by Greg Slade

This was originally posted to the lois-bujold mailing list in August 1998.

Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan straightened his tunic, jerked up his chin, and stepped through the airlock from the Escobaran liner onto the orbital transfer station. The customs agent at the counter in front of him looked him over with a professional air. Mark noted that the eyes were seeking out his armpits, ankles, and other likely hiding places for weapons or contraband, rather than carefully not looking at his height -- or lack thereof -- and twisted spine. Probably a Komarran, then, rather than a Barrayaran. They were all Sergyarans here, legally, and Mark idly wondered how long it would take until Sergyar developed an indigenous culture -- and accent. Given the nature of the Viceroy and his... family, and the mixed nature of the colonists, it would probably turn out to be a very interesting culture indeed.

The customs agent scanned his I.D., and him, and welcomed him home with smooth deference. Practiced, thought Mark, not spinal reflex. Definitely Komarran. Although the name on his I.D. sparked something odd in the customs agent's eyes which he did not recognise.

How things have changed, Mark mused as he waited for the shuttle to dock at his departure gate. The lights of Sergyar's night side were visibly denser than they had been the last time he came through here. How long ago was that? It seemed like a lifetime. Not that he was not enjoying his schooling on Beta Colony, but could it have been only two years ago when he regarded Sergyar and its Viceroy with stark terror? He was much more comfortable about it now. Surely.

Suddenly, he was aware of the presence of a figure behind him. "Lord Mark?"

Mark turned and regarded the figure. A neat trick, that. Alerting without startling. How long have you been in the service, to learn that? "Yes?"

"I'm sorry to disturb you, milord, but we have a bit of a security concern that you might be able to help us with."

Mark search his conscience. ImpSec suspected him again? Had he done anything to arouse their suspicions? Did Ser Galen's conditioning still hold after all this time, and perhaps he was doing something, all unconsciously, to bring harm to the Empire, long after Galen's plot was crushed? But how could that be, after all he had been through on Beta? He jerked his chin up. "Certainly."

The agent led him, not, as he expected, to the security offices, but to operations. There, the chief of operations greeted him with visible relief. "Lord Mark! Thank you for coming, milord. I was afraid that we would have to do something drastic." Something drastic, in this case, meant considerably more than on many other planets. On the other side of a glass partition, techs hovered over comconsoles which controlled the transfer station's formidable concealed weaponry. Most galactics had no idea that the "civilian" station was nearly as heavily armed as most military ones, and would probably be upset if they did. But on Barrayar, paranoia was a virtue. There was always somebody plotting to overthrow the Imperium. He should know.

"I don't see how I can help you, chief. If you're having a serious problem, maybe you should be consulting an Imperial Auditor." Like my brother, he carefully didn't say.

"That is the problem. There's an inbound freighter threatening to dock without clearance, and the pilot insists that he will talk to nobody else except Lord Vorkosigan, and he's on Barrayar."

"Oh, well. Perhaps I can help you, then. I'm fairly familiar with Lord Vorkosigan's... friends. What do you know about this ship so far?"

"Not much, except that it is registered in Lord Vorkosigan's name."

"That must be a front. I'm not aware of any business ventures of his."

"Actually, milord, it's genuine. This ship has been in our records under Lord Vorkosigan's name for more than 15 years now, registered out of Beta Colony."

Curiouser and curiouser. Miles wouldn't even have been in the Academy 15 years ago. Probably still swotting up for the entrance exams, actually. How did he manage to come up with a ship at that age? Then Mark remembered how he had come by his first ship, and said, "I had better speak to the pilot."

"Here, milord. You may use this comconsole." The chief punched up a sequence on the comconsole. "RG-132? I have Lord... Vorkosigan on the line for you."

Wait a minute! Thought Mark, I'm not going to start playing that game again. The unfamiliar face on the screen had a look on it that he did recognise: I-love-Miles. Well, he wasn't going to go there. The pilot was wearing a plain black T-shirt, and his jacket was open and folded back, so that any insignia which might have been on it were obscured. But he recognised the colours. Oh, he knew those colours, all right.

"My lord?" asked the voice, as the face searched his. Not "milord", but "my lord", signifying a specific liege relationship, rather than simply deference to a Vor. Clearly, this was not simply one of Miles'... friends, but a member of the inner circle. Innermost, if Miles had sworn him. What was going on here?

"My name," he said carefully, "is Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan. My brother Miles is away on Barrayar. May I be of some assistance?"

The face showed conflicting emotions: confusion, dismay, and anxiety chased each other across the features of the pilot. "Mark? Brother?" he breathed. Then Mark heard something being said to the pilot from out of pickup range. He couldn't make out the words, or even recognise the voice, but the pilot's face cleared immediately. The only remaining emotion, aside from underlying tension, was the same odd expression Mark had seen on the customs agent's face earlier that day. "Okay. I will talk to you. But only face to face."

Mark looked up to the chief of operations, who was hovering anxiously out of pickup range. "I have reason to believe that this man may be a friend of Lord Vorkosigan, but I have no idea what's going on yet. Do you have a shuttle available?"

Mark grunted in surprise as he passed through the airlock from the shuttle into the freighter. He was expecting a sudden transition to artificial gravity once inside the ship, but it didn't come. In fact, the whole ship was in zero-gee. Was it too old to have artificial gravity, or was there some other reason? Certainly it looked pretty ancient, but surely even a freighter this old would have gravity in the crew quarters.

He pulled himself hand-over hand to the bridge. The pilot was there waiting for him, along with somebody else he didn't recognise. The pilot was probably about midway in age between Miles and Cordelia, with a flat Betan accent. Well, that certainly went with the ship's registry. The pilot's tension was more visible in person. And so was that other look. "Lord Mark. I think you should know right off that I am liege-sworn to your brother. My name is Arde Mayhew, and I'm with the Dendarii Free Mercenaries. In fact," he grinned, and Mark wasn't quite sure whether there was pride or embarrassment in his eyes, "I guess you could say that I was the first Dendarii."

"Someday," Mark promised, half to himself, "I am going to sit on Miles until he tells me the whole story."

Mayhew grinned. "I'd love to be there when you do. There are still a few of us who know what happened, but I'll be hanged if I can figure out why."

"Ah," said Mark. "That's probably the one question he couldn't answer."

The other person in the bridge seemed impossibly old. Its hair was pure white, and fell over a face which was so wrinkled and lumpy that it seemed barely human. Where the pilot's uniform was folded back into -- well, obscurity, if not civilian appearance, this one's grey and white uniform was spotless and unmistakable, and bore a Master Sergeant's insignia. Surely no Dendarii was that old, were they? Why would Miles recruit somebody who must have been past retirement age for decades? The figure spoke, "Yeah, that's him. Greetings, Lord Mark. I have a boon to ask of you. I need you to deliver... a gift to your brother. I probably won't live long enough to give it to him myself." Its eyes glittered with that same look, plus a glint of... amusement?

"Deliver... a gift?" Mark repeated. "Why do I get the feeling that he's not going to like this... gift?"

"Oh, he'll probably be horrified," the figure agreed cordially. "But I've done my research, and it's permitted. I had a few spares done up, in case of... accidents."

Hesitations. Always hesitations. If this secrecy and carefully not-saying-things goes on much longer, I'll probably develop a stutter. Mark jerked up his chin and said, "Perhaps you had better show me."

"Perhaps I had," agreed the figure, and rose out of its station chair. And rose. And rose. Even hunched over with age, it easily half again his height, and standing straight, would probably have been another 15 centimetres...

Mark's eyes bulged. "Sergeant...?"

"Yes, Mark. It's me." The figure assured him.

"But... but... how?"

"We always knew that I'd have a shortened life span. It turns out that the end comes fairly quickly. All of this," she gestured at her crippled body, "happened in the past year. I've barely had time to get to Escobar and get all this done. Cleaned out my life savings." She snorted, "and my pension fund, too. Not much to worry about there. I've probably only got a few weeks left."

Mark was stricken. Sergeant Taura had loomed, er, large in his consciousness over the past couple of years. Well, loomed in his nightmares, to be honest. He still couldn't understand how Miles could be so... affectionate towards her. She seemed like a fundamental force of nature, and Mark still wasn't sure which was more threatening, Taura's fanged grin, or the muzzle of a nerve disruptor. To see her reduced to this aged wreck in such a short time was like finding that the bogeyman had had a heart attack. To find such an elemental suddenly disempowered unbalanced one's whole world.

Don't go there. Change the subject. "You had enough personal funds to hire this freighter?"

"Oh, no. It belongs to Miles, and Miles ordered Arde to come to see him right away, so he came as fast as he could. Once he had a few minor repairs taken care of." Taura didn't smile with her mouth, but her eyes were laughing. Mayhew shifted a little. If they hadn't been in free fall, Mark would have sworn that he was shuffling his feet. Oh, ho! So your troops are pulling the wool over your eyes, are they? You're not in control as much as you think you are, big brother.

"The big cost was getting the... gift prepared. It took some serious tech, and it took every dollar I had to my name, and a few personal favours besides, to pull it off."

Mark was impressed. Dendarii pay wasn't lavish, but it was steady, and with bonuses and promotions through the years, Taura had probably earned a packet, and had the sense to invest it well. As far as he'd heard, she had no life outside the Dendarii, never taking more than the occasional shore leave. So she had probably spent almost nothing of her accumulated pay. Until now. "It must be some gift," he encouraged.

She shrugged. "I owe him my life. I owe him everything. I could never think of an appropriate way to thank him, until now. But I had to do this, for him. Even if he doesn't like it. I had to do it."

"You don't think he'd like it?"

This time, she openly grinned. He wasn't sure if the grin was less menacing without the fangs or not. "He'd probably be horrified."

"So, what you're saying is that you spent your last dollar buying Miles a present he won't like."

"He probably won't like it, but he... needs it. I've done my research." She straightened out further now, and Mark could see the determination in her eyes. It was the look of a non-com determined to save her superior officer from his own stupidity. Whatever was going on here, there would be no way he'd be able to talk Taura out of whatever scheme she'd hatched.

"So why are you talking to me?"

For the first time, Taura looked doubtful. "As far as I can tell, this is the best place to put Miles'... gift. But I need to make sure that it goes to him personally, and no-one else. In the wrong hands, it would be... the worst kind of disaster. I trust Miles to do right by it, and by me."

Mystified, Mark could only say, "and...?"

"And I need you to get the gift to the Viceroy's palace without customs or security or anybody else laying an eye on it."

Mark huffed. "You don't ask much, do you? This isn't some kind of plot, is it?"

"Oh, it's every kind of plot. But it's not a plot against anybody. Not the Empire, nor his father, nor you. And especially not against Miles. I give you my word on it." Just like that. Her word. She had spent too much time with Miles, he could see. Word. Honour. Trust.

Helplessly, Mark turned to Mayhew. "What do you think of this... gift?" He wasn't even sure how far he could trust Mayhew's word.

Startled, Mayhew searched for words. "It's... it's... extravagant. Amazing. Magnificent. Terrifying." Then he seemed to steady himself, and even grinned. "And absolutely, utterly, perfectly appropriate."

Oh, ho. In other words, it would be something to unnerve Miles, the way he unnerved everybody around him. He had to see this. "I think I had better see this... gift."

She grinned again. "Follow me."

They floated back to the cargo hold. It was full of machines. Each one identical, with blinking lights to display its status. Green lights blinking off into the darkness. Whatever the gift was, there was a lot of it. Enough, however many that was, plus spares. Weapons? Security would have seven kinds of fits if they knew. And they're not supposed to know. That's the problem.

Then Taura reached out and turned on the lights, and Mark could see the true nature of the gift, and count it. Enough, plus spares? He counted 48. All in neat rows, fastened securely to the deck. He looked more closely at the indicators. All running smoothly, he saw. Then he looked more closely yet at one panel, then checked a few others nearby, and did a quick estimation. Ah, that made sense. 24 of each. It really was enough, with spares. Perpetual spares, he realised. "Oh, Miles would definitely not like this."

Taura grinned, "That's what I figured."

"Where did you... buy this gift?"

She buffed one set of gleaming fingernails set in an arthritic hand, then held them out at arm's length for inspection. In the distraction, Mark noted that it would take her longer than most people to need corrective eye surgery in order to read. Arm's length for her was still a considerable distance. "Escobar," she admitted at last, "I told you I called in some personal favours."

He nodded. "Makes sense. Better than the alternative."

This time, her grin was not at all pleasant. "Anything is better than that alternative."

"What about..." he waved vaguely in her direction.

"Oh, I had them do a little customising. Better stability, longer service life. Variety is the spice of life." Yes, Miles was right. You are very not-stupid.

He pointed to the machine he'd just been examining. "Half of them are very customised, where did you get the....?"

"They had had some spare material lying around from a previous... contract."

Suddenly, Mark got the joke. He doubled over and laughed until his sides hurt, nearly curled up into a ball. Finally he managed to gasp, "You didn't!"

She positively smirked. "Oh, but I did! I told you he'd be horrified."

It all made sense, in a twisted sort of a way. Even the choice of planet made sense. On Barrayar, the cargo would be regarded as some galactic barbarity, worse than the nastiest weapons ever cooked up in a lab on Beta Colony, or Barrayar itself, for that matter. On Komarr, with its galactic pragmatism, the cargo would be considered as merely merchandise, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Only here, on Sergyar, with its still-brewing mixture of tech and relationship, pragmatism and honour, would this... gift have a chance of being understood. And Miles, out of all the Empire, would be the one most likely to appreciate it.

"No," he said slowly, "I don't think he would be horrified. Grandfather would have been horrified, for sure. Mother will be..." He hesitated, then decided. "Fascinated. Definitely. Father would be bemused, I think. But Miles. Miles would be... touched. I think, Sergeant, that you are right. It is the perfect gift. And I think, once he gets over the shock, that he will appreciate, and understand."

Her smirk disappeared. "Thank you, Lord Mark. I needed to hear that." She looked oddly touched, as if all her ferocious glee before had been a front, and, like a small child, she had been fearing the rejection of her gift all along. Surely not. How can she -- even now -- fear anything?

"And now I can see why you don't want security or customs to know a thing about it. For," he smirked himself, "a whole lot of reasons. I had better get back to the station. Keep standing off. I'll have to go straight to the Viceroy about this. It'll probably take hours or even days to get it done, but I'll get them to the palace, and to Miles, safely and in private. I give you my word... as... as Vorkosigan."

Taura just looked at him with that same odd look in her eyes. Mark grew uncomfortable. "Just tell me one thing. Enough for what?"

"I've done my research. He's allowed twenty, and only men are allowed to be armsmen."

"Oh..." Mark looked one last time at the 48 uterine replicators, with their blinking green lights. Enough, plus spares. Even from the grave, you would be his bodyguard. I salute you, Sergeant.

© 1998 by Greg Slade

Current version by Michael Bernardi, mike@dendarii.co.uk

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