Lois McMaster Bujold, "The Warrior Apprentice"

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CHAPTER FIVE

"Well, well, well," said the sleek Betan customs agent, in sarcastic simulation of good cheer. "If it isn't Sergeant Bothari of Barrayar. And what did you bring me this time. Sergeant? A few nuclear antipersonnel mines, overlooked in your back pocket? A maser cannon or two, accidentally mixed up with your shaving kit? A gravitic imploder, slipped somehow into your boot?"

The Sergeant answered this sally with something between a growl and a grunt.

Miles grinned, and dredged his memory for the agent's name. "Good afternoon. Officer Timmons. Still working the line, are you? I thought for sure you'd be in administration by now."

The agent gave Miles a somewhat more courteous nod of greeting. "Good afternoon. Lord Vorkosigan. Well, civil service, you know." He sorted through their documents and plugged a data disc into his viewer. "Your stunner permits are in order. Now if you will please step, one at a time, through this scanner?"

Sergeant Bothari frowned at the machine glumly, and sniffed disdain. Miles tried to catch his eye, but he was studiously finding something of interest in midair somewhere. On the suspicion. Miles said, "Elena and I first, I think."

Elena passed through with a stiff uncertain smile like a person holding still too long for a photograph, then continued to look eagerly around. Even if it was only a rather bleak underground customs entry port, it was another planet. Miles hoped Beta Colony would make up for the disappointing fizzle of the Escobar layover.

Two days of records searches and trudging through neglected military cemetries in the rain, pretending to Bothari a passion for historical detail, had produced no maternal grave or cenotaph after all. Elena had seemed more relieved than disappointed by the failure of their covert search.

"You see?" she had whispered to Miles. "Father didn't lie to me. You have a hyper imagination."

The Sergeant's own bored reaction to the tour clinched the argument; Miles conceded. And yet ...

It was his hyper imagination, maybe. The less they found the more queasy Miles became. Were they looking in the wrong army's cemetery? Miles's own mother had changed allegiances to return to Barrayar with his father; maybe Bothari's romance had not taken so prosperous a turn. But if that were so, should they even be looking in cemeteries? Maybe he should be hunting Elena's mother in the comm link directory ... He did not quite dare suggest it.

He wished he had not been so intimidated by the conspiracy of silence surrounding Elena's birth to refrain from pumping Countess Vorkosigan. Well, when they returned home he would screw up his courage and demand the truth of her, and let her wisdom guide him as to how much to pass on to Bothari's daughter.

For now. Miles stepped after Elena through the scanner, enjoying her air of wonder, and looking forward like a magician to pulling Beta Colony out of a hat for her delight.

The Sergeant stepped through the machine. It gave a rude blat.

Agent Timmons shook his head and sighed. "You never give up, do you. Sergeant?"

"Ah, if I may interrupt," said Miles, "the lady and I are cleared, are we not?" Receiving a nod, he retrieved their stunners and his own travel documentation. "I'll show Elena around the shuttleport, then, while you two are discussing your, er, differences. You can bring the luggage when he gets done with it, Sergeant. Meet you in the main concourse."

"You will not-" began Bothari.

"We'll be perfectly all right.' Miles assured him airily. He grasped Elena's elbow and hustled her off before his bodyguard could marshall further objections.

Elena looked back over her shoulder. "Is my father really trying to smuggle in an illegal weapon?"

"Weapons. I expect so," said Miles apologetically. "I don't authorize it, and it never works, but I guess he feels undressed without deadly force. If the Betans are as good at spotting everyone else's goods as they are at spotting ours, we really don't have anything to worry about."

He watched her, sideways, as they entered the main concourse, and had the satisfaction of seeing her catch her breath. Golden light, at once brilliant and comfortable, spun down from a huge high vault upon a great tropical garden, dark with foliage, vibrant with flowers and birds, murmurous with fountains.

"It's like stepping into a giant terrarium," she commented. "I feet tike a little homed hopper."

"Exactly," he agreed/The Silica Zoo maintains it. One of their extended habitats."

They strolled toward an area given over to small shops. He steered Elena carefully atong, trying to pick out things she might enjoy, and avoid catastrophic culture shock. That sex-aids shop, for example, was probably a little too much for her first hour on the planet, no matter how attractive the pink when she blushed. However, they spent a pleasant few minutes in a most extraordinary pet store. His good sense barely restrained him from making her an awkward present of a large ruffed Tau Cetan beaded lizard, bright as jewelry, that caught her eye. It had rather strict dietary requirements, and besides. Miles was not quite sure if the 50 kilo beast could be housebroken. They wandered along a balcony overlooking the great garden, and he bought them rational ice creams, instead. They sat on the bench lining the railing to eat.

"Everything seems so free, here," Elena said, licking her fingers and looking around with shining eyes. "You don't see soldiers and guards all over the place. A woman-a woman could be anything here."

"Depends on what you mean by free," said Miles. 'They put up with rules we'd never tolerate at home. You should see everyone fall into place during a power outage drill, or a sandstorm alarm. They have no margin for-I don't know how to put it. Social failures?"

Elena gave him a baffled smile, not understanding. "But everyone arranges their own marriages."

"But did you know you have to have a permit to have a child here? The first one is free, but after that ..."

"That's absurd," she remarked absently. "How could they possibly enforce it?" She evidently felt her question to be rather bold, for she took a quick glance around, to be sure the Sergeant was nowhere near.

Miles echoeaher glance. "Permanent contraceptive implants, for the women and hermaphrodites. You need the permit to get it removed. It's the custom, at puberty-a girl gets her implant, and her ears pierced, sad her, er, urn-" Miles discovered he was not immune to pinkness himself-he went on in a rush, "her hymen cut, all on the same visit to the doctor. There's usually a family party-sort of a rite of passage. That's how you can tell if a girl's available, the ears ..."

He had her entire attention, now. Her hands stole to her earrings, and she went not merely pink, but red. "Miles! Are they going to dunk I'm-"

"Well, it's just mat-if anyone bothers you, I mean if your father or I aren't around, don't be afraid to tell them to take themselves off. They will. They don't mean it as an insult, here. But I figured I'd better warn you." He gnawed a knuckle, eyes crinkling. "You know, if you intend to walk around for the next six weeks with your hands over your ears ..."

She replaced her hands hastily in her lap, and glowered at him.

"It can get awfully peculiar, I know," he offered apologetically. A scorching memory of just how peculiar disturbed him for a moment.

He had been fifteen on his year-long school visit to Beta Colony, and he'd found himself for the first time in his life with what looked like unlimited possibilities for sexual intimacy. This illusion had crashed and burned very quickly, as he found the most fascinating girls already taken. The rest seemed about equally divided among good Samaritans, the kinky/curious, hermaphrodites, and boys.

He did not care to be an object of charity, and he found himself too Barrayaran for the last two categories, although Betan enough not to mind them for others. A short affair with a girl from the lanky/curious category was enough. Her fascination with the peculiarities of his body made him, in the end, more self-conscious than the most open revulsion he had experienced on Barrayar, with its fierce prejudice against deformity. Anyway, after finding his sexual parts disappointingly normal, the girl had drifted off.

The affair had ended, for Miles, in a terrifying black depression that had deepened for weeks, culminating at last late one night in the third, and most secret, time the Sergeant had saved his life. He had cut Bothari twice, in their silent struggle for the knife, exerting hysterical strength against the Sergeant's frightened caution of breaking his bones. The tall man had finally achieved a grip that held him, and held him, until he broke down at last, weeping his self-hatred into the Sergeant's bloodied breast until exhaustion finally stilled him. The man who'd carried him as a child, before he first walked at age four, then carried him like a child to bed. Bothari treated his own wounds, and never referred to the incident again.

Age fifteen had not been a very good year. Miles was determined not to repeat it. His hand tightened on the balcony railing, in a mood of objectless resolve. Objectless, like himself; therefore useless. He frowned into the black well of this thought, and for a moment even Beta Colony's glitter seemed dull and grey.

Four Betans stood nearby, arguing in a vociferous undertone. Miles turned half around, to get a better view of the speakers past Elena's elbow. Elena began to speak, something about his abstraction. He shook his head, and held up a hand, begging silence. She subsided, watch him curiously.

"Damn it," a heavy man in a green sarong was saying "I don't care how you do it, but I want that lunatic pri( out of my ship. Can't you rush him?"

The woman in the uniform of Betan Security shook her head. "Look, Calhoun, why should I risk my people lives for a ship that's practically scrap anyway? It's n as if he was holding hostages or something."

"I have a salvage team tied up waiting that's collecting time-and-a-half for overtime. He's been up there three days-he's got to sleep sometime, or take a leak or son goddamn thing," argued the civilian.

"If he's as hopped-up crazy as you claim, not hil would be more likely to trigger his blowing it than rush. Wait him out." The security woman turned to man in the dove-grey and black uniform of one of the larger commercial spacelines. Silver hair in his sideburn echoed the triple silver circles of his pilot's neurologic implant on mid-forehead and temples. "Or talk him 01 You know him, he's a member of your union, can't you do anything with him?"

"Oh, no you don't," objected the pilot officer. "You not shoving this one off on me. He doesn't want to ta to me anyway, he's made that clear."

"You're on the Board this year, you ought to have some authority with him-threaten to revoke his pilot certification or something."

"Arde Mayhew may still be in the Brotherhood, he's two years in arrears on his dues, his license is shaky ground already, and frankly, I think this episode going to cook it. The whole point of this bananarama the first place is that once the last of the RG ships goes for scrap," the pilot officer nodded toward the bulky civilian, "he isn't going to be a pilot anymore. He's bee medically rejected for a new implant-it wouldn't do hi any good even if he had the money. And I know damn well he doesn't. He tried to borrow rent money from n last week. At least, he said it was for rent. More like for that swill he drinks."

"Did you give it to him?" asked the woman in the blue uniform of shuttleport administrator.

'"Well - yes," replied the pilot officer moodily. "But I told him it was absolutely the last. Anyway . . ." he frowned at his boots, then burst out, "I'd rather see him go out in a blaze of glory than die of being beached! I know how I'd feel if I knew I'd never make a jump again . . ." He compressed his lips, defensive-aggressive, at the shuttleport administrator.

"All pilots are crazy," muttered the security woman. "Comes from getting their brains pierced."

So Miles eavesdropped, shamelessly fascinated. The man they were discussing was a fellow-freak, it seemed, a loser in trouble. A wormhole jump pilot with an obsolete coupler system running through his brain, soon to be technologically unemployed, holed up in his old ship, fending off the wrecking crews-how? Miles wondered.

"A blaze of traffic hazards, you mean," complained the shuttleport administrator. "If he makes good on his threats, there'll be junk pelting all through the inner orbits for days. We'd have to shut down-clean it up-" she turned to the civilian, completing the circle, "and you'd better believe it won't be charged to my department! I'll see your company gets the bill if I have to take it all the way to JusDep."

The salvage operator paled, then went red. 'Tour department permitted that hot-wired freak-head access to my ship in the first place," he snarled.

"He said he'd left some personal effects," she defended. "We didn't know he had anything like this in mind."

Miles pictured the man, huddled in his dim recess, stripped of allies, like the last survivor of a hopeless siege. His hand clenched unconsciously. His ancestor. General Count Selig Vorkosigan, had raised the famous siege of Vorkosigan Surleau with no more than a handful of picked retainers, and subterfuge, it was said.

"Elena," he whispered fiercely, stilling her restlessness, "follow my lead, and say nothing."

"Hm?" she murmured, startled.

"Ah, good. Miss Bothari, you're here," he said loudly, as if he had just arrived. He gathered her up and marched up to the group.

He knew he confused strangers as to his age. At first glance, his height led them to underestimate it. At second, his face, slightly dark from a tendency to heavy beard growth in spite of close shaving, and prematurely set from long intimacy with pain, led them to overestimate. He'd found he could tip the balance either way at will, by a simple change of mannerisms. He summoned ten generations of warriors to his back, and produced his most austere smile.

"Good afternoon, ladies, gentlemen," he hailed them. Four stares greeted him, variously nonplused. His urbanity almost crumpled under the onslaught, but he held the line. "I was told one of you could tell me where to, fa\d Pilot Officer Arde Mayhew."

'"Who the devil are you?' growled the salvage operator, apparently voicing the thought of them all.

Miles bowed smoothly, barely restraining himself from swirling an imaginary cape. "Lord Miles Vorkosigan, of Barrayar, at your service. This is my associate. Miss Bothari. I couldn't help overhearing-I believe I might be of assistance to you all, if you will permit me .. ." Beside him, Elena raised puzzled eyebrows at her new, if vague, official status.

"Look, kid," began the shuttleport administrator. Miles glanced up from lowered brows, shooting her his best imitation General Count Piotr Vorkosigan military glare.

"-sir" she corrected herself. "Just, uh-just what do you want with Pilot Officer Mayhew?"

Miles gave an upward jerk of his chin.'I have been commissioned to discharge a debt to him." Self-commissioned, about ten seconds ago ...

"Somebody owes money to Arde?" asked the salvage operator, amazed.

Miles drew himself up, looking offended. "Not money," he growled, as though he never touched the sordid stuff. * It's a debt of honor."

The shuttleport administrator looked cautiously impressed; the pilot officer, pleased. The security woman looked dubious. The salvage operator looked extremely dubious. "How does that help me?" he asked bluntly.

'I can talk Pilot Officer Mayhew out of your ship's' said Miles, seeing ms path opening before him, "if you provide me with the means of meeting him face to face." Elena gulped; he quelled her with a narrow, sideways flick of a glance.

The four Betans looked, one to another, as if responsibility could be shuffled off by eye contact. Finally the pilot officer said, '"Well, what the hell. Does anybody have a better idea?"

In the control chair of the personnel shuttle the grey-haired senior pilot officer spoke-once again-into his comconsole. "Arde? Arde, this is Van. Answer me, please? I've brought up somebody to talk things over with you. He's going to come on board. All right, Arde? You're not going to do anything foolish now, are you?"

Silence was his sole reply. "Is he receiving you?" asked Miles.

"His comconsole is. Whether he's got the volume turned up, or is there, or awake, or-or alive, is anybody's guess."

"I'm alive," growled a thick voice suddenly from the speaker, making them both start. There was no video. "But you won't be. Van, if you try to board my ship, you double-crossing son of a bitch."

"I won't try," promised the senior pilot officer. "Just Mister, uh. Lord Vorkosigan, here."

There was a moody silence, if the static-spattered hiss could be so described. "He doesn't work for that bloodsucker Calhoun does he?" asked the speaker suspiciously.

"He doesn't work for anybody," Van soothed.

"Not for the Mental Health Board? Nobody's going to get near me with a damn dart gun-I'll blow us all to hell, first ..."

"He's not even Betan. He's a Barrayarian. Says he's been looking for you."

Another silence. Then the voice, uncertain, querulous, "I don't owe any Barrayarans-I don't think ... I don't even know any Barrayarans."

There was an odd feeling of pressure, and a gentle click from the exterior of the hull, as they came in contact with the old freighter. The pilot waved a finger by way of signal at Miles, and Miles made the hatch connections secure. "Ready," he called.

'Ton sure you want to do this?" whispered the pilot officer.

Miles nodded. It had been a minor miracle, escaping the protection of Bothari. He licked his lips, and grinned, enjoying the exhilaration of weightlessness and fear. He trusted Elena would prevent any unnecessary alarm, planetside.

Miles opened the hatch. There was a puff of air, as the pressure within the two ships equalized. He stared into a pitch-dark tunnel. "Got a hand light?"

"On the rack there," the pilot officer pointed.

Provided, Miles floated cautiously into the tube. The darkness skulked ahead of him, hiding in comers and cross corridors, and crowding in behind him as he passed. He threaded his way toward the Navigation and Communications Room, where his quarry was presumed to be lurking. The distance was actually short-the crew's quarters were small, most of the ship being given over to cargo space-but the absolute silence gave the journey a subjective stretch. Zero-gee was now having its usual effect on making him regret the last thing he'd eaten. . Vanilla, he thought; I should have had vanilla.

There was a aim light ahead, spilling into the corridor from an open hatch. Miles cleared his throat, loudly, as he approached. It might be better not to startle the man, all things considered.

"Pilot Officer Mayhew?" he called softly, and pulled himself to the door. "My name is Miles Vorkosigan, and I'm looking for-looking for-" what the devil was he looking for? Oh, well. Wing it. 'I'm looking for desperate men," he finished in style.

Pilot Officer Mayhew sat strapped in his pilot's chair in a mournful huddle. Clutched in his lap were his pilot's headset, a half-full liter squeeze bottle of a gurgling liquid of a brilliant and poisonous green, and a box hastily connected by a spaghetti-mass of wiring to a half-gutted control panel and topped by a toggle switch. Quite as fascinating as the toggle box was a dark, slender, and by Betan law very illegale little needle gun. Mayhew blinked puffed and red-rimmed eyes at me apparition in his doorway, and rubbed a hand-still holding the lethal needier-over a three-day beard stubble. "Oh, yeah?" he replied vaguely.

Miles was temporarily distracted by the needier. "How did you ever get that through Betan customs?" he asked in a tone of genuine admiration. "I've never been able to carry so much as a sling-shot past 'em."

Mayhew stared at the needier in his hand as if he'd just discovered it, like a wart grown unnoticed. "Bought it at Jackson's Whole once. I've never tried to take it off the ship. I suppose they'd take it away from me, if I tried. They take everything away from you, down there." He sighed

Miles eased into the room, and arranged himself cross-legged in midair, in what he hoped was a nice, nonthreatening sort of listening posture. "How did you ever get into this fix?" he asked, with a nod around that included the ship, the situation, and Mayhew's lap-full of objects.

Mayhew shrugged. "Rotten luck. I've always had rotten luck. That accident with the RG 88-it was the moisture from those busted amphor tubes that soaked those dal bags that swelled and split the bulkhead and started the whole thing. The 'port cargo master didn't even get a slap on the wrist. Damn it, what I did or didn't have to drink wouldn't have made a damn bit of difference!" He sniffed, and drew a sleeve across his flushed face, looking alarmingly as if he were about to weep. It was a very disturbing thing to see in a man pushing. Miles estimated, forty years of age. Mayhew took a swig from his bottle instead, then with some dim remnant of courtesy offered it to Miles.

Miles smiled politely and took it. Should he grab this chance to dump it out, in the interests of sobering Mayhew up? There were drawbacks to the idea, in free fall. It would have to be dumped into something else, if he were not to spend his visit dodging flying blobs of whatever-it-was. Hard to make it look like an accident

While he mulled, he sampled it, in the interests of scientific inquiry.

He barely managed not to choke it into free fall, atomized. Thick, green herbal, sweet as syrup-he nearly gagged on the sweetness-perhaps 60% pure ethanol. But what was the rest of it? It burned down his esophagus, making him feel suddenly like an animated display of the digestive system, with all the different parts picked out in colored lights. Respectfully, he wiped the mouthpiece on his sleeve and handed the bottle to its owner, who tucked it back under his arm.

"Thanks," Miles gasped. Mayhew nodded. "So how," Miles aspirated, then cleared his throat to a more normal tone, "what are you planning to do next? What are you demanding?"

"Demanding?" said Mayhew. "Next? I don't-I'm just not going to let that cannibal Calhoun murder my snip. There isn't-there isn't any next." He rocked the box with the toggle switch on his lap, a miserable madonna. "Have you ever been red?" he asked suddenly.

Miles had a confused vision of ancient Earth political parties. "No, I'm Vor/' he said, not sure if that was the right response. But it seemed not to matter. Mayhew souliquized on.

"Red. The color red. Pure light I was, once, on the jump to some little hole of a place called Hespari II. There's no experience in life like a jump. If you've never ridden the lights in your brain-colors no man's ever put a name to-there are no words for it. Better than dreams, or nightmares-better than a woman-better than food or drink or sleep or breath-and they pay us for it! Poor deluded suckers, with nothing under their skulls but protoplasm ..." He peered blurrily at Miles. "Oh, sorry. Nothing personal. You're just not a pilot. I never took a cargo to Hespari again." He focused on Miles a little more clearly. "Say, you're a mess, aren't you?"

"Not as much of a mess as you are," Miles replied frankly, nettled.

"Mm," the pilot agreed. He passed his bottle back.

Curious stuff, thought Miles. Whatever was in it seemed to be counteracting the usual effect ethanol had on him of putting him to sleep. He felt warm and energetic, as if it flowed right down to his fingers and toes. It was probably how Mayhew had kept awake for three days, alone in this deserted can.

"So," Miles went on scornfully, "you haven't got a battle plan. You haven't asked for a million Betan dollars in small unmarked slips, or threatened to drop the ship through the roof of the shuttleport, or taken hostages, or-or anything constructive at all. You're just sitting up here, killing time and your bottle, and wasting your opportunities, for want of a little resolve, or imagination, or something."

Mayhew Blinked at this unexpected point of view. "By God, Van told the truth for once. You're not from the Mental Health Board ... I could take you hostage," he offered placatingly, swinging the needier toward Miles.

"No, don't do that," said Miles hastily. "I can't explain, but-they'd overreact, down there. It's a bad idea."

"Oh." The needler's aim drifted off. "But anyway, don't you see," he tapped his headset, attempting to explain, "what I want, they can't give me? I want to ride the jumps. And I can't, not any more."

"Only in this ship, I gather."

"This ship is going for scrap," his despair was flat, unexpectedly rational, "just as soon as I can't stay awake any more."

"That's a useless attitude," scoffed Miles. "Apply a little logic to the problem, at least. I mean like this. You want to be a jump pilot. You can only be a jump pilot for an RG ship. This is the last RG ship' Ergo, what you need is this ship. So get it. Be a pilot-owner. Run your own cargos. Simple, see? May I have some more of that stuff, please?" One got used to the ghastly taste quite quickly, Miles found.

Mayhew shook his head, clutching his despair and his toggle box to him like a familiar, comforting child's toy. "I tried. I've tried everything. I thought I had a loan. It folded, and anyway, Calhoun outbid me."

"Oh." Miles passed the bottle back, feeling deflated. He gazed at the pilot, to whom he was now floating at right angles. '"Well, all I know is, you can't give up. Shur-surrender besmirches the honor of the Vor." He began to hum a little, a snatch of some half-remembered childhood ballad; "The Siege of Silver Moon." It had a Vor lord in it, he recalled, and a beautiful witch-woman who rode in a magic flying mortar; they had pounded their enemies' bones in it, at the end. "Gimme another drink. I want to think. If thou wilt swear thyself to me, thy liege lord true to thee I'll be ...'"

"Huh?" said Mayhew.

Miles realized he'd been singing aloud, albeit softly. "Nothing, sorry." He floated in silence a few minutes longer. 'That's the trouble with the Betan system," he said after a time. "Nobody takes personal responsibility for anyone. It's all these faceless fictional corporate entities-government by ghosts. What you need is a liege lord, to take sword in hand and slice through all the red tape. Just like Vorthalia the Bold and the Thicket of Thorns.

'"What I need is a drink," said Mayhew glumly.

"Hm? Oh, sorry." Miles handed the bottle back. An idea was forming up in the back of his mind, like a nebula just starting to contract. A little more mass, and it would start to glow, a proto star ... 'I have it!" he cried, straightening out suddenly, and accidently giving himself an unwanted spin. ,

Mayhew flinched, nearly firing his needier through the floor. He glanced uncertainly at the squeeze bottle. "'No, I have it," he corrected.

Miles overcame the spin. '"We'd better do this from here. The first principle of strategy-never give up an advantage. Can I use your comconsole?"

"What for?"

'Y," said Miles grandly, "am going to buy this ship. And then I shall hire you to pilot it."

Mayhew stared in bewilderment, looking from Miles to the bottle and back. "You got that much money?"

"Mm ... Well, I have assets ..."

A few minutes' work with the comconsole brought the salvage operator's face on the screen. Miles put his proposition succinctly. Calhoun's expression went from disbelief to outrage.

"You call that a compromise?" he cried. "At cost! And backed by-I'm not a damned real estate broker!"

"Mr. Calhoun," said Miles sweetly, "may I point out, the choice is not between my note and this ship. The choice is between my note and a rain of glowing debris."

"If I find out you're in collusion with that-"

"Never met him before today," Miles disclaimed.

"What's wrong with the land?" asked Calhoun suspiciously. "Besides being on Barrayar, I mean."

"Ifs like fertile farm country," Miles answered, not quite directly. "Wooded-100 centimeters of rain a year-" that ought to fetch a Betan, "barely 300 kilometers from the capital."

Downwind, fortunately for the capital. "And I own it absolutely. Just inherited it from my grandfather recently. Go ahead and check it through the Barrayaran Embassy. Check the climate plats."

"This rainfall-it's not all on the same day or something, is it?"

"Of course not," replied Miles, straightening indignantly. Not easy, in free fall. "Ancestral land-it's been in my family for ten generations. You can believe I'll make every effort to cover that note before I'll let my home ground fall from my hands-"

Calhoun rubbed his chin irritably. "Cost plus twenty-five percent," he suggested.

"Ten percent."

"Twenty."

"Ten, or I'll let you deal directly with Pilot Officer Mayhew."

"All right," groaned Calhoun, "ten percent."

"Done!"

It was not quite that easy, of course. But thanks to the efficiency of the Betans' planetary information network, a transaction that would have taken days on Barrayar was completed in less than an hour, right from Mayhew's control room. Miles was cannily reluctant to give up the tactical bargaining advantage possession of the toggle box gave them, and Mayhew, after his first astonishment had worn off, became silent and loathe to leave.

"Look, kid," he spoke suddenly, about halfway through the complicated transaction. "I appreciate what you're trying to do, but-but it's just too late. You understand. when I get downside, they're not going to just be laughing this off. Security'11 be waiting at the docking bay. with a patrol from the Mental Health Board right beside em. They'll slap a stun-net over me so fast-you'll see me in a month or two, walking around smiling. You're always smiling, after the M.H.B. gets done ..." He shoot his head helplessly. "It's just too late."

"It's never too late while you're breathing," snapped Miles. He did the free-fall equivalent of pacing the room. shoving off from one wall, turning in midair, and shoving off from the opposite wall, a few dozen turns, thinking.

'I have an idea," he said at last. "I'll wager it would buy time, time enough at least to come up with something better-trouble is, since you're not Barrayaran, you're not going to understand what you're doing, and it's serious stuff."

Mayhew looked thoroughly baffled. "Huh?"

"It's like this." Thump, spin, turn straighten, thump. 'If you were to swear fealty to me as an Armsman simple, taking me for your liege lord-it's the most straightforward of our oath relationships-I might be able to include you under my Class III diplomatic immunity Anyway, I know I could if you were a Barrayaran subject Of course, you're a Betan citizen. In any case, I'm pretty sure we could tie up a pack of lawyers and several days trying to figure out which laws take precedence. I would be legally obligated for your bed, board, dress, armament-I suppose this ship could be classed as your armament-your protection, in the event of challenge by am other liegeman-that hardly applies, here on Beta Colony-oh, there's a passel of stuff, about your family and-do you have a family, by the way?"

Mayhew shook his head

"˘hat simplifies things." Thump, spin, turn, straighten thump. "Meanwhile, neither Security nor the M.H.B could touch you, because legally you'd be like a part of my body."

Mayhew blinked. "That sounds screwy as hell. Where do I sign? How do you register it?"

"All you have to do is kneel, place your hands between mine, and repeat about two sentences. It doesn't even need witnesses, although it's customary to have two."

Mayhew shrugged. "All right. Sure, kid."

Thump, spin, turn, straighten, thump. "All-right-sure-kid. I thought you wouldn't understand it. What I've described is only a tiny part of my half of the bargain, your privileges. It also includes your obligations, and a ream of rights I have over you. For instance-just one for-instance-if you were to refuse to carry out an order of mine in the heat of battle, I would have the right to strike off your head. On the spot."

Mayhew's jaw dropped. "You realize," he said at last, "the Mental Health Board's going to drop a net over you, too ..."

Miles grinned sardonically. "They can't. Because if they tried, I could cry havoc to my liege lord for protection. And I'd get it, too. He's pretty touchy about who does what to his subjects. Oh, that's another angle. If you become a liegeman to me, it automatically puts you into a relationship with my liege lord, kind of a complicated one."

"And his, and his, and his, I suppose," said Mayhew. "I know all about chains of command."

"Well, no, that's as far as it goes. I'm sworn directly to Gregor Vorbarra, as a vassal secundus." Miles realized he might as well be talking gibberish, for all the meaning his words were conveying.

"Who's this Greg-guy?" asked Mayhew.

"The Emperor. Of Barrayar," Miles added, just to be sure he understood.

"Oh."

Typical Betan, thought Miles, they don't study anybody's history but Earth's and their own. "Think about it, anyway. It's not something you should just jump into."

When the last voice-print had been recorded, Mayhew carefully disconnected the toggle box-Miles held his breath-and the senior pilot officer returned to convey them planetside.

The senior pilot officer addressed Miles with a shade more respect in his voice. "I had no idea you were from such a wealthy family, Lord Vorkosigan. That was a solution to the problem I certainly hadn't anticipated. But perhaps one ship is just a bauble, to a Barrayaran lord/'

"Not really," said Miles. 'I'm going to have to do some hustling to cover that note. My family used to be well off, I admit, but that was back in the Time of Isolation. Between the economic upheavals at the end of it, and the First Cetagandan War, we were pretty much wiped out, financially." He grinned a little. "You galactics got us coming and going. My great-grandfather on the Vorkosigan side, when the first galactic traders hit us, thought he was going to make a killing in jewels-you know, diamonds, rubies, emeralds-the galactics seemed to be selling them so cheaply. He put all his liquid assets and about half his chattels into them. Well, of course they were synthetics, better than the naturals and cheap as dirt-uh, sand-and the bottom promptly dropped out of the market, taking him with it. I'm told my great-grandmother never forgave him." He waved vaguely at Mayhew who, becoming conditioned, passed over his bottle. Miles offered it to the senior pilot officer, who rejected it with a look of disgust. Miles shrugged, and took a long pull. Amazingly pleasant stuff. His circulatory system, as well as his digestive, now seemed to be glowing with rainbow hues. He felt he could go days without sleep.

"Unfortunately, most of the land he sold was around Vorkosigan Surleau, which is pretty dry-not by your standards, of course-and the land he kept was around Vorkosigan Vashnoi, which was the better."

'"What's unfortunate about that?" asked Mayhew.

'"Well, because it was the principal seat of government for the Vorkosigans, and because we owned about every stick and stone in it-it was a pretty important industrial and trade center-and because the Vorkosigans were, uh, prominent in the Resistance, the Cetagandans took the city hostage. It's a long story, but-eventually, they destroyed the place. It's now a big glass hole in the ground. You can still see a faint glow in the sky, on a dark night, twenty kilometers off."

The senior pilot officer brought the little shuttle smoothly into its dock.

"Hey," said Mayhew suddenly. 'That land you had around Vorkosigan whatever-you-said-"

"Vashnoi. Have. Hundreds of square kilometers of it, and mostly downwind, yes?"

"Is that the same-" his face was lighting, like the sun coming up after a long, dark night, "is that the same land you mortgaged to-" he began to laugh, delightedly, under his breath; they disembarked. "Is that what you pledged to that sand-crawler Calhoun in return for my ship?"

"Caveat emptor," bowed Miles. "He checked the climate plat; he never thought to check the radioactivity plat. He probably doesn't study anybody else's history either."

Mayhew sat down on the docking bay, laughing so hard that he bent his forehead nearly to the floor. His laughter had more than an edge of hysteria-several days without sleep, after all ... "Kid," he cried, "have a drink on me!"

"I mean to pay him, you understand," explained Miles. "The hectares he chose would make an unaesthetic hole in the map for some descendant of mine, in a few hundred years, when it cools off. But if he gets greedy, or pushy about collecting-well, he'll get what he deserves."

Three groups of people were bearing down upon them. Bothari had escaped customs at last, it appeared, for he led the first group. His collar was undone, and he looked decidedly ruffled. Uh oh, thought Miles, it looks like he's had a strip-search-that's guaranteed to put him in a ferocious mood. He was followed by a new Betan security patrolman, and a limping Betan civilian Miles had never seen before, who was gesticulating and complaining bitterly. The man had a livid bruise on his face, and one eye was swelling shut. Elena trailed, seeming on the verge of tears.

The second group was led by the shuttleport administrator, and included now a number of other officials. The third group was headed by the Betan security woman. She had two burly patrolmen and four medical types in her wake. Mayhew glanced from right to left, and sobered abruptly. The Betan security men had their stunners in hand.

"Oh, tad," he muttered. The security men were fanning out. Mayhew scrambled to his knees. "Oh, kid ..."

"Ifs up to you, Arde," said Miles quietly.

"Do it!"

The Botharis arrived. The Sergeant opened his mouth. Miles, dropping his voice, cut across his beginning roar- by God, it was an effective trick-"Attention, please. Sergeant. I require your witness. Pilot Officer Mayhew is about to make oath."

The Sergeant's jaw tightened like a vise, but he came to attention.

"Put your hands between mine, Arde-like that-and repeat after me. I, Arde Mayhew-is that your full legal name? use that, then-do testify I am an unsworn freeman, and take service under Lord Miles Naismith Vorkosigan as an Armsman simple-go ahead and say that part-" Mayhew did so, rolling his eyes from left to right. "And will hold him as my liege commander until my death or his releases me."

That repeated. Miles said, rather quickly as the crowd closed in, "I, Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, vassal secundus to Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, do accept your oath, and pledge you the protection of a liege commander; tills by my word as Vorkosigan. All done-you can get up now."

One good thing, thought Miles, it's diverted the Sergeant completely from whatever he was about to say. Bothari found his voice at last. "My lord," he hissed, "you can't swear a Betan!"

"I just did," Miles pointed out cheerfully. He bounced a bit, feeling quite unusually pleased with himself. The Sergeant's glance passed across Mayhew's bottle, and narrowed on Miles.

"Why aren't you asleep?" he growled.

The Betan patrolman gestured at Miles. "Is this the man?"

The Betan security officer from the original shuttleport group approached. Mayhew had remained on his knees as if plotting to crawl off under cover of the fire overhead. "Pilot Officer Mayhew," she cried, "you are under arrest. These are your rights: you have a right to-"

The bruised civilian interrupted, pointing at Elena. "Screw him! This woman assaulted me! There were a dozen witnesses. Damn it, I want her charged. She's vicious."

Elena had her hands over her ears again, lower lip stuck out but trembling slightly. Miles began to get the picture. "Did you hit him?"

She nodded. "But he said the most horrible thing to me .. ."

"My lord," said Bothari reproachfully, "it was very wrong of you to leave her alone in this place-"

The security woman began again. "Pilot Officer Mayhew, you have a right-"

"I think she cracked the orbit of my eye," moaned the bruised man. "I'm going to sue ..."

Miles shot Elena a special reassuring smile. "Don't worry, I'll take care of it."

"You have a right-" yelled the security woman.

"I beg your pardon. Officer Brownell," Miles interrupted her smoothly. "Pilot Officer Mayhew is now my liegeman. As his liege commander, any charges against him must be addressed to me. It will then be my duty to determine their validity and issue the orders for the appropriate punishments. He has no rights but the right to accept challenge in single combat for certain categories of slander which are a bit complicated to go into now - " Obsolete, too, since duelling was outlawed by Imperial edict, but these Betans won't know the difference-"So unless you happen to be carrying two pairs of swords and are prepared to, say, offer an insult to Pilot Officer Mayhew's mother, you will simply have to-ah- contain yourself."

Timely advice; the security woman looked as if she were about to explode. Mayhew gave a hopeful nod, smiling weakly. Bothari stirred uneasily, eyes flicking on an inventory of men and weapons in the mob. Gently, thought Miles; let's take it gently. "Get up, Arde ..."

It took some persuading, but me security officer finally checked with her superiors about Miles's bizarre defense of Pilot Officer Mayhew. At that point, as Miles had hoped and forseen, proceedings broke down in a morass of untested interplanetary legal hypotheses that threatened to engulf the Barrayaran Embassy and the Betan State Department on ever-ascending levels of personnel.

Elena's case was easier. The outraged Betan was directed to take his case to the Barrayaran Embassy in person. There, Miles knew, it would be swallowed up in an endless moebius loop of files, forms, and reports, kept especially for such occasions by the extremely competent staff. The forms included some particularly creative ones that had to be round-tripped on the six-week journey back to Barrayar itself, and were guaranteed to be sent back several times for minor errors in execution.

"Relax," Miles whispered in an aside to Elena. 'They'll bury that guy in files so deep you'll never see him again. It works great with Betans-they're perfectly happy, because all the time they think they're doing something to you. Just don't kill anybody. My diplomatic immunity doesn't go that far."

The exhausted Mayhew was swaying on his feet by the time the Betans gave way. Miles, feeling like an old sea raider after a successful looting spree, bore him off.

"Two hours," muttered Bothari. '"We've only been in this bloody place two bloody hours ..."

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