Actions

Work Header

Small Town

Work Text:

The surgeon entered, and was taken aback at the sight of the float pallet. "What the hell – oh, I know what they are. I never thought I'd see one ..." He ran his fingers over one canister in a sort of technical lust. "Are they ours?"

"All ours, it seems," replied Vorkosigan. "The Escobarans sent them down."

The surgeon chuckled. "What an obscene gesture. One can see why, I suppose. But why not just flush them?"

"Some unmilitary notion about the value of human life, perhaps," said Cordelia hotly. "Some cultures have it."

-pg 168, Shards of Honor

"Doctor," Illyan says, delicately, "Admiral Vorkosigan has requested I accompany you."

The surgeon's name is Stanislav Pascal; born north of Vorbarr Sultana to a farming family, risen high through patronage and being in the right place at the right time and, Illyan fairly but barely acknowledges to himself, some raw talent. After his display for Lord Vorkosigan and Captain Naismith, Illyan is inclined to dislike the man; and what that says, that instant dislike born of one encounter, says about Illyan himself and his relationship with the man he is supposed to be spying on, is not something he wishes to dwell on even within the privacy of his own mind.

Pascal is staring at him in frank annoyance. Illyan keeps his own expression level and goes on, "Admiral Vorkosigan has a particular interest in the uterine replicators. I would like to come along to help ensure their well-being."

Pascal glares at him. "I understand the Betan woman has had an effect on our fearless leader. What's your excuse, Commander?"

Illyan sighs. "Call it compassion. Perhaps a feeling of responsibility for our mistakes."

He regrets that almost as soon he's said it; Pascal looks at him with an appraising, almost mocking expression. "Emperor Ezar's vid-recorder," Pascal says, slowly, and Illyan doesn't doubt he knows all about the chip. From the glances he gets, he knows his medical history has been passed from man to man, hand to hand, as much a part of the Barrayaran military machine as rumour and illicit moonshine. One day it will be a children's campfire story, Illyan thinks, tiredly, old Emperor Ezar and his terrible magic. "I thought everything went in, then came out," Pascal goes on, the mockery close to the surface. "No room for feeling."

"Nevertheless," Illyan says, with flat affect.

"All right." Pascal gets up. "If you're coming along, come along, but keep out of it. I'm going to need help with this and the hospital here are trouble. The Barrayaran liaison officer is on his way, and why they put a psychiatrist in to do that job, I don't even pretend to understand…"

He trails off, still muttering under his breath, as through resigned to Illyan's presence, and Illyan decides that willingly and unwillingly, they're marching to the same internal drumbeat. In Illyan's case it's loyalty and something else he doesn't want to examine, not yet; in Pascal's case it's military training and some blend of fear and vague respect, but neither of them are in the habit of disappointing Admiral Lord Vorkosigan.

It's early morning in camp. Behind them, the military installation rumbles on; in front, the rutted path through the vegetation runs down towards a ragged landscape of tents and prefabricated buildings. Illyan looks at the sunrise, pink and purple with notes of alien green, unlike any of the other three hundred and fifty-two sunrises he has happened to observe since the chip was installed, and waits.

It takes a few minutes. By the time the liaison officer appears, Pascal is stamping his feet with impatience. "Look, Major – Freedman, is it? I'm sure you've heard by now. We need to get this job done. Take me to whoever it is who's in charge and the quicker we can be rid of these – things."

"Things." Freedman looks straight at Illyan. "Let me get this right, before we go any further. The replicators contain the products of encounters between Barrayaran soldiers and Escobaran and Betan women."

"Products of rape," Illyan says, very softly, and wonders why he's insisting on accuracy.

"Right." Freedman turns to Pascal. “Let me give you some free advice. Those seventeen replicators will need constant care, time and attention, and I'm sure you can imagine Lord Vorkosigan’s wrath if anything at all happens to them. What do you know about the ground field hospital here?"

"I'm a ship duty officer," Pascal says, impatiently. "I came down with the fleet."

"Right." Freedman nods. "Don’t waltz in there giving orders. They’re headed up by a galactic who’s kind of a maverick. They could easily make our lives very difficult.”

“This is a Barrayaran military installation,” Pascal says, sounding a little confused. “Aren’t they…”

"Let me take you to it," Freedman says, cutting him off, and they're making their way down the track, Illyan at the end of the single-file column.

"A psychiatrist," Pascal is still muttering, "why" – and Illyan, internally cross-referencing everything he's ever come across about Freedman, has an answer: Freedman holds the liaison post through being the highest-ranking Barrayaran in this mixed-ranks hospital. Illyan notes with interest that unlike most Barrayarans with professional training, he has Vor blood in him, on his mother’s side.

Freedman taps on the door at the end of one of the long prefabs and says something that to Illyan's ear sounds like "Hawk.”

“What now.” The voice drifts out from inside, flat, and Pascal tries the door, but it's locked. Freedman taps on it, sharply, continuously, until they hear the sound of movement from inside and the electronic hum of the door being released and allowed to drift open.

Illyan follows the others into the long, low room, arranged as a hospital ward with beds on either side, but exceptionally basic, a small handful of monitors offering long, slow beeps. There are a few patients, all sleeping; Illyan recognises the signs of plasma arc burns. The man who spoke has his head down on the end table. From the slightly dizzy look, he's clearly halfway to sleep. “Who is that, anyway? What do you want?”

“Hawkeye, it’s Sidney. One of these days you must let me get you on the couch to talk about your paranoia."

The man rolls his eyes. “Sidney, you can come in. Whoever you’ve got with you can go back to playing tin soldiers or whatever.”

“Hawkeye,” Freedman says, kindly and deliberately, “stop being an ass. This is Captain Pascal. He needs our help. Captain, Commander, this is my friend, Hawkeye Pierce. He's one of the doctors here.”

Illyan, by instinct, runs another internal cross-reference on the name and is surprised, a subjective second later, when it yields nothing; meanwhile his organic mind, lagging behind by a moment, notes the unmilitary nicety of the introduction. Pierce turns to him and takes him in with a slow smile. "I know who you are," he says after a moment. "Commander Illyan, it's a pleasure to meet you. One of my colleagues is, ah, exceedingly interested in your case."

Freedman says, quickly, "Hawkeye, we really do need your help. Come along and I'll explain as we go."

Pierce glances at Pascal. “I'm not going to like this, am I."

"Explain as we go," Freedman says again, but Pierce stands up and doesn't go any further.

"Look, I’ve heard the rumours. I'm perfectly aware that we've just had a visit from Lord High Chief Gung-Holier Than Thou Something Something Vorkosigan.”

“Hawkeye,” Freedman says, exasperatedly, “I swear by whatever you hold sacred, you are going to get us all put before the firing squad.” And as Pierce opens his mouth to respond to that, “No, I retract that. You are going to get me put before the uniquely historically anomalous and typically Barrayaran firing squad, and get yourself extradited to Escobaran secure custody, which as you have noted yourself on many, many, many occasions…”

“Would be more fun than this,” Pierce finishes, and Illyan notices that he's swaying very slightly. “Sidney, have me. I’m yours. The sooner we get this over the sooner I can go back to trying to sleep on the duty roster. My point is, I've heard the rumours. You think I'm doing this without her, you're crazy. And you should know.”

“Yes,” Freedman says suddenly. “Yes, I should have thought of that.”

Pierce says a few words to the duty nurses, and one of them slips out of the door they have just come in through, hurrying out into the camp. Pascal says, apparently more to make conversation than anything else: “You don’t have an Escobaran accent, Dr. Pierce.”

Pierce shakes his head. “I did my medical training on Escobar and Beta Colony and I’m here under their auspices, but I was born on Earth, actually. My father ran a small practice on the North American continent. I came here on elective and then somehow never went home.”

“You could’ve gone any time,” Freedman says. “You didn’t.”

“Let's talk about my self-destructive impulses another time, Sidney,” Pierce says lightly. "My esteemed colleague will be here in a moment."

“Your second?” Pascal asks.

Pierce and Freedman exchange a look of perfect understanding, which Illyan can’t read; after a moment Freedman turns to him and says, “Hawkeye and Margaret run this unit together.”

It’s ironic, Illyan thinks, when she appears: she would almost fit the mental image he would have constructed of a unit commander, crisp in her uniform, buckles and brass shining, her unit insignia neatly displayed on her sleeve. Next to Pierce, who is wearing a red dressing gown over fatigues with a white coat thrown over his arm, she’s positively refreshing. “Major Margaret Houlihan,” she says, holding out her hand, and there’s even something dissonantly military about those brief syllables. Illyan saw female soldiers in the Betan Expeditionary Force even before he met Captain Naismith and thought he was getting used to the idea, but something about the immediacy of this woman disconcerts him.

“A pleasure to meet you,” he manages to say, and she gives him a cool, appraising look.

“I understand you need our assistance. I’m in command here.”

Pascal looks around him, and then at her again. “I thought Pierce…”

“Chief surgeon and bottle washer,” Pierce tells him, grinning. “Margaret runs the outfit.”

Pascal mutters something else under his breath. Freedman says, "Shall we get on with it?" and leads the way into the next room.

The replicators have been brought in on a float-pallet, in two trips. They sit, squat and uncompromising, in a circle at the centre of the room, with the gurneys and beds that usually occupy the space pushed up against the wall. There is no sound but the faint bleeping. Illyan hangs back, leaning against the doorframe, as Freedman leads Pierce and Houlihan in. Illyan watches as they make the circuit of the room in opposite directions, an odd symmetry to their movements, each pausing to look at readouts and meters, moving forwards again, pausing. They look up at the same moment, then both turn.

"I suppose," Houlihan says, clipped, "this is where we're supposed to get down on our knees and give thanks that those women aren't carrying them to term. Hawkeye…"

"I know," he says. He's still swaying and for a moment Illyan thinks he'll fall. "I know."

For another few seconds, the meters tick over, the only sound in the room.

"We're done here." Pierce glances at Freedman. "Sidney, show these gentlemen out."

Pascal's hand has come up to his collar – touching his caduceus, Illyan realises. “Dr. Pierce, I understand that galactic norms…” he begins, stiffly, awkwardly.

“Galactic norms!” Pierce laughs and there’s another eerie moment of understanding between the three of them; something Illyan still can’t read. “Captain Pascal,” he says, conversationally, “I am the only child of a country doctor, raised in a small town of lobster-fanciers. Born and bred and brought up on Earth. I am about as far from being a galactic as anyone can possibly be.”

“Earth is the cradle of humanity," Freedman says, suddenly, “but you cannot remain in the cradle forever.”

“But you must understand that this is a war,” Pascal persists. "Surely, in these circumstances it's only natural that men should – natural urges…"

"Please don't try and tell me," Pierce says, almost clinically, "that this has anything to do with sex. I happen to like sex quite a lot. This…"

Pascal isn't finished yet. "You've been to Beta Colony, you must have…"

"Yes, I have!" Pierce turns abruptly to look at him. "Got my ears pierced my first day. You bring the whips, I'll bring the chains, let's have a gay old time. What do you want from me, Captain? I'm not your mother, I'm not your father confessor, I'm not the Acme Absolution Company. I'm nothing and we are all nowhere."

"Hawk," Freedman says, softly.

"Hell of a war you've got here, Sidney." Pierce sits down on the edge of one of the stacked gurneys, feet swinging. "Little girls come in and I don't sleep at night. Margaret?"

Houlihan hasn't moved. Illyan realises suddenly that they're still mirroring each other, both holding themselves still

"No," she says, definitive.

"Let this cup pass from us." Pierce gets up and walks unhurriedly to the door. "Captain, Commander, really, it's been a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Don't let the door hit either of you on the ass on the way out."

Pascal snaps at that. "Captain Pierce, that is enough. I can have you…"

"Court-martialled?" Pierce pushes a hand through his hair and smiles wickedly. For a brief moment, he reminds Illyan of Aral Vorkosigan in his cups, on the sparkling brink of revolution. "Good luck with finding my replacement. Off you go, then. We'll send you back your little sins-in-a-bottle."

Outside in the open space of the camp, the sun has cleared the horizon and Pascal has progressed from muttering under his breath to ranting; Illyan makes out "mutiny" and "inconceivable" and "gone native", presumably in reference to Freedman.

"Well, Commander?" Freedman turns to Illyan, a small smile on his face. "Didn't I warn you?"

"You did," Illyan says, slowly, turning it over in his mind, letting the chip bring forth images as he needs them: the camp, the rows of ragged tents; the only permanent, heated building; the rows of men sleeping peacefully with plasma burns; the man who had been falling asleep on the duty roster; the woman in the neat, pressed uniform, staring at the replicators with something in her face that reminded him of Captain Naismith.

"And?"

“I think you were bullshitting me all along,” Illyan says bluntly. “And don't talk to me about rank insubordination, Major, your friend isn't the only one around here with a uniquely irreplaceable talent."

He turns around, walks back down towards the camp with briskness born of irritation, but by the time he reaches the hospital building, he's slowed to circumspection, making as little sound as possible on the dirt ground. He pushes open the little door.

"Hawkeye," comes a woman's voice – Major Houlihan, Illyan realises, and steps inside very quietly. "We can pull in one of the gurneys here. You may as well…"

"Margaret, I thought you'd never ask." Pierce's voice is tired but amused. Illyan hears the sound of squeaky wheels and something heavy being pushed. "Right. Two people on duty in here at all times – back home they can be left alone, but I don’t trust anyone here. Who out of your nursing staff knows what to do with one of these things?"

“Donovan and Able both did some of their training on Beta Colony,” Houlihan says. “I suggest they do the first shift. After that..."

"Wake me every couple of hours," Pierce says, and yawns.

"Sorry," Houlihan says, and Illyan moves forwards into the room proper, still hidden by deep shadow. "But you're the only one of us who's had the training – I never touched maternity, back on Escobar, I was mental health."

"Someone ought to be," Pierce agrees. "I'll write up some notes for you all to look at so I can maybe get some sleep this side of sanity. It's all in the nutrient and waste filter readouts, the rest is all whether they've got their uncle's eyes and other things no one gives a damn about."

"Poor little souls," Houlihan says. "Donovan, did you get all that? Hawkeye, I'll dim the lights when we've finished initial prep."

"Give me just one moment," he says, gets down off the gurney and pads, cat-like across the room. He's only a few feet away before Illyan realises he's coming straight towards him. "Well?" he says, very quietly.

"I'll tell Lord Vorkosigan they're being looked after," Illyan says.

Pierce nods. "Sidney said you were okay," he says, after a while. "I wasn't sure, but Sidney's usually right about these things."

"Why the little drama?" Illyan asks, with more emotion than he meant. "If you were going to take them in, then why…"

Pierce merely looks at him. "You've been through this war," he murmurs, after a moment. "Have you never thought to yourself – no. Not this time. Not me."

Illyan takes a few steps backwards, sits down on the edge of the nearest discarded stretcher. He breathes out and says nothing.

Pierce stands still, thoughtful, and then comes to sit beside him, feet swinging again. "Those women… well. There are some men, too. Some others – non-binary gender exerts such a fascination for Barrayaran troops. I just…" He shudders. "I can't sleep."

"I know," Illyan says. Hesitantly: "I saw… something. Something I failed to prevent."

"Yes." Pierce nods. "Yes, that's right. You… can't forget, can you?"

Illyan shakes his head.

"My – well, my tent-mate, I suppose you'd call him. Charles Emerson Winchester, as blue-blooded as your Vor. Back in civilian life he put implants into jump-pilots. He'll be jealous as hell to hear I met you, he's read all the papers. Jealous of you as well, I'd guess. But me…" He shudders again, delicately. "I'm not. No offence, Commander."

Illyan shakes his head, a little helplessly. "Captain Pierce…"

"Don't you Barrayarans have first names?" He gets up and begins to pace. "Call me Hawkeye, everyone does, even Sidney. Though it's Benjamin Franklin Pierce, on my little permit."

Illyan blinks, then realises: this time, the instinctive cross-referencing works. Negri has fed him personnel reports so he has nearly every Barrayaran soldier of any note in his grasp; for this man, he just has an abbreviated record, two sheets of mental paper, but it's something, and he feels a little better, less off-balance by all of this. He thinks that might have been the intention; then he reviews the data and he's sure of it.

Hawkeye smiles at him. "Tell your Lord Vorkosigan I'm a drunk and a sexual degenerate, if you like. We've all got our sins."

Illyan stands up and puts his hands in his pockets, looks at the replicators, thinks of Vorrutyer and Bothari and the woman he wouldn't let Vorkosigan save. "Not like this."

"No." Hawkeye looks at him and inclines his head. "You know," he says, thoughtfully, "I'm allergic to fast-penta. It's natural, not induced. The first time they forced it on me I babbled, I prattled, I giggled, and then I gave them two scenes of Hamlet, right down to the flights of angels only with more screaming and crying for my mother. When I came around I thought I was dead and then they showed me the recording and I wished I were." He snorts. "I hope that wasn't the last time I slept. It gets so hard to remember."

Illyan stares at him. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Let me ask you a personal question, Commander Illyan." He doesn’t wait for any response before going on. "When they sent you away and put that thing in your head. Did you sign the dotted line?"

Illyan says nothing, not understanding, and Hawkeye says, very gently, "Did you consent?"

Illyan looks at the replicators, and then at Hawkeye, and doesn't need it or anything else spelling out. There's a crawling revulsion under his skin, a horror of taking any of this further – this conversation, this war, everything that has led him here, to this dim room with its dirt floor with the light of an alien sun filtering through the cracks.

"Look after them," he says, thickly.

Hawkeye stands still for a moment, then briefly grips Illyan's hand with both of his own. "I will. Look after yourself."

Without another word, Illyan turns around, goes along the little passage and reaches the outside door. He's not surprised to find Freedman is waiting for him. "Commander, your colleague has gone back up to base."

Illyan nods, tiredly. "Yes, sir. I'll catch up with him and let Admiral Vorkosigan know the replicators are being looked after."

Perhaps something has changed in his voice, because Freedman looks at him with interest. "Why, don't tell me you're having feelings of misplaced guilt."

"Major," Illyan gets out, through gritted teeth, but with an expression he knows is perfectly even, "with all due respect, I didn't ask to be psychoanalysed."

"Hawkeye believes," Freedman says, conversationally, ignoring him, "that war is full of innocent bystanders. That it creates systems that create victims that perpetuate the whole cycle unto the final generation. That everyone, ultimately, becomes a casualty of war."

"That can't be right," Illyan objects. "Someone's responsible. Someone – somewhere, someone's got to be responsible."

"I believe you." Freedman glances at him and gives him a strange, sad smile. "Who do you think gave him the fast-penta?"

Illyan stands stock-still for a moment. "You were following orders?" he tries.

"Yes," Freedman says, distant and coolly emotionless. "It seemed the right thing to do, at the time. ImpSec were taking an interest. You would know."

"ImpSec," Illyan repeats helplessly. He's touching his silver eyes, he realises.

"Yes." Freedman looks at something behind Illyan's head, his expression taking on something softer, something approaching affection. "Come on, Commander Illyan, daylight's burning."

Later, Illyan will have the synthetic detail of this on his chip to look at, devoid of emotion; following that gaze, he will see Hawkeye framed by the doorway, shaking with exhaustion, in his eyes some damnable kindness. Right now he stumbles back up the track, unseeing, wishing he could get down on his knees, right here in the dust and the dirt, and purge himself of memory.

"It was a long time ago," Freedman says again, "in another country" – and behind them Hawkeye is there still, watching them go.