The Cetagandans were gaining. In four and a half minutes the heavily armored warship would be within firing range of the light diplomatic cruiser; in four and a half minutes the cruiser would be on the edge of the wormhole to Komarr -- and if the warship was fool enough to follow the cruiser through the wormhole, it would find itself looking down the cannon barrels of a dozen Barrayaran Imperial Dreadnoughts. But if it caught the little ship on this side of the wormhole, the outcome would not be at all pleasant for the inhabitants of the cruiser.
Miles swore under his breath. Damn Ivan for letting himself get shanghaied in a Kline station bar!
He glanced over at his cousin, who was apparently unaffected by his adventures with the Cetagandans. When he had disappeared while on a mission to investigate newt nuggets as a possible food source for the Barrayaran Infantry, Miles had donned his Naismith identity, grabbed a handful of carefully selected Dendarii Mercenaries, and set out for Dagoola, the prison camp where the Cetagandans kept their choicest political morsels. Once there, however, Miles had found that Ivan had landed on his feet -- as usual. A friendly female commander had changed Ivan's status from Prisoner to Personal Attache, and it had taken quite a bit of appeal to Ivan's sense of patriotism to get him to leave. The time lost had thrown Miles' team off-schedule, and now it looked like they would make it to the wormhole barely ahead of the Cetagandans -- if they made it. No doubt the warship gunner had kept his trigger finger on the button ever since leaving Dagoola.
"One minute," Console operator Elli Quinn called out. She and the pilot sat forward of Miles and Ivan, while the rest of the crew rode in a passenger section further back.
"To what?" Miles asked, annoyed at the creak in his voice. "The worm-hole, or ..."
"Both," Elli replied.
"How do you think it will be?" Ivan wondered aloud. "When we get hit, that is. Will there be one big explosion -- or will they chip away at us, one vane at a time?"
Not now, Ivan, Miles thought desperately. Wait until we're seated around the bar, trading stories of this and other adventures -- that we've survived.
"The Necklin rods," the pilot muttered. "They're sharp -- they'll knock out the Necklin rods when we try to jump."
Shivers ran crookedly up and down Miles' spine. Without the Necklin rods, a jump into the wormhole would be a jump into death -- a slow subjective death, as the forces of the Universe screwed the little ship between the millstones of time and space. It would be a twisting, wrenching, crushing, whirling death, as they were smeared across the rainbow of reality, from infinite border to infinite border.
The pilot touched his cybernetic leads and began his countdown to the wormhole. Miles felt his gut spasm with each word. "Ten, nine, eight..."
"They've fired," Elli broke in.
"...six, five, four..."
"There's a second shot."
". . . one. "
The ship shuddered / tottered / hit by / on the edge of / a plasma pulse / the wormhole / and then fell / and then slipped down / in / sideways / backwards / right / left / around / around / around / around...
It landed with a hard thump.
Rather, part of the ship had landed, the part that contained Miles and Ivan. The part with Elli and the pilot had been ripped away; the passenger section had been snapped off. Through the hole in the fuselage Miles could see bright flowers in every shade of blue and the domed tops of round, blue houses. The sky was bluer and clearer than any he had seen on any other planet, and the air smelled fresh, like a creek bubbling from a mountain spring. The sound of singing rang in his ears.
"What's going on?" Ivan said as he unbuckled his seat harness and hefted his tall, handsome frame -- regular Barrayaran nobleman issue -- from the seat. Miles unbuckled his own harness. Small, crooked, born with teratogenetically damaged bones, he was more of a special issue model. He peeked out through the ragged hole where the forward section of the ship had once been -- and gasped.
People -- little people, not a one of them over three feet tall -- ran around the ship. They whispered in high-pitched voices and gestured toward it. Each one wore odd, blue clothing that reminded Miles of gnomes and leprechauns -- but weren't they dressed in green? Beyond the crowd stood several blue carriages drawn by horses. Not one looked at Miles, though, and he had to step out to see what held their attention.
When he saw, he said aloud, "My God."
"What?" Ivan replied, nearly stumbling over him.
"It seems we landed -- on someone." A pair of legs thrust out at an awkward angle from the ship, and Miles could only imagine what the rest of the body was like. He looked at the crowd uneasily; they saw him and looked back even more uneasily. Their whispering fell into a dead silence. I wonder what the death penalty is here, anyway.
The tallest of the short people stepped forward and delicately touched one stiff foot. He turned back to the crowd, and yelled in a squeaky voice, "She's dead!"
The crowd replied with a loud, "Hurrah," then broke into a song and dance.
"What's going on?" Ivan cried out. "What is this place?"
"Cousin," Miles replied, "I don't think we're in Komarr anymore."
The next morning, after an interminably long night of feasting, speeches, dancing, speeches, a visit from someone named Glinda, and more speeches, Miles found himself hiking with Ivan along a yellow brick road. "It will take you to the Emerald City," the little people, which he now knew were Munchkins, had told him. "There the great Wizard of Oz will send you wherever you want to go. "
How am I going to explain this to Dad? Miles wondered. Or Illyan, for that matter. Imperial Security must be having a fit, trying to account for the disappearance of two Vor lords. Then his mind drifted to more recent matters, the witch crushed by the ship section. At least I got to keep the shoes, since we couldn't reach the ears, he thought while fingering a ruby slipper stuffed into his pocket.
"So what did you think of them?" Ivan said as he strode along at a comfortable pace.
Miles had to almost run to keep up with him. "Who?"
"The Munchkins, of course."
"It was interesting," Miles admitted, "actually looking down on someone else for a change."
"Well, I've heard..." Ivan started to say, then quickly shut his mouth.
"What?" Miles demanded.
Ivan shook his head, looked at Miles' face, then reconsidered. He said quickly, "Just something from our days at the academy. It had to do with Napoleon -- but I really don't know any more than that. He gave Miles such a wide-eyed, innocent look that Miles was forced to agree.
After a time they came to a cross-road with another yellow brick road. Miles stared down each possible route, then wondered aloud, "Which way do we go?"
"You could go that way," said a voice behind them.
Miles jumped and spun around in one motion, pulling his nerve disruptor as he did so. No one was back there, save a single, hastily made scarecrow stuck on a pole in a cornfield. He turned uneasily to Ivan, who also had his weapon out. Academy training. "Do you see anyone?"
Ivan shook his head.
"Another choice is to go that way," said the same voice.
Miles looked again and still saw no one. "Who said that?" he demanded.
"I did," the voice replied. It seemed to be coming from the scarecrow.
He pointed the nerve disruptor. "Okay, then come on out, whoever you are. Move slowly -- I'm holding a dangerous weapon."
"But I'm already out," the voice replied as the scarecrow raised his hands, tilted his head, and shrugged.
With panic, Miles fired. Then he looked down at his hands with horror. What am I doing? Crushing old ladies with spaceships one day, firing on scarecrows the next...
"I thought you said that was a dangerous weapon," the scarecrow observed, interrupting Miles' thoughts. "It doesn't seem to be dangerous at all."
"It's a nerve disruptor," Miles yelled back, his fear and horror turned to frustration. "It should have fried your brains."
"Then that explains it," the Scarecrow said quite cheerfully. "I haven't got any brains."
By late afternoon they were in a sparse forest, where the sun shone brightly through the tree branches and glanced off the yellow bricks. The Scarecrow had joined them, having listened to their story and concluded that if the Wizard could send them to Komarr, then the Wizard could give him a brain. He talked Ivan into lifting him off of the post and now strode ahead of them on wobbly, boneless legs.
Ivan dropped back to Miles' pace and whispered, "Ever see Captain Koudelka try to walk after he'd been knocked down?"
Miles frowned sharply. "That's not a nice thing to say -- you know Koudelka is like that because of an old war injury."
Ivan laughed under his breath. "You sound just like Aunt Cordelia. The Captain never seemed to mind, but she would get so mad whenever I ..." Suddenly he stopped, and looked around with short, quick movements. "What was that?"
"What?" Miles almost tripped over his own feet. It wouldn't do to fall and break a bone here. Why couldn't they have been sent along a nice yellow foam road, or at the very least a yellow dirt road? Why did it have to be brick?
"That sound," Ivan replied, cocking his head. "Someone is shouting help!"
Miles listened carefully. He could just hear a sound, like a moaning or a muffled cry, but it didn't seem like "help." He asked, "Why do you think that?"
"It sounds like, well, when we were at the Academy, and someone would get trapped in his battle armor..."
"Yeah," Miles said slowly. Ivan's group had been pretty good at that. He called to their other companion, "Hey, Mr. Scarecrow -- wait a minute!"
The Scarecrow turned and wobbled back to them. "Is something wrong?"
Ivan explained, "Someone around here is trapped in battle armor. Look around and yell if you see anything."
The Scarecrow would have blinked if his eyes had not been painted on. "Battle armor?"
"Yeah -- probably full carapace, gloves, shoes, and helmet. Look -- you go North; Miles, you go South; I'll backtrack."
"I'll be so glad when the Wizard gives me brains," the Scarecrow said cheerfully as the others hurried off. "Then I'll be able to understand all that. Now, which way did the giant tell me to go? I never can remember, because I haven't any brains. I'll have to follow the sound instead."
The cries turned out to be coming from something that looked like a robot built in the back hills of Barrayar, and which was frozen with rust. There was a oil can nearby, and with a half-hour's hard work the three were able to work him loose. Then he, or Nick Chopper as he called himself, told them a wondrous story. He had been a woodman, as much a man as anyone else, but then the wicked witch of the East had cursed him so that every time he set out to chop wood he would accidentally strike off a part of his own body. The tinsmith was able to replace these parts with pieces made of tin, and over time his whole body had been replaced.
I know how you feel, Miles thought, glancing over his own body. The long bones of his arms and legs had already been replaced by syntheds, and doctors were now talking about replacing his ribs. Over time, yeah -- they'll get it all.
Nick Chopper then discussed, at length, the advantages of a tin body, and the two main disadvantages -- he tended to rust when caught out in the rain, and he had no heart. "I'd dearly love to have a heart," he said as he held a tin hand to his silent chest.
"That's all right," Ivan said, patting the Tin Man's shoulder. "Security Chief Illyan hasn't had one in years, and he does okay."
"Still, I've always thought about going to the great Wizard in the Emerald City and asking for a heart."
"Well," said the Scarecrow, "I'm going there now to ask for a brain."
Ivan said, "We're going there to ask to be sent back to Komarr. Why don't you come along?"
Miles muttered, "There's something awfully familiar about how our numbers keep growing." Then aloud, "Well, if we're going, let's go. I'd like to take the Emerald City by nightfall."
"Nightfall?" said the Tin Man, surprised.
"Nightfall tomorrow," the Scarecrow added. "Maybe."
Nick turned his metallic gaze to the two young men. "You both look like you have been walking all day."
"We have," they replied in unison.
"So why don't you rest a bit, take it easy. Right here. We can build a fire, you can roast some apples, and we'll start off fresh in the morning. The woods are perfectly safe -- except for the occasional lion, tiger, and bear."
"Oh my!" the others chorused in unison -- then wondered why they did it.
Miles woke with a start and clambered to his feet. Something had jumped into the clearing, scattered the fire, and called out in a voice that belonged on Athos, "Ro-ar, Ro-ar! Who wants to fight? Put 'em up! Put 'em up!"
Miles stared at the broad, tawny shoulders overlaid by a luxurious mane, the nervously twitching tail, the big brown eyes, and the long sharp teeth. A man-eating lion, he thought, but his mouth said, "Have I got a date for you!"
The Lion turned out to be one of the great cowards of the galaxy, with a capacity to whine that matched his capacity to brag. Miles reminded himself that one of his earliest recruits for the Dendarii Mercenaries had been a bit of a coward and the love of a beautiful woman had turned him around, so Miles enlisted the lion on the spot. He knew that Taura would be beside herself with joy when she got a look at this hunk -- and maybe he could get some sleep in his cabin for once. Between Taura, who was determined to get as much out of her short life as humanly possibly, and Elli, who was determined to keep a close watch on Miles' body, he was a hunted man.
The small company encountered several other adventures on their way to the Emerald City, including a poppy field where Miles had one of his idiosyncratic drug reactions and the others found themselves too busy chasing him to fall asleep themselves, but by sundown they had made it to the bright Emerald gates of the city where they demanded an audience with the Wizard. There they met a bit of an argument, which was resolved when Ivan passed some emerald pieces of paper, and were admitted to the emerald-lined streets than ran between emerald buildings that stretched to an emerald sky where an emerald sunset blazed greenly over the horizon.
Everything in the city was emerald green, even the horses, carts, and people standing about. Or perhaps everything seemed emerald because of the thick green lens everyone was required to wear. Miles decided to test that hypothesis and reached up to remove his glasses. They were hurting his nose, anyway.
"I wouldn't do that," said the short, green guard at his side. "If you take off the glasses, you will be blinded."
"Why?" Miles insisted.
"The emerald color is so bright that it will hurt your eyes. You must keep your glasses on at all times, or we cannot be responsible for the consequences."
There's something familiar about that logic, Miles thought, suddenly homesick for Barrayar and its politics.
"Here we are," announced the guard, pointing to a green door on which were written the letters, HALL OF THE GREAT WIZARD. APPOINTMENTS BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.
Miles was even more homesick.
"Now," the guard said, "just go through that door, down the hall, and into the big chamber at the end I'm sure the Wizard knows that you are coming -- she knows everything."
"Aren't you coming?" Miles asked, a bad feeling gathering in his stomach. It was always a bad sign when the guard stepped away from the line of fire.
The little green man shook his head. "You're the ones who are so anxious to go. Hurry now -- I haven't got all day."
The five travelers went up the steps and paused at the door. Ivan gestured for Miles to go ahead, whereupon Miles turned. "Why am I always the one to go first?"
"Uncle Aral always insisted that you should be where you could see what's going on," was the reply.
Muttering, "Forward momentum," Miles pushed it open and the others cautiously followed him. The hall was low and wide, a series of arches lit by subdued lighting. It opened into a high-roofed chamber that stretched into darkness on either hand Before them stood a high podium, surrounded by mist that crept up from the floor and flanked by torches that belched flames and orange smoke. Behind it was a curtained stage, which Miles expected to open at any moment and reveal the Wizard. His companions were affected -- the Tin Man began to shiver, clattering like an old air-car, and the Scarecrow grabbed Ivan for support. The Lion whimpered, and Miles thought, These glasses are really giving me a headache. He pulled them off.
Ivan looked down at him. "Cousin -- aren't you scared?"
"Of what? Theatrics? Spooky rights? Dagoola was worse."
"When I was there."
Just then a luminous visage flashed into existence thirty meters above the podium. The face was a fearsome thing, death-white and bloated, with bulging eyes and bloodless lips. No hair covered the cranial dome, no smile graced the tight mouth. And it was nothing more than a head, floating above like a decapitated quaddie, shining like the full moon.
A green full moon.
It moved; it spoke: "WHO IS IT THAT DARES TO ENTER THE PRESENCE OF THE MIGHTY WIZARD OF OZ?"
"What about that?" Ivan gasped.
"Just a holograph," Miles muttered, loosing the nerve disruptor in his holster.
The lion struggled to leave, his claws scrabbling on the emerald marble floor, but Nick Chopper and the Scarecrow held him fast. "You must be brave," whispered the Scarecrow, "or you'll never get any courage."
Nick Chopper spoke up first, "I'm the Tin Man, and I've come to ask you, nicely, for a heart."
Then the Scarecrow, "I've come to ask for some brains."
The Lion, "I,I,I just wanted to, to -- you wouldn't have any courage to spare, would you?"
Miles rifted his weapon and thumbed the safety. "I'm Miles Naismith, and the game is up. I've got a weapon trained on you, so pull that curtain aside real slow and come out with your hands up. We'll find out just how real you are!" He laughed wickedly for added emphasis. Fight fire with fire and theatrics with theatrics.
The curtain moved, a figure stepped out -- and Miles felt a horrible wrenching in his stomach, just about where his ulcer used to be. I laughed too soon, he thought as the Wizard descended. Every step she took was another weight of dread on his soul.
The wizard was real, all right. She was a slim, neat woman, with short, close-cut, light brown hair. Her features were regular, pleasant -- but they held a force of character that dared to be challenged. She wasn't as beautiful as Elli -- the new Elli, that was -- nor as handsome as Elena, and she wasn't anywhere as old as his mother though certainly too old for him to date -- but this woman held more power over him than any other woman in his life. She was the one who could send him buck-naked into a POW camp where humanity had degenerated into pack gangs; she was the one who could lock him in a cold basement with a hungry, sex-starved werewolf; the one who could assign him to serve for a year on an arctic island or under the command of his worst political enemy; and the one who, God help him, could imprison him on the wrong side of a wormhole blockade with a whole army of mercenaries to conquer and hire in order to survive. All this she had done without provocation, and now -- he glanced at the nerve disruptor and let the muzzle sink towards the floor -- God help him if she took this the wrong way.
Very slowly he lifted his face and looked into her eyes. With as much voice as he could find, he squeaked, "Hi, Lois."
Her eyes sparked with anger. "What...are...you...doing ...here?"
"Well," Miles said quickly, "The Cetagandans hit us just as we entered the wormhole, and the ship, or part of the ship, that is, landed..."
Lois didn't wait to listen to it all. "I can't even do a bit of pleasure reading without you intruding!" She waved her hand and shouted, "Be gone!"
An exhausted pilot slumped back in his chair and dabbed at the sweat that coursed down his face. "God, that was a rough one," he moaned.
"But we made it," Elli replied, looking herself like she had been through death and back again. She quickly keyed a message to the waiting dreadnoughts.
Miles looked over at Ivan, who was blinking, and then the cousin smiled his typical, vacuous smile. "That was weird," he muttered.
"What?" Miles asked.
"Oh. Nothing. I had a dream, that's all."
Miles leaned back into his seat and felt a hard lump prod him in the ribs. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ruby slipper. He turned it this way, then that, watching the rubies sparkle in the cabin light. It was probably valuable, all those gemstones, but the size was wrong and besides, it just wasn't his style. Too small for Taura, but perhaps -- he leaned forward and whispered into Elli's ear, "What size shoe do you wear, love?"
© 1991 by Helen E. Davis (email@example.com)
Current version by Michael Bernardi, firstname.lastname@example.org
All comments or queries about this Web page to: email@example.com
Last updated: July 14th 2001