Lois McMaster Bujold, "Mirror Dance"

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CHAPTER EIGHT

It was like being trapped in a locked room with half a dozen serial killers with hangovers. Mark could hear each one's breathing from where they sat in a ring around the officer's conference table. They were in the briefing chamber off the Peregrine's main tactics room. Quinn's breath was the lightest and fastest, Sergeant Taura's was the deepest and most ominous. Only Elena Bothari-Jesek at her captain's place at the head of the table, and Lieutenant Hart on her right, were shipboard-clean and natty. The rest had come as they were from the drop mission, battered and stinking: Taura, Sergeant Framingham, Lieutenant Kimura, Quinn on Bothari-Jesek's left. And himself, of course, lonely at the far end of the oblong table.

Captain Bothari-Jesek frowned, and wordlessly handed around a bottle of painkiller tablets. Sergeant Taura took six. Only Lieutenant Kimura passed. Taura handed them across to Framingham without offering any to Mark. He longed for the tablets as a thirsty man might yearn after a glass of water, poured out and sinking into desert sand. The bottle went back up the table and disappeared into the captain's pocket. Mark's eyes throbbed in time to his sinuses, and the back of his head felt tight as drying rawhide.

Bothari-Jesek spoke. "This emergency debriefing is called to deal with just two questions, and as quickly as possible. What the hell happened, and what are we going to do next? Are those helmet recorders on their way?"

"Yes, ma'am," said Sergeant Framingham. "Corporal Abromov is bringing them."

"Unfortunately, we are missing the most pertinent one," said Quinn. "Correct, Framingham?"

"I'm afraid so, ma'am. I suppose it's embedded in a wall somewhere at Bharaputra's, along with most of the rest of Norwood's helmet. Friggin' grenades."

"Hells." Quinn hunched in her seat.

The briefing room door slid open, and Corporal Abromov entered at a jog. He carried four small, clear plastic trays, stacked, and labeled "Green Squad," "Yellow Squad," "Orange Squad," and "Blue Squad." Each tray held an array of ten to sixteen tiny buttons. Helmet recorders. Each trooper's personal records of the past hours, tracking every movement, every heartbeat, every scan, shot, hit, and communication. Events that had passed too rapidly for comprehension in real-time could be slowed, analyzed, teased apart, errors of procedure detected and corrected—next time.

Abromov saluted and handed the trays to Captain Bothari-Jesek. She dismissed him with thanks, and passed the trays on to Captain Quinn, who in turn inserted them into the simulator's data slot and downloaded them. She also encoded the file top secret. Her raw-tipped fingers darted over the vid control panel.

The now-familiar ghostly three-dimensional holomap of Bharaputra's medical facility formed above the table top. "I'll jump forward to the time we were attacked in the tunnel," Quinn said. "There we are, Blue Squad, part of Green Squad ..." A spaghetti-tangle of lines of green and blue colored light appeared deep inside a misty building. "Tonkin was Blue Squad Number Six, and kept his helmet throughout what follows." She made Tonkin's Number Six map-track yellow, for contrast. "Norwood was still wearing Blue Squad Number Ten. Mark . . ." her lips pinched, "was wearing Helmet One." That track, of course, was conspicuously missing. She made Norwood's Number Ten track pink. "At what point did you change helmets with Norwood, Mark?" She did not look at him as she asked this question.

Please, let me go. He was sure he was sick, because he was still shivering. A small muscle in the back of his neck spasmed, tiny twitches in a prickling underlayer of pain. "We went to the bottom of that lift tube." His voice came out a dry whisper. "When . . . when Helmet Ten comes back up, I'm wearing it. Norwood and Tonkin went on together, and that's the last I saw of them."

The pink line indeed crawled back up the tube and wormed after the mob of blue and green lines. The yellow track went on alone.

Quinn fast-forwarded voice contacts. Tonkin's baritone came out in a whine like an insect on amphetamines. "When I last contacted them, they were here." Quinn marked the spot with a glowing dot of light, in an interior corridor deep inside another building. She fell silent, and let the yellow line snake on. Down a lift tube, through yet another utility tunnel, under a structure, up and through yet another.

"There," said Framingham suddenly, "is the floor they were trapped on. We picked up contact with 'em there."

Quinn marked another dot. "Then the cryo-chamber has to be somewhere near the line of march between here and here." She pointed to the two bright dots. "It has to be." She stared, eyes narrowed. "Two buildings. Two and a half, I suppose. But there's not a damn thing on Tonkin's voice transmissions that gives me a clue." The insect-voice described Bharaputran attackers, and cried for help, over and over, but did not mention the cryo-chamber. Mark's throat contracted in synchrony. Quinn, turn him off, please. . . .

The program ran to its end. All the Dendarii around the table stared at it, as if willing it to yield up something more. There was no more.

The door slid aside and Captain Thorne entered. Mark had never seen a more exhausted-looking human being. Thorne too was still dressed in dirty fatigues, only the plasma mirror pack discarded from its half armor. Its gray hood was pushed back, brown hair plastered flat to its head. A circle of grime in the middle of Thorne's pale face marked the hood opening, gray twin to the circle of red on Quinn's face from her mirror-field overload burn. Thorne's movements were hurried and jerky, will overriding a fatigue close to collapse. Thorne leaned, hands on the conference table, mouth a grim horizontal line.

"So, could you get anything at all out of Tonkin?" asked Quinn of Thorne. "What the computer has, we just saw. And I don't think it's enough."

"The medics got him waked up, briefly," reported Thorne. "He did talk. I was hoping the recorders would make sense of what he said, but . . ."

"What did he say?"

"He said when they reached this building," Thorne pointed, "they were cut off. Not yet surrounded, but blocked from a line to the shuttle, and the enemy closing the ring fast. Tonkin said, Norwood yelled he had an idea, he'd seen something "back there". He had Tonkin create a diversion with a grenade attack, and guard a particular corridor—must be that one there. Norwood took the cryo-chamber and ran back along their route. He returned a few minutes later—not more than six minutes, Tonkin said. And he told Tonkin, "It's all right now. The Admiral will get out of here even if we don't." About two minutes later, he was killed by that projectile grenade, and Tonkin was knocked loopy by the concussion."

Framingham nodded. "My crew got there not three minutes after that. They drove off a pack of Bharaputrans who were searching the bodies—looting, looking for intelligence, or both, Corporal Abromov wasn't sure—they picked up Tonkin and Norwood's body and ran like hell. Nobody in the squad reported seeing a cryo-chamber anywhere."

Quinn chewed absently on a fingernail stump. Mark did not think he was even conscious of the gesture. "That's all?"

"Tonkin said Norwood was laughing," Thorne added.

"Laughing." Quinn grimaced. "Hell."

Captain Bothari-Jesek was sunk in her station chair. Everyone around the table appeared to digest this last tidbit, staring at the holomap. "He did something clever," said Bothari-Jesek. "Or something that he thought was clever."

"He only had about five minutes. How clever could he be in five minutes?" Quinn complained. "Gods damn the clever jerk to sixteen hells for not reporting!"

"He was doubtless about to." Bothari-Jesek sighed. "I don't think we need to waste time rationing blame. There's going to be plenty to go around."

Thorne winced, as did Framingham, Quinn, and Taura. Then they all glanced at Mark. He cringed back in his seat.

"It's only been," Quinn glanced at her chrono, "less than two hours. Whatever Norwood did, the cryo-chamber has to still be down there. It has to."

"So what do we do?" Lieutenant Kimura asked dryly. "Mount mother drop mission?"

Quinn thinned her lips in non-appreciation of the weary sarcasm. "You volunteering, Kimura?" Kimura flipped up his palms in surrender and subsided.

"In the meantime," Bothari-Jesek said, "Fell Station is calling us, pretty urgently. We have to start dealing. I presume this will involve our hostage." A short nod of thanks in Kimura's direction acknowledged the only wholly successful part of the drop mission, and Kimura nodded back. "Does anyone here know what the Admiral intended to do with Baron Bharaputra?"

A circle of negative headshakes. "Don't you know, Quinnie?" asked Kimura, surprised.

"No. There wasn't time to chat. I'm not even sure if the Admiral seriously expected your kidnapping expedition to succeed, Kimura, or whether it was only for the diversionary value. That would be more like his strategizing, not to let the whole mission turn on one unknown outcome. I expect he planned," her voice faded in a sigh, "to use his initiative." She sat up straight. "But I sure as hell know what I intend to do. The deal this time is going to be in our favor. Baron Bharaputra could be the ticket out of here for all of us, and the Admiral too, but we have to work it just right."

"In that case," said Bothari-Jesek, "I don't think we should let on to House Bharaputra just how valuable a package we left downside."

Bothari-Jesek, Thorne, Quinn, all of them, turned to look at Mark, coldly speculative.

"I've thought of that too," said Quinn.

"No," he whispered. "No!" His scream emerged as a croak. "You can't be serious. You can't make me be him, I don't want to be him any more, God! No!" He was shaking, shivering, his stomach turning and knotting. I'm cold.

Quinn and Bothari-Jesek glanced at each other. Bothari-Jesek nodded, some unspoken message.

Quinn said, "You are all dismissed to your duties. Except you, Captain Thorne. You are relieved of command of the Ariel. Lieutenant Hart will take over."

Thorne nodded, as if this were entirely expected. "Am I under arrest?"

Quinn's eyes narrowed in pain. "Hell, we don't have the time. Or the personnel. And you're not debriefed yet, and besides, I need your experience. This . . . situation could change rapidly at any moment. Consider yourself under house arrest, and assigned to me. You can guard yourself. Take a visiting officer's cabin here on the Peregrine, and call it your cell if it makes you feel any better."

Thorne's face went very bleak indeed. "Yes, ma'am," it said woodenly.

Quinn frowned. "Go clean up. We'll continue this later."

Except for Quinn and Bothari-Jesek, they all filed out. Mark tried to follow them. "Not you," said Quinn in a voice like a death bell. He sank back into his station chair and huddled there. As the last Dendarii cleared the chamber, Quinn reached over and turned off all recording devices.

Miles's women. Elena-the-childhood-sweetheart, now Captain Bothari-Jesek, Mark had studied back when the Komarrans had tutored him to play Lord Vorkosigan. Yet she was not quite what he had expected. Quinn the Dendarii had taken the Komarran plotters by surprise. The two women had a coincidental resemblance in coloration, both with short dark hair, fine pale skin, liquid brown eyes. Or was it so coincidental? Had Vorkosigan subconsciously chosen Quinn as Bothari-Jesek's substitute, when he couldn't have the real thing? Even their first names were similar, Elli and Elena.

Bothari-Jesek was the taller by a head, with long aristocratic features, and was more cool and reserved, an effect augmented by her clean officer's undress grays. Quinn, fatigue-clad and combat-booted, was shorter, though still a head taller than himself, rounder and hotter. Both were terrifying. Mark's own taste in women, if ever he should live to exercise it, ran more to something like that little blonde clone they'd pulled from under the bed, if only she'd been the age looked to be. Somebody short, soft, pink, timid, somebody who wouldn't kill and eat him after they mated.

Elena Bothari-Jesek was watching him with a sort of appalled fascination. "So like him. Yet not him. Why are you shivering?"

"I'm cold," muttered Mark.

"You're cold!" Quinn echoed in outrage. "You're cold! You gods-damned little sucker—" She turned her station chair abruptly around, and sat with her back to him.

Bothari-Jesek rose and walked around to his end of the table. Willow-wood woman. She touched his forehead, which was clammy; he flinched almost explosively. She bent and stared into his eyes. "Quin--back off. He's in psychological shock."

"He doesn't deserve my consideration!" Quinn choked.

"He's still in shock, regardless. If you want results, you have to take it into account."

"Hell." Quinn turned back. New clean wet tracks ran down from eyes across her red-and-white, dirt-and-dried-blood-smudged face. "You didn't see. You didn't see Miles lying there with his heart blown all over the room."

"Quinnie, he's not really dead. Is he? He's just frozen, and . . . and placed." Was there the faintest tinge of uncertainty, denial, in her voice?

"Oh, he's really dead all right. Very really frozen dead. And he's going to stay that way forever if we don't get him back!" The blood all over her fatigues, caked in the grooves of her hands, smeared across her face, was finally turning brown.

Bothari-Jesek took a breath. "Let's focus on the business to hand. The immediate question is, can Mark fool Baron Fell? Fell met the real Miles once."

"That's one of the reasons I didn't put Bel Thorne under close arrest. Bel was there, and can advise, I hope."

Yes. And that's the curious thing . . ." She hitched a hip over the tabletop, and let one long booted leg swing. "Shock or no shock, Mark hasn't blown Miles's deep-cover. The name Vorkosigan hasn't passed lips, has it?"

"No," Quinn admitted.

Bothari-Jesek twisted up her mouth, and studied him. "Why not?" She asked suddenly.

He crouched down a little further in his station chair, trying to ape the impact of her stare. "I don't know," he muttered. She tried implacably for more, and he mustered in an only slightly louder mumble, "Habit, I guess." Mostly Ser Galen's habit of beating the shit of him whenever he'd screwed up, back in the bad old days. "When I do the part, I do the part. Miles would never have slipped that one, so I don't either."

"Who are you when you're not doing the part?" Bothari-Jesek's gaze was narrowed, calculating.

"I ... hardly know." He swallowed, and tried again for more volume in his voice. "What's going to happen to my—to the clones?"

As Quinn began to speak, Bothari-Jesek held up her hand, stopping her. Bothari-Jesek said instead, "What do you want to have happen to them?"

"I want them to go free. To be set free somewhere safe, where House Bharaputra can't kidnap them back."

"A strange altruism. I can't help wondering, why? Why this whole mission in the first place? What did you hope to gain?"

His mouth opened, but no sound came out. He couldn't answer. He was still clammy, weak and shaking. His head ached blackly, as though draining of blood. He shook his head.

"Peh!" snorted Quinn. "What a loser. What a, a damned anti-Miles. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory."

"Quinn," said Bothari-Jesek quietly. There was a profound reproof in her voice, just in that single word, which Quinn heard and acknowledged with a shrug of her shoulder. "I don't think either one of us knows quite what we have hold of, here," Bothari-Jesek continued. "But I know when I'm out of my depth. However, I know someone who wouldn't be."

"Who?"

"Countess Vorkosigan."

"Hm." Quinn sighed. "That's another thing. Who's going to tell her about—" A downward jerk of her thumb indicated Jackson's Whole, and the fatal events that had just passed there. "And gods help me, if I'm really in command of this outfit now, I'm gonna have to report all this to Simon Illyan." She paused. "Do you want to be in command, Elena? As senior shipmaster present, now that Bel's under quasi-arrest, and all that. I just grabbed 'cause I had to, under fire."

"You're doing fine," said Bothari-Jesek with a small smile. "I'll support you." She added, "You've been more closely involved with intelligence all along, you're the logical choice."

"Yes, I know." Quinn grimaced. "You'll tell the family, if it comes to that?"

"For that," Bothari-Jesek sighed, "I am the logical choice. I'll tell the Countess, yes."

"It's a deal." But they both looked as if they wondered who had the better, or worse, half of it.

"As for the clones," Bothari-Jesek eyed Mark again, "how would you like to earn their freedom?"

"Elena," said Quinn warningly, "don't make promises. We don't know what we're going to have to trade yet, to get out of here. To get—" another gesture downward, "him back."

"No," Mark whispered. "You can't. Can't send them . . . back down there, after all this."

"I traded Phillipi," said Quinn grimly. "I'd trade you in a heartbeat, except that he . . . Do you know why we came downside on this bloody drop mission in the first place?" she demanded.

Wordlessly, he shook his head.

"It was for you, you little shit. The Admiral had a deal half-cut with Baron Bharaputra. We were going to buy out Green Squad for quarter of a million Betan dollars. It wouldn't have cost much more than the drop mission, counting all the equipment we lost along with Thorne's shuttle. And the lives. But the Baron refused to throw you into the pot. Why he wouldn't sell you, I don't know. You're worthless to everybody else. But Miles wouldn't leave you!"

Mark stared down at his hands, which plucked at each other. He lanced up to see Bothari-Jesek studying him again as if he were some vital cryptogram.

"As the Admiral would not leave his brother," said Bothari-Jesek lowly, "so Mark will not leave the clones. Will you? Eh?"

He would have swallowed, but he'd run out of spit.

"You'll do anything to save them, eh? Anything we ask?"

His mouth opened and closed. It might have been a hollow, sound-less yes.

"You'll play the part of the Admiral for us? We'll coach you, of course."

He half-nodded, but managed to blurt out, "What promise—?"

"We'll take all the clones with us when we go. We'll put them down somewhere House Bharaputra can't reach."

"Elena!" objected Quinn.

"I want," he did swallow this time, "I want the Barrayaran woman's word. Your word," he said to Bothari-Jesek.

Quinn sucked on her lower lip, but did not speak. After a long muse, Bothari-Jesek nodded. "All right. You have my word on it. But you give us your total cooperation, understood?"

"Your word as what?"

"Just my word."

". . . Yes. All right."

Quinn rose and stared down at him. "But is he even fit to play the part right now?"

Bothari-Jesek followed her look. "Not in that condition, no, I suppose not. Let him clean up, eat, rest. Then we'll see what can be lone."

"Baron Fell may not give us time to coddle him."

"We'll tell Baron Fell he's in the shower. That'll be true enough."

A shower. Food. He was so ravenous as to be almost beyond hunger, numb in the belly, listless in the flesh. And cold.

"All I can say," said Quinn, "is that he's a damn poor imitation of the real Miles Vorkosigan."

Yes, that's what I've been trying to tell you.

Bothari-Jesek shook her head in, presumably, exasperated agreement. "Come on," she said to him.

She escorted him to an officer's cabin, small but thank-God private. It was disused, blank and clean, military-austere, the air a little stale. He supposed Thorne must now be similarly housed nearby.

"I'll get some clean clothes sent over for you from the Ariel. And send some food."

"Food first—please?"

"Sure."

"Why are you being nice to me?" His voice came out plaintive and suspicious, making him sound weak and paranoid, he feared.

Her aquiline face went introspective. "I want to know . . . who you are. What you are."

"You know. I'm a manufactured clone. Manufactured right here on Jackson's Whole."

"I don't mean your body."

He hunched in an automatic defensive posture, though he knew it emphasized his deformities.

"You are very closed," she observed. "Very alone. That's not at all like Miles. Usually."

"He's not a man, he's a mob. He's got a whole damned army trailing around after him." Not to mention the harrowing harem. "I suppose he likes it like that."

Her lips curved in an unexpected smile. It was the first time he'd seen her smile. It changed her face. "He does, I think." Her smile faded. "Did."

"You're doing this for him, aren't you. Treating me like this because you think he'd want it." Not in his own right, no, never, but all for Miles and his damned brother-obsession.

"Partly."

Right.

"But mostly," she said, "because someday Countess Vorkosigan will ask me what I did for her son."

"You're planning to trade Baron Bharaputra for him, aren't you?"

"Mark . . ." her eyes were dark with a strange . . . pity? irony? He could not read her eyes. "She'll mean you."

She turned on her heel and left him by himself, sealed in the cabin.

He showered in the hottest water the tiny unit would yield, and stood for long minutes in the heat of the dryer-blast, till his skin flushed red, before he stopped shivering. He was dizzy with exhaustion. When he finally emerged, he found someone had been and gone and left clothes and food. He hastily pulled on underwear, a black Dendarii T-shirt, and a pair of his progenitor's ship-knit grey trousers, and fell upon the dinner. It wasn't a dainty Naismith-special-diet this time, but rather a tray of standard ready-to-eat rations designed to keep a large and physically active trooper going strong. It was far from gourmet fare, but it was the first time he'd had enough food on s plate for weeks. He devoured it all, as if whatever fairy had delivered it might reappear and snatch it away again. Stomach aching, he crawled into bed and lay on his side. He no longer shivered as if from cold, nor felt drained and sweating and shaky from low blood sugar, yet a kind of psychic reverberation still rolled like a black tide through is body.

At least you got the clones out.

No. Miles got the clones out.

Dammit, dammit, dammit . . .

This half-baked disaster was not the glorious redemption of which he'd dreamed. Yet what had he expected the aftermath to be? In all is desperate plotting, he'd planned almost nothing past his projected return to Escobar with the Ariel. To Escobar, grinning, with the clones under his wing. He'd imagined himself dealing with an enraged Miles then, but then it would have been too late for Miles to stop him, too late to take his victory from him. He'd half-expected to be arrested, but to go willingly, whistling. What had he wanted?

To be free of survivor guilt? To break that old curse? Nobody you knew back then is still alive. . . . That was the motive he'd thought of as driving him, when he thought at all. Maybe it wasn't so simple, he'd wanted to free himself from something. ... In the last two years, reed of Ser Galen and the Komarrans by the actions of Miles Vorkosigan, freed again altogether by Miles on a London street at dawn, he had not found the happiness he'd dreamed of during his slavery to he terrorists. Miles had broken only the physical chains that bound him; others, invisible, had cut so deep that flesh had grown around hem.

What did you think? That if you were as heroic as Miles, they'd lave to treat you like Miles? That they would have to love you?

And who were they? The Dendarii? Miles himself? Or behind Stiles, those sinister, fascinating shadows, Count and Countess Vorkosigan?

His image of Miles's parents was blurred, uncertain. The unbalanced Galen had presented them, his hated enemies, as black villains, he Butcher of Komarr and his virago wife. Yet with his other hand he'd required Mark to study them, using unedited source materials, heir writings, their public speeches, private vids. Miles's parents were Nearly complex people, hardly saints, but just as clearly not the foaming sadistic sodomite and murderous bitch of Galen's raving paranoias.

In the vids Count Aral Vorkosigan appeared merely a grey-haired, thick-set man with oddly intent eyes in his rather heavy face, with a rich, raspy, level voice. Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan spoke less often, a tall woman with red-roan hair and notable grey eyes, too powerful to be called pretty, yet so centered and balanced as to seem beautiful even though, strictly speaking, she was not.

And now Bothari-Jesek threatened to deliver him to them . . .

He sat up, and turned on the light. A quick tour of the cabin revealed nothing to commit suicide with. No weapons or blades—the Dendarii had disarmed him when he'd come aboard. Nothing to hang a belt or rope from. Boiling himself to death in the shower was not an option, a sealed fail-safe sensor turned it off automatically when it exceeded physiological tolerances. He went back to bed.

The image of a little, urgent, shouting man with his chest exploding outward in a carmine spray replayed in slow motion in his head. He was surprised when he began to cry. Shock, it had to be the shock that Bothari-Jesek had diagnosed. I hated the little bugger when he was alive, why am I crying? It was absurd. Maybe he was going insane.

Two nights without sleep had left him ringingly numb, yet he could not sleep now. He only dozed, drifting in and out of near-dreams and recent, searing memories. He half-hallucinated about being in a rubber raft on a river of blood, bailing frantically in the red torrent, so that when Quinn came to get him after only an hour's rest, it was actually a relief.

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