Even in retreat she was magnificent.
Captain Selig Demetri Vorkosigan stood on the port flying bridge, watching her long oval shadow glide over the fiords and arctic sea far below. Weighing two hundred and eighty tons (before launching) yet floating in mid-air, stretching three hundred meters from bow to stern, manned by 40 seasoned seamen and officers-turned-aeronauts, armed with seemingly miraculous weapons... She was the largest man-made thing in the recorded history of Barrayar, she was the Wonder of the Age were her existence not Absolute Top Secret. The Navel Registry (Secret) listed her as GCS-5m, His Imperial Majesty's Aerial Dreadnought Vorthalia the Faithful, but her crew called her the Huge Thing. She was his to command. Too bad she had just one functioning set of aerial paddles at the moment. Occasionally he wondered what had impelled the Admiralty to order her shakedown cruise before the forward diesels could be installed...
Sometimes he wondered why he was her Captain at all. By all rights, a command this important belonged to a Count, or at least to a Vor with the proper ancestors, liege-oaths and connections at the Imperial Court. Not Selig! His father, a Vorkosigan, had thrown over an arranged match to marry outside the military caste. It wasn't done. So his branch of the family was hardly welcome at Vorbarr Sultana and entirely unwelcome at Vorkosigan Vashnoi or Vorkosigan Surleau.
From his father he inherited the honorific prefix and the tradition of command; from his mother he inherited a violent allergy to horses. "Half-a-Vor" they had whispered behind his back at the Academy, before his allergy forced him out. For what was a Vor without a horse under him, or without a full measure of marital blood in his veins? If only his father had married Old Vorpatril's daughter he wouldn't have been born, would he? No graduation, no horses, no Vashnoi pedigree, half a title... With his branch of the family banished in disgrace, offering his oath to Count Piotr (a distant uncle, and Dorca's confidant) was unthinkable. In the end he was reduced to the ignominy of sweating through cram courses at the Naval School and purchasing a Captaincy in the Imperial Navy.
The Navy! Dumping hole for malcontents, second-raters and third sons, who served the Emperor without a chance at glory on the battlefield... without getting near a horse. While cousin "Bloody" Pierre bested battle-mad Counts left and right, Selig trod heaving wooden decks, learning by trial and error, or observation, the tricks of commanding surly lordlings and press-ganged commoners who resented more than respected the title of Vor. Or Half-a-Vor. He had to come up with tricks, because he seriously questioned the efficacy of traditional Naval discipline taught by his mentors. Lead-lined rubber hoses, indeed. How could a Captain expect a seaman to do his job while half-dead and lame, or gone simple from repeated keelhaulings?
One trick was pointing out, in acerb tones, deficiencies in shipboard equipment and procedures to be remedied immediately. There was no end of deficiencies or parties responsible, if one looked hard enough. Another was knowing the duties of the men directly under him, endlessly drilling the miserable curs on procedures for contingencies that seemed absurd when one didn't look ahead. A few words of grudging praise to the crew for well- executed manoeuvres, every two or three months, also did wonders.
His greatest trick if trick it was lay in expecting those under his command to be more capable than they themselves believed. More oft than not, they were. His efficiency ratings the envy of Captains who relied on such tried and true motivators as the lash or quarter rations evidently had gained the attention of the Admiralty in Vorbarr Sultana where (it was whispered) the only nautical skill one needed was navigating the River Oad rapids... over the Chain Bridge.
From there came sealed orders to report in secret at such and such a date, to such and such a room of the Admiralty's octagonal kremlin. Over winter wine, Grand Admiral Vorgrofé himself briefed the Captain. It seemed that Emperor Dorca Vorbarra chose to anticipate the possibility of a certain regrettable circumstance; it therefore pleased Him to request that His several Forces secretly develop novel military devices, to be deployed, if required, against the more belligerent of the Counts.
It went without saying that the regrettable circumstance in question was the sudden death of Bloody Pierre Vorrutyer -- Selig's elder, distant cousin (once removed). Dorca was managing his Mazeppa's Ride on the Imperial Throne in no little part because Pierre the Butcher was his stirrup-man. A jest making the rounds at Court claimed that Bloody Pierre had lately vowed to uphold Dorca's decree against unjustifiable wars by killing every man-at-arms on Barrayar. But some Counts' laughter was a trifle uneasy. Sooner or later, the most flagrant violators of the Pax Vorbarra encountered Pierre and his coterie, either on the field of battle or on the Field of Honor. In either venue they were methodically hacked to bits. Unsportsmanlike, but it did help to make exchanging goods under the Emperor's Seal more attractive than exchanging endless forays and revenge-killings with one's relatives and neighbors. And some Counts secretly welcomed an excuse to stop the slaughter...
But each encounter increased Bloody Pierre's odds of stopping a musket ball, or crossing dual swords with a Vor having better reflexes than brains. His elder son and military equal had perished a twelvemonth past in a freak battlefield mishap; his surviving son was merely an excellent soldier; his grandson by a daughter and Count Piotr's son showed promise, but the lad was not yet ten. Were the Butcher to be guest of honor at a funeral, Dorca would urgently require some new marvel to keep the more combative Counts in check. It so happened that the Imperial Trans-Bezumstvoan Expedition had stumbled across just the thing.
Thus, the Navy needed a capable Vor Captain to take command a secret and unconventional warship, the likes of which had not been seen since the legendary Time of Troubles following the collapse of the Ætheran Tunnel. Artisans sworn to secrecy were even now constructing this warship, copying the remains of a Time-of-Troubles craft found in a remote mountain valley of the Bezumstvo range by the Imperial Expedition. (Sure they had. What, he had wondered to himself, was a ship doing up in those bone-dry, impenetrable mountains??) The Captain in question must be a Vor without attachments, whose absence from the scene would excite little comment or attention from suspicious Counts. Oh yes, the ability to train men to perfection wouldn't hurt, either. This Captain must hold his vessel utterly incommunicado unless summoned to action by the Emperor Himself. Would Captain Vorkosigan care to volunteer for the position?
He had pledged his Word to serve his Emperor; what choice did he have? Yes, he would volunteer... knowing that he was throwing out the porthole his hidden hopes of redeeming his family's honor through military prowess. Achievements of his in this command might be cloaked in secrecy for decades. If ever he breathed a word of them to another officer, the Night Watch would doubtless sequester or dagger his confidant.
A second wonder was that reconstructing the Huge Thing had been possible at all. Partly it was due to a fortunate recollection by one of Dorca's courtiers that the Accursed Mines of Darkoi yielded a bizarre, upside-down species of firedamp. The sixth Count Vorlakiel had observed its lifting power first hand while supervising a liveried savant's collection of the gas in some large oiled-silk sacks for later experiments. The retainer's body was found three kilometers downwind. Unlike ordinary firedamp, "lift-damp" did not catch fire. The Emperor's own savants opined that it might be the element dubbed helium in a venerable Table Chemeric preserved from the Days of the Firsters. Likely the Firsters had sought lift-damp itself, finally explaining why there were Accursed Mines. Partly it was due to a sealed cache of Firster construction diagrams the Expedition found in a cave near the landing site, guarded by seven mummified Time-of-Troubles aeronauts. The diagrams must have been Firster; they were inscribed by draughtsmen of inhuman precision, on a kind of unnatural vellum. They bore later modifications, sketched with plumbago by several indifferent hands.
And the builders of the seemingly marvelous ancient vessel had unwittingly paved the way for their successors. A close study of it and the diagrams showed that the earlier craftsmen had oft substituted materials readily at hand, or improvised simple mechanical replacements, for lost or forgotten synthetics and devices. For example, utterly incomprehensible things resembling open barrels in the diagrams had been replaced by engines labeled diesels in the plumbago revisions burning rock-oil distillate. They drove trefoil aerial paddles. The ancient craftsmen had replaced activators of an unknown principle with steel cables worked by cranks or levers. And nowhere in the original diagrams were there revolving under-turrets, massively braced, housing futuristic cannons... Rear-loading cannons -- preposterous! -- that the Imperial weapons-masters had copied, after a fashion, once they realized the brass casings were meant to hold something akin to blastcloth, and learned to machine every element to precise tolerances. Cannons that two men could load in half a minute. Cannons that hurled half-kilo iron shells over two kilometers with amazing accuracy, time after time, without blowing up. No more pulling back to reload after every shot, forcing carved stone balls down the muzzle, and then re- aiming...
Even with diagrams and the original to consult, Dorca's artisans had to stretch diverse mechanical arts to their very limits: weaving, tailoring, ge'dezi jointwork, mathematics, cable-making, steelwork, distillation, the chemical arts, and a score of others. Indeed, the artisans could not replicate several mysterious devices that apparently had regulated diverse operations aboard the ancient craft...
A stuttering cough from aft starboard halted his introspection. The engineers were running the starboard air-paddles at various speeds and pitches, seeing how much pull they could coax from the assembly without them vibrating themselves apart as the port paddles had. Now Lieutenant Milhaud bustled up and saluted. He barely came up to Vorkosigan's shoulder. "My Capitaine! The detail is readying block and tackle to lower the replacement paddle assembly from the storage hold above the port diesel!" He'd hand- picked his crew, seeking men with intelligence, flexibility, wiry build and utter fearlessness of heights. Could he help it if most of them were crazy Frenchys?
Vorkosigan thanked Milhaud, then let a tiny sigh escape his lips as he leaned further over the ornamented railing to watch. Other details, he knew, were attempting to patch the gash in the mekeril-silk outer envelope and replace a score of ghostwood spars smashed from the ge'dezi latticework by flying air- paddle blades. So much for invulnerability. Refilling gas-sacks five and six with lift-damp must wait until the Vorthalia returned to Zhazhda Base, as would a thorough reaming of the artisans who had crafted the faulty assembly. The Huge Thing had a slight portward tilt, and an unmistakable 15 degree list to the stern.
Behind him came a wavering whistle, from the speaking tube to the crows nest. Ensign Kyril again. Hope he hadn't sighted another island, like that collection of dead volcanos and frozen bogs they had raised two days before out in the Sea of Khopoty. The lad probably would get his name on it if the cloak of secrecy ever came off. Good man with a sighting tube and abacus, anyway. Captain Vorkosigan -- the only man aboard who had to -- ducked through the open hatchway. Half-a-dozen strides and he was besides Lt. Milhaud, who was asking the tube, "Yes, Ensign?" "Wah-wah, wah-wah-wah-" The voice was quite audible. He waved Lt. Milhaud aside. "What is it, Ensign Kyril?" "Wah-wads of wu-wool. They're like w-wads of wool, sir. West by nor'west of us, heading for us at a hundred knots. Sir." "Bring her west by north-west," Vorkosigan instructed the helm.
Actually, the endless flow of "wah-wah" passed under the Vorthalia at closer to 70 knots, but the upper breeze also picked up and soon proved faster than her top speed with one set of air-paddles. She rapidly lost her momentum. Again he wished they'd had time to mount the forward engines before the courier hound brought Vorgrofé's mystifying order to begin a shakedown cruise to the north at once. Half an hour after Ensign Kyril's sighting, the wind was dragging the Huge Thing reluctantly backwards, above the track of a deep canyon leading into a nameless chain of granite peaks. The fog below was fading away. All one could see aft were rows of towering crags, dark behind the grey curtains hanging from thunderheads above. Rain. On the flying bridge, Captain Vorkosigan divided his attention between the approaching mountains and engineers suspended in bosuns chairs, who struggled to straighten a bent bolt holding half the defunct air-paddles' hub to its shaft. Its replacement dangled two meters above. Already the crew had thrown overboard all prudent ballast; about the only dispensable things left were crates of munitions for the shell-projector guns. Fantastically expensive munitions; each casing and shell required over 100 man-hours to craft and assemble. He would jettison them only in dire need. The wind picked up, coming in wave-like swells. A brief flicker in the dark beyond the engineers caught Vorkosigan's eye. Eventually, low thunder mumbled. A familiar disquiet stole over him; Vorthalia was in for her first foul weather tour. How to prepare the crew...? He had it. Returning to the bridge proper, he remarked conversationally, "Commander Rameau, sound Battle Stations." And a few minutes after the bustle had died away, he quipped to the first officer sotto voice, "Instead of Count Vorloupulous' troops, our first battle will be against the Elements." Another trick of command, those jests, when he could come up with any. He caught sight of another flicker aft. The thunder sounded a bit sooner this time.
Soon they reached the rain, fat drops pattering above. The Huge Thing creaked and listed even further aft as she backed into the grey curtains. The drumming of the rain overhead increased. Lightening flashed again, and this time the thunder was louder than the stutter of the diesel. Three more strokes followed at almost regular intervals. Each flash seemed brighter, each thunderclap sounded sooner and louder. Vorkosigan, muffled in foul- weather gear, held his post on the flying bridge; he fancied it was moaning in the faster gusts. He needed no instruments to know his vessel had ceased gaining altitude. Barrels of water must be flowing over the flanks of the Huge Thing, and before they sheeted off their weight was pulling her lower, toward the canyon floor.
She backed along the canyon's track around another turn -- no little task for the helmsmen, while keeping the rudders canted to starboard to counter the portward torque of the single paddle assembly -- and a brilliant flash showed Vorkosigan she was nearing a broad, U-shaped valley topped with jagged crags. To his left, a cyclopedic column of granite over a kilometer high guarded the north entrance; its crown seemed almost at eye level. He sensed a palpable atmospheric tension. Then the storm's full fury was upon them.
Stroke after dazzling stroke lit clouds and granite walls; peal after echoing peal of thunder pounded his ears. He had never seen the like. Gusts set the Huge Thing to swaying, ponderously. Her resilient ge'dezi frame crackled and moaned, but it held. It held. His sou'wester whipped in the wind, and icy water trickled down his back. He watched through the blur of falling water as the new air-paddle assembly lowered into position. It must have slipped a tether somehow, for it started swinging in erratic arcs. He didn't see how the crewman came to be hanging on to the paddles, but a flash illuminated the man's one-armed snatch and miss as he passed the shaft. The paddles swung back; he must have missed again. They swung the other way. Then back again. The effect was hypnotic.
Ensign Kyril lurched along the central catwalk toward his station at the bow, dodging around Frenchys passing crates of munitions from hand to hand. They grabbed, turned and pushed the crates, as if in anger. Some boxes were for the projectile weapons, but most were going to the forward magazine, to improve the trim. Kyril was going to be late, as usual.
Vorkosigan saw, past the rudder, five bolts in quick succession lash joined granite wedges atop the north valley wall. Lightening doesn't strike twice, eh? Then he realized the point of the higher wedge was nearly astern and knew exactly what would happen next. He ducked through into the bridge and pointed at the men straining at the two-meter-wide helm. "Stand away from the helm!" he ordered. Yeoman Alard obeyed, but yeoman Panquette paused, asking, "Aye, my Capitaine, but where's our relie-" A dull crumping sound and shudder aft, and Panquette was pulled half around the spinning helm before loosing his grip. As he'd just foreseen, the rudder's lower edge had snagged on the higher crag and bent back. Without being told he knew the 'board steering cables were gone, and likely a hinge had ripped loose. Vorkosigan quickly ordered Commander Rameau to send a detail aft to fix what they could, detailed a runner to bring the ship's churgeon for Panquette... and noticed through the portholes that the valley walls were slowly turning widdershins. He ducked back outside to a second burst of foresight: The Huge Thing was turning broadside to the wind. If she continued as she was, the wind would push her, at 40 or 50 knots, against a huge dome of rock rising from the far end of the valley. From his rocking perch, it looked like the back of a plate stuck edge-up in the mud, with a chunk broken from the left rim, just about where the bridge would hit. Should he order full reverse right now? Reverse? He needed forward momentum to steer. Forward or reverse, some part of the Huge Thing was going to hit the slab broadside at 50 knots. She'd never survive. Jettison enough munitions to clear that granite dome in time? Not likely. Bloody expensive ballast to throw out... to throw -- The Vorthalia performed some spectacular evolutions when her weapons hurled the shells, like that 100 degree yaw from her first broadside, that smashed all the unsecured crockery in the galley... He turned to Rameau, who had followed him out. "Signal the guns to prepare to fire," he shouted over the wind "Forward guns to port, aft guns to starboard, aimed downward thirty degrees. Now." "Oui- Aye, my Capitaine."
Orders blared from speaking tubes. In Turret Six, Gunner's mate Fauré looked at Gunner's mate Benoist. "Does our Capitaine mean to blast away the mountain?" "Au contraire, my dear Fauré," replied Benoist, "I think he means to blast us away... from..." He shut up and jumped to his post. Men frantically cranked weapons around, shouted "Move it," move it over thunderblast and howling wind, lowered brass casings into waiting breeches, shoved them home, grasped lanyards. At the turrets' tube mouthpieces, Rameau watched Vorkosigan raise his sword. "Prepare to fire, in series. On my order... FI --" Lightening illuminated the downward sweep of Vorkosigan's sword as thunder blotted out the rest. Eight staccato pounding roars followed in succession. It was madness to fire them all simultaneously. The Vorthalia jerked violently clockwise, then rapidly slowed, losing her corkscrew momentum to the wind. A trumpeter, tardy, sounded the traditional "call to arms". "Reload, reload. Prepare to fire. On my order... FIRE." Roars stuttered down the ship, louder than thunder. She twisted, then slowed. She needed more push, yet; Vorkosigan gestured. "Reload, reload. Prepare to fire. On my order ... FIRE." The guns spoke again. It still wasn't quite enough.
Kyril crouched in a ball turret at the bow, between twin infernal machines making a steady pom-pom-pom-. Every half-second an alternate barrel spat flame. They could kill him three times over: if he ever told another living soul they existed, if they blew up, or if he deliberately blasted them and himself to bits to prevent enemy capture. A row of pockmarks crawled slantways up the vertical rock wall, coming closer. Tears ran down his cheeks, and he didn't know if they were for fear or for the glory of fighting to save his shipmates and serve his Liege. Everything jerked sideways -- .
Vorkosigan eyed the looming rockface. All or nothing, now. Would she take the strain? "Volley fire, Mr. Rameau," he ordered. "... Aye, my Capitaine. Volley fire, volley fire. On my order... FIRE!" CRASH! Guns tore his ears. His lungs resonated as the Huge Thing leaped. She was turning... she was turning... she was turning... Thunder rattled everything. In the brief glare he saw wet granite slipping past, 30 meters away. She'd made it.
Then, as if a sluice gate was slowly closing, the rain and wind slackened. They were through the worst. Now the Vorthalia backed up a lesser valley, north by nor'east at a stately pace. The drumming of rain lightened. By an engineer's speaking-tube, Lt. Milhaud relayed, "My Capitaine! Monsieur Rodé reports that the new aerial paddles are mounted." "My compliments to Mr. Rodé," replied Vorkosigan, "and port engine full ahead." He continued, "Mr. Rameau, you have the helm. Get us above this muck." He returned to the flying bridge. Somewhere far away, lightening flickered. After a pause, he heard a single kettledrum rumble. He faced aft, expectantly. The paddles abruptly turned. They spun. They whirled faster, into invisibility. The Huge Thing's rearward progress slowed. With a slight shudder she paused, then inched forward, bow up, diesels straining, building forward momentum. She needed just a little more... "Mr. Rameau. I suggest that Turret Eight fire astern, under the rudder. Slow fire." "Aye, my Capitaine."
She was rising into the clouds, pushing through them like they weren't there. "FIRE." The crew were cheering. Crazy little maniacs, the lot of them. "FIRE." He'd take them over a battalion of overgrown bruisers any day. "FIRE."
Eventually he saw light ahead. She emerged into white and golden glory, towering clouds gilded by the sun low in the northwest. "FIRE." A row of thunderheads roiled in slow motion, parallel to the hidden mountains to starboard. "FIRE." Light streamers of water still fell from her, but she gained altitude steadily. She was in her element, surrounded by gold and violet, homeward bound.
A snatch of doggerel -- lately promulgated by Mother Tumba, the Mad Seeress of Hassander Town -- passed through his mind. "Yon star crawls backwards 'cross the sky; Those Lost To Us are drawing neigh." The fierce smile faded from Vorkosigan's face. Shortly before the Admiralty ordered the Vorthalia to fly north, he had heard rumors of a new star, seen low in the south after midnight, moving crossways as no comet or planet had ever done. Suppose the Mad Seeress were right, and the legendary star- traveling folk had, against all hope, won a new passage through the æther to their Barrayaran kin. Surely the star-travelers still possessed the iron sky- chariots that reputedly carried sorceresses through the air at fabulous speed in the Time of Troubles, and pulverized the bones of warriors below. The Huge Thing wouldn't survive ten minutes against a sky-chariot, even one without guns. Just fly some through her at speed and she'd fall from the sky, spewing lift-damp from sky-chariot-shaped holes.
So why hadn't a like fate befallen the original craft? By the time it had been built, likely all the remaining sky-chariots on Barrayar had ceased to fly...
Enough wool-gathering. He had saved his command for his Emperor. Like his ship's namesake, he would continue serving his Liege faithfully even when there seemed no need. And if Dorca could not publicly acknowledge his service ... Well, he had already begun cultivating certain parties, parties having no small acquaintance with Court, parties who would soon gain young Prince Yuri's ear. When his time came, the Emperor Yuri would not overlook Captain Selig Demetri Vorkosigan, of that he would make sure!
In the interest of narrative flow, the author has withheld considerable explication from the text. He humbly offers the following notes to illuminate non-Bujoldan names, terms and aspects of Barrayar's past.
Oh, he ll remember Selig, all right...
This story is based upon characters and concepts created by Lois McMaster Bujold. All additional characters and all scenarios shall be considered the property of Ms. Bujold, and used by permission.
© 1993 by Richard M. Boothe (MadMLS@aol.com)
Current version by Michael Bernardi, email@example.com
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Last updated: November 16th 2002