Lunar Orbit, Sol III
2230 EDT September 13th, 2004 ad
"Oh, I will be God damned!" If anyone had been present when Captain Weston opened the e-mail from Fleet HQ on Titan Base, they would have been amazed at her command of invective. She managed to curse for a solid pair of minutes without repeating herself once. At the end of the diatribe she cut herself off abruptly, realizing that the stresses of the new command were causing the reaction.
In the short time she had been there, the only thing she had been able to determine was that the situation was worse than expected. She now realized that keeping the systems on-line had meant not only Herculean effort on the part of her XO, but sheer good luck. Any of the jury-rigged repairs, patches and add-ons could cut out at any time. This would make it appear that Captain April Weston was not quite as competent as some had supposed. She doubted it would destroy her career, but it would be awfully embarrassing.
For that matter they might not have to worry too much about embarrassment. With the forward deflector screen out any Posleen missile that made it through the defenses would have a free ride. The detonation of a twenty-kiloton nuclear missile in contact with the hull would erase any need to worry about career advancement.
The parts were bound to turn up sooner or later. And the XO was just as good as advertised at wheedling them out of Titan Base and getting the Indowy to venture out of their quarters and install them. Losing her "immediately" and without any warning for a two-week leave was not good news.
The other side of the ledger, however, was that the XO definitely needed some time off. She had brightened up in the last few days, but it was a brittle brightness. She definitely needed some shore leave.
So be it. Far be it from April Weston to hold someone back from their just deserts. If Uncle Al Bledspeth thought it was a good idea then it was a good idea. But when she found whoever it was pulling the strings in the background, she was going to have their guts for garters. She hated figuring out who was conspiring with whom.
* * *
"Nathan!" came the pleased cry.
Monsignor O'Reilly looked over his shoulder and stood up in greeting. "Paul, how are you?"
The short, balding, dapper man was finely dressed in a tailored silk suit shot through with threads of purple and green that caught the soft lighting in the Century Club dining room. He smiled at his old friend and shook his hand vigorously.
"Oh, well, my friend, well." He was accompanied by an Indowy. While they were no longer in the two-headed calf category, it was exceedingly rare to see one in public. Paul des Jardins gestured at the alien. "Monsignor Nathan O'Reilly, I would be pleased to introduce you to the Indowy Aelool."
O'Reilly was aware that Indowy did not consider touching to be an appropriate action. Like the Japanese they engaged in a variety of bows depending on status. Since he had no idea what its status would be to the Galactics and since he had no conception of the Indowy's rank, trying to bow appropriately would be an exercise in futility. He settled for bowing his head fractionally.
He also was unsure of the Indowy's sex. They had male, female and transfer neuter to choose from and there was no discrimination. They also were difficult to discern: The Indowy did not have significant external physical sexual expression such as mammaries. And their subtle expression—their equivalent of softer skin and rounded hips—was notoriously hard to spot. After a moment's introspection he decided that the neuter forms of speech would be best. Male and female Indowy rarely objected to an accidental neuter reference, but transfer neuters tended to treat male/female references with humor.
The Indowy had an aura of peace and calm that was rarely found when they were near humans. Normally the little creatures were as nervous as cats in a room full of rocking chairs. This one did not even flinch at the sight of humans eating meat.
"Indowy Aelool, I see you." He was enough of a student of the Galactics to know their greetings. Actually he was enough of a student of the Galactics to know three of the extraterrestrial languages. He still had no idea why Paul had tracked him down at the Club. They normally used cut-outs. This was lousy tradecraft and could damage an executive cell. He was furious; Paul had better have a damn good reason for this.
"Please." He gestured at his table. "Sit down." The damage, if any, was done. Might as well play the hand.
"I'm glad you were here, Nathan," said Paul, taking a seat. One of the hovering waiters came forward and replaced the high-backed leather chair with one designed for Indowy. Nathan had not been aware that the club had them, but he was not surprised. The Century Club was one of the most exclusive clubs in Washington. Since it catered to the highest class of clientele, it undoubtedly had preparations for every type of Galactic visitor. "The Indowy Aelool is heading off-planet shortly and I wanted you to get a chance to meet him."
"There was so much to do," said the diminutive alien in a soft, high voice. Monsignor O'Reilly suddenly realized that the Indowy had spoken English rather than use an AID translator and was surprised. As far as he knew, no Indowys spoke the language or any language but Indowy. It was generally believed that their vocal resonance cavities could not form human-style words. What other capabilities might they be hiding? "My team has just completed the armoring of the First Battalion of your Five-Fifty-Fifth Fleet Strike and I was to head back to Irmansul immediately. However, my good friend Monsieur des Jardins insisted that I meet you. As he said, 'A stitch in time saves nine.' "
O'Reilly paid no attention to the code phrase, simply nodding and taking a sip of the fruity Washington State Beaujolais the waiter had delivered earlier. As he did his mind raced and a series of pieces fell into place.
Apparently Paul or someone high among the Fellowship had decided that the Indowy was the perfect conduit into the Galactics. And he was sure enough to possibly burn his sole contact to O'Reilly's Société. The Fellowship and the Société had similar aims, but O'Reilly was, as far as he knew, the sole link. If this little meeting exposed him it would set back the work a decade. On the other hand, access to Galactic technology was imperative. Both groups were hampered by imperfect knowledge of the Galactics' surveillance capabilities.
And the Indowy always insisted on a face-to-face meeting before any serious alliance was joined. From what he had been able to glean from current study, and on the basis of Société records, he could understand why. The Darhel had owned the electronic information systems of the Galactic Federation for thousands of years. That gave them the ability to create any illusion they chose using those systems. Face-to-face was the only way to be sure you were talking to an actual contact.
The logic complete he nodded to himself internally. The risk was worth the action. He would have to sever himself from Paul as a contact for some time to come. However, they would still be able to use intermediaries. And there was always the Internet. The chaotic system still seemed to have the Darhel confused; they depended upon filtering proxy servers for information control and the American Supreme Court—bless those nine unknowing fools—had recently ruled them unconstitutional.
"Well, Indowy Aelool, if this Yankee dandy felt it necessary, I suppose I have to agree." He delivered the countersign with a broad but toothless smile. A toothed grin was the sign of a predator to the nervous Indowy. Something about this one, though, made him suspect that it could take a full-toothed grin without a flinch. "Will you join me for dinner?"
"I think not," said the alien, his face wrinkling in a complicated expression. After a moment Nathan realized that it was an attempt to copy a smile. The closest Indowy expression was actually a motherly expression of disapproval. "I have a ship to catch. But perhaps we shall meet . . . anon." Again the odd grimace. In this case a few broad ratlike front teeth were exposed.
Nathan thought for a moment. Then he wrinkled his nose as hard as he could, pulled back his upper lip and crossed his eyes. At the incredibly silly expression Paul nearly choked on his own recently delivered wine but the Indowy simply copied it in surprise and emitted a series of high-pitched whines like a kitten with its tail caught in a door. He clapped his furry hand over his mouth but was unable to stop. Heads throughout the room turned at the odd and annoying sound.
"Where did you learn that?" asked the Indowy, having finally managed to stop whining. The sound was Indowy laughter and was as infectious and difficult to stop for them as laughter was for humans. "That was the best human copy of 'ironic agreement' I have ever seen."
"I'm a student of anthropology," said the Jesuit with deprecation. "There is nothing that says that 'anthro' must refer only to human beings . . . You ought to see me do Darhel 'unfortunate embarrassment.' I've been practicing."