Lois McMaster Bujold, "The Warrior Apprentice"

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CHAPTER EIGHT

Miles extinguished his welding tool, and pushed back his safety goggles. Done. He glanced with pride back up the neat seam that sealed the last false bulkhead into place. If I can't be a soldier, he thought, perhaps I have a future as an engineer's assistant. About time I got some use out of being a shrimp ... He called back over his shoulder, "You can pull me out now."

Hands grasped his booted ankles, and dragged him out of the crawl space. "Try your black box now, Baz," he suggested, sitting up and stretching cramped muscles. Daum watched anxiously over the engineer's shoulder as he began, once again, to dry-run the check procedure. Jesek walked back and forth beside the bulkhead, scanning. At last, finally, for the first time in seven trials, all the lights on his probe remained green.

A smile lit his tired face. "I think we've done it. According to this, there's nothing behind that wall but the next wall."

Miles grinned at Daum. "I gave you my word I'd get it together in time, did I not?"

Daum grinned back, relieved. "You're lucky you don't own a faster ship."

The intercom buzzed in the cargo hold. "Uh, my lord?" came Mayhew's voice. It had an edge that popped Miles instantly to his feet.

"Trouble, Arde?"

"We're coming up on the jump to Tau Verde in about two hours. There's something out here I think you and the Major ought to have a look at/'

"Blockaders? This side of the exit? They'd have no legal authority—"

"No, it's a buoy, of a sort," Mayhew sounded distinctly unhappy. "If you were expecting this, I think you might have told me ..."

"Back in a few minutes, Baz," Miles promised, "and we'll help you rearrange the cargo in here more artistically. Maybe we could pile up a bunch against that first seam I welded."

"It's not that bad," Jesek reassured him. "I've seen professional work with more slop."

In Nav and Com Miles and Daum found Mayhew staring, aggrieved, at a screen readout.

"What is it, Arde?" asked Miles.

"Oseran warning buoy. They have to have it, for the regular merchant shipping lanes. It's supposed to prevent accidents, and misunderstandings, in case anybody doesn't know what's going on on the other side—but this time there's a twist. Listen to this." He flipped on the audio.

"Attention. Attention. To all commercial, military, or diplomatic shipping planning to enter Tau Verde local space, warning. You are entering a restricted military area. All entering traffic, without exception, is subject to search and seizure for contraband. Any non-cooperation will be construed as hostile, and the vessel subjected to confiscation or destruction without further warning. Proceed at your own risk.

"Upon emergence into Tau Verde local space, all vessels will be approached and boarded for inspection. All wormhole jump Pilot Officers will be detained at this time, until their vessel completes its contact with Tau Verde IV and returns to the jump point. Pilot Officers will be permitted to rejoin their vessels upon completion of the outbound inspection ..."

"Hostages, damn it," groaned Daum. "They're taking hostages now."

"And a very clever choice of hostages," added Miles through his teeth. "Especially for a cul-de-sac like Tau Verde, taking your jump pilot traps you like a bug in a bottle. If you're not a good little tourist there, you just might not be allowed to go home. This is new, you say?"

"They weren't doing it five months ago," said Daum. "I haven't had word from home since I got out. But this means the fighting must still be going on at least." He stared intently into the viewscreen, as if he could see through the invisible gateway to his home.

The message went on into technicalities, and ended, "By order of Admiral Yuan Oser, Commanding, Oseran Free Mercenary Fleet, under contract to the legal government of Pelias, Tau Verde IV."

"Legal government!" Daum spat angrily. "Pelians! Damned self-aggrandizing criminals ..."

Miles whistled soundlessly and stared into the wall. If I really were a nervous entrepreneur trying to unload that odd-lot of crap down there, what would I do? he wondered. I wouldn't be happy about dropping my pilot, but—I sure wouldn't be arguing with a disruptor bell-muzzle. Meek. "We are going to be meek," said Miles forcefully.

They hesitated half a day on the near side of the exit, to put the finishing touches on the arrangement of the cargo, and rehearse their roles. Miles took Mayhew aside for a closed debate, witnessed by Bothari alone. He opened bluntly, studying the pilot's unhappy face.

'"Well, Arde, do you want to back out?"

"Can I?" the pilot asked hopefully.

"I'm not going to order you into a hostage situation. If you choose to volunteer, I swear not to abandon you in it. Well, I'm already sworn, as your liege lord, but I don't expect you to know—"

"What happens if I don't volunteer?"

"Once we jump to Tau Verde local space, we'd have no effective way of resisting a demand for your surrender. So I guess we apologize to Daum for wasting his time and money, turn around, and go home." Miles sighed. "If Calhoun was at the Embassy for the reason I think when we left, he's probably started legal proceedings to reposses the ship by now/* He tried to lighten his voice. "I expect we'll end up back where we began the day I met you, only more broke. Maybe I can find some way to make up Daum's losses to him ..." Miles trailed off in penitent thought.

'What if—" began Mayhew. He looked at Miles curiously. '"What if they'd wanted, say. Sergeant Bothari instead of me? What would you have done then?"

"Oh, I'd go in," said Miles automatically, then paused. The air hung empty, waiting for explanation. "That's different. The Sergeant is—is my liege-man."

"And I'm not?" asked Mayhew ironically. 'The State Department will be relieved."

There was a silence. "I'm your liege lord," replied Miles at last, soberly. "What you are is a question only you can answer."

Mayhew stared into his lap, and rubbed his forehead tiredly, one finger unconsciously caressing a silver circle of his implant contact. He looked up at Miles then, an odd hunger in his eyes that reminded Miles for a disquieting instant of the homesick Baz Jesek. "I don't know what I am anymore," said Mayhew finally. "But I'll make the jump for you. And the rest of the horsing around."

A queasy wavering dizziness—a few seconds static in the mind—and the wormhole jump to Tau Verde was done. Miles hovered impatiently in Nav and Com, waiting for Mayhew, whose few seconds had been biochemically stretched to subjective hours, to crawl out from under his headset. He wondered again just what it was pilots experienced threading a jump that their passengers did not. And where did they go, the one ship in ten thousand that jumped and was never seen again? "Take a wormhole jump to hell" was an old curse one almost never heard in a pilot's mouth.

Mayhew swung up his headset, stretched, and let out his breath. His face seemed grey and lined, drained from the concentration of the jump. 'That was a shit-kicker," he muttered, then straightened, grinned, and met Miles's eye. "That'll never be a popular run, let me tell you, kid. Interesting, though."

Miles did not bother to correct the honorific. Letting Mayhew rest, he slid into the comconsole himself and punched up a view of the outside world. '"Well .. ." he muttered after a few moments, "where are they? Don't tell me we got the party ready and the guest of honor's not coming—are we in the right place?" he demanded anxiously of Mayhew.

Mayhew raised his eyebrows. "Kid, at the end of a wormhole jump you're either in the right place or you're a bucket of quarks smeared between Antares and Oz." But he checked anyway. "Seems to be ..."

It was a full four hours before a blockade ship finally approached them. Miles's nerves stretched taut. Its slow approach seemed freighted with deliberate menace, until voice contact was made. The mercenary communication officer's tone of sleepy boredom then put it in its true light; they were sauntering. Desultorily, a boarding shuttle was launched.

Miles hovered in the shuttle hatch corridor, scenarios of possible disasters flashing through his mind. Daum has been betrayed by a quisling. The war is over, and the side we're expecting to pay us has lost. The mercenaries have turned pirate and are going to steal my ship. Some klutz has dropped and broken their mass detector, and so the/re going to physically measure all our interior volumes, and they won't add up ... This last notion, once it occurred to him, seemed so likely that he held his breath until he spotted the mercenary technician in charge of the instrument among the boarders.

There were nine of them, all men, all bigger than Miles, and all lethally armed. Bothari, unarmed and unhappy about it, stood behind Miles and inspected them coldly.

There was something motley about them. The grey-and-white uniforms? They weren't particularly old, but some were in disrepair, others dirty. But were they toe busy to waste time on non-essentials, or merely too lazy to keep up appearances? At least one man seemed out-of-focus, leaning against a wall. Drunk on duty? Recovering from wounds? They bore an odd variety of weapons, stunners, nerve disruptors, plasma arcs, needlers. Miles tried to add them up and evaluate them the way Bothari would. Hard to tell their working condition from the outside.

"All right," a big man shouldered through the bunch. '"Who's in charge of this hulk?"

Miles stepped forward. "I'm Naismith, the owner, sir," he stated, trying to sound very polite. The big man obviously commanded the boarders, and perhaps even the cruiser, judging from his rank insignia.

The mercenary captain's eyes flicked over Miles; a quirk of an eyebrow, a shrug of contemptuous dismissal, clearly categorized Miles as No Threat. That's just what I want. Miles reminded himself firmly. Good.

The mercenary heaved a sigh of ennui. "All right, Shorty, let's get this over with. Is this your whole crew?" He gestured to Mayhew and Daum, flanking Bothari.

Miles lidded his eyes against a flash of anger. "My engineer's at his station, sir," he said, hoping he was achieving the right tone of a timid man anxious to please.

"Search 'em," the big man directed over his shoulder. Bothari stiffened; Miles met his look of annoyance with a quelling shake of his head. Bothari submitted to being pawed over with an obvious ill-grace that was not lost on the mercenary captain. A sour smile slid over the man's face.

The mercenary captain split his crew into three search parties, and gestured Miles and his people ahead of him to Nav and Com. His two soldiers began spot-checking everything that would come apart, even disassembling the padded swivel chairs. Leaving all in disarray, they went on to the cabins, where the search took on the nature of a ransacking. Miles clenched his teeth and smiled meekly as his personal effects were dumped pell-mell on the floor and kicked through.

"These guys have got nothing worth having. Captain Auson," muttered one soldier, sounding savagely disappointed. "Wait, here's something ..."

Miles froze, appalled at his own carelessness. In collecting and concealing their personal weapons, he had overlooked his grandfather's dagger. He had brought it more as a memento than a weapon, and half-forgotten it at the bottom of a suitcase. It was supposed to date back to Count Selig Vorkosigan himself; the old man had cherished it like a saint's relic. Although clearly not a weapon to tip the balance of the war on Tau Verde IV, it had the Vorkosigan arms inlaid in cloisonné, gold, and jewels on the hilt. Miles prayed the pattern would be meaningless to a non-Barrayaran.

The soldier tossed it to his captain, who withdrew it from its lizard-skin sheath. He turned it in the light, bringing out the strange watermark pattern on the gleaming blade—a blade that had been worth ten times the price of the hilt even in the Time of Isolation, and was now considered priceless for its quality and workmanship, among connoisseurs.

Captain Auson was evidently not a connoisseur, for he merely said, "Huh. Pretty," resheathed it—and jammed it in his belt.

"Hey!" Miles checked himself halfway through a boiling surge forward. Meek. Meek. He tamped his outrage into a form fitting his supposed Betan persona. "I'm not insured for this sort of thing!"

The captain snorted. "Tough luck. Shorty." But he mulled on Miles in a moment of curious doubt.

Backpedal, thought Miles. "Don't I at least get a receipt?" he asked plaintively.

Auson snickered. "A receipt! That's a good one." The soldiers grinned nastily.

Miles controlled his ragged breathing with an effort. '"Well..." he choked out, "at least don't let it stand wet. It'll rust if it's not properly dried after each use."

"Cheap pot metal," growled the mercenary captain. He ticked it with a fingernail; it rang like a bell. "Maybe I can get a good stainless blade put on that fancy hilt." Miles went green.

Auson gestured to Bothari. "Open that case there."

Bothari, as usual, glanced at Miles for confirmation.

Auson frowned irritably. "Stop looking at Shorty. You take your orders from me/'

Bothari straightened, and raised an eyebrow. "Sir?" he inquired dulcetly of Miles.

Meek, damn it, Sergeant, Miles thought, and sent the message by a slight compression of his lips. "Obey this man, Mr. Bothari," he replied, a little too sharply.

Bothari smiled slightly. "Yes, sir." Having established the pecking order in a form more to his taste, he at last unlocked me case, with precise, insulting deliberation. Auson swore under his breath.

The mercenary captain herded them to a final rendezvous, in what the Betans called the rec room and the Barrayarans called the wardroom. "Now," he said, 'you will produce all your off-planet currency. Contraband."

"What!" cried Mayhew, outraged. "How can money be contraband?"

"Hush, Arde," hissed Miles. "Just do it." Auson might well be telling the truth. Miles realized. Foreign currency was just what Daum's people needed to buy such things as off-planet weaponry and military advisors. Or it might simply be the hold-up it appeared. No matter—judging from the lack of excitement of all hands, Daum's cargo had escaped them, and that was all that counted. Miles secreted triumph in his heart, and emptied his pockets.

"That's all?" said Auson disbelievingly, as they placed their final offerings in a little pile on the table before him.

"We're a little shor—broke, at the moment," Miles explained, "until we get to Tau Verde and make some sates."

"Shit," muttered Auson. His eyes bored exasperatedly into Miles, who shrugged helplessly and produced his most inane smile.

Three more mercenaries entered, pushing Baz and Elena before them.

"Got the engineer?" said the captain tiredly. “I suppose he's bro—short, too." He glanced up and saw Elena. His look of boredom vanished instantly, and he came smoothly to his feet. "Well, that's better. I was beginning to think they were all freaks and fright masks here. Business before pleasure, though—you carrying any non-Tau Verdan currency, honey?"

Elena glanced uncertainly at Miles. "I have some," she admitted, looking surprised. '"Why?"

"Out with it, then."

"Miles?" she queried.

Miles unclenched his aching jaw. "Give him your money, Elena," he ordered m a low tone.

Auson glowered at Miles. 'You're not my frigging secretary, Shorty. I don't need you to transmit my orders. I don't want to hear any more back-chat from you, hear?"

Miles smiled and nodded meekly, and rubbed one sweating palm against his trouser seam where a holster wasn't.

Elena, bewildered, laid five hundred Betan dollars on the table. Bothari's eyebrows drew down in astonishment.

"Where'd you get all that?" whispered Miles as she stepped back.

"Countess—your mother gave it to me," she whispered back. "She said I should have some spending money of my own on Beta Colony. I didn't want to take so much, but she insisted."

Auson counted it, and brightened. "So, you're the banker, eh, honey? That's a bit more reasonable. I was beginning to think you folks were holding out on me." He cocked his head, looking her over and smiling sardonically. "People who hold out on me always come to regret it." The money vanished, along with a meager haul of other small, valuable items.

He checked their cargo manifest. "This right?" he asked the leader of the party who had come in with Elena and Baz.

"All the cases we busted open checked," replied the soldier.

"They made the most awful mess down there," Elena gritted under her breath to Miles.

"Sh. Never mind."

The mercenary captain sighed, and began sorting through their various identification files. At one point he grinned, and glanced up at Bothari, then Elena. Miles sweated. Auson finished the check, and leaned back casually in his seat before the computer console, regarding Mayhew glumly.

'Ton the pilot officer, eh?" he inquired unenthusiastically.

"Yes, sir," replied Mayhew, well-coached in meekness by Miles.

"Betan?"

"Yes, sir."

"Are you—never mind. You're Betan, that answers the question. More frigging weirds per capita than any other . . ." he trailed off. "You ready to go?"

Mayhew glanced at Miles uncertainly.

"Damn it!" cried Auson. "I asked you, not Shorty! Bad enough that I'll have to look at you over the breakfast table for the next few weeks. He'd give me indigestion. Yeah, smile, you little mutant—" this last to Miles, "I bet you'd like to cut my liver out."

Miles smoothed his face, worried. He had been so sure he'd looked meek. Maybe it was Bothari. "No, sir," he said brightly, blinking for a meek effect.

The mercenary captain glared at him a moment, then muttered, "Aw, the hell with it," and rose.

His eye fell on Elena again, and he smiled thoughtfully. Elena frowned back. Auson looked around.

"Tell you what. Shorty," he said, in a benevolent tone. "You can keep your pilot. I've had about all the Betans I can take, lately."

Mayhew sighed relief under his breath. Miles relaxed, secretly delighted.

The mercenary captain waved at Elena. "I'll take her, instead. Go pack your things, honey."

Frozen silence.

Auson smiled at her, invitingly. "You won't be missing a thing by not seeing Tau Verde, believe me. You be a good girl, you might even get your money back."

Elena turned dilated eyes toward Miles. "My lord . . . ?" she said in a small, uncertain voice. It was not a slip of the tongue; she had a right to call for protection from her liege lord. It grieved him that she had not called "Miles," instead. Bothari's stillness was utter, his face blank and hard.

Miles stepped up to the mercenary captain, his meekness slipping badly. "The agreement was you were to hold our pilot officer," he stated in a flat voice.

Auson grinned wolfishly. "I make my own rules. She goes."

"She doesn't want to. If you don't want the pilot officer, choose another."

"Don't worry about it. Shorty. She'll have a good time. You can even have her back on the way out—if she still wants to go with you."

"I said choose another!"

The mercenary captain chuckled and fumed away. Miles's hand closed around his arm. The other mercenaries, watching the show, didn't even bother to draw weapons. Auson's face lit with happiness, and he swung around. He's been itching for this. Miles realized. Well, so have I....

The contest was brief and unequal. A clutch, a twist, a ringing blow, and Miles was slammed face-down on the deck. The metallic tang of blood filled his mouth. As an afterthought, a deliberately-aimed boot to his belly doubled him over where he lay, and assured that he wouldn't be rebounding to his feet in the immediate future.

Miles curled in agony, cheek pressed to the friction matting. Thank God it wasn't the ribcage, he thought incoherently through a haze of rage, pain, and nausea. He squinted at the boots, spread aggressively beyond his nose. Toes must be steel-lined ...

The mercenary captain wheeled around, hands on hips. '"Well?" he demanded of Miles's crew. Silence and stillness; all looked to Bothari, who might have been stone.

Auson, disappointed, spat disgustedly—either he wasn't aiming at Miles, or he missed—and muttered, "Aw, the hell with it. This tub's not worth confiscating anyway. Lousy fuel efficiency ..." He raised his voice to his crew. "All right, load up, let's go. Come on, honey," he added to Elena, taking her firmly by the upper arm.

The five mercenaries unhinged themselves from their various postures of languid observation, and prepared to follow their captain out the door.

Elena glanced back over her shoulder, to meet Miles's flaming eyes; her lips parted in a little "Ah," of understanding, and she stared at Auson with cold calculation.

"Now, Sergeant!" cried Miles, and launched himself at his chosen mercenary. Still shaken from his encounter with the captain, in an inspiration of rare prudence he picked the one he had seen propping up the wall earlier. The room seemed to explode.

A chair, which no one had seen the Sergeant unfasten from its moorings, flew across the room to smash into the mercenary carrying the nerve disruptor before he even began to draw. Miles, occupied with his own tackle, heard but did not see the Sergeant's second victim go down with a meaty, resonating "Unh!" Daum, too, reacted instantly, disarming his man neatly and tossing the stunner to an astonished Mayhew. Mayhew stared at it a second, woke up and fumbled it right way round, and fired. Unfortunately, it was out of charge.

A needler went off, wildly; its projectile exploded against a far wall. Miles put his elbow with all his strength into his man's stomach, and had his earlier hypothesis confirmed when the man folded, gagging and retching. Unquestionably drunk. Miles dodged emesis, and at last achieved a stranglehold. He put me pressure on full power for the first time in his life. To his surprise, the man jerked but a few times and went still. Is he surrendering? Miles wondered dizzily, and pulled the head back by the hair for a look at the face. The man was unconscious.

A mercenary, bouncing off Bothari, stumbled past Mayhew who at last found a use for the stunner, black-jacking the man to his knees. Mayhew hit him a couple more times, rather experimentally. Bothari, hurtling past, paused to say disgustedly, "Not like that!," grab the stunner, and smash the man flat with one accurately-placed blow.

The Sergeant then proceeded to assist Daum with his second, and it was over, but for some yelling by the door accompanying a muffled cracking noise. The mercenary captain, his nose gouting blood, was down on the floor with Elena atop him.

"That's enough, Elena," said Bothari, placing the bell-muzzle of a captured nerve disruptor against the man's temple.

"No, Sergeant!" Miles cried. The yelling stopped abruptly, and Auson rolled fear-whitened eyes toward the gleaming weapon.

"I want to break his legs, too!" cried Elena angrily. "I want to break every bone in his body! I'll Shorty him! When I'm done he's going to be one meter tall!"

"Later," promised Bothari. Daum found a functioning stunner, and the Sergeant put the mercenary captain temporarily out of his misery, then proceeded systematically around the room to make sure of the rest. '"We still have three more out there, my lord," he reminded Miles.

"Unh," Miles acknowledged, crawling to his feet. And the eleven or so in the other ship, he thought. "Think you and Daum can ambush and stun 'em?"

"Yes, but ..." Bothari hefted the nerve disruptor in his hand. "May I suggest, my lord, that it may be preferable to kill soldiers in battle than prisoners after?"

"It may not come to that. Sergeant," said Miles sharply. The full chaotic implications of the situation were just beginning to dawn on him. "Stun 'em. Then we'll—figure out something else."

"Think quickly, my lord," suggested Bothari, and vanished out the door, moving with uncanny silence. Daum chewed his lip worriedly, and followed.

Miles was already starting to think. "Sergeant!" he called after them softly. "Keep one conscious for me!"

"Very good, my lord."

Miles turned back, slipping a little in a spatter of blood from the mercenary captain's nose, and stared at the sudden slaughterhouse. "God," he muttered. "Now what do I do with 'em?"

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