Lois McMaster Bujold, "Mirror Dance"

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CHAPTER NINE

"Whatever you do," said Captain Thorne, "don't mention the Betan rejuvenation treatment.

Mark frowned. "What Betan rejuvenation treatment? Is there one?"

"No."

"Then why the hell would I mention it?"

"Never mind, just don't."

Mark gritted his teeth, swung around in his station chair square to he vid plate, and pressed the keypad to lower his seat till his booted feet were flat to the floor. He was fully kitted in Naismith's officer's greys. Quinn had dressed him as though he were a doll, or an idiot child. Quinn, Bothari-Jesek, and Thorne had then preceded to fill his lead with a mass of sometimes-conflicting instructions on how to play Miles in the upcoming interview. As if I didn't know. The three captains now each sat in station chairs out of range of the vid pick-up in he Peregrine's tac room, ready to prompt him through an ear-bug, and he'd thought Galen was a puppet master. His ear itched, and he wriggled the bug in irritation, earning a frown from Bothari-Jesek. Quinn had never stopped scowling.

Quinn had never stopped. She still wore her blood-soaked fatigues, her sudden inheritance of command of this debacle had allowed her no rest. Thorne had cleaned up and changed to ship greys, but obviously had not slept yet. Both their faces stood out pale in the shadows, too sharply lined. Quinn had made Mark take a stimulant when, getting him dressed, she'd found him too muzzy-mouthed for her taste, and he did not quite like its effects. His head and eyes were almost too clear, but his body felt beaten. All the edges and surfaces of the tac room seemed to stand out with unnatural clarity. Sounds and voices in his ears seemed to have a painful serrated quality, sharp and blurred at once. Quinn was on the stuff too, he realized, watching her wince at a high electronic squeal from the comm equipment.

("All right, you're on,") said Quinn through the ear-bug as the vid plate in front of him began to sparkle. They all shut up at last.

The image of Baron Fell materialized, and frowned at him too. Georish Stauber, Baron Fell of House Fell, was unusual for the leader of a Jacksonian Great House in that he still wore his original body. An old man's body. The Baron was stout, pink of face, with a shiny liver-spotted scalp fringed by white hair trimmed short. The silk tunic he wore in his House's particular shade of green made him look like a hypothyroid elf. But there was nothing elfin about his cold and penetrating eyes. Miles was not intimidated by a Jacksonian Baron's power, Mark reminded himself. Miles was not intimidated by any power backed by less than three entire planets. His father the Butcher of Komarr could eat Jacksonian Great Houses for breakfast.

He, of course, was not Miles.

Screw that. I'm Miles for the next fifteen minutes, anyway.

"So, Admiral," rumbled the Baron. "We meet again after all."

"Quite." Mark managed not to let his voice crack.

"I see you are as presumptuous as ever. And as ill-informed."

"Quite."

("Start talking, dammit,") Quinn's voice hissed in his ear.

Mark swallowed. "Baron Fell, it was not a part of my original battle plan to involve Fell Station in this raid. I am as anxious to decamp with my forces as you are to have us leave. To that end, I request your help as a go-between. You . . . know that we've kidnapped Baron Bharaputra, I trust?"

"So I'm told." One of Fell's eyelids tic'd. "You've rather overreached your available back-up, have you not?"

"Have I?" Mark shrugged. "House Fell is in a state of vendetta with House Bharaputra, are you not?"

"Not exactly. House Fell was on the verge of ending the vendetta with House Bharaputra. We've found it mutually unprofitable, of late. I'm now suspected of collusion in your raid." The Baron's frown deepened.

"Uh ..." his thought was interrupted by Thorne whispering, ("Tell him Bharaputra's alive and well.")

"Baron Bharaputra is alive and well," said Mark, "and can remain so, for all I care. As a go-between, it seems to me you would be well-placed to demonstrate your good faith to House Bharaputra by helping to get him back. I only wish to trade him—intact—for one item, and then we'll be gone."

"You are optimistic," Fell said dryly.

Mark plowed on. "A simple, advantageous trade. The Baron for my clone."

("Brother,") Thorne, Quinn, and Bothari-Jesek all corrected in unison in his ear-bug.

"—brother," Mark continued, edged. He unset his teeth. "Unfortunately, my . . . brother, was shot in the melee downside. Fortunately, he was successfully frozen in one of our emergency cryo-chambers. Um, unfortunately, the cryo-chamber was accidentally left behind in the scramble to get off. A live man for a dead one; I fail to see the difficulty."

The Baron barked a laugh, which he muffled in a cough. The three Dendarii faces across from Mark in the shadows were chill and stiff and not amused. "You've been having an interesting visit, Admiral. What do you want with a dead clone?"

("Brother,") Quinn said again. ("Miles insists, always.")

("Yes,") seconded Thorne. ("That's how I first knew you weren't Miles, back on the Ariel, when I called you a clone and you didn't jump down my throat.")

"Brother," Mark repeated wearily. "There was no head-wound, and the cryo-treatment was begun almost instantly. He has good hope of revival, as such things go."

("Only if we get him back,") Quinn growled.

"I have a brother," remarked Baron Fell. "He inspires no such emotions in me."

I'm right with you, Baron, Mark thought.

Thorne piped up in Mark's ear, ("He's talking about his half-brother, Baron Ryoval of House Ryoval. The original axis of this vendetta was between Fell and Ryoval. Bharaputra got dragged in later.")

I know who Ryoval is, Mark wanted to snap, but could not.

"In fact," Baron Fell went on, "my brother will be quite excited to learn you are here. After you so reduced his resources on your last visit, he is alas limited to small-scale attacks. But I suggest you watch your back."

"Oh? Do Ryoval's agents operate so freely on Fell Station?" Mark purred.

Thorne approved, ("Good one! Just like Miles.")

Fell stiffened. "Hardly."

Thorne whispered, ("Yes, remind him you helped him with his brother.")

What the hell had Miles done here, four years ago? "Baron. I helped you with your brother. You help me with mine, and we can call it square."

"Hardly that. The apples of discord you threw among us on your last departure took far too much time to sort out. Still . . . it's true you dealt Ry a better blow that I could have." Was there a tiny glint of approval in Fell's eye? He rubbed his round chin. "Therefore, I will give you one day to complete your business and depart."

"You'll act as go-between?"

"The better to keep an eye on both parties, yes."

Mark explained the Dendarii's best guess as to the approximate location of the cryo-chamber, and gave its description and serial numbers. "Tell the Bharaputrans, we think it may have been hidden or disguised in some way. Please emphasize, we wish it returned in good condition. And their Baron will be too."

("Good,") Bothari-Jesek encouraged. ("Let 'em know it's too valuable to destroy, without letting 'em guess they could hold us up for more ransom.")

Fell's lips thinned. "Admiral, you are an acute man, but I don't think you altogether understand how we do things on Jackson's Whole."

"But you do, Baron. That's why we'd like to have you on our side."

"I am not on your side. That is perhaps the first thing you don't understand."

Mark nodded, slowly; Miles would have, he thought. Fell's attitude was strange. Faintly hostile. Yet he acts like he respects me.

No. He respected Miles. Hell. "Your neutrality is all I ask."

Fell shot him a narrow glance from under his white eyebrows. "What about the other clones?"

"What about them?"

"House Bharaputra will be inquiring."

"They do not enter into this transaction. Vasa Luigi's life should be sufficient and more."

"Yes, the trade seems uneven. What is so valuable about your late clone?"

Three voices chorused in his ear, ("Brother!") Mark yanked the ear-bug out and slapped it to the counter beside the vid plate. Quinn nearly choked.

"I cannot trade back fractions of Baron Bharaputra," snapped Mark. "Tempted as I am to start doing so."

Baron Fell raised a placating plump palm. "Calm, Admiral. I doubt it will be necessary to go so far."

"I hope not." Mark trembled. "It'd be a shame if I had to send him back without his brain. Like the clones."

Baron Fell apparently read the absolute personal sincerity of his threat, for he opened both palms. "I'll see what I can do, Admiral."

"Thank you," whispered Mark.

The Baron nodded; his image dissolved. By some trick of the holovid or the stimulant, Fell's eyes seemed to linger for one last unsettling stare. Mark sat frozen for several seconds till he was certain they were gone.

"Huh," said Bothari-Jesek, sounding surprised. "You did that rather well."

He did not bother to answer that one.

"Interesting," said Thorne. "Why didn't Fell ask for a fee or a cut?"

"Dare we trust him?" asked Bothari-Jesek.

"Not trust, exactly." Quinn ran the edge of her index finger along her white teeth, nibbling. "But we must have Fell's cooperation to transit Jumppoint Five. We dare not offend him, not for any money. I thought he would be more pleased with our bite out of Bharaputra, at the strategic situation seems to have changed since your last visit here, Bel."

Thorne sighed agreement.

Quinn continued, "I want you to see what you can find out about the current balance of power here. Anything that may affect our operations, anything we can use to help. Houses Fell, Bharaputra and Ryoval, and anything coming up on the blindside. There's something bout all this that's making me feel paranoid as hell, though it may be just the drugs I'm on. But I'm too damned tired to see it right now."

"I'll see what I can do." Thorne nodded and withdrew.

When the door hissed shut behind Thorne, Bothari-Jesek asked Quinn, "Have you reported all this to Barrayar yet?"

"No."

"Any of it?"

"No. I don't want to send this one over any commercial comm channel, not even in code. Illyan may have a few deep cover agents here, but I don't know who they are or how to access them. Miles would have known. And . . ."

"And?" Bothari-Jesek raised an eyebrow.

"And I'd really like to have the cryo-chamber back first."

"To shove under the door along with the report? Quinnie, it wouldn't fit."

Quinn shrugged one defensive shoulder.

After a moment Bothari-Jesek offered, "I agree with you about not sending anything through the Jacksonian jump-courier system, though."

"Yes, from what Illyan's said, it's riddled with spies, and not just the Great Houses checking up on each other, either. There's nothing Barrayar could do to help us in the next day-cycle anyway."

"How long," Mark swallowed, "is that how long I have to go on laying Miles?"

"I don't know!" said Quinn sharply. She gulped back control of her voice. "A day, a week, two weeks—at least till we can deliver you and the cryo-chamber to ImpSec's galactic affairs HQ on Komarr. Then it will be out of my hands."

"How the hell do you think you're going to keep all this under wraps?" Mark asked scornfully. "Dozens of people know what really happened."

" 'Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead'?" Quinn grimaced. "I don't know. The troops will be all right, they have the discipline. The clones I can keep incommunicado. Anyway, we're all going to be bottled up on this ship till we reach Komarr. Later . . . I'll deal with later."

"I want to see my . . . the . . . my clones. What you've done with them," Mark demanded suddenly.

Quinn looked like she was about to explode, but Bothari-Jesek cut in, "I'll take him down, Quinnie. I want to check on my passengers too."

"Well ... as long as you escort him back to his cabin when you're done. And put a guard on his door. We can't have him wandering around the ship."

"Will do." Bothari-Jesek chivvied him out quickly, before Quinn decided to have him bound and gagged as well.

The clones had been housed in three hastily-cleared freight storage chambers aboard the Peregrine, two assigned to the boys and one to the girls. Mark ducked through a door behind Bothari-Jesek into one of the boys' chambers, and looked around. Three rows of bedrolls, which must have been podded over from the Ariel, filled the floor space. A self-contained field latrine was strapped into one corner, and a field shower hastily connected in the other, to keep any need for the clones to move about the ship to a minimum. Half jail, half refugee camp, crowded—as he walked down a row between bedrolls the boys glowered up at him with the hollow faces of prisoners.

I freed you all, dammit. Don't you know I freed you?

It had been a rough rescue, true. During that hideous night of siege the Dendarii had been liberal with the most dire threats, to keep their charges under control. Some clones now slept, exhausted. The stunned ones were waking up sick and disoriented; a female Dendarii medic moved among them administering synergine and soothing words. Things were . . . under control. Suppressed. Silent. Not jubilant; not grateful. If they believed our threats, why don't they believe our promises? Even the active boys who had cooperated enthusiastically in the excitement of siege and firefight now stared at him with renewed doubt.

The blond boy was one of them. Mark stopped by his bedroll, and hunkered down. Bothari-Jesek waited, watching them. "All this," Mark waved vaguely at the chamber, "is temporary, you know. It's going to get better later. We're going to get you out of here."

The boy, propped on his elbow, shrank slightly away. He chewed on his lip. "Which one are you?" he asked suspiciously.

The live one, he thought of answering, but did not dare in front of Bothari-Jesek. She might mistake it for flippancy. "It doesn't matter. We're going to get you out of here just the same." Truth or not? He had no control over the Dendarii now, still less over the Barrayarans, if indeed as Quinn threatened that was their new destination. Dreary depression washed over him as he stood and followed Bothari-Jesek into the girls' chamber across the corridor.

The physical set-up was identical, with bedrolls and sanitary facilities, though with only fifteen girls it was slightly less crowded. A Dendarii was passing out a stack of packaged meals, which lent the chamber a moment of positive activity and interest. The trooper was Sergeant Taura, unmistakable even from the back and dressed in clean grey ship-knits and friction-slippers. She sat cross-legged to reduce her intimidating height. The girls, overcoming fear, crept up to her and even touched her with apparent fascination. Of all the Dendarii Taura had never, even in the most frantic moments, addressed the clones with anything but politely-worded requests. She now had all the air of a fairy-tale heroine trying to make pets of wild animals.

And succeeding. As Mark came up, two of the clone girls actually skittered around behind the seated sergeant, to peek at him over the protection of her broad shoulders. Taura frowned at him, and looked at Bothari-Jesek, who returned a short nod, It's all right. He's with me.

"S-surprised to see you here, Sergeant," Mark managed.

"I volunteered to baby-sit," rumbled Taura. "I didn't want anybody bothering them."

"Is . . . that likely to be a problem?" Fifteen beautiful virgins . . . well, maybe. Sixteen, counting yourself, came a tiny jeer from the back of his brain.

"Not now," said Bothari-Jesek firmly.

"Good," he said faintly.

He waffled up the row of mats for a moment. It was all as comfortable and secure as possible, under the circumstances, he supposed. He found the short platinum blonde clone asleep on her side, the soft masses of her body sculpture spilling out of her pink tunic. Embarrassed by his own arrested eye, he knelt and drew her cover up to her chin. His hand, half-unwilled, stole a touch of her fine hair in passing. Guiltily, he glanced up at Taura. "Has she had a dose of synergine?"

"Yes. We're letting her sleep it off. She should feel all right when she wakes up."

He took one of the sealed meal trays and set it down by the blonde's head, for when she did wake. Her breathing was slow and steady. There seemed not much else he could do for her. He looked up to catch the Eurasian girl watching him with knowing, malicious eyes, and he turned hastily away.

Bothari-Jesek completed her inspection and exited, and he followed in her trail. She paused to speak with the stunner-armed guard in the corridor.

"—wide dispersal," she was saying. "Shoot first and ask questions later. They're all young and healthy, you don't have to worry about hidden heart conditions with this lot, I don't think. But I doubt they'll give you much trouble."

"With one exception," Mark put in. "There's this dark-haired girl, slim, very striking—she appears to have undergone some special mental conditioning. Not . . . quite sane. Watch out for her."

"Yes, sir," said the trooper automatically, then caught himself, glancing at Bothari-Jesek, ". . . uh . . ."

"Sergeant Taura confirms the report on that one," said Bothari-Jesek. "Anyway, I don't want any of them loose on my ship. They're totally untrained. Their ignorance could be as dangerous as any hostility. This is not an ornamental guard post. Stay awake."

They exchanged parting salutes. The trooper, overcoming reflex, managed not to include Mark in his directed courtesy. Mark trotted after Bothari-Jesek's long stride.

"So," she said after a moment, "does our treatment of your clones meet with your approval?" He could not quite tell if her tone was ironic.

"It's as good as anyone could do for them, for now." He bit his tongue, but the too self-revealing outburst escaped it anyway. "Dammit, it's not fair!"

Bothari-Jesek's brows rose, as she paced along the corridor. "What's not fair?"

"I saved these kids—or we did, you did—and they act like we're some kind of villains, kidnappers, monsters. They're not happy at all."

"Perhaps ... it will have to be enough for you just to have saved them. To demand that they be happy about it too may exceed your mandate . . . little hero." Her tone was unmistakably ironic now, though oddly devoid of scorn.

"You'd think there'd be a little gratitude. Belief. Acknowledgement. Something."

"Trust?" she said in a quiet voice.

"Yes, trust! At least from some of them. Can't any of them tell we're on the level?"

"They've been rather traumatized. I wouldn't expect too much if I were you, till they get a chance to see more evidence." She paused, in speech and stride, and swung to face him. "But if you ever figure it out—figure out how to make an ignorant, traumatized, paranoid stupid kid trust you—tell Miles. He urgently wants to know."

Mark stood, nonplussed. "Was that . . . directed to me?" he demanded, dry-mouthed.

She glanced over his head, around the empty corridor, and smiled i bitter, maddening smile. "You're home." She nodded pointedly toward his cabin door. "Stay there."

He slept at last, for a long time, though when Quinn came to wake him it seemed like not long enough. Mark wasn't sure if Quinn had slept at all, though she had finally cleaned up and changed back into her officer's undress greys. He'd been starting to imagine her planning to wear the bloodstained fatigues till they retrieved the cryo-chamber, as some sort of vow. Even without the fatigues she radiated an unsettling edginess, red-eyed and strained.

"Come on," she growled. "I need you to talk to Fell again. He's been giving me a run-around. I'm starting to wonder if he could be in collusion with Bharaputra. I don't understand, it doesn't add up."

She hauled him off to the tac room again, though this time she did not rely on the ear-bug, but stood aggressively at his elbow. To the outside eye, she'd ranged herself as bodyguard and chief assistant; all Mark could think of was how conveniently placed she was to grab him by the hair and slit his throat.

Captain Bothari-Jesek sat in, occupying a spare station chair as before, watching quietly. She eyed Quinn's frazzled demeanor with a look of concern, but said nothing.

When Fell's face appeared above the vid plate again, its pinkness was decidedly more irate than jolly. "Admiral Naismith, I told Captain Quinn that when I had firm information, / would contact you."

"Baron, Captain Quinn . . . serves me. Please forgive any importunity on her part. She only, ah, faithfully reflects my own anxieties." Miles's typical overflowing vocabulary filled his mouth like flour. Quinn's fingers bit into his shoulder, silent painful warning that he had better not let his invention carry him too far. "What, shall we say, less-than-firm information can you give us?"

Fell settled back, frowning but placated. "To put it bluntly, the Bharaputrans say they cannot find your cryo-chamber."

"It has to be there," hissed Quinn.

"Now, now, Quinnie." Mark patted her hand. It clamped like a vise. Her nostrils flared murderously, but she achieved a faint false smile for the holovid. Mark turned back to Fell. "Baron—in your best judgment—are the Bharaputrans lying?"

"I don't think so."

"Do you have some independent corroboration for your opinion? Agents on site, or anything of the sort?"

The Baron's lips twisted. "Really, Admiral, I cannot say."

Naturally not. He rubbed his face, a Naismith-thoughtful gesture. "Can you say anything specific about what the Bharaputrans are doing?"

"They are in fact turning their medical complex inside out right now. All the employees, and all the security forces they brought in to contain your raid, have been engaged in the search."

"Could it be an elaborate charade, to mislead us?"

The Baron paused. "No," he said flatly at last. "They're really scrambling. On all levels. Are you aware . . ." he took a decisive breath, "of what your kidnapping of Baron Bharaputra, if it should prove more than a brief interlude, could do to the balance of power among the Great Houses of Jackson's Whole?"

"No, what?"

The Baron's chin went up, and he checked Mark sharply for signs of sarcasm. The vertical lines between his eyes deepened, but he answered seriously. "You should realize, the value of your hostage may go down with time. No power-vacuum at the top of a Great House, or even a House Minor, can last long. There are always factions of younger men waiting, perhaps in secret, to rush in and fill it. Even supposing Lotus manages to get Vasa Luigi's chief loyalist lieutenant to fill and retain his place—as time goes on, it can only dawn on him that the return of his master will involve demotion as well as reward. Think of a Great House as the hydra of mythology. Chop off its head, and seven more arise on the stump of neck—and begin biting each other. Eventually, only one will survive. In the meantime, the House is weakened, and all its old alliances and deals are thrown into doubt. The turmoil expands in a widening ring to associate Houses . . . such abrupt changes are not welcomed, here. Not by anyone." Least of all by Baron Fell himself, Mark gathered.

"Except maybe by your younger colleagues," Mark suggested.

A wave of Fell's hand dismissed the concerns of his younger colleagues. If they wanted power, the wave implied, let them plot and scramble and kill for it as he had.

"Well, I have no desire to keep Baron Bharaputra till he grows old and moldy," said Mark. "I have no personal use for him at all, out of this context. Please urge House Bharaputra to speed in finding my brother, eh?"

"They need no urging." Fell regarded him coldly. "Be aware, Admiral, if this . . . situation is not brought to a satisfactory conclusion quickly, Fell Station will not be able to harbor you."

"Uh . . . define quickly."

"Very soon. Within another day-cycle."

Fell Station surely had enough force to evict the two small Dendarii ships whenever it willed. Or worse than evict. "Understood. Uh . . . what about unimpeded passage out at Jumppoint Five?" If things did not go well . . .

"That . . . you may have to deal for separately."

"Deal how?"

"If you still had your hostage ... I would not desire that you carry Vasa Luigi out of Jacksonian local space. And I am positioned to see that you do not."

Quinn's fist slammed down beside the vid plate. "No!" she cried. "No way! Baron Bharaputra is the only card we have to get my, get the cryo-chamber back. We will not give him up!"

Fell recoiled slightly. "Captain!" he reproved.

"We will take him with us if we're forced out," Quinn threatened, "and you can all hang out to dry. Or he can walk back from Jumppoint Five without a pressure suit. If we don't get that cryo-chamber—well, we have better allies than you. And with fewer inhibitions. They won't care about your profits, or your deals, or your balances. The only question they'll be asking is whether to start at the north pole, and burn down, or at the south pole, and burn up!"

Fell grimaced angrily. "Don't be absurd, Captain Quinn. You speak of a planetary force."

Quinn leaned into the vid pick-up and snarled, "Baron, I speak of a multi-planetary force!"

Bothari-Jesek, startled, made an urgent throat-slicing gesture across her neck, Cut it, Quinn!

Fell's eyes went hard and bright as glass glints. "You're bluffing," he said at last.

"I am not. You'd best believe I am not!"

"No one would do all that for one man. Still less for one corpse."

Quinn hesitated. Mark's hand closed on hers upon his shoulder and squeezed hard to say, Control yourself, dammit. She was on the verge of giving away what she'd practically threatened him with death not to reveal. "You may be right, Baron," she said finally. "You'd better pray you're right."

After a long moment of silence, Fell inquired mildly, "And just who is this uninhibited ally of yours, Admiral?"

After an equally long pause, Mark looked up and said sweetly, "Captain Quinn was bluffing, Baron."

Fell's lips drew back on an extremely dry smile. "All Betans are liars," he said softly. His hand moved to cut the comm; his image faded in the usual haze of sparkles. This time it was his cold smile that seemed to linger, bodiless.

"Good job, Quinn," Mark snarled into the silence. "You've just let Baron Fell know how much he could really get for that cryo-chamber. And maybe even who from. Now we have two enemies."

Quinn was breathing hard, as though she'd been running. "He's not our enemy; he's not our friend. Fell serves Fell. Remember that, 'cause he will."

"But was Fell lying, or was he merely passing on House Bharaputra's lies?" Bothari-Jesek asked slowly. "What independent line of profit could Fell possibly have on all this?"

"Or are they both lying?" said Quinn.

"What if neither of them are?" asked Mark in irritation. "Have you thought of that? Remember what Norwood—"

A comm beeper interrupted him. Quinn leaned on her hands on the comconsole to listen.

"Quinn, this is Bel. That contact I found agrees to meet us at the Ariel's docking bay. If you want to be in on the interrogation, you need to pod over now."

"Yes, right, I'll be there, Quinn out." She turned, haggard, and started for the door. "Elena, see that he," a jerk of her thumb, "is confined to quarters."

"Yeah, well, after you talk with whatever Bel dragged in, get yourself some rest, huh, Quinnie? You're unstrung. You almost lost it back there."

Quinn's ambiguous parting wave acknowledged the truth of this, without making any promises. As Quinn exited, Bothari-Jesek turned to her station console, to order up a personnel pod to be ready for Quinn by the time she arrived at the hatch.

Mark rose and wandered around the tactics room, his hands thrust carefully into his pockets. A dozen real-time and holo-schematic display consoles sat dark and still; communication and encoding systems lay silent. He pictured the tactics nerve center fully staffed, alive and bright and chaotic, heading into battle. He imagined enemy fire peeling the ship open like a meal tray, all that life smashed and burned and spilled into the hard radiation and vacuum of space. Fire from House Fell's station at Jumppoint Five, say, as the Peregrine fought for escape. He shuddered, nauseated.

He paused before the sealed door to the briefing chamber. Bothari-Jesek was now engaged in some other communication, some decision having to do with the security of their Fell Station moorings. Curious, he laid his palm upon the lock-pad. Somewhat to his surprise, the door slid demurely open. Somebody had some re-programming to do, if all top-secured Dendarii facilities were keyed to admit a dead man's palm print. A lot of re-programming—Miles doubtless had it fixed so he could just waft right through anywhere in the fleet. That would be his style.

Bothari-Jesek glanced up, but said nothing. Taking that as tacit permission, Mark walked into the briefing room, and circled the table. Lights came up for him as he paced. Thorne's words, spoken here, echoed in his head. Norwood said, The Admiral will get out of here even if we don't. How carefully had the Dendarii examined their recordings of the drop mission? Surely someone had been over them all several times by now. What could he possibly see that they hadn't? They knew their people, their equipment. But I know the medical complex. I know Jackson's Whole.

He wondered how far his palm would take him. He slipped into Quinn's station chair; sure enough, files bloomed for him, opened at his touch as no woman ever had. He found the downloaded records of the drop mission. Norwood's data was lost, but Tonkin had been with him part of the time. What had Tonkin seen? Not colored lines on the map, but real-time, real-eye, real-ear? Was there such a record? The command helmet had kept such, he knew, if trooper-helmets did too then—ah, ha. Tonkin's visuals and audio came up on the console before his fascinated eyes.

Trying to follow them gave him an almost instant headache. This was no ballasted and gimballed vid pick-up, no steady pan, but rather the jerky, snatching glances of real head movements. He slowed the replay to watch himself in the lift-tube foyer, a short, agitated fellow in grey camouflage, glittering eyes in a set face. Do I really look like that? The deformities of his body were not so apparent as he'd imagined, under the loose uniform.

He sat behind Tonkin's eyes and walked with him through the hurried maze of Bharaputra's buildings, tunnels, and corridors, all the way to the last firefight at the end. Thorne had quoted Norwood correctly; it was right there on the vid. Though he'd been wrong on the time; Norwood was gone eleven minutes by the helmet's unsubjective clock. Norwood's flushed face reappeared, panting, the urgent laugh sounded—and, moments later, the grenade-strike, the explosion—almost ducking, Mark hastily shut off the vid, and glanced down at himself as if half-expecting to be branded with another mortal splattering of blood and brains.

If there's any clue, it has to be earlier. He started the program again from the parting in the foyer. The third time through, he slowed it down and took it step by step, examining each. The patient, finicky, self-forgetful absorption was almost pleasurable. Tiny details—you could lose yourself in tiny details, an anesthetic for brain-pain.

"Got you," he whispered. It had flashed past so fast as to be subliminal, if you were running the vid in real-time. The briefest glimpse of a sign on the wall, an arrow on a cross-corridor labeled Shipping and Receiving.

He looked up to find Bothari-Jesek watching him. How long had she been sitting there? She slumped relaxed, long legs crossed at booted ankles, long fingers tented together. "What have you got?" she asked quietly.

He called up the holomap of the ghostly buildings with Norwood and Tonkin's line of march glowing inside. "Not here," he pointed, "but there." He marked a complex well off-sides from the route the Dendarii had traveled with the cryo-chamber. "That's where Norwood went. Through that tunnel. I'm sure of it! I've seen that facility—been all over that building. Hell, I used to play hide and seek in it with my friends, till the babysitters made us stop. I can see it in my head as surely as if I had Norwood's helmet vid playing right here on the table. He took that cryo-chamber down to Shipping and Receiving, and he shipped it!"

Bothari-Jesek sat up. "Is that possible? He had so little time!"

"Not just possible. Easy! The packing equipment is fully automated. All he had to do was put the cryo-chamber in the casing machine and hit the keypad. The robots would even have delivered it to the loading dock. It's a busy place—receives supplies for the whole complex, ships everything from data disks to frozen body parts for transplants to genetically engineered fetuses to emergency equipment for search and rescue teams. Such as reconditioned cryo-chambers. All sorts of stuff! It operates around the clock, and it would have had to be evacuated in a hurry when our raid hit. While the packing equipment was running, Norwood could have been generating the shipping label on the computer. Slapped 'em together, gave it to the transport robot—and then, if he was as smart as I think, erased the file record. Then he ran like hell back to Tonkin."

"So the cryo-chamber is sitting packed on a loading dock downside! Wait'll I tell Quinn! I suppose we'd better tell the Bharaputrans where to look—"

"I . . ." he held up a restraining hand. "I think . . ."

She looked at him, and sank back into the station chair, eyes narrowing. "Think what?"

"It's been almost a full day since we lifted. It's been a half-day and more since we told the Bharaputrans to look for the cryo-chamber. If that cryo-chamber was still sitting on a loading dock, I think the Bharaputrans would have found it by now. The automated shipping system is efficient. I think the cryo-chamber already went out, maybe within the first hour. I think the Bharaputrans and Fell are telling the truth. They must be going insane right now. Not only is there no cryo-chamber down there, they haven't got a clue in hell where it went!"

Bothari-Jesek sat stiff. "Do we?" she asked. "My God. If you're right—it could be on its way anywhere. Freighted out from any of two dozen orbital transfer stations—it could have been jumped by now! Simon Illyan is going to have a stroke when we report this."

"No. Not anywhere," Mark corrected intently. "It could only have been addressed to somewhere that Medic Norwood knew. Someplace he could remember, even when he was surrounded and cut off and under fire."

She licked her lips, considering this. "Right," she said at last. "Almost anywhere. But at least we can start guessing by studying Norwood's personnel files." She sat back, and looked up at him with grave eyes. "You know, you do all right, alone in a quiet room. You're not stupid. I didn't see how you could be. You're just not the field-officer type."

"I'm not any kind of officer-type. I hate the military."

"Miles loves field work. He's addicted to adrenalin rushes."

"I hate them. I hate being afraid. I can't think when I'm scared. I freeze when people shout at me."

"Yet you can think. . . . How much of the time are you scared?"

"Most of it," he admitted grimly.

"Then why do you ..." she hesitated, as if choosing her words very cautiously, "why do you keep trying to be Miles?"

"I'm not, you're making me play him!"

"I didn't mean now. I mean generally."

"I don't know what the hell you mean."

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