Christmas 2543

            Marianne looked
around at the other passengers gathering in the seating compartment. The ship
was rather a lot like a high-class passenger train in space, with sections
fitted together as need arose: dining rooms, observation lounges, seating
compartments, berths. For a sixteen-hour trip, Marianne had declined a berth,
though the government had offered her one. She was regretting it – a late
Christmas Eve party and an early flight to the Chicago spaceport had collided
to result in about four hours of sleep. She was alert by virtue of the large
amounts of high-octane coffee she had forced down, but she knew that wouldn’t
last. The trip to Tau Ceti was more than twenty-four hours, if she included the
flight to Chicago, the brief layover, the shuttle ride up to Interstellar’s
orbital station, and another brief layover there. She wished she hadn’t turned
down the berth.
            A man she
didn’t recognize stepped over her to get to the window seat. He offered her a
large cup of what looked like mocha.
            “Compliments
of Clare Wilson,” he said with a slight wink and a smile. “Double mochaccino
with a hint of mint. Happy Christmas.”
            Marianne
groaned. She’d had enough coffee for one day, but chocolate and mint were too
tempting to pass up. She took the cup and sipped at it. Bliss crossed her face,
chased by annoyance. “Merry Christmas,” she muttered. “Are you here to make
sure I make it to my destination?”
            “I’m here
to make sure you’re safe, ma’am.”
            “I don’t
need a babysitter,” she said. “Where am I going to go? Out the airlock for a
nice breathtaking walk? You should be
home with your family. It’s Christmas.”
            He laughed.
It was a nice laugh, she thought. He was a man no one would look at twice –
she’d bet real money his forgettable face got him his job – but she would
remember his laugh. A rich rumble seemed to emanate from his entire chest. He
stuck out his hand.
            “Garrison Harding,” he offered. “Call me Garry.”
            She shook the hand and tried to plaster a sincere smile
on her face. “Marianne. But I bet you already know that.”
            He chuckled.
            “You’re way too cheerful, Garry.” Marianne took several
swallows of her mochaccino.
            His eyes twinkled as he took a sip of his own coffee. It
was black and smelled like a dark roast. “I wasn’t up late at a Christmas Eve
party,” he commented.
            Marianne frowned. Everybody from Central Command seemed
to know everything she ever did. “It was my last chance to see my friends for a
very long time,” she pointed out.
            Garry cleared his throat and looked sympathetic. “Right,
sorry.”
            “So why are you here, Garry?” she asked. “It can’t be
just to make sure I don’t run away, when I have every intention of arriving at
my destination.”
            “Are you sure about that?”
            “What, that you’re here for some other reason, or that I
intend to reach my destination?”
            There was that cheerful twinkle again. “The latter.”
            Marianne took another long drink. “I’ve spent the last three
weeks getting used to the idea. I’m okay with it. Why is everybody so
suspicious of me? I never even threatened to run away.”
            “You should slow down on the mochaccino,” he said,
ignoring her comment. “It’s high test. You might buzz yourself into an alternate
dimension.”
            “I already have. I come from a dimension where I’m
cheerfully passing out Christmas presents to lonely old people with no
families.”
            Garry’s response was lost to an announcement over the
comms that passengers were now free to move about the compartments. Garry
unbuckled and got to his feet. Marianne stared at the seat he’d just vacated,
wondering what use was a seatbelt on a spaceship.
            “Come along,” he said, offering Marianne a hand up.
            She glanced at his hand without moving. “Where?”
            “Your berth.”
            “I don’t have a berth.”
            He chuckled. “Yes, you do.” He held up an Interstellar
Spaceways keycard.
            Marianne’s eyes glittered. “And you think I’ll go there
with you?”
            Garry tapped his foot. “Oh really, Miss Woolsey, I can’t
bloody well brief you out here. My plan was to impart the information my
superiors want you to know until you’re too sleepy to absorb another fact, then
read a good book in the observation lounge while you nap off your Christmas
party. Does that meet with your approval?”
            “Anything your superiors wanted me to know, they could
have imparted to me yesterday, without any risk of being overheard by innocent
or not-so-innocent bystanders.”
            Garry’s eyebrows lifted. He grinned. “Very good. You’ve
learned a few things over the past three weeks.”
            Marianne allowed herself a small smile. “Thank you,” she
said. “I think.”
            “The dining room then,” Garry decided. “Are you hungry?”
            She let Garry escort her to the business class dining
room. It looked like an oversized train car, with tablecloths and breadbaskets
instead of rows of seats. Garry declined to let the maitre d’ seat them,
instead choosing the booth at the end of the dining compartment, as far from
other passengers as possible. He ordered breakfast for both of them before the
maitre d’ could get away. Marianne wasn’t surprised that he ordered her usual.
            “You’re quite the cranky traveler, Miss Woolsey,” Garry
commented, helping himself to a chocolate muffin in the breadbasket. “Your file
indicates that you’re usually even-tempered.”
            “I didn’t get much sleep last night.” She watched in
horror as Garry spread butter on his muffin. “Butter? On a chocolate muffin?”
She shuddered.
            Garry shrugged and took a bite, nodding with pleasure.
            “What do you mean, ‘my file’?”
            Garry smiled and didn’t explain. Instead, he pulled a
small tablet out of his left coat pocket and fiddled with it.
            “What are you doing?” she asked.
            “Making sure anyone who tries to listen gets an earful of
white noise,” he said. He shoved the tablet back in his pocket and turned his
attention back to Marianne. “How much do you know about the Trade Alliance?”
            “Um, that they’re a bunch of weird alien races we trade
with?” She shrugged. “The Terosha look like giant walking sticks, the Kekrax
look like upright geckos with four legs, four arms, and two tails, and it just
gets stranger from there.”
            Garry laughed. “Fair enough. What if I tell you they all warned us to leave the Tolari
alone?”
            Marianne
looked confused. “Why would they do that? It’s not like we’re going to hurt
them.”
            “They
weren’t concerned about the Tolari,” Garry clarified. “They don’t want us blundering around.”
            “Blundering
around what?”
            “We’re not sure, but we want you to keep your eyes and
ears open. Some of our associates in the Trade Alliance think there’s more going
on in Tolari space than meets the eye. None of them will say what.”
            “But the Tolari haven’t even invented air travel yet.”
            “Yes well.” Garry paused while a waiter delivered their
breakfasts. When they were alone again, he continued. “We have no doubt Tolari
technology is backward, though the culture is quite civilized. Perhaps you can
find out if there’s something else going on, or if our space-faring friends are
simply skittish.”
            “I’m not a spook,” Marianne protested, digging into her
poached egg on toast and spooning some yogurt over her fruit.
            “No,” Garry said, “and we don’t want you to be. If the
Sural is astute, he’ll expect anybody we send will be watching him and
reporting what they see, but we didn’t train you because it would cause changes
in your behavior that he would notice. Instantly. The Tolari are keen
observers. They can almost read your mind from your body language, and they
know if you’re lying or hiding something.”
            Marianne grimaced.
            “Yes, we know what a private person you are. Just be
yourself. That’s all they want.”
            She heaved a sigh. “That I can do.”
Excerpt from The Marann, Chapter Two.

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