In the dark of space, invisible to the naked eye, the exit vortex spun out in 5-space from the pinprick of a wormhole. A freighter, waiting its turn in a queue that had frozen for the last few hours, wallowed painfully out of the way of the courier vessel that had appeared in the wormhole's mouth, its bulk shifting slowly and laboriously. The courier accelerated, apparently unconcerned about the scramble to accommodate it.
It was not a standard traffic communication ship. All communication from Sergyar had stopped eight hours ago, after a flat transmission that all jumps were to be suspended.
"Unknown vessel. This is Lieutenant Estevez of Escobaran Traffic Control. You have just performed an unauthorized wormhole jump. We do not have a flight path on record for you. Please identify yourself, state your business in Escobaran space, and transmit your flight path immediately."
Static crackled for a moment.
"Escobaran Traffic Control, this is the Barrayaran courier ship Perseverance. We are unarmed, and are transporting an ambassador of the Barrayaran Emperor on urgent business. We are requesting an immediate audience with el Presidente del Gobierno Planetaris. We are transmitting our flight path now."
"Acknowledged, Perseverance. We have been awaiting information from the jump point in Sergyaran local space. Can you advise as to the current situation?"
"Negative, Traffic Control. We can offer no information at the present time. Perseverance out."
The headquarters of the Cortes Planetaris was a fantastically modern building, a spiraling palace of gravity-defying glass and steel. The gardens around it were beautifully manicured, and the furnishings were restful. Despite all of this, however, the Barrayaran ambassador could not seem to relax.
The servitor assigned to wait with Vicereine Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan watched her awkwardly as she paced the room. He had seen vids of her many times, both in recent history and as a child, decades ago in the time of the Barrayaran Invasion. She had not looked so old then, but he supposed that made sense. Time does go by.
"Are you certain I cannot get you a glass of wine, Ambassador?" he asked, bowing shallowly. She was Barrayaran; Barrayarans were supposed to like bowing.
They were supposed to like wine, as well, but the ambassador shook her head. "Thank you, but no." Her voice was hoarse. "When will Presidente Arroyo be here?"
"Another five minutes or so, madam," said the servitor. Cordelia Vorkosigan nodded and turned to the window, but seemed unable to focus on the view out of it. After a moment she turned and paced on.
It was closer to ten minutes before the door to Presidente Arroyo 's office opened, and the Vicereine turned with wide-eyed relief. At Arroyo's invitation, she stepped inside to greet him.
"Vicereine," Arroyo greeted, offering a polite nod. "To what do I owe the honor of this unexpected visit?"
To his profound shock, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, wife of his planet's old enemy and one-time hero of his people, spread her skirts and dropped to a knee in front of him.
"Presidente Arroyo," she said, her words formal, "I have come as an ambassador plenipotentiary on behalf of my husband, Emperor Aral of Barrayar, to beg your aid in throwing off the unprovoked Cetagandan invasion of his Empire."
Eighteen hours earlier…
"We'll need to redeploy our escort ships to better defend the Komarran jump, my lord," a young major was saying. "Given the need for stronger defenses here, I don't think we should rely on the Komarran fleet to stop them. We'll need to park well out of range of a sun wall attack, but close enough to move in quickly."
"We should get the minelayers out deploying the system defense system as soon as possible," put it Admiral Vorvolynkin. "It will be expensive, but we cannot possibly hold the system without the mines to guard the approaches."
This was not Cordelia's area of expertise, and everyone in the room knew it, so they spoke to Aral, trying to pretend there was no woman in the room, curled up in a comfortable chair with a lap blanket and a cup of tea. She sipped from it as the men argued over military defenses and contingency plans. To them, she knew, this was a real and pressing danger. Some part of her, despite knowing the real tenuousness of the situation, could not entirely credit it.
Twice during Aral's regency, the Cetagandans had attacked, and twice they had been driven back. The idea that they would launch another useless assault over what was clearly a misunderstanding was almost laughable, although not at all humorous.
"Do you think it might be worthwhile to send our fleet to Komarr?" Major Pattas was asking, his tone making it clear he knew the idea would be unpopular. "Splitting our fleet at this time might not be wise, and we cannot possibly hold out here against a concentrated attack. At the very least, we should be prepared for the necessity of a retreat to rejoin our Komarran Fleet."
"And abandon Sergyar to them?" Vorvolynkin was plainly appalled. "You can't –"
"PRIORITY SIX," blatted Aral's comconsole. Every eye in the room swung to it, locking on. Cordelia felt her blood freeze. Priority six was for urgent imperial communications only. Gregor had never used it before. She could feel the thoughts of all the men as they stared at it. War, called the heartbeat of the room.
The several seconds before Aral spoke seemed very long. "Gentlemen," he said. He stood, seeming very solid and reliable, despite his advancing years. Cordelia could see the Barrayarans responding almost unconsciously to the old Admiral's authority he wore like a second skin. "Please return to your stations and bring us to readiness level one. I will issue further instructions when I have them."
The men filed out. Cordelia waited for the door to close before she rose and padded barefoot across the room to Aral. She laid a hand on his forearm and he closed his hand over it, holding to her as though she were an archaic shield he planned to take into battle. Alas, there were some kinds of blows she could not block, and neither could he, more was the pity. They could only weather them together.
He keyed on the comconsole.
It was not Gregor's face that appeared, but that of a middle-aged Barrayaran in an admiral's uniform. He looked like a man who had seen death. Cordelia knew, somehow, that he had. She did not know how much. "Admiral Voraronberg," Aral murmured for her benefit. "Komarran High Command."
"My lord Viceroy," the recording began. "An overwhelming Cetagandan force has attacked Komarr in a flash assault, overwhelming the local defenses and proceeding to Barrayaran orbit. Three hundred and sixteen ships were in the assault, and of those, at least eighty-seven are confirmed destroyed. The remaining vessels have set up in Barrayaran orbit, where they deployed a tactical nuclear strike against Vorbarr Sultana. The Emperor is dead, my Lord. Word has reached us that Lord Auditor Vorkosigan was killed in an act of espionage against the Cetagandan Empire, and Lady Vorkosigan was taken prisoner by the Cetagandans. We do not know where she is being held. The Council of Counts is in disarray. The Barrayaran local military force has been decimated. I am approaching Sergyar with the remnants of the Komarran Fleet that was present in local space, consisting of twenty-seven combat ships, most of which have sustained heavy damage. We will arrive in Sergyaran space in six days' time. My full report will follow this transmission in burst format."
His face vanished.
Aral stared at the blank screen. "Cordelia," he said after a moment. "I want you to stay with me more than anything, but it is a luxury we cannot afford right now. You have to go to Escobar, to be my voice. Promise them anything, but get their help. We cannot fight off the Cetagandan Empire without help. You are perhaps the only person I have here who will be more asset than liability with the Escobarans. When you are done on Escobar, go on to Beta Colony. I don't care if you have to mortgage our next five generations. Without their aid, we will not have them. Not this time. Find Mark. Tell him to come back to Sergyar. He will be a target."
Cordelia couldn't understand what he was saying. She was still stuck in a horror of incomprehension, her hand over her mouth, shaking her head at the screen. She wasn't crying, not yet. There was nothing real enough in the world to make her cry. "Aral," she whispered. "Didn't you –"
"Yes." His voice was a whipcrack in the room, too sharp for a bellow, too loud for anything else. "Dear Captain. We don't have time for this right now. I'm going to halt non-military traffic through the wormholes and try to work out the scattered remnants of our fleets. We need them here. We need allies. I need you to be strong right now, Dear Captain. Stronger, always, than I." He smiled, a soft, sad smile. "There is no turning things back by standing still, my love. We have faced this before. There will be time for tears later."
It wasn't any easier, but Cordelia fought to make herself understand, to process. "Aral, we don't have the authority to promise anything. We cannot make alliances. We don't have the authority."
"Dear Captain," Aral's voice was very, very gentle. "Gregor is dead, and without issue. I am here, and the need is here. I cannot flinch from it this time."
"Oh," Cordelia said whitely, pulling her hand back from his arm. That flinch struck him like a knife to the gut; she could see it in his wounded face, but there was no undoing it now. "For Barrayar," he said quietly, "there is nothing I will not do. I will declare my right to the Imperium before you leave local space. And I will have the backing of the people here."
She was underway in fifteen minutes. As Aral had predicted, there was plenty of time for tears.