Byerly Vorrutyer was heartily sick of lichen.
It grew on the south sides of buildings on Jackson’s Whole. It crept in at the window frames, coated the door hinges, covered the roofs and choked the gutters. It became slick and slimy at the slightest touch, smearing clothing, ruining paint jobs. It had to be scrubbed off by hand, scraped out of cracks and crannies, washed away with a chemical solution intended to prevent it from growing again ... for a few months, before the cycle started all over.
The people who did this work were the original grubbers, a word that had eventually come to mean anybody who did menial work on Jackson’s Whole, and – in time – a pejorative term for anybody who worked for anyone else. They were itinerant laborers, houseless in the sense of belonging to no House, but also in the sense of having no home. They slept in rickety bunkhouses, and were issued two ration bars a day. They had lichen on their clothes and under their fingernails; they smelled of it, and of the no doubt toxic chemicals used to hold it at bay.
It was unenviable work, but it did have certain advantages from an espionage point of view. First and most importantly, grubbers were the lowest of the low, interchangeable lichen-clearing machines who were invisible from the point of view of a Jacksonian baron. Mostly invisible to House security, as well. They didn’t go inside buildings, but they could move about freely about the grounds, and even peer into windows without attracting attention.
Besides, it was one of the few jobs available on Jackson’s Whole for people who could not or would not undergo fast-penta interrogation as part of their job interview, and Byerly very definitely fell into this category. For one thing, his employers at ImpSec had insisted on inducing a fatal allergy to the truth-drug before he left home, and for another, he was – thank God – not the houseless grubber he was pretending to be. Nor was his business with House Prestene precisely what it appeared.
Assisted by Rish and the audio files supplied by ImpSec, he’d practiced the Jacksonian accent until he was perfect at it, and the Arquas had kitted him out with false identification papers. Star had explained the meaning of the symbols on his Jacksonian identity card, as well as the more detailed information encoded in the embedded chip. The name was fake, as was the planet of birth. The biometric data and medical information were accurate, save that they claimed his fast-penta allergy was natural. Star insisted that this wouldn’t look suspicious. Natural allergies weren’t, it seemed, as rare on Jackson’s Whole as they were elsewhere, since people became sensitized through repeated exposure. Still, he wondered, sometimes, whether he was the first person to join the grubber-gang under false colors...
He contemplated the unlikely pair who were working on the next house. Bodo appeared to be about By’s own age – that was to say, somewhere on the borderline between young and middle-aged – but he had the mind of a six-year-old. Maree, on the other hand was obviously intelligent. A small, fragile-boned woman, she looked to be around seventy, too old for this sort of work. He was uncertain of her background, but he had noticed something a little too crisp and precise about her vowels which suggested she might not be a native speaker of English. Unlike Bodo, and unlike most of the other grubbers, she wore no symbols of the Gnostic faith. Byerly approved. He had never been inclined toward the vague ancestor-worship that passed for religion on Barrayar, but at least he was reasonably sure that his ancestors had existed. Jacksonian grubbers seemed to put their hopes in an invisible and unprovable next world as a distraction from the appalling conditions of this one, which By regarded as a dangerous bargain. He wasn’t sure the Barons hadn’t made Gnosticism up to keep the masses quiet.
The first day on the job, he’d offered Maree his mid-morning ration bar, because she was obviously hungry and he wasn’t; rat bars were nutritionally sound but unappealing, and anyway, trying to eat with lichen-slimed hands was disgusting. She’d broken a bit off for herself and offered the rest to Bodo.
By evening, Byerly was starving. By the next day he’d realized that, while two rat bars a day were theoretically a complete diet for an adult of normal proportions, they didn’t go very far if the adult in question spent his days outdoors in freezing weather, climbing ladders and scraping lichen off buildings. Along with the aching arms, numb fingers, and general griminess that made the work a misery, he was perpetually famished. Maree never asked him to share again, although Bodo kept tagging after him, looking hopeful and hungry.
Maree had been a lifeline when he’d first started. “Not been at this work long, have you?” she asked at the end of his first day.
He shook his head. He’d learned the basics, practicing on the downside buildings Baron Fell had leased to the Arquas until his hands were callused in the right places, but he’d never done it all day, every day. “I used to be a bartender, but the last time I changed jobs, they gave me the patch test at the interview and it turned out that I’d developed an allergy to fast-penta. Now I can’t get any kind of job handling food and drink, and precious few jobs doing anything else.”
She nodded. “There are a lot of people around here with stories like that.” (He wasn’t sure whether she meant to imply that they were all equally false, or whether it was merely an observation.) “You’ll want to take it a little slower. Save your energy for the end of the day, when you’ll need it. And don’t scrub quite so hard, or you’re going to feel it tomorrow. Remember, there’s no reward for being the best grubber ever. You just need to be a good-enough grubber not to get fired.”
She also advised him to tie his scarf over his nose and mouth when they sprayed the buildings with chemicals. “It’s not a proper safety mask, and I’m not sure how much protection it’ll give you, but it’s better than nothing.”
He’d already discovered how badly the chemicals made his eyes and nose burn. Of all the things he’d thought he would miss when he left Barrayar, it had never occurred to him that the Ministry of Occupational Safety would make the list. “Thanks. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yes, there is. Look after Bodo while you’re in the mens’ bunkhouse. I can’t go in there, and I don’t think he can really look after himself. He’s big, but he’s too docile, and he believes anything people tell him.”
Byerly did not welcome the task with enthusiasm. Truth be told, he found it hard to conceal the revulsion he felt around Bodo, even though it was partly traditional Barrayaran prejudice and partly the contempt he’d always had for people who weren’t intelligent, and he knew very well that neither of these were among his better qualities. “Um. I’ll try my best, but I think you may have mistaken me for someone a bit more ... altruistic.”
She looked him over. “Are you a gang rapist?”
“Of course not! Where would I find a gang?”
She didn’t smile. “Are you a regular rapist?”
“No,” he admitted.
“Then you’ll do.”
* * *
Slightly over a week later, Byerly had a chance to keep his promise. He’d been asleep, though not deeply – the unheated bunkhouse and thin blankets saw to that. It wasn’t, exactly, the creak of the floorboards that woke him – they creaked all the time, whenever someone got up to use the toilet – but rather, the cat-footed steps that followed, nothing like the usual heavy tread of men who labored all day and didn’t bother with niceties like tiptoeing when people were trying to sleep.
Now wide awake, he went rigid in the darkness and opened his eyes a little. The cat-footed man – it was that new fellow, wasn’t it, the one who had joined the grubber-gang even more recently than he had? – was definitely where he ought not to be, creeping around the edge of Bodo’s bunk and rummaging through his discarded clothing.
The man’s aim seemed to be theft, he surmised with relief, and not ... anything more sinister. Still, he had promised Maree that he would look after Bodo.
The new grubber was younger and taller and heavier than he was, but By had the benefit of an excellent ImpSec physical security course, and the advantage of surprise. He waited until the man had pocketed what he was looking for and was on the way back to his bunk, and then threw his blanket over his quarry’s head and shoulders, pulled him off-balance, and wrestled him to the floor.
The noise had woken most of the others. As soon as he was confident of having the attention of several witnesses, By extracted Bodo’s wallet from the new grubber’s pocket and held it up for everyone to see. “He’s a thief. The rest of you ought to check to see if he’s taken anything else.”
A couple of his larger barracks-mates dragged the thief outside for a forcible search and a bit of rough justice. Byerly shrugged – exactly how rough it might get was no concern of his – and handed the wallet back to Bodo. “Is anything missing?”
Bodo went through an elaborate ritual of taking everything out of the wallet and examining each item in turn with a frown of deep concentration. “No,” he said at last.
“Good. You’d do better to sleep with it on your person after this.”
Bodo looked puzzled. “I don’t have a person,” he said. “Only barons and baronnes and the bosses of companies have people.”
“I meant, under your pillow or something. Somewhere other people can’t get at it.”
Byerly didn’t sleep at all the rest of the night. He’d caught a glimpse of Bodo’s identity card while Bodo was making sure all of his possessions were in place. And it was marked with the symbol that meant genetically modified conception.
That conception had, of course, been more than forty years ago, and it was possible that Bodo had taken a hard blow to the head at some point in between. But he didn’t think so.
He felt, suddenly, very cold and far from home.
I never wanted to be a hero or a saint or even a soldier. I liked being an idle selfish bastard just fine. Just my luck to land on a planet where everyone else makes me look good by comparison.
* * *
He was, however, a spy, and pretty damn good at his profession, and the Baron and Baronne – he had come to think of Rish’s parents that way, although they weren’t Baron and Baronne of anything at the moment – had made it clear that he was expected to pitch in. They wanted their children back, and he wanted to make himself indispensable lest they take it into their heads to dispense with him. As a matter of pragmatic self-interest, it made sense for him to lend them his skills.
Identifying where Erik was being held, and then committing the guards’ positions and rotations to memory, had been the easy part; there was no way to disguise a cryo-facility. The Arquas had kitted him out with a tiny audio transmitter, and he’d taken the first opportunity to relay them the information, ducking into the shower stall when there was no one else in the bunkhouse and turning the water on full blast. It wasn’t very private – there was only a curtain separating the toilet and shower from the long main room – but it would have to do. He’d been patched straight through to Ruby, who seemed to have no trouble making out what he was saying even over the noise of the water, so he didn’t have to waste any time repeating himself.
He wasn’t sure he had caught more than half of what Ruby said in return, except that her last few words sounded like one of the Gnostic blessings he’d heard the other grubbers exchange, which was just weird. He barely even knew Ruby, having met her only a few weeks before going undercover with the grubber-gang. He’d spent enough time on Barrayar with the rest of Rish’s family to slot them into provisional categories, basically friendly (Tej, Amiri, Em, Pearl, Jet) and basically not (Star, Pidge, the Baronne, the haut Moira – although Star had softened quite a bit since the awful night they’d spent waiting to see if her family could be rescued). Ruby, the eldest and acknowledged leader of the Jewels, was as enigmatic in her own way as the Baron, and he’d had the impression that she disapproved of Rish’s decision to acquire a lover without consulting her.
He’d had no communication with the Arquas since then; they weren’t ready to launch an attack, and finding Erik had been only half of his mission. Locating Topaz – a prisoner, but not frozen – was proving far more difficult. She could, in theory, have been held almost anywhere either in the Prestenes’ old compound or in the new facilities they’d annexed after their takeover of House Cordonah; or she could even have been moved to an allied House or taken off-planet. According to Baron Fell’s intelligence operations, the last two possibilities were unlikely, although Byerly wasn’t sure why the Arquas put that much trust in Baron Fell. (Rish’s only explanation had been “We’ve got Amiri’s lab notes and we’ve promised him a copy after we take the House back,” which seemed to raise many more questions than it answered.)
* * *
Byerly had been on the job some three weeks – or perhaps longer – when the grubber-gang finished working on the Prestene compound and moved on to the old House Cordonah buildings. They were in a new bunkhouse, but it was just as chilly and inadequate as the other one, with the additional discomfort of a broken window and shards of glass on the floor; the rat bars were the same; the lichen was exactly the same, slimy and nasty and ubiquitous. He was a bit more accustomed to the work, and his arms didn’t ache so much; he had, however, developed a wheezy, phlegmy cough, just like most of the others.
The days began to take on a relentless sameness. Then one morning he thought he heard, very faintly, a rhythmic thunderstorm of drums and maracas. He had a swift, hallucinatory impression of umbrellas blossoming like flowers in a garden, and then he realized where it came from; it was the Aslunder umbrella dance. He’d seen a holovid of the Jewels dancing to it, watched it several times over.
He checked to make sure no one was looking, and pressed his ear to the window. Yes; he could hear the music distinctly now, from somewhere inside the building he was working on. The building ... It was a rambling, nondescript, single-story affair. The blinds were down, so he couldn’t see anything by peering in the windows. As far as he could remember, they were always down. The building had never appeared to be guarded in any obvious way, and he’d taken it to be unoccupied. Apparently it wasn’t. He checked its location against his memory of the map Rish had drawn of her family compound, and yes, he knew where he was: this was the Jewels’ dance studio. Topaz, apparently, was still permitted to practice her art here. Permitted or forced, he corrected himself. No doubt, from the Prestenes’ point of view, she was the sort of trophy who ought to be displayed at some time or another.
The tune came to an end, and he recognized the burst of applause that came after, and then the familiar beat of the next piece. Not practicing, then. Somebody was watching exactly the same vid he had seen.
He remembered Rish on Barrayar; he’d had to know her for a while before he realized how much loneliness and sadness lay beneath the tough, bright facade, and how very impenetrable that loneliness was. He remembered watching the vids with her and realizing that the sight of her sisters was feeding something deep inside of her. A little. Not enough. Was Topaz being sustained in the same way?
He finished scraping the lichen off the side of the studio, and went to join Bodo, who was working on the three-story guardhouse just to the north.
“Hold the ladder, Bodo, and I’ll go up,” he offered. This was his least favorite part of the job, but it did offer a useful vantage point. He threw the occasional glance over his shoulder while he worked on the shutters and window frames. The security staff ought to be changing shift soon. A couple of them, wearing ordinary Jacksonian street clothes, strolled over to the supposedly empty building and went inside; some minutes later, another pair followed, and then another. A different set of six men drifted out after that, by ones and twos. So the studio building was guarded – rather heavily, at that – it was just that they were stationed indoors, and going out of their way to be discreet.
“What are you doing up there?” called a voice from the ground.
He started, but it was only Maree. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Come down here. I’ll take over.”
He tucked his scraper and scrubbing brush into his belt and obeyed. He’d observed enough to be sure he knew where Topaz was being held.
“You should have waited for me,” Maree scolded him.
“Because it’s perfectly obvious that you’re afraid of heights. Why do you keep going up there, anyway?”
He shrugged. “Trying to get over it. They say if you expose yourself enough, you get desensitized. Besides, if I didn’t go up there, Bodo would try to do it himself, and you’ve seen how clumsy he is sometimes.”
Maree was looking at him with slightly narrowed eyes, as if she found this explanation unsatisfying, but she said nothing. He shifted the ladder a few feet over and held it steady, and she scrambled up, for all the world as if that sort of thing were easy.
Now that he’d found Topaz, he would need only another day or two to make sure he knew as much as he could about the guard rotation and the ways in and out of the building. That was an extraordinary, delightful thought: his time as a grubber was almost up. He stopped smiling as he remembered something else. He had another charge – one that had not come from the Baron and Baronne – and only a little time left in which to fulfill it.
* * *
He thought back to the farewell dinner that Rish had hosted on the night before he went undercover, just him and the Jewels. After an excellent – and generously portioned – meal, they began talking and telling stories about Topaz. She had been the gentle one, it seemed, the one who never teased or bullied her younger siblings; they remembered her as sweet and cheerful and clever.
The Jewels were in constant motion when they reminisced, embodying one person or action after another. (“We like to dance stories,” Em had explained once.) Before long, By felt that they had made their absent sister present; he knew, as surely as if he had met her, the way she talked and moved. He understood what they were trying to do, and allowed himself to be charmed.
Last of all, they told the story of how Topaz had rescued the Baron and Baronne.
“We have some resistance to fast-penta,” Rish explained, “because of being half-haut.”
“You do? Why didn’t you tell me that when we were on Barrayar? It would have come in handy, that one time...”
She smiled enigmatically. “A girl doesn’t give away all her secrets at once, wild-caught.”
“But Baron Prestene didn’t know that,” explained Ruby. “Nobody outside of the House knows who we really are, or where we came from. So when Topaz stayed behind after the rest of us got away, she was able to convince the Prestenes that she was nothing more than a servant – a slave, really. And she told them, under fast-penta, that she’d always resented the Baronne, and she would be happy to work for the Prestenes and tell them all the Baronne’s secrets.”
“We don’t like doing that,” said Pearl. “Speaking against the Baronne hurts us. Well, maybe the younger ones don’t mind, but it hurts Ruby and Topaz and me.” She looked meaningfully at Rish and Jet. Byerly had gathered that there was – not quite tension, but a vague rivalry – between the Jewels who had been fully adult when the loyalty treatments had stopped and the ones who hadn’t.
“So what she did was very brave,” said Em.
“And it worked,” Ruby added. “Baron Prestene gave her the run of the place, and she agreed to dance for him – and, I expect, to do a few other things for him too – and then she asked, as a particular favor, for half an hour alone with the Baron and Baronne, so she could flaunt the fact that she was working for the Prestenes and rub it in their faces.”
“And he gave it to her,” said Jet, “and she set them free. But of course, when he found out he’d been tricked, he took her prisoner in the Baron and Baronne’s place, and we’ve heard nothing from her since then.” The five of them crouched prisoner-wise, and looked up at Byerly expectantly.
“I understand,” said Byerly. He’d drunk a fair amount of wine by then, and was in the mood to make reckless promises. “I will do everything in my power to get her back. You have my name’s word on it.”
“Thank you,” said Em.
“There’s one other thing,” said Rish.
Ruby and Pearl exchanged a look. “Go on and tell him,” said Ruby.
“I don’t really like to –” said Pearl. “I mean, I’m not sure.”
“You can trust him,” said Rish. “He won’t pretend to be sure if he isn’t. And he’ll be looking for the truth, not trying to give us what we want to hear.”
“All right, here it is,” said Pearl. “The last time Amiri came to visit us, about two months before the takeover –”
“No, longer,” said Jet, “it was at Randfest. I remember the fireworks.” He leaped up and let his limbs explode, firework-fashion.
“No, that was three years ago,” said Ruby. “Last time he visited, it was in the spring.”
“I don’t see what difference it makes,” said Em, “get on with the story.”
“It does make a difference,” said Jet, “because two months isn’t enough time to plot a takeover. If it was spring, it means he didn’t do it, which is what I’ve been saying all along anyway.”
“It is long enough,” said Ruby, “if the Prestenes had the plans all ready to go before they went looking for inside help.”
“No, it’s not,” Jet insisted.
“Fine, make it at Randfest,” said Pearl. “I won’t swear that it wasn’t.”
“You have spring here?” asked Byerly, as this was the only fact he felt like he had really picked up from this conversation.
“Yes,” said Rish, “but don’t get too excited. It lasts about six weeks, and it’s mostly mud and slush, and then it goes straight into autumn.”
“Autumn is my favorite season,” Em added, “because of all the daffodils.” She became a daffodil, pushing her head up and then blooming with her arms.
“Anyway,” said Pearl, “Amiri was here, and the Baron was sitting here –” she twirled from place to place around the table, demonstrating “– and Erik was here, opposite Amiri, and I was right next to him. And Amiri was telling us about some of his medical research, how he thought they were close to a breakthrough in turning back the aging process and extending lifespans, and the Baron seemed very interested.”
“He doesn’t believe in the clone-brain-transplant business,” said Jet. “He thinks it’s barbaric.”
“The what?” asked Byerly.
“I’ll explain later,” said Rish. “It is barbaric, but it isn’t important to the story.”
“And the Baronne thought it was wonderful news, of course,” Pearl continued, “because she’s Cetagandan and half-haut, which means she would outlive him by decades in the natural course of things, and everyone was smiling and nodding, and so was Erik, of course. But like I said, I was sitting right next to him, and I could smell panic on him.”
“And I was on the other side of the table,” said Ruby, “and I thought I saw him get this look on his face, just for a moment. Like someone had pulled his chair out from under him. And then, it was like he’d started to calculate, and he made himself smile again.”
“If I understand you,” said Byerly slowly, “you think he was counting on his inheritance – sooner rather than later – and, faced with the possibility that your father wasn’t planning on dying any time soon, he decided to take steps to secure it. Steps that included colluding with the Prestenes.” This was a story he understood, despite his exotic surroundings. Theo Vormercier, and how many others?
“I don’t think it,” said Jet firmly. “He wouldn’t. Not Erik.”
“You didn’t grow up with him, sweetling,” said Ruby, “not the way Pearl and I did. And we both think he might.”
Rish said nothing, but she looked torn.
“You want me to find out the truth for you.”
“Yes,” said Rish. “We do. No matter what it turns out to be.”
Byerly nodded. “Would any of you happen to have a small image of him that I could borrow?”
Despite the fact that they had all had to flee their home in a hurry, the Jewels all seemed to have dozens of family holos, and even a few vids, tucked away among their belongings or loaded onto readers. Most of them dated from childhood, and they invariably showed a whole pack of children. Tej and Jet were generally absent, or infants in arms; Ruby, already quite the young lady, tended to hold herself aloof; but the eight middle children, all very close in age, tumbled all over each other like puppies. Happy, well-cared-for, thoroughly indulged puppies. Byerly suppressed an unprofessional twinge of envy.
He studied the images for a moment, looking for clues to character. Erik had something of a watchdog look about him, as befitted the oldest and strongest pup in the litter, but he seemed as friendly and contented as the others. If you did it, By thought, you’re a damn fool. But there were a lot of damn fools in the galaxy.
“Have you got anything of him as an adult? Preferably one where he’s by himself, and there aren’t too many clues about who he is or where it was taken?”
Jet produced a wallet-sized image with a neutral backdrop, apparently taken in a professional studio. Dark hair and eyes, the same coloring as Amiri: oh, very good, he could be passed off as By’s brother if anyone discovered the image and asked about it. Tall and very fit-looking, just like Star and Pidge. Features that had been carefully selected for beauty, but still retained enough of an individual stamp to make the face memorable.
“May I take it with me when I go?”
Jet looked around at his sisters. He really doesn’t want Erik to be guilty, By diagnosed, and he’d probably settle for not knowing that he’s guilty. Jet misses having a big brother.
“Yes,” said Jet after a moment. “Take it.”