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."


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