Lois McMaster Bujold, "The Vor Game"

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CHAPTER EIGHT

Victor Rotha, Procurement Agent. Sounded like a pimp. Dubiously, Miles regarded his new persona twinned over the vid plate in his cabin. What was wrong with a simple spartan mirror, anyway? Where find Illyan gotten this ship? Of Betan manufacture, it was stuffed with Betan gimmickry of a luxurious order. Miles entertained himself with a gruesome vision of what could happen if the programming on tlic elaborate sonic tooth-cleaner ever went awry.

"Rotha" was vaguely dressed, with respect to his supposed point-of-origin. Miles had drawn the line at a Betan sarong, Pol Station Six was not nearly warm enough for it. He did wear his loose green housers held up with a Betan sarong rope, though, and Betan style sandals. The green shirt was a cheap synthetic silk from Escobar, the baggy cream jacket an expensive one of like style. The eclectic wardrobe of someone originally from Beta Colony, who'd been knocking around the galaxy for a while, sometimes np, sometimes down. Good. He muttered to himself aloud, warming up his disused Betan accent, as he pottered about the elaborate Owner's Cabin.

They had docked here at Pol Six a day ago without incident. The whole three-week trip from Barrayar had passed without incident. Ungari seemed to like it that way. The ImpSec captain had spent most of the journey counting things, taking pictures and counting; ships, troops, security guards both civil and military. They'd managed excuses to stop over at four of the six jump point stations on the route between Pol and the Hegen Hub, with Ungari counting, measuring, sectioning, computer-stuffing, and calculating the whole way. Now they had arrived at Pol's last (or first, depending on your direction of travel) outpost, its toehold in the Hegen Hub itself.

At one time, Pol Six had merely marked the jump point, no more than an emergency stop and communications transfer link. No one had yet solved the problem of getting messages through a wormhole jump except by physically transporting them on a jump ship. In the most developed regions of the nexus, comm ships jumped hourly or even more often, to emit a tight-beam burst that traveled at the speed of light to the next jump point in that region of local space, where messages were picked up and relayed out in turn, the fastest possible flow of information. In the less developed regions, one simply had to wait, sometimes for weeks or months, for a ship to happen by, and hope they'd remember to drop off your mail.

Now Pol Six didn't just mark, it frankly guarded. Ungari had clicked his tongue in excitement, identifying and adding up Pol Navy ships clustered in the area around the new construction. They'd managed a spiral flight path into dock that revealed every side of the station, and all ships both moored and moving.

"Your main job here," Ungari had told Miles, "will be to give anyone watching us something more interesting to watch than me. Circulate. I doubt you'll need to expend any special effort to be conspicuous. Develop your cover identity—with luck, you may even pick up a contact or two who'll be worthy of further study. Though I doubt youll run across anything of great value immediately, it doesn't work that way."

Now, Miles laid his samples case open on his bed and rechecked it. Just a trawling salesman, that's me. A dozen hand weapons, power-packs removed, gleamed wickedly back at him. A row of vid-disks described larger and more interesting weapons systems. An even more interesting—you might even say, "arresting"—collection of tiny disks nestled concealed in Miles's jacket. Death. I can get it for you wholesale,

Miles's bodyguard met him at the docking hatch. Why, oh God, had Illyan assigned Sergeant Overkill to this mission? Same reason he'd sent him to Kyril Island, because he was trusted, no doubt, but it embarrassed Miles to be working with a man who'd once arrested him. What did Overholt make of Miles, by now? Happily, the big man was the silent type.

Overholt was dressed as informally and eclectically as Miles himself, though with safety boots in place of sandals. He looked exactly like somebody's bodyguard trying to look like a tourist. Much the sort of man small-time arms dealer Victor Rotha would logically employ. Both functional and decorative, he slices, dices, and chops. ... By themselves, either Miles or Overholt would be memorable. Together, well... Ungari was right. They needn't worry about being overlooked.

Miles led the way through the docking tube and into Pol Six. This docking spoke funneled into a Customs area, where Miles's sample case and person were carefully examined, and Overholt had to produce registration for his stunner. From there they had free run of the transfer station facilities, but for certain guarded corridors leading into the, as it were, militarized zones. Those areas, Ungari had made clear, were his business, not Miles's.

Miles, in good time for his first appointment, trolled slowly, enjoying the sensation of being on a space station. The place wasn't as free-wheeling as Beta Colony, but without question he moved in the midst of mainstream galactic technoculture. Not like poor half-backwards Barrayar. The brittle artificial enviroment emmited its own whif of danger, a whiff that could baloon instantly into claustrophobic terror in the event of sudden depressurization emergency, A concourse linedd with shops, hostels, and eating facilities made a central meeting area.

A curious trio idled just across the busy concourse from Miles. Abig man dressed in loose clothing ideal for concealing weapons scanned the area uneasily. A professional counterpart of Sergeant Overkill's, no doubt. He and Overholt spotted each other and exchanged grin glances, carefully ignored each other after that. The bland man he guarded faded into near-invisibility beside his woman.

She was short, but astonishingly intense, slight figure and white-blonde hair cropped close to her head giving her an odd elfin look. Her black jumpsuit seemed shot with electric sparks, flowing over her skin like water, evening-wear in the day-cycle. Thin-heeled black shoes boosted her a few futile centimeters. Her lips were colored blood-carmine to match the shimmering scarf that looped across alabaster collarbones to cascade from each shoulder, framing the bare white skin of her back. She looked ... expensive.

Her eye caught Miles's fascinated stare. Her chin lifted, and she stared back coldly.

"Victor Rotha?" The voice at Miles's elbow made him jump.

"Ah ... Mr. Liga?" Miles, wheeling, hazarded in return. Rabbitlike pale features, protruding lip, black hair; this was the man who claimed he wished to improve the armament of his security guards at bis asteroid mining facility. Sure. How — and where — had Ungari scraped Liga up? Miles was not sure he wanted to know.

Tve arranged a private room for us to talk/' Liga smiled, tilting his head toward a nearby hostel entrance. "Eh," Liga added, "looks like everybody's doing business this morning." He nodded toward the trio across the concourse, who were now a quartet and moving off. The scarves snapped along like banners, floating in the quick-stepping blonde's wake.

"Who was that woman?" asked Miles.

"I don't know," said Liga. "But the man they're following is your main competition here. The agent of House Fell, the Jacksonian armaments specialists."

He looked more like a middle-aged businessman type, at least from the back. "Pol lets the Jacksonians operate here?" Miles asked. "I thought tensions were high."

"Between Pol, Aslund, and Vervain, yes," said Liga. "The Jacksonian consortium is loudly claiming neutrality. They hope to profit from all sides. But this isn't the best place to talk politics. Let's go, eh?"

As Miles expected, Liga settled them in what was obviously an otherwise-unoccupied hostel room, rented for the purpose. Miles began his memorized pitch, working through the hand-weapons, baffle-gabbing about available inventory and delivery dates.

"I'd hoped," said Liga, "for something a little more ... authoritative."

"I have another selection of samples aboard my ship," Miles explained. "I didn't want to trouble Pol customs with them. But I can give you an overview by vid."

Miles trotted out the heavy weapons manuals. "This vid is for educational purposes only, of course, as these weapons are of a grade illegal for a private person to own in Pol local space."

"In Pol space, yes," Liga agreed. "But Pol's law doesn't run in the Hegen Hub. Yet. All you have to do is cast off from Pol Six and take a little run out beyond the ten-thousand-kilometer traffic control limit to conduct any sort of business you want, perfectly legally. The problem comes in delivering the cargo back in to Pol local space."

"Difficult deliveries are one of my specialties," Miles assured him. "For a small surcharge, of course."

"Eh. Good ..." Liga flicked fast-forward through the vid catalogue. "These heavy-duty plasma arcs, now ... how do they compare with the cannon-grade nerve disruptors?"

Miles shrugged. "Depends entirely upon whether you want to blow away people alone, or people and property both. I can make you a very good price on the nerve disruptors." He named a figure in Pol credits.

"I got a better quote than that, on a device of the same kilowattage, lately," Liga mentioned disinterestedly.

'I'll bet you did," Miles grinned. "Poison, one credit. Antidote, one hundred credits."

"What's that supposed to mean, eh?" asked Liga suspiciously.

Miles unrolled his lapel and ran his thumb down the underside, and pulled out a tiny vid tab. "Take a look at this." He inserted it into the vid viewer. A figure sprang to life, and pirouetted. It was dressed from head to toe- and finger-tips in what appeared to be glittering skin-tight netting.

"A bit drafty for long underwear, eh?" said Liga sceptically.

Miles flashed him a pained smile. "What you're looking at is what every armed force in the galactic would like to get their hands on. The perfected single-person nerve disruptor shield net. Beta Colony's latest technological card."

Liga's eyes widened. "First I'd heard they were on the market."

"The open market, no. These are, as it were, private advance sales." Beta Colony only advertised its second or third latest advantages; staying several steps ahead of everybody else in R&D had been the harsh world's stock-in-trade for a couple of generatiions. In time. Beta Colony would be marketing its new device galaxy-wide. In the meantime ..."

Liga licked his pouty lower lip. "We use nerve disruptors a lot."

For security guards? Right, sure. "I have a limited sipply of shield nets. First come, first served."

"The price?"

Miles named a figure in Betan dollars.

"Outrageous!" Liga rocked back in his float chair.

Miles shrugged. "Think about it. It could put your ... organization at a considerable disadvantage not to be the first to upgrade its defenses. I'm sure you can imagine."

"I'll ... have to check it out. Eh ... can I have that disk to show my, eh, supervisor?"

Miles pursed his lips. "Don't get caught with it."

"No way." Liga spun the demo vid through its paces one more time, staring in fascination at the sparkling soldier-figure, before pocketing the disk.

There. The hook was baited, and cast upon dark waters. It was going to be very interesting to see what nibbled, whether minnows or monstrous leviathans. Liga was a fish of the ramora underclass, Miles judged. Well, he had to start somewhere.

Back out on the concourse. Miles muttered worriedly to Overholt, "Did I do all right?"

"Very smooth, sir," Overholt reassured him.

Well, maybe. It had felt good, running by plan. He could almost feel himself submerging into the smarmy personality of Victor Rotha.

For lunch. Miles led Overholt to a cafeteria with seating open to the concourse, the better for anyone not-watching Ungari to observe them. He munched a sandwich of vat-produced protein, and let his tight nerves unwind a little. This act could be all right. Not nearly as overstimulating as—

"Admiral Naismithi"

Miles nearly choked on a half-chewed bite, his head swivelling frantically to identify the source of the surprised voice. Overholt jerked to full-alert, though he managed to keep his hand from flying prematurely to his concealed stunner.

Two men had paused beside his table. One Miles did not recognize. The other ... damn! He kaJ^^H that face. Square-jawed, brown-skinned, too neat and fit for his age to pass as anything but a soldier despite his Polian civilian clothes. The name, the name ...! One of Tung's commandos, a combbat-drop-shuttle squad commander. The last time Miles had seen him they'd been suiting up together in the Triumph's armory, preparing for a boarding battle. Clive Chodak, that was his name.

"I'm sorry, you're mistaken," Miles's denial was pure spinal reflex. "My name is Victor Rotha."

Chodak blinked. "What? Oh! Sorry. That is—you look a lot like somebody I used to know." He took in Overholt. His eyes queried Miles urgently. "Uh, can we join you?"

"No!" said Miles sharply, panicked. No, wait. He shouldn't throw away a possible contact. This was a complication for which he should have been prepared. But to activate Naismith prematurely, without Ungari's orders... . "Anyway, not here," he amended hastily.

"I... see, sir." With a short nod, Chodak immediatly withdrew, drawing his reluctant companion with him. He managed to glance back over his shoulder only once. Miles restrained the impulse to bite his napkin in half. Thw two men faded into the concourse/ By their urgent gertures, they appeared to be arguing.

"Was that smooth?" Miles asked plaintively.

Overholt looked middly dismayed. "Not very." He frowned down the concourse in the direction the two men had disappeared.

 

It didn't take Chodak more than an hour to track Miles down aboard his Betan ship in dock. Ungari was still out.

"He says he wants to talk to you," said Overholt. He and Miles studied the vid monitor of the hatch-way, where Chodak shifted impatiently from foot to foot. "What do you think he really wants?"

"Probably, to talk to me," said Miles. "Damn me I don't want to talk to him, too."

"How well did you know him?" asked Overholt suspiciously, staring at Chodak's image.

"Not well," Miles admitted. "He seemed a competent non-com. Knew his equipment, kept his people moving, stood his ground under fire." In truth, thinking back, Miles's actual contacts with the man had been brief, all in the course of business ... but some of those minutes had been critical, in the wild uncertainty of shipboard combat. Was Miles's gut-feel really adequate security clearance for a man he hadn't seen for almost four years? "Scan him, sure. But let's let him in and see what he has to say."

"If you so order it, sir," said Overholt neutrally.

"I do."

Chodak did not seem to resent being scanned. He carrried only a registered stunner. Though he had ulso been an expert at hand-to-hand combat, Miles recalled, a weapon no one could confiscate. Overholt escorted him to the small ship's wardroom/mess— tlie Betans would have called it the rec room.

"Mr. Rotha," Chodak nodded. "I, uh ... hoped we could talk here privately." He looked doubtfully at Overholt. "Or have you replaced Sergeant Bothari?"

"Never." Miles motioned Overholt to follow him in to the corridor, didn't speak till the doors sighed shut. "I think you are an inhibiting presence, Sergeant. Would you mind waiting outside?" Miles didn't specify whom Overholt inhibited. "You can monitor, of course."

"Bad idea," Overholt frowned. "Suppose he jumps you?"

Miles's fingers tapped nervously on his trouser scam. "It's a possibility. But we're heading for

Aslund next, where the Dendarii are stationed, Ungari says. He may bear useful information."

"If he tells the truth."

"Even lies can be revealing." With this doubtful argument Miles squeezed back into the wardrooom shedding Overholt.

He nodded to his visitor, now seated at a table. "Corporal Chodak."

Chodak brightened. "You do remember."

"Oh, yes. And, ah ... are you still with the Dendarii?"

"Yes, sir. It's Sergeant Chodak, now."

"Very good. I'm not surprised."

"And, um ... the Oseran Mercenaries."

"So I understand. Whether it's good or not remains to be seen."

"What are you posing as, sir?"

"Victor Rotha is an arms dealer."

"That's a good cover," Chodak nodded, judiciously.

Miles tried to put a casual mask on his next words by punching up two coffees. "So what are you doing on Pol Six? I thought the Den—the fleet was hired out on Aslund."

"At Aslund Station, here in the Hub," Chodak corrected. "It's just a couple days' flight across-system. What there is of it, so far. Government contractors." He shook his head.

"Behind schedule and over cost?"

"You got it." He accepted the coffee without hesitation, holding it between lean hands, and took a preliminary slurp. "I can't stay long." He turned the cup, set it on the table. "Sir, I think I may have accidently done you a bad turn. I was so startled to see you there... . Anyway, I wanted to ... to warn you, I guess. Are you on the way back to the fleet?"

"I'm afraid I can't discuss my plans. Not even with you."

Chodak gave him a penetrating stare from black almond eyes. "You always were tricky."

"As an experienced combat soldier, do you prefer frontal assaults?"

"No, sir!" Chodak smiled slightly.

"Suppose you tell me. I take it you are—or are one—of the fleet intelligence agents scattered around the Hub. There had better be more than one of vou, or the organization's fallen apart sadly in my absence." In fact, half the inhabitants of Pol Six at the moment were probably spies of some stripe, considering the number of potential players in this game. Not to mention double agents—ought they to he counted twice?

"Why have you been gone so long, sir?" Chodak's tone was almost accusative.

"It wasn't my intention," Miles temporized. "For a portion of the time I was a prisoner in a ... place I'd rather not describe. I only escaped about three months back." Well, that was one way of describing Kyril Island.

"You, sir! We could have rescued—"

"No, you couldn't have," Miles said sharply. "The situation was one of extreme delicacy. It was resolved to my satisfaction. But I was then faced with ... considerable clean-up in areas of my operations other than the Dendarii fleet. Far-flung areas. Sorry, but you people are not my only concern. Nevertheless, I'm worried. I should have heard more from Commodore Jesek." Indeed, he should have.

"Commodore Jesek no longer commands. There was a financial reorganization and command restructuring, about a year ago, through the committee of captain-owners and Admiral Oser. Spearheaded by Admiral Oser."

"Where is Jesek?"

"He was demoted to fleet engineer."

Disturbing, but Miles could see it. "Not necessarily a bad thing. Jesek was never as aggressive af say, Tung. And Tung?"

Chodak shook his head. "He was demoted from chief-of-staff to personnel officer. A nothing-job."

"That seems ... wasteful."

"Oser doesn't trust Tung. And Tung doesn't love Oser, either. Oser's been trying to force him out for a year, but he hangs on, despite the humiliation of ... um. It's not easy to get rid of him. Oser can't afford—yet—to decimate his staff, and too many key people are personally loyal to Tung."|

Miles's eyebrow rose. "Including yourself?"

Chodak said distantly, "He got things done. I considered him a superior officer."

"So did I."

Chodak nodded shortly. "Sir ... the thing is... the man who was with me in the cafeteria is my senior here. And he's one of Oser's. I can't think of any way short of killing him to stop him reporting our encounter."

"I have no desire to start a civil war in my own command structure," said Miles mildly. Yet. "I think it's more important that he not suspect you spoke to me privately. Let him report. I've struck deals with Admiral Oser before, to our mutual benefit."

"I'm not sure Oser thinks so, sir. I think he thinks he was screwed."

Miles barked a realistic laugh. "What, I doublet the size of the fleet during the Tau Verde war. Even as third officer, he ended up commanding more than he had before, a smaller slice of a bigger pie."

"But the side he originally contracted us to lost. "

"Not so. Both sides gained from that truce we forced. It was a win-win result, except for a little lost face. What, can't Oser feel he's won unlelss somebody else loses?"

Chodak looked grim. "I think that may be the case, sir. He says—I've heard him say—you ran a scam on us. You were never an admiral, never an officer of any kind. If Tung hadn't double-crossed him, he'd have kicked your ass to hell." Chodak's gaze on Miles was broodingly thoughtful. "What were you really?"

Miles smiled gently. "I was the winner. Remember?"

Chodak snorted, half-amused. "Yee-ah."

"Don't let poor Oser's revisionist history fog your mind. You were there."

Chodak shook his head ruefully. "You didn't really need my warning, did you." He moved to stand up.

"Never assume anything. And, and... take care of yourself. That means, cover your ass. I'll remember you, later."

"Sir." Chodak nodded. Overholt, waiting in the corridor in a quasi-Imperial Guardsman pose, escorted turn firmly to the shuttle hatch.

Miles sat in the wardroom, and nibbled gendy on the rim of his coffee cup, considering certain surprising parallels between command restructuring in a free mercenary fleet and the internecine wars of the Barrayaran Vor. Might the mercenaries be thought of as a miniature, simplified, or laboratory version of the real thing? Oser should have been around during the Vordarian's Pretendership, and seen how the big boys operate. Still, Miles had best not underestimate the potential dangers and complexities of the situation. His death in a miniature conflict would be just as absolute as his death in a large one.

Hell, what death? What had he to do with the Dendarii, or the Oserans, after all? Oser was right, it had been a scam, and the only wonder was how long it had taken the man to wake to the fact. Miles could see no immediate need to reinvolve himself with the Dendarii at all. In fact, he could be well-rid of a dangerous political embarrassment. Let Oser have them, they'd been his in the first place anyway.

I have three sworn liege-people in that fleet. My own personal body politic.

How easy it had been to slip back into being Naismith...

Anyway, activating Naismith wasn't Miles's decision. It was Captain Ungari's.

Ungari was the first to point this out, when he returned later and Overholt briefed him. A controlled man, his fury showed by subtle signs sharpening of the voice, deeper lines of tension around the eyes and mouth. "You violated your cover. You never break cover. It's the first rule of survival in this business."

"Sir, may I respectfully submit, I didn't blow it," Miles replied steadily. "Chodak did. He seemed realize it, too, he's not stupid. He apologized as best he could." Chodak indeed might be subtler than first glance would indicate, for at this point, he had an with both sides in the putative Dendarii command schism, whoever came out on top. Calculation or chance? Chodak was either smart or lucky, in either case he could be a useful addition to Miles's side... . What side, huh? Ungari isn't going to let me near the Dendarii after this.

Ungari frowned at the vidplate, which had just replayed the recording of Miles's interview with the mercenary. "It sounds more and more like the Naismith cover may be too dangerous to activate at all. If your Oser's little palace coup is anything like this fellow indicates, Illyan's fantasy of you simply ordering the Dendarii to get lost is straight out the airlock. I thought it sounded too easy." Ungari paced the wardroom, tapping his right fist into his left palm. "Well, we may still get some use out of Victor Rotha. Much as I'd like to confine you to quarters –"

Strange, how many of his superiors said that.

"—Liga wants to see Rotha again this evening. Maybe to place an order for some of our fictitious cargo. String it out—I want you to get past him the next level of his organization. His boss, or his boss's boss."

"Who owns Liga, do you suspect?"

Ungari stopped pacing, and turned his hands palm-out. "The Cetagandans? Jackson's Whole? Anyone of half-a-dozen others? ImpSec is spread thin out here. But if it were proved Liga's criminal organization are Cetagandan puppets, it could be worth landing a full-time agent to penetrate their ranks. So find out! Hint at more goodies in your bag. Take bribes. Blend in. And move it along. I'm almost finished here, and Illyan particularly wants to know when Aslund Station will be fully operational as a defensive base."

 

Miles punched the door chime of the hostel room. His chin tic'd up. He cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. Overholt glanced up and down the empty corridor.

The door hissed open. Miles blinked in astonishment

"Ah, Mr. Rotha." The light cool voice belonged to the brief blonde he'd seen in the concourse that morning. Her jumpsuit was now skin-fitting red silk with a downcurving neckline, a glittering red ruff rising from the back of the neck to frame her sculptured head, and high-heeled red suede boots. She favored him with a high-voltage smile.

"I'm sorry," said Miles automatically. "I must be in the wrong place."

"Not at all." A slim hand opened in an expansive, welcoming gesture. "You're right on time."

"I had an appointment with a Mr. Liga, here."

"Yes, and I've taken over the appointment. Do come in. My name is Livia Nu."

Well, she couldn't possibly be carrying any concealed weapons. Miles stepped within, and was unsurprised to see her bodyguard, idling in one corner of the hostel room. The man nodded to Overholt, who nodded back, both wary as two cats. And where was the third man? Not here, evidently.

She drifted to a liquid-filled settee, and arranged herself upon it.

"Are you, uh, Mr. Liga's supervisor?" Miles asked. No, Liga had denied knowing who she was...

She hesitated fractionally. "In a sense, yes."

One of them was lying—no, not necessarily. If she were indeed high in Liga's organization, he would not have identified her to Rotha. Damn

"—but you may think of me as a procurement agent."

God. Pol Six really was hip-deep in spies. "For whom?"

"Ah," she smiled. "One of the advantages of dealing with small suppliers is always their no-questions-asked policy. One of the few advantages."

"No-questions-asked is House Fell's slogan, I believe. They have the advantage of a fixed and secure base. I've learned to be cautious about selling arms to people who might be shooting at me in near future."

Her blue eyes widened. "Who would wants shoot at you?"

"Misguided folk," Miles tossed off. Ye gods. If was not in control of this conversation. He exchanged a harried look with Overholt, who was being outblanded by his counterpart.

"We must chat." She patted the cushion beside her invitingly. "Do sit down, Victor. Ah," she nodded to her bodyguard, "why don't you wait outside."

Miles seated himself on the edge of the settee trying to guess the woman's age. Her complexion was smooth and white. Only the skin of her eyelids was soft and faintly puckered. Miles thought of Ungari's orders—take bribes, blend in... "Perhaps you should wait outside also," he said to Overholt.

Overholt looked torn, but of the two, he clearily wanted more to keep an eye on the large armed man. He nodded, apparently in acquiescence, actually in approval, and followed her man out.

Miles smiled in what he hoped was a friendly way. She looked positively seductive. Miles eased cautiously back in the cushions, and tried to look seduceable. A veritable espionage fantasy encounter, of the sort Ungari had told him never happened. Maybe they just never happened to Ungari, eh? My, that sharp teeth you have. Miss.

Her hand went to her cleavage—a riveting gesture—and withdrew a tiny, familiar vid disk. She leaned over to insert it in the vid player on the low table before them, and it took Miles a moment to shift his attention to the vid. The little glittering soldier-figure went through its stylized gestures once again. Ha. So, she really was Liga's supervisor. Very good, he was getting somewhere now.

"This is really remarkable, Victor. How did you come by it?"

"A happy accident."

"How many can you supply?"

"A strictly limited number. Say, fifty. I'm not a manufacturer. Liga did mention the price?"

"I thought it high."

"If you can find another supplier who offers these for less, I will be happy to match his price and knock off ten percent." Miles managed to bow sitting down.

She made a faint amused sound, down in her throat. "The volume offered is too low."

"There are several ways you could profit from even a small number of these, if you got into the trade early enough. Such as selling working models to interested governments. I mean to have a share of that profit, before the market is saturated and the price drops. You could too."

"Why don't you? Sell them directly to governements, that is."

"What makes you think I haven't?" Miles smiled. "But—consider my routes out of this area. I came in past Barrayar and Pol. I must exit via either Jackson's Whole or the Cetagandan Empire. Unfortunately, through either route I run a high risk of being relieved of this particular cargo without any compensation whatsoever." For that matter, where had Barrayar obtained its working model of the shield-suit? Was there a real Victor Rotha, and where was he now? Where had Illyan gotten their ship?

"So, you carry them with you?"

"I didn't say that."

"Hm." She smiled. "Can you deliver one tonight?"

"What size?"

"Small." One long-nailed finger traced a line down her body, from breast to thigh, to indicate exacly how small.

Miles sighed mournfully. "Unfortunately, they were sized for the average-to-large combat soldier. Cutting one down is a considerable technical challenge—one which I am in fact still working on myself."

"How thoughtless of the manufacturer."

"I entirely agree. Citizen Nu."

She looked at him more carefully. Did her smile grow slightly more genuine?

"Anyway, I prefer to sell them in wholesale lots. If your organisation isn't financically up to it –"

"An arrangement might yet be made."

"Promptly, I trust. I'll be moving on soon."

She murmured absently. "Perhaps not... " then looked up with a quick frown. "What's your next stop?"

Ungari had to file a public flight plan anyway "Aslund."

"Hm ... yes, we must come to some arrangement. Absolutely."

Were those blue flickers what were called bedroom eyes? The effect was lulling, almost hypnotic. I finally meet a woman who's barely taller than I am, and I don't even know which side she's on. He of all men ought not to mistake short for weak or helpless.

"Can I meet your boss?"

"Who?" Her brows lowered,

"The man I saw you both with this morning."

"... oh. So, you've already seen him."

"Set me up a meeting. Let's do serious business. Betan dollars, remember."

"Pleasure before business, surely." Her breath puffed against his ear, a faint spicy fog.

Was she trying to soften him up? What for? Ungari had said, don't break cover. Surely it would be in character for Victor Rotha to take all he could get. Plus ten percent. "You don't have to do this," he managed to choke out. His heart was beating entirely too fast.

"I don't do everything for business reasons," she purred.

Why, indeed, should she bother to seduce a sleazy little gun runner? What pleasure was in it for her? What was in it besides pleasure for her? Maybe she likes me. Miles winced, picturing himself offering that explanation to Ungari. Her arm circled his neck. His hand, unwilled, rose to stroke the fine pelt of her hair. A highly aesthetic tactile experience, just as he'd imagined. ...

Her hand tightened. In pure nervous reflex. Miles leapt to his feet.

And stood there feeling like an idiot. It had been a caress, not incipient strangulation. The angle was all wrong for attack leverage.

She flung herself back in the seat, slim arm stretching along the top of the cushions. "Victor!" Her voice was amused, her brow arched. "I wasn't poing to bite your neck."

His face was hot. "I-have-to-go-now." He cleared his throat to bring his voice back down to its lower register. His hand swooped to pluck the vid disk from the player. Her hand leapt toward it, then fell back languidly, pretending disinterest. Miles hit the door comm.

Overholt was there at once, in the sliding door aperture. Miles's gut eased. If his bodyguard had been gone. Miles would have known this at once for some kind of set-up. Too late, of course.

"Maybe later," Miles gabbled. "After you've taken delivery. We could get together." Delivery of a non-existent cargo? What was he saying?

She shook her head in disbelief. Her laugh followed him down the corridor. It had a brittle edge.

 

Miles lurched awake when the lights snapped on in his cabin. Ungari, fully dressed, was in the doorway. Behind him their jump pilot, wearing only his underwear and a sleep-stunned expression, jittered uncertainly.

"Dress later," Ungari snarled to the pilot. "Just get us free of the dock and run us out beyond the ten-thousand-kilometer limit. I'll be up to help if course in a few minutes." He added half to himself "As soon as I know where the devil we're going. Move"

The pilot fled. Ungari strode to Miles's bedside. "Vorkosigan, what the hell happened in that hostel room?"

Miles squeezed his eyes against the glares of both the lights and Ungari, and suppressed an impulse to hide under the covers from both. "Ha?" His mouth was dry with sleep.

"I've just gotten an advance warning—bare minures advance warning—of an arrest order being put out Pol Six civil security for Victor Rotha."

"But I never touched the lady!" Miles protested, dizzied.

"Liga's body was found murdered in your meeting room."

"What!"

"The security lab has just finished timing it—to about when you met. Were to meet. The arrest order will be on the net in minutes, and we'll be locked in here."

'But I didn't. I never even saw Liga, only his boss, Livia Nu. I mean—if I'd done any such thing,

I'd have reported it to you immediately, sir!"

"Thank you," said Ungari dryly. "I'm glad to know that." His voice harshened. "You're being framed, of course."

"Who—" Yes. There could have been another, grimrner way for Livia Nu to have relieved Liga of that top secret vid disk. But if she wasn't Liga's superior, or even a member of his Polian criminal organisation at all, who was she? "We need to know more, sir! This could be the start of something."

"This could be the end of our mission. Damn! And now we can't retreat back through Pol to Barrayar. Cut off. Where next?" Ungari paced, evidently thinking aloud. "I want to go to Aslund. Its extradition treaty with Pol has broken down at present, but... then there are your mercenary complications. Now that they've connected Rotha to Naismith. Thanks to your carelessness."

"From what Chodak said, I don't think Admiral Naismith would exactly be welcomed back with open arms," Miles agreed reluctantly.

"Jackson's Whole's consortium station has no extradition treaty with anyone. This cover's gone completely sour. Rotha and Naismith, both useless. It has to be the Consortium. I'll ditch this ship there, go underground, and double back to Aslund on my own."

"What about me, sir?"

"You and Overholt will have to split off and take the long way home."

Home. Home in disgrace. "Sir... running away looks bad. Suppose we sat tight, and cleared Rotha ol the charges? We wouldn't be cut off any more, and Rotha would still be a viable cover. It's possible we're being hustled into doing just this, citting and running.'

"I don't see how anyone could have anticipated my information source in Polian civil security.I think we're meant to be locked up here in dock." Ungari tapped his right fist into his palm once, a gesture of decision this time. "The Consortium it is." He wheeled and exited, boots tromping down the deck. A change of vibration and air pressure, and a few muted clanks, told Miles their ship was now breaking from Pol Six.

Miles said aloud to to the empty cabin, "But what if they have plans for bo th contingencies? 1 would." He shook his head doubtfully, and rose to dress and follow Ungari.

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