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Lois Bujold - "Diplomatic Immunity"

Chapter Three

From Baen Books


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Miles stood on tiptoe to peer through the little port beside the Kestrel's personnel hatch as the ship maneuvered toward its assigned docking cradle. Graf Station was a vast jumbled aggregation, an apparent chaos of design not surprising in an installation in its third century of expansion. Somewhere buried in the core of the sprawling, bristling structure was a small metallic asteroid, honeycombed for both space and the material used in building this very oldest of the quaddies' many habitats. Also somewhere in its innermost sections could still be seen, according to the guidevids, actual elements from the broken-apart and reconfigured jumpship in which the initial band of hardy quaddie pioneers had made their historic voyage to this refuge.

Miles stepped back and gestured Ekaterin to the port for a look. He reflected on the political astrography of Quaddiespace, or rather, as it was formally designated, the Union of Free Habitats. From this initial point, quaddie groups had leapfrogged out to build daughter colonies in both directions along the inner of the two rings of asteroids that had made this system so attractive to their ancestors. Several generations and a million strong later, the quaddies were in no danger whatsoever of running out of space, energy, or materials. Their population could expand as fast as it chose to build.

Only a handful of their many scattered habitats maintained areas supplied with artificial gravity for legged humans, either visitor or resident, or even dealt with outsiders. Graf Station was one that did accept galactics and their trade, as did the orbital arcologies dubbed Metropolitan, Sanctuary, Minchenko, and Union Station. This last was the seat of Quaddie government, such as it was; a variant of bottom-up representative democracy based, Miles was given to understand, on the work gang as its primary unit. He hoped to God he wasn't going to end up negotiating with a committee. <>Ekaterin glanced around and, with an excited smile, motioned Roic to take a turn. He ducked his head and nearly pressed his nose to the port, staring in open curiosity. This was Ekaterin's first trip outside the Barrayaran Empire, and Roic's first venture off Barrayar ever. Miles paused to thank his habits of mild paranoia that before he'd dragged them off world he'd troubled to send them both through a short intensive course in space and free fall procedures and safety. He'd pulled rank and strings to get access to the military academy facilities, albeit on a free week between scheduled classes, for a tailored version of the longer course that Roic's older Armsmen colleagues had received routinely in their former Imperial Service training.

Ekaterin had been extremely startled when Miles had invited—persuaded—well, hustled—her to join the bodyguard in the orbital school: daunted at first, exhausted and close to mutiny partway through, proud and elated at the finish. For passenger liners in pressurization trouble, it was the usual method to stuff their paying customers into simple bubbles called bod pods to passively await rescue. Miles had been stuck in a bod pod a time or two himself. He'd sworn that no man, and most especially no wife, of his would ever be rendered so artificially helpless in an emergency. His whole party had traveled with their own personally tailored quick-donning suits at hand. Regretfully, Miles had left his old customized battle armor in storage. . . .

Roic unbent from the port, looking especially stoic, faint vertical lines of worry between his eyebrows. Roic nodded earnestly.

Ekaterin said, "Have you had yours?"

"Oh, yes." He glanced down his plain gray civilian tunic and trousers. "I used to have this nifty bio-chip on my vagus nerve that kept me from losing my lunch in free fall, but it got blown out with the rest of my guts in that unpleasant encounter with the needle-grenade. I should get it replaced one of these days. . . ." Miles stepped forward and took one more glance outside. The station had grown to occlude most of the view. "So, Roic. If some quaddies visiting Hassadar made themselves obnoxious enough to win a visit to the Municipal Guard's gaol, and then a bunch more quaddies popped up and tried to bust them out with military-grade weapons, and shot up the place and torched it and burned some of your comrades, just how would you feel about quaddies at that point?"

"Um . . . not too friendly, m'lord." Roic paused. "Pretty pissed, actually."

"That's what I figured." Miles sighed. "Ah. Here we go."

Clanks and thumps sounded as the Kestrel came gently to rest and the docking clamps felt their way to a firm grip. The flex tube whined, seeking its seal, guided by the Kestrel's engineer at the hatch controls, and then seated itself with an audible chink. "All tight, sir," the engineer reported.

"All right, troops, we're on parade," Miles murmured, and waved Roic on.

The bodyguard nodded and slipped through the hatch; after a moment he called back, "Ready, m'lord."

All was, if not well, good enough. Miles followed through the flex tube, Ekaterin close behind him. He stole a glance over his shoulder as he floated forward. She was svelte and arresting in the red tunic and black leggings, her hair in a sophisticated braid around her head. Zero gee had a charming effect on well-developed female anatomy that he decided he had probably better not point out to her. As an opening move, setting this first meeting in the null-gee section of Graf Station was clearly calculated to put the visitors off balance, to emphasize just whose space this was. If they'd wanted to be polite, the quaddies would have received them in one of the grav sections.

The station-side airlock opened into a spacious cylindrical bay, its radial symmetry airily dispensing with the concepts of "up" and "down." Roic floated with one hand on the grip by the hatch, the other kept carefully away from his stunner holster. Miles craned his neck to take in the array of half a dozen quaddies, males and females, in paramilitary grade half-armor, floating in cross-fire positions around the bay. Their weapons were out but shouldered, formality masking threat. Lower arms, thicker and more muscular than their uppers, emerged from their hips. Both sets of arms were protected by plasma-deflecting vambraces. Miles couldn't help reflecting that here were people who actually could shoot and reload at the same time. Interestingly, though two bore the insignia of Graf Station Security, the rest were in the colors and badges of the Union Militia.

Impressive window dressing, but these were not the people he needed to be attending to. His gaze swept on to the three quaddies and the legged downsider waiting directly across from the hatch. Faintly startled expressions, as they in turn took in his own nonstandard appearance, were quickly suppressed on three out of four faces.

The senior Graf Station Security officer was instantly recognizable by his uniform, weapons, and glower. Another middle-aged quaddie male also wore some sort of Stationer uniform, slate blue, in a conservative style designed to reassure the public. A white-haired female quaddie was more elaborately dressed in a maroon velvet doublet with slashed upper sleeves, silky silver fabric puffing from the slits, with matching puffy shorts and tight lower sleeves. The legged downsider also wore the slate-blue uniform, except with trousers and friction boots. Short, graying brown hair floated around the head that turned toward Miles. Miles choked, trying not to swear aloud in shock.

My God. It's Bel Thorne. What the devil was the ex-mercenary Betan hermaphrodite doing here? The question answered itself as soon as it formed. So. Now I know who our ImpSec observer on Graf Station is. Which, abruptly, raised the reliability of those reports to a vastly higher level . . . or did it? Miles's smile froze, concealing, he hoped, his sudden mental disarray.

The white-haired woman was speaking, in a very chilly tone—some automatic part of Miles's mind pegged her as senior, as well as oldest, present. "Good afternoon, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. Welcome to the Union of Free Habitats."

Miles, one hand still guiding a blinking Ekaterin into the bay, managed a polite return nod. He left the second handhold flanking the hatch to her for an anchor, and managed to set himself in air, without imparting an unwanted spin, right side up with relation to the senior quaddie woman. "Thank you," he returned neutrally. Bel, what the hell . . . ? Give me a sign, dammit. The hermaphrodite returned his brief wide-eyed stare with cool disinterest, and, as if casually, raised a hand to scratch the side of its nose, signaling, perhaps, Wait for it. . . .

"I am Senior Sealer Greenlaw," the quaddie woman continued, "and I have been assigned by my government to meet with you and provide arbitration between you and your victims on Graf Station. This is Crew Chief Venn of Graf Station Security, Boss Watts, who is supervisor of Graf Station Downsider Relations, and Assistant Portmaster Bel Thorne."

"How do you do, madam, gentlemen, honorable herm," Miles's mouth continued on autopilot. He was too shaken by the sight of Bel to take exception to that your victims, for now. "Permit me to introduce my wife, Lady Ekaterin Vorkosigan, and my personal assistant, Armsman Roic."

All the quaddies frowned disapprovingly at Roic. But now it was the turn for Bel's eyes to widen, staring with sudden attention at Ekaterin. A purely personal aspect of it all blazed across Miles's mind then, as he realized that he was shortly, very probably, going to be in the unsettling position of having to introduce his new wife to his old flame. Not that Bel's oft-expressed crush on him had ever been consummated, exactly, to his retrospective sometimes-regret...

"Portmaster Thorne, ah . . ." Miles felt himself scrambling for firm footing in more ways than one. His voice went brightly inquiring. "Have we met?"

"I don't believe we've ever met, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, no," returned Bel; Miles hoped his was the only ear that detected the slight emphasis on his Barrayaran name and title in that familiar alto drawl.

"Ah." Miles hesitated. Throw out a lure, a line, something . . . "My mother was Betan, you know."

"What a coincidence," Bel said blandly. "So was mine."

Bel, goddammit! "I have had the pleasure of visiting Beta Colony several times."

"I haven't been back but once in decades." The faint light of Bel's notably vile sense of humor faded in the brown eyes, and the herm relented as far as, "I'd like to hear about the old sandbox."

"It would be my pleasure to discuss it," Miles responded, praying this exchange sounded diplomatic and not cryptic. Soon, soon, bloody soon. Bel returned him a cordial, acknowledging nod.

The white-haired quaddie woman gestured toward the end of the bay with her upper right hand. "If you would please accompany us to the conference chamber, Lord and Lady Vorkosigan, Armsman Roic."

"Certainly, Sealer Greenlaw." Miles favored her with an after you, ma'am half-bow in air, then uncurled to get a foot to the wall to push off after her. Ekaterin and Roic followed. Ekaterin arrived and braked at the round airseal door with reasonable grace, though Roic landed crookedly with an audible thump. He'd used too much power pushing off, but Miles couldn't stop to coach him on the fine points here. He'd come to the right of it soon enough, or break an arm. The next series of corridors featured a sufficiency of handgrips. The downsiders kept up with the quaddies, who both preceded and followed; to Miles's secret satisfaction, none of the guards had to pause and collect any out-of-control spinning or helplessly becalmed Barrayarans.

They came at length to a chamber with a window-wall offering a panoramic view out across one arm of the station and into the deep, star-dusted void beyond. Any downsider suffering from a touch of agoraphobia or pressurization paranoia would doubtless prefer to cling to the wall on the opposite side. Miles floated gently up to the transparent barrier, stopping himself with two delicately extended fingers, and surveyed the spacescape; his mouth crooked up, unwilled. "This is very fine," he said honestly.

He glanced around. Roic had found a wall grip near the door, awkwardly shared with the lower hand of a quaddie guard, who glowered at him as they both shifted fingers trying not to touch the other. The majority of the honor guard had been shed in the adjoining corridor, and only two, one Graf Station and one Union, now hovered, albeit alertly. The chamber end-walls featured decorative plants growing out of illuminated spiraling tubes that held their roots in a hydroponic mist. Ekaterin paused by one, examining the multicolored leaves closely. She tore her attention away, and her brief smile faded, watching Miles, watching their quaddie hosts, watching for cues. Her eye fell curiously on Bel, who was surveying Miles in turn, the herm's expression—well, anyone else would see it as bland, probably. Miles suspected it was deeply ironic.

The quaddies took up position in a hemispherical arrangement around a central vid plate, Bel hovering near its comrade-in-slate-blue, Boss Watts. Arching posts of different heights featured the sort of com link control boards usually found on station-chair arms, looking a bit like flowers on stalks, which provided suitably spaced tethering points. Miles picked a post with his back to open space. Ekaterin floated over and took up a spot a little behind him. She'd gone into her silent, highly reserved mode, which Miles had to school himself not to read as unhappy; it might just mean that she was processing too hard to remember to be animated. Fortunately, the ivory-carved expression also simulated aristocratic poise.

A pair of younger quaddies, whose green shirt-and-shorts garb Miles's eye decoded as servitor, offered drink bulbs all around; Miles selected something billed to be tea, Ekaterin took fruit juice, and Roic, with a glance at his quaddie opposite numbers who were offered none, declined. A quaddie could grip a handhold and a drink bulb, and still have two hands left to draw and aim a weapon. It hardly seemed fair.

"Senior Sealer Greenlaw," Miles began. "My credentials, you should have received." She nodded, her short, fine hair floating in a wispy halo with the motion. He continued, "I am, unfortunately, not wholly familiar with the cultural context and meaning of your title. Who do you speak for, and do your words bind them in honor? That is to say, do you represent Graf Station, a department within the Union of Free Habitats, or some larger entity still? And who reviews your recommendations or sanctions your agreements?" And how long does it usually take them?

She hesitated, and he wondered if she was studying him with the same intensity that he studied her. Quaddies were even longer-lived than Betans, who routinely made it to one-hundred-and-twenty standard, and might expect to see a century and a half; how old was this woman?

"I am a Sealer for the Union's Department of Downsider Relations; I believe some downsider cultures would term this a minister plenipotentiary for their state department, or whatever body administers their embassies. I've served the department for the past forty years, including tours as junior and senior counsel for the Union in both our bordering systems."

The near neighbors to Quaddiespace, a few jumps away on heavily used routes; she was saying she'd spent time on planets. And, incidentally, that she's been doing this job since before I was born. If only she wasn't one of those people who figured that if you'd seen one planet, you'd seen 'em all, this sounded promising. Miles nodded.

"My recommendations and agreements will be reviewed by my work gang on Union Station—which is the Board of Directors of the Union of Free Habitats."

Well, so there was a committee, but happily, they weren't here. Miles pegged her as being roughly the equivalent of a senior Barrayaran minister in the Council of Ministers, well up to his own weight as an Imperial Auditor. Granted, the quaddies had nothing in their governmental structure equivalent to a Barrayaran Count, though they seemed none the worse for the deprivation—Miles suppressed a dry snort. One layer from the top, Greenlaw had a finite number of persons to please or persuade. He permitted himself his first faint hope for a reasonably supple negotiation.

Her white brows drew in. "They called you the Emperor's Voice. Do Barrayarans really believe their emperor's voice comes from your mouth, across all those light-years?"

Miles regretted his inability to lean back in a chair; he straightened his spine a trifle instead. "The name is a legal fiction, not a superstition, if that's what you're asking. Actually, Emperor's Voice is a nickname for my job. My real title is Imperial Auditor—a reminder that always my first task is to listen. I answer to—and for—Emperor Gregor alone." This seemed a good place to leave out such complications as potential impeachment by the Council of Counts, and other Barrayaran-style checks and balances. Such as assassination.

The security officer, Venn, spoke up. "So do you, or do you not, control the Barrayaran military forces here in Union space?" He'd evidently acquired enough experience of Barrayaran soldiers by now to have a little trouble picturing the slightly crooked runt floating before him dominating the bluff Vorpatril, or his no-doubt large and healthy troopers.

Yeah, but you should see my Da . . . Miles cleared his throat. "As the Emperor is commander-in-chief of the Barrayaran military, his Voice is automatically the ranking officer of any Barrayaran force in his vicinity, yes. If the emergency so demands it."

"So are you saying that if you ordered it, those thugs out there would shoot?" said Venn sourly.

Miles managed a slight bow in his direction, not easy in free fall. "Sir, if an Emperor's Voice so ordered it, they'd shoot themselves."

This was pure swagger—well, part swagger—but Venn didn't need to know it. Bel remained straight-faced, somehow, thank whatever gods hovered here, though Miles could almost see the laugh getting choked back. Don't pop your eardrums, Bel. The Sealer's white eyebrows took a moment to climb back down to horizontal again.

Miles continued, "Nevertheless, while it's not hard to get any group of persons excited enough to shoot at things, one purpose of military discipline is to ensure they also stop shooting on command. This is not a time for shooting, but for talking—and listening. I am listening." He tented his fingers in front of what would be his lap, if he were sitting. "From your point of view, what was the sequence of events that led to this unfortunate incident?"

Greenlaw and Venn both started to speak at once; the quaddie woman opened an upper hand in a gesture of invitation to the security officer.

Venn nodded and continued, "It started when my department received an emergency call to apprehend a pair of your men who had assaulted a quaddie woman."

Here was a new player on stage. Miles kept his expression neutral. "Assaulted in what sense?"

"Broke into her living quarters, roughed her up, threw her around, broke one of her arms. They evidently had been sent in pursuit of a certain Barrayaran officer who had failed to report for duty—"

"Ah. Would that be Ensign Corbeau?"

"Yes."

"And was he in her living quarters?"

"Yes—"

"By her invitation?"

"Yes." Venn grimaced. "They had apparently, um, become friends. Garnet Five is a premier dancer in the Minchenko Memorial Troupe, which performs live zero-gee ballet for residents of the Station and for downsider visitors." Venn inhaled. "It is not entirely clear who went to whose defense when the Barrayaran patrol came to remove their tardy officer, but it degenerated into a noisy brawl. We arrested all the downsiders and took them to Security Post Three to sort out."

"By the way," Sealer Greenlaw broke in, "your Ensign Corbeau has lately requested political asylum in the Union."

This was new, too. "How lately?"

"This morning. When he learned you were coming."

Miles hesitated. He could imagine a dozen scenarios to account for this, ranging from the sinister to the foolish; he couldn't help it that his mind leapt to the sinister. "Are you likely to grant it?" he asked finally.

She glanced at Boss Watts, who made a little noncommittal gesture with a lower hand and said, "My department has taken it under advisement."

"If you want my advice, you'll bounce it off the far wall," growled Venn. "We don't need that sort here."

"I should like to interview Ensign Corbeau at the earliest convenience," said Miles.

"Well, he evidently doesn't want to talk to you,"said Venn.

"Nevertheless. I consider firsthand observation and eyewitness testimony critical for my correct understanding of this complex chain of events. I'll also need to speak with the other Barrayaran—" he clipped the word hostages, and substituted, "detainees, for the same reason."

"It's not that complex," said Venn. "A bunch of armed thugs came charging onto my station, violated customs, stunned dozens of innocent bystanders and a number of Station Security officers attempting to carry out their duties, tried to effect what can only be called a jailbreak, and vandalized property. Charges against them for their crimes—documented on vid!—range from the discharge of illegal weapons to resisting arrest to arson in an inhabited area. It's a miracle that no one was killed."

"That, unfortunately, has yet to be demonstrated," Miles countered instantly. "The trouble is, that from our point of view, the arrest of Ensign Corbeau was not the beginning of the sequence of events. Admiral Vorpatril had reported a man missing well before that—Lieutenant Solian. According to both your witnesses and ours, a quantity of his blood tantamount to a body part was found on the floor of a Graf Station loading bay. Military loyalty runs two ways—Barrayarans do not abandon our own. Dead or alive, where is the rest of him?"

Venn nearly ground his teeth. "We looked for the man. He is not on Graf Station. His body is not in space in any reasonable trajectory from Graf Station. We checked. We've told Vorpatril that, repeatedly."

"How hard—or easy—is it for a downsider to disappear in Quaddiespace?"

"If I may answer that," Bel Thorne broke in smoothly, "as that incident impinges on my department."

Greenlaw motioned assent with a lower hand, while simultaneously rubbing the bridge of her nose with an upper.

"Boarding to and from galactic ships here is fully controlled, not only from Graf Station, but from our other nexus trade depots as well. It is, if not impossible, at least difficult to pass through customs and immigration areas without leaving some sort of record, including general vid monitors of the areas. Your Lieutenant Solian does not show up anywhere in our computer or visual records for that day."

"Truly?" Miles gave Bel a look. Is this the straight story?

Bel returned a brief nod, Yes. "Truly. Now, in-system travel is much less strictly controlled. It is more . . . feasible, for someone to pass out of Graf Station to another Union habitat without notice. If that person is a quaddie. Any downsider, however, would stand out in the crowd. Standard missing-person procedures were followed in this case, including notifications of other habitat security departments. Solian has simply not been seen, on Graf Station or any other Union habitat."

"How do you account for his blood in the loading bay?"

"The loading bay is on the outboard side of the station access control points. It is my opinion that whoever created that scene came from and returned to one of the ships in that docks-and-locks sector."

Miles silently noted Bel's word choice, whoever created that scene, not whoever murdered Solian. Of course, Bel had been present at a certain spectacular emergency cryo-prep, too ...

Venn put in irritably, "All of which were ships from your fleet, at the time. In other words, you brought your own troubles with you. We are a peaceful people here!"

Miles frowned thoughtfully at Bel, and mentally reshuffled his plan of attack. "Is the loading bay in question very far from here?"

"It's on the other side of the station," said Watts.

"I think I would like to see it, and its associated areas, first, before I interview Ensign Corbeau and the other Barrayarans. Perhaps Portmaster Thorne would be so good as to conduct me on a tour of the facility?"

Bel glanced at Boss Watts, and got an approving low sign.

"I should be very pleased to do so, Lord Vorkosigan," said Bel.

"Next, perhaps? We could take my ship around."

"That would be very efficient, yes," replied Bel, eyes brightening with appreciation. "I could accompany you."

"Thank you." Good catch. "That would be most satisfactory."

Wild as Miles now was to get away and shake Bel down in private, he had to smile his way through further formalities, including the official presentation of the list of charges, costs, fines, and punitive fines Vorpatril's strike force had garnered. He plucked the data disk Boss Watts spun to him delicately out of the air and intoned, "Note, please, I do not accept these charges. I will, however, undertake to review them fully at the earliest possible moment."

A lot of unsmiling faces greeted this pronouncement. Quaddie body language was a study in its own right. Talking with one's hands was fraught with so many more possibilities, here. Greenlaw's hands were very controlled, both uppers and lowers. Venn clenched his lower fists a lot, but then, Venn had helped carry out his burned comrades after the fire.

The conference drew to an end without achieving anything resembling closure, which Miles counted as a small victory for his side. He was getting away without committing himself or Gregor to anything much, so far. He didn't yet see how to twist this unpromising tangle his way. He needed more data, subliminals, people, some handle or lever he hadn't spotted yet. I need to talk to Bel.

That wish, at least, looked to be granted. At Greenlaw's word, the meeting broke up, and the honor guard escorted the Barrayarans back through the corridors to the bay where the Kestrel waited.