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

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