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Captain Cordelia Naismith, Betan Expeditionary Force, fed the last normal space navigational observations into her ship's computer. Beside her. Pilot Officer Parnell adjusted the leads and cannulae to his headset and settled more comfortably into his padded chair, ready for the neurological control of the upcoming wormhole jump.
Her new command was a slow bulk freighter, unarmed, a steady workhorse of the Beta Colony > Escobar trade run. But there had been no direct communication with Escobar for over sixty days now, since the Barrayaran invasion fleet had plugged the Escobaran side of the exit as effectively as a cork in a bottle. At last word the Barrayaran and Escobaran fleets were still maneuvering in a deadly gavotte for tactical position, with little actual engagement. The Barrayarans were not expected to commit their ground forces until their control of Escobaran space was secure.
Cordelia intercomed engineering. "Naismith here. You about ready down there?"
The face of her engineer, a man she had first met but two days ago, appeared on the screen. He was young, and pulled from Survey like herself. No point in wasting experienced and knowledgeable military personnel on this excursion. Like Cordelia he wore Survey fatigues. The Expeditionary Force uniforms were rumored to be in the works, but no one had seen them yet.
"All set. Captain."
No fear trembled his voice. Well, she reflected, perhaps he was not old enough yet to have really come to believe in death after life. She took one last look around, settled herself, and drew a breath. "Pilot, the ship is yours."
"Ship accepted, ma'am," he replied formally.
A few seconds ticked by. An unpleasant wave of nausea passed over her, and she had the gluey, unsettling sensation of just waking up from a bad dream she could not remember. The jump was over.
"Ship is yours, ma'am," muttered the pilot wearily. The few seconds she had experienced translated to several subjective hours for him.
"Ship accepted. Pilot." She grabbed for the comconsole and began punching up a look at the tactical situation into which they had popped. There had been nothing through this passage for a month; she hoped fervently the Barrayaran crews would be bored and slow on the uptake.
There they were. Six ships, two of them starting to move already. So much for slow on the uptake.
"Right through the middle of 'em, Pilot," she ordered, keying data to him. "It's best if we can draw 'em all off their stations."
The two moving ships neared rapidly, and began firing with leisurely accuracy. They were taking their time, and making every shot count. Just a little target practice, that's all we are, she thought. I'll give you target practice. All non-shield power systems dimmed, and the ship seemed to groan as the plasma fire engulfed it. Then they cut across the tickling limit of the Barrayarans' range.
She called engineering. "Projection ready?"
"Ready and steady."
Twelve thousand kilometers behind them, as if just emerged from the wormhole, a Betan dreadnought sprang into being. It accelerated astonishingly for so large a craft; indeed, its speed matched their own. It followed them like an arrow.
"Aha!" She clapped her hands in delight, and cried into the intercom, "We've fetched 'em! They're all moving now. Oh, better and better!"
Their pursuit ships slowed, preparing to turn and attack this much bigger prize. The four ships that had previously remained properly on station began to wheel away also. Minutes sped by as they jockeyed for position. The last Barrayaran ships wasted little fire on them, scarcely more than a salute, their attention all drawn to big brother behind them. The Barrayaran commanders undoubtedly felt themselves to be in a fine tactical position, spread out in a gauntlet and beginning a withering fire. The little ship preceding the warship was on the far side of them from Escobar, with nowhere to go. They could pick it off at their leisure. Her own shields were down now, and acceleration failing as the ghastly power drain of the projector took its toll. But minute by precious minute the Barrayaran blockaders were being drawn farther from their assigned mousehole.
"We can keep this up for about ten more minutes," the engineer called up.
"All right. Save enough power to slag it when you're done. If we're captured Command doesn't want one molecule left connected to another for the Barrayarans to puzzle back together."
"What a crime. It's such a beautiful machine. I'm dying for a look inside."
You might, too, if the Barrayarans capture us, she thought. She directed all her ship's eyes back along their route. Far, far back at the wormhole exit, the first real Betan freighter winked into existence and began to boost for Escobar, unopposed. It was the newest addition to the merchant fleet, stripped of weapons and shields, rebuilt to do two things only now; carry a heavy payload and go like hell. Then the second, and the third. That was it. They were away, and with a start the Barrayarans could never hope to close.
The Betan dreadnought exploded with a spectacular radioactive light show. Unfortunately, there was no way to fake debris. I wonder how long it will take the Barrayarans to figure out they've been had? she thought. I sincerely hope they have a sense of humor. . . .
Her ship drifted dead in space now, its power nearly depleted. She felt light in the head, and realized it wasn't psychosomatic. The artificial gravity was failing.
They rendezvoused with the engineer and his two assistants at the shuttle hatch, traveling with gazelle-like leaps that turned into bird-like swoops as the gravity gave up the ghost. The shuttle which was to be their lifeboat was a stripped-down model, cramped and comfortless. Into it they floated and sealed the hatch. The pilot slid into the control chair and lowered his headset, and the shuttle kicked away from the side of their dying ship. The engineer floated to her and handed her a little black box. "I thought you ought to do the honors. Captain."
"Ha. I bet you wouldn't kill your own dinner, either," she replied, trying to lighten the mood. They had served their ship together for barely five hours, but it still hurt. "Are we out of range, Parnell?"
"Gentlemen," she said, and paused, gathering them in by eye, "I thank you all. Look away from the left port, please."
She pulled the lever on the box. There was a soundless flash of brilliant blue light, and a general rush for the tiny port immediately after to see the last red glow as the ship folded into itself, carrying its military secrets to a wandering grave. They shook hands solemnly all around, some right side up, some upside down, some floating at other angles, then secured themselves. Cordelia pulled herself into the navigation station beside Parnell, strapped in, and ran a quick check of its systems.
"Now comes the tricky part," murmured Parnell. "I'd still be happier with a straight max boost and try to outrun 'em." "We could get away from those fat battlewagons, maybe," Cordelia conceded. "But their fast couriers would eat us alive. At least we look like a rock," she added, thinking of the artistic, probe-reflective camouflage that encased the lifeboat like a shell. Several minutes of silence followed, as she concentrated on her work. "All right," she spoke at last, "let's sneak out of this neighborhood. It's going to be overcrowded very soon,"
She did not fight the acceleration, but let it press her back into her seat. Tired. She hadn't thought it possible to be more tired than she was afraid. This war nonsense was a great psychological education. That chronometer had to be wrong. Surely it had been a year, and not an hour. . . .
A small light blinked on her control panel. Fear washed the weariness back out of her body with a rush.
"Kill everything," she ordered, tapping controls herself, and was instantly plunged into weightless darkness. "Parnell, give us a little realistic tumble." Her inner ear and a greasy queasiness in her belly told her she was obeyed.
Now her sense of time began to be truly disordered. Darkness and silence reigned, but for an occasional whisper of movement, fabric on plastic, as someone stirred in his seat. In her imagination she felt the Barrayaran probes touching her ship, touching her, icy fingers up her back. I am a rock. I am a void. I am a silence. ... In the rear the silence was broken by the noise of someone vomiting, and some muffled swearing. Blast this tumble. Hope he had time to grab a bag. . . .
There came a jerk and a pressure of weight at an odd angle. Parnell spat an oath like a sob. "Tractor tow! That's it." She sighed without relief, and reached out to key the shuttle back to life, wincing at the blinding brightness of the little lights. "Well, let's see what's caught us."
Her hands flicked over the panels. She took a glance at her exterior monitors, and hastily pressed the red button that crashed the lifeboat's computer memory and recognition codes.
"What the hell have we got out there?" asked the engineer anxiously, noting the gesture as he made his way to her shoulder.
"Two cruisers and a fast courier," she informed him. "We appear to be slightly outnumbered."
He snorted unhappily.
A disembodied voice blared from the comm, at too great a volume; she turned it down quickly.
"... not acknowledge surrender, we will destroy you."
"This is Lifeboat Shuttle A5A," she responded, modulating her voice carefully. "Captain Cordelia Naismith, Betan Expeditionary Force, commanding. We are an unarmed lifeboat."
The comm emitted a surprised "Peh!" and the voice added, "Another damned woman! You people are slow learners."
There was an unintelligible murmur in the background, and the voice returned to its original official tone. "You will be taken in tow. At the first sign of resistance, you will be obliterated. Understood?"
"Acknowledged," Cordelia responded. "We surrender."
Parnell shook his head angrily. She killed the comm and raised an eyebrow.
"I think we should try and make a break," he said.
"No. These guys are professional paranoids. The sanest one I ever met didn't like being in a room with a closed door-claimed you never knew what was on the other side. If they say they'll shoot, you'd better believe 'em."
Parnell and the engineer exchanged a look. "Go ahead, 'Nell," said the engineer. "Tell her."
Parnell cleared his throat, and moistened dry lips. "We wanted to let you know. Captain-that if you think, uh, blowing up the lifeboat might be the best thing for all concerned, we're with you. Nobody else is looking forward to being taken prisoner either."
Cordelia blinked at this offer. "That's-very courageous of you. Pilot Officer, but totally unnecessary. Don't flatter yourself. We were hand-picked for our ignorance, not our knowledge. You all only have guesses about what was aboard that convoy, and even I don't know any technical details. If we cooperate on the surface, we've at least some chance of getting through this alive."
"It-wasn't spilling intelligence we were thinking about, ma'am. It's their other habits."
A sticky silence fell. Cordelia sighed, spiraling in a vortex of grieving doubt. "It's all right," she said at last. "Their reputation is way overblown. Quite decent fellows, some of them." Especially one, her mind mocked. And even assuming he's still alive, do you really think you could find him in all this mess? Or finding him, save him from the gifts you yourself have brought from hell's hardware store without betraying your duty? Or is this a secret suicide pact? Do you even know yourself? Know thyself.
Parnell, watching her face, shook his head grimly. "You sure?"
"I've never killed anybody in my life. I'm not going to start with people on my own side, for pity's sake."
Parnell acknowledged the justice of this with a little quizzical shrug, not quite concealing an underlying relief.
"Anyway, I've got things to live for. This war can't last forever."
"Somebody back home?" he asked, and as her eyes turned to the probe readouts, added wisely, "Or out there?"
"Uh, yeah. Out there somewhere."
He shook his head in sympathy. "That's a tough one." He studied her still profile, and added encouragingly, "But you're right. The big boys will blast those bastards out of the sky sooner or later."
She gave vent to a small, mechanical, "Ha," and massaged her face with her fingertips, trying to rub out the tension. She had a sudden waking vision of a great warship cracked open, spilling its living guts like some monstrous seedpod. Frozen, sterile seeds, adrift on no wind, bloated from decompression and turning forever. Could one recognize a face, after that? she wondered. She turned her chair half away from Parnell, signifying an end to the conversation.
A Barrayaran fast courier took them in tow within an hour.
It was the familiar smell that hit her first, the metal-and- machine-oil, ozone-redolent, locker-room smell of a Barrayaran warship. The two tall soldiers in black who escorted her, each keeping a hand firmly on her elbow, maneuvered her through one last narrow oval doorway to what she guessed must be the main prison area of the great flagship. She and her four men were stripped ruthlessly, searched in minute and paranoid detail, medically examined, holographed, retinaprinted, identified, and issued shapeless orange pajamas. Her men were led away separately. In spite of her words to Parnell, she was sickened by dread of them being peeled, layer by layer, for information they did not hold. Gently now, reason argued; surely the Barrayarans would save them for prisoner exchange. The guards snapped to attention. Turning, she saw a high- ranking Barrayaran officer enter the processing chamber. The bright yellow of the collar tabs on his dark green dress uniform marked a rank she had not seen before, and with a shock she identified it as the color for a vice-admiral. Knowing what he was, she knew at once who he was, and studied him with grave interest. Vorrutyer, that was his name. Co-commander of the Barrayaran armada, along with Crown Prince Serg Vorbarra. She supposed he was the one who did the real work; she'd heard he was slated to be the Barrayarans' next Minister of War. So that was what a rising star looked like.
In a way he was a little like Vorkosigan, a bit taller, about the same weight but less of it in bone and muscle and more of it in fat. He had dark hair too, curlier than Vorkosigan's and with less grey in it, was a similar age, and rather more handsome. His eyes were quite differ-rot, a deep velvet brown fringed by long black lashes, by far the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen in a man's face. They triggered a small subliminal wailing deep in her mind, crying, you thought you had faced fear earlier today, but you were mistaken; here is the real thing, fear without exhilaration or hope; which was strange, for they ought to have attracted her. She broke eye contact, telling herself firmly the unease and instant dislike were mere nerves, and waited.
"Identify yourself, Betan," he growled. It gave her a disjointed sense of deja vu.
She fought for equilibrium, giving him a snappy salute and saying smartly, "Captain Cordelia Naismith, Betan Expeditionary. We are a military party. Combatants." This private joke of course passed by him.
"Hah. Strip her, and turn her about."
He stepped back, watching. The two grinning soldiers guarding her obeyed. I don't like the way this is starting out. . . . She forced her face to blandness, holding on to all her secret sources of serenity. Calm. Calm. This one wants to rattle you. You can see it in his eyes, his hungry eyes. Calm.
"A little old, but she'll do. I'll send for her later."
The guard shoved the pajamas back at her. She dressed slowly, to annoy them, like a striptease in reverse, with precise controlled motions of the sort suitable for a Japanese tea ceremony. One growled, and the other shoved her roughly in the back toward her cell. She smiled sourly at her success, thinking, well, at least I have that much control over my destiny. Should I award myself points if I can goad them into beating me up?
They bundled her into a bare metal room, and left her. She continued the ploy, for her own thin amusement, by kneeling gracefully on the floor with the same sort of movements, right toe crossed correctly over the left, hands resting motionless upon her thighs. The touch reminded her of the patch on her left leg that was devoid of all sensation, heat, cold, pain, pressure, legacy of her last encounter with the armies of Barrayar. She half-closed her eyes and let her mind drift, hoping to give her captors an unsettling impression of deep and possibly dangerous psychic meditations. Pretend aggression was better than nothing. After an hour or so of stillness, by which time her unaccustomed muscles were protesting the kneeling position most painfully, the guard returned.
"Admiral wants you," he said laconically. "Come along."
She had a guard at each elbow again for the trip through the ship. One grinned and undressed her with his eyes. The other looked at her with pity, far more disturbing. She began to wonder just how much her time with Vorkosigan had led her to discount the risks of capture. They came to officer's country, and stopped before an oval metal door in a row of identical ones. The grinning guard knocked, and was bidden to enter.
This admiral's quarters were very different from her austere cabin aboard the General Vorkraft. For one thing, the bulkheads had been knocked out of the two adjoining chambers, giving a triple share of space. It was full of personal furnishings of a most luxurious order. Admiral Vorrutyer rose from a velvet-covered seat as she entered, but she did not mistake it for a gesture of courtesy.
He walked slyly around her as she stood silent, watching her gaze travel around the room. "A step up from that cell, eh?" he probed.
For the guards' benefit she replied, "Looks like a whore's boudoir."
The grinning guard choked, and the other one laughed outright, but cut it off quickly at a glare from Vorrutyer. Didn't think it was that funny, she puzzled. Some of the details of the decor began to penetrate, and she realized she'd spoken more truly than she knew. What an extremely odd little statuette in that corner, for instance. Although it had a certain redeeming artistic merit, she supposed. "One with very unusual customers," she added.
"Buckle her in," ordered Vorrutyer, "and return to your posts. I'll call you when I'm done."
She was placed on her back across his wide, non-regulation bed, arms and legs stretched to the four corners and tautly attached by soft bracelets to short chains, attached in turn to the bedframe. Simple, chilling, quite beyond her strength to break.
The guard who pitied whispered to her under his breath as he buckled a wrist strap, hidden almost inaudibly in a sigh, "Sorry."
"It's all right," she breathed back. Their eyes passed over each other, hiding the secret transaction from the watching Vorrutyer.
"Ha. That's what you think now," murmured the other through his grin, fastening the other strap.
"Shut up," muttered the first, and shot him a fierce look. An unclean silence filled the room until the guards withdrew.
"Looks like a permanent installation," she observed to Vorrutyer, horribly fascinated. It was like a sick joke come to life.
"What do you do when you can't catch Betans? Call for volunteers?"
A frown appeared between his eyes briefly, then smoothed. "Keep it up," he encouraged. "It amuses me. It will make the ultimate denouement so much more piquant."
He loosened his uniform collar, poured himself a glass of wine from a very non-regulation portable bar in one corner, and seated himself on the bed beside her with the chatty air of a man visiting a sick friend. He looked her over minutely, beautiful brown eyes liquid with anticipation.
She tried to string herself along; maybe he's only a rapist. It might be possible to handle a simple rapist. Such direct, childlike souls, hardly offensive at all. Even vileness has a relative range...
"I don't know any military secrets worth a thing," she fenced.
"This isn't really worth your time."
"I didn't think you did," he replied easily. "Although you will undoubtedly insist on telling me everything you know over the next few weeks. Quite tedious, I'm not in the least interested. If I want your information, my medical staff can have it out of you in a trice." He sipped his wine. "Although it's curious you should bring up the subject -- perhaps I will send you to sickbay, later today."
Her stomach knotted. Fool, she shrieked silently at herself, did you just blow a chance of ducking interrogation? But no, it had to be standard operating procedure-he's just working you over. Subtle. Calm ...
He drank again. "Do you know, I think I shall enjoy having an older woman for a change. The young ones may look pretty, but they're too easy. No sport. I can tell already, you're going to be great sport. A very great fall requires a very great height, to fall from, not so?"
She sighed, and gazed up at the ceiling. "Well, I'm sure it will be educational." She tried to remember how she'd occupied her mind during sex with her old lover, in the bad times before she'd finally shed him. This might well be no worse...
Vorrutyer, smiling, put his wine down on a bedside table and took from its drawer a small knife, sharp as an old-fashioned scalpel, with a jeweled handle that glittered before his hand eclipsed it. Rather desultorily, he began slicing away at the orange pajamas, peeling them away from her like the skin of a fruit.
"Isn't that government property?" she inquired, but was sorry she'd spoken, for a tremble made the word "property" squeaky. It was like throwing a tidbit to a hungry dog, likely to make him jump higher.
He chuckled, pleased. "Oops." Deliberately, he let the knife slip. It sliced half an inch into her thigh. He watched her face avidly for her reaction. It was in the area without sensation; she could not even feel the wet trickle of blood that welled from the wound. His eyes narrowed in disappointment. She even kept from glancing down. She wished she'd studied more about trance states.
"I'm not going to rape you today," he offered conversationally,
"if that's what you've been thinking."
"It had crossed my mind. I can't imagine what suggested it."
"There's scarcely time," he explained. "Today is but the, as it were, hors d'ouevre of the banquet, or a simple clear soup, very pristine. All the complicated things will be saved for dessert, in a few weeks."
"I never eat dessert. Weight, you know."
He chuckled again. "You are a delight." He put the knife down and took another sip of wine. "You know, officers always delegate their work. Now, I am an aficionado of Earth history. My favorite century is the eighteenth."
"I'd have guessed the fourteenth. Or the twentieth."
"In a day or two, I shall teach you not to interrupt. Where was I? Ah, yes. Well, in my reading, I came upon the loveliest scene, where a certain great lady," he raised the wineglass to her in a toast, "was raped by a diseased servant, on the orders of his master. Very piquant. Venereal disease is, alas, a thing of the past. But I am able to command a diseased servant, although his disease is mental rather than physical. A real, bona fide, paranoid schizophrenic."
"Like master, like man," she shot at random. I cannot keep this up much longer; my heart shall fail me soon...
This won a rather sour smile. "He hears voices, you know, like Joan of Arc, except that he tells me they are demons, not saints. He has visual hallucinations, too, on occasion. And he's a very large man. I've used him before, many times. He's not the sort of fellow who finds it easy to, er, attract women."
There was a timely knock on the door, and Vorrutyer went to it. "Ah, come in. Sergeant. I was just talking about you."
"Bothari," she breathed. Ducking his head through the door came the tall frame and familiar borzoi face of Vorkosigan's soldier. How, how could he have hit on her personal nightmare? A kaleidoscope of images spun through her memory: a dappled wood, the crackle of disruptors, the faces of the dead and the half- dead, a looming shape like the shadow of death.
She focused on the present reality. Would he recognize her? His eyes had not yet touched her; they were fixed on Vorrutyer. Too close together, those eyes, and not quite on the same level. They gave his face an unusual degree of asymmetry that added much to his remarkable ugliness.
Her boiling imagination lurched to his body. His body-it was all wrong, somehow, hunched in his black uniform, not like the straight figure she had last seen demanding pride of place from Vorkosigan. Wrong, wrong, terribly wrong. A head taller than Vorrutyer, yet he seemed almost to creep before his master. His spine was coiled with tension as he glowered down at his- torturer? What, she wondered, might a mind molester like Vorrutyer do with the material presented by Bothari? God, Vorrutyer, do you imagine, in your amoral flashy freakiness, in your monstrous vanity, that you control this elemental? And you dare play games with that sullen madness in his eyes? Her thoughts kept time with her racing pulse. There are two victims in this room. There are two victims in this room. There are two ...
"There you go. Sergeant." Vorrutyer hooked a thumb over his shoulder at Cordelia, spread-eagled on the bed. "Rape me this woman." He pulled up a chair and prepared to watch, closely and gleefully. "Go on, go on."
Bothari, face as unreadable as ever, unfastened his trousers and approached the foot of the bed. He looked at her for the first time.
"Any last words, 'Captain' Naismith?" Vorrutyer inquired sarcastically. "Or have you finally run out of words?"
She stared at Bothari, shaken by a pity almost like love. He seemed nearly in a trance, lust without pleasure, anticipation without hope. Poor sod, she thought, what a mess they've made of you. No longer fencing for points, she searched her heart for words not for Vorrutyer but for Bothari. Some healing words-I would not add to his madness. . . . The air of the room seemed clammy cold, and she shivered, feeling unutterably weary, resistless, and sad. He crouched over her, heavy and dark as lead, making the bed creak.
"I believe," she said slowly at last, "that the tormented are very close to God. I'm sorry. Sergeant."
He stared at her, his face a foot from hers, for so long she wondered if he'd heard her. His breath was not good, but she did not flinch. Then, to her astonishment, he stood up and refastened his pants, trembling slightly.
"No, sir," he said in his bass monotone.
"What?" Vorrutyer sat up, amazed. "Why not?" he demanded.
The Sergeant groped for words. "She's Commodore Vorkosigan's prisoner. Sir."
Vorrutyer stared, first puzzled, then illuminated. "So you're Vorkosigan's Betan!" His cool amusement evaporated at the name, with a hiss like a drop of water on a red-hot coil.
Vorkosigan's Betan? A brief hope flared within her, that Vorkosigan's name might be a password to safety, but it died. The chance of this creature being any kind of a friend of his was surely something well under zero. He was looking now not at her, but through her, like a window on some more wonderful view. Vorkosigan's Betan?
"I've got that stiff-necked puritan son-of-a-bitch by the balls now," he breathed fiercely. "This could be even better than the day I told him about his wife." The expression on his face was strange and startling, the mask of suavity seeming to melt, and run off in patches. It was like stumbling suddenly over the center of a caldera. He seemed to remember the mask, and clutched its pieces around him, half-effectually.
"Do you know, you have quite overwhelmed me. The possibilities you present-eighteen years were not too long to wait for so ideal a revenge. A woman soldier. Ha! He probably thought you the ideal solution to our mutual- difficulty. My perfect warrior, my dear hypocrite, Aral. You have much to learn of him, I wager. But do you know, I somehow feel quite certain he hasn't mentioned me to you."
"Not by name," she agreed. "Possibly by category."
"And what category was that?"
"I believe the term he used was 'scum of the service.'"
He grinned sourly. "I shouldn't recommend name-calling to a woman in your position."
"Oh, you embrace the category, then?" Her response was automatic, but her heart was shrinking within her, leaving an echoing hollowness. What is Vorkosigan doing in the center of this one's madness? His eyes look like Bothari's, now...
His smile tightened. "I've embraced a number of things in my time. Not least of which was your puritan lover. Let your imagination dwell on that a while, my dear, my sweet, my pet. You'd scarcely believe it to meet him now, but he was quite a merry widower, before he gave himself over so irritatingly to these random outbreaks of righteousness." He laughed.
"Your skin is very white. Has he touched it-so?" He ran one fingernail up the inside of her arm, and she shuddered. "And your hair. I am quite certain he must be fascinated by that twining hair. So fine, and such an unusual color." He twisted a strand gently between his fingers. "I must think what can be done with that hair. One might remove the scalp entirely, of course, but there must be something more creative yet. Perhaps I'll take a bit with me, and take it out and play with it, quite casually, at the Staff meeting. Let it slip silkily through my fingers-see how long it takes to lock his attention on it. Feed the doubt, and the growing fear, with, oh, one or two casual remarks. I wonder how much it would take to start him scrambling those annoyingly perfect reports of his - ha! Then send him off for about a week of detached duty, still wondering, still in doubt. . . ."
He picked up the jeweled knife and sawed off a thick strand, to coil up and place carefully in his breast pocket, smiling down at her the while. "One must be careful, of course, not to goad him quite into violence-he becomes so tediously unmanageable-" he ran one finger in an L-shaped motion across the left side of his chin in the exact position of Vorkosigan's scar. "Much easier to start than stop. Although he's become remarkably temperate of late. Your influence, my pet? Or is he simply growing old?"
He tossed the knife carelessly back on the bedside table, then rubbed his hands together, laughed out loud, and draped himself beside her to murmur lovingly in her ear. "And after Escobar, when we need no longer regard the Emperor's watchdog, there will be no limit to what I can do. So many choices . . ." He gave vent to a stream of plans for torturing Vorkosigan through her, glistening with obscene detail. He was taut with his vision, his face pale and moist.
"You can't possibly get away with anything like that," she said faintly. There was fear in her face now, and tears, running down from the comers of her eyes in iridescent trails to wet the tendrils of hair around her ears, but he was scarcely interested. She had believed she had fallen into the deepest possible pit of fear, but now that floor opened beneath her and she fell again, endlessly, turning in the air.
Some measure of control seemed to return to him, and he walked around the foot of the bed, looking at her. "Well. How very refreshing. Do you know, I am quite energized. I believe I shall do it myself, after all. You should be glad. I'm much better looking than Bothari."
"Not to me."
He dropped his trousers and prepared to climb on her. "Do you forgive me too, sweetheart?"
She felt cold, and dry, and vanishingly small. "I'm afraid I'll have to leave that to the Infinitely Merciful. You exceed my capacity."
"Later in the week," he promised, mistaking her defeat for flippancy, and clearly excited by what he took for a continued show of resistance.
Sergeant Bothari had been mooning around the room, head moving from side to side and narrow jaw working, as Cordelia had seen it once before, a sign of agitation. Vorrutyer, intent on Cordelia, paid no attention to the movements behind him. So his moment of utter astonishment was very brief when the Sergeant grabbed him by his curly hair, yanked his head back, and drew the jeweled knife most expertly around his neck, slicing through all four of the major vessels in a swift double movement. The blood spurted over Cordelia in a fountain, horribly hot and flowing.
Vorrutyer gave one convulsive twist and lost consciousness as the blood pressure in his brain fell to nothing. Sergeant Bothari let go of the hair, and Vorrutyer dropped between her legs and slithered down out of sight over the end of the bed.
The Sergeant stood hulkingly, breathing heavily, by the end of the bed. Cordelia could not remember if she'd screamed. No matter, odds were no one paid much attention to screams coming out of this room anyway. She felt frozen and bloodless in her hands, face, feet; her heart hammered.
She cleared her throat. "Uh, thank you. Sergeant Bothari. That was a very, uh, knightly deed. Do you suppose you could unbuckle me, too?" Her voice squeaked uncontrollably, and she swallowed, irritated at it.
She regarded Bothari with terrorized fascination. There was absolutely no way of predicting what he might do next. Muttering to himself, with a look of bewilderment on his face, he fumbled apart the buckle on her left wrist. Swiftly, stiffly, she rolled over and loosed the right wrist, then sat up and undid the ankles. She sat cross-legged a moment in the center of the bed, stark naked and dripping with blood, rubbing ankles and wrists and trying to get her paralyzed brain into motion.
"Clothes. Clothes," she muttered to herself. She peeked over the end of the bed at the crumpled form of the late Admiral Vorrutyer, pants about his ankles and his last look of surprise frozen on his face. The great brown eyes had lost their liquid glow, and were already beginning to film over.
She slipped out of the side of the bed away from Bothari and began searching frantically through the metal drawers and cupboards that lined the room. A couple of the drawers contained his toy collection, and she shut them hastily, nauseated, finally understanding what he'd meant by his last words. The man's taste in perversions had certainly had remarkable scope. Some uniforms, all with too much yellow insignia. At last she found a set of plain black fatigues. She wiped the blood from her body with a soft dressing gown, and flung them on.
Sergeant Bothari meanwhile had sat on the floor, curled up with his head resting on his knees, talking under his breath. She knelt beside him. Was he starting to hallucinate? She had to get him to his feet, and out of here. They could not count on being undiscovered much longer. Yet where could they hide? Or was it adrenaline, not reason, that demanded flight? Was there a better option?
As she hesitated, the door slammed suddenly open. She cried
out for the first time. But the man standing white-faced in the
aperture with the plasma arc in his hand was Vorkosigan.
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