Lois McMaster Bujold, "Mirror Dance"

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

CHAPTER TWO

They exited the flex tube from the passenger ship in step, arm in arm, Quinn with her duffle swung over her shoulder, Miles with his flight bag gripped in his free hand. In the orbital transfer station's disembarkation lounge, people's heads turned. Miles stole a smug sideways glance at his female companion as they strolled on past the men's half-averted, envious stares. My Quinn.

Quinn was looking particularly tough this morning—was it morning? he'd have to check Dendarii fleet time—having half-returned to her normal persona. She'd managed to make her pocketed grey uniform trousers masquerade as a fashion statement by tucking them into red suede boots (the steel caps under the pointed toes eluded notice) and topping them with a skimpy scarlet tank top. Her white skin glowed in contrast to the tank top and to her short dark curls. The surface colors distracted the eye from her athleticism, not apparent unless you knew just how much that bloody duffle weighed.

Liquid brown eyes informed her face with wit. But it was the perfect, sculptured curves and planes of the face itself that stopped men's voices in midsentence. An obviously expensive face, the work of a surgeon-artist of extraordinary genius. The casual observer might guess her face had been paid for by the little ugly man whose arm she linked with her own, and judge the woman, too, to be a purchase. The casual observer never guessed the price she'd really paid: her old face, burned away in combat off Tau Verde. Very nearly the first battle loss in Admiral Naismith's service—ten years ago, now? God. The casual observer was a twit, Miles decided.

The latest representative of the species was a wealthy executive who reminded Miles of a blond, civilian version of his cousin Ivan, and who had spent much of the two-week journey from Sergyar to Escobar under such misapprehensions about Quinn, trying to seduce her. Miles glimpsed him now, loading his luggage onto a float pallet and venting a last frustrated sigh of defeat before sloping off. Except for reminding Miles of Ivan, Miles bore him no ill-will. In fact, Miles felt almost sorry for him, as Quinn's sense of humor was as vile as her reflexes were deadly.

Miles jerked his head toward the retreating Escobaran and murmured, "So what did you finally say to get rid of him, love?"

Quinn's eyes shifted to identify the man, and crinkled, laughing. "If I told you, you'd be embarrassed."

"No, I won't. Tell me."

"I told him you could do push-ups with your tongue. He must have decided he couldn't compete."

Miles reddened.

"I wouldn't have led him on so far, except that I wasn't totally sure at first that he wasn't some kind of agent," she added apologetically.

"You sure now?"

"Yeah. Too bad. It might have been more entertaining."

"Not to me. I was ready for a little vacation."

"Yes, and you look the better for it. Rested."

"I really like this married-couple cover, for travel," he remarked. "It suits me." He took a slightly deeper breath. "So we've had the honeymoon, why don't we have the wedding to go with it?"

"You never give up, do you?" She kept her tone light. Only the slight flinch of her arm, under his, told him his words had given pain, and he silently cursed himself.

"I'm sorry. I promised I'd keep off that subject."

She shrugged her unburdened shoulder, incidentally unlinking elbows, and let her arm swing aggressively as she walked. "Trouble is, you don't want me to be Madame Naismith, Dread of the Dendarii. You want me to be Lady Vorkosigan of Barrayar. That's a downside post. I'm spacer-born. Even if I did marry a dirtsucker, go down into some gravity well and never come up again . . . Barrayar is not the pit I'd pick. Not to insult your home."

Why not? Everyone else does. "My mother likes you," he offered.

"And I admire her. I've met her, what, four times now, and every time I'm more impressed. And yet . . . the more impressed, the more outraged I am at the criminal waste Barrayar makes of her talents. She'd be Surveyor-General of the Betan Astronomical Survey by now, if she'd stayed on Beta Colony. Or any other thing she pleased."

"She pleased to be Countess Vorkosigan."

"She pleased to be stunned by your Da, whom I admit is pretty stunning. She doesn't give squat for the rest of the Vor caste." Quinn paused, before they came into the hearing of the Escobaran customs inspectors, and Miles stood with her. They both gazed down the chamber, and not at each other. "For all her flair, she's a tired woman underneath. Barrayar has sucked so much out of her. Barrayar is her cancer. Killing her slowly."

Mutely, Miles shook his head.

"Yours too. Lord Vorkosigan," Quinn added somberly. This time it was his turn to flinch.

She sensed it, and tossed her head. "Anyway, Admiral Naismith is my kind of maniac. Lord Vorkosigan is a dull and dutiful stick by contrast. I've seen you at home on Barrayar, Miles. You're like half yourself there. Damped down, muted somehow. Even your voice is lower. It's extremely weird."

"I can't ... I have to fit in, there. Scarcely a generation ago, someone with a body as strange as mine would have been killed outright as a suspected mutant. I can't push things too far, too fast. I'm too easy to target."

"Is that why Barrayaran Imperial Security sends you on so many off-planet missions?"

"For my development as an officer. To widen my background, deepen my experience."

"And someday, they're going to hook you out of here permanently, and take you home, and squeeze all that experience back out of you in their service. Like a sponge."

"I'm in their service now, Elli," he reminded her softly, in a grave and level voice that she had to bend her head to hear. "Now, then, and always."

Her eyes slid away. "Right-oh ... so when they do nail your boots to the floor back on Barrayar, I want your job. I want to be Admiral Quinn someday."

"Fine by me," he said affably. The job, yes. Time for Lord Vorkosigan and his personal wants to go back into the bag. He had to stop masochistically rerunning this stupid marriage conversation with Quinn, anyway. Quinn was Quinn; he did not want her to be not-Quinn, not even for . . . Lord Vorkosigan.

Despite this self-inflicted moment of depression, anticipation of his return to the Dendarii quickened his step as they made their way through customs and into the monster transfer station. Quinn was right. He could feel Naismith refilling his skin, generated from somewhere deep in his psyche right out to his fingertips. Goodbye, dull Lieutenant Miles Vorkosigan, deep cover operative for Barrayaran Imperial Security (and overdue for a promotion); hello, dashing Admiral Naismith, space mercenary and all-around soldier of fortune.

Or misfortune. He slowed as they came to a row of commercial comconsole booths lining the passenger concourse, and nodded toward their mirrored doors. "Let's see how Red Squad is cooking, first. If they're recovered sufficiently for release, I'd like to go downside personally and spring them."

"Right-oh." Quinn dumped her duffle dangerously close to Miles's sandaled feet, swung into the nearest empty booth, jammed her card into the slot, and tapped out a code on the keypad.

Miles set down his flight bag, sat on the duffle, and watched her from outside the booth. He caught a sliced reflection of himself on the mosaic of mirror on the next booth's lowered door. The dark trousers and loose white shirt that he wore were ambiguously styled as to planetary origin, but, as fit his travel-cover, very civilian. Relaxed, casual. Not bad.

Time was he had worn uniforms like a turtle-shell of high-grade social protection over the vulnerable peculiarities of his body. An armor of belonging that said, Don't mess with me. I have friends. When had he stopped needing that so desperately? He was not sure.

For that matter, when had he stopped hating his body? It had been two years since his last serious injury, on the hostage rescue mission that had come right after that incredible mess with his brother on Earth. He'd been fully recovered for quite some time. He flexed his hands, full of plastic replacement bones, and found them as easily his own as before they were last crunched. As before they were ever crunched. He hadn't had an osteo-inflammatory attack in months. I'm feeling no pain, he realized with a dark grin. And it wasn't just Quinn's doing, though Quinn had been . . . very therapeutic. Am I going sane in my old age?

Enjoy it while you can. He was twenty-eight years old, and surely at some sort of physical peak. He could feel that peak, the exhilarating float of apogee. The descending arc was a fate for some future day.

Voices from the comm booth brought him back to the present moment. Quinn had Sandy Hereld on the other end, and was saying, "Hi, I'm back."

"Hi, Quinnie, I was expecting you. What can I do for you?" Sandy had been doing strange things to her hair, again, Miles noted even from his offsides vantage.

"I just got off the jumpship, here at the transfer station. Planning a little detour. I want transport downside to pick up the Red Squad survivors, then back to the Triumph. What's their current status?"

"Hold tight, I'll have it in a second ..." Lieutenant Hereld punched up data on a display to her left.

In the crowded concourse a man in Dendarii greys walked past. He saw Miles, and gave him a hesitant, cautious nod, perhaps uncertain if the Admiral's civilian gear indicated some sort of cover. Miles returned a reassuring wave, and the man smiled and strode on. Miles's brain kicked up unwanted data. The man's name was Travis Gray, he was a field tech currently assigned to the Peregrine, a six-year-man so far, expert in communications equipment, he collected classic pre-Jump music of Earth origin . . . how many such personnel files did Miles carry in his head, now? Hundreds? Thousands?

And here came more. Hereld turned back, and rattled off, "Ives was released to downside leave, and Boyd has been returned to the Triumph for further therapy. The Beauchene Life Center reports that Durham, Vifian, and Aziz are available for release, but they want to talk to someone in charge, first."

"Right-oh."

"Kee and Zelaski . . . they also want to talk about."

Quinn's lips tightened. "Right," she agreed flatly. Miles's belly knotted, just a little. That was not going to be a happy conversation, he suspected. "Let them know we're on our way, then," Quinn said.

"Yes, Cap'n." Hereld shuffled files on her vid display. "Will do. Which shuttle do you want?"

"The Triumph's smaller personnel shuttle will do, unless you have some cargo to load on at the same time from the Beauchene shuttleport."

"None from there, no."

"All right."

Hereld checked her vid. "According to Escobaran flight control, I can put Shuttle Two into docking bay J-26 in thirty minutes. You'll be cleared for immediate downside departure."

"Thanks. Pass the word—there'll be a captain and captain-owner's briefing when we get back. What time is it at Beauchene?"

Hereld glanced aside. "0906, out of a 2607 hour day."

"Morning. Great. What's the weather down there?"

"Lovely. Shirtsleeves."

"Good, I won't have to change. We'll advise when we're ready to depart Port Beauchene. Quinn out."

Miles sat on the duffle, staring down at his sandals, awash in unpleasant memories. It had been one of the Dendarii Mercenaries' sweatier smuggling adventures, putting military advisors and material down on Marilac in support of its continuing resistance to a Cetagandan invasion. Combat Drop Shuttle A-4 from the Triumph had been hit by enemy fire on the last trip up-and-out, with all of Red Squad and several important Marilacans aboard. The pilot, Lieutenant Durham, though mortally injured and in shock himself, had brought his crippled and burning shuttle into a sufficiently low-velocity crunch with the Triumph's docking clamps that the rescue team was able to seal on an emergency flex tube, slice through, and retrieve everyone aboard. They'd managed to jettison the damaged shuttle just before it exploded, and the Triumph itself broke orbit barely ahead of serious Cetagandan vengeance. And so a mission that had started out simple, smooth, and covert ended yet again in the sort of heroic chaos that Miles had come to despise. The chaos, not the heroism.

The score, after heartbreaking triage: twelve seriously injured; seven, beyond the Triumph's resources for resuscitation, cryogenically frozen in hope of later help; three permanently and finally dead. Now Miles would find out how many of the second category he must move to the third. The faces, names, hundreds of unwanted facts about them, cascaded through his mind. He had originally planned to be aboard that last shuttle, but instead had gone up on an earlier flight to deal with some other forest fire. . . .

"Maybe they won't be so bad," Quinn said, reading his face. She stuck out her hand, and he pulled himself up off the duffle and gathered up his flight bag.

"I've spent so much time in hospitals myself, I can't help identifying with them," he excused his dark abstraction. One perfect mission. What he wouldn't give for just one perfect mission, where absolutely nothing went wrong. Maybe the one upcoming would finally be it.

The hospital smell hit Miles immediately when he and Quinn walked through the front doors of the Beauchene Life Center, the cryotherapy specialty clinic the Dendarii dealt with on Escobar. It wasn't a bad smell, not a stench by any means, just an odd edge to the air-conditioned atmosphere. But it was an odor so deeply associated with pain in his experience, he found his heart beating faster. Fight or flight. Not appropriate. He breathed deeply, stroking down the visceral throb, and looked around. The lobby was much in the current style of techno-palaces anywhere on Escobar, clean but cheaply furnished. The real money was all invested upstairs, in the cryo-equipment, regeneration laboratories, and operating theaters.

One of the clinic's senior partners, Dr. Aragones, came down to greet them and escort them upstairs to his office. Miles liked Aragones' office, crammed with the sort of clutter of info disks, charts, and journal-flimsie offprints that indicated a technocrat who thought deeply and continuously about what he was doing. He liked Aragones himself, too, a big bluff fellow with bronze skin, a noble nose, and graying hair, friendly and blunt.

Dr. Aragones was unhappy not to be reporting better results. It hurt his pride, Miles judged.

"You bring us such messes, and want miracles," he complained gently, shifting in his station chair after Miles and Quinn settled themselves. "If you want to assure miracles, you have to start at the very beginning, when my poor patients are first prepared for treatment."

Aragones never called them corpsicles, or any of the other nervous nicknames coined by the soldiers. Always my patients. That was another thing Miles liked about the Escobaran physician.

"In general—unfortunately—our casualties don't arrive on a scheduled, orderly, one-by-one basis," Miles half-apologized in turn. "In this case we had twenty-eight people hit sickbay, with every degree and sort of injury—extreme trauma, burns, chemical contamination—all at once. Triage got brutal, for a little while, till things sorted out. My people did their best." He hesitated. "Do you think it would be worth our while to re-certify a few of our medtechs in your latest techniques, and if so, would you be willing to lead the seminar?"

Aragones spread his hands, and looked thoughtful. "Something might be worked out . . . talk with Administrator Margara, before you go."

Quinn caught Miles's nod, and made a note on her report panel.

Aragones called up charts on his comconsole. "The worst first. We could do nothing for your Mr. Kee or Ms. Zelaski."

"I ... saw Kee's head injury. I'm not surprised." Smashed like a melon. "But we had the cryo-chamber available, so we tried."

Aragones nodded understanding. "Ms. Zelaski had a similar problem, though less externally obvious. So much of her internal cranial circulation was broken during the trauma, her blood could not be properly drained from her brain, nor the cryo-fluids properly perfused. Between the crystalline freezing and the hematomas, the neural destruction was complete. I'm sorry. Their bodies are presently stored in our morgue, waiting your instructions."

"Kee wished his body to be returned for burial to his family on his homeworld. Have your mortuary department prepare and ship him through the usual channels. We'll give you the address." He jerked his chin at Quinn, who made another note. "Zelaski listed no family or next of kin—some Dendarii just don't, or won't, and we don't insist. But she did once tell some of her squad mates how she wanted her ashes disposed of. Please have her remains cremated and returned to the Triumph in care of our medical department."

"Very well." Aragones signed off the charts on his vid display; they disappeared like vanishing spirits. He called up others in their place.

"Your Mr. Durham and Ms. Vifian are both presently only partially healed from their original injuries. Both are suffering from what I would call normal neural-traumatic and cryo-amnesia. Mr. Durham's memory loss is the more profound, partly because of complications due to his pilot's neural implants, which we alas had to remove."

"Will he ever be able to have another headset installed?"

"It's too early to tell. I would call both their long-term prognoses good, but neither will be fit to return to their military duties for at least a year. And then they will need extensive re-training. In both cases I highly recommend they each be returned to their home and family environments, if that is possible. Familiar surroundings will help facilitate and trigger re-establishment of their access to their own surviving memories, over time."

"Lieutenant Durham has family on Earth. We'll see he gets there. Tech Vifian is from Kline Station. We'll see what we can do."

Quinn nodded vigorously, and made more notes.

"I can release them to you today, then. We've done all we can, here, and ordinary convalescent facilities will do for the rest. Now . . . that leaves your Mr. Aziz."

"My trooper Aziz," Miles agreed to the claim. Aziz was three years in the Dendarii, had applied and been accepted for officer's training. Twenty-one years old.

"Mr. Aziz is ... alive again. That is, his body sustains itself without artificial aids, except for a slight on-going problem with internal temperature regulation that seems to be improving on its own."

"But Aziz didn't have a head wound. What went wrong?" asked Miles. "Are you telling me he's going to be a vegetable?"

"I'm afraid Mr. Aziz was the victim of a bad prep. His blood was apparently drained hastily, and not sufficiently completely. Small freezing hemocysts riddled his brain tissue with necrotic patches. We removed them, and started new growth, which has taken hold successfully. But his personality is permanently lost."

"Everything?"

"He may perhaps retain a few frustrating fragments of memories. Dreams. But he cannot re-access his neural pathways through new routes or sub-routines, because the tissue itself is gone. The new man will start over as a near-infant. He's lost language, among other things."

"Will he recover his intelligence? In time?"

Aragones hesitated for too long before answering. "In a few years, he may be able to do enough simple tasks to be self-supporting."

"I see," Miles sighed.

"What do you want to do with him?"

"He's another one with no next of kin listed." Miles blew out his breath. "Transfer him to a long-term care facility here on Escobar. One with a good therapy department. I'll ask you to recommend one. I'll set up a small trust fund to cover the costs till he's out on his own. However long that takes."

Aragones nodded, and both he and Quinn made notes.

After settling further administrative and financial details, the conference broke up. Miles insisted on stopping to see Aziz, before picking up the other two convalescents.

"He cannot recognize you," Dr. Aragones warned as they entered the hospital room.

"That's all right."

At first glance, Aziz did not look as much like death warmed over as Miles had expected, despite the unflattering hospital gown. There was color and warmth in his face, and his natural melanin level saved him from being hospital-pale. But he lay listlessly, gaunt, twisted in his covers. The bed's sides were up, unpleasantly suggesting a crib or a coffin. Quinn stood against the wall and folded her arms. She had visceral associations about hospitals and clinics too.

"Azzie," Miles called softly bending over him. "Azzie, can you hear me?"

Aziz's eyes tracked momentarily, but then wandered again.

"I know you don't know me, but you might remember this, later. You were a good soldier, smart and strong. You stood by your mates in the crash. You had the sort of self-discipline that saves lives." Others, not your own. "Tomorrow, you'll go to another sort of hospital, where they'll help you keep on getting better." Among strangers. More strangers. "Don't worry about the money. I'm setting it up so it'll be there as long as you need it." He doesn't know what money is. "I'll check back on you from time to time, as I get the opportunity," Miles promised. Promised who? Aziz? Aziz was no more. Himself? His voice softened to inaudibility as he ran down.

The aural stimulation made Aziz thrash around, and emit some loud and formless moans; he had no volume control yet, apparently. Even through a filter of desperate hope, Miles could not recognize it as an attempt at communication. Animal reflexes only.

"Take care," he whispered, and withdrew, to stand a moment trembling in the hallway.

"Why do you do that to yourself?" Quinn inquired tartly. Her crossed arms, hugging herself, added silently, And to me?

"First, he died for me, literally, and second," he attempted to force his voice to lightness, "don't you find a certain obsessive fascination in looking in the face of what you most fear?"

"Is death what you most fear?" she asked curiously.

"No. Not death." He rubbed his forehead, hesitated. "Loss of mind. My game plan all my life has been to demand acceptance of this" a vague wave down the length, or shortness, of his body, "because I was a smart-ass little bastard who could think rings around the opposition, and prove it time after time. Without the brains ..." Without the brains I'm nothing. He straightened against the aching tension in his belly, shrugged, and twitched a smile at her. "March on, Quinn."

After Aziz, Durham and Vifian were not so hard to deal with. They could walk and talk, if haltingly, and Vifian even recognized Quinn. They took them back to the shuttleport in the rented groundcar, and Quinn tempered her usual go-to-hell style of driving in consideration of their half-healed wounds. Upon reaching the shuttle Miles sent them forward to sit with the pilot, a comrade, and by the time reached the Triumph Durham had recalled not only the man's name, but some shuttle piloting procedures. Miles turned both convalescents over to the medtech who met them at the shuttle hatch door, who escorted them off to sickbay to bed down again after the exhaustion of their short journey. Miles watched them exit, and felt a little better.

"Costly," Quinn observed reflectively.

"Yes," Miles sighed. "Rehabilitation is starting to take an awfully bite out of the medical department's budget. I may have Fleet accounting split it off, so Medical doesn't find itself dangerously short-changed. But what would you have? My troops were loyal beyond measure; I cannot betray them. Besides," he grinned briefly, "the Barrayaran Imperium is paying."

"Your ImpSec boss was on about your bills, I thought, at your mission briefing."

"Illyan has to explain why enough cash to fund a private army keeps disappearing in his department budget every year, without ever admitting to the private army's existence. Certain Imperial accountants tend to accuse him of departmental inefficiency, which gives him great anguish."

The Dendarii shuttle pilot, having shut down his ship, ducked into the corridor and sealed the hatch. He nodded to Miles. "While I was waiting for you at Port Beauchene, sir, I picked up another story on the local news net, that you might be interested in. Local news here on Escobar, that is." The man was bouncing lightly his toes.

Say on, Sergeant Lajoie." Miles cocked an eyebrow up at him.

"The Cetagandans have just announced their withdrawal from Marilac. They're calling it—what was that, now—'Due to great progress in the cultural alliance, we are turning police matters over to local control.' "

Miles's fists clenched, joyously. "In other words, they're abandoning their puppet government! Ha!" He hopped from foot to foot, and pounded Quinn on the back. "You hear that, Elli! We've won! I mean, They've won, the Marilacans." Our sacrifices are redeemed. . . . He regained control of his tightening throat before he burst into song or some like foolishness. "Do me a favor, Lajoie. Pass the word through the Fleet. Tell them I said, You folks do good work. Eh?"

"Yes, sir. My pleasure." The grinning pilot saluted cheerfully, and loped off up the corridor.

Miles's grin stretched his face. "See, Elli! What Simon Illyan just bought would have been cheap at a thousand times the cost. A full-scale Cetagandan planetary invasion—first impeded—then bogged—then foundered—failed!" And in a fierce whisper, "I did it! I made the difference."

Quinn too was smiling, but one perfect eyebrow curved in a certain dry irony. "It's lovely, but if I was reading between the lines correctly, I thought what Barrayaran Imperial Security really wanted was for the Cetagandan military to be tied up in the guerilla war on Marilac. Indefinitely. Draining Cetagandan attention away from Barrayaran borders and jump points."

"They didn't put that in writing." Miles's lips drew back wolfishly. "All Simon said was, 'Help the Marilacans as opportunity presents.' That was the standing order, in so many words."

"But you knew damn well what he really wanted."

"Four bloody years was enough. I have not betrayed Barrayar. Nor anyone else."

"Yeah? So if Simon Illyan is so much more Machiavellian than you are, how is it that your version prevailed? Someday, Miles, you are going to run out of hairs to split with those people. And then what will you do?"

He smiled, and shook his head, evading answer.

His elation over the news from Marilac still made him feel like he was walking in half-gravity when he arrived at his cabin aboard the Triumph. After a surreptitious glance to be sure the corridor was unpeopled, he embraced and kissed Quinn, a deep kiss that was going to have to last them for a long while, and she went off to her own quarters. He slipped inside, and echoed the door's closing sigh with his own. Home again.

It was home, for half his psyche, he reflected, tossing his flight bag onto his bed and heading directly for the shower. Ten years ago, Lord Miles Vorkosigan had invented the cover identity of Admiral Naismith out of his head in a desperate moment, and frantically faked his way to temporary control of the hastily re-named Dendarii Mercenaries. Barrayaran Imperial Security had discovered the cover to be useful . . . no. Credit where it was due. He had persuaded, schemed, demonstrated, and coerced ImpSec into finding use for this cover. Be careful what you pretend to be. You might become it.

When had Admiral Naismith stopped being a pretense? Gradually, surely, but mostly since his mercenary mentor Commodore Tung had retired. Or perhaps the wily Tung had recognized before Miles had that his services in propping Miles up to his prematurely exalted rank were no longer required. Colored vid arrays of Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet organization bloomed in Miles's head as he showered. Personnel—equipment—administration—logistics—he knew every ship, every trooper, every shuttle and piece of ordnance, now. He knew how they fit together, what had to be done first, second, third, twentieth, how to place a precisely calculated force at any point on the tactical field. This was expertise, to he able to look at a ship like the Triumph and see with his mind's eye right through the walls to every engineering detail, every strength and vulnerability; to look at a commando raid, or a briefing table ringed with captains and captain-owners and know what each one would do or say before they knew it themselves. I'm on top. Finally, I'm on top of it all. With this lever, I can move worlds. He switched the shower to "dry," and turned in the blast warm air. He left the bathroom still chortling under his breath. I like it. His chortle died away in puzzlement when he unlatched the door to his uniform cupboard, and found it bare. Had his batman taken them all off for cleaning or repairs? His bewilderment grew as he looked other drawers, and found only a residue of the wildly assorted Virilian togs he wore when he stretched the chain of his identity one link further, and played spy for the Dendarii. Plus some of his shabbier underwear. Was this some sort of practical joke? If so, he'd have have the last laugh. Naked and irritated, he snapped open the locker where his space armor dwelt. Empty. That was almost shocking. Somebody's taken it down to Engineering to re-calibrate it, or add tactics programs, or something. His batman should have returned it by now, though. What if he needed it in a hurry?

Time. His people would be gathering. Quinn had once claimed he could carry on naked, and only make those around him feel overdressed. He was momentarily tempted to test her assertion, but overcame the mordant vision, and put the shirt and trousers and sandals he'd been wearing back on. He didn't need a uniform in order to dominate a briefing room, not any more.

On the way to the meeting, he passed Sandy Hereld in the corridor, coming off duty, and gave her a friendly nod. She wheeled and walked backward in startlement. "You're back, sir! That was quick." He would hardly describe his several-week journey to Imperial HQ Barrayar as quick. She must mean the trip downside. "It only took two hours."

"What?" Her nose wrinkled. She was still walking backwards, reached the end of the corridor.

He had a briefing room full of senior officers waiting. He waved and swung down a lift tube. The briefing room was comfortingly familiar, right down to the array of faces around the darkly shining table. Captain Auson of the Triumph. Elena Bothari-Jesek, recently promoted captain of the Peregrine. Her husband Commodore Baz Jesek, Fleet engineer and in charge, in Miles's absence, of all the repair and refit activities of the Dendarii Fleet in Escobar orbit. The couple, Barrayarans themselves, were with Quinn among the handful of Dendarii apprised of Miles's double identity. Captain Truzillo of the Jayhawk, and a dozen more, all tested and true. His people.

Bel Thorne of the Ariel was late. That was unusual. One of Thorne's driving characteristics was an insatiable curiosity; a new mission briefing was like a Winterfair gift to the Betan hermaphrodite. Miles turned to Elena Bothari-Jesek, to make small talk while they waited.

"Did you get a chance to visit your mother, downside on Escobar?"

"Yes, thanks." She smiled. "It was . . . nice, to have a little time. We had a chance to talk about some things we'd never talked about the first time we met."

It had been good for both of them, Miles judged. Some of the permanent strain seemed gone from Elena's dark eyes. Better and better, bit by bit. "Good."

He glanced up as the doors hissed open, but it was only Quinn, blowing in with the secured files in hand. She was back in full officer's undress kit, and looking very comfortable and efficient. She handed the files to Miles, and he loaded them into the comconsole, and waited another minute. Still no Bel Thorne.

Talk died away. His officers were giving him attentive, let's-get-on-with-it looks. He'd better not stand around much longer with his thumb in his ear. Before bringing the console display to life, he inquired, "Is there some reason Captain Thorne is late?"

They looked at him, and then at each other. There can't be something wrong with Bel, it would have been reported to me first thing. Still, a small leaden knot materialized in the pit of his stomach. "Where is Bel Thorne?"

By eye, they elected Elena Bothari-Jesek as spokesperson. That was an extremely bad sign. "Miles," she said hesitantly, "was Bel supposed to be back before you?"

"Back? Where did Bel go?"

She was looking at him as though he'd lost his mind. "Bel left with you, in the Ariel, three days ago."

Quinn's head snapped up. "That's impossible."

"Three days ago, we were still en route to Escobar," Miles stated. The leaden knot was transmuting into neutron star matter. He was not dominating this room at all well. In fact, it seemed to be tilting.

"You took Green Squad with you. It was the new contract, Bel said," Elena added.

"This is the new contract," Miles tapped the comconsole. A hideous explanation was beginning to suggest itself to his mind, rising from the black hole in his stomach. The looks on the faces around the table were also beginning to divide into two uneven camps, appalled surmise from the minority who had been in on that mess on Earth two years ago—oh, they were right with him—total confusion from the majority, who had not been directly involved. . . .

"Where did I say I was going?" Miles inquired. His tone was, he thought, gentle, but several people flinched.

"Jackson's Whole." Elena looked him straight in the eye, with much the steady gaze of a zoologist about to dissect a specimen. A sudden lack of trust . . .

Jackson's Whole. That tears it. "Bel Thorne? The Ariel? Taura? Within ten jumps of Jackson's Whole?" Miles choked. "Dear God."

"But if you're you," said Truzillo, "who was that three days ago?"

"If you're you," said Elena darkly. The initiate crowd were all getting that same frowning look.

"You see," Miles explained in a hollow voice to the What-the-hell-are-they-talking-about? portion of the room, "some people have an evil twin. I am not so lucky. What I have is an idiot twin."

"Your clone," said Elena Bothari-Jesek.

"My brother," he corrected automatically.

"Little Mark Pierre," said Quinn. "Oh . . . shit."

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