Mitri chuckled as he laid down his cards and scooped up the chips. "Thank you for your generous contributions to the Non-Coms Retirement Fund. Tax-deductible receipts are available." His comrades grumbled at the size of the pile in front of him as Mitri shuffled the cards again and began to deal another hand.
Then Lieutenant Simpson stuck his head into the Wardroom. "Hey, Greek Boy!"
Mitri leaped to his feet, spun to face the door, snapped off a salute, and cried out, "Yes, oh my master!"
Simpson suppressed his irritation at this ironic greeting, and bit out, "Your class starts in five minutes. You don't want to keep your 'gentlemen.' waiting."
"I hear and obey, oh my master," gushed Mitri, with another salute at Simpson's retreating back. Then he gathered up his pile of chips and stuffed it, contrary to regulations, into the belt pouch which was supposed to hold spare power cells for the nerve disruptor on his hip. "I thank you for your attention. This class in Applied Probability Mathematics will reconvene at another time."
Andreou was still nettled at Simpson's greeting. "How can you let him get away with calling you that?" he demanded.
Mitri grinned, "Don't get mad, get even." He dashed out of the wardroom and made his way aft along the upper gun deck. As he went, he ducked past the ladder leading up into one of the converted gun cupolas. As he did so, he ruefully rubbed a bump on the side of his head. The Count Vortala was one of the last remaining of the "Count" class ships, Barrayar's first generation of spaceships built after the end of the Time of Isolation, with substantial help from the galactics. No, be fair. The ship was practically built from a kit. Although some design features had been insisted upon by the Barrayaran high command. Like the rows of manned gun cupolas along the several gun decks. High command, not trusting to servos, had insisted the each gun be aimed and fired manually. The galactics had agreed, and so Barrayar's first line of defense had been cut to ribbons by the more highly automated ships of the invading Cetagandans. Crew members who should have been on damage control were instead stuck to their gun sights, firing into the darkness, never knowing whether that particular bright spark was friend, or foe, or simply a star.
Ah, well. The obsolete-before-they-were-built ships were useless in combat, but remove the guns, mount observation instruments in the cupolas, and you had the perfect platform for teaching real-space navigation. He just wished that he didn't keep banging his head into ladders or stanchions on the cramped gun decks every few months.
He paused before he door to the cabin which had once been the gunners' ready room. He checked his chrono, then his uniform, and then burst through the door into the suddenly-quiet cabin full of cadets.
"Gentlemen," he began, in a tone calculated to imply that, in his private opinion, they were anything but, "Some of you have managed to demonstrate that you are actually capable of finding your own heads, with the aid of both hands and a couple of search-and-rescue dogs. Now, we move onto the next phase."
He waited for a heartbeat. Then came the familiar sensation of jump. He watched the bright yellow flare which always marked the beginning of the first hop to Komarr, and waited for the magenta fuzz to appear on all flat surfaces. As always, he resisted the temptation to move during the jump, and so seem to have magically teleported during the jump. He took too many chances as it was, and if his superiors realised that he was a jump adept, he would be transferred to pilot school, and lose his access to this, the most perfect of jobs: abusing upper class officers-to-be with impunity. A few minutes later, the last of the electric green finally faded out of the friction matting, and the cadets began to move again.
"Yes, that was a jump. You may safely assume that your next observations will not be taken in Barrarayan local space. In view of the lack of... local landmarks, I will ease the requirements for your next fix. Your acceptable margin of error for the next fix is one parsec." The cadets heaved a sigh of relief. A parsec was a vastly greater margin of error than he had permitted them in Barrayaran local space. How little they knew. Without any planets, or even stars, nearby to narrow down their choices, a sphere one parsec in radius was a vanishingly small space to find in interstellar space, and the cadets' instruction up to this point had deliberately failed to include any mention of the actual locations, in real space, of the wormhole end points of the jumps between Barrayar, Komarr, Sergyar, Pol, and Escobar. Nor did the charts available to them include the locations of any wormhole end points.
He continued with palpably false bonhomie, "However, should you fail to locate this spacecraft's true position within one parsec, you will get a little present from me, as a token of my esteem. This will be true, even if you should happen not to give the most extravagantly incorrect guess." At this, he glowered at a reddening cadet Vorlakial, with his truly astonishing set of eight yellow armbands. How could he possibly have been dead last in every single fix so far? Was it time for yet another dig at failing to live up to the example set by his illustrious grandfather? No. Leave it to fester for another couple of days. The truth was, this was an unusually brilliant class, and even Vorlakial was well within the true acceptable margin of error at this level. But he would never let his students know that. He deliberately set the margin of error smaller, and his pocket held a dozen green armbands, enough for nearly half the class, which, he estimated, should be just about right. Plus, of course, another yellow one. Probably for Vorlakial, poor fellow. Some of the cadets were getting a bit complacent. Especially Savich. He'd have to do something about Savich's armband-free sleeve very soon.
"You have one hour to make your fix. After that time, this ship will be changing location. Dismissed!"
Savich had his feet up on the comconsole, and was reading a book-disk, when Mitri poked his head into the cupola. "Three, two, one. Bing! Time's up!" he called cheerfully. One of the many little sayings he had compiled over the years. Ironic, disconcerting, falsely cheerful, and ominous. Most of the time. Savich, as he expected, braced and saluted. He did not look the least bit worried or guilty. Also, sadly, as expected. "I suppose you think you've got the fix in place."
"Yes, sir." Savich replied.
"Don't call me 'Sir', soldier. I work for a living!" That was pure spinal reflex, drilled into every non-com on every planet in the nexus, probably almost as far back in history as the first jump-ships.
"Yes, Sergeant," corrected Savich.
"Did you double-check your results?"
"Yes, Sergeant." Serene, confident, but not at all cocky. He was tough to crack, this one. That was good.
"Hmmmm," Mitri grudged. "Why don't you share with me your entry in the 'Guess Where I Am' contest?"
Savich turned to the comconsole and displayed his fixes. All twelve of them. Not only were they all well within the margin of error, but they tracked a slightly wavering line in space, showing the ship's motion in the direction of the next jump point. In fact, the fixes were so good that the kid could have made pretty accurate guesses of the location of the jump point back to Barrayar local space, and the next jump point towards Komarr as well. How could the kid work so quickly and accurately, when most of the class had a hard time making three semi-accurate fixes in an hour? Surely, he was facing the most talented navigator he had ever taught. But Mitri had more to teach than navigation. "Hmmmm. Not too bad, for a beginner. Your teacher back in Rusty Nail must be real proud of you, kid."
Savich's annoying serenity shattered like a dropped glass. Hotly, he began to retort, "It's Silvy..."
"Did I ask you for a geography lesson, soldier?" Curt, arbitrary, unfair. Learn, kid. Learn, he did not say. If you let them rattle you -- about your name, or your looks, or your family, or where you come from -- if you let them make you self-conscious and distract you from the task at hand, you go into battle half-effective. A soldier doesn't wear all his weapons on his belt. "Now, since you have gotten your nasty, muddy boot prints all over that nice, clean comconsole, I want you to swab this cupola top to bottom while I go see to the other contestants." There was no point in assigning him more fixes to do. Mitri swore the kid actually liked doing navigational math. Probably in his head. Not that there was any mud on Savich's boots, or anywhere else in the cupola. The point was to give him something to make him stew all the more. Learn, kid. Learn.
Mitri dropped down the ladder and headed towards the next cupola. This one was almost too easy to needle. Not that he said much, but Mitri could tell that it got to him. The trick was to be a bit more subtle than the usual barracks hazing. Anything which had been used overmuch would run into practised defense mechanisms. The trick was to be unusual, unexpected, bewildering. And merciless. Don't forget merciless. Learn, kid. Learn.
Slowly, carefully, he put hands and feet on the ladder so he could poke his head into the cupola suddenly and unexpectedly. "Three, two, one. Bing! Time's up!" His victim braced and saluted. Unlike Savich, he looked harried and worried. One glance at the comconsole told Mitri that he hadn't managed to make three fixes. He was barely started on the third. And the first two were so far apart that a third was necessary to make a reasonable guess. Of course, both were well within what was expected at the level, but he'd never let on. After benevolently bestowing a coveted green armband, Mitri paused at the ladder, and asked innocently, "It's pretty close to noon. Getting hungry?" Cadet Vorlopoulos managed to restrain a groan, or any more assertive response, but there was pain in his eyes. Learn, kid. Learn.
Mitri looked up with a shock as the overhead lamp started to dribble neon yellow ribbons onto the deck. Is it that late already? He checked his chrono. Yes, it was. They were already making the last jump to Komarr local space. He'd better hustle if he wanted to be on time to present his "gentlemen" with their next navigation assignment. But there was a problem here. If he moved during the jump, he might be noticed. Oh, it was all right to give cadets the impression that non-coms had near-magical powers, but any of the ship's officers might well guess the truth. Mentally, he reviewed his route. Could he get to the ready room without using any lift tubes? Yes, if he ducked through this storage compartment, and up that ladder, he should be able to make it without using any automatic devices, thus alerting the pilot. Quickly, he stowed his throbbing red reader and ducked out of his room.
As his head came level with the gun deck, he knew he was going to be late. He didn't need the blue balls of light aftward strobing down the corridor to urge him to haste. But then, as he rounded the last stanchion, he groaned. There, blocking his way, was Lieutenant Simpson, whom he could be sure would be delighted to spot and investigate any irregularities in his actions or movements. Perhaps he shouldn't have been quite so eager to tweak Simpson every chance he got. Not that he doesn't deserve everything he gets, the arrogant little... Never mind. Too late now. They'd be coming out of jump in moments. Since Simpson was coming towards him, this should be safe enough. Mitri ducked backed around the stanchion and fairly flew up the oozing green ladder into the cupola.
One last burst of orange static through the ship, and they were back into normal space. Simpson trod heavily down the length of the corridor beneath him. Without, thankfully, yelling something like, "Dammit, Stolides! Where are you? Why don't you answer me?" Good. It had been close, but he was pretty sure he had made it through safely.
While he waited for the sound of Simpson heading up or down the lift tube at the forward end of the corridor, Mitri glanced out the cupola. There, in front of them, lay the civilian transfer station. It seemed oddly deserted. Instead of the dozens of ships docked along the various arms that he would expect to see, there were only four: two docked at the Q8 service arm, an ImpSec fast courier at one of the station's private security locks, and -- oddly enough -- another ImpSec ship, and -- troops in space armour? -- hovering outside a set of three freight locks emblazoned with the logo of a small-time shipping company. What was this about? Before Mitri could take a closer look, the scenario slid out of site, as the ship rotated to give his students a nice, unobstructed, suitably anonymous view of stars from which to take their next fixes. Oh, well. Whatever was going on at the jump station, he was sure that he'd hear about it soon enough. It was bound to be all over the holovid channels by morning. He checked his chrono again. Yes, it was evening, Solstice time.
In the meantime, his students awaited. Since they could count, they'd know that this fix had to be in Komarr local space. If they couldn't count, they'd still have been able to figure it out if he had suddenly jumped from an error margin of a parsec to a few million kilometres. For that reason, he'd been squeezing the error margin ever smaller over the past four jumps. Dropping from 1,000,000,000 kilometres to 250,000,000 shouldn't give the game away to the slowest of the slow. Not that the slowest were all that slow. Even Vorlakial's fixes had improved dramatically. He had only acquired two new armbands, both green, and his place as the class goat had been taken by the unfortunate Daigle, who had acquired all four of the yellow armbands awarded since leaving Barrayaran local space. Savich, of course, still sported an undecorated sleeve. He was beginning to find that quite annoying, as if Savich's failure to fail was a personal affront to his ability to push his students past their limits.
He slid down the ladder to the corridor, pulled a spacesick bag out of an inside pocket, straightened his tunic, and burst through the door. "Ah, gentlemen," he grinned, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet and appreciatively inhaling the slight odour of frying onions and cabbage wafting up from the galley, to emphasise that he, at least, was not even slightly prone to jump sickness. He waved the bag negligently. "If there is anything we at Pleasure Cruise Lines can do to make your vacation in any way more pleasurable, please do not hesitate to ask." At the sight of the bag, several of the more susceptible students -- who had been manfully trying to hide their discomfort -- turned a slightly paler shade of green. Mitri gleefully imagined the lineup in the head as soon as he set them loose. Learn, kids. Learn. Should he go on at even greater length? No. There was a fine line between pushing kids to the edge, and pushing them right over. He caught sight of Vorcook's alarming complexion, and decided to rush through the rest of it. "No?" he inquired innocently, and whipped the offending bag out of sight behind his back.
"Very well. Your acceptable margin of error this time has been reduced again. I expect you to fix your location in normal space within 250,000,000 kilometres." At this, some of the poorer students looked, if possible, even more worried. Let them. The whole class was well within spec by now. A little stress was good for them. Learn, kids. Learn. "In addition, you can earn bonus points by telling me the course and time necessary to reach the nearest inhabited planet at standard boost. The ephemeris modules on your comconsoles have been unlocked. You have one hour to make your fix. After that time, this ship will be changing location. Dismissed!"
"... and as he lay there, bruised and bleeding in the dust, he heard the Tau Verdan say, 'Tank: rumble, rumble.'"
Mitri barked out a short laugh. "Ha! I hadn't heard that one yet." At least, in the version I heard, it was Orientals, not Tau Verdans. "Where did you hear that one, sir?"
Simpson looked a little surprised at getting praise for a joke from the ship's clown. "Oh, I don't know. Some old holovid show. Anywho, for the next jump, of course, we'll be jumping out from that dead-end wormhole..."
Mitri schooled his features into an expression of polite interest. He was determined to be nice to Simpson for a change. Having a superior officer out to get him could be dangerous, as he'd already seen. Just, please, sir, don't tell any more jokes. You're no good at it.
"So, for your 'gentlemen', there'll be a 'hole' lot of thinking going on."
Mitri suppressed a groan and smiled instead, and suddenly realised that he owed Vorlakial an apology. No, by God, he owed the whole class an apology. Could it possibly be that his jokes were as painful to other people as Simpson's were? He'd sworn to himself that he'd be nice to Simpson if it killed him.
"Did I tell you the one about about the ImpSec guard who caught a Komarran chewing on an apple seed?"
Mitri suppressed an urge to look at his chrono. "Why, no, sir. You haven't." At this rate, another three or four jokes ought to do it. I'd like my ashes scattered in space, please. But he was saved from any more of Simpson trying to entertain him by telling him what he already knew when the first officer arrived.
"Simpson!" he spat out, "what kind of cruise ship do you think we're running here?"
Mitri and Simpson braced and saluted. Polski was so angry that he was nearly foaming at the mouth. He looked up to Simpson's superior height and blazed menace like a plasma cannon. Mitri, as a non-com, slipped beneath notice without a ripple.
Simpson swallowed whatever he was going to say, and asked meekly, "Sir?"
"Don't you realise what your groat-brained idiots have been up to? The lower gun decks are awash with depilatory cream!" Polski was quivering with rage. The ship's crew, Mitri knew, would be in for a rampage at least until shift change. Covertly, he breathed a sigh of relief. That would be Charlie or Delta company, most likely. His Bravos never went below midships.
As Polski led Simpson off to the scene of the crime, Mitri made his escape. He wondered, as he headed up to the top gun deck, just how much depilatory cream was involved in the prank. Surely the whole fleet didn't stock enough to make three decks "awash" with the stuff.
Suddenly, he had a glimpse of what life must be like for Simpson, as the liaison officer between the training cadres and the ship's crew. Idiocy and mischief from beneath, idiocy and bombast from above. Was that... sympathy he felt? For Simpson? Surely not.
Mitri entered the suddenly-quiet ready room and made his way to the front. Unusually for him, he actually sat down at the instructor's desk. No fooling around this time. "Gentlemen," he began, "By now, most of you realise that we are in Komarr local space."
At this, Daigle reddened. Although his fix had, strictly speaking, been within the 250,000,000 kilometre limit, it had also been been, strictly speaking, within the photosphere of Komarr's sun, the position of which he had neglected to check. Mitri awarded him a yellow armband for distinguished boneheadedness. He was briefly tempted to comment on Daigle's "sunburn", but decided to give him a break, just this once, and went on.
"Now, in a few minutes, you will be making yet another fix. Just to give you a breather, we will leave the acceptable margin of error the same as before. The one change in your situation is..." and here he broke, paused, and was rewarded with the sight of an overhead lamp exploding into red and yellow sprites, which chased each other around the room before being swallowed up by the green-striped pink slime which oozed up out of the friction matting. This jump through the "dead end" wormhole had always been his favourite, because the hallucinations were so bizarre. It was moments like these that he was almost tempted to go into pilot training. He waited until the flock of dark green bats flew into the room, circled it twice counter-clockwise, settled onto the aft bulkhead, gave birth to a cloud of neon-yellow hail, and faded into the walls again before he continued, "... that you may safely assume that you are no longer in Komarr local space." He was going to go on when he realised that there was a spreading pool of blue liquid on the glowing coals that made up his desk. What's going on here? I know this jump. That hail is always the last hallucination. He checked his chrono. No help there. It was covered with bright orange tar. Every student in the room suddenly sprouted a doppelganger hanging from the ceiling. Savich's was the most astounding shade of blue. Then dark blue lobsters in pink fedora hats and business-like grey pinstriped tutus began eating his right arm. I definitely would have remembered this part. Where are we?
Finally, all the weirdness faded from the room, except that Vorcook looked distinctly green. Oh, wait a minute. Vorcook was distinctly green. Right. Where was I? Oh, yeah. "... that you may safely assume that you are no longer in Komarr local space. Yes, that was a jump. You now have one hour to make your fixes."
The students tensed, ready to rush out and set to work.
"One more thing, gentlemen." He saw the flinch in their eyes. Since when have I been the ogre? Do they really think that everything I have to tell them is solely for the sake of making their lives miserable? "I think you should know that all of your fixes are well within academy standards for this stage in your training. In fact, you are among the most talented classes I have ever taught. Class dismissed." He walked out of the now completely silent room. Surely it can't be that much of a surprise to you?
"So that's your fix, is it?"
Mitri could hardly believe his luck. This was outstanding. This was excellent. This was finally his big chance to decorate Savich's sleeve. Slowly, gently, now. Don't let him see it coming. Let the Awful Realisation be slow and horrible. Oh, this is going to be goooood! He took a moment to replace the grin threatening to split his face with a properly thoughtful and serious expression, and turned to face Savich again. "And would you mind explaining to me the process by which you came to make this fix?" he asked.
Savich brightened up and swiveled to face the comconsole again. "Yes, Sergeant!" Mitri suddenly realised why Savich was so good at navigation. He actually likes doing this. It's not a chore for him, but a pleasure. If you put him in a survey vessel and send him out across the galaxy, jumping blind through wormholes, he'd be in seventh heaven, just figuring out where he'd been dumped. Mitri made a mental note to himself to put just that recommendation in Savich's file. "The first things I picked up were the signals from the navigation buoys." Navigation buoys? What navigation buoys? "But I didn't take fixes from them, because I assumed that you'd want me to do this as if we really were in deep space." What do you mean, kid? We are in deep space. Just about as deep as you can get.
Savich suddenly looked a little guilty. "Okay, I did take fixes from them. But I swear I did the other fixes independently!" He keyed the comconsole, and another dozen lines sprang out from the ship's displayed position at the centre of the holovid to a scattering of points ahead of it. Navigation buoys?
Mitri cleared his throat, trying to think of something to say. Savich glanced back at him again. "Oh, sorry, sir. Here's my real work." He cleared the holovid again. "The first fix I took was on that really bright star over there." Star? What star? "I pretended I didn't know where we were, so I started with a spectral analysis to try to find out which star it was. Of course, it's not at the top of the magnitude table, but it's an F0, which narrowed things down. I didn't think this would be so easy."
"What..." Mitri finally managed to croak out.
"Sir? I mean, 'Sergeant?'"
"What star are you talking about?"
"Oh." Savich stood up and pointed forward. Mitri craned his neck, and saw, past a clutter of antennae on the hull, a bright, blue-white diamond blazing in the black velvet of space, where nothing, nothing should be. Mitri could swear they were close enough for the star to cast shadows. "Canopus," Savich presented it as if he had conjured it out of nothing himself. "So anyway..."
Mitri lost track of what he was saying. We're in the wrong place. We went through the right wormhole, but this is the wrong place! That's not possible! When you jump through a wormhole, you're either in the right place, or you're dead. Everybody knows that. This wormhole is supposed to end in deep space, nowhere near anything of significance except for another wormhole about a light week away, and that leads to still more nowhere. And there is a star, he checked the position, glaring right into the main viewports on the bridge, and Polski really is going to be foaming at the mouth about this! Suddenly, Mitri was extremely glad that he wasn't on the bridge or anywhere near it right now. At least they can't blame the cadets for this one.
"And, if my fix is right, we could make orbit around Jackson's Whole in 39 days, 19 hours, and 42 minutes from first burn."
"Well, last time, you told us to calculate the time to the nearest inhabited planet at standard boost."
"Oh, right. So I did."
Mitri sagged against Savich's station chair. Think, kid. Think. Now, if we have a direct jump from Komarr to Jackson's Whole, what does that mean? On the one hand, we bypass one trading partner and several wormhole jumps, throw in two customs inspections for good measure. A slight increase in profit for a few Komarran trading fleets. On the other hand, we could project any force we wanted to into Jacksonian local space and beyond it without worrying about making Pol or Vervain or Aslund nervous. What does it mean for Pol or Aslund or Vervain? For Aslund, almost nothing: our trade with them is all two way and direct anyway, so they wouldn't care which route the ships took. For Pol, same for local trade, but they'd lose a little on duty for shipments bound for Jackson's Whole or farther out that way. Militarily? Well, they'd face us on two sides instead of one, but they're been pretty friendly since that fight in the Hegen Hub with Cetaganda. Oh. Cetaganda. Now there's a different story. They'd love to roll up the Jacksonians, and they'd love to roll up the whole Hegen Hub, too. They'd even go through Komarr to do it, and annex Barrayar and Sergyar as an afterthought.
"Thank you. Uh... would you please gather up the rest of the class and have them meet in the ready room right now?"
"Yes, as soon as possible. Sooner." Savich clattered down the ladder, and was gone before Mitri thought to yell, "And don't call me, 'Sir'!"
Mitri clapped his hands and raised his voice as the last cadet tumbled into the ready room. "Okay! We have no time to waste. I cannot explain anything to you, so I'm going to ask you to trust me. I may not even be able to explain why later. I have reason to believe that your comconsoles will soon be locked down." He raised his voice over the muttering. "No, that's not my idea. But before you lose access, there are two things you have got to do. You wouldn't believe how much is riding on this. First, I want you to delete every bearing, calculation, fix, or record of any kind you have made in the last hour." He had to raise his voice again. "Then I want you to do a new fix based on the sloppiest bearings you can take on the four or five most distant stars you can identify, and I want your storage space filled with all of those new bearings and calculations and fixes before you lose access. It is absolutely vital that not one file betray the slightest knowledge of our true position. Is that clear?"
The class looked at him in astonishment.
"Look, I can't explain it now, but you will all have to be much sloppier than any of you have ever been before." He looked directly at Daigle and repeated, "Any of you. At the end of one hour, or sooner if your comconsoles get locked down, you will all come down with the most acute case of jump sickness you have ever had, and confine yourselves to quarters, where you will assiduously polish your boots and clean up your cabins like they've never been cleaned before. And, you must all swear to me now, in the name of the Emperor, that you will not breathe one word to anybody, not even to your sainted mothers, about anything which has happened since that last jump. I'll explain later if I can, now go!"
Now, if I knew nothing at all about anything being amiss, then what would I be doing right now? Right. Wardroom. Who can concentrate on cards at a time like this? Mitri headed forward to the wardroom and looked in. He nearly laughed with relief. There was a game in progress. He swaggered up to the table, pulled out a double handful of chips, and asked brightly, "Hi, boys. Mind if I sit in?"
Andreou scowled at him, "You'd better have brought more than that with you. I need to make a payment on that house."
Mitri grinned, "Ah, you're just afraid that I'll take what you've got." Andreou, whose pile of chips was the biggest on the table, barely stopped his hands from reflexively closing over it. "Ah ha! I knew it! Now, I'll teach you boys how sword and buckler is really played."
But his concentration was shot, and he lost half a dozen hands before Simpson interrupted the game. "Stolides! What are you doing here?"
"Oh," he replied, just as carefully negligent as he could manage. "For some reason, that last jump made all the kids -- excuse me, 'gentlemen' -- sick, and they can't take bearings worth a damn. I gave them an extra hour to do it, but I'd be surprised if a single one of them came to within 10 parsecs of 'X marks the spot.'"
Perfect. An expression of relief crossed Simpson's face before being chased out his usual officiousness. "I didn't give you permission to deviate from the curriculum!"
That's okay. I never used the curriculum.* "Oh, sorry, sir. I'll go and tell them to snap it up."
"Well, they can't work now. No computer access."
Mitri stopped. Did they have enough time? "Oh, really. Is the computer down again?"
Simpson was rigid. "No comment."
Andreou's guffaw cut through the silence. "Ha! Your antique has crashed again, Stefan. Now you'll be up all night pleading with it to start up again."
Simpson relaxed slightly. "I said, 'No comment,'" he snarled. But Mitri could see that he had made up his mind. Nobody here but us dumb Greekies, sir. We don't know nothing about no moving wormholes, no way, no how. No need to lock anybody up to preserve the Imperium. Really. Then, as Simpson turned and stalked out of the room, Andreou, you're beautiful. I'm actually going to let you keep those three pots you took from me.
"Well," he said to the room in general, "I guess I'd better go see that my 'Gentlemen' know enough not to wipe their snotty noses on their nice uniforms. We'll get back to this..." he indicated the cards and chips on the table, "later." With an ominous glare at all and sundry, he stalked out with as much dignity as he could muster.
"Sore loser," he heard Andreou mutter as he left. Okay, Andreou. Maybe I won't let you keep those pots.
If they weren't bugging this room before, they sure are now. "All right, gentlemen. I trust that your mysterious bout of jump sickness is over, and that it is not contagious. Because," he tried very hard to keep the grin out of his voice, "you turned in the most extravagantly wild guesses that I have ever seen in my entire career. Mr. Savich, here, turned in a fix which placed us inside the photosphere of Old Earth's sun. In token thereof, I hereby present him with this coveted yellow armband, and a bottle of sunblock, should the powers that be ever see fit to inflict him upon an actual ship and crew. May God have mercy on your souls. If there was such a thing as a red armband, you would be receiving one now." As he squeezed Savich's shoulder, he was surprised by the pride he felt welling up inside him. "Now, Mr. Daigle, here, managed to place us, get this: actually gave me a fix, with a straight face, putting us three light days out from Gamma Colony. Stand up and take a bow, Mr. Daigle." The class, obediently, razzed Daigle mercilessly. As everyone knew, there were no wormholes anywhere near Gamma Colony, so the population laboured, cut off by a nearly eight light year gap from the rest of civilisation. Not quite as bad as the Time of Isolation, but bad enough. Surely, Daigle had been inspired. He went on, "Ah, but I think Mr. Vorcook is laughing just a little bit too hard, for he, dear friends, he has fixed us... are you ready for this?"
Zeljko watched the performance with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment. Sergeant Stolides was acting as sarcastic, as sternly, as he had ever done before in class, yet there was something missing, a sort of tension or bite that was usually there underneath his joking. He actually seemed to be sincerely pleased at all these wildly wrong fixes. What was the point of getting the answer wrong, though? He fingered his yellow armband. He didn't deserve it, he knew. He'd always been the best in the class. Yet, despite his usual sarcasm about the armbands being "coveted", the Sergeant actually seemed to be pleased. Was this, in some odd way, really a reward, and not a punishment? What for? Or was the Sergeant just doing some strange kind of stress-releasing thing? He certainly seemed to be wired.
Finally, the Sergeant had finished lambasting/praising the class. He returned to the front of the class, and said. "Now, gentlemen. I want you all to take out your Imperial Service Manuals, and turn to the chapter on normal-space navigation. I can see that we are going to have to start over again from the very beginning. No, no. The hard copy editions, please. I don't think I can trust you with anything more complicated than that right now, anyway."
While the class rustled through their desks, looking for the never-opened books, Stolides turned to the display board and quickly drew three points and labelled them. "Now, if we imagine that this point here is a star 'A', and this point here is another star 'C', and we, the observers, are at this point 'B', then theoretically, if we know the positions of the two stars, we can narrow down the possible places we can be in space to those where the observed angle between stars 'A' and 'B' matches that which we observe here at point 'C'. That is," here he stopped and glared cheerfully at the class, "assuming that we can correctly identify stars 'A' and 'B'."
Suddenly, the room wavered. On the book lying open in front of him, Zeljko saw a flimsy which hadn't been there a moment ago. He looked around to see who had thrown it at him. Then he saw that everybody had a flimsy lying on top of their open books. "Hey!"
The Sergeant stopped. "Yes, Mr. Savich, what is it?"
Then Zeljko noticed that his flimsy was handwritten. Across the top, in large letters, it read, "DON'T SAY ANYTHING. THIS ROOM IS PROBABLY BUGGED." "Oh, sorry, Sergeant. I thought I had lost my manual. Here it is, right here after all."
The Sergeant growled, "You should keep your desk neater. Now, if I may be allowed to continue? Fine. Now, that first angle gives us a limited, but still fairly large number of solutions for our position. If we take yet another bearing, to yet another star..." He drew another point and labelled it "D."
Zeljko looked down at the flimsy again and continued to read:
Once you have finished reading this note, wipe it off and put your own notes onto it. In fact, wipe it and cover it several times. The reason that you must not, EVER let anyone know that there was ever any solution than your worst wild guess is because certain parties would take an exceedingly close interest in the existence of that particular path.
Oh, Zeljko realised. He's really scared. He's being careful not to use any keywords which would show up on a computerised scan, in case they start scanning these flimsies. That would take a lot of effort. Handwriting recognition on a flimsy which might hold two or three dozen wiped-off and written-over layers took a lot of painstaking analysis. The kind MilSec would only put in under the most urgent cases. Hurriedly, he wiped off what he'd already read and began assiduously taking notes on the fundamentals they had all mastered months before. With lots of underlining, wiping out, and writing again. Lots.
If you think back to the time when you were leaving your first year of school, you will understand which parties I mean.
Zeljko glanced to his left. Vorlakial's paper read, "your fourth year of school", so these sheets were individualised, and the Sergeant really did know that he'd started school late in Silvy Vale. Let's see. That was ten years ago. The Emperor fought a war against a Ceta invasion. Zeljko still had a model of the Prince Serg hanging from a string in his rooms back home. The war had been at a place called the Hegen Hub, which was connected to... Jackson's Whole. Oh. Right. Now I get it.
Therefore, the safest thing for all of us is that, as far as we are concerned, we were NEVER there. What those parties don't know can't hurt us. Forget it ever happened. And thank you.
Zeljko wiped the flimsy off entirely, and took notes copiously. He scrubbed and scribbled as if his life depended on it. Then he drew a quick cartoon to explain to Vorlakial why the bearing taken off a crescent planet or moon had to be centred on the unlit part, which earned him a look of enlightenment and relief, so they swapped flimsies and scrubbed and scribbled some more.
At the front of the class, Stolides earnestly lectured them on things which they already knew -- mostly. Some of them finally picked up the vital clues they needed to become truly great. And they all laboured obediently to forget what they Must Not Know.
As Mitri expected, the tour was cut short. The Count Vortala docked at the military station guarding the wormhole jump to Barrayar, and the entire crew and all four training cadres were mustered in the docking bay, under guard, to be marched off in groups to isolation until MilSec could decide what to do with them.
Mitri could, and did, at least make sure that Bravo Company were looking as best they could in their cadet uniforms. No, we're not being arrested. We're essential to a war you don't even know has started yet. Despite his best efforts, the cadet uniforms seemed pale imitations of those of the MilSec troops who escorted them. Or possibly it was the unholstered nerve disruptors which only made it look that way.
Suddenly, the way ahead was blocked by some scurrying procession of bureaucrats. Mitri bellowed, "Company, halt!" in his best parade ground voice. Three thundering crashes, and the column came to a standstill. Even Savich kept to his mark perfectly. So, the boy had learned something besides navigational math. Mitri's chest swelled with pride. Yes, these are still my troops, until somebody takes them away from me. You are only escorts. Remember that. "Left, face!" Crash, crash. "Two steps, back!" Crash, crash. "Present, arms!" Literal arms, in this case, sadly. Not even one stunner for decoration among them. Mitri had no idea what stuffed shirt was about to pass his way, but he was going to put on a show, just because it could be his show. The students had caught the idea, he saw. They were standing ramrod straight, stern, and proud. Whatever had caused this colossal foul-up, it surely wasn't their fault, and they knew it.
The bureaucrats scurried by, ignoring, for the most part, the military display on their left. At the eye of the scurricane strode a genial, elderly fellow in a rumpled pair of coveralls. He looked like Mitri's history teacher from school. Or maybe somebody's grandfather. He was toying absent-mindedly with the gold chain around his neck. The gold chain of office of an Imperial Auditor, Mitri realised. He would have stiffened in shock if he weren't already stiff as a board. How did an Imperial Auditor hear about this mess and get here so quickly?
Then he realised that the Auditor was here dealing with some other mess. He was chatting with the man next to him, in highly technical mathematics, about possible ways of converting gravitic energy to some more useful form. Is that what Auditors do for fun?
Suddenly, Savich stepped out of line, went down on one knee, and called out, "My Lord Auditor!" One of the escorts had his nerve disruptor trained on the boy's head before he had completed his first step. Mitri didn't dare look, but he knew that a second disruptor was pointing at his own head. Not now, you idiot kid! What did I tell you? Keep your head down and play dumb and we'll get through this.
The elderly man stopped and said in a kindly voice, "You don't need to kneel to me, young man. I'm not the Emperor."
"But you speak with his voice, my Lord Auditor."
The Auditor grinned. "And do you think you have news which the Emperor needs to Speak to?"
"Yes, my Lord Auditor. They'll know in about..." Savich gulped, "twelve more days."
"Who will know what in twelve more days?"
"The Jacksonians will know that the other end of the wormhole from our local space has moved into theirs."
What? How will they know? Just lay low and keep quiet and...
The bureaucrats within earshot started to snicker. Wormholes didn't move. Everybody knew that. The eyes of the escorts promised severe retribution for such a childish prank. The Auditor digested this thoughtfully for a few seconds. "The other end of the wormhole moved, did it?"
"Their navigation buoys tripped our transponder, and the signal will reach Jackson's Whole in twelve days. Those guys don't even trust each other. They're sure to come looking to find out how one of our ships got into their local space."
Oh. Right. Good thinking, kid. Mitri could stand it no longer. "It's true, sir! We've got about fifty days to block off that wormhole somehow, or else conquer Jackson's Whole, or else we'll all be up to the eyeballs in Cetas in a hundred days after that!"
Lord Auditor Vorthys sighed. "I knew that boy was leaving too soon."
© 1999 by Greg Slade (http://www.associate.com/camsoc/greg/)
Current version by Michael Bernardi, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Last updated: November 15th 2002