Lois McMaster Bujold, "ETHAN OF ATHOS"

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CHAPTER SEVEN

He sat in a sour huddle for an hour after he caught his breath and his heart stopped hammering. So, running away and hiding was no way to solve problems? Any action was better than rotting in Quinn's cell-like hostel room? He meditated glumly on just how fast one could re-evaluate one's moral position in the flash and crackle from the silvered bell-muzzle of a nerve disruptor. He stared into the closet's dimness. At least Quinn's prison had had a bathroom.

He would have to go to the Station authorities, now. There was no going back to Quinn, she'd made that clear, and no illusion left of his ability to negotiate a separate peace with the Cetagandan crazies. He beat his head gently on the wall a few times in token of his self-esteem, unfolded from his crouch, and began to search his hidey hole.

A locker full of Stationer work coveralls made him suddenly conscious of his own downsider apparel, followed by another and more horrid thought; had Quinn planted another bug on him? She'd certainly had plenty of opportunity. He stripped to the skin and traded his Athosian clothes for some red coveralls and boots that were only a little too large. The boots chafed his feet, but he dared not retain even his socks. He only needed the camouflage long enough to sneak to—make that, locate and sneak to—the nearest Station Security post. It wasn't stealing; he would give the coveralls back at the first opportunity.

He slipped out of the closet and took a left down the empty corridor, trying to imitate the rolling purposeful stride of a Stationer while fixing the closet's number in his memory so that he might retrieve his clothes later. He passed two women in blue coveralls floating a loaded pallet, but they were obviously in a hurry. Ethan couldn't nerve himself to stop them for directions. A Stationer such as his red suit proclaimed him to be would have known the way. It was bound to seem peculiar to them even without his accent.

He was just beginning to seriously question his original assumption that if he didn't know where he was, neither would his pursuers, when a scream, a thud, and a rattling crash snapped his attention to the cross-corridor just ahead. Two float pallets had collided. Crying and swearing mingled with a clatter of plastic boxes cascading from one pallet and an ear-splitting, screeching twitter. Balls of yellow feathers exploded from a spilled box into the air, darting, swerving, and ricocheting off the walls.

A woman was screaming—"The gravity! The gravity!" Ethan recognized the voice with a start. It was the bony green-and-blue uniformed ecotech, Helda, from the Assimilation Station. She was glaring at him, scarlet-faced. "The gravity! Wake up, you twit, they're getting away!" She scrambled out from under the boxes and staggered toward him, panting.

As Ethan struggled with his conscience whether or not to blow his incognito by volunteering medical assistance—the other three people involved all seemed to be moving, sitting up, and complaining at healthy volume—Helda yanked open a cover on the wall beside Ethan's head and turned a rheostat. The frantically fluttering songbirds beat their wings in vain as they were sucked to the deck. Ethan's knees nearly buckled as his weight more than doubled. He found himself and the ecotech braced against each other.

"Oh, gods, you again," snarled Helda. "I might have known. Are you on duty?" "No," squeaked Ethan.

"Good. Then you can help me pick up these damned birds before they spread toxoplasmidosis all over the Station."

Ethan recognized the disease, a mildly contagious, slow subviral life-form that attacked RNA, and fell willingly to hands and knees to crawl after her and pluck up the dozen or so hysterical birds pinned by their own weight. Only when the last bird was stuffed back into its box and the lid tied down with the ecotech's belt did she pay the least attention to the bitterly complaining human accident victims now lying flat on the deck and panting for breath. When she turned the gravity dial back to standard Ethan felt he might take off and fly himself, so great was the relief. One of the victims sitting up shakily wore a pine-green and blue uniform like Helda's. Blood runneled down his face from a cut on his forehead. Ethan gauged it at a glance as spectacular but superficial. Clean pressure over the wound—not from bis hands, he'd been handling the birds—would take care of it in a trice. The two white-faced teenagers from the other pallet, one male, one that Ethan's now-practiced eye identified immediately as female, clutched each other and stared at the blood in horror, obviously under the impression that they'd near-killed the man.

Ethan, holding his hands in loose fists to remind himself to touch nothing, put some gruff authority into his voice and directed the frightened boy to make a pad and stop the bleeding. The girl was crying that her wrist was broken, but Ethan would have bet Betan dollars it was merely sprained. Helda, holding her hands identically to Ethan's, elbowed open a comlink in the wall and called for help. Her first concern was for a decontamination team from her own department, her second for Station Security, and a distant third for a medtech for the injured.

Ethan blew out his breath in relief at his lucky break. Instead of his having to hunt for Station Security, it would be coming to him. He could fling himself upon Security's mercy and get unlost at the same time.

The decontamination team arrived first. Airseal doors cordoned off the area, and the team began going over walls, floors, ceilings and vents with sonic scrubbers, x-ray sterilizers, and potent disinfectants.

"You'll have to deal with Security, Teki," Helda directed her assistant as she stepped into the sealed passenger pallet the decontamination team had produced. "See that they throw the book at those two joyriders."

The two teenagers paled still further, scarcely reassured by a secretive shake of his head directed at them by Teki.

"Well, come along," Helda snapped at Ethan.

"Huh? Uh ..." Monosyllablic grunts might conceal his accent, but were lousy for eliciting information. Ethan dared a, "Where to?"

"Quarantine, of course."

Quarantine? For how long? He must have mouthed the words aloud, for the decon man shooing him toward the float pallet said soothingly, "We're just going to scrub you down and give you a shot. If you've got a heavy date, you can call her from there. We'll vouch for you."

Ethan wanted to disabuse the decon man of this last dreadful misapprehension, but the ecotech's presence inhibited him. He allowed himself to be chivvied into the pallet. He seated himself across from the woman with a fixed smile.

The canopy was closed and sealed, shutting off all sound from the exterior. Ethan pressed his face longingly to the transparent surface as the pallet rose and drifted past the two arriving Security patrolmen in their orange and black uniforms. He doubted they could hear him if he screamed.

"Don't touch your face," Helda reminded him absently, glancing back for one last look at the disaster scene. It seemed to be under control now, the decon team having taken charge of her float pallet of birds and reopened the airseal doors.

Ethan displayed his closed fists in token of his understanding.

"You do seem to have grasped sterile technique," Helda admitted grudgingly, settling back and glowering at him. "For a while there I thought Docks and Locks was now hiring the mentally handicapped."

Ethan shrugged. Silence fell. Silence lengthened. He cleared his throat. "What was that?" he asked gruffly, with a jerk of his chin back to indicate the recent accident.

"Couple of stupid lads playing starfighter with a float pallet. Their parents will hear from me. You want speed, take a tube car. Float pallets are for work. Or do you mean the birds?"

"Birds."

"Condemned cargo. You should have heard the freighter captain scream when we impounded them. As if he had a civil right to spread disease all over the galaxy. Although it could have been worse." She sighed. "It could have been beef again."

"Beef?" croaked Ethan.

She snorted. "A whole bleeding herd of live beef, being transported somewhere for breeding. Crawling with microvermin. I had to cut them in half to fit them in the disposer. Worst mess you ever saw. We broke them down to atoms, you can bet. The owners sued the Station." Her eyes glinted. "They lost." She added after a moment, "I hate messes."

Ethan shrugged again, hoping the gesture would be taken for sympathy. This frightening female was the last person on the Station he wished to surrender to, bar Millisor. He trusted devoutly that Ecobranch did not dispose of diseased human transients in the same cavalier fashion.

"Did Docks and Locks clear up that trash dump in Bay 13 yet?" she inquired suddenly.

"Er, ah . . ." Ethan cleared his throat.

She frowned. "What is the matter with you? Do you have a cold?"

Ethan wouldn't have dared admit to harboring viruses. "Strained my voice yesterday," he muttered.

"Oh." She settled back like a disappointed bird-dog. The monologue having now fallen officially to her, she stared around for another topic of conversation. "Now that's a disgusting sight." She jerked her thumb to the side; Ethan saw nothing but a couple of passing Stationers. "You wonder how someone can stand to let herself go like that."

"What?" muttered Ethan, totally bewildered.

"That fat girl."

Ethan looked back over his shoulder. The obesity in question was so clinically mild as to be nearly invisible to his eye, given the extra padding of the female build.

"Biochemistry," Ethan suggested placatingly.

"Ha. That's just an excuse for lack of self-discipline. She probably gorges at night on fancy imported downsider food." Helda brooded a moment. "Revolting stuff. You don't know where it's been. Now, never eat anything but clean vat lean, and salads— none of those high-fat, gooey dressings, either—" a lengthy dissertation upon her diet and digestion more than filled the time until the float pallet stopped at their destination.

Ethan waited until she'd exited before unpeeling himself from the farthest corner of his seat. He poked his head cautiously out.

The quarantine processing area had a hospitalish smell that pierced him with homesickness for Sevarin. A distressed lump rose in his throat, which he swallowed back down.

"This way, sir." A male ecotech in a sterile gown motioned him ahead. A couple more techs promptly began going over the passenger pallet with x-ray sterilizers. Ethan was directed down a corridor from the off-loading zone to a sort of locker room, the gowned tech following behind sweeping up his invisible septic footprints with a sonic scrubber.

The tech gave him a brief, accurate lecture on how to take a decontamination shower, and absconded with his red suit and boots muttering, "No underwear? Some people!"

Ethan's IDs and credit chit were in the red coveralls' pocket. Ethan nearly cried. But there was no help for it. He showered thoroughly, dried, scratched his itching nose at last, then hovered naked and alone about the chamber for what seemed a very long time. He was just meditating on the pros and cons of running howling nude back down the corridor when the gowned tech returned.

"Hello." The tech dropped his folded coveralls and boots on a bench, pressed a hypospray against his arm, said, "See Records on your way out. It's the other way," and wandered off. "Goodbye."

Ethan pounced on the clothes. His wallet was still in the pocket, or at any rate back in the pocket. He sighed relief, dressed, squared his shoulders in preparation for full confession, and at a guess from the tech's cryptic speech went on down the corridor in the direction opposite his entry.

He was just thinking himself lost again when he saw an open arched door and beyond it a room with a manned computer interface. The young man from the bird pallet, Teki, now pale and interesting with a white plastic bandage across his forehead, arrived at the doorway at the same time as Ethan. He paused rather breathlessly, and with a bright nod let Ethan enter first. The bony Helda stood by the counter within, tapping one foot, with her arms folded.

She fixed Teki with a cold look. "It's about time you got off that comconsole. I thought I told you to tell your girlfriend not to call you at work."

"It wasn't Sara," said Teki righteously. "It was a relative. With a business message." Sensibly re-directing Helda's attention, he seized on Ethan. "Look, here's our helper."

Ethan swallowed and approached, wondering how to begin. He wished the woman wasn't there.

"Good-oh," said the green-and-blue uniformed man running the computer interface. "Just let me have your card, please." He held out his hand.

He wanted some standard Stationer ID, Ethan supposed. He took a deep breath, nerved himself, and glanced up at the frowning woman. His confession became an "Er, ah—don't have it with me ..."

Her frown deepened. "You're supposed to have it with you at all times, Docks-and-Locks."

"Off duty," Ethan offered desperately. "My other coveralls." If he could just get away from this terrible female, he'd go straight to Security. . . .

She inhaled.

Teki cut in. "Aw, c'mon, Helda, give the guy a break. He did help us out with those blasted tweety-birds." Winking, he took Ethan by the arm and towed him toward the chamber's other exit. "Just go get it and bring it back, all right?"

The woman said, "Well!" but the counterman nodded.

"Don't mind Helda," whispered the young man to Ethan as he pushed him past the inner door, through a UV-and-filtered-air lock, and out a final airseal. "She drives everybody crazy. That fat kid of hers emigrated Downside just to get away from her. I don't suppose she said thanks for the help?"

Ethan shook his head.

"Well, thank you." He nodded cheerfully; the airseal doors hissed closed on his smile.

"Help," said Ethan in a tiny voice. He turned around. He was in another standard Station corridor, identical to a thousand others. He squeezed his eyes shut briefly in spiritual pain, sighed, and started walking.

Two hours later he was still walking, certain he was circling. Station Security posts, frequent and highly visible in Transients' Lounge, disappeared here in the Stationers' own areas. Or maybe like the equipment in the walls they were merely cryptically marked, and he was walking right past them. Ethan swore softly under his breath as another blister rubbed up by his ill-fitting boots popped.

Glancing down a cross-corridor, he gave a joyous start. The stuff on the walls had labels, lists, and locks again. He turned that way. A few more junctions, another door, and he found himself in a public mallway. Not far along it, beside a fountain, shimmered a directory.

"You are here," he muttered, tracing through the holovid. Colored light licked over his finger. Nearest Security post, there: he looked up to match the map with a mirrored booth on the balcony at the farthest end of the mall. Just one level below this mallway was his own hostel. Quinn's hostel was over a bit, up two. He wondered anxiously where the one in which the Cetagandans had questioned him was. Not far away enough, he was sure. He steeled himself and hobbled up the mall, glancing out of the corner of his eye for men in bright face paint or women in crisp grey-and-white uniforms.

kline station security, glowed the legend atop the booth. The mirroring was one-way. From inside there was a fine view overlooking the mall, Ethan found upon entering. Banks of monitors and comm links filled the little room. A Security person sat, feet up, eating little fried morsels of something from a bag and gazing idly down at the colorful concourse.

A Security woman, Ethan corrected himself with an inward moan. Young and dark-haired, in her orange-and-black quasi-military uniform she bore a faint, generic resemblance to Commander Quinn.

He cleared his throat. "Uh, excuse me . . . Are you on duty?"

She smiled. "Alas, yes. From the time I put on this uniform to the time I take it off at the end of my shift, plus whenever they beep me after. But I get off at 2400," she added encouragingly. "Would you care for a newt nugget?"

"Uh, no—no thank you," Ethan replied. He smiled back in nervous uncertainty. Her smile became blinding. He tried again. "Did you hear anything about a fellow firing a nerve disruptor in one of the mallways this morning?"

"Gods, yes! Is it gossip in Docks and Locks already?" "Oh ..." Ethan realized where some of the disjointedness in this conversation was coming from;

the red coveralls were misleading her. "I'm not a

Stationer."

"I can tell by your accent," she agreed cordially. She sat up and rested her chin on his hand. Her eyes positively twinkled. "Earning your way across the galaxy as a migrant worker, are you? Or did you get stranded?"

"Uh, neither ..." Ethan continued smiling, since she did. Was this some expected part of exchanges between the sexes? Neither Quinn nor the ecotech had used such intense facial signals, but Quinn admitted herself atypical and the ecotech was definitely weird. His mouth was beginning to hurt. "But about that shooting ..."

"Oh, have you talked to anybody that was there?" Some of her glowing manner fell away, and she sat up more alertly. "We're looking for more witnesses." Caution asserted itself. "Uh—why?" "It's the charge. Of course the fellow claims he fired by accident, showing off the weapon to his friend. But the tipster who called in the incident claimed he shot at a man, who ran away. Well, the tipster vanished, and the rest of the so-called witnesses were the usual lot—full of contagious drama, but when you pin 'em down they always turn out to have been facing the other way or zipping their boot or something at the actual moment the disruptor went off." She sighed. "Now, if it's proved the fellow with the disruptor was firing at someone, he gets deported, but if it was an accident all we can do is confiscate the illegal weapon, fine him, and let him go. Which we'll have to do in another 12 hours if this intent-to-harm business can't be substantiated."

Rau under arrest? Ethan's smile became beatific. "What about his friend?"

"Vouches for him, of course. He shook down clean, so there was nothing to be done with him."

Millisor on the loose, if he understood the Security woman correctly. Ethan's smile faded. And Setti, whom Ethan had never seen and v/ould not recognize if he walked right into him. Ethan took a breath. "My name is Urquhart."

"Mine's Lara," said the Security woman.

"That's nice," said Ethan automatically. "But—"

"It was my grandmother's name," the Security woman confided. "I think family names give such a nice sense of continuity, don't you? Unless you happen to get stuck with something like Sterilla, which happened to an unfortunate friend of mine. She shortens it to Ilia."

"Uh—that wasn't exactly what I meant."

She tilted her head, chipper. "Which wasn't?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"What thing that you said wasn't what you meant?"

"Er ..."

"—quhart," she finished. "It's a nice name, I don't think you should be shy about it. Or did you get teased about it as a kid or something?"

He stood with his mouth open, awash. But before the conversational thread could become more raveled, another, older Security woman shot down the lift tube that connected the booth to an upper level. She exited the tube with an authoritative thump.

"No socializing on duty, Corporal, may I remind you—again," she called over her shoulder as she went to a locker. "Wrap it up, we've got a call."

The Security girl made a moue at her superior's back, and whispered to Ethan, "2400, all right?" She came to her feet, and something like attention, as her officer pulled a pair of sidearms in holsters from the wall cabinet. "Serious, ma'am?"

"We're wanted for a search cordon, levels C7 and 8. A prisoner just vanished from Detention." "Escaped?"

"They didn't say escaped. They said, vanished." The officer's mouth twisted dryly. "When Echelon insists on weasel-words, I get suspicious. The prisoner was that dirt sucker they pried loose from the nerve disrupter this morning. Now, I had a look at his weapon. Best military issue, and not new." She buckled on her heavy-duty stunner, and handed its twin to her corporal.

"Yeah, so? Army surplus." The corporal straightened her uniform, checked her face in a small mirror, then checked her weapon with equal care.

"Yeah, not so. I'll bet you Betan dollars to anything you choose he's another gods-please-damn unregistered military espionage agent."

"Not that plague again. Is it just one, or a bunch?" "I hope it's not a bunch. That's the worst. Unpredictable, violent, don't care about the law, don't care about public safety for the gods' sakes, and after you half break your neck handling them with gloves you still get reprimanded at some embassy's request and all your carefully amassed case evidence gets tossed into the vacuum—" She turned to make shooing motions at Ethan. "Out, out, we've got to lock up here." She added to her corporal, "You stick tight by me, you hear? No heroics." "Yes, ma'am."

And Ethan found himself locked out on the balcony as Station Security, in a pair, hurried out of sight. The corporal glanced back over her shoulder at his tentative raised hand and "Ah—ah . . .", and gave him a friendly little wave of her fingers.

Over three corridors. Up two levels. Through the maze within a maze of Quinn's hostel. The familiar door. Ethan moistened his lips, and knocked.

And knocked again.

And stood ...

The door hissed open. His relief was swallowed by surprise as a cleaning robot dodged around him. The room beyond was as anonymous and pristine as if never occupied.

"Where'd she go?" he wailed, rhetorically to relieve his feelings.

But the cleaning robot paused. "Please rephrase your question, sir or madam," it spoke from a grille in its maroon plastic housing.

He turned to it eagerly. "Commander Quinn—the person who had this room—where did she go?"

"The previous occupant checked out at 1100, sir or madam. The previous occupant left no forwarding address with this hostel, sir or madam."

Eleven hundred? She must have gone within minutes of the time he'd stormed out, Ethan calculated. "Oh, God the Father ..."

"Sir or madam," chirped the robot politely, "please rephrase your question."

"I wasn't talking to you," said Ethan, running his hands through his hair. He felt like tearing it out in clumps.

The robot hovered. "Do you require anything else, sir or madam?"

"No—no ..."

The robot whirred away up the corridor.

Down two levels. Over three corridors. The Security team had not yet returned. Their booth was still locked.

Ethan plunked down beside the fountain and waited. This time he would really turn himself in, for sure. If Rau had got himself on the wrong side of the law by firing at Ethan, Ethan must therefore be on the right side, correct? He had nothing to fear from Security.

Of course, if they couldn't keep Rau the arrestee in their secure area, how likely was it they could keep Rau the assassin out? Ethan studiously ignored this whisper from his logic as a fear planted by Quinn. Security was his best chance. Indeed, now that he had irrevocably offended Quinn, Security was his only chance.

"Dr. Urquhart?" A hand fell on Ethan's shoulder.

Ethan jumped half a meter, and whirled. "Who wants t'know?" he demanded hoarsely.

A blond young man fell back a pace in consternation. He was of middle height, wire-muscled and slight, dressed in an unfamiliar downsider fashion, a sleeveless knit shirt, loose trousers bunched at the ankles into the tops of comfortable-looking boots of some butter-soft leather. "Excuse me. If you're Dr. Ethan Urquhart of Athos, I've been looking all over for you."

"Why?"

"I hoped you might help me. Please, sir, don't go—" he held out a hand as Ethan flinched away. "You don't know me, but I'm very interested in Athos. My name is Terrence Cee."