Lois McMaster Bujold, "Mirror Dance"

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CHAPTER THREE

His stomach seemed to turn inside out, the cabin wavered, and shadow darkened his vision. The bizarre sensations of the wormhole jump were gone almost as soon as they began, but left an unpleasant somatic reverberation, as if he were a struck gong. He took a deep, calming breath. That had been the fourth jump of the voyage. Five jumps to go, on the tortuous zigzag through the wormhole nexus from Escobar to Jackson's Whole. The Ariel had been three days en route, almost halfway.

He glanced around Naismith's cabin. He could not continue to hide out in here much longer, pretense of illness or Naismithian black mood or not. Thorne needed every bit of data he could supply to plan the Dendarii raid on the clone-creche. He had used his hibernation well, scanning the Ariel's mission logs back through time, all the way past his first encounter with the Dendarii two years ago. He now knew a great deal more about the mercenaries, and the thought of casual conversation with the Ariel's crew was far less terrifying.

Unfortunately there was very little in the mission log to help him reconstruct what his first meeting with Naismith on Earth had looked like from the Dendarii point of view. The log had concentrated on rehabilitation and refit reports, dickerings with assorted ship's chandlers, and engineering briefings. He'd found exactly one order pertinent to his own adventures embedded in the data flow, advising all ship masters that Admiral Naismith's clone had been seen on Earth, warning that the clone might attempt to pass himself off as the Admiral, giving the (incorrect) information that the clone's legs would show up on a medical scan as normal hone and not plastic replacements, and ordering use of stunners-only in apprehending the imposter. No explanations, no later revisions or updates. All of Naismith/Vorkosigan's highest-level orders tended to be verbal and undocumented anyway, for security—from the Dendarii, not for them—a habit that had just served him well.

He leaned back in his station chair and glowered at the comconsole display. The Dendarii data named him Mark. That's another thing you don't get to choose, Miles Naismith Vorkosigan had said. Mark Pierre. You are Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan, in your own right, on Barrayar.

But he was not on Barrayar, nor ever would be if he could help it. You are not my brother, and the Butcher of Komarr was never a father to me, his thought denied for the thousandth time to his absent progenitor. My mother was a uterine replicator.

But the power of the suggestion had ridden him ever after, sapping his satisfaction with every pseudonym he'd ever tried, though he'd stared at lists of names till his eyes ached. Dramatic names, plain names, exotic, strange, common, silly . . . Jan Vandermark was the alias he'd used the longest, the closest sideways skittish approach to identity.

Mark! Miles had shouted, being dragged away, for all he knew, to his own death. Your name is Mark!

I am not Mark. I am NOT your damned brother, you maniac. The denial was hot and huge, but when its echoes died away, in the hollow chamber left inside his skull he seemed not to be anyone at all.

His head was aching, a grinding tightness that crawled up his spine through his shoulders and neck, and spread out under his scalp. He rubbed hard at his neck, but the tension just circulated around through his arms and back into his shoulders.

Not his brother. But to be strictly accurate, Naismith could not be blamed for forcing him to life in the same way as the other House Bharaputran clones' progenitors. Oh, they were genetically identical, yes. It was a matter of ... intent, perhaps. And where the money came from.

Lord Miles Naismith Vorkosigan had been just six years old when the tissue sample from a biopsy was stolen from some clinical laboratory on Barrayar, during the last gasp of Komarran resistance to Barrayaran imperial conquest. No one, neither Barrayaran nor Komarran, was intrinsically interested in the crippled child Miles. The focus had all been on his father. Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan, Regent of Barrayar, Conqueror (or Butcher) of Komarr. Aral Vorkosigan had supplied the will and the wit which had made Komarr into Barrayar's first off-planet conquest. And made himself the target of Komarran resistance and revenge. Hope for successful resistance had faded in time. Hope for revenge lived on in exiled bitterness. Stripped of an army, arms, support, one Komarran hate group plotted a slow, mad vengeance. To strike at the father through the son upon whom he was known to dote . . .

Like a sorcerer in an old tale, the Komarrans dealt with a devil to have a simulacrum made. A bastard clone, he thought with a silent, humorless laugh. But things went wrong. The crippled original boy, poisoned before birth by yet another murderous enemy of his father's, grew strangely, unpredictably; his genetic duplicate grew straight . . . that had been his first clue that he was different from the other clones, he reflected. When the other clones went to the doctors for treatment they came back stronger, healthier, growing ever-faster. Every time he went, and he went often, their painful treatments seemed to make him sicklier, more stunted. The braces they put on his bones, neck, back, never seemed to help much. They had made him into this hunchbacked dwarfling as if molding him in a press, die-cut from a cast of his progenitor. I could have been normal, if Miles Vorkosigan had not been crippled.

When he first began to suspect the true purpose of his fellow clones, for rumors passed among the children in wild ways even their careful handlers could not totally control, his growing somatic deformations brought him silent suppressed joy. Surely they could not use this body for a brain transplant. He might be discarded—he might yet escape his pleasant, smiling jailer-servants. . . .

His real escape, when his Komarran owners came to collect him at age fourteen, was like a miracle. And then the training had begun. The endless harsh tutoring, drill, indoctrination. At first a destiny, any destiny at all, seemed glorious compared to his creche-mates' end. He determinedly took up the training to replace his progenitor, and strike a blow for dear Komarr, a place he had never seen, against evil Barrayar, a place he had never seen either. But learning to be Miles Vorkosigan turned out to be like running the race in Zeno's paradox. No matter how much he learned, how frantically he drilled, how harshly his mistakes were punished, Miles learned more, faster; by the time he arrived, his quarry had always moved on, intellectually or otherwise.

The symbolic race became literal once his Komarran tutors actually moved to effect the substitution. They chased the elusive young Lord Vorkosigan halfway around the wormhole nexus, never realizing that when he vanished, he utterly ceased to exist, and Admiral Naismith appeared. The Komarrans had never found out about Admiral Naismith. Not planning but chance had finally brought them together two years ago on Earth, right back where the whole stupid race had started, in pursuit of a vengeance gone twenty years cold.

The time-delay had been critical in a way the Komarrans had not even noticed. When they first began chasing Vorkosigan, their customized clone had been at the peak of his mental conditioning, committed to the goals of the revolt, unreflectingly eager. Had they not saved him from the fate of clones? Eighteen months of watching them screw up, eighteen months of travel, observation, exposure to uncensored news, views, even a few people, had planted secret doubts in his mind. And, bluntly, one could not duplicate even an imitation of a galactic-class education like Vorkosigan's without inadvertently learning something about how to think. In the middle of it all, the surgery to replace his perfectly sound leg bones with synthetics, just because Vorkosigan had smashed his, had been stunningly painful. What if Vorkosigan broke his neck, next time? Realization had crept over him.

Stuffing his head full of Lord Vorkosigan, in bits over time, was just as much of a brain transplant as anything done with vibra-scalpels and living tissue. He who plots revenge, must dig two graves. But the Komarrans had dug the second grave for him. For the person he never had a chance to become, the man he might have been if he had not been forced at shock-stick point to continually struggle to be someone else.

Some days he was not sure who he hated more, House Bharaputra, the Komarrans, or Miles Naismith Vorkosigan.

He shut off the comconsole with a snort, and rose to pick out his precious data cube from the uniform pocket in which it was still hidden. Upon reflection, he cleaned up and depilated again, before donning fresh Dendarii officer's undress greys. That was as regulation as he could make himself. Let the Dendarii see only the polished surface, and not the man inside the man inside. . . .

He steeled himself, exited the cabin, stepped across the corridor, and pressed the buzzer to the hermaphrodite captain's quarters.

No response. He pressed it again. After a short delay Thorne's blurred alto voice came, "Yes?"

"Naismith here."

"Oh! Come in, Miles." The voice sharpened with interest.

The door slid aside, and he stepped within, to realize that the reason for the delay was that he'd woken Thorne from sleep. The hermaphrodite was sitting up on one elbow in bed, brown hair tousled, its free hand falling away from the keypad which had released the door.

"Excuse me," he said, stepping backward, but the door had already sealed again.

"No, it's all right," the hermaphrodite smiled sleepily, curled its body in a C, and patted the bed invitingly in front of its sheeted . . . lap. "For you, anytime. Come sit. Would you like a back rub? You look tense." It was wearing a decidedly frilly nightgown, flowing silk with lace trim edging a plunging vee neckline that revealed the swelling pale flesh of its breasts.

He sidled to a station chair instead. Thorne's smile took on a peculiarly sardonic tinge, even while remaining perfectly relaxed. He cleared .his throat. "I ... thought it was time for that more detailed mission briefing I promised." I should have checked the duty-roster. Would Admiral Naismith have known the captain's sleep-cycle?

"Time and past time. I'm glad to see you come up out of the fog. What the hell have you been doing, wherever you went for the past eight weeks, Miles? Who died?"

"No one. Well, eight clones, I suppose."

"Hm." Thorne nodded wry acknowledgment. The seductive sinuosity faded from its posture, and it sat up straight, and rubbed the last of the sleep from its eyes. "Tea?"

"Sure. Or, uh, I could come back after your sleep-shift." Or after you're dressed.

It swung its silk-swathed legs from the bed. "No way. I'd be up in an hour anyway. I've been waiting for this. Seize the day." It padded across the cabin to do its tea-ritual again. He set up the data cube in the comconsole and paused, both polite and practical, for the captain to take its first sips of the hot black liquid, and come fully awake. He wished it would put its uniform on.

He keyed up the display as Thorne wandered close. "I have a detailed holomap of House Bharaputra's main medical complex. This data is not more than four months old. Plus guard schedules and patrol patterns—their security is much heavier than a normal civilian hospital, more like a military laboratory, but it's no fortress. Their everyday concern is more against individual local intruders intent on theft. And, of course, in preventing certain of their less voluntary patients from escaping." A significant chunk of his former fortune had gone into that map cube.

The color-coded image spread itself in lines and sheets of light above the vid plate. The complex was truly that, a vast warren of buildings, tunnels, therapy-gardens, labs, mini-manufacturing areas, flyer pads, warehouses, garages, and even two shuttle docks for direct departure to planetary orbit.

Thorne put down its cup, leaned over the comconsole, and stared with interest. It took up the remote control and turned the map-image, shrank and expanded and sliced it. "So do we want to start by capturing the shuttle bays?"

"No. The clones are all kept together over here on the west side, in this sort of hospice area. I figure if we land here in this exercise court we'll be damn near on top of their dormitory. Naturally, I'm not overly concerned about what the drop shuttle damages, coming down."

"Naturally." A brief grin flickered over the captain's face. "Timing?" "I want to make it a night drop. Not so much for cover, because here's no way we're going to make a combat drop shuttle inconspicuous, but because that's the one time all the clones are together in a mall area. In the day they're all spread out in the exercise and play areas, the swimming pool and what-not."

"And classrooms?"

"No, not exactly. They don't teach 'em much beyond the minimum necessary for socialization. If a clone can count to twenty and read signs, that's all they need. Throw-away brains." That had been the other way he'd known he was different from the rest. A real human tutor had introduced him to a vast array of virtual learning programs. He'd lost himself for days at a time in the computer's patient praise. Unlike his Komarran tutors later, they repeated themselves endlessly, and never punished him, never swore or raged or struck or forced him to physical exertion till he grew sick or passed out. . . . "The clones pick up a surprising amount of information despite it all, though. A lot from their holovid games. Bright kids. Damn few of these clones have stupid progenitors, or they wouldn't have amassed a sufficient fortune to buy this form of life-extension. Ruthless, maybe, but not stupid."

Thorne's eyes narrowed as it dissected the area on the vid, taking apart the buildings layer by later, studying the layout. "So a dozen full-kit Dendarii commandos wake fifty or sixty kids out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night ... do they know we're coming?"

"No. By the way, make sure the troops realize, they won't look exactly like kids. We're taking them in their last year of development. They're mostly ten or eleven years old, but due to the growth accelerators they will appear to have the bodies of late teenagers."

"Gawky?"

"Not really. They get great physical conditioning. Healthy as hell. That's the whole point of not just growing them in a vat till transplant time."

"Do they . . . know? Know what's going to happen to them?" Thorn e asked with an introspective frown.

"They're not told, no. They're told all kinds of lies, variously. They're told they're in a special school, for security reasons, to save them from some exotic danger. That they're all some kind of prince or princess, or rich man's heir, or military scion, and someday very soon their parents or their aunts or their ambassadors are going to come and take them away to some glamorous future . . . and then, of course, at last some smiling person comes, and calls them away from their playmates, and tells them that today is the day, and they run . . ." he stopped, swallowed, "and snatch up their things, and brag to their friends. . . ."

Thorne was tapping the vid control unconsciously in its palm, and looking pale. "I get the picture."

"And walk out hand-in-hand with their murderers, eagerly."

"You can stop with the scenario-spinning, unless you're trying to make me lose my last meal."

"What, you've known for years that this was going on," he mocked. "Why get all squeamish about it now?" He bit off his bitterness. Naismith. He must be Naismith.

Thorne shot him a sharp glare. "I was ready to fry them from orbit the last time, as you may recall. You wouldn't let me."

What last time? No time in the last three years. He'd have to scan the mission logs back even further, dammit. He shrugged, ambiguously.

"So," said Thorne, "are these . . . big kids ... all going to decide we're their parents' enemies, kidnapping them just before they go home? I see trouble, here."

He clenched, and spread, the fingers of his right hand. "Maybe not. Children . . . have a culture of their own. Passed down from year to year. There are rumors. Boogeyman stories. Doubts. I told you, they aren't stupid. Their adult handlers try to stamp out the stories, or make fun of them, or mix them up with other, obvious lies." And yet . . . they had not fooled him. But then, he had lived in the creche much longer than the average. He'd had time to see more clones come and go, time to see stories repeated, pseudo-biographies duplicated. Time for their handlers' tiny slips and mistakes to accumulate in his observation. "If it's the same—" If it's the same as it was in my time, he almost said, but saved himself, "I should be able to persuade them. Leave that part to me."

"Gladly." Thorne swung a console chair into clamps close beside his, settled down, and rapidly entered some notes on logistics and angle of attack, point-men and back-ups, and traced projected routes through the buildings. "Two dormitories?" it pointed curiously. Thorne's fingernails were cut blunt, undecorated.

"Yes. The boys are kept segregated from the girls, rather carefully. The female—usually female—customers expect to wake up in a body with the seal of virginity still on it."

"I see. So. We get all these kids loaded, by some miracle, before the Bharaputrans arrive in force—"

"Speed is of the essence, yes."

"As usual. But the Bharaputrans will be all over us if there is any little hitch or hold-up. Unlike with the Marilacans at Dagoola IV, I haven't had weeks and weeks to drill these kids on shuttle-loading procedures. What if, then?"

"Once the clones are loaded into the shuttle they become in effect our hostages. We'll be safe from lethal fire with them aboard. The Bharaputrans won't risk their investment as long as any chance of recovery remains."

"Once they decide all chance is lost, they'll seek vigorous retribution, to discourage imitators, though."

"True. We must cloud their minds with doubt."

"Then their next move—if we get the shuttle airborne—must be to try to blow up the Ariel in orbit before we get there, cutting off our escape."

"Speed," he repeated doggedly.

"Contingencies, Miles dear. Wake up. I don't usually have to restart your brain in the morning—do you want some more tea? No? I suggest, if we suffer dangerous delay downside, that the Ariel take refuge at Fell Station, and we rendezvous with it there."

"Fell Station? The orbital one?" He hesitated. "Why?"

"Baron Fell is still in a state of vendetta with Bharaputra and Ryoval, isn't he?"

Jacksonian internecine House politics; he was not as current on them as he should be. He had not even thought of looking for an ally among the other Houses. They were all criminal, all evil, tolerating or sabotaging each other in shifting patterns of power. And here was Ryoval, mentioned again. Why? He took refuge in another wordless shrug. "Getting pinned, trapped on Fell Station with fifty young clones while Bharaputra hustles for control of the jumppoint stations, would not improve our position. No Jacksonian is to be trusted. Run and jump as fast as we can is still the safest strategy."

"Bharaputra won't swing Jumpstation Five into line, it's Fell-owned."

"Yes, but I want to return to Escobar. The clones can all get safe asylum there."

"Look, Miles, the jump back on this route is held by the consortium already dominated by Bharaputra. We'll never get back out the way we jump in, unless you've got something up your sleeve—no? Then may I suggest our best escape route is via Jumppoint Five."

"Do you really see Fell as so reliable an ally?" he inquired cautiously.

"Not at all. But he is the enemy of our enemies. This trip."

"But the jump from Five leads to the Hegen Hub. We can't jump into Cetagandan territory, and the only other route out of the Hub is to Komarr via Pol."

"Roundabout, but much safer."

Not for me! That's the damned Barrayaran Empire! He swallowed a wordless shriek.

"The Hub to Pol to Komarr to Sergyar and back to Escobar," Thorne recited happily. "You know, this could really work out." It made more notes, leaning across the comconsole, its nightgown shifting and shimmering in the candy lights of the vid display. Then it put its elbows on the console and rested its chin in its hands, breasts compressing, shifting beneath the thin fabric. Its expression grew gently introspective. It glanced up at him at last with an odd, rather sad smile.

"Have any clones ever escaped?" Thorne asked softly.

"No," he answered quickly, automatically.

"Except for your own clone, of course."

A dangerous turn in the conversation. "My clone did not escape either. He was simply removed by his purchasers." He should have tried to escape . . . what life might he have led, had he succeeded?

"Fifty kids," Thorne sighed. "Y'know—I really approve of this mission." It waited, watching him with sharp and gleaming eyes.

Acutely uncomfortable, he suppressed an idiocy such as saying Thank you, but found himself with no remark to put in its place, resulting in an awkward silence.

"I suppose," said Thorne thoughtfully after the too-long moment, "it would be very difficult for anyone brought up in such an environment to really trust . . . anyone else. Anyone's word. Their good will."

"I ... suppose." Was this casual conversation, or something more sinister? A trap . . .

Thorne, still with that weird mysterious smile, leaned across their station chairs, caught his chin in one strong, slender hand, and kissed him.

He did not know if he was supposed to recoil or respond, so did neither, in cross-eyed, panicked paralysis. Thorne's mouth was warm, and tasted of tea and bergamot, silky and perfumed. Was Naismith screwing—this—too? If so, who did what to whom? Or did they take turns? And would it really be that bad? His terror heightened with an undeniable stirring of arousal. I believe I would die for a lover's touch. He had been alone forever.

Thorne withdrew at last, to his intense relief, though only a little way, its hand still trapping his chin. After another moment of dead silence, its smile grew wry. "I shouldn't tease you, I suppose," it sighed. "There is a sort of cruelty in it, all things considered."

It released him, and stood, the sensuous langour abruptly switched off. "Back in a minute." It strode to its cabin washroom, sealing the door behind it.

He sat, unstrung and shaking. What the hell was that all about? And from another part of his mind, You could lose your damned virginity this trip, I bet, and from another, No! Not with that!

Had that been a test? But had he passed, or failed? Thorne had not cried out in accusation, nor called for armed back-up. Perhaps the captain was arranging his arrest right now, by comm link from the washroom. There was no place to run away, aboard a small ship in deep space. His crossed arms hugged his torso. With effort he uncrossed them, placed his hands on the console, and willed his muscles to uncoil. They probably won't kill me. They'd take him back to the fleet and let Naismith kill him.

But no security squad broke down the door, and soon enough Thorne returned. Nattily dressed in its uniform, at last. It plucked the data cube from the comconsole, and closed its palm over it. "I'll sit down with Sergeant Taura and this and do some serious planning, then."

"Ah, yes. It's time." He hated to let the precious cube out of his sight. But it seemed he was still Naismith in Thorne's eyes.

Thorne pursed its lips. "Now that it's time to brief the crew, don't you think it would be a good idea to put the Ariel on a communications blackout?"

An outstanding idea, though one he'd been afraid to suggest as too suspicious and strange. Maybe it wasn't so unusual, on these covert ops. He'd had no certain idea as to when the real Naismith was supposed to return to the Dendarii fleet, but from the mercenaries' easy acceptance of him, it had to have been expected soon. He'd lived for the past three days in fear of frantic orders arriving by tight-beam and Jump-courier from the real Admiral, telling the Ariel to turn around. Give me a few more days. Just a few more days, and I'll redeem it all. "Yes. Do so."

"Very good, sir." Thorne hesitated. "How are you feeling, now? Everybody knows these black miasmas of yours can run for weeks. But if only you'll rest properly, I trust you'll be your usual energetic self in time for the drop mission. Shall I pass the word to leave you alone?"

"I ... would appreciate that, Bel." What luck! "But keep me informed, eh?"

"Oh, yes. You can count on me. It's a straightforward raid, except for handling that herd of kids, in which I defer to your superior expertise."

"Right." With a smile and a cheery salute, he fled across the corridor to the safe isolation of his own cabin. The pulsing combination of elation and his tension headache made him feel as if he were floating. When the door sealed behind him, he fell across his bed and gripped the coverings to hold himself in place. It's really going to happen!

Later, diligently scanning ship's logs on his cabin comconsole, he finally found the four-year-old records of the Ariel's previous visit to Jackson's Whole. Such as they were. They started out with utterly boring details about an ordnance deal, inventory entries regarding a cargo of weapons to be loaded from House Fell's orbital transfer station. Completely without preamble, Thorne's breathless voice made a cryptic entry, "Murka's lost the Admiral. He's being held prisoner by Baron Ryoval. I'm going now to make a devil's bargain with Fell."

Then records of an emergency combat drop shuttle trip downside, followed by the Ariel's abrupt departure from Fell Station with cargo only half loaded. These events were succeeded by two fascinating, unexplained conversations between Admiral Naismith, and Baron Ryoval and Baron Fell, respectively. Ryoval was raving, sputtering exotic death threats. He studied the Baron's contorted, handsome face uneasily. Even in a society that prized ruthlessness, Ryoval was a man whom other Jacksonian power-brokers stepped wide around. Admiral Naismith appeared to have stepped right in something.

Fell was more controlled, a cold anger. As usual, all the really essential information, including the reason for the visit in the first place, was lost in Naismith's verbal orders. But he did manage to gather the surprising fact that the eight-foot-tall commando, Sergeant Taura, was a product of House Bharaputra's genetics laboratories, a genetically-engineered prototype super-soldier.

It was like unexpectedly meeting someone from one's old home town. In a weird wash of homesickness, he longed to look her up and compare notes. Naismith had apparently stolen her heart, or at least stolen her away, although that did not seem to be the offense Ryoval was foaming about. It was all rather incomprehensible.

He did garner one other, unpleasant fact. Baron Fell was a would-be clone consumer. His old enemy Ryoval in a move of vendetta had apparently arranged to have Fell's clone murdered before the transplant could take place, trapping Fell in his aging body, but the intent was there. Regardless of Bel Thorne's contingency planning, he resolved he would have nothing to do with Baron Fell if he could help it.

He blew out his breath, shut down the comconsole, and went back to practicing simulations with the command headset helmet, a manufacturer's training program that happily had never been deleted from its memory. I'm going to bring this off. Somehow.

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