Cordelia's Honor Lois McMaster Bujold

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Chapter Nine

She woke to movement, and voices. Vorkosigan was rising from his chair, and Illyan was standing before him taut as a bowstring, saying "Vorhalas and the Prince! Here! Now!"

"Son-of-a . . ." Vorkosigan turned on his heel, eyes raking the little room. "It'll have to be the bathroom. Fold him into the shower."

Swiftly, Vorkosigan took Bothari's shoulders and Illyan his feet, bumping through the narrow door and dumping him pell-mell into the fixture.

"Should he have more sedative?" asked Illyan.

"Maybe he'd better. Cordelia, give him another ampule. It's too early, but it's death for you both if he makes a noise now." He bundled her into the closet-sized room, shoving the drug into her hand and killing the light. "No noise, no movement."

"Door shut?" asked Illyan.

"Partway. Lean on the frame, look casual, and don't let the Prince's bodyguard wander into your psychological space."

Cordelia, feeling her way in the dimness, knelt and pressed another shot of sedative into the unconscious Sergeant's arm. Seating herself in the logical spot, she found she could just see a slice of Vorkosigan's cabin in the mirror, reversed and disorienting. She heard the cabin door open, and new voices.

"—unless you mean to officially relieve him of his duties as well, I will continue to follow standard procedure. I saw that room. Your charge is nonsensical."

"We will see," replied the second voice, tight and angry.

"Hello, Aral." The owner of the first voice, an officer of perhaps fifty in dress greens, shook Vorkosigan's hand and presented him with a packet of data disks. "We're off to Escobar within the hour. Courier just brought these—the latest hard-copy updates. I've ordered you to be kept up on events. The Escos are falling back through the whole volume. They've even abandoned that slugging match for the wormhole jump to Tau Ceti. We've got them on the run."

The owner of the second voice also wore dress greens, more heavily encrusted with gilt than any she had ever seen. Jeweled decorations on his breast glinted and winked like lizards' eyes in the light from Vorkosigan's desk lamp. He was about thirty, black haired, with a rectangular tense face, hooded eyes, and thin lips compressed now with annoyance.

"You're not both going, are you?" said Vorkosigan. "The senior officer ought properly to stay with the flag. Now that Vorrutyer is dead, his duties devolve on the Prince. That dog-and-pony show you had planned was based on the assumption that he would still be at his post."

Prince Serg went stiff with outrage. "I will lead my troops on Escobar! Let my father and his cronies try to say I am no soldier now!"

"You will," said Vorkosigan wearily, "sit in that fortified palace that half the engineers are going to be tied up constructing, and party in it, and let your men do your dying for you, until you've bought your ground by the sheer weight of the corpses piled on it, because that's the kind of soldiering your mentor has taught you. And then send bulletins home about your great victory. Maybe you can have the casualty lists declared top secret."

"Aral, careful," warned Vorhalas, shocked.

"You go too far," the Prince snarled. "Especially for a man who will get no closer to the fighting than clinging to the wormhole exit for home. If you want to talk of—undue caution." His tone clearly made the phrase a euphemism for an uglier term.

"You can hardly order me confined to quarters and then accuse me of cowardice for not being at the front. Sir. Even Minister Grishnov's propaganda has to simulate logic better than that."

"You'd just love that, wouldn't you, Vorkosigan," hissed the Prince. "Stick me back here, and grab all the glory for yourself and that wrinkled clown Vortala and his phoney progressives. Over my dead body! You're going to sit in here till you grow mold."

Vorkosigan's teeth were clenched, his eyes narrowed and unreadable. His lips curled back on a white smile, but closed again instantly. "I must formally protest. By landing with the ground troops on Escobar you are leaving your proper post."

"Protest away." The Prince approached him closely, leaning into his face and dropping his voice. "But even my father can't live forever. And when that day comes, your father won't be able to protect you anymore. You, and Vortala, and all his cronies will be first against the wall, I promise you." He looked up, remembering Illyan leaning silently against the doorjamb. "Or perhaps you'll find yourself back on the Leper Colony, for another five years of patrol duty."

In the bathroom, Bothari stirred uncomfortably in his semi-coma and, to Cordelia's horror, began to snore.

Lieutenant Illyan was seized by a spasmodic coughing fit. "Excuse me," he gasped, and retreated into the bathroom, shutting the door firmly.

He hit the light and traded a silent look of panic with Cordelia for an equally silent grimace of despair. With difficulty, they turned Bothari's deadweight to one side in the constricted space, until he breathed quietly again. Cordelia gave Illyan the thumbs-up signal, and he nodded and squeezed back out the door.

The Prince had left. Admiral Vorhalas lingered a moment, to exchange a last word with his subordinate.

"—put it in writing. I'll sign it before we go."

"At least don't travel in the same ship," begged Vorkosigan seriously.

Vorhalas sighed. "I appreciate your trying to get him out of my hair. But somebody has to clean his cage for the Emperor, with Vorrutyer out, thank God. He won't have you, so it looks like I'm elected. Why can't you just lose your temper with subordinates, like normal men, instead of with superiors, like a lunatic? I thought you were cured of that, after what I saw you take from Vorrutyer."

"That's dead and buried now."

"Aye." Vorhalas made a superstitious sign, automatically, evidently a gestural relic from childhood, empty of belief but full of habit.

"By the by—what's the Leper Colony?" asked Vorkosigan curiously.

"You never heard that? Well—maybe I can see why not. Did you never wonder why you received such a remarkable percentage of screw-ups, incorrigibles, and near-discharges among your crew?"

"I hadn't expected to get the cream of the Service."

"They used to call it Vorkosigan's Leper Colony, at headquarters."

"With myself as leper-in-chief, eh?" Vorkosigan seemed more amused than offended. "Well, if they were the worst the Service has to offer, perhaps we shall not do so badly after all. Take care of yourself. I don't fancy being his second-in-command."

Vorhalas chuckled, and they shook hands. He started for the door, then paused. "Do you think they'll counterattack?"

"My God, of course they'll counterattack. This isn't some trade outpost. These people are fighting for their homes."


Vorkosigan hesitated. "Sometime after you've started disembarking ground troops, but well before it's completed. Wouldn't you? Worst time to have to start a retreat. Shuttles not knowing whether to go up or down, their mother ships scattering to hell and gone under fire, supplies needed not landed, supplies landed not needed, the chain of command disrupted—an inexperienced commander in absolute control . . ."

"You give me the shivers."

"Yes, well—try to hold the start for as long as possible. And make sure your troopship commanders have their contingency orders crystal clear."

"The Prince doesn't see it your way."

"Yes, he's itching to lead a parade."

"What do you advise?"

"I'm not your commander this time, Rulf."

"Not my fault. I recommended you to the Emperor."

"I know. I wouldn't take it. I recommended you instead."

"So we ended up with that sodomizing son-of-a-bitch Vorrutyer." Vorhalas shook his head bleakly. "Something wrong there . . ."

Vorkosigan chivvied him gently out the door, blew out his breath with a sigh, and remained standing, caught up in his vision of the future. He looked up, and met Cordelia's eyes with unhappy irony. "Wasn't there some character, when the old Romans held their triumphs, who rode along whispering in the honored party's ear that he was mortal, and death waited for him? The old Romans probably thought he was a pain in the neck, too."

She held her peace.

Vorkosigan and Illyan went to retrieve Sergeant Bothari from his makeshift and uncomfortable hiding place. They were halfway through the door with him when Vorkosigan swore. "He's stopped breathing."

Illyan hissed explosively, and they laid Bothari out quickly on the friction matting on his back. Vorkosigan laid his ear to his chest, and felt his neck for a pulse.

"Son-of-a-bitch." He doubled his fists, and brought them down sharply against the Sergeant's sternum, then listened again. "Nothing."

He rolled back on his heels, looking fierce. "Illyan. Whoever you got that lizard's piss from, go find him and get a shot of the antidote. Quickly. And quietly. Very quietly."

"How did you—what if—shouldn't you—is it worth—" began Illyan. He threw up his hands helplessly, and fled out the door.

Vorkosigan looked at Cordelia. "Do you want to push, or blow?"

"Push, I guess."

She knelt by Bothari's side, and Vorkosigan went to his head, tilted it back, and gave him his first breath of air. Cordelia pressed the heels of her hands on his sternum and pushed with all her strength, setting up the rhythm. Push, push, push, blow, over and over, don't stop. After a short time her arms were shaking, and sweat beaded on her hairline. She could feel her own ribs grind with each push, screamingly, and her chest muscles knotted spasmodically.

"Got to switch."

"Good. I'm hyperventilating."

They changed places, Vorkosigan taking over the heart massage, Cordelia pinching Bothari's nostrils shut and closing her mouth over his. His mouth was wet from Vorkosigan's saliva. The parody of a kiss was horrible, but to shrink from it beneath contempt. They went on, and on.

Lieutenant Illyan returned at last, breathless. He knelt and pressed the new ampule against Bothari's corded neck over the carotid artery. Nothing happened. Vorkosigan kept pumping.

Suddenly, Bothari shuddered, then stiffened, arching his back. He took an irregular, gasping gulp of air, then stopped again.

"Come on," urged Cordelia, half to herself.

With a sharp spasmodic intake he began to breathe again, raggedly, but persistently. Cordelia slumped from her knees to a sitting position on the floor and gazed at him in joyless triumph. "Suffering bastard."

"I thought you saw meaning in that sort of thing," said Vorkosigan.

"In the abstract. Most days it's just stumbling around in the dark with the rest of creation, smashing into things and wondering why it hurts."

Vorkosigan gazed at Bothari too, sweat runneling down his face. Then he jumped to his feet and hurried to his desk.

"The protest. Have to get it written and filed before Vorhalas leaves, or it will be no damned good." He slid into his chair and began rapidly keying his console.

"What's so important about it?" asked Cordelia.

"Sh. Later." He typed furiously for ten minutes, then set it electronically in pursuit of his commander.

Bothari in the meanwhile continued to breathe, although his face retained a deathly greenish pallor.

"What do we do now?" asked Cordelia.

"Wait. Pray that the dosage is right," he glanced irritably at Illyan, "and that it won't send him into some kind of manic state."

"Shouldn't we be thinking of some way to get them both out of here?" protested Illyan.

"Think away." Vorkosigan began plugging the new data disks into his console and viewing the tactical readouts. "But as a hiding place it has two advantages not shared by any other spot on the ship. If you're as good as you claim, it's not monitored by either the Chief Political Officer or the Prince's men—"

"I'm quite sure I got them all. I'd stake my reputation on it."

"Right now you're staking your life on it, so you'd better be correct. Second, there are two armed guards in the corridor to keep everybody out. You could scarcely ask for more. I admit it's a bit crowded."

Illyan rolled his eyes in exasperation. "I've diddled the Security search to the limit I dare. I can't do any more without drawing more attention than I divert."

"Will it hold twenty-six more hours?"

"Maybe." Illyan frowned at his charge, baffled and bothered. "You have something planned, don't you, sir." It was not a question.

"I?" His fingers worked the keys of his console, and reflections of colored light from the readouts played over his impassive face. "I'm merely waiting in hope of some reasonable opportunity. When the Prince leaves for Escobar most of his own security people will go with him. Patience, Illyan."

He keyed his console again. "Vorkosigan to Tactics Room."

"Commander Venne here, sir."

"Oh, good. Venne, I'd like hourly updates piped down here from the time the Prince and Admiral Vorhalas leave. And let me know immediately, regardless of time, if you start getting anything unusual, anything not in the plans."

"Yes, sir. The Prince and Admiral Vorhalas are leaving now, sir."

"Very good. Carry on. Vorkosigan out."

He sat back and drummed his fingers on the desk. "Now we wait. It will be about twelve hours before the Prince reaches Escobar orbit. They'll be starting landings soon after that. An hour for signals to reach us from Escobar. An hour for signals to return. So much lag. A battle can be over in two hours. We could cut the lag by three-quarters if the Prince would let us move off station."

His casual tone barely masked his tension, in spite of his advice to Illyan. The room in which he sat scarcely seemed to exist for him. His mind moved with the armada wheeling in a tightening constellation around Escobar, fast glittering couriers, grim cruisers, sluggish troop carriers, bellies crammed with men. A light pen turned, forgotten, in his fingers, around and over, around and over.

"Hadn't you better eat, sir?" suggested Illyan.

"What? Oh, yes, I suppose. And you, Cordelia—you must be hungry. Go ahead, Illyan."

Illyan left to forage. Vorkosigan worked at his desk console for a few more minutes before shutting it down with a sigh. "I suppose I'd better think about sleep, too. Last time I slept was on board the General Vorhartung, closing on Escobar—a day and a half ago, I guess. About the time you were being captured."

"We were captured a bit before that. We were in tow for almost a day."

"Yes. Congratulations, by the way, on a very successful maneuver. That wasn't a real battle cruiser, I take it?"

"I really can't say."

"Somebody wants to claim it as a kill."

Cordelia suppressed a grin. "Fine by me." She braced herself for more questioning, but, strangely, he turned the subject.

"Poor Bothari. I wish the Emperor might give him a medal. I'm afraid the best I'll be able to do for him is get him properly hospitalized."

"If the Emperor disliked Vorrutyer so, why did he put him in charge?"

"Because he was Grishnov's man, and widely famous as such, and the Prince's favorite. Putting all the bad eggs in one basket, so to speak." He cut himself off with a fist-closing gesture.

"He made me feel like I'd met the ultimate in evil. I don't think anything will really scare me, after him."

"Ges Vorrutyer? He was just a little villain. An old-fashioned craftsman, making crimes one-off. The really unforgivable acts are committed by calm men in beautiful green silk rooms, who deal death wholesale, by the shipload, without lust, or anger, or desire, or any redeeming emotion to excuse them but cold fear of some pretended future. But the crimes they hope to prevent in that future are imaginary. The ones they commit in the present—they are real." His voice fell, as he spoke, so that by the end he was almost whispering.

"Commodore Vorkosigan—Aral—what's eating you? You're so keyed up I expect you to start pacing the ceiling any minute." Hag-ridden, she thought.

He laughed a little. "I feel like it. It's the waiting, I expect. I'm bad at waiting. Not a good thing, in a soldier. I envy your ability to wait in patience. You seem calm as moonlight on the water."

"Is that pretty?"


"It sounds nice. We don't have either one at home." She was absurdly pleased by the implied compliment.

Illyan returned with a tray, and she got no more out of Vorkosigan. They ate, and Vorkosigan took a turn at sleeping, or at least lying on the bed with his eyes shut, but getting up every hour to view the new tacticals.

Lieutenant Illyan watched over his shoulder, and Vorkosigan pointed out salient features of the strategy to him as they came up.

"It looks pretty good to me," Illyan commented once. "I don't see why you're so anxious. We really could carry it off, in spite of the Esco's superior command of resources in the long run. Won't do them any good if it's all over in the short run."

Afraid to put Bothari back into a deep coma, they let him return to near-consciousness. He sat in the corner in a miserable knot, drifting in and out of sleep with bad dreams in both states.

Eventually Illyan took himself off to his own cabin to sleep, and Cordelia had another nap herself. She slept a long time, not waking until Illyan returned with another tray of food. She was becoming disoriented with respect to time, locked in this changeless room. Vorkosigan, however, was tracking time by the minute now. After they ate he vanished into the bathroom to wash and shave, and returned in fresh dress greens, as neat as though ready for a conference with the Emperor.

He checked through the last tactical update for the second time.

"Have they started landing troops yet?" Cordelia asked.

He checked his chronometer. "Almost an hour ago. We should be getting the first reports through any minute." He sat now without fidgeting, like a man in deep meditation, face like stone.

That hour's tactical update arrived, and he began sorting through its reports, apparently checking key items. In the middle of it his screen was overridden by the face of Commander Venne.

"Commodore Vorkosigan? We're getting something very strange here. Do you want me to shunt a copy of raw incoming straight down there?"

"Yes, please. Immediately."

Vorkosigan searched through an assortment of chatter of all kinds, and picked out a verbal from a ship commander, a dark and heavy-set man who spoke into his log with a guttural accent tinged by fear.

Here it comes, moaned Cordelia inwardly.

"—attacking with shuttles! They're returning our fire shot by shot. Plasma shields at maximum now—we can't put more power into them and still keep firing. We must either drop shields and try to increase our firepower, or give up the attack. . . ." The transmission was interrupted by static. "—don't know how they're doing it. They can't possibly have packed enough engine in those shuttles to generate this. . . ." More static. The transmission abruptly broke off.

Vorkosigan selected another. Illyan leaned over his shoulder anxiously. Cordelia sat on the bed, silent, head bowed, listening. The cup of victory; bitter on the tongue, heavy in the stomach, sad as defeat . . .

"—the flagship is under heavy fire," reported another commander. Cordelia recognized the voice with a start, and craned her neck for a view of his face. It was Gottyan; evidently he had his captaincy at last. "I'm going to drop shields altogether and attempt to knock one out with a maximum burst."

"Don't do it, Korabik!" Vorkosigan shouted hopelessly. The decision, whatever it was, had been made an hour ago, its consequences ineradicably fixed in time.

Gottyan turned his head to one side. "Ready, Commander Vorkalloner? We are attempting—" he began, and was drowned by static, then silence.

Vorkosigan struck his fist on the desk, hard. "Damn! How the hell long is it going to take them to figure . . ." He stared into the snow, then reran the transmission, transfixing it with a frightening expression, grief and rage and nausea mixed. He then selected another band, this time a computer graphic of the space around Escobar, and the ships as little colored lights winking and diving through it. It looked tiny, and bright, and simple, like a child's game. He shook his head at it, lips tight and bloodless.

Venne's face interrupted again. He was pale, with peculiar lines of tension running down to the corners of his mouth.

"Sir, I think you'd better come to the Tactics Room."

"I can't, Venne, without breaking arrest. Where's Commodore Helski, or Commodore Couer?"

"Helski went forward with the Prince and Admiral Vorhalas, sir. Commodore Couer is here now. You're the ranking flag officer aboard now."

"The Prince was quite explicit."

"The Prince—I believe the Prince is dead, sir."

Vorkosigan closed his eyes, and a sigh went out of him, joylessly. He opened them again, and leaned forward. "Is that confirmed? Do you have any new orders from Admiral Vorhalas?"

"It's—Admiral Vorhalas was with the Prince, sir. Their ship was hit." Venne turned away to view something over his shoulder, then turned back. "It's," he had to clear his throat, "it's confirmed. The Prince's flagship has been—obliterated. There's nothing left but debris. You're in command now, sir."

Vorkosigan's face was cold and unhappy. "Then transmit Contingency Blue orders at once. All ships cease firing immediately. Put all power into shields. This ship to make course for Escobar now at maximum boost. We've got to cut down on our transmission time lag."

"Contingency Blue, sir? That's full retreat!"

"I know, Commander. I wrote it."

"But full retreat . . ."

"Commander Venne, the Escobarans have a new weapon system. It's called a plasma mirror field. It's a new Betan development. It turns the attacker's burst back on itself. Our ships are shooting themselves down with their own firepower."

"My God! What can we do?"

"Not a damn thing, unless we want to start boarding their ships and strangling the bastards by hand, one at a time. Attractive, but impractical. Transmit those orders! And order the Commander of Engineers and the Chief Pilot Officer to the Tactics Room. And get the guard commander down here to relieve his men. I don't care to be stunned on the way out the door."

"Yes, sir!" Venne broke off.

"Got to get those troopships turned around first," muttered Vorkosigan, rising from his swivel chair. He turned to find both Cordelia and Illyan staring at him.

"How did you know—" began Illyan.

"—about the plasma mirrors?" finished Cordelia.

Vorkosigan was quite expressionless. "You told me, Cordelia, in your sleep, while Illyan was out. Under the influence of one of the surgeon's potions, of course. You'll suffer no ill effects from it."

She stood upright, aghast. "That—you miserable—torture would have been more honorable!"

"Oh, smooth, sir!" congratulated Illyan. "I knew you were all right!"

Vorkosigan shot him a look of dislike. "It doesn't matter. The information was confirmed too late to do us any good."

There was a knock on the door.

"Come on, Illyan. It's time to take my soldiers home."

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