Lois McMaster Bujold, "Barrayar"

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Chapter Nine

She slept at last, toward the middle of the day, and woke disoriented. She squinted at the afternoon light slanting through the hospital room's windows. The grey rain had gone away. She touched her belly, for grief and reassurance, and rolled over to find Count Piotr sitting at her bedside.

He was dressed in his country clothes, old uniform trousers, plain shirt, a jacket that he wore only at Vorkosigan Surleau. He must have come up directly to ImpMil. His thin lips smiled anxiously at her. His eyes looked tired and worried.

"Dear girl. You need not wake up for me."

"That's all right." She blinked away blear from her eyes, feeling older than the old man. "Is there something to drink?"

He hastily poured her cold water from the bedside basin spigot, and watched her swallow. "More?"

"That's enough. Have you seen Aral yet?"'

He patted her hand. "I've talked to Aral already. He's resting now. I am so sorry, Cordelia."

"It may not be as bad as we feared at first. There's still a chance. A hope. Did Aral tell you about the uterine replicator?"

"Something. But the damage has already been done surely. Irrevocable damage."

"Damage, yes. How irrevocable it is, no one knows Not even Captain Vaagen."

"Yes, I met Vaagen a little while ago." Piotr frowned. "A pushing sort of fellow. New Man type."

"Barrayar needs its new men. And women. Its technologically trained generation."

"Oh, yes. We fought and slaved to create them. They are absolutely necessary. They know it, too, some of them." A hint of self-aware irony softened his mouth. "But this operation you're proposing, this placental transfer ... it doesn't sound too safe."

"On Beta Colony, it would be routine." Cordelia shrugged. We are not, of course, on Beta Colony.

"But something more straightforward, better understood—you would be ready to begin again much sooner. In the long run, you might actually lose less time."

"Time . . . isn't what I'm worried about losing." A meaningless concept, now she thought of it. She lost 26.7 hours every Barrayaran day. "Anyway, I'm never going through that again. I'm not a slow learner, sir."

A flicker of alarm crossed his face. "You'll change your mind, when you feel better. What does matter now—I've talked to Captain Vaagen. There seemed no question in his mind there is great damage."

"Well, yes. The unknown is whether there can be great repairs."

"Dear girl." His worried smile grew tenser. "Just so. If only the fetus were a girl ... or even a second son . . . we could afford to indulge your understandable, even laudable, maternal emotions. But this thing, if it lived, would be Count Vorkosigan someday. We cannot afford to have a deformed Count Vorkosigan." He sat back, as if he had just made some cogent point.

Cordelia wrinkled her brow. "Who is we?"

"House Vorkosigan. We are one of the oldest great houses on Barrayar. Never, perhaps, the richest, seldom the strongest, but what we've lacked in wealth we've made in honor. Nine generations of Vor warriors. This would be" a horrible end to come to, after nine generations, don't you see?"

"House Vorkosigan, at this point in time, consists of two individuals, you and Aral," Cordelia observed, both amused and disturbed. "And Counts Vorkosigan have come to horrible ends throughout your history. You've been blown up, shot, starved, drowned, burned alive, beheaded, diseased, and demented. The only thing you've never done is die in bed. I thought horrors were your stock in trade."

He returned her a pained smile. "But we've never been mutants."

"I think you need to talk to Vaagen again. The fetal damage he described was teratogenic, not genetic, if I understand him correctly."

"But people will think it's a mutant."

"What the devil do you care what some ignorant prole thinks?"

"Other Vor, dear."

"Vor, prole, they're equally ignorant, I assure you."

His hands twitched. He opened his mouth, closed it again, frowned, and said more sharply, "A Count Vorkosigan has never been an experimental laboratory animal, either."

"There you go, then. He serves Barrayar even before he's born. Not a bad start on a life of honor." Perhaps some good would come of it, in the end, some knowledge gained; if not help for themselves, then for some other parents' grief. The more she thought about it, the more right her decision felt, on more than one level.

Piotr jerked his head back. "For all you Betans seem soft, you have an appalling cold-blooded streak in you."

"Rational streak, sir. Rationality has its merits. You Barrayarans ought to try it sometime." She bit her tongue. But we run ahead of ourselves, I think, sir. There are lots of d—" dangers, "difficulties yet to come. A placental transfer this late in pregnancy is tricky even for galactics. I admit, I wish there were time to import a more experienced surgeon. But there's not."

"Yes . . . yes ... it may yet die, you're right. No need to ... but I'm afraid for you, too, girl. Is it worth it?”

Was what worth what? How could she know? Her lungs, burned. She smiled wearily at him, and shook her head which ached with tight pressure in her temples and neck

"Father," came a raspy voice from the doorway. Aral leaned there, in his green pajamas, a portable oxygenator stuck up his nose. How long had he stood there? "I thing Cordelia needs to rest."

Their eyes met, over Piotr. Bless you, love. . . .

"Yes, of course." Count Piotr gathered himself together and creaked to his feet. "I'm sorry, you're quite correct." He pressed Cordelia's hand one more time, firmly, with his dry old-man's grip. "Sleep. You'll be able to think more clearly later."

"Father."

"You shouldn't be out of bed, should you?" said Piotr, drawn off. "Go back and lie down, boy. . . ." His voice drifted away, across the corridor.

Aral returned later, after Count Piotr had finally left.

"Was Father bothering you?" he asked, looking grim, She held out her hand to him, and he sat beside her. She transferred her head from her pillow to his lap, her cheek on the firm-muscled leg beneath the thin pajama, and he stroked her hair.

"No more than usual," she sighed.

"I feared he was upsetting you."

"It's not that I'm not upset. It's just that I'm too tired to run up and down the corridor screaming."

"Ah. He did upset you."

"Yes." She hesitated. "In a way, he has a point. I was so afraid for so long, waiting for the blow to fall, from somewhere, nowhere, anywhere. Then came last night, and the worst was done, over . . . except it's not over If the blow had been more complete, I could stop, (pi11 now. But this is going to go on and on." She rubbed her cheek against the cloth. "Did Illyan come up with anything new? I thought I heard his voice out there, earlier."

His hand continued to stroke her hair, in even rhythm.

"He'd finished the preliminary fast-penta interrogation of Evon Vorhalas. He's now investigating the old armory where Evon stole the soltoxin. It appears Evon might not have equipped himself so ad hoc unilaterally as he claimed. An ordnance major in charge there has disappeared, AWOL. Illyan's not certain yet if the man was eliminated, to clear Evon's path, or if he actually helped Evon, and has gone into hiding."

"He might just be afraid. If it was dereliction."

"He'd better be afraid. If he had any conscious connivance in this . . ." His hand clenched in her hair, he became aware of the pull, muttered, "Sorry," and continued petting. Cordelia, feeling very like an injured animal, crept deeper into his lap, her hand on his knee.

"About Father—if he upsets you again, send him to me. You shouldn't have to deal with him. I told him it was your decision."

"My decision?" Her hand rested, without moving. "Not our decision?"

He hesitated. "Whatever you want, I'll support you."

"But what do you want? Something you're not telling me?"

"I can't help understanding his fears. But . . . there's something I haven't discussed with him yet, nor am I going to. The next child may not be so easy to come by as the first."

Easy? You call this easy?

He went on, "One of the lesser-known side effects of soltoxin poisoning is testicular scarring, on the micro-level. It could reduce fertility below the point of no return. Or so my examining physician warns me."

"Nonsense," said Cordelia. "All you need is any two somatic cells and a replicator. Your little finger and my big toe, if that's all they can scrape off the walls after the next bomb, could go on reproducing little Vorkosigans into the next century. However many our survivors choose to afford."

"But not naturally. Not without leaving Barrayar."

"Or changing Barrayar. Dammit." His hand jerked bad, at the bite in her tone. "If only I had insisted on using the replicator in the first place, the baby need never have been at risk. I knew it was safer, I knew it was there—-" Her voice broke.

"Sh. Sh. If only I had . . . not taken the job. Kept you at Vorkosigan Surleau. Pardoned that murderous idiot Carl, for God's sake. If only we'd slept in separate rooms ..."

"No!" Her hand tightened on his knee. "And I refuse to go live in some bomb shelter for the next fifteen years. Aral, this place has to change. This is unbearable." If only I had never come here.

If only. If only. If only.

 

The operating room seemed clean and bright, if not so copiously equipped as galactic standard. Cordelia, wafting on her float pallet, turned her head sideways to take in as much detail as she could. Lights, monitors, an operating table with a catch-basin set beneath it, a tech checking a bubbling tank of clear yellow fluid. This was not, she told herself sternly, the point of no return. This was simply the next logical step.

Captain Vaagen and Dr. Henri stood sterile-garbed and waiting, beyond the operating table. Next to them sat the portable uterine replicator, a metal and plastic canister half a meter tall, studded with control panels and access ports. The lights on its sides glowed green and amber. Cleaned, sterilized, its nutrient and oxygen tanks re-charged and ready . . . Cordelia eyed it with profound relief. The primitive Barrayaran back-to-the-apes style gestation was nothing but the utter failure of reason to triumph over emotion. She'd so wanted to please, to fit in, to try to become Barrayaran. . . . And so my child pays the price. Never again.

Dr. Ritter, the surgeon, was tall and dark-haired, with olive skin and long lean hands. Cordelia had liked his hands the first moment she saw them. Steady. Ritter and a medtech now positioned her over the operating table, and shifted the float pallet out from under her. Dr. Ritter smiled reassuringly. "You're doing fine."

Of course I'm fine, we haven't even started yet, Cordelia thought irritably. Dr. Ritter was palpably nervous, though the tension somehow stopped at his elbows. The surgeon was a friend of Vaagen's, whom Vaagen had strong-armed into this, after they'd spent a day running through a list of more experienced men who had refused to touch the case.

Vaagen had explained it to Cordelia. "What do you call four big bravos with clubs in a dark alley?"

"What?"

"A Vor lord's malpractice suit." He'd chuckled. Vaagen's sense of humor was acid-black. Cordelia could have hugged him for it. He'd been the only person to crack a joke in her presence in the last three days, possibly the most rational and honest person she'd met since she'd left Beta Colony. She was glad he was here.

They rolled her to her side, and touched her spine with the medical stun. A tingle, and her cold feet felt suddenly warm. Her legs went abruptly inert, like bags of lard.

"Can you feel that?" asked Dr. Ritter.

"Feel what?"

"Good." He nodded to the tech, and they straightened her out. The tech uncovered her stomach, and turned on the sterilizer-field. The surgeon palpated her, cross-checking the holovid monitors for the infant's exact position within her.

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather be asleep through this?" Dr. Ritter asked her for the last time.

"No. I want to watch. This is my first child being born." Maybe my only child being born.

He smiled wanly. "Brave girl."

Girl, hell, I'm older than you. Dr. Ritter, she sensed, would rather not be watched. Tough.

Dr. Ritter paused, taking one last glance around as if mentally checklisting the readiness of his tools and people. And will and nerve, Cordelia guessed.

"Come on, Ritter my man, let's get this over with," say Vaagen, tapping his fingers impatiently. His tone was a peculiar mix, a little sarcastic prodding lilt over an underlying warmth of genuine encouragement. "My scans show bone sloughing already under way. If the disintegration gets too far advanced, I'll have no matrix left to build from. Cut now, chew your nails later."

"Chew your own nails, Vaagen," said the surgeon genially. "Jog my elbow again and I'll have my medtech put a speculum down your throat."

Very old friends, Cordelia gauged. But the surgeon raised his hands, took a breath and a grip on his vibra-scalpel, and sliced her belly open in one perfectly controlled stroke. The medtech followed his motion smoothly with the surgical hand-tractor, clamping blood vessels;

scarcely a cat-scratch of blood escaped. Cordelia felt pressure but no pain. Other cuts laid open her uterus.

A placenta! transfer was vastly more demanding than a straightforward cesarian section. The fragile placenta must be chemically and hormonally persuaded to release from the blood-vessel-enriched uterus, without damaging too many of its multitude of tiny villi, then floated free from the uterine wall in a running bath of highly oxygenated nutrient solution. The replicator sponge then had to be slipped into place between the placenta and the uterine wall, and the placenta's villi at least partially induced to re-interdigitate on its new matrix, before the whole mess could be lifted from the living body of the mother and placed in the replicator. The more advanced the pregnancy, the more difficult the transfer.

The umbilical cord between placenta and infant was monitored, and extra oxygen injected by hypospray as needed. On Beta Colony, a nifty little device would do this; here, an anxious tech hovered.

The tech began running the clear bright yellow solution-bath into her uterus. It filled her, and ran over, trickling pink-tinged down her sides and into the catch basin. The surgeon was now working, in effect, underwater. No question about it, a placenta! transfer was a messy operation.

"Sponge," called the surgeon softly, and Vaagen and Henri trundled the uterine replicator to her side, and strung out the matrix sponge from it on its feed lines. The surgeon fiddled interminably with a tiny hand-tractor, his hands out of Cordelia s line of sight as she peered down cross-eyed over her chest to her rounded — so-barely-rounded — belly. She shivered. Ritter was sweating.

"Doctor ..." A tech pointed to something on a vid monitor.

"Mm," said Ritter, glancing up, then continuing fiddling. The techs murmured, Vaagen and Henri murmured, calm, professional, reassuring . . . she was so cold. . . .

The fluid trickling over the white dam of her skin changed abruptly from pink-tinged to bright, bright red, a splashing flow, much faster than the input feed was emitting.

"Clamp that," hissed the surgeon.

Cordelia caught just a glimpse, beneath a membrane, of tiny arms, legs, a wet dark head, wriggling on the surgeon's gloved hands, no larger than a half-drowned kitten. "Vaagen! Take this thing of yours now if you want it!" snapped Ritter. Vaagen plunged his gloved hands into her belly as dark whorls clouded Cordelia's vision, her head aching, exploding in sudden sparkling flashes. The blackness ballooned out, overwhelming her. The last thing she heard was the surgeon's despairing sibilant voice, "Oh, shit . . . !"

 

Her dreams were foggy with pain. The worst part was the choking. She choked and choked, and wept for lack of air. Her throat was full of obstructions, and she clawed at it, until her hands were bound. She dreamed of Vorrutyer's tortures, then, multiplied and extended into insane complications that went on for hours. A demented Bothari knelt on her chest, and she could get no air at all.

When she finally woke clear-headed, it was like breaking up out of some underground prison-hell into God's own light. Her relief was so profound she wept again, a routed whimper and a wetness in her eyes. She could breathe, although it pained her; she was bruised and aching and unable to move. But she could breathe. That was enough.

"Sh. Sh." A thick warm linger touched her eyelids wiping away the moisture. "It's all right."

"Izzit?" She blinked and squinted. It was night, artificial light making warm pools in the room. Aral's face wavered over hers. "Izzit . . . tonight? Wha' happened?"

"Sh. You've been very, very sick. You had a violent hemorrhage during the placental transfer. Your heart stopped twice." He moistened his lips and went on. "The trauma, on top of the poisoning, flared into soltoxin pneumonia. You had a very bad day yesterday, but you're over the worst, off the respirator."

"How . . . long?"

"Three days."

"Ah. Baby, Aral. Diddit work? Details!"

"It went all right. Vaagen reports the transfer was successful. They lost about thirty percent of the placental function, but Henri compensated with an enriched and increased oxy-solution flow, and all seems to be well, or as well as can be expected. The baby's still alive, anyway. Vaagen has started his first calcium-treatment experiment, and promises us a baseline report soon." He caressed her forehead. "Vaagen has priority-access to any equipment, supplies, or techs he cares to requisition, including outside consultants. He has an advising civilian pediatrician, plus Henri. Vaagen himself knows more about our military poisons than any man, on Barrayar or off it. We can do no more, right now. So rest, love."

"Baby — where?"

"Ah — you can see where, if you wish." He helped her lift her head, and pointed out the window. "See that second building, with the red lights on the roof? That's the biochemistry research facility. Vaagen and Henri's lab is on the third floor."

"Oh, I recognize it now. Saw it from the other side, the day we collected Elena."

"That's right." His face softened. "Good to have you hack, dear Captain. Seeing you that sick ... I haven't felt that helpless and useless since I was eleven years old."

That was the year Mad Yuri's death squad had murdered his mother and brother. "Sh," she said in turn. "No no ... s'all right now."

 

They took away all the rest of the tubes piercing her body the next morning, except for the oxygen. Days of quiet routine followed. Her recovery was less interrupted than Aral's. What seemed troops of men, headed by Minister Vortala, came to see him at all hours. He had a secured comconsole installed in his room, over medical protests. Koudelka joined him eight hours a day, in the makeshift office.

Koudelka seemed very quiet, as depressed as everyone else in the wake of the disaster. Though not as morbid as anyone who'd had to do with their failed Security. Even Illyan shrank, when he saw her.

Aral walked her carefully up and down the corridor a couple of times a day. The vibra-scalpel had made a cleaner cut through her abdomen than, say, your average sabre-thrust, but it was no less deep. The healing scar ached less than her lungs, though. Or her heart. Her belly was not so much flat as flaccid, but definitely no longer occupied. She was alone, uninhabited, she was herself again, after five months of that strange doubled existence.

Dr. Henri came with a float chair one day, and took her on a short trip over to his laboratory, to see where the replicator was safely installed. She watched her baby moving in the vid scans, and studied the team's technical readouts and reports. Their subject's nerves, skin, and eyes tested out encouragingly, though Henri was not so sure about hearing, because of the tiny bones in the ear. Henri and Vaagen were properly trained scientists, almost Betan in their outlook, and she blessed them silently and thanked them aloud, and returned to her room feeling enormously better.

When Captain Vaagen burst into her room the next afternoon, however, her heart sank. His face was thunderously dark, his lips tight and harsh.

"What's wrong. Captain?" she asked urgently. "That second calcium run — did it fail?"

"Too early to tell. No, your baby's the same. Milady. Our trouble is with your in-law."

"Beg pardon?"

"General Count Vorkosigan came to see us this morning."

"Oh! He came to see the baby? Oh, good. He's so disturbed by all this new life-technology. Maybe he's finally starting to work past those emotional blocks. He embraces the new death-technologies readily enough, old Vor warrior that he is..."

"I wouldn't get too optimistic about him, if I were you, Milady." He took a deep breath, taking refuge in a formality of stance, just black, not black-humored this time. "Dr. Henri had the same idea you did. We showed the General all around the lab, went over the equipment, explained our treatment theories. We were absolutely honest, as we've been with you. Maybe too honest. He wanted to know what results we were going to get. Hell, we don't know. And so we said.

"After some beating around the bush, hinting . . . well, to cut it short, the General first asked, then ordered, then tried to bribe Dr. Henri to open the stopcock. To destroy the fetus. The mutation, he calls it. We threw him the hell out. He swore he'd be back."

She was shaking, down in her belly, though she kept her face blank. "I see."

"I want that old man kept out of my lab. Milady. And I don't care how you do it. I don't need this kind of crap coming down. Not from that high up."

"I'll see . . . wait here." She wrapped her robe around her own green pajamas more tightly, seated her oxygen tube more firmly, and walked carefully across the corridor. Aral, half-casual in uniform trousers and a shirt, sat at a small table by his window. The only sign of his continued patient-hood was the oxygen tube up his nose, treatment for his own lingering soltoxin pneumonia. He was conferring with a man while Koudelka took notes. The man was not, thank God, Piotr, but merely some ministerial secretary of Vortala's.

"Aral. I need you."

"Can it wait?"

"No."

He rose from his chair with a brief "Excuse me a moment, gentlemen," and trod across the hall in her wake. Cordelia closed the door behind them.

"Captain Vaagen, please tell Aral what you just told me."

Vaagen, looking a degree more nervous, repeated his tale. To his credit, he did not soften the details. A weight seemed to settle on Aral's shoulders as he listened, rounding and hunching them.

"Thank you. Captain. You were correct to report this. I will take care of it immediately."

"That's all?" Vaagen glanced at Cordelia in doubt.

She opened her palm to him. "You heard the man."

Vaagen shrugged, and saluted himself out.

"You don't doubt his story?" asked Cordelia.

"I've been listening to the Count my fathers thoughts on this subject for a week, love."

"You argued?"

"He argued. I just listened."

Aral returned to his own room, and asked Koudelka and the secretary to wait in the corridor. Cordelia sat on his bed and watched as he punched up codes on his comconsole.

"Lord Vorkosigan here. I wish to speak simultaneously to the Security chief. Imperial Military Hospital, and Commander Simon Illyan. Get them both on, please."

A brief wait, as each man was located. Judging from the fuzzy background in the vid, the ImpMil man was in his office somewhere in the hospital complex. They tracked Illyan down at a forensic laboratory in ImpSec HQ.

'Gentlemen." Aral's face was quite expressionless. "I wish to revoke a Security clearance." Each man attentively prepared to make notes on their respective comconsoles.

"General Count Piotr Vorkosigan is to be denied access to Building Six, Biochemical Research, Imperial Military Hospital, until further notice. Notice from me personally"

Illyan hesitated. "Sir — General Vorkosigan has absolute clearance, by Imperial order. He's had it for years. I need an Imperial order to countermand it."

"That's precisely what this is, Illyan." A trace of impatience rasped in Vorkosigan's voice. "By my order, Aral Vorkosigan, Regent to His Imperial Majesty Gregor Vorbarra. Is that official enough?"

Illyan whistled softly, but his face snapped to blankness at Vorkosigan's frown. "Yes, sir. Understood. Is there anything else?'

"That's all. Just that one building."

"Sir . . ." the hospital security commander said, "what if ... General Vorkosigan refuses to halt when ordered?"

Cordelia could just picture it, some poor young guard being mowed down flat by all that history. . . .

"If your security people are indeed so overwhelmed by one old man, they may use force up to and including stunner fire," said Aral tiredly. "Dismissed. Thank you."

The ImpMil man nodded cautiously, and disconnected.

Illyan lingered in doubt a moment. "Is that a good idea, at his age? Stunning can be bad for the heart. And he's not going to like it one bit, when we tell him there's someplace he can't go. By the way, why — ?" Aral merely stared coldly at him, till he gulped, "Yes, sir," saluted, and signed off.

Aral sat back, gazing pensively at the blank space where the vid images had glowed. He glanced up at Cordelia, and his lips twisted, a grimace of irony and pain. "He is an old man," he said at last.

"The old man just tried to kill your son. What's left of your son."

"I see his view. I see his fears."

"Do you see mine, too?"

"Yes. Both."

"When push comes to shove — if he tries to go back there — "

"He is my past." He met her eyes. "You are my future. The rest of my life belongs to the future. I swear by my word as Vorkosigan."

Cordelia sighed, and rubbed her aching neck, her aching eyes.

Koudelka rattled at the door, and stuck his head surreptitiously within. "Sir? The minister's secretary wants to know—"

"In a minute. Lieutenant." Vorkosigan waved him back out.

"Let's blow out of this place," said Cordelia suddenly.

"Milady?"

"ImpMil, and ImpSec, and ImpEverything, is giving me a bad case of ImpClaustrophobia. Let's go down to Vorkosigan Surleau for a few days. You'll recover better there yourself, it will be harder for all your dedicated minions," she jerked her head at the corridor, "to get at you, there. Just you and me, boy." Would it work? Suppose they retired to the scene of their summer happiness, and it wasn't there anymore? Drowned in the autumn rains . . . She could feel the desperation in herself, seeking their lost balance, some solid center.

His brows rose in approval. "Outstanding idea, dear Captain. We'll take the old man along."

"Oh, must we—oh. Yes, I see. Quite. By all means."

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