Lois McMaster Bujold, "The Vor Game"

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CHAPTER NINE

The Jacksonian Consortium's jump point station, Miles decided, differed from Pol's mainly in the assortment of things its merchants offered for sale. He stood before the book-disk dispenser in a concourse very like Pol Six's and flicked the vid fast-forward through a huge catalogue of pornography. Well, mostly fast-forward, his search was punctuated by a few pauses, from bemused to stunned. Nobly resisting curiosity, he reached the military history section only to find a disappointingly thin collection of titles.

He inserted his credit card and the machine dispensed three wafers. Not that he was all that interested in The Adumbration of Trigonial Strategy in the Wars of Minos IV, but it was going to be a long, dull ride home, and Sergeant Overholt did not promise to be the most sparkling of traveling companions. Miles pocketed the disks and sighed. What a waste of time, effort, and anticipation this mission had been.

Ungari had arranged for the "sale" of Victor Rotha's ship, pilot, and engineer to a front man who would deliver it, eventually, back to Barrayaran Imperial Security. Miles's pleading suggestions to his superior on how to make more use of Rotha, Naismith or even Ensign Vorkosigan had then been interrupted by an ultra-coded message from ImpSec HQ, for Ungari's eyes only. Ungari had withdrawn to decode it, and emerged half an hour later, dead-white around the lips.

He had then moved his timetable up and departed within the hour on a commercial ship to Aslund Station. Alone. Refusing to impart the contents of the message to Miles, or even to Sergeant Overholt. Refusing to take Miles along. Refusing Miles permission to at least continue military observations independently on the Consortium.

Ungari left Overholt to Miles, or vice versa. It was a little hard to tell who had been left in charge of whom. Overholt seemed to be acting less like subordinate and more like a nanny all the time, discouraging Miles's attempted explorations of the Consortium, insisting he keep safely to his hostel room. They waited now to board an Escobaran commercial liner slated for a nonstop run to Escobar, where they would report to the Barrayaran Embassy which would no doubt ship them home. Home, and with nothing to show for it.

Miles checked his chrono. Another twenty minutes to kill before boarding. They might as well go sit. With an irritable glance at his shadow Overholt Miles trudged wearily down the concourse. Overholt followed, frowning general disapproval.

Miles brooded on Livia Nu. In fleeing from her erotic invitation he'd surely missed the adventure of his short lifetime. Yet that hadn't been the look of love on her face. Anyway, he'd worry about a woman who could fall madly in love at first sight with Victor Rotha. The light in her eyes had been more on the order of a gourmet contemplating an unusual hors d'oeuvre just presented by the waiter. He'd felt like he'd had parsley sticking out of his ears.

She might have been dressed like a courteasan, moved like a courtesan, but there'd been none of the courtesan's eagerness to please about her, nothing servile. The gestures of power in the garments of powerlessness. Unsettling.

So beautiful.

Courtesan, criminal, spy, what was she? Above ill. who did she belong to? Was she Liga's boss, or Liga's opponent? Or Liga's fate? Had she killed the rabbity man herself? Whatever else she was. Miles was increasingly convinced, she was a key piece in the puzzle of the Hegen Hub. They should have followed her up, not fled from her. Sex wasn't the only opportunity he'd missed. The meeting with Livia Nu was going to bother him for a long time.

Miles looked up to find his way blocked by a pair of Consortium goons—civil security officers, he corrected his thought ironically. He stood, feet planted, and lifted his chin. What now? "Yes, gentlemen?"

The big one looked to the enormous one, who cleared his throat. "Mr. Victor Rotha?"

"If I am, then what?" ,

"An arrest order has been purchased for you. It charges you with the murder of one Sydney Liga. Do you wish to outbid?"

"Probably." Miless lip curled in exasperation. What a development. "Who's bidding for my arrest?"

"The name is Cavilo."

Miles shook his head. "Don't even know him. Is he with Polian Civil Security, by chance?"

The officer checked his report panel. "No." He added chattily, "The Polians almost never do business with us. They think we ought to trade them criminals for free. As if we wanted any back!"

"Huh. That's supply and demand for you." Miles blew out his breath. Illyan was not going to be thrilled about this charge on his expense account. "How much did this Cavilo offer for me?"

The officer checked his panel again. His brows rose. "Twenty thousand Betan dollars. He must want you a lot."

Miles made a small leaky noise. "I don't have that much on me."

The officer pulled out his come-along stick. "Well, then."

"I'll have to make arrangements."

"You'll have to make arrangements from Detention, sir."

"But I'll miss my ship!"

"That's probably the idea," the officer agreed. "Considering the timing and all."

"Suppose—if that's all this Cavilo wants—he then withdraws his bid?"

"He'll lose a substantial deposit."

Jacksonian justice was truly blind. They'd sell it to anyone. "Uh, may I have a word with my assistant?"

The officer pursed his lips, and studied Ovenholt suspiciously. "Make it fast."

"What d'you think. Sergeant?" Miles turned to Overholt and asked lowly. "They don't seem to have an order for you. ..."

Overholt looked tense, tight mouth annoyed and eyes almost panicked. "If we could make it to the ship..."

The rest hung unspoken. The Escobarans shared the Polian disapproval of Jacksonian Consortium "law." Once aboard the liner. Miles would be on Escobaran "soil"; the captain would not voluntarily yield him up. Could, would, this Cavilo be able to bid enough to intern the whole Escobaran liner? The sum involved would be astronomical. "Try."

Miles turned back toward the Consortium officers smiling, wrists held out in surrender. Overholt

exploded into action.

The sergeant's first kick sent the enormous goon's come-along stick flying. Overholt's momentum flowed into a whirl that brought his double hands up against the second goon's head with great force. Miles was already in motion. He dodged a wild grab, and sprinted as best he could up the concourse. At this point he spotted the third goon, in plainclothes. Miles could tell who he was by the glitter of the tangle-field he tossed in front of Miles's pistoning legs. The man snorted with laughter as Miles pitched forward, trying to roll and save his brittle bones. Miles hit the concourse floor with a whump that knocked the air from his lungs. He inhaled through clenched teeth, not crying out, as the pain in his chiest competed with the bum of the tangle-net around his ankles. He wrenched himself around on the floor, looking back the way he had come.

The less enormous goon was standing bent over, hands to his head, dizzied. The other was retrieving his come-along stick from where it had skittered to a stop. By elimination, the stunned heap on the pavement must be Sergeant Overholt.

The goon with the stick stared at Overholt and I shook his head, and stepped over him toward Miles. The dizzied goon pulled out his own stick and gave the downed man a shock to the head, and followed without a backward glance. Nobody, apparently, wanted to buy Overholt.

"There will be a ten percent surcharge for resisting arrest," the spokesman-goon remarked coldly down to Miles. Miles squinted up the shiny columns of his boots. The shock-stick came down like a club.

On the third blazing blow he began screaming. On the seventh, he passed out.

 

He came to consciousness altogether too soon, while still being dragged along between the two uniformed men. He was shivering uncontrollably. His breathing was messed up somehow, irregular shallow gasps that didn't give him enough air. Waves of pins-and-needles pulsed through his nervous system. He had a kaleidoscopic impression of lift tubes and corridors, and more bare functional corridors. They jerked to a halt at last. When the goons let his arms go he fell to hands and knees, then the cold floor.

Another civil security officer peered over a comconsole desk at him. A hand grasped Miles's head by the hair, and yanked it back; the red flicker of a retinal scan blinded him momentarily. His eyes seemed extraordinarily sensitive to light. His shaking hands were pressed hard against some sort of identification pad; released, he fell back into his huddle. His pockets were stripped out, stunner, IDs, tickets, cash, all dumped pell-mell into a plastic bag. Miles emitted a muffled squeak of dismay as they bundled the white jacket, with all its useful secrets, into the bag as well. The lock was keyed closed with his thumbprint, pinched against it.

The Detention officer craned his neck. "Does he want to outbid?"

"Unh ..." Miles managed to respond, when his head was pulled back again.

"He said he did," the arresting goon said helpfully.

The Detention officer shook his head. "We're going to have to wait till the shock wears off. You guys overdid it, I think. He's only a little runt."

"Yeah, but he had a big guy with him who gave us trouble. The little mutant seemed to be in charge so we let him take payment for both."

'That's fair," the Detention officer conceded. "Well, it'll be a while. Throw him in the cooler till he stops shaking enough to talk."

"Sure that's a good idea? Funny-looking as he is, the boy-oh might want to play games. He might still ransom himself."

"Mm." The Detention officer looked Miles over judiciously. "Throw him in the waiting room with Marda's techies, then. They're a quiet bunch, they'll leave him alone. And they'll be gone soon."

Miles was dragged again—his legs didn't respond at all to his will, only jerking spasmodically. The 1eg braces seemed to have had some amplifying effect on the shocks administered there, or maybe it was the combination with the tangle-field. A long room like a barracks, with a row of cots down each wall, swam past his vision. The goons heaved him, not unkindly, onto an empty cot in the less-populated end of the room. The senior one made a dim sort of effort to straighten him out, tossed a light blanket across his still uncontrollably-twitching form, and they left him.

A little time passed, with nothing to distract him from the full enjoyment and appreciation of his new array of physical sensations. He'd thought he'd sampled every sort of agony in the catalogue, but the goons' shock-sticks had found out nerves and synapses and ganglial knots he'd never known he pos^ssed. Nothing like pain, to concentrate the attention upon the self. Practically solipsistic, it was. But it seemed to be easing—if only his body would stop these quasi-epileptic seizures, which were exhausting him...

A face wavered into view. A familiar face.

"Gregor! Am I glad to see you," Miles burbled inanely. He felt his burning eyes widen. His hands shot out to clench Gregor's shirt, a pale blue prisoner's smock. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"It's a long story."

"Ah! Ah!" Miles struggled up onto his elbow and stared around wildly for assassins, hallucinations, he knew not what. "God! Where's—"

Gregor pushed him back down with a hand on his chest. "Calm down." And under his breath, "And shut up!... You better rest a bit. You don't look very good right now."

Actually, Gregor didn't look so good himself, sitting on the edge of Miles's cot. His face was pale and tired, peppered with beard stubble. His normally military-cut and combed black hair was a tangle. His hazel eyes looked nervous. Miles choked back panic.

"My name is Greg Bleakman," the emperor informed Miles urgently.

"I can't remember what my name is right now," Miles stuttered. "Oh—yeah. Victor Rotha. I think. But how did you get from—"

Gregor looked around vaguely. "The walls have ears, I think?"

"Yes, maybe." Miles subsided slightly. The man on the next cot shook his head with a God-save-me-from-these-assholes look, turned over and put his pillow over his head. "But, uh... did you get here, like, under your own power?"

"Unfortunately, all my own doing. You remember that time we were Joking about running away from home?"

"Yeah?"

"Well," Gregor took a breath, "it turned out to be a really bad idea."

"Couldn't you have figured that out in advance?"

"I — " Gregor broke off, to stare up the long room as a guard stuck his head in the door to bawl, "Five minutes!"

"Oh, hell."

"What? What?"

"They're coming for us."

"Who's coming for who, what the hell is going on, Gregor — Greg —"

"I had a berth on a freighter, I thought, but they dumped me off here. Without pay," Gregor explained rabidly. "Stifled me. I didn't have so much as a half-mark on me. I tried to get something on an outbound ship, but before I could, I got arrested for vagrancy. Jacksonian law is insane," he added reflectively.

"I know. Then what?"

"They were apparently making a deliberate sweep, press-gang style. Seems some enterpreneur is selling tech-trained work gangs to the Aslunders, to work on their Hub station, which is running behind schedule."

Miles blinked. "Slave labor?"

"Of a sort. The carrot is, when the sentence is up, we're to be discharged on Aslund Station. Most of these techs don't seem to mind too much. No pay, but we — they — will be fed and housed, and escape Jacksonian security, so in the end they'll be no worse off than when they started, broke and unemployed. Most of them seem to think they'll find berths outbound from Aslund eventually. Being without funds is not such a heinous crime, there."

Miles's head pounded. "They're taking you away?"

Tension pooled in Gregor's eyes, contained, not permitted to seep over into the rest of his stiff face. "Right now, I think."

"God! I can't let—"

"But how did you find me here —" Gregor began in turn, then looked in frustration up the room, where blue-smocked men and women were grumbling to their feet. "Are you here to —"

Miles stared around frantically. The blue-clad man on the cot next to his now lay on his side, watching them with a bored glower. He wasn't over-tall...

"You!" Miles scrambled overboard, and crouched at the man's side. "You want to get out of this trip?"

The man looked slightly less bored. "How?"

"Trade clothes. Trade ID's. You take my place, I take yours."

The man looked suspicious. "What's the catch?"

"No catch. I got a lot of credit. I was going to buy my way .out of here in a while." Miles paused. "There's going to be a surcharge for my resisting arrest, though."

"Ah." A catch identified, the man looked slightly more interested.

"Please! I have to go with — with my friend. Right now." The babble was rising, as the techs assembled in the room's far end by the exit. Gregor wandered around behind the man's cot.

The man pursed his lips. "Naw," he decided. "If whatever you're in for is worse than this, I don't want anything to do with it." He swung to a sitting position, preparing to rise and join the line.

Miles, still crouched on the floor, raised his hands in supplication. "Please—"

Gregor, perfectly placed, pounced. He grabbed the man around the neck in a neat choke and flipped him over the side of his cot, out of sight. Thank God the Barrayaran aristocracy still insisted on military training for its scions. Miles staggered to his feet the better to obscure the view from up the room. Some small thumping noises came from the floor. In a few moments, a prisoner's blue smock skidded under the cot to fetch up at Miles's sandaled feet. Miles squatted and pulled it on over his green silks—fortunately, it was a bit oversized—then struggled into the loose trousers that followed. Some shoving sounds, as the man's unconscious body was pushed out of sight under the cot, and Gregor stood panting slightly, very white.

"I can't get these damn belt strings," Miles said. They skittered from his trembling hands.

Gregor tied up Miles's pants, and rolled up his overlong trouser legs. "You need his ID, or you can't get food or register your work-credits," Gregor hissed out of the corner of his mouth, and leaned artistically against the end of the cot in an idle pose.

Miles checked his pocket and found the standard computer card. "All right." He stood next to Gregor, teeth bared in a weird grin. "I'm about to pass out."

Gregor s hand locked his elbow. "Don't. It'll draw attention."

They walked up the room and slipped into the end of the shuffling, complaining, blue-clad line. |A sleepy-looking guard at the door checked them out, running a scanner over the IDs.

"... twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five. That's it. Take 'em away."

They were turned over to another set of guards not in the uniform of the Consortium but some minor Jacksonian House livery, gold and black. Miles kept his face down as they were herded out

of Detention. Only Gregor's hand kept him on his feet. They passed through a corridor, another corridor, down a lift tube—Miles nearly threw up during the drop—another corridor. What if this damned ID has a locator? Miles thought suddenly. At the next drop tube he shed it; the little card twinkled away into the dim distance, silent and unnoticed. A docking bay, a hatchway, the brief weightlessness of the flexible docking tube, and they boarded a ship. Sergeant Overholt, where are you now?

It was clearly an intra-system carrier, not a jump ship, and not very large. The men were separated from the women and directed down opposite ends of a corridor lined with cabin doors leading to four-bunk cubicles. The prisoners spread out, selecting their quarters without apparent interference from the guards.

Miles made a quick count and multiplication. "We can get one to ourselves, if we try," he whispered urgently to Gregor. He ducked into the nearest, and they hit the door control quickly. Another prisoner made to follow them in, to be met with a united snarl of "Back off!" He withdrew hastily. The door did not slide open again.

The cabin was dirty, and lacked such amenities as beddiding for the mattresses, but the plumbing worked. As Miles got a drink of lukewarm water he heard and felt the hatch close, and the ship undock. They were safe for the moment. How long?

"When do you think that guy you choked is going to wake up?" Miles asked Gregor, who sat on the edge of one bunk.

"I'm not sure. I've never choked a man before." Gregor looked sick. "I ... felt something strange, under my hand. I'm afraid I might have broken his neck."

"He was still breathing," Miles said. He walked to the opposite lower bunk and prodded it. No sign of vermin. He seated himself gingerly. The severe shakes were passing off, leaving only a tremula, but he still felt weak in the knees. "When he wakes up -- as soon as they find him, whether he wakes up or not—it's not going to take them long to figure out where I went. I should have just waited, and followed you, and bought you back. Assuming I could bid myself free. This was a stupid idea. Why didn't you stop me?"

Gregor stared. "I thought you knew what you were doing. Isn't Illyan right behind you?"

"Not as far as I know."

"I thought you were in Illyan's department now. I thought you were sent to find me. This ... isn't some land of bizarre rescue?"

"No!" Miles shook his head, and immediately regretted the motion. "Maybe you'd better begin at the beginning."

"I'd been on Komarr for a week. Under the domes. High-level talks on wormhole route treaties—we're still trying to get the Escobarans to permit passage of our military vessels. There's some idea of letting their inspection teams seal our weapons during passage. Our general staff thinks it's too much, theirs thinks it's too little. I signed a couple of agreements—whatever the Council of Ministers shoved in front of me—"

"Dad makes you read them, surely."

"Oh, yes. Anyway, there was a military review—— that afternoon. And a state dinner in the eventual which broke up early, a couple of the negotiators had to catch ships. I went back to my quarters, some oligarch's old town house. Big place at the edge of the dome, near the shuttleport. My suite was high in this building. I went out on the balcony—it didn't help much. Still felt claustrophobic, under the dome."

"Komarrans don't like open air, either," Miles noded in fairness. "I knew one who had breathing problems—like asthma—whenever he had to go outside. Strictly psychosomatic."

Gregor shrugged, gazing at his shoes. "Anyway, I noticed ... there were no guards in sight. For a change. I don't know why the hole, there'd been a man there earlier. They thought I was asleep, I guess. It was after midnight. I couldn't sleep. I was leaning over the balcony, and thinking, if I toppled off ..." Gregor hesitated.

"It would be quick," Miles supplied dryly. He knew that state of mind, oh yes.

Gregor glanced up at him, and smiled ironically. "Yes. I was a little drunk."

You were a lot drunk.

"Quick, yes. Smash my skull. It would hurt a lot, but not for long. Maybe even not a lot. Maybe just a flash of heat."

Miles shuddered, concealed in his shock-stick tremula.

"I went over—I caught these plants. Then I realized, I could climb down as easily as up. More easily. I felt free, as if I had died. I started walking. Nobody stopped me. All the time, I expected someone to stop me.

"I ended up in the freightyard end of the shuttleport. At a bar. I told this fellow, this free trader, I was a norm-space navigator. I'd done that, on my ship duty. I'd lost my ID, and was afraid Barrayaran Security would rough me up. He believed me—or believed something. Anyway, he gave me a berth. We probably broke orbit before my batman went in to wake me that morning."

Miles chewed his knuckles. "So from Imp See's point of view, you evaporated from a fully guarded room. No note, no trace—and on Komarr."

"The ship made a straight run through to Pol—I stayed aboard—and then nonstop to the Consortium. I didn't get along too well at first, on the freighter. I thought I was doing better. Guess not. But I thought, Illyan was probably right behind me anyway."

"Komarr." Miles rubbed his temples. "Do you realize what has to be happening back there? Illyan will be convinced it's some sort of political kidnapping. I bet he's got every Security operative and half the army tearing those domes apart bolt by bolt looking for you. You're way out ahead of them. They won't look beyond Komarr till ..." Miles counted out days on his fingers. "Still, Illyan should have alerted all his outlying agents ... almost a week ago. Ha! I bet that was the message that put Ungari up in the air, just before he left in such a hurry. Sent to Ungari, not to me." Not to me. Nobody 's even counting me. "But it should have been all over the news—"

"It was, sort of," Gregor offered. "There was a sententious announcement that I'd been ill and retired to rest in seclusion at Vorkosigan Surleu. They're suppressing."

Miles could just picture it. "Gregor, how could you do this! They'll be going insane back home!"

"I'm sorry," said Gregor stiffly. "I knew it was a mistake ... almost immediately. Even before the hangover cut in."

"Why didn't you get off at Pol, then, and go to the Barrayaran embassy?"

"I thought I might still ... dammit," he broke off, "why should these people own me?"

"Childish, stunt." Miles gritted through his teeth.

Gregor's head jerked up in anger, but he said nothing

The full realization of his position was just beginning to sink in to Miles, like lead in his belly. I'm the only man in the universe who knows where the Emperor of Barrayar is right now. If anything happens to Gregor, I could be his heir. In fact, if anything happens to Gregor, quite a lot of people will think I...

And if the Hegen Hub found out who Gregor really was, a free-for-all of epic proportions could follow. The Jacksonians would take him for simple ransom. Aslund, Pol, Vervain, any or all might seek some power play. The Cetagandans most of all—if they could gain possession of Gregor in secret, who knew what subtle psychological programming they misht attempt; if openly, what threats? And Miles and Gregor were both trapped on a ship they didn't control—Miles might be snatched away at any moment by Consortium goons or worse—

Miles was an ImpSec officer, now, however junior or disgraced. And ImpSec's sworn duty was the Emperor's safety. The Emperor, Barrayar's unifying icon. Gregor, unwilling flesh pressed into that mold. Icon, flesh, which claimed Miles's allegiance? Both. He's mine. A prisoner, on the run, trailed by God-knows-what enemies, suicidally depressed, and all mine.

Miles choked down a lunatic cackle.

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