpful voice in the back of my head supplied–raised a hand with four triple-jointed fingers and a thumb stubby by comparison, palm outward.  “Be not afraid.”  The voice wouldn’t have raised eyebrows coming from a four-year-old girl or one of Santa’s helium-filled helpers.

I’ve always been too quick with a smartass comment and it’s gotten me into trouble a few times when I didn’t manage to censor myself in time.  Face to face with space elves, self control was in no way on option, but it took me a couple of seconds to manage the major accomplishment of using my voice.  “I’m not afraid.”

The hand lowered.  Vulcan eyebrows pushed deep into a high forehead.  Weird.  Its head couldn’t be more than two-thirds as wide as mine.  “Are you not?”

I shook my head.  “If you’d intended to hurt or abduct me, this is a ridiculously public way to go about it.  Why tell the whole world?”  Maybe it took me a few seconds to get going, but I’d make up for lost time.  Was first contact supposed to feature a smartass office worker on his lunch break?

“I agree.”  A short response, license to continue digging the hole.

“Stunned is a better word.  Probably why I haven’t managed something profound for the biggest moment in human history.  I hope it’s not too late to say welcome to Earth.”  I barely stopped myself from adding, “Home of the Whopper.”  I had no idea where that came from.  Well, no, I knew exactly where it was from, but why it popped into my head at that moment would probably be a mystery for the rest of my life.

The lead elf nodded.  “It is not, and I am sure you will think of something suitable to tell your historians.”  It met the gaze of each of its companions before making eye contact with me again.  Did some communication pass there?  Telepathy would be nice and advanced, I supposed, not to mention scary.  What would they read from my mind?  “We are the Shalash.  We hope our stay on your world will be brief, but while it lasts we require an Intermediary between our peoples.  Will you consent?”

Was that stone under my chin?  I didn’t get my mouth closed fast enough to prevent, “Is the Pope Catholic?” from sliding out.  Thanks, Dad.

“I do not know.”

My brain really needed to catch up and throttle back my mouth.  “I’m sorry.  What I mean is yes, I will certainly consent.”  Job?  I’d find another one.  Family?  That brought me up short.  No one in my life would grudge me this opportunity, but it’s always best to keep your spouse in the loop.  “I should ask what’s involved.”

“The Shalash will speak to humanity through you.  Your life will be left as intact as is possible.”  It cocked its head to one side.  “You have a mate?  Offspring?”

“I do.”  The Shalash would speak to humanity through me?   Sharon and the kids would completely understand my jumping at this.  Well, except Sarah, but she was four and wouldn’t notice as long as I wasn’t gone much more than usual.

“If you need to confer—”

“I can do that by phone, but I’d like to know what to tell her.  My mate.”

“Of course.”  It looked behind me.  “Yet this is not the best place for us to confer.  A crowd gathers.”

I glanced over my shoulder.  At least a hundred people stood around the end of the jetty, threatening to spill out onto it but with no one quite ready to approach yet.  Soon, though.  Who could resist?  There would be more, a lot more, and fast.  I turned back as it whispered something to its wrist.  “You’re probably–”

Index * 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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Rigor Amortis

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How have I not posted about this?  I’ve sure tweeted it and that shows up on FB, too, but there needs to be a blog post.

“And Yet In Death” will appear in Rigor Amortis, edited by Erik Holt and Jayme Gates, an anthology of undead love in flash form, plus at least one poem (“And Yet In Death” is a sonnet).  It’s going to be published by Absolute Xpress, possibly as soon as early October.   Congratulations to everyone in the volume and I, for one, can’t wait to see how it comes out.

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