Sharonstood on the other side of the shuttle’s airlock door when it opened.
It had been a quiet trip back with Ambassador Mahyul refusing to speak to or even look at me during the flight. She stood before I even realized the shuttle had landed and blew past me to get out first, destroying any remaining hope of conversation I might have had. I got to the hatch in time to see my wife smooth out a frown and turn a smile on me. She stood there alone, the ambassador’s retreating footsteps still echoing down the corridor.
“What happened?”Sharonfolded me into a hug as if I’d been gone for weeks. “Half the media is reporting a complete breakdown of talks while the other half wants everything to be over so we can get back to normal already.” I returned the fierce hug. What did my near omniscient wife think of the situation? Sometimes I wondered how she could stand to watch the news from either side, but she had this weird ability to figure out major events as much by what went unreported as by what the talking heads said. She was the one who ought to go into politics, if Antoine ever asked, except she’s probably too outspokenly honest.
“I don’t know.” I dropped one arm to slip around her shoulders and letSharonstart walking the path back to our quarters, or the park, or wherever she wanted to take me. With a few exceptions, we’d long had more or less free run of the ship andSharonhad a much better sense of direction than I had, a much better sense of most things, really. She’d guide me back to Commander Rizuk and the kids–even odds that he had them at the park–or back to our cabin to talk about what I needed to know of the media play. I didn’t worry so much about the kids as I used to. Rizuk was a careful guardian and in the past few months, Martin had picked up far more Shalash than my embarrassing French. His sisters weren’t far behind. “They followed the script until it was time to break for lunch, then everything blew up.”
Nodding, she turned us left from one thin corridor into another. “I gathered that much from the video everyone is playing. Without your commentary, it is a bit ambiguous, but it’s easy to assume anger.”
I told her about Riptalektik’fa’s apparent fatigue, the insults, the tempers, the closed ears and minds. “It’s the last thing I expected.”
Sharonelbowed me in the ribs. Her lips twitched into a crooked grin as she looked up. “You’ve been enlisted to help negotiate the end to an interstellar war. You expected it to be easy?”
I snorted. “No.” But the thought stuck in my head. Maybe I had. Aliens came to me for help and on some level I figured I’d solve it like I had just about everything else in my life, without thinking about it too much and getting it right the first time. But I’d never tried to do anything difficult before. Not really. It occurred to me that maybe I liked easy things so I tried to make everything easy, and this wasn’t. It hadn’t been all that easy so far, really, had it? But I suddenly realized that the easy part was probably behind me. All the talk of so much work ahead wasn’t just talk. We’d have to work at this. A lot. “I just didn’t expect things to fall apart on the first day of negotiations.”
Sharondidn’t press the issue and I didn’t keep track of the route she picked through the corridors, letting my mind wander a bit as she took me for a walk. Remarkably patient woman, I didn’t know if she wanted to talk about something or thought I did, but she let me find my own mental path back to the surface.
What I did notice walking that path was that on the surface nothing seemed different on the ship. Any of the Shalash crew we passed acknowledged us as always, with the typical nods, slight bows, and occasional spoken greetings. Not one crew member we passed showed any outward sign of worry or even mild concern over the talks. But were their spines stiffer? Their muscles tighter? My own point about body language came back to bite me in the ass. How would I know? The Shalash kept an excellent lockdown on their emotions to the point they would have done well cast as Vulcans, but they talked to each other and the battleship wasn’t so big that rumours wouldn’t fly through it. Either there weren’t any rumours yet, which didn’t work for me for a lot of reasons, or there was no need for concern, which I found equally hard to believe. And in fifteen minutes of walking the Triumphant’s corridors, I didn’t see any signs of imminent departure, not that I’d necessarily recognize them, but I still felt like the Shalash didn’t want to leave just yet. They all knew something was wrong, but also that it wasn’t wrong enough to start shooting again.
“I’ve got to talk to Ambassador Mahyul.” I don’t know why it suddenly seemed so important. Had Mahyul had enough time to cool off? Had I?
Sharonsqueezed my waist. “You need to relax a bit first and we need to talk about something.”
“Does it involve me relaxing?”
“It’s not on par with an interstellar peace treaty, but it is important. To us.”
I laughed. “Martin’s birthday, you mean. And it’s completely on par with an interstellar peace treaty.”
We turned left and she nodded. “It is to him. Ten is a huge birthday.” She sighed. “This has been an incredible experience for the kids, but it’s not exactly a normal life. They don’t get a lot of socialization except with the Shalash kids on the ship. A few escorted visits home or to see their grandparents here and there. Martin was used to seeing Aaron every day, not once or twice a month with photographers lurking outside. The girls miss their friends, too. I think it’s why they all end up in our bed every night.”
“They used to do that before.”
“Not every night. Well, Sarah almost, but she’s not quite five.”
I sighed, not mentioning that it had to be hard onSharon, too, but she was specifically not saying it so I couldn’t. I thought about the problem almost every day now, in odd moments or in between conversations involved in my job. My job, to save the universe. But not at the expense of my kids’ mental health. Every dad wants his kids to have a happy, normal childhood, but I’d tossed that out the window in favour of a spectacular one when the Shalash came. I’m not sure how much farther from normal we could get than living on an alien space ship floating in Lake Ontario unless the ship suddenly took off for destinations unknown. It occurred to me that things probably wouldn’t approach normal for us again until at least a year after the Shalash left.
No, things would probably never be quite normal again. They’d always be the kids who lived with aliens. How much guilt was I going to carry for that? “At home or on the ship, he’s going to want Mishuk there and at least a couple of the other kids on board. Plus Aaron and friends from school he barely sees any more. Could be interesting.”
“Communication won’t be much of a problem. Mishuk has as much English as Martin does Shalash. No interpreter required anymore and Mishuk is pretty intelligible even if he does sound like a gerbil on helium.” She paused for several steps. “Do the Shalash have birthday parties?”
I shrugged. “I haven’t heard of any happening on board. Birthdays, certainly. Whether they’re marked or celebrated in any way, I’ve got no idea.”
“Could we bill it as a cultural exchange?”
Chewing my lower lip, I nodded. “I think that might work. Martin will have a party. Sarah, too. I’d like to hope this will all be over before Emily’s next birthday.” I doubted it even though the landings had come just a few weeks after her last one. “But I don’t want her to feel left out. We’ll do an early one if we have to. How we’re going to arrange those parties, I don’t know yet, but I think it gives me an in to talk to the Ambassador after dinner.” I looked down atSharonto find her smiling up at me.
“Maybe over dinner?” She turned us down the corridor that would lead us to Mahyul’s quarters. “The kids would love it.”
I squeezed her against me. “You really are the other half of my brain, aren’t you?”
“Mm-hmm. And everything else.”
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