Lois McMaster Bujold, "ETHAN OF ATHOS"

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

CHAPTER SIX

After sneaking the float pallet back to its docking bay, Commander Quinn brought him by a roundabout route to a hostel room not much larger than Ethan's own. This hostel was, Ethan was dimly aware, in yet another section of Transients' Lounge, although he was not quite sure where they had recrossed that unmarked border. Quinn had dropped behind several times, or parked him abruptly in some cul-de-sac while she scouted ahead, or once wandered off quite casual-seeming, her arm draped across the shoulders of some uniformed Stationer acquaintance as she gesticulated gaily with her free hand. Ethan prayed she knew what she was doing.

She at any rate seemed to feel he had been successfully smuggled to some kind of home base, for she relaxed visibly when the hostel room doors sealed shut behind them, kicking off her boots and stretching and diving for the room service console.

"Here. Real beer." She handed him a foaming tumbler, after pausing to squirt something into it from her Dendarii issue medkit. "Imported."

The aroma made his mouth water, but he stood suspiciously, without raising it to his lips. "What did you put in it?"

"Vitamins. Look, see?" She snapped a squirt out of the air from the same vial, and washed it down with a long swallow from her own tumbler. "You're safe here for now. Drink, eat, wash, what-you-will."

He glanced longingly toward the bathroom. "Won't double use show up on the computer monitors? What if someone asks questions?"

She smirked. "It will show that Commander Quinn is entertaining a handsome Stationer acquaintance in her room, at length. Nobody 'd dare ask anything. Relax."

The implications were anything but relaxing, but Ethan was by that time ready to risk his life for a shave; his stubbled chin was perilously close to pretending to paternal honors to which he had no right.

The bathroom, alas, had no second exit. He gave up and drank his beer while he washed. If Millisor and Rau had not found useful intelligence in him, he doubted Commander Quinn could either, no matter what she'd doctored his drink with.

He was horrified by the haggard face that stared back at him from the mirror. Sandpaper chin, red-rimmed eyes, skin blotched and puffy — no patron in his right mind would trust his infant to that ruffian. Fortunately, a few minutes work returned him to his normal reassuringly squeaky-clean neatness; merely tired, not degraded. There was even a sonic scrubber that cleaned his clothes while he showered.

He emerged to find Commander Quinn occupying the room's sole float chair, her jacket off, feet propped up and luxuriating in their decompression. She opened her eyes and gestured him toward the bed. He stretched himself out nervously, the pillow to his back; but there was no other choice of seating. He found a fresh beer and a tray of edibles, anonymous Stationer tidbits, ready to hand. He tried not to think about the food's possible sources.

"So," she began. "There seems to be an awful lot of interest focused on this shipment of biologicals Athos ordered. Suppose you start there."

Ethan swallowed a bite and gathered all his resolve. "No. We trade information. Suppose you start there." His burst of assertiveness ran down in the face of her bland raised eyebrows, and he added weakly, "If you don't mind."

She cocked her head and smiled. "Very well." She paused to wash down a bite of her own. "Your order was filled, apparently, by Bharaputra Laboratories' top genetics team. They spent a couple of months at it, under need-to-know security. This probably saved several lives, later. The order was sent off on a non-stop freight run to Kline Station, where it sat in a warehouse for two months waiting for the yearly census courier to take it to Athos. Nine big white freezer boxes—" she described them in precise detail, right down to the serial numbers. "Is that what you got?"

Ethan nodded grimly.

She went on. "Just about the time the shipment was leaving Kline Station for Athos, Millisor and his team arrived on Jackson's Whole. They went through Bharaputra's lab like—well, professionally speaking, it was a very successful commando raid." Her lips closed on some angrier private judgement. "Millisor and his team escaped right through House Bharaputra's private army, vaporizing the laboratory and all its contents behind them. The contents included most of the genetics team, quite a few innocent bystanders, and the technical records of the work done on your shipment. I gather they must have spent some time questioning the Bharaputra people before they crisped them, because they got it all. Pausing only to murder the wife and burn down the house of one of the geneticists, Millisor and company vanished from the planet, to turn up under new identities here just three weeks too late to catch your shipment.

"So then I arrived on Jackson's Whole, innocently asking questions about Athos. House Bharaputra Security about had a colonic spasm. Fortunately, I was finally able to persuade them I had no connection with Millisor. In fact, they think I'm working for them, now," she smiled slowly.

"The Bharaputrans?"

Her smile became a grimace. "Yes. They hired me to assassinate Millisor and his team. A lucky break for me, since now I'm not racing one of their own hit squads to the target. I seem to have made a start in spite of myself. They'll be so pleased." She sighed, and drank again. "Your turn, Doctor. What was in those boxes to be worth all those lives?"

"Nothing!" He shook his head in bewilderment. "Valuable, yes, but not worth killing for. The Population Council had ordered 450 live ovarian cultures, to produce egg cells, you know, for children—"

"I know how children are produced, yes," she murmured.

"They were to be certified free of genetic defects, and taken only from sources in the top 20 intelligence percentiles. That's all. A week's routine work for a good genetics team such as you describe. But what we got was trash!" He detailed the shipment received with increasingly irate fervor, until she cut him off.

"All right, Doctor! I believe you. But what left Jackson's Whole was not trash, but something very special. Somebody therefore took your shipment somewhere in transit and replaced it with garbage—"

"Very odd garbage, when you think about it," Ethan began slowly, but she was going on.

"What somebody, then, and when? Not you, not me—although I suppose you've only my word for that—and not, obviously, Millisor, although he would have liked to."

"Millisor seemed to think it was this Terrence Gee—person, or whatever he is."

She sighed. "Whatever-he-is had plenty of time for it. It could have been switched on Jackson's Whole, or on shipboard en route to Kline Station, or anytime before the census courier left for Athos—ye gods, do you have any idea how many ships dock at Kline Station in the course of two months? And how many connections they in turn make? No wonder Millisor has been going around looking like his stomach hurts. I'll get a copy of the Station docking log anyway, though. ..." she made a note.

Ethan used the pause to ask, "What is a wife?"

She choked on her beer. For all that she waved it about, Ethan noticed that its level was dropping very slowly. "I keep forgetting about you. . . . Ah, wife. A marriage partner—a man's female mate. The male partner is called a husband. Marriage takes many forms, but is most commonly a legal, economic, and genetic alliance to produce and raise children. Do you copy?"

"I think so," he said slowly. "It sounds a little like a designated alternate parent." He tasted the words. "Husband. On Athos, to husband is a verb meaning to conserve resources. Like stewardship." Did this imply the male maintained the female during gestation? So, this supposedly organic method had hidden costs that might make a real Rep Center seem cheap, Ethan thought with satisfaction.

"Same root."

"What does it mean 'to wife,' then?"

"There is no parallel verb. I think the root is just some old word meaning simply/woman.' "

"Oh." He hesitated. "Did the geneticist whose house was burned and his—his wife have any children?"

"A little boy, who was in nursery school at the time. Strangely enough, Millisor didn't bother to torch it, too. Can't imagine how he overlooked that loose thread. The wife was pregnant." She bit rather savagely into a protein cube.

Ethan shook his head in frustration. "Why? Why, why, why?"

She smiled elliptically. "There are moments when I think you might be a man after my own heart—that was a joke," she added as Ethan lurched, recoiling. "Yes. Why. My very own assigned question. Millisor seemed convinced that what Bharaputra's labs produced was actually intended for Athos, in spite of the subsequent diversion. Now, if nothing else, I've learned in the past few months that what Millisor thinks had better be taken into account. Why Athos? What does Athos have that nobody else does?"

"Nothing," said Ethan simply. "We're a small, agriculturally based society with no natural resources worth shipping. We're not on a nexus route to anywhere. We don't go around bothering anyone."

" 'Nothing,' " she noted. "Think of a scenario where a planet with 'nothing' would be at a premium . . . You have privacy, I suppose. Other than that, only your insistence upon reproducing yourselves the hard way sets you apart." She sipped her beer. "You say Millisor was talking about attacking your Reproduction Centers. Tell me about them."

Ethan needed little encouragement to wax enthusiasm about his beloved job. He described Sevarin and its operations, and the dedicated cadre of men who made it work. He explained the beneficent system of social duty credits that qualified potential fathers. He ran down abruptly when he found himself describing the personal troubles that prevented him from achieving his own heart's desire for a son. This woman was getting entirely too easy to talk to—he wondered anew what was in his beer.

She leaned back in her chair and whistled tunelessly a moment. "Damn that diversion anyway. But for that, I'd say the cuckoo's-egg scenario had the most appeal. It accounted so nicely for Millisor's activities. . . . Rats." "The what scenario?"

"Cuckoo's-egg. Do you have cuckoos on Athos?" "No ... Is it a reptile?"

"An obnoxious bird. From Earth. Principally famous for laying its eggs in other birds' nests and skipping out on the tedious work of raising them. Now found galaxy-wide mainly as a literary allusion, since by some miracle nobody was dumb enough to export them off-planet. All the rest of the vermin managed to follow mankind into space readily enough. But do you see what I mean by a cuckoo's-egg scenario?"

Ethan, seeing, shivered. "Sabotage," he whispered. "Genetic sabotage. They thought to plant their monsters on us, all unawares ..." He caught himself up. "Oh. But it wasn't the Cetagandans who sent the shipment, was it? Uh—rats. It wouldn't work anyway, we have ways of weeding out gene defects ..." He subsided, more puzzled than ever.

"The shipment may have incorporated material stolen from the Cetagandan research project, though. Thus accounting for Millisor's passion for retrieving or destroying it."

"Obviously, but—why should Jackson's Whole want to do that to us? Or are they enemies of Cetaganda?"

"Ah—hm. How much do you know about Jackson's Whole?"

"Not much. They're a planet, they have biological laboratories, they submitted a bid to the Population Council in response to our advertisement year before last. So did half a dozen other places."

"Yes, well—next time, order from Beta Colony."

"Beta Colony was the high bid."

She ran a ringer unconsciously across her lips; Ethan thought of plasma burns. "I'm sure, but you get what you pay for. . . . Actually, that's misleading. You can get what you pay for on Jackson's Whole too, if your purse is deep enough. Want to have a young clone made of yourself, grown to physical maturity in vitro, and have your brain transferred into it? There's a 50% chance the operation will kill you, and a 100% guarantee it kills—whatever individual the clone might have been. No Betan med center would touch a job like that—clones have full civil rights there. House Bharaputra will."

"Ugh," said Ethan, revolted. "On Athos, cloning is considered a sin."

She raised her eyebrows. "Oh, yeah? What sin?"

"Vanity."

"Didn't know that was a sin—oh, well. The point is, if somebody offered House Bharaputra enough money, they'd have cheerfully filled your boxes with— dead newts, for instance. Or eight-foot-tall bio-engineered super-soldiers, or anything else that was asked for." She fell silent, sipping her beer.

"So what do we do next?" he prodded bravely.

She frowned. "I'm thinking. I didn't exactly plan this Okita scenario in advance, y'know. I don't have orders for active interference in the affair—I was just supposed to observe. Professionally speaking, I suppose I shouldn't have rescued you. I should have just watched, and sent off a regretful report on the radius of your splatter to Admiral Naismith."

"Will he, ah, be annoyed with you?" Ethan inquired nervously, with a skewed paranoid flash of her admiral sternly ordering her to restore the original balance by sending him to join Okita.

"Naw. He has unprofessional moments himself. Terribly impractical, it's going to kill him one of these days. Though so far he seems able to make things come out all right by sheer force of will." She speared the last tidbit on the platter, finished her beer, and rose. "So. Next I watch Millisor some more. If he has more back-up team than what I've spotted so far, his search for you and Okita should smoke them out. You can lie low in here. Don't leave the room."

Imprisoned again, although more comfortably. "But what about my clothes, my luggage, my room ..." his Economy Cabin, unoccupied, ticking up his bill nonetheless, "my mission!"

"You absolutely must not go near your room!" She sighed. "It's eight months till your return ship to Athos, right? Tell you what—you help me with my mission, I'll help you with yours. You do what I tell you, you might even live to complete it."

"Always assuming," said Ethan, chapped, "that Ghem-colonel Millisor doesn't outbid House Bharaputra or Admiral Naismith for your services."

She shrugged on her jacket, a lumpy thing with lots of pockets that seemed to have a deal more swing than accounted for by the weight of the fabric. "You can get one thing straight right now, Athosian. There are some things money can't buy."

"What, mercenary?"

She paused at the door, her lips curving up despite her sparking eyes. "Unprofessional moments."

The first day of his semi-voluntary incarceration passed sleeping off the exhaustion, terror, and biochemical cocktails of the preceding 24 hours. He came to muzzy consciousness once just as Commander Quinn was tiptoeing out of the room, but sank back. The second time he awoke, much later, he found her asleep stretched out on the floor dressed in uniform trousers and shirt, her jacket hung ready-to-hand. Her eyes slitted open to follow him as he staggered to the bathroom.

He found on the second day that Commander Quinn did not lock him in during the long hours of her absences. He dithered in the hallway for twenty minutes, upon discovering this, trying to evolve some rational program for his freedom besides being immediately gobbled up by Millisor, who was by now doubtless tearing the Station apart looking for him. The whirr of a cleaning robot rounding the corner sent him spinning back into the room, heart palpitating. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to let the mercenary woman protect him a little longer.

By the third day he had recovered enough of his native tone of mind to begin serious worrying about his predicament, although not yet enough physical energy to try doing anything about it. Belatedly, he began boning up on galactic history through the comconsole library.

By the end of the next day he was becoming painfully aware of the inadequacy of a cultural education that consisted of two very general galactic histories, a history of Cetaganda, and a fiction holovid titled "Love's Savage Star" that he had stumbled onto and been too stunned to switch off. Life with women did not just induce strange behavior, it appeared; it induced very strange behavior. How long before the emanations or whatever it was from Commander Quinn would make him start acting like that? Would ripping open her jacket to expose her mammary hypertrophy really cause her to fixate upon him like a newly hatched chick on its mother hen? Or would she carve him to ribbons with her vibra-knife before the hormones or whatever they were cut in?

He shuddered, and cursed the study time he'd wasted on timidity during the two months voyage to Kline Station. Innocence might be bliss, but ignorance was demonstrably hell; if his soul was to be offered up on the altar of necessity, by God the Father Athos should have the full worth of it. He read on.

The opposite of nirvana in his spiritual descent, Ethan decided, was tizzy; and by the sixth day he had achieved it.

"What the hell is Millisor doing out there?" he demanded of Commander Quinn during one of her brief stop-ins.

"He's not doing as much as I'd hoped," she admitted. She slumped in her chair, winding a curl of her dark hair around and around her finger. "He hasn't reported you or Okita missing to the Station authorities. He hasn't revealed hidden reserves of personnel. He's made no move to leave the Station. The time he's spending maintaining his cover identity suggests he's digging in for a long stay. Last week I'd thought he was just waiting for the return ship from Athos that you came on, but now it's clear there's something more. Something even more important than an AWOL subordinate."

Ethan paced, his voice rising. "How long am I going to have to stay in here?"

She shrugged. "Until something breaks, I suppose." She smiled sourly. "Something might, although not for our side. Millisor and Rau and Setti have been searching the Station themselves, real quiet-like—they keep coming back to this one corridor near Ecobranch. I couldn't figure out why, at first. Now, Okita's clothes scanned clean of bugs, but just to be sure I mailed 'em off to Admiral Naismith. So I knew it couldn't be that. I finally got hold of the technical specs for that section. The damned protein-culture vats are behind that corridor wall. I think Okita may have had some sort of inorganic code-response-only tracer implanted internally. Some poor sod is going to break a tooth on it in his Chicken Kiev any day now. I just hope to the gods it won't be a transient who will sue the Station ... So much for the perfect crime." She heaved a sigh. "Millisor hasn't figured it out yet, though—he's still eating meat."

Ethan was getting mortally tired of salads himself. And of this room, and of the tension, indecision, and helplessness. And of Commander Quinn, and the casual way she ordered him around. . . .

"I have only your say-so that the Station authorities can't help me," he broke out suddenly. "I didn't shoot Okita. I haven't done anything! I don't even have an argument with Millisor—it's you who seem to be carrying on a private war with him. He'd never have thought I was a secret agent in the first place if Rau hadn't found your bug. It's you who's been getting me in deeper and deeper, to serve your spying."

"He'd have picked you up in any case," she observed.

"Yes, but all I needed was to convince Millisor that Athos didn't have his stuff. His interrogation might have done that, if your interference hadn't aroused his suspicions. Hell, he'd be welcome to come inspect our Rep Centers if he wants."

She raised her eyebrows, a gesture Ethan found increasingly irritating. "You really think you could negotiate that with him? Personally, I'd rather import a new plague bacillus."

"At least he's male," Ethan snapped.

She laughed; Ethan's temper rose to the boiling point. "How long are you going to keep me locked up in here?" he demanded again.

She paused, visibly. Her eyes widened, narrowed; she tamped out her smile. "You're not locked up," she pointed out mildly. "You can leave any time. At your own risk, of course. I shall be saddened, but I shall survive."

He slowed in his frenetic pacing. "You're bluffing. You can't let me go. I've learned too much."

Her feet came down from the desktop, and she stopped twisting her hair. She stared at him with a discomforting expressionlessness, like someone calculating the narrowness of slide necessary to prepare a biological specimen for slide mounting. When she spoke again, her voice grated like gravel. "I should say you haven't learned bloody enough."

"You don't want me to tell the Station authorities about Okita, do you? That puts your neck on the line with your own people—"

"Oh, hardly my neck. They would of course have a shit fit if they found out what we did with the body—to which I might point out you were a willing accessory. Contamination is a much more serious charge than mere murder. Nearly up there with arson."

"So? What can they do, deport me? That's not a punishment, that's a reward!"

Her eyes slitted, concealing their sharpening light. "If you leave, Athosian, don't expect to come bleating back to me for protection. I have no use for quitters, quislings—or queers."

He supposed she was insulting him. He took it as intended. "Well, I have no use for a sly, tricky, arrogant, overbearing— woman!" he sputtered.

She spread her hand invitingly toward the door, pursing her lips. Ethan realized he had just had the last word. His credit chit was in his pocket, his shoes were on his feet. Nostrils flaring, he marched out the door, head held high. His back crawled in expectation of a stunner beam, or worse. None came.

It was very, very quiet in the corridor when the airseal doors had hissed shut. Had the last word really been what he'd wanted? And yet—he'd rather face Millisor, Rau, and Okita's ghost together than crawl back into his prison and apologize to Quinn.

Determination. Decision. Action. That was the way to solve problems. Not running away and hiding. He would seek out and confront Millisor face-to-face. He stomped off down the corridor.

By the time he reached the mallway exit from the hostel he was walking normally, and he had revised his plan to the more sane and sensible one of calling Millisor from the safe distance of a public comconsole. He could be tricky himself. He would not approach his own hostel. If necessary, he might even abandon his personal gear, and purchase a ticket off-Station—to Beta Colony?—at the last moment before boarding, thus escaping the whole crowd of insane secret agents. By the time he got back to Kline Station, they might even have chased each other off to some other part of the galaxy.

He removed himself a couple of levels from Quinn's hostel and found a comconsole booth.

"I wish to reach a transient, Ghem-colonel Ruyst Millisor," he told the computer. He spelled the name out carefully. His voice, he noted with self-approval, scarcely quavered.

No such individual is registered at Kline Station, the holoscreen flashed back.

"Er ... Has he checked out?" Gone, and Commander Quinn stringing him along all this time...?

No such individual registered within the past 12-month cycle, the holoscreen murmured brightly.

"Um, um—how about a Captain Rau?"

No such individual . . .

"Setti?"

No such individual . . .

He stopped short of mentioning Okita, and stood blankly. Then it came to him; Millisor was the man's real name. But here on Kline Station he was doubtless using an assumed one, with forged identity cards to match. Ethan had not the first clue what the alias might be. Dead end.

At a loss, he wandered down the mall. He could, he supposed, just return to his room and let Millisor find him, but whether he'd get a chance to negotiate or even get a word out before being scragged by Okita's vengeful comrades was a very moot point.

The varigated passers-by scarcely ruffled his self-absorption, but two approaching faces were extraordinary. A pair of plainly-dressed men of average height had brilliant designs painted upon their faces, completely masking their skin. Dark red was the base color of one, slashed with orange, black, white, and green in an intricate pattern, obviously meaningful. The other was chiefly brilliant blue, with yellow, white, and black swirls outlining and echoing eyes, nose, and mouth. They were deep in conversation with each other. Ethan stared covertly, fascinated and delighted.

It wasn't until they passed nearly shoulder to shoulder with him that Ethan's eye teased out the features beneath the markings. He suddenly realized that he did know what the face paint meant, from his recent reading. They were marks of rank for Cetagandan ghem-lords.

Captain Rau looked up at the same, moment square into Ethan's face. Rau's mouth opened, his eyes widening in the blue mask, his hand reaching swiftly for a pouch on his belt. Ethan, after a second of confounded paralysis, ran.

There was a shout behind him. A God-the-Father nerve disrupter bolt crackled past his head. Ethan glanced back over his shoulder. Rau had only missed, it appeared, because Millisor had knocked the lethal weapon upward. They were yelling at each other even as they began pursuit. Ethan now remembered clearly just how terrifying the Cetagandans could be. Ethan dove head-first into an Up lift tube and swam as frantically as any salmon through its languid field, hand over hand down the emergency grips. Jostled rising passengers swore at him in surprise.

He exited on another level, ran, took another lift, changed again, and again, with many a panicked backward glance. Here across a crowded shop, there through a deserted construction zone—AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY—twist, turn, double and dive. He crossed out of Transients' Lounge somewhere, for gadgets on the walls that had long lists of instructions and prohibitions beside them in the tourist ghetto here were nearly anonymous.

He went to ground at last in an equipment closet, and lay gasping for breath on the floor. He seemed to have lost his pursuers. He had certainly lost himself.