Disclaimer: Joss Whedon created Riley Finn; Isaac Asimov created The Black Widowers; and Mark Twain is the author of the translation from German that Geoffrey Avalon quotes.
The title is also derived from that of a terrific story by James Tiptree, Jr., which is otherwise unrelated to the current one.
X X X X X
And the Black Widowers are . . .
Geoffrey Avalon, patent attorney; James Drake, chemist; Mario Gonzalo, artist; Roger Halsted, junior high math teacher (absent this evening); Manny Rubin, mystery novelist; Thomas Trumbull, US government code expert.
Henry Jackson, waiter.
Thomas Trumbull couldn't come up the steps leading to the private room of the Milano saying, "A scotch and soda for a dying man!" per his usual, because this month, at the regular meeting of the Black Widowers, the guest was his.
Said guest had been introduced to them all as Colonel Riley Finn of Army Special Forces, though he wasn't in uniform. "I don't wear the uniform all the time," he explained. "One of the benefits of being in my particular division is that you get a lot more latitude to dress and act for the occasion." Colonel Finn was drinking a beer -- not a typical drink for a guest of the Black Widowers, but hardly unheard of.
In fact, Geoffrey Avalon had been the last one to arrive on this particular occasion, Roger Halsted being unable to attend because of a death in the family. It had occurred to each of the Black Widowers on more than one occasion that more and more they were getting to be what remained of their compatriots -- with even Manny Rubin’s old friend (no matter how much Rubin tried to deny it) Isaac Asimov having died well over a decade previously.
It was one of the things that made them relish these meetings all the more, because at least for an evening such thought could be put aside.
Mario Gonzalo took a break from drawing his usual caricature of their guest -- he'd chosen to put Colonel Finn in a heavily medaled uniform and sunglasses, almost like MacArthur, complete with pipe -- and said, "Are you off duty now, Colonel?"
"Following up on an assignment at the moment," he said. "Doing some research as to why certain things went wrong on the mission."
"What things?'“ Rubin asked.
Before Colonel Finn could answer, James Drake said, "That would be grilling, wouldn't it, Tom?"
Rubin held up his hands. "No need for a ruling. I withdraw the question."
"Wise of you," Geoffrey Avalon said.
"One supposes," Gonzalo said scornfully, "That even a blind pig can find an acorn every now and again."
"You shouldn't be denigrating the blind, Mario," Rubin said. "I've seen your artwork."
"So you're not disputing the pig accusation?" Gonzalo asked.
Finn laughed ruefully and, while the seemingly endless dispute between Gonzalo and Rubin continued, said, “Pigs,” in an odd way. Then he said, “Are they always like that?”
Avalon answered. “No. Occasionally they can really get into a verbal scuffle.”
Trumbull added, “Don’t let the arguing fool you. They really are quite good friends. They’ll give each other anything except a compliment.” Then, quietly, “Glad you’re over here, Geoff.”
“What is it?” Avalon asked.
“A while back you brought in a guest named Rupert Giles,” he said/
Colonel Finn’s head shot up at that one. “You know Giles?”
Avalon said, “His family and mine are well-acquainted. There are branches of my family who do the same work he does.”
“No need to dance around,” Trumbull said. “Colonel Finn is well acquainted with Mr. Giles’ work.”
“So you recognize the existence of . . . sentient beings on this planet other than humans?”
Another rueful smile. “Sometimes it seems to be my life’s work, Mr. Avalon.”
“The thing is,” Trumbull said, “He has a problem related to that, and I was hoping we could try to work it out tonight. But you remember how everyone else reacted last time.”
“I could handle the grilling,” Avalon said.
“My exact thoughts,” Trumbull said.
“Everyone in here can be trusted, right?” Finn asked a bit worriedly.
“Absolutely,” Avalon said. “In point of fact, if you told us tonight that you had murdered a dozen people, we would be honor-bound not to tell anyone outside this room. That rule is an inviolable part of the meetings of the Black Widowers.”
“Even him?” the colonel asked, pointing to the man who had just entered the room.
“Especially him,” Trumbull said with a grin.
And then the man in question, the inestimable Henry, cut through Mario and Manny’s argument by simply announcing, “Gentlemen. Dinner is served.”
They all walked in and began eating. The opener was a delicious Caesar salad, followed shortly by garlic bread.
“Better than MRE’s, Colonel Finn,” Drake said.
“They’ve actually improved the MRE’s in the last decade or so,” the soldier said. “They’re not quite the cosmic joke I understand they used to be considered. Now they’re simply at the level of your average $1.50 box of microwaveable spaghetti and meatballs.” A pause, then. “Assuming any of you would ever eat such a thing.”
Everyone turned to look at Manny Rubin, who said, “Not even at my stingiest.”
“Edible, then?” Avalon asked.
“Yes. But nothing more than that. My wife and I rarely get to eat at places this fancy.”
As Henry cleared the plates and brought out the seafood gumbo, the discussion was bouncing between restaurants, food, and the military, staying mostly to generalizations.
As Henry served the brandy after the coffee, Trumbull said, “Geoff? If you’d do the honors?”
“Certainly,” Avalon said. “Colonel Finn: How do you justify your existence?”
“Tough one to start out with, huh? Fair enough. Mr. Trumbull said I had to be ready to answer anything. I suppose I justify it by saying that, as a soldier, I have done my part to keep the United States and the world safe.”
“How so?” Drake asked.
“By investigating, gauging, and sometimes taking care of threats to our national security.”
“And by taking care of you mean killing?” Rubin asked.
“Where necessary. It’s not the part of my job that I enjoy. I realize that there is a perception among some that soldiers, especially those in special ops units like mine, must enjoy killing to be effective. That‘s not the case. My job is to avoid that whenever possible. And do something about it quickly, when it’s not.”
“I actually invited Colonel Finn here because he has a problem,” Trumbull said.
“Of course he does,” Rubin said. “What is it?”
“There’s something I need to explain first,” Avalon said. “Remember Rupert Giles?”
“That British friend of yours who ran that ‘magic store?’” Gonzalo asked, and you could hear the quotation marks when he spoke.
“Yes,” Avalon said. “Colonel Finn deals with the same types of beings.”
“Not this again,” Gonzalo said explosively.
“Yes,” Trumbull said. “This. Again. I’m not saying that the vast majority of so-called magic isn’t charlatanry and fraud, Mario. But there is that small percentage that is not. Colonel Finn, like Mr. Giles, deals with that small percentage.”
Looking around the room, Gonzalo said, “Are the rest of you going along with this?”
Drake said, shrugging, “Geoff and Tom’s word is good enough for me.”
Gonzalo said, “Manny?”
“The world must be coming to an end, Mario, because I agree with you.” After a second, he added, “Still, I don’t see what harm can come from listening to the story.”
“Looks like you’d be outvoted, even if this was a democracy,” Trumbull said. “Geoff?”
Gonzalo said, “Henry?”
“I, too, see no reason not to take Mr. Trumbull and Mr. Avalon at their words,” he said. “They are presumably not of the mind of that guest we had years ago, who falsified information in order to deceive you into believing that a supernatural incident had taken place. I see no divide between assuming that the majority of those who claim to have abilities beyond those of the rest of us, or those who claim that other beings exist, are either faking or deluded, and assuming that Mr. Trumbull and Mr. Avalon are telling the truth.”
“As they see it,” Gonzalo grumbled.
“Just so, sir,” Henry said.
“If I may?” Avalon asked. “Colonel Finn, what is your problem?”
Drake added, “And does it have something to do with why you seemed so amused by the word ‘pig’ earlier?”
“Dead on, Mr. Drake,” the colonel said. “Nice catch.”
“Actual swine?” Rubin asked.
“No. Slang use of the word.”
Thinking a bit, Rubin said, “It’s a general insult for someone who’s a slob; I assume it’s more specific than that.”
“It is,” Finn said.
Avalon said, frowning in thought, “It is derogatory for law enforcement –“ the colonel shook his head no – “And, although it’s no longer used in this fashion quite as commonly as it used to be, it can refer to someone who is exhibiting sexist behaviors, usually accompanied by either that word or ‘chauvinist.”
“Exactly –” Finn began.
Rubin interrupted him, saying, “You know, I’ve always hated to see the language debased like that. Chauvinism used to be a term that referred to any kind of excessive zeal. It’s not really necessary to limit it to the meaning of ‘sexist.’”
“Not necessary, perhaps,” Avalon said, “But, unfortunately, Manny, I fear we have long since passed the point of no return there. Colonel Finn. Pray continue.”
The colonel nodded and said, “Will do. My people and I were negotiating with a tribe of – well, demons--”
This time everyone turned to look at Gonzalo, who said, “Sure. If we’re conceding magic and cyborgs, why not demons?”
Colonel Finn’s face darkened slightly when he heard the word cyborg, but he continued, “In any event, this tribe – the Monsedi -- held sway over an area that would have granted us easy access to our actual targets, who were a group of other demons who were terrorizing the area and killing a lot of the natives. We only found out about it when some American tourists got killed and the survivors started screaming to the government.”
“Of course,” Rubin muttered. “Someone’s killing the locals, no problem. But the second they start killing Americans –”
“I could go on about how I’m part of the American armed forces,” Finn said. “But the truth is, I mostly agree with you. Still, my team can’t solve problems it doesn’t know about. The deaths of the locals didn’t reach anyone who could do anything about it. The American deaths did. And we were planning to make sure these demonic terrorists weren’t about to kill anyone else – native or not.” He paused, then went on, “Anyway. The Monsedi weren’t hurting anyone, and for folks like that it isn’t our policy to simply go in, shoot first, and ask questions never.” A slight grin and then, “Well, it’s not my policy. And Sam -- that’s my wife -- would kill me if I started acting that way. The problem is that the Monsedi are -- what’s the word for ‘the women run the show?’ Sam used it once but I don’t remember.”
“Matriarchy?” Drake offered.
Finn shook his head. “No, that’s not it.”
“Gynocracy?” Avalon asked.
“That’s it. Thanks. Monsedi women are better, stronger, faster, and smarter than the Monsedi men. So much so that when we first approached them they went to Sam, assuming she was in charge. My unit’s adaptable. We pretty much have to be. If they wanted to negotiate with my wife, then that’s the way we’d play it.”
Trumbull said, “Surprising that the army would allow you to be that flexible.”
“There are bureaucrats everywhere,” Finn admitted. “Fortunately, my chain of command skips most of them. People aren’t assigned to even know about my unit unless they’ve developed a certain amount of flexibility.”
“And imagination,” Gonzalo said, but not in a hostile tone.
“And imagination,” Finn confirmed. “Believe me. We tried the unimaginative ‘kill everything’ route. Mr. Trumbull can confirm how well that worked. For the record, it didn’t.”
“Also surprising that the army has male and female soldiers in a combat unit,” Avalon observed.
“When I say flexible,” Finn said, “I mean it. Anyway. Eventually we managed to come to an agreement: The Monsedi would allow a small group of us go through -- at least half of whom had to be female -- and we had to provide a complete description of who was going through and what they’d be taking with them.”
“And when and where?”
“We’d have a window, and the where was wherever,” Finn said. “My wife is not stupid. Neither were the Monsedi. They knew we would suspect a trap if they demanded everything, and so they left that much up to us. As for the descriptions, there’s where the problem comes in.”
“Let me guess,” Rubin said. “They insisted you use their language, and none of you spoke it.”
Finn laughed. “No. None of us COULD have spoken their language. We’d need a dozen extra teeth and a nose like a baby elephant. No, what they gave us firm instructions to do was “not to use any sexist language” in our descriptions.”
“A test?” Avalon asked.
“If it was, we failed,” Finn said. “We gave them the list -- which had been carefully gone over by everyone in the unit, male and female -- and they went off to read it. When they got back, they handed us the paper and told us our request was denied, and that if they saw any of us on their territory, they would attack. My wife asked why, and was told, ‘We told you not to use any sexist language,” before they turned around and walked away.”
“That’s not the end of it,” Drake said. “Is it?”
“No. We eventually caught and killed the killer demons without needing to enter Monsedi territory. But it took us a lot longer -- and while no one died, it was close with a lot of them.”
Gonzalo, in the spirit despite his annoyance, said, “And you have no idea what you wrote that set them off?”
“No. When we got back, I had it looked over by feminists, diplomats, and grammarians and not a single one could figure out what had ticked off the Monsedi.”
“Where were you?” Drake asked. “If you don’t want to be specific --”
“Peru,” Finn said. “In and around the rainforest.”
“How many of your people speak Spanish?” Drake asked.
Finn shook his head. “I get where you’re going, Mr. Drake, but that’s not it. About half of us speak Spanish to some level; five members have it as one of their first languages. But they weren’t speaking or writing in Spanish, but English.”
“Why?” Rubin asked.
“They said it was the least sexist of all human languages,” Finn said.
“It’s what Mark Twain was referring to in his essay on German,” Avalon said. “In literal translation, ‘Where is the turnip? She is on the table. Where is the accomplished and beautiful maiden? It has gone to the opera.’ Even the articles change. Un and une are male and female versions, in French, of the indefinite article.”
Rubin looked dubious. “There are many examples of sexism in English, if you look at the etymology,” he said. “Testify, for instance, comes from the old custom of placing one’s hands on one’s testes while swearing out an oath. Difficult to do for a woman.”
“We didn’t use the word ‘testify,” Finn said. “We used names and physical descriptions only, plus the equipment they carried.”
“Yes, but can you be certain that none of your words’ etymology was similar?”
“I couldn’t be, but none of the experts flagged them,” Finn said. “The grammarians dug into word origins, believe me.”
“I assume you didn’t use anything on the order of ‘waitress,” Gonzalo said.
“No,” Finn said. “Everyone in my unit is a soldier and was described as such. With rank, of course.”
“Could it be something as simple as having put a man in charge of the mission?”
“I didn’t,” Finn said curtly. “The Monsedi didn’t say that that would be an issue, but I didn’t want to take the chance.”
Drake said, “How were your soldiers described?”
“By their statistics alone,” Finn said. “Five feet ten inches tall, 180 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes. He will be carrying a rifle -- and several other weapons I’m not going to detail. I did detail them for the Monsedi, though.”
“Possibly slang? Could one of the words have been a slang term derogatory towards women in some way?”
“Not as far as we could tell,” Finn said. “Some people were described as carrying pistols, but if the Monsedi were going to be that sensitive there was no way we were ever going to secure passage. And it didn’t seem like they were simply jerking us around. They were negotiating in earnest, I’m sure of it.”
There was silence for a few moments; finally Avalon said, “Well, unfortunately, that seems to be what we’re left with -- Henry?”
“Pardon me, Colonel Finn. May I ask a question?”
“How many people were detailed to go on this mission?”
“How many were men and how many women?”
“Five of each.”
“With varying hair colors?” Henry asked.
“ -- yes.”
“Yes -- where are you going with this?”
Rubin said, “Damn it! Of course!”
“Of course what, Manny?” Gonzalo asked. Drake, Trumbull and Avalon echoed the question.
“You figured it out again, Henry,” Rubin said. “Go ahead and finish.”
“Thank you, sir. Something Mr. Avalon said made me think - - it was when he mentioned the indefinite articles of French. French, as well as many other languages, contains many words that change in spelling depending on whether they are being used to describe a man or a woman. Modern English contains only one such word. That word is ‘blonde,' which is spelled without the terminal e when referring to a man --”
“And with one when referring to a woman,” Finn said. “Of course. That has to be it. Jason Whitlock and Livia Hutzler both have hair that exact color.” Another rueful chuckle. “Congratulations, Henry. You’ve just solved a problem that’s been baffling the US Army for well over a month now.” Half in jest, he added, “Any chance we could get you to come work for us?”
Henry smiled. “I appreciate the offer, sir, but I am quite content working here.”