Monday, November 21, 2005

Chapter Two

Honora Harris, known to her friends as "Honey", had a tall stack of mining reports to get through, and a fervent wish to be somewhere--anywhere--else. The office she shared with two other translators was a grim affair, with a menacingly low ceiling and four windowless concrete walls that defied personalization. If it hadn't been for the 20,000 worth of debt that Hank had saddled her with before disappearing with her car and the contents of their joint savings account, she would have given up this job long ago; it was slowing down her research. But to keep her creditors happy, she spent twenty hours a week in this miserable hole, laboring through mind-numbing translations of mining reports, crop surveys, and other effluvia from frontier worlds. Saturday mornings were the worst, because she was alone in the office, and there was always some sort of event that she was missing in order to keep the trade minister in crop surveys. As on other Saturdays, she was fining it hard to get down to work; she inevitably spent an hour or two shuffling the mountain of papers on her desk and getting herself cups of tea before she could bring herself to attack that endless, dreary stream.

When the knock came on the door, she had just started to actually translate the first page of the Chuvash Farm Bureau's riveting treatise on the future of silkworm farming in the K'gore River Valley. From the tone of the opening paragraphs, she had a feeling there wasn't one. She was very glad of an excuse to uncurl herself from the really astoundingly uncomfortable chair they'd given her and tap the switch to open it.

There were three Forlani men standing in the hallway; she recognized the formal kilts from the receptions she'd translated at. "Sha devshenu?" she asked; roughly translated, it meant "Can I help you?"

"Shon Forlani?" asked the short one. He looked like he was barely out of his teens, but something about the way he carried himself made her suspect that he was much older. He looked delighted to find a countrywoman in this far off land. She would have thought a more likely reaction would be shock at the short, sleeveless singlet she was wearing.

"Nai," she said, and in rapid-fire Forlani explained that she was just a translator at the ministry. The short one praised her command of the language in extravagent terms, while the other two looked on. The older one, who was undoubtedly in charge, seemed slightly bemused by the proceedings. The other one was regarding her with an intense interest that seemed very unusual in a Forlani, at least in her limited experience. He was extremely tall--he made Honey, who was almost 190 centimeters, feel short--and handsome in a chiseled, impassive sort of way. He had dark straight hair pulled back into a ponytail, and deep blue eyes that were scanning her with an almost psychotic intensity. She squirmed under his examination while the little one, who introduced himself as Ran na Daseil, continued to engage her in the kind of escalating exchange of compliments that generally takes up the first half hour of Forlani meetings. Only after he had pledged his sword to her eternal protection, and she had invited him to bring his family to live with her brothers (Forlani etiquette simply had no procedure for women without male relatives to protect them) did he confess that they were lost and needed help finding their way back to the conference room where they were supposed to meet the deputy undersecretary of something or other. Honey had no idea where the conference room they wanted was--the Trade Ministry seemed to have been designed by someone with a fondness for mazes--invited them to sit down in her office while she called the undersecretary's office and found someone to return them to their room. Ran na Deseil and the older man took two of the three available seats, and with distaste she braced herself to sit down on the floor the way a Forlani woman would in that situation. When ideology battled with income, income won.

The tall one, however, refused to take the seat. "That's for country women," he said. "The rest of us treat our women with dignity and respect."

She repressed an urge to point out that referring to women as possessions was hardly according them dignity or respect, and sat down at her desk to call upstairs, while he lounged against the walls.

The face that flashed up on the screen was of a bored-looking middle aged woman, probably the secretary's personal assistant. "Thanks, dear," she said with a relieved sigh. "I was beginning to think of sending out search parties. Can you keep them there until I can send someone to get them?"

"I suppose," she said uncertainly. "How long will that be?"

"I have no idea," said the assistant. "I can't leave the desk, and half my staff called in sick. Sick! Sick of being inside on a beautiful spring day."

"I have a lot of work to do," said Honey, thinking guiltily that she had no one to blame but herself for that turn of affairs."

"Never mind about that, I'll clear it with your section head. These guys are VIPs," said the assistant, and flashed off. Honey turned back to the Forlanis with a smile. "Someone will be here soon to get you," she said brightly. "Can I get you anything?"

Over the next two hours, the two younger men interrogated her about her family (no family! what a tragedy!), her marital status (A woman like you never married? Impossible! You would have me believe that every man on this planet is blind and deaf?"), her studies at the University, her hobbies (cooking is an excellent pasttime for a woman, but rock climbing is far too dangerous. Surely you have some worthy cousin who could watch out for you better than this?) She knew that she should be outraged by their paternalistic pronouncements, but she was enjoying their gentle arguments. She was surprised when the noon bell rang.

"It's lunchtime for us," she said, in flowery Forlani. "May I bring you something from our cafeteria? It has only paltry offerings, but I hope we can find something to satisfy you."

"We'd be delighted," said Ran na Desail. When she asked them what they'd like to eat, he merely waved his hand and said "We will enjoy whatever you select for us."

It was only as she walked to the cafeteria that she realized that she'd been talking to them for two hours, and while they knew the story of her life, all she knew was that they "work for the trade delegation".

* * *

"So what do you think?" asked the Chief, whose Forlani was too poor to have followed most of the conversation.

"She's perfect," said RD.

"No," said Finn.

"Why not?" asked the Chief. "Doesn't she speak the language well enough?"

"Her accent's better than mine," said Finn. "But she's impudent, her office is a disaster, and she looks like an unmade bed."

"You're not recruiting her for her cleaning skills," said the Chief, "And I imagine that hair would be hidden by a headscarf."

"She just doesn't know how to talk to a Forlani man," said RD. "She can learn that."

"If she wants to," Finn pointed out. "I doubt she does."

"Well, then you'd better start practicing saying 'You need to file Form 980-D with the other office,' " said RD, "because I spent a lot of time on this, and she's it."

The other men tried to look decently away as Finn wrestled himself into accepting the inevitable, but it would have taken better actors to feign fascination with the drab walls and bulky, utilitarian furniture of Honey Harris' office. Finn's dark features clearly bore the signs of the war within himself. Both men were among the few who knew how badly he wanted to make this mission a success, not merely to advance his career, but to prove his loyalty to the Federation over the Forlani ancestry that was all too evident in the angular lines of his face. RD and the Chief both knew that though he would never admit it, Finn was easily wounded by the casually contemptuous remarks made about barbarians at every cocktail party on New Caledon, and even more ashamed when the sophisticates who knew enough to read his roots in his face berated him about the Forlani treatment of women--or worse, made a point of saying how wonderfully authentic they thought Forla was. But even RD, who quite liked Honey Harris's frank manner and obvious sense of humor, had to admit that she was the last person who Finn would want to have on a mission. Everything about her, from the wild brown curls that fell nearly to her waist, to the desk overflowing with papers and dirty dishes, was in complete antithesis to the military precision with which Finn conducted his life.

"You're a good leader, Finn," said the Chief.

Finn, who had been staring broodily at his sandals, looked up in surprise. "Sir?"

"I said you're a good leader, son," the Chief repeated. "Your teams respect you, and you get better work out of them than other senior agents do." It was no more than the truth, but Finn blushed a little and looked back at his sandals. He did not like compliments.

"Thank you, sir."

"I wasn't buttering you up, Garion." said the Chief, a touch irritably. "I agree with you that the woman's a disaster, and I'd never recruit her for the agency." He drummed his fingers on the the thick steel desktop of one of Honey's colleagues. "But I also think that you're a good enough leader to turn her into the asset you need."

"Thank you, sir, but . . . "

"You may stop at 'thank you, sir'." said the Chief. "Unless you know something I don't, I'm afraid I agree with RD; you'll have to use her."

Finn glared at RD, who shrugged, the words "You know I'm right" as plain on his face as if he'd written them there with lipstick.

The thing of it was that Finn did know he was right. Finn was backed into a corner, and the mophead with the attitude was his only hope. "Yes, sir."

"Cheer up, Finn," said the Chief, fishing for his pipe. "I think any man who can singlehandedly round up a ring of smugglers and transport them back to New Caledon in a decrepit ore freighter with a missing engine and busted navigation systems can handle one graduate student, however messy and opinionated."

"That was luck," said Finn glumly.

RD grinned. "How come I never have that kind of luck?"

Just as he said it, Honey Harris walked through the door with a heavily laden tray. She stopped short in the doorway at the sound of RD's obviously perfect Standard. A puzzled frown appeared on her face, followed by a trace of anger and embarassment as she wondered whether this were all some elaborate practical joke. But the secretary's personal assistant didn't really look like the type who goes along with practical jokes.

"What," she asked, "is going on here?" Her voice had an icy edge, and she was inching backwards through the open door.

Finn moved quickly, without thought, taking one wrist in a firm grip and drawing her inside while closing the door with his other hand.

Honey's face erupted into full blown fury. RD deftly sprang up and relieved her of the tray right before she swung it at Finn. "Cheesecake!" he said, with real joy, setting it on one of the empty desks.

Unfortunately for Finn, this left Honey with one hand free for fighting, which she attempted to use to scratch his eyes out. He was forced to grab her wrists and pin them behind her back, whereupon she began trying to kick him with her fashionably heavy shoes. He solved that problem by crossing one of his legs over hers, but this pulled her up against his body, where she began screaming and struggling like a cat in a bathtub. He clapped his hand over her mouth, and she bit him.

"Finn," said the Chief mildly, "perhaps you should stop wrestling with Ms Harris and show her your credentials."

Finn tried to find a way to let her go without inflicting further bodily harm on himself. Seeing his trouble, RD put down his cheesecake and flashed his identicard. "We're IIA, ma'am." Honey's eyes widened, and she stopped struggling, possibly from surprise. "I'm Senior Agent Robert David. This gentleman," he pointed at the Chief, "is Section Chief Brown, the head of Special Operations, and the heavyweight champion who has you pinned is Senior Field Operative Finn Garion, who I think will let you go if you promise not to bite him again. Do you promise not to bite him?"

Honey blinked, then nodded. Finn gratefully released her, and she stumbled forward into the room.

Honey was clearly not mollified, but she was also

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Chapter One

Outside the windows of the Intelligence Ministry, the light was waning and Finn Garion leaned his head against the cool glass and closed his eyes, trying to abate the thundering headache that was gathering in his temples. In the hallway, the constant stacatto click of shoeheels on the tile floor that filled the days was slowing to an irregular rhythm, and the clerical workers were calling good wishes to each other as they prepared to go home for the weekend. Finn ran his hands through his hair and thought about opening a little store somewhere, selling pottery or maybe books. Certainly after he told his bosses that he had wasted five years and about 100,000 credits on a mission that was shortly going to blow up in his face, he wasn't going to have any future in the Interplanetary Intelligence Service.

Behind him, he heard the door open and the light, quick footsteps of Robert David coming into the office.

"Do you think I'd be good at selling books?" he asked, without turning around.

"Yes," said RD solemnly, settling himself into Finn's chair. "Right up to the point where you took your service pistol out and mowed down all the customers before turning the gun on yourself."

"What should I sell?" asked Finn, his face still pressed to the window glass.

"Guns," said RD. "But you need capital to open a store. I doubt you've saved enough on the pittance they pay us, unless you've been skimming off the mission . . . "

"It figures," said Finn, throwing himself into the tiny office's other chair with a disgusted sigh. "I'm going to end up in some office somewhere, telling irate customers to file form 87-B with the proper authorities."

"No luck?" asked RD.

"None," Finn affirmed glumly.

"Good. Now you owe me one." RD slapped a folder down on the desk. "I think I found you a girl."

Finn made no move to pick up the folder. "I have interviewed every female intelligence agent, military personnel, and police operative within five light years who even claims to have once overheard Forlani being spoken. None of them could pass for a Forlani woman even if I pretended they were deaf mute."

"This one speaks it fluently," said RD, tapping the folder with his forefinger. "She works part-time as a translator with the Trade Ministry."

Finn sat up straight, the color returning to his face for the first time in days. "Yeah? What service is she in?"

"The New Cumberland University department of anthropology," said RD. "She's writing her dissertation on primitive marriage rituals."

Finn slumped back into his chair. "You know I can't use a civilian. No security clearance." He aimed a frustrated kick at his massive government issue desk, and succeeded only in bruising his big toe.

"That's the beauty of the thing," said RD. "She's not a civilian. In order to get a security clearance to work at trade summits, she and the other translators were commissioned as third lieutenants in the reserves."

"Third lieutenants?"

"It's a special rank for them. It means there's never anyone junior to them in the chain of command." RD leafed through the file. "Her dissertation advisor says that she is quote, 'the smartest student I've ever had', unquote. And if you ask the Chief, I bet you can get her called to active duty within 48 hours."

Finn mused over his options. If he went to the Chief, he would have to explain the mess he had gotten himself into, and confess that he had been so far unable to fix it. On the other hand, if he didn't go to the Chief now, unless a miracle intervened, in a week it would be time for him to deploy back to Forla and he would have to report that he had blown the mission.

"The Chief's still in his office," said RD helpfully. Finn lumbered to his feet with a heavy sigh and grabbed the folder.

"Come on. Let's go talk to him before I lose my nerve."

Section Chief Dan Corliss, the head of the Special Operations section, was a very ordinary looking man in his forties, with thinning brown hair and a habit of gnawing absentmindedly on his fingernails as he spoke. Not even his eyes betrayed the razor-sharp intelligence encased in his skull, and few who met him ever suspected it. Those who worked for him, however, quickly learned to respect his habit of listening intently and saying very little until he asked a question that cut straight to the heart of the problem, or delivered a solution that had occurred to none of his subordinates in hours of agonizing argument. It was largely thanks to his silent watch that the Interstellar Federation had enjoyed such a long period of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

When Finn and RD knocked on his door, he was studying a star chart on the huge screen that took up an entire wall of his office. "Come in," he said. As the door slid open to admit the two men, he motioned them to take a seat in front of his desk. "Sit down, guys. Finn, I've been reading your reports. Great stuff. This is the best intelligence we've ever had on Forla. You're making the station chief look very, very bad."

"Is that a problem?"

The Chief chuckled. "On the contrary. You've considerably added to the luster of our reputation." He folded his hands across his stomach and leaned back in his chair. "So why aren't you out carousing? You've only got a week left before you go to back, right?"

Finn shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "If I can, sir."

The Chief raised an eyebrow. "So? Tell me."

"Well, it's just that . . . I . . . I . . . "

Those ordinary brown eyes seemed to be boring into his soul. Finn gulped and clenched his fist.

"I need a bride," he blurted.

"I see," was all the Chief said.

"People have been asking me when I was getting married for quite some time," Finn explained. "A Forlani merchant just doesn't stay unmarried if he's got enough money for a wife, which I do."

"Yes," said the Chief, "your cover seems to be amazingly successful. I don't think I've ever had an agent turn a profit before."

"Dumb luck," said Finn. "I took a half share in a ship owned by the clan chief's grandson in order to get invited to his house. Damn thing's made me a fortune. I mean, it's made us a fortune."

"Your expense reports have been admirably restrained," said the Chief. Was there anything he didn't know about?

"Anyway, people were starting to really wonder why I didn't get a wife."

"That reminds me," asked RD, "why can't you just tell them you're married, but she's, you know, back home?"

"A Forlani man would never leave his wife alone for so long," said Finn. "They say Gen haitara dash me'yor gen zaid--break the family, and you break the world. That's why they don't allow divorce." He paused for a moment to recover his train of thought. "Anyway, so I told them I was betrothed to a girl back home, but she was sick, so we had to wait to get married." He paused again. "She's been sick for three years. Either she had to die, or recover. And if she died, everyone else would just start shoving their daughters at me. I can't married to a local girl."

"No," said the Chief. "Nice diplomatic incident when you tried to leave."

"Exactly. So I told them that she was going to have an operation here that would cure her. I figured that would buy me a year or so while she went through rehab, and maybe some follow-up surgery. Then the clan chief's grandson invited me to go hunting with him and the chief, and his younger brother, who is getting married soon."

"And the conversation around the campfire turned to the subject of your poor, sick bride."

"Exactly. And I explained that she was having this operation, and the clan chief said 'Excellent! Ari is making the Shahil Demara at the turn of the summer. You will bring your bride, and you will make the journey at his right hand." As he spoke, his voice unconsciously acquired the lilting flow of Forlani.

"What," inquired the Chief, "is the shawhill demarek?"

"Shahil Demara," corrected Finn, then flushed in embarassment. "It's a pilgrimage engaged couples make to a shrine where the marriage of Edla and Argyros--they're a famous romance, sir, like Romeo and Juliet, except they really lived about two thousand years ago--was consummated. Rich families like the clan chief's make it into a gigantic moving party. They get ten or twenty couples and put them in special coaches with the women on one side and the men on the other, separated by a wall, and the men drink and gamble and the women . . . I don't know what the women do. Anyway, then they get to the shrine, and there's a big ceremony where the men and women meet formally for the first time, and they say vows of fidelity and loyalty together in front of the shrine, and then if they're really rich, six months later they come back and have the wedding in the same place."

The Chief nodded, encouraging him to go on.

"Being asked to go with the clan chief's grandson is a huge honor for a merchant with no family to speak of from the other side of the planet. It's like if the President of the Federation decided to adopt me, or something. There's no way I could refuse. But I explained that I didn't know whether we'd be able to make it, since the surgery might not go so well, and so forth. Whereupon the clan chief--his name is Tafil na Nehilon--said that it must be terrible for me to worry so much, and when we got back he would contact his friend the Foreign minister and get their ambassador to personally make sure that my lovely bride was being well taken care of."

"How kind of him," said the Chief drily.

"I thought so," said Finn seriously. "But it made things a little difficult. I spent the next week racking my brains for some solution, but the only way I could think of to keep him from checking on my non-existant bride was to rush to get my messages as soon as we returned and tell him I'd received word that the operation was a complete success, and she had already left the hospital to recover in her brother's house."

"Brother?" asked RD.

"Lang Tridar," explained Finn. "He's a Talidon--that's the tribe I'm supposed to be from--but he took two degrees from the university here, and now he's in the Freeport office of the Forlani export delegation. We roomed together at school, and he's been a big help establishing my cover."

"We could have put someone in thehospital and told the ambassador she was too sick for visitors," the chief observed.

"But probably not," RD pointed out, "before Nehilon called the ambassador, and the ambassador called the hospital to ask about Finn's fiancee, and the hospital said 'Who dat?' "

Finn nodded. "Sir, I thought that at least this way I had the option of saying she had a sudden relapse and died." He was beginning to sweat under that unflinching gaze. "But if I do say that, I'm back to the original problem, which is that I look suspicious, and I'll look even more suspicious if I don't marry one of hte local girls. I really need a bride before I get on that ship."

There was a long silence, during which FInn's stomach screwed itself tighter and tighter as he contemplated what must be going through the Chief's mind. Finally, he spoke.

"In the future," he said mildly, "perhaps you'll keep your lies a little simpler. It saves so much trouble later."

"Yes, sir."

"Still, I don't see what else you could have done. We'd better find you a female agent who speaks Forlani."

"There aren't any," said Finn. "I've spent the past two weeks interviewing everyone in the military, police, and intelligence service who claims to speak Forlani. None of them speak well enough to pass."

"Funny that there's so little interest in learning Forlani among our female personnel," said the director. Finn flushed. He was acutely sensitive to the way his half-Forlani ancestry was viewed by others.

"But there's a reservist," said RD. "Shes a graduate student at NCU, and she speaks fluent Forlani."

"And does this reservist want a hardship assignment on a primitive planet?"

"I doubt it," said RD. "She's an officer of the university's chapter of the Unification Society."

Finn winced. "You didn't mention that before," he murmured. The Unification Society opposed the extensive autonomy granted to planetary governments on domestic issues, like welfare and civil rights. THe Forlani marriage laws were high on their list of targets.

"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," said RD. "She seems to be theonly person within 12 parsecs who speaks Forlani and has a Q clearance."

"If she's really fluent in Forlani," the director pointed out. "It wouldn't be the first time a reservist got creative with their credentials." He rubbed his forehead. "Well, I suppose I'd better call over to the Defense Ministry and get permission to call this girl to active duty. What's her name?"

"Honey Harris," said RD helpfully. Finn was slightly comforted. She sounded competent and sweet.

"And how long does she need to be recalled?"

"I don't know," said Finn. "Obviously, we can't be engaged for too long, or people will talk. I think six months should do it, and then we can come back here for a checkup, and she can relapse. We'll get married in the hospital chapel, and then she'll die. I'll go back to Forla in mourning. That'll make me safe for a while. Forlani men are expected to mourn their wives for at least three years."

"You do mean that hypothetically, right?" the director asked. "You don't actually expect her to marry you in the hospital chapel and die."

Finn blushed. "No, sir."

"Relax, Finn. I'm just joking." He closed his eyes. "I'll get the authorization, but I'd like us to talk to this Harris woman before we get her and the Unification Society all hot and bothered. Why don't we pay her a visit tomorrow?"

"She works on Saturday mornings, sir," said RD.

"Even better," said the director. "Why don't you both bring your Forlani togs and meet me in the lobby of the Trade Ministry at 9 am tomorrow?" He turned back to the map on the screen. "I'll see you then. Go carouse."

"Sir, I don't have Forlani clothes," said RD, who though he spoke several primitive languages fluently, including Forlani, hadn't been off planet in five years.

"Well, I'm sure Finn will lend you some," said the Chief, without looking up. "I'd think we'd better get you back out in the field, RD. You're losing your ability to improvise."

"Yes, sir."

"Scat," said the Chief, waving them away. "I have work to do."