Lois McMaster Bujold, "BROTHERS IN ARMS"

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16

Chapter Three

Miles pocketed the comm link, and gazed around the main reception court. The reception had peaked. There were perhaps a hundred people present, in a blinding variety of Earth and galactic fashions, and a fair sprinkling of uniforms besides Barrayaran. A few of the earlier arrivals were cutting out already, ushered past security by their Barrayaran escorts. The Cetagandans appeared to be truly gone, along with their friends. His escape must be opportune rather than clever, it appeared.

Ivan was still chatting with his beautiful charge down at the end of the fountain. Miles bore down upon him ruthlessly.

"Ivan. Meet me by the main doors in five minutes."

"What?"

"It's an emergency. I'll explain later."

"What sort of—?" Ivan began, but Miles was already slipping out of the room and making his way toward the back lift tubes. He had to force himself not to run.

When the door to his and Ivan's room slid shut behind him he peeled out of his dress greens, tore off the boots, and catapulted for the closet. He yanked on the black T-shirt and grey trousers of his Dendarii uniform. Barrayaran boots were descended from a cavalry tradition; Dendarii had evolved from foot-soldiers' gear. In the presence of a horse the Barrayaran were the more practical, although Miles had never been able to explain that to Elli. It would take two hours or so in the saddle on heavy cross-country terrain, and her calves rubbed to bleeding blisters, to convince her that the design had a purpose besides looks. No horses here.

He sealed the Dendarii combat boots and adjusted the grey-and-white jacket in midair, tumbling back down the lift tube at max drop. He paused at the bottom to pull down his jacket, jerk up his chin, and take a deep breath. One could not saunter inconspicuously while gasping. He took an alternate corridor, around the main court to the front entrance. Still no Cetagandans, thank God.

Ivan's eyes widened as he saw Miles approach. He flashed a smile at the blonde, excusing himself, and backed Miles against a potted plant as if to hide him from view. "What the hell—?" he hissed.

"You've got to walk me out of here. Past the guards."

"Oh, no I don't! Galeni will have your hide for a doormat if he sees you in that get-up."

"Ivan, I don't have time to argue and I don't have time to explain, which is precisely why I'm sidestepping Galeni. Quinn wouldn't have called me if she didn't need me. I've got to go now."

"You'll be AWOL!"

"Not if I'm not missed. Tell them—tell them I retired to our room due to excruciating pain in my bones."

"Is that osteo-joint thing of yours acting up again? I bet the embassy physician could get that anti-inflammatory med for you—"

"No, no—no more than usual, anyway—but at least it's something real. There's a chance they'll believe it. Come on. Bring her." Miles gestured with his chin toward Sylveth, waiting out of earshot for Ivan with an inquiring look on her flower-petal face.

"What for?"

"Camouflage." Smiling through his teeth, Miles propelled Ivan by his elbow toward the main doors.

"How do you do?" Miles nattered to Sylveth, capturing her hand and tucking it through his arm. "So nice to meet you. Are you enjoying the party? Wonderful town, London. ..."

He and Sylveth made a lovely couple too, Miles decided. He glanced at the guards from the corner of his eye as they passed. They noticed her. With any luck, he would be a short grey blur in their memories.

Sylveth glanced in bewilderment at Ivan, but by this time they had stepped into the sunlight.

"You don't have a bodyguard," Ivan objected.

"I'll be meeting Quinn in a short time."

"How are you going to get back in the embassy?"

Miles paused. "You'll have until I get back to figure that out."

"Ngh! When's that?"

"I don't know."

The outside guards' attention was drawn to a ground car hissing up to the embassy entrance. Abandoning Ivan, Miles darted across the street and dove into the entrance to the tubeway system.

Ten minutes and two connections later, he emerged to find himself in a very much older section of town, restored 22nd-century architecture. He didn't have to check for street numbers to spot his destination. The crowd, the barricades, the flashing lights, the police hovercars, fire equipment, ambulance . . . "Damnation," Miles muttered, and started down that side street. He rolled the words back through his mouth, switching gears, to Admiral Naismith's flat Betan accent, "Aw, shit ..."

Miles guessed the policeman in charge was the one with the amplifier comm, and not one of the half-dozen in body armor toting plasma rifles. He pushed his way through the crowd and hopped over the barricade. "Are you the officer in charge?"

The constable's head snapped around in bewilderment, then he looked down. At first purely startled, he frowned as he took in Miles's uniform. "Are you one of those psychopaths?" he demanded.

Miles rocked back on his heels, wondering how to answer that one. He suppressed all three of the initial retorts that came to his mind, and chose instead, "I'm Admiral Miles Naismith, commanding, Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. What's happened here?" He interrupted himself to slowly and delicately extend one index finger and push skyward the muzzle of a plasma rifle being held on him by an armored woman. "Please, dear, I'm on your side, really." Her eyes flashed mistrustfully at him through her faceplate, but the police commander jerked his head, and she faded back a few paces.

"Attempted robbery," said the constable. "When the clerk tried to foil it, they attacked her."

"Robbery?" said Miles. "Excuse me, but that makes no sense. I thought all transactions were by computer credit transfer here. There's no cash to rob. There must be some misunderstanding."

"Not cash," said the constable. "Stock."

The store, Miles noticed out of the corner of his eye, was a wineshop. A display window was cracked and starred. He suppressed a queasy feeling of unease, and plunged on, keeping his voice light. "In any case, I fail to understand this stand-off with deadly weapons over a case of shoplifting. Aren't you overreacting a trifle? Where are your stunners?"

"They hold the woman hostage," said the constable grimly.

"So? Stun them all, God will recognize his own."

The constable gave Miles a peculiar look. He didn't read his own history, Miles guessed—the source of that quote was just across the water from here, for pity's sake.

"They claim to have arranged some sort of dead-man switch. They claim this whole block will go up in flames." The constable paused. "Is this possible?"

Miles paused too. "Have you got ID's on any of these guys yet?"

"No."

"How are you communicating with them?"

"Through the comconsole. At least, we were—they appear to have destroyed it a few minutes ago."

"We will, of course, pay damages," Miles choked.

"That's not all you'll pay," growled the constable.

"Well..." Out of the corner of his eye Miles saw a hovercar labeled euronews network dropping down to the street. "I think it's time to break this up."

He started toward the wineshop.

"What are you going to do?" asked the constable.

"Arrest them. They face Dendarii charges for taking ordnance off-ship."

"All by yourself? They'll shoot you. They're crazy-drunk."

"I don't think so. If I were going to be shot by my own troops, they've had much better opportunities than this."

The constable frowned, but did not stop him.

The autodoors were not working. Miles stood baffled before the glass a moment, then pounded on it. There was shadowy movement behind the iridescent shimmer. A very long pause, and the doors slid open about a third of a meter; Miles turned sideways and slipped through. A man inside shoved them shut again by hand and jammed a metal brace in their slot.

The interior of the wineshop was a shambles. Miles gasped at the fumes in the air, aromatic vapors from shattered bottles. You could get plastered just from breathing. . . . The carpeting squished underfoot.

Miles glanced around, to determine who he wanted to murder first. The one who'd unblocked the door stood out, as he was wearing only underwear.

" 'S Admiral Naismith," the doorman hissed. He came to a tilted attention, and saluted.

"Whose army are you in, soldier?" Miles growled at him. The man's hands made little waving motions, as if to offer explanations by mime. Miles couldn't dredge up his name.

Another Dendarii, in uniform this time, was sitting on the floor with his back to a pillar. Miles squatted down, considering hauling him to his feet, or at least his knees, by his jacket and bracing him. Miles stared into his face. Little red eyes like coals in the caverns of his eye-sockets stared back without recognition. "Eugh," muttered Miles, and rose without further attempt to communicate. That one's consciousness was somewhere in wormhole space.

"Who cares?" came a hoarse voice from the floor behind a display rack, one of the few that hadn't been violently upended. "Who t'hell cares?"

Oh, we've got the best and brightest here today, don't we? Miles thought sourly. An upright person emerged around the end of the display rack, saying, "Can't be, he's disappeared again ..."

At last, someone Miles knew by name. All too well. Further explanation for the scene was almost redundant. "Ah, Private Danio. Fancy meeting you here."

Danio shambled to a species of attention, towering over Miles. An antique pistol, its grip defaced with notches, dangled menacingly from his ham hand. Miles nodded toward it. "Is that the deadly weapon I was called away from my affairs to come collect? They talked like you had half our bleeding arsenal down here."

"No, sir!" said Danio. "That would be against regs." He patted the gun fondly. "Jus' my personal property. Because you never know. The crazies are everywhere."

"Are you carrying any other weapons among you?"

"Yalen has his bowie knife."

Miles controlled a twinge of relief as premature. Still, if these morons were on their own, the Dendarii fleet might not have to get officially sucked into their morass after all. "Did you know that carrying any weapon is a criminal offense in this jurisdiction?"

Danio thought this over. "Wimps," he said at last.

"Nevertheless," said Miles firmly, "I'm going to have to collect them and take them back to the flagship." Miles peered around the display rack. The one on the floor—Yalen, presumably—lay clutching an unsheathed hunk of steel suitable for butchering an entire steer, should he encounter one mooing down the metalled streets and skyways of London.

Miles thought it through, and pointed. "Bring me that knife, Private Danio."

Danio pried the weapon from his comrade's grip. "Nooo ..." said the horizontal one.

Miles breathed easier when he had both weapons in his possession. "Now, Danio—quickly, because they're getting nervous out there—exactly what happened here?"

"Well, sir, we were having a party. We'd rented a room." He jerked his head toward the demi-naked doorman who hovered listening. "We ran out of supplies, and came here to buy more, 'cause it was close by. Got everything all picked out and piled up, and then the bitch wouldn't take our credit! Good Dendarii credit!"

"The bitch . . . ?" Miles looked around, stepping over the disarmed Yalen. Oh, ye gods. . . . The store clerk, a plump, middle-aged woman, lay on her side on the floor at the other end of the display rack, gagged, trussed up in the naked soldier's twisted jacket and pants by way of makeshift restraints.

Miles pulled the bowie knife out of his belt and headed for her. She made hysterical gurgling noises down in her throat.

"I wouldn't let her loose if I were you," said the naked soldier warningly. "She makes a lot of noise."

Miles paused and studied the woman. Her greying hair stuck out wildly, except where it was plastered to her forehead and neck by sweat. Her terrorized eyes rolled whitely; she bucked against her bonds.

"Mm." Miles thrust the knife back in his belt temporarily. He caught the naked soldier's name off his uniform at last, and made an unwelcome mental connection. "Xaveria. Yes, I remember you now. You did well at Dagoola." Xaveria stood straighter.

Damn. So much for his nascent plan of throwing the entire lot to the local authorities, and praying they were all still incarcerated when the fleet broke orbit. Could Xaveria be detached from his worthless comrades somehow? Alas, it looked like they were all in this together.

"So she wouldn't take your credit cards. You, Xaveria—what happened next?" "Er—insults were exchanged, sir."

"And?"

"And tempers kind of got out of hand. Bottles were thrown, and thrown on the floor. The police were called. She was punched out." Xaveria eyed Danio warily.

Miles contemplated the sudden absence of actors from all this action, in Xaveria's syntax. "And?"

"And the police got here. And we told them we'd blow the place up if they tried to come in,"

"And do you actually have the means to carry out that threat, Private Xaveria?"

"No, sir. It was pure bluff. I was trying to think—well—what you would do in the situation, sir."

This one is too damned observant. Even when he's potted, Miles thought dryly. He sighed, and ran his hands through his hair. "Why wouldn't she take your credit cards? Aren't they the Earth Universals you were issued at the shuttleport? You weren't trying to use the ones left over from Mahata Solaris, were you?"

"No, sir," said Xaveria. He produced his card by way of evidence. It looked all right. Miles turned, to test it in the comconsole at the checkout, only to discover that the comconsole had been shot. The final bullet hole in the holovid plate was precisely centered, must have been intended as the coup de grace, although the console still emitted little wheezing popping noises now and then. He added the price of it to the running tally in his head and winced.

"Actually," Xaveria cleared his throat, "it was the machine that spat it up, sir."

"It shouldn't have done that," Miles began, "unless—" Unless there's something wrong with the central account, his thought finished. The pit of his stomach felt suddenly very cold. "I'll check it out," he promised. "Meanwhile we have to wrap this up and get you out of here without your being fried by the local constables."

Danio nodded excitedly toward the pistol in Miles's hand. "We could blast our way out the back. Make a run for the nearest tubeway."

Miles, momentarily bereft of speech, envisioned plugging Danio with his own pistol. Danio was saved only by Miles's reflection that the recoil might break his arm. He'd smashed his right hand at Dagoola, and the memory of the pain was still fresh.

"No, Danio," Miles said when he could command his voice. "We are going to walk quietly—very quietly—out the front door and surrender."

"But the Dendarii never surrender," said Xaveria.

"This is not a firebase," said Miles patiently. "It is a wineshop. Or at any rate, it was. Furthermore, it is not even our wineshop." Though I shall no doubt be compelled to buy it. "Think of the London police not as your enemies, but as your dearest friends. They are, you know. Because," he fixed Xaveria with a cold eye, "until they get done with you, I can't start."

"Ah," said Xaveria, quelled at last. He touched Danio on the arm. "Yeah. Maybe—maybe we better let the Admiral take us home, eh, Danio?"

Xaveria hauled the ex-bowie knife owner to his feet. After a moment's thought, Miles walked quietly behind red-eye, pulled out his pocket stunner, and placed a light blast to the base of his skull. Red-eye toppled sideways. Miles sent up a short prayer that this final stimulus wouldn't send him into trauma-shock. God alone knew what chemical cocktail it chased, except that it clearly wasn't alcohol alone.

"You take his head," Miles directed Danio, "and you, Yalen, take his feet." There, that effectively immobilized all three of them. "Xaveria, open the door, place your hands on top of your head, and walk, do not run, to where you will submit quietly to arrest. Danio, you follow. That's an order."

"Wish we had the rest of the troops," muttered Danio.

"The only troop you need is a troop of legal experts," said Miles. He eyed Xaveria, and sighed. "I'll send you one."

"Thank you, sir," said Xaveria, and lurched gravely forward. Miles brought up the rear, gritting his teeth.

Miles blinked in the sunlight of the street. His little patrol fell into the arms of the waiting police. Danio did not fight when they started to frisk him, though Miles only relaxed when he saw the tangle-field finally turned on. The constable commander approached, inhaling for speech.

A soft foomp! broke from the door of the wineshop. Blue flames licked out over the slidewalk.

Miles cried out, wheeled, and sprinted explosively from his standing start, gulping a huge breath and holding it. He hurtled through the wineshop doors, into darkness shot through with twisting heat, around the display case. The alcohol-soaked carpeting was growing flames, like stands of golden wheat running in a crazy pattern following concentrations of fumes. Fire was advancing on the bound woman on the floor; in a moment, her hair would be a terrible halo.

Miles dove for her, wriggled his shoulder under her, grunted to his feet. He swore he could feel his bones bend. She kicked unhelpfully. Miles staggered for the door, bright like the mouth of a tunnel, like the gate of life. His lungs pulsed, straining for oxygen against his tightly-closed lips. Total elapsed time, eleven seconds.

In the twelfth second, the room behind them brightened, roaring. Miles and his burden fell to the slidewalk, rolling—he rolled her over and over—flames were lapping over their clothing. People were screaming and yelling at an unintelligible distance. His Dendarii uniform cloth, combat-rated, would neither melt nor burn, but still made a dandy wick for the volatile liquids splashed on it. The effect was bloody spectacular. But the poor clerk's clothing offered no such protection—

He choked on a faceful of foam, sprayed on them by the fireman who had rushed forward. He must have been standing at the ready all this time. The frightened-looking policewoman hovered anxiously clutching her thoroughly redundant plasma-rifle. The fire extinguisher foam was like being rolled in beer suds, only not so tasty—Miles spat vile chemicals, and lay a moment gasping. God, air was good. Nobody praised air enough.

"A bomb!" cried the constable commander.

Miles wriggled onto his back, appreciating the blue slice of sky seen through eyes miraculously unglazed, unburst, unslagged. "No," he panted sadly, "brandy. Lots and lots of very expensive brandy. And cheap grain alcohol. Probably set off by a short circuit in the comconsole."

He rolled out of the way as firemen in white protective garments bearing the tools of their trade stampeded forward. A fireman pulled him to his feet, farther away from the now-blazing building. He came up staring at a person pointing a piece of equipment at him resembling, for a disoriented moment, a microwave cannon. The adrenalin rush washed over him without effect, there was no response left in him. The person was babbling at him. Miles blinked dizzily, and the microwave cannon fell into more sensible focus as a holovid camera.

He wished it had been a microwave cannon. . . . The clerk, released at last, was pointing at him and crying and screaming. For someone he'd just saved from a horrible death, she didn't sound very grateful. The holovid swung her way for a moment, until she was led away by the ambulance personnel. He hoped they'd supply her with a sedative. He pictured her arriving home that night, to husband and children—"And how was the shop today, dear . . . ?" He wondered if she'd accept hush-money, and if so, how much it would be. Money, oh God . . .

"Miles!" Elli Quinn's voice over his shoulder made him jump. "Do you have everything under control?"

They collected stares, on the tubeway ride to the London shuttleport. Miles, catching a glimpse of himself in a mirrored wall while Elli credited their tokens, was not surprised. The sleek, polished Lord Vorkosigan he'd last seen looking back at him before the embassy reception has been transmuted, werewolf-wise, into a most degraded little monster. His scorched, damp, bedraggled uniform was flecked with little fluffy bits of drying foam. The white placket down the jacket front was filthy. His face was smudged, his voice a croak, his eyes red and feral from smoke irritation. He reeked of smoke and sweat and drink, especially drink. He'd been rolling in it, after all. People near them in line caught one whiff and started edging away. The constables, thank God, had relieved him of knife and pistol, impounded as evidence. Still he and Elli had their end of the bubble-car all to themselves.

Miles sank into his seat with a groan. "Some bodyguard you are," he said to Elli. "Why didn't you protect me from that interviewer?"

"She wasn't trying to shoot you. Besides, I'd just got there. I couldn't tell her what had been going on.

"But you're far more photogenic. It would have improved the image of the Dendarii Fleet."

"Holovids make me tongue-tied. But you sounded calm enough."

"I was trying to downplay it all. 'Boys will be boys' chuckles Admiral Naismith, while in the background his troops burn down London..."

Elli grinned. " 'Sides, they weren't interested in me. I wasn't the hero who'd dashed into a burning building—by the gods, when you came rolling out all on fire—"

"You saw that?" Miles was vaguely cheered. "Did it look good in the long shots? Maybe it'll make up for Danio and his jolly crew, in the minds of our host city."

"It looked properly terrifying." She shuddered appreciation. "I'm surprised you're not more badly burned."

Miles twitched singed eyebrows, and tucked his blistered left hand unobtrusively under his right arm. "It was nothing. Protective clothing. I'm glad not all our equipment design is faulty."

"I don't know. To tell the truth, I've been shy of fire ever since ..." her hand touched her face.

"As well you should be. The whole thing was carried out by my spinal reflexes. When my brain finally caught up with my body, it was all over, and then I had the shakes. I've seen a few fires, in combat. The only thing I could think of was speed, because when fires hit that certain point, they expand fast."

Miles bit back confiding his further worries about the security aspects of that damned interview. It was too late now, though his imagination played with the idea of a secret Dendarii raid on Euronews Network to destroy the vid disk. Maybe war would break out, or a shuttle would crash, or the government would fall in a major sex scandal, and the whole wineshop incident would be shelved in the rush of other news events. Besides, the Cetagandans surely already knew Admiral Naismith had been seen on Earth. He would disappear back into Lord Vorkosigan soon enough, perhaps permanently this time.

Miles staggered off the tubeway clutching his back.

"Bones?" said Elli worriedly. "Did you do something to your spine?"

"I'm not sure." He stomped along beside her, rather bent. "Muscle spasms—that poor woman must have been fatter than I thought. Adrenalin'll fool you. ..."

It was no better by the time their little personnel shuttle docked at the Triumph, the Dendarii flagship in orbit. Elli insisted on a detour to sickbay.

"Pulled muscles," said his fleet surgeon unsympathetically after scanning him. "Go lie down for a week."

Miles made false promises, and exited clutching a packet of pills in his bandaged hand. He was pretty sure the surgeon's diagnosis was correct, for the pain was easing, now that he was aboard his own flagship. He could feel the tension uncoiling in his neck at least, and hoped it would continue all the way down. He was coming down off his adrenalin-induced high, too—better finish his business here while he could still walk and talk at the same time.

He straightened his jacket, brushing rather futilely at the white flecks, and jerked up his chin, before marching into his fleet finance officer's inner sanctum.

It was evening, ship-time, only an hour skewed from London downside time, but the mercenary accountant was still at her post. Yield Bone was a precise, middle-aged woman, heavy-set, definitely a tech not a troop, whose normal tone of voice was a calming drawl. Now she spun in her station chair and squealed at him, "Oh, sir! Do you have the credit transfer . . . ?" She took in his appearance and her voice dropped to a more usual timbre. "Good God, what happened to you?" As an afterthought, she saluted.

"That's what I'm here to find out, Lieutenant Bone." He hooked a second seat into its floor brackets and swung it around to sit backwards, his arms draped over its back. As an afterthought, he returned her salute. "I thought you reported yesterday that all our resupply orders not essential for orbital life-support were on hold, and that our Earthside credit was under control."

"Temporarily under control," she replied. "Fourteen days ago you told me we'd have a credit transfer in ten days. I tried to time as many expenses as possible to come in after that. Four days ago you told me it would be another ten days—"

"At least," Miles confirmed glumly.

"I've put off as much stuff as I can again, but some of it had to be paid off, in order to get credit extended another week. We've dipped dangerously far into reserve funds since Mahata Solaris."

Miles rubbed a finger tiredly over the seat back. "Yeah, maybe we should have pushed on straight to Tau Ceti." Too late now. If only he were dealing with Sector II Security Headquarters directly . . .

"We would have had to drop three-fourths of the fleet at Earth anyway, sir."

"And I didn't want to break up the set, I know. We stay here much longer, and none of us will be able to leave—a financial black hole. . . . Look, tap your programs and tell me what happened to the downside personnel credit account about 1600 London time tonight."

"Hm?" Her fingers conjured up arcane and colorful data displays from her holovid console. "Oh, dear. It shouldn't have done that. Now where did the money go . . . ? Ah, direct override. That explains it."

"Explain it to me," Miles prodded.

"Well," she turned to him, "of course when the fleet is on station for long at any place with any kind of financial net at all, we don't just leave our liquid assets sitting around."

"We don't?"

"No, no. Anything that isn't actually outgoing is held for as long as possible in some sort of short-term, interest-generating investment. So all our credit accounts are set to ride along at the legal minimum; when a bill comes due, I cycle it through the computer and shoot just enough to cover it from the investment account into the credit account."

"Is this, er, worth the risk?"

"Risk? It's basic good practice! We made over four thousand GSA federal credits on interest and dividends last week, until we fell out of the minimum amount bracket."

"Oh," said Miles. He had a momentary flash about giving up war and playing the stock market instead. The Dendarii Free Mercenary Holding Company? Alas, the Emperor might have a word or two to say about that. . . .

"But these morons," Lieutenant Bone gestured at the schematic representing her version of Danio's adventures that afternoon, "attempted to tap the account directly through its number, instead of through Fleet Central Accounting as everyone has been told and told to do. And because we're riding so low at the moment, it bounced. Sometimes I think I'm talking to the deaf." More lurid bar graphs fountained up at her fingertips. "But I can only run it round and round for so long, sir! The investment account is now empty, so of course it's generating no extra money. I'm not sure we can even make it six more days. And if the credit transfer doesn't arrive then ..." she flung up her hands, "the whole Dendarii fleet could start to slide, piecemeal, into receivership!"

"Oh." Miles rubbed his neck. He'd been mistaken, his headache wasn't waning. "Isn't there some way you can shift the stuff around from account to account to create, er . . . virtual money? Temporarily?"

"Virtual money?" Her lips curled in loathing.

"To save the fleet. Just like in combat. Mercenary accounting. . . ."he clasped his hands together, between his knees, and smiled up at her hopefully. "Of course, if it's beyond your abilities ..."

Her nostrils flared. "Of course it's not. But the kind of thing you're talking about relies mostly on time lags. Earth's financial network is totally integrated; there are no time lags unless you want to start working it interstellar. I'll tell you what would work, though ..." her voice trailed off. "Well, maybe not. ..."

"What?"

"Go to a major bank and get a short-term loan against, say, some major capital equipment." Her eyes, glancing around by implication through the walls to the Triumph, revealed what order of capital equipment she had in mind. "We might have to conceal certain other outstanding liens from them, and the extent of depreciation, not to mention certain ambiguities about what is and is not owned by the Fleet corporation versus the Captain-owners—but at least it would be real money."

And what would Commodore Tung say when he found out that Miles had mortgaged his command ship? But Tung wasn't here. Tung was on leave. It could be all over by the time Tung got back.

"We'd have to ask for two or three times the amount we really needed, to be sure of getting enough," Lieutenant Bone went on. "You would have to sign for it, as senior corporation officer."

Admiral Naismith would have to sign for it, Miles reflected. A man whose legal existence was strictly—virtual, not that an Earth bank could be expected to find that out. The Dendarii fleet propped his identity most convincingly. This could be almost the safest thing he'd ever done. "Go ahead and set it up, Lieutenant Bone. Um . . . use the Triumph, it's the biggest thing we've got."

She nodded, her shoulders straightening, as she regained some of her accustomed serenity. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

Miles sighed, and shoved to his feet. Sitting down had been a mistake; his tired muscles were seizing up. Her nostrils wrinkled as he passed upwind of her. Perhaps he'd better take a few minutes to clean up. It would be hard enough to explain his disappearance, when he returned to the embassy, without explaining his remarkable appearance as well.

"Virtual money," he heard Lieutenant Bone mutter disapprovingly to her comconsole as he exited, "Good God."

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16