Lois Bujold - "Diplomatic Immunity"

Chapter Seven

From Baen Books

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Miles woke from a sound sleep to tapping on his cabin door.

"M'lord?" came Roic's hushed voice. "Admiral Vorpatril wants to talk with you. He's on the secured comconsole in the wardroom."

Whatever inspiration his backbrain might have floated up to his consciousness in the drowsy interlude between sleep and waking flitted away beyond recall. Miles groaned, and swung out of his bunk. Ekaterin's hand extended from the top bunk, and she peeked over blearily at him; he touched it, and whispered, "Go back to sleep, love." She snuffled agreeably and rolled over. <>Miles ran his hands through his hair, grabbed his gray jacket, shrugged it on over his underwear, and padded out barefoot into the corridor. As the airseal door hissed closed behind him, he checked his chrono. Since Quaddiespace didn't have to deal with inconvenient planetary rotations, they kept a single time zone throughout local space, to which Miles and Ekaterin had supposedly adjusted on the trip in. All right, so it wasn't the middle of the night, it was early morning.

Miles sat at the wardroom table, straightened his jacket and fastened it to the neck, and touched the control on his station chair. Admiral Vorpatril's face and torso appeared over the vid plate. He was awake, dressed, shaved, and had a coffee cup at his right hand, the rat-bastard.

Vorpatril shook his head, lips tight. "How the hell did you know?" he demanded.

Miles squinted. "I beg your pardon?"

"I just got back the report on Solian's blood sample from my chief surgeon. It was manufactured, probably within twenty-four hours of its being spilled on the deck."

"Oh." Hell and damnation. "That's . . . unfortunate."

"But what does it mean? Is the man still alive somewhere? I'd have sworn he wasn't a deserter, but maybe Brun was right."

Like the stopped clock, even idiots could be correct sometimes. "I'll have to think about this. It doesn't actually prove if Solian's alive or dead, either way. It doesn't even, necessarily, prove that he wasn't killed there, just not by getting his throat cut."

Armsman Roic, God bless and keep him forever, set a cup of steaming coffee down by Miles's elbow and withdrew to his station by the door. Miles cleared his mouth, if not his mind, with the first sluicing swallow, and took a second sip to buy a moment to think.

Vorpatril had a head start on both coffee and calculation. "Should we report this to Chief Venn? Or . . . not?"

Miles made a dubious noise in his throat. His one diplomatic edge, the only thing that had given him, so to speak, a leg to stand on here, had been the possibility that Solian had been murdered by an unknown quaddie. This was now rendered even more problematic, it seemed. "The blood had to have been manufactured somewhere. If you have the right equipment, it's easy, and if you don't, it's impossible. Find all such equipment on station—or aboard ships in dock—and the place it was done has to be one of 'em. The place plus the time should lead to the people. Process of elimination. It's the sort of footwork . . ." Miles hesitated, but went on, "that the local police are better equipped to carry out than we are. If they can be trusted."

"Trust the quaddies? Hardly!"

"What motivation do they have to lie or misdirect us?" What, indeed? "I have to work through Greenlaw and Venn. I have no authority on Graf Station in my own right." Well, there was Bel, but he had to use Bel sparingly or risk the herm's cover.

He wanted the truth. Ruefully, he recognized that he also would prefer to have a monopoly on it, at least until he had time to figure out how best to play for Barrayar's interests. Yet if the truth doesn't serve us, what does that say about us, eh? He rubbed his stubbled chin. "It does clearly prove that whatever happened in that freight bay, whether murder or cover-up, was carefully planned, and not spontaneous. I'll undertake to speak with Greenlaw and Venn about it. Talking to the quaddies is my job now, anyway." For my sins, presumably. What god did I piss off this time? "Thank you, Admiral, and thank your fleet surgeon from me for a good job."

Vorpatril gave a grudgingly pleased nod at this acknowledgment, and Miles cut the com.

"Dammit," he muttered querulously, frowning into the blank space. "Why didn't anyone pick up this information on the first pass? It's not my job to be a bloody forensic pathologist."

"I expect," began Armsman Roic, and stopped. "Uh . . . was that a question, m'lord?"

Miles swung around in his station chair. "A rhetorical one, but do you have an answer?"

"Well, m'lord," said Roic diffidently. "It's about the size of things here. Graf Station is a pretty big space habitat, but it's really a kind of a small city, by Barrayaran standards. And all these spacer types tend to be pretty law-abiding, in certain ways. All those safety rules. I don't imagine they get many murders here."

"How many did you used to get in Hassadar?" Graf Station boasted fifty thousand or so residents; the Vorkosigan's District capital's population was approaching half a million, these days.

"Maybe one or two a month, on average. They didn't come in smoothly. Seems there'd be a run of 'em, then a quiet period. More in the summer than the winter, except around Winterfair. Got a lot of multiples then. Most of 'em weren't mysteries, of course. But even in Hassadar there weren't enough really odd ones to keep our forensics folks in practice, y'see. Our medical people were part-timers from the District University, mostly, on call. If we ever got anything really strange, we'd call in one of Lord Vorbohn's homicide investigators from Vorbarr Sultana. They must get a murder every day or so up there—all sorts, lots of experience. I'll bet Chief Venn doesn't even have a forensics department, just some quaddie doctors he taps once in a while. So I wouldn't expect them to be, um, up to ImpSec standards like what you're used to. M'lord."

"That's . . . an interesting point, Armsman. Thank you." Miles took another swallow of his coffee. "Solian . . ." he said thoughtfully. "I don't know enough about Solian yet. Did he have enemies? Damn it, didn't the man have even one friend? Or a lover? If he was killed, was it for personal or for professional reasons? It makes a huge difference."

Miles had glanced through Solian's military record on the inbound leg, and found it unexceptionable. If the man had ever been to Quaddiespace before, it wasn't since he'd joined the Imperial service six years previously. He'd had two prior voyages, with different fleet consortiums and different military escorts; his experiences had apparently included nothing more exciting than handling an occasional inebriated crewman or belligerent passenger.

On average, more than half the military personnel on any tour of nexus escort duty would be new to each other. If Solian had made friends—or enemies—in the weeks since this fleet had departed Komarr, they almost had to have been on the Idris. If his disappearance had been closer to the time of the fleet's arrival in Quaddiespace, Miles would have pegged the professional possibilities to the Idris as well, but the ten days in dock was plenty of time for a nosy security man to find trouble stationside, too.

He drained his cup and punched up Chief Venn's number on the station-chair console. The quaddie security commander had also arrived early to work, apparently. His personal office was evidently on the free fall side of things. He appeared floating sideways to Miles in the vid view, a coffee bulb clutched in his upper right hand. He murmured a polite, "Good morning, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan," but undercut the verbal courtesy by not righting himself with respect to Miles, who had to exert a conscious effort to keep from tilting out of his chair. "What can I do for you?"

"Several things, but first, a question. When was the last murder on Graf Station?"

Venn's brows twitched. "There was one about seven years ago."

"And, ah, before that?"

"Three years before, I believe."

A veritable crime wave. "Did you have charge of those investigations?"

"Well, they were before my time—I became security chief for Graf Station about five years back. But there wasn't that much to investigate. Both suspects were downsider transients—one killed another downsider, the other murdered a quaddie he'd got into some stupid dispute over a payment with. Guilt confirmed by witnesses and fast-penta interrogation. It's almost always downsiders in these affairs, I notice."

"Have you ever investigated a mysterious killing before?"

Venn righted himself, apparently in order to frown more effectively at Miles. "I and my people are fully trained in the appropriate procedures, I assure you."

"I'm afraid I must reserve judgment on that point, Chief Venn. I have some rather curious news. I had the Barrayaran fleet surgeon reexamine Solian's blood sample. It appears that the blood in question was artificially produced, presumably using an initial specimen or template of Solian's real blood or tissue. You may wish to have your forensics people—whoever they are—retest your own archived evidence from the freight bay and confirm this."

Venn's frown deepened. "Then . . . he was a deserter—not murdered after all! No wonder we couldn't find a body!"

"You run—you hurry ahead, I believe. I grant you the scenario has grown extremely murky. My request, then, is that you locate all possible facilities on Graf Station where such a tissue synthesis could be carried out, and see if there is any record of such a batch being run off, and who for. Or if it could have been slipped through off the record, for that matter. I think we can safely assume that whoever had it done, Solian or some unknown, was keenly interested in concealment. The surgeon reports the blood likely was generated not much more than a day before it was spilled, but the inquiry had better be run back to the time the Idris first docked, to be sure."

"I . . . follow your logic, certainly." Venn held his coffee bulb to his mouth and squeezed, then transferred it absently to his lower left hand. "Yes, certainly," he echoed himself more faintly. "I'll see to it myself."

Miles felt satisfied that he'd rocked Venn off-balance to just the right degree to embarrass him into effective action, yet not freeze him into defensiveness. "Thank you."

Venn added, "I believe Sealer Greenlaw wished to speak with you this morning, also, Lord Vorkosigan."

"Very well. You may transfer my call to her, if you please."

Greenlaw was a morning person, it appeared, or else had drunk her coffee earlier. She appeared in the holovid dressed in a different elaborate doublet, stern, and fully awake. Perhaps more by diplomatic habit than any desire to please, she twitched herself around right-side-up to Miles.

"Good morning, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. In response to their petitions, I have arranged you an appointment with the Komarran fleet's stranded passengers at 1000. You may meet with them to answer their questions at the larger of the two hostels where they are presently housed. Portmaster Thorne will meet you at your ship and conduct you there."

Miles's head jerked back at this cavalier arrangement of his time and attention. Not to mention blatant pressure move. On the other hand . . . this delivered him a room full of suspects, just the people he wished to study. He split the difference between irritation and eagerness by remarking blandly, "Nice of you to let me know. Just what is it that you imagine I will be able to tell them?"

"That, I must leave to you. These people came in with you Barrayarans; they are your responsibility."

"Madam, if that were so, they would all be on their way already. There can be no responsibility without power. It is the Union authorities who have placed them under this house arrest, and therefore the Union authorities who must free them."

"When you finish settling the fines, costs, and charges your people have incurred here, we will be only too happy to do so."

Miles smiled thinly, and laced his hands together on the tabletop. He wished the only new card he had to play this morning were less ambiguous. Nevertheless, he repeated to her the news about Solian's manufactured blood sample, well-larded with complaint about quaddie Security not having determined this peculiar fact earlier. She bounced it back instantly, as Venn had, as evidence more supporting of desertion than murder.

"Fine," said Miles. "Then have Union Security produce the man. A foreign downsider wandering about in Quaddiespace can't be that hard for a competent police force to locate. Assuming they're actually trying."

"Quaddiespace," she sniffed back, "is not a totalitarian polity. As your Lieutenant Solian may perhaps have observed. Our guarantees of freedom of movement and personal privacy could well have been what attracted him to separate himself here from his former comrades."

"So why hasn't he asked for asylum like Ensign Corbeau? No. I greatly fear what we have here is not a missing man, but a missing corpse. The dead cannot cry out for justice; it is a duty of the living to do so for them. And that is a responsibility of mine for mine, madam."

They closed the conversation on that note; Miles could only hope he'd made her morning as aggravating as she'd made his. He cut the com and rubbed the back of his neck. "Gah. That ties me down for the rest of the day, I'll bet." He glanced up at Roic, whose guard stance by the door had segued into at ease, his shoulders propped against the wall. "Roic."

Roic quickly drew himself upright. "My lord?"

"Have you ever conducted a criminal investigation?"

"Well . . . I was just a street guard, mostly. But I got to go along and help the senior officers on a few fraud and assault cases. And one kidnapping. We got her back alive. Several missing persons. Oh, and about a dozen murders, though like I said, they weren't hardly mysteries. And the series of arsons that time that—"

"Right." Miles waved a hand to stem this gentle tide of reminiscence. "I want you to do the detail work for me on Solian. First, the timetable. I want you to find out every documented thing the man did. His watch reports, where he was, what he ate, when he slept—and who with, if anyone—minute by minute, or as nearly as you can come to it, from the time of his disappearance right on back as far as you can take it. Especially any movements off the ship, and missing time. And then I want the personal slant—talk to the crew and captain of the Idris, try to find out anything you can about the fellow. I take it I don't need to give you the lecture on the difference between fact, conjecture, and hearsay?"

"No, m'lord. But . . ."

"Vorpatril and Brun will give you full cooperation and access, I promise you. Or if they don't, let me know." Miles smiled a bit grimly.

"It's not that, m'lord. Who'll run your personal security on Graf Station if I'm off poking around Admiral Vorpatril's fleet?"

Miles managed to swallow his airy, I won't need a bodyguard, upon the reflection that by his own pet theory, a desperate murderer might be floating around, possibly literally, on the station. "I'll have Captain Thorne with me."

Roic looked dubious. "I can't approve, m'lord. He's—it's—not even Barrayaran. What do you really know about, um, the portmaster?"

"Lots," Miles assured him. Well, I used to, anyway. He placed his hands on the table and pushed to his feet. "Solian, Roic. Find me Solian. Or his trail of breadcrumbs, or something."

"I'll try, m'lord."

* * *

Back in what he was starting to think of as their cabinet, Miles encountered Ekaterin returning from the shower, dressed again in her red tunic and leggings. They maneuvered for a kiss, and he said, "I've acquired an involuntary appointment. I have to go stationside almost immediately."

"You will remember to put on pants?"

He glanced down at his bare legs. "Planned to, yeah."

Her eyes danced. "You looked abstracted. I thought it would be safer to ask."

He grinned. "I wonder how strangely I could behave before the quaddies would say anything?"

"Judging by some of the stories my Uncle Vorthys tells me of the Imperial Auditors of past generations, a lot stranger than that."

"No, I'm afraid it would only be our loyal Barrayarans who'd have to bite their tongues." He captured her hand, and rubbed it enticingly. "Want to come along with me?"

"Doing what?" she asked, with commendable suspicion.

"Telling the trade fleet's galactic passengers I can't do a damned thing for them, they're stuck till Greenlaw shifts, thank you very much, have a pleasant day."

"That sounds . . . really unrewarding."

"That would be my best guess."

"A Countess is by law and tradition something of an assistant Count. An Auditor's wife, however, is not an assistant Auditor," she said in a firm tone, reminiscent to Miles's ear of her aunt—Professora Vorthys was herself an Auditor's spouse of some experience. "Nicol and Garnet Five made arrangements to take me out this morning and show me quaddie horticulture. If you don't mind, I think I'll stick to my original plan." She softened this sensible refusal with another kiss.

A flash of guilt made him grimace. "Graf Station is not exactly what we had in mind for a honeymoon diversion, I'm afraid."

"Oh, I'm having a good time. You're the one who has to deal with all the difficult people." She made a face, and he was reminded again of her tendency to default to extreme reserve when painfully overwhelmed. He did fancy that it happened less often, these days. Her growing confidence and ease with the role of Lady Vorkosigan had been his secret delight to watch develop, this past year and a half. "Maybe, if you're free by lunch, we can rendezvous and you can vent at me," she added, rather in the tone of one offering a trade of hostages. "But not if I have to remind you to chew and swallow."

"Only the carpet." This won a snicker; a good-bye kiss, as he headed off to the shower, eased his heart in advance. He reflected that while he might feel lucky that she'd agreed to come with him to Quaddiespace, everyone on Graf Station from Vorpatril and Greenlaw on down was much luckier.

* * *

The crews of all four Komarran ships now locked into their docking cradles had been herded into one hostel, and held there under close arrest. The quaddie authorities had feigned not to charge the passengers, an odd lot of galactic businesspeople who, with their goods, had joined the convoy for various segments of its route as the most economical transport going their way. But of course, they could not be left aboard unmanned vessels, and so perforce had been removed to two other, more luxurious, hostels.

In theory, the erstwhile passengers were made free of the station with no more onerous requirement than to sign in and out with a couple of quaddie Security guards—armed with stunners only, Miles noted in passing—watching the hostel doors. It wasn't even that the passengers couldn't legally leave Quaddiespace—except that the cargoes most had been shepherding were still impounded aboard their respective ships. And so they were held on the principle of the monkey with its hand trapped in the jar of nuts, unwilling to let go of what they could not withdraw. The "luxury" of the hostel translated into another quaddie punishment, since the mandatory stay was being charged to the Komarran fleet corporation.

The hostel's lobby was faux-grandiose, to Miles's eye, with a high domed ceiling simulating a morning sky with drifting clouds that probably cycled through sunrise, sunset, and night with the day-cycle. Miles wondered which planet's constellations were displayed, or if they could be varied to flatter the transients du jour. The large open space was circled by a second-story balcony given over to a lounge, restaurant, and bar where patrons could meet, greet, and eat. In the center an array of drum-shaped fluted marble pillars, waist-high, supported a long double-curved sheet of thick glass that in turn held a large and complex live floral display. Where did they grow such flowers on Graf Station? Was Ekaterin viewing the source of them even now?

In addition to the usual lift tubes, a wide curving staircase led from the lobby down to the conference level. Bel guided Miles down it to a more utilitarian meeting room in the level below.

They found the chamber crammed with about eighty irate individuals of what seemed every race, dress, planetary origin, and gender in the Nexus. Galactic traders with a keenly honed sense of the value of their time, and no Barrayaran cultural inhibitions about Imperial Auditors, they unleashed several days of accumulated frustrations upon Miles the moment he stepped to the front and turned to face them. Fourteen languages were handled by nineteen different brands of auto-translators, several of which, Miles decided, must have been purchased at close-out prices from makers going deservedly belly-up. Not that his answers to their barrage of questions were any special tax on the translators—what seemed ninety percent of them came up either, "I don't know yet," or "Ask Sealer Greenlaw." The fourth iteration of this latter litany was finally met with a heartrending wail, in chorus, from the back of the room of, "But Greenlaw said to ask you!", except for the translation device that came up a beat later with, "Lawn rule sea-hunter inquiring altitude unit!"

Miles did get Bel to quietly point out to him the men who had attempted to bribe the portmaster into releasing their wares. Then he asked all passengers from the Idris who had ever met Lieutenant Solian to stay and debrief their experiences to him. This actually seemed to foster some illusion of Authority Doing Something, and the rest shuffled out merely grumbling.

An exception was an individual Miles's eye placed, after an uncertain pause, as a Betan hermaphrodite. Tall for a herm, the age suggested by its silver hair and eyebrows was belied by its firm posture and fluid movements. If a Barrayaran, Miles would have pegged the individual as a healthy and athletic sixty—which probably meant it had achieved its Betan century. A long sarong in a dark, conservative print, a high-necked shirt and long-sleeved jacket against what a Betan would doubtless interpret as the station chill, and fine leather sandals completed an expensive-looking ensemble in the Betan style. The handsome features were aquiline, the eyes dark, liquid, and sharply observant. Such extraordinary elegance seemed something Miles should remember, but he could not bring his dim sense of familiarity into focus. Damn cryo-freeze—he couldn't guess if it was a true memory, smudged as too many had been by the neural traumas of the revival process, or a false one, even more distorted.

"Portmaster Thorne?" said the herm in a soft alto.

"Yes?" Bel too, unsurprisingly, studied a fellow-Betan with special interest. Despite the herm's dignified age, its beauty drew admiration, and Miles was amused to note Bel's glance go to the customary Betan earring hanging in its left lobe. Disappointingly, it was of the style that coded, Romantically attached, not looking.

"I'm afraid I have a special problem with my cargo."

Bel's expression returned to bland, preparing no doubt to hear yet another woeful story, with or without bribes.

"I am a passenger on the Idris. I'm transporting several hundred genetically engineered animal fetuses in uterine replicators, which require periodic servicing. The servicing is due again. I really cannot put it off much longer. If they are not cared for, my creatures may be damaged or even die." One long-fingered hand pulled on the other, nervously. "Worse, they are nearing term. I really didn't expect such a long delay in my travels. If I am held here very much longer, they will have to be decanted or destroyed, and I will lose all the value of my cargo and of my time."

"What kind of animals?" Miles asked curiously.

The tall herm glanced down at him. "Sheep and goats, mostly. Some other specialty items."

"Mm. I suppose you could threaten to turn them loose on the station, and force the quaddies to deal with 'em. Several hundred custom-colored baby lambs running around the loading bays . . ." This earned an extremely dry look from Portmaster Thorne, and Miles continued smoothly, "But I trust it won't come to that."

"I'll submit your petition to Boss Watts," said Bel. "Your name, honorable herm?"

"Ker Dubauer."

Bel bowed slightly. "Wait here. I'll return shortly."

As Bel moved off to make a vid call in private, Dubauer, smiling faintly, murmured, "Thank you so much for assisting me, Lord Vorkosigan."

"No trouble." Brow wrinkling, Miles added, "Have we ever met?"

"No, my lord."

"Hm. Oh, well. When you were aboard the Idris, did you encounter Lieutenant Solian?"

"The poor young male everyone thought had deserted, but now it seems not? I saw him going about his duties. I never spoke with him at any length, to my regret."

Miles considered imparting his news about the synthetic blood, then decided to hold that close for a little while. There might yet prove some better, cleverer thing to do with it than unleash it with the rest of the rumors. Some half dozen other passengers from the Idris had shuffled forward during this conversation, waiting to volunteer their own experiences of the missing lieutenant.

The brief interviews were of dubious value. A bold murderer would surely lie, but a smart one might simply not come forward at all. Three of the passengers were wary and curt, but dutifully precise. The others were eager and full of theories to share, none consonant with the blood on the docking bay deck being a plant. Miles wistfully considered the charms of a wholesale fast-penta interview of every passenger and crew person aboard the Idris. Another task Venn, or Vorpatril, or both together should have done already, dammit. Alas, the quaddies had tedious rules about such invasive methods. These transients on Graf Station were off-limits to the more abrupt Barrayaran interrogation techniques; and the Barrayaran military personnel, with whose minds Miles might make free, were much farther down his current list of suspects. The Komarran civilian crew was a more ambiguous case, Barrayaran subjects now on quaddie—well, not soil—and under quaddie custody.

While this was going forth, Bel returned to Dubauer, waiting quietly by the side of the room with its hands folded, and murmured, "I can personally escort you aboard the Idris to service your cargo as soon as the Lord Auditor is finished here."

Miles cut short the last crime-theory enthusiast and sent him on his way. "I'm done," he announced. He glanced at the chrono in his wrist com. Could he catch up with Ekaterin for lunch? It seemed doubtful, by this hour, but on the other hand, she could spend unimaginable amounts of time looking at vegetation, so maybe there was still a chance.

The three exited the conference chamber together and mounted the broad stairs to the spacious lobby. Neither Miles nor, he supposed, Bel ever entered a room without running a visual sweep of every possible vantage for aim, a legacy of years of unpleasant shared learning experiences. Thus it was that they spotted, simultaneously, the figure on the balcony opposite hoisting a strange oblong box onto the railing. Dubauer followed his glance, eyes widening in astonishment.

Miles had a flashing impression of dark eyes in a milky face beneath a mop of brass-blond curls, staring down intently at him. He and Bel, on either side of Dubauer, reached spontaneously and simultaneously for the startled Betan's arms and flung themselves forward. Bright bursts from the box chattered with a loud, echoing, tapping noise. Blood spattered from Dubauer's cheek as the herm was yanked along; something like a swarm of angry bees seemed to pass directly over Miles's head. Then they were, all three, sliding on their stomachs to cover behind the wide marble drums holding the flowers. The bees seemed to follow them; pellets of safety glass exploded in all directions, and chips of marble fountained in a wide spray. A vast vibrato filled the room, shook the air, the thunderous thrumming noise sliced with screams and cries.

Miles, trying to raise his head for a quick glance, was crushed down again by Bel diving over the intervening Betan and landing on him in a smothering clutch. He could only hear the aftermath: more yells, the sudden cessation of the hammering, a heavy clunk. A woman's voice sobbed and hiccoughed in the startling silence, then was choked down to a spasmodic gulping. His hand jerked at a soft, cool kiss, but it was only a few last shredded leaves and flower petals sifting gently down out of the air to settle all around them.