Lois McMaster Bujold, "Mirror Dance"

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

CHAPTER ONE

The row of comconsole booths lining the passenger concourse of Escobar's largest commercial orbital transfer station had mirrored doors, divided into diagonal sections by rainbow-colored lines of lights. Doubtless someone's idea of decor. The mirror-sections were deliberately set slightly out of alignment, fragmenting their reflections. The short man in the grey and white military uniform scowled at his divided self framed therein.

His image scowled back. The insignia-less mercenary officer's undress kit—pocketed jacket, loose trousers tucked into ankle-topping boots—was correct in every detail. He studied the body under the uniform. A stretched-out dwarf with a twisted spine, short-necked, big-headed. Subtly deformed, and robbed by his short stature of any chance of the disturbing near-rightness passing unnoticed. His dark hair was neatly trimmed. Beneath black brows, the grey eyes' glower deepened. The body, too, was correct in every detail. He hated it.

The mirrored door slid up at last, and a woman exited the booth. She wore a soft wrap tunic and flowing trousers. A fashionable bandolier of expensive electronic equipment hanging decoratively on a jeweled chain across her torso advertised her status. Her beginning stride was arrested at the sight of him, and she recoiled, buffeted by his black and hollow stare, then went carefully around him with a mumbled, "Excuse me . . . I'm sorry. ..."

He belatedly twisted up his mouth on an imitation smile, and muttered something half-inaudible conveying enough allegiance to the social proprieties for him to pass by. He hit the keypad to lower the door again, sealing himself from sight. Alone- at last, for one last moment, if only in the narrow confines of a commercial comm booth. The woman's perfume lingered cloyingly in the air, along with a frisson of station odors; recycled air, food, bodies, stress, plastics and metals and cleaning compounds. He exhaled, and sat, and laid his hands out flat on the small countertop to still their trembling.

Not quite alone. There was another damned mirror in here, for the convenience of patrons wishing to check their appearance before transmitting it by holovid. His dark-ringed eyes flashed back at him malevolently, then he ignored the image. He emptied his pockets out onto the countertop. All his worldly resources fit neatly into a space little larger than his two spread palms. One last inventory. As if counting it again might change the sum . . .

A credit chit with about three hundred Betan dollars remaining upon it: one might live well for a week upon this orbital space station for that much, or for a couple of lean months on the planet turning below, if it were carefully managed. Three false identification chits, none for the man he was now. None for the man he was. Whoever he was. An ordinary plastic pocket comb. A data cube. That was all. He returned all but the credit chit to various pockets upon and in the jacket, gravely sorting them individually. He ran out of objects before he ran out of pockets, and snorted. You might at least have brought your own toothbrush . . . too late now.

And getting later. Horrors happened, proceeding unchecked, while he sat struggling for nerve. Come on. You've done this before. You can do it now. He jammed the credit card into the slot, and keyed in the carefully memorized code number. Compulsively, he glanced one last time into the mirror, and tried to smooth his features into something approaching a neutral expression. For all his practice, he did not think he could manage the grin just now. He despised that grin anyway.

The vid plate hissed to life, and a woman's visage formed above it. She wore grey-and-whites like his own, but with proper rank insignia and name patch. She recited crisply, "Comm Officer Hereld, Triumph, Dendarii Free . . . Corporation." In Escobaran space, a mercenary fleet sealed its weapons at the Outside jumppoint station under the watchful eyes of the Escobaran military inspectors, and submitted proof of its purely commercial intentions, before it was even allowed to pass. The polite fiction was maintained, apparently, in Escobar orbit.

He moistened his lips, and said evenly, "Connect me with the officer of the watch, please."

"Admiral Naismith, sir! You're back!" Even over the holovid a blast of pleasure and excitement washed out from her straightened posture and beaming face. It struck him like a blow. "What's up? Are we going to be moving out soon?"

"In good time, Lieutenant . . . Hereld." An apt name for a communications officer. He managed to twitch a smile. Admiral Naismith would smile, yes. "You'll learn in good time. In the meanwhile, I want a pick-up at the orbital transfer station."

"Yes, sir. I can get that for you. Is Captain Quinn with you?"

"Uh . . . no."

"When will she be following?"

". . . Later."

"Right, sir. Let me just get clearance for—are we loading any equipment?"

"No. Just myself."

"Clearance from the Escobarans for a personnel pod, then ..." she turned aside for a few moments. "I can have someone at docking bay E17 in about twenty minutes."

"Very well." It would take him almost that long to get from this concourse to that arm of the station. Ought he to add some personal word for Lieutenant Hereld? She knew him; how well did she know him? Every sentence that fell from his lips from this point on packed risk, risk of the unknown, risk of a mistake. Mistakes were punished. Was his Betan accent really right? He hated this, with a stomach-churning terror. "I want to be transferred directly to the Ariel."

"Right, sir. Do you wish me to notify Captain Thorne?"

Was Admiral Naismith often in the habit of springing surprise inspections? Well, not this time. "Yes, do. Tell them to make ready to break orbit."

"Only the Ariel?" Her brows rose.

"Yes, Lieutenant." This, in quite a perfect bored Betan drawl. He congratulated himself as she grew palpably prim. The undertone had suggested just the right hint of criticism of a breach of security, or manners, or both, to suppress further dangerous questions.

"Will do, Admiral."

"Naismith out." He cut the comm. She vanished in a haze of sparkles, and he let out a long breath. Admiral Naismith. Miles Naismith. He had to get used to responding to that name again, even in his sleep. Leave the Lord Vorkosigan part completely out of it, for now; it was difficult enough just being the Naismith half of the man. Drill. What is your name? Miles. Miles. Miles.

Lord Vorkosigan pretended to be Admiral Naismith. And so did he. What, after all, was the difference?

But what is your name really?

His vision darkened in a rush of despair, and rage. He blinked it back, controlling his breathing. My name is what I will. And right now I will it to be Miles Naismith.

He exited the booth and strode down the concourse, short legs pumping, both riveting and repelling the sideways stares of startled strangers. See Miles. See Miles run. See Miles get what he deserves. He marched head-down, and no one got in his way.

He ducked into the personnel pod, a tiny four-man shuttle, as soon as the hatch seal sensors blinked green and the door dilated. He hit the keypad for it to close again behind him immediately. The pod was too little to maintain a grav field. He floated over the seats and pulled himself carefully down into the one beside the lone pilot, a mail in Dendarii grey tech coveralls.

"All right. Let's go."

The pilot grinned and sketched him a salute as he strapped in. Otherwise appearing to be a sensible adult male, he had the same look on his face as the comm officer, Hereld; excited, breathless, watching eagerly, as if his passenger were about to pull treats from his pockets.

He glanced over his shoulder as the pod obediently broke free of the docking clamps and turned. They swooped away from the skin of the station into clear space. The traffic control patterns made a maze of colored lights on the navigation console, through which the pilot swiftly threaded them.

"Good to see you back, Admiral," said the pilot as soon as the tangle grew less thick. "What's happening?"

The edge of formality in the pilot's tone was reassuring. Just a comrade in arms, not one of the Dear Old Friends, or worse, Dear Old Lovers. He essayed an evasion. "When you need to know, you'll be told." He made his tone affable, but avoided names or ranks.

The pilot vented an intrigued "Hm," and smirked, apparently contented.

He settled back with a tight smile. The huge transfer station fell away silently behind them, shrinking into a mad child's toy, then into a few glints of light. "Excuse me. I'm a little tired." He settled down further into his seat and closed his eyes. "Wake me up when we dock, if I fall asleep."

"Yes, sir," said the pilot respectfully. "You look like you could use it."

He acknowledged this with a tired wave of his hand, and pretended to doze.

He could always tell, instantly, when someone he met thought they were facing "Naismith." They all had that same stupid hyper-alert glow in their faces. They weren't all worshipful; he'd met some of Naismith's enemies once, but worshipful or homicidal, they reacted. As if they suddenly switched on, and became ten times more alive than ever before. How the hell did he do it? Make people light up like that? Granted, Naismith was a goddamn hyperactive, but how did he make it so freaking contagious?

Strangers who met him as himself did not greet him like that. They were blank and courteous, or blank and rude, or just blank, closed and indifferent. Covertly uncomfortable with his slight deformities, and his obviously abnormal four-foot-nine-inch height. Wary.

His resentment boiled up behind his eyes like sinus pain. All this bloody hero-worship, or whatever it was. All for Naismith. For Naismith, and not for me . . . never for me. . . .

He stifled a twinge of dread, knowing what he was about to face. Bel Thorne, the Ariel's captain, would be another one. Friend, officer, fellow Betan, yes, a tough test, well enough. But Thorne also knew of the existence of the clone, from that chaotic encounter two years ago on Earth. They had never met face to face. But a mistake that another Dendarii might dismiss in confusion could trigger in Thorne the suspicion, the wild surmise. . . .

Even that distinction Naismith had stolen from him. The mercenary admiral, publicly and falsely, now claimed to be a clone himself. A superior cover, concealing his other identity, his other life. You have two lives, he thought to his absent enemy. I have none. I'm the real done, damn it. Couldn't I have even that uniqueness? Did you have to take it all?

No. Keep his thoughts positive. He could handle Thorne. As long as he could avoid the terrifying Quinn, the bodyguard, the lover, Quinn. He had met Quinn face to face on Earth, and fooled her once, for a whole morning. Not twice, he didn't think. But Quinn was with the real Miles Naismith, stuck like glue; he was safe from her. No old lovers this trip.

He'd never had a lover, not yet. It was perhaps not quite fair to blame Naismith for that as well. For the first twenty years of his life he had been in effect a prisoner, though he hadn't always realized it. For the last two . . . the last two years had been one continuous disaster, he decided bitterly. This was his last chance. He refused to think beyond. No more. This had to be made to work.

The pilot stirred, beside him, and he slitted open his eyes as the deceleration pressed him against his seat straps. They were coming up on the Ariel. It grew from a dot to a model to a ship. The Illyrican-built light cruiser carried a crew of twenty, plus room for supercargo and a commando squad. Heavily powered for its size, an energy profile typical of warships. It looked swift, almost rakish. A good courier ship; a good ship to run like hell in. Perfect. Despite his black mood, his lips curled up, as he studied that ship. Now I take, and you give, Naismith.

The pilot, clearly quite conscious that he was conveying his admiral, brought the personnel pod into its docking clamps with a bare click, eat and smooth as humanly possible. "Shall I wait, sir?"

"No. I shouldn't be needing you again."

The pilot hurried to adjust the tube seals while his passenger was till unbuckling, and saluted him out with another idiot broad proud mile. He twitched a returning smile and salute, then grasped the handlebars above the hatch and swung himself into the Ariel's gravity ield.

He dropped neatly to his feet in a small loading bay. Behind him, he pod pilot was already re-sealing the hatch to return himself and iis pod to its vessel of origin, probably the flagship Triumph. He looked up — always, up — into the face of the waiting Dendarii officer, face he had studied before this only in a holovid.

Captain Bel Thorne was a Betan hermaphrodite, a race that was remnant of an early experiment in human genetic and social engineering that had succeeded only in creating another minority. "home's beardless face was framed by soft brown hair in a short, ambiguous cut that either a man or a woman might sport. Its officer's jacket hung open, revealing the black tee shirt underneath curving over modest but distinctly feminine breasts. The gray Dendarii uniform trousers were loose enough to disguise the reciprocal bulge in he crotch. Some people found hermaphrodites enormously disturbing. he was relieved to realize he found that aspect of Thorne only slightly disconcerting. Clones who live in glass houses shouldn't throw . . . what? It was the radiant I-love-Naismith look on the hermaphrodite's face that really bothered him. His gut knotted, as he returned the Ariel's captain's salute.

"Welcome aboard, sir!" The alto voice was vibrant with enthusiasm.

He was just managing a stiff smile, when the hermaphrodite stepped up and embraced him. His heart lurched, and he barely choked off a cry and a violent, defensive lashing-out. He endured he embrace without going rigid, grasping mentally after shattered composure and his carefully rehearsed speeches. It's not going to kiss me, is it?!

The hermaphrodite set him at arm's length, hands familiarly upon his shoulders, without doing so, however. He breathed relief. Thorne cocked its head, its lips twisting in puzzlement. "What's wrong, Miles?"

First names? "Sorry, Bel. I'm just a little tired. Can we get right to the briefing?"

You look a lot tired. Right. Do you want me to assemble the whole crew?"

No . . . you can re-brief them as needed." That was the plan, as little direct contact with as few Dendarii as possible.

"Come to my cabin, then, and you can put your feet up and drink tea while we talk."

The hermaphrodite followed him into the corridor. Not knowing which direction to turn, he wheeled and waited as if politely for Thorne to lead on. He trailed the Dendarii officer through a couple of twists and turns and up a level. The ship's internal architecture was not as cramped as he'd expected. He noted directions carefully. Naismith knew this ship well.

The Ariel's captain's cabin was a neat little chamber, soldierly, not revealing much on this side of the latched cupboard doors about the personality of its owner. But Thorne unlatched one to display an antique ceramic tea set and a couple of dozen small canisters of varietal teas of Earth and other planetary origins, all protected from breakage by custom-made foam packing. "What kind?" Thorne called, its hand hovering over the canisters.

"The usual," he replied, easing into a station chair clamped to the floor beside a small table.

"Might have guessed. I swear I'll train you to be more venturesome one of these days." Thorne shot a peculiar grin over its shoulder at him—was that intended to be some sort of double entendre? After a bit more rattling about, Thorne placed a delicately hand-painted porcelain cup and saucer upon the table at his elbow. He picked it up and sipped cautiously as Thorne hooked another chair into its clamps a quarter turn around the table, produced a cup for itself, and sat with a small grunt of satisfaction.

He was relieved to find the hot amber liquid pleasant, if astringent. Sugar? He dared not ask. Thorne hadn't put any out. The Dendarii surely would have, if it expected Naismith to use sugar. Thorne couldn't be making some subtle test already, could it? No sugar, then.

Tea-drinking mercenaries. The beverage didn't seem nearly poisonous enough, somehow, to go with the display, no, working arsenal, of weapons clamped to the wall: a couple of stunners, a needier, a plasma arc, a gleaming metal crossbow with an assortment of grenade-bolts in a bandolier hung with it. Thorne was supposed to be good at its job. If that was true, he didn't care what the creature drank.

"You're in a black study. I take it you've brought us a lovely one this time, eh?" Thorne prodded after another moment's silence.

"The mission assignment, yes." He certainly hoped that was what Thorne meant. The hermaphrodite nodded, and raised its brows in encouraging inquiry. "It's a pick-up. Not the biggest one we've ever attempted, by any means—"

Thorne laughed.

"But with its own complications."

"It can't possibly be any more complicated than Dagoola Four. Say on, oh do."

He rubbed his lips, a patented Naismith gesture. "We're going to knock over House Bharaputra's clone creche, on Jackson's Whole. Clean it out."

Thorne was just crossing its legs; both feet now hit the floor with a thump. "Kill them?" it said in a startled voice.

"The clones? No, rescue them! Rescue them all."

"Oh. Whew." Thorne looked distinctively relieved. "I had this horrible vision for a second—they are children, after all. Even if they are clones."

"Just exactly so." A real smile tugged up the corners of his mouth, surprising him. "I'm . . . glad you see it that way."

"How else?" Thorne shrugged. "The clone brain-transplant business is the most monstrous, obscene practice in Bharaputra's whole catalog of slime services. Unless there's something even worse I haven't heard about yet."

"I think so too." He settled back, concealing his startlement at this instant endorsement of his scheme. Was Thorne sincere? He knew intimately, none better, the hidden horrors behind the clone business on Jackson's Whole. He'd lived through them. He had not expected someone who had not shared his experiences to share his judgment, though.

House Bharaputra's specialty was not, strictly speaking, cloning. It was the immortality business, or at any rate, the life extension business. And a very lucrative business it was, for what price could one put on life itself? All the market would bear. The procedure Bharaputra sold was medically risky, not ideal . . . wagered only against a certainty of imminent death by customers who were wealthy, ruthless, and, he had to admit, possessed of unusual cool foresight.

The arrangement was simple, though the surgical procedure upon which it was based was fiendishly complex. A clone was grown from a customer's somatic cell, gestated in a uterine replicator and then raised to physical maturity in Bharaputra's creche, a sort of astonishingly-appointed orphanage. The clones were valuable, after all, their physical conditioning and health of supreme importance. Then, when the time was right, they were cannibalized. In an operation that claimed a total success rate of rather less than one hundred percent, the clone's progenitor's brain was transplanted from its aged or damaged body into a duplicate still in the first bloom of youth. The clone's brain was classified as medical waste.

The procedure was illegal on every planet in the wormhole nexus except Jackson's Whole. That was fine with the criminal Houses that ran the place. It gave them a nice monopoly, a steady business with lots of practice upon the stream of wealthy off-worlders to keep their surgical teams at the top of their forms. As far as he had ever been able to tell, the attitude of the rest of the worlds toward it all was out of sight, out of mind." The spark of sympathetic, righteous anger in Thorne's eyes touched him on a level of pain so numb with use he was scarcely conscious of it any more, and he was appalled to realize he was a heartbeat away from bursting into tears. It's probably a trick. He blew out his breath, another Naismith-ism.

Thorne's brows drew down in intense thought. "Are you sure we should be taking the Ariel? Last I heard,Baron Ryoval was still alive. It's bound to get his attention."

House Ryoval was one of Bharaputra's minor rivals in the illegal medical end of things. Its specialty was manufacturing genetically-engineered or surgically sculptured humans for any purpose, including sexual, in effect slaves made-to-order; evil, he supposed, but not the killing evil that obsessed him. But what had the Ariel to do with Baron Ryoval? He hadn't a clue. Let Thorne worry about it. Perhaps the hermaphrodite would drop more information later. He reminded himself to seize the first opportunity to review the ship's mission logs.

"This mission has nothing to do with House Ryoval. We shall avoid them."

"So I hope," agreed Thorne fervently. It paused, thoughtfully sipping tea. "Now, despite the fact that Jackson's Whole is long overdue for a housecleaning, preferably with atomics, I presume we are not doing this just out of the goodness of our hearts. What's, ah, the mission behind the mission this time?"

He had a rehearsed answer for that one. "In fact, only one of the clones, or rather, one of its progenitors, is of interest to our employer. The rest are to be camouflage. Among them, Bharaputra's customers have a lot of enemies. They won't know which one is attacking who. It makes our employer's identity, which they very much desire to keep secret, all the more secure."

Thorne grinned smugly. "That little refinement was your idea, I take it."

He shrugged. "In a sense."

"Hadn't we better know which clone we're after, to prevent accidents, or in case we have to cut and run? If our employer wants it alive—or does it matter to them if the clone is alive or dead? If the real target is the old bugger who had it grown."

"They care. Alive. But . . . for practical purposes, let us assume that all the clones are the one we're after."

Thorne spread its hands in acquiescence. "It's all right by me." The hermaphrodite's eyes glinted with enthusiasm, and it suddenly smacked its fist into its palm with a crack that made him jump. "It's about time someone took those Jacksonian bastards on! Oh, this is going to be fun!" It bared its teeth in a most alarming grin. "How much help do we have lined up on Jackson's Whole? Safety nets?"

"Don't count on any."

"Hm. How much hindrance? Besides Bharaputra, Ryoval, and Fell, of course."

House Fell dealt mainly in weapons. What had Fell to do with any of this? "Your guess is as good as mine."

Thorne frowned; that was not the usual sort of Naismith answer, apparently.

"I have a great deal of inside information about the creche, that I can brief you on once we're en route. Look, Bel, you hardly need me to tell you how to do your job at this late date. I trust you. Take over the logistics and planning, and I'll check the finals."

Thorne's spine straightened. "Right. How many kids are we talking about?"

"Bharaputra does about one of these transplants a week, on average. Fifty a year, say, that they have coming along. The last year of the clones' lives they move them to a special facility near House headquarters, for final conditioning. I want to take the whole year's supply from that facility. Fifty or sixty kids."

"All packed aboard the Ariel? It'll be tight."

"Speed, Bel, speed."

"Yeah. I think you're right. Timetable?"

"As soon as possible. Every week's delay costs another innocent life." He'd measured out the last two years by that clock. I have wasted a hundred lives so far. The journey from Earth to Escobar alone had cost him a thousand Betan dollars and four dead clones.

"I get it," said Thorne grimly, and rose and put away its tea cup. It switched its chair to the clamps in front of its comconsole. "That kid's slated for surgery, isn't it."

"Yes. And if not that one, a creche-mate."

Thorne began tapping keypads. "What about funds? That is your department."

"This mission is cash on delivery. Draw your estimated needs from Fleet funds."

"Right. Put your palm over here and authorize my withdrawal, then." Thorne held out a sensor pad.

Without hesitation, he laid his palm flat upon it. To his horror, the red no-recognition code glinted in the readout. No! It has to be right, it has to—!

"Damn machine." Thorne tapped the sensor pad's corner sharply on the table. "Behave. Try again."

This time, he laid his palm down with a very slight twist; the computer digested the new data, and this time pronounced him cleared, accepted, blessed. Funded. His pounding heart slowed in relief.

Thorne keyed in more data, and said over its shoulder, "No question which commando squad you want to requisition for this one, eh?"

"No question," he echoed hollowly. "Go ahead." He had to get out of here, before the strain of the masquerade made him blow away his good start.

"You want your usual cabin?" Thorne inquired.

"Sure." He stood.

"Soon, I gather . . ." The hermaphrodite checked a readout in the glowing complexity of logistics displays above the comconsole vid plate. "The palm lock is still keyed for you. Get off your feet, you look beat. It's under control."

"Good."

"When will Elli Quinn be along?"

"She won't be coming on this mission."

Thorne's eyes widened in surprise. "Really." Its smile broadened, quite inexplicably. "That's too bad." Its voice conveyed not the least disappointment. Some rivalry, there? Over what?

"Have the Triumph send over my kit," he ordered. Yes, delegate that thievery too. Delegate it all. "And . . . when you get the chance, have a meal sent to my cabin."

"Will do," promised Thorne with a firm nod. "I'm glad to see you've been eating better, by the way, even if you haven't been sleeping. Good. Keep it up. We worry about you, you know."

Eating better, hell. With his stature, keeping his weight down had become a constant battle. He'd starved for three months just to get back into Naismith's uniform, that he'd stolen two years ago and now wore. Another wave of weary hatred for his progenitor washed over him. He let himself out with a casual salute that he trusted would encourage Thorne to keep working, and managed to keep from snarling under his breath till the cabin door hissed shut behind him.

There was nothing for it but to try every palm lock in the corridor till one opened. He hoped no Dendarii would come along while he was rattling doors. He found his cabin at last, directly across from the hermaphrodite captain's. The door slid open at his touch on the sensor pad without any heart-stopping glitches this time.

The cabin was a little chamber almost identical to Thorne's, only blanker. He checked cupboards. Most were bare, but in one he found a set of gray fatigues and a stained tech coverall just his size. A residue of half-used toiletries in the cabin's tiny washroom included a toothbrush, and his lips twisted in an ironical sneer. The neatly made bed which folded out of the wall looked extremely attractive, and he nearly swooned into it.

I'm on my way. I've done it. The Dendarii had accepted him, accepted his orders with the same stupid blind trust with which they followed Naismith's. Like sheep. All he had to do now was not screw it up. The hardest part was over.

He'd grabbed a quick shower and was just pulling on Naismith's trousers when his meal arrived. His undress state gave him an excuse to wave the attentive tray-bearing Dendarii out again quickly. The dinner under the covers turned out to be real food, not rations. Grilled vat steak, fresh-appearing vegetables, non-synthetic coffee, the hot food hot and the cold food cold, beautifully laid out in little portions finely calculated to Naismith's appetite. Even ice cream. He recognized his progenitor's tastes, and was daunted anew by this rush by unknown people to try to give him exactly what he wanted, even in these tiny details. Rank had its privileges, but this was insane.

Depressed, he ate it all, and was just wondering if the fuzzy green stuff arranged to fill up all the empty space on the plate was edible too, when the cabin buzzer blatted again.

This time, it was a Dendarii non-com and a float pallet with three big crates on it.

"Ah," he blinked. "My kit. Just set it there in the middle of the floor, for now."

"Yes, sir. Don't you want to assign a batman?" The non-com's inviting expression left no doubt about who was first in line to volunteer.

"Not . . . this mission. We're going to be cramped for space, later. Just leave it."

"I'd be happy to unpack it for you, sir. I packed it all up."

"Quite all right."

"If I've missed anything, just let me know, and I'll run it right over."

"Thank you, corporal." His exasperation leaked into his voice; fortunately, it acted as a brake upon the corporal's enthusiasm. The Dendarii heaved the crates from the float pallet and exited with a sheepish grin, as if to say, Hey, you can't blame me for trying.

He smiled back through set teeth, and turned his attention to the crates as soon as the door sealed. He flipped up the latches and hesitated, bemused at his own eagerness. It must be rather like getting a birthday present. He'd never had a birthday present in his life. So, let's make up for some lost time.

The first lid folded back to reveal clothes, more clothes than he'd ever owned before. Tech coveralls, undress kit, a dress uniform—he held up the grey velvet tunic, and raised his brows at the shimmer and the silver buttons—boots, shoes, slippers, pajamas, all regulation, all cut down to perfect fit. And civilian clothes, eight or ten sets, in various planetary and galactic styles and social levels. An Escobaran business suit in red silk, a Barrayaran quasi-military tunic and piped trousers, ship knits, a Betan sarong and sandals, a ragged jacket and shirt and pants suitable for a down-on-his-luck dockworker anywhere. Abundant underwear. Three kinds of chronos with build-in comm units, one Dendarii regulation, one very expensive commercial model, one appearing cheap and battered, which turned out to be finest military surplus underneath. And more.

He moved to the second crate, flipped up the lid, and gaped. Space armor. Full-bore attack unit space armor, power and life support packs fully charged, weapons loaded and locked. Just his size. It seemed to gleam with its own dark and wicked glow, nested in its packing. The smell of it hit him, incredibly military, metal and plastic, energy and chemicals . . . old sweat. He drew the helmet out and stared with wonder into the darkened mirror of its visor. He had never worn space armor, though he'd studied it in holovids till his eyes crossed. A sinister, deadly carapace . . .

He unloaded it all, and laid the pieces out in order upon the floor. Strange splashes, scars, and patches deckled the gleaming surfaces here and there. What weapons, what strikes, had been powerful enough to mar that metalloy surface? What enemies had fired them? Every scar, he realized, fingering them, had been intended death. This was not pretend.

It was very disturbing. No. He pushed away the cold shiver of doubt. If he can do it, I can do it. He tried to ignore the repairs and mysterious stains on the pressure suit and its soft, absorbent under-liner as he packed it all away again and stowed the crate. Blood? Shit? Burns? Oil? It was all cleaned and odorless now, anyway.

The third crate, smaller than the second, proved to contain a set of half-armor, lacking built-in weapons and not meant for space, but rather for dirtside combat under normal or near-normal pressure, temperature, and atmospheric conditions. Its most arresting feature was a command headset, a smooth duralloy helmet with built-in telemetry and a vid projector in a flange above the forehead that placed any data on the net right before the commander's eyes. Data flow was controlled by certain facial movements and voice commands. He left it out on the counter to examine more thoroughly later, and repacked the rest.

By the time he finished arranging all the clothing in the cabin's cupboards and drawers, he'd begun to regret sending the batman away so precipitously. He fell onto the bed, and dimmed the lights. When he next woke, he should be on his way to Jackson's Whole. . . .

He'd just begun to doze when the cabin comm buzzed. He lurched up to answer it, mustering a reasonably coherent "Naismith here," in a sleep-blurred voice.

"Miles?" said Thorne's voice. "The commando squad's here."

"Uh . . . good. Break orbit as soon as you're ready, then."

"Don't you want to see them?" Thorne said, sounding surprised.

Inspection. He inhaled. "Right. I'll ... be along. Naismith out." He hurried back into his uniform trousers, taking a jacket with proper insignia this time, and quickly called up a schematic of the ship's interior layout on the cabin's comconsole. There were two locks for combat drop shuttles, port and starboard. Which one? He traced a route to both.

The operative shuttle hatch was the first one he tried. He paused a moment in shadow and silence at the curve of the corridor, before he was spotted, to take in the scene.

The loading bay was crowded with a dozen men and women in grey camouflage flight suits, along with piles of equipment and supplies. Hand and heavy weapons were stacked in symmetrical arrays. The mercenaries sat or stood, talking noisily, loud and crude, punctuated with barks of laughter. They were all so big, generating too much energy, knocking into each other in half-horseplay, as if seeking an excuse to shout louder. They bore knives and other personal weapons on belts or in holsters or on bandoliers, an ostentatious display. Their faces were a blur, animal-like. He swallowed, straightened, and stepped among them.

The effect was instantaneous. "Heads up!" someone shouted, and without further orders they arranged themselves at rigid attention in two neat, dead silent rows, each with his or her bundle of equipment at their feet. It was almost more frightening than the previous chaos.

With a thin smile, he walked forward, and pretended to look at each one. A last heavy duffle arced out of the shuttle hatch to land with a thump on the deck, and the thirteenth commando squeezed through, stood up, and saluted him.

He stood paralyzed with panic. Whatinhell was it? He stared at a flashing belt buckle, then tilted his head back, straining his neck. The freaking thing was eight feet tall. The enormous body radiated power that he could feel almost like a wave of heat, and the face—the face was a nightmare. Tawny yellow eyes, like a wolf's, a distorted, outslung mouth with fangs, dammit, long white canines locked over the edges of the carmine lips. The huge hands had claws, thick, powerful, razor-edged—enamelled with carmine polish. . . . What? His gaze traveled back up to the monster's face. The eyes were outlined with shadow and gold tint, echoed by a little gold spangle glued decoratively to one high cheekbone. The mahogany-colored hair was drawn back in an elaborate braid. The belt was cinched in tightly, emphasizing a figure of sorts despite the loose-fitting multi-grey flight suit. The thing was female—?

"Sergeant Taura and the Green Squad, reporting as ordered, sir!" The baritone voice reverberated in the bay.

"Thank you—" It came out a cracked whisper, and he coughed to unlock his throat. "Thank you, that will be all, get your orders from Captain Thorne, you may all stand down." They all strained to hear him, compelling him to repeat, "Dismissed!"

They broke up in disorder, or some order known only to themselves, for the bay was cleared of equipment with astonishing speed.

The monster sergeant lingered, looming over him. He locked his knees, to keep himself from sprinting from it—her. . . .

She lowered her voice. "Thanks for picking the Green Squad, Miles. I take it you've got us a real plum."

More first names? "Captain Thorne will brief you en route. It's . . . a challenging mission." And this would be the sergeant in charge of it?

"Captain Quinn have the details, as usual?" She cocked a furry eyebrow at him.

"Captain Quinn . . . will not be coming on this mission."

He swore her gold eyes widened, the pupil's dilating. Her lips drew back baring her fangs further in what took him a terrifying moment to realize was a smile. In a weird way, it reminded him of the grin with which Thorne had greeted that same news.

She glanced up; the bay had emptied of other personnel. "Aah?" Her voice rumbled, like a purr. "Well, I'll be your bodyguard any time, lover. Just give me the sign."

What sign, what the hell—

She bent, her lips rippling, carmine clawed hand grasping his shoulder—he had a flashing vision of her tearing off his head, peeling, and eating him—then her mouth closed over his. His breath stopped, and his vision darkened, and he almost passed out before she straightened and gave him a puzzled, hurt look. "Miles, what's the matter?"

That had been a kiss. Freaking gods. "Nothing," he gasped. "I've . . . been ill. I probably shouldn't have gotten up, but I had to inspect."

She was looking very alarmed. "I'll say you shouldn't have gotten up—you're shaking all over! You can barely stand up. Here, I'll carry you to sickbay. Crazy man!"

"No! I'm all right. That is, I've been treated. I'm just supposed to rest, and recover for a while, is all."

"Well, you go straight back to bed, then!"

"Yes."

He wheeled. She swatted him on the butt. He bit his tongue. She said, "At least you've been eating better. Take care of yourself, huh?"

He waved over his shoulder, and fled without looking back. Had that been military cameraderie? From a sergeant to an admiral? He didn't think so. That had been intimacy. Naismith, you bug-fuck crazy bastard, what have you been doing in your spare time? I didn't think you had any spare time. You've got to be a freaking suicidal maniac, if you've been screwing that—

He locked his cabin door behind him, and stood against it, trembling, laughing in hysterical disbelief. Dammit, he'd studied everything about Naismith, everything. This couldn't be happening. With friends like this, who need enemies?

He undressed and lay tensely upon his bed, contemplating Naismith/Vorkosigan's complicated life, and wondering what other booby-traps it held for him. At last a faint change in the susurrations and creaks of the ship around him, a brief tug of shifting grav fields, made him realize the Ariel was breaking free of Escobar orbit. He had actually succeeded in stealing a fully armed and equipped military fast cruiser, and no one even knew it. They were on their way to Jackson's Whole. To his destiny. His destiny, not Naismith's. His thoughts spiraled toward sleep at last.

But if you claim your destiny, his demon voice whispered at the last, before the night's oblivion, why can't you claim your name?

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10