Small Realities

Inside the mind of Lance Schonberg

Turn the World Around, Part 21

Chapter 19

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

But it had been a near thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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