Cordelia's Honor Lois McMaster Bujold



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Chapter Five


Stepping out of her cabin door next morning she found a guard posted. The top of her head was level with his broad shoulders, and his face reminded her of an overbred borzoi, narrow, hook-nosed, with his eyes too close together. She realized at once where she had seen him before, at a distance in a dappled wood, and had a moment of residual fear.

"Sergeant Bothari?" she hazarded.

He saluted her, the first Barrayaran to have done so. "Ma'am," he said, and fell silent.

"I want to go to sickbay," she said uncertainly.

"Yes, ma'am." His voice was a deep bass, monotonous in its cadence. He executed a neat turn and led off. Guessing that he had relieved Koudelka as her guide and keeper, she pattered after him. She was not quite ready to attempt light conversation with him, so asked him no questions en route. He offered her only silence. Watching him, it occurred to her that a guard on her door might be as much to keep others out as her in. Her stunner seemed suddenly heavy on her hip.

At sickbay she found Dubauer sitting up and dressed in insignialess black fatigues like the ones she had been issued. His hair had been cut and he had been shaved. There was certainly nothing wrong with the physical care he was receiving. She spoke to him a while, until her own voice began to sound inane in her ears. He looked at her, but gave little other reaction.

She caught a glimpse of Vorkosigan in a private chamber off the main ward, and he motioned her to enter. He was dressed in plain green pajamas of the standard design, and was sitting up in bed stabbing away with a light pen at a computer interface swung over it. Curiously, although he was clothed almost civilian style, bootless and weaponless, her impression of him was unchanged. He seemed a man who could carry on stark naked, and only make those around him feel overdressed. She smiled a little at this private image, and greeted him with a sketchy wave. One of the officers who had escorted him to sickbay last night was standing by the bed.

"Commander Naismith, this is Lieutenant Commander Vorkalloner, my second officer. Excuse me a moment; captains may come and captains may go, but the administration goes on forever."

"Amen."

Vorkalloner looked very much the professional Barrayaran soldier; he might have stepped out of a recruiting advertisement. Yet there was a certain underlying humor in his expression that made her think him a tolerable preview of Ensign Koudelka in ten or twelve years time.

"Captain Vorkosigan speaks highly of you," said Vorkalloner, making small talk. A slight frown from his captain at this opening escaped his notice. "I guess if we could only catch one Betan, you were the best choice."

Vorkosigan winced. Cordelia gave him a slight shake of her head, signaling to let the gaffe pass. He shrugged, and began tapping out something on his keyboard.

"As long as all my people are safely on their way home, I'll take it as a fair trade. Almost all of them, anyway." Rosemont's ghost breathed coldly in her ear, and Vorkalloner seemed suddenly less amusing. "Why were you all so anxious to put us in a bottle, anyway?"

"Why, orders," said Vorkalloner simply, like an ancient fundamentalist who answers every question with the tautology, "Because God made it that way." Then a little agnostic doubt began to creep over his face. "Actually, I thought we might have been sent out here on guard duty as some kind of punishment," he joked.

The remark caught Vorkosigan's humor. "For your sins? Your cosmology is too egocentric, Aristede." Leaving Vorkalloner to unravel that, he went on to Cordelia, "Your detention was intended to be free of bloodshed. It would have been, too, but for that other little matter cropping up in the middle of it. It is a worthless apology for some," and she knew he shared the memory of Rosemont's burial in the cold black fog, "but it is the only truth I can offer you. The responsibility is no less mine for that. As I am sure someone in the high command will point out when this arrives." He smiled sourly and continued typing.

"Well, I can't say I'm sorry to have messed up their invasion plans," she said daringly. There, let's see what that stirs up. . . .

"What invasion?" asked Vorkalloner, waking up.

"I was afraid you'd figure that out, once you saw the cache caverns," said Vorkosigan to her. "It was still being hotly debated when we left, and the expansionists were waving the advantage of surprise as a big stick to beat the peace party. Speaking as a private person—well, I have not that right while in uniform. Let it go."

"What invasion?" probed Vorkalloner hopefully.

"With luck, none," answered Vorkosigan, allowing himself to be persuaded to partial frankness. "One of those was enough for a lifetime." He seemed to look inward on private, unpleasant memories.

Vorkalloner plainly found this a baffling attitude from the Hero of Komarr. "It was a great victory, sir. With very little loss of life."

"On our side." Vorkosigan finished typing his report and signed it off, then entered a request for another form and began fencing at it with the light pen.

"That's the idea, isn't it?"

"It depends on whether you mean to stay or are just passing through. A very messy political legacy was left at Komarr. Not the sort of thing I care to leave in trust for the next generation. How did we get onto this subject?" He finished the last form.

"Who were they thinking of invading?" asked Cordelia doggedly.

"Why haven't I heard anything about it?" asked Vorkalloner.

"In order, that is classified information, and it is not being discussed below the level of the General Staff, the central committee of the two Councils, and the Emperor. That means this conversation is to go no farther, Aristede."

Vorkalloner glanced at Cordelia pointedly. "She's not on the General Staff. Come to think of it—"

"Neither am I, anymore," Vorkosigan conceded. "As for our guest, I've told her nothing she couldn't deduce for herself. As for myself, my opinion was requested on—certain aspects. They didn't like it, once they'd got it, but they did ask for it." His smile was not at all nice.

"Is that why you were shipped out of town?" asked Cordelia perceptively, feeling she was beginning to get the hang of how things were done on Barrayar. "So Lieutenant Commander Vorkalloner was right about pulling guard duty. Was your opinion requested by, uh, a certain old friend of your father's?"

"It certainly wasn't requested by the Council of Ministers," said Vorkosigan, but refused to be drawn any further, and changed the subject firmly. "Have my men been treating you properly?"

"Quite well, yes."

"My surgeon swears he will release me this afternoon, if I am good and stay in bed this morning. May I stop by your cabin to speak with you privately later? There are some things I need to make clear."

"Sure," she responded, thinking the request was phrased rather ominously.

The surgeon came in, aggrieved. "You're supposed to be resting, sir." He glared pointedly at Cordelia and Vorkalloner.

"Oh, very well. Send these off with the next courier, Aristede," he pointed to the screen, "along with the verbals and the formal charges."

The doctor herded them out, as Vorkosigan began typing again.

* * *

She wandered around the ship for the rest of the morning, exploring the limits of her parole. Vorkosigan's ship was a confusing warren of corridors, sealable levels, tubes, and narrow doors designed, she realized at last, to be defensible from boarding parties in hand-to-hand combat. Sergeant Bothari kept pace with slow strides, looming silently as the shadow of death at her shoulder, except when she would begin to make a turn into some forbidden door or corridor, when he would halt abruptly and say, "No, ma'am." She was not permitted to touch anything, though, as she found when she ran a hand casually over a control panel, eliciting another monotonous "No, ma'am," from Bothari. It made her feel like a two-year-old being taken on a toddle.

She made one attempt to draw him out.

"Have you served Captain Vorkosigan long?" she inquired brightly.

"Yes, ma'am."

Silence. She tried again. "Do you like him?"

"No, ma'am."

Silence.

"Why not?" This at least could not have a yes-or-no answer. For a while she thought he wasn't going to answer at all, but he finally came up with, "He's a Vor."

"Class conflict?" she hazarded.

"I don't like Vors."

"I'm not a Vor," she suggested.

He stared through her glumly. "You're like a Vor. Ma'am."

Unnerved, she gave up.

* * *

That afternoon she made herself comfortable on her narrow bunk and began to explore the menu the library computer had to offer her. She picked out a vid with the unalarming grade school title of "People and Places of Barrayar" and punched it up.

Its narration was as banal as the title had promised, but the pictures were utterly fascinating. It seemed a green, delicious, sunlit world to her Betan eyes. People went about without nose filters or rebreathers, or heat shields in the summer. The climate and terrain were immensely varied, and it had real oceans, with moon-raised tides, in contrast to the flat saline puddles that passed for lakes at home.

A knock sounded at her door. "Enter," she called, and Vorkosigan appeared around it, greeting her with a nod. Odd hour of the day for him to be in dress uniform, she thought—but my word, he cleans up good. Nice, very nice. Sergeant Bothari accompanied him; he remained standing stolidly outside the half-opened door. Vorkosigan walked around the room for a moment as if searching for something. He finally emptied her lunch tray and used it to prop the door open a narrow crack. Cordelia raised her eyebrows at this.

"Is that really necessary?"

"I think so. At the current rate of gossip I'm bound to encounter some joke soon about the privileges of rank that I can't pretend not to hear, and I'll have to quash the unlucky, er, humorist. I have an aversion to closed doors anyway. You never know what's on the other side."

Cordelia laughed outright. "It reminds me of that old joke, where the girl says, 'Let's not, and tell everybody we have.' "

Vorkosigan grimaced agreement and seated himself on the bolted-down swivel chair by the metal desk built into the wall, and swung to face her. He leaned back with his legs stretched out before him, and his face became serious. Cordelia cocked her head, half-smiling. He began obliquely, nodding toward the screen swung over her bed. "What have you been viewing?"

"Barrayaran geography. It's a beautiful place. Have you ever been to the oceans?"

"When I was a small boy, my mother used to take me to Bonsanklar every summer. It was a sort of upper-class resort town with a lot of virgin forest backing up to the mountains behind it. My father was away mostly, at the capital or with his corps. Midsummer's Day was the old Emperor's birthday, and they used to have the most fantastic fireworks—at least, they seemed so to me at the time—out over the ocean. The whole town would turn out on the esplanade, nobody even armed. No duels were permitted on the Emperor's birthday, and I was allowed to run all over the place freely." He looked at the floor, beyond the toes of his boots. "I haven't been back there for years. I should like to take you there someday, for the Midsummer's festival, should the opportunity present itself."

"I'd like that very much. Will your ship be returning to Barrayar soon?"

"Not for some time, I'm afraid. You're in for a long period as a prisoner. But when we return, in view of the escape of your ship, there should be no reason to continue your internment. You should be freed to present yourself at the Betan embassy, and go home. If you wish."

"If I wish!" She laughed a little, uncertainly, and sat back against her hard pillow. He was watching her face intently. His posture was a fair simulation of a man at his ease, but one boot was tapping unconsciously. His eye fell on it, he frowned, and it stopped. "Why shouldn't I wish?"

"I thought, perhaps, when we arrive on Barrayar, and you are free, you might consider staying."

"To visit—where you said, Bonsanklar, and so on? I don't know how much leave I'll have, but—sure, I like to see new places. I'd like to see your planet."

"Not a visit. Permanently. As—as Lady Vorkosigan." His face brightened with a wry smile. "I'm making a hash of this. I promise, I'll never think of Betans as cowards again. I swear your customs take more bravery than the most suicidal of our boys' contests of skill."

She let her breath trickle out through pursed lips. "You don't—deal in small change, do you?" She wondered where the phrase about hearts leaping up came from. It felt far more like the bottom dropping out of her stomach. Her consciousness of her own body shot up with a lurch; she was already overwhelmingly conscious of his.

He shook his head. "That's not what I want, for you, with you. You should have the best. I'm hardly that, you must know by now. But at least I can offer you the best that I have. Dear C—Commander, am I too sudden, by Betan standards? I've been waiting for days, for the right opportunity, but there never seemed to be one."

"Days! How long have you been thinking along these lines?"

"It first occurred to me when I saw you in the ravine."

"What, throwing up in the mud?"

He grinned at that. "With great composure. By the time we finished burying your officer, I knew."

She rubbed her lips. "Anybody ever tell you you're a lunatic?"

"Not in this context."

"I—you've confused me."

"Not offended you?"

"No, of course not."

He relaxed just slightly. "You needn't say yes or no right now, of course. It will be months before we're home. But I didn't want you to think—it makes things awkward, your being a prisoner. I didn't want you to think I was offering you an insult."

"Not at all," she said faintly.

"There are some other things I should tell you," he went on, his attention seemingly caught by his boots again. "It wouldn't be an easy life. I have been thinking, since I met you, that a career cleaning up after the failures of politics, as you phrased it, might not be the highest honor after all. Maybe I should be trying to prevent the failures at their source. It would be more dangerous than soldiering—chances of betrayal, false charges, assassination, maybe exile, poverty, death. Evil compromises with bad men for a little good result, and that not guaranteed. Not a good life, but if one had children—better me than them."

"You sure know how to show a girl a good time," she said helplessly, rubbing her chin and smiling.

Vorkosigan looked up, uncertain of his hope.

"How does one set about a political career, on Barrayar?" she asked, feeling her way. "I presume you're thinking of following in your grandfather Prince Xav's steps, but without the advantage of being an Imperial prince, how do you get an office?"

"Three ways. Imperial appointment, inheritance, and rising through the ranks. The Council of Ministers gets its best men through the last method. It's their great strength, but closed to me. The Council of Counts, by inheritance. That's my surest route, but it waits on my father's death. It can just go on waiting. It's a moribund body anyway, afflicted with the narrowest conservatism, and stuffed with old relics only concerned with protecting their privileges. I'm not sure anything can be done with the Counts in the long run. Perhaps they should finally be allowed to dodder over the brink of extinction. Don't quote that," he added as an afterthought.

"It's the weirdest design for a government."

"It wasn't designed. It grew."

"Maybe what you need is a constitutional convention."

"Spoken like a true Betan. Well, perhaps we do, although it sounds like a prescription for civil war, in our context. That leaves Imperial appointment. It's quick, but my fall could be as sudden and spectacular as my rise, if I should offend the old man, or he dies." The light of battle was in his eyes as he spoke, planning. "My one advantage with him is that he enjoys plain speaking. I don't know how he acquired the taste for it, because he doesn't get much of it.

"Do you know, I think you'd like politics, at least on Barrayar. Maybe because it's so similar to what we call war, elsewhere.

"There is a more immediate political problem, though, with respect to your ship, and some other things . . ." He paused, losing momentum. "Maybe—maybe an insoluble one. It really may be premature for me to be discussing marriage until I know which way it's going to fall out. But I couldn't let you go on thinking—what were you thinking, anyway?"

She shook her head. "I don't think I want to say, just now. I'll tell you someday. It's nothing you'll dislike, I don't believe."

He accepted that with a little hopeful nod, and went on. "Your ship—"

She frowned uneasily. "You won't be getting into any trouble over my ship getting away, will you?"

"It was just the situation we were on our way out here to prevent. The fact that I was unconscious at the time should be a mitigating factor. Balancing that are the views I aired at the Emperor's council. There's bound to be suspicion I let it escape on purpose, to sabotage an adventure I deeply disapprove."

"Another demotion?"

He laughed. "I was the youngest admiral in the history of our fleet—I might end up the oldest ensign, too. But no," he sobered. "There will almost certainly be a charge of treason laid, by the war party in the Ministries. Until that's settled, one way or another," he met her eyes, "it may be difficult to settle any personal affairs either."

"Is treason a capital crime on Barrayar?" she asked, morbidly curious.

"Oh, yes. Public exposure and death by starvation." He raised a quizzical eyebrow at her appalled look. "If it's any consolation, high-born traitors always seem to be smuggled some neat means to private suicide, before the event. It saves stirring up any unnecessary public sympathy. I think I should not give them the satisfaction, though. Let it be public, and messy, and tedious, and embarrassing as all hell." He looked alarmingly fey.

"Would you sabotage the invasion, if you could?"

He shook his head, eyes going distant. "No. I am a man under authority. That's what the syllable in front of my name means. While the question is still being debated, I'll continue to argue my case. But if the Emperor puts his word to the order, I'll go without question. The alternative is civil chaos, and we've had enough of that."

"What's different about this invasion? You must have favored Komarr, or they wouldn't have put you in charge of it."

"Komarr was a unique opportunity, almost a textbook case. When I was designing the strategy for its conquest, I made maximum use of those chances." He ticked off the points on his thick fingers. "A small population, all concentrated in climate-controlled cities. No place for guerillas to fall back and regroup. No allies—we weren't the only ones whose trade was being strangled by their greedy tariffs. All I had to do was let it leak out that we were going to drop their twenty-five percent cut of everything that passed through their nexus points to fifteen, and the neighbors that should have supported them fell into our pockets. No heavy industry. Fat and lazy from living off unearned income—they didn't even want to do their own fighting, until those scraggly mercenaries they'd hired found out what they were up against, and turned tail. If I'd had a free hand, and a little more time, I think it could have been taken without a shot being fired. A perfect war, it should have been, if the Council of Ministers hadn't been so impatient." Remembered frustrations played themselves out before his eyes, and he frowned into the past. "This other plan—well, I think you'll understand if I tell you it's Escobar."

Cordelia sat up, shocked. "You found a jump through here to Escobar?" No wonder, then, the Barrayarans had not announced their discovery of this place. Of all the possibilities she had revolved in her mind, that was the last. Escobar was one of the major planetary hubs in the network of wormhole exits that strung scattered humanity together. Large, old, rich, temperate, it counted among its many neighbors Beta Colony itself. "They're out of their minds!"

"Do you know, that's almost exactly what I said, before the Minister of the West started shouting, and Count Vortala threatened—well, became very rude to him. Vortala can be more obnoxious without actually swearing than any man I know."

"Beta Colony would be drawn in for sure. Why, half our interstellar trade passes through Escobar. And Tau Ceti Five. And Jackson's Whole."

"At the very least, I should think," Vorkosigan nodded agreement. "The idea was to make it a quick operation, and present the potential allies with a fait accompli. Being intimately familiar with everything that went wrong with my 'perfect' plan for Komarr, I told them they were dreaming, or words to that effect." He shook his head. "I wish I'd kept my temper better. I could still be back there, arguing against it. Instead, for all I know, the fleet is being readied even now. And the further preparations go, the harder they will be to stop." He sighed.

"War," Cordelia mused, immensely disturbed. "You realize, if your fleet goes—if Barrayar goes to war with Escobar—they'll be wanting navigators at home. Even if Beta Colony doesn't get directly involved in the fight, we're sure to be selling them weapons, technical assistance, shiploads of supplies—"

Vorkosigan started to speak, then stopped himself. "I suppose you would," he said bleakly. "And we would be trying to blockade you."

She could feel the blood beating in her ears in the silence that followed. The little noises and vibrations of Vorkosigan's ship still drifted through the walls, Bothari stirred in the corridor, and footsteps passed by.

She shook her head. "I'm going to have to think about this. It's not as easy as it looked, at first."

"No, it's not." He turned his hand palm-outward, a gesture of completion, and rose stiffly, his leg still bothering him. "That's all I wanted to say. You need not say anything."

She nodded, grateful for the release, and he withdrew, collecting Bothari and shutting the door firmly behind him. She sighed distress and deep uncertainty, and lay back staring at the ceiling until Yeoman Nilesa brought dinner.


Chapter Six


Next morning, ship time, she remained quietly in her cabin reading. She wanted time to assimilate yesterday's conversation before she saw Vorkosigan again. She was as unsettled as if all her star maps had been randomized, leaving her lost; but at least knowing she was lost. A step backwards toward truth, she supposed, better than mistaken certainties. She hungered forlornly for certainties, even as they receded beyond reach.

The ship's library offered a wide range of Barrayaran material. A gentleman named Abell had produced a turgid general history, full of names, dates, and detailed descriptions of forgotten battles all of whose participants were irrelevantly dead by now. A scholar named Aczith had done better, with a vivid biography of Emperor Dorca Vorbarra the Just, the ambiguous figure whom Cordelia calculated was Vorkosigan's great-grandfather, and whose reign had straddled the end of the Time of Isolation. Deeply involved in the multitude of personalities and convoluted politics of his day, she did not even look up at the knock on her door, but called, "Enter."

A pair of soldiers wearing green-and-grey planetside camouflage fatigues fell through the door and shut it hastily behind them. What a ratty-looking pair, she thought; finally, a Barrayaran soldier shorter than Vorkosigan. It was only on the third thought that she recognized them, as from the corridor outside, muffled by the door, an alarm klaxon began to hoot rhythmically. Looks like I'm not going to make it to the B's. . . .

"Captain!" cried Lieutenant Stuben. "Are you all right?"

All the crushing weight of old responsibility descended on her at the sight of his face. His shoulder-length brown hair had been sacrificed to an imitation Barrayaran military burr that looked as though it had been grazed over by some herbivore, and his head seemed small, naked, and strange without it. Lieutenant Lai, beside him, slight and thin with a scholarly stoop, made an even less likely looking warrior, the too-large uniform he wore folded up at the wrists and ankles, with one ankle coming unfolded and getting under the heel of his boot.

She opened her mouth once to speak, closed it, then finally ripped out, "Why aren't you on your way home? I gave you an order, Lieutenant!"

Stuben, anticipating a warmer reception, was momentarily nonplussed. "We took a vote," he said simply, as though it explained everything.

Cordelia shook her head helplessly. "You would. A vote. Right." She buried her face in her hands a moment, and sobbed a laugh. "Why?" she asked through her fingers.

"We identified the Barrayaran ship as the General Vorkraft—looked it up and found out who was in command. We just couldn't leave you in the hands of the Butcher of Komarr. It was unanimous."

She was momentarily diverted. "How the devil did you get a unanimous vote out of—no, never mind," she cut him off as he began to answer, a self-satisfied gleam starting in his eye. I shall beat my head against the wall—no. Got to have more information. And so does he.

"Do you realize," she said carefully, "that the Barrayarans were planning to bring an invasion fleet through here, to attack Escobar by surprise? If you had reached home and reported this planet's existence, their chance of surprise would have been destroyed. Now all bets are off. Where is the Rene Magritte now, and how did you ever get in here?"

Lieutenant Stuben looked astonished. "How did you find all that out?"

"Time, time," Lieutenant Lai reminded him anxiously, tapping his wrist chronometer.

Stuben went on. "Let me tell you on the way to the shuttle. Do you know where Dubauer is? He wasn't in the brig."

"Yes, what shuttle? No—begin at the beginning. I've got to know everything before we set foot in the corridor. I take it they know you're aboard?" The beat of the klaxon still sounded outside, and she cringed in expectation of her door bursting inward at any moment.

"No, they don't. That's the beauty of it," said Stuben proudly. "We had the greatest piece of luck.

"They pursued us for two days when we first ran off. I didn't put on full power—just enough to stay out of their range and keep them trailing us. I thought we might still get a chance to circle back and pick you up, somehow. Then all of a sudden they stopped, turned around, and started back here.

"We waited until they were well away, then turned around ourselves. We hoped you were still hiding in the woods."

"No, I was captured the first night. Go on."

"We got everything lined up, put on max boost, then cut everything we could think of that made electromagnetic noise. The projector worked fine as a muffler, by the way, just like Ross's simulation last month. We waltzed right past 'em and they never blinked—"

"For God's sake, Stu, stick to the point," muttered Lai. "We haven't got all day." He bounced on his heels in impatience.

"If that projector falls into Barrayaran hands—" began Cordelia in rising tones.

"It won't, I tell you. Anyway, the Rene Magritte's making a parabola around the sun—as soon as they get close enough to be masked by its noise, they're supposed to brake and boost, then shoot back through here for a pickup. We'll have a two-hour time window to match velocities starting—well, starting about ten minutes ago."

"Too chancey," criticized Cordelia, all the possible disasters inherent in this scenario parading through her imagination.

"It worked," defended Stuben. "—at least, it's going to work. Then we struck it lucky. We found these two Barrayarans wandering in the woods while we were looking for you and Dubauer—"

Cordelia's stomach tightened. "Radnov and Darobey, by chance?"

Stuben stared. "How did you know?"

"Go on, just go on."

"They were the ringleaders of a conspiracy to unseat that homicidal maniac Vorkosigan. Vorkosigan was after them, so they were glad to see us."

"I'll bet. Just like manna from heaven."

"A Barrayaran patrol shuttled down after them. We set up an ambush—stunned them all, except for one Radnov shot with a nerve disruptor. Those guys really play for keeps."

"Do you happen to know which—no, never mind. Go on." Her stomach churned.

"We took their uniforms, took their shuttle, and slid on up to the General as neat as you please. Radnov and Darobey between 'em knew all the countersigns. We made it to the brig—that was easy, it was where they were expecting their patrol to go anyway—we thought you and Dubauer would be there. Radnov and Darobey let all their buddies out, and went to take over the engine room. They can cut off any system from there, weapons, life support, anything. They're supposed to cut weapons when we make our break with the shuttle."

"I wouldn't count on that," Cordelia warned.

"No matter," said Stuben cheerfully. "The Barrayarans will be so busy fighting each other we can walk right through. Think of the splendid irony! The Butcher of Komarr, shot by his own men! Now I know how judo is supposed to work."

"Splendid," she echoed hollowly. His head, she thought—I'm going to beat his head against the wall, not mine. "How many of us are aboard?"

"Six. Two at the shuttle, two looking for Dubauer, and we two to get you."

"Nobody left planetside?"

"No."

"All right." She rubbed her face tensely, ravenous for inspiration that would not come. "What a mess. Dubauer's in sickbay, by the way. Disruptor damage." She decided not to detail his condition just then.

"Filthy killers," said Lai. "I hope they choke each other."

She turned to the library interface by her bed, and dialed up the crude schematic map of the General Vorkraft, minus technical data, that the library was programmed to allow her. "Study this, and figure out your route to sickbay and the shuttle hatch. I'm going to find something out. Stay here and don't answer the door. Who are the other two wandering around out there?"

"McIntyre and Big Pete."

"Well, at least they have a better chance of passing for Barrayarans close up than you two do."

"Captain, where are you going? Why can't we just go?"

"I'll explain it when I have a week to spare. This time follow your damned orders. Stay here!"

She slipped out the door and dog-trotted toward the bridge. Her nerves screamed to run, but it would draw too much attention. She passed a group of four Barrayarans hurrying somewhere; they barely spared her a glance. She had never been more glad to be a wallflower.

She found Vorkosigan on the bridge with his officers, clustered intently around the intercom from engineering. Bothari was there too, looming like Vorkosigan's sad shadow.

"Who's that guy on the comm?" she whispered to Vorkalloner. "Radnov?"

"Yes. Sh."

The face was speaking. "Vorkosigan, Gottyan, and Vorkalloner, one by one, at two-minute intervals. Unarmed, or all life support systems will be cut off throughout the ship. You have fifteen minutes before we start letting in the vacuum. Ah. Have you patched it in? Good. Better not waste time, Captain." His inflection made the rank a deadly insult.

The face vanished, but the voice returned ghost-like over the loudspeaker system. "Soldiers of Barrayar," it blared. "Your Captain has betrayed the Emperor and the Council of Ministers. Don't let him betray you too. Turn him over to the proper authority, your Political Officer, or we will be forced to slay the innocent with the guilty. In fifteen minutes we will cut life support—"

"Cut that off," said Vorkosigan irritably.

"Can't sir," said a technician. Bothari, more direct, unslung his plasma arc and with a negligent gesture fired from the hip. The speaker exploded off the wall and several men ducked the molten fragments.

"Hey, we might need that ourselves," began Vorkalloner indignantly.

"Never mind," Vorkosigan waved him down. "Thank you, Sergeant." A distant echo of the voice continued from loudspeakers all over the ship.

"There's no time for anything more elaborate, I'm afraid," Vorkosigan said, apparently winding up a planning session. "Go ahead with your engineering idea, Lieutenant Saint Simon; if you can get it in place in time, so much the better. I'm sure we'd all rather be clever than brave."

The lieutenant nodded and hurried out.

"If he can't, I'm afraid we'll have to rush them," Vorkosigan went on. "They are perfectly capable of killing everyone aboard and rerecording the log to prove anything they please. Between Darobey and Tafas they have the technical know-how. I want volunteers. Myself and Bothari, of course."

A unanimous chorus put themselves forward.

"Gottyan and Vorkalloner are both out. I need somebody who can explain things, afterward. Now the battle order. First me, then Bothari, then Siegel's patrol, then Kush's. Stunners only, I don't want stray shots smashing up engineering." A number of men glanced at the hole in the wall where the speaker had been.

"Sir," said Vorkalloner desperately, "I question that battle order. They'll be using disruptors for sure. The first men through the door haven't got a chance."

Vorkosigan took a few seconds and stared him down. He dropped his eyes miserably. "Yes, sir."

"Lieutenant Commander Vorkalloner is right, sir," an unexpected bass voice put in. Cordelia realized with a start it was Bothari. "The first place is mine, by right. I've earned it." He faced his captain, narrow jaw working. "It's mine."

Their eyes met in a weird understanding. "Very well, Sergeant," conceded Vorkosigan. "You first, then me, then the rest as ordered. Let's go."

Vorkosigan paused before her as they herded out. "I'm afraid I'm not going to make that walk on the esplanade in the summer, after all."

Cordelia shook her head helplessly, the glimmer of a terrifying idea beginning in the back of her brain. "I—I—I have to withdraw my parole now."

Vorkosigan looked puzzled, then waved it aside for a more immediate concern. "If I should chance to end up like your Ensign Dubauer—remember my preferences. If you can bring yourself to it, I would like it to be by your hand. I'll tell Vorkalloner. Can I have your word?"

"Yes."

"You'd better stay in your cabin until this is over."

He reached out to her shoulder, to touch one curl of red hair resting there, then turned away. Cordelia fled down the corridor, Radnov's propaganda droning senselessly in her ears. Her plan blossomed furiously in her mind. Her reason yammered protest, like a rider on a runaway horse; you have no duty to these Barrayarans, your duty is to Beta Colony, to Stuben, to the Rene Magritte—your duty is to escape, and warn . . .

She swung into her cabin. Wonder of wonders, Stuben and Lai were still there. They looked up, alarmed by her wild appearance.

"Go to sickbay now. Pick up Dubauer and take him to the shuttle. When were Pete and Mac supposed to report back there if they couldn't find him?"

"In—" Lai checked his time, "ten minutes."

"Thank God. When you get to sickbay, tell the surgeon that Captain Vorkosigan ordered you to bring Dubauer to me. Lai, you wait in the corridor. You'd never fool the surgeon. Dubauer can't talk. Don't act surprised by his condition. When you get to the shuttle, wait—let me see your chrono, Lai—till 0620 our ship time, then take off. If I'm not back by then I'm not coming. Full power and don't look back. Exactly how many men did Radnov and Darobey have with them?"

"Ten or eleven, I guess," Stuben said.

"All right. Give me your stunner. Go. Go. Go."

"Captain, we came here to rescue you!" cried Stuben, bewildered.

Words failed her utterly. She put a hand on his shoulder instead. "I know. Thank you." She ran.

Approaching engineering from one deck above, she came to an intersection of two corridors. Down the larger was a group of men assembling and checking weapons. Down the smaller were two men covering an entry port to the next deck, a last checkpoint before territory covered by Radnov's fire. One of them was Yeoman Nilesa. She pounced on him.

"Captain Vorkosigan sent me down," she lied. "He wants me to try one last effort at negotiation, as a neutral in the affair."

"That's a waste of time," observed Nilesa.

"So he hopes," she improvised. "It'll keep them tied up while he's getting ready. Can you get me in without alarming anybody?"

"I can try, I guess." Nilesa went forward and undogged a circular hatch in the floor at the end of the corridor.

"How many guards on this entrance?" she whispered.

"Two or three, I think."

The hatch swung up, revealing a man-width access tube with a ladder up one side and a pole down the middle.

"Hey, Wentz!" he shouted down it.

"Who's that?" a voice floated up.

"Me, Nilesa. Captain Vorkosigan wants to send that Betan frill down to talk to Radnov."

"What for?"

"How the hell should I know? You're the ones who're supposed to have comm pickups in everybody's bunks. Maybe she's not such a good lay after all." Nilesa shrugged an apology toward her, and she accepted it with a nod.

There was a whispered debate below.

"Is she armed?"

Cordelia, readying both stunners, shook her head.

"Would you give a weapon to a Betan frill?" Nilesa called back rhetorically, watching her preparations in puzzlement.

"All right. Put her in, dog the hatch, and let her drop. If you don't close the hatch before she drops, we'll shoot her. Got that?"

"Yo."

"What'll I be looking at when I get to the bottom?" she quizzed Nilesa.

"Nasty spot. You'll be standing in a sort of niche in the storeroom off the main control room. You can only get one man at a time through it, and you're pinned in there like a target, with the wall on three sides. It's designed that way on purpose."

"No way to rush them through it? I mean, you're not planning to?"

"No way in hell."

"Good. Thanks."

Cordelia climbed down into the tube, and Nilesa closed the hatch over her with a sound like the lid of a coffin.

"All right," came the voice from below, "drop."

"It's a long way down," she called back, having no trouble sounding tremulous. "I'm afraid."

"Screw it. I'll catch you."

"All right." She wrapped her legs and one arm around the pole. Her hand shook as she jammed the second stunner into her holster. Her stomach pumped sour bile into the back of her throat. She swallowed, took a deep breath to keep it there, held her stunner pointed ready, and dropped.

She landed face-to-face with the man below, his nerve disruptor held casually at the level of her waist. His eyes widened as he saw her stunner. Here the Barrayaran custom of all-male crews on warships paid her, for he hesitated just a fraction of a second to shoot a woman. In that fraction she fired first. He slumped heavily over her, head lolling on her shoulder. Bracing, she held him as a shield before her.

Her second shot laid out the next guard as he was bringing his disruptor to aim. The third guard got off a hasty burst that was absorbed by the back of the man she held, although the nimbus of it seared the outer edge of her left thigh. The pain of it flared screamingly, but no sound escaped her clenched teeth. With a wild berserker accuracy that seemed no part of herself, she felled him too, then looked frantically around for a place of concealment.

Some conduits ran overhead; people entering a room usually look down and around before thinking to look up. She stuck the stunner in her belt, and with a leap she could never have duplicated in cold blood, pulled herself up between the conduits and the armored ceiling. Breathing silently through her open mouth, she drew her stunner again and prepared for whatever might come through the oval door to the main engineering bay.

"What was that noise? What's going on in there?"

"Throw in a grenade and seal the door."

"We can't, our men are in there."

"Wentz, report!"

Silence.

"You go in, Tafas."

"Why me?"

"Because I order you."

Tafas crept cautiously around the door, stepping over the threshold almost on tiptoe. He turned around and around, staring. Afraid that they would close and lock the door at another firing, she waited until he at last looked up.

She smiled winningly at him, and gave a little wave of her fingers. "Close the door," she mouthed silently, pointing.

He stared at her with a very odd expression on his face, baffled, hopeful, and angry all at once. The bell of his disruptor seemed large as a searchlight, pointed quite accurately at her head. It was like looking into the eye of judgment. A standoff, of sorts. Vorkosigan is right, she thought; a disruptor does have real authority. . . .

Then Tafas called, "I think there may be some kind of gas leak or something. Better close the door a second while I check." It swung closed obediently behind him.

Cordelia smiled down from the ceiling, eyes narrowed. "Hi. Want to get out of this mess?"

"What are you doing here—Betan?"

Excellent question, she thought ruefully. "Trying to save a few lives. Don't worry—your friends over there are only stunned." I won't mention the one hit by friendly fire—dead, perhaps, because of a moment's mercy for me. . . . "Come on over to our side," she coaxed, madly echoing a child's game. "Captain Vorkosigan will forgive you—expunge the record. Give you a medal," she promised recklessly.

"What medal?"

"How should I know? Any medal you want. You don't even have to kill anybody. I have another stunner."

"What guarantee do I have?"

Desperation made her daring. "Vorkosigan's word. You tell him I pledged it to you."

"Who are you to pledge his word?"

"Lady Vorkosigan, if we both live." A lie? Truth? Hopeless fantasy?

Tafas gave a whistle, staring up at her. Belief began to illuminate his face.

"You really want to be responsible for letting a hundred fifty of your friends breathe vacuum just to save that Ministerial spy's career?" she added cogently.

"No," he said firmly at last. "Give me the stunner."

Now shall trust be tested. . . . She dropped it down to him. "Three down and seven to go. What's the best approach?"

"I can lure a couple more in here. The others are at the main entrance. We can rush them from behind, if we're lucky."

"Go ahead."

Tafas opened the door. "It was a gas leak," he coughed convincingly. "Help me drag these guys out and we'll seal the door."

"I could swear I heard a stunner go off a while ago," said his companion, entering.

"Maybe they were trying to attract attention."

The mutineer's face flared with suspicion as the stupidity of this suggestion sank in. "They didn't have stunners," he began. Fortunately, the second man entered at this point. Cordelia and Tafas fired in unison.

"Five down, five to go," Cordelia said, dropping to the floor. Her left leg buckled; it wasn't moving quite right. "Odds are getting better all the time."

"It had better be quick, if it's going to work at all," warned Tafas.

"Suits me."

They slid out the door and ran lightly across the engineering bay, which continued its automatic tasks, indifferent to its masters' identity. Some black-uniformed bodies were piled carelessly to one side. Tafas held up his hand for caution as they rounded the corner, jabbing a finger significantly. Cordelia nodded. Tafas walked around the corner quietly, and Cordelia pinned herself to its very edge, waiting. As Tafas raised his stunner she oozed around, searching for a target. The chamber narrowed in this L, ending in the main entrance to the deck above. Five men stood with their attention riveted to the clanks and hisses penetrating dimly through a hatch at the top of some metal stairs.

"They're getting ready to storm," said one. "It's time to let their air out."

Famous last words, she thought, and fired, once and twice. Tafas fired too, rapidly fanning the group, and it was over. And I will never, she pledged silently, call one of Stuben's stunts harebrained again. She wanted to throw down her stunner and howl and roll in reaction, but her own job was not finished.

"Tafas," she called. "I've got to do one more thing."

He came to her side, looking shaky himself.

"I've gotten you out of this, and I need a favor in return. How can I cut control to the long-range plasma weapons so you can't get it back for an hour and a half?"

"Why do you want to do that? Did the Captain order it?"

"No," she said honestly. "The Captain didn't order any of this, but he'll like it when he sees it, don't you think?"

Tafas, confused, agreed. "If you short this panel," he suggested, "it should slow things down quite a bit."

"Give me your plasma arc."

Need I? she wondered, looking over the section. Yes. He would fire on us, just as surely as I'm cutting for home. Trust is one thing; treason another. I have no wish to test him to destruction.

Now, if Tafas isn't fooling me by pointing out the controls to the toilets or something . . . She blasted the panel, and stared with a moment's primitive fascination as it popped and sparked.

"Now," she said, handing the plasma arc back, "I want a couple of minutes head start. Then you can open the door and be a hero. I suggest you call first and warn them; Sergeant Bothari's in front."

"Right. Thanks."

She glanced up at the main entry hatch. About three meters away, he is now, she thought. An uncrossable gulf. So in the physics of the heart, distance is relative; it's time that's absolute. The seconds spun like spiders down her spine.

She chewed her lip, eyes devouring Tafas. Last chance to leave a message for Vorkosigan—no. The absurdity of transmitting the words, "I love you" through Tafas's mouth shook her with painful inward laughter. "My compliments" sounded rather swelled-headed, under the circumstances: "my regards," too cold; as for the simplest of all, "yes" . . .

She shook her head silently and smiled at the puzzled soldier, then ran back to the storeroom and scrambled back up the ladder. She beat a rhythmic tattoo upon the hatch. In a moment it opened. She found herself nose to nose with a plasma arc held by Yeoman Nilesa.

"I've got some new terms to carry back to your Captain," she said glibly. "They're a little screwy, but I think he'll like them."

Nilesa, surprised, let her out and resealed the hatch. She walked away from him, glancing down the main corridor as she passed. Several dozen men were assembled in it. A technical team had half the panels off the walls; sparks flared from a tool. She could just see Sergeant Bothari's head on the far side of the crowd, and knew him to be standing next to Vorkosigan. She reached the ladder at the end of the corridor, ascended it, and began to run, threading her way level by level through the maze of the ship.

Laughing, crying, out of breath and shaking violently, she arrived at the shuttle hatch corridor. Dr. McIntyre stood guard, trying to appear grim and Barrayaran.

"Is everybody here?"

He nodded, looking at her with delight.

"Pile in, let's go."

They sealed the doors behind them and fell into their seats as the shuttle pulled away at maximum acceleration with a crunch and a jerk. Pete Lightner was piloting manually, for his Betan pilot's neurological implant would not interface to the Barrayaran control system without an interpreter coupler, and Cordelia braced herself for a terrifying ride.

She lay back in her seat, still gasping, lungs raw from her mad dash. Stuben joined her, seething, and staring worriedly at her uncontrollable trembling.

"It's a crime what they did to Dubauer," he said. "I wish we could blow up their whole damn ship. Is Radnov still covering us, do you know?"

"Their long-range weapons will be out for a while," she reported, not volunteering details. Could she ever make him understand? "Oh. I meant to ask—who was the Barrayaran hit by disruptor fire, planet-side?"

"I don't know. Doc Mac got his uniform. Hey, Mac—what's the name on your pocket?"

"Uh, let me see if I can sound out their alphabet." His lips moved silently. "Kou—Koudelka."

Cordelia bowed her head. "Was he killed?"

"He wasn't dead when we left, but he sure didn't look very healthy."

"What were you doing all that time aboard the General?" asked Stuben.

"Paying off a debt. Of honor."

"All right, be like that. I'll get the story later." He was silent, then added with a short nod, "I hope you got the bastard good, whoever he was."

"Look, Stu—I appreciate all you've done. But I've really got to be alone for a few minutes."

"Sure, Captain." He gave her a look of concern, and moved off muttering, "Damned monsters," under his breath.

Cordelia leaned her forehead against the cold window, and wept silently for her enemies.




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