She traveled home with about 200 others, mostly Escobarans, on a Tau Cetan passenger liner hastily converted for the purpose. There was a lot of time spent exchanging stories and sharing memories among the ex-prisoners, sessions subtly guided, she realized shortly, by the heavy sprinkling of psych officers the Escobarans had sent with the ship. After a while her silence about her own experiences began to stand out, and she learned to spot the casual-looking roundup techniques for the only-apparently-impromptu group therapy, and make herself scarce.
It wasn't enough. She found herself quietly but implacably pursued by a bright-faced young woman named Irene, whom she deduced must be assigned to her case. She popped up at meals, in the corridors, in the lounges, always with a novel excuse for starting a conversation. Cordelia avoided her when she could, and turned the conversation deftly, or sometimes bluntly, to other topics when she couldn't.
After another week the girl disappeared back into the mob, but Cordelia returned to her cabin one day to discover her roommate gone and replaced by another, a steady-eyed, easygoing older woman in civilian dress who was not one of the ex-prisoners. Cordelia lay on her bed glumly and watched her unpacking.
"Hi, I'm Joan Sprague," the woman introduced herself sunnily.
Time to get explicit. "Good afternoon, Dr. Sprague. I am correct, I think, in identifying you as Irene's boss?"
Sprague paused. "You're quite right. But I prefer to keep things on a casual basis."
"No, you don't. You prefer to keep things looking like they're on a casual basis. I appreciate the difference."
"You are a very interesting person, Captain Naismith."
"Yes, well, there's more of you than there are of me. Suppose I agree to talk to you. Will you call off the rest of your dogs?"
"I'm here for you to talk to—but when you are ready."
"So, ask me what you want to know. Let's get this over with, so we can both relax." I could use a little therapy, at that, Cordelia thought wistfully. I feel so lousy. . . .
Sprague seated herself on the bed, a mild smile on her face and the utmost attention in her eyes. "I want to try and help you remember what happened during the time you were a prisoner aboard the Barrayaran flagship. Getting it into your consciousness, however horrible it was, is your first step to healing."
"Um, I think we may be at cross-purposes. I remember everything that happened during that time with the utmost clarity. I have no trouble getting it into my consciousness. What I would like is to get it out, at least long enough to sleep now and then."
"I see. Go on. Why don't you describe what happened?"
Cordelia gave an account of events, from the time of the wormhole jump from Beta Colony until after the murder of Vorrutyer, but ended it before Vorkosigan's entrance, saying vaguely, "I moved around to different hiding places on the ship for a couple of days, but they caught me in the end and put me back in the brig."
"So. You don't remember being tortured or raped by Admiral Vorrutyer, and you don't remember killing him."
"I wasn't. And I didn't. I thought I made that clear."
The doctor shook her head sorrowfully. "It's reported you were taken away from camp twice by the Barrayarans. Do you remember what happened during those times?"
"Yes, of course."
"Can you describe it?"
She balked. "No." The secret of the Prince's assassination would be nothing to the Escobarans—they could hardly dislike the Barrayarans any more than they did already—but the mere rumor of the truth could be devastating to civil order on Barrayar. Riots, military mutiny, the downfall of Vorkosigan's Emperor—those were just the beginnings of the possible consequences. If there was a civil war on Barrayar, could Vorkosigan be killed in it? God, please, thought Cordelia wearily, no more death . . .
Sprague looked tremendously interested. Cordelia felt pounced on. She amended herself. "There was an officer of mine, who was killed during the Betan survey of that planet—you know about that, I hope?" The doctor nodded. "They made arrangements to put a marker on his grave, at my request. That's all."
"I understand," Sprague sighed. "We had another case like yours. The girl had also been raped by Vorrutyer, or some of his men, and had it covered up by the Barrayaran medical people. I suppose they were trying to protect his reputation."
"Oh, I believe I met her, aboard the flagship. She was in my shelter, too, right?"
Sprague's surprised look confirmed it, although she made a little vague gesture indicating professional confidence.
"You're right about her," Cordelia went on. "I'm glad she's getting what she needs. But you're wrong about me. You're wrong about Vorrutyer's reputation, too. The whole reason they put out this stupid story about me was because they thought it would look worse for him to be killed by a weak woman than by one of his own combat soldiers."
"The physical evidence from your medical examination alone is enough to make me question that," said Sprague.
"The evidence of torture," the doctor replied, looking grim, even a little angry. Not angry at her, Cordelia realized.
"What? I was never tortured!"
"Yes. An excellent cover-up. Outrageous—but they couldn't hide the physical traces. Are you aware that you had a broken arm, two broken ribs, numerous contusions on your neck, head, hands, arms—your whole body, in fact? And your biochemistry—evidence of extreme stress, sensory deprivation, considerable weight loss, sleep disorders, adrenal excess—shall I go on?"
"I can explain that," said Cordelia eagerly. She laughed a little. "In a way, I suppose I can blame it on you Escobarans. I was in a cell on the flagship during the retreat. It took a hit—shook everything around like gravel in a can, including me. That's where I got the broken bones and so on."
The doctor made a note. "Very good. Very good indeed. Subtle. But not subtle enough—your bones were broken on two different occasions."
"Oh," said Cordelia. And how am I going to explain Bothari, without mentioning Vorkosigan's cabin? A friend tried to strangle me. . . .
"I would like you to think," said Dr. Sprague carefully, "about the possibility of drug therapy. The Barrayarans have done an excellent cover-up on you, even better than the other, and it took very deep probing indeed for her. I think it's going to be even more necessary in your case. But we must have your voluntary cooperation."
"Thank God for that." Cordelia lay back on her bed and pulled her pillow over her face, thinking of drug therapy. It made her blood run cold. She wondered how long she could take deep probing for memories that weren't there before she started manufacturing them to meet the demand. And worse: the very first effect of probing must be to bring up those secret agonies that were uppermost on her mind—Vorkosigan's secret wounds. . . . She sighed, removed the pillow from her head and hugged it to her chest, and looked up to find Sprague regarding her with deep concern. "You still here?"
"I'll always be here, Cordelia."
"That's—what I was afraid of."
Sprague got no more from her after that. She was afraid to sleep, now, for fear of talking or even being questioned in her sleep. She took little catnaps, waking with a start whenever there was movement in the cabin, such as her roommate getting up to go to the bathroom in the night. Cordelia did not admire Ezar Vorbarra's secret purposes in the late war, but at least they had been accomplished. The thought of all that pain and death being made vain as smoke haunted her, and she resolved that all Vorkosigan's soldiers, yes, even Vorrutyer and the camp commandant, would not be made to have died for nothing through her.
She ended the trip far more frayed than she had begun it, floating on the edge of real breakdown, plagued by pounding headaches, insomnia, a mysterious left-hand tremula, and the beginnings of a stutter.
* * *
The trip from Escobar to Beta Colony was much easier. It only took four days, in a Betan fast courier sent, she was surprised to find, especially for her. She viewed the news reports on her cabin holovid. She was deathly tired of the war, but she caught by chance a mention of Vorkosigan's name, and could not resist following it up to find out what the public view of his part was.
Horrified, she discovered that his work with the Judiciary's investigative commission led the Betan and Escobaran press to blame him for the way the prisoners had been treated, as if he had been in charge of them from the beginning. The old false Komarr story was dragged out on parade, and his name was reviled everywhere. The injustice of it all made her furious, and she gave up the news in disgust.
At last they orbited Beta Colony, and she haunted Nav and Com for a glimpse of home.
"There's the old sandbox at last." The captain cheerfully keyed her a view. "They're sending a shuttle up for you, but there's a storm over the capital, and it's a bit delayed, till it subsides enough for them to drop screens at the port."
"I may as well wait till I get down to call my mom," Cordelia commented. "She's probably at work now. No point bothering her there. Hospital's not far from the shuttleport. I can get a nice relaxing drink while I wait for her to get off shift and pick me up."
The captain gave her a peculiar look. "Uh, yeah."
The shuttle arrived eventually. Cordelia shook hands all around, thanking the courier crew for the ride, and went aboard. The shuttle stewardess greeted her with a pile of new clothes.
"What's all this? By heavens, the Expeditionary Force uniforms at last! Better late than never, I guess."
"Why don't you go ahead and put them on," urged the stewardess, smiling extraordinarily.
"Why not." She had been wearing the same borrowed Escobaran uniform for quite some time now, and was thoroughly tired of it. She took the sky blue cloth and the shiny black boots, amused. "Why jackboots, in God's name? There's scarcely a horse on Beta Colony, except in the zoos. I admit, they do look wicked."
Finding she was the sole passenger on the shuttle, she changed on the spot. The stewardess had to help her with the boots.
"Whoever designed these should be forced to wear them to bed," Cordelia muttered. "Or perhaps he does."
The shuttle descended, and she went to the window, eager for the first look at her hometown. The ochre haze parted at last, and they spiraled neatly down to the shuttleport and taxied to the docking bay.
"Seems to be a lot of people out there today."
"Yes, the President's going to make a speech," said the stewardess. "It's very exciting. Even if I didn't vote for him."
"Steady Freddy got that many people to show up for one of his speeches? Just as well. I can blend with the crowd. This thing is a bit bright. I think I'd rather be invisible, today."
She could feel the letdown beginning, and wondered how far down it would end. The Escobaran doctor had been right in her principles, if not in her facts; there was an emotional debt yet to be paid, knotted somewhere under her stomach.
The shuttle's engines whined to silence, and she rose to thank the grinning stewardess, uneasy. "There's not going to be a r-reception committee out there for me, is there? I really don't think I could handle it today."
"You'll have some help," the stewardess assured her. "Here he comes now."
A man in a civilian sarong entered the shuttle, smiling broadly. "How do you do, Captain Naismith," he introduced himself. "I'm Philip Gould, the President's Press Secretary." Cordelia was shocked. Press Secretary was a cabinet-level post. "It's an honor to meet you."
She was tumbling fast. "You're not p-planning some kind of, of d-dog and pony show out there, are you? I r-really just want to go home."
"Well, the President is planning a speech. And he has a little something for you," he said soothingly. "In fact, he was hoping he might make several speeches with you, but we can discuss that later. Now, we hardly expect the Heroine of Escobar to suffer from stage fright, but we have prepared some remarks for you. I'll be with you all the time, and help you with the cues, and the press." He passed her a hand viewer. "Do try and look surprised, when you first step out of the shuttle."
"I am surprised." She scanned the script rapidly. "Th-this is a p-pack of lies!"
He looked worried. "Have you always had that little speech impediment?" he asked cautiously.
"N-no, it's my souvenir from the Escobaran psych service, and the l-late war. Who came up with this g-garbage, anyway?" The line that particularly caught her eye referred to "the cowardly Admiral Vorkosigan and his pack of ruffians." "Vorkosigan's the bravest man I ever met."
Gould took her firmly by the upper arm, and guided her to the shuttle hatch. "We have to go, now, to make the holovid timing. Maybe you can just leave that line out, all right? Now, smile."
"I want to see my mother."
"She's with the President. Here we go."
They exited the tube from the shuttle hatch into a milling mob of men, women, and equipment. They all began shouting questions at once. Cordelia began to shake, all over, in waves that began in the pit of her stomach and radiated outward. "I don't know any of these people," she hissed to Gould.
"Keep walking," he hissed back through a fixed smile. They mounted a reviewing stand set up on the balcony overlooking the shuttleport concourse. The concourse was packed solidly with a colorful crowd in a holiday mood. They blurred before Cordelia's eyes. She saw a familiar face at last, her mother, smiling and crying, and she fell into her arms, to the delight of the press who recorded it copiously.
"Get me out of this as fast as you can," she whispered fiercely into her mother's ear. "I'm about to lose it."
Her mother held her at arm's length, not understanding, still smiling. Her place was taken by Cordelia's brother, his family clustered nervously and proudly behind him, looking at her, she felt, with eyes that devoured her.
She spotted her crew, also dressed in the new uniforms, standing with some government officials. Parnell gave her a thumbs-up, grinning dementedly. She was bundled over to stand behind a rostrum with the President of Beta Colony.
Steady Freddy seemed larger than life to her confused eyes, big and booming. Perhaps that was why he projected over the holovid so well. He grasped her hand and held it up in his, to the cheers of the crowd. It made her feel like an idiot.
The President gave a fine performance with his speech, not even using the prompter. It was full of the jingoistic patriotism that had so intoxicated the place when she'd left, and not one word in a dozen touched the real truth even from the Betan point of view. He worked up gradually and with perfect showmanship to the medal. Cordelia's heart began to pound lumpishly as she caught the drift of it. She tried desperately to evade the knowledge, turning to the Press Secretary.
"Is this on behalf of m-my crew, for the plasma mirrors?"
"They have theirs already." Was he ever going to stop smiling? "This is your very own."
The medal, it appeared, was to be awarded for her brave, one-woman assassination of Admiral Vorrutyer. Steady Freddy actually avoided the word assassination, along with blunt terms like murder and killing, favoring more liquid phrases like "freeing the universe of a viper of iniquity."
The speech lumbered to its close, and the glittering medal on its colorful ribbon, Beta Colony's highest honor, was lowered over her head by the President's own hand. Gould positioned her in front of the rostrum, and pointed out the glowing green words of the prompter marching across thin air before her eyes. "Start reading," he whispered.
"Am I on? Oh, Uh . . . People of Beta Colony, my beloved home," that was all right so far, "when I left you to meet the m-menace of Barrayaran tyranny, s-succoring our friend and ally Escobar, it was with no idea that fate was to bring me face-to-face with a n-nobler d-destiny."
It was here she departed from the script, watching herself go helplessly, like a doomed sea ship sinking beneath the waves. "I don't see what's so n-noble about b-butchering that sadistic ass Vorrutyer. And I wouldn't take a medal for m-murdering an unarmed m-man even if I had done it."
She pulled it off over her head. The ribbon caught in her hair, and she yanked it free, painfully, angrily. "For the last time. I did not kill Vorrutyer. One of his own men killed Vorrutyer. He c-caught him from behind and cut his throat from ear to ear. I was there, damn it. He bled all over me. The press from both sides are stuffing you with lies about that s-stupid war. D-damn voyeurs! Vorkosigan was not in charge of the prison camp when the atrocities took place. As s-soon as he was in charge he stopped them. Sh-sh-shot one of his own officers just to feed your l-lust for vengeance, and it cost him in his honor, too, I can tell you."
The sound going out from the rostrum was cut off suddenly. She turned to Steady Freddy, tears of fury blurring her view of his astonished face, and flung the medal back at him with all the force of her arm. It missed his head and glittered down over the balcony into the crowd.
Her arms were pinned from behind. It triggered some buried reflex, and she kicked out frantically.
If only the President hadn't tried to dodge, he would have been all right. As it was, the toe of her jackboot caught him in the groin with perfect unplanned accuracy. His mouth made a soundless "O" and he went down behind the rostrum.
Cordelia, hyperventilating uncontrollably, began to cry as a dozen more hands grabbed her arms, waist, legs. "P-please don't lock me up again! I couldn't take it. I just wanted to go home! Get that goddamn ampule away from me! No! No! No drugs, please, please! I'm sorry!"
She was hustled out, and the media event of the year collapsed just like Steady Freddy.
* * *
She was taken to a quiet room, one of the shuttleport's administrative offices, immediately afterwards. The President's personal physician arrived after a time and took charge, had everyone removed but himself and her mother, and gave her some breathing space to regain her self-control. It took her almost an hour to stop crying, once she had started. The embarrassment and outrage stopped seesawing at last, and she was able to sit up and talk in a voice like a bad cold.
"Please apologize to the President for me. If only someone had warned me, or asked me about it first. I'm—n-not in very good shape right now."
"We should have realized it ourselves," said the physician sorrowfully. "Your ordeal, after all, was much more personal than the usual soldier's experience. It is we who must apologize, for subjecting you to an unnecessary strain."
"We thought it would be a nice surprise," added her mother.
"It was a surprise, all right. I only hope I don't get myself locked in a padded cell. I'm a bit off cells at the moment." The thought tightened her throat, and she breathed carefully to calm back down.
She wondered where Vorkosigan was now, what he was doing. Getting drunk sounded better all the time, and she wished she were with him, doing so. She pressed thumb and forefinger to the bridge of her nose, rubbing out the tension. "May I be permitted to go home now?"
"Is there still a crowd out there?" asked her mother.
"I'm afraid so. We'll try to keep them back."
With the doctor on one side and her mother on the other, she dwelt in Vorkosigan's kiss all during the long walk to her mother's groundcar. The crowd still pressed upon her, but in a hushed, respectful, almost frightened way, a great contrast to their earlier holiday mood. She felt sorry to have taken away their party.
* * *
There was a crowd at her mother's apartment shaft too, in the foyer by the lift tubes, and even in the hallway to her door. Cordelia smiled and waved a little, cautiously, but just shook her head at questions, not trusting herself to speak coherently. They made their way through and closed the door at last.
"Whew! I suppose they meant well, but my Lord—I felt like they wanted to eat me alive."
"There was so much excitement about the war, and the Expeditionary Force—anyone in a blue uniform is getting star treatment. And when the prisoners got home, and your story came out—I'm glad I knew you were safe by then. My poor darling!" Cordelia got another hug, and welcomed it.
"Well, that explains where they got the nonsense. It was the wildest rumor. The Barrayarans started it, and everyone just ate it up. I couldn't stop it."
"What did they do to you?"
"They kept following me around, pestering me with these offers of therapy—they thought the Barrayarans had been messing with my memory. . . . Oh, I see. You mean, what did the Barrayarans do to me. Nothing much. V-vorrutyer might have liked to, but he met with his accident before he'd got half started." She decided not to disturb her mother with the details. "Something important did happen, though." She hesitated. "I ran into Aral Vorkosigan again."
"That horrible man? I wondered, when I heard the name in the news, if it was the same fellow who killed your Lieutenant Rosemont last year."
"No. Yes. I mean, he didn't kill Rosemont, one of his people did. But he's the same one."
"I don't understand why you're so sympathetic to him."
"You ought to appreciate him now. He saved my life. Hid me in his cabin, during those missing two days after Vorrutyer was killed. I'd have been executed for it, if they'd caught me before the change in command."
Her mother looked more disturbed than appreciative. "Did he—do anything to you?"
The question was filled with unanswerable irony. Cordelia dared not tell even her mother about the intolerable burden of truth he had laid on her. Her mother misunderstood the haunted look on her face.
"Oh, dear. I'm so sorry."
"Huh? No, damn it. Vorkosigan's no rapist. He's got this thing about prisoners. Wouldn't touch one with a stick. He asked me . . ." she trailed off, looking into the kind, concerned, and loving wall of her mother's face. "We talked a lot. He's all right."
"He doesn't have a very good reputation."
"Yeah, I've seen some of it. It's all lies."
"He's—not a murderer, then?"
"Well . . ." Cordelia foundered on the truth. "He has k-killed a lot of people, I suppose. He's a soldier, you know. It's his job. It can't help spilling over a bit. I only know about three that weren't in the line of duty, though."
"Only three?" repeated her mother faintly. There was a pause. "He's not a, a sex criminal, then?"
"Certainly not! Although I gather he went through a rather strange phase, after his wife committed suicide—I don't think he realizes how much I know about it, not that that maniac Vorrutyer should be trusted as a source of information, even if he was there. I suspect it's partly true, at least about their relationship. Vorrutyer was clearly obsessed with him. And Aral went awfully vague when I asked him about it."
Looking at her mother's appalled face, Cordelia thought, it's a good thing I never wanted to be a defense lawyer. All my clients would be in therapy forever. "It all makes a lot more sense if you meet him in person," she offered hopefully.
Cordelia's mother laughed uncertainly. "He surely seems to have charmed you. What does he have, then? Conversation? Good looks?"
"I'm not sure. He mostly talks Barrayaran politics. He claims to have an aversion to them, but it sounds more like an obsession to me. He can't leave them alone for five minutes. It's like they're in him."
"Is that—a very interesting subject?"
"It's awful," said Cordelia frankly. "His bedtime stories can keep you awake for weeks."
"It can't be his looks," sighed her mother. "I've seen a holovid of him in the news."
"Oh, did you save it?" asked Cordelia, instantly interested. "Where is it?"
"I'm sure there's something in the vid files," her mother allowed, staring. "But really, Cordelia—your Reg Rosemont was ten times better looking."
"I suppose he was," Cordelia agreed, "by any objective standard."
"So what does the man have, anyway?"
"I don't know. The virtues of his vices, perhaps. Courage. Strength. Energy. He could run me into the ground any day. He has power over people. Not leadership, exactly, although there's that too. They either worship him or hate his guts. The strangest man I ever met did both at the same time. But nobody falls asleep when he's around."
"And which category do you fall in, Cordelia?" asked her mother, bemused.
"Well, I don't hate him. Can't say as I worship him, either." She paused a long time, and looked up to meet her mother's eyes squarely. "But when he's cut, I bleed."
"Oh," said her mother, whitely. Her mouth smiled, her eyes flinched, and she busied herself with unnecessary vigor in getting Cordelia's meager belongings settled.
* * *
On the fourth afternoon of her leave, Cordelia's commanding officer brought a disturbing visitor.
"Captain Naismith, this is Dr. Mehta, from the Expeditionary Force Medical Service," Commodore Tailor introduced them. Dr. Mehta was a slim, tan-skinned woman about Cordelia's age, with dark hair drawn back, cool and antiseptic in her blue uniform.
"Not another psychiatrist," Cordelia sighed. Her muscles knotted up the back of her neck. More interrogations—more twisting, more evasions, ever-shakier webs of lies to cover the gaps in her story where Vorkosigan's bitter truths dwelt . . .
"Commodore Sprague's reports finally caught up with your file, a little late, it seems." Tailor's lips thinned sympathetically. "Ghastly. I'm sorry. If we'd had them earlier, we might have been able to spare you last week. And everybody else."
Cordelia flushed. "I didn't mean to kick him. He kind of ran into me. It won't happen again."
Commodore Tailor suppressed a smile. "Well, I didn't vote for him. Steady Freddy is not my main concern. Although," he cleared his throat, "he has taken a personal interest in your case. You're a public figure now, like it or not."
"It's not nonsense. You have an obligation."
Who are you quoting, Bill? thought Cordelia. That's not your voice. She rubbed the back of her neck. "I thought I'd discharged all my obligations. What more do they want from me?"
Tailor shrugged. "It was thought—I was given to understand—that you could have a future as a spokesman for—for the government. Due to your war experience. Once you're well."
Cordelia snorted. "They've got some awfully strange illusions about my soldierly career. Look—as far as I'm concerned, Steady Freddy can put on falsies and go woo the hermaphrodite vote in Quartz. But I'm n-not going to play the part of a, a propaganda cow, to be milked by any party. I've an aversion to politics, to quote a friend."
"Well . . ." He shrugged, as though he too had discharged a duty, and went on more firmly. "Be that as it may, getting you fit for work again is my concern."
"I'm—I'll be all right, after m-my month's leave. I just need a rest. I want to go back to Survey."
"And so you can. Just as soon as you're medically cleared."
"Oh." The implications of that took a moment to sink in. "Oh, no—wait a minute. I had a little p-problem with Dr. Sprague. Very nice lady, her reasoning was sound, but her premises were wrong."
Commodore Tailor gazed at her sadly. "I think I'd better turn you over to Dr. Mehta, now. She'll explain everything. You will cooperate with her, won't you, Cordelia?"
Cordelia pursed her lips, chilled. "Let me get this straight. What you're saying is, if I can't make your shrink happy, I'll never set foot on a Survey ship again. No c-command—no job, in fact."
"That's—a very harsh way of putting it. But you know yourself, for Survey, with small groups of people isolated together for extended periods of time, the psych profiles are of the utmost importance."
"Yes, I know. . . ." She twitched her mouth into a smile. "I'll c-cooperate. S-sure."