Turning to the Novelette category, we come to Paul Cornell’s “The Copenhagen Interpretation,” published in Asimov’s. Read it here.
How do you do, Mr. Bond–er, Mr. Hamilton, isn’t it? There is a cold war on, and secret agents work covertly on behalf of their respective countries, with the aim of maintaining the balance between the great powers. Only the balance of power saves the entire world, and solar system, from a final cataclysmic war. A mysterious woman has come to the British Embassy in Copenhagen, agitated, speaking a language that the staff cannot understand. Hamilton is sent to make contact with her quickly and act immediately, for she is believed to be Lustre Saint Clair, who carries a dangerous secret, information that, in the wrong hands, could bring about the collapse of the balance. And she is a woman from Hamilton’s past–fifteen years past, when they had had an affair and Hamilton had learned that she was fatally indiscreet:
Lustre was a secretary for Lord Surtees, but she had told Hamilton, during that night of greater intimacy, that this was basically a lie, that she was also a courier, that in her head was the seed for a diplomatic language, that sometimes she would be asked to speak the words that made it grow into her, and then she would know no other language, and be foreign to all countries apart from the dozen people in court and government with whom she could converse. In the event of capture, she would say other words, or her package would force them on her, and she would be left with a language, in thought and memory as well as in speech, spoken by no other, which any other would be unable to learn, and she would be like that unto death, which, cut off from the sum of mankind that made the balance as she would be, would presumably and hopefully soon follow.
This is an alternate Earth, with strange technology that has strange names: folds, observers, notes (implanted eye devices), embroidery (telecommunications network) and seeds, among others. As in a Bond flick, there is a lot of action, a fiery explosion, and a grandiose villain (actually a pair of them) with designs on the world. Also typical of my experience with a Bond film, I had trouble figuring out exactly what was going on, what with all false information and hidden identities and what-was-that technological marvels. Like James Bond, Hamilton has superb self-control, dedication to the cause, and a touch of panache. (He even gets in a classic Bond wisecrack at the death of a foe.)
The author occasionally has some clunker sentences (see the tangle of the last one in the quote above) and is way too fond of punctuating with “!?” But who cares? Good action and suspense, and a fun read. I’ll be looking for the other stories in this series.