A Vorkosiverse Fan Fiction
By Scott Washburn
This story includes characters and settings created by Lois McMaster Bujold and are used without her permission or knowledge.
Sheela Lahn looked over her calculation for the hundredth time and then leaned back in her chair at the navigation station of the jumpship Fool’s Luck and nodded at the ship’s skipper. “This is as good as it’s gonna get, Tam. Either we jump with these figures or we go back home.”
Tam Hodgkins frowned and looked at their pilot. “What do you think, Danno?”
The jump pilot shrugged. “Like she said: either we go ahead or we go home. There’s no doubt that there’s a wormhole out there. But there’s no way to tell where it goes or if we’ll be able to get back—except by trying. Those bastards in the Betan Survey might use a lot of fancy talk about their scans and calculations, but it still always come down to giving it a try and hoping you survive. No easy way to do this, Chief. But I’m game if you are. Gonna lose the Fool if we go back to Komarr empty-handed anyway.”
Tam scratched at his beard the way he always did while thinking and then sat up straighter in his chair. “All right. Let’s do it.”
Sheela tapped the arm of her chair nervously. How the hell did she ever get into a mess like this? In a few minutes she could be rich beyond her wildest dreams or her atoms could be strewn across light years of space. You know exactly how you got here, girl! You’ve got no one to blame but yourself!
She was an astrophysicist, not an explorer, damn it! She’d graduated with honors from Solstice University. Her dissertation, An Alternate Approach to Correlating Wormhole Stability with Stellar Motion, had been widely praised. Some very prestigious institutions had been looking at her seriously. The future had seemed bright. And then it had all gone to hell. She’d been accused of plagiarism. Plagiarism! The ultimate sin in scientific research! An investigation had shown that while she was innocent of the charge, her advisor—a man she had liked and trusted—who had given her important pieces of her thesis, had himself ‘borrowed’ them from someone else—and she hadn’t noticed it. It was a major embarrassment and even though she had been exonerated of deliberate wrongdoing, suddenly the prestigious job offers had evaporated. No one wanted to touch her. It was looking like she’d end up teaching high school physics in one of Komarr’s domes.
Then she had met Tam Hodgkins. Or rather, he had sought her out. Hodgkins was the captain and owner of a small jumpship. He was also… an eccentric. Her initial impression had suggested a half-dozen far less flattering adjectives, but eventually she’d settled on eccentric. A quarter century earlier he had inherited a fortune and decided to pursue his dream of becoming a bold explorer. Sheela had done some checking and found he’d applied to the Betan Astronomical Survey a dozen times in his youth and been rejected every time—he wasn’t even remotely qualified. But when he acquired the means, he decided to go into the exploration business on his own. He’d spent the next twenty years squandering his money on fruitless searches for new wormhole routes, hopefully leading to new Earth-like planets, all over the wormhole nexus. He hadn’t found any. He had discovered and explored a couple of new wormholes—a fairly amazing accomplishment for an amateur, actually—but they hadn’t led anywhere worthwhile.
Finally, deeply in debt, he’d returned to Komarr and become obsessed with his home planet’s own set of wormholes. Komarr had six wormhole exits—an unusually high number. Two of them were very important. They led to Pol and Rho Ceta and were Komarr’s connection to the outside galaxy. The other four led nowhere. One dead-ended in a system with a useless red dwarf star and the other three dead-ended in deep space. Worthless.
But it hadn’t always been that way.
Four hundred and fifty standard years earlier one of those wormholes had led to the important world of Escobar. Another had led to an Earthlike planet in system GC2385-653H. A third had connected to another useless system, but initial surveys had indicated there might be additional wormholes there which might lead somewhere else.
But then something happened. It wasn’t well-understood at the time, but the motion of the stars in Komarr’s neighborhood had shifted the gravitational equilibrium that created wormholes and some of the established routes had collapsed or shifted. The route to Escobar vanished and the one to newly colonized GC2385-653H (it hadn’t even been given a name yet) was lost. A new equilibrium established itself and Komarr settled down to having two useful wormhole routes for the next four centuries.
But recent observations and Sheela’s own theories indicated that the equilibrium was shifting again. The evidence wasn’t solid enough to attract the big names in exploration like the Betan Astronomical Survey—at least not yet. But Tam Hodgkins was convinced that his great opportunity had finally arrived and he was determined that no one else was going to beat him to the big discovery. With his ship and Sheela’s calculations, they would succeed!
The scheme was crazy—and she’d told him so. His ship didn’t have the right equipment for wormhole mapping! She was amazed that he was still alive.
“Sheela, give me those figures of yours,” said Hodgkins. “Danno, get ready to jump.” He touched the intercom and spoke to the chief engineer in the reactor room. “Ian? We’re going to need full power in about ten minutes.”
“Right, Skipper,” came the reply. “We really gonna do this?”
“Sure are,” said Tam with a grin. “Figured out how you’ll spend your share yet?”
“Got a few things on the list, yeah.”
Despite Tam’s many shortcomings, he had a certain charisma. A wild-eyed enthusiasm which was strangely contagious. I caught it, didn’t I? Somehow he’d convinced her to go. His crew, some of whom had been with him from the beginning, were similarly infected.
“You going to tell the Weasel what we’re up to?” asked Danno Keller.
“Yeah, I suppose we should,” sighed Tam. He touched the intercom again. “Mr. Weitzl? We’re preparing to make the jump.”
“I’ll be right there,” came the reply and all too quickly the unpleasant little man was on the bridge. In order to finance this expedition Tam had been forced to take on a number of partners. Mr. Weitzl was their observer and there were times when it was evident that he thought he was in charge. Sheela didn’t even know if the man had a first name. The rest of the crew just called him ‘The Weasel’ and it seemed singularly appropriate. “This is it?” he demanded. “This jump will take us to Escobar?”
“We’re hoping so,” said Tam. He glanced in her direction and Weitzl turned to face her.
“I-I can’t guarantee anything,” she stuttered. “The first two jumps out from Komarr were exactly where they’ve always been. The third was subtly altered and so was the one that brought us here. It’s not quite where the records show the original jump was. The jump we’re about to make might take us to Escobar, but it might take us somewhere else. But there’s no doubt that this is a new wormhole caused by the realignment of the stars. My thesis seems to be holding up.” Sort of…
“I—and the people I represent—don’t give a damn about your thesis, Ms. Lahn,” replied Weitzl coldly. “But a reopened route to Escobar could be worth billions.” He turned back to Tam. “How soon?”
The Skipper shrugged. “We’re charging the capacitors for the Necklin Rods right now. As soon as they’re ready—another five minutes—it will be up to Danno.” He nodded to where the jump pilot was attaching the leads to his neural interface.
This seemed to satisfy Weitzl who took up a stance with his arms crossed and stared at the computer displays. Sheela looked at Tam, but he just raised an eyebrow and turned back to his own console.
She chewed on her lower lip and told herself that she hadn’t technically lied to Weitzl. Although she cursed herself for using the word ‘subtly’ to describe the alteration in the last jump. It was true enough for the third jump, the changes there had been distinct, but still fairly minor, but this last one was radically altered. Not even close to where the old one used to be. She didn’t know where the next jump was going to take them but she seriously doubted it would be Escobar.
But it will take us somewhere. Maybe it will be somewhere interesting.
And that was why she was out here: to find interesting new places. That was what had driven Tam all these years. She’d told him of her conclusions after the last jump—a week ago—and he’d just shrugged and told her not to tell anyone else. “So what if it’s not Escobar?” he’d said. “I’ve been to Escobar. I’m hoping it will lead to some green new world, better than Old Earth ever was. A world where we can walk around in our shirt sleeves with no breath mask. A place our people can move to and forget about trying to terraform Komarr. That’s my dream Sheela. One of them, anyway.”
So she’d kept her mouth shut and looked at the scanners and her navigation computer until her eyes burned and her head ached. And now they were ready to give it a try. A completely new and unexplored wormhole jump. There was a good chance it would kill them. But if it didn’t…
The engineer called to say that everything was ready at his end. Danno, his head seemingly sprouting wires and cables, said that he was ready, too. Tam was definitely shifting into his manic-mode. “All right, everyone! This is it! Stand by for fame and fortune!” He flipped a switch. “Okay, Danno, she’s all yours! Take us through!”
The jump pilot nodded and flipped a few switches of his own and then became utterly motionless, his eyes closed. Sheela stared at the man. From a purely scientific viewpoint she knew what he was about to do, but she had no idea how he was going to do it. Somehow Danno was going to guide the ship through the wormhole to the other end. He would do something with his human brain that no computer, no matter how sophisticated, could duplicate. She’d talked to him about it, but he just said that all he did was to ‘keep the Fool from scraping her paint on the sides of the tunnel’. What he really did was still a mystery to her. Maybe there just wasn’t any way to describe a five-dimensional event with three-dimensional words. But whatever Danno did, Sheela hoped that he would do it really well now!
Tam was monitoring Danno’s activity from his own console and he silently mouthed: Thirty seconds. The jump pilot had told her that they could shout or blow whistles in his ear at this point and he never would have noticed, but everyone just automatically got quiet before a jump.
Thirty seconds… twenty… ten… five…
Sheela felt that brief twinge of disorientation and nausea and gasped in relief. You could only be sick to your stomach if you were alive. They had made it! But to where?
Danno made that strange grunting noise that he made after every jump, shook his head and slowly began disconnecting the wires and cables. Tam was already studying the read-outs from his controls and Sheela started to do the same. The first task was to find the nearby stars and try to identify them by their spectral class. Stars were like fingerprints: if you knew what to look for, each one was unique. She activated the ship’s telescope and started typing in the instructions for a full-sky survey. But before she was even halfway done, Tam announced:
“Well, this isn’t Escobar.”
“How do you know?” demanded Weitzl, He was scowling even more than he usually did.
“All the normal com channels are silent. Unless everyone on the planet and everyone else in space decided to turn off all their electronics just to play a trick on us, this can’t be Escobar.”
“Then where are we?”
“May take a while to figure that out. Sheela? Any clues so far?”
Sheela snorted. “Give me a few minutes, will you?” Or a few hours. Or a few days if we’re somewhere really far off the beaten track. She finished with the instruction and let the telescope do its work. Weitzl was pacing around the small bridge, wringing his hands. Danno got a cup of coffee and slumped back into his chair.
She watched what the ‘scope was doing, but anticipated a long wait. She was therefore surprised when after just a few minutes the computer announced it had found something of interest. Her eyebrows shot up when she saw what it was. “Okay, we have definitely arrived somewhere, folks! We have a nice, bright F8 star less than two AU away. We are in a solar system and not in deep space!”
“Halleluiah!” said Tam eagerly. “Any planets?”
“Too soon to tell. Still looking for more close stars,” said Sheela distractedly. “Let me see if that F8 is in our catalogue…”
“Well, well, well…” she said, rocking back in her chair. “Tam, you said there was nothing on any of the com channels? What about the other common EM bands?”
“No, not a thing. The star’s putting out a lot of hard radiation, but there’s none of the usual stuff you’d see with a high-energy civilization. Come on, Sheela, give! Where are we?”
“It would appear…” she paused dramatically, “that we’ve rediscovered the jump route to GC2385-653H.”
“What?” cried Tam, Danno and Weitzl simultaneously.
“And apparently the colony that was planted here before the wormholes shifted must have failed. Not surprising, really.”
“It was Earth-like wasn’t it?” demanded Tam.
“Somewhat Earth-like, if the old records are accurate. Breathable atmosphere, but the plant life was primitive and the animal life restricted to some very rudimentary insects and microbes. It was going to take a lot of terraforming—well, nothing like on Komarr, but still a lot.”
“Then it’s all ours,” whispered Tam. “A whole colonizable world—ours!”
“Don’t start calling it Hodgkin’s Planet yet, Chief,” grinned Danno. “A lot of folks gotta piece of this pie now.”
“Indeed they have,” said Weitzl. “So where is this planet? Can we take a look at it? Did it have any worthwhile resources? Mineral deposits?”
Sheela called up what records she had on her computer and scanned over them. “Tam, here’s the orbital coordinates. I’ve cancelled the sky-search with the ‘scope. Maybe you can locate the planet and plot an approach. As for resources on the planet… nothing unusual, I’m afraid, Mr. Weitzl. The initial surveys indicated a pretty Earth-like distribution of elements. There’s probably gold, platinum and uranium there, but I doubt it’s neatly stacked in piles on the surface for you to pick up.”
“Oh forget the damn minerals,” said Tam in exasperation. “It’s a planet! A planet people can live on! That’s worth more than if it was made of solid gold!”
“But not so easily converted to cash,” countered Weitzl. “A trade route to Escobar could have easily charged tolls to the ships. Selling colonization rights will be a lot more complicated. Could be years before we see a real return…”
“Well, if you want to sell off your shares, we’ll be glad to buy you out,” said Danno. “I’ve got… just a sec… twenty-seven dollars and… thirty eight cents—Betan! Deal?”
Weitzl snorted and turned away.
“I’ll take that as a yes. So let’s see, one planet, divided eight ways is…”
“Got it!” cried Tam, squinting at his console. “Right where the figures said it should be, Sheela. It’s about a third of the way around the primary from where we are. Time to orbit from here is about… sixty-three hours.”
“Well let’s get going!” said Danno. “I want to stake out my claim!”
* * *
Arkadi Kurzov watched his young charge with an anxious eye as the lad brought his horse to a full gallop and leveled his lance. The boy’s target was a small ring dangling by a thread from a wooden beam that jutted out above the practice run. With a joyful whoop, he thrust the lance-point through the tiny ring as he flashed past.
“I did it!” he cried as he reined in his horse and trotted back. “Arkadi, I did it!”
“Indeed you did. And without falling off and nearly breaking your fool neck like last time.”
“That was an accident,” said the boy, some of the elation draining from his face.
“Well, I should hope so! I’d hate to think you did that on purpose! You scared me out of ten year’s growth. Of course knowing you, maybe you did do it on purpose, just to spite old Arkadi.”
“I did no such thing! And you are not old! My father is much older and he’s not so old, either.” The boy frowned and lowered the lance point so that the ring slid off into Arkadi’s hand. “And in any case, I did it today and I didn’t fall off!”
“Yes you did and no you didn’t, and you did and didn’t very well, my lord.” Indeed, it had been well done. A grown man could rightly take satisfaction in the deed, let alone a ten-year old.
“In a few more years I shall be an ensign in the Emperor’s lancers!”
“Ah, but as an officer you won’t carry a lance. Indeed, I’ve heard it said that the lancers may soon get rid of their lances and carry the new magazine rifles instead.”
“But they look so fine with their lances!” protested the boy. “The blue and red pennants are so splendid!”
“Well, they’ll probably keep them to use in parades,” conceded Arkadi.
“I do hope Father will allow you to come along as my batman when I go,” said the boy. “I should miss you a great deal.”
“We shall see. That is a few years down the road, my lord.” Arkadi was touched by the boy’s statement. In truth, he would miss the lad, too, if they were separated. Fortunately, that didn’t seem likely to happen at least for a few years. The Count seemed happy with the way his son was being trained and guarded and that was what mattered. “But,” he continued, “speaking of rifles, let’s have a go at the range, shall we? Before it gets dark.”
“Yes!” cried the boy. He handed his horse and his lance off to a groom and repossessed the target ring from Arkadi and ran ahead with all the energy of youth. Arkadi sighed and followed, wishing that he had some of that energy. But the boy had been cooped up with his tutors all week and it was only natural that he’d want a chance to play now.
The rifle range was down by the Long Lake and the path to it led past the old barracks building. Twenty years earlier, when Arkadi was about the same age as the boy was now, the reigning emperor, Dorca Vorbarra, had finally crushed the last of the rebellious counts and secured imperial dominance by outlawing the counts’ private armies. The counts were limited now to just a tiny bodyguard of twenty men. The barracks, which had once housed two whole companies, had been nearly vacant for decades and had a sad and dilapidated look to it. Native damnweed was creeping up the walls in several spots. It was mostly used for storage these days. All the Count’s armsmen, including Arkadi, lived with him in the castle atop the hill when they were here in Vorkosigan Surleau. Which wasn’t all that often anymore; they seemed to spend most of their time in the capital at Vorbarr Sultana these days.
He reached the range and saw that the boy was excitedly showing the target ring to one of the servants, Boris Dakman, and boasting of his feat. Boris was smiling and nodding. Arkadi took out his keys and unlocked the weapons cabinet in the shed next to the range. He took out two weapons, a long infantry rifle for himself and a smaller cavalry carbine for the boy. He leaned them against the wall while he opened a drawer that held the ammunition.
“I shall be a lancer, Boris!” cried the boy. “One of the Emperor’s lancers! Even if I use a rifle instead of a lance!” Before Arkadi could stop him, he grabbed the carbine and swung it around. Boris flinched back as the weapon pointed in his direction.
“Piotr!” shouted Arkadi. “Piotr Vorkosigan!” He lunged and snatched the gun out of the startled hands of the Count’s son. The boy’s face flushed crimson with anger for an instant and then drained of color as he realized what he had done. Arkadi towered over him and stared down. “What is the first rule, my lord?” asked Arkadi in a calmer voice.
“T-to treat every weapon as if it is loaded.”
“And you forgot that just now didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir. But…”
“No buts. You can be right a thousand times and no one will give it a thought. But you only need to be wrong once. Just once, and Ma Dakman would be a widow and your friend, young Daren, wouldn’t have a father.” Piotr glanced at Boris and blushed.
“I’m sorry. I apologize to you, Armsman, and to you, Mr. Dakman. It won’t happen again.”
“No, I don’t imagine it will,” said Arkadi. “Now, let’s do some shooting.” He handed the carbine back to the boy who held it properly with the muzzle pointed at the ground.
They shot until it got too dark to see the targets. The boy really was a fine marksman and had the self-discipline to become a truly excellent one. Despite his earlier lapse, the boy was amazingly mature for his age. Someday he would be a fine count.
They put away the weapons and then walked toward where the grooms had their horses waiting. They had to get back to the castle and get cleaned up for dinner. As they walked Arkadi glanced up and saw a bright spark crossing the sky. “Look, my lord, a shooting star! Make a wish!”
Piotr looked up and then closed his eyes for a moment.
“What did you wish for, my lord?”
“Oh, I can’t tell you that!” he laughed and then skipped ahead toward the horses.
Arkadi smiled, but his eyes were drawn upward again. The shooting star was still there. Odd, they usually disappeared immediately. And they usually moved much faster than this one. It crawled across the sky and slowly faded from view. Strange. But Piotr was already mounted and he put it out of his mind and mounted his own horse.
* * *
“Orbit is stable,” announced Tam Hodgkins. He flipped a switch on his console. “Ian? Secure the drive, we’re here.”
“Right, Chief,” came the reply. “So when do we get to go down and take a walk? I need to stretch my legs.”
“Oh, in a few days. We need to take a look and find a good spot, right Sheela?” He looked towards her and she nodded nervously. My God, what am I going to tell him? It had taken three days for Fool’s Luck to make orbit and Sheela had spent most of that time with her eyes glued to her instruments. She wasn’t a planetologist, but she was the nearest thing to one aboard and it had fallen to her to study their prize.
At first things had looked good; the readings nearly matched the old records. A planet a little smaller, but a little denser than Old Earth, so the gravity was just a bit higher than one standard gee. The atmosphere was primarily nitrogen with an oxygen content a little less than standard but well within the breathable range. The planet looked blue and brown and white in her ‘scope with a touch of redder areas. The records said that the native plant life was mostly red and brown.
But there were a few oddities in her readings, too. The oxygen levels were a tiny bit higher than the old records and the carbon dioxide readings significantly higher—almost a quarter of a percent. What could have caused that? And as they got closer the images started to show patches of green here and there when she could find areas not obscured by clouds. There shouldn’t be any green…
“How dangerous are those radiation levels you mentioned?” demanded Mr. Weitzl. “And what’s causing them?”
“The sun’s causing most of them,” said Tam. “An F8 star is pretty energetic and the planet has a weak magnetic field. More radiation gets through than is healthy for long-term exposure. But for a short visit there’s no danger to us.”
“But what about for colonists? How can we sell colonization rights to a dangerous planet?”
“Oh, I meant it was unhealthy if you don’t have proper medical treatment!” said Tam, waving his hand dismissively. “The only danger is an increased long-term cancer risk and possible genetic damage in children. With up-to-date galactic medicine available, both of those risks can be eliminated. Nothing to worry about.”
“But that’s probably one of the reasons why the first colony failed,” said Danno. “They didn’t have a chance to get things set up properly before they were cut off. Right, Sheela?”
Sheela’s heart was pounding and she bit her lip. Now or never…
“Uh, Tam? Danno?”
“The uh… the first colony didn’t fail.”
“What?” Three voices shouted at her simultaneously and she flinched.
“There are people down there. A lot of people.”
Weitzl gave an exasperated snarl and turned away. Tam goggled at her. “You… you’re sure?”
“Yes,” she replied, shaking her head. “I started to suspect it yesterday. The elevated oxygen and CO2 levels, the green patches. But now that we’re in orbit, there’s no doubt. Look.” She punched up an image on her console and then transferred it to the main display. It showed a river and on each bank there were objects that were clearly buildings. Roads stretched away in a number of directions.
“Oh my god,” moaned Tam. Sheela zoomed in and the structures became more distinct. Closer yet and strange vehicles could be seen on the roads, although their nature and mode of propulsion could not be determined. Smaller specks that were almost certainly people.
“This is the biggest city I’ve spotted so far,” said Sheela. “But there are dozens of other towns. And hundreds of villages. Lots of cultivated land and Earth-type forests. Population has got to be in the millions, I’d think.”
“But… but there wasn’t anything on any of the com channels!” protested Tam. “No high-energy emissions at all!”
“It would appear that the colony backslid, lost most of its technology. But not all. Take a look at this:” She called up another image. A long row of boxy objects were strung one behind the other. One of them at the end was spewing out a trail of smoke.
“What’s that?” asked Danno.
“I believe it’s one of these.” Sheela split the image and a picture of a strange vehicle appeared. “A steam-powered locomotive,” she explained. “They run on metal tracks. Kind of like a monorail. And I’ve picked up some very faint electrical emissions. Possible some sort of wire-carried telegraphic device.”
“So they aren’t completely primitive,” said Weitzl, an odd expression on his face.
“No,” replied Sheela. “They have roads, factories, mines, ships. Early industrialization. I was puzzled by the elevated CO2 levels, but I’ve seen hundreds of chimneys billowing out smoke in this city alone. There’s evidence of slash-and-burn agriculture going on, too. I would imagine they have firearms and enough science that they won’t fall on the ground and worship us as gods, if that’s what you were thinking.”
“How do you suppose they dealt with the radiation hazard?” asked Danno.
Sheela shrugged. “Lacking modern medicine, life-spans are probably a lot shorter. The cancer problem might only occur in the very old. There would probably be a lot of birth defects in the children. Not sure how they deal with that.”
“I guess we’ll have to ask them,” said Danno.
“Go down there?” snapped Weitzl. “What for? This is a complete bust, Captain! A wasted trip! My superiors are not going to be pleased.”
“You can tell your superiors to go…” started Danno.
“This is not a bust!” cried Tam. “We’ve contacted a lost colony! Given them access to the rest of the galaxy again! And large portions of this planet must still be unsettled, right, Sheela?”
She nodded. “Oh yes, the settlements seem widely scattered and the big continent in the southern hemisphere only has a few small towns along the northern coast. Of course it’s mostly unterraformed land…”
“So what?” countered Weitzl. “Our people aren’t going to be interested in coexisting—or competing—with a bunch of savages!”
“The locals might tend to get pissed if we start divvying up their planet, yeah,” said Danno.
“But they probably have things to trade!” persisted Tam. “Ships will be coming here, even if they’re only carrying anthropologists to study this society. Your bosses can levy tolls on them!”
“Hmmph!” snorted Weitzl. “The decision will be up to them, of course. I suggest we return to Komarr at once.”
“Without landing? Not a chance! I’m still the captain of this ship and I’m in charge!”
“For the moment,” conceded Weitzl. “But I trust you won’t waste too much more of our time.”
Lord Piotr Vorkosigan guided his horse down the trail and tried to ignore the endless prattle of his tutor, Professor Vorserran. The man certainly knew a lot of things, but he seemed to have an obsessive need to spew them all out in a continuous stream. Why couldn’t he just shut up for a while? For that matter, why couldn’t he have stayed back at the castle? Piotr had hoped he would stay behind when this expedition through the mountains had been announced. His father, the Count, had decided to make a trip to visit some of the local communities in the Dendarii Mountains. It would mean a lot of riding and quite a bit of camping out since roads were few and the villages widely scattered. Piotr was thrilled, since he loved to ride and to camp out. The chance to spend some time with his busy father was not to be missed either.
Unfortunately, at the last minute his father had been called back to Vorbarr Sultana. Piotr was proud that his father was one of the Emperor’s most trusted advisors, but it meant that things like this happened all too often. But his father commanded that the trip through the mountains would go on anyway. So, after saying goodbye at the train station, the cavalcade—over twenty people in all—had set out into the mountains. One of his father’s trusted liegemen, Weston Vorpeter, was in actual command, but to Piotr’s delight, his father had made him the Count’s Voice. In theory, that gave him all his father’s powers, but a stern talking to had impressed the fact that he must defer to the judgment of his elders in all important matters. Even so, it had been thrilling to be treated by all the hillsmen as though he was an adult. An important adult. Vorpeter had reminded him a number of times that these would someday be his people.
“Oh look there,” said Vorserran, pointing off to the side of the trail. “There’s a patch of stingweed. See the ochre stripes on the leaves? Don’t ever let it touch you! It will cause a burning rash that will last for days!”
Piotr rolled his eyes. Anyone who spent any time at all outdoors in these regions knew about stingweed! The Professor was a city-bred man and he treated the outdoors like unexplored wilderness.
They topped a rise and several of the men cried out in relief. Vorkosigan Surleau was spread out below them. They had been gone two weeks and even Piotr was glad to be back. Their path took them down through the village and then to the stables by the old barracks. They weren’t going to force their tired beasts to carry them back up the mountain to the castle. They’d get fresh horses for that trip. He was anxious to see mother again—he hoped she hadn’t gotten bored and followed father to the capital while they were gone. But perhaps father was back.
He was helping a groom transfer his saddlebags to a fresh mount when all the horses suddenly became agitated. They stiffened, their ears shot up, and some began to snort or whiney in alarm. Everyone looked around and Arkadi and the other two armsmen had their hands on their pistols, but they could see nothing to cause the horses to act that way.
After a moment Piotr winced as something seemed to shoot right through his head, a high-pitched whistle unlike anything he’d ever heard before. “What’s that?” he cried.
“What’s what?” demanded Arkadi.
“That noise!” Piotr put his hands over his ears, but it didn’t really make any difference.
“I don’t hear anyth… oh, now I do…” The whistle was toning down a bit and was no longer painful, but it was growing louder. “What is that?”
“Not the train whistle, surely,” said Vorserran, wiggling a finger in one ear.
“It’s coming from off to the west, I think,” said Vorpeter.
“Hard to tell with all the hills around,” said Arkadi who was looking this way and that, his hand still on the butt of his pistol.
“Look! Look there!” cried one of the grooms, pointing. They all turned and Piotr gasped. A large silvery object was flying above the hills to the southwest. Flying!
“What is that?” shouted a dozen voices.
“It’s coming this way!” exclaimed Arkadi. “Get to cover! My lord, over here!” The armsman grabbed Piotr and hustled him into the stables. Everyone else was scattering and a number of the horses broke loose and galloped off.
Arkadi tried to hold him back, but Piotr squirmed free of his grasp and went to one of the windows. The flying thing was much closer now and the noise was so loud it was hard to hear anything else. It drifted over the lake and sprays of water were thrown up underneath it. Slower, lower, closer, it came. Arkadi now had the rifle from his saddle and was pointing it toward the thing. Several of the other men had guns as well. “We should get you away from here, my lord.”
“No! I want to see!”
“It might be dangerous!”
“It can fly faster than we can run! And I have the right to see! I must give a full report to the Count, my father!”
“Very well! But stay under cover until we find out what this is!” They were both shouting to be heard above the noise.
The thing was over the shore now and it kicked up dust the way it had water. It slowed to almost a complete halt, just a few hundred yards away and then slowly, slowly descended to the ground. It touched down and the horrible noise began to fade. After a minute a ringing silence filled the valley.
They stared for several minutes, but nothing else happened. Piotr studied the thing. It appeared to be made of polished metal, like the helmets the Emperor’s Lifeguards wore. But it was as big as a railway carriage—bigger. It was shaped like… what? Nothing he’d ever seen. Narrow and pointed at one end and much broader at the other end. The air seemed to shimmer above the broad end, like the heat coming off a blacksmith’s forge. Was it hot? Why?
“Professor Vorserran,” said Vorpeter in a hissing whisper. “Do you have any clue what this thing is?”
“I… I’m not sure…” The man looked totally gobsmacked.
“For two weeks you tell us about every plant, bird and bug we see and now when you could actually tell us something useful, you say you’re not sure!” snarled Vorpeter in exasperation. “Can you at least make a guess?” Despite his fear Piotr grinned. So he hadn’t been the only one bored by Vorserran’s ramblings!
Stung, the scholar drew himself up. “Well! If I had to guess,” he spat. “I would guess that this is like one of the vessels which brought the Firsters to Barrayar! A… a space vehicle.” Vorpeter’s mouth dropped open. So did everyone elses’.
The Firsters! The people who had come from the stars to settle Barrayar! Piotr had heard some of the legends, but he’d never thought for a moment that there was any truth to them. But here the truth was, sitting right in front of him!
“But that was hundreds of years ago!” protested Arkadi. “Why… why would they come again after all this time?”
“That I couldn’t even guess at,” said Vorserran.
“Look! Something’s happening,” cried one of the other armsmen. Every eye jerked back to the thing. A door, or something very like a door, was opening in the side of it! Arkadi aimed his rifle toward it.
“Armsman!” exclaimed Vorserran. “You aren’t going to shoot without cause are you? These could be peaceful visitors! I insist you hold your fire!”
“Not with the Count’s son at risk,” growled Arkadi.
“Lord Vorkosigan! Call off your man! We should defend ourselves, yes, but not shoot without cause or warning!”
Piotr looked uneasily between the men and then back toward the strange thing. Someone was emerging from the door. Arkadi stiffened. “Arkadi, hold your fire,” he ordered.
“As my father’s Voice, I command you. Wait.”
The man hissed in exasperation, but pulled his eye away from the gun-sight. Piotr looked back at where the figure was stepping down from the doorway. Now he stiffened in surprise.
“It… it’s a woman!”
* * *
Sheela took a few hesitant steps away from the shuttle and looked around. Part of her was exulting at being on an alien world—a world she had discovered the way to. But the rest of her was scared as hell. As they had come in to land they’d seen at least forty people around the structures up ahead, but not a one was to be seen now. Had they run off? Or were they laying in ambush? Aiming weapons at her this very moment? Observations from orbit had shown the natives had gunpowder weapons. Would she be cut down by a shower of bullets?
Why the hell did I volunteer to go first?
In fact, she hadn’t actually volunteered. Tam had insisted on going first until it was pointed out he wasn’t really the planet’s discoverer anyway. From there it had turned into a good, old-fashioned Komarran shareholder’s meeting. Eventually, they decided that since this seemed to be a militaristic society (they’d observed thousands of troops drilling in garrisons all over the continent) that perhaps they wouldn’t consider a woman as threatening as a male. She hadn’t thought until later that perhaps this was a planet filled with Amazonian warriors, but it was too late then, she had the job. Weitzl had argued against any landing at all; go back to Komarr, report their discovery and leave contact to someone better trained and equipped. Even though she’d voted against it at the time, it seemed like a fine idea now.
So, she stood at the foot of the shuttle’s ramp and waited to die. Seconds ticked off the longest minute of her life, but nothing happened. The only things moving were a few wandering animals—horses, she thought.
“So far so good?” asked Tam through the hatch.
“You mean am I still alive? For the moment. No shooting, but no people, either. What now?”
“Walk toward the buildings, I guess. They must be in there.”
“Uh, Ian and will come out, but you lead the way, all right?”
It was most definitely not all right, but there wasn’t much choice. She started forward, very slowly, with her hands open and arms spread slightly. She’d deliberately worn close-fitting clothing to make her gender as noticeable as her modest figure would allow. She carried no weapons or any other gear that might be mistaken for a weapon. She heard the others debarking behind her, but she didn’t look back at them.
The fact that she hadn’t been killed yet lent her a bit of hope and her fear receded. Indeed, the tension in the pit of her stomach was being crowded out by a host of other sensations. A light breeze touched her cheek and ruffled her short hair. It brought a confusion of smells she couldn’t begin to identify. The air of a new world! Every few seconds her hand would come up and try to touch the breath mask that wasn’t there. That was perhaps the oddest sensation: she was outdoors and not wearing a breath mask. Despite centuries of terraforming work, her home of Komarr still could not sustain a human without artificial aids. Every Komarran was trained from childhood in the safety procedures and to be outdoors without a breath mask went against her every instinct. Just being outdoors felt so very odd. Komarrans lived in domed cities and except for the terraforming workers few ever had any reason to leave them. The unbounded sky above her was dizzying. She made the mistake of looking up and she stumbled to a halt and nearly fell.
“Sheela, are you all right?” Tam’s voice came to her over the communicator bud in her ear.
She stared down at the ground and took a few deep breaths and the vertigo passed. “Yeah, I’m fine,” she said into the tiny microphone attached to her tunic. She forced herself to start walking again.
Up ahead were several long, low buildings. One appeared to be for the animals, the horses. It had a lot of big doors, most of them standing open, and she could see a few of the large animals milling around inside or nearby. Beyond was an even larger building, although all of its numerous windows were covered by shutters. In the distance, atop the hill was a stone castle. And honest-to-god castle! Like something out of a fairy tale. Out of sight in a valley beyond was a little town they’d seen from orbit.
Their landing site had been picked more-or-less randomly. They’d decided against landing near the big city for fear that there would just be too many people—and too many dangers—to deal with. Especially if their landing caused panic. They wanted somewhere smaller, more isolated, but not too isolated. If the initial contact went well, they wanted to be able to communicate with whoever was in charge. So, they’d traced the railroad lines radiating out from the big city and looked for a smaller town or village but with some evidence of higher authority nearby—like that castle! About a half-dozen possible candidates had presented themselves. None had seemed particularly more suitable than any other, so they’d just chosen one. This one.
Sheela walked to within a few dozen paces of the animal-building and stopped. She had seen a few shadowy figures moving around inside. There must be people there. “H-hello? Hello in there? Can we talk? I… we don’t mean you any harm.” She spoke in standard English. What few records she’d been able to find suggested that the original colonists had been a mix of English, Russian, Greek, and French people from Old Earth. She didn’t speak French, Russian or Greek, but even that long ago nearly everyone spoke English. Of course, after 400 years there was no telling how much the language might have changed here in isolation. If they couldn’t communicate she didn’t know what they were going to do.
There was no immediate response but she thought she could hear voices from inside the structure. She risked a glance back and saw that Tam and Ian Cummings, the ship’s engineer, had stopped about halfway between her and the shuttle. Weitzl was standing near the lock. She knew that he had a stunner—for all the good it would do her.
“Hello! Please come out and talk!” She wasn’t even sure she wanted them to come out and talk. A growing part of her was saying to just turn around and go back to Tam and tell him that no one was home and they could go back to Komarr now. She couldn’t really do that, but by the same token, there was no way she was going to barge into that building by herself.
She was on the verge of retreating to the others when she saw motion inside. She froze when three men emerged into the sunlight. Two of them were carrying what were obviously weapons. They didn’t quite point them at her, but they could do so in an instant. Firearms of some sort, she supposed. All three of them wore long daggers on their belts and one of them also had a sword. The one in the middle, the one without a firearm, was old with white hair and an amazing set of sideburns that merged with a thick mustache. He was rather stout and red-faced and something about him reminded her of some of her professors at the University. He had a nervous smile on his lips. The other two weren’t smiling at all. The one on the left, the one with the sword, she would have guessed at being middle-aged, in his sixties, maybe, but without galactic medicine, he might have been much younger. His dark hair was streaked with gray. His face was narrow with a long nose and small mustache. The third one was the youngest. Tall and fair, clean-shaven, with sandy hair, he was well-built and muscular. But his expression was the least friendly of the three. He glanced back toward the building for an instant and gripped his weapon tightly.
“Hello?” she said again and tried to smile.
“Hello,” answered the old one. “Who are you? Why are you here?” Sheela sighed in relief when she could understand him. There was a thick accent to his English, sort of Russian she guessed, but she could understand what he was saying and that was the important thing.
“My name is Sheela Lahn. Me and my friends are explorers. We come from the planet Komarr. We want to be friends with you.”
“Why?” snapped the young one.
Sheela blinked in confusion. Why what? Why did they want to be friends? Why did they come from Komarr? The first one was easiest so she said: “Being friends is a good thing. We can learn many things from each other. Perhaps we can trade things to our mutual benefit.”
“Why do your friends hold back and send you first?” He jerked his weapon as if pointing at the others.
“We were not sure how you would receive us. I am the smallest and hopefully the least threatening.”
The one with the sword snorted. “They send a woman first? Are all your men such cowards?”
The old one looked annoyed. “Lord Vorpeter, we know nothing of these people, we can’t judge them by our standards.”
“They’re the only standards I’ve got,” snapped back the man. Then he looked at her, relaxing slightly. “I suppose I should welcome you to this place on behalf of my lord, Count Vorkosigan.” He bowed slightly, but never took his eyes off her.
Sheela bowed back, although Komarrans didn’t use such gestures. “Thank you for your welcome, sir. Is… does Count Vor…Vor…”
“Vorkosigan,” said all three men in unison.
“Count Vorkosigan. Does he administer this world?” She suspected there was some sort of autocracy here, but she couldn’t guess its nature.
“My father rules this district!” cried a new voice. Sheela looked past the men and to her surprise a boy emerged from the building. He couldn’t have been more than eight or nine standard years. “This is Vorkosigan District and here his word is law!”
“Piotr!” snapped the youngest of the men. “I told you to stay back!”
“Pooh! This woman is no danger to me! And if her friends are such cowards then they are no danger, either. As my father’s Voice I should be the one to talk with them.”
The one with the sword gave an exasperated sigh whose meaning was apparent in any language. He was about to reply when the old one said:
“Perhaps we should all introduce ourselves.” He bowed to her, much lower than the other man. “I am Professor Vorserran, Lady Sheela. And this is Lord Vorkosigan, son of the Count, who is, alas, not here today.”
Sheela started at being made a Lady on such short notice, but she nodded to Vorserran—a professor no less! What luck!—and then made a much deeper bow to the boy. “It is indeed an honor to meet you, Lord Vorkosigan. Please forgive our abrupt and unannounced arrival. We did not know any other way to do it.”
The boy smiled, but looked at her with a shrewd expression. “The tales say that our ancestors arrived on Barrayar from the stars hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But there were no more visitors ever again after that. Why did you wait so long to come again?”
“Ah, that is a complicated question to answer, my lord.” Sheela was amazed at how easy it was to fall into this m’lording routine. Was she some sort of romantic at heart? “To travel between the stars requires a road of sorts. Not a road like you have, but that’s the best way to describe it, I guess. But the roads between the stars can fall prey to natural disasters just as a normal road can. A landslide can carry away a road or a flood wash away a bridge.” They didn’t have landslides or floods on Komarr, but she’d been thinking about how to explain the collapse of the wormholes ever since it was decided to land and make contact with these people. “Soon after your ancestors arrived here a kind of landslide carried away the road. We cannot build new roads, only use roads that are already there, and it took us until now to find another road that led here.”
“Why that’s astounding, my lady!” exclaimed Vorserran. “I had always thought—the few times I chanced to think on the subject—that space ships sort of floated on some cosmic aether the way a boat floats on water. But you say that instead they travel on fixed tracks like a train! Who would have thought it!”
“Well, something like that…”
“Ahem!” The man with the sword cleared his throat noisily and looked peeved. Vorserran twitched.
“Oh, pardon me! Lady Sheela, let me present Lord Weston Vorpeter. He is in charge here while the Count is away.”
“And this gentleman?” asked Sheela nodding toward the young one.
“Arkadi,” growled the man. “Arkadi Kurzov. I’m in charge of this young rapscallion—as much as anyone can be in charge of him.” He jerked his head toward the boy. “And what of your friends? Are they going to come over here or skulk about back there all day?”
“I’ll call them forward. Guys, it’s okay, they want to meet you. Come on.”
“Okay, we’re coming,” said Tam. “The Weasel’s staying with the shuttle.”
“Afraid?” she asked with a smirk.
“Maybe. But the wide open spaces have him spooked, I think.”
“He’s not the only one,” said Ian.
Sheela glanced back and saw Tam and Ian walking toward her. When she looked back at the locals, they were all staring at her wide-eyed. “How… how did you do that?” asked Vorserran.
“Oh!” She touched the tiny microphone on her tunic. “We have communications devices that allow us to talk. Like your telegraphs, but with no wires.” They’d spotted what they guessed were telegraph lines strung on poles and apparently they were because Vorserran nodded.
“Fascinating!” he exclaimed. “There are stories of such devices, but we have none.”
“Would you be willing to sell some to us?” asked Vorpeter, looking very interested.
“I’m sure that is possible,” said Sheela. She heard the others approaching behind her. She turned and then made the introductions. To her intense annoyance, the instant the word captain was mentioned in connection with Tam, the locals fixed their attention completely upon him and she found herself almost totally ignored. They talked around her, past her, through her. She regained Professor Vorserran’s attention briefly when she managed to squeeze in the fact that she was a scientist, but even he seemed to treat her statement with skepticism. More of the locals were emerging from their hiding places and not a one of them was female. Militaristic, male dominated… great.
Being the center of attention, Tam was going into his manic mode and he waxed enthusiastically about all the great things that were going to come from future contacts between the natives—who referred to their world as Barrayar, she was going to have to find out why—and the rest of the galaxy. The locals were eating it up.
After a while she noticed that there was someone else nearly as annoyed as herself. The boy, the son of the local ruler, was also being excluded from the discussions. She caught his eye and they stared at each other for a few moments and a tiny grin appeared on his face.
“Lord Vorpeter!” he suddenly shouted. Everyone stopped talking and turned to look at him. Nice. Maybe I should try that.
“Yes, my lord?”
“We’re standing here in the hay and the dung talking with important visitors. Perhaps they are thirsty and hungry. I know I am.”
Vorpeter blushed visibly and then drew himself up. “Of course. You are correct, my lord.” He turned back to Tam. “Would you all honor us by being our guests for dinner at the castle?” He gestured to the imposing structure on the hill.
“Of course we would,” said Sheela before Tam could answer. “Let’s go.”
* * *
If she’d known that the trip to the castle was by horse she wouldn’t have been so quick to agree.
There was a great deal of running around and shouting on the part of the locals and talk of carriages and carts and wagons and various reasons why none were available. The man named Arkadi was especially irritable although it seemed like that was his perpetual state. Finally, a horse was led up to her and she instinctively stepped back. The creature was enormous!
“Do you ride, m’lady?” asked the man leading the beast.
“No! Until today I’d never even seen a horse in the flesh.”
“Indeed? Then how d’you folks get from place t’place? Do all ride in… in things like yonder vehicle?” He jerked his head toward the shuttle.
“Those are only for travelling long distances. Like your trains. For shorter distances we have smaller vehicles. And for even shorter, we use our legs, just as you do.” she smiled and the man chuckled.
“What’s the problem, Oleg?” snapped Arkadi. “Get her on the horse!”
“Yes sir. Uh… here, step up on this box and then put your foot in the stirrup, m’lady… no, your t’other foot. Yes, that’s t’way. Oh dear, wait, you’re wearin’… trousers. Do you normally ride like a man?”
“I don’t normally ride at all! What’s the difference?”
“Oh, well, a man rides with one leg on each side of the horse…”
“Well of course, how else would you do it?” She glanced over where Tam and Ian were already perched precariously atop a pair of these monsters. They each had one leg on either side.
“Uh, ladies, because o’ their skirts, you see, don’t… aren’t able to… so they ride with both legs on the same side of the horse…”
Sheela eyed the horse skeptically. “Wouldn’t you tend to slide off?”
“Well, no, y’see you hook your t’other leg over the pommel, the thing that’s stickin’ out from the top o’ the saddle…”
“Oleg!” Arkadi was suddenly there and he seized Sheela with both hands around her waist and hoisted her up in an incredibly powerful grip. He deposited her atop the saddle and she frantically tried to get a foot into the stirrup and grabbed for the pommel-thing, but she missed both and slithered down the side of the horse to land on her backside on the little box Oleg had set there for her to stand on.
“Ow!” she cried, staring at him furiously.
He stared back, just as furiously. “What’s the matter with you?” he snarled.
“Me? What’s the matter with you?”
“S-sir, she’s never ridden before!” stuttered Oleg. “I-I was tryin’ t’show her how.”
“And he was doing a good job until you barged in!” snapped Sheela, getting to her feet. “You say I put my one foot in this stirrup, and then straighten up and hook my other leg over the pommel? Like this?” She did it and was suddenly mounted on the horse! It worked!
“Well done, m’lady!” said Oleg. “Here, take the reins. Don’t pull on them yet, just hold them like this.”
“Thank you, Oleg. You’ve been very helpful.” She frowned at Arkadi, who departed in a huff.
“What is the problem with the man?” she muttered.
“Just worried about Lord Vorkosigan, m’lady,” said Oleg quietly. “He’s charged with his protection and he don’t much like surprises like the one you’ve brought us today. Takes his duties right seriously, he does. But it’s nothin’ personal.”
“The boy’s very important, I take it?”
“Important? Yes m’lady! Heir to the countship and all!”
“And a count is important?”
“Only one more important is the Emperor himself!”
“The Emperor, he admin… rules Barrayar?”
“Tries to. But enough o’ that. Looks like we’re gettin’ ready to move.” Vorpeter and Arkadi were now collecting everyone into a group. A man on horseback came over to her and took the reins of her horse.
“Might be easier if I led you, m’lady,” he explained.
“By all means, lead on,” she said with a wave of her hand. “I have no idea how to steer one of these things.” She saw with satisfaction that Tam and Ian were also being led.
“Last chance, Weitzl,” Tam was saying in his communicator. “Sure you don’t want to come?”
“Quite sure,” came the reply. Sheela could listen on the tiny receiver in her ear. “And once these savages have had you for dinner, you are sure that I can get back to the ship?”
Tam snorted. “Won’t be necessary, but yes, Danno can fly the shuttle remotely and get you back to the ship.”
“Very well, I shall wait here. Make sure you get information on anything of value they might want to trade.”
Tam shrugged and broke the connection. A few moments later they were off. The cavalcade was about a dozen strong and they followed an unpaved road that went from the stables until it met a larger, but equally unpaved road that connected the village with the castle on the hill. Sheela clung to the saddle and tried to look around without falling off. It seemed like an awfully long way down to the ground even though she knew it was less than two meters.
But the horse appeared docile and it plodded along behind the man leading it with a gentle and not unpleasant rocking motion. Observing the other riders she saw how they moved their own bodies in rhythm with the horses to provide a smooth motion. She tried it and was pleased with the results. Her companions didn’t seem to have the knack and were muttering complaints before they’d gone a hundred meters.
On the main road they could ride several abreast and Lord Vorpeter took station next to Tam, leader to leader, and Professor Vorserran rode next to Ian, scholar to engineer, and by default she found herself riding with Lord Vorkosigan and his bodyguard, Arkadi. Unappreciated female to unmatured future ruler? It was obvious that Arkadi didn’t want his charge so close to this potentially dangerous alien, but the boy had other ideas.
“So from what your friends have been saying, you didn’t come here looking for us,” he said.
“No my lord,” she replied. “We were just exploring, finding new paths between the stars. In truth, we were hoping that the path we were following would lead to Escobar, another civ… er another world we knew about, but which could only be gotten to by a much longer, round-about route. A shorter route would have been very valuable.”
“Well, it costs money… uh, I assume you have money here.”
“Sure! I’ve got five marks in my pocket.” The boy produced a metal disk that she recognized as a coin.
“It costs money to run a starship and it costs less money to go a short path than a long one. A new path from Komarr to Escobar would have cost ship-owners much less to travel and they would have paid tolls to use the shorter route.”
“So you were exploring just to make money?” for some reason the boy looked disappointed.
“Some of us were. I’m a scientist. I had a new theory on ways to find the paths between stars and I wanted to test out my theory.”
“Oh. So you were doing it for the honor rather than the money?”
“I guess you could describe it that way. I never really thought about it in those terms, but yes.” Is that true? Perhaps to regain my lost honor after the plagiarism scandal? What a strange idea!
“That’s good!” said the boy, smiling. “Honor is better than money! Isn’t it, Arkadi?”
“Always, m’lord. Always.” The scowl on his face softened somewhat as he looked at her. “So you K…Komarrans do have honor?”
“I suppose we do. I don’t think many of us really think about it in those terms, but we value honesty and fair-dealing. Keeping your word. That sort of thing. I guess that’s honor, isn’t it?”
“Part of it,” growled the man and his stern expression returned. “There’s more to it than that, though. What about your lord? You’ve told us nothing about who you serve and what his intentions are.”
“Oh dear,” said Sheela, recognizing that this was potentially dangerous ground. This appeared to be a feudal society of some sort. She tried to remember an undergraduate history course she’d once taken about Old Earth. Personal ties, oaths of loyalty, overlords and subordinates sworn to them, a web of interlocking obligations… It had all seemed so complicated and illogical to her. “We don’t… things don’t work that way on Komarr. We don’t really have lords…”
“What?” exclaimed Vorkosigan. “Then who makes decisions? Who leads your people? Who commands your armies?”
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” said Sheela, desperately trying to think of a way to put it. “We have a senate, a council of… of important people who agree on how things are to be run…”
“Like our Council of Counts?” asked Vorkosigan. “To advise the Emperor? But who is your emperor?”
“We… uh… we don’t really have one, my lord. Each dome, that’s sort of like a town, has its own council and they send representatives to the planetary senate and they make decisions for the whole planet…”
“But who’s in command? Who commands the army?”
“Well, we don’t really have an army, my lord…”
“What! How can that be?” The boy seemed scandalized.
“We don’t need one. We’re peaceful. We do have a small navy to protect our merchant ships. Komarr has an awful lot of trade…”
“Shopkeepers,” said Arkadi. “You’re a world of shopkeepers, ruled by other shopkeepers.” He snorted in disgust. “I was wrong, m’lord,” he said to the boy. “They are no danger to us at all!” The man spurred his horse and pulled ahead. The act of leaving her alone with Vorkosigan showing his contempt for her more clearly than any words could. The boy eyed her for a moment longer and then did the same.
* * *
Arkadi glanced back as Lord Vorkosigan came up abreast of him. Good. Despite his words, he didn’t want the boy any closer to the alien woman than necessary. His every instinct told him that there was danger here. Maybe not physical danger from this batch of cowards, but danger none the less. Despite the woman’s claims, not all the people out there among the stars could be such cowards. Men were men and the strong would always prey on the weak. And they surely must have weapons! Weapons to match their vehicles and other devices. Arkadi remembered how when he was a child his father had used a flintlock musket and then as he reached adulthood the new percussion rifles were just coming into use. Now they had the magazine rifles with metallic cartridges—dozens of times better than his father’s flintlock! If such improvements could take place in half a lifetime, what sort of weapons must these aliens have? The legends said that when the Firsters arrived on Barrayar they had wondrous devices, but in the disaster that followed the Abandonment most of them were lost and the secret of their making was lost with them. But if the aliens suffered no such disaster… even more wondrous devices must exist. His hand brushed the butt of his pistol and he tried to imagine a weapon a hundred or a thousand times more deadly. His imagination wasn’t up to the task and no specifics appeared, but surely such things must exist.
And even in the hands of cowards, weapons like those would pose a danger.
But what of such weapons in the hands of brave men?
The thought comforted him in some strange manner. Shopkeepers and merchants, that’s what these aliens claimed to be. Would they sell weapons? With weapons to match theirs, the aliens would pose far less danger. Yes. Lord Vorpeter was surely thinking along such lines. That’s probably why he was being so courteous to the intruders. There was danger here, but also great opportunity…
A rider came down the road from the castle and reported that the Countess was not there. She had, indeed, followed her husband back to the capital. Why none of the grooms at the stable had passed on that vital bit of information Arkadi didn’t know. Probably too startled by the day’s happenings, he supposed. Vorpeter seemed disappointed, but Arkadi was relieved. One less charge to worry about. Yes, the aliens could be contained here until the Count—or the Emperor!—decided what to do about them. Vorpeter had already dispatched a man to the telegraph office in town to send a message to Vorbarr Sultana with the news. He couldn’t imagine how it would be received.
They’ll probably think we broke into the wine cellars and are all roaring drunk.
They reached the crest of the hill and passed through the crumbling and overgrown earthworks that the last count had constructed in a hopeless attempt to protect the old stone castle from modern artillery—before the Emperor had banned such defenses—and clattered across the drawbridge and through the main gates.
There were a few grooms and servants waiting for them, but the castle was strangely empty with the Count and Countess and their large retinues absent. They dismounted and turned over their horses to their handlers. The aliens had some trouble dismounting but after his previous encounter with the woman, Arkadi made no attempt to help her.
“So, this is Count Vorkosigan’s home?” asked the alien leader, Captain Hodgkins, as he regained his feet and dusted off the knees of his trousers.
“Not really,” replied Lord Vorpeter. “His official residence is in Vorkosigan Vashnoi, which is a large town about forty miles northwest of here. This is merely a summer residence for him. He has another home in the capital, of course, and these days he spends more time there than anywhere else. The Count is one of the Emperor’s most trusted advisors.”
“And the Emperor is…?”
“Dorca Vorbarra,” answered both Vorpeter and Vorserran in unison.
“And he rules this whole planet?”
“We’ll probably want to talk to him at some point.” Arkadi stiffened, the man spoke like he wanted to see the local baker!
“And I’m sure he’ll want to talk to you, too!” exclaimed Vorserran, apparently oblivious to the man’s lack of respect. “But for right now please be our guests here in the Count’s name.” He gestured for the aliens to follow him and they all trooped inside the great hall. The strangers began pointing out features of place that Arkadi had never given much thought to: the old flags and banners hanging from the walls, the paintings and portraits and tapestries. The castle was the original and oldest stronghold of the Vorkosigans and the amount of history stored here was impressive. The Count’s residence in Vorkosigan Vashnoi wasn’t nearly as old and the great house in Vorbarr Sultana was almost brand new by comparison.
The relative handful of servants remaining in the castle were bustling about, trying to adapt to the unexpected arrival of important guests. Some of them seemed surprised and even put out that the strangers had no luggage to carry or even cloaks that they could hang up. The female alien tried to make small talk with some of the women servants, which put them even more off kilter. They scurried away as fast as they decently could.
Vorpeter gave the strangers a quick tour of the castle while dinner was being prepared and they finally ended up in one of the smaller rooms off of the great hall. A table big enough for the three strangers, Vopeter, Vorserran, and Lord Vorkosigan had been set with the best dishes and silverware. The meal itself was much simpler than it normally would have been, but was still as good as could have been expected on such short notice. Beef, mutton, and chicken along with bread and a variety of vegetables and greens. Good food, wine and ale, who could ask for more? Arkadi took up his post behind Lord Vorkosigan and helped pour the wine.
The others dug in with gusto, but the three aliens looked at their food with… suspicion. They nibbled some of the vegetables and the bread, but only poked the meat with their forks. “It’s all quite safe,” growled Arkadi. “Nothing reaches Lord Vorkosigan’s table that hasn’t been inspected.”
“Oh,” said Captain Hodgkins, blushing. “It’s not that… it’s just…”
“Is this really from… from an animal?” asked the woman, gesturing toward a slab of beef on the platter in front of her.
“Oh dear,” said the engineer, his eyes bulging and his face turning greenish.
“What’s wrong?” asked Vorserran.
“We don’t… That is, we don’t…”
“You don’t eat meat?”
“We do, it’s just that we don’t get it from… animals.”
“Where else can you get meat?” demanded Vorpeter.
“We can… uh grow it in vats,” said the woman. “We don’t have to kill animals to get it.”
“Really?” asked Vorserran, looking very interested. “Animal flesh without the animal? How can that be?” The two alien men looked at the alien woman.
“Oh, well, it’s a cloning process where the cells of the…” she stopped and seemed to realize that her words had no meaning, even to the professor. “Uh, well, it’s a bit complicated. Perhaps I can explain it to you later, Professor.”
“But what’s the point?” demanded Lord Vorkosigan. “I mean if it’s still meat, why not just raise animals?”
“Ah, well, you see, my lord, animals require grazing land and we have almost no grazing land on Komarr.”
Oh, well that made a bit more sense to Arkadi except… “So then why are you all looking so green at eating our meat from our animals if it’s all the same?” The aliens squirmed in their seats, looking embarrassed, but suddenly the woman spoke again:
“You’re absolutely right: we’re being silly.” She determinedly sliced off a piece of beef with her knife and fork and popped it in her mouth and chewed. “Delicious! Come on gentlemen, have some!” The other two glared at her but then looked sheepishly at the other people at the table and then slowly cut tiny bits of meat and ate them. From there the meal went more or less normally, although neither of the alien men ate a great deal.
Arkadi continued to stand his post and served his lord as needed. The conversation rambled quite a bit with Vorserran trying to get scientific information from the aliens and the aliens asking about trade possibilities. Vorpeter made one clumsy inquiry about weapons but the answers he got back were frustratingly vague. The one bit of useful information that came out was that the vehicle which brought them to Vorkosigan Surleau was not the starship that had brought them to Barrayar. Apparently it was just a dinghy for some much larger vessel that was still up in the sky circling Barrayar. There were more men on that vessel, so there was nothing to be gained and possibly a great deal to be lost in trying to seize these people or their dinghy.
Eventually the meal ended. Vorpeter invited the strangers to spend the night and after some discussion, they agreed. They were shown to guest rooms and servants assigned to attend to them. Arkadi escorted Lord Vorkosigan to his room although the boy claimed that he was not sleepy at all.
“I’m too excited to sleep! This is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened, Arkadi! Aren’t you even interested?”
“Oh, I’m interested, my lord. But my main duty is still to keep you safe.” He stared at the boy and tried to keep his expression neutral. And while this might be the most exciting thing to ever happen, it might also be the most dangerous.
It was a little before midnight in Vorbarr Sultana when the servant interrupted Count Vorstakoff as he was preparing for bed. The Count looked at the man in annoyance. It had been a long day and he was tired. “Yes?” he snapped. “What is it?”
“Your pardon, my lord, but Lord Vorfallon is here. He says it’s most urgent.”
Vorstakoff cut off his irritation as with a knife. Vorfallon was his closest confidant here in the capital. He would not be coming at this time of night for something trivial. “Very well. Have him wait for me in the Blue Room. I’ll be down shortly.”
“Yes my lord.” The servant withdrew.
Vorstakoff briefly considered dressing again completely, but instead took a robe from the closet and wrapped it around himself. He stepped into a pair of slippers and then left the room. Most of the lights were already out in Vorstakoff House, but he had no trouble making his way down the stairs and to the Blue Room where the servant had relit the candles and lamps. Vorfallon was pacing nervously in front of the fireplace but stopped when he saw him.
“Well, Anton, what brings you here at this time of night?”asked Vorstakof. Vorfallon looked at the servant who quickly left and shut the door at a gesture. “So? What is it?”
“First off, Viktor, I want to assure you that I have not been drinking. Or not enough to impair my wits, anyway,” said Vorfallon. “You are going to think I’m insane or drunk when I tell you this, but I’m not, all right?”
Vorstakoff snorted in amusement, but found himself deeply curious. Vorfallon was not given to hyperbole or wild exaggeration. So what information did he have that had him so wound up? “All right, I believe you. So why are you here?”
“I have some rather incredible news from the palace, Viktor. I trust the source completely, but it’s still incredible.”
“What is it Anton?” said Vorstakoff with dwindling patience. “It’s late.”
Vofallon nodded and made a soothing gesture with his hand. “Well, it appears that a ship has landed in Vorkosigan District.”
“What? A ship? But Vorkosigan District is land-locked, man! How could a ship…” He stopped suddenly, too shocked to go on.
“That’s right, Viktor, a space ship. A ship from the stars.”
Vorstakoff found a chair and collapsed into it. “But that’s… that’s impossible!”
“You know very well that it is not impossible. The Firsters came here in space ships.”
“The Firsters are just legends!”
“You don’t really believe that do you?”
Vorstakoff frowned. “No… no I don’t. But how…? I mean after all these centuries…! Who are they? What do they want? And why Vorkosigan District?
Vorfallon raised a hand and shook his head and laughed sourly. “Sorry, Viktor, I don’t have answers for any of those questions! Neither does anyone else, apparently. The Emperor and his circle are as baffled as we are.”
“Could it be some sort of hoax…?” asked Vorstakoff, who desperately wanted it to be a hoax. Things were complicated enough without some new and totally unexpected factor being thrown into the mix.
“That was the first thought that everyone had when the telegraph from Vorkosigan Surleau arrived. But word came almost simultaneously from the Imperial University that the astronomers there had spotted a strange object in the sky with their telescopes, circling Barrayar. If it’s a hoax it’s a rather astonishingly well planned one.”
“My God…” whispered Vorstakoff. “So what… what is Vorbarra planning to do about this?”
“The only thing my source was able to tell me on that score is that Vorkosigan will be returning to his district in the morning to meet the visitors and try to persuade them to come back to Vorbarr Sultana to meet with the emperor.”
“Damnation,” growled Vorstakoff. “Think of the power these people represent!”
“I have Viktor, I have. Why do you think I came here at this dreadful hour?”
* * *
Sheela had not slept well and was actually grateful when dawn started seeping through the cracks around the shutters on the windows. The planet had a rotation about two hours longer than a standard day—almost eight hours longer than Komarr’s day—and the night had seemed to last forever. Despite her exhaustion from yesterday’s excitement the environment was just too alien to allow her to sleep well. The bed was lumpy and there had been a multitude of strange sounds during the night. At some point a strong breeze had come up and at every puff of air, every whistle of wind around the window, she had jerked awake fearing there had been a breach in the dome. She told herself again and again that there was no dome and she was in no danger, but a lifetime of living in Komarr’s tightly controlled environment could not be undone in one night. Perhaps staying had not been such a good idea after all. But the shuttle had no sleeping accommodations and going all the way back to the ship would have been so inconvenient.
She got up from the bed and went over to a window and pushed open the shutters. She sucked in her breath at the view that was revealed. It had been dark when she came up here and there had been nothing to see then. But now, now she looked out on tall mountains and vast forests and the dark waters of the lake stretching off until they vanished in gray mists. The sky above was a deep royal blue and a few faint stars could still be seen. Off to the east the horizon was a hazy pink, brightening to yellow near one prominent mountain peak. As she watched in fascination the yellow slowly turned to a dazzling white and then the world’s sun emerged. The sky was suddenly a light blue and the forests a rich green and white snow glinted on some of the higher mountains. Sheela realized she had been holding her breath. Komarr had nothing like this. Nothing.
A knock on the door made her turn. A woman entered with a bundle in her arms. “Good morning, my lady, I hope you slept… oh! Your pardon!” the woman looked shocked.
“I didn’t intend to barge in with you… undressed, my lady!”
Undressed? She looked down at herself. She was wearing her underwear. What was wrong? It wasn’t like she was naked…
“It’s all right,” she said, but she picked up her shirt and held it in front of herself. “What have you got there?”
“Oh,” said the flustered woman. “I have some clothes for you. I could wash what you were wearing yesterday if you like.” She closed the door and started laying things out on the bed.
Sheela instinctively started to say that she didn’t need anything. Her clothes weren’t really dirty after all… But she came over and looked at what the woman was offering her. There was a cream colored blouse with lace at the collar and cuffs, a vest of green velvet with intricate embroidery in gold and a long skirt in the same green that would probably come to her ankles. It looked totally silly, but at the same time… What the hell? “All right, let’s see if it will fit,” she said.
The woman, whose name was Tatya and old enough to be her mother, helped her dress. The blouse had a ridiculous number of tiny white buttons and Tatya managed to fasten three quarters of them in the time it took Sheela to do the rest. She started to put on the skirt, but the woman stopped her and insisted that she put on a set of white pantaloons first. She was still wearing her own underwear so she didn’t see the point. Again she tried to put on the skirt and again she was stopped. “Oh no, my lady, you need the petticoat or the skirt won’t fall properly. Here let me…” She took another white skirt and fastened it around her. Sheela sighed. If she’d known all this was involved she never would have agreed! But finally she was allowed to don the skirt and fortunately, the vest was just a vest, although with a high collar in the back.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any proper shoes for you, my lady,” said Tatya looking with disapproval at her comfortable shipboard slippers. “But here, let me help you with your hat.”
Hat? Before she could protest, a small round hat with the brim turned up on one side and a feather stuck in it had been pinned to her hair. “Who…? Who do these belong to?”
“Oh, they belonged to the Countess when she was younger. Lord Vorpeter said she wouldn’t mind you wearing them.” She then whispered: “They haven’t fit the Countess for years.” Then Tatya stepped back and looked her over. “Well, my lady, you look lovely! A shame your hair is so short, though. Well, nothing we can do about that! Will you come down for breakfast? It should be nearly ready by now.”
“All right… oh, drat…” She suddenly realized that she needed to use the small adjoining room that served as a toilet. She had to get halfway undressed to use blasted thing. Tatya helped her with infinite patience. Finally she was dressed again and the servant led her out of the room and down the stairs.
She found Tam and Ian in the large foyer. As she had expected, both of them were wearing their normal clothes. They were talking with Vorpeter and Vorserran and none of them seemed to recognize her until she was standing right next to them. “Holy…! Good God, is that you, Sheela?” exclaimed Tam when he really took a look at her. Ian gave her a wolf-whistle and a huge grin.
“Good morning, Lady Sheela,” said Professor Vorserran. “I must say you look lovely.”
“Thank you, Professor. And thank you, Lord Vorpeter for providing them.”
“My pleasure, Lady Sheela,” said Vorpeter, bowing. Sheela was tempted to ask exactly why he had provided the clothes. Was the sight of a woman running around in trousers that disruptive? But she held her tongue and followed the others into the room where Lord Vorkosigan, his guardian, and their breakfast was waiting. This consisted of an oatmeal-like mush that was called groats, bread, several types of fruits and berries and some sort of meat patty that their hosts called scrapple. She tried a little bit of everything to be polite and most of it was good, but she had to admit that the scrapple was pretty awful. Tam and Ian were not as adventurous.
During the meal the Barrayarans talked of nothing important, but once they were finished, Lord Vorpeter said: “So, is there anything you would like to see today? We can give you a tour of the village or take a ride through the forest. From what you said last night you have nothing like that on your own world.”
“We’d like that very much,” said Sheela and she meant it. The view from her window was still resonating inside her. But Tam said:
“We appreciate the offer, but our time is limited. Perhaps it would be better if we made contact with your emperor and got down to business on what trade possibilities exist.”
“Yeah,” muttered Ian, “the Weasel is probably ready to gnaw his own leg off by this time.”
The Barrayarans looked uncomfortable for some reason and exchanged glances. Finally Vorpeter spoke: “Well, as it happens, we received a telegram from the capital a few hours ago. Count Vorkosigan is on his way here…”
“Father is coming here?” exclaimed the young lord excitedly.
“Yes, my lord, his train should be here this afternoon. He is to escort our guests back to Vorbarr Sultana to meet with the Emperor.”
“Can I come?” demanded the boy.
“That will be up to your father, my lord.” The look on Vorkosigan’s face made it clear that he had no intention of being left behind.
“Three hundred kilometers on one of those rickety contraptions?” said Ian skeptically. They had observed some of the Barrayaran railroads from orbit—including what was obviously a serious wreck. “Our shuttle can get us there in ten minutes. Why not take that?”
Now the Barrayarans looked really uncomfortable—except for the boy. “Uh, well, the Count is going to want to talk to you on the journey back to the capital so he can properly brief the Emperor before he meets with you. And I doubt that Count Vorkosigan would be willing to…”
“How many people can your vessel carry?” interrupted Arkadi Kurzov, who was scowling ferociously.
“Six,” replied Tam. “There are four of us, so there’s room. And granted there won’t be much time to talk but…”
“Absolutely out of the question!” snapped the bodyguard. “The Count cannot travel with you strangers with only a single armsman!”
“What? You think we’re gonna kidnap him or something?” asked Ian.
The look on Kurzov’s face said that was exactly what he was thinking.
“Well, I don’t like the idea of being separated from our transport by such a large distance,” said Tam. “And there’s no way we’ll get Weitzl on one of your trains. And he’ll want to be involved in any talks.”
It looked like an argument was in the making but Sheela stepped in. “Can I make a suggestion?” Everyone looked at her.
“Of course, my lady,” said Vorpeter.
“How about this: Tam and I can take the railroad with Count Vorkosigan. Then, once we’re there and settled Ian can pilot the shuttle and Mr. Weitzl to some pre-arranged landing spot. That way we have our shuttle handy and you have all the security for the Count that you want.”
“An excellent idea, my lady!” said Vorserran.
The others agreed, although Ian, only minutes after stating he wanted nothing to do with steam railways, said he was disappointed at not getting a chance to examine one close up!
“Well, we can make up for that!” said Vorpeter. “A number of other trains will be passing through today and we can give you a look when they stop.”
So, their day included a visit to the railway station as well as a tour of the village of Vorkosigan Surleau. Sheela was silently disappointed about not getting a ride through the local forest, but perhaps there would be an opportunity later. The steam engines proved to be huge, noisy and very dirty, dripping grease and spewing huge clouds of black smoke. The Barrayarans had yet to discover any oil or coal deposits on their world and considering the sort of plant and animal life native to the planet it was entirely possible they never would. So the locomotives were powered by burning wood, which seemed an awful waste to Sheela.
“We’ll certainly be able to sell power plants to the Barrayarans,” she said to Tam.
“We could sell them plenty of things, but I’m not sure how they’d pay for any of it. I haven’t seen anything here of much value,” he replied.
“We just got here. There might be all sorts of good stuff we haven’t seen yet.”
“Well, there better be something or the Weasel is gonna have a stroke. And we could lose the ship.” Sheela looked at Tam and saw the expression on his face. His ship meant everything to him.
“We’ll just have to find something.” She tried to sound confident, but truthfully she wasn’t sure what they’d be able to come up with. Interstellar commerce was a complicated thing and she knew little about it. There were bound to be some ways to make money off Barrayar, tourism if nothing else, but she wasn’t sure how any of that money would end up in Tam’s pocket—or hers.
They rode back to the castle for the noon meal. Sheela was growing more and more comfortable on a horse. They really were beautiful animals. Tam and Ian did not share her feelings.
After the meal Tatya found her and dragged her back to her guest room and presented her with a whole new set of clothing that was considerably more elaborate than the set she was wearing. “Oh, you must be properly dressed to meet the Count!” said the woman when she protested. Tatya just brushed aside Sheela’s comment about being properly dressed for a Komarran. The new outfit was similar to the first one except that it was more elaborately decorated with embroidery and lace and that it included a cloak that fell to just below her waist. Tatya had also found a pair of fine leather boots (made from the real skin of real animals) that fit her quite well. She had to admit that the light shoes she had been wearing weren’t really suited for stirrups on a horse, so she was willing to wear them—and they did go with the outfit. This time she made sure that she used the toilet before she got dressed.
She met Tam and Ian downstairs and they made snarky comments about her clothing, but almost seemed disappointed that they hadn’t been offered any native costumes of their own. “The Count’s train is due in a couple hours,” said Tam. “So we’re going to pick up Weitzl and head back to the station to meet him.”
“Weitzl’s willing to leave the shuttle?” asked Sheela.
“He’s not happy about it,” said Ian, “but he realizes he needs to be there to meet the Count.”
“Vorpeter’s getting some sort of wagon for him to get him to the station, since we’ll never get him on a horse,” added Tam.
Lord Vorkosigan appeared, accompanied by the ubiquitous Arkadi Kurzov. Kurzov was wearing what could only be called a uniform. It was mostly fine brown cloth with silver trim. Sheela suddenly noticed that many members of the household seemed to be in brown and silver. The young lord came right up to Tam.
“When we go to get your friend, can we take a closer look at your ship, Captain?” he asked. Kurzov made a choking noise and his face turned red. “Come, Arkadi! It can’t be that dangerous! And we don’t have to go inside, maybe just a look through the door? Please?”
“It’s quite safe, I assure you,” said Tam. “And you can certainly have a look.” Kurzov snorted but made no open protest.
A few minutes later they were all on horses again heading back down the hill from the castle. When they reached the stables they found a horse-drawn carriage waiting for them. Tam and Ian decided that they would rather ride in the carriage than remain atop their horses, so they piled in and the driver steered it over to the shuttle. The rest of the cavalcade followed along. They all dismounted while Tam gave the Barrayarans a quick tour of the outside of the shuttle. Then the airlock was opened up and a very disgruntled Weitzl came out and stood there while the natives peered inside through the open doors. Kurzov had to repeatedly restrain Lord Vorkosigan from slipping inside.
“When is the Count’s train due?” asked Sheela to Vorpeter when it seemed like they were spending an awful lot of time at the shuttle.
“Oh, some time this afternoon,” replied Vorpeter. “Don’t worry, we’ll hear the whistle in plenty of time to get to the station.” With a shock Sheela realized that unlike the to-the-minute schedules of Komarran monorails, an ‘afternoon arrival’ meant exactly that here on Barrayar. The train would arrive sometime this afternoon! Considering how mechanically unreliable the steam engines they’d seen appeared, she supposed there could be all manner of delays.
Eventually the tour came to an end and they prepared to head for the station. But as Weitzl started get into the carriage, Kurzov stopped him. “What is that?” he demanded, pointing to the small case on his belt. Sheela immediately recognized it as the carrying case for a breath mask. Her compatriots saw it and laughed.
“Mr. Weitzl, the air here is perfectly safe to breathe!” exclaimed Tam. “You don’t need that!”
Weitzl frowned. “I’ve never gone outside anywhere without a breath mask in my life and I’m not about to start now.”
Sheela shook her head, but then looking at Weitzl she realized he really was terrified of the wide open spaces here. His breath mask was probably for his emotional security more than anything else. But at Kurzov’s insistence he opened up the case and they explained and demonstrated how the mask worked to Kurzov until he was satisfied that it wasn’t a weapon.
But then he said: “I’m afraid I have to ask you gentlemen to turn out your pockets.”
“What?” exclaimed the three Komarran men.
“Is that really necessary, Arkadi?” asked Vorpeter.
“You know it is, my lord,” he replied stiffly. “The Count will be here soon.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Vorpeter reluctantly. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but if you’d please do as he asks.”
Tam and Ian shrugged and turned out their pockets. Some of the items mystified the Barrayarans and had to be explained, but none looked threatening enough to alarm them.
Weitzl seemed very reluctant to empty his pockets and Sheela gasped when he took out a small stunner and set it on the seat of the carriage. Despite its tiny size, with its trigger and hand grip there wasn’t the slightest doubt that it was a weapon. The Barrayrans cried out in alarm and in an eyeblink Kurzov had a long knife centimeters from Weitzl’s throat, which caused him to shout and stagger backwards.
“What is that?” demanded Vorpeter who had drawn his sword. Several other men had come running, one with a pistol in his hand.
“It’s uh… it’s a stunner,” gasped Tam, totally taken by surprise by the turn of events.
“It’s a defensive device,” said Sheela. “For self-protection. It will knock a man unconscious without doing any harm. Please, he didn’t know you’d object.” She glared at Weitzl. “But he should have known better than to bring it.”
“Yeah! Good God, man!” said Tam angrily. “We’re guests here!”
“And if there were any real danger that thing would have kept you alive for about an extra ten seconds, you damn fool,” added Ian.
Weitzl was pale as a ghost and looked at the blade in Kurzov’s hand. “How… how can you claim that we aren’t in any danger?” he choked.
“Lord Vorpeter,” said Sheela, “we apologize for this misunderstanding. I assure you that we mean no harm to you or your count.”
“Yes, yes, I think I believe you,” said Vorpeter, sheathing his sword and regaining his composure. “Arkadi, it will be all right.”
Kurzov frowned but nodded. “I’ll have to take that,” he said pointing to the stunner.
“Of course,” said Sheela before Weitzl could object. “Do you want to search me as well, armsman?”
“That won’t be necessary, my lady,” grumbled Kurzov. He gingerly took up the stunner and put it in his pocket.
“Well! Why don’t we get going?” said Vorpeter loudly. “We need to get down to the station.”
The tension slowly dissipated and shortly the party was on its way, the carriage bumping and clattering along on the rough road. Seeing her companions being jerked around by the motion, Sheela was glad she remained on her horse.
They reached the village and then the station and dismounted. Sheela sought out Vorserran. “Professor, I’m sorry about what happened,” she said. “But tell me: is Count Vorkosigan in so much real danger from assassination that such precautions are necessary?”
Vorserran looked embarrassed. “We are a violent people, my lady, I’m sorry to say. A great many counts have been assassinated over the years, and even a few emperors. It’s the most common way that political change comes about.”
“Part of the price of being Vor, I suppose.”
Sheela’s eyebrows went up. “Yes, that was another question I had. All the… I was about to say all the important people, but I suppose I should say all the people who seem to be in charge have names that start with ‘vor’. Is that some sort of title?”
Vorserran looked surprised. “Oh, yes, I guess you wouldn’t know about that. The things we take for granted! The uh, the ruling class here are all Vors. After the Abandonment and the Great Fire, things were very difficult here on Barrayar. The wondrous devices of the Firsters were all lost and many people died. For generations it was a struggle just to survive. During that time natural leaders arose and at some point—the records don’t say exactly when—those leaders took on the status of Vor. It’s been that way ever since.”
“I see. But who would want to assassinate the Count? And why?”
Vorserran hesitated but then nodded his head as if he’d made some decision. “I suppose you really do need to know if you are going to be able to negotiate with the Emperor sensibly. Vorpeter probably wouldn’t agree,” he said nodding his head to where the man was making arrangements for the Count’s arrival. “But so be it. You need to understand that until only about twenty years ago the Emperor did not rule all of Barrayar. Many of the counts were independent rulers, each with their own armies. It had been like that for many years and wars great and small were almost constant. The ‘Bloody Centuries’ we called them. There had been emperors before Dorca, of course, and sometimes they were able to become the dominant power, but it never lasted. The counts were too jealous of their rights and privileges. They would revolt and form alliances and more wars would break apart whatever had been built. Sometimes we would have two competing emperors. But Emperor Dorca, he’s managed to go farther than any other emperor was ever able to. In the past, when each count had an army, the emperor was dependent on the counts to send troops when he called for them. And if they refused…” Vorserran held out his hand and shrugged.
“I can see the problem,” said Sheela, remembering that class on Earth history. “What count was going to send troops to help suppress a fellow count? They could be next.”
“Yes, exactly,” said Vorserran nodding vigorously. “Exactly, my lady! Well, Dorca has managed to build an Imperial Army strong enough to enforce his will without the support of the counts. He’s forced the counts to give up their personal armies. Each count is now limited to a mere twenty armsmen—like Arkadi there.”
Sheela looked to where Kurzov was speaking with Lord Vorkosigan.
“But it’s only been twenty years since the last counts were forced to submit to the Emperor. The new system is working, but it is fragile and there are still many counts who resent the loss of their power. Of course most counts do support the Emperor. They’re tired of the endless fighting. Count Vorkosigan is one of the Emperor’s most loyal supporters. Which makes him a target for the opposition. I’m not aware of any current threat—not that I would be, of course—but precautions must be taken.”
“I see. Thank you for the information, Professor. That’s very useful. But this ‘great fire’ you spoke of, what was that? I can understand ‘the abandonment’ that must have been when the wormhole collapsed and you were cut off. But what was the fire? Did the first colony’s encampment burn down or something?”
Vorserran shook his head. “The records are so incomplete and it was so long ago. We only have legends to go from. But the legends say that it wasn’t a normal fire, it was a great fire in the sky that lasted for years. The devices of the Firsters were destroyed and many people died of terrible illnesses. I’m sorry, but that’s all there is. All we know for sure is that many terrible years followed as the people tried to survive and rebuild. Do you know of anything that might make this more clear, my lady?”
“Not off the top of my head, no,” said Sheela, her mind working furiously. “I’ll have to check some of our records.” She fell silent and after a moment Vorserran was called away. Sheela found a bench and sat down and pulled out her computer—which she’d already convinced Kurzov was harmless. She clicked on the communicator and called the ship. “Danno? You there?”
“Hey, Sheela, how’s it going?” came the reply from the jump-pilot. “Everything all right down there? The Weasel said you’re going to see the emperor-fellow.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“So when do I get a chance to go down there? Damn boring up here!”
“I’m not sure. Hopefully not too much longer. But everything’s fine. Danno, before I left I put the ship’s telescope back to work on that full-sky survey. It must have finished by now. Can you send the results down here to me?”
“Uh, sure. Give me a minute. But why? What’s up?”
“Oh, just a theory. I’ll tell you about it when I have time.”
“Okay.” After a few moments the data-stream from the ship poured into her computer. When it was done, she said good-bye to Danno and then took the data of the current stars in Barrayar’s skies and started a comparison against her master star chart. There were sure to be a number of small differences caused by stellar motion. But if her hunch was right there ought to be one big difference. One very big difference…
A sudden shrill whistle in the distance broke her concentration. The train was coming and everyone on the platform was growing excited. Reluctantly she put away the computer—leaving it to run the comparison.
Count Vorkosigan was arriving.
Arkadi Kurzov put a hand on the boy’s shoulder as the train chugged into the station. He knew the lad had the sense to stay off the tracks by this age, but he couldn’t help but be careful. Piotr seemed excited enough by his father’s arrival that he didn’t try to squirm away from the grip as he normally would have.
It was a short train, just three cars. The Count’s personal carriage was at the rear. The other cars would be carrying the rest of the armsmen, servants, and a few horses in case of a serious breakdown. Arkadi could see several armsmen leaning out from the doors, carefully scrutinizing the people waiting on the platform. Two of them hopped down even before the train had halted. Arkadi gave an ‘all clear’ signal to one of them and he nodded. He was still upset by the earlier incident with the alien and the weapon, but even he could realize that the chance of total strangers coming all the way here specifically to assassinate his count was pretty unlikely. It had probably been just a stupid misunderstanding. Still…
With a squeal of brakes and several lurches the train finally came to a stop. More armsmen poured out and despite Arkadi’s signal, formed a perimeter around the train and the platform. Good. Take nothing for granted. Ivan Karal, the head armsman debarked and came over to Lord Vorpeter. “Good afternoon, my lord,” he said. “All in order?”
“Yes, armsman, everything’s fine.”
“Arkadi?” Karal looked to him.
“All’s well, Ivan.” Karal’s face relaxed. It was a little signal they’d worked out between them. If there had been anything wrong he would have addressed him as ‘Armsman Karal’.
“Good! I’ll bring the Count.” Karal turned and went back to the train but Count Vorkosigan was already coming down the steps to the platform. Arkadi sighed. Well, they could try…
Lord Vorpeter stepped forward to greet his liege-lord. “Welcome back, my lord.”
“Dammit, Weston,” said the Count angrily. “I left you here with clear orders to keep things under control! And what do you do? You invite a batch of aliens from the stars to land in my back yard! What were you thinking, man?”
Vorpeter stiffened and turned pale. But then Vorkosigan slapped him on the shoulder and grinned. “Don’t just stand there! Introduce me to our guests!” Arkadi let out his breath. The Count had an infuriating habit of making outrageous statements with a straight face. He apparently considered that humor, but since he could also make some pretty outrageous statements and be dead serious his subordinates never knew what to think. Arkadi was convinced it was deliberate.
Vorpeter recovered and gestured toward the waiting aliens. “My lord, this is Captain Hodgkins of the starship… uh, Fool’s Luck. Captain, Count Vorkosigan.”
The Count nodded and said: “Captain, welcome to my district and in the name of the Emperor, to Barrayar.”
Hodgkins had been coached on what to do and bowed properly. “Count Vorkosigan, thank you for your welcome and your hospitality. Allow me to present my… companions.” The man introduced his engineer and then the strange man named Weitzl, whose function here was still unclear to Arkadi. Vorkosigan greeted each one courteously, but when they got to the woman he paused.
“Well, unless this is a truly amazing coincidence I have to believe that someone has been raiding my wife’s closets!”
“Oh, I uh, took the liberty, my lord,” said Vorpeter. “I thought Lady Sheela might be more comfortable…”
Why had Vorpeter given the woman those clothes? Arkadi had to admit that dressed like a woman instead of a man the alien was actually rather pretty. Just let her hair grow out…
Vorkosigan grinned. “I haven’t seen Ludmilla in that since… I hope you’ve been well attended to, Lady Sheela?”
“Perfectly, my lord,” replied the woman. “Thank you for your hospitality and your welcome. I hope that this will just be the first of many meetings between our two peoples.”
Vorkosigan bowed slightly and took her hand for a moment but his reply was lost in a hiss of steam from the locomotive as it began to move. It would have to go halfway to Vorkosigan Vashnoi before it could turn around for the trip back to the capital.
“My lord,” said Vorpeter, “I’ve arranged for a meal at the tavern. I assumed you’d want to depart for the capital as soon as the train returns and that you wouldn’t want to go all the way up to the castle.”
“Yes, quite right,” replied Vorkosigan. “Good thinking, Weston. Shall we go?”
“Father! Father!” shouted young Piotr, unable to restrain himself any longer. “You must see their ship! It’s landed right next to the stables! I saw it flying!” The Count smiled and hoisted the boy up for a moment but then groaned theatrically and set him down.
“You’ve grown again! Just since I last saw you!”
“Oh Father! You always say that! Mother didn’t come with you?”
“I had to leave in the middle of the night just to get here this early, boy! She’ll be waiting for us when we get there—and you can tell her all about your great adventure.”
“Then I can come, too?” Piotr asked excitedly.
“Of course,” said his father with a smile. “I wouldn’t want you to miss this. This is history in the making!”
The much expanded party left the station for the short walk into the village. Most of the inhabitants came out to watch and the Count greeted many of them by name. Vorkosigan had a knack for remembering names and faces and small facts about his people. It endeared him to them and he was a popular ruler. He demanded the same courtesy of his subordinates and there hadn’t been serious peasants’ revolt in the district in living memory.
They reached the tavern and the owner was there with his staff to welcome their count. The meal was plain, but good (Arkadi snatched a few things from the kitchen as he usually did at meal time) and the Count steered the conversation away from any serious business, relating the various delays on the railroad and asking general questions of the aliens about their journey and the planet they came from.
But the meal was short and then the Count and his son, and to Arkadi’s surprise the alien woman, and a proper escort galloped off to see the alien ship. The woman was clearly frightened by the fast pace, never having gone at more than an easy walk before, but she managed to hang on to her horse and even seemed to be enjoying it by the time they reached the stables. Arkadi had ridden close to her just in case, but she’d done well for a total novice.
“My!” she exclaimed as she dismounted. “That was more exciting than making a new wormhole jump!”
They made a quick circuit of the vessel with the woman pointing out things of interest. But before long they heard the train whistle in the distance. “I’d love to see more, Lady Sheela,” said the Count, “but we can’t keep the Emperor waiting. Perhaps once your ship has moved to Vorbarr Sultana we can get a more complete tour.”
“I’m sure that will be possible, my lord,” said the woman.
As they remounted, the carriage arrived with the two aliens who would be staying with their vessel. “Good luck, Sheela!” said the engineer. “We’ll be seeing you in a couple of days, I guess.”
“Yes, we’ll give you progress reports every few hours.”
The Count led them back to the station at a slightly slower pace, but they reached it just as the train was coming to a stop. He wasted no time in ushering everyone aboard.
“Next stop: Vorbarr Sultana.”
* * *
Sheela followed Count Vorkosigan onto the train; he offered her his hand as she went up the steps. Considering how easy it was to trip over the damn skirt, she was glad for the courtesy. Why hell did the skirts have to be so long? The interior of the car resembled a monorail car in the general size and shape, but no Komarran monorail ever looked like this! The seats were all covered in brown velvet and embroidered with silver thread. There was some sort of motif, Sheela thought it was a leaf with little mountains in front of it, woven into the back of each seat. Come to think of it, she’d seen that motif in several other places. The interior walls were painted a dark green and there were silver lanterns mounted at intervals along them. The wood frames for the seats along with the window frames were painted white. The carpet was a dark red with silver trim.
At the front of the car, where she entered, there were four rows of seats, two on each side of a center aisle. Then there were two sets of sofas in a ‘U’ pattern facing each other. Beyond them was a door. Sheela didn’t think that was the rear of the car, so there was probably a small bedroom for the Count beyond the doors. Clearly the man knew how to travel in style! Of course if it took half a day to go three hundred kilometers, she could hardly blame him.
Vorkosigan ushered his guests to the sofas. Vorpeter, Vorserran, and the Count’s son all joined them. Arkadi Kurzov and two more of the guards—the armsmen—took station near the front of the car. Another man, a servant, appeared and offered everyone drinks. Sheela decided to sample the local tea.
After a few moments the train lurched into motion, throwing her against Tam who was sitting beside her. The acceleration was horribly uneven and she nearly fell off the sofa in the other direction before it finally settled down. The ride was anything but smooth and the train gave off a strange clickety-clack sound as it moved along the rails. The car was warm and she wondered why all the windows were shut until a cloud of black smoke came streaming along one side of the car, nearly obstructing the view. Three hundred kilometers? In this monstrosity? They couldn’t have been going more than thirty kilometers an hour and allowing for the sort of delays the Count had been complaining about, they might well not reach the capital until the following morning.
The servant returned with the drinks and Sheela noticed that they were all, including her tea, served in tall glasses or cups that were only half filled. To prevent accidental spillage caused by the erratic motion of the train, she supposed. Her tea had an unusual flavor, but it wasn’t bad at all.
“Well,” said Count Vorkosigan, once they all had their drinks, “on the whole trip down here I kept trying to think of diplomatic ways of getting the information I needed out of you. After I rejected about a dozen different approaches I finally said to hell with it and decided that I was just going to ask you straight and be done with it.” The expression on his face made Sheela think for an instant that the man was making a joke. But there was a glint in his eyes that told her otherwise.
“I think that’s probably a wise decision, my lord,” said Sheela. “Ask us any question you like.”
“All right then. Vorpeter here tells me that your expedition is primarily an economic venture. You’re here to try and make money. Fair enough. So how are you planning to make money off of us? And why should we let you? What’s in it for us?”
Sheela blinked. She’d welcomed the idea of plain speaking, but this was a bit plainer than she’d expected!
“Uh…,” said Tam he looked frantically at Sheela.
“My lord,” said Sheela, desperately thinking of what to say. “Finding you here was as much a surprise to us as our arrival was to you. We are explorers not merchants and you’ll have to forgive us for not having all the answers you want. But we are assuming that you will want to buy things from us. We have some very advanced technology, as you’ve seen, and we—or someone—will be willing to sell it to you. We, that is, Tam and I and our companions, will, I suppose, levy some sort of toll on the merchants who want to come here to deal with you. That’s how we will make money off the situation. Or at least that makes sense to me, I’m no expert on this sort of thing.”
“All right,” said Vorkosigan, “I think I can see that. So we wouldn’t be buying things directly from you? We’d be dealing with others? Who? From what Vorpeter and the others have told me you don’t have anything like our emperor where you come from. We’d have to deal with merchants individually? Not with your government?”
Now Sheela looked to Tam for help. How did these things work? She wished she’d taken some economics courses in school! She did know that Komarr as a whole did have trade treaties with other worlds. She supposed the treaties dealt with things like tariffs and import fees and customs inspections and the like. Tam just shrugged helplessly. Blast, she should have done some research while they were waiting for the Count… She pulled out her computer pad. “I can probably find out some of the information you want, my lord, just give me a few moments.”
“What is that thing?” demanded Vorkosigan, leaning forward.
“Yes,” said Professor Vorserran, “I’ve seen you fiddling with it from time to time and I wanted to ask that question myself.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Sheela. “It’s my computer pad. It’s a machine that holds all sort of information and can do calculations. Here, let me show you.” She activated the holo-projector and an image sprang into existence above the pad. The Barrayarans cried out in amazement. She mentally kicked herself for not showing them this before. The things you take for granted! The Count and his son and Vorserran came over to her sofa and crowded out Tam to get a closer look. Sheela called up information about Komarr and its government and trade fleets and they all studied how galactic commerce worked.
“This… this is astounding!” said Vorserran after a while, shaking his head. “Volumes and volumes inside that tiny box! And you say you can make it produce even more information? On other worlds? Mathematics and science?”
“Oh yes,” replied Sheela. “I have the entire University of Solstice library in here. And a lot more.”
“My lord,” said Vorserran turning to Vorkosigan. “We must acquire devices like this! The value is beyond calculation!” He turned back to Sheela. “Would you sell us things like this, my lady?”
“Uh, sure. They’re common items on our world. Not even very ex…” Tam cleared his throat noisily.
“I’m sure that there would be merchants willing to sell them to you,” he said. “I don’t know what they would charge. But that brings up the other half the situation: what does Barrayar have to offer in payment?”
“We have gold, silver, other metals, some kinds of gemstones,” said Vorkosigan. “What do you people use for money?”
“Well, that gets a bit complicated,” said Tam. “Gold and silver does have value, but money is very rarely ever in actual currency or coinage. It’s all recorded as credits and debits in computers. You do work or sell something and it’s recorded as a credit and added to your total. Buy something and the debit is subtracted.”
“Like bank vouchers,” said Vorserran, nodding his head. “Yes, we do have things like that, here.”
“But it’s always backed up by actual money in the vaults,” said Vorkosigan, frowning. “You say your economy runs on nothing but numbers stored in machines? What’s to prevent someone from just changing the numbers and making himself rich?”
Sheela restrained herself from saying that it had been tried (occasionally with success) and instead said: “There are safeguards to prevent illegalities like that, my lord. The system isn’t perfect, but it does work.”
“Yes,” said Tam. “So things of value that you have can be sold for credit and then you can buy the things you want using that credit.”
“And you probably have things here that have value that you haven’t even thought of,” added Sheela. “Artwork, for example, or even wood, which is quite rare on some worlds. And there are people who would pay just to come here and see the beauty of your world. Tourists.”
“Or settlers,” said Tam. “It seems like you have a lot of unsettled land. You could probably sell…”
“Vorkosigan frowned. “Anyone wishing to come here to stay would have to swear fealty to the Emperor.”
“Oh, well,” said Tam taken back. “I guess you’d have to deal with that on a case by case basis. But I’m sure Sheela is right: you have a lot of valuable things here.”
Sheela frowned. Upon reflection she wasn’t so sure. Yes, wood could be valuable, but valuable enough to bring starships here to transport it? Somehow she doubted it. And there was so much these people needed! How could they pay for it all? She could even see shrewd merchants charging them for basic knowledge. Any computer today came with a vast collection of reference sources as a standard feature—because people could get it for free almost anywhere. But here, as Vorserran had said, such ‘common’ knowledge would be priceless. In her mind’s eye she could see some galactic merchant telling the Barrayarans: ‘Oh yes, I have computers! Only a hundred Betan dollars! Oh, but the software is another five hundred. And then a power pack is another thousand. Oh, you need a power plant to charge the power pack? Well, now, that’s only a million…’ Damn. The thought of selling basic knowledge stuck in her craw. She wondered if she could show Vorserran—or the Count’s son—how to use her computer and then just sort of accidentally leave it behind…?
“Can your com-computer show us any pictures of your weapons?” asked the boy suddenly.
That idea roused all the Barrayarans and reluctantly Sheela called up data and vids on some of the more common weapons used in the Wormhole Nexus. They seemed particularly taken with the plasma arcs. One vid, of a man with a shoulder plasma arc blasting a small building to smithereens, she had to play again and again. Young Vorkosigan laughed in delight but his father frowned deeply.
“The sale of things like that would have to be strictly regulated,” he said. “We can’t have people coming here and selling them to anyone with a bag of gold!”
Sheela remembered her conversation earlier that day with Professor Vorserran. Yes, a hundred such weapons in the hands of a rebellious count could tear their fragile empire apart. “That… that shouldn’t be a problem,” she said. “You can establish a spaceport at your capital and insist that any traders land there and there only. You could have your own inspectors there to ensure that only those things that you approve of are sold.” She assumed that things were done that way on other worlds.
Vorkosigan seemed mollified and he asked to see the plasma arc vid again. A few minutes later the servant entered and asked about dinner. Business was put aside for a while and they had a pleasant meal. She guessed there must be a travelling kitchen in the next car since that was where all the food came from. She was grateful for the small bathroom the car boasted, too.
The train stopped once to take on more wood and refill its water tanks and then rumbled onward as the sun sank behind the mountains. The conversation became more general and Sheela showed them more and more things on her computer. All the Barrayarans had things they wanted to see or learn about and she was hard pressed to keep them all satisfied.
Night fell and the lanterns and candles in the car were lit. The train went more slowly and there were several stops and delays. From what Vorkosigan said they had to clear other trains from the track to make way.
Eventually the Count’s son fell asleep in his seat and Sheela ended her show of galactic wonders. The Count offered her the use of the bed in the compartment in the rear, but she declined. One by one they started to doze off in their seats and most of the candles were snuffed out. She tried to sleep, but the uneven motion of the train and her inner excitement defeated her attempts. Finally she pulled out her computer again and called up the stellar survey comparison she had started earlier. It had finished and there was an enormously long list of differences in stellar positions—as she had expected. She was quite certain that nearly all were trivial and predictable. But by narrowing her search parameters she quickly found the one change that was not trivial.
GC1402-389D. Yes, yes, a red supergiant. That would make sense.
She flipped back and forth between the old star chart and the new one. A huge red star was gone. In its place was an expanding nebula with a neutron star at its center. In growing excitement she called up another star chart on which she superimposed the wormhole nexus. The result was very different from the usual maps of the nexus. Most people visualized the nexus as an ever-growing web of inhabited worlds linked together by the wormhole jump routes. And while that was true enough, they also instinctively assumed that worlds that were close together on the nexus maps were also close to each other in real space—and that wasn’t true at all. Except for Beta Colony, which was close to Old Earth, having been colonized by sublight vessels, a world’s position on the nexus often had no relation at all to where the world was in the real universe. Barrayar, for example, was connected to the nexus through Komarr (thanks to Sheela) but in reality was over 1200 light years away. Several other inhabited worlds were actually much closer to Barrayar, but since there was no wormhole link between them, they might as well have been in another galaxy.
But GC1402-389D was only about forty light years away from Barrayar. And sometime about 450 years ago it had blown up, gone supernova, in a titanic explosion that had briefly outshown all the other stars in the Milky Way galaxy combined.. And at this moment, Sheela Lahn was the only human in the universe that knew about it.
Checking her chart she saw that in about twenty-five more years the news would reach Pol as the first of the light arrived.
The light had arrived at Barrayar much, much earlier. The Great Fire. Yes, this close to the cataclysm the sky would have truly seemed to be on fire. For a few days or weeks it would have been brighter than Barrayar’s own sun before slowly fading over a period of months. And close on the heels of the visible light would have been a storm of hard radiation. Without a strong planetary magnetic field to deflect it, it would have fried computers and other electronics and probably killed a lot of people outright. A disaster for the new colony. It was really amazing that they had survived at all.
And at some point, either before or after, the wormhole would have collapsed, cutting off any possible help from outside.
Before or after? How soon would the redistribution of the supergiant’s mass have affected the gravitational equilibrium that created the wormhole? But wait, the wormhole from Komarr to Escobar collapsed around that time, too! That would indicate the effects were propagated faster than light! It was a popular theory, but no one had ever been able to prove it before. Was this the proof? Sheela began frantically entering information into her computer, every bit of sleepiness banished.
She was still at it when an especially strong lurch nearly threw her off her seat. With a squeal of brakes the train came to a halt. Almost everyone woke up and Count Vorkosigan swore. “Dammit, what now?” he snarled. He stood up and went through the door leading to the front of the train. Two of the armsmen went with him, leaving Arkadi Kurzov and another man behind.
Sheela sighed and tried to regain her train of thought. Train of thought? What a stupid expression given what trains are really like! When had that expression come into use? Probably after they had better trains than these! Despite her excitement, her fatigue was making her mind wander.
A loud pop from outside caught her attention. What? More mechanical problems? But an instant later the two armsmen were on their feet with weapons in their hands. There was another pop and then a whole flurry of them. Something hit one of the windows and it shattered. Even more pops and they were much louder now with the glass gone.
“Get down!” shouted Kurzov. He bounded back to where Lord Vorkosigan was trying to see out a window and dragged the boy down to the floor.
“What… what’s happening?” cried Tam, who was on his knees.
“We’re under attack!”
Gunfire… those pops are gunfire… It didn’t seem possible. Sheela crouched down next to Tam and stared around in bewilderment.
The front door of the car banged open and a man came through. Kurzov and the other armsman aimed their pistols, but held their fire. It was another one of the guards. “They’ve taken the second car!” he shouted. “The Count is in the front car with the other men, but we’re cut off back here!” He threw himself behind one of the seats and started doing something with his gun.
More shots and louder yet. Several more windows in the car were broken. The guards had snuffed out most of the lanterns and only a candle or two lent a pale flickering light to the space. Sheela crouched behind the sofa with Tam and the others. Vorpeter had both his sword and the long dagger drawn. Vorserran had his dagger in hand and even the boy had a knife.
Suddenly the door opened again and several men surged into the car. There was an instant of hesitation but then Kurzov and the other armsmen opened fire. Not friends this time! The first two intruders fell, one silently, but the other began to scream in a horrible fashion. Then there was fire in return and the armsman closest to the door went down with a yell. The lantern on the wall above Sheela shattered, showering her with glass.
Kurzov fired again, hitting another attacker, but then his gun seemed to be empty. He turned and tossed it and a small box he dug out of a pocket to young Vorkosigan. “Piotr! Reload!” he shouted and then drew a long knife.
“The stunner!” cried Sheela. Kurzov spared her an annoyed and puzzled glance. “The stunner you took from Weitzl!” A look of understanding came to his face and he thrust his hand into another pocket.
But then there was more firing and Kurzov suddenly twisted around and fell to the floor, the tiny stunner bounced out of his hand and came to rest beside her. For an instant she just stared in shock. The man’s face was covered in blood. Somehow her hand closed around the stunner but before she could make another move, the rear door, the one to the Count’s sleeping chamber, burst open and more men emerged.
A horribly loud bang assaulted her ears and a flash half-blinded her and she saw Lord Vorpeter flung against a sofa where he collapsed. Professor Vorserran turned and lunged clumsily with his dagger, but a man carrying a rifle knocked the blade aside and rammed the butt of the weapon into the old man’s head. He fell next to Sheela, dazed, but not dead. Young Vorkosigan screamed something and actually managed to slash one of the attackers with his knife. The man cursed and raised a pistol but another man seized his wrist.
“Wait! It’s the Count’s son! Grab him!” There was brief tussle and the boy was caught. He kicked and yelled, but the man who had him was twice his size. More men pushed into the car and faces turned in her direction. Somehow, with scarcely a conscious thought, she slipped the stunner into her boot.
“Here’s one of them!” cried someone. A hand reached down and grabbed Tam’s tunic. Someone loomed over her with a gun in his hand. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“Sh… Sheela Lahn… from K-Komarr,” she managed to stutter.
“From the stars?”
“Take them!” snapped the man. “The boy, too!”
Impossibly strong hands grabbed her and dragged her to her feet. She and Tam and the still struggling Vorkosigan were hustled through the Count’s compartment and out the rear of the train. Sheela choked back an exclamation when she saw three more bodies sprawled there.
A small crowd of men and a larger crowd of horses were waiting. She was hoisted aboard one of the beasts and managed to find the stirrups without falling off again. Tam was similarly mounted and the boy was just slung across the saddle of another rider, face down and feet kicking in the air.
“All right, let’s go,” said a voice.
“What about the Count?” said another. “If we could kill him…”
“No good. He’s barricaded in the front car with a dozen guards. And we’ve lost too many men already. We’ve got what we came for, let’s get out while we can!”
A man seized the reins of Sheela’s horse and with a jerk they started forward. Riders were all around her and there was no hope of escape.
A last few shots rang out behind them and then the train was swallowed up by the night.
Arkadi came to his senses lying on his back and with a pounding pain in his head. He groaned and fumbled around with his hand trying to find his pistol, his dagger, some sort of weapon… Why? Why did he…? Attackers! Someone was attacking the train! A gurgling yell escaped his lips and he tried to push himself upright.
“Whoa! Whoa there, Arkadi!” came a shout and someone much stronger than he pushed him back down. “Settle down, man! There’s no danger now!” A face hovered over him and he recognized one of the Count’s armsmen, Andre Goldcamp. He blinked and tried to turn his head, which sent a new wave of pain through it.
“What…? The Count…? Piotr…?” He mumbled.
“The Count’s fine. Not a scratch. Well, maybe some bruises from where Ivan had to sit on him, but he’s all right.” Andre looked at him closely. “How are you feeling?”
“Head’s gonna explode, I think. But the boy? What about the boy?”
“Not surprised about the head,” said Andre. “Bullet creased your skull. Don’t think the bone’s broken, but you’re gonna have to rest easy for a while.”
“Dammit! What about Piotr?” snarled Arkadi. He found the strength to grab Andre’s tunic in his fist.
The look on his comrade’s face told him almost everything before he could open his mouth. “They took him, Arkadi. Nothing you could have done so don’t flog yourself. I know you will anyway, but it’s water over the dam now. We’re pretty sure he’s alive, though. And we’ll get him back.”
Arkadi groaned and he let go of Andre. Gone! His charge, his whole reason for being, had been snatched away. He had failed! His oath to the Count, to himself… But if Piotr was still alive… He looked around and saw that he was on one of the sofas in the railroad car. Morning sunlight was streaming in through the windows, many of which had been shot out. The noise of men’s voices came to his ears and to his nose the smell of horses mingled with the smell of gunpowder—and death.
In spite of Goldcamp’s protests he pushed himself upright. There were a hundred or more horsemen outside, Imperial dragoons from the look of their uniforms. Closer at hand there was broken glass and debris all over the floor of the car. The sofa opposite him had an ugly stain, browner than the fabric.
“What were our losses?”
“Four of the armsmen dead, five more wounded—including you. A couple of servants hurt. Lord Vorserran took a nasty knock, but he’ll be all right. Lord Vorpeter… well…” Goldcamp shook his head.
“Not yet, but probably before the end of the day. Gutshot.” He nodded toward the other sofa and then back toward the Count’s private chamber.
Arkadi grimaced. “What about the two aliens?”
“Taken. With the boy. The Count is thinking that’s who they were really after.”
Yeah, yeah, that made a certain sense, he supposed. It was hard to think…“So why aren’t those troopers after them?”
“One squadron already is. After the attackers left, we sent a rider to the next station and he telegraphed for help. The dragoons arrived just before dawn. These boys here are for the Count’s security. The bastards barricaded the track to stop us. As soon as it’s cleared, we’ll get moving again.”
“Who were they, Andre?”
“Well, as you’d expect, the ones we killed didn’t have anything on them to identify them. We did take one of their wounded, but he didn’t reveal anything much before he died. Some damn bravo by the look and sound of him. A hired gun. A half-dozen different counts could be behind this.”
Arkadi leaned back and sighed. Yeah, the counts might have been legally limited to twenty armsmen, but that didn’t prevent them from having more in secret, or hiring others at need. A few counts, like that Vorkrumper down south, deliberately swore armsmen to them and then after a few years ‘let them go’ and swore new ones, creating a ‘secret’ reserve. And with the old counts’ armies demobilized there were plenty of trained men who had been unwilling to take the Emperor’s colors still floating around looking for work—although they were all starting to get a bit old for things like what happened last night. And then there were the local militias…
Still, considering how quickly the ambush had been arranged, the number of likely suspects could be narrowed down dramatically. Only two or three could have learned of the situation and had the time to get men into position. “I’ve got to get on their trail while it’s still fresh,” he said.
“Don’t be a fool, man!” exclaimed Goldcamp. “You probably can’t even stand up, let alone ride!”
“I can stand…” But he couldn’t. He pushed himself up off the sofa a tiny bit and then a wave of dizziness gripped him and he collapsed back on the cushions. “Help me up, dammit.”
“I’ll do no such thing! You’re going to rest and get your strength back. Then we’ll all go out and pay those bastards back. All right?”
It went against everything in him, but he knew Goldcamp was right: in his present state he was useless.
“All right?” asked Goldcamp again.
“Yes, yes, all right.”
“Good. Now rest easy. I’ll be back in a bit with some soup for you.” The man moved off.
He closed his eyes, but he was still awake when the train lurched into motion.
* * *
Piotr Vorkosigan glared as the man untied his wrists from the pommel of his saddle. “All right, get down and stretch your legs,” said the man. “Ten minutes and we’re moving again. Don’t try any tricks, my lord. You won’t get five feet—and I’ll make sure you regret it.” The man smiled nastily at him, but Piotr just slid off the horse and turned away. The others, the two aliens, were also dismounting under the watchful eyes of their captors. The man groaned and complained loudly. The woman said nothing but looked around warily.
It was about an hour after dawn and the party was in a pine woods that blocked the view in every direction. Piotr didn’t know exactly where they were, but he had a pretty good guess. They had been a little over halfway to Vorbarr Sultana when the train was ambushed. From there they had travelled west, and maybe a bit north. They had ridden hard and the ground wasn’t too difficult and attackers had brought spare horses, so they could easily have covered seventy or eighty miles by now, although probably not in a straight line. At his father’s urging Piotr had studied maps intensively along with his other subjects. They were almost certainly in the eastern part of Count Vortaine’s district. Was he behind this? It didn’t seem likely, Count Vortaine was on good terms with his father and a stout supporter of the Emperor. No, whoever these men were, they were just passing through to somewhere else. But where? He looked at the foam-flecked and gasping horses. Wherever they were going it wasn’t going to be on those poor beasts.
As if in answer to his thoughts, there was a low shout and then two men appeared on horseback leading a dozen fresh horses. They were welcomed by the man who seemed to be in charge of the party. No names had been given, but he was clearly Vor and very much in command. Who was he? And what was this all about? From what had been said in the train, the attack had not been aimed to kill his father and apparently even his own capture was just a by-product of the raid.
They want the aliens.
Before he could pursue that thought any further, the enemy leader motioned to some of his men and Piotr and the aliens were brought before him. “We’ll be moving on in a few minutes,” he said. “Search those two.” He indicated the male alien, Captain Hodgkins, and himself. The leader nodded his head at the woman, Lady Sheela. “Your pardon, milady.” Piotr suffered himself to be searched, but they found no weapons and didn’t take anything else from him, not even the five-mark piece in his pocket. They took pretty much everything Hodgkins had if it looked unusual. The leader gently patted down the woman but only took her computer. Then he squatted down and patted her legs and then got to her feet and froze with his hand on her right boot. The woman stiffened and let out a little gasp. But the man just grinned and stood up. “You may retain your blade, milady, if you promise to do nothing foolish with it.”
“Uh… of course,” said the woman, who was pale as a ghost.
The man looked at Lady Sheela’s computer and then at the identical one taken from Captain Hodgkins. “What are these?” he demanded.
“Uh, recording devices,” said Lady Sheela. “For taking notes of conversations and things like that. What are you going to do with us, sir?”
“Have no fear. Listen, all of you,” said the man loudly to his men. “These people are all guests of… well, of your employer. They are to be treated with every courtesy, or suffer the consequences. Understand?” There was a low murmur of assent from the men.
“Now just a minute,” said Hodgkins. “Who are you people and where are you taking us? We’re guests of this emperor of yours…”
“No, you are guests of ours, sir,” said the man sternly. “I apologize for the inconvenience, but all will be made clear shortly. Now,” he turned to take in all three of them, “we’ll be in the saddle for quite a while. If any of you need to attend to necessities, I suggest you do so now. Milady, there’s a clump of bushes over there and I assure you that you will have privacy. Just don’t try to run off, eh?”
Lady Sheela nodded and walked toward the bushes. Piotr turned away and undid the buttons of his trousers.
* * *
Sheela reached the bushes and glanced around to see if she really was out of sight. She’d nearly passed out when her captor had felt the stunner in her boot. But he’d let her keep it! Why? He said something about a blade, did he think it was a knife? And if so why would he let her keep that?
No time to worry about it. She touched the tiny microphone clipped to her vest. They hadn’t realized that it was anything, probably thought it was a piece of jewelry or something. “Danno? Danno, can you hear me?” she whispered.
“Hey, Sheela, I can hardly hear you, speak up, will you?” She shivered in relief when she heard the jump pilot’s voice in her earbud.
“Danno!” she hissed. “I can only talk a moment, so shut up and listen! We’ve been kidnapped…”
“The train was attacked and Tam and I and the boy have been carried off. We’re okay for the moment, but you need to get word to Count Vorkosigan and his people.”
“What? How? Where are you?”
“You can track us, can’t you? Plot our position and get it to Ian! He can use their telegraph to get word to the authorities.”
“But what are we going to do?” She could hear the panic in Danno’s voice. She was feeling pretty panicked herself.
“Are you all right, milady?” came a voice from beyond the bushes. The tone of it told her she had run out of time.
“I’ll be right there,” she answered back. “Danno! Just do it! I’ve got to go!”
Unfortunately, she did have to go and there had been no time to do it. She was just going to have to suffer. She emerged from the bushes, pretending to straighten her clothing. The fresh horses were waiting for them. Tam and the boy had already mounted. She noticed that Tam didn’t have his hands tied, but the boy did. The leader offered her a boost up on the horse and she thanked him.
And then they were off. She and Tam and the boy and nine escorts. The rest of the men seemed to be staying behind with the tired horses. She looked at them in puzzlement and then Lord Vorkosigan caught her eye. “They’ll try to draw off any pursuers,” he said quietly.
Their horses were fresh, but unfortunately, she wasn’t . She’d been awake all night and much of the previous night and even though she was getting used to the horses, she had no experience at long rides. It used a different set of muscles than she usual used and they were getting very tired and sore. The inside of her legs were being chaffed raw, too. How long could she keep this up? Tam seemed like he was sinking into some sort of stupor.
But it was clear that their captors were in a hurry. From young Vorkosigan’s comment she had to assume that there were rescuers on their trail and their captors were the ones in danger now. But they were on their way somewhere, presumably to some refuge away from pursuit. Danno ought to be able to track them precisely. Her tiny transmitter was linked to her computer pad which could communicate with the ship. Before they had come down they had placed several small repeaters in orbit spaced around the planet so that they would have clear lines of communications even when the ship’s orbit took it to the other side of the planet. As long as her ‘pad was within ten kilometers she’d have a link to the ship and they could track her—or her ‘pad anyway.
But would that do any good? The crew of the good ship Fool’s Luck was not going to be able to come and rescue them, that was for sure! There might have been one or two more stunners on board, but nothing more lethal than that. Tam Hodgkin’s hardy band would last about ten seconds against the experienced fighters surrounding them. They were going to need help, and the only help available was from Count Vorkosigan and his emperor. Considering that they had his son, Sheela had no doubt that Vorkosigan was already in pursuit, but they could make it so much easier for them by telling them where they were!
And who were their captors? They’d come specifically to capture Tam and her, so they knew they were off-worlders and they wanted them badly. For what? Weapons? It was the only possibility that made sense to her. Some rival of the emperor, hoping to throw off his rule with modern weapons?
They rode in silence for about twenty minutes and then Ian called her. “Sheela? Sheela? Can you talk?”
She absently brushed the microphone. “No. I’ll listen.” She whispered.
“Understood. Okay, we’ve got your location plotted. Maybe two hundred kilometers northwest of here and heading west. I tried to get a message through to Vorkosigan, but they already know about the attack. The people here, I mean. There are about forty of them with guns all around the shuttle. To protect us they say. I told them the information about your location, and they said they would send it along. I’m not sure what else we can do right now, Sheela. Me and the Weasel aren’t exactly equipped to come get you. About all I can do is keep tracking you and keep passing it along. I guess… I guess I’ll call you later when something happens. And I’ll keep my ear glued to the com listening for you!” There was a long pause and then: “Good luck, girl.”
Sheela sighed and tried to find a more comfortable position on the damn horse.
* * *
By the time the train ground to a halt at the station in Vorbarr Sultana, Arkadi was feeling quite a lot better. Not good, mind you, but better. He could stand and he’d kept some food down. A large bandage wrapped much of his head, but he could see and walk and possibly even think, too.
There was a large escort of cavalry waiting for them and as one of the walking wounded, he found himself in the big carriage that the Emperor had sent for the Count. The head armsman, Ivan Karal, was there, too. Lord Vorpeter had survived the train ride and a doctor was waiting, but no one held any hope for him. Lord Boriz Vorpatril, another of the Emperor’s trusted men, was in command of the escort and rode in the carriage. Vorkosigan, who had been fidgeting and fuming at the slow pace of the train seemed ready to explode.
“Who was it, Boriz?” demanded the Count once the carriage door was closed and the vehicle moving. “This wasn’t some random bandit attack or even an assassination attempt! They knew where we’d be and knew who we’d be carrying! The information must have come from the palace!”
“Yes, my lord, that much is crystal clear,” replied Vorpatril. “We’re turning over every stone to find the spy, but so far we’ve found nothing for certain. But we have had one piece of luck. Apparently the aliens have some sort of long-distance communications device…”
“Yes, yes, I know that. They demonstrated them to us!” said Vorkosigan dismissively.
“But apparently whoever snatched them doesn’t know that,” said Vorpatril with a grin. “They didn’t take them away and the woman has managed to contact their ship. We’ve gotten several telegraphs from Vorkosigan Surleau and the aliens are able to track her location. We know where they are, my lord!”
Arkadi sat up straighter and so did the Count. “Where?” they asked simultaneously.
Vorpatril glanced at Arkadi and frowned, but the Count waved for him to go on.
“Vortaine’s district and heading northwest. They’d be getting close to the town of Hammel by now.”
“Well, we can be sure that Vortaine’s not behind this, they’re just passing through his district. But Hammel, there’s a railway line that goes through there isn’t there? Can we get some troops up that way?”
“Yes the line runs through the town, and half an hour ago the telegraph through there and to points north and west went dead. Wires probably cut.”
“Damn, they’re going to meet up with a train! I’d bet everything I own on it!” The Count was frowning ferociously.
“No doubt, my lord. And they’ll probably cut the tracks after they are gone so we can’t pursue. The Emperor has ordered a train full of troops to try and get through anyway and a regiment of cavalry has been dispatched as well.”
“They’ll be long gone by the time anything reaches there, damn it. So, the question now is where these bastards are heading?”
“Not too many choices heading northwest on the railway from Hammels, my lord.”
“No, assuming the direction isn’t just some ruse to throw us off. But I have to keep reminding myself they can’t know we are tracking them so precisely. They have probably detached men to try and trick the dragoons we sent after them while the main party went in another direction. But as long as we know where the aliens are, we have them pegged.”
“Almost has to be Count Vorstakof, my lord,” said Arkadi unable to stay silent any longer. “Him or Count Vorlane.”
“Yes… yes,” said the Count. “Or both acting together. Certainly those two would be very high on the list of suspects.” The carriage made a turn and the Count looked out the window and then at Vorpatril. “Where are we going?”
“Not the palace?”
“We know there’s at least one spy in the palace. Hopefully you have better security, my lord. The emperor will be waiting for us there.”
“Ah. Good thinking. And I’m assuming you have trusted men in place at the telegraph office. It doesn’t necessarily have to be someone actually in the palace.”
“We’ve looked into that, my lord, but that avenue seems to be secure.”
“Has anyone been arrested? Are Vorstakof and Vorlane in the capital?”
“Vortsakof was here until yesterday. He seems to have vanished since then.” Vorkosigan nodded and cursed under his breath.
The carriage and the escort clattered down the cobblestone streets in the gathering dusk. As they neared the mansion, the streets were illuminated by some of the new electric lights that were coming into use in the capital. Suddenly the Count muttered: “Damn.”
“My lord?” said Vorpatril.
“Has my wife been informed about our son?”
“The Emperor was going to inform her, my lord.”
“Good. Good, she won’t go into hysterics in front of Dorca.”
“We’re going to get him back, my lord,” said Arkadi. “I promise you!” The Count gave him a grim smile and nodded.
The carriage turned through the gate of Vorkosigan House and the Count was out almost before it came to a stop. Vorpatril, Karal and Arkadi were on his heels. Arkadi’s legs still felt wobbly, but he forced himself to keep up. A group of armsmen wearing the Vorbara colors were waiting and in short order they were in one of the large sitting rooms on the second floor. The Emperor was there along with the Count’s wife. She looked worried, but in control of herself. She briefly embraced her husband and then Vorkosigan was clasping hands with Dorca.
“Welcome back,” said the Emperor. “Has Vorpatril brought you up to date?”
“Yes, Sire. So what’s our next move?”
“Well, getting your boy back is near the top of the list, of course, but I’m afraid not quite at the very top, I’m sorry.”
“Yes, Sire, I know. This is a desperate move by whoever is behind it. They’re putting everything on one throw of the dice and it has to be in hopes of getting their hands on alien weaponry and rising up against you.”
“Yes,” nodded Dorca. “My thoughts exactly.”
“And we have to prevent that, Sire. Before the attack they showed us moving pictures of some of their weapons. A few hundred of them could annihilate the Imperial army in open battle.”
“As powerful as that?” The Emperor looked taken aback.
“I’m afraid so. And I was led to believe that what they showed us was about their equivalent of one of our rifles. Much more powerful weapons must exist.”
“I suppose they hope to use the two aliens they took to force the others to deal with them rather than us.”
“I’m afraid it’s even worse than that, Sire.” Dorca looked at the Count. “These aliens are here simply to make money. They don’t care who they make it off of. They are happy to deal with us, but they’d be just as happy to equip these rebels and then deal with them after they have overthrown you.”
Dorca frowned and turned away for a moment. He walked over to one of the tall windows, hands clasped behind his back. The Emperor was nearly sixty, but still fit and vigorous. He stared out for a few minutes and then nodded his head. He turned back to face the rest of them.
“Well! We can’t allow that, can we? At the moment, the rebels—whoever they are—are waiting for their hostages to be delivered to them. From all we know, that can’t happen for at least a while, perhaps several days. We can use that time to ensure that the aliens will only be dealing with us. Count Vorkosigan.”
“You have men guarding the remaining aliens and their ship at Vorkosigan Surleau, correct?”
“And these aliens are in regular contact with your men there, updating us on the position of their abducted comrades?”
“All right then. The original plan was for them to relocate their ship to the capital once their comrades had arrived. We shall move ahead with that plan. Contact your people and have them insist that the aliens move their ship here immediately. Land it right next to the palace. They will not take no for an answer. Understood?”
“Yes, Sire! At once!”
The room seemed to explode into action with people moving and talking all at once. But Arkadi had no orders. He was obliged to stand there while other men acted. All during the trip back to Vorbarr Sultana he’d tried to convince himself that he had done everything he possibly could to protect the boy. That no man could have done more. He hadn’t come even close to succeeding.
But they would get the boy back. He would get the boy back—or die trying.
Lord Piotr Vorkosigan leaned against the wooden side of the railway box car and studied the people around him. Their captors, eight of them anyway, were clustered at the opposite end of the car, chewing bread and passing a bottle of wine around. The other one, the leader, was somewhere else on the train. Presumably there were still more of these enemies aboard, someone stopped the train for them, after all. His father was having him instructed in tactics and he did have a natural talent for it. He had evaluated the current tactical situation and he had to admit that by any standard it was pretty bad.
The men in the car were keeping an eye on them, but giving them a bit of privacy. The noise of the train would prevent them overhearing anything he and the two aliens might say to each other. The mere fact that they were being allowed this privacy indicated they didn’t think there was anything of importance to overhear. Several of the men kept eyeing the woman. He hoped the leader’s warning would keep them under control. If not…
“Lady Sheela,” he said just loudly enough for her to hear.
“Do you have your knife?”
“What? No, I don’t have a knife.” The woman looked surprised.
“But the man felt it in your boot when he searched you!” protested the boy.
“No,” she said and her voice fell. “That’s the stunner. Arkadi… Armsman Kurzov dropped it and I put it in my boot.”
“What?” said the other one, Captain Hodgkins, much too loudly. “You’ve got a stunner?”
“Shh! Yes, but don’t get any wild ideas, Tam! D’you really think I could get all eight of those thugs before they shot us all down?” Hodgkins looked at their captors and after a moment shrugged. “If the right time comes we can try to make a break, but this just isn’t the right time. Be patient.”
“Hey, I am the captain!”
“Oh please,” said the woman rolling her eyes. She turned back to Piotr. “Why did he think I have a knife. And why did he let me keep it?”
“Your vorfemme knife. Vor ladies carry them to… uh… protect their honors. Not usually much of a weapon, really.”
“Huh,” said the woman. “I did notice the little pocket inside the boot. I didn’t know what it was for.” She looked at Piotr and then at the men and back at him. Her expression was uneasy. “Am I… uh… likely to have to guard my honor?”
“I hope not. But if you have that weapon… can you use it?”
“I think so. If I have to. But it does just knock people unconscious. Not that big of a threat, really.”
“They don’t know that,” he said with a small grin. “If you start shooting and they start falling, the others are going to be scared by it.”
“Yeah, scared enough to blast all of us, just like she said,” growled Hodgkins.
“Lady Sheela is right: we have to wait for the right moment.”
“Look, we should be able to talk our way out of this. They clearly want something from us. We just find out what it is and negotiate!”
Piotr looked at the man and frowned. They want your fancy weapons! And you propose just giving them to them? The thought had been growing in him all during their journey. Whoever was behind this wants the alien weapons and obviously is not in the Emperor’s service! A rebellion. If successful the Emperor would be killed, all his closest supporters would be killed. His father. Him…
He could not allow that to happen.
And the only leverage the traitors had were these two aliens. Without them, they had nothing, nothing at all. So, either an escape had to be engineered…
…or the aliens had to die.
He didn’t like the idea and he hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but his duty was clear: prevent the enemy—whoever they were—from getting any of those wondrous and terrifying weapons they had seen pictures of on the train yesterday. He was sure his father would want him to do whatever was necessary.
“Perhaps tonight,” whispered the woman. “They’ll have to sleep. If they do it in shifts and only a couple are awake. Maybe then.”
Captain Hodgkins just grunted and shook his head, but Piotr nodded. “Good thinking! We’ll have to look for our chance.”
“Yes, we can… oh, hold on a moment. Message coming in.” She brushed her hand on her vest and then became still. Piotr looked closely and saw the tiny device still clipped to her vest. She could communicate with the other aliens?
“Yes, yes, we’re still okay,” she said. “We’re on a train now. Shut up in a car with no windows. Can’t tell where we’re going. What? Oh dear. Yes, I understand. Well, call again when you get there. It’s noisy enough in here that I can talk a bit. Right. Good luck.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me you still had your com?” hissed Hodgkins when she was finished.
“I couldn’t exactly shout it out to you while we were on the horses, could I?” she snapped back. “This has been the first opportunity. And where the hell is yours?”
Hodgkins blushed. “I took it off when I was trying to sleep on the train and there was no time to grab it.” The woman glared at him. “Well, the damn ear bud itches!”
“But you have been in contact with your friends?” demanded Piotr. “Have you told them what’s happening? Can they contact my father?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “When they let me use the bushes at our first stop. Your father is fine, my lord. He’s sent soldiers after us. Oh, and Arkadi was only wounded and not badly. My friends can pinpoint our location. But… but your father also put some of his men on our shuttle and they are… well, forcing Ian and Mr. Weitzl to come to your capital city. They are on their way now.”
“What?” snapped Hodglins. “Great! So we’re all hostages now!”
“Guests of the Emperor, is what they told Ian,” said Lady Sheela.
“Yeah right! What a bloody mess! We never should have landed!”
The two aliens snarled at each other for a bit, but Piotr found himself relaxing. Arkadi was alive! He’d refused to allow himself to grieve all the way here, but the image of his protector lying inert and blood-covered on the rail car floor had never left him. He knew his father was safe from what the attackers had said, but he had truly feared for his guardian. But he was alive. And with the other two aliens and their ship in the Emperor’s hands, the danger of the rebels getting the weapons was much, much less. Of course once the rebels realized that, their value as hostages was much less, too. His own value was still high, or it would have been in a normal situation. This was anything but normal. There was no threat of death or torture that would make the Emperor give in. Not on an issue like this. And his father would understand. He was Vor. Just as Piotr was. Being Vor meant duty… and sacrifice.
But the situation was now much simpler. He didn’t have to save the Empire—he just had to save himself and the others.
If he could.
* * *
Sheela spent most of the day working out scenarios in her head about how she could use the stunner to escape. If six or even five of the guards fell asleep when night came she thought that maybe she could stun the others before they could give an alarm and wake the others. Two or three guards, she might be able to do it. Danno called her and told her that the shuttle was now at the capital, parked right next to the emperor’s palace. Ian and Weitzl were being treated courteously, but they had been told quite plainly that they would not be permitted to make any deals with anyone except the emperor. Even if that meant sacrificing her and the others. Tam had been frantic, he was quite willing to make any deal with anyone to save his skin. Well, if it came down to it, so was she. The thought of plunging this world into a bloody civil war horrified her, but she didn’t really owe these people anything. Did she? But if they could escape she’d never have to face that decision.
All of her escape fantasies came to nothing when the train stopped late in the afternoon at a small village where a large body of horsemen was waiting for them. She’d been allowed to relieve herself before boarding the train so she wasn’t in any great distress now, but she was still glad for the chance to use a small outhouse. She checked in with Danno, but there was no real change to the situation except that a railroad bridge over a large river had been destroyed after they passed to block any quick pursuit. The emperor was mobilizing his forces, but they could not expect any rescue for days or weeks.
The same man who had spoken to them before still seemed to be in command. “Again I apologize for all this,” he said. “But just another day or so and we’ll be in much more comfortable quarters and you will be able to meet with your host.”
Tam tried to negotiate with the man, but he deflected all questions. Sheela was afraid that Tam was going to blurt out something about the others and the shuttle being in the hands of the Emperor and give away the secret of their communications, but the man moved away after just a few moments and Tam subsided. They were put on horses again and Sheela’s muscles and skin screamed in pain. She had really stiffened up on the train and she had some awful blisters. But there was nothing for it and they were soon on the move again. There were mountains all around them now. The railroad followed a small river and the train chugged off, but their captors took them along a narrow road that wound its way up and up and up.
Young Vorkosigan was looking around intently, but he was too far away to speak to. Tam seemed sunk in his own gloom again so she sat her horse in silence until they finally stopped for the night. The new additions to their captors were better equipped and a small tent was set up for her use. Guards were placed next to it and after a meal she was provided with a pot of hot water, towels and some soap. She gladly did some washing, although she confined it to face, hands and her legs and feet. She winced when she cleaned the blisters on her legs. She tore some of the towels into strips that she could use to bind her wounds and hopefully give her some protection tomorrow. She briefly fingered the stunner in her boot, but a glance through the tent flaps showed far too many alert men to try and make an escape. Tam and Vorkosigan were kept close to one of the fires.
A final communications check before she went to sleep didn’t provide much useful information. Apparently they were in the district of a Count Vorstakof now, although that meant nothing to her. Imperial troops were getting across the big river and following the railroad. She told Danno they were no longer on the railroad, but he knew that, of course. “Looks like they’re taking you up into some pretty rough mountains, Sheela,” he said. That, she was well aware of. They clicked off and she was quickly asleep despite her fears.
* * *
Arkadi Kurzov stood near the door of the Emperor’s conference chamber and listened while he, Count Vorkosigan, and half a dozen advisors bargained with the two aliens. He was glad to be here where the decisions were being made, but he longed to be in the saddle, riding hard on the heels on the enemy and their captives. His head was continuing to improve and the bandage on it was smaller today. He felt confident that he could ride—but when would he be given the chance?
“So then we are agreed?” asked the Emperor. “You will deliver one hundred of these… plasma arc rifles and all their appurtenances in return for two thousand pounds of gold?”
Arkadi winced at the enormous sum named. You could outfit, supply, and pay ten regiments for a year with a fortune like that! He couldn’t believe that the aliens’ armies paid anywhere near so much! Still, he could understand Dorca’s logic. At this stage the critical thing was to bind the aliens to the Empire. The weapons themselves were almost incidental, as long as they were delivered here and not into Vorstakof’s hands. And it was Vorstakof. There couldn’t be any more doubt about that. Traitor!
“Yes, we can do that,” answered the alien merchant. “But you realize it will take us over a month to go back to Komarr, get the items and return here.”
“So you have said. That is agreeable to us. When can you leave?”
“As soon as we get our people back!” exclaimed the engineer. “Weitzl, we can’t just leave Tam and Sheela here!”
“I thought we’d settled that,” said the one named Weitzl in a smooth and oily voice. Arkadi didn’t like the man at all. “While we go and bring back the goods, His Majesty will see about retrieving our missing shipmates.”
“No, we did not settle it! I will not just abandon them!”
“We are not abandoning them, Mr. Cummings. And it’s not like we can do anything ourselves. We have no choice but to …”
“The hell with that! I am not budging until we have them back. You can’t fly the shuttle, Weitzl and I won’t! I’ve already talked to Danno and he agrees with me so he won’t bring you back all safe and snug, either!”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” snapped Weitzl. “Be reasonable, man!” The engineer just folded his arms and glared at the other alien. In spite of himself Arkadi was impressed. The man wouldn’t abandon his comrades even for a colossal sum of money. Perhaps these Komarrans had more honor than he’d first thought. Or some of them did, anyway. Weitzl was furious.
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty,” he said to the Emperor. “Give me a chance to persuade him.”
Dorca nodded. “Yes, it’s been a long day. Why don’t we all take a break. Perhaps we can talk again after dinner.” He stood up and everyone else did likewise. Several of his armsmen escorted the aliens out, but no one else left and the door was shut again.
“So,” said the Emperor. “What do you think?”
“It doesn’t actually matter if they go and bring back the weapons for us, Sire,” said Count Vorkosigan. “At least not in the short term. Just so long as they don’t bring back weapons for Vorstakof. We just need to keep the aliens tied up here in negotiations while we run that bastard to ground.”
“Yes, my thoughts exactly. And what progress is being made in that direction, General Vorstein?” The emperor turned to a man in an elaborate uniform.
“We’ve pushed a brigade of cavalry across the Gershwon River, Sire, and enough infantry to secure the far shore until we can get the bridge rebuilt. We’ve repaired the telegraph lines to that point so we have good communications with General Vorberg. The forward elements of the cavalry are reporting stiffening resistance ahead of them. Apparently, Vorstakof has raised the whole countryside in rebellion.”
“Just local militia, Sire,” said another officer. “Once we’re across the river in force our troops will push them aside in an hour.”
“Don’t be so sure about that, Karl,” said Vorkosigan. “The country gets more and more mountainous beyond the Gershwon. They’ll burn or blow every bridge, block the road with fallen trees. Raiding parties will try to cut our supply lines. It could take weeks to reach Vorstakof Savoy.”
“But that’s not where the hostages are, is it, my lord?” asked Lord Vorpatril.
“No, but they want us to think they are, and as long as they don’t know about our secret communications with the aliens, we want to make them think we’ve taken the bait.”
“So where are they now, really?” asked Dorca.
“Pretty far up into the mountains off to the west of the main road, Sire. If I recall, Vorstakof has a hunting lodge in that area. They are probably heading there. I believe that his strategy is to try and draw us off toward Vorstakof Savoy, make us waste our time there while he arranges to get the alien weapons and then hit us from behind.”
“Makes sense,” nodded Dorca. “So what do we do about it?”
“I’d suggest that we keep pushing with the bulk of our forces along the railway to keep him thinking we’ve fallen for the ruse. But at the same time we can peel off columns of cavalry to try and get at him where he really is. The aliens have provided us with some amazingly detailed maps of the area and there are several possible routes to approach the place.”
“What about the other counts?” asked the Emperor. “Is there any sign that any of them are preparing to join Vorstakof?”
Another man, Dorca’s head of intelligence, Arkadi thought, shook his head. “None of them openly. A half-dozen have close ties with him, but all indications are this whole situation has taken them by surprise.”
The Emperor nodded. “Yes, no one could have predicted the arrival of the aliens. My guess is that Vorstakof just panicked when he got the news.”
“Yes, Sire. I’m sure he’s sent them messages, probably made them promises about the alien weapons. But they aren’t going to move until he has the weapons in hand.”
“Then we have to make damn sure he never gets them, agreed?”
Everyone answered in the affirmative and then Dorca looked toward the Count. “I’m sorry about your boy, Vorkosigan. Hopefully Vorstakof will realize that there’s no point in harming any of the hostages, once we’ve got him cornered with no alien weapons to save him.”
“Yes, Sire. And thank you.”
“We’ll get them all back. Now, if we’ve covered everything for the moment, I will see you all again after dinner.”
They were clearly dismissed and everyone slowly filed out of the room. Arkadi took the opportunity to approach the Count. “My lord, I was wondering if you’d permit me to join one of those cavalry columns you were talking about? If I took the train now I could catch up and…”
His lord looked at him and smiled briefly and then shook his head. “I need you here, Arkadi. I’m short nine armsmen as it is and even though I know there is no one on Barrayar who will try harder to get Piotr back, I can’t see that one more man with any of those columns will make much difference.”
“Sorry, but my mind’s made up. Now go and get some rest. Your wound isn’t healed yet.”
Arkadi bowed stiffly and said: “Yes, my lord count.” He watched Vorkosigan walk off with Ivan Karal. It seemed odd to see him without Lord Vorpeter. He had died the previous night. His wife and family were on the way to the capital for the funeral.
Arkadi sighed and headed for the quarters he’d been assigned in the palace. It seemed a bit silly with Vorkosigan House not that far away, but the Emperor wanted his most important men close by and the Count wanted his men close by. They still hadn’t found the spy, but the palace was locked up tight as a drum and it would be very hard for unauthorized messages to get out. Of course it was no secret to anyone that the alien vessel was now sitting next to the palace and the word would quickly leak out despite every precaution. But Vorstakof was probably at that hunting lodge waiting for the aliens to arrive. Was there a telegraph line all the way up there?
As he walked down one of the long corridors he glanced out a window and noticed the alien engineer wandering through the gardens. Several Vorbarra armsmen were watching from a not terribly discrete distance.
Arkadi stopped, looked, thought. On an impulse he changed direction and went through a door and out into the gardens. The armsmen watched him, but they knew who he was and did not challenge him. He walked up to the alien. “Good day, sir.”
“Oh, uh, good day. Arkadi, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I just wanted to say how impressed I was with the stand you took at the meeting. Refusing to abandon your comrades despite all that pressure to do so. Well done, sir.”
“Uh… thanks. I just couldn’t turn my back on them. I… uh, I know you’re just as anxious to get the Count’s son back. I saw how closely you were guarding him.”
“Yes, it’s my duty to get him back again. But I confess that being cooped up here, hundreds of miles away is very frustrating. Especially when we know exactly where he is.” Arkadi hesitated. The idea that was forming in his head could land him in a huge amount of trouble, but he refused to stop now. “That vessel of yours, the shuttle, I was there when it landed at Vorkosigan Surleau. It made a great deal of noise. Does it always do that?”
“Yeah, I’m afraid so. It’s a pretty old model. Why?”
“If you wanted to take someone by surprise you would have to land quite some distance away, I would think. Ten miles, maybe more.”
“I suppose so… now wait a minute! Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?” The engineer’s eyes were very wide.
“Of course not,” said Arkadi as soothingly as he could. “But I was wondering: can your computer-thing call up those amazing map-pictures like you did before? I’d like to take a closer look at the mountains our friends are in.”
* * *
Sheela groaned in simultaneous relief and dread when it was announced that the large building perched above them was their destination. She simply had to get off this horse! But at the same time she wished she could turn the tired beast around and gallop away as fast as she could. She didn’t know what was going to happen, but she doubted that it would be pleasant.
But whatever was waiting for them was further delayed because the building wasn’t as close as it appeared. The road doubled back on itself several times as it wound its way upward. At one point it leapt across a rushing torrent on a narrow wooden bridge. A number of guards stood at both ends of the bridge, but made no challenge. As they got closer, Sheela could see that the building was made of carefully cut and set logs of impressive diameter. There were many windows and several balconies and all were decorated with elaborate carvings. Clearly no peasant’s hovel!
Finally they topped the last rise and she could see that the building was set on the edge of a wide flat space. A number of other buildings were further back, out of view from below, including a large barn. Beyond them the mountain continued upward.
A crowd of people were waiting for them. Most seemed to be servants, who bustled about helping with the horses and the baggage. Sheela practically fell off her horse, but there were several women to help her. A fair number of the people, however, were carrying weapons and looking very serious. The man who had been in charge these last two days dismounted and talked briefly with one of them and then came over to her and Tam. He doffed his hat and made a sweeping bow.
“Lady Sheela, Captain Hodgkins,” he said, “let me again apologize for all that you have been put through. On behalf of your host, Count Vorstakof, welcome to The Overlook. I am Lord Vorfallon. The Count will be expecting you for dinner where many things will be made clear to you. However, before that happens, you will be given the opportunity to bathe and refresh yourselves. If you’ll come this way please.” He gestured toward the house.
“Lady Sheela! Don’t be fooled by his fancy talk!” cried Lord Vorkosigan. “He and his count are traitors! They, and all who follow them, will soon feel the wrath of the Empire—and my father!”
Vorfallon raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Lord Vorkosigan, I’m afraid you will not be joining us for dinner. However, you will be well attended to, I assure you.” He made another gesture and several large men took hold of the boy’s arms and hustled him toward the house.
“What’s going to happen to him?” demanded Sheela. “He’s just a boy!”
“Have no fear, my lady. He will not be harmed. Now please, come this way.”
They were led in through the front doors of the house. The place was well named, for there was a spectacular view to the east. She and Tam were taken to rooms on the second floor that were adjacent to each other, but not connected. Lord Vorfallon made a few more pleasant remarks and then withdrew, leaving Sheela in the hands of a small gaggle of women who seemed determined to serve her. She nearly burst into tears when she saw the hot bath waiting for her. With the women’s help she undressed. The long bloomers had to be peeled away from her oozing blisters and this left her gasping and the servants making sympathetic noises or clucking in disapproval. She surreptitiously managed to pluck the microphone off her vest and the stunner out of her boot and conceal them. The women made off with all her clothing, including her underwear (which produced a number of whispered comments and giggles) but after wearing them for four days, two of them on horseback, they surely needed washing.
As did she. Lowering herself into the tub of blissfully hot water, she sighed in ecstasy. Some of the best pleasures could be accomplished with very little technology, she reflected. The women told her that dinner was still several hours off so she could soak to her heart’s content. When the water began to cool, one woman dipped out a bucket to make room for a new one of hot water. She felt the kinks slowly melt out of her muscles. Or most of them, anyway. Despite the pleasant surroundings, she could not forget the meeting and the dinner with the Count. From the information that she’d been getting through her earbug, this Count Vorstakof was in a very bad situation that was getting worse by the hour. And desperate men did desperate things.
At a gentle hint from one of the women, Sheela reluctantly left the bath and was dried. The women had some sort of ointment for her blisters that did help quite a bit and they bound linen bandages around her legs. New garments had been provided which fit tolerably well. She pinned her microphone back on and slipped the stunner back into her boots, which had been cleaned and shined.
It was getting dark outside and candles were being lit. She took a moment to step out on the balcony and watch the long shadows from the mountains to the west stretch out across the valleys in front of her. There was a gap in one of the ridges and through it she could see fifty or sixty kilometers she guessed. Beautiful, this really was a beautiful world. Beautiful but dangerous.
“Sheela! Sheela, are you there?” She flinched at Ian’s voice suddenly in her ear.
“Yes,” she whispered. “We’ve arrived at some place called The Overlook. A Count Vorstakof is…”
“We know, we know!” there was an urgency in Ian’s voice that brought her to full alert.
Ian gave an exasperated sigh. “I have got to be an idiot, Sheela! I can’t believe I’m doing this!”
“What are you doing?”
“I—we—are coming to get you! Tonight! I’m in the shuttle with Arkadi and six of his buddies—crowded in here!—and we’re on our way to your location. We’ve spotted a place I can land. It’s a good ways off so they won’t hear us. Arkadi and his men will come for you a few hours before dawn. Once you’re away from that compound I’ll fly in and pick you up!”
“Ian, that’s crazy! And… and if you’re already overloaded how are you going to take three more?”
“I won’t. Three of the men have volunteered to stay behind and try to get out on foot.”
“Sheela, I know this is nuts, but Weitzl is ready to sell you and Tam out and this Emperor of theirs is perfectly willing to go along! I didn’t know what else to do!”
“But if the Emperor… wait, does he know what you’re up to?”
“No! Nor Count Vorkosigan! Look, I have to pilot this thing. I’ll contact you again later when Arkadi is getting close to you and we can make more plans. He’s got a com now, too, so we can coordinate. Hang in there girl!” The connection cut and Sheela was breathing hard and clutching the railing. This is insane…
“My lady? Are you all right?” She jumped at the voice of the woman at her elbow.
“Yes, yes, fine.”
“It’s time for dinner, my lady. Lord Vorfallon is here to escort you down.”
Sheela took a deep breath and tried to calm her nerves. One thing at a time…
“All right. I’m ready.”
Count Viktor Vorstakof stared out the window at the stars twinkling above the mountain tops. He’d always loved this place. It had been a place he could retreat to and let the peace and calm of the mountains drive out the everyday cares and frustrations that so often filled him.
I could lose this, too, along with everything else. I must have been out of my mind. Surely no rebellion ever started with less planning or hung by a thinner thread. In all probability he was condemning his men, his son, and himself to death.
But what choice had there been?
For twenty years he’d been planning Dorca’s overthrow. He’d sworn on his father’s deathbed, where he lay dying with an Imperial musket ball in his guts, that he would someday bring the tyrant down. It had seemed an impossible promise at the time, with Dorca’s decisive victory at the Battle of Neshaminy and his armies overrunning the last of the rebellious counts’ strongholds. It had grown no less impossible with the passing years. He himself had been spared by Dorca’s amnesty and he was even permitted to inherit the countship. Dorca’s hold was still tenuous and he’d been forced to show certain mercies to forestall a brutal guerilla war in the mountains. So Lord Viktor Vorstakof had become Count Vorstakof and he’d knelt and sworn fealty to Dorca Vorbarra. The memory still burned. But there had been no choice. If he’d refused then he and his family, his infant son, would have been given over to the headsman and the Vorstakof line would have ended.
So he’d pretended to submit, but he never forgot his vow to his father. A vow which superseded any vow to Dorca. And then he’d gone to work. He’d carefully contacted men of like mind, patiently observed his enemy, made plans, always in the strictest secrecy. Many plans. Many, many plans. Year by year he’d made plans and discarded them. Over and over. Plans to assassinate Dorca. Plans to subvert his allies. Plans to rise in a new rebellion. Plans and plans and plans.
But after twenty years none of them had borne fruit. Dorca was too powerful, too clever, too ruthless. Vorstakof was fifty now. His son was twenty-two. The time to fulfill his promise was slipping by, slipping through his aging fingers. The chances were growing slimmer instead of more promising. His frustration had grown, too.
And then this had happened!
None of his plans, not his wildest imaginings, had ever included the arrival of aliens from the stars!
At first he’d refused to believe, but that had only lasted a few moments. Once he’d accepted the truth the whole situation became crystal clear to him: this was his last chance.
In his grandfather’s time men fought with flintlock muskets and bronze cannons. The muskets were individually made by craftsmen. Any village with a good blacksmith had the means to produce them. Any town of modest size with a foundry could cast a cannon. The would-be emperors of the Vorbarra clan could make more muskets and more cannons than most counts, but not more than all the counts together. They’d tried to subjugate the counts, but they’d failed time and time again.
But then had come the percussion muskets and the rifles and the iron cannons with exploding shells, and the railways and the telegraphs… Those couldn’t be made by a village blacksmith. Even the towns found it difficult. But in Vorbarr Sultana, that huge, stinking city, there those things could be made and made in quantity. Whole factories turned them out by the hundreds and the thousands. No other town on Barrayar could match the output of the great Imperial City. And the city made other things, too, things that brought trade and wealth to the Vorbarras. Wealth enough to build an army that no count, no group of counts, could match. Oh, perhaps if all the counts had banded together, but the Vorbarras’ wealth could buy counts just as it could buy artillery. One by one they fell under his sway and when the time was right he crushed all opposition. Now the Imperial Army held the world in a grip of steel. For all his scheming, Vorstakof had found no answer, no way to overthrow the emperor.
The coming of the aliens could change everything—or nothing.
It was this miserable technology which had given the empire its unbeatable edge. And now Dorca was being handed an even more enormous edge, technology hundreds of years more advanced, devices that couldn’t be built anywhere on Barrayar. Vorstakof had no idea what sort of weapons these aliens possessed, but they must be devastating, indeed. In the hands of Dorca, they would give him an insurmountable edge. Even if somehow Vorstakof convinced every count to join him and half the Imperial Army to desert, it would all be for naught if Dorca had a loyal core of troops armed with the aliens’ weapons. Put those weapons in Dorca’s hands and his tyranny would be unbreakable.
But if the weapons were in his hands…
It was that image, along with the sure knowledge that if he failed to act now it would mean failure for all time, which had driven him to move. Driven him to gamble everything. It was the only possible action, but it was still insane. Maybe I should have waited. Just let it go… No, damn it! His hands clutched the window sill like a pair of claws.
“Father?” The voice at his side made him flinch. He forced his hands to relax and he turned to look at his son. “They’re here, Father.” Alexei stood there with an expression of excited anticipation on his face. The boy—no, he was a man now—thought this was all some grand adventure. How much he looked like his late mother! A stab of fear twisted Vorstakof’s belly. Was he throwing his boy into the flames along with everything else? He took a deep breath and tried to find the calm this place usually granted him.
“Good,” he said, slapping his son’s shoulder. “Let’s go and meet our guests.”
* * *
Arkadi clutched the arms of the seats on either side of him and tried to ignore the fact that he was flying. Flying! I must have been out of my mind! Crouched where he was between the rows of seats, he could look out through the forward window of the alien vehicle. All he could see were clouds rushing past, faintly illuminated by pale moonlight, rushing faster than he’d ever imagined possible.
“How the hell did I ever let you talk me into this?” shouted Andre Goldcamp from the seat next to him. “This is madness!”
“Well, if you want to get off, I’ll ask Cummings to open the door and you can jump!”
“No thanks! How much longer?”
“Not long!” I hope!
He knew that it was less than thirty minutes since they had left Vorbarr Sultana, but it felt like hours. The plan, when it had first popped into his head, was clearly insane and he’d never expected to get this far. He was sure he’d be stopped, probably reprimanded by the Count, possibly dismissed, and certainly sent to his room without supper. But he hadn’t been stopped. Somehow he’d managed to convince Andre to throw in with him and the two of them had rustled up five of the ‘replacement’ armsmen that the Count had acquired and told them they had a mission—and nothing more. Then it had just been a matter of marching out to the shuttle with Ian Cummings in the center of the group as if they were escorting him. The palace guards hadn’t said a word until they were aboard with the doors shut. They’d probably said a few things then, but it was impossible to hear with the building roar of the shuttle’s engine. And then they were off. Simple as that. Amazing what you could accomplish by betraying a trust that you’d spent a lifetime building.
He had planned this primarily as a last sop to his damaged honor. One last try to get the boy back himself before admitting that he had failed and it was all up to others to do the job he had botched. But now that the first part of the plan had worked, somehow, somehow he had to make all the rest of it work, too.
He didn’t think that would go quite so smoothly.
“Okay, I’m circling the landing area.” Cummings voice sounding inside his ear made him flinch. The alien had given him one of the tiny devices and stuck it in his ear. A microphone was clipped to his shirt and the computer that made it all work, packed deep in a pocket. “All right, I see a spot where I can put you down. Hang on!” Arkadi gripped the seats tighter.
“Just about there!” he shouted. “Get ready to get out!”
“Thanks God!” He wasn’t sure who had shouted that. It could have been anyone—or everyone. The vehicle tilted and then turned and suddenly dropped in a fashion that made him gasp, and a moment later lurched to a halt, leaning a bit to one side. The doors to the outside hissed open and Arkadi was on his feet.
“Go! Let’s go!” He led the way out and his boots crunched on gravel and small stones as he jumped down. It was dark now and the ground uneven and he nearly fell, but he kept his feet and helped the others as they made their jumps. All of them had bulky packs, rifles and ammunition, which made them even more awkward. But all of them made it and they slid, stumbled and jumped their way down the rock slide that they’d picked for a landing spot. When they were about a hundred yards away, Arkadi stopped and gently squeezed the microphone. “All right, Ian, we’re clear!”
“Right-O!” came the reply. “I’ll be tracking you and waiting for your signal. Good luck!” The shuttle’s engines took on a higher pitch and the amazing machine lifted away into the night. It was too risky to leave the shuttle here with no guard, but it certainly couldn’t go back to the palace, so they’d found an inaccessible mountain top about twenty miles to the west where it could land again and wait.
The silence left behind when the machine vanished seemed unnatural. The crunch of the stones under his boots were strangely loud, his breath, his pounding heart… “Okay, let’s get moving,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go and not much time to get there.” He turned and led the way to the bottom of the slide. They entered a woods and it seemed as dark as the inside of a sack. Only a few rays from the lesser moon made it through to the forest floor. But they reached the bottom of the slope and found the stream that the alien’s picture-map said would be here. They stumbled along its banks for a mile or so and then it met a larger watercourse. Another mile and they came to a bridge and the road that would lead them to where Lord Vorkosigan and the aliens were being held.
Arkadi was acutely aware that there was only him and six other men to penetrate what was sure to be a closely held stronghold of the enemy. He was counting heavily on surprise. The enemy did not know he knew they were there and hopefully they wouldn’t believe that there was any threat of an attack this soon. Vorstakof (assuming he was actually here) and his men could have only arrived, at most, the day before and the men escorting his captives even more recently. They’d all be tired, all counting on at least one night of rest before any danger might appear. So they had to bring the danger to them as quickly as possible. Arkadi looked at the position of the stars. It was still three hours before midnight. But they were ten miles from their destination, much of it uphill.
“Come on, keep moving!”
* * *
“And so you see, Lady Sheela, Captain Hodgkins, I felt I had no choice but to bring you here. If you had been prevented from hearing anything but the Emperor’s lies you would have had no idea what a terrible tyrant you’d be unwittingly helping. Again I apologize for bringing you here in the manner I did, but if you’d been taken to Vorbarr Sultana, you would have been outside my reach and you might never have learned the truth.”
Count Vorstakof paused and took a sip from his wine. Sheela slowly let her breath out. Their ‘host’ had barely stopped talking all through dinner. There was no doubt that the man had a powerful charisma and he could make a compelling argument, a natural leader. In spite of herself Sheela half-believed the accusations Vorstakof had leveled against Emperor Dorca. And why shouldn’t she? The only things she knew about this world and its people were what she’d been told by Count Vorkosigan’s people. And they were loyal supporters of the Emperor, so they certainly weren’t going to say anything bad about him! What if he really was the bloody-handed despot Vostakof claimed him to be? Of course, by her own standards, even the most enlightened ruler these Barrayarans could imagine would seem a terrible tyrant. What if Dorca really is a monster? Does it make any difference? Would this Vorstakof be any better if he were in charge?
And for all his smooth words, the fact remained that Emperor Dorca had done no harm to her or her friends, while Vorstakof had killed or injured a bunch of people and then dragged her here against her will. Not a very good first impression, that was for sure!
But that was all beside the point. The only thing that mattered was that a rescue party was on the way. She could scarcely believe that Ian had agreed to it, but with Arkadi Kurzov in charge she could see how it could happen. The man was not someone who took ‘no’ for an answer. But only one shuttle full of rescuers… there had to be at least a hundred armed men here at The Overlook. Their only hope was surprise. Somehow she had to put this Vorstakof at ease, play him along, do nothing to arouse his suspicions.
“Well,” said Vorstakof after another moment. “I’ve bent your ears long enough with political bombast that probably doesn’t mean a lot to visitors like you. So, let’s get down to business, shall we?” Vorstakof had a slight smile on his face and the tone of his voice reminded her a bit of Count Vorkosigan on the train. “It is clear that you people have technology far in advance of what we have here on Barrayar. If that wasn’t true, then you wouldn’t be here, eh? I am assuming that you must possess weapons that are just as advanced as your spaceships. Correct?” His expression became very intent and he wasn’t smiling anymore. Sheela realized that his entire plot, probably his life, hung on getting the weapons.
She glanced at Tam, who was sweating. “Well, yes, that’s true,” she said. “We’ve seen some examples of your weapons—in action—and yes, we do have things that are far more powerful.”
Vorstakof relaxed slightly. “Good. Good, I couldn’t see how it could be otherwise. So I’ll be plain: I want to buy weapons from you. I’m realistic enough to realize that this is very much a seller’s market and that you are in a position to demand a high price. So be it. Name your price and let me have the weapons. What do you say?”
Tam opened his mouth, but Sheela cut him off. “Count Vorstakof, would you permit us to discuss your very kind offer in private for a few minutes?”
The Count frowned, but he couldn’t very well deny such a reasonable request without also denying his insistence that they were guests and not prisoners. After a moment he nodded. “Certainly. I think everyone is about done eating, so if you and Captain Hodgkins would like to use my study to confer, that would be fine. Please come this way.” He rose from his chair and escorted Tam and her down a hallway and opened a heavy wooden door. On the other side was a sumptuous room with rich paneling and many shelves holding real paper books. “This is actually a better place to hold our talks than the dining room,” he said. “I’ll leave you here until you are ready to resume. There will be a man outside if you need anything.” He started to bow himself out, but Sheela stopped him.
“Excuse me, my lord, I was wondering about Lord Vorkosigan. He’s just a boy and I was growing quite fond of him during our journey. I’d really hate to see him come to any harm. Would it be possible for me to see him?”
Vorstakof’s eyebrows drew together. “Perhaps later, my lady. But I assure you he’s fine. He has his own room up on the third floor. Now, I shall see you again shortly.” He shut the door behind him.
“What the hell are…?” began Tam, but Sheela instantly shushed him.
“Quiet!” She came over to him and whispered. “They might not have electronic bugs but there could still be people watching us!”
“All right,” he whispered back. “But what the hell are we going to do? This guy wants weapons and he’s gonna totally flip out if we tell him we can’t deliver any!”
“Then we don’t tell him!”
“What? Are you crazy?”
“Probably. But Tam, there’s a rescue party on its way! I heard from Ian while I was dressing! He’s flying them to a spot near here in the shuttle!”
“Oh my God, he’s gonna get us all killed!” groaned Tam. “Why the hell did he…?”
“Wasn’t his idea. That Arkadi Kurzov is leading it and you saw what he was like.”
“But… but the shuttle! You mean this ‘rescue’ party only has five men in it?” Tam’s eyes were getting very wide.
“Seven, actually. But let me contact Ian and see where they are.” She touched her microphone. “Ian? Ian? Where are you?”
“Sheela! Sitting on a mountaintop waiting for Arkadi’s signal! How are you guys?”
“We’ve got a tiger by the tail! Where’s Arkadi?”
“Hold on a second, I’m tracking his communicator… Okay, he’s about six klicks northeast of you, but it will be a lot farther by the trails he has to follow. He was only going to follow the main road part of the way and then take some little trails we spotted so he can come in from the rear. He figured it would take another five or six hours to get into position…”
“Not good enough!” hissed Sheela. “Vorstakof wants an answer from us about the weapons tonight. We’ll stall him as long as we can, but I don’t know how long that’s gonna be. Tell Arkadi to hurry!”
“Okay, will do.”
Sheela relayed the news to Tam, who looked close to panic. Sheela wasn’t far behind him. “We’re dead… we’re dead,” he moaned.
“If you don’t keep your head, we will be dead!” she snapped. “Now pull yourself together! This guy needs what he thinks we can give him. Without the weapons he’s gonna be dead! So as long as he thinks we can help him he won’t try anything rough. I know you can play a pretty good game of poker, Tam, so bluff this guy! We just have to stall him the rest of tonight.”
Tam pressed his hands to his head but before he could make any response there was a knock on the door and an instant later it swung open. Count Vorstakoff was there with four other men. One was just a servant who deposited a tray with a carafe of wine and glasses and quickly left again. Tam sat down next to the tray and helped himself with shaking hands. Sheela felt like she could use a stiff drink herself. Another of the men was some sort of advisor to the Count, they’d been introduced at dinner, but she couldn’t remember his name. The other two were the Count’s armsmen. One came into the room while the other remained in the hallway and shut the door. “Are you ready to resume?” asked Vorstakof.
“Uh, sure,” said Sheela. She wondered where Lord Vorfallon was, he had seemed to be the Count’s number two man.
“Good. Why don’t we all sit down?” They all found chairs, except for the armsman who stood by the door. “Now, we were talking about your selling weapons to me.” He stared at them and Sheela suppressed a shiver.
“Of… of course,’ said Sheela. “We’d be happy to sell weapons to you, my lord…” she hesitated and then a flash inspiration hit her. “In fact, if you like, we can show some of them to you.”
“What? How?” demanded the Count. “You didn’t have any with you…”
“Well, I should have said we can show you pictures of them and what they can do. Lord Vorfallon… uh, borrowed two small, flat devices of ours when he, uh, invited us to come here.”
“Yes, he gave them to me,” said Vorstakof. “He said you said they were recording devices.”
“Uh, yes. They can do a bit more than that, my lord, but it was too complicated to explain in the heat of the moment. They can also display pictures of things. If you could have them brought here, we could show you.”
“Very well.” He sent his advisor—Vorjervis, that was his name—out to fetch the computer pads. Sheela swallowed nervously, but she remembered what a sensation the displays had been with the Barrayarans on the train. With any luck she could keep Vorstakof enthralled for hours! Vorjervis returned in just a few moments bearing the two pads. Sheela took hers and set it on the desk and slowly—she must go slowly!—called up the holographic projector. This brought cries of wonder from the Barrayarans and she spent ten minutes just fiddling with the size, shape, and angle of the display.
“Okay, now what should I show you first?” She smiled at the Count and tried not to tremble.
Hurry, Arkadi! Wherever you are, hurry!
* * *
Arkadi almost flung himself on the ground when the voice started talking in his ear. Damn! He’d been so concentrated on watching for any movement, listening for any sound, he’d forgotten about that bloody thing!
“Arkadi, can you hear me?” He motioned for his men to halt.
“Yes,” he whispered. “What is it?”
“Just talked to Sheela. That Vorstakof guy is foaming at the mouth. She doesn’t think they can stall him much longer. You’re gonna have to get there sooner!”
“Sooner? That’s impossible! We’re just about to turn off the road onto that trail! We’ll be lucky to be in position before dawn!”
“They can’t wait that long!”
“Damn it, we can’t attack while they’re all awake! They’re only seven of us!”
“Well this whole crazy scheme was your idea, man! And they’re running out of time!”
Arkadi clenched his fist. The only way they could get there faster was to stay on the road. They could probably be there in two hours that way, but it was insanely dangerous. They would be sure to be spotted and challenged and that would be the end of it. Damn!
“All right! All right! We’ll do what we can!”
The alien clicked off and Arkadi looked at the six men with him. He was leading them to their deaths this way. But we’ve all sworn to die for the Count. There might not ever be a better time.
“Come on, keep moving.”
* * *
“And now this one is a… uh, Mark XIX heavy plasma arc,” said Sheela. She touched a control and a new image appeared, a man holding a large gun which proceeded to blast some targets to little tiny bits. Her audience oohed and ahhed appreciatively. She’d been doing this for well over an hour and they didn’t seem the least bit bored.
“Good, huh?” said Tam, taking a drink from his glass. He’d been drinking a lot…
“Oh ho, milord!” chortled Vorjervis. “Just imagine what something like that would do to Dorca’s army!”
“I am, believe me I am,” said Vorstakof with a hungry look in his eye. But now he turned that eye on her and Tam. “So when? When can you deliver these things to me?”
“Uh, well, my lord,” said Sheela, “we’ve shown you what we have to offer. Now, I’m afraid we have to come to the other half of the bargain: what do you have to offer us in payment?”
“What do you want in payment? I can give you gold, silver, gemstones…”
“Ah well, you see, my lord, such things do have value, but are not generally used as money out in the galaxy…” she launched into an explanation of galactic economics similar to what they’d told Count Vorkosigan on the train. She kept looking at Tam for help, but he didn’t say much beyond a few grunts. What was the matter with the man?
“Yes, yes, this is all very interesting, Lady Sheela,” interrupted the Count after a while. The look on his face told her he was running out of patience. “But it seems to me that the bottom line is that we do have things of value, things that could pay for these weapons. We can work out the details later, but I need the weapons as soon as possible. When can you deliver them?”
Oh Dear. She’d known this question was coming and she’d wracked her brain for what to say. She could just lie and tell him what he wanted to hear, but the lie would unravel very, very quickly. How quickly? Could it buy her enough time? “Uh… well, we’ll have to get in touch with our ship and see what…” But she’d hesitated too long and Vorstakof cut her off.
“Captain Hodgkins! You’ve let this woman talk for you all evening! But you are in command, are you not? Why do you not speak for yourself?”
“’Cause Sheela talks so nice, dontcha think?” answered Tam with a horrible grin on his face.
“’S’what she’s good at, y’know? I bet she could be good at some other things, too, but she never tries.”
Omigod! How much has he had to drink? Sheela tried to recapture Vorstakof’s attention, but to no avail.
“But now I’m asking you,” said Vorstakof in an icy voice. “When… can… I… get… those… weapons?”
“Oh… a month maybe,” said Tam, waving a hand in the air. “Six weeks, top.”
The color drained out of Vorstakof’s face. “A month!” he exploded. “I need them now! Now!”
“What? D’you think I fly around with a hundred plasma arcs on my ship?” asked Tam. “Why th’hell would I do that? We gotta go back to Komarr to get the stuff for ya. An’ with five barely-charted wormhole jumps to make it’ll take at least two weeks to get there, another week to get the weapons—can’t just buy those at a department store, y’know! And then another two weeks to get back. Yeah, a month or so.”
“I don’t have a month!” snarled the Count. “Dorca will have overrun my whole district by then!”
“Well I guess you’re up shit creek, then, aren’t ya?”
“Tam!” hissed Sheela.
Vorstakof was on his feet and he seemed very tall. “You’re lying! You’re lying, you bastard!” He walked over to where Tam was slouched in his chair, his fists quivering in fury. Tam seemed to suddenly realize what he’d been saying. His mouth dropped open and he tried to back away from Vorstakof, scrunching down in his chair.
“I… It’s the truth! I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do! We didn’t bring any weapons with us! Why would we? We didn’t expect to find anyone here!”
Vorstakof grabbed Tam by his tunic and hauled him up face to face. “You will get me those weapons! You’ll get them for me or you will die!”
“But there’s no way! I can’t! It… it’s not my fault you started your stupid rebellion without asking us first!” Tam tried to pull loose of Vorstakof’s grip. “If… if you hurt me you’ll never get them! I’m the only one who can pilot our ship!”
The Count let go of Tam, who collapsed back in his chair. Vorstakof glared at him and then slowly turned toward Sheela. “Captain Hodgkins,” he said in a voice cold as ice. “I am getting the impression that you don’t really believe me when I tell you I am in deadly earnest. Perhaps I shall demonstrate just how serious I am—on your frill here!”
“But… but… but…” gobbled Tam. Sheela tensed.
Vorstakof took a step in her direction.
Sheela drew the stunner out of her boot and shot him.
Vorstakof had an expression of incredulous shock frozen on his face as he hit the floor. The other two men in the room looked just as gobsmacked as Sheela rose and turned the stunner on the armsman by the door. He was clearly well-trained, he had a pistol halfway drawn before the stunner beam hit him, but he wasn’t quite quick enough. The third one, Vorjervis, managed to begin a shout before Sheela shot him, too.
She stood there, unsure what to do next, when the door opened. The other armsman. “Milord, I heard…” he began. Then his eyes bugged out and he was clawing for his pistol when Sheela managed to stun him. His forward momentum carried him all the way into the room where he fell, face first, on the floor.
Sheela stood frozen one instant longer and then dashed to the door. She peered out, but there was no one in sight in either direction. She grabbed the second armsman by his belt, hauled him clear of the door and then shut it. She was gasping for breath and her heart was pounding. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!
“What the hell are you doing?” moaned Tam. “Now he’s really gonna be pissed!”
“Well then we better not be around when he wakes up! Right?” She glared at him.
“Oh… yeah… right. Let’s… let’s get out of here.” He staggered to his feet.
“Good thinking!” she sneered. “Vorstakof said that Lord Vorkosigan was on the third floor…”
“What?” cried Tam, much too loudly. “You can’t be serious! We gotta get out of here!”
“We can’t leave the boy here! There’s no telling what they’d do to him.”
“Yeah, and I’ve also got the stunner and the communicator! So either follow me, or find your way back to the ship on your own!” she said, scooping up the two computer pads and stuffing them in the pockets of her vest. She went to the door and opened it a crack and looked out. The corridor was still deserted. She’d expected to see a swarm of guards. She opened the door the rest of the way and stepped out. The way they had come, back toward the main part of the house, was still brightly lit and she thought she could hear a murmur of voices in that direction. But the other way… “Maybe there’s a back stair,” she whispered.
She dragged Tam out of the room and shut the door and headed for the stairs. They made it up to the second floor with no problem, but as they made the turn to start up to the third they met someone coming down. Sheela fired the stunner without thinking but then was horrified to see that it was just a maid. A maid carrying a tray filled with glasses and bottles…
Sheela managed to grab the woman’s arm with her free hand so she didn’t tumble down the steps and somehow, somehow Tam caught the tray in mid-flight without breaking a glass. She could almost forgive him everything else for that.
They set down the maid and the tray and then continued up the steps. Tam was whining that they were all going to die. But an incredible recklessness was filling Sheela, an adrenalin high unlike anything she’d ever felt. They reached the third floor.
“Come on, let’s find him and get out.”
* * *
“Sooner or later you are going to tell me everything I want to know, boy. Why not save yourself the pain and cooperate?”
Piotr Vorkosigan stared at Lord Vorfallon and swore to himself he wouldn’t let the man know just how afraid he was. “W-why should I cooperate with a dead man? My father and the Emperor’s troops will be here soon and then you and your master will both hang.”
“They won’t be here any time soon. Certainly not soon enough to help you if you continue to defy me.” Vorfallon stepped next to Piotr and took his arm in a grip like a vise.
“The… the aliens won’t like it if you hurt me!” he gasped. “I’m their friend!”
“Oh, there are of plenty of things I can do that won’t leave any marks,” said Vorfallon in a terrifyingly soft tone of voice. “A dislocated shoulder, for instance. Very painful indeed.” He twisted Piotr’s arm behind his back and began to apply pressure. The pain was mild at first, but as the pressure increased… he gasped.
“See what I mean? Now, you will tell me everything that happened between the time the aliens landed at Vorkosigan Surleau and when we took the train.”
“No!” cried Piotr, trying to pull free. But Vorfallon twisted harder and a cry of pain escaped his lips in spite of all he could do. He was ashamed when tears ran down his cheeks. But then the pain eased off a bit.
“Let’s start with something simple, eh? What color was their ship?”
“S-silver!” he gasped. There was no harm in telling that, was there?
“Good! A good start. What did the ship look like?”
“Like a… like a giant lance point…”
“How big was it?”
“I don’t know… as long as a railway car maybe. Wider…
“Only that big? Are you sure?” Vorfallon was frowning. “How many people were on board?”
“I don’t know! Four came out, but there could have more I didn’t see.” A lie, he’d seen inside the ship and there were only the four.
“That seems very small for a vessel capable of flying between the stars,” said Vorfallon. “I think you are lying to me, boy.”
Piotr gasped as the pressure increased again. But he suddenly realized that Vorfallon didn’t even know that the vessel at Vorkosigan Surleau was just a shuttle for a larger ship still in space. Was that critical? Should he tell him…?
“Are you lying to me, boy?” The pain grew worse and worse…
But suddenly there was a loud thump outside the door to the room. Vorfallon turned and called out angrily: “I told you we were not to be disturbed!”
Then the door opened and to Piotr’s complete astonishment there was Lady Sheela! She had something in her hand… “Let him go!” she said in a voice like iron.
Quick as a snake, Vorfallon pulled Piotr in front of him, shielding himself with his body. “I don’t know what you think you are doing here, milady,” said Vorfallon. “But you will go back downstairs to the Count at once.”
“I don’t think so, you bastard,” snapped the alien woman. “Sorry, Piotr, I hope this doesn’t hurt much.” The thing in her hand buzzed softly and Vorfallon suddenly stiffened. A strange tingling hit the left side of Piotr’s whole body, like striking your funny bone except all over. Strange sparks floated in front of his eyes and then suddenly he was on the floor.
He tried to stand up, but his left leg and arm didn’t want to work. A strong hand gripped him and pulled him up. “It’s all right, Piotr, you’re all right. It’s just a graze by the stunner beam. Come on, we’re leaving.”
His right leg still worked and he hopped and was half-carried toward the door. Stunner/ Wait, then Vorfallon is still… “Cut… k…” he tried to talk, but half his mouth seemed paralyzed, too. He twisted back toward where Vorfallon was crumpled on the floor. Don’t just leave him! Kill him!
But then they were out of the room and into the hallway where the other alien and an unconscious armsman were waiting. Captain Hodgkins took hold of him and they went down the hall and then down a set of steps. “Tam, watch out for the…!” said Lady Sheela urgently, but then there was a horribly loud crash and bottles and glasses were tumbling everywhere.
“Tam, you idiot!”
But they kept going and there didn’t seem to be any immediate alarm sounded. They reached the bottom of the steps and there was a door there, a door to the outside, Piotr realized. Lady Sheela eased it open and then her stunner buzzed again and there was a soft thud. “Come on,” she whispered.
The feeling was starting to come back to Piotr’s arm and leg and he hobbled along as they moved down the side of the building. When he realized they were heading for the road leading away he managed to make his mouth say: “St… stables. H-horses.”
The two aliens froze. “Not again,” moaned Captain Hodgkins.
“He’s right,” hissed Lady Sheela. “Ian can’t land the shuttle here, we’d be shot to pieces. We need to get some horses and get down to where Arkadi is waiting!”
A shock went through Piotr, not unlike the stunner bolt. “A…kadi!” he gasped.
“Yes, Arkadi is on his way,” said Lady Sheela. “He’s coming for us and we have to go meet him.” A warm glow filled him. Arkadi was coming! And coming here! All his fear melted away. Nothing would stop Arkadi! Nothing!
“Let’s get those horses,” said Lady Sheela.
They started across the compound. There was no cover so they tried to move as casually as possible. Fortunately, both moons had set and it was really very dark. But a light shown from one of the windows in the stable. They peered in and saw two men sitting at a table, playing cards and drinking from tall mugs. Piotr could feel Sheela trembling, but she went through the door and said: “Good evening gentlemen.” And then shot both of them.
There were two horses, saddled and ready, for couriers, no doubt. The stun was almost completely worn off now and Piotr told the two aliens to mount the horses while he pulled another out of a stall. “I can ride bare-back. Captain Hodgkins, I’ll lead you. Lady Sheela, I know you can ride well enough yourself.” The woman looked startled and then absurdly pleased and she nodded.
They walked the horses out of the stables and toward the road. Lady Sheela led the way with her weapon ready. Piotr towed Captain Hodgkins, who was moaning something about everyone getting killed. He had smelled the wine on the man’s breath. Was he drunk?
As they neared the point where the road started down the mountain he thought he could see some darker, man-sized shapes. Fortunately the place hadn’t been built as a fortress so there was no gate, but there were sentries. Piotr fought the enormous urge to break into a gallop immediately. Slowly, slowly, pretend you belong there and they’ll think so, too…
“Hey, who’s that?” came a voice. But it was a normal question, not an urgent challenge. Ten seconds or more went by and they were very close now.
“Who’s there? Stop!” The voice was much more urgent this time.
“Go!” cried Piotr and he jammed his heels into the horse’s flanks. He heard the buzz of lady Sheela’s stunner and one of the shapes fell. Then they were past and galloping down the road. There were shouts from behind them and then after several more tense seconds a shot. It was loud, but none of them were hit. Down the road and then to the first switchback. Their mounts’ hooves were pounding and the wind was whipping in his hair and Piotr found himself grinning. Free!
More shots now and from up above a horn rang out. Free but not safe.
“Yes!” cried Lady Sheela suddenly. “We’ve gotten away! Tell Arkadi… what? Okay, patch him through!” She was talking on her communicator! The fools hadn’t even taken it away from her! “Arkadi! Where are you? What? We’re on horseback coming down from the lodge! What? Yes! All three of us! Piotr’s with us!” She stopped talking as they reached the second switchback. She slowed slightly and Piotr, still towing Captain Hodgkins, caught up. She turned her head toward him. “Arkadi’s just below that bridge we crossed! He’s going to meet us there! But he says there are guards…”
Just then a fusillade of gunfire echoed up from below. A lot of shots fired very rapidly.
“…and he’s going to try and clear them out for us.”
“No shit,” gasped Captain Hodgkins. The man was clinging to his horse for dear life.
Up ahead was the last switchback before the bridge. The firing was louder and he could see the flashes of the guns. “The guards…,” cried Piotr. “the guards don’t know we escaped. They’ll think we’re reinforcements! Don’t stop! Just go right on across!”
They thundered around the last bend and there was the bridge! Lady Sheela was pulling ahead again, but Piotr had to keep towing the other alien. The fire slackened as the noise of their hooves reached the men ahead. Arkadi was no doubt cautioning his men not to fire and the guards, hopefully assuming the horsemen were on their side, were restraining themselves as well. They reached the bridge and the hooves were incredibly loud on the wooden planks. There was the other side! They were going to make it!
But then there was a shout from behind them and then more shots. Something whizzed past Piotr’s ear and there was a scream from just ahead. A horse’s scream. And then Lady Sheela was going down. Her horse had been hit and she flew off it to land on the bridge. Piotr reined in his horse, but then looked in horror as the woman slid between two of the widely-spaced posts holding up the bridge railing. Her lower half went over the side and she scrabbled desperately at the planks.
Piotr brought his horse to a halt. Captain Hodgkin’s horse went on past and he leaned over to swat it on the behind. “Go on!” he screamed as he leapt off his own mount. He ran toward Lady Sheela and flung himself forward to grab her arms as she slid backwards. He could hear the roar of the rapids from below and from above came the growing shriek of the aliens’ shuttle. “Gotcha!” he cried. Her face was only a foot away from his and even in the dark he could see the whites of her eyes grown wide.
But then her face disappeared and he was dragged forward right to the edge of the bridge. She’s twice my size… “Let… let me go!” she gasped.
“No! Arkadi will come and…!”
But Arkadi couldn’t get there that fast, no one could. The woman’s weight dragged him forward and down. He thrashed his feet around to find some sort of hold, but there was nothing. He slid over the edge and was suddenly falling. He plunged into the icy water. Something hit his head hard and he knew no more.