Lois McMaster Bujold, "The Vor Game"

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CHAPTER TEN

With a little reflection, possible now that the shock-stick reverberations were wearing off, Miles realized that he needed to hide. Gregor, by his place as a contract slave, would be warm, fed, and safe all the way to Aslund Station if Miles did not endanger him. Maybe. Miles added it to his life's lessons list. Call it Rule 27B. Never make key tactical decision while having electro-convulsive seizures.

Miles began by examining the bunk cubicle. The vessel was not a prison ship; the cabin had originally been designed as cheap transport, not a secured cell. Empty storage cupboards beneath the two bunk-stacks were too large and obvious. A floor panel lifted for access to between-decks control, coolant and power lines, and the grav grid—long, narrow, flat... . Rough voices in the corridor propelled Miles's decision. He squeezed himself into the slice of space, face up, arms tight to his sides, and exhaled.

"You always were good at hide-and-seek," said Gregor admiringly, and pressed the panel down.

"I was smaller then," Miles mumbled through squashed cheeks. Pipes and circuit boxes sank into his back and buttocks. Gregor refastened the catches, and all was dark and silent for a few minutes. Like a coffin. Like a pressed flower. Some kind of biological specimen, anyway. Canned ensign.

The door hissed open; footsteps passed over Miles's body, compressing him still further. Would they notice the muffled echo from this strip of floor?

"On your feet, Techie." A guard's voice, directed to Gregor. Thumpings and hangings, as the mattresses were flipped and the cupboard doors flung open. Yes, he'd figured the cupboards for useless.

"Where is he, Techie?" From the directions of the shufflings. Miles placed Gregor as now near the wall, probably with an arm twisted up behind his back.

"Where is who?" said Gregor in a smeary tone. Face against the wall, all right.

"Your little mutant buddy."

"The weird little guy who followed me in? He's no buddy of mine. He left."

More shuffling—"Ow!" The Emperor's arm had just been lifted another five centimeters. Miles gauged.

"Where'd he go?"

"I don't know! He didn't look so good. Somebody'd worked him over with a shock stick. Recently. I wasn't about to get involved. He took off again a few minutes before we undocked."

Good Gregor; depressed maybe, stupid no. Miles's lips drew back. His head was turned, with one cheek against the floor above and the other pressing against something that resembled a cheese grater.

More thumps. "All right! He left! Don't hit me!"

Unintelligible guard growls, the crackle of a shock slick, a sharp intake of breath, a thump as of a body curling up on a lower bunk.

A second guard's voice, edged with uncertainty, "He must have doubled back onto the Consortium before we cast off."

"Their problem, good. But we'd better search the whole ship to be sure. Detention sounded ready to chew ass on this one."

"Chew or be chewed?"

"Hah. I'm taking no bets."

The booted feet—four of them. Miles estimated — stalked toward the cabin door. The door hissed closed. Silence.

He was going to have a truly remarkable collection of bruises on his backside, Miles decided, by the time Gregor got around to popping the lid. He could get about half a breath with each pulse of his lungs. He needed to pee. Come on, Gregor...

He must certainly free Gregor from his slave labor contract as soon as possible after their arrival at Aslund Station. Contract laborers of this order were bound to be stuck with the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs, the most exposure to radiation, to dubious life-support systems, to long, exhausting, accident-prone hours. Though—true—it was also an incognito no enemy would quickly penetrate. Once free to move they must find Ungari, the man with the credit cards and the contacts; after that—well, after that Gregor would be Ungari's problem, eh? Yes, all simple, right and tight. No need to panic at all.

Had they taken Gregor away? Dare he release himself, and risk—

Shuffling footsteps; a widening line of light, as his lid was raised. "They're gone," Gregor whispered. Miles unmolded himself, centimeter by painful centimeter, and climbed onto the floor, a suitable staging area. He would attempt to stand up very soon now.

Gregor had one hand pressed to a red mark of his cheek. Self-consciously, he lowered his hand to his side. "They tapped me with a shock stick. It... wasn't as bad as I'd imagined." If anything, he looked faintly proud of himself.

"They were using low power," Miles growled up at him. Gregor's face grew more masked. He offered Miles a hand up. Miles took it and grunted to his feet, and sat heavily on a bunk. He told Gregor about his plans for finding Ungari. 'v

Gregor shrugged, dully acquiescent. "Very well. ll will be quicker than my plan."

"Your plan?"

"I was going to contact the Barrayaran Consul on Aslund."

"Oh. Good." Miles subsided. "Guess you... didn't really need my rescue, at that."

"I could have made it on my own. I got this far. But ... then there was my other plan."

"Oh?"

"Not to contact the Barrayaran Consul... . Maybe it's just as well you came along when you did." Gregor lay back on his bunk, staring blindly upward. "One thing is certain, an opportunity like this will never come again."

"To escape? And just how many would die, back home, to buy your freedom?"

Gregor pursed his lips. "Taking Vordarian's Pretendership as a benchmark for palace coups—say, seven or eight thousand."

"You're not counting in Komarr."

"Ah. Yes. Adding in Komarr would inflate the figure," Gregor conceded. His mouth twitched in an irony altogether devoid of humor. "Don't worry, I'm not serious. I just... wanted to know. I could have made it on my own, don't you think?"

"Of course. That's not the question."

"It was for me."

"Gregor," Miles's fingers tapped in frustration, against his knee. "You're doing this to yourself. You have real power. Dad fought through the whole Regency to preserve it. Just be more assertive !"

"And, Ensign, if I, your supreme commander, ordered you to leave this ship at Aslund Station and forget you ever saw me, would you?"

Miles swallowed. "Major Cecil said I had a problem with subordination."

Gregor almost grinned. "Good old Cecil. I remember him." His grin faded to nothing. ,He rolled up onto one elbow. "But if I can't even control one rather short ensign, how much less an army or a government? Power isn't the question. I've had all your Dad's lectures on power, its illusions and uses. It will come to me in time, whether I want it or not. But do I have the strength to handle it? Think about the bad showing I made during Vordrozda and Hessman's plot, four years ago."

"Will you make that mistake again? Trust a flatterer?"

"Not that one, no."

"Well, then."

"But I must do better, or I might be as bad for Barrayar as no emperor at all."

Just how unintentional had that topple off the balcony been? Miles gritted his teeth. "I didn't answer your question—about orders—as an ensign. I answered it as Lord Vorkosigan. And as a friend."

"Look, you don't need my rescue. Such as it is. Illyan's maybe, not mine. But it makes me feel better."

"It's always nice to feel useful," Gregor agreed. They mirrored edged smiles. Gregor's smile lost its bitter bite. "And ... it's nice to have company."

Miles nodded. "That, truly."

 

Miles spent quite a lot of time over the next two days squashed under the deck or crouched in the cupboards, but their cabin was searched only once and that very early on. Twice other prisoners wandered in to chat with Gregor, and once, on Miles's suggestion, Gregor returned the visit. Gregor really was doing quite well. Miles thought. Gregor divided his rations with Miles automatically, without complaint or even comment, and would not accept a larger portion although Miles urged it on him.

Gregor was herded out with the rest of the labor crew soon after the ship docked at Aslund Station. Miles waited nervously, trying to give as long as possible for the ship to quiet down, for the crew to go off-guard, yet not so long as to risk the ship undocking and thrusting off with him still aboard.

The corridor, when Miles cautiously poked his head out, was dark and deserted. The docking hatch was unguarded, on this side. Miles still wore the blue smock and pants over his other clothes, on the calculated risk the work gangs were treated as trustys, with the run of the station, and he would at least blend in at a distance.

He stepped out firmly, and nearly panicked when he found a man in the gold and black House livery idling around the hatch's exit. His stunner was holstered; his hands cradled a steaming plastic cup. His squinting red eyes regarded Miles incuriously. Miles favored him with a brief smile, not breaking stride. The guard returned a sour grimace. Evidently his charge was to prevent strange people from entering, not leaving, the ship.

The station-side loading bay beyond the hatch proved to contain half a dozen coveralled maintenance personnel, working quietly down on one end. Miles took a deep breath, and walked casually across the bay without looking around, as if he knew just where he was going. Just an errand boy. No one hailed him.

Reassured, Miles marched off purposefully at random. A wide ramp led to a great chamber, raucous with new construction and busy work crews in all sorts of dress—a fighter-shuttle refueling and repairs bay, judging by the half-assembled equipment. Just the sort of thing to interest Ungari. Miles didn't suppose he'd be so lucky as to ... no. No sign of Ungari camouflaged among these crews. There were a number of men and women in dark blue Aslunder ministry uniforms, but they appeared to be overworked and absorbed engineer-types, not suspicious guards. Miles kept walking briskly nonetheless, out another corridor.

He found a portal, its transparent plexi bellied out to offer passers-by a wide-angle view. He put one foot on the lower edge and leaned out—casually and bit back a few choice swear words. Glittering a few kilometers off was the commercial transfer station. A tiny glint of a ship was docking even now. The military station was apparently being designg as a separate facility, or at least not connected yet. No wonder blue-smocks could wander at will. Miles stared across the gap in mild frustration. Well, he'd search this place first for Ungari, the other later. Somehow. He turned and started—

"Hey, you! Little techie!"

Miles froze, controlling a reflexive urge to sprint — that tactic hadn't worked last time—and turned, trying for an expression of polite inquiry. The man who'd hailed him was big but unarmed, wearing tan supervisor's coveralls. He looked harried. "Yes, sur?" said Miles.

"You're just what I need." The man's hand fell heavily on Miles's shoulder. "Come with me."

Miles perforce followed, trying to stay calml maybe project a little bored annoyance,

"What's your specialization?" the man asked.

"Drains," Miles intoned.

"Perfect!"

Dismayed, Miles followed the man to where two half-finished corridors intersected. An archway gaped raw and uncapped by molding, though the molding ready to install.

The super pointed to a narrow space between walls. "See this pipe?"

Sewage, by the grey color-coding, air and grav pumped. It disappeared in darkness. "Yeah?"

"There's a leak somewhere behind this corridor wall. Crawl in and find it, so's we don't have to tear out all the damn paneling we just put up."

"Got a light?"

The man fished in his pocketed coverall and produced a hand light.

"Right," sighed Miles. "Is it hooked up yet?"

"About to be. Damn thing failed the final pressure test."

Only air would be spewing out. Miles brightened slightly. Maybe his luck was changing.

He slid in and inched along the smooth round surface, listening and feeling. About seven meters in he found it, a rush of cool air from a crack under his hands, quite marked. He shook his head, attempted lo turn in the constricted space, and put his foot through the paneling.

He stuck his head out the hole in astonishment, and glanced up and down the corridor. He wriggled a chunk of paneling from the edge and stared at it, turning it in his hands.

Two men putting up light fixtures, their tools sparking, turned to stare. "What the hell are you iloing?" said the one in tan coveralls, sounding outraged.

"Quality control inspection," said Miles glibly, "and boy, do you have a problem."

Miles considered kicking the hole wider and just walking back to his starting point, but turned and inched instead. He emerged by the anxiously waiting super.

"Your leak's in section six," Miles reported. He handed the man his panel chunk. "If those corridor panels are supposed to be made of flammable fiber-board instead of spun silica on a military installation planned to withstand enemy fire, somebody's hired n real poor designer. If they're not—I suggest you take a couple of those big goons with the shock sticks and go pay a visit to your supplier."

The super swore. Lips compressed, he grasped the nearest panel edge fronting the wall and twisted hard. A fist-sized segment cracked and tore off. "Bitchen. How much of this stuffs been installed already?"

"Lots," Miles suggested cheerfully. He turned to escape before the super, worrying off fragments of muttering under his breath, thought of another chore. Flushed and sweating. Miles skittered off and didn't relax till he'd rounded the second comer.

He passed a pair of armed men in grey-and-white uniforms. One turned to stare. Miles kept wallking, teeth clenching his lower lip, and did not look back.

Dendarii! or, Oserans! Here, aboard this station -- how many, where? Those two were the first he'd seen. Shouldn't they be out on patrol somewhere? He wished he were back in the walls, like a rat in the wainscotting.

But if most of the mercenaries here were a danger to him, there was one—Dendarii truly, not Oseran — who might be a help. If he could make contact. If he dared make contact. Elena ... he could seek out Elena... . His imagination outraced him.

Miles had left Elena four years ago as Baz Jesek's wife, as Tung's military apprentice, as much protection as he could get her at the time. But he hadn't had any messages from Baz since Oser's command coup—could Oser be intercepting them? Now Baz was demoted, Tung apparently disgraced—what position in the mercenary fleet did Elena hold now?

What position in his heart? He paused in grave doubt. He'd loved her passionately, once. Once, she'd known him better than any other human being. Yet her daily hold on his mind had passsedm like his grief for her dead father Sergeant Bothari, fading in the rush of his new life. But for an occasional twinge, like an old bonebreak. He wanted/did not want/ to see her again. To talk to her again. To touch her again...

But more to the practical point, she would recognize Gregor; they'd all been playmates in their youth. A second line of defense for the Emperor? Reopening contact with Elena might be emotionally awkward—all right, emotionally searing. But it was better than this ineffectual and dangerous wandering around. Now that he'd scouted the layout, he must somehow get into position to bring his resources to bear. How much human credit did Admiral Naismith still have? Interesting question.

He needed to find a place to watch without being seen. There were all sorts of ways to be invisible while in plain sight, as his blue smock was presently demonstrating. But his unusual height—well, shortness—made him reluctant to rely on clothes alone. He needed—ha!—tools, such as the case a tan-coveralled man had just set down in the corridor while he ducked into a lavatory. Miles had the case in hand and was around the comer in a blink.

A couple of levels away he found a corridor leading to a cafeteria. Hm. Everyone must eat; therefore, everyone must pass this way in time. The food smells excited his stomach, which protested half-rations or less for the past three days by gurgling. He ignored it. He pulled a panel off the wall, donned a pair of protective goggles from the tool case by way of a modest facial disguise, climbed into the wall to half-conceal his height, and began pretending to work on a control box and some pipes, diagnostic scanners placed decoratively to hand. His view up the corridlor was excellent.

From the wafting odors, he judged they were serving an unusually good grade of vat-grown beef in there, though they were also doing something nasty to vegetables. He tried not to salivate into the beam of the tiny laser-solderer he manipulated while he studied passers-by. Very few were civilian-clothed, Rotha's wear would clearly have been more conspicuous than the blue smock. Lots of color-coded coveralls, blue smocks, some similar green smocks; not a few Aslunder military blues, mostly lower ranks. Did the Dendarii—Oserans—mercenaries—aboard eat elsewhere? He was considering abandoning his outpost—he'd about repaired the control boxes to death by now—when a duo of grey-and-whites passed. Not faces he knew, he let them go by unhailed.

He contemplated the odds reluctantly. Of all tha couple thousand mercenaries now present arount the Aslunders' wormhole jump, he might know a few hundred by sight, fewer by name. Only some of the mercenary fleet's ships were now docked at this half-built military station. And of the portion of a portion, how many people could he trust absolutely? Five? He let another quartet of grey-and-whites pass, though he was certain that older blonde woman was an engineering tech from the Triumph, once loyal to Tung. Once. He was getting ravenous.

But the leather-colored face topping the next set of grey-and-whites to pass down the corridor made Miles forget his stomach. It was Sergeant Chodak. His luck had turned—maybe. For himself, he'd take the chance, but to risk Gregor ... ? Too late to waffle now, Chodak had spotted Miles in turn. The Sergeant's eyes widened in astonishment before his face grew swiftly blank.

"Oh, Sergeant," Miles caroled, tapping a contra box, "would you take a look at this, please?"

"I'll be along in a minute," Chodak waved on hil companion, a man in the uniform of an Aslunder ranker.

When their heads were together and their backs to the corridor, Chodak hissed, "Are you insane? What are you doing here?" It was a mark of his agitation that he omitted his habitual "sir."

"It's a long story. For now, I need your help." •

"But how did you get in here? Admiral Oser has guards all over the transfer station, on the lookout for you. You couldn't smuggle in a sand-flea."

Miles smirked convincingly. "I have my methods." And his next plan had been to scheme his way acrotf to that very transfer station ... Truly, God protected fools and madmen. "For now, I need to make contact with Commander Elena Bothari-Jesek. Urgently. Or, failing her, Engineering Commodore Jesek. Is she here?"

"She should be. The Triumph's in dock. Commodore Jesek is out with the repairs tender, I know."

"Well, if not Elena, Tung. Or Arde Mayhew. Or Lieutenant Elli Quinn. But I prefer Elena. Tell her—but no one else—that I have our old friend Greg with me. Tell her to meet me in an hour in the contract-laborers quarters, Greg Bleakman's cubicle. Can do?"

"Can do, sir." Chodak hurried on, looking worried. Miles patched up his poor battered wall, replaced the panel, picked up his tool box, and marched casually away, trying not to feel like he had a flashing red light atop his head. He kept his goggles on and his face down, and chose the least-populated corridors he could find. His stomach growled. Elena will feed you, he told it firmly. Later. A rising population of blue and green smocks told Miles he was nearing the contract laborer's quarters.

There was a directory. He hesitated, then punched up "Bleakman, G." Module B, Cubicle 8. He found the module, checked his chrono—Gregor should be on-shift by now—and knocked. The door sighed open and Miles slipped within. Gregor was there, sitting up sleepily on his bunk. It was a one-man cubicle, offering privacy, though barely room to turn around. Privacy was a greater psychological luxury than space. Even slave-techs must be kept minimally happy, they had too much power for potential sabotage to risk driving them over the edge.

"We're saved," Miles announced. "I've just made contact with Elena." He sat down heavily on the end of the bunk, weak with the sudden release of tension in this safe pocket.

"Elena's here?" Gregor scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I thought you wanted your Captain Ungari."

"Elena's the first step to Ungari. Or, failing Ungari, to smuggling us out of here. If Ungari hadn't been so damn insistent on the left hand not knowing what the right was doing, it would be a lot easier. But this will do." He studied Gregor in worry,"Have you been all right?"

"A few hours putting up light fixtures isn't going to break my health, I assure you," said Gregor dryly.

"Is that what they had you doing? Not what I'd pictured, somehow ..."

Gregor seemed all right, anyway. Indeed, the Emperor was acting almost cheerful about his stint as a slave laborer, as Gregor's morose standards of cheer went. Maybe we ought to send him to the salt mines for two weeks every year, to keep him happy and content with his regular job. Miles relaxed a little.

"It's hard to imagine Elena Bothari as a mercenary," Gregor added reflectively.

"Don't underestimate her." Miles concealed a moment of raw doubt. Almost four years. He knew how much he had changed in four years. What of Elena? Her years could have been hardly less hectic. Times change. People change with them... No. At well doubt himself as Elena.

The half-hour wait for his chrono to creep to the appointed moment was a bad interval, enough to loosen Miles's driving tension and wash him in weariness but not enough to rest or refresh him. He was miserably conscious of losing his edge, of a crying need for alertness when alertness and straight-thinking escaped like sand between his fingers. He rechecked his chrono. An hour had been too vague. He should have named the minute. But who knew what difficulties or delays Elena must overcome from her end?

Miles blinked hard, realizing from his wavering and disconnected thoughts that he was falling asleep sitting up. The door hissed open without Gregor's having released the lock.

"Here he is, men!"

A half-squad of grey-and-white clad mercenaries filled the aperture and the corridor beyond. It hardly needed the stunners and shock-sticks in their hands, the purposive descent on his person, to tell Miles this hairy crew was not Elena's. The surge of adrenalin scarcely cleared the fatigue-fog from his head. And what do I pretend to be now? A moving target? He sagged against the wall, not even bothering, though Gregor lurched to his feet and made a valiant try in the constricted space, an accurate karate-kick sending a stunner flying from the hand of a closing mercenary. Two men smashed Gregor against the wall for his effort. Miles winced.

Then Miles himself was jerked from the bunk to be coiled, triple-coiled, in a tangle-net. The field burned against him. They were using enough power to immobilize a plunging horse. What do you think I am, boys?

The excited squad leader cried into his wrist comm, "I got him, sir!"

Miles raised an ironic brow. The squad leader flushed and straightened, his hand twitching in the effort not to salute. Miles smiled slightly. The squad leader's lips tightened. Ha. Almost got you going, didn't I?

"Take them away," ordered the squad leader.

Miles was carried out the door between two men, his bound feet dangling ridiculous inches from the door. A groaning Gregor was dragged in his wake. As they passed a cross-corridor. Miles saw Chodak's strained face from the corner of his eye, floating in the shadows.

He damned his own judgment then. You thought you could read people. Your one demonstrable talent. Right. Sure. Should have, should have, should have, mocked his mind, like the caw of some vile scavenging bird surprised at a carcass.

 

When they were dragged across a large docking bay and through a small personnel hatch. Miles knew at once where he was. The Triumph, the pocket dreadnought that had occasionally served as the fleet's flagship, was doing that duty again now. Tung of the dubious current status had been captain-owner of the Triumph, once, before Tau Verde. Oser s had used to favor his own Peregrine as flag—was this some deliberate political statement? The corridors of the ship had a strange, painful, powerful familiarity. The odors of men, metal, and machinery. That crooked archway, legacy of the lunatic ramming that had captured her on Miles's first encounter, still no, properly straightened out ... I thought I had forgotten more.

They were hustled along swiftly and secretly, a pair of squadmen going ahead to clear the corridor of witnesses before them. This was going to be a very private chat, then. Fine, that suited Miles. He's would have preferred to avoid Oser altogether, butt if they must meet again, he would simply have to find some way of turning it to use. He ordered his persona as if adjusting his cuffs—Miles Naismith, space mercenary and mystery entrepreneur, come to the Hegen Hub for ... what? And his glum if faithful sidekick Greg, of course—he would have to think of some particularly benign explanation for Gregor.

They clattered down the corridor past the tactics room, the Triumph's combat nerve center, and fetched up at the smaller of the two briefing rooms across from it. The holovid plate in the center of the gleaming conference table was dark and silent. Admiral Oser sat equally dark and silent at the table's head, flanked by a pale blond man Miles presumed to be a loyal lieutenant; not anyone Miles knew from before. Miles and Gregor were forcibly seated in two chairs pulled back and distanced from the table, that their hands and feet might be unconcealed. Oser dismissed all but one guard to the corridor outside.

Oser's appearance hadn't changed much in four years, Miles decided. Still lean and hawk-faced, dark hair maybe a little greyer at the temples. Miles had remembered him as taller, but he was actually shorter than Metzov. Oser reminded Miles somehow of the general. Was it the age, the build? The hostile glower, the murderous pinpricks of red light in the eye?

"Miles," Gregor muttered out of the corner of his mouth, "what did you do to piss this guy off?"

"Nothing!" Miles protested back, sotto voce. "Nothing on purpose, anyway."

Gregor looked less than reassured.

Oser placed his palms flat on the table before him and leaned forward, staring at Miles with predatory intensity. If Oser'd had a tail, Miles fancied, its end would be flicking back and forth. "What are you doing here?" Oser opened bluntly, without preamble.

You brought me, don't you know? Not the time to get cute, no. Miles was highly conscious of the fact that he did not precisely look his best. But Admiral Naismith wouldn't care, he was too goal-directed; Naismith would carry on painted blue, if he had to. He answered equally bluntly. "I was hired to do a military evaluation of the Hegen Hub for an interested non-combatant who ships through here." There, the truth up front, where it was sure to be disbelieved. "Since they don't care for mounting rescue expeditions, they wanted enough warning to clear the Hub of their citizens before hostilities break out. I'm doing a little arms dealing on the side. A cover that pays for itself."

Oser's eyes narrowed. "Not Barrayar ..."

"Barrayar has its own operatives."

"So does Cetaganda ... Aslund fears Cetagandan ambitions."

"As well they should."

"Barrayar is equidistant."

"In my professional opinion," fighting the tangle-field, Miles favored Oser with a small bow, sitting down—Oser almost nodded back, but caught himself—"Barrayar is no threat to Aslund in this generation. To control the Hegen Hub, Barrayar must control Pol. With the terraforming of their own second continent plus the opening of the planet Sergyar, Barrayar is rather oversupplied with frontiers at present. And then there is the problem of holding restive Komarr. A military adventure toward Pol would be a serious overextension of Barrayar's human resources just now. Cheaper to be friends, or at least neutral."

"Aslund also fears Pol."

"They are unlikely to fight unless attacked firsts. Keeping peace with Pol is cheap and easy. Just do nothing."

"And Vervain?"

"I haven't evaluated Vervain yet. It's next on my list."

"Is it?" Oser leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. It was not a relaxed gesture. "As a spy, I could have you executed."

"But I'm not an enemy spy," Miles answered, simulating easiness. "A friendly neutral or—who knows?—if potential ally."

"And what is your interest in my fleet?"

"My interest in the Denda—in the mercenaries is purely academic, I assure you. You are simply part of the picture. Tell me, what's your contract with Aslund like?" Miles cocked his head, talking shop.

Oser almost answered, then his lips thinned in annoyance. If Miles had been a ticking bomb he could not have more thoroughly commanded the mercenary's attention.

"Oh, come on," Miles scoffed in the lengthening silence. "What could I do, by myself with one man?"

"I remember the last time. You entered Tau Verde local space with a staff of four. Four months later you were dictating terms. So what are you planning now?"

"You overestimate my impact. I merely helped people along in the direction they wished to go. An expediter, so to speak."

"Not for me. I spent three years recovering the ground I lost. In my own fleet!"

"It's hard to please everyone." Miles intercepted Gregor's look of mute horror, and toned himself down. Come to think, Gregor had never met Admiral Naismith, had he? "Even you were not seriously damaged."

Oser's jaw compressed further. "And who's he?" He jerked a thumb at Gregor.

"Greg? He's just my batman," Miles cut across Gregor's opening mouth.

"He doesn't look like a batman. He looks like an officer."

Gregor looked insensibly cheered at this unbiased encomium.

"You can't go by looks. Commodore Tung looks like a wrestler."

Oser's eyes were suddenly freezing. "Indeed. And how long have you been in correspondence with Captain Tung?"

By the sick lurch in his belly, Miles realized mentioning Tung had been a major mistake. He tried to keep his features cooly ironic, not reflecting his unease. "If I'd been in correspondence with Tung, I should not have been troubled with making this personal evaluation of Aslund Station."

Oser, elbows on table, hands clasped, studied Miles in silence for a full minute. At last one hand fell open, to point at the guard, who straightened iltentively. "Space them," Oser ordered.

"What?!" yelped Miles.

"You," the pointing finger collected Oser's silent lieutenant, "go with them. See that it's done. Use the portside access lock, it's closest. If he," pointing to Miles, "starts to talk, stop his tongue. It's his most dangerous organ."

The guard released the tangle field from Miles's legs and pulled him to his feet.

"Aren't you even going to have me chemically interrogated?" asked Miles, dizzied by this sudden downturn.

"And contaminate my interrogators? The last thing I want is to give you rein to talk, to anyone. I can think of nothing more fatal than for the rot of disloyalty to start in my own Intelligence section. Whatever your planned speech, removing your air will neutralize it. You nearly convince me." Oser almost shuddered.

We were getting on so well, yes... . "But I— they were hoisting Gregor to his feet too. "But you don't need to—"

Two waiting members of the half-squad fell in as they were bundled out the door, frog-marching Miles and Gregor rapidly down the corridor. "But—!" The conference room door hissed closed.

"This is not going well. Miles," Gregor observed, his pale face a weird compound of detachment, exasperation, and dismay. "Any more bright ideas?"

"You're the man who was experimenting with wingless flight. Is this any worse than, say, plummeting?"

"At my own hand," Gregor began to drag his feet to struggle, as the airlock chamber heaved into view, "not at the whim of a bunch of ..." it took three guards to wrestle him now, "bloody peasants!"

Miles was getting seriously frantic. Screw the damn cover. "You know," he called out loudly, "you fellows are about to throw a fortune in ransom out the airlock!"

Two guards kept wrestling with Gregor, but the third paused. "How big a fortune?"

"Huge," Miles promised. "Buy your own fleet."

The lieutenant abandoned Gregor and closed on Miles, drawing a vibra-knife. The lieutenant was interpreting his orders with horrific literality, Miles realized when the man went for a grip on his tongue. He almost got it—the evil insect whine of the knife dopplered centimeters from Miles's nose—Miles bit the thick thrusting fingers, and twisted against the grip of the guard holding him. The tangle field binding Miles's arms to his torso whined and crackled, unbreakable. Miles jammed backward against the crotch of the man behind, who yipped at the field's bite. His grip slipped and Miles dropped, rolling and banging into the lieutenant's knees. It wasn't exactly a judo throw; the lieutenant more-or-less tripped over him.

Gregor's two opponents were distracted, as much by the bloody barbaric promise of the vibra-knife show as by Miles's ultimately futile struggles. They did not see the leather-faced man step out from a cross-corridor, aim his stunner, and spray. They arched convulsively as the buzzing charges struck their backs, and dropped heap-fashion to the deck. The man who'd been holding Miles, and was now living to grab him again as he flopped around evasively as a fish, whirled just in time to intersect a beam square in the face.

Miles flung himself across the blond lieutenant's head, pinning him—only momentarily, alas—to the deck. Miles wriggled, to press the tangle-field into the man's face, then was heaved off with a curse. The lieutenant had one knee under himself, preparing to launch inch an attack and wobbling around in search of his target, when Gregor hopped over and kicked him in the jaw. A stunner charge hit the lieutenant in the back of the head and he went down.

"Damn fine soldiering," Miles panted to Sergeant Chodak in the sudden silence. "I don't think they even saw what hit them." So, I called him straight the first time. Haven't lost my touch after all. Bless you. Sergeant.

"You two aren't so bad yourselves, for men with both hands tied behind their backs." Chodak shook his head in harried amusement, and trod forward to release the tangle-fields.

"What a team," said Miles.

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