Lois McMaster Bujold, "The Warrior Apprentice"

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10


Miles gestured the injured mercenary captain ahead of him into sickbay with a little jab of his nerve disruptor. The deadly weapon seemed unnaturally light and easy in his hand. Something that lethal should have more heft, like a broadsword. Wrong, for murder to be so potentially effortless—one ought to at least have to grunt for it.

He would have felt happier with a stunner, but Bothari had insisted that Miles present a front of maximum authority when moving prisoners about. "Saves argument," he'd said.

The miserable Captain Auson, with two broken arms, nose a swollen blot on his face, did not look very argumentative. But the cat-like tension and calculating flicks of glance of Auson's first officer, the Betan hermaphrodite Lieutenant Thorne, reconciled Miles to Bothari's reasoning.

He found Bothari leaning with deceptive casualness against a wall within, and the mercenaries' frazzled-looking medtech preparing for her next customers. Miles had deliberately saved Auson for last, and toyed with a pleasantly hostile fantasy of ordering the Captain's arms, when set, immobilized in some anatomically unlikely position.

Thorne was seated to have a cut over one eye sealed, and to receive an injection against stunner-induced migraine. The lieutenant sighed as the medication took effect, and looked at Miles with less squinting curiosity. '"Who the hell are you people, anyway?"

Miles arranged his mouth in what he hoped would be taken for a smile of urbane mystery, and said nothing.

'"What are you going to do with us?" Thorne persisted.

Good question, he thought. He had returned to Cargo Hold ^4 to find their first batch of prisoners well along to having one of the bulkheads apart and escape manufactured. Miles voiced no objection when Bothari prudently had them all stunned again for transport to the Ariel's brig. There, Miles found, the chief engineer and her assistants had nearly managed to sabotage the magnetic locks in their cells. Miles rather desperately had them all stunned again.

Bothari was right; it was an intrinsically unstable situation. Miles could hardly keep the whole crew stunned for a week or more, crammed in their little prison, without doing them serious physiological damage. Miles's own people were spread too thinly, manning both ships, guarding the prisoners around the clock—and fatigue would soon multiply error. Bothari's murderous and final solution had a certain logic to it. Miles supposed. But his eye fell on the silent sheeted form of the mercenary pilot officer in the comer of the room, and he shivered inwardly. Not again. He suppressed jittering panic at his abruptly enlarged troubles, and angled for time.

"It would be a favor to Admiral Oser to put you out now and let you walk home," he answered Thorne. "Are they all like you out there?"

Thorne said stonily. "The Oserans are a free coalition of mercenaries. Most captains are Captain-owners."

Miles swore, genuinely surprised. "That's not a chain of command. That's a damned committee."

He stared curiously at Auson. A shot of pain killer was at last unlocking the big man's attention from his own body, and he glowered back. "Is your crew sworn to you, then, or to Admiral Oser?" Miles asked him.

"Sworn? I hold the contracts of everybody on my ship, if that's what you mean," Auson growled. "Everybody." He frowned at Thorne, whose nostrils grew pinched.

"My ship," corrected Miles. Auson's mourn rippled in a silent snarl and he glared at the nerve disruptor but, as Bothari had predicted, did not argue. The medtech laid the deposed captain's arm in a brace, and began working over it with a surgical hand tractor. Auson paled, and became more withdrawn. Miles felt a slight twinge of empathy.

'"You are, without a doubt, the sorriest excuse for soldiers I have seen in my career/' Miles declaimed, trolling for reactions. One comer of Bothari's mouth twitched, but Miles ignored that one. "It's a wonder you're all still alive. You must choose your foes very carefully." He rubbed his own still-aching stomach, and shrugged. "Well, I know you do."

Auson flushed a dull red, and looked away. "Just trying to stir up a little action. We've been on this damned blockade duty a frigging year/'

"Stir up action," Thorne muttered disgustedly. "You would."

I have you now. The certainty reverberated like a bell in Miles's mind. His idle dreams of revenge upon the mercenary captain vaporized in the heat of a new and more breathtaking inspiration. His eye nailed Auson, and he rapped out sharply, "How long has it been since your last General Fleet Inspection?"

Auson looked as if it had belatedly occurred to him that he ought to be limiting this conversation to names, ranks, and serial numbers, but Thorne replied, "A year and a half."

Miles swore, with feeling, and raised his chin aggressively. "I don't think I can take any more of this. You're going to have one now."

Bothari maintained an admirable stillness, against the wall, but Miles could feel his eyes boring through his shoulderblades with his sharpest what-the-hell-are-you-doing-now look. Miles did not turn.

'What the hell," said Auson, echoing Bothari's silence, "are you talking about? Who are you? I had you pegged for a smuggler for sure, when you let us shake you down without a squeak, but I'll swear we didn't miss—" he surged to his feet, causing Bothari's disruptor to snap to the aim. His voice edged upward in frustration. "You are a smuggler, damn it! I can't be that wrong. Was it the ship itself? Who'd want it? What the hell are you smuggling?" he cried plaintively.

Miles smiled coldly. "Military advisors/'

He fancied he could see the hook of his words set in the mercenary captain and his lieutenant. Now to run in the line.

Miles began inspection, with some relish, in the sickbay itself, since he was fairly sure of his ground there. At disruptor point, the medtech produced her official inventory and began turning out drawers under Miles's intent eye. With a sure instinct Miles focused first on drugs capable of abuse, and immediately turned up some nicely embarrassing discrepancies.

Next was equipment. Miles itched to get to the cryogenic chamber, but his sense of showmanship held it for last. There were enough other breakdowns. Some of his grandfather's more acerbic turns of phrase, suitably edited, had turned the medtech's face to chalk by the time they arrived at the piece de resistance.

"And just how long has this chamber been out of commission, Medtech?"

"Six months," she muttered. "The repairs engineer kept saying he'd get to it," she added defensively at Miles's frown and raised eyebrows.

"And you never thought to stir him up? Or more properly, ask your superior officers to do so?"

"It seemed like there was plenty of time. We haven't used—"

"And in that six months your captain never once even ran an in-house inspection?"

"No, sir."

Miles swept Auson and Thorne with a gaze like a dash of cold water, then let his eye deliberately linger on the covered form of the dead man. "Time ran out for your pilot officer."

"How did he die?" asked Thorne, sharply, like a sword thrust.

Miles parried with a deliberate misunderstanding. "Bravely. Like a soldier." Horribly, like an animal sacrifice, his thought corrected. Imperative they don't figure that out. But, "I'm sorry," he added impulsively. "He deserved better/'

The medtech was looking at Thorne, stricken. Thorne said gently, "The cryo chamber wouldn't have done much good for a disruptor blast to the head anyway, Cela."

"But the next casualty," Miles interposed, "might be some other injury." Excellent, that the excessively observant lieutenant had evolved a personal theory as to how the pilot officer happened to be dead without a mark on him. Miles was vastly relieved, not least because it freed him of having to dishonorably burden the medtech with a guilt not rightfully hers.

"I will send you the engineering technician later today," Miles went on. "I want every piece of equipment in here operating properly by tomorrow. In the meantime you can start putting this place in an order more like a military sickbay and less like a broom closet, is that understood, Medtech?" He dropped his voice to a whisper, like the hiss of a whip.

The medtech braced to attention, and cried, "Yes, sir!" Auson was flushed; Theme's lips were parted in an expression very like appreciation. They left her pulling out drawers with trembling hands.

Miles motioned the two mercenaries ahead of him down the corridor, and fell behind for an urgent whispered conference with Bothari.

"You going to leave her unguarded?" Bothari muttered disapprovingly. "Madness."

"She's too busy to bolt. With luck, I may even be able to keep her too busy to run an autopsy on that Pilot Officer. Quick, Sergeant! If I want to fake a General Fleet Inspection, where's the best place to dig up dirt?"

"On this ship? Anywhere."

"No, really! The next stop has got to look bad. I can't fake the technical stuff, have to wait till Baz is ready for a break."

"In that case, try crew's quarters," suggested Bothari. "But why?"

"I want those two to figure we're some sort of mercenary super-outfit. I've got an idea how to keep them from combining to retake their ship."

'They'll never buy it."

"They will buy it. They'll love it. They'll eat it up. Don't you see, it saves their pride. We beat them—for now. Which do you think they'd rather believe, that we're great, or that they're a bunch of screw-ups?"

"Isn't it plain?"

"Just watch!" He skipped a silent dance step, composed his face to a mask of stemness, and strode after his prisoners, his boots ringing like iron down the corridor.

The crew's quarters were, from Miles's point of view, a delight. Bothari did the disassembling. His instinct for turning up evidence of slovenly habits and concealed vices was uncanny. Miles supposed he'd seen it all, in his time. When Bothari uncovered the expected bottles of the ethanol addict, Auson and Thorne took it as a matter of course; evidently the man was a known and tolerated borderline functional. The two kavaweed dopers, however, seemed to be a surprise to all. Miles promptly confiscated the lot. He left another soldier's remarkable collection of sexual aids in situ, however, merely inquiring of Auson, with a quirk of an eyebrow, if he were running a cruiser or a cruise ship? Auson fumed, but said nothing. Miles cordially hoped the captain might spend the rest of the day thinking up scathing retorts, too late to use.

Miles studied Auson's and Thorne's own chambers intently, for clues to their owners' personalities. Thorne's, interestingly, came closest to passing inspection. Auson appeared to brace himself for a rampage when they came at last to his own cabin. Miles smiled silkily, and had Bothari put everything away, after inspection, in better order than he'd found it. It was all those years as an officer's batman, perhaps; when they were done the room appeared quite transformed. From the evidence, or lack retorts, Auson himself appeared to have no serious vices beyond a natural indolence exacerbated by boredom into laziness.

The collection of exotic personal weapons picked up during this tour made an impressive pile. Miles had Bothari examine and test each one. He made an elaborate show of noting each substandard item and checking it off against a list of the owners. Exhilarated and inspired, he waxed wonderfully sarcastic; the mercenaries squirmed.

They inspected the arsenal. Miles took a plasma arc from a dusty rack, closing his hand over the control read-outs on the grip/

"Do you store your weapons charged or uncharged?" "Uncharged," muttered Auson, craning his neck

Miles raised his eyebrows and swung the weapon to point at the mercenary captain, finger tightening on the trigger. Auson went white. At the last instant. Miles flicked his wrist slightly to the left, and sent a bolt of energy sizzling past Auson's ear. The big man recoiled as a molten backsplash of plastic and metal sprayed from the wall behind him.

"Uncharged?" sang Miles. “I see. A wise policy, I'm sure."

Both officers flinched. As they exited. Miles heard Thorne mutter, "Told you so." Auson growled wordlessly.

Miles braced Baz privately before they began in engineering.

"You are now," he told him, "Commander Bazil Jesek of the Dendarii Mercenaries, Chief Engineer. You're rough and tough and you eat slovenly engineering technicians for breakfast, and you're appalled at what they've done to this nice ship."

"Ifs actually not too bad, near as I can tell," said Baz. "Better than I could do with such an advanced set of systems. But how am I going to make an inspection when they know more than I do? They'll spot me right away!"

"No, they won't. Remember, you're asking the questions, they're answering them. Say 'hm'' and frown a lot. Don't let it start going the other way. Look—didn't you ever have an engineering commander who was a real son-of-a-bitch, that everybody hated—but who was always right?"

Baz looked confusedly reminiscent. "There was Lieutenant Commander Tarski. We used to sit around thinking up ways to poison him. Most of them weren't very practical."

"All right. Imitate him."

"They'll never believe me. I can't—I've never been— I don't even have a cigar!"

Miles thought a second, dashed off, and galloped back moments later with a package of cheroots abstracted from one of the mercenary's quarters.

"But I don't smoke," worried Baz.

"Just chew on it, then. Probably better if you don't light it. God knows what it might be spiked with."

"Now, there's an idea for poisoning old Tarski that might have worked—"

Miles pushed him along. "All right, you're an air polluting son-of-a-bitch and you don't take <! don't know' for an answer. If I can do it," he uncorked his argument of desperation, "you can do it."

Baz paused, straightened, bit off the end of the cheroot and spat it bravely on the deck. He eyed it a moment. "I slipped on one of those damned disgusting things once. Nearly broke my neck. Tarski. Right." He clenched the cheroot between his teeth at an aggressive angle, and marched into the main engineering bay.

Miles assembled the entire ship's company in their own briefing room, and took center stage. Bothari, Elena, Jesek and Daum waited in the wings, posted in pairs at each exit, lethally armed.

"My name is Miles Naismith. I represent the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet."

"Never heard of it," called a bold heckler from the blur of faces around Miles.

Miles smiled acidly. "If you had, heads would roll in my security department. We do not advertise. Recruitment is by invitation only. Frankly," his gaze swept the crowd, making eye contact, linking each face one by one to its name and personal possessions, "if what I've seen so far represents your general standards, but for our assignment here you'd have gone right on not hearing of us."

Auson, Thorne, and the chief engineer, subdued and weary from fourteen hours of being dragged—raked— over every weld, weapon, tool, data bank, and supply room from one end of the ship to the other, had scarcely a twitch left in them. But Auson looked wistful at the thought.

Miles paced back and forth before his audience, radiating energy like a caged ferret. 'We do not normally draft recruits, particularly from such dismal raw material. After yesterday's performance, I personally would have no compunction at disposing of you all by the swiftest means, just to improve the military tone of this ship." He scowled upon them fiercely. They looked nervous, uncertain; was there just the slightest hangdog shuffle there? Onward. "But your lives have been begged for you, upon a point of honor, by a better soldier than most of you can hope to be—" he glanced pointedly at Elena who, prepared, raised her chin and stood in a sort of parade rest, indicating to all the source of this unusual mercy.

Actually, Miles wondered if she wouldn't have personally shoved Auson, at least, out the nearest airlock. But having cast her in the role of "Commander Elena Bothari, my executive officer and unarmed combat instructor," it had occurred to him that he had the perfect setup for a fast round of good guy-bad guy.

"—and so I have agreed to the experiment. To put it in terms you are familiar with—former Captain Auson has yielded your contracts to me."

That stirred them into outraged murmuring. A couple of them rose from their seats, a dangerous precedent. Fortunately, they hesitated, as if uncertain whether to start for Miles's throat first, or Captain Auson's. Before the ripple of motion could become an unstoppable tidal wave, Bothari brought his disruptor to aim with a good loud slap against his other hand. Bothari's lips were drawn back in a canine grimace, and his pale eyes blazed.

The mercenaries lost the moment. The ripple died. Those who had risen sat back down carefully, their hands resting plainly and demurely upon their knees.

Damn, thought Miles enviously, I wish I could muster that much menace ... The trick of it, alas, was that it was not a trick at all. Bothari's ferocity was palpably sincere.

Elena aimed her nerve disruptor in a white nervous grip, her eyes wide; but then, an obviously nervous person with a lethal weapon has a brand of menace all their own, and more than one mercenary spared a glance from the Sergeant to the other possible source of crossfire. A male mercenary attempted a prudent placating smile, palms out. Elena snarled under her breath, and the smile winked out hastily. Miles raised his voice and overrode the lingering whispers of confusion.

"By Dendarii regulation, you will all start at the same rank—the lowest, recruit-trainee. This is not an insult; every Dendarii, including myself, has started there. Your promotions will be by demonstrated ability—demonstrated to me. Due to your previous experience and the needs of the moment, your promotions will probably be much more rapid than usual. What this means, in effect, is that any one of you could find yourself the brevet captain of this ship within weeks."

The murmur became suddenly thoughtful. What this meant, in effect, thought Miles, was that he had just succeeded in dividing all the lower-ranking echelons from their former seniors. He nearly grinned as ambition visibly lit a scattering of faces. And had he ever lit a fire under those seniors—Thorne and Auson stared at each other in edgy speculation.

"Your new training will begin immediately. Those not assigned to training groups this shift will temporarily recommence their old duties. Any questions?" He held his breath; his scheme pivoted on the point of a pin. He would know in a minute ...

'"What's your rank?" asked a mercenary.

Miles decided to stay flexible. "You may address me as Mr. Naismith." There, let them build theories on that.

"Then how do we know who to obey?" asked the original hard-eyed heckler.

Miles bared his teeth in a scimitar smile. "Well, if you disobey one of my orders, I'll shoot you on the spot. You figure it out." He drummed his fingers lightly on his bolstered nerve disruptor. Some of Bothari's aura seemed to have rubbed off on him, for the heckler wilted.

A mercenary held up her hand, serious as a child at school.

“Yes, Trainee Quinn?"

'When do we get copies of the Dendarii regulations?"

Miles's heart seemed to stop. He hadn't thought of that one. It was such a reasonable request—the sort of commander Miles was trying to pass himself off as should know his regs by heart, or sleep with them under his pillow, or something. He produced a dry-mouthed smile, and croaked boldly, 'Tomorrow. I'll have copies distributed to everyone." Copies of what? I'll figure something out....

There was a silence. Then another voice from the back popped up. '"What kind of insurance package does the, the Dendariis have? Do we get a paid vacation?"

And another: "Do we get any perqs? What's the pay scale?"

And yet another: 'Will our pensions carry over from our old contracts? Is there a retirement plan?"

Miles nearly bolted from the room, confounded by this spate of practical questions. He had been prepared for defiance, disbelief, a concerted unarmed rush ... He had a sudden maniac vision of Vorthalia the Bold demanding a whole-life policy from his Emperor at sword's point.

He gulped down total confusion, and forged ahead. "I'll distribute a brochure," he promised—he had a vague idea that sort of information came in brochures—'later. As for fringe benefits—" he barely managed to turn a glassy stare into an icy one. “I am permitting you to live. Further privileges will have to be earned."

He surveyed their faces. Confusion, yes, that was what he wanted. Dismay, division, and most of all, distraction. Perfect. Let them, swirled upside-down in this gush of flimflam, forget that their primary duty was to re-take their own ship. Forget it for just a week, keep them too busy to think for just a week, a week was all he needed. After that, they'd be Daum's problem. There was something else in their faces, though; he could not quite put Iris finger on it. No matter—his next task was to get off stage gracefully, and get them all moving. And get a minute alone with Bothari...

"Commander Elena Bothari has a list of your assignments. See her on your way out. Attention' He put a snap in his voice. They shuffled raggedly to their feet, as if the posture were but dimly remembered. "Dismissed!" Yes, before they came up with any more bizarre questions and his invention failed him.

He caught a snatch of sotto voce conversation as he marched out.

"—homicidal runt lunatic ..."

"Yes, but with a commander like that, there's a chance I might survive my next battle . . ."

He recognized the something-else in their faces suddenly—it was that same unnerving hunger he had seen in Mayhew's and Jesek's. It generated an unaccountable coldness in the pit of his belly.

He motioned Sergeant Bothari aside. "Do you still have that old copy of the Barrayaran Imperial Service regs that you used to carry around?" Bothari's bible, it was; Miles had sometimes wondered if the Sergeant had ever read another book.

"Yes, my lord." Bothari gave him a fishy stare, as if to say, Now what?

Miles sighed relief. "Good. I want it."

"What for?"

"Dendarii fleet regulations."

Bothari looked pole-axed. "You'll never—"

"I'll run it through the computer, make a copy—go through and chop out all the cultural references, change the names—it shouldn't take too long."

"My lord—those are the old regulations!" The flat bass voice was almost agitated. "When those gutless slugs get a look at the old discipline parades—"

Miles grinned. "Yeah, if they saw the specs for those lead-lined rubber hoses, they'd probably faint dead away. Don't worry. I'll update them as I go along."

"Your father and the General Staff did that fifteen years ago. It took them two years."

"Well, that's what happens with committees."

Bothari shook his head but told Miles where to find the old data disc among his things.

Elena joined the conference, looking nervous. But, impressive. Miles thought; like a thoroughbred horse.

two days of each

"I've got them divided up into groups, by your list," she reported. "Now what?"

"Go ahead and take your group to the gym now and start the phys-ed class. General conditioning, then start teaching them what your father's taught you."

"I've never taught anybody before .. ."

He smiled up at her, willing confidence into her face, her eyes, her spine. "Look, you can probably kill the first ^s just having them demonstrate what they know on each other, while you stand around and say "Um," and "Hm," and "God help us," and things like that. The important thing isn't to teach them anything, but to keep them busy, wear them out, don't give them time to think or plan or combine their forces. Ifs only for a week. If I can do it," he said manfully, "you can do it."

"I've heard that before somewhere," she muttered.

"And you. Sergeant—take your group and start them on weapons drills. If you run out of Barrayaran drills, the Oseran standard procedures are in the computers, you can filch some of them. Ride them. Baz will be miming his people into the ground down in engineering—spring cleaning like they've never had before. And after I've gotten these regs straightened around, we can start quizzing them on those, too. Tire 'em out."

"My lord," said the Sergeant sternly, "there are twenty of them and four of us. At the end of the week, who do you think is going to be tireder?" He slipped into vehemence. "My first responsibility is your hide, damn it!"

"I'm thinking of my hide, believe me! And you can best cover my hide by going out there and making them believe I'm a mercenary commander."

"You're not a commander, you're a bloody holovid director," muttered Bothari.

The editing job on the Imperial Regulations proved larger and more grueling than Miles had anticipated. Even the wholesale slaughter of such chapters as those detailing instructions for purely Barrayaran ceremonies such as the Emperor's Birthday Review left an enormous mass of material. Miles slashed into it, gutting almost as fast as he could read.

It was the closest look he had ever given to military regulations, and he meditated on them, deep in the night cycle. Organization seemed to be the key. To get huge masses of properly matched men and material to the right place at the right time in the right order with the swiftness required to even grasp survival—to wrestle an infinitely complex and confusing reality into the abstract shape of victory—organization, it seemed, might even outrank courage as a soldierly virtue.

He recalled a remark of his grandfather's—"More battles have been won or lost by the quartermasters than by any general staff." It had been apropos a classic anecdote about a quartermaster who had issued the young guerilla general's troops the wrong ammunition. "I had him hung by his thumbs for a day," Grandfather had reminisced, "but Prince Xav made me take him down." Miles fingered the dagger at his waist, and removed five screens of regulations about ship-mounted plasma weapons, obsolete for a generation.

His sclera were red and his cheeks hollow and grey with beard stubble at the end of the night cycle, but he had boiled his plagarization down into a neat, fierce little handbook for getting everybody's weapons pointed in the same direction. He pressed it into Elena's hands to be copied and distributed before staggering off to wash and change clothes, the better to present a front of eagle-eyed, as opposed to pie-eyed, command before his "new troops."

"Done," he murmured to her. "Does this make me a space pirate?"

She groaned.

Miles did his best to be seen everywhere that day cycle. He re-inspected sickbay, and gave it a grudging pass. He observed both Elena's and the Sergeant's "classes," trying to look as if he were noting every mercenary's performance with stem appraisal, and not in truth nearly falling asleep on his feet. He squeezed time for a private conversation with Mayhew, now manning the RG 132 alone, to bring him up to date and bolster his confidence in the new scheme for holding the prisoners. He drew up some superficial written tests of his new "Dendarii Regulations" for Elena and Bothari to administer.

The mercenary pilot officer's funeral was in the afternoon, ship time. Miles made it a pretext for a rigorous inspection of the mercenaries' personal gear and uniforms: a proper parade. For the sake of example and courtesy, he turned himself and the Botharis out in the best clothes they had from his grandfather's funeral. Their somber brilliance artistically complimented the mercenaries' crisp grey-and whites.

Thorne, pale and silent, observed the sharp turnout with a strange gratitude. Miles was rather pale and silent himself, and breathed an inward sigh of relief when the pilot officer's body was at last safely cremated, his ashes scattered in space. Miles allowed Auson to conduct the brief ceremonies unhindered; his most soaring thespian hypocrisy. Miles felt, was not up to taking over this function.

He withdrew afterward to the cabin he had appropriated, telling Bothari he wanted to study the Oseran's real regulations and procedures. But his concentration was failing him. Odd flashes of formless movement occurred in his peripheral vision. He lay down but could not rest. He resumed pacing with his uneven stride, notions for fine-tuning his prisoner scheme tumbling through his brain but then escaping him. He was grateful when Elena interrupted him with a status report.

He confided to her, rather randomly, a half dozen of his new ideas, then asked her anxiously, "Do they seem to be buying it? I'm not sure how I'm coming across. Are they going to accept orders from a kid?"

She grinned. "Major Daum seems to have taken care of that angle. Apparently he bought what you told him."

"Daum? What did I tell him?"

"About your rejuvenation treatment."

"My what?"

"He seems to think you were on leave from the Dendarii to go to Beta Colony for a rejuvenation treatment. Isn't that what you told him?"

"Hell no!" Miles paced. "I told him I was there for medical treatment, yes—thought it would account for this—" a vague wave of his hand indicating the peculiarities of his body, "combat injuries or something. But—there isn't any such thing as a Betan rejuvenation treatment! That's just a rumor. It's their public health system, and the way they live, and their genetics—"

"You may know it, but a lot of non-Betans don't. Daum seems to think you're not only older but, er, a lot older."

'"Well, naturally he believes it, then, if he thought it up himself." Miles paused. "Bel Thorne must know better, though."

"Bel's not contradicting it." She smirked. "I think it has a crush on you."

Miles rubbed his hands through his hair, and over his numb face. "Baz must realize this rejuvenation rumor is nonsense, too. Better caution him not to correct anybody, though, it works to my advantage. I wonder what he thinks I am? I thought he'd have figured it out by now."

"Oh, Baz has his own theory. I—it's my fault, really. Father's always so worried about political kidnappers, I thought I'd better lead Baz astray."

"Good. What kind of fairy tale did you cook up for him?"

"I think you're right about people believing things they make up themselves. I swear I didn't plant any of this, I just didn't contradict it. He knows you're a Count's son, since you swore him in as an Armsman—aren't you going to get in trouble for that?"

Miles shook his head. "I'll worry about that if we live through this. Just so he doesn't figure out which Count's son."

"Well I think you did a good thing. It seems to mean a lot to him. Anyway, he thinks you're about his age. Your father, whoever he was, disinherited you, and exiled you from Barrayar to ..." she faltered, "to get you out of sight," she finished, raising her chin bravely.

"A," said Miles. "A reasonable theory." He came to the end of a circuit in his pacing and stood absorbed, apparently, by the bare wall in front of him.

"You mustn't blame him for it—"

"I don't." He smiled a quick reassurance, and paced again.

You have a younger brother who has usurped your rightful place as heir—"

He grinned in spite of himself. "Baz is a romantic."

"He's an exile himself, isn't he?" she asked quietly. "Father doesn't like him, but he won't say why ,.." She looked at him expectantly.

"I won't either, then. It's—it's not my business."

"But he's your liegeman now."

"All right, so it is my business. I just wish it weren't. But Baz will have to tell you himself."

She smiled at him. "I knew you'd say that." Oddly, the non-answer seemed to content her.

"How did your last combat class go? I hope they all crawled out on their hands and knees."

She smiled tranquilly. 'Very nearly. Some of the technical people act like they never expected to do that kind of fighting. Others are awfully good—I've kind of got them working on the klutzy ones."

'That's just right," he approved eagerly. "Conserve your own energy, expend theirs. You've grasped the principle."

She glowed in his praise. "You've got me doing so many things I've never done before, new people, things I'd never dreamed of—"

“Yes ..." he stumbled. "I'm sorry I got you into this nightmare. I've been demanding so much of you—but I'll get you out. My word on it. Don't be scared."

Her mouth set in indignation. "I'm not scared! Well— some. But I feel more alive than I've ever been. You make anything seem possible."

The longed-for admiration in her eyes perturbed him. It was too much like hunger. "Elena—this whole thing is balanced on a hoax. If those guys out there wake up and realize how badly they have us outnumbered, we'll crash like—" he cut himself off. That wasn't what she needed to hear. He rubbed his eyes, fingertips pressing hard against them, and paced.

"It's not balanced on a hoax," she said earnestly. "You balance it."

"Isn't that what I said?" He laughed, shakily.

She studied him through narrowed eyes. "When was the last time you slept?"

"Oh, I don't know. I've lost track, with the ships on different clocks. That reminds me, got to get them on the same clock. I'll switch the RG132, that'll be easier. We'll all keep Oseran time. It was before the jump, anyway. A day before the jump."

"Have you had dinner?"



"Lunch? Was there lunch? I was getting things ready for the funeral, I guess."

She looked exasperated. "Breakfast?"

"I ate some of their field rations, when I was working on the regs last night—look, I'm short, I don't need as much as you overgrown types ..."

He paced on. Her face grew sober. "Miles," she said, and hesitated. "How did that pilot officer die? He looked, well, not all right, but he was alive in the shuttle. Did he jump you?"

His stomach did a roller-coaster flop. "My God, do you think J murdered—" But he had, surely, as surely as if he had held a disruptor to the man's head and fired. He had no desire to detail the events in the RG 132's wardroom to Elena. They looped in his memory, violent images flashing over and over. Bothari's crime, his crime, a seamless whole ...

"Miles, are you all right?" Her voice was alarmed. He realized he was standing still with his eyes shut. Tears were leaking between the lids.

"Miles, sit down! You're hyper."

"Can't sit down. If I stop I'll ..." He resumed his circuit, limping mechanically.

She stared at him, her lips parted, then shut her mouth abruptly and slammed out the door.

Now he had frightened her, offended her, perhaps even sabotaged her carefully nurtured confidence ... He swore at himself, savage. He was sinking in a black and sucking bog, gluey viscous terror sapping his vital forward momentum. He waded on, blindly.

Elena's voice again. "—bouncing off the walls. I think you'll have to sit on him. I've never seen him this bad . . ."

Miles looked up into the precious, ugly face of his personal killer. Bothari compressed his lips, and sighed. "Right. I'll take care of it."

Elena, eyes wide with concern but mouth calm with confidence in Bothari, withdrew. Bothari grasped Miles by the back of the collar and belt, frog-marched him over to the bed, and sat him down firmly.


"Oh, hell. Sergeant—you know I can't stand scotch. Tastes like paint thinner."

"I will," said Bothari patiently, "hold your nose and pour it down your throat if I have to."

Miles took in the flinty face and prudently choked down a slug from the flask, which he recognized vaguely as confiscated from mercenary stock. Bothari, with matter-of-fact efficiency, stripped him and slung him into bed.

"Drink again."

"Blech." It burned foully down his throat.

"Now sleep."

"Can't sleep. Too much to do. Got to keep them moving. Wonder if I can fake a brochure? I suppose death-gild is nothing but a primitive form of life insurance, at that. Elena can't possibly be right about Thorne. Hope to God my father never finds out about this—Sergeant, you won't . . . ? I thought of a docking drill with the RG 132 ..." His protests trailed off to a mumble, and he rolled over and slept dreamlessly for sixteen hours.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10