Lois Bujold - "Diplomatic Immunity"

Chapter Eight

From Baen Books

<< Previous    Next >>

Miles said in a muffled voice, "Bel, will you please get off my head?"

There was a brief pause. Then Bel rolled away and, cautiously, sat up, head hunched into collar. "Sorry," said Bel gruffly. "Thought for a moment there I was about to lose you. Again."

"Don't apologize." Miles, his heart still racing and his mouth very dry, pushed up and sat, his back pressed to a now-shorter marble drum. He spread his fingers to touch the cool synthetic stone of the floor. A little beyond the narrow, irregular arc of space shielded by the table pillars, dozens of deep gouges scored the pavement. Something small and bright and brassy rolled past, and Miles's hand reached for it, then sprang back at its branding heat.

The elderly herm, Dubauer, also sat up, hand going to pat its face where blood trickled. Miles's glance took quick inventory: no other hits, apparently. He shifted and drew his Vorkosigan-monogrammed handkerchief from his trouser pocket, folded it, and silently handed it across to the bleeding Betan. Dubauer swallowed, took it, and mopped at the minor wound. It held the pad out a moment to stare at its own blood as if in surprise, then pressed the cloth back to its hairless cheek.

In a way, Miles thought shakily, it was all rather flattering. At least someone figured he was competent and effective enough to be dangerous. Or maybe I'm onto something. I wonder what the hell it is?

Bel placed its hands upon the shattered drum top, peered cautiously over, then slowly pulled itself to its feet. A downsider in the uniform of the hostel staff scurried, a little bent over, around the ex-centerpiece and asked in a choked voice, "Are you people all right?"

"I think so," said Bel, glancing around. "What was that?"

"It came from the balcony, sir. The, the person up there dropped it over the side and fled. The door guard went after him."

Bel didn't bother to correct the gender of the honorific, a sure sign of distraction. Miles rose too, and nearly passed out. Still hyperventilating, he crunched around their bulwark through the broken glass pellets, marble chips, half-melted brass slugs, and flower salad. Bel followed in his path. On the far side of the lobby, the oblong box lay on its side, notably dented. They both knelt to stare.

"Automated hot riveter," said Bel after a moment. "He must have disconnected . . . quite a few safety devices, to make it do that."

A slight understatement, Miles felt. But it did explain their assailant's uncertain aim. The device had been designed to throw its slugs with vast precision a matter of millimeters, not meters. Still . . . if the would-be assassin had succeeded in framing Miles's head for even a short burst—he glanced again at the shattered marble—no cryo-revival ever invented could have brought him back this time.

Ye gods—what if he hadn't missed? What would Ekaterin have done, this far from home and help, a messily decapitated husband on her hands before her honeymoon trip was even over, with no immediate support but the inexperienced Roic— If they're shooting at me, how much danger is she in?

In belated panic, he slapped his wristcom. "Roic! Roic, answer me!"

It was at least three agonizing seconds before Roic's drawl responded, "My lord?"

"Where are—never mind. Drop whatever you're doing and go at once to Lady Vorkosigan, and stay with her. Get her back aboard—" he clipped off "the Kestrel." Would she be safer there? By now, any number of people knew that was where to look for Vorkosigans. Maybe aboard the Prince Xav, standing off a good safe distance from the station, surrounded by troops—Barrayar's finest, God help us all—"Just stay with her, till I call again."

"My lord, what's happening?"

"Someone just tried to rivet me to the wall. No, don't come here," he overrode Roic's beginning protest. "The fellow ran off, and anyway, quaddie security is beginning to arrive." Two uniformed quaddies in floaters were entering the lobby even as he spoke. At a hostel employee's gesticulations, one rose smoothly up over the balcony; the other approached Miles and his party. "I have to deal with these people now. I'm all right. Don't alarm Ekaterin. Don't let her out of your sight. Out."

He glanced up to see Dubauer unbend from examining a rivet-chewed marble drum, face very strained. The herm, hand still pressed to cheek, was visibly shaken as it walked over to glance at the riveter. Miles rose smoothly to his feet.

"My apologies, honorable herm. I should have warned you never to stand too close to me."

Dubauer stared at Miles. Its lips parted in momentary bewilderment, then made a small circle, Oh. "I believe you two gentlepersons saved my life. I . . . I'm afraid I didn't see anything. Until that thing—what was it?—hit me."

Miles bent and picked up a loose rivet, one of hundreds, now cooled. "One of these. Have you stopped bleeding?"

The herm pulled the pad away from its cheek. "Yes, I think so."

"Here, keep it for a souvenir." He held out the gleaming brass slug. "Trade you for my handkerchief back." Ekaterin had embroidered it by hand, for a present.

"Oh—" Dubauer folded the pad over the bloodstain. "Oh, dear. Is it of value? I'll have it cleaned, and return it to you."

"Not necessary, honorable herm. My batman takes care of such things."

The elderly Betan looked distressed. "Oh, no—"

Miles ended the argument by reaching over and plucking the fine cloth from the clutching fingers, and stuffing it back in his pocket. The herm's hand jerked after it, and fell back. Miles had met diffident people, but never before one who apologized for bleeding. Dubauer, unused to personal violence on low-crime Beta Colony, was on the edge of distraught.

A quaddie security patrolwoman hovered anxiously in her floater. "What the hell happened here?" she demanded, snapping open a recorder.

Miles gestured to Bel, who took over describing the incident into the recorder. Bel was as calm, logical, and detailed as at any Dendarii debriefing, which possibly took the woman more aback than the crowd of witnesses who clustered eagerly around trying to tell the tale in more excited terms. To Miles's intense relief, no one else had been hit except for a few minor clips from ricocheting marble chips. The fellow's aim might have been imperfect, but he apparently hadn't intended a general massacre.

Good for public safety on Graf Station, but not, upon reflection, so good for Miles. . . . His children might have been orphaned, just now, before they'd even had a chance to be born. His will was spot up to date, the size of an academic dissertation complete with bibliography and footnotes. It suddenly seemed entirely inadequate to the task.

"Was the suspect a downsider or a quaddie?" the patrolwoman asked Bel urgently.

Bel shook its head. "I couldn't see the lower half of his body below the balcony rail. I'm not even sure it was male, really."

A downsider transient and the quaddie waitress who'd been serving his drink on the lounge level chimed in with the news that the assailant had been a quaddie, and had fled down an adjoining corridor in his floater. The transient was sure he'd been male, although the waitress, now that the question was raised, grew less certain. Dubauer apologized for not having glimpsed the person at all.

Miles prodded the riveter with his toe, and asked Bel in an under-voice, "How hard would it be to carry something like that through Station Security checkpoints?"

"Easy," said Bel. "No one would even blink."

"Local manufacture?" It looked quite new.

"Yes, that's a Sanctuary Station brand. They make good tools."

"First job for Venn, then. Find out where the thing was sold, and when. And who to."

"Oh, yeah."

Miles was nearly dizzy with a weird combination of delight and dismay. The delight was partly adrenaline high, a familiar and dangerous old addiction, partly the realization that having been potshotted by a quaddie gave him a stick to beat back Greenlaw's relentless attack on his Barrayaran brutality. Quaddies were killers too, hah. They just weren't as good at it. . . . He remembered Solian, and took back that thought. Yeah, and if Greenlaw didn't set me up for this herself. Now there was a nice, paranoid theory. He set it aside to reexamine when his head had cooled. After all, a couple of hundred people, both quaddies and transients—including all of the fleet's galactic passengers—must have known he'd be coming here this morning.

A quaddie medical squad arrived, and on their heels—immediately after them, Chief Venn. The security chief was instantly deluged with excited descriptions of the spectacular attack on the Imperial Auditor. Only the erstwhile victim Miles was calm, standing in wait with a certain grim amusement.

Amusement was an emotion notably lacking in Venn's face. "Were you hit, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan?"

"No." Time to put in a good word—we may need it later. "Thanks to the quick reactions of Portmaster Thorne, here. But for this remarkable herm, you—and the Union of Free Habitats—would have one hell of a mess on your hands just now."

A babble of confirmation solidified this view, with a couple of people breathlessly describing Bel's selfless defense of the visiting dignitary with the shield of its own body. Bel's eye glinted briefly at Miles, though whether with gratitude or its opposite Miles was not just sure. The portmaster's modest protests served only to firmly affix the picture of this heroism in the eyewitnesses' minds, and Miles suppressed a grin.

One of the quaddie security patrollers who had gone in pursuit of the assailant now returned, floating back over the balcony to jerk to a halt before Chief Venn and report breathlessly, "Lost him, sir. We've put all duty personnel on alert, but we don't have much of a physical description."

Three or four people attempted to supplement this lack, in vivid and contradictory terms. Bel, listening, frowned more deeply.

Miles nudged the herm. "Hm?"

Bel shook its head, and murmured back, "Thought for a moment he looked like someone I'd seen recently, but that was a downsider, so—no."

Miles considered his own brief impression. Bright-haired, light-skinned, a trifle bulky, of indeterminate age, probably male—this could cover some several hundred quaddies on Graf Station. Laboring under intense emotion, but by that time, Miles had been too. Seen once, at that distance, under such circumstances, Miles didn't think even he could reliably pick the fellow out of a group of similar physical types. Unfortunately, none of the transients had happened just then to be doing a vid scan of the lobby décor or each other to show the folks back home. The waitress and her patron weren't even quite sure when the fellow had arrived, though they thought he'd been in position for a few minutes, upper hands resting casually upon the balcony railing, as if waiting for some last straggler from the passengers' meeting to mount the stairs. And so he was.

The still-shaken Dubauer fended off the medtechs, insisting it could treat the clotted rivet-graze itself and, reiterating a lack of anything to add to the testimonies, begged to be let go back to its room to lie down.

Bel said to its fellow Betan, "Sorry about all this. I may be tied up for a while. If I can't get away myself, I'll have Boss Watts send another supervisor to escort you aboard the Idris to take care of your critters."

"Thank you, Portmaster. That would be very welcome. You'll call my room, yes? It really is most urgent." Dubauer withdrew hastily.

Miles couldn't blame Dubauer for fleeing, for the quaddie news services were arriving, in the persons of two eager reporters in floaters emblazoned with the logo of their journalistic work gang. An array of little vidcam floaters bobbed after them. The vidcams darted about, collecting scans. Sealer Greenlaw followed hurriedly in their wake, and wove her floater determinedly through the growing mob to Miles's side. She was flanked by two quaddie bodyguards in Union Militia garb, with serious weapons and armor. However useless against assassins, they at least had the salutary effect of making the babbling bystanders back off.

"Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, were you hurt?" she demanded at once.

Miles repeated to her the assurances he'd made to Venn. He kept one eye on the robot vidcams floating up to him and recording his words, and not just to be sure his good side was turned to them. But none appeared to be mini-weapons-platforms in disguise. He made sure to loudly mention Bel's heroics again, which had the useful effect of turning them in pursuit of the Betan portmaster, now on the other side of the lobby being grilled in more detail by Venn's security people.

Greenlaw said stiffly, "Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, may I convey my profound personal apologies for this untoward incident. I assure you, all of the Union's resources will be turned to tracking down what I am certain must be an unbalanced individual and danger to us all."

Danger to us all indeed. "I don't know what's going on, here," said Miles. He let his voice sharpen. "And clearly, neither do you. This is no diplomatic chess game any more. Someone seems to be trying to start a damned war in here. They nearly succeeded."

She took a deep breath. "I am certain the person was acting alone."

Miles frowned thoughtfully. The hotheads are always with us, true. He lowered his voice. "For what? Retaliation? Did any of the quaddies injured by Vorpatril's strike force suddenly die last night?" He'd thought they all were on the recovering list. It was hard to imagine a quaddie relative or lover or friend taking bloody revenge for anything short of a fatality, but ...

"No," said Greenlaw, her voice slowing as she considered this hypothesis. Regretfully, her voice firmed. "No. I would have been told."

So, Greenlaw was wishing for a simple explanation, too. But honest enough not to fool herself, at least.

His wrist com gave its high priority beep; he slapped it. "Yes?"

"My Lord Vorkosigan?" It was Admiral Vorpatril's voice, strained.

Not Ekaterin or Roic after all. Miles's heart climbed back down out of his throat. He tried not to let his voice go irritable. "Yes, Admiral?"

"Oh, thank God. We received a report that you were attacked."

"All over now. They missed. Station Security is here now."

There was a brief pause. Vorpatril's voice returned, fraught with implication: "My Lord Auditor, my fleet is on full alert, ready at your command."

Oh, crap. "Thank you, Admiral, but stand down, please," Miles said hastily. "Really. It's under control. I'll get back to you in a few minutes. Do nothing without my direct, personal orders!"

"Very well, my lord," said Vorpatril stiffly, still in a very suspicious tone. Miles cut the channel.

Greenlaw was staring at him. He explained to her, "I'm Gregor's Voice. To the Barrayarans, it's as if that quaddie had fired on the Emperor, almost. When I said someone had nearly started a war, it wasn't a figure of speech, Sealer Greenlaw. At home, this place would be crawling with ImpSec's best by now."

She cocked her head, her frown sharpening. "And how would an attack on an ordinary Barrayaran subject be treated? More casually, I daresay?"

"Not more casually, but on a lower organizational level. It would be a matter for their Count's District guard."

"So on Barrayar, what kind of justice you receive depends on who you are? Interesting. I do not regret to inform you, Lord Vorkosigan, that on Graf Station you will be treated like any other victim—no better, no worse. Oddly enough, this is no loss for you."

"How salutary for me," said Miles dryly. "And while you're proving how unimpressed you are with my Imperial authority, a dangerous killer remains at large. What will it be to lovely, egalitarian Graf Station if he goes for a less personal method of disposing of me next time, such as a large bomb? Trust me—even on Barrayar, we all die the same. Shall we continue this discussion in private?" The vidcams, evidently finished with Bel, were zooming back toward him.

His head swiveled around at a breathless cry of, "Miles!" Also zooming toward him was Ekaterin, Roic lumbering at her shoulder. Nicol and Garnet Five followed in floaters. Pale of face and wide of eye, Ekaterin strode across the detritus in the lobby, gripped his hands, and, at his crooked smile, hugged him fiercely. Fully conscious of the vidcams avidly circling, he hugged her back, making sure that no journalists alive, no matter how many arms or legs they possessed, could resist putting this one up front and center. A human-interest shot, yeah.

Roic said apologetically, "I tried to stop her, m'lord, but she insisted on coming here."

"It's all right," said Miles in a muffled voice.

Ekaterin murmured unhappily in his ear, "I thought this was a safe place. It felt safe. The quaddies seemed like such peaceful people."

"The majority of them undoubtedly are," Miles said. Reluctantly, he released her, though he still kept a firm grip on one hand. They stood back and regarded each other anxiously.

Across the lobby, Nicol flew to Bel with much the same look on her face as had been on Ekaterin's, and the vidcams flocked after her.

Miles asked Roic quietly, "How far did you get on Solian?"

"Not far, m'lord. I decided to start with the Idris, and got all the access codes from Brun and Molino all right, but the quaddies wouldn't permit me to board her. I was about to call you."

Miles grinned briefly. "Bet I can fix that now, by damn."

Greenlaw returned to invite the Barrayarans to step into the hostel management's meeting room, hastily cleared as a refuge.

Miles tucked Ekaterin's hand into his arm, and they followed; he shook his head regretfully at a reporter who flitted purposefully toward them, and one of Greenlaw's Union Militia guards made a stern warding motion. Thwarted, the quaddie journalist pounced on Garnet Five instead. With a performer's reflex, she welcomed him with a blinding smile.

"Did you have a nice morning?" Miles asked Ekaterin brightly as they picked their way over the mess on the floor.

She eyed him in some bemusement. "Yes, lovely. Quaddie hydroponics are extraordinary." Her voice went dry as she glanced around the battle zone. "And you?"

"Delightful. Well, not if we hadn't ducked. But if I can't figure out how to use this to break our deadlock, I should turn in my Auditor's chain." He stifled a fox's smile, contemplating Greenlaw's back.

"The things one learns on a honeymoon. Now I know how to coax you out of your glum moods. Just hire someone to shoot at you."

"Peps me right up," he agreed. "I figured out years ago that I was addicted to adrenaline. I also figured out that it was going to be toxic, eventually, if I didn't taper off."

"Indeed." She inhaled. The slight trembling, in the hand tucked in the crook of his elbow, was lessening, and its clamp on his biceps was growing less circulation-stopping. Her face was back to being deceptively serene.

Greenlaw led them through the office corridor behind the reception area to a cluttered workroom. Its small central vid table was swept clean of ringed cups, flaccid drink bulbs, and plastic flimsies, now piled haphazardly on a credenza shoved to one wall. Miles saw Ekaterin into a station chair and sat next to her. Greenlaw positioned her floater at chair-height opposite. Roic and one of the quaddie guards jockeyed for position at the door, frowning at each other.

Miles reminded himself to be indignant and not ecstatic. "Well." He let a distinct note of sarcasm creep into his voice. "That was a remarkable addition to my morning's speaking schedule."

Greenlaw began, "Lord Auditor, you have my apologies—"

"Your apologies are all very well, Madam Sealer, but I would happily trade them for your cooperation. Assuming you are not behind this incident," he overrode her indignant splutter, continuing smoothly, "and I don't see why you should be, despite the suggestive circumstances. Random violence does not seem to me to be in the usual quaddie style."

"It certainly is not!"

"Well, if it's not random, then it must be connected. The central mystery of this entire imbroglio remains the neglected disappearance of Lieutenant Solian."

"It was not neglected—"

"I disagree. The answer to it might—should!—have been put together days ago, except that Tab A seems to be on one side of an artificial divide from Slot B. If pursuing my quaddie assailant is the Union's task—" he paused and raised his eyebrows; she nodded grimly "—then pursuing Solian is surely mine. It's the one string I have in hand, and I intend to follow it up. And if the two investigations don't meet in the middle somewhere, I'll eat my Auditor's seal."

She blinked, seeming a little surprised by this turn of discourse. "Possibly . . ."

"Good. Then I want complete and unimpeded access for me, my assistant Armsman Roic, and anyone else I may designate to any and all areas and records pertinent to this search. Starting with the Idris, and starting immediately!"

"We cannot give downsiders license to roam at will over Station secure areas that—"

"Madam Sealer. You are here to promote and protect Union interests, as I am to promote and protect Barrayaran interests. But if there is anything at all about this mess that's good for either Quaddiespace or the Imperium, it's not apparent to me! Is it to you?"

"No, but—"

"Then you agree, the sooner we dig to the center of it, the better."

She tented her upper hands, regarding him through narrowed eyes. Before she could marshal further objections, Bel entered, having apparently escaped Venn and the media at last. Nicol bobbed along beside in her floater.

Greenlaw brightened, and seized on the one auspicious point for the quaddies in the chaos of the morning. "Portmaster Thorne. Welcome. I understand the Union owes you a debt of thanks for your courage and quick thinking."

Bel glanced at Miles—a trifle dryly, Miles thought—and favored her with a self-deprecating half salute. "All in a day's work, ma'am."

At one time, that would have been a statement of plain fact, Miles couldn't help reflecting.

Greenlaw shook her head. "I trust not on Graf Station, Portmaster!"

"Well, I certainly thank Portmaster Thorne!" said Ekaterin warmly.

Nicol's hand crept into Bel's, and she shot a look up from under her dark eyelashes for which a red-blooded soldier of any gender would gladly have traded medals, campaign ribbons, and combat bonuses all three, high command's boring speeches thrown in gratis. Bel began to look slightly more reconciled to being designated Heroic Person of the Hour.

"To be sure," Miles agreed. "To say that I'm pleased with the portmaster's liaison services is a profound understatement. I would take it as a personal favor if the herm might continue in this assignment for the duration of my stay."

Greenlaw caught Bel's eye, then nodded at Miles. "Certainly, Lord Auditor." Relieved, Miles gathered, to have something to hand to him that cost her no new concessions. A small smile moved her lips, a rare event. "Furthermore, I shall grant you and your designated assistants access to Graf Station records and secured areas—under the portmaster's direct supervision."

Miles pretended to consider this compromise, frowning artistically. "This places a substantial demand on Portmaster Thorne's time and attention."

Bel put in demurely, "I'll gladly accept the assignment, Madam Sealer, provided Boss Watts authorizes both all my overtime hours, and another supervisor to take over my routine duties."

"Not a problem, Portmaster. I'll direct Watts to add his increased departmental costs to the Komarran fleet's docking bill." Greenlaw delivered this promise with a glint of grim satisfaction.

Added to Bel's ImpSec stipend, this would put the herm on triple time, Miles estimated. Old Dendarii accounting tricks, hah. Well, Miles would see that the Imperium got its money's worth. "Very well," he conceded, endeavoring to appear stung. "Then I wish to proceed aboard the Idris immediately."

Ekaterin didn't crack a smile, but a faint light of appreciation glimmered in her eye.

And what if she had accepted his invitation to accompany him this morning? And had walked up those stairs next to him—his assailant's erratic aim would not have passed over her head. Picturing the probable results put an unpleasant knot in his stomach, and his lingering adrenaline high tasted suddenly very sour.

"Lady Vorkosigan,"—Miles swallowed—"I am going to arrange for Lady Vorkosigan to stay aboard the Prince Xav until Graf Station Security apprehends the would-be killer and this mystery is resolved." He added in an apologetic murmur aside to her, "Sorry . . ."

She returned him a brief nod of understanding. "It's all right." Not happy, to be sure, but she possessed too much good Vor sense to argue about security issues.

He continued, "I therefore request special clearance for a Barrayaran personnel shuttle to dock and take her out." Or the Kestrel? No, he dared not lose access to his independent transport, bolthole, and secure communications station.

Greenlaw twitched. "Excuse me, Lord Vorkosigan, but that's how the last Barrayaran assault arrived stationside. We do not care to host another such influx." She glanced at Ekaterin, and took a breath. "However, I appreciate your concern. I would be glad to offer one of our pods and pilots to Lady Vorkosigan as a courtesy transport."

Miles replied, "Madam Sealer, an unknown quaddie just tried to kill me. I'll grant I don't really think it was your secret policy, but the key word here is unknown. We don't yet know that it wasn't some quaddie—or group of quaddies—still in a position of trust. There are several experiments I'd be willing to run to find out, but this isn't one of them."

Bel sighed audibly. "If you wish, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, I will undertake to personally pilot Lady Vorkosigan out to your flagship."

But I need you here!

Bel evidently read his look, for the herm added, "Or some pilot of my choosing?"

With an unfeigned reluctance, this time, Miles agreed. The next step was to call Admiral Vorpatril, and inform him of his ship's new guest. Vorpatril, when his face appeared above the vid plate on the conference table, passed no comment at the news other than, "Certainly, my Lord Auditor. The Prince Xav will be honored." But Miles could read in the admiral's shrewd glance his estimation of the increased seriousness of the situation. Miles ascertained that no hysterical preliminary dispatches about the incident had yet been squirted on their several-day trip to HQ; news and reassurances would therefore arrive, thankfully, simultaneously. Aware of their quaddie listeners, Vorpatril made no other remark than a bland request that the Lord Auditor bring him up to date on developments at his earliest convenience—in other words, as soon as he could reach a secured comconsole.

The meeting broke up. More of Greenlaw's Union militia guards had arrived, and they all exited back into the hostel's lobby, well screened, belatedly, by armed outriders. Miles made sure to walk as far from Ekaterin as possible. In the shattered lobby, quaddie forensics techs, under Venn's direction, were taking vid scans and measurements. Miles frowned up at the balcony, considering trajectories; Bel, walking beside him and watching his glance, raised its eyebrows. Miles lowered his voice and said suddenly, "Bel, you don't suppose that loon could have been firing at you, could he?"

"Why me?"

"Well, just so. How many people does a portmaster usually piss off, in the normal course of business?" He glanced around; Nicol was out of earshot, floating beside Ekaterin and engaged in some low-voiced, animated exchange with her. "Or not-business? You haven't been, oh, sleeping with anyone's wife, have you? Or husband," he added conscientiously. "Or daughter, or whatever."

"No," said Bel firmly. "Nor with their household pets, either. What a Barrayaran view of human motivations you do have, Miles."

Miles grinned. "Sorry. What about . . . old business?"

Bel sighed. "I thought I'd outrun or outlived all the old business." The herm eyed Miles sideways. "Almost." And added after a thoughtful moment, "You'd surely be way ahead of me in line for that one, too."

"Possibly." Miles frowned. And then there was Dubauer. That herm was certainly tall enough to be a target. Although how the devil could an elderly Betan dealer in designer animals, who'd spent most of its time on Graf Station locked in a hostel room anyway, have annoyed some quaddie enough to inspire him to try to blow its timid head off? Too damned many possibles, here. It was time to inject some hard data.