Lois Bujold - "Diplomatic Immunity"

Chapter Six

From Baen Books

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Bel arrived promptly at the Kestrel's hatch, having changed from its staid work uniform into a startling but cheerful orange doublet with glinting, star-decorated blue sleeves, slashed trousers bloused into cuffs at the knee, and color-coordinated midnight-blue hose and friction boots. Variations of the style seemed to be the local high fashion for both males and females, whether with or without legs, judging by Greenlaw's less blinding outfit.

The herm conducted them to a hushed and serene restaurant on the grav side of the station with the usual transparent window-wall overlooking station and starscape. An occasional tug or pod zipped silently past outside, adding interest to the scene. Despite the gravitation, which at least kept food on open plates, the place bowed to quaddie architectural ideals by having tables set on their own private pillars at varying heights, using all three dimensions of the room. Servers flitted back and forth and up and down in floaters. The design pleased everyone but Roic, who cranked his neck around in dismay, watching for trouble in 3-D. But Bel, ever thoughtful, as well as trained in security protocols, had provided Roic with his own perch above theirs, with an overview of the whole room; Roic mounted to his eyrie looking more reconciled.

Nicol was waiting for them at their table, which commanded a superior view out the window-wall. Her garments ran to form-fitting black knits and filmy rainbow scarves; otherwise, her appearance was not much changed from when Miles had first met her so many years and wormhole jumps ago. She was still slim, graceful of movement even in her floater, with pure ivory skin and short-clipped ebony hair, and her eyes still danced. She and Ekaterin regarded each other with great interest, and fell at once into conversation with very little prompting from Bel or Miles.

The talk ranged widely as exquisite food appeared in a smooth stream, presented by the place's well-trained and unobtrusive staff. Music, gardening, and station bio-recycling techniques led to discussion of quaddie population dynamics and the methods—technical, economic, and political—for seeding new habitats in the growing necklace along the asteroid belt. Only old war stories, by a silent, mutual agreement, failed to trickle into the conversational flow.

When Bel guided Ekaterin off to the lavatory between the last course and dessert, Nicol watched her out of earshot, then leaned over and murmured to Miles, "I am glad for you, Admiral Naismith."

He touched a finger briefly to his lips. "Be glad for Miles Vorkosigan. I certainly am." He hesitated, then asked, "Should I be equally glad for Bel?"

Her smile crimped a little. "Only Bel knows. I'm done with traveling the Nexus. I've found my place, home at last. Bel seems happy here too, most of the time, but—well, Bel is a downsider. They get itchy feet, I'm told. Bel talks about making a commitment to the Union, yet . . . somehow, never gets around to applying."

"I'm sure Bel's interested in doing so," Miles offered.

She shrugged, and drained the last of her lemon drink; anticipating her performance later, she had forgone the wine. "Maybe the secret of happiness is to live for today, to never look ahead. Or maybe that's just a habit of mind Bel got into in its former life. All that risk, all that danger—it takes a certain sort to thrive on it. I'm not sure Bel can change its nature, or how much it would hurt to try. Maybe too much."

"Mm," said Miles. I can't offer them a false oath, or divided loyalties, Bel had said. Even Nicol, apparently, was not aware of Bel's second source of income—and hazard. "I do note, Bel could have found a portmaster's berth in quite a few places. It traveled a very long way to get one here, instead."

Nicol's smile softened. "That's so." She added, "Do you know, when Bel arrived at Graf Station, it still had that Betan dollar I'd paid you on Jackson's Whole tucked in its wallet?"

Miles managed to stop the logical query, Are you sure it was the same one? on his lips before it fell out of his mouth leaving room for his downsider foot. One Betan dollar looked like any other. If Bel had claimed it for the same one, when making Nicol's reacquaintance, who was Miles to suggest otherwise? Not that much of a spoilsport, for damn sure.

After dinner they made their way under Bel and Nicol's guidance to the bubble-car system, its arteries of transit recently retrofitted into the three-dimensional maze Graf Station had grown to be. Nicol left her floater in a common rack on the passenger platform. It took their car about ten minutes to wend through the branching tubes to their destination; Miles's stomach lifted when they crossed into the free fall side, and he made haste to slip his antinausea meds from his pocket, swallow one, and offer them discreetly to Ekaterin and Roic.

The entrance to the Madame Minchenko Memorial Auditorium was neither large nor imposing, being just one of several accessible airseal doorways on different levels of the station here. Nicol kissed Bel and flitted off. No crowds yet clogged the cylindrical corridors, as they'd come early to give Nicol time to make her way backstage and change. Miles was therefore unprepared for the vast chamber into which they floated.

It was an enormous sphere. Nearly a third of its interior surface was a round, transparent window-wall, the universe itself turned into backdrop, thick with bright stars on this shaded side of the station. Ekaterin grabbed his hand rather abruptly, and Roic made a small choked noise. Miles had the sense of having swum inside a giant beehive, for the rest of the wall was lined with hexagonal cells like a silver-edged honeycomb filled with rainbow jewels. As they floated out toward the middle the cells resolved into velvet-lined boxes for the audience, varying in size from cozy niches for one patron to units spacious enough for parties of ten, if the ten were quaddies, not trailing long useless legs. Other sectors, interspersed, seemed to be dark, flat panels of various shapes, or to contain other exits. He tried at first to impose a sense of up and down upon the space, but then he blinked, and the chamber seemed to rotate around the window, and then he wasn't sure if he was looking up, down, or sideways through it. Down was a particularly disturbing mental construction, as it gave the dizzy impression of falling into a vast well of stars.

A quaddie usher wearing an air-jet belt took them in tow, after they had gawked their fill, and steered them gently wall-ward to their assigned hexagon. It was lined with some dark, soft, sound-baffling padding and convenient handgrips, and included its own lighting, the colored jewels seen from afar.

A dark shape and a gleam of motion in their generously sized box resolved itself, as they approached, as a quaddie woman. She was slim and long-limbed, with fine white-blond hair cut finger length and waving in an aureole around her head. It made Miles think of mermaids of legend. Cheekbones to inspire men to duel with each other, or perhaps scribble bad poetry, or drown in drink. Or worse, desert their brigade. She was clothed in close-fitting black velvet with a little white lace ruff at her throat. The cuff on the lower right elbow of her softly pleated black velvet pants . . . sleeve, Miles decided, not leg, had been left unfastened to make room for a medical air-filled arm immobilizer of a sort painfully familiar to Miles from his fragile-boned youth. It was the only stiff, ungraceful thing about her, a crude insult to the rest of the ensemble.

No mistaking her for anyone other than Garnet Five, but he waited for Bel to introduce them all properly, which Bell promptly did. They shook hands all around; Miles found her grip athlete-firm.

"Thank you for obtaining these—" seats did not apply, "this space for us on such short notice," Miles said, releasing her slim upper hand. "I understand we are to be privileged to view some very fine work." Work was a word with extra resonance in Quaddiespace, he had already gathered, like honor on Barrayar.

"My pleasure, Lord Vorkosigan." Her voice was melodious; her expression seemed cool, almost ironic, but an underlying anxiety glowed in her leaf-green eyes.

Miles opened his hand to indicate her broken lower right arm. "May I convey my personal apologies for the poor behavior of some of our men. They will be disciplined for it, when we get them back. Please do not judge all Barrayarans by our worst examples." Well, she can't; we actually don't ship out our worst, Gregor be praised.

She smiled briefly. "I do not, for I've also met your best." The urgency in her eyes tinged her voice. "Dmitri—what will happen to him?"

"Well, that depends to a great extent on Dmitri." Pitches, Miles suddenly realized, could run two ways, here. "It could range, when he is released and returns to duty, from a minor black mark on his record—he wasn't supposed to remove his wrist com while on station leave, you know, for just the sort of reason you unfortunately discovered—to a very serious charge of attempted desertion, if he fails to withdraw his request for political asylum before it is denied."

Her jaw set a trifle. "Perhaps it won't be denied."

"Even if granted, the long-term consequences could be more complex than you perhaps anticipate. He would at that point be plainly guilty of desertion. He would be permanently exiled from his home, never able to return or see his family. Barrayar might seem a world well lost now, in the first flush of . . . emotion, but I think—I'm sure—it's something he could come to deeply regret later." He thought of melancholy Baz Jesek, exiled for years over an even more badly managed conflict. "There are other, if less speedy, ways Ensign Corbeau might yet end up back here, if his desire to do so is true will and not temporary whim. It would take a little more time, but be infinitely less damaging—he's playing for the rest of his life with this, after all."

She frowned. "Won't the Barrayaran military have him shot, or horribly butchered, or—or assassinated?"

"We are not at war with the Union." Yet, anyway. It would take more heroic blundering than this to make that happen, but he ought not to underestimate his fellow Barrayarans, he supposed. And he didn't think Corbeau was politically important enough to assassinate. So let's try to make sure he doesn't become so, eh? "He wouldn't be executed. But twenty years in jail is hardly better, from your point of view. You don't serve him or yourself by encouraging him to this desertion. Let him return to duty, serve out his hitch, get passage back. If you're both still of the same mind then, continue your relationship without his unresolved legal status poisoning your future together."

Her expression had grown still more grimly stubborn. He felt horribly like some stodgy parent lecturing his angst-ridden teenager, but she was no child. He'd have to ask Bel her age. Her grace and authority of motion might be the results of her dancer's training. He remembered that they were supposed to be looking cordial, so tried to soften his words with a belated smile.

She said, "We wish to become partners. Permanently."

After only two weeks of acquaintance, are you so sure? He strangled this comment in his throat as Ekaterin's sideways glance at him put him in mind of just how many days—or was it hours?—it had taken him to fall in love with her. Granted, the permanently part had taken longer. "I can certainly see why Corbeau would wish that." The reverse was more puzzling, of course. In both cases. He himself did not find Corbeau lovable—his strongest emotion so far was a deep desire to whack the ensign on the side of the head—but this woman clearly didn't see him that way.

"Permanently?" said Ekaterin doubtfully. "But . . . don't you think you might wish to have children someday? Or might he?"

Garnet Five's expression grew hopeful. "We've talked about having children together. We're both interested."

"Um, er," said Miles. "Quaddies are not interfertile with downsiders, surely?"

"Well, one has to make choices, before they go into the replicators, just as a herm crossing with a monosexual has to choose whether to have the genetics adjusted to produce a boy or a girl or a herm. Some quaddie-downsider partnerships have quaddie children, some have downsiders, some have some of each—Bel, show Lord Vorkosigan your baby pictures!"

Miles's head swiveled around. "What?"

Bel blushed, and dug in its trouser pocket. "Nicol and I . . . when we went to the geneticist for counseling, they ran a projection of all the possible combinations, to help us choose." The herm held up a holocube, and turned it on. Six full-length still shots of children sprang into being above its hand. They were all frozen in their early teens, with the sense of adult features just starting to emerge from childhood's roundness. They had Bel's eyes, Nicol's jawline, hair a brownish black with that familiar swipe of a forelock. A boy, a girl, and a herm with legs; a boy, a girl, and a herm quaddie.

"Oh, said Ekaterin, reaching for it. "How interesting."

"The facial features are just an electronic blend of Nicol's and mine, not a genuine genetic projection," Bel explained, willingly giving the cube to her. "For that, they'd need an actual cell from a real conceptus, which, of course, they can't have till a real one is made for the genetic modifications."

Ekaterin turned the array back and forth, examining the portraits from all angles. Miles, looking over her shoulder, told himself firmly that it was probably just as well that his holovid of the blandly blastular Aral Alexander and Helen Natalia was still in his luggage back aboard the Kestrel. But maybe later he would have a chance to show Bel—

"Have you two finally decided what you want?" asked Garnet Five.

"A little quaddie girl, to start. Like Nicol." Bel's face softened, then, abruptly, recovered its habitual ironic smile. "Assuming I take the plunge and apply for my Union citizenship."

Miles imagined Garnet Five and Dmitri Corbeau with a string of handsome, athletic quaddie children. Or Bel and Nicol, with a clutch of smart, musical ones. It made his head spin. Roic, looking quietly boggled, shook his head at Ekaterin's profferment of a closer examination of the holo-array.

"Ah," said Bel. "The show's about to start." The herm retrieved the holocube and switched it off, and plunged it back safely deep in the pocket of its baggy blue knee breeches, carefully fastening the flap.

The auditorium had filled to capacity while they spoke, the honeycomb of cells now harboring an attentive crowd including a fair smattering of other downsiders, though whether Union citizen or galactic visitor Miles could not always tell. No green Barrayaran uniforms tonight, in any case. The lights dimmed; the hubbub quieted, and a few last quaddies sped across to their boxes and settled in. A couple of downsiders who had misjudged their momentum and were stranded in the middle were rescued by the ushers and towed to their box, earning a quiet snicker from the quaddies who noticed. An electric tension filled the air, the odd blend of hope and fear that any live performance bore, with its risk of imperfection, chance of greatness. The lights dimmed further, till only the blue-white starshine glinted off the chamber's array of now-crowded cells.

Lights flared, an exuberant fountain of red and orange and gold, and from all sides, the performers flowed in. Thundered in. Quaddie males, athletic and vastly enthusiastic, in skin-fitting ship knits made splendid with glitter. Drumming.

I wasn't expecting hand drums. Other free fall performances Miles had seen, whether dance or gymnastic, had been eerily silent except for the music and sound effects. Quaddies made their own noise, and still had hands left to play hands-across; the drummers met in the middle, clasped, gripped, exchanged momentum, turned, and doubled back in a shifting pattern. Two dozen men in free fall took up perfect station in the center of the spherical auditorium, their motion so controlled as to permit no sideways drift as the energy of their spins and duckings, twistings and turnings, flowed through their bodies one to another and on around again. The air pulsed with the rhythm of their drumming: drums of all sizes, round, oblong, two-headed; not only played by each holder, but some batted back and forth among them in an eye-and-ear-stunning cross between music and juggling, never missing a beat or a blow. The lights danced. Reflections spattered on the walls, picking out flashes from the boxes of upraised hands, arms, bright cloth, jewelry, entranced faces.

Then, from another entrance, a dozen female quaddies all in blues and greens geysered up into the growing, geodesic pattern, and joined the dance. All Miles could think was, Whoever first brought castanets to Quaddiespace has much to answer for. They added a laughing descant note to the percussive braid of sound; hand drums and castanets, no other instruments. None needed. The round chamber reverberated, fairly rocked. He stole a glance sideways; Ekaterin's lips were parted, her eyes wide and shining, drinking in all this booming splendor without reserve.

Miles considered Barrayaran marching bands. It wasn't enough that humans did something so difficult as learning to play a musical instrument. Then they had to do it in groups. While walking around. In complicated patterns. And then they competed with one another to do it even better. Excellence, this kind of excellence, could never have any sane economic justification. It had to be done for the honor of one's country, or one's people, or the glory of God. For the joy of being human.

The piece ran for twenty minutes, until the players were gasping and sweat spun off them in tiny drops to speed in sparking streaks into the darkness, and still they whirled and thundered. Miles had to stop himself from hyperventilating in sympathy, heartbeat synchronized with their rhythms. Then, one last grand blast of joyous noise—and somehow the shifting net of four-armed men and women resolved itself into two chains, which flowed away into the exits from which they had emerged a revelation ago.

Darkness again. The silence was like a blow; behind him, Miles heard Roic exhale reverently, longingly, like a man home from war easing himself into his own bed for the first time.

The applause—hand-clapping, of course—rocked the room. No one in the Barrayaran party, Miles thought, had to pretend enthusiasm for quaddie culture now.

The chamber hushed again as the orchestra emerged from four points and filtered into positions all around the great window. The half-a-hundred quaddies bore a more standard array of instruments—all acoustic, Ekaterin observed to him in a fascinated whisper. They spotted Nicol, assisted by two more quaddies who helped manage and secure her harp, which was nearly the usual shape for a harp, and her double-sided hammer dulcimer, appearing to be a dull oblong box from this angle. But the piece that followed included a solo section for her with the dulcimer, her ivory face picked out in spotlights, and the music that poured forth between her four flashing hands was anything but dull. Radiantly ethereal; heartbreaking; electrifying.

Bel must have seen this dozens of times, Miles guessed, but the herm was surely as entranced as any newcomer. It wasn't just a lover's smile that illuminated Bel's eyes. Yes. You would not be loving her properly if you did not also love her improvident, lavish, spendthrift excellence. No jealous lover, greedy and selfish, could hoard it all; it had to be poured forth upon the world, or burst its wellspring. He glanced at Ekaterin, and thought of her glorious gardens, much missed back on Barrayar. I shall not keep you away from them much longer, love, I promise.

There was a brief pause, while quaddie stagehands arranged a few mysterious poles and bars sticking in at odd angles around the interior of the sphere. Garnet Five, floating sideways with respect to Miles, murmured over her shoulder, "Coming up is the piece I usually dance. It's an excerpt from a larger work, Aljean's classic ballet The Crossing, which tells the story of our people's migration through the Nexus to Quaddiespace. It's the love duet between Leo and Silver. I dance Silver. I hope my understudy doesn't muck it up . . ." she trailed off as the overture swelled.

Two figures, a downsider male and a blond quaddie woman, floated in from opposite sides of the space, picked up momentum with hand-spins around a couple of the poles, and met in the middle. No drums this time, just sweet, liquid sound from the orchestra. The Leo character's legs trailed uselessly, and it took Miles a moment to realize that he was being played by a quaddie dancer with dummy legs. The woman's use of angular momentum, drawing in or extending various arms as she twirled or spun, was brilliantly controlled, her changes of trajectory around the various poles precise. Only a few indrawn breaths and critical mutters from Garnet Five suggested anything less than perfection to Miles's perceptions. The false-legged fellow was deliberately clumsy, earning a chuckle from the quaddie audience. Miles shifted uncomfortably, realizing he was watching a near-parody of how downsiders looked to quaddie eyes. But the woman's charming gestures of assistance made it seem more endearing than cruel. Bel, grinning, leaned over to murmur in Miles's ear, "It's all right. Leo Graf's supposed to dance like an engineer. He was."

The love angle of it all was clear enough. Affairs between quaddies and downsiders apparently had a long and honorable history. It occurred to Miles that certain aspects of his youth might have been rendered much easier if Barrayar had possessed a repertoire of romantic tales starring short, crippled heroes, instead of mutie villains. If this was a fair sample, it was clear that Garnet Five was culturally primed to play Juliet to her Barrayaran Romeo. But let's not enact a tragedy this time, eh?

The enchanting piece drew to a climax, and the two dancers saluted the enthusiastically clapping audience before making their way out. The lights came up; break time. Performance art was fundamentally constrained, Miles realized, by biology, in this case the capacity of the human bladder, whether downsider or quaddie.

When they all rendezvoused again in their box, he found Garnet Five explaining quaddie naming conventions to Ekaterin.

"No, it's not a surname," said Garnet Five. "When quaddies were first made by the GalacTech Corporation, there were only one thousand of us. Each had just one given name, plus a numerical designation, and with so few, each name was unique. When our ancestors fled to their freedom, they altered what the numbers coded, but kept the system of single, unique names, tracked in a register. With all of old Earth's languages to draw on, it was several generations before the system really began to be strained. The waiting lists for the really popular names were insanely long. So they voted to allow duplication, but only if the name had a numerical suffix, so we could always tell every Leo from every other Leo. When you die, your name-number goes back in the registry to be drawn again."

"I have a Leo Ninety-nine in my docks and locks crew," said Bel. "It's the highest number I've run across yet. Lower numbers, or none, seem to be preferred."

"I've never run across any of the other Garnets," said Garnet Five. "There were eight altogether somewhere in the Union, last time I looked it up."

"I'll bet there will be more," said Bel. "And it'll be your fault."

Garnet Five laughed. "I can wish!"

The second half of the show was as impressive as the first. During one of the musical interludes, Nicol had an exquisite harp part. There were two more large group dances, one abstract and mathematical, the other narrative, apparently based on a tragic pressurization disaster of a prior generation. The finale put everyone out in the middle, for a last vigorous, dizzying whirl, with drummers, castanet players, and orchestra combining in musical support that could only be described as massive.

It felt to Miles as though the performance ended all too soon, but his chrono told him four hours had passed in this dream. He bade a grateful but noncommittal farewell to Garnet Five. As Bel and Nicol escorted the three Barrayarans back to the Kestrel in the bubble car, he reflected on how cultures told their stories to themselves, and so defined themselves. Above all, the ballet celebrated the quaddie body. Surely no downsider could walk out of the quaddie ballet still imagining the four-armed people as mutated, crippled, or otherwise disadvantaged or inferior. One might even—as Corbeau had demonstrated—walk out having free-fallen in love.

Not that all crippling damage was visible to the eye. All this exuberant athleticism reminded him to check his brain chemical levels before bed, and see how soon his next seizure was likely to be.