"Now," said Dr. Mehta cheerfully, setting up her box on a table in the Naismiths' apartment next afternoon, "this is a completely non-invasive method of monitoring. You won't feel a thing, it won't do a thing to you, except give me clues as to which subjects are of subconscious importance to you." She paused to swallow a capsule, remarking, "Allergy. Excuse me. Think of it as an emotional dowsing rod, looking for those buried streams of experience."
"Telling you where to drill the well, eh?"
"Exactly. Do you mind if I smoke?"
Mehta lit an aromatic cigarette and set it casually in an ashtray she had brought with her. The smoke drifted toward Cordelia. She squinted at its acridity. Odd perversion for a doctor; well, we all have our weaknesses. She eyed the box, suppressing irritation.
"Now for a baseline," said Mehta. "July."
"Am I supposed to say August, or something?"
"No, it's not a free-association test—the machine will do the work. But you may, if you wish."
"That's all right."
Apostles, thought Cordelia. Eggs. Days of Christmas.
Birth, thought Cordelia. Those upper-class Barrayarans put everything into their children. Name, property, culture, even their government's continuity. A huge burden, no wonder the children bend and twist under the strain.
Death, thought Cordelia. A man without a son is a walking ghost there, with no part in their future. And when their government fails, they pay the price in their children's lives. Five thousand.
Mehta moved her ashtray a little to the left. It didn't help; made it worse, in fact.
Not likely, with me here and him there . . .
Canisters, thought Cordelia. Wonder how those poor desperate little scraps of life are doing?
Dr. Mehta frowned uncertainly at her readouts. "Seventeen?" she repeated.
Eighteen, Cordelia thought firmly. Dr. Mehta made a note.
Poor butchered toad. You know, I think you spoke the truth—you must have loved Aral once, to have hated him so. What did he do to you, I wonder? Rejected you, most likely. I could understand that pain. We have some common ground after all, perhaps. . . .
Mehta adjusted another dial, frowned again, turned it back. "Admiral Vorkosigan."
Ah love, let us be true to one another. . . . Cordelia focused wearily on Mehta's blue uniform. She'll get a geyser if she drills her well there—probably knows it already, she's making another note. . . .
Mehta glanced at her chronometer, and leaned forward with increased attention. "Let's talk about Admiral Vorkosigan."
Let's not, thought Cordelia, "What about him?"
"Does he work much in their Intelligence section, do you know?"
"I don't think so. His main line seems to be Staff tactician, when—when he isn't on patrol duty."
"The Butcher of Komarr."
"That's a damned lie," said Cordelia automatically, then wished she hadn't spoken.
"Who told you that?" asked Mehta.
"He did. Ah."
I'll get you for that "Ah"—no. Cooperation. Calm. I do feel calm. . . . Wish that woman would either finish smoking that thing or put it out. Stings my eyes.
"What proof did he offer you?"
None, Cordelia realized. "His word, I guess. His honor."
"Rather intangible." She made another note. "And you believed him?"
"It—seemed consistent, with what I saw of his character."
"You were his prisoner for six days, were you not, on that Survey mission?"
Mehta tapped her light pen and said "hm," absently, looking through her. "You seem quite convinced of this Vorkosigan's veracity. You don't think he ever lied to you, then?"
"Well—yes, but after all, I was an enemy officer."
"Yet you seem to accept his statements unquestioningly."
Cordelia tried to explain. "A man's word is something more to a Barrayaran than a vague promise, at least for the old-fashioned types. Heavens, it's even the basis for their government, oaths of fealty and all that."
Mehta whistled soundlessly. "You approve of their form of government now, do you?"
Cordelia stirred uncomfortably. "Not exactly. I'm just starting to understand it a little, is all. It could be made to work, I suppose."
"So this word of honor business—you believe he never breaks it?"
"Well . . ."
"He does, then."
"I have seen him do so. But the cost was huge."
"He breaks it for a price, then."
"Not for a price. At a cost."
"I fail to see the distinction."
"A price is something you get. A cost is something you lose. He lost—much, at Escobar."
The talk was drifting onto dangerous ground. Got to change the subject, Cordelia thought drowsily. Or take a nap . . . Mehta glanced at the time again, and studied Cordelia's face intently.
"Escobar," said Mehta.
"Aral lost his honor at Escobar, you know. He said he was going to go home and get drunk, afterwards. Escobar broke his heart, I think."
"Aral . . . You call him by his first name?"
"He calls me 'dear Captain.' I always thought that was funny. Very revealing, in a way. He really does think of me as a lady soldier. Vorrutyer was right again—I think I am the solution to a difficulty for him. I'm glad. . . ." The room was getting warm. She yawned. The wisps of smoke wound tendril-like about her.
"He loves his soldiers, you know. He really does. He's stuffed with this peculiar Barrayaran patriotism. All honor to the Emperor. The Emperor hardly seems worthy of it. . . ."
"Poor sod. Tormented as Bothari. May be as mad."
"Bothari? Who is Bothari?"
"He talks to demons. The demons talk back. You'd like Bothari. Aral does. I do. Good guy to have with you on your next trip to hell. He speaks the language."
Mehta frowned, twiddled her dials again, and tapped her readout screen with a long fingernail. She backtracked. "Emperor."
Cordelia could hardly keep her eyes open. Mehta lit another cigarette and set it beside the stub of the first.
"Prince," said Cordelia. Mustn't talk about the Prince. . . .
"Prince," repeated Mehta.
"Mustn't talk about the Prince. That mountain of corpses . . ." Cordelia squinted in the smoke. The smoke—the odd, acrid smoke from cigarettes, once lit, never again lifted to the mouth . . .
"You're—drugging—me. . . ." Her voice broke in a strangled howl, and she staggered to her feet. The air was like glue. Mehta leaned forward, lips parted in concentration. She then jumped from her chair and back in surprise as Cordelia lurched toward her.
Cordelia swept the recorder from the table and fell upon it as it smashed to the floor, beating on it with her good hand, her right hand. "Never talk! No more death! You can't make me! Blew it—you can't get away with it, I'm sorry, watchdog, remembers every word, I'm sorry, shot him, please, talk to me, please, let me out, please let me out pleaseletmeout . . ."
Mehta was trying to lift her from the floor, speaking soothingly. Cordelia caught pieces in the outwash of her own babble. "—not supposed to do that—idiosyncratic reaction—most unusual. Please, Captain Naismith, come lie down. . . ."
Something glittered at Mehta's fingertips. An ampule.
"No!" screamed Cordelia, rolling on her back and kicking at her. She connected. The ampule arced away to roll under a low table. "No drugs no drugs no no no . . ."
Mehta was pale olive. "All right! All right! But come lie down—that's it, like that . . ." She darted away to turn up the air-conditioning full blast, and stub out the second cigarette. The air cleared quickly.
Cordelia lay on the couch, regaining her breath and trembling. So close—she had come so close to betraying him—and this was only the first session. Gradually she began to feel cooler and clearer.
She sat up, her face buried in her hands. "That was a dirty trick," she observed in a flat voice.
Mehta smiled, thin as plastic over an underlying excitement. "Well, it was, a little. But it's been an enormously productive session. Far more than I ever expected."
I'll bet, thought Cordelia. Enjoyed my performance, did you? Mehta was kneeling on the floor, picking up pieces of the recorder.
"Sorry about your machine. Can't imagine what came over me. Did I—destroy your results?"
"Yes, you should have just fallen asleep. Strange. And no." Rather triumphantly, she pulled a data cartridge from the wreck, and set it carefully on the table. "You won't have to go through that again. It's all right here. Very good."
"What do you make of it?" asked Cordelia dryly, through her fingers.
Mehta regarded her with professional fascination. "You are without doubt the most challenging case I've ever handled. But this should relieve your mind of any lingering doubts about whether the Barrayarans have, ah, violently rearranged your thinking. Your readouts practically went off the scales." She nodded firmly.
"You know," said Cordelia, "I'm not too crazy about your methods. I have a—particular aversion to being drugged against my will. I thought that sort of thing was illegal."
"But necessary, sometimes. The data are much purer if the subject is not aware of the observation. It's considered sufficiently ethical if permission is obtained post facto."
"Post facto permission, eh?" Cordelia purred. Fear and fury wound a double helix up her spine, coiling tighter and tighter. With an effort, she kept her smile straight, not letting it turn into a snarl. "That's a legal concept I'd never thought of. It sounds—almost Barrayaran. I don't want you on my case," she added abruptly.
Mehta made a note, and looked up, smiling.
"That's not a statement of emotion," Cordelia emphasized. "That's a legal demand. I refuse any further treatment from you."
Mehta nodded understandingly. Was the woman deaf?
"Enormous progress," said Mehta happily. "I wouldn't have expected to uncover the aversion defense for another week yet."
"You didn't expect the Barrayarans would put that much work into you and not plant defenses around it, did you? Of course you feel hostile. Just remember, those are not your own feelings. Tomorrow, we will work on them."
"Oh no we won't!" The muscles up her scalp were tense as wire. Her head ached fiercely. "You're fired!"
Mehta looked eager. "Oh, excellent!"
"Did you hear me?" demanded Cordelia. Where did that shrieky whine in my voice come from? Calm, calm . . .
"Captain Naismith, I remind you that we are not civilians. I am not in the ordinary legal physician-patient relationship with you; we are both under military discipline, pursuing, I have reason to believe, a military—never mind. Suffice it to say, you did not hire me and you can't fire me. Tomorrow, then."
Cordelia remained seated for hours after she left, staring at the wall and swinging her leg in absent thumps against the side of the couch, until her mother came home with supper. The next day she left the apartment early in the morning on a random tour of the city, and didn't return until late at night.
* * *
That night, in her weariness and loneliness, she sat down to write her first letter to Vorkosigan. She threw away her original attempt halfway through, when she realized his mail was probably read by other eyes, perhaps Illyan's. Her second was more neutrally worded. She made it handwritten, on paper, and being alone kissed it before she sealed it, then smiled wryly at herself for doing so. A paper letter was far more expensive to ship to Barrayar than an electronic one, but he would handle it, as she had. It was as close to a touch as they could come.
The next morning Mehta called early on the comconsole, to tell Cordelia cheerily she could relax; something had come up, and their session that afternoon was canceled. She did not refer to Cordelia's absence the previous afternoon.
Cordelia was relieved at first, until she began thinking about it. Just to be sure, she absented herself from home again. The day might have been pleasant, but for a dust-up with some journalists lurking around the apartment shaft, and the discovery about mid-afternoon that she was being followed by two men in very inconspicuous civilian sarongs. Sarongs were last year's fashion; this year it was exotic and whimsical body paint, at least for the brave. Cordelia, wearing her old tan Survey fatigues, lost them by trailing them through a pornographic feelie-show. But they turned up again later in the afternoon as she puttered through the Silica Zoo.
* * *
At Mehta's appointed hour the next afternoon the door chimed. Cordelia slouched reluctantly to answer it. How am I going to handle her today? she wondered. I'm running low on inspiration. So tired . . .
Her stomach sank. Now what? Framed in the doorway were Mehta, Commodore Tailor, and a husky medtech. That one, Cordelia thought, staring up at him, looks like he could handle Bothari. Backing up a bit, she led them into her mother's living room. Her mother retreated to the kitchen, ostensibly to prepare coffee.
Commodore Tailor seated himself and cleared his throat nervously. "Cordelia, I have something to say that will be a little painful, I'm afraid."
Cordelia perched on the arm of a chair and swung her leg back and forth, baring her teeth in what she hoped was a bland smile. "S-sticking you with the dirty work, eh? One of the joys of command. Go ahead."
"We're going to have to ask you to agree to hospitalization for further therapy."
Dear God, here we go. The muscles of her belly trembled beneath her shirt; it was a loose shirt, maybe they wouldn't notice. "Oh? Why?" she inquired casually.
"We're afraid—we're very much afraid that the Barrayaran mind programming you underwent was a lot more extensive than anyone realized. We think, in fact . . ." he paused, taking a deep breath, "that they've tried to make you an agent."
Is that an editorial or an imperial "we," Bill? "Tried, or succeeded?"
Tailor's gaze wavered. Mehta fixed him with a cold stare. "Our opinion is divided on that—"
Note, class, how sedulously he avoids the "I" of personal responsibility—it suggests the worst "we" of all, the guilty "we"—what the hell are they planning?
"—but that letter you sent day before yesterday to the Barrayaran admiral, Vorkosigan—we thought you should have a chance to explain it, first."
"I s-see." You dared! "Not an official l-letter. How could it be? You know Vorkosigan's retired now. But perhaps," her eye nailed Tailor, "you would care to explain by what right you are intercepting and reading my private mail?"
"Emergency security. For the war."
He looked uncomfortable at that. "But the espionage goes on."
Probably true. She had often wondered how Ezar Vorbarra came by the knowledge of the plasma mirrors, until the war the most closely guarded new weapon in the Betan arsenal. Her foot was tapping nervously. She stilled it. "My letter." My heart, on paper—paper wraps stone. . . . She kept her voice cool. "And what did you learn from my letter, Bill?"
"Well, that's a problem. We've had our best cryptographers, our most advanced computer programs, working on it for the better part of two days. Analyzed it right down to the molecular structure of the paper. Frankly," he glanced rather irritably at Mehta, "I'm not convinced they found anything."
No, Cordelia thought, you wouldn't. The secret was in the kiss. Not subject to molecular analysis. She sighed glumly. "Did you send it on, after you were done?"
"Well—I'm afraid there wasn't anything left, by then."
Scissors cut paper. . . . "I'm no agent. I g-give you my word."
Mehta looked up alertly.
"I find it hard to believe, myself," Tailor said.
Cordelia tried to hold his eyes; he looked away. You do believe it, she thought. "What happens if I refuse to have myself committed?"
"Then as your commanding officer, I must order you to do so."
I'll see you in hell first—no. Calm. Must stay calm, keep them taking, maybe I can talk my way out of this yet. "Even if it's against your private judgment?"
"This is a serious security matter. I'm afraid it doesn't admit private judgments."
"Oh, come on. Even Captain Negri has been known to make a private judgment, they say."
She'd said something wrong. The temperature in the room seemed to drop suddenly.
"How do you know about Captain Negri?" said Tailor frozenly.
"Everybody knows about Negri." They were staring at her. "Oh, c-come on! If I were an agent of Negri's, you'd never know it. He's not so inept!"
"On the contrary," said Mehta in a clipped tone, "we think he's so good that you'd never know it."
"Garbage!" said Cordelia, disgusted. "How do you figure that?"
Mehta answered literally. "My hypothesis is that you are being controlled—unconsciously, perhaps—by this rather sinister and enigmatic Admiral Vorkosigan. That your programming began during your first captivity and was completed, probably, during the late war. You were destined to be the linchpin of a new Barrayaran intelligence network here, to replace the one that was just rooted out. A mole, perhaps, put in place and not activated for years, until some critical moment—"
"Sinister?" Cordelia interrupted. "Enigmatic? Aral? I could laugh." I could weep. . . .
"He is obviously your control," said Mehta complacently. "You have apparently been programmed to obey him unquestioningly."
"I am not a computer." Thump, thump, went her foot. "And Aral is the one person who has never constrained me. A point of honor, I believe."
"You see?" said Mehta. To Tailor; she didn't look at Cordelia. "All the evidence points one way."
"Only if you're s-standing on your head!" cried Cordelia, furious. She glared at Tailor. "That's not an order I have to take. I can resign my commission."
"We need not have your permission," said Mehta calmly, "even as a civilian. If your next of kin will agree to it."
"My mother'd never do that to me!"
"We've already discussed it with her, at length. She's very concerned for you."
"I s-see." Cordelia subsided abruptly, glancing toward the kitchen. "I wondered why that coffee was taking so long. Guilty conscience, eh?" She hummed a snatch of tune under her breath, then stopped. "You people have really done your homework. Covered all the exits."
Tailor summoned up a smile and offered it to her, placatingly. "You don't have anything to be afraid of, Cordelia. You'll have our very best people working for—with—"
On, thought Cordelia.
"—you. And when you're done, you'll be able to return to your old life as if none of this had ever happened."
Erase me, will you? Erase him . . . Analyze me to death, like my poor timid love letter. She smiled back at him, ruefully. "Sorry, Bill. I just have this awful vision of being p-peeled like an onion, looking for the seeds."
He grinned. "Onions don't have seeds, Cordelia."
"I stand corrected," she said dryly.
"And frankly," he went on, "if you are right and, uh, we are wrong—the fastest way you can prove it is to come along." He smiled the smile of reason.
"Yes, true . . ." But for that little matter of a civil war on Barrayar—that tiny stumbling block—that stone—paper wraps stone . . .
"Sorry, Cordelia." He really was.
"It's all right."
"Remarkable ploy of the Barrayarans," Mehta expounded thoughtfully. "Concealing an espionage ring under the cover of a love affair. I might even have bought it, if the principals had been more likely."
"Yes," Cordelia agreed cordially, writhing within. "One doesn't expect a thirty-four-year-old to fall in love like an adolescent. Quite an unexpected—gift, at my age. Even more unexpected at forty-four, I gather."
"Exactly," said Mehta, pleased by Cordelia's ready understanding. "A middle-aged career officer is hardly the stuff of romance."
Tailor, behind her, opened his mouth as if to speak, then shut it again. He stared meditatively at his hands.
"Think you can cure me of it?" asked Cordelia.
"Ah." Sergeant Bothari, where are you now? Too late. "You leave me no choice. Curious." Delay, whispered her mind. Look for an opportunity. If you can't find one, make one. Pretend this is Barrayar, where anything is possible. "Is it all right if I g-get a shower—change clothes, pack? I assume this is going to be a lengthy business."
"Of course." Tailor and Mehta exchanged a relieved look. Cordelia smiled pleasantly.
Dr. Mehta, without the medtech, accompanied her to her bedroom. Opportunity, thought Cordelia dizzily. "Ah, good," she said, closing the door behind the doctor. "We can chat while I pack."
Sergeant Bothari—there is a time for words, and there is a time when even the very best words fail. You were a man of very few words, but you didn't fail. I wish I'd understood you better. Too late . . .
Mehta seated herself on the bed, watching her specimen, perhaps, as it wriggled on its pin. Her triumph of logical deduction. Are you planning to write a paper on me, Mehta? wondered Cordelia dourly. Paper wraps stone. . . .
She puttered around the room, opening drawers, slamming cabinets. There was a belt—two belts—and a chain belt. There were her identity cards, bank cards, money. She pretended not to see them. As she moved, she talked. Her brain seethed. Stone smashes scissors. . . .
"You know you remind me a bit of the late Admiral Vorrutyer. You both want to take me apart, see what makes me tick. Vorrutyer was more like a little kid, though. Had no intention of picking up his mess afterwards.
"You, on the other hand, will take me apart and not even get a giggle out of it. Of course, you fully intend to put the pieces back together afterwards, but from my point of view that scarcely makes any difference. Aral was right about people in green silk rooms. . . ."
Mehta looked puzzled. "You've stopped stuttering," she noted.
"Yes . . ." Cordelia paused before her aquarium, considering it curiously. "So I have. How strange." Stone smashes scissors. . . .
She removed the top. The old familiar nausea of funk and fear wrung her stomach. She wandered aimlessly behind Mehta, the chain belt and a shirt in her hands. I must choose now. I must choose now. I choose—now!
She lunged, wrapping the belt around the doctor's throat, yanking her arms up behind her back, securing them painfully with the other end of the belt. Mehta emitted a strangled squeak.
Cordelia held her from behind, and whispered in her ear.
"In a moment I'll give you your air back. How long depends on you. You're about to get a short course in the real Barrayaran interrogation techniques. I never used to approve of them, but lately I've come to see they have their uses—when you're in a tearing hurry, for instance—" Can't let her guess I'm playacting. Playacting. "How many men does Tailor have planted around this building, and what are their positions?"
She loosened the chain slightly. Mehta, eyes stunned with fear, choked, "None!"
"All Cretans are liars," Cordelia muttered. "Bill's not inept either." She dragged the doctor over to the aquarium and pushed her face into the water. She struggled wildly, but Cordelia, larger, stronger, in better training, held her under with a furious strength that astonished herself.
Mehta showed signs of passing out. Cordelia pulled her up and allowed her a couple of breaths.
"Care to revise your estimate yet?" God help me, what if this doesn't work? They'll never believe I'm not an agent now.
"Oh, please," Mehta gasped.
"All right, back you go." She held her down again.
The water roiled, splashing over the sides of the aquarium. Cordelia could see Mehta's face through the glass, strangely magnified, deathly yellow in the odd reflected light from the gravel. Silver bubbles broke around her mouth and flowed up over her face. Cordelia was temporarily fascinated by them. Air flows like water, underwater, she thought; is there an aesthetic of death?
"Now. How many? Where?"
"Have another drink."
At her next breath Mehta gasped, "You wouldn't kill me!"
"Diagnosis, Doctor," hissed Cordelia. "Am I a sane woman, pretending to be mad, or a madwoman, pretending to be sane? Grow gills!" Her voice rose uncontrollably. She shoved Mehta back under, and found she was holding her own breath. And what if she's right and I'm wrong? What if I am an agent, and don't know it? How do you tell a copy from the original? Stone smashes scissors. . . .
She had a vision, trembling to her fingers, of holding the woman's head under, and under, until her resistance drained away, until unconsciousness took her, and a full count beyond that to assure brain death. Power, opportunity, will—she lacked nothing. So this is what Aral felt at Komarr, she thought. Now I understand—no. Now I know.
"How many? Where?"
"Four," Mehta croaked. Cordelia melted with relief. "Two outside the foyer. Two in the garage."
"Thank you," said Cordelia, automatically courteous; but her throat was tightened to a slit and squeezed her words to a smear of sound. "I'm sorry. . . ." She could not tell if Mehta, livid, heard or understood. Paper wraps stone. . . .
She bound and gagged her as she had once seen Vorkosigan do Gottyan. She shoved her down behind the bed, out of sight from the door. She stuffed bank cards, IDs, money, into her pockets. She turned on the shower.
She tiptoed out the bedroom door, breathing raggedly through her mouth. She ached for a minute, just one minute, to collect her shattered balance, but Tailor and the medtech were gone—to the kitchen for coffee, probably. She dared not risk the opening even to pause for boots.
No, God—! Tailor was standing in the archway to the kitchen, just raising a cup of coffee to his lips. She froze, he went still, and they stared at each other.
Her eyes, Cordelia realized, must be huge as some nocturnal animal's. She never could control her eyes.
Tailor's mouth twisted oddly, watching her. Then, slowly, he raised his left hand and saluted her. The incorrect hand, but the other was holding the coffee. He took a sip of his drink, gaze steady over the rim of his cup.
Cordelia came gravely to attention, returned the salute, and slipped quietly out the apartment door.
* * *
To her temporary terror, she found a journalist and his vidman in the hallway, one of the most persistent and obnoxious, the one she'd had thrown out of the building yesterday. She smiled at him, dizzy with exhilaration, like a sky diver just stepping into air.
"Still want to do that interview?"
He jumped at the bait.
"Slow down, now. Not here. I'm being watched, you know." She dropped her voice conspiratorially. "The government's doing a cover-up. What I know could blow the administration sky-high. Things about the prisoners. You could—make your reputation."
"Where, then?" He was avid.
"How about the shuttleport? Their bar's quiet. I'll buy you a drink, and we can—plan our campaign." Time ticked in her brain. She expected her mother's apartment door to slam open any second. "It's dangerous, though. There are two government agents up in the foyer and two in the garage. I'd have to get past them without being seen. If it were known I was talking to you, you might not get a chance at a second interview. No rough stuff—just a little quiet disappearance in the night, and the ripple of a rumor about 'gone for medical tests.' Know what I mean?" She was fairly sure he didn't—his media service dealt mainly in sex fantasies—but she could see a vision of journalistic glory growing in his face.
He turned to his vidman. "Jon, give her your jacket, your hat, and your holovid."
She tucked her hair up in the broad-brimmed hat, concealed her fatigues under the jacket, and carried the vid ostentatiously. They took the lift tube up to the garage. There were two men in blue uniforms waiting by its exit. She placed the vid casually on her shoulder, her arm half-concealing her face, as they walked past them to the journalist's groundcar.
At the shuttleport bar she ordered drinks, and took a large gulp of her own. "I'll be right back," she promised, and left him sitting there with the unpaid-for liquor in front of him.
The next stop was the ticket computer. She punched up the schedule. No passenger ships leaving for Escobar for at least six hours. Far too long. The shuttleport would surely be one of the first places searched. A woman in shuttleport uniform walked past. Cordelia collared her.
"Pardon me. Could you help me find out something about private freighter schedules, or any other private ships leaving soon?"
The woman frowned, then smiled in sudden recognition. "You're Captain Naismith!"
Her heart lurched, and pounded drunkenly. No—steady on . . . "Yes. Um . . . The press have been giving me a rather hard time. I'm sure you understand." Cordelia gave the woman a look that raised her to an inner circle. "I want to do this quietly. Maybe we could go to an office? I know you're not like them. You have a respect for privacy. I can see it in your face."
"You can?" The woman was flattered and excited, and led Cordelia away. In her office she had access to the full traffic control schedules, and Cordelia keyed through them rapidly. "Hm. This looks good. Starts for Escobar within the hour. Has the pilot gone up yet, do you know?"
"That freighter isn't certified for passengers."
"That's all right. I just want to talk to the pilot. Personally. And privately. Can you catch him for me?"
"I'll try." She succeeded. "He'll meet you in Docking Bay 27. But you'll have to hurry."
"Thanks. Um . . . You know, the journalists have been making my life miserable. They'll stop at nothing. There's even a pair who've gone so far as to put on Expeditionary Force uniforms to try and get in. Call themselves Captain Mehta and Commodore Tailor. A real pain. If any of them come sniffing around, do you suppose you could sort of forget you saw me?"
"Why, sure, Captain Naismith."
"Call me Cordelia. You're first-rate! Thanks!"
The pilot was a very young one, getting his first experience on freighters before taking on the larger responsibilities of passenger ships. He too recognized her, and promptly asked for her autograph.
"I suppose you're wondering why you were chosen," she began as she wrote it out for him, without the faintest idea of where she was going, but only with the thought that he looked the sort of person who had never won a contest in his life.
"Believe me, the security people went over your life from end to end. You're trustworthy. That's what you are. Really trustworthy."
"Oh—they can't have found out about the cordolite!" Alarm struggled with response to flattery.
"Resourceful, too," Cordelia extemporized, wondering what cordolite was. She'd never heard of it. "Just the man for this mission."
"Sh, not so loud. I'm on a secret mission for the President. Personally. It's so delicate, even the Department of War doesn't know about it. There'd be heavy political repercussions if it ever got out. I have to deliver a secret ultimatum to the Emperor of Barrayar. But no one must know I've left Beta Colony."
"Am I supposed to take you there?" he asked, amazed. "My freight run—"
I believe I could talk this kid into running me all the way to Barrayar on his employer's fuel, she thought. But it would be the end of his career. Conscience controlled soaring ambition.
"No, no. Your freight run must appear to be exactly the same as usual. I'm to meet a secret contact on Escobar. You'll simply be carrying one article of freight that isn't on the manifest. Me."
"I'm not cleared for passengers, ma'am."
"Good heavens, don't you think we know that? Why do you suppose you were picked over all the other candidates, by the President himself?"
"Wow. And I didn't even vote for him."
He took her aboard the freighter shuttle, and made her a seat among the last-minute cargo. "You know all the big names in Survey, don't you, ma'am? Lightner, Parnell . . . Do you suppose you could ever introduce me?"
"I don't know. But—you will get to meet a lot of the big names from the Expeditionary Force, and Security, when you get back from Escobar. I promise." Will you ever . . .
"May I ask you a personal question, ma'am?"
"Why not? Everyone else does."
"Why are you wearing slippers?"
She stared down at her feet. "I'm—sorry, Pilot Officer Mayhew. That's classified."
"Oh." He went forward to lift ship.
Alone at last, she leaned her forehead against the cool smooth plastic side of a packing case, and wept silently for herself.