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His combat drop shuttle crouched still and silent in the repairs docking bay—malevolent, to Miles's jaundiced eye. Its metal and fibreplas surface was scarred, pitted and burned. It had seemed such a proud, gleaming, efficient vessel when it was new. Perhaps it had undergone psychotic personality change from its traumas. It had been new such a short few months ago. . . .
Miles rubbed his face wearily, and blew out his breath. If there was any incipient psychosis floating around here, it wasn't contained in the machinery. In the eye of the beholder indeed. He took his booted foot off the bench he'd been draped over and straightened up, at least to the degree his crooked spine permitted. Commander Quinn, alert to his every move, fell in behind him.
"There," Miles limped down the length of the fuselage and pointed to the shuttle's portside lock, "is the design defect I'm chiefly concerned about."
He motioned the sales engineer from Kaymer Orbital Shipyards closer. "The ramp from this lock extends and retracts automatically, with a manual override—fine so far. But its recessed slot is inside the hatch, which means that if for any reason the ramp gets hung up, the door can't be sealed. The consequences of which I trust you can imagine." Miles didn't have to imagine them; they had burned in his memory for the last three months. Instant replay without an off switch.
"Did you find this out the hard way at Dagoola IV, Admiral Naismith?" the engineer inquired in a tone of genuine interest.
"Yeah. We lost . . . personnel. I was damn near one of them."
"I see," said the engineer respectfully. But his brows quirked.
How dare you be amused. . . . Fortunately for his health, the engineer did not smile. A thin man of slightly above average height, he reached up the side of the shuttle to run his hands along the slot in question, pull himself up chin-up fashion, peer about and mutter notes into his recorder. Miles resisted an urge to jump up and down like a frog and try to see what he was looking at. Undignified. With his own eye-level even with the engineer's chest, Miles would need about a one-meter stepladder even to reach the ramp slot on tiptoe. And he was too damn tired for calisthenics just now, nor was he about to ask Elli Quinn to give him a boost. He jerked his chin up in the old involuntary nervous tic, and waited in a posture of parade rest appropriate to his uniform, his hands clasped behind his back.
The engineer dropped back to the docking bay deck with a thump. "Yes, Admiral, I think Kaymer can take care of this for you all right. How many of these drop shuttles did you say you had?"
"Twelve," Fourteen minus two equalled twelve. Except in Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet mathematics, where fourteen minus two shuttles equalled two hundred and seven dead. Stop that, Miles told the calculating jeerer in the back of his head firmly. It does no one any good now.
"Twelve." The engineer made a note. "What else?" He eyed the battered shuttle.
"My own engineering department will be handling the minor repairs, now that it looks like well actually be holding still in one place for a while. I wanted to see to this ramp problem personally, but my second in command, Commodore Jesek, is chief engineer for my fleet, and he wants to talk to your Jump tech people about re-calibrating some of our Necklin rods. I have a Jump pilot with a head wound, but Jumpset implant micro-neurosurgery is not one of Kaymer's specialties, I understand. Nor weapons systems?"
"No, indeed," the engineer agreed hastily. He touched a burn on the shuttle's scarred surface, perhaps fascinated by the violence it silently witnessed, for he added, "Kaymer Orbital mainly services merchant vessels. A mercenary fleet is something a bit unusual in this part of the wormhole nexus. Why did you come to us?"
"You were the lowest bidder."
"Oh—not Kaymer Corporation. Earth. I was wondering why you came to Earth? We're rather off the main trade routes, except for the tourists and historians. Er . . . peaceful."
He wonders if we have a contract here, Miles realized. Here, on a planet of nine billion souls, whose combined military forces would make pocket change of the Dendarii's five thousand—right. He thinks I'm out to make trouble on old mother Earth? Or that I'd break security and tell him even if I was. . . . "Peaceful, precisely," Miles said smoothly. "The Dendarii are in need of rest and refitting. A peaceful planet off the main nexus channels is just what the doctor ordered." He cringed inwardly, thinking of the doctor bill pending.
It hadn't been Dagoola. The rescue operation had been a tactical triumph, a military miracle almost. His own staff had assured him of this over and over, so perhaps he could begin to believe it true.
The break-out on Dagoola IV had been the third largest prisoner-of-war escape in history, Commodore Tung said. Military history being Tung's obsessive hobby, he ought to know. The Dendarii had snatched over ten thousand captured soldiers, an entire POW camp, from under the nose of the Cetagandan Empire, and made them into the nucleus of a new guerrilla army on a planet the Cetagandans had formerly counted on as an easy conquest. The costs had been so small, compared to the spectacular results—except for the individuals who'd paid for the triumph with their lives, for whom the price was something infinite, divided by zero.
It had been Dagoola's aftermath that had cost the Dendarii too much, the infuriated Cetagandans' vengeful pursuit. They had followed with ships till the Dendarii had slipped through political jurisdictions that Cetagandan military vessels could not traverse; hunted on with secret assassination and sabotage teams thereafter. Miles trusted they had outrun the assassination teams at last.
"Did you take all this fire at Dagoola IV?" the engineer went on, still intrigued by the shuttle.
"Dagoola was a covert operation," Miles said stiffly. "We don't discuss it."
"It made a big splash in the news a few months back," the Earthman assured him.
My head hurts. . . . Miles pressed his palm to his forehead, crossed his arms and rested his chin in his hand, twitching a smile at the engineer. "Wonderful," he muttered. Commander Quinn winced.
"Is it true the Cetagandans have put a price on your life?" the engineer asked cheerfully.
Miles sighed. "Yes."
"Oh," said the engineer. "Ah. I'd thought that was just a story." He moved away just slightly, as if embarrassed, or as if the air of morbid violence clinging to the mercenary were a contagion that could somehow rub off on him, if he got too close. He just might be right. He cleared his throat. "Now, about the payment schedule for the design modifications—what had you in mind?"
"Cash on delivery," said Miles promptly, "acceptance to follow my engineering staffs inspection and approval of the completed work. Those were the terms of your bid, I believe."
"Ah—yes. Hm." The Earthman tore his attention away from the machinery itself; Miles felt he could see him switching from technical to business mode. "Those are the terms we normally offer our established corporate customers."
"The Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet is an established corporation. Registered out of Jackson's Whole."
"Mm, yes, but—how shall I put this—the most exotic risk our normal customers usually run is bankruptcy, for which we have assorted legal protections. Your mercenary fleet is, um ..."
He's wondering how to collect payment from a corpse, Miles thought.
"—a lot riskier," the engineer finished candidly. He shrugged an apology.
An honest man, at least . . .
"We shall not raise our recorded bid. But I'm afraid we're going to have to ask for payment up front."
As long as we're down to trading insults . . . "But that gives us no protection against shoddy workmanship," said Miles.
"You can sue," remarked the engineer, "just like anybody else."
"I can blow your—" Miles's fingers drummed against his trouser seam where no holster was tied. Earth, old Earth, old civilized Earth. Commander Quinn, at his shoulder, touched his elbow in a fleeting gesture of restraint. He shot her a brief reassuring smile—no, he was not about to let himself get carried away by the—exotic—possibilities of Admiral Miles Naismith, Commanding, Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. He was merely tired, his smile said. A slight widening of her brilliant brown eyes replied, Bullshit, sir. But that was another argument, which they would not continue here, out loud, in public.
"You can look," said the engineer neutrally, "for a better offer if you wish."
"We have looked," said Miles shortly. As you well know . . . "Right. Um . . . what about . . . half up front and half on delivery?"
The Earthman frowned, shook his head. "Kaymer does not pad its estimates, Admiral Naismith. And our cost overruns are among the lowest in the business. That's a point of pride."
The term cost overrun made Miles's teeth hurt, in light of Dagoola. How much did these people really know about Dagoola, anyway?
"If you're truly worried about our workmanship, the monies could be placed in an escrow account in the control of a neutral third party, such as a bank, until you accept delivery. Not a very satisfactory compromise from Kaymer's point of view, but—that's as far as I can go."
A neutral third Earther party, thought Miles. If he hadn't checked up on Kaymer's workmanship, he wouldn't be here. It was his own cash flow Miles was thinking about. Which was definitely not Kaymer's business.
"You having cash flow problems, Admiral?" inquired the Earther with interest. Miles fancied he could see the price rising in his eyes.
"Not at all," Miles lied blandly. Rumors afloat about the Dendarii's liquidity difficulties could sabotage a lot more than just this repair deal. "Very well. Cash up front to be held in escrow." If he wasn't to have the use of his funds, neither should Kaymer. Beside him, Elli Quinn drew air in through her teeth. The Earther engineer and the mercenary leader shook hands solemnly.
Following the sales engineer back toward his own office, Miles paused a moment by a viewport that framed a fine view of Earth from orbit. The engineer smiled and waited politely, even proudly, watching his gaze.
Earth. Old, romantic, historic Earth, the big blue marble itself. Miles had always expected to travel here someday, although not, surely, under these conditions.
Earth was still the largest, richest, most varied and populous planet in scattered humanity's entire worm-hole nexus of explored space. Its dearth of good exit points in solar local space and governmental disunity left it militarily and strategically minor from the greater galactic point of view. But Earth still reigned, if it did not rule, culturally supreme. More war-scarred than Barrayar, as technically advanced as Beta Colony, the end-point of all pilgrimages both religious and secular—in light of which, major embassies from every world that could afford one were collected here. Including, Miles reflected, nibbling gently on the side of his index finger, the Cetagandan. Admiral Naismith must use all means to avoid them.
"Sir?" Elli Quinn interrupted his meditations. He smiled briefly up at her sculptured face, the most beautiful his money had been able to buy after the plasma burn and yet, thanks to the genius of the surgeons, still unmistakably Elli. Would that every combat casualty taken in his service could be so redeemed. "Commodore Tung is on the comconsole for you," she went on.
His smile sagged. What now? He abandoned the view and marched off after her to take over the sales engineer's office with a polite, relentless, "Will you excuse us, please?"
His Eurasian third officer's bland, broad face formed above the vid plate. "Yes, Ky?"
Ky Tung, already out of uniform and into civilian gear, gave him a brief nod in lieu of a salute. "I've just finished making arrangements at the rehab center for our nine severely-wounded. Prognoses are good, for the most part. And they think they will be able to retrieve four of the eight frozen dead,' maybe five if they're lucky. The surgeons here even think they'll be able to repair Demmi's Jumpset, once the neural tissue itself has healed. For a price, of course ..." Tung named the price in GSA Federal credits; Miles mentally converted it to Barrayaran Imperial marks, and made a small squeaking noise.
Tung grinned dry appreciation. "Yeah. Unless you want to give up on that repair. It's equal to all the rest put together."
Miles shook his head, grimacing. "There are a number of people in the universe I'd be willing to double-cross, but my own wounded aren't among 'em."
"Thank you," said Tung, "I agree. Now, I'm just about ready to leave this place. Last thing I have to do is sign a chit taking personal responsibility for the bill. Are you quite sure you're going to be able to collect the pay owed us for the Dagoola operation here?"
"I'm on my way to do that next," Miles promised. "Go ahead and sign, I'll make it right."
"Very good, sir," said Tung. "Am I released for my home leave after that?"
Tung the Earth man, the only Earther Miles had ever met—which probably accounted for the unconscious favorable feelings he had about this place, Miles reflected. "How much time off do we owe you by now, Ky, about a year and a half?" With pay, alas, a small voice added in his mind, and was suppressed as unworthy. "You can take all you want."
"Thank you." Tung's face softened. "I just talked to my daughter. I have a brand-new grandson!"
"Congratulations," said Miles. "Your first?"
"Go on, then. If anything comes up, we'll take care of it. You're only indispensable in combat, eh? Uh . . . where will you be?"
"My sister's home: Brazil. I have about four hundred cousins there."
"Brazil, right. All right." Where the devil was Brazil? "Have a good time."
"I shall." Tung's departing semi-salute was distinctly breezy. His face faded from the vid.
"Damn," Miles sighed, "I'm sorry to lose him even to a leave. Well, he deserves it."
Elli leaned over the back of his comconsole chair. Her breath barely stirred his dark hair, his dark thoughts. "May I suggest, Miles, that he's not the only senior officer who could use some time off? Even you need to dump stress sometimes. And you were wounded too."
"Wounded?" Tension clamped Miles's jaw. "Oh, the bones. Broken bones don't count. I've had the damn brittle bones all my life. I just have to learn to resist the temptation to play field officer. The place for my ass is in a nice padded tactics-room chair, not on the line. If I'd known in advance that Dagoola was going to get so—physical, I'd have sent somebody else in as the fake POW. Anyway, there you are. I had my leave in sickbay."
"And then spent a month wandering around like a cryo-corpse who'd been warmed up in the microwave. When you walked into a room it was like a visit from the Undead."
"I ran the Dagoola rig on pure hysteria. You can't be up that long and not pay for it after with a little down. At least, I can't."
"My impression was there was more to it than that."
He whirled the chair around to face her with a snarl. "Will you back off. Yes, we lost some good people. I don't like losing good people. I cry real tears—in private, if you don't mind!"
She recoiled, her face falling. He softened his voice, deeply ashamed of his outburst. "Sorry, Elli. I know I've been edgy. The death of that poor POW who fell from the shuttle shook me more than . . . more than I should have let it. I can't seem to . . ."
"I was out of line, sir."
The "sir" was like a needle through some voodoo doll she held of him. Miles winced. "Not at all."
Why, why, why, of all the idiotic things he'd done as Admiral Naismith, had he ever established as explicit policy not to seek physical intimacy with anyone in his own organization? It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Tung had approved. Tung was a grandfather, for God's sake, his gonads had probably withered years ago. Miles remembered how he had deflected the first pass Elli had ever made at him. "A good officer doesn't go shopping in the company store," he'd explained gently. Why hadn't she belted him in the jaw for that fatuousness? She had absorbed the unintended insult without comment, and never tried again. Had she ever realized he'd meant that to apply to himself, not her?
When he was with the fleet for extended periods, he usually tried to send her on detached duties, from which she invariably returned with superb results. She had headed the advance team to Earth, and had Kaymer and most of their other suppliers all lined up by the time the Dendarii fleet made orbit. A good officer; after Tung, probably his best. What would he not give to dive into that lithe body and lose himself now? Too late, he'd lost his option.
Her velvet mouth crimped quizzically. She gave him a—sisterly, perhaps—shrug. "I won't hassle you about it any more. But at least think about it. I don't think I've ever seen a human being who needed to get laid worse than you do now."
Oh, God, what a straight line—what did those words really mean? His chest tightened. Comradely comment, or invitation? If mere comment, and he mistook it for invitation, would she think he was leaning on her for sexual favors? If the reverse, would she be insulted again and not breathe on him for years to come? He grinned in panic. "Paid," he blurted. "What I need right now is paid, not laid. After that—after that, um . . . maybe we could go see some of the sights. It seems practically criminal to come all this way and not see any of Old Earth, even if it was by accident. I'm supposed to have a bodyguard at all times downside anyway, we could double up."
She was sighing, straightening up. "Yes, duty first, of course."
Yes, duty first. And his next duty was to report in to Admiral Naismith's employers. After that, all his troubles would be vastly simplified.
Miles wished he could have changed to civilian clothes before embarking on this expedition. His crisp grey-and-white Dendarii admiral's uniform was conspicuous as hell in this shopping arcade. Or at least made Elli change—they could have pretended to be a soldier on leave and his girlfriend. But his civilian gear had been stashed in a crate several planets back—would he ever retrieve it? The clothes had been tailor-made and expensive, not so much as a mark of status as pure necessity.
Usually he could forget the peculiarities of his body—oversized head exaggerated by a short neck set on a twisted spine, all squashed down to a height of four-foot-nine, the legacy of a congenital accident—but nothing highlighted his defects in his own mind more sharply than trying to borrow clothes from someone of normal size and shape. You sure it's the uniform that feels conspicuous, boy? he thought to himself. Or are you playing foolie-foolie games with your head again? Stop it.
He returned his attention to his surroundings. The spaceport city of London, a jigsaw of nearly two millennia of clashing architectural styles, was a fascination. The sunlight falling through the arcade's patterned glass arch was an astonishing rich color, breathtaking. It alone might have led him to guess his eye had been returned to its ancestral planet. Perhaps later he'd have a chance to visit more historical sites, such as a submarine tour of Lake Los Angeles, or New York behind the great dykes.
Elli made another nervous circuit of the bench beneath the light-clock, scanning the crowd. This seemed a most unlikely spot for Cetagandan hit squads to pop up, but still he was glad of her alertness, that allowed him to be tired. You can come look for assassins under my bed anytime, love. . . .
"In a way, I'm glad we ended up here," he remarked to her. "This might prove an excellent opportunity for Admiral Naismith to disappear up his own existence for a while. Take the heat off the Dendarii. The Cetagandans are a lot like the Barrayarans, really, they take a very personal view of command."
"You're pretty damn casual about it."
"Early conditioning. Total strangers trying to kill me make me feel right at home." A thought struck him with a certain macabre cheer. "You know, this is the first time anybody has tried to kill me for myself, and not because of who I'm related to? Have I ever told you about what my grandfather really did when I was . . ."
She cut off his babble with a lift of her chin. "I think this is it. ..."
He followed her gaze. He was tired, she'd spotted their contact before he had. The man coming toward them with the inquiring look on his face wore stylish Earther clothes, but his hair was clipped in a Barrayaran military burr. A non-com, perhaps. Officers favored a slightly less severe Roman patrician style. I need a haircut, thought Miles, his collar suddenly ticklish.
"My lord?" said the man.
"Sergeant Barth?" said Miles.
The man nodded, glanced at Elli. "Who is this?"
So slight a compression of the lips, and widening of the eyes, to convey so much amusement and contempt. Miles could feel the muscles coil in his neck. "She is outstanding at her job."
"I'm sure, sir. Come this way, please." He turned and led off.
The bland face was laughing at him, he could feel it, tell by looking at the back of the head. Elli, aware only of the sudden increase of tension in the air, gave him a look of dismay. It's all right, he thought at her, tucking her hand in his arm.
They strolled after their guide, through a shop, down a lift tube and then some stairs, then picked up the pace. The underground utility level was a maze of tunnels, conduits, and power optics. They traversed, Miles guessed, a couple of blocks. Their guide opened a door with a palm-lock. Another short tunnel led to another door. This one had a live human guard by it, extremely neat in Barrayaran Imperial dress greens, who scrambled up from his comconsole seat where he monitored scanners to barely resist saluting their civilian-clothed guide.
"We dump our weapons here," Miles told Elli. "All of them. I mean really all."
Elli raised her brows at the sudden shift of Miles's accent, from the flat Betan twang of Admiral Naismith to the warm gutturals of his native Barrayar. She seldom heard his Barrayaran voice, at that—which one would seem put-on to her? There was no doubt which one would seem a put-on to the embassy personnel, though, and Miles cleared his throat, to be sure of fully disciplining his voice to the new order.
Miles's contributions to the pile on the guard's console were a pocket stunner and a long steel knife in a lizard-skin sheath. The guard scanned the knife, popped the silver cap off the end of its jewelled hilt to reveal a patterned seal, and handed it back carefully to Miles. Their guide raised his brows at the miniaturized technical arsenal Elli unloaded. So there, Miles thought to him. Stuff that up your regulation nose. He followed on feeling rather more serene.
Up a lift tube, and suddenly the ambience changed to a hushed, plush, understated dignity. "The Barrayaran Imperial Embassy," Miles whispered to Elli.
The ambassador's wife must have taste, Miles thought. But the building had a strange hermetically-sealed flavor to it, redolent to Miles's experienced nose as paranoid security in action. Ah, yes, a planet's embassy is that planet's soil. Feels just like home.
Their guide led them down another lift tube into what was clearly an office corridor—Miles spotted the sensor scanners in a carved arch as they passed—then through two sets of automatic doors into a small, quiet office.
"Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan, sir," their guide announced, standing at attention. "And—bodyguard."
Miles's hands twitched. Only a Barrayaran could convey such a delicate shade of insult in a half-second pause between two words. Home again.
"Thank you, Sergeant, dismissed," said the captain behind the comconsole desk. Imperial dress greens again—the embassy must maintain a formal tone.
Miles gazed curiously at the man who was to be, will or nill, his new commanding officer. The captain gazed back with equal intensity.
An arresting-looking man, though far from pretty.
Dark hair. Hooded, nutmeg-brown eyes. A hard, guarded mouth, fleshy blade of a nose sweeping down a Roman profile that matched his officer's haircut. His hands were blunt and clean, steepled now together in a still tension. In his early thirties, Miles guessed.
But why is this guy looking at me like I'm a puppy that just piddled on his carpet? Miles wondered. I just got here, I haven't had time to offend him yet.
Oh, God, I hope he's not one of those rural Barrayaran hicks who see me as a mutant, a refugee from a botched abortion. . . .
"So," said the captain, leaning back in his chair with a sigh, "you're the Great Man's son, eh?"
Miles's smile became absolutely fixed. A red haze clouded his vision. He could hear his blood beating in his ears like a death march. Elli, watching him, stood quite still, barely breathing. Miles's lips moved; he swallowed. He tried again. "Yes, sir," he heard himself saying, as from a great distance. "And who are you?"
He managed, just barely, not to let it come out as "And whose son are you?" The fury bunching his stomach must not be allowed to show; he was going to have to work with this man. It might not even have been an intentional insult. Couldn't have been, how could this stranger know how much blood Miles had sweated fighting off charges of privilege, slurs on his competence? "The mutant's only here because his father got him in. . . ." He could hear his father's voice, countering, "For God's sake get your head out of your ass, boy!" He let the rage stream out on a long, calming breath, and cocked his head brightly.
"Oh," said the captain, "yes, you only talked to my aide, didn't you. I'm Captain Duv Galeni. Senior military attache for the embassy, and by default chief of Imperial Security, as well as Service Security, here. And, I confess, rather startled to have you appear in my chain of command. It is not entirely clear to me what I'm supposed to do with you."
Not a rural accent; the captain's voice was cool, educated, blandly urban. Miles could not place it in Barrayaran geography. "I'm not surprised, sir," said Miles. "I did not myself expect to be reporting in at Earth, nor so late. I was originally supposed to report back to Imperial Security Command at Sector Two HQ on Tau Ceti, over a month ago. But the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet was driven out of Mahata Solaris local space by a surprise Cetagandan attack. Since we were not being paid to make war directly on the Cetagandans, we ran, and ended up unable to get back by any shorter route. This is literally my first opportunity to report in anywhere since we delivered the refugees to their new base."
"I was not—" the captain paused, his mouth twitching, and began again, "I had not been aware that the extraordinary escape at Dagoola was a covert operation of Barrayaran Intelligence. Wasn't it perilously close to being an act of outright war on the Cetagandan Empire?"
"Precisely why the Dendarii mercenaries were used for it, sir. It was actually supposed to be a somewhat smaller operation, but things got a little out of hand. In the field, as it were." Beside him, Elli kept her eyes straight ahead, and didn't even choke. "I, uh . . . have a complete report."
The captain appeared to be having an internal struggle. "Just what is the relationship between the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet and Imperial Security, Lieutenant?" he finally said. There was something almost plaintive in his tone.
"Er . . . what do you know already, sir?"
Captain Galeni turned his hands palm-up. "I hadn't even heard of them, except peripherally, until you made contact by vid yesterday. My files—my Security files!—say exactly three things about the organization. They are not to be attacked, any requests for emergency assistance should be met with all due speed, and for further information I must apply to Sector Two Security Headquarters."
"Oh, yeah," said Miles, "that's right. This is only a Class III embassy, isn't it. Um, well, the relationship is fairly simple. The Dendarii are kept on retainer for highly covert operations which are either out of Imperial Security's range, or for which any direct, traceable connection with Barrayar would be politically embarrassing. Dagoola was both. Orders are passed from the General Staff, with the advice and consent of the Emperor, through Chief of Imperial Security Illyan to me. It's a very short chain of command. I'm the go-between, supposedly the sole connection. I leave Imperial HQ as Lieutenant Vorkosigan, and pop up—wherever—as Admiral Naismith, waving a new contract. We go do whatever we've been assigned to do, and then, from the Dendarii point of view, I vanish as mysteriously as I came. God knows what they think I do in my spare time."
"Do you really want to know?" Elli asked, her eyes alight.
"Later," he muttered out of the corner of his mouth.
The captain drummed his fingers on his desk console, and glanced down at a display. "None of this is in your official dossier. Twenty-four years old—aren't you a little young for your rank, ah—Admiral?" His tone was dry, his eyes passed mockingly over the Dendarii uniform.
Miles tried to ignore the tone. "It's a long story. Commodore Tung, a very senior Dendarii officer, is the real brains of the outfit. I just play the part."
Elli's eyes widened in outrage; a severe glance from Miles tried to compel her to silence. "You do a lot more than that," she objected.
"If you're the sole connection," frowned Galeni, "who the devil is this woman?" His wording rendered her, if not a non-person, certainly a non-soldier.
"Yes, sir. Well, in case of emergencies, there are three Dendarii who know my real identity. Commander Quinn, who was in on the beginning of the whole scam, is one of them. I'm under orders from Illyan to maintain a bodyguard at all times, so Commander Quinn fills in whenever I have to change identities. I trust her implicitly." You will respect my people, damn your mocking eyes, whatever you think of me. . . .
"How long has this been going on, Lieutenant?"
"Ah," Miles glanced at Elli, "seven years, isn't it?"
Elli's bright eyes glinted. "It seems like only yesterday," she cooed blandly. It seemed she was finding it hard to ignore the tone too; Miles trusted she would keep her edged sense of humor under control.
The captain regarded his fingernails, and then stared at Miles sharply. "Well, I'm going to apply to Sector Two Security, Lieutenant. And if I find out that this is another Vor lordling's idea of a practical joke, I shall do my level best to see that you are brought up on charges for it. No matter who your father is."
"It's all true, sir. My word as Vorkosigan."
"Just so," said Captain Galeni through his teeth.
Miles, infuriated, drew breath—then placed Galeni's regional accent at last. He jerked up his chin. "Are you—Komarran, sir?"
Galeni gave him a wary nod. Miles returned it gravely, rather frozen. Elli nudged him, whispering, "What the hell—?"
"Later," Miles muttered back. "Barrayaran internal politics."
"Will I need to take notes?"
"Probably." He raised his voice. "I must get in touch with my actual superiors, Captain Galeni. I have no idea what my next orders even are."
Galeni pursed his lips, and remarked mildly, "I am actually a superior of yours, Lieutenant Vorkosigan." And chapped as hell, Miles judged, to be cut out of his own command chain—and who could blame him? Softly, now . . . "Of course, sir. What are my orders?"
Galeni's hands clenched briefly in frustration, his mouth set in irony. "I will have to add you to my staff, I suppose, while we all await clarification. Third assistant military attache."
"Ideal, sir, thank you," said Miles. "Admiral Naismith needs very much to vanish just now. The Cetagandans put a price on his—my—head after Dagoola. I've been lucky twice." It was Galeni's turn to freeze. "Are you joking?"
"I had four dead and sixteen wounded Dendarii because of it," said Miles stiffly. "I don't find it amusing at all."
"In that case," said Galeni grimly, "you may consider yourself confined to the Embassy compound." And miss Earth? Miles sighed reluctance. "Yes, sir," he agreed in a dull tone. "As long as Commander Quinn here can be my go-between to the Dendarii."
"Why do you need further contact with the Dendarii?"
"They're my people, sir."
"I thought you said this Commodore Tung ran the show."
"He's on home leave right now. But all I really need before Admiral Naismith departs into the woodwork is to pay some bills. If you could advance me their immediate expenses, I could wrap up this mission."
Galeni sighed; his fingers danced over his comconsole, and paused. "Assistance with all due speed. Right. Just how much do they require?"
"Roughly eighteen million marks, sir."
Galeni's fingers hung paralyzed. "Lieutenant," he said carefully, "that is more than ten times the budget for this entire embassy for a year. Several tens of times the budget for this department!"
Miles spread his hands. "Operating expenses for 5000 troops and techs and eleven ships for over six months, plus equipment losses—we lost a hell of a lot of gear at Dagoola—payroll, food, clothing, fuel, medical expenses, ammunition, repairs—I can show you the spreadsheets, sir."
Galeni sat back. "No doubt. But Sector Security Headquarters is going to have to handle this one. Funds in that amount don't even exist here."
Miles chewed on the side of his index finger. "Oh." Oh, indeed. He would not panic. . . . "In that case, sir, may I request you send to Sector HQ as soon as possible?"
"Believe me, Lieutenant, I consider getting you transferred to someone else's command an object of the highest priority." He rose. "Excuse me. Wait here." He exited the office shaking his head.
"What the hell?" prodded Elli. "I thought you were about to try and dismantle the guy, captain or no captain—and then you just stopped. What's so magic about being Komarran, and where can I get some?"
"Not magic," said Miles. "Definitely not magic. But very important."
"More important than being a Vor lord?"
"In a weird way, yes, right now. Look, you know the planet Komarr was Barrayar's first interstellar Imperial conquest, right?"
"I thought you called it an annexation."
"A rose by any other name. We took it for its wormholes, because it sat across our only nexus connection, because it was strangling our trade, and most of all because it accepted a bribe to let the Cetagandan fleet pass through it when Cetaganda first tried to annex us. You may also recall who was the chief conquistador."
"Your dad. Back when he was only Admiral Lord Vorkosigan, before he became regent. It made his reputation."
"Yeah, well, it made more than one reputation for him. You ever want to see smoke come out of his ears, whisper, 'the Butcher of Komarr' in his hearing. They actually called him that."
"Thirty years ago, Miles." She paused. "Was there any truth to it?"
Miles sighed. "There was something. I've never been able to get the whole story out of him, but I'm damn sure what's in the history books isn't it. Anyway, the conquest of Komarr got messy. As a result, in the fourth year he was Imperial Regent came the Komarr Revolt, and that got really messy. Komarran terrorists have been a Security nightmare for the Imperium ever since. It was pretty repressive there, I guess.
"Anyway, so time's gone on, things have calmed down a bit, anyone from either planet with energy to spare is off settling newly-opened Sergyar. There's been a movement among the liberals—spearheaded by my father—to fully integrate Komarr into the Empire. It's not a real popular idea with the Barrayaran right. It's a bit of an obsession with the old man—'Between justice and genocide there is, in the long run, no middle ground,' " Miles intoned. "He gets real eloquent about it. So, all right, the route to the top on dear old caste-conscious, army-mad Barrayar was and always has been through the Imperial Military Service. It was opened to Komarrans for the first time just eight years ago.
"That means any Komarran in the Service now is on the spot. They have to prove their loyalty the way I have to prove my—" he faltered, "prove myself. It also follows that if I'm working with or under any Komarran, and I turn up unusually dead one day, that Komarran is dog meat. Because my father was the Butcher, and no one will believe it wasn't some sort of revenge.
"And not just that Komarran. Every other Komarran in the Imperial Service would be shadowed by the same cloud. It'd put things back years in Barrayaran politics. If I got assassinated now," he shrugged helplessly, "my father would kill me."
"I trust you weren't planning on it," she choked.
"So now we come to Galeni," Miles went on hastily. "He's in the Service—an officer—has a post in Security itself. Must have worked his tail off to get here. Highly trusted—for a Komarran. But not at a major or strategic post; certain critical kinds of Security information are deliberately withheld from him; and here I come along and rub his nose in it. And if he did have any relatives in the Komarr Revolt—well . . . here I am again. I doubt if he loves me, but he's going to have to guard me like the apple of his eye. And I, God help me, am going to have to let him. It's a real tricky situation."
She patted him on the arm. "You can handle it."
"Hm," he grunted glumly. "Oh, God, Elli," he wailed suddenly, letting his forehead fall against her shoulder, "and I didn't get the money for the Dendarii—can't, till God knows when—what will I tell Ky? I gave him my word … !"
She patted him on the head, this time. But she didn't say anything.
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