Ekaterin was not sure why she was still trying to survive.
She remembered, back in those dark hours on the Komarran transfer station, her lack of fear. She had told herself then that it was because they could not really hurt her, not deeply: Nikolai was her heart’s blood, and Nikolai had been safe at home, keeping her alive.
Nikki was gone now.
The twins were gone.
Miles was gone.
From the rumors brought in by recent arrivals, all of Barrayar was gone now, or soon would be. She should have stayed with Tien. She should have taken Ser Venier’s offer, on Komarr. In those domes, she might still be safe, at least for a time. Safe, like a caged songbird. She would give it all up, those few glorious years with Miles, her life of freedom and glory, to have Nikolai safe with her again.
She lived day by day, with only a vague sense of the passage of time, surrounded by steel walls. The other women came in two types: hard-eyed and empty-eyed. She wondered some days which category she fell into, and she wondered why she was still trying to survive.
It was her fault. The guilt beat on her like the ocean. She saw the hatred in the faces of the other prisoners, but their hatred was impersonal. Lord Vorkosigan’s wife, they thought when they looked at her. Kidnapper. Traitor. Thief. Mutant. She knew the darker truth. Miles had committed no crime. Miles had not even failed. Miles had just died. Not his fault. Not anyone’s fault.
No. Ekaterin had failed.
The Barrayaran officers had become so infuriatingly male after Miles had died, shuffling her back to her quarters, pushing her aside, not telling her anything about what was happening. She had argued, wheedled, begged, demanded, ordered, but nothing had worked. If I don’t make it… Miles had told her with dying eyes. You can do this…
She had been arrested, but she did not stop trying. “I am Lady Vorkosigan! I need to speak to ghem-General Benin and the haut Pel! We are bringing the children back to you! We have evidence! You need to listen! Somebody needs to stop, for just one minute, and listen!”
No one had. She had failed. Everyone was dead. Everyone except her.
Every day was the same. She thought it had been a few months since she had been captured, but she remembered Miles’s stories about Dagoola IV. Who was to say that a cycle of light and dark was one day? She thought sometimes that it changed – one day seemed shorter or longer than another. Maybe it was all in her head. Maybe she was going crazy.
She walked down the bare corridors in a line with the other women towards their morning meal, her bare feet cold on the metal floor. She missed color. Everything here was grey: the walls, their clothes, their food, their light. Miles had brought light to the camp at Dagoola IV. She was not Miles.
She pressed her thumb to the pad on the meal dispenser, which disgorged a tray for her. She took it and sat, trying not to meet anyone’s eyes. The senses dulled here, with nothing to stimulate them. The constant whispering of a hundred conversations was a type of white noise in here. There was no color. There was no taste. There was no smell. And above all, there was no touch.
She ached for touch, some nights, for the feel of Miles’s skin against hers, the warmth of a hug from her Aunt Vorthys, the silkiness of a kitten’s fur under her hand, the soft tickle of Nikolai’s hair against her cheek. Never again, she knew.
She ate her tasteless rations with her lukewarm water, her face frozen behind its bland mask. I am an expert in survival, she thought.
“Vorkosigan.” It was Inaya Cooper, the former captain of the Komarran trade ship Horizon. The Horizon had been caught in Cetagandan space when hostilities broke out. Inaya’s crew had been taken as prisoners of war.
Ekaterin did not look up. Be a stone statue, her mother had told her. She had never realized how much that advice would help her, one day.
Cooper dropped her tray on the table in front of Ekaterin: the crash echoed in the room. Ekaterin kept her eyes forward. Cooper leaned to put herself in Ekaterin’s line of sight, meeting her eyes. “Move,” she said, her voice clear and deliberate.
Ekaterin waited a few seconds, letting their eyes meet. She never won these conflicts, because she never fought these conflicts. The struggle for dominance and pride in the desolation of a Cetagandan POW camp simply was not worth the trouble. She was not afraid of Inaya Cooper. She was simply too tired to fight all of the battles.
So she held Cooper’s eyes for a few seconds, long enough for the other woman to wonder if this would be the day she fought, to wonder if this would be the day she won, to wonder just how far down Ekaterin Vorkosigan could go. She held her eyes long enough to show that she was not afraid. And then she moved.
She had eaten enough, so she placed her cup and tray in the return slot and walked out to the common area. They were not permitted to bring their dishes with them. When someone tested the rule, or simply forgot and carried their cup into the corridor, the doors locked, trapping everyone for five minutes. The prisoners themselves enforced the rules well by now.
There was nothing to do in the common room, but she sat there anyway, not speaking to the other prisoners. She closed her eyes and thought of her gardens at home, the ones that were now destroyed. It was easier than thinking about what else she had lost. She could see the raised beds in her aunt’s yard, the Barrayaran garden she had built for Miles, the riots of flowers back home on the South Continent.
She had forgotten the smell of roses.
She slept when it was dark and woke when the lights came on. She stared up at the ceiling and wondered, again, whether she might just stay in her room today. Let the door seal with her still inside, leave her meals ignored in the mess hall, leave the other prisoners to their quiet misery.
She got out of bed. She rubbed her face. They did not have sinks, so she could not wash, but the friction brought life back to her skin. There were sonic showers to wash both the prisoners and their clothing, and Ekaterin visited them daily. Some women never did. The Cetagandans and their delicate sensibilities were safe, at any rate. They never came inside the prison.
There were cameras everywhere, and automatically locking doors and apparently miles of corridors. But there were no guards, no weapons, no faces to the enemy. There was just the prison and the prisoners.
She walked down the bare corridors in a line with the other women. It was always the same, grey and just a bit too cold. Yesterday might have been a dream, and she would never notice it. Nothing ever changed.
She pressed her thumb to the pad on the meal dispenser.
Nothing happened. Ekaterin stared at the machine for a few seconds, then shifted her thumb and tried again. The machine hissed.
“What the hell is keeping you?” demanded the woman behind her. Ekaterin shook her head, not sure how to answer. She tried the pad again.
“Vorkosigan, Ekaterin.” A cool voice spoke from the grille above the dispenser. “Please proceed to tertiary processing station.”
Ekaterin hesitated, watching the impassive machine.
“Hurry up,” ordered her impatient linemate.
Ekaterin stepped slowly away from the machine.
They all knew where the processing stations were; all new arrivals came from there. Ekaterin had come through them, all of those months ago. It had not been a pleasant experience. She walked through the corridors, her pace even, her mind racing. It had been so long since her thoughts had anywhere to go but around in circles, and now that they were loosed, they galloped on ahead of her.
She could not imagine why she was being called, could not imagine why the Cetagandans had broken their unending silence here for her. She wondered if she was being executed. It seemed redundant.
The processing stations were behind a locked door, but Ekaterin tried the palmlock, and the door slid obediently open at her touch. She stepped through.
Each station was labeled, and Ekaterin walked down the empty corridor between the doors. When she came to the third, she pressed the palmlock. The door slid aside.
Once she was in the small room, the door slid closed behind her. She tried the door on the far side of the module, but it did not move.
“Hello?” she called. There was no answer. She turned to open the door through which she’d come in, but the palm lock didn’t work this time.
She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the wall. The space was the size of a shower stall, four feet to a side. She focused on her breathing, slow and calm. She waited. It was a very long wait.
When the door finally slid open, she nearly spasmed; her too-tense muscles tried to jump but locked from the frozen wait. She managed to turn to the door.
There was color. It was the first thing she registered, the brilliant patch of red outside the door, like a Barrayaran garden, like a strawberry, like blood. She had stepped towards it before she even realized she was moving, drawn by the color like a honeybee.
It was a Cetagandan uniform. The ghem-officer wearing it had the black and white facepaint of an Imperial officer. It took Ekaterin a moment to realize that behind the officer, a force-bubble floated, grey and opaque. She had seen one of those bubbles before, at the Emperor’s wedding back in Vorbarr Sultana.
With the echo of the wedding in her mind, she suddenly realized that she knew the ghem-officer. Her mouth opened, but she couldn’t seem to form words.
Ghem-General Benin laid a finger across his painted lips, then pulled a small device from his tunic pocket. Her tapped a few keys, then turned to the float bubble. “The room is secure, my lady,” he said.
Ekaterin had thought that she was beyond shock, but when the force-bubble suddenly vanished, she thought her heart might skip a beat. She knew the woman in the float chair, as well – the same haut-woman she had met on that Midsummer Day, a lifetime ago, when she had a home and a life. It was the haut Pel, dressed in the white robes of mourning.
“Lady Vorkosigan,” the haut-lady said, her voice low and softly musical. “It has taken me some effort to find you here, but I knew your husband, once.”
“He… told me as much,” Ekaterin managed, not at all sure where this conversation was going.
“Lord Vorkosigan was awarded a Cetagandan Order of Merit once, for saving our people from ourselves.”
“I’ve seen it,” Ekaterin said. “It’s probably been atomized now, along with the rest of our capital city.”
The haut Pel looked at ghem-General Benin, who frowned briefly in response. They both studied Ekaterin for a moment. She set her jaw and resolved not to look away.
“Lady Vorkosigan,” Pel said gently, “please. Can you tell us everything that happened to you on Graf Station?”