“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–”
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.
“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.”
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.”
“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?”
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.by