Lois McMaster Bujold, "The Warrior Apprentice"

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CHAPTER SIX

"Miles, dear,' his grandmother greeted him with a peck on the cheek as regulation as a salute. "You're rather late—trouble in customs again? Are you very tired from your trip?"

"Not a bit." He bounced on his heels, missing free fall and its unconstrained motion. He felt like taking a fifty kilometer run, or going dancing, or something. The Botharis looked weary, though, and Pilot Officer Mayhew was nearly green. The pilot officer, after the briefest introduction, was shipped off to the spare bedroom in Mrs. Naismith's apartment to wash, take his choice of too-small or too-large borrowed pajamas, and fall unconscious across the bed as though slugged with a mallet.

Miles's grandmother fed the survivors dinner, and as Miles had hoped seemed quite taken with Elena. Elena was having an attack of shyness in the presence of the admired Countess Vorkosigan's mother, but Miles was fairly sure the old woman would soon bring her out of it. Elena might even pick up a little of her Betan indifference to Barrayaran class distinctions. Might it ease the oppressive constraint that seemed to have been growing between himself and Elena ever since they had ceased to be children? It was the damn Vor-suit he wore. Miles thought. There were days it felt like armor; archaic, clanking, encrusted and spiked. Uncomfortable to wear, impossible to embrace. Give her a can opener, and let her see what a pale soft miserable slug this gaudy shell encloses—not that that would be any less repellent—his thoughts buried themselves in the dark fall of Elena's hair, and he sighed. He realized his grandmother was speaking to him. "I beg your pardon, ma'am?" “I said," she repeated patiently between bites, "one of my neighbors—you remember him, Mr. Hathaway, who works at the recycling center—I know you met him when you were here to school—"

"Oh, yeah, sure. Him."

"He has a little problem that we thought you might be able to help with, being Barrayaran. He's sort of been saving it for you, since we knew you were coming. He thought, if you weren't too tired, you might even go with him tonight, since it is starting to be rather disturbing . . ."

"I really can't tell you all that much about him myself," said Hathaway, staring out over the vast domed arena that was his special charge. Miles wondered how long it would take to get used to the smell. "Except that he says he's a Barrayaran. He disappears from time to time, but he always comes back. I've tried to persuade him to go to a Shelter, at least, but he didn't seem to like the idea. Lately, I haven't been able to get near him. You understand, he's never tried to hurt anybody or anything, but you never know, what with his being a Barrayaran and all—oh, sorry ... "

Hathaway, Miles, and Bothari picked their way across the treacherous and uneven footing. Odd-shaped objects in the piles tended to turn unexpectedly, tripping the unwary. All the detritus of high tech, awaiting apotheosis as the next generation of Betan ingenuity, gleamed out , amid more banal and universal human rubbish.

"Oh, damn it," cried Hathaway suddenly, "he's gone and lit a fire again." A small curl of grey smoke was rising a hundred meters away. "I hope he's not burning wood this time. I just cannot convince him how valuable—well, at least it makes him easy to find ..."

A low place in the piles gave an illusion of a sheltered space. A thin, dark-haired man in his late twenties was hunched glumly over a tiny fire, carefully arranged in the bottom of a shallow parabolic antenna dish. A makeshift table that had started life as a computer desk console was evidently now the man's kitchen, for it held some flat pieces of metal and plastic now doing duty as plates and platters. A large carp, its scales gleaming red-gold, lay gutted and ready for cooking upon it.

Dark eyes, black smudges of weariness beneath them, flashed up at the clank of their approach. The man scrambled to his feet, grabbing what appeared to be a home-made knife; Miles couldn't tell what it was made of, but it was clearly a good one, if it had done the job on the fish. Bothari's hand automatically checked his stunner.

"I think he is a Barrayaran," muttered Miles to Bothari. "Look at the way he moves."

Bothari nodded agreement. The man held his knife properly, like a soldier, left hand guarding the right, ready to block a snatch or punch an opening for the weapon. He seemed unconscious of his stance.

Hathaway raised his voice. "Hey, Baz! I brought you some visitors, all right?"

"No."

"Uh, look," Hathaway slid down a pile of rubble, closer but not too close. "I haven't bothered you, have I? I let you hang around in my center for days on end, it's all right as long as you don't carry anything out—that's not wood, is it? oh, all right ... I'll overlook it this time, but I want you to talk to these guys. I figure you owe me. All right? Anyway, they're Barrayarans."

Baz glanced up at them sharply, his expression a strange mixture of hunger and dismay. His lips formed a silent word. Miles read it. Home. I'm silhouetted, thought Miles; let's get down where he can see the light on my face. He picked his way down beside Hathaway.

Baz stared at him. "You're no Barrayaran," he said flatly.

"I'm half Betan," Miles replied, feeling no desire to go into his medical history just then. "But I was raised on Barrayar. It's home."

"Home," whispered the man, barely audibly.

"You're a long way from home." Miles upended a plastic casing from something-or-other—it had some wires hanging out of it, giving it a sad disemboweled air—and seated himself. Bothari took up position above on the rubble within comfortable pouncing distance. "Did you set stuck here or something? Do you, ah—need some help getting home?"

"No." The man glanced away, frowning. His fire had burned down. He placed a metal grill from an air conditioner over it and laid his fish on top.

Hathaway eyed these preparations with fascination. 'What are you going to do with that dead goldfish?"

"Eat it."

Hathaway looked revolted. "Look, mister—all you have to do is report to a Shelter and get Carded, and you can have all the protein slices you want—any flavor, clean and fresh from the vats. Nobody has to eat a dead animal on this planet, really. Where'd you get it, anyway?"

Baz replied uneasily, "Out of a fountain."

Hathaway gasped in horror. "Those displays belong to the Silica Zoo! You can't eat an exhibit!"

'There were lots of them. I didn't think anybody would miss one. It wasn't stealing. I caught it."

Miles rubbed his chin thoughtfully, gave a little upward jerk of his head, and pulled Pilot Officer Mayhew's green bottle, which he had brought along on a last-minute impulse, from under his jacket. Baz started at the movement, then relaxed when he saw it was no weapon. By Barrayaran etiquette. Miles took a swallow first—he made it a small one, this time—wiped the mouthpiece on his sleeve, and offered it to the thin man. "Drink, with dinner? It's good—makes you feel less hungry—dries up your sinuses, too. Tastes like horse-piss and honey."

Baz frowned, but took the bottle. Thanks." He took a drink, and added in a strangled whisper, "Thanks!"

Baz slipped his dinner onto a cover plate from a tube-car wheel, and sat cross-legged amid the junk to pick out the bones. "Care for any?"

"No, thanks, just had dinner."

"Dear God, I should think not!" cried Hathaway.

"Ah," said Miles. "Changed my mind. Just a taste ..."

Baz held out a morsel on the point of his knife; Bothari's hands twitched. Miles lipped it off, camp-fashion, and chomped it down with a sardonic smile at Hathaway. Baz waved the bottle at Bothari.

'"Would your friend ... ?"

"He can't," excused Miles. "He's on duty."

"Bodyguard," whispered Baz. He looked again at Miles with that strange expression, fear, and something else. "What the hell are you?"

"Nothing you need be afraid of. Whatever you're hiding from, it isn't me. You can have my word on that, if you wish."

"Vor," breathed Baz. "You're Vor."

"Well, yes. And what the hell are you?"

"Nobody." He picked rapidly at his fish. Miles wondered how long it had been since his last meal.

"Hard, to be nobody, in a place like this," Miles observed. "Everybody has a number, everybody has a place to be—not many interstices, to be nobody in. It must take a lot of effort and ingenuity."

'Ton said it," Baz agreed around a mouthful of goldfish. "This is the worst place I've ever been. You've got to keep moving around all the time."

'You do know," said Miles tentatively, "the Barrayaran Embassy will help you get home, if you want. Of course, you have to pay it bade later, and the/re pretty strict about collecting—they're not in the business of giving free rides to hitchhikers—but if you're really in trouble--"

"No!" It was almost a cry. It echoed faintly across the enormous arena. Baz lowered his voice self-consciously. "No, I don't want to go home. Sooner or later, I'll pick up some kind of job at the shuttleport, and ship off someplace better. There's got to be something turn up soon."

"If you want work," said Hathaway eagerly, "all you have to do is register at—"

"I'll get something my own way," Baz cut him off harshly.

The pieces were falling into place. "Baz doesn't want to register anywhere," Miles explained to Hathaway, coolly didactic. "Up until now, Baz is something I thought impossible on Beta Colony. He's a man who isn't here. He's passed across the information network without a blip. He never arrived—never passed through Customs, and I'll bet that was one hell of a neat trick—as far as the computers are concerned, has not eaten, or slept, or purchased—or Registered, or been Carded—and he would rather starve than do so."

"For pity's sake, why?" asked Hathaway.

"Deserter," commented Bothari laconically from above. "I've seen the look."

Miles nodded. "I think you've hit it. Sergeant."

Baz sprang to his feet. "You're Service Security! You twisty little bastard—"

"Sit down," Miles overrode him, not stirring. "I'm not anybody. I'm just not quite as good at it as you are."

Baz hesitated. Miles studied him seriously, all the pleasure suddenly gone out of the excursion in a wash of cold ambiguity. "I don't suppose—Yeoman?—no. Lieutenant?"

"Yes," growled the man.

"An officer. Yes." Miles chewed his lip, disturbed. 'Was it in the heat?"

Baz grimaced reluctantly. "Technically."

"Hm." A deserter. Strange beyond comprehension, for a man to trade the envied splendor of the Service for the worm of fear, riding in his belly like a parasite. Was he running from an act of cowardice? Or another crime? Or an error, some horrible, lethal mistake? Technically, Miles had a duly to help nail the fellow for Service Security. But he had come here tonight to help the man, not destroy him ...

"I don't understand," said Hathaway. "Has he committed a crime?"

“Yes. A bloody serious one. Desertion in the heat of battle," said Miles. "If he gets extradited home, the penalty's quartering. Technically."

"That doesn't sound so bad," Hathaway shrugged. "He's been quartered in my recycling center for two months. It could hardly be worse. What's the problem?"

"Quartering," said Miles. "Uh—not domiciled. Cut in four pieces/'

Hathaway stared, shocked. "But that would toll him!" He looked around, and wilted under the triple, unified, and exasperated glares of the three Barrayarans.

"Betans," said Baz disgustedly. "I can't stand Betans."

Hathaway muttered something under his breath; Miles caught, "—bloodthirsty barbarians ..."

"So if you're not Service Security," Baz finished, sitting back down, "you may as well shove off. There's nothing you can do for me."

"I'm going to have to do something," Miles said.

"Why?"

"I'm—I'm afraid I've inadvertently done you a disservice, Mr., Mr.—you may as well tell me your name ..."

"Jesek."

"Mr. Jesek. You see, I'm, um, under the scrutiny of Security myself. Just by meeting you, I've endangered your cover. I'm sorry."

Jesek paled. "Why is Service Security watching you?"

"Not the S.S. Imperial Security, I'm afraid."

The breath went out of the deserter as from a body blow, and his face drained utterly. He bent over, his head pressed to his knees, as if to counteract a wave of faintness. A muffled whimper—"God ..." He stared up at Miles. "What did you do, boy?"

Miles said sharply, "I haven't asked you that question, Mr. Jesek!"

The deserter mumbled some apology. I can't let him know who I am, thought Miles, or he'll be off like a shot and run straight into my Security so-called safety net— even as it is, Lt. Croye or his minions from the Barrayaran Embassy Security staff are going to start looking this guy over. They'll go wild when they find he's the invisible man. No later than tomorrow, if they give him the routine check. I've just killed this man—no! "What did you do in the Service, before?" Miles groped for time and thought.

"I was an engineer's assistant."

"Construction? Weapons systems?"

The man's voice steadied. "No, jump ship engines. Some weapons systems. I try to get tech work on private freighters, but most of the equipment I'm trained in is obsolete in this sector. Harmonic impulse engines, Necklin color drive—hard to come by. I've got to get farther out, away from the main economic centers."

A small, high "Hm!" escaped Miles. "Do you know anything about the RG class freighters?"

"Sure. I've worked a couple. Necklin drive. They're all gone now, though."

"Not quite." A discordant excitement shivered through Miles. "I know one. It's going to be making a freight run soon, if it can get a cargo, and crew."

Jesek eyed him suspiciously. "Is it going someplace that doesn't have an extradition treaty with Barrayar?"

"Maybe."

"My lord," Bothari's voice was edged with agitation, "you're not considering harboring this deserter?"

"Well ..." Miles voice was mild. 'Technically, I don't know he's a deserter. I've merely heard some allegations."

"He admitted it."

"Bravado, perhaps. Inverted snobbery."

"Are you hankering to be another Lord Vorloupulous?" asked Bothari dryly.

Miles laughed, and sighed; Baz's mouth twisted. Hathaway begged to be let in on the joke.

"It's Barrayaran law again," Miles explained. "Our courts are not kindly disposed to those who maintain the letter of the law and violate its spirit. The classic precedent was the case of Lord Vorloupulous and his 2000 cooks."

"Did he run a chain of restaurants?" asked Hathaway, floundering. "Don't tell me that's illegal on Barrayar too ..."

"Oh, no. This was at the end of the Time of Isolation, almost a hundred years ago. Emperor Dorca Vorbarra was centralizing the government, and breaking the power of the Counts as separate governing entities—there was a civil war about it. One of the main things he did was eliminate private armies, what they used to call livery and maintenance on old Earth. Each Count was stripped down to twenty armed followers—barely a bodyguard.

'Well, Lord Vorloupulous had a feud going with a few neighbors, for which he found this allotment quite inadequate. So he hired on 2000 'cooks/ so-called, and sent them out to carve up his enemies. He was quite ingenious about arming them, butcher knives instead of short swords and so on. There were plenty of recently unemployed veterans looking for work at me time, who weren't too proud to give it a try ..." Miles's eyes glinted amusement.

"The Emperor, naturally, didn't see it his way. Dorca marched his regular army, by then the only one on Barrayar, on Vorloupulous and arrested him for treason, for which the sentence was—still is—public exposure and death by starvation. So the man with 2000 cooks was condemned to waste away in the Great Square of Vorbarr Sultana. And to think they always said Dorca Vorbarra had no sense of humor ..."

Bothari smiled grimly, and Baz chuckled; Hathaway's laugh was more hollow. "Charming," he muttered.

"But it had a happy ending," Mites went on. Hathaway brightened. "The Cetagandans invaded us about that point, and Lord Vorloupulous was released."

"By the Cetagandans? Lucky," commented Hathaway.

"No, by Emperor Dorca, to fight the Cetagandans. You understand, he wasn't pardoned—the sentence was merely delayed. When the First Cetagandan War was over, he would have been expected to show up to complete it. But he died fighting, in battle, so he had an honorable death after all."

'That's a happy ending?" Hathaway shrugged. "Oh, well."

Baz, Miles noted, had become silent and withdrawn again. Miles smiled at him, experimentally; he smiled back awkwardly, looking younger for it. Miles made his decision.

"Mr. Jesek, I'm going to make you a proposition, which you can take or leave. That ship I mentioned is the RG 132. The jump pilot officer's name is Arde Mayhew. If you can disappear—I mean really disappear—for the next couple of days, and then get in touch with him at the Silica shuttleport, he'll see that you get a berth on his ship, outbound."

'"Why should you help me at all, Mr.— Lord —"

"Mr. Naismith, for all practical purposes." Miles shrugged. "Call it a fancy for seeing people get second chances. It's something they're not very keen on, at home."

Home, Baz's eyes echoed silently again. '"Well—it was good to hear the accent again, for a little time. I might just take you up on that," he remembered to be cagey, "or I might not."

Miles nodded, retrieved his bottle, motioned to Bothari, and withdrew. They threaded their way back across the recycling center with an occasional muted clank. When Miles looked back, Jesek was a shadow, melting toward another exit.

Miles became conscious of a profound frown from Sergeant Bothari. He smiled wryly, and kicked over a control casing from some junked industrial robot, lying skeletally athwart a mound of other rubble. '"Would you have had me turn him in?" he asked softly. "But you're Service to the bone, I suppose you would. So would my father, I guess—he's so all-fired stringent about the law, no matter how ghastly the consequences."

Bothari grew still. "Not—always, my lord." He retreated into a suddenly neutral silence.

"Miles," whispered Elena, detouring from a nocturnal trip to the bathroom from the bedroom she was sharing with Mrs. Naismith, "aren't you ever going to bed? It's almost morning."

"Not sleepy." He entered yet another inquiry on his grandmother s comconsole. It was true; he still felt fresh, and pretematurally alert. It was just as well, for he was plugged into a commercial network of enormous complexity. Ninety percent of success seemed to lie in asking the right questions. Tricky, but after several hours' work he seemed to be getting the hang of it. "Besides, with Mayhew in the spare bedroom, I'm doomed to the couch."

"I thought my father had the couch."

"He ceded it to me, with a smile of grim glee. He hates the couch. He slept on it all the time I went to school here. He's blamed every ache, twinge, and lower back pain he's had ever since on it, even after two years. It couldn't possibly be old age creeping up on him, oh, no .. ."

Elena strangled a giggle. She leaned over his shoulder for a look at the screen. The light from it silvered her profile, and the scent of her hair, falling forward, dizzied him. "Finding anything?" she asked.

Miles entered three wrong directions in a row, swore, and refocused his attention. "Yea, I think so. There were a lot more factors to be taken into account than I realized, at first. But I think I've found something—" He retrieved his fumbled data, and waved his finger through the holoscreen. "That is my first cargo."

The screen displayed a lengthy manifest. "Agricultural equipment," she analyzed. "Bound for—whatever is Felice?"

"It's a country on Tau Verde IV, wherever that is. It's a four-week run—I've been cost-calculating fuel, and supplies, and the logistics of it in general—everything from spare parts to toilet paper. That's not what's interesting, though. What's interesting is that with that cargo I can pay for the trip and clear my debt to Calhoun, well inside the time limit on my note." His voice went small. "I'm afraid I, uh, underestimated the time I'd need for the RG 132 to run enough cargos to cover my note, a little. A lot. Well, quite a lot. Badly. The ship costs more to run than I'd realized, when I finally went to add up all the real numbers." He pointed to a figure. "But that's what they're offering for transport, C.O.D. Felice. And the cargo's ready to go immediately."

Her eyebrows drew down in awed puzzlement. "Pay for the whole ship in one run? But that's wonderful! But ..."

He grinned. "But?"

"But why hasn't somebody else snapped up this cargo? It seems to have been sitting in the warehouse a long time."

"Clever girl," he crooned encouragingly. "Go on."

"I see they only pay on delivery. But maybe that's normal?"

"Yes ..." he spread the word out, like butter. "Anything else?"

She pursed her lips. "Something's weird."

"Indeed." His eyes crinkled. "Something is, as you say, weird."

"Do I have to guess? Because if I do, I'm going back to bed ..." She stifled a yawn.

"Ah. Well—Tau Verde IV is in a war zone, at the moment. It seems there is a planetary war in progress. One of the sides has the local wormhole exit blocked— not by their own people, it seems to be a somewhat industrially backward place—they've hired a mercenary fleet. And why has this cargo been mouldering in a warehouse so long? Because none of the big shipping companies will carry into a war zone—their insurance lapses. That goes for most of the little independents, as well. But since I'm not insured, it does not go for me." He smirked.

Elena looked doubtful. "Is it dangerous, crossing the blockade? If you cooperate on their stop-and search—"

"In this case, I think so. The cargo happens to be addressed to the other side of the fray."

"Would the mercenaries seize it? I mean, robotic combines or whatever couldn't be classed as contraband— don't they have to abide by interstellar conventions?" Her doubt became wariness.

He stretched, still smiling. "You've almost got it. What is Beta Colony's most noted export?"

"Well, advanced technology, of course. Weapons and weapons systems—" her wariness became dismay. "Oh, Miles ...?'

" 'Agricultural equipment,'" he snickered. "I'll bet! Anyway, there's this Felician who claims to be the agent for the company purchasing the equipment—that's another tip-on, that they should have a man personally shepherding this cargo through—I'm going to go see him first thing in the morning, as soon as the Sergeant wakes up. And Mayhew, I'd better take Mayhew ..."

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