Lois McMaster Bujold, "ETHAN OF ATHOS"

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CHAPTER FOUR

Ethan came to awareness in a hostel room much larger and more luxurious than his own. His reason flowed with slow clarity, like honey. The rest of him floated in a sweet, languid euphoria. Distantly, under his heart, or down in his throat, something whined and cried and scratched frantically like an animal locked in a cellar, but there was no chance of its getting out. His viscous logic noted indifferently that he was bound tightly to a hard plastic chair, and certain muscles in his back and arms and legs burned painfully. So what.

Far more intriguing was the man emerging from the bathroom, rubbing his damp reddened face vigorously with a towel. Grey eyes like granite chips, hard-bodied, average height, much like the fellow who'd picked Ethan off the mall and who even now sat on a nearby float chair, watching his prisoner closely.

Ethan's kidnapper was of so ordinary an appearance Ethan could hardly keep him before his mind even when he was looking directly at him. But Ethan had the oddest insight, like x-ray vision, that his bones contained not marrow but ice stone-hard as that outside the Station. Ethan wondered how he manufactured red blood cells with this peculiar medical condition. Maybe his veins ran liquid nitrogen. They were both utterly charming, and Ethan wanted to kiss them.

"Is he under, Captain?" asked the man with the towel.

"Yes, Colonel Millisor," replied the other. "A full dose."

The man with the towel grunted and flung it on the bed, next to the contents of Ethan's pockets, and all his clothes, arrayed there. Ethan noticed his own nakedness for the first time. There were a few Kline Station tokens, a comb, an empty raisin wrapper, his map module, his credit chit for his Betan funds for purchasing the new cultures—the creature under his heart howled, unheard, at that sight. His captor poked among the spoils. "This stuff scan clean?"

"Ha. Almost," said the cold captain. "Take a look at this." He picked up Ethan's map module, cracked open its back, and fixed an electron viewer over its microscopic circuit board. "We shook him down in the loading zone. See that little black dot? It was caused by a bead of acid in a polarized lipid membrane. When my scanner beam crossed it, it depolarized and dissolved, and burned out—whatever had been there. Tracer for sure, probably an audio recorder as well. Very neat, tucked right in the standard map circuitry, which incidently masked the bug's electronic noise with its own. He's an agent, all right."

"Were you able to trace the link back to its home base?"

The captain shook his head. "No, unfortunately. To find it was to destroy it. But we blinded them. They don't know where he is now."

"And who is 'they'? Terrence Gee?"

"We can hope."

The leader, the one Ethan's kidnapper had named Colonel Millisor, grunted again, and approached Ethan to stare into his eyes. "What's your name?"

"Ethan," said Ethan sunnily. "What's yours?"

Millisor ignored this open invitation to sociability. "Your full name. And your rank."

This struck an old chord, and Ethan barked smartly, "Master Sergeant Ethan CJB-8 Urquhart, Blue Regiment Medical Corps, U-221-767, sir!" He blinked at his interrogator, who had drawn back in startlement. "Retired," he added after a moment.

"Aren't you a doctor?"

"Oh, yes," said Ethan proudly. "Where does it hurt?"

"I hate fast-penta," growled Millisor to his colleague.

The captain smiled coldly. "Yes, but at least you can be sure they're not holding anything back."

Millisor sighed, lips compressed, and turned to Ethan again. "Are you here to meet Terrence Cee?"

Ethan stared back, confused. See Terrence? The only Terrence he knew was one of the Rep Center techs. "They didn't send him," he explained.

"Who didn't send him?" Millisor asked sharply, all attention.

"The Council."

"Hell," the captain worried. "Could he have found himself some new backing, so soon after Jackson's Whole? He can't have had time, or the resources! I took care of every—"

Millisor held up a hand for silence, probed Ethan again. "Tell me everything you know about Terrence Cee."

Dutifully, Ethan began to do so. After a few moments Millisor, his face reflecting increasing frustration, cut him off with a sharp chop of his hand.

"Stop."

"Must have been some other fellow," opined the cold captain. His leader shot him a look of exasperation. "Try another subject. Ask him about the cultures," the captain suggested placatingly.

Millisor nodded. "The human ovarian cultures shipped to Athos from Bharaputra Biologicals. What did you do with them?"

Ethan began to describe, in detail, all the tests he'd put the material through that memorable afternoon. To his growing dismay, his captors didn't look at all pleased. Horrified, then mystified, then angry, but not happy. And he so wanted to make them happy. . . .

"More garbage," the cold captain interrupted. "What is all this nonsense?"

"Can he be resisting the drug?" asked Millisor. "Increase the dose."

"Dangerous, if you still mean to put him back on the street with a gap in his memory. We're running short of time for that scenario to pass."

"That scenario may have to be changed. If that shipment has arrived on Athos and been distributed already, we may have no choice but to call in a military strike. And deliver it in less than seven months, or instead of a limited commando raid to torch their Reproduction Centers, we'll be forced to sterilize the whole damned planet to be sure of getting it all."

"Small loss," shrugged the cold captain.

"Big expense. And increasingly hard to keep covert."

"No survivors, no witnesses."

"There are always survivors at a massacre. Among the victors, if nowhere else." The granite chips sparked, and the captain looked uncomfortable. "Dose him."

A prickle in Ethan's arm. Methodical and relentless, they asked him detailed questions about the shipment, his assignment, his superiors, his organization, his background. Ethan babbled. The room expanded and shrank. Ethan felt as if he were being turned inside out, with his stomach lining exposed to the world and his eyes twisted around and staring at each other. "Oh, I love you all," he crooned, and retched violently.

He came to with his head under the shower. They gave him a different drug, replacing his euphoria with disjointed terror, and badgered him endlessly about Terrence Cee, the shipment, his mission, together and by turns.

Their frustration and hostility mounting, they gave him a drug that vastly increased the firing rate of his sensory nerves, and applied instruments to his skin in areas of high nerve density that left no mark but induced incredible agony. He told them everything, anything, whatever they asked—he would gladly have told them what they wanted to hear, if only he could have guessed what it was—but they were merciless and unmoved, surgical in their concentration. Ethan became plastic, frantic, until at last all sensation was obliterated in a series of uncontrollable convulsions that nearly stopped his heart. At this they desisted.

He hung in his chair, breath shallow and shocky, staring at them through dilated eyes.

The leader glared back, disgusted. "Damnation, Rau! This man is a total waste of time. The shipment that he unpacked on Athos is definitely not what was sent from Bharaputra's laboratory. Terrence Cee has pulled a switch somehow. It could be anywhere in the galaxy by now."

The captain groaned. "We were so close to wrapping up the entire case on Jackson's Whole! No, damn it! It has to be Athos. We all agreed, it had to be Athos."

"It may still be Athos. A plan within a plan—within a plan. ..." Millisor rubbed his neck wearily, looking suddenly much older than Ethan's first estimate. "The late Dr. Jahar did too good a job. Terrence Cee is everything Jahar promised—except loyal. . . . Well, we'll get no more out of this one. You sure that wasn't just a speck of dirt in that circuit board?"

The captain started to look indignant, then frowned at Ethan as though he were something he had found sticking to the bottom of his boot. "It wasn't dirt. But that's sure as hell not any agent of Terrence Cee's. Think he has any use as a stalking-goat?"

"If only he were an agent," said Millisor regretfully, "it would be worth a try. Since he evidently isn't, he has no value at all." He glanced at his chronometer. "My God, have we been at this seven hours? It's too late now to blank him and turn him loose. Have Okita take him out and arrange an accident."

The docking bay was cold. A few safety lights splashed color on walls and silvered the silhouettes of silent equipment isolated in the thick stretches of dimness. The metal catwalks arched through a high, echoing hollowness, emerging from shadows, converging in darkness, a spider's skyway. Mysterious mechanical bundles dangled from the girders like a spider's preserved victims.

"This should be high enough," muttered the man called Okita. He was almost as average-looking as Captain Rau, but for the compact density of his muscles. He manhandled Ethan to his knees. "Here. Drink up.”

He forced a tube into Ethan's mouth and squeezed the bulb, for the nth time. Ethan choked, and perforce swallowed the burning, aromatic liquid. The dense man let Ethan drop. "Absorb that a minute," Okita told him, as though he had some choice in the matter.

Ethan clung to the mesh flooring of the catwalk, dizzy and belching, and stared through it at the metal floor far below. It seemed to gleam and pulsate in slow, seasick waves. He thought of his smashed lightflyer.

Captain Rau's chosen henchman leaned against the safety railing and sniffed reflectively, also looking down. "Falls are funny things," he mused. "Freaky. Two meters are enough to kill you. But I heard of case where a fellow fell 300 meters and survived. Depends on just how you hit, I guess." The bland eyes flickered over the bay, checking entrances, checking for Ethan knew not what. "They run their gravity a little light here. Better break your neck first," Okita decided judiciously. "Just to be sure."

Ethan could not press his fingers through the narrow mesh to cling, though he tried. For an insane moment he thought of trying to bribe his assassin-to-be with his Betan credit chit, that his captors had carefully returned to his pockets along with all their other contents before sending them off like a pair of lovers looking for a dark place to tryst. Like a drunk and his loyal friend trying to guide him back to his hostel before he wandered drunkenly into the maze of the station and got lost. Ethan reeked of alcoholic esters, and his mumbled whimperings for help had been unintelligible to the amused passers-by in the populated corridors. His tongue seemed less thick now, but this place was unpopulated in the extreme.

A surge of loyalty and nausea shook him. No. He would die with his purse intact. Besides, Okita looked remarkably unbribable. Ethan didn't think he'd even be interested in delaying his execution for a little rape. At least the money could be taken from his crumpled body and returned to Athos...

Athos. He did not want to die, dared not die. The terrifying scraps of conversation he'd overheard between his interrogators worried him like savage dogs. Bomb the Rep Centers? Banks of helpless babies crashing down, flames shooting up to boil away their gentle waterbeds—he shuddered, and shivered, and moaned, but could not drive his half-paralyzed muscles to his straining will. Vile, inhuman plans—so reasonably discussed, so casually dispatched ... all insane here . . .

The dense man sniffed, and stretched, and scratched, and sighed, and checked his chronometer for the third time. "All right," he said at last. "Your biochemistry should be muddled enough by now. Time for your flying lesson, boy-o."

He grasped Ethan by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his pants, and boosted him up to the railing.

"Why are you doing this to me?" squeaked Ethan in a last desperate attempt to communicate.

"Orders," grunted the dense man with finality. Ethan stared into the bored, flat eyes, and gave himself up for murdered for the crime of being innocent.

Okita yanked his head back over the railing by the hair, and folded his hand around the squeeze bottle. The murky ceiling of the docking bay, crossed by girders above, blurred in Ethan's eyes. The cold metal rail bit his neck.

Okita studied the positioning, cocking his head and narrowing his eyes. "Right." Bracing Ethan's arching body against the railing with his knees, he raised doubled fists for a powerful blow.

The catwalk shook, a rattling jar. The panting figure raising the stunner in both hands did not pause to cry warning, but simply fired. She seemed to ha dropped out of the sky. The shock of the stunner nimbus scarcely made any difference in Ethan's inventory of discomfort. But Okita was caught square on, and followed the momentum of his aimed blow over the railing. His legs, picking up speed, tilted and slid past Ethan's nose, like a ship sinking bow-first.

"Aw, shit," yelled Commander Quinn, and bound forward. The stunner clattered across the catwalk and spun over the side to whistle through the air a burst to sizzling shards far below. Her clutching swipe was just too late to connect with Okita's trouser leg. Blood winked from her torn fingernail. Okita followed the stunner, headfirst.

Ethan slithered bonelessly down to crouch on the mesh. Her boots, at his eye level, arched to tiptoe she peered down over the side. "Gee, I feel real bad about that," she remarked, licking her bleeding finger. "I've never killed a man by accident before. Unprofessional."

"You again," Ethan croaked.

She gave him a cat's grin. "What a coincidence.

The body splayed on the deck below stopped twitching. Ethan stared down whitely. "I'm a doctor. Shouldn't we go down there and, um ..."

"Too late, I think," said Commander Quinn. "But I wouldn't get too misty-eyed over that creep. Quite aside from what he almost did to you just now, he helped kill eleven people on Jackson's Whole, five months ago, just to cover up the secret I'm trying to find out."

His syrup-slow logic spoke. "If it's a secret people are killed just for knowing, wouldn't it make a 1 more sense to try to avoid finding it out?" He clutched his shredded acuity. "Who are you really, anyway? Why are you following me?"

"Technically, I'm not following you at all. I'm following Ghem-colonel Luyst Millisor, and the so-charming Captain Rau, and their two goons—ah, one goon. Millisor is interested in you, therefore I am too. Q.E.D.—Quinn Excites Dismay."

"Why?" he whimpered wearily.

She sighed. "If I had arrived at Jackson's Whole two days ahead of them instead of two days behind them, I could tell you. As for the rest—I really am a commander in the Dendarii Mercenaries, and everything I've told you is true, except that I'm not on home leave. I'm on assignment. Think of me as a rent-a-spy. Admiral Naismith is diversifying our services.”

She squatted beside him, checked his pulse, eyes and eyelids, battered reflexes. "You look like death warmed over, Doctor."

"Thanks to you. They found your tracer. Decided I was a spy. Questioned me ..." He found he was shivering uncontrollably.

Her lips made a brief grim line. "I know. Sorry. I did save your life just now, I hope you noticed. Temporarily."

"Temporarily?"

She nodded toward the deck below. "Colonel Millisor is going to be quite excited about you, after this."

"I'll go to the authorities—"

"Ah—hm. I hope you'll think better of that. In the first place, I don't think the authorities would be able to protect you quite well enough. Secondly, it would blow my cover. Until now I don't think Millisor suspected I existed. Since I have an awful lot of friends and relatives around here, I'd just as soon keep it that way, Millisor and Rau being—what they are. You see my point?"

He felt he ought to argue with her. But he was sick and weak—and, it also occurred to him, still very high in the air. Green vertigo plucked at him. If she decided to send him after Okita … "Yeah,” he mumbled. "Uh, what—what are you going to with me?"

She planted her hands on her hips and frowned thoughtfully down upon him. "Not sure yet. Don’t know if you're an ace or a joker. I think I'll keep up you my sleeve for a while, until I can figure out how best to play you. With your permission," she added in palpable afterthought.

"Stalking-goat," he muttered darkly.

She quirked an eyebrow at him. "Perhaps. If you can think of a better idea, trot it out."

He shook his head, which made shooting pains ricochet around inside his skull and yellow pinweels counter-rotate before his eyes. At least she didn’t seem to be on the same side as his recent captors. The enemy of my enemy—my ally . . . ?

She hoisted him to his feet and pulled his arm; across her shoulders to thread their way down stairs and ladders to the docking bay floor. He noticed for the first time that she was several centimeters shorter than himself. But he had no inclination to spot her points in a free-for-all.

When she released him he sank to the deck in a dizzy stupor. She poked around Okita's body, checking pulse points and damages. Her lips thinned ironically. "Huh. Broken neck." She sighed, and stood regarding the corpse and Ethan with much the same narrow calculation.

"We could just leave him here," she said. "Bit I rather fancy giving Colonel Millisor a mystery of his own to solve. I'm tired of being on the damn defensive, lying low, always one move behind. Have you; ever given thought to the difficulty of getting rid of a body on a space station? I'll bet Millisor has. Bodies don't bother you, do they? What with your being a doctor and all, I mean."

Okita's fixed stare was exactly like that of a dead fish, glassily reproachful. Ethan swallowed. "I actually never cared much for that end of the life-cycle," he explained. "Pathology and anatomy and so forth. That's why I went for Rep work, I guess. It was more, um . . . hopeful." He paused a while. His intellect began to crunch on in spite of himself. 'Is it hard to get rid of a body on a space station? Can't you just shove it out the nearest airlock, or down an unused lift tube, or something?"

Her eyes were bright with stimulation. "The airlocks are all monitored. Taking anything out, even an anonymous bundle, leaves a record in the computers. And it would last forever out there. Same objection applies to chopping it up and putting it down an organics disposer. Eighty or so kilos of high-grade protein leaves too big a blip in the records. Besides, it's been tried. Very famous murder case, a few years back. The lady's still in therapy, I believe. It would definitely be noticed."

She flopped down beside him to sit with her chin on her knees, arms wrapped around her boots and flexing, not rest but nervous energy contained. "As for stashing it whole anywhere inside the Station— well, the safety patrols are nothing compared to the ecology cops. There isn't a cubic centimeter of the Station that doesn't get checked on a regular schedule. You could keep moving it around, but . . .

"I think I have a better idea. Yes. Why not? As long as I'm going to commit a crime, let it be a perfect one. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, as Admiral Naismith would say ..."

She rose to make a wandering circuit of the docking bay, selecting bits of equipment with the faintly distracted air of a housekeeper choosing vegetables at the market.

Ethan lay on the floor in misery, envying Okita, whose troubles were over. He had been on Kline Station, he estimated, just about a day, and had yet to have his first meal. Beaten up, kidnapped, drugged, nearly murdered, and now rapidly becoming accessory-after-the-fact to a crime which if not exactly a murder was surely the next best thing. Galactic life was every bit as bad as anything he had imagined. And he had fallen into the hands of a madwoman, to boot. The Founding Fathers had been right. . . . "I wan to go home," he moaned.

"Now, now," Commander Quinn chided, plunking down a float pallet next to Okita's body and rolling a squat cylindrical shipping canister off it. "That's no way to be, just when my case is showing signs of cracking open at last. You just need a good meal,” she glanced at him, "and about a week in a hospital bed. Afraid I shan't be able to supply that, but as soon as I finish cleaning up here I will take you to a place you can rest a bit while I get the next phase started. All right?"

She unlatched the shipping canister and, with some difficulty, folded Okita's body into it. "There. That doesn't look too coffin-like, does it?" She made a rapid but thorough pass over the impact area with a sonic scrubber, emptied its receptacle bag in with Okita, hopped the canister back onto the pallet with a hand-tractor, and replaced everything else when she had found it. Lastly, and somewhat mournfully she collected all the pieces of her stunner.

"So. That gives the project its first deadline. Pallet and drum must be returned here within eight hours before the next scheduled docking, or they'll be missed."

"Who were those men?" he asked her, as she had him crawl onto the pallet and settle himself for the ride. "They were insane. I mean, everyone I've met here is crazy, but they—they were talking about bombing Athos's reproduction clinics! Killing all the babies—maybe killing everyone!"

"Oh?" she said. "That's a new wrinkle. First I've heard of that scenario. I am extremely sorry I didn't get to listen in on that interrogation, and I hope you will, ah, fill me in on what I missed. I've been trying to plant a bug in Millisor's quarters for three weeks, but his counter-intelligence equipment is, unfortunately, superb."

"You mainly missed a lot of screaming," said Ethan morosely.

She looked rather embarrassed. "Ah—yes. I'm afraid I didn't think they'd need to use anything but fast-penta."

"Stalking-goat," Ethan grumbled.

She cleared her throat, and sat cross-legged beside him with the control lead in her hand. The pallet rose into the air like a magic carpet.

"Not—not too high," Ethan choked, scrambling for a non-existent hand-hold. She brought it back down to a demure ten centimeters altitude, and they started off at a walking pace.

She spoke slowly, seeming to choose her words with great care. "Ghem-colonel Luyst Millisor is a Cetagandan counter-intelligence officer. Captain Rau, and Okita, and another brawn by the name of Setti, are his team."

"Cetagandan! Isn't that planet pretty for from here to be interested in, um," he glanced at the Stationer woman, "us? This nexus, I mean."

"Not for enough, evidently."

"But why, in God the Father's name, should they want to destroy Athos? Is Cetaganda—controlled by women or something?"

A laugh escaped her. "Hardly. I'd call it a typical male-dominated totalitarian state, only slightly mitigated by their rather artistic cultural pecularities. No. Millisor is not, per se, interested in either Athos or the Kline Station nexus. He's chasing—something else. The big secret. The one I was hired to find out."

She paused to maneuver the float pallet around a tricky ascending corner. "Apparently there was, on Cetaganda, a long-range, military-sponsored genetic project. Until about three years ago, Millisor was the security chief for that project. And the security was tight. In 25 years, no one had been able to find out what they were up to, beyond the fact that it seemed to be the one-man show of a certain Dr. Faz Jahar, moderately bright Cetagandan geneticist who vanished from view about the time it started. Do you have an idea how incredibly long that is to keep a secret in this business? The thing has really been Millisor's life work, as well as Jahar's.

"In any event, something went wrong. The project went up in smoke—literally. The laboratory blew up one night, taking Jahar with it. And Millisor and his merry men have been chasing something around the galaxy ever since, blowing people away with the careless abandon of either homicidal lunatics, or - men scared out of their wits. And, ah, while I'm not sure I'd vouch for Captain Rau, Ghem-colonel Millisor does not strike me as a madman."

"You couldn't prove it by me," said Ethan glumly; There was still something not quite right with his vision, and tremula came and went in his muscles.

They came to a large hatch in the corridor wall renovation, said a bright sign. DO NOT ENTER. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.

Commander Quinn did something Ethan could not quite see to the control box, and the hatch slid open. She floated the pallet through. There came a voice, and a laugh, from the corridor they had just vacated. She closed the hatch quickly, leaving them in total darkness.

"There," she muttered, switching on a hand light. "Nobody saw us. Undeserved luck. Bloody time for it to start averaging out."

Ethan blinked at his surroundings. An empty rectangular basin was the centerpiece for a large airy chamber full of columns, pierced lattices, mosaics, and elaborate arches.

"It's supposed to be an exact replica of some famous palace on Earth," Commander Quinn explained. "The Elhamburger or something. A very wealthy shipper was having it done—all finished, in fact—when his assets were suddenly tied up in litigation. The suits have been going on for four months now, and the place is still padlocked. You can babysit our friend here till I get back." She rapped on the lid of the canister.

Ethan decided that all that was needed to make his day complete would be for it to rap back. But she had grounded the pallet and was piling up some cushions. "No blankets," she muttered. "I gotta keep my jacket. But if you sort of burrow in here, you should be warm enough."

It was like falling into a bank of clouds. "Burrow," Ethan whispered. "Warm ..."

She dug into her jacket pocket. "And here's a candy bar to tide you over."

He snatched it; he couldn't help himself.

"Ah, one other thing. You can't use the plumbing. It would register on the computer monitors. I know this sounds terrible, but—if you've gotta go, use the canister." She paused. "It's not, after all, like he didn't deserve it."

"I'd rather die," said Ethan distinctly around a mouthful of nuts and goo. "Uh—are you going to be gone long?"

"At least an hour. Hopefully not more than four. You can sleep, if you like."

Ethan jerked himself awake. "Thank you."

"And now," she rubbed her hands together briskly, "phase two of the search for the L-X-10 Terran-C."

"The what?"

"That was the code name of Millisor's research project. Terran-C for short. Maybe some part of whatever they were working on originated on Earth."

"But Terrence Gee is a man," said Ethan. "They kept asking me if I were here to meet him."

She was utterly still for a moment. "Oh . . . ? How strange. How very strange. I never knew that." Her eyes were bright as mirrors. Then she was gone.