Turn the World Around, Part 32

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Chapter 27

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 28

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

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

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

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

Chapter 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Branch Santa, Part 7

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Most meetings happened on the workshop floor, out of the way but with activity swirling around them.  Once in a while events called for something more formal.  Once in a long while.  Frank thought back to the last time they’d used room, three years ago, or was it four?  A multimedia presentation on, well he couldn’t remember exactly, but he’d been impressed at the time.

Today they needed the room.  Really, they needed three rooms just for the elves in attendance and the technical department polished the PA system so every pointed ear in every building of the facility could hear the announcement.  Tonight, in just a few minutes, there would be two Santas.

Frank did his best to not smile when they got to the boardroom.  Standing room only, and no surprise.  Every department head had a seat, as did Jan and Eugene, but about three-quarters of the managers and supervisors jammed into the room didn’t.

The air conditioning system, never before used in the arctic climate, worked hard to keep the temperature reasonable, but even at elf size so many bodies packed together generated a lot of heat.  Sweat beaded on Frank’s forehead by the time he and the big guy squeezed to the front of the room.

Eugenepressed a button on the conference caller and gave Santa two thumbs up.

Santa cleared his throat.  “Thank you for coming, everyone.  I’ll try to keep this short.  We’ve got a lot to do in the next thirteen days and it’s hot in here.”  He looked around the room and smiled.  Some of the elves smiled back.  One or two looked ready to pass out from the heat.  The five finalists for the new top job all beamed like they had it sewn up.  “Since we first found out about the Lunar Colony, everyone who works here has given tremendous extra effort to help get through a difficult phase in our growth and I want you all to know how much I appreciate your work.”  A few elves started to applaud but Santa held up his hands.  “Let me finish, please.

“At every step along the way, one elf has shown himself able to rise to any challenge, conquer any obstacle, deal with any difficulty.  Without this elf, the Lunar North Pole Facility would never have been operational in time for this Christmas.  With some regret and much pride, I can truthfully say it will be hard to lose him.  You all know him well.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the new Santa Claus, Lunar Branch:  Frank Silverbell.”

Applause roared through the suddenly too-small space.  It lasted fifteen or twenty seconds before a voice, its owner sufficiently recovered, cut through the sound.  “WHAT!”

The applause faded quickly, but the grins didn’t.  Shoe and cap bells jingled with stifled laughter.  The five supposed candidates for the job quietly congratulated each other on keeping the secret.  Frank stared up at Santa.  He quivered with some elfin combination of anger and shock.  His current position was stressful enough, thank you very much, and he hadn’t aspired to the big chair.  When Frank managed to speak, he quivered with barely restrained emotion.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me, Chief.  I can’t run the place.  It’ll blow up, burn down, fall over!  The Moon will fly out of its orbit!  Bad things will happen!”

Frank’s arms waved over his head with each phrase and Santa had to laugh, a deep rumbling belly laugh.  “Frank, for the past couple of years you’ve been the proverbial snowstorm of activity.  You’ve gotten things going up there without letting anything slide down here.  I think you’ve been on nearly every transport shuttle, including the first.  Details, problems, production issues, all taken care of.  Operations as smooth as normal.  Maybe smoother.”

“But, Chief-”

Santa put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, silencing the elf before he had a chance to get rolling.  He smiled and spoke just loud enough to reach Frank’s ears.  “Frank.  Take the job.”

Frank took a deep breath through his nose.  The chance to design and guide a new legend.  Being Santa on the Moon would never be like it was on Earth.  It would start off small and new and wonderful and grow into something bigger and different and still wonderful.  Could he be Santa?  Was he ready?  No, how could you ever be ready?  Maybe he could grow into it.

Frank looked up at his boss.  He trusted Santa’s judgment and the old man said he was ready.  Could he fail to live up to that?  The left side of his mouth quirked up.  “You’re sure about this, Chief?”

Santa’s smile got even bigger and the twinkle in his eye might have been an elfin tear.  “No doubt in my mind, Frank.”

Frank looked around the crowded room, filled with sweating elves.  Everyone smiled and more than a few nodded.  Hans gave him two thumbs up.  Jan and Eugene sat at the long table with self-satisfied smiles on their faces, probably thinking he’d be easy to maneuver into special projects.  He looked back to Santa.  “Well, I don’t suppose I’ve backed down from a challenge yet, even if I like to make a production out of it sometimes.  I’d hate for this to be the first.”

Santa put a hand on Frank’s shoulder and faced the crowd.  “Once again, ladies and gentlemen, I present the new Santa Claus, Lunar Branch: Frank Silverbell.”

More applause and this time it lasted a lot longer.  Frank wore a goofy grin and didn’t try to think up any kind of acceptance speech.  “All right, let’s get started, then.  Christmas Eve is only thirteen days away and there’s still a lot of work to do.”

“One little detail first, Frank.”  Santa nodded to Jan and Eugene.  “You’ve got to look the part.”

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Branch Santa, Part 7

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Most meetings happened on the workshop floor, out of the way but with activity swirling around them.  Once in a while events called for something more formal.  Once in a long while.  Frank thought back to the last time they’d used room, three years ago, or was it four?  A multimedia presentation on, well he couldn’t remember exactly, but he’d been impressed at the time.

Today they needed the room.  Really, they needed three rooms just for the elves in attendance and the technical department polished the PA system so every pointed ear in every building of the facility could hear the announcement.  Tonight, in just a few minutes, there would be two Santas.

Frank did his best to not smile when they got to the boardroom.  Standing room only, and no surprise.  Every department head had a seat, as did Jan and Eugene, but about three-quarters of the managers and supervisors jammed into the room didn’t.

The air conditioning system, never before used in the arctic climate, worked hard to keep the temperature reasonable, but even at elf size so many bodies packed together generated a lot of heat.  Sweat beaded on Frank’s forehead by the time he and the big guy squeezed to the front of the room.

Eugene pressed a button on the conference caller and gave Santa two thumbs up.

Santa cleared his throat.  “Thank you for coming, everyone.  I’ll try to keep this short.  We’ve got a lot to do in the next thirteen days and it’s hot in here.”  He looked around the room and smiled.  Some of the elves smiled back.  One or two looked ready to pass out from the heat.  The five finalists for the new top job all beamed like they had it sewn up.  “Since we first found out about the Lunar Colony, everyone who works here has given tremendous extra effort to help get through a difficult phase in our growth and I want you all to know how much I appreciate your work.”  A few elves started to applaud but Santa held up his hands.  “Let me finish, please.

“At every step along the way, one elf has shown himself able to rise to any challenge, conquer any obstacle, deal with any difficulty.  Without this elf, the Lunar North Pole Facility would never have been operational in time for this Christmas.  With some regret and much pride, I can truthfully say it will be hard to lose him.  You all know him well.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the new Santa Claus, Lunar Branch:  Frank Silverbell.”

Applause roared through the suddenly too-small space.  It lasted fifteen or twenty seconds before a voice, its owner sufficiently recovered, cut through the sound.  “WHAT!”

The applause faded quickly, but the grins didn’t.  Shoe and cap bells jingled with stifled laughter.  The five supposed candidates for the job quietly congratulated each other on keeping the secret.  Frank stared up at Santa.  He quivered with some elfin combination of anger and shock.  His current position was stressful enough, thank you very much, and he hadn’t aspired to the big chair.  When Frank managed to speak, he quivered with barely restrained emotion.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me, Chief.  I can’t run the place.  It’ll blow up, burn down, fall over!  The Moon will fly out of its orbit!  Bad things will happen!”

Frank’s arms waved over his head with each phrase and Santa had to laugh, a deep rumbling belly laugh.  “Frank, for the past couple of years you’ve been the proverbial snowstorm of activity.  You’ve gotten things going up there without letting anything slide down here.  I think you’ve been on nearly every transport shuttle, including the first.  Details, problems, production issues, all taken care of.  Operations as smooth as normal.  Maybe smoother.”

“But, Chief-”

Santa put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, silencing the elf before he had a chance to get rolling.  He smiled and spoke just loud enough to reach Frank’s ears.  “Frank.  Take the job.”

Frank took a deep breath through his nose.  The chance to design and guide a new legend.  Being Santa on the Moon would never be like it was on Earth.  It would start off small and new and wonderful and grow into something bigger and different and still wonderful.  Could he be Santa?  Was he ready?  No, how could you ever be ready?  Maybe he could grow into it.

Frank looked up at his boss.  He trusted Santa’s judgment and the old man said he was ready.  Could he fail to live up to that?  The left side of his mouth quirked up.  “You’re sure about this, Chief?”

Santa’s smile got even bigger and the twinkle in his eye might have been an elfin tear.  “No doubt in my mind, Frank.”

Frank looked around the crowded room, filled with sweating elves.  Everyone smiled and more than a few nodded.  Hans gave him two thumbs up.  Jan and Eugene sat at the long table with self-satisfied smiles on their faces, probably thinking he’d be easy to maneuver into special projects.  He looked back to Santa.  “Well, I don’t suppose I’ve backed down from a challenge yet, even if I like to make a production out of it sometimes.  I’d hate for this to be the first.”

Santa put a hand on Frank’s shoulder and faced the crowd.  “Once again, ladies and gentlemen, I present the new Santa Claus, Lunar Branch: Frank Silverbell.”

More applause and this time it lasted a lot longer.  Frank wore a goofy grin and didn’t try to think up any kind of acceptance speech.  “All right, let’s get started, then.  Christmas Eve is only thirteen days away and there’s still a lot of work to do.”

“One little detail first, Frank.”  Santa nodded to Jan and Eugene.  “You’ve got to look the part.”

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(Note: Branch Santa is released on http://lanceschonberg.com under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 Unported License. It can be shared, copied and distributed, but not changed or sold.)

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Turn the World Around, Part 31

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Chapter 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Branch Santa, Part 6

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Late in the afternoon of December eleventh, Santa finished the List.  He clicked the save icon and watched the progress bar creep to full.  Not quite the same as the satisfaction of checking each name with a pencil, but it saved literally tons of paper.  He shuddered to think about how many trees went into the List in the years just before the first computer version.  Bells, but what a nightmare that had been.  They’d almost gone back.

A tiny jingle preceded Frank into Santa’s office.  “Meeting room’s full.  You ready, Chief?”

Santa looked up, first at Frank then at the clock.  “I guess I am.”  He pushed away from the desk.  “Didn’t realize it was so late.”

“Plenty of time for the List, Chief.”

Santa let tiny lie pass.  Worse lay in the past but they both knew two weeks before Christmas was deep into crunch time.

Frank obviously had the same thought.  “Remember the seventies?  There were a couple of times you didn’t have the list done until the twenty-second.  We still made it through.”

Santa stood and stretched, stomach jutting forward as he arched his back.  He cricked his neck from side to side then rolled his chin shoulder to shoulder.

“Still gonna make me wait, huh?”

A chuckle slid past Santa’s lips, a lower, throatier version of the patented Ho! Ho! Ho!  “Leave me this little bit of fun.  I promise you’ll be happy with my choice.  It’s only a couple minutes more.”

Frank rolled his eyes.  “What I’d really like to know is what you threatened them with.  They’re all so tight-lipped they can barely breathe.  I can’t even get a squeak out of Hans.  He won’t always tell you what you want to know, but he’ll always tell you something.”

A louder laugh as Santa reached the door.  “I should make threats?  Now why would Santa need that kind of motivation?  Really, Frank.”

“Sure, boss, whatever you say.”

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(Note: Branch Santa is released on http://lanceschonberg.com under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 Unported License. It can be shared, copied and distributed, but not changed or sold.)

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Turn the World Around, Part 30

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Chapter 25

Do you know who I am?

Do I know who you are?

See we one another clearly?

Do we know who we are?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Antoine.”

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

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Turn the World Around, Part 30

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Chapter 25

Do you know who I am?

Do I know who you are?

See we one another clearly?

Do we know who we are?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Antoine.”

“Not yet.  Wait until morning then shower me with gifts of coffee.  Strong, black coffee.”
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Note: “Turn the World Around” is released on lanceschonberg.com under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 Unported License. It can be shared, copied and distributed in its current form, but not changed or sold.

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Branch Santa, Part 5

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Jan backed into a cavern at least a hundred metres across, leading the little tour group. “This is the hangar for the miracle of science and engineering we call Santa’s Sled.”  She stepped aside to give everyone an unimpeded view.  “And when I say Sled, what I really mean is multi-mode lunar transport shuttle.” Jan smiled, but no one except Eugene noticed.  Her words didn’t penetrate beyond ears in most cases, but she kept talking, giving important figures and technical specs, and wishing they’d come up with a cool acronym.

Sleek and powerful, it looked like a racing machine or a star fighter from some science fiction blockbuster.  Unlike the vehicle it had been named for, the Sled was completely enclosed and solid black.  Several blinking lights showed through the tinted windows.

Awareness took a long time to filter back to her audience.  “–and two full sets of maneuvering jets and rear thrusters.  The fuel supply is good for six runs pole to pole.  Oxygen recycling system can keep Santa and a crew of three elves going for up to two weeks, although you’d have to ration the food supply to make it that long and you’re never more than ten hours from rescue with the backup sled and emergency teams standing by.”  Six of the seven elves seemed suitably impressed, but Eugene didn’t really count.  He winked at her and cocked his head in Santa’s direction.  The big guy shook his head from side to side, a frown scrunching his brow.

Jan pulled something small and black from a pocket, held it above her head, and smiled with pleasure as every eye present tore itself from the Sled to fix on the object.  She waved it like a small sword.  “This is every guy elf’s dream.  With the remote, you can pilot the Sled for short distances, give verbal commands to the on board computer, and activate either of the two stealth systems.”  Jan pointed the remote over her shoulder and pressed a button.  Jaws dropped.  The Sled disappeared, replaced by the real thing – red paint, gold trim, leather seats, silver bells and runners.

And reindeer, nine of them hitched to the sled, shuffling and puffing and twitching and doing all of the things reindeer do when they’re waiting to go somewhere.

“It’s a holographic projection, of course.” Eugene walked up to Rudolph.  The reindeer ignored him completely as he reached up and poked a finger through the famous nose.  “As long as you don’t try to touch them, they look absolutely real.  Very cool.

“The second stealth system is a bit different, an old standby if you’ve ever watched any scifi.”  A few quick steps hid him behind the sled.  “Go ahead Jan.”

Jan pressed a different button.  The reindeer disappeared in a shimmering heat mirage to reveal Eugene.  The white-clad elf waved.  “Same technology, different direction.  Still works as long as you don’t actually touch the sled.”  He reached out and knocked on something no one could see.  Three sharp taps produced three ripples that spread out several feet from his hand but faded in less than a second.

Jan clicked again and air shimmered, becoming the Sled again.  “Thanks for the demo,Eugene.”  She tucked the remote into her pocket.  “And that, gentlemen, concludes our tour of the Lunar North Pole facility.  We’re happy to take any questions you might have, but there’s a lot to be done before Christmas Eve.”

Santa cleared his throat.  “There certainly is, here and back home.  I think we can safely save any leftover questions for e-mail.  Thank you very much, Jan and Eugene.  We appreciate your taking the time from very busy schedules.”  His face lit with a smile.  “And I very much appreciate the reindeer.”

The two R&D elves grinned back.  “You bet, Chief!”

As he turned, Santa’s eyes swept across the five candidates.  “The shuttle home leaves in about three hours.  Relax and wander around a little, but don’t be late for the return flight.  My schedule doesn’t have any room for delay.”  He crooked a finger at Frank and the two of them took a few steps toward the sled as the rest of the little group dispersed.

“What’s up, Chief?”

“I’m going to stay in the forward cabin for the trip back and try to get some sleep.”  The jolly old fellow looked around, making sure no one could hear him.  Then he leaned in close anyway.  “Give them some homework.  I’d like their impression of the facility and what they would do in the job with the given resources.”

The elf winked.  “No problem, Chief.  When should they hand it in by?”

A deep, wicked, and very non-traditional chuckle slipped out of the beard.  “That’s where the stress comes in.  E-mail in my inbox by the time I get to my office after we land.  You can review them, too.  See how they match up with reality.”  The smile faded, not quite disappearing.  “What do you think, Frank?  How are things looking for C-Night?”

“Not nearly as rough as it looks.”  He waved at the pile of equipment on one side of the cavern and at the pile of rubble on the other.  “Systems are all in place for support, living quarters, and family space.  Toy manufacturing facilities are a long way from complete, but we’re shipping up from Earth this year, and probably next.  I don’t want to say it’s going to be smooth sailing, but I can’t see any more major hurdles.  The Sled was the last big one, and boy was I glad to see the reindeer.”

Santa’s grin flared up.  “Surprised, though.”

“I’ll say.  You could have hung ornaments from my teeth.  But it looked good, really good.  Jan and Eugene really came through.”

“Hmm.  They certainly did.  Now I know what all of the electronics on my sled the last two years were for.”

Frank nodded.  “The two of them should get a really big bonus out of this, Chief.  And some time off.”

Santa glanced over to the corner where two crates served as a desk.  The two huddled over a laptop, whispering to each other and pointing at things on the screen.  “You’re absolutely right, Frank.  Offer them a nice long vacation early in the new year and don’t be surprised if they take it together.”

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(Note: Branch Santa is released on http://lanceschonberg.com under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 Unported License. It can be shared, copied and distributed, but not changed or sold.)

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Turn the World Around, Part 29

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Chapter 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 24

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

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

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

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

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

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Branch Santa, Part 4

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Christmas came and Christmas went.  Three times. Halfway to the fourth the first shuttle of colonists left the orbital transfer station for the Moon and thirty-seven families set up housekeeping in ‘pre-prepared dwelling units’, a nice phrase translating to furnished caves.  In a little twist of that old elfin magic, every one of those families came from a cultural background with Santa Claus.  Thirty-seven sets of parents brought fifty-nine children and twenty-two of those kids were young enough or imaginative enough to still believe in Santa Claus.

Even with another hundred families scheduled for next year and projecting high than averge birth rates, the soon-to-be-promoted Lunar Santa would have a very light delivery schedule for decades.  A cushy job for the first little while.

Two dozen polar launches took supplies and construction crews to the Moon.  Frank made the round trip five times and Santa managed one each year.  Delays and problems put the schedule just far enough behind to make the deadline a challenge, but the Lunar North Pole Village would be ready on time, probably.  But what was Christmas without a little bit of stress?

The reindeer problem remained a problem:  reindeer had to breathe.  Even if none of the colonists ever caught a glimpse, there was an image to maintain.  Eugene and Jan hoped for some flash of brilliance.

To Santa’s surprise and amusement, Frank’s apparent stress level dropped as the project moved ahead.  Between supervising regular operations, arms-length overseeing of lunar construction, and interviewing potential Santas, Frank put in hundred-hour work weeks, but seemed more relaxed than he had in years.  Luna-Ho pushed him above some critical point and Frank became an elf again.

On August third, Frank and Santa met to discuss Santa search, and Frank spread a fistful of folders across the desk.  “These are our final seven.”  He leaned back in his chair.  “My top three are Mike, Hans, and Xavier, but I think we should put all seven through the full process.  Nelson and Xian can work things into your schedule.”

Santa waved a hand at the files.  “I’ve been through all of the notes and results so far.  Let Mario and Nelson do their thing.  But you’ve gone to a lot of trouble not to have favourites before now.  Talk to me.”

“Well, aside from the work ethic, which you’ve gotta have around this place, the overall jolliness, and the drive to make things work, they’ve all got some little trait that sticks out in my head somehow.  Mike is a natural born list maker and he seems to be pretty good at checking things off.  Even with all the high tech, it’s still a big chunk of your time through the fall.

“Hans has the bowl full of jelly thing down pat and a solid mind for details, almost more than anyone else around here and definitely more than anyone who applied or had their name thrown into the hat by nomination.

“Xavier uses his brain more than most elves.  It’s a good quality for anyone to have and it’s gotta be important in a Santa.  He doesn’t give the impression of being ambitious, but he never says no to a challenge.”  Frank grinned.  “HR flagged him for management a while back, pending the appropriate opening.”

“I get the feeling he’s your favorite.”

Hold up his hands, Frank shook his head.  “I don’t want to influence your decision, Chief.  You asked, but I really think you need a feel for the full breadth of available talent.”

“Don’t worry, Frank, I’ll give everyone the consideration they deserve.”  The jolly old elf flashed his Number Two a winning smile.

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