Starbow's End

by Luminator Thelms


Based on charters and events in Lois McMaster Bujold's "Vorkosingan" adventures, in accord with Ms. Bujold's "don't ask, don't tell, and don't bring to my attention" fanfic-permissive policy. Written solely to amuse this fanfic's author and the fans of Ms. Bujold's Vorkosigan/Barrayar series. The author rates this fanfic PG-14 for violence and non-consensual sex.

Luminator Thelms.


Chronology/itinerary: Galactic Travel Bureau star maps; 2002 timeline by John W. Braue III.

Sociopathology: The Vor Game by LMB; The Sociopath Next Door,, Martha Stout, PhD.

Style: Passing nod from Muse of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

The author accepts sole responsibility for any errors or deviations from the Vorkosigan ficton.


This fanfic involves key events of The Vor Game, Mirror Dance, Memory, and Ethan of Athos; and briefly touches on bit and pieces in "Labyrinth" in Borders of Infinity and Cetaganda, A Civil Campaign, and Diplomatic Immunity.

Luminator Thelms.

Chapter 1

So on the day I'm talking about, it's three hours into my shift, my legs are giving me hell and I'm ready to kill someone.
I'm making another pass through the ship's Special Services Bower, past the starboard nine of the eighteen dimly lit and heavily upholstered oval alcoves along the curving corridor leading to the bar. I can barely hear the faint swoosh, swoosh of my maroon synthsilk hostess gown sliding against my hips and thighs's tawny skin, over the hum of the air circulators. There's also the flutter of the elaborate ruffles lining my gown's plunging neckline and obscuring the ample dimension of my bust, yet displaying my cleavage just the proper degree beyond good taste. The outfit looks sewn in place on me, but if I stroke the hidden releases I'll be ready for action in two seconds.
Business is slow this shift. Some of the girls, sitting idle on broad alcove couches, look up briefly as I pass. Joanne even offers a soft, "Good shift, Lady Sal?" with only the slightest of tremors in her voice. I like that bit of tremor. Strawberry Sherry is explaining to a perspiring ship fitter, as he refastens his tunic in her alcove, how to transfer a portion of his pay chit to an unregistered account without involving the Station's paymaster.
Another alcove has its privacy screen drawn. I pause and listen, and from the rhythmic thumping within, I deduce that Matilda has convinced another ramscoop ship's pilot to space the rulebook, here and now. 'Scoopers are risk-takers, right enough, or they wouldn't dive their gape-nosed ships into the turbulent muck of the gas giant Starbow's End is orbiting at present. I feel my full lips curve in a slight smile. Another credit in the kitty.
Just another day in the life of an ex-blonde ex-murderess. Well, so I'm not quite an ex-murderess. I'm working on it, okay? Give me a break.
Take that Special Services client about a month back. You know, my slow saunter is really something? I mean, clients in both Regular Services and Special Services keep turning their heads to watch when I pass by? So this Special Services client who's kind of tanked says it's a pity my name isn't Lady Shirley, 'cause then he could call me Slowly Butt Shirley. I could have Done Unto him, right then. He deserved it. But I didn't.
Well, okay, I was also remembering we weren't in Jackson's Whole space, where you can outbid arrest warrants. The public safety wardens on Nuovo Brasil, seven AUs sunwards, might start getting all turby if clients visiting Starbow's End never come out again. I've already been through that hassle a couple of years back. Then there's Wichita Station Security. I'm paying them enough already. I mean, I want a very plump financial cushion tucked under me when Starbow's End makes its next Jump. Those air, water and food venders are murder on the ship's budget.
I continue into the bar on my aching legs, idly noting that this pansy Cetagandan is back, reeking of cologne and nursing some pink fruit-juice concoction in a tall glass. He's the only other person in sight besides Ser Gallagher, who's racking glasses behind the bar in anticipation of the evening crowd. The creep seems odd as hell, for a Ceta. He's checked out as a Ghem civilian, of all things, some minor Court functionary from the Cetagandan capital - the Celestial Garden, they call it - according to the best database I can afford. He sports the proper pacifistic cheek-decal and over-robes, too. Much preferable to a horde of Ghems in formal-sworn-revenge-hunt facepaint, you know?
Oh, Eternal Damnation, I have to walk right past him. I can't go around ordering everybody on Full Alert every time a Ceta comes wandering through the airlock, or they'll start wondering why. Not to mention the Cetas. It's not that I care what anybody thinks of me; I've just learned the hard way that ignoring that too much can make for problems. So I barely glance at the man as I pass through his cloud of cologne.
He wants something here, but what? One of these shifts he'll get up his, ah, nerve, for whatever-it-is. I can tell he's just waiting for the right moment.
So as I saunter on into the corridor leading to Reception I'm remembering, once again, young "Doc" Felltu, the reason I needn't fear meeting occasional Cetagandi.
Felltu had warned me, sounding like a holovid drama's kindly old uncle, that my extended legs would ache if I walked for long periods. And that was before I'd decided to work on my back. Again. Well, it's worth it to be eleven centas higher. I'd told Felltu that messing with my spine was out, but I'd go for the hipbone enhancements and an expanded rib cage under my unaltered breasts. Now that was a masterstroke; who would expect a woman changing her body's contours to deliberately leave alone two of her most important assets? Okay, so he perked them up a tad, but he didn't add any mass at all.
The plastic ribs push them out a little more, that's all.
And he thickened my lips, flattened my nose, lengthened the back of my skull, turned my close-cropped silver-blonde hair into dark coils and tripled the melanin output of my skin cells.
"Hiding in plain sight," Felltu had called it, adding something about some Stolen Letter of a pre-space Terrain writer named Poe. Too bad he knew too much. Such a surprise his death must have been - to him, if not me. It's been too long since I've enjoyed that particular thrill.
By then I'm finishing pacing the corridor and reach the hatch to the Reception foyer. I enter, never breaking stride, between the blonde Amazon Twins flanking the hatch, as they chorus "Lady Sally." Former mercs, cashiered for deadly torture of surrendering prisoners, the rumors say. They'd snap to attention and salute, if I'd let them. But I don't dare. Because by habit I might respond, "As you were," and that wouldn't do at all. I'm not doing anything that might suggest I once had a military rank. Like, you know, Commander.
Instead I glance at the elegant lettering appliquŽd to the bulkhead at my left, above and behind the wide counter facing the main docking airlock's vestibule: "Starbow's End / Orbital Rest and Recreation Facility / Lady Sally McGregor, Prop."
Rather more enticing than Tri-System Bulk Transport Number Four, I must say. Big Marva and Dead Alice, in their maroons, are seated behind the counter this shift, although no customers seem to be around. Alice makes me think of flesh stretched thin over a skull swaddled in pale straw. She holds up one boney finger for my attention, says, "Just got a signal.
Shuttle-full of Wichita Admin types is due to dock here in an hour twenty."
I think about that a sec. With that many watching each other, I doubt they're going to call on my girls in Special Services. More likely at least a few of them intend to snoop out where their station workers' monies are going, or to look for new reasons to squeeze more of the money back into their own greasy palms. That's the problem with payoffs: Those paid off get greedy. Well, it's all part of doing business in this galaxy.
"Huh," I say, "Okay, we're strictly Regular Services for the duration. Pass the word."
Big Marva blinks, likely wondering about my possible hidden motives, then nods, verbally confirms, "R.S.," and does something under the countertop. The holo projection reading "Executive Club" above the rimless portal winks out; hidden servo arms silently slide a rectangle of bulkhead plate sideways then forward within the portal; in half a breath there's no sign the portal was ever there. The Amazon Twins step sideways to flank the outsize hatch to my right, leading to the game arcade, mini-gym, holovid viewing chambers, self-serve cantina - "No Newts! Guaranteed!" - and all the other innocent diversions I've managed to squeeze inside the various holds of this retired and refit Marilac freighter. Well, okay, maybe a few of the listed diversions aren't so innocent. Some VR arcade games might, if the client chooses, involve monetary losses - and, occasionally, gains - beyond the standard per-game playing fee; certain holovid chambers feature programming that would raise eyebrows - and another anatomical item - almost anywhere outside of Jackson's Whole, and soft viewing couches that convert to sleep pallets for an additional fee. But holovid viewing partners are strictly Bring Your Own in Regular Services, no Starbow's End crew allowed. It's in the Ship's Regs.
No one doubts it. The first year out I spaced Freckled Frankie the second time I caught her entertaining a client in a Regular Services facility. Caught her before she'd quite finished entertaining, in fact, which rather upset the client.
He got even more upset when I offered to let him join Frankie in the airlock, seeing as he cared for her so much.
Yeah, Frankie sure put on quite a show. The techs had already adjusted that lock's outer hatch to cycle ultra-slowly.
And then I had to make sure the client stopped his whining, too.
Look, it wasn't my fault he was so touchy about loosing Frankie. Or too cheap to pay the Special Services rate, which is why he got Frankie in trouble in the first place.
Anyway, I felt so good about Doing Unto twice in one shift. But you would not believe the hassles I had to go through with the local Security enforcers before I could get Starbow's End clear of that system. The bribes drained the slush fund and I had to short the payroll for a couple of months. I mean, give me a break.
I saved a recording of the airlock's monitor vid for my private files. I only play it on special occasions. I saw to it that another copy wound up in the crew's rec vid library, just before we Jumped to the next nexus. Maybe that was a mistake, 'cause the girls have never given me one single reason to repeat that lesson since.
Speaking of vid libraries, just because I don't want any rumors about holovid chamber partners bringing any unwanted attention from Public Safety enforcer types, the Bower doesn't have holovid chambers. But then, when my girls sashaying around it doesn't need any, know what I mean? Although it does have discrete signal lamps, blinking as I stand there, alerting the girls to finish whatever they're doing and have their clients looking presentable and in the Regular Services sections before that shuttle-load of Admin types arrives.
So I nod to no one in particular, turn and enter the Regular Services corridor. It's a slow shift here, too, hardy a client to be seen. A hundred paces, five bulkhead hatches and three turns later I'm approaching a certain corridor's dead end just as a bulkhead panel in front of me recedes and slides sideways.
From the passageway beyond comes Sherry's contralto voice: ". . . remember, you never met me. We never spent any time together. If you tell another living soul about what we've done, even someone you've seen in here, you'll never get into the Executive Club again 'cause we'll have to shut it down. But if you show me you can keep a secret I'll make things extra nice for you . . . next time. Bye." Yep, the standard line, perfect delivery. I've got to say Sherry knows her stuff.
The ship fitter and someone with "pilot" written all over him step into sight, soon followed by the pansy Ceta, who's looking disappointed. At his back, the bulkhead slides back into place. Then the tall Ceta spots me as the other two guys ease past me and his face brightens. He waits until the stationers vanish around the nearest corner.
That cologne is quite noticeable in this confined space, but it isn't so strong it knocks you down. It has a crisp, clean quality. It reminds me a bit of a grove of alleged genuine pine trees I'd passed by in some old station's arboretum, long ago.
And maybe something else I can't place.
Then the Ceta says, "Ah, Lady Sally McGregor . . ." It isn't exactly a question, but he sounds skeptical, you know? "I wish a word with you. It will take but a few moments of your time."
A polite Cetagandan? How odd. Cetas usually march in and take what they please. Property or lives, it's no never mind to them. And this one's asking me to spare him some time? I've got to hear this pitch.
So I point at the panel behind him, saying "Open" to the audiopin hidden in my blouse's collar. Bloody Blondie in the listening post touches an icon or something like that and the panel recedes and slides away. I gesture for the tall Ceta to turn around and re-enter the Special Services area, and follow him through a short corridor. As a second bulkhead panel closes behind me I ask the Ceta to wait ten minutes. "I've got a few things to attend to first," I tell him. "Have another drink, on the house. The big blondes will walk you from the bar to my office." I'm sure Bloody Blondie is alerting the Amazon Twins as I speak. Soon as the Ceta is headed towards the bar I'm turning on one heel and fast-walking to the Special Services office.
Half a minute later I palm the hatch open and enter the extra-deep hatchway.
I like this cabin. It used to be the cargo hold crew's emergency pressure shelter/workstation. Still has its independent life-support system. One of the most private spots in the ship - although the Amazon Twins, waiting outside while I talk with the Ceta, can enter in less than two seconds if I gives the signal - it could keep me alive for a couple of weeks in the very unlikely event that something ever breeches the ship's multiple force screens and hull.
Once inside I slip into my custom-built reclining armchair, swiveling it to face the desk's comconsole holoplate, a decorative bowl of thick cut crystal and a utility chair latched in place beyond the holoplate. Nudge the bowl over the holoplate and I can burn holes through whoever's in the chair. With quick flicks of my fingers over the 'plate and on pressure sensors hidden in the outside padding of the recliner's left armrest, I set the inner hatch silently swinging closed on its power hinges, deactivate one alarm, put a couple more on standby, mask the feeds from hidden cams and sensors throughout the ship, and prime the disguised security cam overhead to start recording as the next warm body enters my office.
I call up the holo file containing what little I've gathered on the Ceta and lean back in my padded armchair to think over, not his words, but the tone of his words.
So, Mister Pacifistic Cetagandan, what, or who, makes you doubt that I'm Lady Sally McGregor? I'm asking the scanty data floating before me.
Give me a break. Really.

Chapter Two

Well, of course I'm Sally McGregor, late of the Marilac system. Check their records.
Well, alright, you check deep enough and you'll find certain indications that some years back my last name was likely Jefarrson, or Jefellson, or something like that, from Tuskegee Station, a not-too-successful gas giant mining co-operative some eight and a half AUs out from Marilac's sun. The records are spotty because most of them got blasted during the War. Besides, the Zoave Twilight refugees who settled Tuskegee Station hadn't exactly sought permission from Marilac before they launched their gas-mining operation, and relations with the planet's administrators, if not its gas-hungry orbitals, had gone downhill from there.
The battle fleets from Xi Ceta, Marilac's neighbor and supposed ally, arrived some twenty-odd years after the refugees.
Among other things, they turned Tuskegee Station into a radioactive ring cloud around the gas giant, and Marilac's Census Records Depository into blue-glowing rubble. Couple of years after the Occupation was over, these waldows located and made remote copies of flimsies found in a Depository sub-basement. One flimsy, a printout of a transmission from Tuskegee Station, read: "Jef[illegible]son, Sally Lou, b. [illegible]."
Okay, so Sally Lou wasn't really me. She could have been me if I hadn't been born on another gas-mining station, in another system, at another time. So the records are almost true. I sure paid a lot of Betan dollars to plant the notations suggesting Lady Sally used to be Sally L. Jef-something-son. Removing the two guys who diddled the records for me didn't cost me anything but a couple of very enjoyable minutes. I even got some of my dollars back off one of the bodies.
And I've got an answer if someone asks why I wasn't turned into radioactive fog along with the rest of the station's crew.
I can say that back then, just before the invasion, I was an impressionable, precocious girl of some sixteen standard Earth years, and I let myself get lured aboard a Zoave Twilight-bound smuggler-freighter by its skipper's seventeen-year-old son. Why didn't the Stationers say something? Because that would mean admitting they were working with their so-called oppressors in a gas-smuggling scam. You can't check with the freighter's crew; the Cetas caught them when they tried to sneak back into Marilac space, and nobody's seen them since. I checked on that.
Well, as I said it's sort of true, except I was only fourteen standards, I seduced the boy, and it was at a different gas-mining Station in the Ozymandias system orbiting the gas giant Wrinkled Lip, seven AUs out. Yeah, that one, the one that blew up for no reason. Good riddance, I say. I saw in the NewsNet, years later, that Wrinkled Lip Station's gas processing/storage techs must have done something really stupid, right after I left, although the House Fell ship out of Jackson's Whole that discovered the wreckage still hadn't figured out exactly how it happened. As if I care.
Say, wasn't there some cult way back that said all your problems are caused by what happened to you when you were a kid? 'Cause I sure had a rotten childhood. So you can blame how I am on that.
For starters, The Father was a religious nut and gave me a beating every time I tried to get some straight answers on this bogus God-The-Father he was always ranting about. I mean, I didn't figure out God-The-Father was bogus until after The Father died, because The Father and the mother believed in Him, of all things. The Father said he had to hit me, to keep Satan Mekratrig from getting into me. Of course he also kept telling me I was already Damned and going straight into Mekratrig's arms, because I was a Daughter of Lilith and another Whore of Babylon. So why did he bother, I ask you?
He beat the mother, too.
Well, of course he was The Father. He was the last of the Sons of Adam on Wrinkled Lip. Most of the Sons had followed the Prophet Elron to Athos two centuries plus something ago, you know? Along with a bunch of other projects, Elron's followers started the Wrinkled Lip Station just because it was so far away from the fleshpots in the Temperate Zone, ran it for almost a decade, then Elron announced the Pilgrimage to Athos and hardly any of them stayed behind, even the few who were married. I read the Station's History, like the other kids.
Well, a couple of families did stay, like my great-grandparents.
Hey, don't get all turby. I was getting to that, okay? His name was Jabez Feldsten. Ramscoop ship pilot. He had this wispy fringe of beard, which didn't hide the worry lines and the red veins on his face he got from too many depressurizations.
Every seventh day that he could manage, The Father stayed with me and the mother in our converted storage module, his bare feet in this low, flat container of real planetary soil, reading aloud from The Book. He could read aloud for four hours at a stretch, without hardly a change in his voice at all.
Some days he recited The Book's all-male genealogical databases; on others he read about the sufferings, wanderings and bloody battles of conquest of an ancient people on Old Earth itself, thousands of years before the first space flight. A couple of times he described the endless torments awaiting all who died with their faces turned from God-The-Father. He actually cracked a smile those times, kind of.
You know, doing those torments sounded like fun to me, compared to spending forever in null-g with those Favored Ones admitted to the Glorious Presence of God-The-Father and the Radiant Beings who Sing of His Glories Forever and Ever without any rest breaks. I mean, forever? Give me a break. I remember, the first time I actually got what Eternal Damnation was like, I started wondering if I could maybe earn some Social Credits by helping out Mekratrig's Servants with tormenting the Sinners . . .?
That's when The Father whopped me with The Book, for not paying attention. What a sadist.
Anyway, next The Father would denounce the mother and me as the Defilers of the Sons of Adam, as the Daughters of Lilith, as the Wellsprings of Vileness who Stank with the Stench of the Sin of Eve. He'd end up calling the mother the Great Deceiver.
"Because you had promised me a Son," he's say, real stern. The mother would hang her head. Why? I didn't get why she felt that way.
Yeah, she had a name. Rebekkah.
I never had any fun, either. No holovids, no audios, no rec stores or toys. Bor-ing. No playmates, not that I wanted any, but I'll say it because it seems to be a big thing with you Limiteds for some reason. Instead, I had to work all day along with the mother. Any time it looked like I might get near any of those things, Jabez would say:"God-The-Father gave us families to care for and honest labor for our hands. Surely they shall suffice to banish that sinful idleness that Mekratrig turns to wickedness. It's in The Book!"
He insisted, without any proof that I could see, that all such goods were Snares of Mekratrig, sure to pull me down to Eternal Damnation. The one time I tried to suggest that since I was already Damned, I didn't see much reason for avoiding Mekratrig's Snares, he shouted, "Begone, Foul Demon,"
and smacked me so hard I saw stars inside the module. See, I wasn't supposed to talk back to The Father, or any man, or I'd be struck dead by God-The-Father. Uh-huh.
No, I didn't have much to do with the Station's dozen other children. Mostly because their families were a lot more equal than we were. They had to be, to afford raising a kid on a run-down gas mining orbital. When it wasn't Making the Quota, all anybody wanted to do was to get more equal than the other guy.
But not The Father, oh, no, he was above such worldly concerns because he was a Son of Adam. So we were hardly equal at all.
First time I really got together with the other kids was when Rebekkah snuck me into some annual children's gathering during Station Charter Day when I was maybe six Earth standard years? The Father really lit into her for doing that, when he found out.
One of the older kids, this curly-haired brunette called Annette, asked me who my father was, and I told her he was Jabez Feldsten, a Son of Adam. The mother jerked my arm, too late. How was I to know I shouldn't a said that? Anyway, the Annette girl screwed up her face and sneered, "Eeeww, dirt-lovers." Another girl added, "I'll bet your Daddy beats your Mommy every work-shift!" She lied! It wasn't more than once or twice a month. And The Father said he had to, to save the mother from Mekratrig.
So I swung at her.
After they pulled us apart, the girls' parents told them to talk nice to me, like I was some sort of freak or something. But if I met any of the girls in the corridors when adults weren't close, they'd whisper: "Sisterhood-betrayer," "You believe God hates you," or "You suck dirt from your daddy's feet!" That was the worst.
Look, was it my fault that I had vivid daydreams of Doing Unto them? They were taunting me. See, God-The-Father had bid His sons to Smite the Evildoers, and I should have been a son, the way Jabez talked.
Well, the other girls were Evildoers. Sort of.
About a year later, Jabez finally allowed me restricted access to the station's Educational Tapes System, on this dinky little beat-up pocket comconsole. He said it was for just one reason: "Hannah, you must learn to read The Book so that you can see for yourself the depths of your depravity."
Fairly early after I worked out how to read words that always stayed put, I did find where The Book had this commandment against taking lives. Yeah, so what? Its other commandments didn't make any sense, either. But I also puzzled out some passages where God-The-Father told one sub-group of His favorite people to Do Unto - to slice or chop or shoot some kind of missiles called arrows - at what sounded like whole stationfuls of men, women and children, again and again. He actually helped them in Doing Unto them a couple of times! The Book named these favored ones "soldiers" or "armies." That was fun. I read those sections often.
Well, yeah, that could be one of the reasons I joined Randall's Rangers.
Let's see, other mistreatments? Well, not long after I turned thirteen, The Father was halfway into a story about some creatures called "bears" ripping up a bunch of little girls who has called a prophet of God-The-Father some nasty names, when suddenly he noticed the two buds on my chest were pushing out the thin fabric of my work knits. He didn't beat me. He made me lay down on the worn friction matting and pushed The Book's open pages against my ribs with his full weight while yelling for the Prophet Elron to purge my body of the Taint of Eve, just as Elron had purged The Book of Lilith's Lies so the Chosen could make the Pilgrimage to Athos. Then he yelled a lot of things about this Scarlet Woman, this Whore of Babylon, who had seduced his grandfather's father out of his rightful place among the Chosen, but I wasn't listening so good because I couldn't breathe. As everything grayed out I think I heard Rebekkah say something about him hurting me, followed by this meaty thunk against the mod's bulkhead . . .
The mother took us to this off-duty medtech she knew, five hours later. She found I had three fractured ribs.
The next workshift-start The Father went back to piloting the Station's old ramscoop ships through the gas giant's upper atmosphere. He had to. They all did. If they didn't Make the Quota, collect enough feedstock for the gas/power converters, the equipment would shut down and everyone would freeze.
Although once the mag shields were down the radiation might have killed some of them first.
The Father's ship never came out from its second dive. Good riddance, I say. Hey, I had nothing to do with it. I hadn't learned how to diddle with the ramscoop maintenance records yet.
Well, maybe I did just a little bit. That pocket comconsole couldn't hardly do anything useful, you know?
Anyway, after that Rebekkah stopped paying attention to me when I got down on my knees by my sleep pallet and recited my stupid prayers before each sleep shift. See, she was too tired to bother by the time we finished cleaning other people's habitation mods to earn a few Social Credits. Not enough Credits, if you ask me. After she stopped listening, I usually asked God-The-Father to send some bears to rip Annette and her pals to shreds. But He wasn't paying me any attention, so after a couple of weeks I went back to planning how to Do Unto them myself.
And I got awful tired of the mother whining, "I took care of you; some day you'll take care of me." See, she believed the crap about God-The-Father Himself ordaining that all His families would help each other, all the time. But there weren't any more of His families, just me and the mother.
I mean, the Station Histories don't say much about what happened when almost all the Sons of Adam left for Athos, but I think once most of the women left behind got used to newcomers who weren't Sons, they spaced the old beliefs, just like I did once I figured out that God-The-Father was bogus. And there sure weren't many Sons who stayed around to preach. So by the time they had me, The Father and the mother were the only Believers left on Wrinkled Lip Station. Or maybe Rebekkah was the only woman left who would put up with Jabez?
We didn't get many Social Credits for hab cleaning, because the Founders had set it up so every stakeholder would take care of his own hab. All stakeholders were created equal. It said so right there in the Station's Charter, as the Station Safety Cadre Wardens in their silver and blue uniforms kept reminding us, when they weren't making sure the more equal stakeholders got the better cuts on Newt Days.
It's like this. Being a ramscoop pilot earned Jabez enough Social Credits to collect ground newt or newt ribs, and maybe twice a month some extra newt thighs. But after his death, we were lucky if the Station Safety Wardens let us leave the line with enough scraps to make newt soup, or with the occasional newt foreleg, while the residents of the habs we cleaned got thick filets of newt. They had a lot more equal than we did.
Like Eco Wardens? Yeah, I heard of them on Kline Station, that's sort of what the Station Safety Wardens did, too. 'Though they also kept the mag shields running and maintained orbital trim and made sure everyone was treated equal just like it said in the Charter. I mean, sure they had perks and respect, but they didn't just sit on their butts ordering people around, they really worked to keep Wrinkled Lip Station running. If they hadn't, we'd have all died. Or, they would've been replaced by someone else trying to get more equal, you know?
Well, of course some stakeholders had more equal than others, usually the ones who had no problems with lying or cheating or else working themselves to death. I never thought about it much, that's just how things were, except I wasn't going to work all the time like most of the fools.
Although I had to work hard while the mother was watching; I didn't like the beatings. Sometimes I did wish the S.S.
Wardens would make some of the more equal families help me and the mother on all our Vee Cee Em shifts - Oh, that's Voluntary Corridor Maintenance, V. C. M., get it? Bor-ing, real bor-ing, and no Social Credits for that one. But, like I said, I wasn't supposed to speak up about anything or Jabez would beat me to keep God-The-Father from striking me dead. He said.
Um, I'd guess the Sons of Adam weren't too choosey about who they called in to take over when they left for Athos. Hey, if I'd been real hungry back then and these off-planet admin jobs suddenly opened up, I'd have gone for it, too. And if they weren't very cushy to start with, I've have seen to it that sooner or later some cush came my way. I mean, who wouldn't?

Chapter III

So I'm thirteen, The Father is gone, and when I'm not helping the mother I've studied everything the Ed Tapes have on Doing Unto - unarmed combat, armed combat, strategies and tactics - and I'm working my way through covert ops and infiltration. It kept me entertained, anyway. Like the Ed Tape System's introductory tape said, it was designed to detect and encourage every student's inherent aptitudes and abilities.
Of course it took me almost two weeks of diddling with the System to convince its programming that I qualified for this kind of training. That took a lot longer than the half-day I needed to override Jabez's blocks on Sex Ed tapes and other stuff he thought unfit for girls. I'd done that after his ramscoop didn't come back, mostly during the Memorial service.
I kind of wondered why nobody seemed to pay any attention to the System's grading reports listing the subjects I studied, so I wrangled a Vee Cee Em shift near the Admin comconsoles. It took a couple of days but finally I was able to watch this S.S.
tech sit down at a dedicated comconsole, call up the Ed Tape reports, scroll up one column of stats ranked by family equalness without really looking at them, stop before he got to the bottom, flick a finger through an icon, get up and leave.
Maybe he figured that sitting around viewing Ed System reports all day wouldn't help to Make the Quota?
So I started expanding my Ed Tape searches.
You know, The Father kept yelling about fornicators and whores, but he'd never told me what they did or how they did it?
Before I looked it up, I used to wonder if forning was a really nasty way of Doing Unto very sinful women. But by scanning Sex Ed tapes and lexicons, I finally figured it out: It meant men putting their Rods of Aaron in women's Pits of Sin, without getting married to 'em first. And without planting male babies in the women, either. That's what Jabez had meant by fornication.
Looking up "whore" was an eye-opener, too. I mean, in The Book the Whore of Babylon keeps tempting men to turn away from God-The-Father. Now I finally got how she did it: She let men fornicate Her in exchange for credits, or maybe other stuff She needed. But She didn't get any Social Credits for forning, none at all.
It wasn't fair. Jabez had called me another Whore of Babylon or Scarlet Woman, when I hadn't been forned one bit.
Next I found this real old tape, A Commentary on The Book. When it got to the Commandments, the Commentary had an Eleventh Commandment that did make sense to me. It made more sense than The whole Book had.
It read, "Thou shalt not be found out." And not much later the Commentary had another piece of wisdom, "Do Unto others before they can Do Unto you." They've been the watchwords I've lived by ever since, you know?
See, there's me, and there's all the Limiteds. I call them Limiteds because they have all these twonky limits in their heads making them hold back on lying, stealing, cheating and killing each other. They act like they care what the others think about 'em. Well, I figured out early on that doing anything I want will get the Limiteds' notice after a while and then they'll beat me up or put me in Detention and deep-therapy me and try to make me just like them. And that means they win and I lose. So anything I do that breaks the Limited's stupid rules, I've got to do so they won't notice. Or where they won't notice. Besides, figuring out ways to get away with doing what I want helps to pass the time.
Anyway, next I got into the advanced Sex Ed tapes' cross-references and found this link to Homosexuality, religious persecution of. Had to pause the tape, double-checking that I'd read that heading correctly. "Religious persecution of?" When The Book and God-The-Father were all for it? Then I found another cross-link, Misogamists, psychological profiles of. From what I'd heard of Elron, he sounded like a "misogamist," all right. So did The Father. That cleared up some things for me, but not why they wasted all this effort on hating when it's so easy to simply not care what happens to women or men, one way or the other.
That's also when I decided that God-The-Father wasn't really there, watching me. I hadn't seen one sign that He was paying the slightest attention to me or my stupid prayers. Later I figured that also meant that Mekratrig must be bogus, too.
Which was a pity, 'cause picturing Him dragging most everyone down into everlasting flaming torments had been lots of fun.
'Course I kept playing along with the Sons of Adam crap when I was around the mother, or she'd have thrown six fits and slapped me around. Figuring out how to play along but not really gave me something to do, you know?
That must have been about the same time I started daydreaming about Captain Cavilla the Commando-Spy. She was the heroine of an ancient flat vid serial I'd found among some old rec stores imported by these Escobarans who'd replaced a bunch of the Sons of Adam leaving for Athos. I'd been looking up the katlprod, a kind of early version of the shock stick mentioned in an Ed Tape on interrogation tortures. The vids made Captain Cavilla out to be a master of the katlprod, along with a bunch of other ancient marital arts and persuasive skills she used on all these rather stupid enemies when she snuck into the battle station or stronghold of whatever cabal or warlord was threatening Escobar in that episode. Although all the screaming was nice, I did wonder why Cavilla's methods took so much time and effort, until I got to the episode where she held out against three different hyposprays during an enemy interrogation without going into fatal shock. That's when I figured out fast-penta hadn't been developed yet, back when they made the vids. I mean, watching Cavilla torture information out of these enemies was lots of fun, but now it also made sense.Anyway, I kept having these vivid daydreams of Captain Cavilla on Secret Missions that called for interrogating and torturing and Doing Unto Annette and her pals in all sorts of enjoyable ways. It helped me pass the time.
Then, during my ten-minute rest break in a Vee Cee Em shift, Annette came prancing by with her pals, reciting this old poem she must have looked up somewhere. It goes:
"The time to repent is at hand.
"So join with our Enlightened band.
"We gather to pray,
"In a pit in the clay,
"After swallowing handfuls of sand."
I could see from Annette's face that she thought she'd scored big on me, so I taught her different, using these neat moves from a tape on Seven Ways to Silently Slay a Sentry. But I'd hardly started Doing Unto Annette when three of her friends jumped me.
I spent that sleep shift in a S.S. Detention cell. But first this fatso Senior Station Safety Warden, Tadzio, took an hour to question me. I tell you, that was the most challenging game I'd had in months, seeing how much I could tell the pudgy Warden without admitting I'd attacked Annette first, while giving him the idea that the four older girls had ganged up on me without actually saying so. I kept looking small and sad and picked-on, but he had this dumb notion that the more equal you were, the more you counted, so he wasn't passing much sympathy my way. But pretty soon I got that he was looking for the "I'm-sorry-it-won't-happen-again" bit, so I laid that on thick. I topped it off by acting real reluctant before finally admitting that the girls teased me about being raised by a Son of Adam. Which was true, of course. Before then, Tadzio had come that close to dosing me with fast-penta. If he had . . .!
Figured I had a lucky break when Tadzio switched to asking me about The Father - I put up a big show of missing Jabez, even leaking some tears - and how me and the mother managed without him, where we lived and what we did to get by? He called up Rebekkah's data on his pocket comconsole link, then he fell silent for a few seconds, staring at nothing that I could see. And sweating. But then, he'd sweated during most of the interrogation. Finally he asked me a few questions about the beliefs of the Sons of Adam regarding women. Seemed to me, he wanted to check what he already knew, instead of asking because he was curious.
The mother came the next morning, a half-hour before workshift-start, to collect me from Detention. For some reason, all records of the charges and fines against me weren't there any more, so they let me go without any trouble.
After the night in Detention, I started noticing The Father's prayer to the Prophet Elron, to purge my front of the Taint of Eve, wasn't working any more. Rebekkah noticed, too.
She made me wear these oversize work knits she scrounged from Station Supply's leftovers counter.
Couple of days later Senior Warden Tadzio, very official-looking in his silver-and-blue dress uniform, arrived at our mod just before sleep-shift with these disks that he said called for Rebekkah's eviction due to unpaid debts. Then he offered to share his hab mod with us in exchange for housekeeping and other services he didn't go into. I mean, he talked all around it rather than just putting it out, but that's what it came down to, all right.
See, The Book says, lots of times, that women must unquestioningly obey men. Any man, although fathers and husbands come first. And there weren't any other Sons of Adam left to advise her. So I don't think Rebekkah saw any choice about what Tadzio was offering. And I didn't say anything even though I had the idea Tadzio was trying to pull something, 'cause moving to a fancy hab sounded good to me after fourteen years in this really crummy storage mod. I figured I could handle whatever games he had in mind. Although it would have been fun, watching the mother's face change colors if I'd told her The Book was full of crap and she didn't have to listen to Tadzio.
So Tadzio became my step-father. Sort of. Nothing official, you know, 'cause I don't think he wanted anything in the records that could have lead to questions. He could claim Rebekkah had moved in with him on her own. Or, that she was looking for a replacement for The Father to raise me.
But Tadzio wasn't like The Father at all. Jabez had been thin, with ropey muscles on his arms; Tadzio's arms only bulged with fat, and his belly stuck out over his equipment belt. He still sweated a lot. It wasn't long before I started thinking that he must have known that he could make Rebekkah move in with him once she got evicted. He hadn't actually shown her what was on the disks, so maybe we weren't evicted . . .? It took me and the mother, working together, almost three days to get Tadzio's hab as clean as we'd kept the storage mod.
And after that we took most of a workshift every week or so to keep it that way. On the other hand, we didn't need to clean other families' habs any more, since Tadzio had way more Social Credits than he could use. I mean, we still got the families asking us to clean, but now I could be choosy about it. Score one for me, for once.
You could say Tadzio was one of the Station's really equal equals. His hab mod was six times the volume of the old storage mod. It had partitions dividing it into two sleeping rooms, a central lounge containing a really big comconsole and a dining counter fronting a food prep niche - and a separate, fully functional lav with its own lockable hatch and no public access at all. He collected more newt filets than we could eat. My hips and the Taint of Eve on my chest started filling out. My Pit of Sin also started leaking blood. Rebekkah called it the Curse of Eve, as if it was this terrible shame.
Why? The Sex Ed tapes said monthly bleeding down there is perfectly normal before you get your C-implant, right along with the stuff about tampons and hormone changes.
Tadzio's "other services" turned out to be Rebekkah's sharing his sleeping pallet every two or three sleep-shifts. The first time he made her do that, he first told me to stay in the other sleeping room and study my lessons. I could hear him in the lounge, reading to Rebekkah from The Book, but I don't think he had any dirt container, or even took off his boots, and he lacked The Father's flat delivery.
Finally his voice fell silent. Next I heard the click of his sleeping room's hatch being dogged, so I eased into the lounge to listen at it. A bit later I thought I heard Tadzio Doing Unto Rebekkah. If anyone was going to Do Unto her, it was me, so I tried to undog the hatch to stop him. But he shouted at me to stay out or he'd throw me in Detention again. The mother's frightened voice, rather quieter, added that I was a thieving slut who shouldn't interfere with what I didn't understand.
But I did understand. I'd just remembered the activities shown in these non-standard Sex Ed vids I'd found in the so-called sealed files of Tadzio's comconsole, and realized he was merely forning the mother.
I didn't care what The Book said about fornication or Doing Unto any more. And listening to the sounds of forning didn't do anything for me. But planning to Do Unto - especially unto Tadzio - did grab my interest. That sleep period, with all my planning I got hardly any sleep at all.
After that, Tadzio read aloud from The Book whenever he wanted Rebekkah to do things for him. He read the parts about women's inherent sinfulness, their sole role in life as a man's helpmate, and the horrible punishments that God-The-Father sent to those who strayed from that role. But over the next month or so, Tadzio needed to read less and less from The Book, and less often, to get the mother cleaning, or to get her on his sleep pallet. Just once I overheard him telling her, real casual like, that the records of my assault on Annette still hadn't turned up. It would be a real pity if they did . . . His voice had trailed off. After that, the mother's face seemed even more drawn than before. I don't get it. I mean, why would she care what happened to me? I didn't care what happened to her. Well, she did, for some dumb reason, giving Tadzio a hold over her.
Real useful, that kind of hold, when I can get it.
Finally, Tadzio merely reached for The Book the time he made Rebekkah agree it was time I got my C-implant.
"I'm your Daddy, and you must do what Daddy says," he told me on the way to the Med module, as he stroked my long silver-bond hair. He was stroking so hard my scalp stung, but I didn't flinch.
"Say, 'You're my Daddy.' Now," he ordered.
I kept my mouth shut, so he unshipped his shock stick and threatened me, right there in the concourse.
"Say it, now!"
So, "You're my Daddy," I said. It was just words.
"That's right," he said, re-holstering the shock stick.
He'd never done anything like that before. I wondered if acting like that was a side effect of the two-centimeter-long, thin orange cylinders called "Effici-Boosters." He's recently started sticking one along his right wrist artery before each work-shift.
The Effici-Boosters had arrived on a gas freighter from Walshea, the one negotiating a bid six points higher than the insystem broker's for the Station's helium-three surplus. Tadzio claimed that the medtechs said the Boosters were safe. Something new from House Fell's labs on Jackson's Whole, to help you work and think more efficiently. Everyone on Walshea Station was using them; he'd seen the vids.
I thought those vids must have been faked. I guess nobody, even Tadzio, had noticed the tiny quarter of a flimsy I found stuck to the bottom of one discarded Effici-Booster 10-pack. The bit of flimsy, from what I could puzzle out, warned against applying more than one tube at a time, and to wait three work periods between applications. On the other side it urged the user to avoid exposure to strong electromagnetic emissions, which - if I guessed at the missing words right - had something or other to do with "neurological disrupt- . . . in the cortex."
Maybe that meant users could get brain seizures?
Just the sort of stuff you'd expect from Jackson's Whole.
That's when I wondered if maybe the freighter's skipper could sell Effici-Boosters so cheaply because he'd lifted a condemned cargo that the Public Safety Wardens had sent to Disposal, or something? If so, he was a smart operator, if short-sighted. I'd have waited until everyone was hooked on Effici-Boosters, then have jacked up the price in easy stages while pressuring Admin to lower the cost of those rare gas stores.

Chapter 4

In the Med module the medtech asked me if I wanted the Betan package and Tadzio told her "Yes," before I even asked what it was. Give me a break. Right then I thought of Tadzio's hand stroking my hair harder than I liked. I thought of what he did to the mother during sleep shifts. I thought about the Sex Ed tape's warning that some sick males forned for domination, not out of desire. Uh-huh, that was Tadzio, all right.
"Do it, now," he added.
I got the Betan package, all right, but only because three aids held me down while the medtech put me out with her med stunner.
The next workshift-start I found some clippers and cut my hair off at twenty centas. Tadzio told me to stay in my room for a week, even though I cried and acted like he was being mean. I pointed out that my shorter hair would make getting into my p-suit's helmet a lot easier during the quarterly Depressurization Emergency Drills. It also made it harder for him to grab me, if it came to that, but I didn't bring that up.
Maybe he thought I'd suffer from missing the mother's company? Give me a break. He didn't have a clue. Anyway, I finally had time alone to work some things out:Tadzio was going to fornicate me soon. I could tell. He'd been planning it from the day he'd evicted us from the storage mod, maybe from the day he'd questioned me in Detention. And he would do it to me because he wanted to see me squirm, and to make the mother squirm, too. Maybe in that way he was like me, kind of?
Not that I'd have particularly minded being forned, but Tadzio had to prove he was on top of me and I couldn't have that. I couldn't go running to Station Safety 'cause he was Station Safety, and he knew it. So I'd have to Do Unto Tadzio before he could do it unto me. It was so obvious.
The problem was, if the Station Safety Cadre found out that I'd Done Unto Tadzio, they'd put me in Detention real fast. And maybe worse, they'd Do Unto me. So I'd have to keep it secret, somehow, and get off-Station before they found the body.
Tadzio fell for the crying act three days after he locked me in. The next day I passed Brad in the concourse. He saw my hair and said, "Neaters! You've gone Spacer." I mumbled something about possible vacuum duty, smiled like I knew something and walked on. Brad was seventeen and hung around the concourse a lot. He was the son of the freighter skipper who'd brought the unending supply of Effici-Boosters. He'd hinted that he could bring the other girls some Boosters too. It was so obvious that he was trying to get them to let him fornicate them. That gave me the start of an idea, but I wanted some time to work it out.
Which I didn't get. The day after Brad's comment on my 'Spacer' haircut, Tadzio pushed into my room an hour past workshift-end, without asking. His chin was unshaven, his sliver-and-blue uniform's clasps were half-undone, and his equipment belt was still wrapped below his big belly although he'd been off-duty for an hour. Sweat dripped from his face and stained large ovals on his uniform. He had two of the cylinders stuck to his wrists and a third on his neck along his carotid artery.
"You're my girl," he said. Not "daughter," I noticed. "You cut off your hair, so now you gotta do what I say. Lay down on your pallet."
He grabbed my right shoulder and forced me down on my back.
I didn't resist because I was too busy working through my decision-tree for Ways To Do Unto Tadzio. I never made that mistake again. He knelt over me, pushing his knees between mine.
"You're my pretty little girl," he hissed then.
His free paw reached for the equipment belt's release. He didn't even try to hold down my left arm.
Avoid exposure to strong electromagnetic emissions, right? Before Tadzio could blink twice I had his shock stick out of its holster, thumbed to max and jammed against his dripping forehead. In that instant I saw fear growing in his eyes, and knew I'd won. Then the current took him. His eyes and mouth popped open in a silent scream; he arched his neck and back more and more, his whole body shuddering impossibly fast, as I pushed and pushed with the crackling shock stick. Its handle got hot.
I heard bones crack, saw his eyes roll up and his face go slack and grey, then his back-bent body collapsed over me as I swung the shock stick aside. I'd dreamed and dreamed about this moment, but I'd had no idea how right it would feel, finally giving the creep what he deserved.
Yeah, Doing Unto Tadzio. My first time, you know? First times are so special.
The body was quite heavy, so it took some time to get out from under it. As I started planning what to do next, the hatch eased open. I saw the mother in the hatchway, her eyes unfocused. She was chanting: "I took care of you, you'll take care of me; I won't let him hurt you, I'll keep you safe." The mother also wore three of the little cylinders and was holding out a fourth, as if to apply it to someone. Then her eyes focused and tracked down to the twisted body on the floor, to its blistered forehead, to the shock stick I'd tossed aside. Her eyes slid over to watch me shaking my left hand to cool it as I got up. The mother's face turned as grey as the body's. She started backing away, towards the comconsole.
Thou shalt not be found out, right. So I grabbed up Tadzio's stunner and buzzed her. Then I dragged the body back into the room, put the stunner in Tadzio's limp hand so its muzzle pressed into her left temple, moved his thumb to the power stud and let it frazzle her neurons for a long, long time.
Rebekkah quivered a bit at first, even though she was knocked out, but well before the stunner could drain its power pack she stopped breathing. So that bother was done with.
I found a pair of Tadzio's disposable evidence-handling gloves and creatively rearranging the bodies to suggest they had Done Unto each other. Next I fiddled with the comconsole until I pulled up an old recording of Tadzio asking for a few days' leave because he felt ill. Actually he had spent the day feeling Rebekkah.
I edited the recording a bit to include a mention of me and the mother, and sent a voice-only version to Safety Central and other Station agencies that might ask questions when we didn't show up. Then I left Tadzio's hab mod, setting the corroder hatch on autolock and headed for the concourse. My kit bag held several useful devices Tadzio had taken off arrestees but hadn't bothered to turn in, and a dozen Effici-Booster 10-packs he didn't need any more.
On the way I passed two volunteers on Vee Cee Em duty.
While I walked a dozen paces towards them, I watched one peer at a bulkhead seam where the paint was peeling. Finally he pointed at the exposed seam, saying, "There." The other volunteer nodded and ran a paint wand over the bare spot several times. They both wore two or three orange cylinders. I passed them then, so I never found out how long the painter took to notice her wand was out of paint.
I calculated the Station wouldn't last another week. That was fine by me; maybe the Station Safety Cadre wouldn't come looking for me after all.
Brad was hanging out in the Concourse as usual, fortunately in a section covered by a broken security cam. The other girls edged away when I said, "Brad, we have to talk." I liked that.
I'd gotten some backing-off by putting Annette in the Med module, and they'd really left me alone after Senior Safety Warden Tadzio started taking me on errands, or walking me back to his hab at shift-end.
Soon as the girls left I turned on the tears, telling Brad that Tadzio had acted very strange and tried to make me do nasty things with him, and that I'd gotten away. It was even true, mostly. So I needed to hide, then get off-Station before Tadzio could find me again because nobody knew what he might do to me once he got me alone. It took Brad forever to catch on to my hints and suggest that I hole up in the concourse's only hostel, long vacant, until he could smuggle me aboard the freighter. It was due to leave in less than two days.
Once inside the empty hostel's best suite I thanked Brad, of course. I thanked him so much that in almost no time I had him on me and in me. Hey, if I was another Whore of Babylon, I figured I'd get in some practice.
Getting fornicated didn't do much for me, although I could see why some girls might find having a Rod on Aaron sliding inside their Pit of Sin to be somewhat enjoyable. But I could tell Brad would catch on to my lack of interest pretty soon. So I replayed my memory of what had happened to Tadzio when he was in a similar position, and let Brad think he was giving me the "orgasm" the Sex Ed tapes talked about.
I spent four hours inside the empty module, occasionally wondering why Station Safety hadn't launched a station-wide search for the Safety Warden Killer, or at least broadcast a missing person alert. They never did. What a drag.
Finally Brad arrived with an oversize duffle bag and a float pallet. I got myself and my kit in the duffle, barely, then he floated me down the Concourse to the dock deck and through the airlock to the freighter's shuttle without any problem.
The HPGT-138's corridors weren't designed for float pallets, so Brad dragged me, feet first, to one of the spare cabins used by the occasional paying passenger. I hid out there until the ship undocked, two days later. Station Safety still hadn't issued any alert. Brad told me his duties kept him busy for three ship-shifts out of four, yet during the trip's ten days he did sneak into the cabin for a dozen quarter-hours of forning. Sometimes he remembered to bring leftovers he'd caged from the galley, but during most mess calls I gnawed on those awful ration bars, the toughest rat bars I'd ever tried to eat. Only God-The-Father knew where Brad had found them, maybe in the freighter shuttle's emergency stores? I wound up memorized the manufacturer's name because the labels were all I had to read. Bor-ing, coped up in the cabin. I had to time my use of the lav to the millisecond. In fact, that's what I was doing when the jump klaxon blatted. Something grabbed the center of my brain and pulled it inside-out through this gas diffusion membrane all at once. Weird. I was miserable, really.
When the freighter reached Walshea Station, I waited another twenty-odd hours while Brad finished up his assigned duties, before he dragged me, inside the duffle, down the ship's corridor, into the shuttle and then through the flex tube into a station Corridor, dumped me on a floater and glided me into this hostel room he'd rented. I insisted on a long, long shower, with real water, before he could forn me again.
When I was ready I snuggled up to him and murmured in his ear, "Brad, dearest, did you know that Tadzio tried to forn me because he was all gomjabbar from too many forning Effici-Boosters and nobody, including you, said one forning word about how dangerous over-using them is?" Before he could react I buzzed him with a hand-made stunner some Wrinkled Lip stationer had clobbered up and Tadzio had confiscated without turning it in.
That put Brad out long enough for me to pull on disposable gloves from the kit bag and truss him up with fine monofilament, wadding one of the lav's drying cloths in his mouth and lashing it in place in the best Captain Cavilla style. I took special care in winding the monofilament around his Rod of Aaron. While I waited for the cleaning unit to finish with my jumpsuit, I spelled out "HPGT-138" with Effici-Boosters on Brad's bare chest. I figured that would tip off Walshea Station's version of Safety Wardens to search the freighter for contraband Effici-Boosters.
I tell you, the look in Brad's eyes when he came to finally made all that stupid forning worthwhile. Of course he tried to scream, but the drying cloth pretty well blocked his mouth. I kept a safe distance as he went into these uncontrolled convulsions. I didn't need any electronics at all.
The monofilament cuts sprayed a surprising amount of blood, at least at first.
Doing Unto Brad made me feel good all over. I must have been glowing like a ceiling lightplate when I left the hostel module. I noticed strangers in the Concourse smiling at me.
And that was just the start of the Good Years.

Chapter Five

Then I come out the memories, in my cabin on the Starbow's End. The cabin buzzer is blatting for my attention 'cause the pansy Ceta is waiting outside. So I lean forward, wave a finger through the proper holoplate icon, and the hatch silently curves inward to reveal him, standing between the Amazon Twins just beyond the hatchway's far threshold.
I give him a one-hand gesture towards myself, inviting him in. The Ceta glances around as he enters, his eyes flicking briefly to the wide couch that takes up almost half the office to the right of my desk. Yep, same model as in the luxury holovid chambers. I wave him into the utility chair. The hatch silently dogs itself behind him.
I begin, "You're a far ways from home, Mister . . .?"
"Lord Yenaro, from Eta Ceta," he says, perching on the edge of the chair. "That I am. I'm on an extended leave from my regular duties, you might call it, which leaves me free to follow up on a, um, personal interest."
A far-away look crosses Yenaro's features, and he interrupts himself, "Oh, flugh - Time for the headache pills."
He slowly puts a hand in an inner fold of his robe, bringing out a handful of easy-swallow capsules. He glances down at them like they're nasties, before palming them into his mouth.
Once his mouth is clear, Lord Yenaro says, "I believe you are the party that, some eighteen months past, sent a cloaked inquiry to Parfumes des la Alhambra of Escobar, asking about a particular batch of their 'Sultana's Dreams' fragrance." Again, not quite a question.
He's got it right, but I'm not saying so. See, I found out by accident, during the Hegan Hub fiasco, that this twisty-brained little mutant who had ruined everything for me was allergic to the greenish-smelling stuff. I'd bought it on a whim a couple of years before that, at an odd-lots bazaar during one of our temporary layover at an Escobar orbital station. So when I knew I'd be standing next to the mutant for the last time, at this awful Vervani metals award ceremony, I dosed myself with over half the bottle.
But the mutant used this set of nose filters on me. That damn jerk just knew what I was planning. What burns me is, I'm real good at reading the Limiteds' intentions but he read mine.Anyway, it took three passes for the cleaning unit to wash the smell from my clothes, and four sessions in my sonic shower to get it out of my scalp. And almost as soon as my surviving ships reached the Komarr Nexus, these Barrayaran ImpSec agents confiscated my Sultana's Dreams bottle.
With ImpSec watching, I didn't dare go shopping for any more of that perfume. I waited until I'd set myself up as Lady Sally. I want to be ready if I ever run into the runty mutant again - and nose filters won't help him this time. I could trick him into bailing out in a bod-pod with a half liter of Sultana's Dreams in the air recycler . . .? But I found out every bottle of Sultana's Dreams I got didn't smell like the old stuff. I must have tried over 40 bottles in six different systems. Nearly two years ago I heard about a case of Sultana's Dreams found in the hold of a salvaged freighter that had been lost in space for twenty years, and when I finally got some bottles they didn't have the nasty greenish odor, either. That's when I'd sent the cloaked inquiry.
Lord Yenaro is saying, "Parfumes des la Alhambra, you may not know, some years ago retained my grandfather as a kind of corresponding consultant. At the time he was a former Ghem-general. A defeated, retired Ghem-general," he adds, as if he's not to blame for his relatives, "Very bitter.
"Sometime after his involuntary retirement he became something of a more-than-amateur perfumer, taking on remote-consulting jobs to bring in a bit of extra income. I understand the Celestial Garden did not encourage pensioning Ghems who had lost entire planets, back then.
"I'm following my grandfather's footsteps in reverse, you might say. Starting from nothing, I've worked my way up to Sixth Rank, First Degree among the official Perfumers of the Celestial Garden. Two years ago I graduated from assistant to professional. And lately I've been doing a little odor-related forensic consulting on the side. I dare say that I expect to reach Third rank within a decade.
"Where was I? Anyway, my late grandfather seemed to have some embarrassing connection or other with the special version of Sultana's Dreams, and . . . Well, in short, your inquiry came to my attention."
That's when it hits me. "Wait," I say. "Your cologne. Does it have anything in common with your old grand-dad's perfume?
There's something about it . . ." I don't show it, of course, but I'm thinking that if Yenaro knows how to make the stuff, I could use it.
"Ah, you noticed," he says. "Yes, you could call it a variation on the old family recipe, but without the more unpleasant side effects. My own make."
He gestures, taking in the cloud of cologne around him.
"A little goes a long way, doesn't it? Think of it as advertising. I call it 'Festival Remembrances.' My version's greenish accent imitates the scent of Numoan Hey."
"What?" I don't get it.
"Neu moan hey," he explains. Or, he thinks he explains. "Um, freshly cut straw, before it dries. You've heard of straw, yes? Anyway, one of the reasons I'm here is that I believe the effects of Festival Remembrances may strongly encourage extra business by patrons of - of the unofficial section of this ship."
Oh, it can? An aphrodisiac, he means? I can use that, but it won't do to let Yenaro catch on. So I put on this moralistic tone.
"Let's see if I understand," I say, my voice flat. "This 'Festival' cologne of yours is some kind of air-borne aphrodisiac? I suppose it needs an activator," I toss in, "because it isn't working on me."
"No, no, no," Yenaro protests, his hands gesturing denials. "My compounds cannot, you would say, take the reason prisoner. There is no compulsion involved, no physical arousal is evoked, merely enjoyable memories of the . . . outcome of such arousal."
Oh, too bad.
I pretend to think over that as my left hand lightly strokes three hidden armrest sensor pads, real casual-like, to vent the office air into the corridor. Lord Yenaro acts as if his cologne has no toxic effects, and the hidden chem-analysis snuffers in the main airlock vestibule must have given it a clean bill of health, or he wouldn't have got it past Reception.
But I want to breathe the stuff as little as possible. It might cloud my judgment or something. Let it bother the Amazon Twins, flanking the other side of my office's hatch.
"You know that sometimes a particular scent can evoke dormant memories?" Yenaro asks. "I have developed a scent complex that tends to trigger recalls of memories associated with pleasurable activities of an intimate nature. My cologne also contains a relaxant, again my own make. Both have properties in common with my grandfather's formula.
"Do you see how your patrons who are feeling relaxed and enjoying pleasurable recollections might be more inclined than not to take advantage of your ship's unofficial services? You sell alcoholic beverages to patrons in this section of the ship, presumably because it reduces their inhibitions against physical contact with your, um, unlicensed therapists. In most cases, exposure to Festival Remembrances for a couple of hours brings about the same degree of relaxation as, I have heard, the average male may achieve by drinking a half-liter of Antares wine. And it has none of the undesirable side-effects, such as alcohol's well-known tendency to impair the body's responses to enjoyable tactile stimuli."
He gives me a slight smile and a nod of the head. "You say you do not feel arousal. But haven't you been experiencing an increase in pleasant memories lately?"

Chapter VI

An increase in pleasant memories? The memories are getting downright distracting.
Tadzio and Brad were just the beginning. I charmed five other young forn-mad idiots into giving me one-way trips from one station to another. One-way for them, I mean. It was such fun, making sure they never told anyone about it. Hey, they deserved what they got, for being too dumb to look beyond the end of their Rods of Aaron.
I always picked out loners, without friends who might ask awkward questions, later. All I had to do was smile a lot, blink my eyes and act helpless, and they fell all over themselves getting me what I wanted. The idiots were so grateful when I acted interested in them that they never questioned me or my stories.
I have this talent for reading Limiteds. I mean, is it my fault if they walk around practically shouting with their body language what I should say and do to pull them into my games? So it was easy for me to show the loners just the right amount of apparent interest, to tease them, to build up their hopes, let them down, and build them up again. Half the fun was keeping them too busy guessing to get suspicious, yet moving each affair in the direction I wanted as fast as possible. In the process I picked up quite a selection of pithy Galactic words for fornication, the Rod of Aaron, the Pit of Sin, other body parts and all kinds of things you could do with them. I got real good at doing them with the sex addicts while getting them to give me out-system transport, food, shelter and money. They all though my anticipation of Doing Unto them meant I was enjoying forning with them. What jerks.
I made a private game of figuring out the precise method of Doing Unto that each fool deserved, which was almost as much fun as watching their faces when they realized they were going to die, knowing that I'd won. Then I reached Jackson's Whole space. Getting in was easy. Real easy. Blending in on the first orbital I boarded took some doing; each deck, each corridor, had its own set of rules, depending on which House, or consortium of Houses, owned or leased it. Finding another fool was much harder than I expected; all the fools were already dead or gone, and nobody gave away anything in Jackson's Whole space, ever. Getting out seemed to be impossible.
I found that out my first sleep-shift. "You outsiders," the taller of two uniformed Consortium enforcer thugs sneered while sweeping my hostel for transients without work permits or a steady income, "You really don't get it, do you? So listen up, you're going to hear this just once; next time we'll charge you plenty.
"Anybody dumb enough to take on the likes of you, without any muscle to cover you, is going to be dead long before you could get near 'em. And without no backup or House behind you, you'll be dead pretty quick, too.
"I bet you're looking to hitch a ride out of here, aren't you? Well, anybody who could afford to take you along already has pro talent with him. Get it? If I was you I'd hook up with a House that'll watch your back, like House Ryoval, pronto. We could put in a good word so you won't have problems signing up with 'em . . . for a referral fee, of course."
He smiled. I didn't like it.
"How much?"
He looked me up and down, and said, "Two hundred and forty four Betan dollars," just about what I had on me. Remarkably close, in fact.
"Well, suppose I paid your 'fee'," I'd asked. I know, I shouldn't have, but he'd rattled me for a moment. "What's to stop you from pocketing my money, then arresting me for lack of cash?"
"Nothing," he said, stepping forward to make me back into my tiny room. His smile widened. "You catch on quick. We'll take it out in trade. This time."
Some hours later, on a crowded insystem transport to another orbital, it came to me that maybe the Whore of Babylon hadn't had as much choice about taking up Her profession as I'd always assumed. I didn't see that tall enforcer's smile again for two years. When I did he didn't smile for long.
A couple of months after my arrival I let myself get recruited by this free-lance industrial espionage agent, Del Fon. She appeared out of nowhere to help me out during a misunderstanding with three reaction-enhanced House Ryoval thugs in an orbital's darkened side-corridor. Hey, no one had told me House Ryoval was test-marketing some new services outside its own station and just down the Concourse from my temporary ops center.
As we stripped the bodies, Del Fon told me that she was seeking an assistant for her work and thought I had "possibilities." She also said she had a much more discrete base of operations, and changed it often. Her cover identity was as an indentured part-time joygirl with one of the Minor Houses.
Del must have had six times my skills. She insisted on military-style discipline, which suited me. We were of a size, both pale blondes, although she had the more boyish figure. I guessed Del also wanted me around as a second target to confuse her opponents. Well, that suited me, because I could see I needed a local guide to Jackson's Whole space. Besides, her opposite numbers probably knew Del on sight, so they'd likely shoot at her first.
Del showed me how to get around, all right. She was really good at fake I.D.s, which I needed bad. She also taught me these moves no tape had ever covered, and made me drill and drill them until tricky bits I thought could never be learned became automatic. I put up with that because she was keeping me alive.
At first I thought I'd finally met someone like me, totally out for herself. That I could understand. But after the first year, I started to wonder if Del was actually like all the others Limiteds, except someone had planted this secret computer chip in her brain that made her ignore those dumb inhibitions. Yeah, she was constantly calculating in her head the odds of completing the assignment of the moment no matter what happened to anyone else, but, you know, it wasn't fun for her. She went about timing the "removal of inconveniencies," as she called Doing Unto . . . oh, all right, as she called the tactical murders . . . to always improve her chances of success, but like she had no choice in the matter.
I'm damn good at reading Limited but, like I say, it took a year of working together with Del for me to see the difference between us.
For five years we took out a satisfactory number of people who might get in the way of Del's various activities. Or, later, my activities. Although I was disappointed because I was usually Del's backup while she worked the other side's operatives up front and personal. Most of the time they didn't even know I was stalking them when I Did Unto, I mean, killed them. But at least I picked up plenty of pointers.
Del also taught me how to get around the orbitals by passing as another part-time Minor House joygirl, or occasionally posing as this high-class courtesan. No more smiling and blinking my eyes a lot. Real courtesans used much more advanced techniques, such as the Allure Aura and the "Two Hands" trick for giving and getting orgasms. Getting orgasms was kind of nice, almost as nice as the couple of times I got to do in the targets I stalked while playing the courtesan. Completely fooling them first made their deaths even more satisfying. But usually Del nixed my seduce-and-terminate missions as too risky. For her. Well, phoo on her.
I never did figure out Del's home system, only that none of the major Old Earth languages was her native tongue. That was odd, but not too surprising, since she had this cold contempt of everything associated with the home world. All I knew was that she had got from somewhere a really different education in espionage and counterintelligence.
At first I tried to trick Del into talking about her past, but she wasn't buying it, you know? Or else that secretive computer chip that seemed to lurk in her head wasn't. So after the first year I let her think I'd given up. Four years later she made one slip, this rest-shift when she finally let herself get very drunk and I'd teased the conversation around to how we'd gotten stuck in Jackson's Whole. But her slip made no sense.
"Home? What home?" Del had muttered. "It just isn't, here-and-now. The shell-backed-ones. Twisted their. Electron-substi- " She shut up and turned a lighter shade of pale.
I never found out the rest of what she'd started to say.
Couple of shift-changes later, Del somehow managed to get herself trapped in this House Bharaputra holding chamber that shouldn't have been where it was. Without any help from me.
Well, maybe just a little bit. I figured I was ready to end my apprenticeship anyway, since I'd learned just about everything Del was going to teach me. And I had this hunch: After her slip she'd started looking at me more as a liability than an asset.
So I left her in the chamber. As I saw it, the Bharaputras would . . . remove her, and I had a couple of excuses ready if she did escape alive. Besides, she was probably one of the few people in the Galaxy who might beat a fast-penta interrogation without an allergy.
Later I got into Bharaputra Security's records, to see if she'd spilled anything about me. She hadn't. The Security team's vids showed that when they opened the chamber there was nothing inside but greasy smoke and a lightly scorched oval on the metal decking. They figured that apparently the captured agent's body had been entirely consumed by some form of accelerated oxidation, or maybe by something they called "spontaneous combustion." But the chamber's cameras and sensors had all malfunctioned, so they had no ideal what had actually happened to her in there. But she definitely hadn't left the chamber, either. Really.
About then I decided the Jackson's Whole orbitals were getting unhealthy, what with the various House's Security forces finally starting to catch on to Del's methods. Not to mention that holding chamber. A few days after I was sure that Del was gone for good, I noticed a temporary Randall's Rangers recruitment booth in a concourse I'd taken on a whim.
I'm no fool. I invested some hours in researching Randall's Rangers on an untraceable comconsole, then I arranged to run into the off-duty recruitment officer and pumped him. That was easy. He hadn't really caught on to the Jackson's Whole ways yet, so I took him in with this helpless little girl act I hadn't used for five years. I still had the touch. I found out the Rangers didn't do deep background checks on recruits they wanted real bad. I guess they were more interested in a recruit's talents than her origins. However, they had a reputation for collecting military intelligence through infiltration and analysis. Something like what I'd been doing with Del. Perfect.
But enlisting didn't go quite as easy as I'd thought.
First, the recruiting officer had bought into the helpless girl scam, so he wouldn't believe I knew unarmed combat. It took fifteen minutes of talking before he made this half-hearted try to throw me. I took him down three throws in three. Then I put on a tough gal act and shot him a dozen facts about himself that he'd spilled earlier, including his service number. After that the process went smoothly until he asked my name.
"Cavilo," I said. I'd figured nobody in the Rangers might be a fan of ancient flat vid dramas, but "Cavilla" was too risky; someone might run a name-check.
"Family name, or given?"
He'd looked up, then, hands frozen above the input board.
"Spell it."
"Eye. Tee."
"Oh, one of those." A pause. "Place of origin?"
"Human space." I wasn't going to claim to be from Escobar, either.
"H'mm," he'd muttered, frowning slightly.
So I gave him some more hard sell. "By the way, that 'Cyndi' girl you told me about? She's no independent; she an indentured agent of House Ryoval. So's her 'brother,' and he isn't her brother, he's with Ryoval's security. Your night-shifts with 'Cyndi' are about to get a lot more expensive than they already are."
Some of the blood drained from his face them. His eyes went unfocused half a breath, then fixed on me.
"How'd you know that?" he asked.
"Trade secret." Of course I wasn't about to mention how I'd learned about that particular House Ryoval operation.
He blinked. Then he keyed in something on his comconsole.
"Okay," he said, "Look into the scanner." I did; it flashed.
"Right hand on this plate." It lit up; my palm tingled.
"Raise the hand. Repeat after me . . ." I was in, an official Randall's Rangers Trainee.
Then followed three years of training and orientation aboard the Randall's Revenge. Bor-ing. Real bor-ing.
The only good thing about it was getting away from Jackson's Whole. Lots of memorizing rank insignias. Lots of conditioning marches and inspection parades. Lots of stuff about obeying orders, what constituted legitimate orders, lots of military history. Lots of drills with dummy weapons, but no killings, yet. About a week in I finally figured out what was really going on: Half the stuff was intended to get Limiteds psyched up to where they would shoot other people when someone who outranked them told them to. What a waste of time. I mean, was it my fault they put me through that crap when I didn't have any problems there?
The other half of the stuff was supposed to prevent Limited from killing once they were up to it, or at least, to keep them from shooting at the wrong time, at the wrong people. Lots of drills on telling the difference between our side and the other side and the noncombatants, if any. Seemed pretty pointless to me. I mean, if someone is in getting in your way, you just get rid of them, right?
Well, nobody else seemed to see it that way, so I piled up a lot of demerits for insubordination, when I should have been fast-tracking to Counterintelligence and Infiltration. Also did some brig time for getting into fights with jerks who thought they could lord over me because I was "just a woman." I found the brig relaxing for a bit. But, soon it got real old.
So I was in Basic for three years. I must have set some sort of record. But finally I had enough of sitting doing nothing in the brig, and started acting as if I cared about stuff the way the D.I.s expected me to. Or not to. Give me a break.
Even before I got out of Basic I looked around and saw there were lots of guys competing for the few slots in the Rangers' elite Counterintelligence and Infiltration corps. I'd picked out of the background chatter the news that doing in the competition may have been business as usual in Jackson's Whole, but it wouldn't play well with the Rangers - if the competition was other Rangers. Oh, phoo.
Then, during an off-duty study shift, I came across a new game that called for lots of brainwork and patience, but paid off big time in the end. Limiteds were suckers for it. The psych tape called it character assassination.
It was easy, in some ways. All I had to do was say the right words, use the right body language, to get the target to trust me until I could pick up something they were hiding, or even get them to share it with me. Then I'd wait for the right moment and see to it that the damaging information reached the right people at the right time, or maybe the wrong time, without letting it get traced back to me. Or I'd threaten to reveal it.
Or I'd make up stuff, but it had to sound like something the target could have actually done, yet foggy enough that the upper ranks couldn't pin it down with a fast-penta interrogation. Just little hints, you know. At first it was sort of strange, enjoying the thrill of winning without any killing at all.
Although I also had to take my time and not win too often, or I'd draw the wrong sort of attention from upstairs and be found out.

Chapter 007

After another couple of years of this, I finally wrangled my way into the C & I Corps. Once in there it was something like Basic all over again, but with infiltration techniques instead of conditioning marches, and data tap kits instead of dummy weapons. The idea was to get in, blend in, pull the data without getting spotted, and get out again, clean. I knew a lot of the stuff already, from the Ed tapes back on Wrinkled Lip. Some of it was a real tame version of what Captain Cavilla was supposed to have been doing about the time her missions always ran into trouble, but without any fun stuff like blowing up fortifications or torture-interrogations during running battles.
They also wanted me to maintain my cover at all times, no matter what the cost. Fortunately I was real good at playing roles by them.
Once I got myself oriented I went back to the character assassination game, trying to replace other trainees on assignments where I would have opportunities for tactical killings, like the old days with Del. Not that I let it show.
But I got found out anyway.
This Captain Mankoff called me to his office one day and laid out every move I'd made. Said he was irked because the moves had cost him a couple of promising recruits. Said he'd spotted my acts as acts, and he had me pegged as a cold-blooded killer.
I didn't react, of course. Why should I care what he thought of me, now that he had me spotted? It turned out he was watching for that, too. Then he explained:Commander Roger Randall was obsessed with military intelligence in general, and advance scouting of fields of operation and potential opponents in particular. Lately he'd decided the Rangers needed a team of specialized deep-penetration agents willing to do dirty stuff that most C and I staff wouldn't touch. For instance, forcibly extracting intelligence from the enemy commander's kindly white-haired grandmother without benefit of fast-penta, making her death look like a random robbery-homicide, and five seconds later acting like bewildered civilians who couldn't tell a nerve disruptor bell from a sonic shower sprayer. What's one way to beat a fast-penta interrogation? Make them think you're not worth the bother. The team would have to keep cool under pressures that would have the average C and I tech dripping with sweat. Just like I'd stayed cool when Mankoff had called me on my games.
Also, I'd have to obey orders, avoid unnecessary killing, and cut out the character assassination stuff, now.
On balance, it sounded good to me. I accepted the assignment. The first thing that happened was a lot more boring training, but this time with people I couldn't game. Oh, well, they kept me busy, anyway, and now I was finally in line for those killer field assignments.
That was sort of like working with Del, in a way, except they wanted fewer killings because too many unexplained deaths would tip off the enemy of the moment. Nonetheless I did my share of getting inside the guard of the other side's tactical computer programmers, strategy theorists, supply officers and so forth, tricking them or torturing them out of whatever information our side wanted, and sometimes taking them out when it would sow the most confusion in the enemy's ranks.
I took some chances, separating myself from the rest of the team so I could use some of Del Fon's infiltration or interrogation techniques. Got me a reputation for bringing back intelligence from people and places no one else could get near.
Over a couple of years I also built up a neat little body count, including several lugs three times my size. And Mankoff. I made sure his death looked like it happened during an enemy counter-ambush. The others stated treating me with wary respect or fear.
Either suited me fine.
In another couple of years Commander Randall himself was listening in on my debriefings over a scrambled vid circuit.
Eventually he had me transferred to Kurin's Hand, so I could report the real sensitive stuff, the destroy-before-reading stuff, directly to him in the Hand's highly secured briefing cabin. Randall also included this Brevet Commander Lurchsen. Old Lurchsen always sounded amazed at what I'd found. Then, absently stroking his grey goatee, he'd start muttering to himself about what I'd seen and heard, what other agents had seen and heard, the finer points of five-space math, recent trends in galactic commodities markets, ancient military history or the more elaborate developments in Game Theory computation, and finally out of nowhere he'd offer this tight little insight into the enemy command's secret agenda, its strengths and weaknesses or possible tactical blunders that we might trick it into.
Advancement was rapid after that, helped along by occasional character assignations or removals of this or that officer who got all turby about how fast I was moving up through the ranks. Or who was annoying Randall for some reason. Or better, both. Within four years of the transfer Roger appointed me his second-in-command, with the title of Commander (Provisional).
That turned out to be his mistake. Look, it wasn't my fault that Roger got this idiot notion I was too valuable as his second to risk me on more field work with the deep-penetration teams, was it? I mean, he was keeping me from meeting interesting people, getting to know them, and killing them. So obviously he had to go. I was getting real bored with just debriefing deep-penetration teams and coming up with new assignments for them. So I started the most tricky, hidden job of character assignation I'd ever tried.
See, Roger actually followed his own dumb policy of non-fraternization across ranks. "Don't send the troops where you aren't willing to go yourself," he always said. So I started giving the impression to the rest of the upper command that Roger was keeping me aboard the Hand for another kind of deep penetration. Well, I was also trying to get them to feel at least a little worried about how I could turn large men into corpses. I got nowhere there with Lurchsen, but I had some success with the rest of Randall's inner circle: Commodores Amberstein, Beloit, Chinn and Mikonos.
Eventually I noticed this ambitious second-echelon data correlation officer named Garrett was eyeing me. Over five months I slowly let him make contact with me, then gave him the idea that he'd receive a big promotion - and another, more personal, reward - for removing the man he though was my tiresome, over-possessive lover. Well, Roger was getting tiresome and over-possessive, you know? I mean, I didn't say anything to Garrett. Lifted an eyebrow when he made certain comments, carefully timed my smiles, looked real interested in what he was saying, that sort of stuff. Let him think it was his own idea, and I was going along with it.
And he came through, during a withdrawal from this unexpected stationside firefight. Unexpected by everyone in the Rangers but me, Garrett and the C & I deep-pen agent who'd infiltrated the station, that is. Garrett pulled his shuttle away from the station when the flex tube blew out while Randall, in light combat gear but without space armor, was still herding a dozen POWs back through it. Moved it just enough to make sure Randall was dead by the time they grappled him into the airlock.
By accident, of course. That is, if you didn't know that, just before the shuttle departed the Hand, I'd planted chips on Roger disabling his com gear and triggering this limpet mine Garrett had hid in the tube during a quick preflight inspection.
I knew the routine POW-exchange mission would go wrong because I kept quiet about the news from my deep-pen agent that a rogue Jackson's Whole consortium - if you could call such a thing rogue - had infiltrated the transfer station to grab the POWs and their ransom. They planned to let the blame fall on the legit elements of the consortium, I think.
I would have.
Always have a backup plan. In case Roger had survived, I'd have pointed out, quite truthfully, that he had kept me on the Hand so I couldn't infiltrate the station in advance, warn him of the hostiles, and possibly sabotage their ambush.
But he hadn't, so I'd only warned Garrett. That jerk was so promotion- and forn-mad that he didn't even ask how I knew. And I made sure the deep-penetration agent who had warned me wouldn't warn anybody of anything again.
Within hours of Garrett's return, I took his preliminary debriefing in the Commander's quarters on G deck that I'd taken over. I slowly went through the moves of prepping to get forned while Garrett told me his version of how Roger had died. Hey, I really was quivering in anticipation, but just not for the reasons Garrett thought. When I was sure he was good and ready, he got his reward, all right. I killed him in Roger's own bunk with my bare hands. With Garrett I had the best time I'd enjoyed in years.
Immediately after, without cleaning up, I called an emergency meeting of the inner circle. I accused Garrett of disloyally causing the death of his commanding officer. Two survivors from the damaged shuttle backed me up on that part, later. Then I claimed I'd taken revenge in a grief-fired rage when Garrett assumed that removing Randall had somehow made me his for the taking. Hey, Garrett hadn't done the best job of hiding his fraternization with me, and you never know when a reputation for making corpses can come in handy.
Or when it can be a bother, either. Lurchsen asked for a private conference the next day to go over a data disk addressed to him, found among Garrett's effects. I hadn't given it a thought, 'cause Garrett was always pulling together data disks anyway. But, Lurchsen explained in his wandering way, each entry turned out to correspond with the time-and-space coordinates where one or another of Randall's officers had perished or vanished or been summarily demoted after verbally expressing his or her opposition to, or doubts about, the Commander-elect's promotions. In nearly every case, personnel records showed that the Commander-elect had been close at hand at the time. He could add one or two entries himself that Garrett had overlooked.
There was just one exception, Lurchsen noted: The final entry, made a day before the fact, which corresponded to the galactic date and station coordinates where Commander Randall had died in the flex tube rupture.
Garrett's motives in assembling such a document were as yet unclear, but a trained patterns analyst might draw certain implications from the list itself. Far be it for him to question his provisional superior's actions. Yet he, Arvel Lurchsen, had loyally served Randall for fifteen years, and of course he preferred that Randall's successor should be equally worthy of his respect and loyalty . . .
Well, I'd already figured out where Lurchsen was going with this, and he was taking forever to get there. So I shut him up with a nerve disruptor shot to the head. That was an unexpected pleasure. The unpleasant part started when I tried to explain away his death.
Unlike Garrett, Lurchsen hadn't done anything that the Limiteds would think deserved killing out of hand. I did my best at suggesting otherwise at the general staff meeting that followed, but they weren't buying it. "Lurchsen, a traitor?"
Amberstein has sputtered once he got what I was getting at.
"That's impossible, absurd!" Mikonos and Chinn both nodded agreement with him and gave me these calculating looks, as if asking themselves what else I might come up with. I could see them wondering, who would be next? I liked that part, although I wasn't so keen about their self-preservation notions that followed. As far as I could tell, only Beloit bought my line, but even he seemed to have a few doubts he didn't bring up. After a lot of jawboning I got them to agree on an official story that Lurchsen had died from a brain seizure while grieving over his Commander and his friend Garrett. Sort of.
No one questioned my right to the title of Commander, exactly, but the inner circle did start second-guessing my orders, especially the demotions and promotions. And I started hearing about whispers here and there among the troops about a series of deaths in the command structure. When I suggested officially squashing the rumors, Chinn pointed out, real cautious-like, that such tactics had a high failure rate. Still, if the Commander cared to try it . . .?
I decided I didn't. Rumors? Ignore them, and they'll go away. Yeah, right.
Okay, maybe shooting Lurchsen had turned out to be a bit of a tactical error. It wasn't my fault he'd distracted me from the importance of his intelligence analysis work when he rushed my move. I mean, I wound up promoting three experts and recruiting a couple of outsiders to replace Lurchsen. Was I to blame if they did a lousy job and lead the Rangers into a costly blunder that had the inner circle giving me more odd looks?
Look, I didn't care what the General Staff thought, nor the troops. But there was this nagging image in the back of my mind of my character-assassination-game victims after they lost their credibility. I could almost feel my authority crumbling, as if the deck I stood on was delaminating under me.
That wouldn't do. Before things got out of hand I was on the offensive. Roger had swaggered; I swaggered, female-style. I took to wearing twin nerve disruptors on deck. Hey, if Lurchsen's removal wasn't inspiring respect, maybe it could inspire fear. I mean, fear makes 'em jump, which is better than just making 'em do what I say. I let junior officers run into me, alone in isolated corridors, and heard out their stammering attempts to explain that certain troops had certain misgivings about the sudden deaths of certain officers. I always said, "Oh?
They do? Why don't you think about what usually happens to people who talk that way about their Commander and point it out to them, off the record?" While tapping one finger on a holstered 'ruptor and thinking hard about how nice the officer would look laid out in the morgue. I didn't say, "What happened to Lurchsen could happen to you," but they usually got the idea.
I also threw in some image-polishing stuff. Yeah, fear works great, but from my reading of the Limiteds' body language they seemed to buy into this respect scam that Roger had been running. So I went along with it, even though it was a bother. If it worked for him, it ought to work for me.

Chapter Eight

Commander Randall had had this way of silently expecting everyone to do their best, then to get even better. Strangely enough, most of them did. So I copied that. I even forced myself to delegate tasks, to act as if I trusted Amberstein and the rest to carry out orders and deliver results. I got pretty convincing at acting like the good of the Rangers was my only concern. I even managed to issue commands as if that was true, mostly. Say, when looking over a new contract and the parties involved, to find out what the customer really wanted us to do. "Oh, the 'local disturbance' they want us bottle up involves six divisions of Kshatryan Imperial Mercs? We ought to tell 'em we're tied up this week."
Then I'd turn around and snap: "Beloit! This potential client wants us to blockade six divisions of Kshatryan Imperial Mercs. What would you have us do about it, seeing what the Intelligence Analysis guys say? Besides turning them down?
We need some cash flow." Asked in a tone that suggested he wasn't measuring up to my expectations.
Then I'd watch him stammer and sweat.
I also went rummaging through Randall's comconsole and the Rangers' records to learn more about fleet operations. If I was going to look like I was in charge, I had to know what was going on - and I wanted to uncover any mismanagement that I could use for leverage. Hey, I even delegated part of that, calling in a crack cryptanalyst from one of the new C & I deep-penetration teams, code-named "Angelfish," to open the secured files for me.
I still had that much pull. Angelfish took a couple of hours to open up and lay out all of Commander Randall's highly encrypted files. I could have done it myself, but I didn't have three weeks to spare for such stuff. You know, delegation has its points.
About my third run-through I spotted some irregularities in Commodore Amberstein's bailiwick, logistics. Chinn ran accounting, so I made sure they didn't come to his attention, but I let Amberstein see me jotting "internal audit?" under the heading "Things To Do" on a memorandum during the next General Staff meeting. He started to sweat. That was fun.
Always new problems needed my attention. Always I was re-calculating who might turn disloyal and what tidbit of responsibility, or what threat, might bring them around; how one Commodore or the other could be maneuvered into harm's way without being obvious about it. I couldn't make their suspicions of me go away, so I worked on building up their suspicions of each other, slow and easy like. It was kind of fun, keeping Amberstein worrying about Chinn, Chinn worrying about Amberstein, and Mikonos worrying about everyone else. And Beloit worrying, period. Subtle stuff, like I'd used on Garrett, as well as pulling junior officer aside to ask, real casual-like, "What is this problem between Amberstein and Mikonos, off the record? Don't tell anyone I asked, and don't let this get around, right?" Plus, I was overseeing several contracted operations, and keeping the troops busy with training exercises and surprise inspections. Busy, busy, busy. Too busy to stop and wonder why I was running the show.
You know, I remember some ancient vid of an entertainer dashing around a stage to keep twenty-odd revolving platters balanced on poles. Without any gravatics, either. I felt like that performer. Such a challenging game it was, too, and the payoff wasn't applause, but my survival.
Took me four Eternal Damnation years to recover the ground I'd lost when Lurchsen got shot. Four years before I was sure my command was secure enough to again assign myself to deep-penetration missions. Occasionally, and only short-term.
Get in, blend in, get what I want, get out - and get back to twirling those platters.
Amberstein finally questioned one order too many. I knew he would. So the next General Staff meeting's main topic was irregularities in logistics. I had Chinn thinking it was his own idea. I didn't say much. While Chinn presented data and asked pointed questions of nobody in particular I field-stripped and reassembled one of the 'ruptors while frowning a little, as if some of the parts didn't quite fit. Amberstein sweated a whole lot. A little later he accepted my offer of demotion to Captain.
Score one for me.
After that, Chinn and Mikonos got a bit more respectful and started siding with Beloit on most issues. So I started expanding my deep-penetration sorties, Doing Unto . . . okay, eliminating the current enemy's key people, these bystanders getting in the way, and, later, key people of possible clients I was looking over. You know, more than one station or hub's administration hired the Rangers for protection from me. Pretty neat, eh?
I was in the Hegan Hub's Vervain Transfer Station, on a routine contract to temporarily beef up the Vervaini space forces guarding their wormholes until they could finish adding to their fleet, when I spotted a couple of Cetagandan ops in a station concourse. C & I confirmed other covert Ceta ops were infiltrating Vervain space and various stations around the Hegan Hub. Over the next two days I put that together with anything else I could dig up on the local situation: the Vervani's growing fears that someone, somewhere, was taking an unhealthy interest in their planet; the likely outcome of turning current worries over Vervain's fleet build-up into a four-way Hub-side arms race; how to exploit the Ceta's interest in Vervain space and the Hub. What I came up with was a wonderful plan to kill thousands of dirtsuckers and get paid to do it three times: By the Vervani for guarding their wormholes, then by the Cetas who would "save" them from a so-called rogue Merc's dirtside smash-and-grab, and finally by Jackson's Whole's House Dyne, for whatever loot the "rogue" Merc commander would collect and send my way before the Cetas took him down. Along with taking down Chinn, Mikonos, Amberstein and their troops of questionable loyalty to me. There were so many fascinating ways the scenarios could play out, for me to dwell on in detail. What fun!
Well, on the other hand I did have to deal with the Cetagandans. They're like cats. Rub them wrong and they'll claw your hand. But show them the catnip and they'll purr. Never did like cats, they're too forning independent. So are Cetas. So I sounded them out in deep-penetration mode, off the record. Like this one ghem-General, Garhanan, who just happened to be passing through Pol Three station, the luxury station, gathering intelligence and looking for some forning on the side because he was stuck in this forced marriage to a space-cold Haute, he said. I'd established a cover identity as this flashy, hi-class club habituŽ, Livia Nu. I was living anew, all right, all aglow with my plans. Act like you want attention, at least the kind of attention you get in the clubs, and the Intelligence ops won't notice what you're really after. It worked, didn't it?
Anyway, I let Garhanan spot me-as-Nu eyeing him in The Leopard's Lair, waited while his Security gave me the once-over, and then let him pick me up. Back in his hostel suite, I laid out a fantasy game I knew would appeal to him: Suppose I'm this beautiful woman and I'm being attacked by a runaway tan-and-black guard dog, and you, the big, handsome, resourceful ghem, just happen to come along and rescue me by killing the dog bare-handed. But why would the dog attack me, anyway? Well, suppose you had bribed the guard dog's trainer to make the dog threaten me, then pretend to die at your hands, eh? I wouldn't know that, of course, so I'd be ever so grateful and invite you into my hab module to clean your wounds. Imagine what you could do to me when you got inside my hab. And so forth. After he was done with me, as I was slipping out of his sleeping room I mentioned one last detail: Suppose my name was "Vervaina?" He jerked his head up when he heard that. I tell you, forning was the last thing on ghem-General Garhanan's mind the next time we met.
That was when ex-General Stanis Metzov, Stanny 'darling,' came into my life. I could see that to pull off my plan I'd need someone experienced in dirtsucker troop command. Someone expendable. And blame-able. The Three Commodores could almost run orbital garrisons and wormhole blockades in their sleep. But getting one of them up to speed on planetary surface maneuvers would take far too long, going by what I remembered about military history from my old Ed Tapes. Besides, I'd heard somewhere that tape-learning just wasn't the same as actual experience in managing groundside troop maneuvers. And that was assuming I could interest any of them in such a foolish stunt in the first place.
So I'd sent word to Recruiting that we needed command-level dirtsucker recruits, pronto. All they'd turned up were a couple of retired security guards who'd done groundside duty for one House or another on Jackson's Whole. But then the Ranger's Pol recruitment officer sent word of this cashiered ex-General from some neo-barbarian planet called Barrayar, Stanis Metzov, with plenty of ground troop command experience and interesting ideas about discipline, making the rounds angling for openings in Pol's military and getting nowhere. One look at the red eye-glow in his interview vids and I knew he was the man I wanted. I commandeered the Ranger's fastest courier to Pol, and got there just hours before Metzov was going to return to Komarr.
As his vids hinted, Stanis had this really cute homicidal rage he kept under tight control, you know? So his seduction was much trickier than the ghem-general's. By then I'd polished my allure technique way beyond those stupid eye-blinks, but it still took me quite a while to plant the idea that the Rangers really wanted his skills, and that he could forn his way to the top. He was too wrapped up in these revenge fantasies about the mutant Lord that had got him kicked out of his service to focus on that, at first. But the big fool did have ambitions and finally I got him to see me as a stepping stone to them. Well, he didn't know my ambitions to use him as my stepping stone. Or maybe he knew that I knew that about him, but I knew that he knew I knew. Or something. In any case I was always a step ahead of him.
Once I got Metzov recruited, oriented, settled aboard the Hand and sharing my bunk, I gave him a clear warning that that I was going to be the top dog: I told him in detail just what had happened to Randall and Garrett. You know, the idiot didn't believe me. Guess he underestimated my abilities at hand-to-hand, just like the other Limiteds. Including Garrett.
Still, he had his role to play in my plans, so I kept leading him on.
Although I didn't care so much for Stanny 'darling's' ideas of forning. He liked it rough, something to do with that cute killer rage of his. I got through our sessions by picturing the look that was going to be on his face once he understood I was abandoning him to the Cetas. Assuming he had enough smarts to get it, that is.
Over the next five months I eased Metzov up the chain of command until he was my second. Or so he thought. In one staff meeting the inner circle got turby about that and General-elect Metzov stalked out. "Now, get this," I told them, "among his other virtues, Commander-elect Metzov obeys me without question." Mikonos came back, "Of course he does. That big het neo-barb lusts for you, bad. The thing I can't figure is whether he wants to climb on you, or over you." I told him, "I'm keeping Metzov under control. I've got big plans for the lug, but after they pay off, he's expendable. That's all that matters, get me?" Then I ordered Stanis to report to my G Deck quarters. I knew from the signs that he'd need forning very soon.
That's where I filled in Stanny 'dearest' on his role in the smash-and-grab raid that would let the Ceta forces "rescue"
Vervain. I mean, except for the last part, where he'd get stuck dirtside. The big lug took a while to get that the rest of my staff wasn't up to dirtside ops. But right away he caught my hints that a successful raid would put him on an equal footing with me. In fact, the Three Commodores strongly objected to planetary raids, so he'd have to keep his preparations confidential. "We wanted to inflict civilian casualties, to make the Ceta 'rescuers' look good," I told him as I stroked his Rod of Aaron. "What kind of strategy does the General-elect care to propose for fulfilling this contract, h'mmm?"
Stanny almost drooled into his chest hairs as he outlined a battle plan that would have got him a very stiffly worded rebuke from the IJC, if he was still alive after the Cetas and Vervaini were done with him. I'll give him this, Stanny came up with the cover story for our troops, that a secretive Vervani consortium had gotten advance word of the coming invasion and had hired us to collect art works, valuables, genetics and key personnel and get them off-planet, despite any objections from the local public security forces, before the Cetas could appropriate them. Or something like that.
On the other hand, the homicidal lug didn't know the first thing about logistics. He thought all he had to do was wave his magic requisition form and the battle fleet would send a huge convoy of freshly-fueled combat drop-shuttles to carry off him, his troops and the valuables without any delay. Well, he was right about the last part . . .
So I approved his plan and declared anything connected with it "top secret." Well, the Vervani did ask why we were buying drop shuttles and recruiting combat troops when they had hired us for wormhole guard duty, so I told them we were preparing for a future assignment, at no charge to them. Accounting had to do a lot of juggling, then.
Meanwhile I was making sure my hand-picked drop ops officer understood that the second wave of shuttles would carry off the loot and nothing else. And making sure that Stanis was recruiting the troublemakers from my troops and senior officers for his foray. And, that Stanny's raid would have "Made on Barrayar" stamped all over it. It took no effort at all to convince the idiot to have his drop-shuttles and troops used Barry insignia, com-codes, cryptography and the rest.
It all lasted five months. Five wonderful months of putting together and nurturing the best damn plan I'd every come up with. I could barely wait for the vids of Vervani casualties to start coming in. The kicker was, they were paying me to protect them.Of course, that also meant keeping Stanny on a short string. Maybe I did too good a job, there. The big lug wouldn't give me ten minutes alone without barging in wherever I tried to go. What a bore. Besides, after the third or fourth time his forning techniques were getting so predictable.

Chapter IX

And then this little runt mutant came swaggering out of customs on Pol Six and sent my whole wonderful plan down the disposal tube. In slow motion. Although I didn't really catch on until weeks later. I should have stuffed him down the disposal tube, head first. But nooo, I had to look him over first.
As Nu, I'd set up a Pol Six Concourse encounter with two top House Fell reps, so early in the day-cycle I was almost breaking character, because my Intelligence had learned that's when this "Victor Rotha" had scheduled his first Concourse rendezvous with Sid Liga, some dubious asteroid-mining firm's sleazy purchasing agent. I wanted to eyeball this newcomer with the rather odd-sounding identity, yacht itinerary and crew, who'd popped up out of nowhere. I thought maybe I could seed him with misinformation to make the Polans keep their forces far from Vervain's wormhole when the Cetas came through, then kill him to give the misinformation credence - what I'd already planned for Liga - but I spaced that idea soon as I saw the little runt, gawking like a dirtsucker tourist on his first visit to an orbital instead of glancing around with the wary watchfulness of a real arms dealer who'd been knocking around the galaxy for years.
I've never seen so much energy stuffed in such a small package. Maybe he was trying to act like he was just out for a stroll, but he kept twitching like he was ready to run off in three directions at once. He made the big lug watching his back look half-asleep, and I could tell the lug was a pro.
It took that long to get my attention off of "Rotha's"
energy and on to his build. He was short. He was shorter than I am. Or was. Head too large for his scrawny body and a bowed spine, somewhat masked by his mish-mash half-Betan, half-Escobaran outfit. This was a Betan? Sure he was. So my next move . . .
Look, I don't want to talk about it. Really. Victor Rotha, arms dealer late of Beta Colony; Lord-slash-Ensign Miles Vorkosigan from Barrayar; the Betan Admiral Miles Naismith: Whoever he was - and his Barry pal, Gloomy Greg - must have been Galaxy-class mind-gamers. That's the only way they could have lured me from my plans by getting me chasing after the crazy notion of becoming Empress of Barrayar, a planet I'd hardly even heard of. And why'd they do it?
Besides making my life miserable? To keep the Cetagandans from getting within striking distance of their home world. Which they must have thought was pretty damn important, for the Emperor himself to get in the act.
Okay, the short version. As "Victor Rotha," the twisty-brained mutant first sucked me into his game plan by feeding Sid Liga a vid disk demo of a nerve disrupter shield net. He must have known I would want it, and so him with it.
I've seen what nerve disrupters near-misses do.
So he gave me just enough time alone with Sid to extract the vid disk from the mining agent. Sid started whimpering the instant my C & I tech over-rode his lock-codes, so just for fun I used the Captain Cavilla methods on him. Sid kept claiming that vid disk had been a vid tab when Victor gave it to him but it had somehow changed in his pocket. Could I help it if I got a little carried away checking on that and wound up with a corpse instead of a full debriefing? About then the so-called Rotha showed up at the agent's hostel conference room, guard in tow, for his second appointment with Sid.
At first "Victor" seemed surprised to find me in Sid's room, dressed to kill. That carmine synth-silk smart fabric really hides the blood stains, you know? But then he fast-talked his way into Sid's room, maneuvered both our guards outside, plopped me down on this liquid-filled settee and set out to seduce me. Rather ineptly, I thought.
Well, maybe I encouraged him a little.
Well, maybe I encouraged him more than a little.
Anyway, "Victor" fed me just enough stuff about the shield net and his supposed future plans to get me really intrigued with him. And then, when we were just getting intimate, just as I was ready to plant the first bit of incriminating evidence of Sid's death on him, the hyperactive runt faked a sexual panic attack, grabbed the disk as I started to slip it into my cleavage, and fled while babbling about making a delivery I hadn't ordered yet. The classic "chase me 'til I catch you"
ploy. Really, I had to laugh, to keep from snarling in frustration.
"Victor" let me think he'd be boxed in once I'd seeded the room with evidence pinning Liga's death on him. I even bid twenty thousand Betan dollars with the Jackson's Whole Consortium for his arrest, in case he tried to leave the Hub at their station. Which he did. But then he slipped right out of a Consortium holding cell, I suppose to link up with Gloomy Greg for the next stage in his schemes. I had plenty of other details to deal with, so I tried to put "Victor" out of my mind until I could reel him in.
Never did get that forning deposit back from the Consortium.
Then maybe ten days later the mutant sprang the next stage of his schemes on me, using this Vervani freighter captain double agent, who I thought I had under my control, as his means to put himself aboard the Vervain Transfer Station, then aboard the Kurin's Hand docked there. Right away he tried using his tall sidekick, Gloomy Greg, to drive a wedge between Stanny 'dearest' and me, by showing me that a certain man turned Steadfast Stanis into a dithering idiot who couldn't even decide to draw his stunner or not. Although that meant Stanny also exposed "Rotha" as this Ensign Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar, the mutant Lord who'd gotten him kicked out the Barry's military, and the young, unhappy tall guy as Gregor Vorbarra, the Emperor of Barrayar, himself. With none of his Security people in sight, either. How interesting!"Vorbarra embodies more power, more wealth and more influence back home than you could possibly imagine," Stanny confided to me after he recognized the Emperor. "His Word is Law, there." That got my attention all right. Just as the Vorkosigan mutant knew it would.
It was weird, watching Stanny itching to rip Lord Vorkosigan limb from limb and trying to suck up to his young Emperor at the same time. Meanwhile the mutant used some Barry Mind Trick to get Metzov to put us all in his private cabin on the Hand, against my direct orders, the better to work his schemes on me. And then the mutant somehow got me to take him down to Detention myself, although what I really wanted was to get to know Gloomy Greg better. Much, much better.
In detention we ran into my double-agent freighter captain, where the little sneak goaded me into giving my pet traitor a nerve disruptor shot to the head, no doubt to keep me from finding out just how he, the runt, had got the captain to deliver Greg and himself to Vervain Station.
Of course he was also dragging Gloomy Greg under my nose to draw me from my plan. Within four days Greg, aided by Vorkosigan's lies and misleading comments, had me convinced that I could seduce him, marry him and become Empress of Barrayar.
Think of the life-and-death powers I'd have. A much better plan than collecting three payoffs for letting Stanis slaughter a bunch of Vervaini dirtsuckers.
Anyway, the runt seriously annoyed me by pulling that stunt in Detention, so I had the guards give him the doggie chew treatment. Remember the awful rat bars Ken gave me on the HPGT-138? Yeah, those. Real useful for troop discipline and interrogations. I've had prisoners confess before they could be fast-penta-ed, just to get some decent chow instead of those rat bars. But they didn't work on the Vorkosigan mutant. Instead he perched in cell thirteen, spinning his web of lies and somehow orchestrating events in some undetectable way.
Case in point: While I was entertaining Gloomy Greg at great expense, the mutant somehow drew my dear Stanny into his detention cell. Within five minutes he had poisoned Stanis's mind against me, making the big lug spew sedition and brag that he would replace me by assassination.
After that Stanis took to sulking around G deck, trying to edge in on my times with Greg when he should have been training the smash-and-grab forces. But I must say, even when Stanis got all turby over my locking him out of my cabin while I entertained Gloomy Greg, he kept fretting about the Emperor's safety and urging me to get Greg out of the Hub before the Cetas arrived. Maybe that was another of Vorkosigan's Barry Mind Tricks. Or maybe it was just the damned Barrys sticking together.
Whatever the cause, Metzov actually had had the right idea for once: If the Cetas got ahold of Gloomy Greg, he'd be worthless to me. I figured I'd use their invasion as my excuse to "rescue" Greg, letting the Cetas chew up the Rangers in the Vervain system.
Gregor's forning was different, you know? First man I'd met in years who seemed to think giving pleasure was as important as taking it. He sounded so glad when I showed him the Two Hands trick.
What a pathetic wimp.
After five days of plotting in Cell Thirteen, the mutant got me to take him off the rat bars by pretending he'd influence Greg in my favor. By then he'd planted this notion that the Barrys would keep the Cetas off my back if I called off Stanis's raid. And a few days later, the sneaky little dwarf got me to ship him off to Oser's fleet at Vervain Station by fast courier, just as they came ripe for a coup.
See, I needed Metzov out of the way so I could complete my seduction of Greg, and only a chance to kill the mutant would pry him away from G deck. But mostly the mutant maneuvered me into shipping him to Ausland Station by this carefully-timed misinformation campaign - including the arrival of a supposed Oseran infiltrator, Lieutenant Lake, primed to reveal the mutant's third identity: "Admiral Miles Naismith," the military genius who'd reorganized the Oseran Mercs into the "Dendarii Free Mercs" right out from under Oser's boots during the Tau Verde Ring War. Lake claimed that after three years Oser still hadn't figured out how to neutralize "Naismith's" appointed successors and loyalist troops without triggering open rebellion. That's why he'd ordered the little Admiral spaced as soon as he'd returned, the week before. Oh, really? How interesting.Infighting among the Oseran Mercs was just what I wanted when my "rescue" fleet headed for Pol, so I sent the so-called Rotha there, and Metzov after him with orders to kill the "escaped" mutant. And backup agents to kill Metzov, of course, but they botched the job.
Instead, Metzov got carried away and got himself captured.
I'd prepared for that. But I hadn't prepared for Naismith taking over the Oserans without firing a shot. The next thing I knew the renamed Dendarii fleet was accelerating across the Hub in attack formation, on the shortest route to Vervain's Transfer Station. And the little Admiral, or Ensign Vorkosigan with a Betan accent and Oseran uniform, was spewing more of his lies over the tight-beam, making the Vervaini think the attack was my idea and threatening to let them know about my Imperial guest. Just at the Cetas started swarming into Vervain space. Perfect timing, really.
With the local Vervani getting all turby, demanding that I order the Ranger vessels in Vervain space to blockade the Vervain-Cetagandan wormhole instead of running way, I had to get myself and Greg away from their Station. And I had to shut up the mutant, pronto. So I told the Vervani I was taking a fast courier to plan a joint attack strategy with Admiral Naismith, away from possible Ceta spies, before we jumped into Vervain space. But the little Admiral's lead ships cut across my courier's escape route as he started spouting the most amazing proposals to me, to jointly do in Greg after I married him, or to forn with me behind his back, or to replace Admiral Count Vorkosigan as the power behind the throne. But when I exposed this treachery to Greg he wasn't at all surprised, saying Lord Vorkosigan's mutations made him insane, not to mention being off his meds, a problem we'd fix once we got aboard his fast cruiser. By then I was sure I had Greg under total control, and the mutant kept insisting I'd better make a show of obeying Greg if I wanted to fit in with Barry society, at least at first, so I went along.
But it was a trap; no sooner had we boarded than the mutant was threatening Greg's life with a plasma arc cannon. And then Greg, claiming that it was a bluff, walked right out of my life.
The mutant turned him against me, too.
My troops put up a brave fight, but in the end the mad mutant had me locked inside my deactivated battle armor. He tried to convince me I'd lost everything, and threatened to give me to the Cetas. Greg wasn't completely turned; he pledged to keep the mutant from doing that if I ceded control over the Rangers to the Vervani liaison officers. Even as Lord Vorkosigan 'lorded' over me - so to speak - cackling at his own cleverness in psyching me out, I knew I had him psyched out: Rank. Respect. Recognition. He wanted them so bad he'd a done anything to get them. He'd a sold his soul to Mekratrig in a second. His every move almost shouted his hunger.
"Admiral," huh? Bet he made up that rank.
So I let the mutant think he'd won; I agreed to cede control over the Rangers. I'd planned to ditch them anyway. But then I told the little mutant some truths about himself, in words that I figured would eat at his mind and guts for years to come.
Too bad my words didn't keep the little Admiral's biosculpt-faced lover from holding a nerve disruptor thirty centas from my skull while I sent out the change-of-command codes. "Keep it simple," she snarled, her cold eyes flashing, after I managed to insert a single C & I code-phrase meaning "Am captured." Oh, phoo. I'd hoped to get at least some of the Rangers to follow the original script.
I heard, later, some Vervani liaisons ordered the troop-carrier drop shuttles to ram any Ceta ships they could. One squad actually boarded an enemy ship through their shuttle's busted snout and took out its imploder lance before the Cetas finished them off. What a waste. That dirtside battle gear and the drop-shuttles had cost me plenty.
Anyway, once the command-transfer was over these guards pried open my space armor and ferried me over to the Dendarii flagship's brig. Guess who I found there, all lined in a row of force-barred open holding cells? Commander Oser, three of his ships' captain-owners, "Rotha's" big bodyguard, another bland-faced Barry intelligence op and Metzov.
Oser recognized me at once. "He caught you, too?" he asked.
Without needing to say who "he" was. As soon as the guard squad left Oser called a meeting of the Victims Of The Mutant Club.
All of them except the captain-owners admitted they'd had the mutant under them at one time or another, and now they were locked up thanks to him. Good thing I'd told him I'd rather sleep with a snake than have him as my subordinate. I might have wound up in one of those cells that much earlier.
Next Oser asked Metzov and me to share our stories of what the runt had done to us. Metzov took a while, and before he was done the same guard detail took the two Barrys away. Then I told my story, but I don't think Oser believed me for some reason.
Maybe two hours later the jump klaxon went off and I had that brain-dragged-inside-out-through-a-gas-diffusion-membrane feeling. Another hour passed, then Oser announced to nobody in particular, "Those who are loyal in times of adversity will be remembered." I guess he knew who'd be listening to the Security monitor.
And I guess Oser had sized us up while we talked. Because a few minutes later, when a new guard squad entered the brig, key-coded all the cells open and handed out white-trimmed grey uniforms, Oser had one of them give Metzov a nerve disruptor while he recited to me his personal cabin's key-code, this temporally unmonitored drop-tube route to it and detailed instructions on what to do to the mutant when he walked through its door. Sounded like a suicide mission to me, but Metzov had the disruptor and he wanted the mutant dead in the worse way.
So I asked Oser, "Why not do that yourself?" I didn't ask why he assumed we'd have enough time to carry out even a quarter of his program.
"I'd be recaptured in five minutes if I stay aboard the Triumph," Oser said. "Naismith has too many of his toadies in key positions. We're moving to a better bolt-hole.
Owner- Captain Jodspurs, here, knows the meaning of loyalty."
I didn't like his assignment so I really tried hard to get Oser to take me along with him. But he said, "I know your reputation, sweetie. You're staying here, with your Barry pal."
Then he left. Never saw him again. I guess his bolt-hole wasn't as secure as he thought.

Chapter 10

Once we were in Oser's cabin, Metzov sat on a couch across from me for four long hours, staring at the erotic artworks on the bulkheads when he wasn't staring at me. Finally he started muttering to himself about the fancy meal hover-trays he'd seen on G Deck and going down to Detention while he made do at the officer's mess. Next he muttered about working day in and day out for months while I lazed about in my cabin with the Emperor.
Then he muttered about how lately I'd had plenty of time for Vors, but no time for hard-working plebe generals, no sir. Then he muttered it all over again, louder. By then he was breathing hard and sweating. Just like Tadzio. And finally he pointed the 'ruptor at me, saying he'd blow out my brains unless I opened my legs for him like I'd opened them for Greg.
"You think I'm not good enough for you anymore?" he asked as he straddled me, one hand around my neck, 'ruptor in his other hand, its bell cupping my left ear. "You'll think different when I'm Vormetzov, the Emperor of Vervain. Uhh!
Weren't expecting that, were you? You still don't know about Barrayarans. When we smash an' grab we don't . . . let . . . go . . ."
As he kept on forning me he laid out this crazy idea of coming out on top by playing the Barrys against the Cetas. "Like how they got the Army fighting with the Navy on Old Earth," he grunted. He pulled out then, but he wasn't done.
"On your belly, bitch," he ordered. "This is how I'll celebrate my conquest of Vervain, the way the Navy did when they conquered the Army!"
I really hate men who fornicate just to prove they're the top dog. On the other hand, I suppose it's a good thing the big idiot hadn't figured out yet that he'd been set up, or he'd a done a lot worse than make my butt sore.
Then Metzov adjusted his too-small uniform, let me get dressed and we waited some more. He was just starting his second round of muttering, about this High Court ordering the traitor Ensign Vorkosigan executed by strangulation, when the lock beeped and the mutant swaggered in like a conquering hero. Until he saw the 'ruptor Metzov aimed between his eyes.
But then the big lug let his lust for revenge get the better of his tactical judgment. He actually threw away the 'ruptor to strangle the mutant with two hands. One would have been enough. That was all the opening I needed.
Such a pleasure it was, giving Stanis 'darling' just enough time to realize exactly why I was going fry his brains with his own discarded 'ruptor before I let him have it. And the mutant - You know, I could have played the hostage game, or even have killed him right then, but he was my safe-conduct pass out of the Hub. And I judged he was so programmed in this Vor honor-your-word crap that he really would let me get a head start on the Ceta revenge-hunt squads. So I'm not quite sure why I kissed him instead of shooting him. It sure wasn't for sending the Ranger's ships into the Cetagandan meat grinder.
As I said, he was my safe-conduct from the Hub, and I knew he craved recognition. I could fake that. So I admitted that I'd underestimated him. Well, I also guess he'd woken me up to the fact that I was getting over-confident in my tap-dance with Death. Not that he'd planned it that way. And he replied that he'd never underestimated me. You could call that a compliment, of sorts.
Well, one thing I'm sure about: I timed my kiss to get his bio-sculpted girlfriend really jealous.
So it was back to the detention cell, but no company for amusement this time. Later these cold Barry Imperial Security bitches took me and my kit over to the Randall's Revenge. Seems the Hand had been too massive to dodge this Ceta imploder lance, and the Revenge was the closest thing the Rangers had left to a flagship that was still spaceworthy. Yes, I'd packed my Sultana's Dreams perfume, the one the mutant claimed to be allergic to, so just to bother him I poured . . . Wait, you heard that part already. And after that?
Don't want to talk about what came after that.
Yeah, okay. Sleep-shift after sleepless sleep-shift en route to Komarr, I went over and over every step of the mutant's scheme. Could he have improvised the whole thing on the fly? That's how he was playing it. Could I have really been so gullible? Maybe, except I couldn't buy Greg's story of just walking out the Komarran compound un-noticed, right past his own ImpSec bodyguard.
The mutant wasn't the only liar. Greg had lied, too. His airy promise of "safe passage out of the Hegen Hub, via Barrayar," proved misleading, to say the least. There isn't any "via Barrayar;" it's in a wormhole dead end with no other outlet, just like Aslund - something else I should have checked before choosing to make myself its Empress. Had Greg meant to say, "via Komarr?" The Komarr Nexus had four working wormholes and more blind ones. Oversight or calculation, Greg? Gloomy Greg had also told me Vorkosigan's mutations had driven him insane. I knew the mutant was some kind of Barry ImpSec agent, but at the time I hadn't asked myself how he could be as crazy as Greg claimed, yet still be allowed the run of the galaxy with his own private Merc force?
And if Greg had been feeding me a line about the mutant's insanity, what else had he been lying about? The ease of marrying into Barry society, perhaps? What would Greg really have done with me once he was back among his loyal subjects? Had he ever been fully under my control?
Maybe not. Too bad. I wish my hold on him had been real.
Besides all the lies about his multiple identities, the mutant has falsely promised I'd get "A new start, far from here - very far from here. That, Simon Illyan will assure. Far away, but not unwatched." Another one of his little understatements.
"Not unwatched" hardly covered it.
Soon after the Ranger's overcrowded fleet entered Komarr space, Barry ImpSec agents boarded the seven ships to go over them with the proverbial fine tooth comb. They pulled every comconsole record in sight. Then these permanent ImpSec liaisons in mufti moved in and their techs installed tons of surveillance devices, visible and hidden. I guess the head of ImpSec - the Captain Simon Illyan that the mutant had mentioned - did not give me the same level of trust that young Greg had. Maybe even less trust than the mutant.
Maybe Captain Illyan had gotten some distorted notions about me from the mutant's no doubt exaggerated reports of my little pranks. My ImpSec puppet masters certainly treated me like I was going to pull a fast one at any time. They never let me out from under their thumbs. And they rotated so often I never had a good chance of softening them up.
They kept me pretty busy, what with telling me when to dodge yet another Cetagandan ambush, jumping me from one wormhole nexus to the next in hopes of finding something useful for me to do, trying out various quaint Barry anti-psychosis chemotherapies on me - and making sure I never, ever used the names "Vorkosigan" and "Naismith" or "Dendarii" during the same week.
The methodical, mostly man-loving creeps carried out their hand-offs to new operatives with great care, passing on extensive briefings on whatever escape plan or character assassination program they thought I'd come up with. They didn't give me one single chance of Doing Unto for ten forning years. For the first eighteen months they didn't even let me handle cutlery in the officer's mess unless they'd dosed me with one of their anti-psychosis drugs. Is that any way to treat a commander? And they poured over every contract and vetoed anything at all that looked like it might get me within reach of a weapon, or directly supervising anyone who did use one, or anything calling for me to get out in the field. Well, phoo on them.
From listening in on the liaisons' comments at hand-offs, I eventually got the idea that the ever-vigilant, all-remembering Captain Illyan was handling my case as something between a duty to fulfill the formal pledge of the all-high Barrayaran Emperor, and as a hobby offering a few minute's rest from the crushing demands of managing his galactic web of secret agents and surveillance techs. In any case he insisted the liaisons report directly to him using a dedicated ImpSec com linkage.
Certainly new liaisons spoke of their assignment as a kind of punishment detail Captain Illyan held in reserve for ImpSec operatives who screwed up, or who got slack in the field. I'll bet he let rumors of assignments to my forces circulate, to terrify his agents into line. I imagined the ImpSec Chief telling then: "This is what happens when you fail me. You're gonna ride herd on Cavilo the Killer Commander. She'll murder you the instant you turn your back on her. Or worse, turn up in the same bunk with her."
From NewsNet reports I finally figured out that the mutant's Dendarii Free Mercs were some sort of undercover arm of ImpSec. Every so often I'd hear about them making trouble, mostly for the Cetas. They popped up at Dragoola IV to haul a bunch of Marilac POWs off the Ceta prison planet. Somewhat later they popped up in the Marilac system itself, and the Cetas pulled out within a year. They popped up in Sector Four to rescue these Barry diplomat hostages. They popped up somewhere else, and this Ceta Empire-sponsored Friendship Flotilla's commander became persona non grata with the locals.
They popped up at Jackson's Whole, raided some human cloning complex there, and ImpSec dragged me half-way across the known galaxy to 'voluntarily' help them hunt for their missing Admiral. But I got there the day after they found him, or he found them, or something like that.
So you know what I think that Captain Illyan did? Any time he wanted to pull the Ceta's attention away from one of the little Admiral's stunts, he'd arrange a leak of my current location or cover identity, then shift me somewhere else or put me through another identity-change after the Cetas took the bait. That happened at least four times.
Of course the ImpSec liaisons claimed that Ceta intelligence was better at traffic analysis and ship-recognition than they'd expected, but I know a pattern when I see one.
It wasn't more than three months after the Rangers signed a wormhole light-duty guard contract near Shya IV that a Ceta revenge squadron popped out another nearby wormhole. ImpSec made me scuttle the contract and run away. Same thing happened the next time I thought I had some steady work. And after that, no one wanted the Rangers at all.
"Hire tan and black? Better watch your back!" Jumpships ferried that ditty from nexus to nexus faster than we could outrun it after the Vervain NewsNet floated these speculations, and later revealed the details, about my deal with ghem-General Garhanan, retired. Very retired. Worse case of retirement they'd seen, five needle-grenades in the back.
So anyway, after two years of no new contracts, ImpSec tried this identity-switch. Randall's Rangers officially disbanded, and three months later we were back in business in another nexus as Zoaves For Rent, lead by the mysterious, height-challenged blonde, "Commodore Peskopi."
It took Ceta Intelligence less than another two years to get the news on who "Commodore Peskopi" really was and unleash the Ghems against me. Their one surprise attack against the Zoaves For Rent cost me three ships. The ever loyal Captain Vigeroth deliberately intercepted an implosion lance to buy the Golden Leaper (formerly Randall's Revenge) a few precious seconds to make its escape Jump. A bit later a wave of rumors, apparently started by the Cetas, revealed my identity as Commodore Peskopi and the Zoaves For Rent as the former Randall's Rangers. In short order I was out of work. Again.
So ImpSec tried another identity-change, making me dye my hair dark brown and assume the cover identity of "Dagmar Schultz," a "minor advisor" to the figurehead commander of the "Space Vikings." That makeover included gluing plastic horns to the troops' new conical space helmets. That decoration, one of my newly-hired Counterintelligence and Infiltration analysts soon discovered, was found only on the headgear of Vikings in holovid dramas or feelie dreams.
That proved to be the final straw for Commodore Beloit, commander of the only Illyrican destroyer left in my four-ship fleet. "I never joined the Rangers to see my crew turned into clowns!" he'd yelled at the Barrayaran "advisors" during the new identity briefing, adding, "I refuse to continue with this charade," as he stomped out the hatch.
"As you wish," was all the ranking ImpSec advisor, Vormoncrief, had said to Beloit's departing back.
When the transformed "Space Viking" fleet mustered after separately departing this semi-legal drydock complex in Vervain's asteroid belt, Beloit's destroyer Space-Scourge failed to join the newly named Nemesis, Yo-Yo and Viking's Gift. Nor could I find Beloit, the destroyer or her crew in my reconstructed ship registry or personnel records.
So at the Space Viking's first Captain's Conference in the Nemesis's wardroom, I demanded of Vormoncrief, "Tell me what happened to Beloit." Not that I cared about him, but he owned one sweet destroyer I could use.
"Beloit who?" Vormoncrief had asked in false puzzlement.
Oh. He wanted me to worry that I might be next? Cheeky. Oh, well, that's how it goes. I sure wasn't to blame for Beloit's blunder.
The one bright spot was, ImpSec never learned that one of the Rangers' finest six-agent deep-penetration teams had secretly departed the Kurin's Hand on an enemy infiltration mission about the same time I'd been forced to send out the orders putting the Vervain liaisons in charge of my fleet.
But then, I didn't know that, either. As far as both myself and ImpSec knew, all my C & I operatives had been squashed to bits, along with the Rangers' personnel records, back when the Kurin's Hand proved too slow to dodge that Ceta implosion lance.
It was strange that I didn't recall authorizing that mission. But if I had remembered, ImpSec would have gotten it out of me, eventually.
I didn't learn that five of the six C & I ops were still alive until two years after my top cryptanalysis expert, "Angelfish," enlisted - I should say, re-enlisted - in Randall's Rangers. That was shortly before the Rangers became Zoaves For Rent.
Angelfish worked his way up through the ranks to the position of chief com officer, on merit alone. Fortunately he caught my notice long after the ImpSec puppet masters gave up trying to bow-beat me for more data on Rangers personnel.
Because I thought he was dead, it took me weeks to see behind Angelfish's deep-cover identity. It took me another three months to get him to understand that he should join me in my bunk, despite the Rangers' anti-fraternization policy; and exactly twenty-four seconds after I took his Rod of Aaron in my mouth for him to realize my tongue was tapping it in basic dot-dash code, "THS STRCTLY BUSNSS DO U AGRE." While counting the seconds in my head, of course.
A few minutes later he took my left breast in his mouth and tongue-tapped the nipple, "AGRED WIL SGNL DEEP-PEN TEAM" - my first indication that the rest of his team still existed - "MAY TAKE TIME." I guess the ImpSec operatives monitoring my quarters, if any, mistook both of our intent expressions for signs of pleasure.
Over another year the other four surviving members of the deep-penetration team joined my forces under assumed names. Or so Angelfish told me in tongue-taps. I didn't want to risk face-to-face meetings with them while ImpSec was watching.
Ten years, four identity-changes, six Ceta ambushes, Beloit's disgust with ImpSec's identity-change and this really disastrous contract ImpSec forced on me had whittled my command down to just one undercrewed ship: Randall's Revenge, AKA Golden Leaper, AKA the Nemesis, AKA Be‘lphazoar, the lone ship of "Gorey's Demons," or "the Gee-Dees," as ImpSec's latest advisor had made them call themselves. Even Angelfish stumbled over the ship's name half the time.
ImpSec's presence had also shrunk, to one liaison officer who pretended to be no such thing, and two sleepers - that I knew of, anyway - one in maintenance, one a supposed drop shuttle pilot. More than half the crew was outside recruits, such as my Med officer, the young, yet avuncular "Doc" Felltu, who had signed aboard at Jackson's Whole after our mad dash there, two years before.
Felltu had brought along two float-pallets of secret House Ryoval bio-sculpting equipment and a head-full of equally secret medical procedures as a gift, or possibly just to bribe his way aboard. You never know with Jacksonians.
From various comments he let drop, I eventually figured out that Felltu hadn't had much choice about enlisting following the sudden death of his previous employer, Baron Ryoval. Escaping to orbit, he implied, was the only thing that had saved him from being ruthlessly inducted into House Fell servitude along with the rest of House Ryoval's staff, which he had wished to avoid at all costs.
Give me a break. I really need one this time.

Chapter Eleven

Ten long years under ImpSec's thumb. Ten year before Captain Illyan, the Barry ImpSec Chief who never forgot, finally slipped up. I was on the Be‘lphazoar's bridge, practicing my cover identity as Emma Squill, ship's ops officer, when the youngest ImpSec liaison I'd ever had, Corporal Aral Sholokov, finally emerged from his cabin half an hour after receiving an eyes-only ultracoded message. His face was white.
"It's happened again," he'd whispered. "I'm being recalled, orders direct from Illyan himself." And you're blowing your cover, I'd silently added.
"You," Sholokov had continued, "will proceed to Vervain orbit and dock with our emergency courier ship, get me aboard, then wait for my relief. Don't contact anybody." He added plenty of details later, but that summed it up.
From time to time Angelfish had managed to tap the liaison's comconsole and flash me excerpts of interest on my ship ops monitor, somehow shielded from ImpSec's sensors. I guess Sholokov forgot to blank his comconsole display after deciphering Captain Illyan's ultracoded message. Probably his wits got scrambled by reading that the Emperor had vanished during a state visit to Komarr, and that every available ImpSec operative should rush there immediately.
Did Sholokov's "again" mean the so-called Komarr Kidnapping, when Greg claimed he'd walked out of the compound right under ImpSec's nose, had actually happened the way he'd claimed? Or, more likely, that the young ImpSec officer had never been briefed on the real story? He wasn't old enough to have been in ImpSec when I'd acquired the AWOL Greg. Or thought I'd acquired him.
ImpSec Headquarters Com's standard-encoded message canceling Illyan's orders arrived a day later, no doubt delayed by the wait for the next available Jumpship nexus-to-nexus relay. Angelfish slipped me one glimpse at its decoded subject heading. I guess the C and I crypto tech saw the tiny shake of my head from his station across the bridge, because the cancellation message vanished from the com system.
That sleep-shift I briefed Angelfish. I mean, I tried to; Doc Felltu's Ryoval-template upgrade of my C-implant was having an unwanted side effect.
I began by tongue-tapping on Angelfish's Rod of Aaron, "FAK IMPSC MSSG CHNG TO ASTRON SRVY SHP VRVN PER VGOROV THN REMOV SHL - " At this point the physical sensations involved with my communication method convulsed me with pleasure, interrupting my ability to compose in code for several minutes. No Two Hands required.
Then I locked lips with Angelfish and tried to continue, tongue-to-tongue, "REMOV SHLKV IN CURIR AIRLOK - " That attempt ended in another pleasure-convulsion. Angelfish entered me then to signal, "YES NU SHP THN KIL BARRYS," with equally predicable results. We need to work out a new system, I thought, once I'd settled down. This is too distracting. I'd told Angelfish enough, despite my distractions. Twelve hours later, one of Sholokov's coded messages, apparently direct from Captain Illyan, authorized the purchase of a new ship upon the Gee-Dee's emergence in the Vervain system.
The new ship would be suitable for executing the wormhole exploration proposal outlined in the Vorgorov Memo, which see.
This was step one of yet another identity-change, it stated.
Further details would follow.
Actually, Captain Illyan had vetoed ImpSec liaison Viktor Vorgorov's memo by return message, likely because it would have put me out of direct contact with ImpSec for up to a year. It was before Sholokov's time, but the original memo had remained in the liaison's permanent files. It proposed using my unemployable forces to explore certain blind multi-wormhole Jumps out of the Komarr system.
Okay, here's the background: The First Escobaran Survey Astronomico Trans-Komarr Expedition had discovered the five wormhole Jump route to the lost Barrayar colony. The Second, launched immediately after retreating Ceta forces departed Komarr space, had never returned. The Third Expedition went looking for the Second and had the bad luck to re-emerge in Komarr space during the Barry's prep for the invasion of Escobar. From its crew ImpSec had extracted about a dozen multi-wormhole Jump routes to nowhere, and two other promising routes the Escobarans had barely explored before they ran out of supplies. There hadn't been any Fourth expedition. Vorgorov suggested that the Barrys, specifically ImpSec, launch its own secret expedition before the Escobarans found a loophole around the Barry's wormhole exploration embargo.
The Escobarans had this theory: Whatever undetectable cosmic event had shifted some wormhole-link into Barrayar's system was spreading at the speed of light. It had likely caused other wormholes within its growing radius to switch star loci later on, or at least to waver in their linkages for a while. A hypothetical nexus predicted by the Escobarans might - might - have lost one such wormhole link shortly after the Second Expedition's lone ship emerged from it. Then it may have acquired a new link to a different wormhole thirty or forty years later and thirty or forty light-years distant . . .
Sholokov's acknowledgement of Illyan's order to rush to Komarr never got past the ship's com cabin; by then his communications with ImpSec - with anybody at all - were fully under Angelfish's control. I supposed Angelfish could keep ImpSec Headquarters fooled only until his doctored messages started arriving through the wrong series of nexus-to-nexus message Jumpships. Meaning shortly after we reached Vervain.
On the other hand, something strange was going on at ImpSec, so maybe Captain Illyan wouldn't notice?
Angelfish flashed me another high-priority message from Illyan, before he made it go away, demanding my "voluntary" help in a secret search for Admiral Naismith, who'd mysteriously vanished while on Jackson's Whole. I'd gotten an identical message two years earlier.
That crisis had ended the day before we finished our multiple Jumps across half the known galaxy to Jackson's Whole orbit. I was left with no job my ImpSec liaison would approve except a convoy-escort contract, and so Jump-fatigued that the Nemesis and Viking's Gift barely managed the rendezvous with the other Escobar-bound ships. No one knew what had happened to the Yo-Yo. Sometimes ships take a wormhole Jump to Hell. On the other hand, I'd acquired Doc Felltu while orbiting Jackson's Whole.
This time Headquarters Com recalled Illyan's out-of-date order a few items later in the same message bundle. Angelfish made sure the order and recall didn't reach Sholokov, of course.
After that, no messages from Captain Illyan, even the most routine, arrived at all.
As the Be‘lphazoar approached Vervain space, Sholokov started tightbeam negotiations with a certain disreputable shipyard's owner, a Mr. Nixon, operating in that system's asteroid belt. Yeah, the same shipyard that had handled the Golden Leaper's identity-change to the Nemesis. After several back-and-forths with the 'yard, he offered me a choice of two available ships, making quite clear which one he wanted me to choose: A bankrupt private consortium's long-abandoned blind wormhole survey vessel, suitable for extended missions far from civilized space.
I agreed, while acting real reluctant. It took all my willpower to keep from drooling. A survey vessel able to operate out of ImpSec's reaches for almost a year? Hot damn.
Sholokov also alerted the local ImpSec two-person courier Jumpship to prepare for departure for a secret destination, without filing any flight plan. I guess Barrayar still had enough pull with the Vervaini for ImpSec to get away with that one.
I wheedled Sholokov into agreeing that the new identity-change called for more than a hair dye job; he approved putting Doc Felltu's biosculpting skills to use on me immediately following the ship changeover.
Sholokov finished arranging a payment-on-completion contract for the survey vessel's retrofitting and re-commissioning just hours before he was to board the tiny ImpSec courier. His final orders to me were to stay aboard the Be‘lphazoar and maintain com silence until his relief arrived to oversee the changeover.
The young officer gravely shook my hand, turned and floated through the airlock into the transfer flextube, followed by a trooper he'd requisitioned to carry his non-classified luggage.
There came a faint fupp and Sholokov spasmed and went limp. Yeah, Doing Unto Sholokov.
It was the first I'd seen a death I'd ordered, if not carried out myself, in ten long years. I was so busy savoring the moment that I was barely able to track the trooper continuing past the corpse into the courier ship's open airlock.
I just managed to catch the echo of a single gasp followed by two more fupps. Hey, I had to waste the courier's Jump pilot. She was ImpSec's Jump pilot; no knowing what she might have tried to pull.
Angelfish appeared by my side then, asking if I was all right. I managed a few words about everything being just wonderful. He nodded towards the back of the ship and drew three fingers across his throat. ImpSec must have had a third sleeper in the crew.
A bit later the trooper - "Yarrow," another member of the C and I deep-penetration team - showed me the hand-made weapon that had done in Sholokov. A compressed-gas job, it shot up to twelve tiny plastic pellets coated with a very potent, very short-lived neurotoxin. Something originally from House Fell that Doc Felltu had cooked up almost under Sholokov's nose, and without asking Angelfish any awkward questions either. The pellet had to touch skin within a half-second of being fired.
The device didn't even look much a gun, and had an effective range of just eight meters.
After Angelfish drained the courier ship's comconsole of whatever he safely could on short notice, we sealed it up and created a convincing imitation of its casting off. Then the Be‘lphazoar proceeded to the shipyard to oversee the "new" ship's renovation and re-commissioning.
As Sholokov's supposed second I told Dockmaster Nixon that the ImpSec liaison was indisposed, so I was supervising in his place. Angelfish had crafted a sickbay comconsole message to prove it. I offered a hefty bonus for early fulfillment.
The "new" ship's refitting proceeded with satisfying dispatch. The ship acquired a name, Deep Ranger, Captain and Owner-of-Record one Steffie DuBois. Under the shipyard owner's willing expertise, aided by Sholokov's data files, the Ranger also acquired authentic-seeming registration documents and a previous history. These included an alias-shrouded consortium financing another Komarran Wormhole expedition - as a front for a supposed ImpSec project with an encoded no-questions-asked security classification Angelfish had pried out of the courier ship comconsole's data-dump.
Angelfish also used a suitably modified ImpSec request form to make Vervain's ImpSec ops insert the documents into various ship registry databases, again no questions asked.
As the deadline neared for Sholokov to report in at a Jump station somewhere else, I announced that news had come of a Cetagandan military convoy heading for the Vervain system at flank speed, with an ETA of just under a week. Old-timers who thought ImpSec still ran the show - and I hadn't indicated otherwise, yet - assumed the news came from it; newer recruits assumed my C and I analyst had performed another miracle.
I'd made up the whole thing, of course, to justify a round-the-clock joint effort by the Gee-Dees and the dockyard workers to transfer personal belongings, vital equipment and the more up-to-date armaments from the Be‘lphazoar to the Deep Ranger, ASAP.
Most everyone was dead tired when I lead the deep-penetration team into the drydock's admin deck wardroom to present Nixon and his top three officers with the early completion bonus. Making a bit of a thank-you ceremony, I'd told him over the comconsole vid.
The four of them looked a bit puzzled by my party of low-echelon ship officers and enlisted men spreading out among them, but their eyes lit up and focused on the golden diskette I pulled from a blouse pocket as I launched into my speech. That's when Angelfish, Yarrow, Raindrop and Yeevoil hit them with fast-penta hyposprays.
The dockmaster's Exec went into fatal anaphylactic shock; the rest struggled for twenty or thirty seconds, then sagged into cheerful idiocy, except for the occasional flicker of horror in their eyes. That also faded, and my team set about extracting from them the passwords, procedures and overrides for draining every Betan dollar, every form on monetary value at all, from the dockyard's various accounts.
The haul included a canister of unmarked Escobaran specie that the team discovered only after they asked Nixon if the dead Exec had engaged in any unusual behavior, such as solo spacewalks using only certain airlocks. She had, all right. The Exec very likely had some connection or other with House Hargraves or House Dyne of Jackson's Whole, Nixon cheerfully conceded when asked. That probably explained the specie.
My team also drained the Dockmaster of everything he knew about his staff's ability in self-defense, which wasn't much. I waited until Angelfish confirmed that the team had successfully transferred every monetary account to my diskette before I indulged in Doing Unto Nixon and his two remaining administrators. What fun.
The mopping up of the exhausted dock crew tricking into their dorm modules I left to the deep-penetration team. But I supervised the team's placement of remote-triggered thermite grenades throughout the dock's pressurized modules, and I pressed the button as the system's sun occulted Vervain. The stripped Be‘lphazoar, boosting on automatics, headed out on a collision course with the nearest gas giant.
Before heading for the Hegen Hub, I had the Deep Ranger retrieve and magnetically grapple the courier Jumpship. Then I had Angelfish and Yeevoil disarm the courier ship's anti-tampering and anti-hijack systems and drain every last datum from its comconsole, which they finished just before Deep Ranger Jumped to the Hegen Hub. ImpSec's no-flight-plan understanding with Vervain's Wormhole Traffic controllers allowed me to pass without official notice or awkward inquiries.
In Pol space, somehow Angelfish convinced the local ImpSec ops team to induce a temporary Deep Ranger-sized blind spot in the Jump station's Wormhole Traffic computers. Then came the Jump into Komarr space.
Komarr was the tough one. ImpSec constantly monitored Komarr space for potentially hostile Jumpship activity, and the system's Wormhole Traffic controller might be less ready than Vervain's to automatically honor an embedded you-never-saw-this clearance from a ship headed for a blind wormhole. I gave my Jump-lagged crew little time for recovery upon emergence, ordering the Ranger to boost for the uncharted wormhole at flank speed.
Komarr Station's Wormhole Traffic controller tried to give me an argument, something about a ship due from Barrayar having priority. Deep Rangers' com countered with a request to re-check its registry, which should have triggered another embedded, ask-no-questions mission clearance Angelfish had found, this one authorized by Captain Illyan himself. I figured that was safe enough, since by then this Acting ImpSec Chief Haroche was issuing orders over standard ImpSec com channels and ignoring the dedicated com connection used by my puppet masters.
Likely Captain Illyan was no longer in a position to be questioned about any unquestionable security classifications.
But Kormarr control replied to the request with a curse-laden description of the dangers of a collision with the carefully unnamed Barrayaran vessel.
Angelfish invoked a second mission endorsement mouthed by Sholokov's electronic ghost as the Jump pilots frantically recalculated 5-space vectors and other factors I don't pretend to understand that were changing second by second as the Ranger neared her goal.
The messages flew back and forth until the last minute, when a huge mass bulged from a neighboring wormhole's throat a mere 50,000 kilometers distant - the Prince Serg, the tactical comp deduced later - and the harried controller (with a final, frantic, "What d'you mean, 'This never happened?'" aside to some unknown party) let me pass.
Brains-strained-through-the-gas-diffusion-membrane time.

Chapter XII

We emerged into a startling electronic silence. No traffic, no stations, nothing on any com band anywhere except the local sun's electromagnetic rubble, the faint, faint natural radio hiss of very distant stars and the pip-pip-pips of several even more distant pulsars.
Without any beacons it took time to locate this system's wormhole Jump points. Then the Jump pilots needed time to calibrate the Deep Rangers' specially modified Necklin rods for the blind Jump into the next likely wormhole. So I reported to sickbay for the initial makeover consultation with Doc Felltu.
Several times that hour I wished I could Do Unto Felltu then and there, except that he was irreplaceable. I asked him to add twenty centas of plastic bone extensions to my legs. He patiently explained, four times, that my leg's tendons and muscles could never stretch that far. He used computer sims to show how weird such an increase would look without similar additions to my neck, spine and arms.
I did not want him messing with my spinal cord to install extra vertebrae, nor was I keen to relearn a lifetime's worth of unarmed combat moves for longer arms and a taller torso.
Eventually I settled on eleven centas, the most that Felltu was willing to stretch my calf and thigh muscles without causing strain on my to-be-broadened buttocks and hips. And even so, he'd explained that my legs would hurt if I stayed on them too long. Finally I'd told him, "Do it. And reset my damned C-implant back to Betan standard while you're at it!"
Three days later I woke up in an unfamiliar body. It hurt a lot, at first. My vision was blurry, and took several days to sharpen - Doc had altered my retinal patterns along with my fingerprints and other standard biometric markers.
While he patiently taught me to change my walk across an infirmary ward from clumsy stumble to graceful glide - while he tortured my dermal cells into increasing their melanin output and my itching follicles to produce reddish-brown curly hairs - while the Jump pilots made endless measurements and calculations, then calibrated and recalibrated the Necklin rods between blind Jumps - I had plenty of time to talk with Felltu.
From what I could put together from the bits and pieces of his life under House Ryoval that Doc Felltu let drop, about age 15 he seemed to have arrived from the hinterlands, where he'd been raised by foster parents and taught the basics of medical science by the local Ed tape system. Ryoval himself had met with him briefly and hinted at an unexpected confrontation in preparation, involving an introduction to an unnamed important personage at the psychologically correct moment. Until then, the Baron was keeping young Felltu out of sight while apprenticing him to some of the House's top medical experts.
Apparently Ryoval wanted the unnamed person be completely surprised by Felltu's appearance - and to believe that he, Felltu, was free from the usual House Ryoval loyalty conditioning.
Compared to other House Ryoval contract workers, Felltu seemed to have been allowed an unusual degree of freedom of thought. But not much freedom of enquiry or of movement. The comconsoles he was permitted to access, he said, told him anything he wanted to know about medical technology except proprietary techniques of other Houses, but very little about the members of those Houses got through their filters.
The only times he left a House Ryoval enclosed installation was in a sealed van that always delivered him to another enclosed installation.
"So, I know how it feels to be a prisoner in fact although nobody admits it out loud," Felltu told me during a break in a physical therapy session. "I had you tagged as the real brains of this outfit within a week of enlisting. But I could tell you were a captive, that you had to obey hidden masters. I know how that feels. That's why I've been backing the plays by you and those secretive assistants of yours to get free of your Barrayaran 'advisors.'"
The correct moment for meeting the unnamed personage had never come, Felltu resumed. When he was fifteen-going-on-sixteen it had seemed likely to happen at any moment, until the day some unknown party heat-killed Ryoval's prize collection of genetic samples, then goaded him into a three-way war with two rival Houses.
What with those events and their aftermath, including setting up another, well-hidden medical research center, the Baron had apparently forgotten about Felltu's meeting. But he continued to monitor Felltu's medical career, first as an assistant, then as a full-fledged surgeon, in the House's hidden facility. The Baron encouraged Felltu's growing interest in the novel surgical technique of removing cancers with flesh-eating fungi and other cures worse than the disease. He also arranged for visits with House courtesans, both as a reward for outstanding results and to show the courtesans what would happen if they ever displeased the Baron and became Felltu's patients.
The Baron's interest in having Felltu meet the mysterious personage renewed a few weeks after the young surgeon heard rumors of a space assault force kidnapping a number of House Bharaputra clones. This time Ryoval let slip that the introduction would be to "a relative."
But the Baron abruptly dropped the opening moves in arranging the new introduction when he acquired his newest "guest" at Felltu's hidden facility: A stocky dwarf, the leader of the free-lance military outfit that had taken on House Bharaputra, called the "Dendarii."
I blinked, hearing that name, but Felltu didn't notice.
And, "stocky?" The mutant had been lean.
Except for one brief consultation on customizing some medical tortures for the dwarf - medical tortures being one of his specialties, Felltu admitted, along with advanced biosculpting and his fungi-cancer research - Ryoval had utterly ignored him for the first time that the Doc could recall.
"He told my guards I could look up anything, meaning, I suppose, anything about torturing fat dwarves. Then he retreated to the upper levels. His techs came down and went back up a lot but I never saw or heard from him again," Felltu told me.
The guards took their orders literally. Five days after Ryoval locked himself away, five days into cautiously testing the bounds of his new freedom, Felltu had finally found some excuse to look up the Baron's relatives on a proprietary database.
He learned just one relative was still alive, a half-brother named Stauber. The accompanying holovids revealed that this Stauber appeared to be a much older version of Felltu himself, looking long overdue for a brain transplant to a younger cloned body. Incidentally, the half-brother styled himself Baron Fell of House Fell.
Fell. Felltu. Fell Two!
Young Felltu's deducing that his brain tissues had a date with a surgery's waste disposal was interrupted by some cleaning tech's panic attack on finding Baron Ryoval very, very dead. In the confusion that followed, Felltu said, he'd somehow eliminated his guards, gathered up two float-pallets of proprietary equipment - pausing only to terminate some newly-obsolete cancer-fungi culture subjects - and borrowed a light-duty ground-to-orbit shuttle.
A day later, seriously short on oxygen, he'd finally contacted the then-Nemesis. "I'd been hoping to connect with the Dendarii," the Doc related. "I'd heard rumors that they had once vanished an off-planet genetics expert out from under an unbreakable contract with House Bharaputra. But the Dendarii in orbit weren't taking any calls that week. Instead, I reached your group. So here I am . . .
"Enough of this. On your feet and squat. Lower. Come on, lady, flex those knees!"
We did five Jumps tending roughly towards Galactic center, then three heading roughly opposite the galaxy's slow rotation.
That brought Deep Ranger to a five-wormhole nexus.
Maybe there had been a sixth wormhole, earlier, but the instrument readings weren't all that conclusive. Another two Jumps more-or-less away from Galactic center and the Ranger emerged in a three-wormhole nexus centering on a giant red dwarf, if you could call it that.
My senior Jump pilot thought one wormhole may, or may not, have lead towards in the general neighborhood of Illyrica; another, on the opposite side of the system, may, or may not, have emerged in the Escobarans' hypothetical dead-end nexus. To be safe, I had the Jump pilots take readings and program calibrations for both.
By now, seven months out of Komarr, the remaining Randall's Rangers people had figured out that we were finally out from under ImpSec's heavy but hidden thumb. Some wanted to again address me as Commander Cavilo, but I belayed that.
"From now on I'm Steffie DuBois, Captain of the Deep Ranger, period," I announced during a Rangers-only conference. "What's the point of looking like an Afro-Cauc hybrid if you're using a name we're trying to hide? You get me?
"If any of you old-timers ever lets the name 'Cavilo' or 'Randall' slip through your lips at some spaceport bar, I predict we'll have both the Cetas and the Barrys back on our tail so fast you won't believe it! So get this in your heads: We're the crew of the Deep Ranger, a privately funded astronomic survey vessel. Nothing more, nothing less.
"True, we're well-prepared to deal with any claim-jumpers we run into, but that's just being prudent. Besides, surveying blind Jumps is risky work. The wormhole routes we're exploring are going to make us all very rich - if we're real careful about who, where and when we market what we're finding out here."
Then we made one more Jump.
Deep Ranger emerged in a system with a blue-white star, circled at some distance by three airless, desiccated rockballs that barely qualified as planets. A handful of asteroids wobbled in the broad gap between the orbits of Rockballs II and III. There was no Oort Cloud.
The fourth ultra-radar sweep turned up an artificial object orbiting Rockball II. Telescopic examination revealed it was a space ship of old Escobaran lines.
As the Deep Ranger approached, our scanners showed the ship was powered down and the power storage systems drained, likely by old age. No detectable active gravity plates. A closer telescopic look showed the airlocks gaping open in the vacuum.
Anyone's survival after seventy-odd years had seemed unlikely; now it was out of the question.
On such old ships, only the captain could have overridden the automatics to open all the airlocks, and even then he'd have done so only in a dire emergency. Throw away that much air? I felt the stirrings of a hunch that whatever the captain had been up to was worth investigating.
So of course I lead the first interior exploration of the vessel, the Chronophague. Once I floated through the open lock into the main corridor, our helmet lights showed that the interior hatches also gaped open. Right. My light picked out a mummified human arm caught on one hatch's rim.
"Check that out," I radioed to my exploration buddy, Yeevoil - and went looking for the Captain's cabin.
Just before I reached the open hatch to the captain's quarters, I accidentally-on-purpose banged my arm-mounted control panel against a hatch rim, toggling off my helmet camera. Inside, a quick flash of my helmet lamp picked out a decompression-bloated, freeze-dried corpse in a dress uniform strapped in the Captain's bunk, the face covered with a filigree of frothy dried blood. Something white showed on the left wrist.
I cursed convincingly, pretending to try to restart the camera. The white thing was a vacuum-grade flimsy tucked under the loose wristband of an antique chrono.
I had the flimsy in my p-suit's thigh pouch and the camera running again by the time Yeevoil caught up with me in the corridor. So I pretended to look inside for the first time, played my light over the Captain's corpse, then on to an old-style comconsole, where a thick document folder lay strapped down. "The Captain's Log," I said. "This is what we need."
"You'd better come take a look in the galley," Yeevoil replied.
The detached arm had come from a naked, partly butchered human torso that had drifted to a galley bulkhead in the ship's faint orbital microgravity. Half covering it was another, intact vacuum-bloated body in stained cook's whites, tendrils of dried blood radiating from where its face met the wall.
Cut-up body parts had evidently fountained from a giant stewpot, which would have simultaneously boiled over and froze when the airlocks opened. Later the ice must have gradually sublimated away.
In the mess hall next door I found many more bulging, freeze-dried bodies in shipboard knits or fatigues, difficult to count in my headlamp as they lay jumbled against the bulkhead.
What faces I could see were also frothed with vacuum-dried blood.
"Looks like somebody decided to call off the banquet," I radioed. Yeevoil tried to not throw up.
I figured out the full story in my cabin a day later, looking over the secreted flimsy, the Chronophague's Captain's Log and some deeply buried files I personally retrieved from the late captain's comconsole once it was powered up. They built computer gear to survive anything back then, y'know?
The Captain's Log showed that Captain Donneur and his Nav officers were aware that a new wormhole exit might appear in their dead-end star system - but not until years after they had all starved to death. At the time, the only functional wormhole in the system lead to a dead-end red dwarf system with even less resources than the blue-white star.
Two days after the last tenths of emergency ration bars were doled out, a handful of crewmen had tried to force the ship's Jump pilot to make the Chronophague somehow re-enter the collapsed wormhole that had stranded them. Donneur had spaced four mutineers.
Within days two crewmen conducted an unauthorized vacuum sortie to retrieve the spaced bodies. Almost the entire crew joined in rehydrating, then eating one of the corpses over several days. The Log's final entry read: "Am lone holdout.
Stewed meat smell almost irresistible. They'll kill and eat each other, one by one. But I know they're coming for me soon as they've finished the mutineers."
The flimsy, labeled "FOR CAPTAIN'S EYES ONLY," explained that there were secret scuttling systems aboard the Chronophague, with detailed directions for disarming them.
We've been in space for what, about six hundred years, right? So far, no one's run into any intelligent extraterrestrial, hostile or otherwise, nor any deadly alien microorganism that would attack everybody. But, according to the buried files, the expedition's semi-paranoid planners had made plans against a hostile First Contact anyway.
The Chronophague had certain systems known only to the Captain. If the ship appeared about to fall into the hands (or whatever) of inimical aliens, one system would release tuned electromagnetic pulses and other destructive processes to destroy the star charts and turn all devices aboard, including all the shipboard data processing and storage equipment, engines and Necklin rods, into useless junk.
Or, if an incurable alien plague got aboard, the captain could trigger another hidden conduct-and-servo complex to instantly flood the ship with stuff guaranteed to sterilize all oxygen-based life aboard, then open the ship to space to complete the job. It sure looked like that's what had killed everyone still alive aboard the Chronophague.The flimsy also begged the Third Expedition's captain to suppress any hint of the crew's cannibalism. How to do that with all the evidence aboard, the flimsy did not say.
Interesting. Very interesting. So I searched for hidden files in my own captain's comconsole and found the Deep Ranger also had a secret First Contact scuttling system, a bit more advanced that the Escobarans'. Nixon had never said a word about it. A plan to make sure none of the crew ever revealed my bio-sculpted identity change popped into my head.
First, I announced that the Deep Ranger was returning to the triple-wormhole nexus, then cross that system to the Jump point that might lead to the neighborhood of Illyrica. We'd leave the Chronophague as we had found it, except for some portable artifacts such as the Captain's log, for the Escobarans to salvage after we'd sold them the jump route to the lost ship's location.
Then I talked with the Jump pilots, getting them to admit the Jump into this system had had unusual characteristics.
Any blind Jump has unusual characteristics. I used that to get my Nav officer, Jump pilots and some idle techs to clobber up this specialized wormhole sensor equipment, some to be loaded aboard the ImpSec courier, some to be added to the Ranger's sensor arrays. The courier would Jump about a half hour ahead of the Deep Ranger, and take readings as it emerged. And the Ranger would take readings as the courier Jumped. The standby Jump pilot and Angelfish would man the courier.

Chapter 13

Two days boosting cross-system returned the Deep Ranger to the neighborhood of the lone active wormhole. The crew labored to somehow fit the new sensor equipment outside and inside the tiny ImpSec courier Jumpship, including backup batteries because the courier's tiny power supply wasn't quite enough to run the new sensors on top of its original systems.
Two hours before the courier's scheduled jump, 30 minutes before separation, I finished certain arrangements within the captain's quarters of the Deep Ranger and send a comconsole vid for Angelfish to report for a final conference. I figured he was the only other person aboard who might have some idea of what I was really up to, and have a fair chance of stopping it. Besides, he'd made it very clear that he missed our tongue-tap com sessions.
Soon as the cabin's hatch slid open I said, "Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead," and pointed the little neurotoxin pellet shooter at him. I thought I did a pretty good job of sounding regretful. Angelfish froze in the hatchway, just as I expected. He actually curled his upper lip.
"You knew I'd immunize mysel - " he'd said when the servo arm I'd fastened above the inner hatchway flashed down to blast a fast-penta hypospray into his chest. "Sneaky. Little. Biiccchhhh . . ." he managed to get out before he died of anaphylactic shock.
Sure Angelfish had been useful, but now he was a liability, and I don't carry liabilities around if I can help it, y'know? I pulled the body inside, activated the hatch's privacy seal and stepped out to the corridor. I'd already activated a timer-servo set to hit this innocent-looking icon on the captain's live comconsole.
I made my way through empty corridors to the airlock and flextube to the courier. "Last-minute change of plans," I told the surprised Jump pilot. "Seal us up, and signal to disengage the magnetic grapple."
"Aye, Comm - . . . Captain," he replied. I nodded, acknowledging his slip and correction. "That better not happen again," I commented.
I never even glanced at the rear-view plates. The Deep Rangers' scuttling charge would activate some fifteen minutes after the courier's scheduled wormhole Jump, and fifteen minutes before the Ranger was supposed to Jump.
I'd learned from space combat ed tapes that automatic timers aboard ships during Jumps simply don't work. Only kamikaze Jump pilots have ever set off a nuclear in mid-Jump to temporally knock out a wormhole. If I could have scuttled the Deep Ranger in mid-Jump, I would have. Oh, well, no fireworks this time. You can't have everything.
The courier Jumped, on schedule.
The courier emerged. Soon as the Jump pilot sorted himself out we boosted clear of the wormhole throat, rotated so the array of improvised sensors were aimed at it, and waited.
And waited.
To pass the time I fiddled with sensor controls and watched the Jump pilot growing increasingly nervous. I also imagined what it must have been like in those last seconds aboard the Deep Ranger. The bridge crew would have been on alert as the wormhole throat grew close, some already making a preliminary analysis of the courier's Jump readings. Doc Felltu was lying on the sealed sickbay's deck with a surprised look on his face and his neck bent at an unnatural angle, and a few of the crew might have started to wonder why the captain had locked herself in her cabin.
Suddenly the instruments, gravity plates and lights would have died, then all the bulkheads would have glowed a deadly bright blue-white. Within seconds everyone and everything inside would have burnt to very fine ash. Only a cloud of randomized debris would have drifted past the wormhole throat zone without Jumping, because of course the Necklin rods were slag, then slow to eventually trace a spiral orbit into the local star.
About forty minutes after the Deep Ranger had been due to emerge, the Jump pilot sighed, "I don't think they made it." Ships had been known to enter a wormhole and not come out the other end, on rare occasion.
I waited a calculated moment before replying, "I think you're right." I managed to hide a smile as I shut off the auxiliary sensors. Their batteries wouldn't have lasted much longer, since I'd filled half the battery containers with Escobaran specie during the previous night-shift. Of course the golden diskette was safely sealed away in my uniform's side-pocket.
"Better boost for that other wormhole," I added a minute later. "It's our only chance." Another calculated pause. "I need to think on this." I tried to put plenty of sadness into my tone.
I ducked into the head to rub my eyes red and dab water in the corners.
We exchanged maybe a dozen words as we crossed the giant red dwarf system. When the final Necklin rod recalibration was complete, I asked, "Can you set the Courier's stealth systems to activate on emergence?"
The pilot quirked an eyebrow at me.
"I've got a hunch," I said. He did it.
"What about the auxiliary sensors?" he asked.
"Nothing's following us, this time. Let's Jump."
The Jump pilot gave me an odd look, but he obeyed my order.
Tractor beams pulled my brain inside-out through the gas diffusion membrane again.
Some seconds or hours later the pilot announced, "I've got a beacon. We're in the Marilac system! And boy, is Wormhole Traffic Control squawking - "
Fupp.That took care of the Jump pilot.
Marilac proved to be rather free and easy with the regs, just what I needed to establish myself. I arrived in the middle of a delayed reconstruction boom, following the years they took to recover from the occupying Cetagandans departing with everything of value that wasn't nailed down.
Took me years to build an identity, launder my money, make investments, then buy and outfit the Starbow's End. It all involved lots of tedious details I'll go into next time.
Bor-ing, really bor-ing. Well, except for the occasional bits of fun, such as a couple times when I had to make sure my investments paid off, and killing the record techs after they'd planted my identity as Sally McGregor, nee Jef'son.
And that's how I'd got there, in the former freighter's Special Services office, the day I'm talking about.

Chapter 14

I find myself laying back in the recliner, staring at the Ceta with half-lidded eyes. He's rubbing his forehead with the palm of his left hand, and staring back at me as if he's just been watching a particularly gruesome holovid drama. How long has my mind wandered this time?
" . . . I didn't piece together the story of my grandfather's perfume until years after he was dead," Lord Yenaro says, apparently continuing some remark of his. "He'd sealed up his laboratory after the visit from Celestial Garden Security, so it wasn't until I reached my majority - rather earlier than is customary - that I could get inside to look over grandfather's notes and examine his equipment. While poking around in there I also discovered my own talent for perfumery, by the way.
"The problem wasn't that ex-General Yenaro had been trying to devise an aromatic complex specifically targeted to induce a fatal allergic reaction in the children of his old nemesis, General Piotr Vorkosigan - "
I don't even blink at the name.
" - That was understandable. The real problem was, in the process he had been delving into human genetics. Um, human genetic research just isn't done by the Ghem-lords without a special dispensation from the Celestial Garden."
Yenaro actually blushes. "That's the Star CrŹche's prerogative."
"Anyway, sometime shortly before he had to close his lab, my grandfather must have suborned the automatic production equipment at Parfumes des la Alhambra, by remote control as it were, and set it to producing his tailored compounds. I don't know how he planned to get a hold of then, afterwards.
"I suppose the quality control people there shut down production as soon as they realized something strange was going on, but somehow or other some of the initial run got decanted into bottles intended for Sultana's Dreams.
"I deduced all this about two years ago, when Ghem-General Benin looked me up. He's the Celestial Garden's Chief of Security. He wanted my opinion as a professional perfumer on some chemical formulae he had come across in the process of tracing the history of a particularly troublesome opponent of ours, one Admiral Naismith."
Him, again? Again, I don't react. Too much of a bother.
"Imperial Security analysts - Benin's Imperial Security analysts - had found a newstape showing Admiral Naismith openly inserting nose filters when he came within scent range of a Commander Cavilo, just before the two of them were awarded metals by the Hegen Hub Alliance for thwarting one of our, um, unauthorized military adventures.
"Benin didn't tell me how he acquired the formulae, need-to-know and all that, only that his analysts believed that they were for this Cavilo woman's fragrance. It didn't take me long to notice a certain similarity to my Grandfather's compounds.
What threw me off, at first, was that the analyzed compounds had been exposed to atmospheric oxygen for a while. Once I had them identified, I filled in Ghem-General Benin on what I knew of the ex-General's tailored-compound activities, with my guesses on what he could have done as a corresponding consultant to an Escobaran perfumer, and that was that. For then, anyway."
"You know, I once nearly tested Grandfather's relaxant on Lord Miles Vorkosigan? It was some years ago, now, when he was one of the Barrayaran envoys to the late Dowager Empress Lisbet's funeral."
What? I ask myself. Vorkosigan was on Eta Ceta?"It was during a party I'd invited Lord Vorkosigan to,"
Yenaro says. "But I lost my nerve and warned him off from the fragrance bowl at the last minute." Yenaro looks a bit wistful.
I try to smile. "Thass' some relaxan' of yours," I mumble.
"Oh, yes," he says. "It has some interesting properties.
One element strongly affects habitually tense muscle-nerve complexes. Would you believe, recent research show that people who repeatedly kill without remorse have the most extraordinary tension in certain muscle-nerve complexes? They're completely unconscious of them, of course."
"Another element of the relaxant works most effectively on natural blondes. Put them together and after a given time the effect on blonde sociopathic killers is positively synergistic."
Something is wrong. Something is very wrong.
"The real trick is paralyzing most the killer blonde's muscular system without shutting down the breathing reflex."
Yenaro sounds both pained and smug at once. He rubs his forehead again.
Mentally I leap into action: Kicking the bowl over the holoplate, slapping several sensor pads on my armrest, snapping out code phrases. But all that actually happens is, my feet twitch, my left arm slides limply off the armrest and I mutter a string of slurred syllables. I half-recline there, breathing very evenly.
"Breakers," I manage to get out. "Breakers!"Behind Yenaro, the hatch arcs inward. Through the hatchway I can just make out the motionless legs of one of the Amazon Twins on the friction matting.
Yenaro continues, "Do I know, for some reason you seem to have hired the most extraordinary number of killer blondes? Perhaps you feel a certain affinity for them, eh, Commander?"
Commander. I think about that.
"That's a remarkable job of biosculpting your surgeon did on you," Yenaro's voice intrudes. "He got almost everything right. Except he forgot to change your natural scent. Its all wrong for your apparent genetic makeup, and I should know." He's stopped pretending that I'm not Commander Cavilo. All I can do is lay there, breathing. And listening.
"If you really want to pass for an Afro-Caucasian hybrid, you might look up this new clinic on Escobar. I understand they've found how to make bodies rebuild themselves, cell by cell in situ. They could fill all your cells with genuine Afro-Cauc genes."
"And that's nothing compared to what the Celestial Garden's geneticists can do with the technology." He smiles. "It's still being tested, mind you, but they can make the pineal gland turn itself into an entirely new organ that gives you amazing psychic powers." His left hand rubs his forehead. "Along with amazing non-psychic headaches."
The smile goes away, starting with his eyes. "Then they can have it unmake itself again, so you'd never know the new organ ever existed, while you forget whatever you learned while using it. Security." He spits the last word.
"I'm not really here by my own choice, you know," Yenaro adds. "My Celestial Master insisted. It's all due to Lord Vorkosigan."
Did the Barry mutant Mind Trick the Cetas into doing him a favor? I wonder.
"Um, it was rather the other way around, I gather," Yenaro says, just as if he's reading my mind. He is reading my mind. "I'm not really privy to all the details, but while Lord Vorkosigan was nosing around the Celestial Garden, he seemed to have discovered and thwarted some high-level plot running counter my Celestial Master's intentions. Well, I think it also ran counter to the Barrayarans' interests, but there you are. That favor earned him the Emperor's Regard."
The Emperor's Regard? Seeing my eyes widen, Yenaro adds, "That's no honor, by the way. When you are in the Emperor's Regard, our Imperial Security looks over everything you've ever done, every one you've ever met and what they've done in connection with you, and reports it all to the Emperor. Or whoever He thinks ought to know about you.
"That lead them back to me, eventually. Security pretty quickly discovered that I'd intended to expose Lord Vorkosigan to my Grandfather's relaxant. My Celestial Master was already quite aware of some other harmful pranks I'd attempted on Lord Vorkosigan, although those weren't my own idea, but - Well, that's neither here nor there.
"Let me see. I'd guess our Imperial Security had some sort of watch program going for the key words "Sultana's Dreams." I don't know how they do those things. However they did it, they discovered a Lady Sally McGregor" - he nods at me - "had been making persistent attempts to obtain a non-standard version of Sultana's Dreams perfume. The only other person they knew who had used a non-standard version of that perfume was Commander Cavilo, who they'd lost track of some years previously.
"Both ladies seemed to leave a trail of missing or dead people in their wakes, although rather fewer could be put to Lady McGregor. Maybe she'd learned some restraint during the missing years?
"I'm afraid my Celestial Master has a certain low taste for irony. You tried to play a scent trick on Admiral Naismith. I nearly played a fatal scent trick on Lord Vorkosigan. Therefore it pleases my Celestial Master that I atone by playing a scent trick on you."
I've been thinking during Yenaro's speech.
"Godda deal. S-solid. Tell y' wha' I know, y' lemme go," I manage to get out.
"Oh, dear, do you really think you can trade Admiral Naismith's other identity for your freedom?" Yenaro sighs. "You're years too late. I figured out who 'Naismith' was, myself; only the direct descendents of General Piotr Vorkosigan are susceptible to my Grandfather's scent compounds. Ghem-General Benin didn't seem the least bit surprised when I told him that deduction. And if I've understood Benin aright, 'Naismith' retired from active duty several years ago. So only a handful of old Ghems he defeated some years ago still show any interest in his whereabouts.
"By the way, there are a couple of reasons why 'Naismith' didn't have a fatal reaction to your perfume. For one thing, he's half-Betan and I heard that his biology was all screwed up by a poison gas attack in his youth, or something like that.
"For another, you unsealed the compound's bottle several years before you met the little Admiral. Once oxygen gets into it, the compound's full effectiveness is lost within days."
I think some more. Then I start to say, "Nod dad I'm complanin', min' you . . ." Not that I'm complaining, mind you, but why isn't a squadron of ghem-lords in revenge-hunt facepaint laying siege to this ship right now?Lord Yenaro nods. "Oh, dear," he says, "those Ghems." He shudders the slightest bit. "Too much testosterone. I wonder how many generations it's going to take to live down their reputation? The old model lacks a certain flexibility of outlook, a certain subtleness. The Celestial Garden has been re-thinking the Ghem genotype, you know.
"To answer your question, the Ghem High Command has been re-evaluating the frontal assault school of military strategy.
They've decided that sometimes using subtlety and misdirection plays better in the end. You could say they've been taking lessons from their opponents. Such as Naismith's Dendarii, or Randall's Rangers' infiltration units.
"This time they decided to send in someone to scout around in advance and neutralize the opposition, someone that you'd never suspect was a spy." He essays a slight seated bow. "Like me.
"Although the 'Old' Ghem still have their uses. As you're going to see in a little while."
The administrator's shuttle?"Got it in one," Yenaro says. "Speaking of which, how do you turn off this ship's automatic defenses?" His face goes blank for half a dozen seconds as his left hand twitches through a combination of sensor-pad touches that I, and only I, have memorized.
"Oh, don't worry," Yenaro says as he comes around the holoplate desk. "We're a lot more interested in intelligence than in revenge, these days. You're in for a lot of interviews, but at least without any worries about fatal fast-penta reactions or nerve stimulants applied to sensitive organs.
Although I suppose the interrogators will be disappointed when they find out how 'Naismith' really made you cede control over your Rangers to the Vervaini. Intelligence was so hoping that he'd employed some kind of psychological warfare or mind control on you that we could adapt to restrain overly aggressive Old Ghems.
"On the other hand, I suppose you're going to learn exactly what it's like being inside other people's heads, to learn to fully empathize with your potential victims and discover that they are real, live people - more alive than you've ever allowed yourself to be. I understand our Haut geneticists and the mental health specialists are fascinated by the problem of getting murderers who take pleasure in snuffing out other people's lives to feel remorse for those deeds. But they haven't convinced the few suitable 'Old' Ghem volunteers to stay in their research programs long enough to get significant results.
So they can hardly wait to start poking around in your brains after Intelligence is finished with you."
He pauses as he slides around the recliner to make better contact with the sensor pads, struck by a thought. "You know," he adds, "I believe I'm also here because my Celestial Master really hates seeing loose ends flapping around that haven't been wrapped up.
"Even the other side's loose ends."


Okay, are you done, yet?
Yeah, I think Yenaro's memory juice has about worn off.
Don't take my word for it, ask the Headache Lord himself over there. Are you enjoying this, ghem-Lord?
Another round tomorrow, right?
Look, I've been answering your questions, haven't I? Do y' mind if I ask a few of my own?
Like, why did that Navarr dame and her Angel of Death companion haul you, me and Lord Lie-sniffer aboard this ultra-deluxe ship, and take us along on their mad dash for Rho Ceta? I mean, I went into stasis fully expecting to wake up in the Celestial Garden, and instead I find myself here, being questioned by you instead of a bunch of Ghem psych techs.
Okay, so maybe you're just making a preliminary survey, but still, the dames could have let us keep going to Eta Ceta on the courier after we popped out of the wormhole, couldn't they? I mean, they didn't plan it this way, did they?
Not that I'm complaining, mind you. The longer it takes for me to land on Eta Ceta, the better.
Okay, so it was just my bad luck they were -
They what? Drained our courier to resupply this ship? Took everything, even the emergency reserves, huh? Then how was it going to get to Eta -?
Oh, it wasn't? That long to resupply it, huh? No air, no juice, no food? Um.
Okay, next question, what's going on here, anyway? I watch the NewsNet, I know you guys went on a war footing a couple months back, but still I'd expect a Haut from the Celestial Garden could have taken her choice of fully-stocked-up ships.
You don't launch first and worry about fuel and air later unless you're running away from trouble. Big trouble. So -?
Wait. What's that coming up the corridor? Through those windows. Those medical float pallets, all over tubes and biohazard containment gear? Hey, that looks like -
Lemme see, lemme see. Will you move out of the way? Please.
Will you please move out of -God-The-Father, GodTheFather, it's the mutant in there. Looks like they botched the cyro-revival, but I'd know the sneaky little dwarf anywhere. What's he doing here? Oh, I hope, I hope -I hope he hurts like Eternal Damnation in there.Get me out of these restraints. Please let me out. Please?
I'll be good. Look, Lord Vorkosigan needs medical help and I know how to run a med pallet. I want to help. I can doctor him a little.
Okay, so I can doctor him more than a little.
Oh, I can doctor him, all right. I can doctor him so he'll wish he was never born.
No, no, they're taking him away. Can't you let me go?
Take the forning restraints off!
No, not the stasis box again! No, look, I can be good. I'm being good, see? La, la, la, la. La, la. La, la, la . . .
The End.

© 2007 Luminator Thelms [Richard M. Boothe]

Current version by Michael Bernardi,

left arrow up arrow right arrow

All comments or queries about this Web page to:

Last updated: March 30th 2007