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Miles reviewed his troops, before pressing the buzzer to the hotel room. Even in civilian dress, mere was no mistaking the Sergeant for anything but a soldier. Mayhew—washed, shaved, rested, fed, and dressed in clean new clothes—looked infinitely better than yesterday, but still ...
"Straighten up, Arde," advised Miles, "and try to look professional. We've just got to get this cargo. I thought Betan medicine was advanced enough to cure any kind of hangover. It's bound to make a bad impression on this guy if you walk around clutching your stomach."
"Grm," muttered Mayhew. But he did return his hands to his sides, and come more-or-less to attention. "You'll find out, kid," he added in a tone of bitter clairvoyance.
"And you're going to have to stop calling me 'kid,'" Miles added. "You're my Armsman now. You're supposed to address me as *my lord.'"
"You really take that stuff seriously?"
One step at a time. "It's like a salute," Miles explained. "You salute the uniform, not the man. Being Vor is—is like wearing an invisible uniform you can never take off. Look at Sergeant Bothari—he's called me *my lord' ever since I was born. If he can, you can. You're his brother-in-arms, now."
Mayhew looked up at the Sergeant. Bothari looked back, his face saturnine in the extreme. Miles had the impression that had Bothari been a more expressive man, he would have made a rude noise at the concept of Mayhew as his brother-in-arms. Mayhew evidently received the same impression, for he straightened up a little more, and bit out, "Yes, my lord."'
Miles nodded approval, and pressed the buzzer.
The man who answered the door had dark almond eyes, high cheekbones, skin the color of coffee and cream, and bright copper-colored hair, tightly curled as wire, cropped close to his head. His eyes searched the trio anxiously, widening a little at Miles; he had only seen Miles's face that morning, over the viewscreen. "Mr. Naismith? I'm Carle Daum. Come in."
Daum closed the door behind them quickly, and fussed at the lock. Miles deduced they'd just passed through a weapons scan, and the Felician was sneaking a peek at his readout. The man turned back with a look of nervous suspicion, one hand automatically touching his right hip pocket. His gaze did not linger elsewhere in the little hotel room, and Bothari's lips twitched satisfaction at Daum's unconscious revelation of the weapon he must watch for. Legal stunner, most likely, thought Miles, but you never know.
'Won't you sit down?" the Felician invited. His speech had a soft and curious resonance to Miles's ear, neither the flat nasal twang, heavy on the r's, of the Betans, nor the clipped cold gutturals of Barrayar. Bothari indicated he would prefer to stand, and took up position to Daum's right, uncomfortably far over in the Felician's peripheral vision. Miles and Mayhew sat before a low table. Daum sat across from them, his back to a "window," actually a viewscreen, bright with a panorama of mountains and a lake from some other world. The wind that really howled far overhead would have scoured such trees to sticks in a day. The window silhouetted Daum, while revealing his visitors' expressions in full light; Miles appreciated the choice of views.
'"Well, Mr. Naismith," began Daum. "Tell me something about your ship. What is its cargo capacity?"
"It's an RG class freighter. It can easily handle twice the mass of your manifest, assuming those figures you put into the com system are quite correct ..."
Daum did not react to this tiny bait. Instead he said, "I'm not very familiar with jump ships. Is it fast?"
"Pilot Officer Mayhew?" Miles prodded.
"Huh? Oh. Uh, do you mean acceleration? Steady, just steady. We boost a little longer, and get there nearly as fast in the end."
"Is it very maneuverable?"
Mayhew stared. "Mr. Daum, it's a freighter!"
Daum's lips compressed with annoyance. "I know that. The question is—"
"The question is," Miles interrupted, "can we either outrun or evade your blockade. The answer is no. You see, I've done my homework."
Frustration darkened Daum's face. "Then we seem to be wasting each other's time. So much time lost ..." He began to rise.
"The next question is, is there another way to get your cargo to its destination? Yes, I believe," said Miles firmly.
Daum sat back, tense with mistrust and hope. "Go on."
"You've done as much yourself already, in the Betan's comm system. Camouflage. I believe your cargo can be camouflaged well enough to pass a blockade inspection. But we'll have to work together on it, and somewhat more frankly—ah ..." Miles made a calculation, based on the Felician's age and bearing, "Major Daum?"
The man twitched. Ah ha, thought Miles, nailed him on the first try. He compressed this internal crow to a suave smile.
"If you're a Pelian spy, or an Oseran mercenary, I swear I'll loll you—" Daum began. Bothari's eyelids drooped, in a pose of deceptive calm.
"I'm not," said Miles, "although it would be a great ploy, if I were. Load up you and your weapons, take you halfway, and make you get out and walk—I appreciate your need for caution."
"What weapons?" said Daum, attempting belatedly to regain his cover.
"What weapons?" echoed Mayhew, in a frantic, near-silent whisper to Miles's ear.
"Your plowshares and pruning hooks, then/' said Miles tolerantly. "But I suggest we end the game and get to work. I am a professional—" and if you buy that, I have this nice farmland on Barrayar for sale, "and so, obviously, are you, or you wouldn't have gotten this far."
Mayhew's eyes widened. Under the guise of shifting in his seat. Miles kicked him preemptively in the ankle. Make a note, he thought; next time, wake him earlier and brief him better. Although getting the pilot officer functional that morning had been rather like trying to raise the dead. Miles was not sure he could have succeeded, earlier.
"You're a mercenary soldier?" said Daum.
"Ah .. ." said Miles. He had meant to imply, a professional shipmaster—but might this be even more attractive to the Felician? "What do you think. Major?"
Bothari stopped breathing a moment. Mayhew, however, looked suddenly dismayed. "So that's what you meant yesterday," he murmured. "Recruiting ..."
Miles, who had meant nothing of a kind in his facetious crack about looking for desperate men, murmured back, "Of course," in a tone of maximum off-handedness. "Surely you realized ..."
Daum looked doubtfully at Mayhew, but then his gaze fell on Bothari. Bothari maintained parade rest and an expression of remarkable blankness. Belief hardened in Daum's eyes. "By God," he muttered, "if the Pelians can hire galactics, why can't we?" He raised his voice. "How many troops are in your outfit? What ships do you have?"
On, hell—now what? Mile's extemporized like mad. "Major Daum, I didn't mean to mislead you—" Bothari breathed, gratefully. Miles saw from the comer of his eye, "I'm, uh—detached from my outfit at the moment. They're tied up on another contract. I was just visiting Beta Colony for, uh, medical reasons, so I have only myself and, ah, my immediate staff, and a ship my fleet could spare, here to offer you. But we're expected to operate independently, in my bunch," exhale. Sergeant, please exhale, "so since it will be a little time yet before I can rejoin them, and I find your problem tactically interesting, my services are yours."
Daum nodded slowly, "I see. And by what rank should I address you?"
Miles nearly appointed himself Admiral on the spot. Captain? Yeoman? he wondered wildly. "Let's just leave it at Mr. Naismith, for now," he suggested coolly. "A centurion without his hundred men is, after all, a centurion in name only. At the moment, we need to be dealing with realities." Do we ever ...
"What's the name of your outfit?"
Miles free-associated frantically. 'The Dendarii Mercenaries." It fell trippingly from the tongue, at least.
Daum studied him hungrily. "I've been tied down in this damn place for two months, looking for a carrier that would haul me, that I could trust. If I wait much longer, could be delay will destroy the purpose of my mission as certainly as any betrayal. Mr. Naismith, I've waited long enough—too long. I'm going to take a chance on you."
Miles nodded satisfaction, as if he had been concluding such transactions all of a somewhat longer life than he actually possessed. "Then Major Daum, I undertake to get you to Tau Verde IV. My word on it. The first thing I need is more intelligence. Tell me all you know about the Oseran Mercenaries' blockade procedures ..."
"It was my understanding, my lord," said Bothari severely as they left Daum's hotel for the slidewalk, "that Pilot Officer Mayhew here was to transport your cargo. You didn't tell me anything about going along yourself."
Miles shrugged, elaborately casual. "There are so many variables, so much at stake—I've just got to be on the spot. It's unfair to dump it all on Arde's shoulders. I mean, would you?"
Bothari, apparently caught between his disapproval of his liege lord's get-rich-quick scheme and his low opinion of the pilot officer, gave a noncommittal grunt, which Mayhew chose not to notice.
Miles's eyes glinted. "Besides, it'll put a little excitement in your life, Sergeant. It has to be dull as dirt, following me around all day. I'd be bored to tears."
"I like being bored," said Bothari morosely.
Miles grinned, secretly relieved at not being taken more strictly to task for his "Dendarii Mercenaries" outbreak. Well, the brief moment of fantasy was probably harmless enough.
The three of them found Elena stalking back and forth across Mrs. Naismith's living room. Two bright spots of color burned in her cheeks, her nostrils flared, and she was muttering under her breath. She transfixed Miles with an angry glare as he entered. "Betans!" she bit out in a voice of loathing.
This only let him half off the hook. '"What's the matter?" he inquired cautiously.
She took another turn around the room, stiff-legged, as if trampling bodies underfoot. "That awful holovid," she glowered. "How can they—oh, I can't even describe it."
Ah ha, she found one of the pornography channels, thought Miles. Well, it had to happen eventually. "Holovid?" he said brightly.
"How could they permit such horrible slanders on Admiral Vorkosigan, and Prince Serg, and our forces? I think the producer should be taken out and shot! And the actors—and the scriptwriter—we would at home, by God ..."
Not the pornography channel, evidently. "Uh, Elena— just what have you been looking at?"
His grandmother was seated, with a fixed nervous smile, in her float chair. "I tried to explain that ifs fictionalized—you know, to make the history more dramatic ..."
Elena gave vent to an ominous rattling hiss; Miles gave his grandmother a pleading look.
"The Thin Blue Line," Mrs. Naismith explained cryptically.
"Oh, I've seen that one," said Mayhew. "Ifs a rerun."
Miles recalled the docudrama vividly himself; it had first been released two years ago, and had contributed its mite to making his school visit to Beta Colony the sometimes surreal experience it had been. Miles's father, then-Commodore Vorkosigan, had begun the aborted Barrayaran invasion of Beta Colony's ally Escobar 19 years ago as a Staff officer. He had ended, upon the catastrophic deaths of the co-commanders Admiral Vorrutyer and Crown Prince Serg Vorbarra, as commanded of the armada. His brilliant retreat was still cited as exemplary, in the military annals of Barrayar. The Betans naturally took a different view of the affair. The blue in the title of the docudrama referred to the color of the uniform worn by the Betan Expeditionary Force, of which Captain Cordelia Naismith had been a part.
"It's—ifs ..." Elena turned to Miles. "There isn't any truth in it—is there?"
'"Well," said Miles, equable from years of practice in coming to terms with the Betan version of history, "some. But my mother says they never wore the blue uniforms until the war was practically over. And she swears up and down, privately, that she didn't murder Admiral Vorrutyer, but she won't say who did. Protests too much, I think. All my father will ever say about Vorrutyer is that he was a brilliant defensive strategist. I've never been quite sure what to make of that, since Vorrutyer was in charge of the offense. All my mother says about him is that he was a bit strange, which doesn't sound too bad, until I reflect that she's a Betan. They've never said a word against Prince Serg, and Father was on his staff and knew him, so I guess the Betan version of him is mainly a crock of war propaganda."
"Our greatest hero," cried Elena. "The Emperor's father—how dare they—"
"Well, even on our side, consensus seems to be that we were overreaching ourselves, to try and take Escobar, on top of Komarr and Sergyar."
Elena turned to her father, as the resident expert. "You served with my lord Count at Escobar, sir! Tell her—" a toss of her head indicated Mrs. Naismith, "it isn't so!"
"I don't remember Escobar," replied the Sergeant stonily, in a tone unusually flat and unencouraging even for him. "No point to that—" he jerked one large hand, thumb hooked in his belt, toward the holovid viewer. "It was wrong for you to see that."
The tension in Bothari's shoulders disturbed Miles, and the set look about his eyes. Anger? Over an ephemeral holovid which he had seen before, and ignored as readily as Miles had?
Elena paused, diverted and confused. "Don't remember? But ..."
Something clicked in Miles's memory—the medical discharge, at last accounted for? "I didn't realize—were you wounded at Escobar, Sergeant?" No wonder he's twitchy about it, then.
Bothari's lips moved about the beginning of the word, wounded. "Yes," he muttered. His eyes shifted away from Miles and Elena.
Miles gnawed his lip. "Head wound?" he inquired in a burst of surmise.
Bothari's gaze shifted back to Miles, quellingly. "Mm."
Miles permitted himself to be quelled, hugging this new prize of information to himself. A head wound would account for much, that had long bemused him in his liegeman.
Taking the hint. Miles changed the subject firmly. "Be that as it may," he swept Elena a courtly bow—whatever happened to plumed hats, for men?—"I got my cargo."
Elena's irritation vanished instantly in pleased interest. "Oh, grand! And have you figured out how to get it past the blockade yet?"
'"Working on it. Would you care to do some shopping for me? Supplies for the trip. Put the orders in to the ship chandlers—you can do it from here on the corn-console, Grandmother'11 show you how. Arde has a standard list. We need everything—food, fuel cells, emergency oxygen, first-aid supplies—and at the best price you can get. This thing is going to wipe out my travel allowance, so anything you can save—eh?" He gave his draftee his most encouraging smile, as if the offer of two full days locked in struggle with the electronic labyrinth of Betan business practices was a high treat.
Elena looked doubtful. "I've never outfitted a ship before."
"It'll be easy," he assured her airily. "Just bang into it—you'll have it figured out in no time. If I can do it, you can do it." He zipped lightly over this argument, giving her no time to reflect on the fact that he had never outfitted a ship either. "Figure for Pilot Officer, Engineer, the Sergeant, me, and Major Daum, for eight weeks, and maybe a little margin, but not too much— remembering the budget. We boost the day after tomorrow."
"All right—when ... ?" she snapped to full alertness, thunder in the crimp of her black winging eyebrows. '"What about me? You're not leaving me behind while you—"
Metaphorically, Miles slunk behind Bothari and waved a white flag. "That's up to your father. And Grandmother, of course."
"She's welcome to stay with me," said Mrs. Naismith faintly. "But Miles—you just got here ..."
"Oh, I still mean to make my visit, ma'am," Miles reassured her. "We'll just reschedule our return to Barrayar. It's not like I had to—to get back in time for school or anything."
Elena stared at her father, tight-lipped with silent pleading. Bothari blew out his breath, his gaze turning calculatingly from his daughter to Mrs. Naismith to the holovid viewer, then inward to what thoughts or memories Miles could not guess. Elena barely restrained herself from hopping up and down in agitation. "Miles—my lord—you can order him to—"
Miles flicked a hand palm-out, and gave a tiny shake of his head, signalling, wait.
Mrs. Naismith glanced at Elena's anxiety, and smiled thoughtfully behind her hand. "Actually, dear, it would be lovely having you all to myself for a time. Like having a daughter again. You could meet young people—go to parties—I have some friends over in Quartz who could take you desert-trekking. I'm too old for the sport myself, now, but I'm sure you'd enjoy it ..."
Bothari flinched. Quartz, for example, was Beta Colony's principle hermaphrodite community, and although Mrs. Naismith herself typified hermaphrodites as "people who are pathologically incapable of making up their minds," she bristled in patriotic Betan defense of them at Bothari's open Barrayaran revulsion to the sex. And Bothari had personally carried Miles home unconscious from more than one Betan party. As for Miles's nearly-disastrous desert-trek ... Miles shot his grandmother a look of thanks from crinkling eyes. She acknowledged it with a puckish nod, and smiled blandly at Bothari.
Bothari was unamused. Not ironically unamused, befitting the interplay, as his guerilla warfare with Mrs. Naismith on the subject of Miles's cultural mores usually was; but genuinely enraged. An odd knot formed in Miles's stomach. He came to a species of attention, querying his bodyguard with puzzled eyes.
"She goes with us," Bothari growled. Elena nearly clapped her hands in triumph, although Mrs. Naismith's list of proposed treats had plainly eroded her resolve not to be left sitting in the baggage train when the troops moved out. But Bothari's eyes raked past his daughter unresponsively, lingered for a last frown at the holovid, and met Miles's—beltbuckle.
"Excuse me, my lord. I'll—patrol the hall, until you're ready to leave again." He exited stiffly, great hands, all bone and tendon, vein and corded muscle, held half-curled by his sides.
Yes, go, thought Miles, and see if you can patrol up your self-control out there. Overreacting a tad, aren't you? Admittedly, nobody likes having their tail twisted.
"Whew," said Mayhew, as the door closed. 'What bit him?"
"Oh, dear," said Mrs. Naismith.”I hope I didn't offend him." But she added under her breath, "the hypocritical old stick ..."
"He'll come down," Miles promised. "Just leave him alone for a while. Meantime, there's work to do. You heard the man, Elena. Supplies for a crew of two and a supercargo of four."
The next 48 hours were a blur of motion. To prepare an eight-week run for the old ship within that time limit would have been mind-boggling for an ordinary cargo, but crammed atop that were extras needed for the camouflage scheme. These included a partial cargo of hastily purchased items to provide them with a real manifest in which to embed the false, and supplies needed for rearranging the cargo hold bulkheads, flung aboard to wait the actual work to be done en route. Most vital, and correspondingly expensive, were the extremely advanced Betan mass detector jammers, to be run on the ship's artificial gravity and with which, Miles hoped, they would foil the Oseran Mercenaries' cargo check. It had taken all the simulated political weight Miles could muster on the basis of his tamer's name to convince the Betan company representative that he was a qualified purchaser of the new and still partially classified equipment.
The mass jammers came with an astonishingly lengthy file of instructions. Miles, studying them in bewilderment, began to have qualms over Baz Jesek's qualifications as an engineer. These gave way, as the hours passed, to even more frantic doubts about whether the man was going to show at all. The level of liquid in Mayhew's green bottle, now wholly expropriated by Mites, dropped steadily, and Miles sweated sleeplessly.
The Betan shuttleport authorities, Miles found, were not sympathetic to the suggestion that their stiff usage fees be paid on credit. He was forced to strip himself of his entire travel allowance. It had seemed a wildly generous one, back on Barrayar, but in the suction of these new demands it vanished literally overnight. Growing creative. Miles turned in his first-class return ticket to Barrayar upon one of the better-known commercial spacelines for a third-class one. Then Bothari's. Then Elena's. Then all three were exchanged for tickets on a line Miles had never heard of; then, with a low, guilty mutter of "I'll buy everybody new ones when we get back—or run a cargo to Barrayar on the RG 132/ne cashed them in entirely. At the end of two days he found himself teetering atop a dizzying financial structure compounded of truth, lies, credit, cash purchases, advances on advances, shortcuts, a tiny bit of blackmail, false advertising, and yet another mortgage on some more of his glow-in-the-dark farmland.
Supplies were loaded. Daum's cargo, a fascinating array of odd-shaped anonymous plastic crates, was put aboard. Jesek showed. Systems were checked, and Jesek was instantly put to work jury-rigging vital repairs. Luggage, scarcely opened, was stuffed back together and sent back up. Some good-byes were said; others carefully avoided. Miles had dutifully reported to Bothari that he'd talked to Lieutenant Croye; it wasn't Miles's fault if Bothari neglected to ask what he'd said. At last, they stood in Silica Shuttleport Docking Bay 27, ready to go.
'"Waldo handling fee," stated the Betan shuttleport cargo master. "Three-hundred-ten Betan dollars; foreign currencies not accepted." He smiled pleasantly, like a very courteous shark.
Miles cleared his throat nervously, stomach churning. He mentally reviewed his finances. Daum's resources had been stripped in the last two days; indeed, if something Miles had overheard was correct, the man was planning to leave his hotel bill unpaid. Mayhew had already put everything he had into emergency repairs on the ship. Miles had even floated one loan from his grandmother. Courteously, she'd called it her "investment." Just like the Golden Hind, she'd said. Some land of ass, anyway, Miles had reflected in a moment of quavering doubt. He had accepted, rawly embarrassed, but too harried to forgo the offer.
Miles swallowed—perhaps it was pride going down that made that lump—took Sergeant Bothari aside, and lowered his voice. "Uh, Sergeant—I know my father made you a travel allowance ..."
Bothari's lips twisted thoughtfully, and he gave Miles a penetrating stare. He knows he can kill this scheme right here. Miles realized, and return to his life of boredom—God knows my father'd back him up. He loathed wheedling Bothari, but added, "I could repay you in eight weeks, two for one—for your left pocket? My word on it."
Bothari frowned. "It's not necessary for you to redeem your word to me, my lord. That was pre-paid, long ago." He looked down at his liege lord, hesitated a long moment, sighed, then dolefully emptied his pockets into Miles's hands.
Thanks." Miles smiled awkwardly, turned away, then turned back. "Uh—can we keep this between you and me? I mean, no need to mention it to my father?"
An involuntary smile turned one comer of the Sergeant's mouth. "Not if you pay me back," he murmured blandly.
And so it was done. What a joy. Miles thought, to be a military ship captain—just bill it all to the Emperor. They must feel like a courtesan with a charge card. Not like us poor working girls.
He stood in the Nav and Com room of his own ship and watched Arde Mayhew, far more alert and focused than Miles had ever seen him before, complete the traffic control checklist. In the screen the glimmering ochre crescent of Beta Colony turned beneath them.
"You are cleared to break orbit," came the voice of traffic control. A wave of dizzy excitement swept through Miles. They were really going to bring this off ...
"Uh, just a minute, RG 132," the voice added. "You have a communication."
"Pipe it up," said Mayhew, settling under his headset.
This time a frantic face appeared on the viewscreen. Not one Miles wanted to see. He braced himself, quelling guilt.
Lieutenant Croye spoke urgently, tense. "My lord! Is Sergeant Bothari with you?"
"Not just this second. Why?" The Sergeant was below, with Daum, already beginning to tear out bulkheads.
"Who is with you?"
"Just Pilot Officer Mayhew and myself." Miles found he was holding his breath. So close ...
Croye relaxed just a little. "My lord, you could not have known this, but that engineer you hired is a deserter from Imperial Service. You must shuttle down immediately, and find some pretext for him to accompany you. Make sure the Sergeant is with you—the man must be regarded as dangerous. We'll have a Betan Security patrol waiting at me docking bay. And also," he glanced aside at something, "what me devil did you do to that Tav Calhoun fellow? He's here at the Embassy, howling for the ambassador ..."
Mayhew's eyes widened in alarm.
"Uh ..." said Miles. Tachycardia, that's what it was called. Could 17-year-olds have heart attacks? "Lieutenant Croye, that transmission was extremely garbled. Could you repeat?" He shot Mayhew an imploring glance. Mayhew gestured at a panel. Croye began his message again, starting to look disturbed. Miles opened the panel and stared at a spidery maze of wires. His head seemed to swim dizzily in panic. So close . ..
"You're still garbled, sir," said Miles brightly. "Here, I'll fix it. Oh, damn." He pulled six tiny wires at random. The screen dissolved in sparkling snow. Croye was cut off in mid-sentence.
"Boost, Arde!" cried Miles. Mayhew needed no urging. Beta Colony wheeled away beneath them.
Quite dizzy. And nauseated. Blast it, this wasn't free fall. He sat abruptly on the deck, weak from the near-disaster. No, it was something more. He had a paranoid flash about alien plagues, then realized what was happening to him.
Mayhew stared, looking first alarmed, then sardonically understanding. "It's about time that stuff caught up with you," he remarked, and keyed the intercom. "Sergeant Bothari? Would you report to Nav and Com, please? Your, uh, lord needs you." He smiled acidly at Miles, who was beginning to seriously repent some of the harsh things he'd said to Mayhew three days ago.
The Sergeant and Elena appeared. Elena was saying, "—everything's so dirty. The medical cabinet doors just came off in my hands, and—" Bothari snapped to alertness at Miles's hunched huddle, and quizzed Mayhew with angry eyes.
"His creme de meth just wore off," Mayhew explained. "Drops you in a hurry, doesn't it, kid?"
Miles mumbled, an inarticulate groan. Bothari growled something exasperatedly under his breath about "deserve," picked him up, and slung him unceremoniously over his shoulder.
"Well, at least he'll stop bouncing off the walls, and give us all a break," said Mayhew cheerfully. "I've never seen anybody overrev on that stuff the way he did."
"Oh, was that liquor of yours a stimulant?" asked Elena. "I wondered why he didn't fall asleep."
"Couldn't you tell?" chuckled Mayhew.
Miles twisted his head to take in Elena's upside-down worried face, and smile in weak reassurance. Sparkly black and purple whirlpools clouded his vision.
Mayhew's laughter faded. "My God," he said hollowly, "you mean he's like that all the time?"
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