"Sir. I have the background check on Mr. Jesek you requested."
Illyan took the data disk from him, and motioned toward a chair.
"Sit. I may have some questions for you."
Slotting the disk into his comconsole, Illyan began to read.
"Jesek? Yeah, I remember Ensign Jesek. He was one of the crew I had when we built Komarr Station 3. Lessee, there was Jesek, Titch Bryant, Jean Vorpetit, what's his name... Kalugin, that was it, and then a bunch of enlisted techs. They were a good crew. Jesek was a little soft, let his men get away with slop sometimes. I cured him of that, all right."
Tarski paused to take a cigar from the box at his elbow. He bit off the end and spat it out, barely missing Vorguy's boots. The lieutenant gazed for a moment at the repellent thing, then raised his eyes to meet the old man's sardonic grin.
"Jesek never liked 'em either. Saw him slip on one once, dang near broke his neck. Taught him to let his work area get dirty, that did. Lord, he hated me... They all did, but by jiminy they got the job done when I told 'em to.
"Well, after we got the station up and running --- we got commended for that, y' know? This was a few years after that treaty with Pol, when we had those 'cultural exchange' deals with them. So the top brass decided to send my crew out to Pol Six, to learn some new deep-space construction techniques. Nitwit idea; what's Pol know that we don't? But I made sure my boys went to every lecture and every demonstration.
"After that, we still had 'bout a month before our next job was due, out Sergyar way, so I thought maybe a little R'n'R 'd do the boys some good. We were in the Hegen Hub, within shoutin' distance of Jackson's Whole --- if you've got a good set of lungs, and I do --- so what the hey? There's places out there I wouldn't take 'em --- wouldn't go near Ryoval's, f'r instance --- but I'd heard good things about Magic Station.
"So I arranged passage on a courier ship that was goin' that way, and we headed out. There was another fella on the ship, a grunt officer. Always wore his fatigues, and wouldn't talk to any of us 'cept me. Kept on about the Pretender's War, and the Komarr Revolt... Bloody-minded flathead. He was a big guy, in better shape than I was. Better shape than Big Jean, even. What was his name? ... Messier, Metzger, something like that."
Illyan paused the display. Metzov?
Oh, no. Don't tell me...
He scrolled back to check the date. Yes, that was about right...
Count Vorville's fist smacked down on the Regent's desk.
"I demand satisfaction! It is not to be borne!"
Aral Vorkosigan gazed at him calmly.
"My lord Count, please. What is the trouble?"
With a visible effort, the pudgy Count controlled himself.
"It is my son, my Charles. He wants to be an engineer. I say to myself, eh, the times, they change; maybe an engineer, it is a good thing to be. So I give permission. He studies at the Academy, and now he asks for an assignment to Kyril Island, to learn cold-weather techniques. Three months only, this tour.
"Now my Charles, he is a good boy. Always I am teaching him to revere the Blessed Virgin and all the saints. I give him a holy picture, of St. Charles de Gaulle, to put in his work area; he works better with the blessed Charles watching.
"One day, though, this Metzov, this imbecile, he sticks his ugly face into my Charles' work area, and he says, what is that, and points at the picture of St. Charles. And my son says, it is my patron saint, Charles de Gaulle, Charles of France. And this idiot says, that pompous little Frog? Take it down. No decorations are permitted. And my boy, he does not move fast enough for this Metzov, and the general takes the holy picture himself, and tears it up. My Charles, he is so distraught, he tries to stop him. And this Metzov puts my boy on report! I will not stand for it! It is not to be borne!"
Prime Minister Vortala, smiling sourly, started to speak, but desisted at a glance from the Regent. Aral nodded solemnly to Vorville.
"I will attend to it. General Metzov will be dealt with appropriately."
"My word as Vorkosigan."
Still scowling, Count Vorville offered a curt bow, turned, and strode from the room.
"Speaking of pompous little Frogs..."
"Vortala, I appreciate your restraining yourself until he left. But you know how many votes he swings in the Council. We need those votes. Vorvojna!"
The Minister of War glanced up from his console. "Sir?"
"Metzov is to be temporarily relieved of duty at Kyril Island. How long is the Vorville boy to be there?"
"Ah... here it is. About three more weeks."
"Fine. Suspend Metzov for a month. Hmm... where is he from?"
"Let me see. Yes. Here in Vorbarr Sultana; he has a sister on the southwest side."
"That's no good. I don't want him anywhere Vorville might run into him. Get him off-planet somewhere."
"Yes, sir. If you will excuse me?"
Illyan's eyes reopened. Leaning forward again, he split the console screen and called up Metzov's record.
Damn, there it is. Vorvojna made it a compulsory leave of
He sent Metzov to Magic Station.
Baz and I were classmates at Vorlakail Academy, and friends. We
were both pleased to learn that we had been assigned to the same
unit. Mr. Tarski was a hard taskmaster, and we often joked about trying
to poison him, but I believe he was a good officer. He would not tolerate
careless work, but that is only right. That was his job.
Yes, that is true. After we completed the construction of Komarr Station Number Three, we were rewarded with an opportunity to learn galactic techniques of deep-space construction at Pol Station Number Six. It was most interesting; I took detailed notes, and every evening I transcribed them more clearly. My handwriting, when I am taking notes, is not of the best, and so I must do this.
After that, Mr. Tarski told us that we needed to relax, and so we were going to pay a visit to Magic Station, which orbits Jackson's Whole. I do not like Jackson's Whole; they have no sense of the fitness of things. But, what can one expect of a one-time pirate base? I read about the House of Magic, though, and found that they have a more distinguished history. Why, it is believed that an early form of that House existed on Earth itself, nearly a thousand years ago. So I was pleased; perhaps they would have a museum, and antiquities.
When we arrived, I was rather disappointed. The lighting was garish, and many parts of the station were painted in a fashion hurtful to the eye. My friend Baz suggested that we find a place to drink. Most of the others were cheered by this idea, and so to be hospitable I went along.
There was only one bar on the entire station. There were only a few people in the bar when we arrived, and they all left soon, except the bartender. I do not blame them; the bar was very crowded after we came in.
The bartender looked rather strange. He did not have ears where most people do. Instead, perched atop his head were two large ears, shaped like shallow parabolic antennae. When he turned his head, his ears would counterrotate, so that they remained focused on the same spot. This was polite, I think, so that he could go about his duties and still pay close attention to anyone who spoke to him. He had an accent I did not recognize; Mr. Bryant told me it was Betan.
Mr. Tarski stood near us at the bar, drinking. I noticed that whenever he set the glass down, he put one hand on top, covering it. Mr. Tarski had a very good sense of humor.
After Mr. Tarski finished his drink, he took out a cigar and lit it. The bartender was not pleased, and told him there was no smoking. Mr. Tarski smiled, and blew smoke in his face. Sometimes Mr. Tarski could be very rude. The bartender went away then.
A few minutes later, Security arrived.
I still remember the scene vividly. Baz was at the end of the bar, and I was next to him. We were shooting the breeze with the herm behind the bar. Genn Kalugin was next, then Big Jean, and then Tarski. The tables were swarming with enlisteds. The infantryman in the black fatigues was by the window, nursing his drink and sneering at the rest of us.
When Tarski lit up I smelled trouble (among other things). Number one, there was a big NO SMOKING sign right over the mirror behind the bar. Number two, the one responsible for enforcing it was a Betan, and you know what those prigs are like. So, when it came back to the bar, I was watching its hands, and I saw it hit the comm button. Time to fade, says I. I mean, look at me. I'm not quite 5'3". There are times when that's an advantage, but a barroom brawl isn't one of them. There was no way to get to the entrance quietly, so I found a dark corner and wedged myself in.
Now, the House of Magic isn't into gene-sculpting, the way some of
the big Jacksonian houses are. The bartender told me its ears were
surgical work, and it'd have it reversed when it finally left the job.
The only gene-work Magic does, apparently, is on their riot police.
Or so I heard later; I missed that part.
Magic is a bit strange in other ways, too. They don't allow any projectile or beam weapons of any kind --- not even stunners. Their enforcers carry billyclubs. Where that notion came from, I refuse to guess.
Anyway. Security took the form of a goon about seven feet tall. Lean and rangy, not a bit of fat visible on him. The weird thing was his face; his jaws, upper and lower, had been extended about six inches, and they were topped by a bulbous nose. Frankly, he looked kind of goofy to me, but he was clearly in top physical condition.
The enforcer moved in on Tarski. The old man wasn't paying attention, and the goon got him in a come-along pretty fast. But then one of the enlisteds chucked a beer mug and clocked him a good one. He went WAAUGH!, stumbled over somebody, and, arms and legs flailing, went flying into the middle of the tables.
Now everything cut loose. The bartender slapped an alarm button, some of the techs started slugging each other, and Big Jean reached down and ripped loose a five-foot section of wooden railing. Just in time, too, as four more security men barreled into the bar. The herm pointed at Tarski, and two of them grabbed him. The others pulled the first one to his feet. Then Jean hit them.
He just took that railing in the middle and started spinning it. (I think that's a South Continent fighting style; that's where Jean is from.) Nobody, but nobody could get near him, and he started pushing the goons back out the door. The guy in the fatigues got too close to the action, and went down hard. The Magic guys got out the door and lit out. They took Tarski with them, though.
The infantryman got up, then, and bellowed for order. He got it, too; there must have been some drill sergeant in his ancestry. Everybody quieted down.
"All right, men, as the ranking officer present I am assuming command. I want each of you to arm yourselves, with anything available. Then we're going out, and we're going to rescue that officer. We're not letting those dogfaces get away with this!"
Who was he trying to kid? I stayed quiet, but the rest of the guys
were already high on adrenaline, and when he went out the door
the bar emptied.
I waited a few minutes, to make sure they were gone, then stood up. The bartender was gazing sadly around at the wreckage. I tipped it a salute, then headed back to the ship. I could call the consulate from there, and after that I figured I'd have time to catch up on quite a bit of reading.
He began skimming again. Then he shook his head, and began again, more slowly.
........Most of the company thought ill of the General Metzov, but to mine eyes he was a man most martial, a worthy leader. It may be that he was given overmuch to the choler, but that is a warrior's fault. I found his words a delight. Indeed he spoke true; no man of our sad age has known combat, and a gentleman well-made must master the arts of war. I thought to show the General somewhat of our South Continent staff-fighting, but there lacked room on the ship...
And so I struck those loups-garou, in aid of my commander, and they fled the fury of my spinning staff. My blood was high, and almost I sought to pursue them in their rout; but then the General Metzov called out, striving for order within our company. Thereupon I took myself back within, to hear his commands. Indeed it is the pride in oneself that leads to ruin, in combat as in all.
Within, my comrades armed themselves, as had I, with makeshifts. Some gathered up knives, fallen from the overturned tables; others seized upon the wreckage of bottles and chairs. One fool took up a bottle of eau mineral, to what end I know not; but the General took it from him, and gave to him instead a great cudgel from behind the bar, made yet more hellish by the nails that from it protruded.
Everyone armed, the General led us outside, and strove to impose a semblance of order. Swiftly, not an army but no longer a mob, we began our march upon the prison where our commander had been taken. Gazing about me, I saw no sign of the pitiable Titch; but my dear ami Bazil seemed shaken by the pell-mell, and I undertook to see to his safety.
Even as our march began, our enemy strove to counter it. At whiles, a faint sound could be heard, as of a whistlebug; but then would come a great flash of light. At first we were slowed by these, but we soon learned to ward our eyes. Ahead of me, someone spoke of these flares as 'Tinks'; but I know not that word.
Ere long we reached the great square wherein was the jail; it lay across the way from us. The General cried out the charge, and we drove toward our goal. But then came a noise, as of a hundred of the little Tinks, and though I shut my eyes it availed little against the storm of light that broke upon us.
When my sight cleared, before us stood a douzaine of those vile beasts we had seen in the bar. Off to our left, there had appeared perhaps half so many of the most bizarre mutees ever to blight my vision. No, not one stood higher than five feet; but each carried a cudgel even as long as mine own. They stormed to the attack, singing a battle-cry strange to me; 'Ay haut!' they cried, again and again. I turned to reassure mon ami; but Bazil was gone.
Transcript of interview with Shirl Aspen, Beta Colony.
Well. I looked around what was left of my bar and moaned. At this rate I was never going to get clear of my debts. I should have known better than to let a bunch of Barraybarians in. I should have shut the door in their faces, closed the bar for the day. I'd have to do that now, anyway. The outside lit up for a moment; I figured they must be squandering Tinks by the dozen out there. Damn, if the jump drive on our ship worked, now would be the time to make a break; Security would be too busy to do anything to stop us.
Just then I heard the sound of running feet, and I grabbed for my
peacemaker. Gone! The next thing to hand was a pitcher of ice water.
One of the Barrayarans who had trashed the place charged in.
"They're going crazy out there! They're all going to die!"
I threw the water in his face. He stopped. Just stopped, dead still; then he fainted. I called for my husband, in the back room.
Illyan paused, then backed up to the beginning of the interview. Yes,
that was right; Shirl Aspen (h), m. Shirl Bracken (h), of Quartz.
The two of us carried the poor schnook back into the parlor and put
him on the couch. After a minute or two he opened his eyes.
"Feeling better, soldier?"
He looked at me blankly for a moment, then moaned.
"Soldier? No soldier. I'm a deserter. My buddies are out there, in danger, and I just turned and ran... Oh, God..."
Shirl and I exchanged a glance; it rolled its eyes.
"So, you want maybe to go back out? Put yourself in danger too?"
"No... No, I can't. I'd just freeze up again. I can't go back..."
A thought struck me. It's an ill wind...
"Say, you're an engineer, right?"
"Know anything about jump drives?"
Shirl caught my drift and gave me a thumbs-up. A way out of our dilemma?
"Okay, look. I've got a deal for you. We've got a small jumpship docked not too far from here, but the drive's damaged, and we can't afford repairs. You come with us; we'll undock, and if you can get the drive running again before we reach the jump point, we'll take you outsystem, anyplace nearby you want."
"Where're you going? And why should I trust a couple of herms?"
Barrayarans... Sorry, no offense meant.
"We're headed back to Beta Colony. And why should we trust a bloody Barrayaran?"
He glanced up, and I have never seen a living person who looked so dead.
"You shouldn't. Neither should I." He shivered. "But what else is there?"
What else indeed? Another five years of petty rules and regulations (there used to be a word for that; what was it?). Another five years of these grotesque ears. Another five years on this utterly vulgar station.
"Come on, let's get out of here." Shirl led the way toward the dock.
© 1998 by Jim Parish (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Current version by Michael Bernardi, email@example.com
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Last updated: August 1st 1998