"Good morning, professor!" came the call from the door.
Monsignor Nathan O'Reilly, Ph.D., the Reagan Chair of Archaeology and Ancient History, looked up from the computer screen and his eyes lit. The young lady in the doorway was not only one of his favorite former students, she was a notorious gossip. Since her new job often included gossip that he wanted to hear, it was always a pleasure to see her.
"Kari! Come in," he said, rising to his feet to rearrange chairs. "Sit," he commanded, pointing at the comfortable armchair placed by the desk. "Coffee?"
"Oh, no!" she gasped. "I couldn't hold another drop. I've been up practically the whole night and I'm headed to bed!"
"Since when does the White House Protocol Office work swing shift?" he asked with raised white eyebrows. He took a sip of his own coffee and glanced at the cesium-quartz clock on the wall. Among the bric-a-brac of ancient alembics, archeological relics and old books it stuck out like a nuclear reactor in a Roman coliseum.
The clock had been a gift from another former student. The newly promoted Vice Admiral with the Federation Fleet had presented it to his old mentor with the joke that now he could always be sure what century he was in. It indicated that Kari was returning home shortly after six in the morning. While he was habitually early to work, he knew from experience that Kari, while quite beautiful and intellectually brilliant, was a tad lazy. Her working through the night was something he would have deemed impossible.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, tossing her head to clear an errant blonde hair. "It is just so exciting! The Tir Lord Dol Nok is coming on a state visit! And the firstplace he is visiting is right here!"
"Kari, Kari," the professor soothed, "calm yourself. Precision, darling. By right here are you referring to George Mason University or Washington?"
"Washington! He's going to hold a summit with President Edwards to finalize the sale of the heavy weapons for the planetary defense centers in the U.S.!"
The professor shook his head. Kari was a wonderful girl, but it was early for her particular brand of cheerleader enthusiasm. "That is wonderful news. But why were you up all night?"
"Oh," she said, letting out an exaggerated sigh. "The summit won't be for months, but the protocols for the High Tir are just sooo complex. Previously the WHoPo thought that the only significant similar human protocols seemed to be among the Mandarin. But that was just being narrow-minded. I was able to convincingly demonstrate that there were more similarities with observed Egyptian motifs. . . ."
O'Reilly leaned forward and gave her every bit of his attention. While in many ways Kari epitomized the image of the dumb blonde, she was one of the most brilliant young ladies it had been his privilege to teach. Her insights into early societies' interactions probably exceeded his own. If she were not such a natter-head or had an inkling about what was actually happening in the world around her, she would be a perfect recruit for the Société.
He nodded his head as she made a point about the surprising similarity between Minoan court protocols and the protocols of the Darhel. He was aware of the similarity, had in fact pointed it out to her on a previous visit. Unlike Kari, however, he had a pretty good idea why the similarity existed. The protocols of the court of Minos derived from both Egypt and Phoenicia. Since becoming a member of the Société, what he had to say about Maya, Egypt and Phoenicia was no longer printable. He could not, unfortunately, teach the truth. That was the part that stuck furthest into his craw.
"So, anyway," she finished her dissertation, "we had to completely restructure the plan. I swear, those idiots from the State Department think that the Darhel are just funny-looking Chinese or something! They had no idea at all that the manner of precedence is reversed with the Tir. They had no idea about food protocols; they were going to serve roast beef to vegetarians!"
"State is usually more competent than that," commented the professor, chuckling. "Surely they have dealt with the Darhel's idiosyncrasies before this?" He knew that they had. Kari was not the only former student who came back for occasional "chats."
"I don't know what moron concocted the menu," she answered. "But we got it straight. The precedence thing has apparently been overlooked before."
"Well, not this time," the professor said with a smile. "You seem to be doing well?"
"Oh, I don't know." She sighed, her normally vivacious face deflated. "What the heck is the point? We're still going to have hell on earth, no matter how good I am at protocol."
"We each must do our small part for the future," he said with a reassuring smile. "Think of the poor people who labor in factories or even work in a convenience store. At least you work at the White House."
"Hmm," she said with a pensive frown. "But, lately I feel like I should be doing more."
"Larry offered me a position on his staff," she said.
"You want to enlist in Fleet?" he asked, surprised.
"Not enlist. Get a commission. They need officers who can be liaisons with the Indowy and Darhel."
He regarded her somberly for a moment. If she left the White House not only would he lose a very good source, she would be like a fish out of water. She simply had no concept of how different military life was from anything she had ever previously experienced.
"Kari," he said carefully, "why did you say the Tir was coming to visit?"
She wrinkled her brow prettily and cocked her head. "There's a problem with the heavy grav-guns going into the planetary defense centers. The Galactics can't produce as many as had been planned for before the invasion. Also, the new plan to defend the cities is going to require more than the Pentagon had planned for. The Tir is coming to decide the final apportionment not only for the United States but worldwide."
"Hmm," the professor murmured, nodding his head. "Do you think that the Tir would have been more or less favorably disposed to the United States for more grav-guns if the President had shaken his hand, walked at his side to dinner and fed him beef?"
Kari's eyes widened. "Oh."
The old man's face creased in an engaging smile. Kari thought that when he did that it took thirty years off him. He still had the greenest eyes she had ever seen. She wondered for a moment what he was like as a young man. She knew he had come late to his current profession. And he had flaming red hair before it turned white. He was probably a pistol as a kid, she thought.
"So," he asked, "still planning on taking that position with Fleet?"
"No," she said, shaking her head. "Your logic, as usual, is perfect." She smiled back. "What about you?"
It was his turn to look rueful. "Well. The Ministry did not feel it necessary to reactivate a former subaltern, whatever his later accomplishments."
She shook her head. "What idiots. They could use you in Fleet Intelligence. You seem to understand more about the Galactics and the Posleen than anyone I've ever met in the military."
His face displayed none of the terror that little admission fired in him. He had thought his understanding of both their Galactic "allies" and their putative enemies was carefully hidden. Apparently he had been insufficiently circumspect.
"Well, it seems to me that knowledge of humanity and its many foibles gives more than enough background to understand our allies and enemies. We are, after all, not so terribly different."
She nodded and yawned. "Oh!" she exclaimed with a hand over her mouth. "Sorry!"
"No problem, dear," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "I think you need some rest."
"Mmm," she agreed, getting up and heading to the door as he stood in anachronistic gentility. She paused at the open door. "I'm going to be busy for a while, so I may not be able to see you. Take care, Monsignor."
"And you, my dear," he said as she walked out. "And you. Most definitely take care."
He sat down and went back to parsing out the Sanskrit tablet on the screen as his mind worked on many different tracks. He began to mutter a tune that had nearly fallen out of favor except as a corrupted nursery rhyme.
"Yankee Doodle went to town a-ridin' on a pony . . ."