Reaching An Understandingbyoptimizer888©
(This story takes place in the "Newer Universe" series.)
As he stood up from the limousine, the first bellboy pounced. "Welcome, sir. Please follow me. Joseph, help them with the bags." (You look rich. So let Joe do the work, and give me the tip.)
The young man introduced himself as he led them across the lobby past the front desk. "I'm Peter. Anything you need, just let me know, sir." (Keep the cash flowing, and I'll suck up just as much as you like.)
He provided the essential service of pushing the 'up' button on the elevator panel. When Peter turned, he stiffened, just for a moment, as he took note of the two men who'd followed from the car. Humorless, dark clothing, intent. Bodyguards.
The door opened, allowing them all to board. "Will you be staying with us for a while, sir?" (How much cash are we likely to extract from you, anyway?)
"My plans are not settled yet." (Excessive curiosity jeopardizes your tip.)
He stole a glance at the impassive faces at the front and side of the elevator. "I see, sir." (Shit! I'm sorry, I'll be good!)
Thereafter Peter was a model of laconic decorum as he showed them the facilities of the executive suite. Two large bedrooms, two bathrooms, a well-appointed central room. It would do.
Joseph arrived with the bags as Peter was finishing. Thame pulled out his wallet and presented each man with a fresh twenty. He nodded to Joseph. "Your efforts are appreciated." (Your efforts - as opposed to Peter's - are appreciated.)
The bellhops left with dissimilar expressions - Joseph smiling, Peter nervous.
Stephan and Alejandro had already begun sweeping the rooms, attempting to satisfy themselves no traps or bugs lurked about. Thame loosened his tie, opened his briefcase, and started looking over the faxed reports from far-flung subordinates. Most of them were garbled and scrambled. Useless... to anyone but him.
The border dispute between China and India bore watching. It would be stupid for either side to escalate - but nations weren't always sensible. And when they weren't, there was often money to be had. Which side would be better to sign on with, though? At first glance, India seemed more promising, all told. More accepting of mercenaries. But long-term concerns might urge a different choice.
He'd had time to get through two briefings before his security team conceded they couldn't find issues... yet. Thame gathered up the papers and made for the desk in one of the bedrooms.
Alejandro spoke up as he passed. "Need anything, sir?" (Will you be working long?)
"Not at the moment." (Into the night, I fear.) "Perhaps you could look into some companionship for the evening?" (Get me a girl. You know what I like.)
"I'll check, sir," Alejandro replied. (I don't care how horny - or lonely - you are, security comes first.)
"That will be all for now, I think." (I'll stay here until morning, just keep the room secure.)
"Fine, sir." (Keep the shades drawn this time.)
He had some difficulty getting back to the briefings. It was disconcerting how much had changed in eight months. He hadn't rated such elaborate protection before.
Stephan and Alejandro had always been assigned to high-risk clients since he'd hired them. Former soldiers in Spain, they had become bodyguards afterward. Set assassins to block assassins, went the logic - and it had proven sound logic several times.
But his own risk was rather higher, now.
Her voice sounded sharp, but it wasn't the phone's fault. Her frustration would have been obvious, even before. "Two weeks?" (Your daughters are growing up without you!)
"Nichevo." (It can't be helped.) Usually he stuck to Greek anymore, though sprinkled with words from a dozen other tongues. Such as that wonderful Russian term. It conveyed resignation and fatalism so perfectly.
As his first language, though, Greek was the easiest to carefully phrase things in. There had been some embarrassing incidents before he'd hit upon the trick of making neutral comments, letting the message he intended get conveyed.
Portia didn't sound mollified. "Come home as soon as you can." (Or else.) "I love you." (Though you make it hard sometimes.)
"I love you too." (Despite your harangues.) "See you soon." (As I can.)
He hung up the phone and sat for a moment. This life had never been in his plans. When he'd gone into intelligence, it had been in a nice quiet office. Even when he'd worked late, it was only twenty minutes from home.
Now he was away far more often, and for far longer, than ever before. And he still wasn't sure if his family was safer or not.
Alejandro would give him hell later, he knew, but he pulled open the curtains and looked out at the clouds. Natural scenes were restful now. If trees or clouds or mountains or rivers contained messages from God... those, at least, he could not interpret.
He went back to reviewing more reports, jotting down recommendations. Choosing clients was enormously more important now. They needed jobs Scylla could accomplish - ideally ones no one else could do. But they couldn't be jobs that would make irreconcilable enemies.
Not yet, at least...
A knock at the door to his room. Stephan leaned in. "Sir? Dinner is here." (I agree with Alejandro about the drapes, you know.)
"Thank you." (Fine, fine. I'm closing them.)
The evening sun had just fully set when another knock came at the door. Alejandro called through, "Sir?" (She's here. The girl you wanted.)
"A moment." (Let me secure my papers.)
It took scant seconds to store the reports in his briefcase and lock it. He came to the door and opened it.
Stephan had the better English. "Mr. Panagitis will see you now." (She's clean, no weapons.)
Thame's eyes widened briefly. The young woman was, of course, attractive. He'd guess her at one hundred seventy centimeters without the heels, clean-limbed, with a slender waist that accented her rounded bosom and hips. Full lips, nose slightly wide, open brown eyes. Smooth skin, naturally. All to be expected, given the price he could afford to pay. What he hadn't expected was the tone of the the skin - a rich brown, coffee with at most a hint of cream. And her black hair was lustrous, but tightly curled.
Her dress was tan, sleeveless, and while not overly tight, followed her curves with suppleness. As befitted her station as a higher-end escort, the skirt was above the knee but comfortably below the hips. The neckline revealed an enticing rather than titillating amount of cleavage. The heels matched the dress and were perhaps just a centimeter or two higher than average. A light wrap, necessary on a March evening, hung off one arm. She held a small red clutch in one hand; he noted the shade matched her nails.
She stepped forward, smile firmly in place. "Very pleased to meet you, Mr. Panagitis." (I think maybe you're not pleased to meet me. But I'm a competent professional.)
He smiled himself as he stepped back, waving her into the bedroom. "Thame, by all means. And you are?" (Let's be friendly, or at least professional.)
"Candace. Or Candy. You pick." Her smile never wavered, but he sensed her meaning. (It'll help tell me what kind of night I'm in for.) While she approached, she was taking in data - his dark hair and eyes, his beard, the slight frown-lines around his eyes. His tall frame, square though not overbroad shoulders. His expensive shirt and shoes, the fashionably-pastel suit pants.
"I'm pleased to meet you as well, Candace." (I'd prefer a young woman, not a girl.) She brushed by him and he closed the door.
Her eyes were making an experienced sweep of the room as she set her wrap and purse down on the table by the door. Taking in the tidiness, the lack of alcohol smell. The matching jacket and tie set neatly aside. "You seemed a little surprised just now." (You're disappointed I'm not white, right?)
"A surprise is usually an opportunity, I've found." (Actually, I'm intrigued.)
"Have you been to Atlanta before?" (Haven't run into too many black people, have you?)
Americans had such a toxic attitude about race. Slavery had left deep wounds that had closed with a great deal of scar tissue. Europe's colonialism had been no better in practice, except that it had fostered a certain isolation. Racism by policy, not everyday behavior. Segregation was less marked.
"No, though it seems a very pleasant city. Certainly the people are interesting." (Please, relax. I'm not what you fear.)
A very slight frown as she visibly put the issue aside. "Where are you from?" (I can't figure out if you have an accent or not.)
"Greece, originally. Now... an endless number of hotels, it seems." (I'm hoping for some companionship as well as sex.)
"Wow, you sound like you grew up around here." For once, words and intent were congruent.
He replied with the same alignment. "I have a special talent for languages."
She glanced at the door. "Are those guys gonna stay out there?" Several meanings there. (I don't want an audience) along with (I want to be able to run if you turn out to be a creep) and (If you need bodyguards, I don't want to get in any crossfire).
He responded in kind. "They're very discreet." (I'm the only one you're here to entertain) along with (You have nothing to fear from me) and (They're just a precaution).
She paused a moment, then seemed to decide to accept his words again. "You're a good-looking man," she drawled, just a hint of slyness in her tone, her eyes. (How should I play this? Are you the kind who likes the idea of screwing a slut, or do you want me to pretend to be into you specifically?)
Thame smiled. "Ah, but seldom have I seen beauty like yours." (I'd prefer at least the illusion of personal interest, please.) He could see that she was a trifle unnerved, both by how perceptive and how expressive he could be.
And she had no idea what was to come.
He had been a professor of linguistics and history. Fluent in nine languages, competent in half a dozen more. It had been a key reason he'd been tapped by Greece's Central Intelligence Service. He'd translated intercepted data, dabbled in code-breaking, briefed diplomats. Things had been difficult at first, since the bulk of the CIS had a military background and retained a certain reflexive disdain for civilians - particularly academics. He'd only served the compulsory term when he'd turned eighteen.
But he'd proven himself, and frequently demonstrated the value of his encyclopedic study of military history. He'd read Sun Tsu in the original.
His career had been going well... until his immediate superior had been forced out by Papandreau and Politis in '84. He'd seen the writing on the wall and retired soon after, to found a security consultancy. He'd named it "Scylla", almost as a joke. The contacts he'd made along the way allowed him to attract some talented and experienced personnel, and given him some lucky breaks on clients.
Then, on the evening of July 22nd, 1986, came the White Event. A bright light had shone down everywhere on Earth, all at once. A few heartbeats of white-out blindness, and all had - apparently - returned to normal.
Less than two days later, he'd discovered that some things had changed a great deal. That he, himself, had been altered.
He'd felt strangely alert as he read the morning paper, perceiving subtle implications in the stories. His daughters had been somehow more expressive, more melodramatic, as they conversed over breakfast. But he had put it down to an odd mood. He'd gone in to work and almost forgotten about it.
By the afternoon, though, he'd no longer been able to deny that something strange was happening. Reviewing the Pushtun texts he'd been laboring through the day before, he found them trivial to decipher, pellucid. He grasped vocabulary and grammatical constructions he couldn't recall even studying. Profoundly disturbed, he'd gone to the university library and found some books in the Devandagari script - based on Sanskrit, a language family he'd never had the opportunity to investigate.
He could read them effortlessly. What should have been incomprehensible scribbles were bursting with meaning. He absorbed not just the words themselves, but what the author had intended to convey. He couldn't avoid it.
He explored other shelves. It was the same everywhere. He had lost the ability to misunderstand or misinterpret any text, in whatever form. He brought up pictures of Cuneiform tablets with a microfiche reader and read lists of cattle herds and bales of wheat.
At that point he sat back in his chair, almost trembling, fearing he might go mad. Or more likely, had already done so.
Behind him, two asiatic men - graduate students, clearly - were discussing a recent automotive show in their home country. And though they were speaking Indonesian - another language he'd never scratched the surface of - he understood it all, even the slang.
Panicked, he bolted upright. He tripped over the chair and fell in a sprawl. The two young men ran over. One said, in heavily accented, slightly hesitant Greek, "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine," Thame had replied.
The man's eyes widened and he smiled. "I don't hear many people speak my dialect around here!" He'd returned to Indonesian.
"I'm sorry?" Thame managed, after a moment.
"No offense, I was just surprised. Your accent is perfect, you sound like you grew up in Jakarta."
A wild suspicion flared in Thame's mind. He told them, truthfully, that he'd always had a knack for languages.
But he said it in Russian: "U menya vsegda byl talant k yazykam."
The other man smiled. "That's an amazing gift. How long have you been studying Indonesian?"
Floundering, he muttered, "Très récemment."
The first one shook his head, still using a language Thame had no Earthly reason for understanding. "I wish I had your ear. I've been here two years and I still struggle with Greek."
"Wô de zôuliâo. Dziękuję za pomoc." Thame said desperately, and fled.
"Terima kasih kembali!" (You're welcome!) chased him down the hall.
That night, Thame was silent all through dinner. He didn't need any magical powers to sense the concern his wife felt. Later, alone in their bedroom, he'd confided in her. If he was going insane, she should be warned.
When he'd finished, Portia sat quietly for a moment. Then she spoke. "I won't say it's impossible. It has happened before." She squinted at him, torn between concern and amusement. "But you are no apostle!"
His bewildered stare finally made her laugh. Still chuckling, she walked to her nightstand and withdrew her Bible. She paged through it for a few moments, then handed it to him wordlessly, pointing to a passage.
Thame read through all of Acts 2. When he finished, he looked up at her. She had always been more devout than him. It would have been hard to be less so. But now... "Am I to be a prophet, then?"
At that, she became serious. "I don't know. But you cannot deny there have been signs in the heavens!" She shook her head, slowly. "Show me this gift of yours."
He told her she was beautiful, three times, in three different tongues. By the end she was scowling, watching his lips intently. He hung there, wondering which verdict he feared more.
Almost in a whisper, she said, "It's true. I heard you speaking our mother tongue, but your mouth..."
After a while, he reached out for her. She clutched him close. Somehow even her embrace carried a message - What are we going to do?
He hugged her close, but he knew his own response was involuntarily transmitted - I don't know.
Three weeks later, he'd met Jesse, the contortionist. It hadn't been simply a matter of luck - he'd been putting out feelers for unusual phenomena. Still, he hadn't anticipated that there might be multiple different types of mutation out there. That had been another revelation. One that forced him to make a decision.
The logic was inevitable. Such abilities and traits would be too fascinating to ignore, if only for scientific research, even had they been useless. The fact that they were often useful - in cases like his own, invaluable - meant that there would be furious competition as soon as the players realized a new aspect of the old game had opened up.
There were only two obvious options. Secrecy was one - but only complete secrecy. And he had, all unwitting, given up the ability to hide. Eventually the various parties would grasp what the White Event had wrought. At that point anyone who'd showed a sudden interest in fringe ideas would be investigated. Alone, he'd be in the worst possible situation - an attractive target. Powerful enough to be worth securing, but not powerful enough to defend himself.
The other obvious course was to pick a side. If he did it quickly enough, he might secure a better deal. However, he knew from long experience that deals were only honored for as long as the most powerful side saw an advantage in it. He would become a vassal, a slave in all but name, soon enough.
There was one last path to take, not obvious at all. Risky - extremely risky. But with the head start he'd been given, perhaps just possible.
"You seem to travel pretty light," Candace said, smiling. (No special equipment, or drugs, I hope.)
He smirked, self-deprecating. "My needs are modest." (I'm not particularly kinky.)
Her head tilted just a touch, curious. "But somehow, I don't think you're a simple man." (I shouldn't pry, but you bother me a little, somehow.)
A humble shrug, still smiling. "Uncomplicated enough for tonight." (Whatever else I may be, for you I am simply a customer.)
A short hesitation. "For tonight, then." (I don't know why... but I think I believe you.)
Thame knew why. People instinctively trusted what he said. He could withhold truth; even deceive, with effort, by presenting incomplete facts. But bald lies were beyond him now, and his involuntary clarity came through to the subconscious, at least.
She sat down on the edge of the table; the way her toes flexed said, Ahh. Stupid heels.
"Are you from this area?" (You seem an intelligent girl. What led you to this line of work?) Along with the subtext, he knew, his lack of judgment would be conveyed. He asked simply from curiosity.
"I'm actually from Tennessee, but I'm attending GSU. Pre-law." (This profession isn't my life. It's a means to an end.)
"I've no doubt you'll go far." Absent his gift, the deadpan delivery might have been mistaken for sarcasm. Instead, she had no trouble reading his sincerity.
"So what brings you all the way from Greece?" (Do you want to talk - or brag - about work?)
"Just business." (I wish to actively avoid talking about work.) "I may have time for a meal or two, though. Any recommendations?" (Let's try another topic.)
"Well, there's the Sun Dial, right upstairs..." (Expensive, but if you can afford this hotel, you can swing it.)
"Perhaps something a touch more far-ranging." (I'm not looking for hotel food. I'm interested in actual local cuisine.)
"Oh, in that case... well, there's Pittypat's Porch." (Not sure how bodyguards would look there, though.) She smiled impishly. "And I'm not supposed to like it, but the Varsity by Georgia Tech has the best hot dogs." (A school-rivalry thing. But I don't take that stuff seriously.)