"Good morning, Rosemont," Cordelia greeted. Rosemont didn't answer of course. He'd been quite incapable of answering for over thirty years. But he was a fine listener, as all the dead were.
She laid the small bouquet of flowers in front of the headstone, kneeled, and closed her eyes. Cordelia didn't pray today. She had said her prayers the night she and Aral had buried the young geologist, and thought none further were necessary. But she did like to visit here occasionally, where everything in life had begun to change so radically.
She opened her eyes and looked about. There was no longer any sign of the Betan encampment that had triggered the aborted attempt at capture by then Captain Aral Vorkosigan, and the subsequent mutiny initiated by Radnov, the General Vorkraft's Political Officer. The burned out tents and melted equipment had been carried away decades ago, leaving only the grave. But she could still see them in her mind, and smell the acrid stench of burnt plastic and seared metal. Somewhere down in the ravine was where she had found Dubauer, and... here, perhaps... was where she had been felled by a well aimed stunner shot courtesy of Sergeant Bothari.
He had also killed Rosemont, and wounded Dubauer forever in mind, but Cordelia had forgiven that monstrous, tortured man long ago.
"Milady?" Sergeant Pouncer, her liveried man, called from beside the lightflyer. "Milord Vorkosigan is on the comm."
Cordelia stood up from the grave, wincing slightly as her knees protested, and turned to meet the sergeant's worried face. She mentally reviewed all the possible emergencies that would require Aral to get a hold of her right now, and quickly made her way to the driver's seat of the flyer.
"What's happening, Aral?" she asked. Her view of his face on the lightflyer's vid comm had made her revise her initial thought of, "Who died?" Aral's face was lined with concern, but not with grief or deep worry. A serious problem was afoot, she guessed, but not an immediately life threatening one.
"I need you back here at the Governor's Palace, Cordelia," Aral said without preamble. "A... situation... has developed, which I need your opinion on."
"Can you tell me over the comm?" she asked. Aral shook his head.
"Not yet," he said. "It'll be public soon enough, but in the meantime I want to keep a lid on it for as long as possible."
"I'm on my way." She slid over to the passenger seat, and let Pouncer take the lightflyer into the air. It was barely an hour's flight to the grandly named Viceroy's Palace, which in reality was a series of pre-fab office and residential units, shoved together and covered by walls of cut logs in an attempt to give it a 'rustic' feel. To Cordelia's eye it just looked half-finished. But as the center of Sergyar's somewhat slow-paced government, it served well enough.
When she reached Aral's relatively spacious office, he motioned for her to take a chair beside the comconsole. Occupying another seat was a skinny officer with thinning red hair, wearing rumpled undress greens with a pin denoting his assignment to ImpMil's meteorological corps. In his hand were several info chips, marked with coded labels.
"Cordelia, this is Lt. Voreaston," Aral introduced. "He's part of the unit that's been bringing our new weather and ground surveillance satellites on-line."
"Milady." Voreaston ducked his head in a sketchy bow, then followed it up with a salute that would have made an ImpSec analyst look like a martinet.
"Lieutenant, please show Lady Vorkosigan what you showed me," Aral ordered.
"Ah, yes Milord Viceroy." Voreaston shuffled through his pile of chips, and selected one to stick into the comconsole. An image of Sergyar's western continent from a low altitude satellite appeared on the screen.
"This all started happening yesterday, as I was going through some routine adjustments with Sat 10's ground imaging system," the weatherman began. "We've been working overtime at the tracking station, every since our beloved emperor finally released the funds to upgrade the satellite network."
The odd emphasis on the phrase 'beloved emperor' caught Cordelia's ear, and Aral's too if she was reading his expression right. She was willing to bet that Voreaston was one Sergyar's small but growing number of native-born, who's respect for Barrayar and Gregor came from a slightly more distanced perspective than recent colonists. Well, governing over natives from a distance was something Barrayar had over thirty years of experience with. She just hoped the sort of wholesale indoctrination that had been attempted in the early days of the Komarran conquest went over better here.
"I was looking at a real-time image from the satellite," Voreaston continued, "not filtered by the computer's weather warning processor, when I saw something that caught my eye." His fingers danced over the comconsole, and the image expanded and focused. Now Cordelia could make out the individual trees of a forest, as the image scrolled across the screen.
Her heart froze when she saw the city appear...
For a moment she thought she was looking at an overhead view of Vorbarr Sultana's caravansari, as it had looked thirty years ago, dirty and dangerous, not clean and quaintly appealing as it did now. Cobblestone streets wound between slate and thatched roofs, while men and women in vaguely medieval looking clothing walked and talked. She caught a glimpse of a merchant hawking wares from a cart, and further on a mother pulling water from a communal fountain. Humanity, crowded together like it hadn't been since the Time of Isolation ended.
"Aral, that's got to be joke..." she began.
"It's no joke," Aral said beside her. With an effort she tore her eyes from the fantastic image on the screen to meet his worried face. He spared a glance at Voreaston, who was sitting quite carefully quiet in his station chair. "I called up those images myself, just in case it was some misguided attempt at humor. It isn't. That city is quite real." His face grew lined. "Cordelia, is it possible that you had any hint of this when you first came here?"
"No. None," Cordelia said, feeling off balance. Barrayar had a sort of April Fools Day, called the Day of Misrule, when the Vor Lords cooked and cleaned for the servants, and the vassals that normally toiled under them ate from their lord's tables. But that was months away, and the humor and pranks were never as elaborate as this. "When the Rene Magritte first came into orbit around Sergyar, native intelligence was one the first things we checked for. We checked."
"As I explained to the Viceroy, Milady, I think the problem was that we weren't making a narrow enough search," Voreaston spoke up. "As near as I can figure this city is the only one, aside from Barrayaran settlements, on the planet. I think it only has a population of about forty thousand, max, with no evidence of large scale electrical or nuclear power that would show up on sensors. Until we got those upgraded optics for the satellites, we never had the resolution to pick it up. It was just dumb luck that I caught it myself, though someone would have seen it eventually as we got ready to expand to the Western continent."
"How could this have happened?" she asked. "Are they some sort of Roanoke colony like Barrayar, sent out only to be lost? A misjumped ship?"
"We don't know," Aral said. "It'll require an extensive records search. I've already sent a FLASH priority message to ImpSec and Emperor Gregor, apprising them of the situation and asking for any information they can dig up. What's certain is that the city has been there for several hundred years at least." He rubbed his rough hands over his face, looking nearly as gray as he had after his heart attack. "You can see that this is going to be a very large problem."
"God, yes," Cordelia said, her stomach sinking at the enormity of it. "Forty thousand people, at the level of the Time of Isolation or worse. They're going need teachers, and doctors, and cultural specialists..."
Aral was shaking his head. "All right, two problems. The one you pointed out has the easiest, if expensive solution. I fear the other is going to be more political in nature."
Cordelia sighed. "Why am I not surprised? How can a bunch of technological primitives be a political problem to Barrayar?"
"Simply put: They were here first," Aral said. "If it can be proven that the city we're looking at existed prior to Barrayar staking its claim, the Empire has no rights to this world."
Lt. Voreaston got a distinctly calculating expression on his face. Wondering whether 'Barrayar' applied to Imperial citizens born on this world, no doubt.
"I can see where this is going," Cordelia said. "Escobar won't exactly be crying on Gregor's behalf."
"There are politicians on Escobar who would like nothing better than to put several more jumps between themselves and Barrayar. I have no doubts that they'll push this situation towards that very conclusion," Aral said. "I don't think things will come to a war, but it might turn out to be the biggest political disaster of Gregor's reign."
"Perhaps we can contact the city," Cordelia suggested. "Make a deal." While she had her doubts about how well Barrayar could handle the situation in the long term, she knew Aral would put out his utmost effort to make sure a fair deal was made for everyone involved.
"That may be a bit difficult," Aral said. "Almost certainly harder than when Barrayar was re-contacted by Galactic civilization."
Aral reached over and tapped a command into the comconsole. The image shifted, showing a view of the hills just outside of the city. "For one," he said, "they seem to have at least a few peculiar religious beliefs."
Cordelia looked closely at the screen, where whitened rocks were piled together carefully, spelling out a message to the sky in letters twice the height of a man.
"Bite us, Yeltar...?" she read.
© 1998 by Royce Day (Royce_Day@choicehotels.com)
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Last updated: July 13th 2001