Lois McMaster Bujold, "The Warrior Apprentice"

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CHAPTER NINE

Elena and Mayhew stood waiting, looking at him expectantly. Miles suddenly realized he had not seen Baz Jesek in the fight—wait, there he was, pinned against the far wall. His dark eyes were like holes in his milky face, his breathing ragged.

"Are you hurt, Baz?" Miles cried in concern. The engineer shook his head, but did not speak. Their eyes met, and Jesek looked away. Miles knew then why he hadn't noticed him.

We're outnumbered two or three to one. Miles thought frantically. I can't spare a trained fighting man to funk—got to do something right now . . . "Elena, Arde," he spoke, "go out in the corridor and close the door until I call you." They obeyed, looking baffled.

Miles walked up to the engineer. How do I do a heart transplant, he wondered, in the dark, by feel, without anesthetics? He moistened his lips and spoke quietly.

'"We've got no choice. We have to capture their ship now. The best shot is to take their shuttle, make them think it's their own people coming back. That can only be done in the next few minutes.

"The only chance of escape for any of us is to take them before they get a squeak out. I'm going to assign the Sergeant and Daum to take their Nav and Corn room, and prevent that. The next most vital section is engineering, with all the overrides."

Jesek turned his face away, like a man in pain or grief. Miles went on relentlessly.

"You're clearly the man for that one. So I'm assigning it to you and—" Miles took a breath, "and Elena."

The engineer turned his face back, if possible more drained than before. "Oh, no ...'

"Mayhew and I will float, stunning anything that moves. Thirty minutes from now it will all be over, one way or another."

Jesek shook his head. "I can't," he whispered.

"Look, you're not the only one who's terrified. I'm scared witless."

Jesek's mouth twisted. "You don't look scared. You didn't even look scared when that mercenary pig decked you. You just looked pissed."

"That's because I've got forward momentum. There's no virtue in it. It's just a balancing act. I don't dare stop."

The engineer shook his head again, helplessly, and spoke through his teeth. "I can't. I've tried."

Miles barely kept his lips from curling back in a snarl of frustration. Wild threats cascaded through his mind— no, that wasn't right. Surely the cure for fear was not more fear.

"I'm drafting you," Miles announced abruptly.

"What?"

"I claim you. I'm—I'm confiscating you. I'm seizing your property—your training, that is—for the war effort. This is totally illegal, but since you're under a death sentence anyway, who cares? Get down on your knees and put your hands between mine."

Jesek's mouth fell open. "You can't—I'm not—nobody but one of the Emperor's designated officers can swear a vassal, and I was already sworn to him when I got my commission—and forsworn when—" he broke off.

"Or a Count or a Count's heir," Miles cut in. "I admit the fact that you're previously sworn to Gregor as an officer puts a wrinkle in it. We'll just have to change the wording around a bit."

"You're not ..." Jesek stared. "What the hell are you, anyway? Who are you?"

"I don't even want to talk about it. But I really am a vassal secundus to Gregor Vorbarra, and I can take you for a liegeman, and I'm going to right now, because I'm in a hell of a hurry, and we can work out the details later."

"You're a lunatic! What the bloody hell do you think this is going to do?"

Distract you, thought Miles—and it's working already. "Maybe, but I'm a Vor lunatic. Down!"

The engineer fell to his knees, staring in disbelief. Miles captured his hands, and began.

"Repeat after me. I, Bazil Jesek, do testify I am, am, am a forsworn military vassal of Gregor Vorbarra, but I take service anyway under—under—" Bothari will be hot as hell if I break security, "under this lunatic in front of me—make that, this Vor lunatic—as an Armsman simple, and will hold him as my liege commander until my death or his releases me."

Jesek, looking hypnotized, repeated the oath verbatim.

Miles began. "I, uh—I better skip that part—I, a vassal secundus to Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, do accept your oath, and pledge you the protection of a liege-commander;

this by my word as—well, by my word. There. You now have the dubious privilege of following my orders to the letter and addressing me as 'my lord,' only you'd better not do it in front of Bothari until I get a chance to break the news to him gently. Oh, and one more thing ..."

The engineer looked the question, bewildered.

"You're home. For what it's worth."

Jesek shook his head dizzily, and staggered to his feet. "Was that real?"

"Well—it's a little irregular. But from what I've read of our history, I can't help feeling it's closer to the original than the official version."

There was a knock on the door. Daum and Bothari had a prisoner, his hands fastened behind him. He was the pilot officer, by the silver circles on his temples and midforehead. Miles supposed that was why Bothari had picked him—he was bound to know all the recognition codes. The defiant set of the mercenary's head gave Miles a queasy premonition of trouble.

"Baz, take Elena and the Major and start hauling these guys to Hold #4, the one with nothing in it. They might wake up and get creative, so weld the door shut on 'em. Then unseal our own weapons cache, get the stunners and plasma arcs, and check out the mercenary shuttle. We'll meet you there in a few minutes."

When Elena dragged out the last unconscious body by the ankles—it was the mercenary captain, and she was noticeably not careful what his head bumped on the way—Miles shut the door and turned to his prisoner, held by Bothari and Mayhew.

'Ton know," he addressed the man apologetically, "I sure would appreciate it if we could skip all the preliminaries and go straight to your codes. It would save a lot of grief."

The mercenary's lips curled at this, sardonic-sour. "Sure it would—for you. No truth drugs, eh? Too bad, Shorty—you're out of luck."

Bothari tensed, eyes strangely alight; Miles restrained him with a small movement of one finger. "Not yet, Sergeant."

Miles sighed. "You're right," he said to the mercenary," we have no drugs. I'm sorry. But we still must have your cooperation."

The mercenary snickered. "Stick it. Shorty."

'"We don't mean to kill your friends," Miles added hopefully, "just stun them."

The man raised his head proudly. "Time's on my side. Whatever you can dish out, I can take. If you kill me, I can't talk."

Miles motioned Bothari aside. 'This is your department, Sergeant," he said in a low voice. "Seems to me he's right. What do you think of trying to board them blind, no codes? Couldn't be any worse than if he gave us a false one. We could skip this—" a nervous wave of his hand indicated the mercenary pilot.

"It would be better with the codes," stated the Sergeant uncompromisingly. "Safer."

“I don't see how we can get them."

"I can get them. You can always break a pilot. If you will give me a free hand, my lord."

The expression on Bothari's face disturbed Miles. The confidence was all right, it was the underlying air of anticipation that put knots in his guts.

'"You must decide now, my lord."

He thought of Elena, Mayhew, Daum and Jesek, who had followed him to this place—who wouldn't be here but for him ... "Go ahead. Sergeant."

"You may wish to wait in the corridor."

Miles shook his head, belly-sick. "No. I ordered it. I'll see it through."

Bothari inclined his head. "As you will. I need the knife." He nodded toward the dagger Miles had retrieved from the unconscious mercenary captain and hung on his belt. Miles, reluctantly, drew it and handed it over. Bothari's face lightened a little at the beauty of the blade, its tensile flexibility and incredible sharpness. "They don't make them like that anymore," he muttered.

What are you planning to do with it. Sergeant? Miles wondered, but. did not quite dare ask. If you tell him to drop his trousers, I'm going to stop this session right now, codes or no codes ... They returned to their prisoner, who was standing easy, still casually defiant.

Miles tried one more time. "Sir, I beg you to cooperate."

The man grinned. "I just don't buy you. Shorty. I'm not afraid of a little pain."

I am afraid, thought Miles. He stepped aside. "He's yours. Sergeant."

"Hold him still," said Bothari. Miles grasped the prisoner's right arm; Mayhew, looking puzzled, held the left.

The mercenary took in Bothari's face, and his grin slipped. One edge of Bothari's mouth turned upward, in a smile Miles had never seen before and immediately hoped he would never see again. The mercenary swallowed.

Bothari placed the tip of the dagger against the side of the silver button on the man's right temple and wriggled it a little, to slip it beneath the edge. The mercenary's eyes shifted right, gone white-rimmed. "You wouldn't dare ..." he whispered. A drop of blood ringed the circle in a quick blink. The mercenary inhaled sharply, and began, '"Wait—"

Bothari twisted the knife sideways, grasped the button between the thumb and fingers of his free hand, and yanked. A ululating scream broke from the mercenary's throat. He lunged convulsively from Miles's and Mayhew's grasp and fell to his knees, mouth open, eyes gone huge in shock.

Bothari dangled the implant before the man's eyes. Hair-fine wires hung like broken spider legs from the silver button body. He twirled it, with a glittering gleam and a spatter of blood, thousands of Betan dollars worth of viral circuitry and microsurgery turned instantly to trash.

Mayhew, watching, went the color of oatmeal at this incredible vandalism. The breath went out of him in a tiny moan. He turned his back and went to lean against the wall in a corner. After a moment, he bent over, stifling vomiting.

I wish he hadn't witnessed that, thought Miles. I wish I'd kept Daum instead. I wish ...

Bothari squatted down to his victim's level, face to face. He raised the knife again, and the mercenary pilot recoiled, to bash into the wall and slide into a sitting position, unable to retreat farther. Bothari placed the dagger's point against the button on the man's forehead.

"Pain is not the point," he whispered hoarsely. He paused, then added even more quietly, "Begin."

The man found his tongue abruptly, pouring out betrayal in his terror. There was, thought Miles, no question of clever subterfuge in the information tripping frantically out of his mouth. Miles overcame his own trembling belly to listen intently, carefully, thoroughly, that nothing be lost or missed or wasted. Unbearable, that this sacrifice should be wasted.

When the man began to repeat himself, Bothari pulled him cringing to his feet and frog marched him to the shuttle hatch corridor. Elena and the others stared uncertainly at the mercenary, a trickle of blood threading down from his gored temple, but asked no questions. At the slightest prodding from Bothari the captured pilot officer, hasty and barely coherent, explained the internal layout of me light cruiser. Bothari pushed him aboard and strapped him in a seat, where he collapsed and burst into shocking sobs. The others looked away from the prisoner uneasily, and chose seats as far from him as possible.

Mayhew sat gingerly before the manual controls of the shuttle, and flexed his fingers.

Miles slid in beside him. "Are you going to be able to fly this thing?"

"Yes, my lord."

Miles took in his shaken profile. "You going to be all right?"

"Yes, my lord." The shuttle's engines whined to life, and they kicked away from the side of the RG 132. "Did you know he was going to do that?" Mayhew demanded suddenly, low-voiced. He glanced back over his shoulder at Bothari and his prisoner.

"Not exactly."

Mayhew's lips tightened. "Crazy bastard."

"Look, Arde, you better keep this straight," murmured Miles. "What Bothari does on my orders is my responsibility, not his."

"The hell you say. I saw the look on his face. He enjoyed that. You didn't."

Miles hesitated, then repeated himself with a different emphasis, hoping to make Mayhew understand. "What Bothari does is my responsibility. I've known it for a long time, so I don't excuse myself."

"He is psychotic, then," hissed Mayhew.

"He keeps himself together. But understand—if you have a problem about him, you see me."

Mayhew swore under his breath. "You're a pair, all right."

Miles studied the mercenary craft in the forward screens as they approached. It was a swift and powerful small warship, well-armed. There was a bravura brilliance to its lines mat suggested Illyrican make; it was named, appropriately, the Ariel. No question that the lumbering RG132 would have had no chance of escaping it. He felt a twinge of envy at its deadly beauty, then realized with a start that if things went as planned, he was about to own it, or at least possess it. But the ambiguity of the methods poisoned his pleasure, leaving only a dry cold nervousness.

They came up without challenge or incident on the Ariel's shuttle hatch, and Miles floated aft to assist Jesek with locking on. Bothari bound his prisoner more securely to his seat, and loomed up beside Miles. Miles decided not to waste time arguing with him about precedence.

"All right," Miles conceded to his wordless demand. "You first. But I'm next."

"My reaction time will be quicker if my attention is not divided, my lord."

Miles snorted exasperation. "Oh, very well. You, then D—no. Then Baz." The engineer's eyes met his. "Then Daum, me, Elena, and Mayhew."

Bothari approved this schedule with a half-nod. The shuttle hatch sighed open, and Bothari slipped through. Jesek took a breath, and followed.

Miles paused only to whisper, "Elena, keep Baz moving forward as fast as you can. Don't let him stop."

From the ship ahead, he heard an exclamation—"Who the hell—!" and the quiet buzz of Bothari's stunner. Then he was through, into the corridor.

"Only one?" he asked Bothari, taking in the crumpled grey-and-white form on the floor.

"So far," replied the Sergeant. "We seem to have retained surprise."

"Good, let's keep it. Split, and move out."

Bothari and Daum melted down the first cross corridor. Jesek and Elena headed in the opposite direction. Elena cast one look backward; Jesek did not. Excellent, Miles thought. He and Mayhew took the third direction, and stopped before the first closed door. Mayhew stepped forward, in a kind of wobbly aggressiveness.

"Me first, my lord," he said.

God, it's contagious, thought Miles. "Go ahead."

Mayhew swallowed, and raised his plasma arc.

"Uh, wait a second, Arde." Miles pressed the palm lock. The door slid open smoothly. He whispered apologetically, "If it's not locked, you risk welding it shut that way .. ."

"Oh," said Mayhew. He gathered himself and burst through the aperture with a kind of war whoop, fanning the room with his stunner, then stopped. It was a storage area, and empty but for a few plastic crates strapped into place. No sign of the enemy.

Miles poked his head in for a glance around, and stepped back thoughtfully. "You know," he said as they started back up the corridor, "it might be better if we don't yell, going in. It's startling. It's bound to be a lot easier to hit people if they're not jumping around and ducking behind things."

"They do it that way on the vids," Mayhew offered.

Miles, who had originally been planning his own first rush very much along the lines just demonstrated, and for much the same reason, cleared his throat. "I guess it just doesn't look very heroic to sneak up behind somebody and shoot them in the back. I can't help thinking it would be more efficient, though."

They went up a lift tube, and came to another door. Miles tried the palm lock, and again the door slid open, revealing a darkened chamber. A dormitory with four bunks, three of them occupied. Miles and Mayhew tiptoed in, and took up can't-miss positions. Miles closed his fist, and they both fired at once. He fired again as the third figure began to lurch up from its bedclothes, reaching for a weapon hung in a holster by its bunk.

"Huh," said Mayhew. "Women! That captain was a pig"

"I don't think they're prisoners," said Miles, switching on the light for a quick confirmation. "Look at the uniforms. They're part of the crew."

They withdrew. Miles very sober. Perhaps Elena had not been in as much danger as the mercenary captain had led them to believe. Too late now ...

A low voice floated around the corner, growling, "Damn it, I warned that dumb son-of-a-bitch—" The speaker followed at a gallop, scowling and budding on a holster belt, and ran headlong into them.

The mercenary officer reacted instantly, turning the accidental collision into a tackle. Mayhew received a kick to the abdomen. Miles was slammed into the wall, and found himself in a clutching, scrambling fight for possession of his own arsenal.

"Stun him, Arde!" he cried, muffled by an elbow to his teeth. Mayhew crawled after the stunner, rolled over, and fired. The mercenary slumped, and the nimbus of the bolt took Miles dizzily to his knees.

"Definitely better to catch them asleep," Miles mumbled. '"Wonder if there's any more like him—her—"

"It," said Mayhew definitely, rolling the hermaphrodite soldier over to reveal the chiseled features of what could have been either a handsome young man or a strong-faced woman. Tangled brown hair framed the face and fell across the forehead. "Betan, by the accent."

"Makes sense," Miles gasped, and struggled back to his feet. 'T think ..." He clutched the wall, head pounding, queer-colored lights scrambling his vision. Being stunned was not as painless as it looked. 'We better keep moving ..." He leaned gratefully on Mayhew's supporting arm.

They checked a dozen more chambers, without flushing further quarry. They came eventually to Nav and Corn, to find two bodies piled by the door and Bothari and Daum in calm possession.

"Engineering reports secure," Bothari said at once upon seeing them. 'They stunned four. That makes seven."

"We got four," said Miles thickly. "Can you get their computers to cough up a roster, and see if that adds up to the total?"

"Already done, my lord," said Bothari, relaxing a little. "They all seem to be accounted for."

"Good." Miles more-or-less fell into a station chair, rubbing his twice-battered mouth.

Bothari's eyes narrowed. "Are you well, my lord?"

"Caught a little stunner flash. I'll be all right" Miles forced himself to focus. What next? "I suppose we'd better get these guys locked up, before they wake up."

Bothari's face became mask-like. "They outnumber us three to one, and are technically trained. Trying to keep them all prisoner is bloody dangerous."

Miles looked up sharply, and held Bothari's eye."I'll figure something out." He bit out each word emphatically.

Mayhew snorted. 'What else can you do? Push 'em out the airlock?" The silence that greeted this joke turned his expression to sick dismay.

Miles shoved to his feet. "As soon as we've got 'em nailed down we'd better start both ships boosting for the rendezvous. The Oserans are bound to start looking for their missing ship pretty soon, even if they didn't get a distress signal out. Maybe Major Daum's people can take these guys off our hands, eh?"

He nodded to Daum, who gave a, "How should I know?" shrug. Miles left on rubbery legs to find Engineering.

The first thing Miles noticed upon entering the engineering section was the empty socket in the wall for the first-aid kit. Fear flashed through him, and he searched the room for Elena. Surely Bothari would have reported casualties—wait, there she was, the bandager, not the bandagee.

Jesek was slumped heavily in a station chair, and Elena was applying something to a bum on his upper arm. The engineer was smiling up at Elena with a quite fatuous, Miles thought, expression of gratitude.

The smile ignited to a grin when he saw Miles. He stood—somewhat to Elena's annoyance, as she was trying to fasten the bandage at the time—and gave Miles a snappy Barrayaran regulation Service salute. "Engineering is secured, my lord," he intoned, and then gulped a giggle. Stifling hysteria. Miles realized. Elena pushed him exasperatedly back into his chair, where another strangled giggle escaped him.

Miles caught Elena's eye. "How did it go, your first combat experience? Ah ..." he nodded toward Jesek's arm.

'We didn't run into anybody on the way down. Lucky, I guess," she explained. '"We caught them by surprise, coming through the door, and stunned two right away. A third one had a plasma arc, and he ducked down behind those conduits over there. Then this woman jumped me—" a wave indicated an unconscious form in grey and white, disposed on the deck, "which probably saved my life, because the one with the plasma arc couldn't fire when we were all tangled up wrestling for my stunner/' She smiled at Jesek with enthusiastic admiration. "Baz charged him, and knocked him out. I got a choke on mine, and then Baz stunned her, and it was all over. That took some nerve, charging a plasma arc with a stunner. The mercenary only got one shot off—that's what happened to Baz's arm. I don't think I would have dared, would you?"

Miles walked around the room during this recitation, mentally reconstructing the action. He stirred the inert body of the former plasma arc wielder with the toe of his boot, and thought of his own tally for the day—one tottering drunk and two sleeping women. Jealousy twinged. He cleared his throat thoughtfully and looked up. "No, I'd probably have taken my own plasma arc and tried to bum through the brackets on that overhead light bar, and drop it on him. Then either nail him after he was smashed or else stun him as he jumped out from under."

"Oh," said Elena.

Jesek's grin faded slightly. “I didn't think of that."

Miles kicked himself, mentally. Ass—what kind of commander tries to score points off a man who needs build up? A damned short-sighted one, obviously. This mess was only beginning. He amended himself immediately. "I might not have either, under fire. It's deceptively easy to second-guess somebody when you're not in the heat yourself. You did extremely well, Mr. Jesek."

Jesek's face sobered. The edge of hysterical glee faded, but left a residue of straightness in his spine. "Thank you, my lord."

Elena went off to examine one of the unconscious mercenaries, and he added to Miles in a low voice, "How did you know? How did you know I could—hell, I didn't even know myself. I thought I could never face fire again/' He stared voraciously at Miles, as though he were some mystic oracle, or talisman.

"I always knew," Miles lied cheerfully. "From the first time I met you. It's in the blood, you know. There's more to being Vor than the right to tack a funny syllable on the front of your name."

"I always thought that was a load of manure," said Jesek frankly. "Now ..." He shook his head in wonderment.

Miles shrugged, concealing secret agreement. '"Well, you carry my shovel now, mat's for damn sure. And speaking of work—we're going to stuff all these guys into their own brig, until we decide, uh, how to dispose of them. Is that wound going to incapacitate you, or can you make this ship go pretty soon?"

Jesek stared around. "They've got some pretty advanced systems ..." he began doubtfully. His eye fell on Miles, standing straight as his limitations would, allow before him, and his voice firmed. "Yes, my lord. I can."

Miles, feeling quite maniacally hypocritical, gave the engineer a firm commander's nod copied from observations of his father at Staff conferences and the dinner table. It seemed to work quite well, for Jesek collected himself and began an orienting survey of the systems around him.

Miles paused on the way out the door to repeat the instructions for confining the prisoners to Elena. She cocked her head at him when he finished.

"And how was your first combat experience?" she inquired, softly truculent.

He grinned involuntarily. "Educational. Very educational. Ah—did you two happen to yell, charging through the door here?"

She blinked. "Sure. Why?"

"Just a theory I'm working on ..." He swept her a bow of good-humored mockery, and exited.

The shuttle hatch corridor was lonely and quiet, but for the soft susurrations of air circulation and other life support systems. Miles ducked through the dim shuttle tube and, free of the artificial gravity field of the larger ship's deck, floated forward. The mercenary pilot officer was still tied where they'd left him, his head and legs lolling in that strange bobbing fashion null-gee gave one. Miles cringed at the thought of having to explain the man's wound.

Miles's calculations about how to keep the man under control on the way to the brig were shattered when he came in view of his face. The mercenary's eyes were rolled back, his jaw slack; his face and forehead were mottled and flushed, and scorchingly hot to Miles's hesitant touch. His hands were waxen and icy, fingernails empurpled, pulse thready and erratic.

Horrified, Miles scrabbled at the knots binding him, then impatiently drew his dagger and cut the cords. Miles patted his face, on the side away from the dried streak of blood, but couldn't rouse him. The mercenary's body stiffened suddenly, and began to jerk and tremble, flailing in free fall. Miles ducked and swore, but his voice squeezed upwards to a squeak, and he clamped his jaw on it. Sickbay, then, get the man to sickbay, find the medtech and try to wake him up, or failing that, get Bothari, most experienced in first aid ...

Miles wrestled the pilot officer through the shuttle's hatch. When he stepped from free fall into gravity he suddenly found out just how much the man weighed. Miles first tried to maneuver under him for a shoulder carry, to the imminent danger of his own bone structure. He staggered a few steps, then tried dragging him by the shoulders. Then the mercenary began to convulse again. Miles gave up and ran for sickbay and an antigrav stretcher, cursing the whole way, tears of frustration and fear in his voice.

It took time to get there, time to find the stretcher. Time to find Bothari on the ship's intercom and order him in a clipped fierce voice to report to sickbay with the medtech. Time to run back through the empty ship with the lift unit to the shuttle hatch corridor.

When Miles got there, the pilot officer had stopped breathing. His face was as waxy as his hands, his lips purple-blue as his nails, and the dried blood looked like a smear of colored chalk, dark and opaque.

Frantic haste made Miles's fingers seem thick and clumsy as he fitted the unit around the mercenary—he refused to think of it as "the mercenary's body"—and floated him off the floor. Bothari arrived at sickbay as Miles was positioning the mercenary over an examining table and releasing the lift unit.

"What's the matter with him. Sergeant?" asked Miles urgently.

Bothari glanced over the still form. "He's dead," he said flatly, and turned away.

"Not yet, damn it!" cried Miles. "We've got to be able to do something to revive him! Stimulants—heart massage—cryo-stasis—did you find the medtech?"

"Yes, but she was too heavily stunned to rouse."

Miles swore again, and began ransacking drawers for recognizable medications and equipment. They were disorganized, the labels on the outside having, apparently, no relation to the contents.

"It won't do any good, my lord," said Bothari, watching him impassively. "You'd need a surgeon. Stroke."

Miles rocked back on his heels, at last understanding what he had just seen. He pictured the implant wires, ripped through the man's brain, sliding against the rubbery covering of a major artery, slicing a fine groove in the heart-stressed tubule. Then the weakness propagated with every pulse until catastrophic failure filled the tissues with the killing hemorrhage.

Did this little sickbay even have a cryogenic chamber? Miles hastened around the room and into the next, searching. The freezing process would have to be started immediately, or brain death would be too far advanced to be reversed—never mind that he had only the vaguest idea of how patients were prepared for freezing, or how to operate the device, or ...

There it was! A portable, a gleaming metal chamber on a float pallet looking faintly like some deep-sea probe. Miles's heart seemed to fill his throat. He approached it. Its power pack was empty, its gas canisters read fully discharged, and its control computer was laid open like some crudely dissected biological specimen. Out of order.

Miles slammed his fists against its metal sides, once: leaned his forehead against its coolness, and swore one last heartfelt sibilant. He then stood silent until his breathing steadied, and returned without haste to the other room.

Bothari stood at rest, awaiting orders. "Do you require anything further, my lord? I would feel easier if I could supervise the weapons search of the prisoners myself."' He gazed on the corpse with indifferent eyes.

“Yes—no .. ." Miles walked around me examining table at a distance. His eye was drawn to the dark clot on the pilot officer's right temple. '"What did you do with his implant nexus?"

Bothari looked mildly surprised, and checked his pockets. "I still have it, my lord"

Miles held out his hand for the crushed silver spider. It weighed no more than the button it resembled, its smooth surface concealing the complexity of the hundreds of kilometers of viral circuitry packed within.

Bothari frowned a little, watching his face. "One casualty is not bad for an operation of this nature, my lord," he offered. "His life saved many, and not just on our side."

"Ah," said Miles, dry and cold. "I'll keep that in mind, when I come to explain to my father how it was we happened to torture a prisoner to death."

Bothari flinched. After a silence, he reiterated his interest in the ongoing weapons search, and Miles released him with a tired nod. "I'll be along shortly."

Miles puttered nervously around sickbay for a few more minutes, avoiding looking at the examining table. At last, moved by an obscure impulse, he fetched a basin, water, and a cloth, and washed the dried blood from the mercenary's face.

So this is the terror, he thought, that motivates those crazy massacres of witnesses one reads about. I understand them now. I liked it better when I didn't.

He drew his dagger and trimmed the trailing wires from the silver button, and pressed it carefully back into place on the pilot officer's temple. After, until Daum came looking for him with some request for orders, he stood and meditated on the still, waxen features of the thing they'd made. But reason seemed to run backwards, conclusions swallowed in premises, and premises in silence, until in the end only silence and the unanswerable object remained.

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