Lois Bujold - "Diplomatic Immunity"

Chapter Ten

From Baen Books

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Miles made an urgent heads-up call to the Prince Xav; a short delay followed while Bel negotiated clearance for the Kestrel's message drone. Half a dozen armed Union Militia patrol vessels still floated protectively between Graf Station and Vorpatril's fleet lying in frustrated exile several kilometers off. It would not have done for Miles's precious sample to be shot out of space by some quaddie militia guard with a double quota of itchy trigger fingers. Miles didn't relax until the Prince Xav reported the capsule safely retrieved and taken inboard.

He finally settled down at the Kestrel's wardroom table with Bel, Roic, and some military-issue ration trays. He ate mechanically, barely tasting the admittedly not-very-tasty hot food, one eye on the vid display still fast forwarding through the Idris's lock records. Dubauer, it appeared, had never once left the vessel to so much as stroll about the station during the whole of the time the ship had been in dock, until forcibly removed with the other passengers to the stationside hostel by the quaddies.

Lieutenant Solian had left five times, four of them duty excursions for routine cargo checks, the fifth, most interestingly, after his work shift on his last day. The vid showed a good view of the back of his head, departing, and a clear shot of his face, returning about forty minutes later. Despite freezing the image, Miles could not certainly identify any of the spots or shadows on Solian's dark-green Barrayaran military tunic as nose-bloodstains, even in close-up. Solian's expression was set and frowning, as he glanced up straight at the security vid pickup, part of his charge, after all—perhaps automatically checking its function. The young man didn't look relaxed, or happy, or as though he were looking forward to some interesting station leave, although he had been due some. He looked . . . intent on something.

It was the last documented time Solian had been seen alive. No sign of his body had been found when Brun's men had searched the Idris the next day, and they had searched thoroughly, requiring each passenger with cargo, including Dubauer, to unlock their cabins and holds for inspection. Hence Brun's strongly held theory that Solian must have smuggled himself out undetected. "So where did he go out to, during that forty minutes he was off the ship?" Miles asked in aggravation.

"He didn't cross my customs barriers, not unless someone rolled him in a damned carpet and carried him," said Bel positively. "And I don't have a record of anyone lugging in a carpet. We looked. He had pretty free access to the six loading bays in that sector, and any ships then in dock. Which were all your four, at the time."

"Well, Brun swears he doesn't have vids of him boarding any of the other vessels. I suppose I'd better check everyone else who entered or left any of the ships during that period. Solian could have sat down for a quiet, unobserved chat—or more sinister exchange—with someone in any number of nooks in those loading bays. With or without a nosebleed."

"The bays aren't that closely controlled or patrolled," Bel admitted. "We let crew and passengers use the empty ones for exercise spaces or games, sometimes."

"Hm." Someone had certainly used one to play games with that synthesized blood, later.

After their utilitarian dinner, Miles had Bel conduct him back through the customs checkpoints to the hostel where the impounded ships' crews were housed. These digs were notably less luxurious and more crowded than the ones devoted to the paying galactic passengers, and the edgy crews had been stuck in them for days with nothing but the holovid and each other for entertainment. Miles was instantly pounced upon by assorted senior officers, both from the two Toscane Corporation ships and the two independents caught up in this fracas, demanding to know how soon he was going to obtain their release. He cut through the hubbub to request interviews with the medtechs assigned to the four ships, and a quiet room to conduct them in. Some shuffling produced, at length, a back office and a quartet of nervous Komarrans.

Miles addressed the Idris's medtech first. "How hard would it be for an unauthorized person to gain access to your infirmary?"

The man blinked. "Not hard at all, Lord Auditor. I mean, it's not locked. In case of an emergency, people might need to be able to get in right away, without hunting me up. I might even be the emergency." He paused, then added, "A few of my medications and some equipment are kept in code-locked drawers, with tighter inventory controls, of course. But for the rest, there's no need. In dock, who comes on and off the ship is controlled by ship's security, and in space, well, that takes care of itself."

"You haven't had trouble with theft, then? Equipment going for a walk, supplies disappearing?"

"Very little. I mean, the ship is public, but it's not that kind of public. If you see what I mean."

The medtechs from the two independent ships reported similar protocols when in space, but when in dock both were required to keep their little departments secured when they were not themselves on duty there. Miles reminded himself that one of these people might have been bribed to cooperate with whoever had undertaken the blood synthesis. Four suspects, eh. His next inquiry ascertained that all four ship's infirmaries did indeed keep portable synthesizers in inventory as standard equipment.

"If someone snuck in to one of your infirmaries to synthesize some blood, would you be able to tell that your equipment had been used?"

"If they cleaned up after themselves . . . maybe not," said the Idris's tech. "Or—how much blood?"

"Three to four liters."

The man's anxious face cleared. "Oh, yes. That is, if they used my supplies of phyllopacks and fluids, and didn't bring in their own. I'd have noticed if that much were gone."

"How soon would you notice?"

"Next time I looked, I suppose. Or at the monthly inventory, if I didn't have occasion to look before then."

"Have you noticed?"

"No, but—that is, I haven't looked."

Except that a suitably bribed medtech ought to be perfectly capable of fudging the inventory of such bulky and noncontrolled items. Miles decided to turn up the heat. He said blandly, "The reason I ask is that the blood that was found on the loading bay floor that kicked off this unfortunate—and expensive—chain of events, while it was indeed initially DNA typed as Lieutenant Solian's, was found to be synthesized. Quaddie customs claim to have no record of Solian ever crossing into Graf Station, which suggests, although it does not alas prove, that the blood might have been synthesized on the outboard side of the customs barrier too. I think we had better check each of your supply inventories, next."

The medtech from the Idris's Toscane-owned sister ship, the Rudra, frowned suddenly. "There was—" she broke off.

"Yes?" Miles said encouragingly.

"There was that funny passenger, who came in to ask me about my blood synthesizer. I just figured he was one of the nervous sorts of travelers, although when he explained himself, I also thought he probably had good reason to be."

Miles smiled carefully. "Tell me more about your funny passenger."

"He'd just signed on to the Rudra here at Graf Station. He said he was worried, if he had any accidents en route, because he couldn't take standard blood substitutes on account of being so heavily gengineered. Which he was. I mean, I believed him about the blood compatibility problems. That's why we carry the synthesizers, after all. He had the longest fingers—with webs. He told me he was an amphibian, which I didn't quite believe, till he showed me his gill slits. His ribs opened out in the most astonishing fashion. He said he has to keep spraying his gills with moisturizer, when he travels, because the air on ships and stations is too dry for him." She stopped, and swallowed.

Definitely not "Dubauer," then. Hm. Another player? But in the same game, or a different one?

She continued in a scared voice, "I ended up showing him my synthesizer, because he seemed so worried, and kept asking questions about it. I mainly worried about what sorts of tranquilizers were going to be safe to use on him, if he turned out to be one of those people who gets hysterical eight days out."

Leaping about and whooping, Miles told himself firmly, would likely just frighten the young woman more. He did sit up and favor her with a perky smile, which made her shrink back in her chair only slightly. "When was this? What day?"<

"Um . . . two days before the quaddies made us all evacuate the ship and come here."

Three days after Solian's vanishing. Better and better. "What was the passenger's name? Could you identify him again?"

"Oh, sure—I mean, webs, after all. He told me his name was Firka."

As if casually, Miles asked, "Would you be willing to repeat this testimony under fast-penta?"

She made a face. "I suppose so. Do I have to?"

Neither panicked nor too eager; good. "We'll see. Physical inventory next, I think. We'll start with the Rudra's infirmary." And just in case he was being led up the path by his nose, the others to follow.

More delays ensued, while Bel negotiated over the comconsole with Venn and Watts for the temporary release from house arrest of the medtechs as expert witnesses. Once those arrangements had been approved, the visit to the Rudra's infirmary was gratifyingly short, direct, and fruitful.

The medtech's supply of synthetic blood base was down by four liters. A phyllopack, with its hundreds of square meters of primed reaction surface stacked in microscopic layers in a convenient insert, was gone. And the blood synthesizing machine had been improperly cleaned. Miles smiled toothily as he personally scraped a tinge of organic residue from its tubing into a plastic bag for the delectation of the Prince Xav's surgeon.

It all rang sufficiently true that he set Roic to collecting copies of the Rudra's security records, with particular reference to Passenger Firka, and sent Bel off with the techs to cross-check the other three infirmaries without him. Miles returned to the Kestrel and handed off his new sample to Lieutenant Smolyani to convey promptly to the Prince Xav, then settled down to run a search for Firka's present location. He tracked him to the second of the two hostels taken up with the impounded ships' passengers, but the quaddie on security duty there reported that the man had signed out for the evening before dinner and had not yet returned. Firka's prior venture out that day had been around the time of the passengers' meeting; perhaps he'd been one of the men in the back of the room, although Miles certainly hadn't noticed a webbed hand raised for questions. Miles left orders with quaddie hostel security to call him or Armsman Roic when the passenger returned, regardless of the time.

Frowning, he called the first hostel to check on Dubauer. The Betan/Cetagandan herm/ba/whatever had indeed returned safely from the Idris, but had left again after dinner. Not in itself unusual: few of the trapped passengers stayed in their hostel when they could vary their evening boredom by seeking entertainment elsewhere on the station. But hadn't Dubauer just been the person who'd been too frightened to traverse Graf Station alone without an armed escort? Miles's frown deepened, and he left orders to this quaddie duty guard to notify him when Dubauer, too, came back.

He rescanned the Idris's security vids on fast forward while waiting Roic's return. Paused close-up views of the hands of a number of otherwise unexceptionable visitors to the ship revealed no webs. It was nearing station midnight when Roic and Bel checked in.

Bel was yawning. "Nothing exciting," the herm reported. "I think we got it in one. I sent the medtechs back to the hostel with a security escort to tuck 'em into bed. What's next?"

Miles chewed gently on the side of his finger. "Wait for the surgeon to report identifications on the two samples I sent over to the Prince Xav. Wait for Firka and Dubauer to return to their hostels, or else go running all over the station looking for them. Or better yet, make Venn's patrollers do it, except that I don't really want to divert them from hunting for my assassin till they nail the fellow."

Roic, who had begun to look alarmed, relaxed again. "Good thinking, m'lord," he murmured gratefully.

"Sounds like a golden opportunity to sleep, to me," opined Bel.

Miles, to his irritation, was finding Bel's yawns contagious. Miles had never quite mastered their old mercenary colleague Commodore Tung's formidable ability to sleep anywhere, any time a break in the action permitted. He was sure he was still too keyed up to doze. "A nap, maybe," he granted grudgingly.

Bel, intelligently, at once seized the chance to go home to Nicol for a time. Overriding the herm's argument that it was a bodyguard, Miles made Bel take a quaddie patroller along. Regretfully, Miles decided to wait until he had heard back from the surgeon to call and wake up Chief Venn; he could not afford mistakes in quaddie eyes. He cleaned up and lay down himself in his tiny cabin for whatever sleep he could snatch. If he had a choice between a good night's uninterrupted sleep, and early news, he'd prefer news.

Venn would presumably let him know at once if Security effected an arrest of the quaddie with the rivet gun. Some space transfer stations were deliberately designed to be hard to hide in. Unfortunately, Graf wasn't one of them. Its architecture could only be described as an agglomeration. It had to be full of forgotten crannies. Best chance of catching the fellow would be if he attempted to leave; would he be cool enough to go to some den and lie low, instead? Or, having missed his target the first time—whoever his target had been—hot enough to circle back for another pass? Smolyani had disengaged the Kestrel from its lock and taken up position a few meters off the side of the station, just in case, while the Lord Auditor slept.

Replacing the question of who would want to shoot a harmless elderly Betan herm shepherding, well, sheep, with the question of who would want to shoot a Cetagandan ba smuggling a secret human—or superhuman—cargo of inestimable value, at least to the Star Crèche . . . opened up the range of possible complications in an extremely disturbing fashion. Miles had already quietly decided that Passenger Firka was due for an early rendezvous with fast-penta, with quaddie cooperation if Miles could get it, or without. But, upon reflection, it was doubtful that the truth drug would work on a ba. He entertained brief, wistful fantasies of older interrogation methods. Something from the ancestral era of Mad Emperor Yuri, perhaps, or great-great-grandfather Count Pierre "Le Sanguinaire" Vorrutyer.

He rolled over in his narrow bunk, conscious of how lonely the silence of his cabin was without the reassuring rhythmic breath of Ekaterin overhead. He had gradually become used to that nightly presence. This marriage thing was getting to be a habit, one of his better ones. He touched the chrono on his wrist, and sighed. She was probably asleep by now. Too late to call and wake her just to listen to his blither. He counted over the days to Aral Alexander and Helen Natalia's decanting. Their travel margin was narrowing each day he fooled around here. His brain was putting together a twisted jingle to an old nursery tune, something about fast-penta and puppy dog tails early in the morning, when he mercifully drifted off.

* * *


Miles snapped alert at Roic's voice on the cabin intercom. "Yes?"

"The Prince Xav's surgeon is on the secured comconsole. I told him to hold, you'd wish to be wakened."

"Yes." Miles glanced at the glowing numerals of the wall chrono; he'd been asleep about four hours. Plenty enough for now. He reached for his jacket. "On my way."

Roic, again—no, still—in uniform, waited in the increasingly familiar little wardroom.

"I thought I told you to get some sleep," Miles said. "Tomorrow—today, it is now, could be a long one."

"I was checking through the Rudra's security vids, m'lord. Think I might have something."

"All right. Show me them after this, then." He slid into the station chair, powered up the security cone, and activated the com vid image.

The senior fleet surgeon, who by the collar tabs on his green uniform held a captain's rank, looked to be one of the young and fit New Men of Emperor Gregor's progressive reign; by his bright, excited eyes, he wasn't regretting his lost night's sleep much. "My Lord Auditor. Captain Chris Clogston here. I have your blood work."

"Excellent. What have you found?"

The surgeon leaned forward. "The most interesting was the stain on that handkerchief of yours. I'd say it was Cetagandan haut blood, without question, except that the sex chromosomes are decidedly odd, and instead of the extra pair of chromosomes where they usually assemble their genetic modifications, there are two extra pairs."

Miles grinned. Yes! "Quite. An experimental model. Cetagandan haut indeed, but this one is a ba—genderless—and almost certainly from the Star Crèche itself. Freeze a portion of that sample and mark it top secret, and send it along home to ImpSec's biolabs by the first available courier, with my compliments. I'm sure they'll want it on file."

"Yes, my lord."

No wonder Dubauer had tried to retrieve that bloodied handkerchief. Quite aside from blowing its cover, high-level Star Crèche gene work was not the sort of thing the haut ladies cared to have circulating at large, not unless they'd released it themselves, filtered through a few select Cetagandan ghem clans via their haut trophy wives and mothers. Granted, the haut ladies saved their greatest vigilance for the genes they gated in to their well-guarded genome, generations-long work of art that it was. Miles wondered how tidy a profit one might make, offering pirate copies of those cells he'd inadvertently collected. Or maybe not—this ba wasn't, clearly, their latest work. A near-century out of date, in fact.

Their latest work lay in the hold of the Idris. Urk.

"The other sample," Clogston went on, "was Solian II—that is, Lieutenant Solian's synthesized blood. Identical to the earlier specimen—same batch, I'd say."

"Good! Now we're getting somewhere." Where, for God's sake? "Thank you, Captain. This is invaluable. Go get some sleep, you've earned it."

The surgeon, disappointment writ plainly on his face at this dismissal without further explication, signed off.

Miles turned back to Roic in time to catch him stifling a yawn. The armsman looked embarrassed, and sat up straighter.

"So what do we have?" Miles prompted.

Roic cleared his throat. "The passenger Firka actually joined the Rudra after it was first due to leave, during that delay for repairs."

"Huh. Suggests it wasn't part of a long-laid itinerary, then . . . maybe. Go on."

"I've filtered out quite a few records of the fellow passing on and off the ship, before it was impounded and the passengers evicted. Using his cabin as his hostel, it seems, which a lot of folks do to save money. Two of his trips bracket times Lieutenant Solian was away from the Idris—one overlaps his last routine cargo inspection, and t'other exactly brackets that last forty minutes we can't account for."

"Oh, very nice. So what does this self-declared amphibian look like?"

Roic fiddled a moment with the console, and brought up a clear full-length shot from the Rudra's lock vid records.

The man was tall, with pale unhealthy-looking skin and dark hair shaved close to his skull in a patchy, unflattering fuzz, like lichen on a boulder. Big nose, small ears, a lugubrious expression on his rubbery face—he looked strung out, actually, eyes dark and ringed. Long, skinny arms and legs; a loose tunic or poncho concealed the details of his big upper torso. His hands and feet were especially distinctive, and Miles zoomed in for close-ups. One hand was half-concealed in a cloth glove with the fingertips cut out, which hid the webs from a casual glance, but the other was ungloved and half-raised, and the webs showed distinctly, a dark rose color between the over long fingers. The feet were concealed in soft boots or buskins, tied at the ankles, but they too were about double the length of a normal foot, though no wider. Could the fellow spread his webbed toes, when in the water, as he spread his webbed fingers, to make a broad flipper?

He recalled Ekaterin's description of the passenger who had accosted her and Bel on their outing, that first day—he had the longest, narrowest hands and feet. Bel should get a look at this shortly. Miles let the vid run. The fellow had a somewhat shambling gate when he walked, lifting and setting down those almost clownish feet. "Where did he come from?" Miles asked Roic.

"His documentation claims he's an Aslunder." Roic's voice was heavy with disbelief.

Aslund was one of Barrayar's fairly near Nexus neighbors, an impoverished agricultural world in a local space cul-de-sac off the Hegen Hub. "Huh. Almost our neck of the woods."

"I dunno, m'lord. His Graf Station customs records show him disembarking from a ship he'd joined at Tau Ceti, which arrived here on the day before our fleet was originally due to leave. Don't know if he originated there or not."

"I'd bet not." Was there a water-world being settled somewhere on the fringes of the Nexus, whose colonists had chosen to alter their children instead of their environment? Miles hadn't heard of one, but it had to happen sometime. Or was Firka a one-off project, an experiment or prototype of some sort? He'd certainly run into a few of those, before. Neither exactly squared with an origin on Aslund. Though he might have immigrated there . . . Miles made a note to request an ImpSec background search on the fellow in his next report, even though any results were likely to trickle back too late to be of any immediate use. At least, he certainly hoped he'd have this mess wrapped up and shipped out before then.

"He originally tried to get a berth on the Idris, but there wasn't room," Roic added.

"Ah!" Or maybe that ought to be, Huh?

Miles sat back in his station chair, eyes narrowing. Reasoning in advance of his beloved and much-longed-for fast-penta—posit that this peculiar individual had had some personal contact with Solian before the lieutenant went missing. Posit that he had acquired, somehow, a sample of Solian's blood, perhaps in much the same accidental way that Miles had acquired Dubauer's. Why, then, in the name of reason, would he have subsequently gone to the trouble of running up a fake sample of Solian's blood and dribbling it all over a loading bay and out the airlock?

To cover up a murder elsewhere? Solian's disappearance had already been put down to desertion, by his own commanders. No cover needed: if a murder, it was already nearly the perfect crime at that point, with the investigation about to be abandoned.

A frame? Meant to pin Solian's murder on another? Attractive, but in that case, shouldn't some innocent have been tracked and accused by now? Unless Firka was the innocent, it was a frame with no portrait in it, at present.

To cover up a desertion? Might Firka and Solian be collaborating on Solian's defection? Or . . . when might a desertion not be a desertion? When it was an ImpSec covert ops scam, that's when. Except that Solian was Service Security, not ImpSec: a guard, not a spy or trained agent. Still . . . a sufficiently bright, loyal, highly motivated, and ambitious officer, finding himself in some complex imbroglio, might not wait for orders from on high to pursue a fast-moving long shot. As Miles had reason to know.

Of course, taking risky chances like that could get such an officer killed. As Miles also had reason to know.

Regardless of intent, what had the actual effect of the blood bait been? Or what would it have been if Corbeau and Garnet Five's star-crossed romance hadn't run afoul of Barrayaran prejudices and loutishness? The showy scarlet scenario on the loading bay deck would certainly have reaffixed official attention upon Solian's disappearance; it would almost certainly have delayed the fleet's departure, although not as spectacularly as the real events had. Assuming Garnet Five and Corbeau's problems had been accidental. She was an actress of sorts, after all. They had only Corbeau's word about his wrist com.

He said wistfully, "I don't suppose we have a clear shot of this frog-man lugging out half a dozen liter jugs at any point?"

"Afraid not, m'lord. He went back and forth with lots of packages and boxes at various times, though; they could well have been hid inside something."

Gah. The acquisition of facts was supposed to clarify thought. This was just getting murkier and murkier. He asked Roic, "Has quaddie security from either of the hostels called yet? Are Dubauer or Firka back yet?"

"No, m'lord. No calls, that is."

Miles called both to cross-check; neither of his two passengers of interest had yet returned. It was over four hours after midnight, now, 0420 on the twenty-four-hour, Earth-descended clock that Quaddiespace still kept, generations after their ancestors' unmodified ancestors had departed the home world.

After he'd cut the com, Miles asked querulously, "So where the hell have they gone, all night?"

Roic shrugged. "If it was t' obvious thing, I wouldn't look for them to be back till breakfast."

Miles considerately declined to take notice of Roic's distinct blush. "Our frog-man, maybe, but I guarantee the ba didn't go looking for feminine companionship. There's nothing obvious about any of this." Decisively, Miles reached for the call pad again.

Instead of Chief Venn, the image of a quaddie woman in a Security gray uniform appeared against the dizzying radial background of Venn's office. Miles wasn't sure what her rank markings decoded to, but she looked sensible, middle-aged, and harried enough to be fairly senior.

"Good morning," he began politely. "Where's Chief Venn?"

"Sleeping, I hope." The expression on her face suggested she was going to do her loyal best to keep it that way, too.

"At a time like this?"

"The poor man had a double shift and a half yester . . ." She squinted at him, and seemed to come to some recognition. "Oh. Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. I'm Chief Venn's third-shift supervisor, Teris Three. Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Night duty officer, eh? Very good. Yes, please. I wish to arrange for the detainment and interrogation, possibly with fast-penta, of a passenger from the Rudra. His name's Firka."

"Is there some criminal charge you wish to file?"

"Material witness, to start. I have found reason to suspect he may have something to do with the blood on the floor of the docking bay that started this mess. I want very much to find out for sure."

"Sir, we can't just go around arresting and drugging anyone we please, here. We need a formal charge. And if the transient doesn't volunteer to be interrogated, you'll have to get an adjudicator's order for the fast-penta."

That problem, Miles decided, he would bounce to Sealer Greenlaw. It sounded like her department. "All right, I charge him with suspected littering. Incorrect disposal of organics has to be some kind of illegal, here."

Despite herself, the corner of her mouth twitched. "It's a misdemeanor. Yes, that would do," she admitted.

"Any pretext that will fix it for you is all right by me. I want him, and I want him as quickly as you can lay hands on him. Unfortunately, he signed out of his hostel at about 1700 yesterday, and hasn't been seen since."

"Our security work gang is seriously overstretched, here, on account of yesterday's . . . unfortunate incident. Can this wait till morning, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan?"


For a moment, he thought she was going to go all bureaucratic on him, but after screwing up her lips in a thoughtfully aggravated way for a moment, she relented. "Very well. I'll put out a detention order on him, pending Chief Venn's review. But you'll have to see to the adjudicator as soon as we pick him up."

"Thank you. I promise you won't have any trouble recognizing him. I can download IDs and some vid shots to you from here, if you wish."

She allowed as how that would be useful, and the task was done.

Miles hesitated, mulling over the even more disturbing dilemma of Dubauer. There was not, to be sure, any obvious connection between the two problems. Yet. Perhaps the interrogation of Firka would reveal one?

Leaving Venn's myrmidon to get on with it, Miles cut the com. He leaned back in his station chair for a moment, then brought up the vids of Firka and reran them a couple of times.

"So," he said after a time. "How the devil did he keep those long, floppy feet out of the blood puddles?"

Roic stared over his shoulder. "Floater?" he finally said. "He'd have to be damned near double-jointed to fold those legs up in one, though."

"He looks damned near double-jointed." But if Firka's toes were as long and prehensile as his fingers suggested, might he have been able to manipulate the joystick controls, designed for quaddie lower hands, with his feet? In this new scenario, Miles needn't picture the person in the floater horsing a heavy body around, merely emptying his gurgling liter jugs overboard and supplying some artistic smears with a suitable rag.

After a few cross-eyed moments trying to imagine this, Miles dumped Firka's vid shots into an image manipulator and installed the fellow in a floater. The supposed amphibian didn't quite have to be double-jointed or break his legs to fit in. Assuming his lower body was rather more flexible than Miles's or Roic's, it folded pretty neatly. It looked a bit painful, but possible.

Miles stared harder at the image above the vid plate.

The first question one addressed in describing a person on Graf Station wasn't "man or woman"? It was "quaddie or downsider"? The very first cut, by which one discarded half or more of the possibilities from further consideration.

He pictured a blond quaddie in a dark jacket, speeding up a corridor in a floater. He pictured that quaddie's belated pursuers, whizzing past a shaven-headed downsider in light garb, walking the other way. That was all it would take, in a sufficiently harried moment. Step out of the floater, turn one's jacket inside out, stuff the wig in a pocket, leave the machine with a couple of others sitting waiting, stroll away ... It would be much harder to work it the other way around, of course, for a quaddie to impersonate a downsider.

He stared at Firka's hollow, dark-ringed eyes. He pulled up a suitable mop of blond ringlets from the imager files, and applied it to Firka's unhandsome head.

A fair approximation of the dark-eyed barrel-chested quaddie with the rivet gun? Glimpsed for a fraction of a second, at fifteen meters range, and truth to tell most of Miles's attention had been on the spark-spitting, chattering, hot-brass-chucking object in his hands . . . had those hands been webbed?

Fortunately, he could draw upon a second opinion. He called up Bel Thorne's home code from the comconsole.

Unsurprisingly, at this ungodly hour, the visual didn't come on when Nicol's sleepy voice answered. "Hello?"

"Nicol? Miles Vorkosigan here. Sorry to drag you out of your sleep sack. I need to talk to your housemate. Boot it out and make it come to the vid. Bel's had more sleep than I have, by now."

The visual came up. Nicol righted herself and drew a fluffy lace garment closer about her with a lower hand: this section of the apartment she shared with Bel was evidently on the free fall side. It was too dim to make out much beyond her floating form. She rubbed her eyes. "What? Isn't Bel with you?"

Miles's stomach went into free fall, for all that the Kestrel's grav was in good working order. "No . . . Bel left over six hours ago."

Her frown sharpened. The sleep drained from her face, to be replaced by alarm. "But Bel didn't come home last night!"