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To Pat Wrede for being a
voice in the wilderness
A sea of mist drifted through the cloud forest: soft, grey, luminescent. On the high ridges the fog showed brighter as the morning sun began to warm and lift the moisture, although in the ravine a cool, soundless dimness still counterfeited a pre-dawn twilight.
Commander Cordelia Naismith glanced at her team botanist and adjusted the straps of her biological collecting equipment a bit more comfortably before continuing her breathless climb. She pushed a long tendril of fog-dampened copper hair out of her eyes, clawing it impatiently toward the clasp at the nape of her neck. Their next survey area would definitely be at a lower altitude. The gravity of this planet was slightly lower than their home world of Beta Colony, but it did not quite make up for the physiological strain imposed by the thin mountain air.
Denser vegetation marked the upper boundary of the forest patch. Following the splashy path of the ravine's brook, they bent and scrambled through the living tunnel, then broke into the open air.
A morning breeze was ribboning away the last of the fog on the golden uplands. They stretched endlessly, rise after rise, culminating at last in the great grey shoulders of a central peak crowned by glittering ice. This world's sun shone in the deep turquoise sky giving an overwhelming richness to the golden grasses, tiny flowers, tussocks of a silvery plant like powdered lace dotted everywhere. The two explorers gazed entranced at the mountain above, enveloped by the silence.
The botanist. Ensign Dubauer, grinned over his shoulder at Cordelia and fell to his knees beside one of the silvery tussocks.
She strolled to the nearest rise for a look at the panorama behind them. The patchy forest grew denser down the gentle slopes. Five hundred meters below, banks of clouds stretched like a white sea to the horizon. Far to the west, their mountain's smaller sister just broke through the updraft-curdled tops.
Cordelia was just wishing herself on the plains below, to see the novelty of water falling from the sky, when she was jarred from her reverie. "Now what the devil can Rosemont be burning to make a stink like that?" she murmured.
An oily black column of smoke was rising beyond the next spur of the mountain slope, to be smudged, thinned, and dissipated by the upper breezes. It certainly appeared to be coming from the location of their base camp. She studied it intently. A distant whining, rising to a howl, pierced the silence. Their planetary shuttle burst from behind the ridge and boomed across the sky above them, leaving a sparkling trail of ionized gases.
"What a takeoff!" cried Dubauer, his attention wrenched skyward.
Cordelia keyed her short-range wrist communicator and spoke into it. "Naismith to Base One. Come in, please."
A small, empty hiss was her sole reply. She called again, twice, with the same result. Ensign Dubauer hovered anxiously at her elbow.
"Try yours," she said. But his luck was no better. "Pack up your stuff, we're going back to camp," she ordered. "Double time."
They struggled toward the next ridge at a gasping jog, and plunged back into the forest. The spindly bearded trees at this altitude were often fallen, tangled. They had seemed artistically wild on the way up; on the way down they made a menacing obstacle course. Cordelia's mind ratcheted over a dozen possible disasters, each more bizarre than the last.
So the unknown breeds dragons in map margins, she reflected, and suppressed her panic.
They slid down through the last patch of woods for their first clear view of the large glade selected for their primary base camp. Cordelia gaped, shocked. Reality had surpassed imagination.
Smoke was rising from five slagged and lumpy black mounds, formerly a neat ring of tents. A smouldering scar was burned in the grasses where the shuttle had been : parked, opposite the camp from the ravine. Smashed equipment was scattered everywhere. Their bacteriologically sealed sanitary facilities had been just downslope; yes, she saw, even the privy had been torched.
"My Cod," breathed Ensign Dubauer, and started forward like a sleepwalker. Cordelia collared him.
"Get down and cover me," she ordered, then walked cautiously toward the silent ruins.
The grass all around the camp was trampled and churned.
Her stunned mind struggled to account for the carnage. Previously undetected aborigines? No, nothing short of a plasma arc could have melted the fabric of their tents. The long-looked-for but still undiscovered advanced aliens? Perhaps some unexpected disease outbreak, not forestalled by their monthlong robotic microbiological survey and immunizations-could it have been an attempt at sterilization?
An attack by some other planetary government? Their attackers could scarcely have come through the same wormhole exit they had discovered, still, they had only mapped about ten percent of the volume of space within a light-month of this system.
She was miserably conscious of her mind coming full circle, like one of her team zoologist's captive animals racing frantically in an exercise wheel. She poked grimly, through the rubbish for some clue. She found it in the high grass halfway to the ravine.
The long body in the baggy tan fatigues of the Betan Astronomical Survey was stretched out full length, arms and legs askew, as though hit while running for the shelter of the forest. Her breath drew inward in pain of recognition. She turned him over gently.
It was the conscientious Lieutenant Rosemont. His eyes were glazed and fixed and somehow worried, as though they still held a mirror to his spirit. She closed them for him.
She searched him for the cause of his death. No blood, no bums, no broken bones-her long white fingers probed his scalp. The skin beneath his blond hair was blistered, the telltale signature of a nerve disruptor. That let out aliens. She cradled his head in her lap a moment, stroking his familiar features helplessly, like a blind woman. No time now for mourning.
She returned to the blackened ring on her hands and knees, and began to search through the mess for comm equipment. The attackers had been quite thorough in that department, the twisted lumps of plastic and metal she found testified. Much valuable equipment seemed to be missing altogether.
There was a rustle in the grass. She snapped her stun gun to the aim and froze. The tense face of Ensign Dubauer pushed through the straw-colored vegetation.
"It's me, don't shoot," he called in a strangled tone meant to be a whisper.
"I almost did. Why didn't you stay put?" she hissed back.
"Never mind, help me look for a comm unit that can reach the ship. And stay down, they could come back at any time."
"Who could? Who did this?"
"Multiple choice, take your pick-Nuovo Brasilians, Barrayarans, Cetagandans, could be any of that crowd. Reg Rosemont's dead. Nerve disruptor."
Cordelia crawled over to the mound of the specimen tent and carefully considered its lumps. "Hand me that pole over there," she whispered.
She poked tentatively at the most probable hump. The tents had stopped smoking, but waves of heat still rose from them to beat upon her face like the summer sun of home. The tortured fabric flaked away like charred paper. She hooked the pole over a half-melted cabinet and dragged it into the open. The bottom drawer was unmelted, but badly warped and, as she found when she wrapped her shirttail around her hand and pulled, tightly stuck.
A few minutes more search turned up some dubious substitutes for a hammer and chisel: a flat shard of metal and a heavy lump she recognized sadly as having once been a delicate and very expensive meteorological recorder. With these caveman's tools and some brute force from Dubauer, they wrenched the drawer open with a noise like a pistol shot that made them both jump.
"Jackpot!" said Dubauer.
"Let's take it over by the ravine to try out," said Cordelia. "My skin is crawling. Anybody upslope could see us."
Still crouching, they made quickly for cover, past Rosemont's body. Dubauer stared back at it as they scuttled by, ill at ease, angry. "Whoever did that is damn well going to pay for it."
Cordelia just shook her head.
They knelt down in the bracken-like undergrowth to try the comm link. The machine produced some static and sad whining hoots, went dead, then coughed out the audio half of its signal when tapped and shaken. She found the right frequency and began the blind call.
"Commander Naismith to Survey Ship Rene Magritte. Acknowledge, please."
After an agony of waiting, the faint, static-scrambled reply wavered in. "Lieutenant Stuben here. Are you all right. Captain?"
Cordelia breathed again. "All right for now. What's your status? What happened?"
Dr. Ullery's voice came on, senior officer in the survey party after Rosemont. "A Barrayaran military patrol surrounded the camp, demanding surrender. Said they claimed the place by right of prior discovery. Then some trigger-happy loon on their side fired a plasma arc, and all hell broke loose. Reg drew them off with his stunner, and the rest of us made it to the shuttle. There's a Barrayaran ship of the General class up here we're playing hide-and-seek with, if you know what I mean-"
"Remember, you're broadcasting in the clear," Cordelia reminded her sharply.
Dr. Ullery hesitated, then went on. "Right. They're still demanding surrender. Do you know if they captured Reg?"
"Dubauer's with me. Is everybody else accounted for?"
"All but Reg."
"Reg is dead."
A crackle of static hissed across Stuben's swearing.
"Stu, you're in command," Cordelia cut in on him. "Listen closely. Those twitchy militarists are not, repeat not, to be trusted. On no account surrender the ship. I've seen the secret reports on the General cruisers. You're out-gunned, out-armored, and out-manned, but you've got at least twice the legs. So get out of his range and stay there. Retreat all the way back to Beta Colony if you have to, but take no chances with my people. Got that?"
"We can't leave you. Captain!"
"You can't launch a shuttle for a pickup unless you get the Barrayarans off your neck. And if we are captured, the chances are better for getting us home through political channels than through some harebrained rescue stunt, but only if you make it home to complain, is that absolutely clear? Acknowledge!" she demanded.
"Acknowledged," he replied reluctantly. "But Captain- how long do you really think you can keep away from those crazy bastards? They're bound to get you in the end, with scopes."
"As long as possible. As for you-get going!" She had occasionally imagined her ship functioning without herself; never without Rosemont. Got to keep Stuben from trying to play soldier, she thought. The Barrayarans aren't amateurs. "There are fifty-six lives depending on you up there. You can count. Fifty-six is more than two. Keep it in mind, all right? Naismith out."
"Cordelia . . . Good luck. Stuben out." Cordelia sat back and stared at the little communicator. "Whew. What a peculiar business."
Ensign Dubauer snorted. "That's an understatement." "It's an exact statement. I don't know if you noticed-" A movement in the mottled shade caught her eye. She started to her feet, hand moving toward her stunner. The tall, hatchet-faced Barrayaran soldier in the green and grey splotched camouflage fatigues moved even faster. Dubauer moved faster still, shoving her blindly behind him.
She heard the crackle of a nerve disruptor as she pitched backward into the ravine, stunner and comm link flying from her hands.
Forest, earth, stream, and sky spun wildly around her, her head struck something with a sickening, starry crack, and darkness swallowed her.
The forest mold pressed against Cordelia's cheek. The damp earthy smell tickled her nostrils. She breathed deeper, filling her mouth and lungs, and then the odor of decay wrung her stomach. She turned her face from the muck. Pain exploded through her head in radiating lines.
She groaned inarticulately. Dark sparkling whorls curtained her vision, then cleared. She forced her eyes to focus on the nearest object, about half a meter to the right of her head. Heavy black boots, sunk in the mud and topped by green and grey splotched camouflage trousers, encased legs spread apart in a patient parade rest. She suppressed a weary whimper. Very gently she laid her head back in the black ooze, and rolled cautiously onto her side for a better view of the Barrayaran officer.
Her stunner! She stared into the little rectangle of its business end, held steadily in a broad and heavy hand. Her eyes searched anxiously for his nerve disruptor. The officer's belt hung heavy with equipment, but the disruptor holster on his right hip was empty, as was the plasma arc holster on his left.
He was barely taller than herself, but stocky and powerful. Untidy dark hair touched with grey, cold intent grey eyes-in fact, his whole appearance was untidy by the strict Barrayaran military standards. His fatigues were almost as rumpled and muddy and stained with plant juices as her own, and he had a raw contusion across his right cheekbone. Looks like he's had a rotten day too, she thought muzzily. Then the sparkly black whirlpools expanded and drowned her again.
When her vision cleared again the boots were gone- no. There he was, seated comfortably on a log. She tried to focus on something other than her rebellious belly, but her belly won control in a wrenching rush.
The enemy captain stirred involuntarily as she vomited, but remained sitting. She crawled the few meters to the little stream at the bottom of the ravine, and washed out her mouth and face in its icy water. Feeling relatively better, she sat up and croaked, "Well?"
The officer inclined his head in a shadow of courtesy. "I am Captain Aral Vorkosigan, commanding the Barrayaran Imperial war cruiser General Vorkraft. Identify yourself, please." His voice was baritone, his speech barely accented.
"Commander Cordelia Naismith. Betan Astronomical Survey. We are a scientific party," she emphasized accusingly. "Non-combatants."
"So I noticed," he said dryly. "What happened to your party?"
Cordelias eyes narrowed. "Weren't you there? I was up on the mountain, assisting my team botanist." And more urgently, "Have you seen my botanist-my ensign? He pushed me into the ravine when we were ambushed-"
He glanced up to the rim of the gorge at the point where she had toppled in-how long ago? "Was he a brown-haired boy?"
Her heart sank in sick anticipation. "Yes."
"There's nothing you can do for him now."
"That was murder! All he had was a stunner!" Her eyes burned the Barrayaran. "Why were my people attacked?"
He tapped her stunner thoughtfully in his palm. "Your expedition," he said carefully, "was to be interned, preferably peacefully, for violation of Barrayaran space. There was an altercation. I was hit in the back with a stun beam. When I came to, I found your camp as you did."
"Good." Bitter bile soured her mouth. "I'm glad Reg got one of you, before you murdered him too."
"If you are referring to that misguided but admittedly courageous blond boy in the clearing, he couldn't have hit the side of a house. I don't know why you Betans put on soldiers' uniforms. You're no better trained than children on a picnic. If your ranks denote anything but pay scale, it's not apparent to me."
"He was a geologist, not a hired killer," she snapped. ''As for my 'children,' your soldiers couldn't even capture them."
His brows drew together. Cordelia shut her mouth abruptly.
Oh, great, she thought. He hasn't even started to wrench my arms off, and already I'm giving away free intelligence.
"Didn't they now," Vorkosigan mused. He pointed upstream with the stunner to where the comm link lay cracked open in the brook. A little sputtering of steam rose from the ruin. "What orders did you give your ship when they informed you of their escape?"
"I told them to use their initiative," she murmured vaguely, groping for inspiration in a throbbing fog.
He snorted. "A safe order to give a Betan. At least I you're sure to be obeyed."
Oh, no. My turn. "Hey, I know why my people left me behind-why did yours leave you? Isn't one's commanding officer, even a Barrayaran one, too important to mislay?" She sat up straighten "If Reg couldn't hit the side of a house, who shot you?"
That's fetched him, she thought, as the stunner with which he had been absently gesturing was swiveled back to aim on her. But he said only, "That is not your concern. Have you another comm link?"
Oh ho-was this stern Barrayaran commander dealing with a mutiny? Well, confusion to the enemy! "No. Your Soldiers trashed everything."
"No matter," muttered Vorkosigan. "I know where to get another. Are you able to walk yet?"
"I'm not sure." She pushed herself to her feet, then pressed her hand to her head to contain the shooting pains.
"It's only a concussion," Vorkosigan said unsympathetically. "A walk will do you good."
"How far?" she gasped.
"About two hundred kilometers."
She fell back to her knees. "Have a nice trip."
"By myself, two days. I suppose you will take longer, being a geologist, or whatever."
"Get up, please." He unbent so far as to help her with a hand under her elbow. He seemed curiously reluctant to touch her. She was chilled and stiff; she could feel the heat from his hand through the heavy cloth of her sleeve. Vorkosigan pushed her determinedly up the side of the ravine.
"You're stone serious," she said. "What are you going to do with a prisoner on a forced march? Suppose I bash in your head with a rock while you sleep?"
"I'll take my chances."
They cleared the top. Cordelia draped herself around one of the little trees, winded. Vorkosigan wasn't even breathing hard, she noticed enviously. "Well, I'm not going anywhere till I've buried my officers."
He looked irritated. "It's a waste of time and energy."
"I won't leave them to the scavengers like dead animals. Your Barrayaran thugs may know more about killing, but not one of them could have died a more soldierly death."
He stared at her a moment, face unreadable, then shrugged. "Very well."
Cordelia began to make her way along the side of the ravine. "I thought it was here," she said, puzzled. "Did you move him?"
"No. But he can't have crawled far, in his condition."
"You said he was dead!"
"So he is. His body, however, was still animate. The disruptor must have missed his cerebellum."
Cordelia traced the trail of broken vegetation over a small rise, Vorkosigan following silently.
"Dubauer!" She ran to the tan-clad figure curled up in the bracken. As she knelt beside him he turned and stretched out stiffly, then began to shake all over in slow waves, his lips drawn back in a strange grin. Cold? she thought wildly, then realized what she was seeing. She yanked her handkerchief from her pocket, folded it, and forced it between his teeth. His mouth was already bloody from a previous convulsion. After about three minutes he sighed and went limp.
She blew out her breath in distress and examined him anxiously. He opened his eyes, and seemed to focus on her face. He clutched ineffectually at her arm and made noises, all moans and clotted vowels. She tried to soothe his animal agitation by gently stroking his head, and wiping the bloody spittle from his mouth; he quieted.
She turned to Vorkosigan, tears of fury and pain blurring her vision. "Not dead! Liar! Only injured. He must have medical help."
"You are being unrealistic. Commander Naismith. One does not recover from disruptor injuries."
"So? You can't tell the extent of the damage your filthy weapon has done from the outside. He can still see and hear and feel-you can't demote him to the status of a corpse for your convenience!"
His face seemed a mask. "If you wish," he said carefully. "I can put him out of his suffering. My combat knife is quite sharp. Used quickly, it would cut his throat almost painlessly. Or should you feel it is your duty as his commander, I'll lend you the knife and you may use it."
"Is that what you'd do for one of your men?"
"Certainly. And they'd do the same for me. No man could wish to live on like that."
She stood and looked at him very steadily. "It must be like living among cannibals, to be a Barrayaran."
A long silence fell between them. Dubauer broke it with a moan. Vorkosigan stirred. "What, then, do you propose to do with him?"
She rubbed her temples tiredly, ransacking for an appeal that would penetrate that expressionless front. Her stomach undulated, her tongue was woolly, her legs trembled with exhaustion, low blood sugar, and reaction to pain. "Just where is it you're planning to go?" she asked finally.
"There is a supply cache located -- in a place I know. Hidden. It contains communications equipment, weapons, food-possession of it would put me in a position to, ah, correct the problems in my command."
"Does it have medical supplies?"
"Yes," he admitted reluctantly.
"All right." Here goes nothing. "I will cooperate with you-give you my parole, as a prisoner-assist you in any way I can that does not actually endanger my ship-if I can take Ensign Dubauer with us."
"That's impossible. He can't even walk."
"I think he can, if he's helped."
He stared at her in baffled irritation. "And if I refuse?"
"Then you can either leave us both or kill us both." She glanced away from his knife, lifted her chin, and waited.
"I do not kill prisoners."
She was relieved to hear the plural. Dubauer was evidently promoted back to humanity in her strange captor's mind. She knelt down to try to help Dubauer to his feet, praying this Vorkosigan would not decide to end the argument by stunning her and killing her botanist outright.
"Very well," he capitulated, giving her an odd intent look.
"Bring him along. But we must travel quickly."
She managed to get the ensign up. With his arm draped heavily over her shoulder, she guided him on a shambling walk. It seemed he could hear, but not decode meaning from the noises of speech.
"You see," she defended him desperately, "he can walk. He just needs a little help."
They reached the edge of the glade as the last level light of early evening was striping it with long black shadows, like a tiger's skin.
"If I were by myself," he said, "I'd travel to the cache on the emergency rations in my belt. With you two along, we'll have to risk scavenging your camp for more food. You can bury your other officer while I'm looking around."
Cordelia nodded. "Look for something to dig with, too. I've got to tend to Dubauer first."
He acknowledged this with a wave of his hand and started toward the wasted ring. Cordelia was able to excavate a couple of half-bumed bedrolls from the remains of the women's tent, but no clothes, medicine, soap, or even a bucket to carry or heat water.
She finally coaxed the ensign over to the spring and washed him, his wounds, and his trousers as best she could in the plain cold water, dried him with one bedroll, put his undershirt and fatigue jacket back on him, and wrapped the other bedroll around him sarong style. He shivered and moaned, but did not resist her makeshift ministrations. Vorkosigan in the meanwhile had found two cases of ration packs, with the labels burned off but otherwise scarcely damaged. Cordelia tore open one silvery pouch, added spring water, and found that it was soya-fortified oatmeal.
"That's lucky," she commented. "He's sure to be able : to eat that. What's the other case?"
Vorkosigan was conducting his own experiment. He added water to his pouch, mixed it by squeezing, and sniffed the result.
"I'm not really sure," he said, handing it to her. "It smells rather strange. Could it be spoiled?"
It was a white paste with a pungent aroma. "It's all right," Cordelia assured him. "It's artificial blue cheese salad dressing."
She sat back and contemplated the menu. "At least it's high in calories," she encouraged herself. "We'll need calories. I don't suppose you have a spoon in that utility belt of yours?"
Vorkosigan unhooked an object from his belt and handed it to her without comment. It turned out to be several small useful utensils folded into a handle, including a spoon.
"Thanks," Cordelia said, absurdly pleased, as if granting her mumbled wish had been a conjuror's trick.
Vorkosigan shrugged and wandered away to continue his search in the gathering darkness, and she began to feed Dubauer.
He seemed voraciously hungry, but unable to manage for himself.
Vorkosigan returned to the spring. "I found this." He handed her a small geologist's shovel about a meter long, used for digging soil samples. "It's a poor tool for the purpose, but I've found nothing better yet."
"It was Reg's," Cordelia said, taking it. "It will do."
She led Dubauer to a spot near her next job and settled him. She wondered if some bracken from the forest might provide some insulation for him, and resolved to get some later. She marked out the dimensions of a grave near the place where Rosemont had fallen, and began hacking away at the heavy turf with the little shovel. The sod was tough, wiry, and resistant, and she ran out of breath quickly.
Vorkosigan appeared out of the night. "I found some cold lights." He cracked one pencil-sized tube and laid it on the ground beside the grave, where it gave off an eerie but bright blue-green glow. He watched her critically as she worked.
She stabbed away at the dirt, resentful of his scrutiny. Go away, you, she thought, and let me bury my friend in peace. She grew self-conscious as a new thought struck her-maybe he won't let me finish-I'm taking too long. . . . She dug harder.
"At this rate, we'll be here until next week."
If she moved fast enough, she wondered irritably, could she succeed in hitting him with the shovel? Just once . . .
"Go sit down with your botanist." He was holding out his hand; it dawned on her at last that he was volunteering to help dig.
"Oh . . ." She relinquished the tool. He drew his combat knife and cut through the grasses' roots where she had marked her rectangle, and began to dig, far more efficiently than she had.
"What kind of scavengers have you found around here?" he asked between tosses. "How deep does this have to be?"
"I'm not sure," she replied. "We'd only been downside three days. It's a pretty complex ecosystem, though, and most imaginable niches seem to be filled."
"Lieutenant Stuben, my chief zoologist, found a couple of those browser hexapeds killed and pretty well consumed. He caught a glimpse of something he called a fuzzy crab at one of the kills."
"How big were they?" asked Vorkosigan curiously.
"He didn't say. I've seen pictures of crabs from Earth, and they don't seem very large-as big as your hand, perhaps."
"A meter may be enough." He continued the excavation with short powerful bites of the inadequate shovel. The cold light illuminated his face from below, casting shadows upward from heavy jaw, straight broad nose, and thick brows. He had an old faded L-shaped scar, Cordelia noticed, on the left side of his chin. He reminded her of a dwarf king in some northern saga, digging in a fathomless deep.
"There's a pole over by the tents," she offered. "I could fix that light up in the air so it shines on your work."
"That would help." She returned to the tents, beyond the circle of cold light, and found her pole where she had dropped it that morning. Returning to the gravesite, she spliced the light to the pole with a few tough grass stems and fixed it upright in the dirt, flinging the circle of light wider. She remembered her plan to collect bracken for Dubauer, and turned to make for the forest, then stopped.
"Did you hear that?" she asked Vorkosigan.
"What?" Even he was beginning to breathe heavily. He paused, up to his knees in the hole, and listened with her.
"A sort of scuttling noise, coming from the forest." He waited a minute, then shook his head and continued his work.
"How many cold lights are there?" "Six."
So few. She hated to waste them by running two at once. She was about to ask him if he would mind digging in the dark for a while, when she heard the noise again, more distinctly.
"There is something out there."
"You know that," said Vorkosigan. "The question is-"
The three creatures made a concerted rush into the ring of light. Cordelia caught a glimpse of fast low bodies, entirely too many hairy black legs, four beady black eyes set in neckless faces, and razor-sharp yellow beaks that clacked and hissed. They were the size of pigs.
Vorkosigan reacted instantly, smashing the nearest accurately across its face with the blade of the shovel. A second one flung itself across Rosemont's body, biting deep into the flesh and cloth of one arm, and attempting to drag it away from the light. Cordelia grabbed her pole and ran full tilt upon it, getting in a hard blow between its eyes. Its beak snapped the end off the aluminum rod. It hissed and retreated before her.
By this time Vorkosigan had his combat knife out. He vigorously attacked the third, shouting, stabbing, and kicking with his heavy boots. Blood spattered as claws plowed his leg, but he got in a blow with his knife that sent the creature shrieking and hissing back to the shelter of the forest along with its pack mates.
With a moment to breathe, he dug out her stun gun from the bottom of the too-large disruptor holster where, judging from his muttered swearing, it had slipped down and stuck, and peered into the night.
"Fuzzy crabs, huh?" Cordelia panted. "Stuben, I'm going to scrag you." Her voice squeaked upward and she clamped her teeth.
Vorkosigan wiped the dark blood from his blade in the grass and returned it to its sheath. "I think your grave had better be a full two meters," he said seriously. "Maybe a little more."
Cordelia sighed in agreement, and returned the shortened pole to its original position. "How's your leg?"
"I can take care of it. You'd better see to your ensign."
Dubauer, drowsing, had been aroused by the uproar and was attempting to crawl away again. Cordelia tried to soothe him, then found herself having to deal with another seizure, after which, to her relief, he went to sleep.
Vorkosigan, in the meanwhile, had patched his scratch using the small emergency medical kit on his belt, and returned to digging, slowing down only a little. Getting down to shoulder depth, he pressed her into hauling dirt up out of the grave using the emptied- out botanical specimen box as a makeshift bucket. It was near midnight before he called from the dark pit, "That should be the last," and clambered out. "Could have done that in five seconds with a plasma arc," he panted, recovering his wind. He was dirty and sweating in the cold night air. Tendrils of fog writhed up from the ravine and the spring.
Together they dragged Rosemont's body to the lip of the grave. Vorkosigan hesitated.
"Do you want his clothes for your ensign?"
It was an unavoidably practical suggestion. Cordelia loathed the indignity of lowering Rosemont naked into the earth, but wished at the same time she had thought of it earlier, when Dubauer was so cold. She horsed the uniform off over the stiffened limbs with the macabre sensation of undressing a giant doll, and they tipped him into the grave. He landed on his back with a muffled thump.
"Just a minute." She dug out Rosemont's handkerchief from his uniform pocket and jumped down into the grave, slipping on the body. She spread the handkerchief over his face. It was a small, reality-defying gesture, but she felt better for it. Vorkosigan grasped her hand and pulled her up.
"All right." They shoveled and pushed the dirt back into the hole far more quickly than it had been excavated, and packed it down as best they could by walking on it.
"Is there some ceremony you wish to perform?" Vorkosigan asked.
Cordelia shook her head, not feeling up to reciting the vague, official funeral service. But she knelt by the grave for a few minutes making a more serious, less certain inward prayer for her dead. It seemed to fly upward and vanish in the void, echoless as a feather.
Vorkosigan waited patiently until she arose. "It's rather late," he said, "and we have just seen three good reasons not to go stumbling around in the dark. We may as well rest here until dawn. I'll take the first watch. Do you still want to bash my head in with a rock?" "Not at the moment," she said sincerely. "Very well. I'll wake you later."
Vorkosigan began his watch with a patrol of the perimeter of the glade, taking the cold light with him. It wavered through the black distance like a captive firefly. Cordelia lay down on her back beside Dubauer. The stars glimmered faintly through the gathering mist. Could one be her ship yet, or Vorkosigan's? Not likely, at the range they undoubtedly were by now.
She felt hollow. Energy, will, desire, slipped through her fingers like shining liquid, sucked away through some infinite sand. She glanced at Dubauer beside her, and jerked her mind from the easy vortex of despair. I'm still a commander, she told herself sharply; I have a command. You serve me still, ensign, although you cannot now serve even yourself. . . .
The thought seemed a thread to some great insight, but it
melted in her grasp, and she slept.
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