Small Realities

Inside the mind of Lance Schonberg

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Turn the World Around, Part 33

A little late as I apparently I just saved a draft instead of setting up an auto-post. If you’ve been waiting for a little denouement, I’m sorry. But here it is.

Chapter 30

Heart is of the river

Body is the mountain

Spirit is the sunlight

Turn the world around

We are of the spirit

Truly of the spirit

Only can the spirit

Turn the world around

Paper had significance for everyone.  That was something we all had in common.

Electronic copies of the Treaty, and all its codexes, would go forth and multiply.  Aside from spreading across Earth, it would become the mostly widely read document in history on all the worlds settled by the Shalash, the Asoolianne, and the Hoon.  At least, all three ambassadors were quick to say so whenever someone talked about the document in their hearing.

But an electronic copy was still only a copy.  Months of talks culminated in four originals of the basic Treaty, printed on the highest grade archival paper human technology could produce, all to be signed by each Ambassador and witnessed by the Intermediaries.  One would go with each Ambassador to his or her respective home world and government.  The fourth would remain on Earth, sealed in a case resting on a four-sided pedestal in the room directly above the negotiating chamber, a permanent monument to what had been accomplished inGuinea.

The Signing took place early in the morning before the brilliant West African sun poked more than its upper third above the horizon.  Dozens of world leaders and scores of representatives were in attendance, along with hundreds of delegates, envoys, and diplomats representing more governments than I’d thought existed, plus the United Nations.  They overfilled stands built on three sides of the platform expressly for the Signing.  On the fourth side, a sea of reports crouched, sat, or stood to film the proceedings.  The quiet hum of so many cameras, a strange electronic symphony, brushed against my ears like waves from the distant coast.  So many faces blurred together in that crowd, more than we could have crammed into a dozen of the visitors’ complex press galleries.

I watched the Ambassadors sign each copy, starting with their own to give pride of place to those copies returning home with each of them, shifting positions after each signature.  As always, balance remained important in the extreme.  The Ambassadors’ signatures appeared as the points of a large triangle.  A second, smaller triangle below the first would hold the Intermediaries’ signatures, using the same positioning as the Ambassadors we’d served for.  On Earth’s multi-lingual copy of the Treaty—English, Mandarin, and Spanish—the alien signatures held equal rank, appearing on the same line, and the Intermediaries would each place theirs below the appropriate ambassador.  We waited our turn then signed in the same way they had, all at the same time.

A murmur rippled through the press as we stepped back.  In a mixed crowd or any other profession, the murmur would have become a cheer.  After a few seconds, applause began to spread through the stands as the leaders and representatives stood to recognize the achievement.  It didn’t matter that it was far away, farther than anything anyone in the crowd had imagined outside of a story not much more than a year ago, peace had been won.  Three governments needed to ratify that peace, but the ambassadors assured everyone it would happen.  All three species were tired of war.  They needed it to stop if only because they’d finally learned to talk to each other.

It gave me a burning hope for my own species and I wanted to think a lot of other people shared it.  I really wanted everyone to share it. Sharon, still drinking in the news channels, not that that would ever change, told me most conflicts across the world had slowed or paused in the last week.  Maybe the enemies in some of them would find a way to stop and talk to each other too.  Maybe we could learn from someone else’s problems.

If we did or if we didn’t, life would never completely return to normal after the ships left, not even for a while.  We knew now we weren’t alone and if there were three other sentient species out there, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to find out there were more.  Earth had a lot to think about.

And our position as a ‘neutral’ planet might have continued benefits.  Small embassies had been suggested with small staffs.  We already had this convenient complex.  Gargltch had suggested it might be possible to talk about more than just peace.  Riptalektik’fa wondered if they could find a way to someday discuss trade.  Mahyul mused out loud that she could see herself just talking to the other two.  The Intermediaries agreed to make themselves available should any such conversations warrant their inclusion or if any of the ambassadors wished them present.

The universe, or at least our little corner of it, seemed to be overflowing with hope.

Sharon and I could theoretically return to our jobs, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to.  I’d told Antoine I’d been happy in a cubicle doing work I enjoyed, but too much had changed in the last year for me to expect my old work life to be satisfying.  Neither Talya nor Manuel had mentioned their plans to me yet, if they had any.  Could she go back to being a teacher?  Could he return to his quiet retirement?  Our futures might be very, very different.  Mine would have to be if for no other reason than the kids had made new friends.  So had I, and not just among the Shalash.  The Intermediaries wouldn’t easily fall out of touch.  The world probably wouldn’t let us.  St. Hivon had already hinted that there might be work for us.  So had Ambassador Cunningham.  Our interesting times probably weren’t over yet, and that didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would.

As we stepped back from the table, I threw an arm around each of my counterparts.  I supposed it made a good photo op, but I just wanted to express some affection for the two people who’d become my closest friends.  “It’s been a strange ride.”

Manuel looked up at me with a lopsided grin.  “My friend, you speak as if it’s over.”

Talya smiled too, letting her reserve slip just a little.  We’d all gotten used to the cameras, I guessed.  “I am certain we have much yet to do.”

I almost laughed.  “You’re probably right.  And a lot to learn.”

“About the world and each other.”  Manuel looked out over the crowd of reporters, maybe wondering at the torrent of questions held at bay only by distance.  “And perhaps about our friends from the stars.”  Or maybe wondering about something else entirely.

“Do we know who we are?” Talya elbowed me in the ribs and I had to laugh.

“Maybe not, but we’ve got lots of time to start finding out.”  The script started to reassert itself as a few shuffling footsteps moved up behind us.  We broke apart and took our places beside the Ambassadors.  Let the new ride begin.  The applause grew louder, almost loud enough to drown out Mahyul’s voice in my ear.

“I will say it many times, Intermediary, but thank you.”

My face heated up and I tried to speak without moving my lips much.  “I’m just happy things are starting to work out, Ambassador.  I expect you’ve still got a long road.”

“A very long road, but at least now we are moving in the correct direction.”  She hesitated a moment before leaning down to whisper in my ear.  “It slipped my mind earlier, but I have received confirmation.”

I bit the inside of my cheek and fought the childish impulse to kick her ankle.  With clear emotions, I didn’t think anything ever slipped the Ambassador’s mind.  “Thank you, Ambassador.  That brings me a great deal of joy.”

The reception started in half an hour and I had no idea what I’d say to Harry Belafonte.

Oh-ho!  So is life!

Abateewah-ha!  So is life!

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Turn the World Around, Part 32

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 atSharon, 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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Turn the World Around, Part 31

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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Turn the World Around, Part 30

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 29

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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Turn the World Around, Part 28

Chapter 22 (conclusion)

“What can we do?  We’re really only observers at the sessions, aren’t we?”  The way Manuel’s voice trailed off made me wonder what might be going through his head.

“I’m not certain.”  Talya reached to her right, her hand disappearing as if it had been chopped off at the wrist then coming back with a thick folder.  She opened it up and riffled through papers until she found the page she wanted.  “We are ‘to assist their respective ambassadors when required and to interpret each session and its results to the human governments and media representatives.’  The section goes on, requiring us to attend every session, limits our motion during the sessions, and specifies that we are not to speak out of turn.  It is rather vague but more or less matches the job description I was originally given as Intermediary for the Asoolianne.”  She tapped a finger against her lips several times.

Mine, too.  But it seemed like there might be a little wiggle room.  “‘When required’.  Who determines that?”

One side of Talya’s mouth started to turn up.  “The agreement does not specify.  Perhaps we can use this.  We don’t have to sit there in silence.”

“Ah, but what was that about not speaking out of turn?  I do not think we can just do as we please.”  Manuel smiled.  “It is something, but I doubt it is a solution to the problem.”

Talya cleared her throat.  “Speaking out of turn is an interesting phrase.  It doesn’t mean we need permission to speak, only that we do not speak inappropriately or inconsiderately.  Whether it was intended or not, I think that we do have the ability to participate in a small way and perhaps prevent what happened today from happening again.”

Silence.  Were we about to give ourselves permission to take part in treaty discussions?  Manuel cleared his throat.  “That must go beyond the intent of the agreement.”

Yes, yes we were.  “Maybe it does.”  I shrugged.  “Maybe it doesn’t.  I like Talya’s reading of the Agreement.  It gives us the ability to help.  Maybe today was just a little bump in the road and nothing to be worried about.  But if it looks as if we’re coming up on another bump, I think we can try to redirect the energy in the room.”

Manuel, licking his lips, tried the idea on slowly.  “I think I might feel comfortable suggesting a brief recess for tempers to cool.”  He smiled and looked like he might be biting his tongue at the same time.

“Are we—” Talya clucked her tongue once, shaking her head.  “Are we Earth’s voice in the conference as well as its interpreters?”

Another stunned silence as we looked at each other.  I swallowed and sucked in a deep breath.  “Wow.  That’s just… wow.  I think you’re right, Talya.  We absolutely are Earth’s voice.”  Intermediary.  Mediator?

Manuel shook his head.  “Earth doesn’t need a voice.  We don’t have a stake in the outcome.”

“Don’t we?  If they walk away and the war continues, who do you want to win?”  He didn’t answer, but it didn’t take much effort to see the discomfort on his face.  “I’d pick the Shalash.  So would a lot of people in the West.  I bet most of South America sides with the Hoon,Asiawith the Asoolianne.  I guarantee that almost everyone on Earth who cares at all has a favourite and don’t tell me that the aliens couldn’t find a way to exploit that if they wanted to.  Sure, we’d benefit just from hosting the talks, but we could get pulled into a war that really doesn’t affect us.  Except it does.  Now that we know the little green men aren’t little or green but are definitely out there, we’re going to focus on joining them a lot sooner.  Knowing the human race, we’ll land ourselves right in the middle anyway.”

Talya snorted.  “Completely unrealistic.  You have too much imagination.”

I leaned back in my chair with a big grin.  “You could be right.  My wife tells me that all the time.  We’ve got no way to know how far beyond our technology interstellar travel is, but we’ll be looking for it a lot harder now that we know it’s possible.  But ignore that and ignore that most of us would naturally pick sides because it’s what humans do.  Would you settle for the fact that we’ll get a lot more interesting and helpful technology if they don’t go back to war?  Maybe even continued contact and benefits for everyone after this is all over?  Manuel, isn’t that a stake in the outcome?”

“Enlightened self interest.”  It’s a slow nod, but looks like agreement to me.  “Yes, it is.  Forgive me, my friend.  I am having a difficult time letting go of the idea of neutrality, fictional though it may be.  I will agree that we have interest in the result of the conference and—” he blew a sigh “—we are in a position to influence that result.”  He straightened.  “Better, I will accept a moral obligation to improve the lives of billions of beings of all four species, a far better motivation than technological gain.”

“I would agree.”  Talya looked back and forth between the two of us.  “We are obligated to act for the greatest good.  The real question becomes: how do we ensure they remain at the table talking?”

The question caught me inhaling to speak and I stopped, letting out the breath very slowly.  It takes two longer breaths before I come up with an answer for her.  “Any way we can.”

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