Lois McMaster Bujold, "ETHAN OF ATHOS"

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

CHAPTER FIVE

Ethan awoke with a startled gasp as something landed on his stomach. He thrashed up, looking around wildly. Commander Quinn stood before him in the wavering illumination of her hand light. The fingers of her other hand tapped a nervous, staccato rhythm on her empty stunner holster. Ethan's hands encountered a bulky bundle of cloth in his lap, which proved to be a set of Stationer coveralls wrapped around a matching pair of boots.

"Put those on," she ordered, "and hurry. I think I've found a way to get rid of the body, but we have to get there before shift change if I'm going to catch the right people on duty."

He dressed. She helped him impatiently with the unfamiliar tabs and catches, and made him sit again on the float pallet. It all made him feel like a backward four-year-old. After a quick reconnoiter by the mercenary woman, they left the chamber as unseen as they had entered it, and drifted off through the maze of the Station.

At least he no longer felt as if his brains were suspended in syrup in a jar, Ethan thought. The world parted around him now with no more than natural clarity, and colors did not flash fire in his eyes, nor leave scorched trails across his retinas. This was fortunate, as the Stationer coveralls Quinn had brought him to wear over his Athosian clothes were bright red. But waves of nausea still pulsed slowly in his stomach like moon-raised tides. He slouched, trying to lower his center of gravity still further onto the moving float pallet, and ached for something more than the three hours sleep the mercenary woman had allowed him.

"People are going to see us," he objected as she turned down a populated corridor.

"Not in that outfit," she nodded toward the coveralls. "Along with the float pallet it's the next best thing to a cloak of invisibility. Red is for Docks and Locks—they'll all think you're a porter in charge of the pallet. As long as you don't open your mouth or act like a downsider."

They passed into a large chamber where thousands of carrots were aligned in serried ranks, their white beards of roots dripping in the intermittent misting from the hydroponics sprayers, their fluffy green tops glowing in the grow-lights. The air of the room through which, Quinn assured him, they were taking a short cut, tasted cool and moist with a faint underlying tang of chemicals.

His stomach growled. Quinn, guiding the float pallet, glanced over at him. "I don't think I should have eaten that candy bar," Ethan muttered darkly.

"Well, for the gods' sakes don't throw up in here," she begged him. "Or use the—"

Ethan swallowed firmly. "No."

"Do you think a carrot would settle your stomach?" she asked solicitously. She reached over, tipping the pallet terrifyingly, and plucked one from the passing row. "Here."

He took the damp hairy thing dubiously, and after a moment stuffed it into one of the coverall's many closured pockets. "Maybe later."

They rose past a dozen stacked banks of growing vegetables to take an exit high in the chamber wall. NO ADMITTANCE, it said in glowing green letters. Quinn ignored the admonition with a verve bordering, Ethan thought, on the anti-social. He glanced back at the door as it hissed closed behind them. NO ADMITTANCE, it repeated on this side. So, they had committees on Kline Station too. . . .

She brought the pallet down in the next cross-corridor beside a door marked ATMOSPHERE CONTROL. NO ADMITTANCE. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, by which Ethan reasoned it must be their destination.

Commander Quinn unfolded herself from a half-lotus. "Now, whatever happens, try not to talk. Your accent would give you away at once. Unless you'd rather stay out here with Okita until I'm ready for you."

Ethan shook his head quickly, struck by a vision of himself trying to explain to some passing authority that he was not, despite appearances, a murderer searching for a place to bury the body.

"All right. I can use the extra pair of hands. But be prepared to move on my order when the chance comes." She led on through the airseal doors, float pallet following like a dog on a leash.

It was like stepping into a chamber beneath the sea. Viridescent lines of light and shadow waved and scintillated across the floor, the walls—Ethan gaped at the walls. Three-story-high transparent barriers held back clear water stuffed with green and pierced with brilliant light. Millions of tiny silver bubbles galloped merrily through the minute fronds of aquatic plants, now pausing, now streaming on. An amphibian fully half a meter long pushed through this underwater jungle to stare at Ethan through its beady eyes. Its skin was black and shiny as patent leather, striped in scarlet. It shot away in a spray of silver to vanish in the green lace.

"Oxy-CO2 exchange for the Station," Commander Quinn explained in an undertone. "The algae is bioengineered for maximum oxygen generation and CO2 absorption. But of course, it grows. So to save having the chambers down half the time while we, ah, bale hay, the newts—specially bred—crop it for us. But then, naturally, you end up with a lot of newts..."

She broke off as a blue-suited technician shut down a monitor at a control station and turned to frown at them. She waved at him cheerily. "Hi, Dale, remember me? Elli Quinn. Dom told me where to look you up."

His frown flipped to a grin. "Yes, he told me he'd seen you ..." He advanced as if he might hug her, but settled on bashful handshake instead.

They exchanged small talk while Ethan, unintroduced, tried not to shift about nervously, or open his mouth or act like a downsider. The first two were easy enough, but what was it that marked a downsider in Stationer eyes? He stood by the float pallet and tried desperately to act like nobody at all.

Quinn ended what seemed to Ethan an unnecessarily lengthy digression about the Dendarii Mercenaries with the remark, "And do you know, those poor troops have never tasted fried newt legs!"

The tech's eyes glinted with a humor baffling to Ethan. "What! Can there be a soul in the universe so deprived? No cream of newt soup, either, I suppose?"

"No newt Creole," confided Commander Quinn with mock horror. "No newts 'n chips."

"No newt provencal?" chorused the tech. "No newt stew? No newt mousse in aspic? No slither goulash, no newt chowder?"

"Bucket 'o newts is unknown to them," confirmed Quinn. "Newt caviar is a delicacy unheard of."

"No newt nuggets?"

"Newt nuggets?" echoed the commander, looking suddenly really nonplussed.

"Latest thing," explained the tech. "They're really boned leg meat, chopped, reformed, and fried."

"Oh," said the mercenary woman. "I'm relieved. For a moment there I was picturing some form of, er, newt organettes."

They both burst into laughter. Ethan swallowed and looked around surreptitiously for some kind, any kind, of basin. A couple of the slick black creatures swam to the barrier and goggled at him.

"Anyway," Quinn went on to the tech, "I thought if you were about due for the culling this shift you might spare me a few, to freeze and take back with me. Assuming you're not short, of course."

"We are never," he groaned, "short of newts. Help yourself. Take a hundred kilos. Take two. Three."

"A hundred would be plenty. All I can afford to ship. Make it a treat for officers only, eh?"

He chuckled, and led her up a ladder to an access port. Ethan skittishly followed her come-along gesture, bringing up the float pallet.

The tech picked his way delicately across a mesh catwalk. Beneath them the waters hissed and rushed in little eddies; a fresh draft from below cooled Ethan's skin and cleared his aching head. He kept one hand on the safety railing. Some of the whirlpools below suggested powerful suction pumpers at work somewhere in the silver-green. Another water chamber was visible beyond this one, and beyond that another, retreating out of sight.

The catwalk widened to a platform. The hiss became a roar as the tech pulled back a cover above an underwater cage. The cage roiled with black and scarlet shapes, slipping and splashing over each other.

"Oh, lord yes," yelled the tech. "Full house. Sure you don't want to feed your whole army?"

"Would if I could," called Quinn back. "Tell you what, though. I'll trot the excess down to Disposal for you, once I pick out my choice. Does Transients' Lounge need any?"

"No orders this shift. Help yourself."

He opened a housing over a control box, did something; the newt trap rose slowly, draining water, compressing the wriggling black and scarlet mass. Another motion at the controls, a buzz, a blue light. Ethan could feel the nimbus of a powerful stun beam even where he stood. The mass stopped writhing and lay still and shining.

The tech heaved a large green plastic carton from a stack of identical ones and positioned it on a digital scale under a trap door in the bottom of the cage. He aligned a chute and opened the trap. Dozens of limp newts slithered down into the carton. As the digital readout approached 100 kilograms he slowed the flow, and tossed a last black body in by hand. He then removed the carton with a hand-tractor, replaced it with another, and repeated the process. A third carton did not quite make it to full capacity. The tech entered the exact biomass removed from the system into his computer log.

"Want me to help you pack your canister?" he offered.

Ethan blanched, but the mercenary woman said lightly, "Naw, go on back down to your monitors. I'm going to sort through these by hand a bit, I think—no point in shipping any but the best."

The tech grinned, and started back across the catwalk. "Find 'em some nice juicy ones," he called. Quinn gave him a friendly wave as he vanished back through the access port.

"Now," she turned back to Ethan, her face gone intent, "let's make these numbers match. Help me get that dirt-sucker up on this scale."

It wasn't easy; Okita had stiffened, wedged in the canister. The mercenary woman stripped him of clothes and a variety of lethal weapons and made them into a compact bundle.

Ethan shook off the paralysis of his confusion to attempt a task he at last felt sure of, and weighed the corpse. Whatever this madness was he had fallen into, it threatened Athos. His original impulse to escape the mercenary woman was becoming, in his gradually clearing head, an equally strenuous desire not to let her out of his sight until he could discover, somehow, everything she knew about it.

"Eight-one-point-four-five kilograms," he reported in his best clipped scientific tone, the one he used for visiting VIPs back at Sevarin. "Now what?"

"Now get him into one of these cartons and fill it to, ah, 100.62 kilos with newts," she instructed with a glance at the first carton's readout. When this was done—the last fraction of a kilo was accomplished by her pulling a vibra-knife from her jacket and adding slightly less than half a newt—she switched data discs and sealed the carton.

"Now 81.45 kilos of newts into that shipping canister," she instructed. It came out even, leaving them with three cartons and a canister as before.

"Will you please tell me what we're doing?" Ethan begged.

"Turning a rather difficult problem into a much simpler one. Now instead of an extremely incriminating drum full of dead downsider, all we have to get rid of is 80 or so kilos of stunned newts."

"But we haven't got rid of the body," Ethan pointed out. He stared down into the bright waters. "Are you going to dump the newts back in?" he asked hopefully. "Can they swim all right, stunned?"

"No, no, no!" said Quinn, looking quite shocked. "That would unbalance the system! It's very finely tuned. The whole point of this exercise is to keep the computer records straight. As for the body—you'll

see.

"All set?" called the tech as they floated out of the access port, canister, cartons and all stacked on the pallet.

"No, darn it," said Quinn. "I realized when I was about halfway through that I'd grabbed the wrong size shipping canister. I'll have to come back later. Look, give me the receipt and I'll still run this load down to Disposal for you. I want to look up Teki there anyway."

"Oh, sure, all right," said the tech, brightening. "Thanks." He punched up the records, put them on a data disk, and handed it over. Commander Quinn retreated with all seemly haste.

"Good." She slumped as the airseal doors slid shut behind them, the first hint of weariness Ethan had seen in her. "I'll get to oversee the final act myself." She added to Ethan's bewildered look, "We could have just left them to go down to Disposal on the regular schedule, but I kept having this horrible vision of a last-minute order arriving from Transients' Lounge and Dale opening a carton to fill it. ..."

"An order for newts?" Ethan floundered.

She snickered. ."Yes, but up there they're sold to

the downsiders as Premium Fresh Frog Legs, on the restaurant menus. We stiff 'em for a sweet price, too."

"Is—is that, er, ethical?"

She shrugged. "Gotta make a profit somewhere. Snob appeal keeps the demand up. You can hardly give the wee beasties away on the Stationer side, everybody's so sick of them. But Biocontrol refuses to diversify the weed-grazers on account of the system working at max efficiency for oxygen generation as is. And everyone has to agree, the oxygen comes first. The newts are just a by-product."

They re-mounted the float pallet and drifted off down the corridor. Ethan glanced sideways at the mercenary woman's abstracted profile. He must try. . .

"What kind of genetics project?" he asked suddenly. "Millisor's thing, I mean. Don't you know any more about it than that?"

She spared him a thoughtful glance. "Human genetics. And in truth, I know very little more than that. Some names, a few code words. God only knows what they were up to. Making monsters, maybe. Or raising supermen. The Cetagandans have always been a bunch of aggressive militarists. Maybe they meant to raise battalions of mutant super-soldiers in vats like you Athosians and take over the universe or something."

"Not likely," remarked Ethan. "Not battalions, anyway."

"Why not? Why not clone as many as you want, once you've made the mold?"

"Oh, certainly, you could produce quantities of infants—although it would take enormous resources to do so. Highly trained techs, as well as equipment and supplies. But don't you see, that's just the beginning. It's nothing, compared to what it takes to raise a child. Why, on Athos it absorbs most of the planet's economic resources. Food of course—housing— education, clothing, medical care—it takes nearly all our efforts just to maintain population replacement, let alone to increase. No government could possibly afford to raise such a specialized, non-productive army."

Elli Quinn quirked an eyebrow. "How odd. On other worlds, people seem to come in floods, and they're not necessarily impoverished, either."

Ethan, diverted, said "Really? I don't see how that can be. Why, the labor costs alone of bringing a child to maturity are astronomical. There must be something wrong with your accounting."

Her eyes screwed up in an expression of sudden ironic insight. "Ah, but on other worlds the labor costs aren't added in. They're counted as free."

Ethan stared. "What an absurd bit of double thinking! Athosians would never sit still for such a hidden labor tax! Don't the primary nurturers even get social duty credits?"

"I believe," her voice was edged with a peculiar dryness, "they call it women's work. And the supply usually exceeds the demand—non-union scabs, as it were, undercutting the market."

Ethan was increasingly puzzled. "Are not most women combat soldiers, then, like you? Are there men Dendarii?"

She hooted, then lowered her voice as a passer-by stared. "Four-fifths of the Dendarii are men. And of the women, three out of four are techs, not troops. Most military services are skewed that way, except for ones like Barrayar that have no women at all."

"Oh," said Ethan. After a disappointed pause he added, "You are an atypical sample, then." So much for his nascent Rules of Female Behavior. . . .

"Atypical." She was still a moment, then snorted. "Yeah, that's me all over."

They passed through an archway framing airseal doors labeled ecobranch: recycling. Ethan ate his carrot as they threaded the corridors, stripping off roots and top and, after a glance around his immaculate white surroundings, stuffing them back in his pocket. By the time he had crunched down the last mouthful they arrived at a door marked ASSIMILATION STATION B: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.

They entered a brightly-lit chamber lined with banks of intimidating-looking monitors. A lab bench and sink in the center seemed half-familiar to Ethan, for it was jammed with equipment for organic analysis. A number of color-coded conduits with access ports— for sampling?—crowded one end of the room. The other end was entirely occupied by a strange machine connected to the larger system by pipes; Ethan could not begin to guess its function.

A pair of legs in pine-green trousers with sky-blue piping were sticking out between a couple of the conduits. A high-pitched voice muttered unintelligibly. After a few more savage sibilants there was a clang and the whine of a sealing mechanism, and the legs' owner wriggled out and stood.

She wore plastic gloves to her armpits, and was clutching an unidentifiable crumpled metal object perhaps a third of a meter long that dripped vile-smelling brown liquid. F. Helda, read the nametag over her left breast pocket, Biocontrol Warden. Her face was red and angry, and terrified Ethan. Her voice cleared, "—unbelievable stupid downsider jerks ..." She broke off as she saw Ethan and his companion. Her eyes narrowed and her frown deepened. "Who are you? You don't belong in here. Can't you read?"

Dismay flashed in Quinn's eyes. She recovered and smiled winningly. "I just brought down the newt cull from Atmosphere. A little favor for Dale Zeeman."

"Zeeman should do his own work," the ecotech woman snapped, "not entrust it to some ignorant downsider. I'll write him up for this—"

"Oh, I'm Stationer born and bred," Quinn assured her hastily. "Let me introduce myself—Elli Quinn's the name. Maybe you know my cousin Teki—he works in this department. As a matter of fact, I rather thought he d be here."

"Oh," said the woman, only slightly mollified. "He's in A Station. But don't you go over there now, they're cleaning the filters. He won't have time to chat until after the system is back up. Work shifts are not the place for personal visiting, you know—"

"What in the world is that?" Quinn diverted her lecture with a nod at the metal object.

Ecotech Helda's clutch tightened on the tortured metal as if she might strangle it. Her chill toward her unauthorized visitors struggled with her need to vent her rage, and lost. "My latest present from Transients' Lounge. You wonder how illiterates can afford space travel—damn it, even illiterates have no excuse, the rules are demonstrated on the holovid! It was a perfectly good emergency oxygen canister, until some asshole stuffed it down an organics disposer. He must have had to smash it flat first to fit it in. Thank the gods it was discharged, or it might have blown out a pipe. Unbelievable stupidity!"

She stalked across the room to fling it into a bin with a number of other obviously non-organic bits of trash. "I hate downsiders," she growled. "Careless, dirty, inconsiderate animals ..." She stripped off the gloves and disposed of them, mopped the drips with a sonic scrubber and antiseptic, and turned to the sink to scrub her hands with violent thoroughness.

Quinn nodded toward the big green cartons. "Can I help you get these out of the way?" she asked brightly.

"There was absolutely no point in bringing them down ahead of schedule," said the ecotech. "I have an interment scheduled in five minutes, and the degrader is programmed to break down all the way to simple organics and vent to Hydroponics. It will just have to wait. You can take yourselves off and tell Dale Zeeman—" she broke off as the door slid open.

Half a dozen somber Stationers followed a covered float pallet through the door. Quinn motioned Ethan silently to an inconspicuous seat on their own float pallet as the procession entered the chamber. Ecotech Helda hastily straightened her uniform and composed her features to an expression of grave sympathy.

The Stationers gathered around while one of them intoned a few platitudes. Death was a great leveler, it seemed. The turns of phrase were different, but the sense would have passed at an Athosian funeral, Ethan thought. Maybe galactics weren't so wildly different after all ...

"Do you wish a final view of the deceased?" Helda inquired of them.

They shook their heads, a middle-aged man among them remarking, "Ye gods, the funeral was enough." He was shushed by a middle-aged woman beside him.

"Do you wish to stay for the interment?" asked Helda, formally and unpressingly.

"Absolutely not," said the middle-aged man. At a look of embarrassed disapproval from his female companion, he added firmly, "I saw Grandpa through five replacement operations. I did my bit when he was alive. Watching him get ground up to feed the flowers won't add a thing to my karma, love."

The family filed out, and the ecotech returned to her original aggressively businesslike demeanor. She stripped the corpse—it was an exceedingly ancient man—and took the clothes to the corridor, where presumably someone had lingered to collect them. Returning, she checked a data file, donned gloves and gown, wrinkled her lip, and attacked the deceased with a vibra-knife. Ethan watched with a professional fascination as a dozen mechanical replacement parts clanked into a tray—a heart, several tubes, bone pins, a hip joint, a kidney. The tray was taken to a washer, and the body to the strange machine at the end of the room.

Helda unsealed a large hatch and swung it down, and shifted the body on its catch basin onto it. She clamped the catch basin to the inner side, swung it up—there was a muffled thump from within—and resealed it. The ecotech pressed a few buttons, lights lit, and the machine whined and hissed and grunted with a demure even rhythm that suggested normal operation.

While Helda was occupied in the other end of the room, Ethan risked a whisper. "What's happening in there?"

"Breaking the body down to its components and returning the biomass to the Station ecosystem," Quinn whispered back. "Most clean animal mass — såå the newts—is just broken down into higher organics and fed to the protein culture vats—that's where we grow steak meat, and chicken and such for human consumption—but there's a sort of prejudice against disposing of human bodies that way. Smacks of cannibalism, I guess. And so that your next kilo cube of pork doesn't remind you too much of your late Uncle Neddie, the humans get broken down much finer and fed to the plants instead. A purely aesthetic choice—it all goes round and round in the end— logically, it doesn't make any difference."

His carrot had turned to lead in his stomach. "But you're going to let them put Okita—"

"Maybe I'll turn vegetarian for the next month," she whispered. "Sh."

Helda glanced irritably at them. "What are you hanging about for?" She focused on Ethan. "Have you no work to do?"

Quinn smiled blandly, and rapped the green cartons. "I need my float pallet."

"Oh," said the ecotech. She sniffed, hitched up one sharp, bony shoulder, and turned away to tap a new code into the degrader's control panel. Stamping back with a hand tractor, she lifted the top carton and locked it into position on the hatch. It flipped up; there was a slithery rumble from within the machine. The hatch flopped down again, and the first carton was replaced by the second. Then the third. Ethan held his breath.

The third carton emptied with a startling thump.

"What the hell . . . ?" muttered the ecotech, and reached for the seals. Commander Quinn turned white, her fingers twitching over her empty stunner holster.

"Look, is that a cockroach?" cried Ethan loudly in what he prayed might pass for a Stationer accent.

Helda whirled. "Where?"

Ethan pointed to a corner of the room away from the degrader. Both the ecotech and the commander went to inspect. Helda got down on her hands and knees and ran a finger worriedly along a seam between floor and wall. "Are you sure?" she said.

"Just a movement," he murmured, "in the corner of my eye ..."

She frowned fiercely at him. "More like a damned hangover in the corner of your eye. Slovenly muscle-brain."

Ethan shrugged helplessly.

"Better call Infestation Control anyway," she muttered. She hit the start button on the degrader on her way to the comconsole, and jerked her thumb back over her shoulder. "Out."

They complied immediately. Floating down the corridor Commander Quinn said, "My gods, Doctor, that was inspired. Or—you didn't really see a roach, did you?"

"No, it was just the first thing that popped into my head. She seemed like the sort of person who is bothered by bugs."

"Ah." Her eyes crinkled in amused approval.

He paused. "Do you have a roach problem here?"

"Not if we can help it. Among other things, they've been known to eat the insulation off electrical wiring. You think about fire on a space station a bit, and you'll see why you got her attention."

She checked her chronometer. "Ye gods, we've got to get this float pallet and canister back to Docking Bay 32. Newts, newts, who will buy my newts . . . ? Ah ha, the very thing."

She made a sharp right turn into a cross corridor, nearly dumping Ethan, and speeded up. After a moment she brought the pallet to a halt before a door marked "Cold Storage Access 297-C."

Inside they found a counter, and a plump, bored-looking young woman on duty eating little fried morsels of something from a bag.

"I'd like to rent a vacuum storage locker," Quinn announced.

"This is for Stationers, ma'am," the counter girl began, after a hungry, wistful look at the mercenary woman's face. "If you go up to Transients' Lounge, you can get—"

Quinn slapped an ID down on the counter. "A cubic meter will do, and I want it in removable plastic. Clean plastic, mind you."

The counter girl glanced at the ID. "Ah. Oh." She shuffled off, and returned a few minutes later with a big plastic-lined case.

The mercenary woman signed and thumbprinted, and turned to Ethan. "Let's lay them in nicely, eh? Impress the cook, when he thaws 'em out."

They packed the newts in neat rows. The counter girl, looking on, wrinkled her nose, then shrugged and returned to her comconsole where the holovid was displaying something that looked suspiciously more like play than work.

They were just in time, Ethan gauged; some of their amphibian victims were beginning to twitch. He almost felt worse about them than he did about Okita. The counter girl bore the box off.

"They won't suffer long, will they?" Ethan asked, looking back over his shoulder.

Commander Quinn snorted. "I should die so quick. They're going into the biggest freezer in the universe— outside. I think I really will ship them back to Admiral Naismith, later, when things calm down."

" 'Things,' " echoed Ethan. "Quite. I think you and I should have a talk about "things'." His mouth set mulishly.

Hers turned up on one side. "Heart to heart," she agreed cordially.