Lois McMaster Bujold, "The Vor Game"

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CHAPTER ONE

"Ship duty!" chortled the ensign four ahead of Miles in line. Glee lit his face as his eyes sped down his orders, the plastic flimsy rattling slightly in his hands. "I'm to be junior weaponry officer on the Imperial Cruiser Commodore Vorhalas. Reporting at once to Tanery Base Shuttleport for orbital transfer." At a pointed prod he removed himself with an unmilitary skip from the way of the next man in line, still hissing delight under his breath.

'Ensign Plause." The aging sergeant manning the desk managed to look bored and superior at the same holding the next packet up with deliberation between thumb and forefinger. How long had he been holding down this post at the Imperial Military Academy? Miles wondered. How many hundreds— thousands—of young officers had passed under his bland eyes at this first supreme moment of their careers? Did they all start to look alike after a few years? The same fresh green uniforms. The same blue shiny plastic rectangles of shiny new-won rank armoring the high collars. The same hungry eyes, the go-to-hell graduates of the Imperial Services' most elite school with visions of military destiny dancing in their heads. We don't just march on the future, we charge it.

Plause stepped aside, touched his thumbprint to the lock-pad, and unzipped his envelope in turn.

“Well?” said Ivan Vorpatril, just ahead of Miles in line. “Don’t keep us in suspense.”

“Language school,” said Plause, still reading.

Plause spoke all four of Barrayar's native languages perfect already. "As student or instructor?" Miles inquired.

“Student.”

“Ah, ha. It’ll be galactic languages, then. Intelligence will be waiting you, after. You're bound off-planet for sure," said Miles.

“Not necessarily," said Plause. "They could just sit me in a concrete box somewhere, programming translating computers till I go blind." But hope gleamed in his eyes.

Miles charitably did not point out the major draw-back of Intelligence, the fact that you ended up working for Chief of Imperial Security Simon Illyan, the man who remembered everything. But perhaps on Plause’s level he would not encounter the acerb Illyan.

" Ensign Lubachik."

Lubachik was the second most painfully earnest man Miles had ever met; Miles was therefore unsurprised when Lubachik zipped open his envelope and choked, '"ImpSec. The advanced course in Security and Counter-assassination."

“Ah, palace guard school," said Ivan with interest, kibbitzing over Lubachik's shoulder.

That's quite an honor," Miles observed. "Illyan usually pulls his students from the twenty-year men with rows of medals."

"Maybe Emperor Gregor asked Illyan for someone nearer his own age," suggested Ivan, "to brighten the landscape. Those prune-faced fossils Illyan usually surrounds him with would give me depressive fits. Don't let on you have a sense of humor, Lubachik I think it's an automatic disqualification."

Lubachik was in no danger of losing the posting if that were so. Miles reflected.

"Will I really meet the emperor?" Lubachik asked. He turned nervous eyes on Miles and Ivan.

"You'll probably get to watch him eat breakfast every day," said Ivan. "Poor sod." Did he mean Lubachik, or Gregor? Gregor, definitely.

"You Vorish types know him—what's he like?" Miles cut in before the glint in Ivan's eye could materialize into some practical joke. "He's very straightforward. You'll get along fine."

Lubachik moved off, looking faintly reassured, rereading his flimsy.

"Ensign Vorpatril," intoned the sergeant. "Ensign Vorkosigan."

Tall Ivan collected his packet and Miles his, and they moved out of the way with their two comrades.

Ivan unzipped his envelope. "Ha. Imperial HQ in Vorbarr Sultana for me. I am to be, I'll have you know, aide-de-camp to Commodore Jollif, Operations." He bowed and turned the flimsy over. "Starting tomorrow, in fact."

"Ooh," said the ensign who'd drawn ship duty, still bouncing slightly. "Ivan gets to be a secretary. Just watch out if General Lamitz asks you to sit on as lap, I hear he—"

Ivan flipped him an amiable rude gesture. "Envy, sheer envy. I'll get to live like a civilian. Work seven to five, have my own apartment in town—no girls — on that ship of yours up there, I might point out." Ivan's voice was even and cheerful, only his eyes failing to totally conceal his disappointment. Ivan had wanted ship duty too. They all did.

Miles did. Ship duty. Eventually, command, like my father, his father, his, his ... A. wish, a prayer, a dream ... He hesitated for self-discipline, for fear, for a last lingering moment of high hope. He thumbed the lock pad and unzipped the envelope A single plastic flimsy, a handful of travel passes. .. His deliberation lasted only for the brief moment it took him to absorb the his eyes. He stood frozen in disbelief, began reading again from the top.

"So what's up, coz?" Ivan glanced down over Miles's shoulder.

"Ivan." said Miles in a choked voice, "have I got a touch of amnesia, or did we indeed never have a meteorology course on our sciences track?"

“Five-space math, yes. Xenobotany, yes." Ivan absently scratched a remembered itch. "Geology and terrain evaluation, yes. Well, there was aviation weather, back in our first year."

“Yes, but…”

"So what have they done to you this time?" asked Plause, clearly prepared to offer congratulations or sympathy as indicated.

"I m assigned as Chief Meteorology Officer, Lazkowski Base. Where the hell is Lazkowski Base? I've never even heard of it!"

The sergeant at the desk looked up with a sudden evil grin. "I have, sir," he offered. "It's on a place called Kyril Island, up near the arctic circle. Winter training base for infantry. The grubs call it Camp Permafrost.

"Infantry?" said Miles.

Ivan's brows rose, and he frowned down at Miles. "Infantry? You? That doesn't seem right."

"No, it doesn't," said Miles faintly. Cold consciousness of his physical handicaps washed over him.

Yours of arcane medical tortures had almost managed to correct the severe deformities from which Miles had nearly died at birth. Almost. Curled like a frog in infancy, he now stood almost straight. Chalk-stick bones, friable as talc, now were almost strong Wizened as an infant homunculus, he now stood almost four-foot-nine. It had been a trade-off, toward the end, between the length of his bones and their strength, and his doctor still opined that the last six inches of height had been a mistake. Miles had finally broken his legs enough times to agree with him, but by then it was too late. But not a mutant, not ... it scarcely mattered any more. If only they would let him place his strengths in the Emperor's service, he would make them forget his weaknesses. The deal was understood.

There had to be a thousand jobs in the Service to which his strange appearance and hidden fragility would make not one whit of difference. Like aide-de-camp, or Intelligence translator. Or even a ship's weaponry officer, monitoring his computers. It had been understood, surely it had been understood. But Infantry? Someone was not playing fair. Or a mistake had been made. That wouldn't be a first. He hesitated a long moment, his fist tightening on the flimsy, then headed toward the door.

"Where are you going?" asked Ivan.

"To see Major Cecil."

Ivan exhaled through pursed lips. "Oh? Good luck."

Did the desk sergeant hide a small smile, bending his head to sort through the next stack of packets? "Ensign Draut," he called. The line moved up one more.

Major Cecil was leaning with one hip on his clerk's desk, consulting about something on the vid, as Miles entered his office and saluted.

Major Cecil glanced up at Miles and then at his chrono. "Ah, less than ten minutes. I win the bet." The major returned Miles's salute as the clerk, smiling sourly, pulled a small wad of currency from his pocket, peeled off a one-mark note, and handed it across wordlessly to his superior. The major's face was only amused on the surface; he nodded toward the door, and the clerk tore off the plastic flimsy his machine had just produced and exited the room.

Major Cecil was a man of about fifty, lean, even-tempered, watchful. Very watchful. Though he was not the titular head of Personnel, that administrative job belonging to a higher-ranking officer. Miles had spotted Cecil long ago as the final-decision man. Through Cecil's hands passed at the last every assignment for every Academy graduate. Miles had always found him an accessible man, the teacher and scholar in him ascendant over the officer. His wit was dry and rare, his dedication to his duty intense. Miles had always trusted him. Till now.

"Sir," he began. He held out his orders in a frustrated gesture. "What is this?"

Cecil's eyes were still bright with his private amusement as he pocketed the mark-note. "Are you asking me to read them to you, Vorkosigan?"

"Sir, I question—" Miles stopped, bit his tongue, began again. "I have a few questions about my assignment."

"Meteorology Officer, Lazkowski Base," Major Cecil recited.

"It's ... not a mistake, then? I got the right packet?"

"If that's what that says, you did."

"Are ... you aware the only meteorology course I had was aviation weather?"

"I am." The major wasn't giving away a thing.

Miles paused. Cecil's sending his clerk out was a clear signal that this discussion was to be frank. "Is this some kind of punishment?" What have I ever done to you?

"Why, Ensign," Cecil's voice was smooth, "it's a perfectly normal assignment. Were you expecting an extraordinary one? My job is to match personnel requests with available candidates. Every request must be filled by someone."

"Any tech school grad could have filled this one." With an effort. Miles kept the snarl out of his voice, uncurled his fingers. "Better. It doesn't require an Academy cadet."

"That's right," agreed the major.

"Why, then?" Miles burst out. His voice came out louder than he'd meant it to.

Cecil sighed, straightened. "Because I have noticed, Vorkosigan, watching you—and you know very well you were the most closely-watched cadet ever to pass through these halls barring Emperor Gregor himself—"

Miles nodded shortly.

"That despite your demonstrated brilliance m some areas, you have also demonstrated some chronic weaknesses. And I'm not referring to your physical problems, which everybody but me thought were going to take you out before your first year was up— you've been surprisingly sensible about those—"

Miles shrugged. "Pain hurts, sir. I don't court it."

"Very good. But your most insidious chronic problem is in die area of ... how shall I put this precisely ... subordination. You argue too much."

"No, I don't," Miles began indignantly, then shut his mouth.

Cecil flashed a grin. "Quite. Plus your rather irritating habit of treating your superior officers as your, ah ..." Cecil paused, apparently groping again for just the right word.

"Equals?" Miles hazarded.

"Cattle," Cecil corrected judiciously. 'To be driven to your will. You're a manipulator par excellence, Vorkosigan. I've been studying you for three years now, and your group dynamics are fascinating. Whether you were in charge or not, somehow it was always your idea that ended up getting carried out."

"Have I been ... that disrespectful, sir?" Miles's stomach felt cold.

"On the contrary. Given your background, the marvel is that you conceal that, ah, little arrogant streak so well. But Vorkosigan," Cecil dropped at last into perfect seriousness, "the Imperial Academy is not the whole of the Imperial Service. You've made your comrades here appreciate you because here, brains are held at a premium. You were picked first for any strategic team for the same reason you were picked last for any purely physical contest— these young hotshots wanted to win. All the time. Whatever it took."

"I can't be ordinary and survive, sir!"

Cecil tilted his head. "I agree. And yet, sometime, you must also learn how to command ordinary men. And be commanded by them!"

"This isn't a punishment, Vorkosigan, and it isn't my idea of a joke. Upon my choices may depend not only our fledgling officers' lives, but also those of the innocents I inflict'em on. If I seriously miscalculate, overmatch or mismatch a man with a job, I not only risk him, but also those around him. Now, in six months (plus unscheduled overruns), the Imperial Orbital Shipyard is going to finish commissioning the Prince Serg"

Miles's breath caught.

"You've got it," Cecil nodded. "The newest, fastest, deadliest thing His Imperial Majesty has ever put into space. And with the longest range. It will go out, and stay out, for longer periods than anything we've ever had before. It follows that everyone on board will be in each other's hair for longer unbroken periods than ever before. High Command is actually paying some attention to the psycho profiles on this one. For a change.

"Listen, now," Cecil leaned forward. So did Miles, reflexively. "If you can keep your nose clean for just six months on an isolated downside post—bluntly, if you prove you can handle Camp Permafrost, 111 allow as how you can handle anything the Service might throw at you. And I'll support your request for a transfer to the Prince. But if you screw up, there will be nothing I or anybody else can do for you. Sink or swim. Ensign."

Fly, thought Miles. I want to fly. "Sir ... just how much of a pit is this place?"

"I wouldn't want to prejudice you. Ensign Vorkosigan," said Cecil piously.

And I love you too, sir. "But ... infantry? My physical limits ... won't prevent my serving if they're taken into account, but I can't pretend they're not there. Or I might as well jump off a wall, destroy myself immediately, and save everybody time." Dammit, why did they let me occupy some of Barrayar's most expensive classroom space for three years if they meant to kill me outright? "I'd always assumed they were going to be taken into account."

"Meteorology Officer is a technical speciality, Ensign," the major reassured him. "Nobody's going to try and drop a fall field pack on you and smash you flat. I doubt there's an officer in the Service who would choose to explain your dead body to the Admiral." His voice cooled slightly. "Your saving grace. Mutant."

Cecil was without prejudice, merely testing. Always testing. Miles ducked his head. "As I may be, for the mutants who come after me."

"You've figured that out, have you?" Cecil's eye was suddenly speculative, faintly approving.

"Years ago, sir."

"Hm." Cecil smiled slightly, pushed himself off the desk, came forward and extended his hand. "Good luck, then. Lord Vorkosigan."

Miles shook it. "Thank you, sir." He shuffled through the stack of travel passes, ordering them.

"What's your first stop?" asked Cecil.

Testing again. Must be a bloody reflex. Miles answered unexpectedly, "The Academy archives."

"Ah!"

"For a downloading of the Service meteorology manual. And supplementary material."

"Very good. By the way, your predecessor in the post will be staying on a few weeks to complete your orientation."

"I'm extremely glad to hear that, sir, "said Miles sincerely.

"We're not trying to make it impossible. Ensign."

Merely very difficult. "I'm glad to know that too. Sir." Miles's parting salute was almost subordinate.

Miles rode the last leg to Kyril Island in a big automated air-freight shuttle with a bored backup pilot and eighty tons of supplies. He spent most of the solitary journey frantically swotting up on weather. Since the flight schedule went rapidly awry due to hours-long delays at the last two loading stops, he found himself reassuringly further along in his studies than he'd expected by the time the air-shuttle rumbled to a halt at Lazkowski Base.

The cargo bay doors opened to let in watery light from a sun skulking along near the horizon. The high-summer breeze was about five degrees above freezing. The first soldiers Miles saw were a crew of black-coveralled men with loaders under the direction of a tired-looking corporal, who met the shuttle. No one appeared to be specially detailed to meet a new weather officer. Miles shrugged on his parka and approached them.

A couple of the black-clad men, watching him as he hopped down from the ramp, made remarks to each other in Barrayaran Greek, a minority dialect of Earth origin, thoroughly debased in the centuries of the Time of Isolation. Miles, weary from his journey and cued by the all-too-familiar expressions on their faces, made a snap decision to ignore whatever they had to say by simply pretending not to understand their language. Plause had told him often enough that his accent in Greek was execrable anyway.

"Look at that, unit you? Is it a kid?"

"I knew they were sending us baby officers, but this is a new low,"

"Hey, that's no kid. It's a damn dwarf of some sort. The midwife sure missed her stroke on that one. Look at it, it's a mutant!"

With an effort. Miles kept his eyes from turning toward the commentators. Increasingly confident of their privacy, their voices rose from whispers to ordinary tones.

"So what's it doing in uniform, ha?"

"Maybe it's our new mascot.”

The old genetic fears were so subtly ingrained, so pervasive even now, you could get beaten to death by people who didn't even know quite why they hated you but simply got carried away in the excitement of a group feedback loop. Miles knew very well he had always been protected by his father's rank, but ugly things could happen to less socially fortunate odd ones. There had been a ghastly incident in the Old Town section of Vorbarr Sultana just two years ago, a destitute crippled man found castrated with a broken wine bottle by a gang of drunks. It was considered Progress that it was a scandal, and not simply taken for granted. A recent infanticide in the Vorkosigan's own district had cut even closer to the bone. Yes, rank, social or military, had its uses. Miles meant to acquire all he could before he was done.

Miles twitched his parka back so that his officers collar tabs showed clearly. "Hello, Corporal. I have orders to report in to a Lieutenant Ahn, the base Meteorology Officer. Where can I find him?"

Miles waited a beat for his proper salute. It was slow in coming, the corporal was still goggling down at him. It dawned on him at last that Miles might really be an officer.

Belatedly, he saluted. "Excuse me, uh, what did you say, sir?"

Miles returned the salute blandly and repeated himself in level tones.

"Uh, Lieutenant Ahn, right. He usually hides out—that is, he's usually in his office. In the main administration building." The corporal swung his arm around to point toward a two-story pre-fab sticking up beyond a rank of half-buried warehouses at the edge of the tarmac, maybe a kilometer off. "You can't miss it, it's the tallest building on the base."

Also, Miles noted, well-marked by the assortment of comm equipment sticking out of the roof. Very good.

Now, should he turn his pack over to these goons and pray that it would follow him to his eventual destination, whatever it was? Or interrupt their work and commandeer a loader for transport? He had a brief vision of himself stuck up on the prow of the thing like a sailing ship's figurehead, being trundled toward his meeting with destiny along with half a ton of Underwear, Thermal, Long, 2 doz. per unit crate. Style #6774932. He decided to shoulder his duffle and walk.

"Thank you. Corporal." He marched off in the indicated direction, too-conscious of his limp and the leg-braces concealed beneath his trouser legs taking up their share of the extra weight. The distance turned out to be farther than it looked, but he was careful not to pause or falter till he'd turned out of sight beyond the first warehouse-unit.

The base seemed nearly deserted. Of course. The bulk of its population was the infantry trainees who came and went in two batches per winter. Only the permanent crew was here now, and Miles bet most of them took their long leaves during this brief summer breathing space. Miles wheezed to a halt inside the Admin building without having passed another man.

The Directory and Map Display, according to a hand-lettered sign taped across its vid plate, was down. Miles wandered up the first and only hallway to his right, searching for an occupied office, any occupied office. Most doors were closed, but not locked, lights out. An office labeled Gen. Accounting held a man in black fatigues with red lieutenant's tabs on the collar, totally absorbed in his holovid

which was displaying long columns of data. He was swearing under his breath.

"Meteorology Office. Where?" Miles called In the door.

Two." The lieutenant pointed upward without turning around, crouched more tightly, and resumed swearing. Miles tiptoed away without disturbing him further.

He found it at last on the second floor, a closed door labeled in faded letters. He paused outside, set down his duffle, and folded his parka atop it. He checked himself over. Fourteen hours travel had rumpled his initial crispness. Still, he'd managed to beep his green undress uniform and half-boots free of foodstains, mud, and other unbecoming accretions. He flattened his cap and positioned it precisely in his belt. He'd crossed half a planet, half a lifetime, to achieve this moment Three years training to a sever pitch of readiness lay behind him. Yet the Academy years had always had a faint air of pretense, We-are-only-practicing; now, at last, he was face to face with the real thing, his first real commanding officer. First impressions could be vital, especially in his case. He took a breath and knocked.

A gravelly muffled voice came through the door, words unrecognizable. Invitation? Miles opened it and strode in.

He had a glimpse of computer interfaces and vid displays gleaming and glowing along one wall. He rocked back at the heat that hit his face. The air within was blood-temperature. Except for the vid displays, the room was dim. At a movement to his left. Miles turned and saluted. "Ensign Miles Vorkosigan, reporting for duty as ordered, sir," he snapped out, looked up, and saw no one.

The movement had come from lower down. An unshaven man of about forty dressed only in his skivvies sat on the floor, his back against the comconsole desk. He smiled up at Miles, raised a bottle half-full of amber liquid, mumbled, "Salu', boy. Love ya," and fell slowly over.

Miles gazed down on him for a long, long, thoughtful moment.

The man began to snore.

After turning down the heat, shedding his tunic, and tossing a blanket over Lieutenant Ahn (for such he was). Miles took a contemplative half-hour and thoroughly examined his new domain. There was no doubt, he was going to require instruction in the office's operations. Besides the satellite real-time images, automated data seemed to be coming in from a dozen micro-climate survey rigs spotted around the island. If procedural manuals had ever existed, they weren't around now, not even on the computers. After an honorable hesitation, bemusedly studying the snoring, twitching form on the floor, Miles also took the opportunity to go through Ahn's desk and comconsole files.

Discovery of a few pertinent facts helped put the human spectacle before Miles into a more understandable perspective. Lieutenant Ahn, it seemed, was a twenty-year man within weeks of retirement. It had been a very, very long time since his last promotion. It had been an even longer time since his last transfer; he'd been Kyril Island's only weather officer for the last fifteen years.

This poor sod has been stuck on this iceberg since I was six years old. Miles calculated, and shuddered inwardly. Hard to tell, at this late date, if Ahn's drinking problem were cause or effect. Well, if he sobered up enough within the next day to show Miles how to go on, well and good. If he didn't, Miles could think of half a dozen ways, ranging from the cruel to the unusual, to bring him around whether he wanted to be conscious or not. If Ahn could just be made to disgorge a technical orientation, be could return to his coma till they came to roll him onto outgoing transport, for all Miles cared.

Aim's fate decided. Miles donned his tunic, stowed his gear behind the desk, and went exploring. Somewhere in the chain of command there must be a conscious, sober and sane human being who was actually doing his job, or the place couldn't even function on this level. Or maybe it was run by corporals, who knew? In that case. Miles supposed, his next task must be to find and take control of the most effective corporal available.

In the downstairs foyer a human form approached Miles, silhouetted at first against the light from the front doors. Jogging in precise double time, the shape resolved into a tall, hard-bodied man in sweat pants, T-shirt, and running shoes. He had clearly just come in off some condition-maintaining five-kilometer run, with maybe a few hundred push-ups thrown in for dessert. Iron-grey hair, iron-hard eyes; he might have been a particularly dyspeptic drill sergeant. He stopped short to stare down at Miles, startlement compressing to a thin-lipped frown.

Miles stood with his legs slightly apart, threw back ins head, and stared up with equal force. The man seemed totally oblivious to Miles's collar tabs. Exasperated, Miles snapped, "Are all the keepers on vacation, or is anybody actually running this bloody zoo?"

The man's eyes sparked, as if their iron had struck flint; they ignited a little warning light in Miles's brain, one mouthy moment too late. Hi, there, sir! cried the hysterical commenter in the back of Miles's mind, with a skip, bow, and flourish. I'm your newest exhibit! Miles suppressed the voice ruthlessly. There wasn't a trace of humor in any line of that seamed countenance looming over him.

With a cold flare of his carved nostril, the Base Commander glared down at Miles and growled, "I run it. Ensign."

 

Dense fog was rolling in off the distant, muttering sea by the time Miles finally found his way to his quarters. The officers' barracks and all around it were plunged into a grey, frost-scummed obscurity. Miles decided it was an omen.

Oh, God, it was going to be a long winter.

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