Illyan came back promptly for Bothari, barely an hour later. This was followed for Cordelia by twelve hours alone. She considered escaping the room, as her soldierly duty, and engaging in a little one-woman sabotage. But if Vorkosigan was indeed directing a full retreat, it would hardly do to interfere.
She lay on his bed in a black weariness. He had betrayed her; he was no better than the rest of them. "My perfect warrior, my dear hypocrite"—and it appeared Vorrutyer had known him better than she, after all—no. That was unjust. He had done his duty, in extracting that information; she had done the same, in concealing it for as long as possible. And as one soldier to another, even if an ersatz one—five hours active service, was it?—she had to agree with Illyan, it had been smooth. She could detect no aftereffects at all in herself from whatever he had used for the secret invasion of her mind.
Whatever he had used . . . What, indeed, could he have used? Where had he cadged it, and when? Illyan hadn't brought it to him. He had been as surprised as she when Vorkosigan dropped that bit of intelligence. One must either believe he kept a secret stash of interrogation drugs hidden in his quarters, or . . .
"Dear God," she whispered, not a curse, but a prayer. "What have I stumbled into now?" She paced the room, the connections clicking unstoppably into place.
Heart-certainty. Vorkosigan had never questioned her; he had known about the plasma mirrors in advance.
It appeared, further, that he was the only man in the Barrayaran command who knew. Vorhalas had not. The Prince certainly had not. Nor Illyan.
"Put all the bad eggs in one basket," she muttered. "And—drop the basket? Oh, it couldn't have been his own plan! Surely not . . ."
She had a sudden horrific vision of it, all complete; the most wasteful political assassination plot in Barrayaran history, and the most subtle, the corpses hidden in a mountain of corpses, forever inextricable.
But he must have had the information from somewhere. Somewhere between the time she had left him with no worse troubles than an engine room full of mutineers, and now, struggling to pull a disarmed armada back to safety before the destruction they had unleashed crashed back on them. Somewhere in a quiet, green silk room, where a great choreographer designed a dance of death, and the honor of a man of honor was broken on the wheel of his service.
Vorrutyer of the demonic vanity shrank, and shrank, before the swelling vision, to a mouse, to a flea, to a pinprick.
"My God, I thought Aral seemed twitchy. He must be half-mad. And the Emperor—the Prince was his son. Can this be real? Or have I gone as crazy as Bothari?"
She forced herself to sit, then lie down, but the plots and counterplots still turned in her brain, an orrery of betrayal within betrayal lining up abruptly at one point in space and time to accomplish its end. The blood beat in her brain, thick and sick.
"Maybe it's not true," she consoled herself at last. "I'll ask him, and that's what he'll say. He just questioned me in my sleep. We got the drop on them, and I'm the heroine who saved Escobar. He's just a simple soldier, doing his job." She turned on her side, and stared into the dimness. "Pigs have wings, and I can fly home on one."
Illyan relieved her at last, and took her to the brig.
* * *
The atmosphere there was somewhat changed, she noticed. The guards did not look at her in the same way; in fact, they seemed to try to avoid looking at her. The procedures were still stark and efficient, but subdued, very subdued. She recognized a face; the guard who had escorted her to Vorrutyer's quarters, the one who'd pitied her, seemed to be in charge now, a pair of new red lieutenant's tabs pinned hastily and crookedly to his collar. She had donned Vorrutyer's fatigues again for the trip down. This time she was permitted to change in to the orange pajamas in physical privacy. She was then escorted to a permanent cell, not a holding area.
The cell had another occupant, a young Escobaran woman of extraordinary beauty who lay on her bunk staring at the wall. She did not look up at Cordelia's entrance, nor respond to her greeting. After a time, a Barrayaran medical team arrived and took her away. She went wordlessly, but at the door she started to struggle with them. At a sign from the doctor a corpsman sedated her with an ampule which Cordelia thought she recognized, and after another moment she was carried out unconscious.
The doctor, who from his age and rank Cordelia guessed might be the chief surgeon, stayed a short time to attend to her ribs. After that she was left alone, with nothing but the periodic delivery of rations to mark the time, and occasional changes in the slight noises and vibrations from the walls around her on which to base guesses about what was happening outside.
About eight ration packs later, as she was lying on her bunk bored and depressed, the lights dimmed. They came back, but dimmed again almost immediately.
"Awk," she muttered, as the bottom dropped out of her stomach and she began to float upward. She made a hasty grab and held on to her bunk firmly. Her foresight was rewarded a moment later when she was crushed back into it at about three gees. The lights flickered on and off again, and she was weightless once more.
"Plasma attack," she murmured to herself. "Shields must be overloaded."
A tremendous shock rattled the ship. She was flung from her bunk across the cell into total blackness, weightlessness, silence. Direct hit! She ricocheted off the far wall, flailing for a handhold, banging an elbow painfully on—a wall? the floor, the ceiling? She spun in midair, crying out. Friendly fire, she thought hysterically—I'm going to be killed by friendly fire. The perfect end to my military career . . . She clamped her jaw and listened with fierce concentration.
Too much silence. Had they lost air? She had a nasty vision of herself as the only one left alive, trapped in this black box and doomed to float until either slow suffocation or slow freezing squeezed out her life. The cell would be her coffin, to be unsealed months later by some salvage crew.
And, more horribly: could the hit have been on the bridge? The nerve center where Vorkosigan would surely be, on which the Escobarans would surely concentrate their fire—was he smashed by flying debris, flash frozen in vacuum, burned up in plasma fire, pinned somewhere between crushed decks?
Her fingers found a surface at last, and scrabbled for a hold. A corner: good. She braced herself in it, curled up on the floor, breath firing in and out of her lungs in uneven gasps.
An unknowable time passed in the stygian dark. Her arms and legs trembled with the effort of bracing herself in place. Then the ship groaned about her, and the lights came back on.
Oh hell, she thought, this is the ceiling.
The gravity returned and smashed her to the floor. Pain flashed up her left arm, and numbness. She scrambled back to the bunk, taking a white-knuckle grip on its rigid bars with her right hand, sticking one foot through as well, bracing herself again.
Nothing. She waited. There was a wetness soaking her orange shirt. She looked down to see a shard of pinkish-yellow bone poking through the skin of her left forearm, and blood welling around it. She slipped awkwardly out of her smock top, wrapping it around one arm and trying to stanch the flow. The pressure woke the pain. She tried, rather experimentally, calling out for help. Surely the cell was monitored.
No one came. Over the next three hours she varied the experiment with screaming, speaking reasonably, banging on the door and walls endlessly with her good hand, or simply sitting on the bunk crying in pain. The gravity and lights flip-flopped several more times. Finally she had the familiar sensation of being pulled inside-out through a pot of glue, marking a wormhole jump, and the environment steadied.
When the door of the cell opened at last, it startled her so she recoiled into the wall, banging her head. But it was the lieutenant in charge of the brig, with a medical corpsman. The lieutenant had an interesting reddish-purple bruise the size of an egg on his forehead; the corpsman looked harried.
"This is the next worst one," said the lieutenant to the corpsman. "After that you can just go down the row in order."
White-faced and exhausted into silence, she unwrapped her arm for examination and repair. The corpsman was competent, but lacked the delicacy of touch of the chief surgeon. She nearly fainted before the plastic cast was at last applied.
There were no more signs of attack. A clean prisoner's uniform was delivered through a wall slot. Two ration packs later she felt another wormhole jump. Her thought revolved endlessly on the wheel of her fears; her sleep was all dreams and her dreams were all nightmares.
* * *
It was Lieutenant Illyan who came to escort her at last, along with an ordinary guard. She nearly kissed him, in her joy at seeing a familiar face. Instead she cleared her throat diffidently, and asked with what she hoped would pass for nonchalance, "Was Commodore Vorkosigan all right, after that attack?"
His eyebrows rose, and he shot her a look of bemused study from beneath them. "Of course."
Of course. Of course. That "of course" even suggested, uninjured. Her eyes puddled with relief, which she attempted to mask with an expression of cool professional interest. "Where are you taking me?" she asked him, as they left the brig and started down the corridor.
"Shuttle. You're to be transferred to the POW camp planetside, until the exchange arrangements are made, and they begin shipping you all home."
"Home! What about the war?"
"Over!" She assimilated that. "Over. That was quick. Why aren't the Escobarans pursuing their advantage?"
"They can't. We've blocked the wormhole exit."
"Blocked? Not blockaded?"
"How the devil do you block a wormhole?"
"In a way, it's a very old idea. Fireships."
"Send a ship in, set up a major matter-antimatter explosion at a midpoint between nodes. It sets up a resonance—nothing else can get through for weeks, until it dies down."
Cordelia whistled. "Clever—why didn't we think of that? How do you get the pilot out?"
"Maybe that's why you didn't think of it. We don't."
"God—what a death." Her vision of it was clear and instant.
"They were volunteers."
She shook her head numbly. "Only a Barrayaran . . ." She probed for some less horrifying subject. "Did you take many prisoners?"
"Not very. Maybe a thousand in all. We left over eleven thousand ground troops behind on Escobar. It makes you rather valuable, if we have to try to trade you more than ten for one."
The prisoners' shuttle was a windowless craft, and she shared it with only two others, one of her own engineer's assistants, and the dark-haired Escobaran girl who had been in her cell. Her tech was eager to exchange stories, although he didn't have much to trade. He had spent the whole time locked in one cell with his other three shipmates, who had been taken downside yesterday.
The beautiful Escobaran, a young ensign who had been captured when her ship was disabled in the fighting for the wormhole jump to Beta Colony over two months ago, had even less to tell. "I must have lost track of time, somewhere," she said uneasily. "Not hard to do in that cell, seeing no one. Except that I woke up in their sickbay, yesterday, and couldn't remember how I'd come there."
And if that surgeon's as good as he looked, you never will, thought Cordelia. "Do you remember Admiral Vorrutyer?"
The shuttle landed at last, and the hatch was opened. A shaft of sunlight and a breath of summer-scented air fell through it, sweet green air that made them suddenly realize they had been breathing reek for days.
"Wow, where is this place?" said the technician, awed, as he stepped through the hatch, prodded by the guards. "It's beautiful."
Cordelia followed him, and laughed out loud, although not happily, in instant recognition.
The prison camp was a triple row of Barrayaran field shelters, ugly grey half-cylinders surrounded by a force screen, set at the bottom of a kilometers-wide amphitheater of dry woodland and waterfall, beneath a turquoise sky. It was a hazy, warm, quiet afternoon that made Cordelia feel she had never left.
Yes, there was even the entrance to the underground depot, not camouflaged anymore, but widened, with a great paved area for landing and loading gouged out before it, alive with shuttles and activity. The waterfall and pool were gone. She turned about, as they walked, gazing at her planet. Now that she thought about it, it seemed inevitable that they should end up here, quite logical really. She shook her head helplessly.
She and her young Escobaran companion were signed in by a neat and expressionless guard and directed to a shelter halfway down one row. They entered, to find it occupied by eleven women in a space meant for fifty. They had their choice of bunks.
They were pounced upon by the older prisoners, frantic for news. A plump woman of about forty restored order, and introduced herself.
"I'm Lieutenant Marsha Alfredi. I'm ranking officer in this shelter. Insofar as there is order in this cess pit. Do you know what the hell is going on?"
"It's been hell. The guards are pigs. Then, all of a sudden yesterday afternoon, this bunch of high-ranking Barrayaran officers came trooping through. At first we thought they were shopping for rapees, like the last bunch. But this morning about half the guards had disappeared—the worst of the lot—and been replaced by a crew that look like they're on parade. And the Barrayaran camp commandant—I couldn't believe it. They paraded him out on the shuttle tarmac this morning and shot him! In full view of everyone!"
"I see," said Cordelia, rather tonelessly. She cleared her throat. "Uh—have you heard yet? The Barrayarans have been run completely out of Escobaran local space. They're probably sending around the long way for a formal truce and some sort of negotiated settlement by now."
There was a stunned silence, then jubilation. Some laughed, some cried, some hugged each other, and some sat alone. Some broke away to spread the news to neighboring shelters and from there up and down the whole camp. Cordelia was pressed for details. She gave a brief precis of the fighting, leaving out her own exploits and the source of her information. Their joy made her a little happier, for the first time in days.
"Well, that explains why the Barrayarans have straightened up all of a sudden," said Lieutenant Alfredi. "I guess they didn't expect to be held accountable, before."
"They've got a new commander," explained Cordelia. "He's got a thing about prisoners. Win or lose, there'd have been changes with him in charge."
Alfredi didn't look convinced. "Oh? Who is he?"
"A Commodore Vorkosigan," Cordelia said neutrally.
"Vorkosigan, the Butcher of Komarr? My God, we're in for it now." Alfredi looked genuinely afraid.
"I should think you had an adequate pledge of good faith on the shuttle pad this morning."
"I should think it just proves he's a lunatic," said Alfredi. "The commandant didn't even participate in those abuses. He wasn't the worst by a long shot."
"He was the man in charge. If he knew about them, he should have stopped them. If he didn't know, he was incompetent. Either way, he was responsible." Cordelia, hearing herself defending a Barrayaran execution, stopped abruptly. "I don't know." She shook her head. "I'm not Vorkosigan's keeper."
The noise of near-riot penetrated from outside, and their shelter was invaded by a deputation of fellow prisoners, all eager to hear the rumors of peace confirmed. The guards withdrew to the perimeter and let the excitement play itself out. She had to repeat her precis, twice. Her own crew members, led by Parnell, came over from the men's side.
Parnell jumped up on a bunk to address the orange-clad crowd, shouting over the glad babble. "This lady isn't telling you everything. I had the real story from one of the Barrayaran guards. After we were taken aboard the flagship, she escaped and personally assassinated the Barrayaran commander, Admiral Vorrutyer. That's why their advance collapsed. Let's hear it for Captain Naismith!"
"That's not the real story," she objected, but was drowned out by shouts and cheers. "I didn't kill Vorrutyer. Here! Put me down!" Her crew, ring-led by Parnell, hoisted her to their shoulders for an impromptu parade around the camp. "It's not true! Stop this! Awk!"
It was like trying to turn back the tide with a teacup. The story had too much innate appeal to the battered prisoners, too much wish-fulfillment come to life. They took it in like balm for their wounded spirits, and made it their own vicarious revenge. The story was passed around, elaborated, built up, sea-changed, until within twenty-four hours it was as rich and unkillable as legend. After a few days she gave up trying.
The truth was too complicated and ambiguous to appeal to them, and she herself, suppressing everything in it that had to do with Vorkosigan, was unable to make it sound convincing. Her duty seemed drained of meaning, dull and discolored. She longed for home, and her sensible mother and brother, and quiet, and one thought that would connect to another without making a chain of secret horror.
Camp returned to routine soon, or what routine should always have been. There followed weeks of waiting for the slow negotiations for prisoner exchange to be completed, with everyone honing elaborate plans for what they would do when they got home. Cordelia gradually came to a nearly normal relationship with her shelter mates, although they still tried to give her special privileges and services. She heard nothing from Vorkosigan.
She was lying on her bunk one afternoon, pretending to sleep, when Lieutenant Alfredi roused her.
"There's a Barrayaran officer out here who says he wants to talk to you." Alfredi trailed her to the door, suspicion and hostility in her face. "I don't think we should let them take you away by yourself. We're so close to going home. They've surely got it in for you."
"Oh. It's all right, Marsha."
Vorkosigan stood outside the shelter, in the dress greens worn daily by the Staff, accompanied as usual by Illyan. He seemed tense, deferential, weary, and closed.
"Captain Naismith," he said formally, "may I speak with you?"
"Yes, but—not here." She was acutely conscious of the eyes of her fellows upon her. "Can we take a walk or something?"
He nodded, and they started off in shared silence. He clasped his hands behind his back. She shoved hers into the pockets of her orange smock top. Illyan trailed them, dog-like, impossible to shake. They left the prison compound, and headed into the woods.
"I'm glad you came," said Cordelia. "There are some things I've been meaning to ask you."
"Yes. I wanted to see you sooner, but winding this thing up properly has been keeping me rather busy."
She nodded toward his yellow collar tabs. "Congratulations on your promotion."
"Oh, that." He touched one briefly. "It's meaningless. Just a formality, to expedite the work I'm doing now."
"Which is what?"
"Dismantling the armada, guarding the local space around this planet, shuffling politicians back and forth between Barrayar and Escobar. General housecleaning, now the party's over. Supervising prisoner exchange."
They were following a wide beaten path through the grey-green woods, up the slope out of the crater's bowl.
"I wanted to apologize for questioning you under drugs. I know it offended you deeply. Need drove me. It was a military necessity."
"You have nothing to apologize for." She glanced back at Illyan. I must know. . . . "Quite literally nothing, I eventually realized."
He was silent. "I see," he said at last. "You are very acute."
"On the contrary, I am very baffled."
He swung to face Illyan. "Lieutenant, I crave a boon from you. I wish a few minutes alone with this lady to discuss a very personal matter."
"I shouldn't, sir. You know that."
"I once asked her to marry me. She never gave me her answer. If I give you my word that we will discuss nothing but what touches on that, may we have a few moments' privacy?"
"Oh . . ." Illyan frowned. "Your word, sir?"
"My word. As Vorkosigan."
"Well—I guess it's all right then." Illyan seated himself glumly on a fallen log to wait, and they walked on up the path.
They came out, at the top, on a familiar promontory overlooking the crater, the very spot where Vorkosigan had planned the repossession of his ship, so long ago. They seated themselves on the ground, watching the activity of the camp made silent by distance.
"Time was you would never have done that," Cordelia observed. "Pledged your word falsely."
"Nor lied to me."
"That is so."
"Nor shot a man out of hand for crimes he didn't participate in."
"It wasn't out of hand. He had a summary court-martial first. And it did get things straightened around in a hurry. Anyway, it will satisfy the Interstellar Judiciary's commission. I'll have them on my hands too, come tomorrow. Investigating prisoner abuses."
"I think you're getting blood-glutted. Individual lives are losing their meaning for you."
"Yes. There have been so many. It's nearly time to quit." Expression was deadened in his face and words.
"How did the Emperor buy you for that—extraordinary assassination? You of all men. Was it your idea? Or his?"
He did not evade, or deny. "His idea, and Negri's. I am but his agent."
His fingers pulled gently on the grass stems, breaking them off delicately one by one. "He didn't come out with it directly. First he asked me to take command of the Escobar invasion. He started with a bribe—the viceroyalty of this planet, in fact, when it's colonized. I turned him down. Then he tried a threat, said he'd throw me to Grishnov, let him have me up for treason, and no Imperial pardon. I told him to go to hell, not in so many words. That was a bad moment, between us. Then he apologized. Called me Lord Vorkosigan. He called me Captain when he wished to be offensive. Then he called in Captain Negri, with a file that didn't even have a name, and the playacting stopped.
"Reason. Logic. Argument. Evidence. We sat in that green silk room in the Imperial Residence at Vorbarr Sultana one whole mortal week, the Emperor and Negri and I, going over it, while Illyan kicked his heels in the hall, studying the Emperor's art collection. You are correct in your deduction about Illyan, by the way. He knows nothing about the real purpose of the invasion.
"You saw the Prince, briefly. I may add that you saw him at his best. Vorrutyer may have been his teacher once, but the Prince surpassed him some time ago. But if only he had had some saving notion of political service, I think his father would have forgiven him even his vilest personal vices.
"He was not balanced, and he surrounded himself with men whose interests lay in making him even less balanced. A true nephew of his Uncle Yuri. Grishnov meant to rule Barrayar through him when he came to the throne. On his own—Grishnov would have been willing to wait, I think—the Prince had engineered two assassination attempts on his father in the last eighteen months."
Cordelia whistled soundlessly. "I almost begin to see. But why not just put him out of the way quietly? Surely the Emperor and your Captain Negri could have managed it between them, if anyone could."
"The idea was discussed. God help me, I even volunteered to lend myself to it, as an alternative to this—bloodbath."
He paused. "The Emperor is dying. He has run out of time to wait for the problem to solve itself. It's become an obsession with him, to try to leave his house in order.
"The problem is the Prince's son. He's only four. Sixteen years is a long time for a Regency government. With the Prince dead Grishnov and the whole Ministerial party would just slide right into the power vacuum, if they were left intact.
"It was not enough to kill the Prince. The Emperor felt he had to destroy the whole war party, so effectively that it would not rise again for another generation. So first there was me, bitching about the strategic problems with Escobar. Then the information about the plasma mirrors came through Negri's own intelligence network. Military intelligence didn't have it. Then me again, with the news that surprise had been lost. Do you know, he suppressed part of that, too? It could only be a disaster. And then there was Grishnov, and the war party, and the Prince, all crying for glory. He had only to step aside and let them rush to their doom." Grass was being pulled up in bunches now.
"It all fit so well, there was a hypnotizing fascination to it. But chancy. There was even a possibility, leaving events to themselves, that everyone might be killed but the Prince. I was placed where I was to see the script was followed. Goading the Prince, making sure he got to the front lines at the right time. Hence that little scene you witnessed in my cabin. I never lost my temper. I was just putting another nail in the coffin."
"I suppose I can see why the other agent was—the chief surgeon?"
"Isn't it, though." He lay back on the grass, looking through the turquoise sky. "I couldn't even be an honest assassin. Do you recall me saying I wanted to go into politics? I believe I'm cured of that ambition."
"What about Vorrutyer? Were you supposed to get him killed, too?"
"No. In the original script he was cast as the scapegoat. It would have been his part, after the disaster, to apologize to the Emperor for the mess, in the full old Japanese sense of the phrase, as part of the general collapse of the war party. For all he was the Prince's spiritual advisor, I did not envy him his future. All the while he was riding me, I could see the ground crumbling away beneath his feet. It baffled him. He always used to be able to make me lose my temper. It was great sport for him, when we were younger. He couldn't understand why he'd lost his touch." His eyes remained focused somewhere in the high blue emptiness, not meeting hers.
"For what it's worth to you, his death just then saved a great many lives. He would have tried to continue the fight much longer, to save his political skin. That was the price that bought me, in the end. I thought, if only I were in the right place at the right time, I could do a better job of running the pullout than anyone else on the General Staff."
"So we are, all of us, just Ezar Vorbarra's tools," said Cordelia slowly, belly-sick. "Me and my convoy, you, the Escobarans—even old Vorrutyer. So much for patriotic hoopla and righteous wrath. All a charade."
"It makes me feel very cold. Was the Prince really that bad?"
"There was no doubt of it. I shall not sicken you with the details of Negri's reports. . . . But the Emperor said if it wasn't done now, we would all be trying to do it ourselves, five or ten years down the road, and probably botching the job and getting all our friends killed, in a full-scale planet-wide civil war. He's seen two, in his lifetime. That was the nightmare that haunted him. A Caligula, or a Yuri Vorbarra, can rule a long time, while the best men hesitate to do what is necessary to stop him, and the worst ones take advantage.
"The Emperor spares himself nothing. Reads the reports over and over—he had them all nearly word-perfect. This wasn't something undertaken lightly, or casually. Wrongly, perhaps, but not lightly. He didn't want him to die in shame, you see. It was the last gift he could give him."
She sat numbly hugging her knees, memorizing his profile, as the soft airs of the afternoon rustled in the woods and stirred the golden grasses.
He turned his face toward her. "Was I wrong, Cordelia, to give myself to this thing? If I had not gone, he would simply have had another. I've always tried to walk the path of honor. But what do you do when all choices are evil? Shameful action, shameful inaction, every path leading to a thicket of death."
"You're asking me to judge you?"
"I'm sorry. I can love you. I can grieve for you, or with you. I can share your pain. But I cannot judge you."
"Ah." He turned on his stomach, and stared down at the camp. "I talk too much to you. If my brain would ever grant me release from reality, I believe I would be the babbling sort of madman."
"You don't talk to anyone else like that, do you?" she asked, alarmed.
"Good God, no. You are—you are—I don't know what you are. But I need it. Will you marry me?"
She sighed, and laid her head upon her knees, twisting a grass stem around her fingers. "I love you. You know that, I hope. But I can't take Barrayar. Barrayar eats its children."
"It isn't all these damnable politics. Some people get through their whole lives practically unconscious of them."
"Yes, but you're not one of them."
He sat up. "I don't know if I could get a visa for Beta Colony."
"Not this year, I suspect. Nor next. All Barrayarans are considered war criminals there at the moment. Politically speaking, we haven't had this much excitement in years. They're all a little drunk on it just now. And then there is Komarr."
"I see. I should have trouble getting a job as a judo instructor, then. And I could hardly write my memoirs, all things considered."
"Right now I should think you'd have trouble avoiding lynch mobs." She looked up at his bleak face. A mistake; it wrenched her heart. "I've—got to go home for a while, anyway. See my family, and think things through in peace and quiet. Maybe we can come up with some alternate solution. We can write, anyway."
"Yes, I suppose." He stood, and helped her up.
"Where will you be, after this?" she asked. "You have your rank back."
"Well, I'm going to finish up all this dirty work," a wave of his arm indicated the prison camp, and by implication the whole Escobaran adventure, "—and then I believe I too shall go home. And get drunk. I cannot serve him anymore. He's used me up on this. The death of his son, and the five thousand men who escorted him to hell, will always hang between us now. Vorhalas, Gottyan . . ."
"Don't forget the Escobarans. And a few Betans, too."
"I shall remember them." He walked beside her down the path. "Is there anything you need, in camp? I've tried to see that everything was provided generally, within the limits of our supplies, but I may have missed something."
"Camp seems to be all right, now. I don't need anything special. All we really need is to go home. No—come to think of it, I do want a favor."
"Name it," he said eagerly.
"Lieutenant Rosemont's grave. It was never marked. I may never get back here. While it's still possible to find the remains of our camp, could you have your people mark it? I have all his numbers and dates. I handled his personnel forms often enough, I still have them memorized."
"I'll see to it personally."
"Wait." He paused, and she held out a hand to him. His thick fingers engulfed her tapering ones; his skin was warm and dry, and scorched her. "Before we go pick up poor Lieutenant Illyan again . . ."
He took her in his arms, and they kissed, for the first time, for a long time.
"Oh," she muttered after. "Perhaps that was a mistake. It hurts so much when you stop."
"Well, let me . . ." His hand stroked her hair gently, then desperately wrapped itself in a shimmering coil; they kissed again.
"Uh, sir?" Lieutenant Illyan, coming up the path, cleared his throat noisily. "Had you forgotten the Staff conference?"
Vorkosigan put her from him with a sigh. "No, Lieutenant. I haven't forgotten."
"May I congratulate you, sir?" he smiled.
He unsmiled. "I—don't understand, sir."
"That's quite all right, Lieutenant."
They walked on, Cordelia with her hands in her pockets, Vorkosigan with his clasped behind his back.
* * *
Most of the Escobaran women had already gone up by shuttle to the ship that had arrived to transport them home, late next afternoon, when a spruce Barrayaran guard appeared at the door of their shelter requesting Captain Naismith.
"Admiral's compliments, ma'am, and he wishes to know if you'd care to check the data on the marker he had made for your officer. It's in his office."
"Cordelia, for God's sake," hissed Lieutenant Alfredi, "don't go in there alone."
"It's all right," she murmured back impatiently. "Vorkosigan's all right."
"Oh? So what did he want yesterday?"
"I told you, to arrange for the marker."
"That didn't take two solid hours. Do you realize that's how long you were gone? I saw how he looked at you. And you—you came back looking like death warmed over."
Cordelia irritably waved away her concerned protests, and followed the extremely polite guard to the cache caverns. The planetside administrative offices of the Barrayaran force were set up in one of the side chambers. They had a carefully busy air that suggested the nearby presence of Staff officers, and indeed when they entered Vorkosigan's office, his name and rank emblazoned over the smudge that had been his predecessor's, they found him within.
Illyan, a captain, and a commodore were grouped around a computer interface with him, evidently undergoing some kind of briefing. He broke off to greet her with a careful nod, which she acknowledged in kind. I wonder if my eyes look as hungry as his, she thought. This minuet of manners we go through to conceal our private selves from the mob will be for nothing, if we don't hide our eyes better.
"It's on the clerk's desk, Cor—Captain Naismith," he directed her with a wave of his hand. "Go ahead and look it over." He returned his attention to his waiting officers.
It was a simple steel tablet, standard Barrayaran military issue, and the spelling, numbers, and dates were all in order. She fingered it briefly. It certainly looked like it ought to last. Vorkosigan finished his business and came to her side.
"Is it all right?"
"Fine." She gave him a smile. "Could you find the grave?"
"Yes, your camp's still visible from the air at low altitude, although another rainy season will obliterate it—"
The duty guard's voice floated in over a commotion at the door. "So you say. For all I know they could be bombs. You can't take that in there," followed by another voice replying, "He has to sign it personally. Those are my orders. You guys act like you won the damn war."
The second speaker, a man in the dark red uniform of an Escobaran medical technician, backed through the door followed by a float-pallet on a control lead, looking like some bizarre balloon. It was loaded with large canisters, each about half a meter high, studded with control panels and access apertures. Cordelia recognized them at once, and stiffened, feeling sick. Vorkosigan looked blank.
The technician stared around. "I have a receipt for these that requires Admiral Vorkosigan's personal signature. Is he here?"
Vorkosigan stepped forward. "I'm Vorkosigan. What are these, um . . ."
The medtech smiled sourly. "We're returning these to the senders."
Vorkosigan walked around the pallet. "Yes, but what are they?"
"All your bastards," said the medtech.
Cordelia, catching the genuine puzzlement in Vorkosigan's voice, added, "They're uterine replicators, um, Admiral. Self-contained, independently powered—they need servicing, though—"
"Every week," agreed the medtech, viciously cordial. He held up a data disk. "They sent you instructions with them."
Vorkosigan looked appalled. "What the hell am I supposed to do with them?"
"Thought you were going to make our women answer that question, did you?" replied the medtech, taut and sarcastic. "Personally, I'd suggest you hang them around their fathers' necks. The paternal gene complements are marked on each one, so you should have no trouble telling who they belong to. Sign here."
Vorkosigan took the receipt panel, and read it through twice. He walked around the pallet again, counting, looking deeply troubled. He came up beside Cordelia in his circuit, and murmured, "I didn't realize they could do things like that."
"They use them all the time at home."
"They must be fantastically complex."
"And expensive, too. I'm surprised—maybe they just didn't want to argue about taking them home with any of the mothers. A couple of them were pretty emotionally divided about abortions. This puts the blood guilt on you." Her words seemed to enter him like bullets, and she wished she'd phrased herself differently.
"They're all alive in there?"
"Sure. See all the green lights? Placentas and all. They float right in their amniotic sacs, just like home."
"I suppose so."
He rubbed his face, staring hauntedly at the canisters. "Seventeen. God, Cordelia, what do I do with them? Surgeon, of course, but . . ." He turned to the fascinated clerk. "Get the chief surgeon down here, on the double." He turned back to Cordelia, keeping his voice down. "How long will those things keep working?"
"The whole nine months, if necessary."
"May I have my receipt, Admiral?" said the medtech loudly. "I have other duties waiting." He stared curiously at Cordelia in her orange pajamas.
Vorkosigan scribbled his name absently on the bottom of the receipt panel with a light pen, thumbprinted it, and handed it back, still slightly hypnotized by the pallet load of canisters. Cordelia, morbidly curious, walked around them too, inspecting the readouts. "The youngest one seems to be about seven weeks old. The oldest is over four months. Must have been right after the war started."
"But what do I do with them?" he muttered again. She had never seen him more at a loss.
"What do you usually do with soldier's by-blows? Surely the situation has come up before, not on this scale, maybe."
"We usually abort bastards. In this case, it seems to have already been done, in a sense. So much trouble—do they expect us to keep them alive? Floating fetuses—babies in cans . . ."
"I don't know." Cordelia sighed thoughtfully. "What a thoroughly rejected little group of humanity they are. Except—but for the grace of God and Sergeant Bothari, one of those canned kids might have been mine, and Vorrutyer's. Or mine and Bothari's, for that matter."
He looked quite ill at the thought. He lowered his voice almost to a whisper, and began again. "But what do I—what would you have me do with them?"
It must be quite a shock to suddenly find out you're pregnant, seventeen times over—at your age, too, she thought. She squelched the black humor—he was so clearly out of his depth—and took pity on his real confusion. "Take care of them, I suppose. I have no idea what that will entail, but—you did sign for them."
He sighed. "Quite. Pledged my word, in a sense." He set the problem up in familiar terms, and found his balance therein. "My word as Vorkosigan, in fact. Right. Good. Objective defined, plan of attack proposed—we're in business."
The surgeon entered, and was taken aback at the sight of the float pallet. "What the hell—oh, I know what they are. I never thought I'd see one. . . ." He ran his fingers over one canister in a sort of technical lust. "Are they ours?"
"All ours, it seems," replied Vorkosigan. "The Escobarans sent them down."
The surgeon chuckled. "What an obscene gesture. One can see why, I suppose. But why not just flush them?"
The surgeon raised an eyebrow, but was quelled, as much by the total lack of amusement on his commander's face as by her words.
"There are the instructions." Vorkosigan handed him the disk.
"Oh, good. Can I empty one out and take it apart?"
"No, you may not," said Vorkosigan coldly. "I pledged my word—as Vorkosigan—that they would be cared for. All of them."
"How the devil did they maneuver you into that? Oh, well, I'll get one later, maybe. . . ." He returned to his examination of the glittering machinery.
"Have you the facilities here to handle any problems that may arise?" asked Vorkosigan.
"Hell, no. Imp Mil would be the only place. And they don't even have an obstetrics department. But I bet Research would love to get hold of these babies. . . ."
It took Cordelia a dizzy moment to realize he was referring to the uterine replicators, and not their contents.
"They have to be serviced in a week. Can you do it here?"
"I don't think . . ." The surgeon set the disk into the monitor at the clerk's station, and began flashing through it. "There must be ten written kilometers of instructions—ah. No. We don't have—no. Too bad, Admiral. I'm afraid you'll have to eat your word this time."
Vorkosigan grinned, wolfishly and without humor. "Do you recall what happened to the last man who called me on my word?"
The surgeon's smile faded into uncertainty.
"These are your orders, then," Vorkosigan went on, clipped. "In thirty minutes you, personally, will lift off with these—things, for the fast courier. And it will arrive in Vorbarr Sultana in less than a week. You will go to the Imperial Military Hospital and requisition, by whatever means necessary, the men and equipment needed to—complete the project. Get an Imperial order if you have to. Directly, not through channels. I'm sure our friend Negri will put you in touch. See them set up, serviced, and report back to me."
"We can't possibly make it in under a week! Not even in the courier!"
"You'll make it in five days, boosting six points past emergency max the whole way. If the engineer's been doing his job, the engines won't blow until you hit eight. Quite safe." He glanced over his shoulder. "Couer, scramble the courier crew, please. And get their captain on the line, I want to give him his orders personally."
Commodore Couer's eyebrows rose, but he moved to obey.
The surgeon lowered his voice, glancing at Cordelia. "Is this Betan sentimentality at work, sir? A little odd in the Emperor's service, don't you think?"
Vorkosigan smiled, narrow-eyed, and matched his tone. "Betan insubordination, Doctor? You will oblige me by directing your energies to carrying out your orders instead of evolving excuses why you can't."
"Hell of a lot easier just to open the stopcocks. And what are you going to do with them once they're—completed, born, whatever you call it? Who's going to take responsibility for them then? I can sympathize with your wish to impress your girlfriend, but think ahead, sir!"
Vorkosigan's eyebrows snapped together, and he growled, down in his throat. The surgeon recoiled. Vorkosigan buried the growl in a throat-clearing noise, and took a breath.
"That will be my problem. My word. Your responsibility will end there. Twenty-five minutes, Doctor. If you're on time I may let you ride up on the inside of the shuttle." He grinned a small white grin, eloquently aggressive. "You can have three days home leave after they're in place at ImpMil, if you wish."
The surgeon shrugged wry defeat, and vanished to collect his things.
Cordelia looked after him doubtfully. "Will he be all right?"
"Oh, yes, it just takes him a while to turn his thinking around. By the time they get to Vorbarr Sultana, he'll be acting like he invented the project, and the—uterine replicators." Vorkosigan's gaze returned to the float pallet. "Those are the damnedest things. . . ."
A guard entered. "Pardon me, sir, but the Escobaran shuttle pilot is asking for Captain Naismith. They're ready to lift."
Couer spoke from the communications monitor. "Sir, I have the courier captain on line."
Cordelia gave Vorkosigan a look of helpless frustration, acknowledged by a small shake of his head, and each turned wordlessly to the demands of duty. She left meditating on the doctor's parting shot. And we thought we were being so careful. We really must do something about our eyes.