Elizabeth Naismith looked away from the computer terminal she had been studying as a soft chime from the door announced the arrival of a visitor. Irritated by this interruption, she commanded the computer to “pause presentation” in a sharp tone and got up reluctantly, frowning at the train of thought she was already in the process of losing – to be disturbed in the middle of researching for a new article was not something she appreciated.
She sighed and shook her head in annoyance as she made her way to the door. It was probably someone looking for Cordelia, anyway, for all of her colleagues and acquaintances knew better than to show up at her door, unannounced – she did not welcome casual visitors, especially not when they interrupted her thoughts! But Cordelia had had rather a lot of people stopping by for her recently, and Cordelia was currently out, as she usually was, these days. Though not at survey, getting ready for a new mission, or anything sensible like that. Noooo, God help her, Elizabeth thought in ever mounting irritation, not anything sensible like that. Instead, Cordelia had put her survey commission on inactive status and preferred to help out with settling the Barrayaran refugees – for refugees was definitely the fitting term for them, never mind that the government officially referred to them as ‘Citizens of the Barrayaran Empire, temporarily in suspended interstellar transit’ – these days.
Elizabeth sighed. Ever since her daughter had returned from that strange and aborted exploratory mission that had led to her crew becoming all tangled up with those damned Barrayarans, Cordelia had been different. Initially, Elizabeth had put it down to the trauma of being held captive first by a Barrayaran officer on a forced march across a wild planet, and then on a Barrayaran ship – not to mention the death of Lieutenant Rosemont, or the tragic injury suffered by Ensign Dubauer – but time and distance and numerous debriefings had not eased Cordelia, not really.
Then, scant months after Cordelia’s return from that perilous adventure and when Elizabeth had just let herself believe that her daughter might, might be getting over the whole blasted affair, news of a political coup had arrived from Barrayar, followed shortly thereafter by news of the outbreak of a – currently still ongoing – civil war, set off by said coup.
And Elizabeth had watched helplessly as her daughter grew more and more restless and tense and unhappy. And then, then Cordelia had put her career on hold, on hold, to go and help out with that damned acculturization effort! Well, not that helping the Barrayaran refugees settle on Beta Colony was not the right thing to do, of course it was, and taking in as many as Beta’s rather limited capacities could take, was of course the right thing to do as well, no matter what the “Beta for Betans!” nutcases had to say about it – all due respect to Steady Freddy for responding in such an insightful and humanitarian way, however unlikely a source of respect he otherwise proved to be – but did Cordelia have to put her career on hold for it, when she’d had such good chances of being sent on another survey mission? Elizabeth Naismith did not understand her daughter’s reasoning. After all, there were plenty of people, people that were extremely well qualified in all the relevant fields, to do the job! And just because Cordelia had spent some time among Barrayarans – had spent some time imprisoned by Barrayarans! – that was really no excuse to stall her career, yet again … .
But if this was what Cordelia wanted to do, then this was what Cordelia did, never mind what her mother or her brother had to say about it. They had tried reasoning with her, God knows, they had tried. And tried. And tried some more. But to no avail.
Elizabeth sighed again. Everyone needed to make their own mistakes, she supposed. And if this was going to be one of Cordelia’s … then, fair enough. Cordelia’s career had survived an ill-fated romantic entanglement some years ago, after all, so it might just survive a humanitarian side trip as well. Or so Elizabeth hoped.
Not that helping with the acculturalization program seemed to be doing all that much for Cordelia, Elizabeth reflected acerbically. Well … that was not quite true. At first it had seemed like Cordelia was settling into the job, during those first weeks of refugees arriving on Beta. Meeting the new arrivals, helping them get settled, showing them the different customs of the Colony had seemed to make her daughter less restless … but once the news these refugees had been bringing with them had turned more and more dreadful, Cordelia in turn seemed to grow ever more anxious as the death toll mounted. And Elizabeth could not understand why. Why did the Barrayaran civil war affect her daughter so much? Cordelia did not talk about the experiences she had had in Barrayaran captivity much, but surely so short a time among them had not actually led to her making any friends among them? And even if it had, what were the chances of one of the refugees knowing one of those potential Barrayaran military officer friends? From what Elizabeth knew about Barrayar, it was not as if ‘soldier’ was a rare occupation amongst Barrayaran men!
There weren’t many refugees arriving these days any more, anyway – and it seemed a wonder to Elizabeth that any had managed to make it out of Barrayaran space in the first place! Well, most of them actually seemed to have been off planet and out of the sphere of the Imperium at the time, merchant families or travellers and the odd scholar or two – and they were now understandably reluctant to return to a planet torn apart by civil war – or, even if they wanted to return, they were unable to do so, for all regular shipping lines had been suspended, and not many ships risked going into the space of the Barrayaran Imperium right now. But still, some refugee ships from the Imperium had managed to get out, and had arrived at Beta Colony, once Escobar had refused them landing rights and sent them away. Some merchants, some private transports, some renegade officers that took along some civilians – Elizabeth did not understand the politics of it, nor did she have any great interest in learning them. Cordelia had tried to explain, weeks ago, but that had been when Elizabeth had had three papers due and a presentation to prepare and a conference trip to plan – and so they’d never really gotten around to it, and by now Cordelia had given up trying.
Oh, damn that parochial militaristic backwater planet run by an absurd form of government, full of political and civil notions that seemed to stem right from the darkest of dark ages! Cordelia had been happier before she had gotten entangled with all those Barrayarans, refugees or otherwise! And what, what could she possibly care that some ‘Butcher of Komarr’ or other had been reported among those killed in an explosion in the royal palace? Judging from the sobriquet the man went by: good riddance, as far as Elizabeth Naismith was concerned! Well, not that she actively supported killing people, no matter their unpleasant characteristics. Therapy was a far better way of dealing with social troublemakers. But still – why would Cordelia care so damned much? She’d been positively wooden for days after that piece of news had arrived, and nothing Elizabeth had said seemed to help at all. And no explanation had been forthcoming, no matter how Elizabeth questioned her tight-lipped daughter. And it wasn’t as if Cordelia had improved since then, no, she had only become better at hiding whatever private grief she felt.
So, when all was said and done, if this was yet another poor lost Barrayaran soul at her door, tearing her from her thoughts and looking for her daughter, Elizabeth might just find it in herself to be pleasant to the poor sod, but no more than that! Cordelia cared enough – too much – for the both of them! Elizabeth had papers to write, a deadline to meet, and a daughter to worry about. Barrayaran refugees, though she might feel sorry for them in an abstract sort of way, had no place on her mental schedule.
Still, one mustn’t be rude – and she had dawdled long enough in answering the door already.
So she muttered an irritated “Yes, yes, fine, I’m coming” to herself, as the melodic chime sounded again, and hit the screen to activate the vid plate with a rather forceful motion of her hand. The impact stung, and made her “Yes! Hello? Who’s there?” come out rather less courteously than even she had intended.
The vid pickup showed her that there was a man standing outside her door – a man with short dark hair and of stocky build, with a smooth face that spoke of recent regeneration work. He looked exhausted, weighed down, somehow, and there were dark purple bruises under his eyes, that spoke of not enough sleep and too many worries. From the way he carried himself he seemed slightly ill at ease in the Betan clothes he was wearing, so her guess of ‘Barrayaran refugee’ was very likely correct. And if he was Barrayaran, then he was probably in his forties, though the regen work made it rather hard to tell. His left hand was raised, as if he wanted to touch the announcer button again, and with his right arm he held a small child – a boy, about two years old – cradled on one hip. The boy seemed to be asleep, his head curled against the man’s shoulder.
He did not startle at her rather brusque question, she noticed, but he did seem to clutch the boy to himself a bit more tightly. His voice, when he answered, sounded firm: “Hello? I am looking for Commander Cordelia Naismith. I was told that I might find her here? We have been assigned to an apartment in this complex, and I … .”
Impatiently, Elizabeth gestured for the door to open. There was being brisk, and then there was being rude, and she did not want to be rude on account of being annoyed with Cordelia and the situation in general. After all, the man probably had enough to deal with already. And it was a – tragic – fact of life that Cordelia had volunteered to be the Betan liaison for refugees assigned to this complex, and so Barrayarans had been coming by with bizarre questions and problems for weeks now – and anyway, this whole situation would be over much faster if Elizabeth just told the guy face to face that yes, Cordelia lived here, and no, Cordelia was not here right now, and if he just went back to his assigned quarters then Cordelia would stop by later in the day and Elizabeth could get back to work and everyone would be happy. Hence – opening the door was a good idea. So she did.
“… had a question for her?” the man finished, as the door slid open. His gaze found Elizabeth’s, and then went on to quickly scan her body and the flat behind her, taking her and the room behind her in, in a few pointed and disconcertingly sharp glances. No, not just taking her in, assessing her, she corrected herself. Assessing her, and her flat, for hidden threats, and … danger?
Evidently, she did not pose any, for he relaxed slightly, and nodded in greeting, gesturing apologetically at the sleeping boy he held cradled in his right arm.
Elizabeth nodded back, and replied, a little more charitably, “Cordelia is not here right now, but if you tell me the number of your assigned apartment and wait for her there, I will tell her to stop by when she returns. Do you want me to convey a specific message to her?”
“Ah.” He replied with a sigh, some more of the tension leaving him. “Wait. Yes, I will wait for her. We have been assigned to apartment 435, level M. Would you tell her that my name is Aral Vorinich, and I am here about the possibilities for political careers, and the differences of staying versus passing through that we talked about, not too long ago? And, well, …” he paused, and added pensively: “… would you tell her that the blue cheese was … delightful?”
Elizabeth’s eyebrows shot up. Political careers? Staying versus passing through? Blue cheese? Cordelia wanted to help a Barrayaran refugee to start a political career on Beta Colony? Was that even legally allowed? And he had liked the blue cheese? But it might well be as he said – who knew what Cordelia was up to these days. Certainly not her mother!
“Apartment 435, level M, Aral Vorinich, career moves, as discussed. Blue cheese. Very well. I shall.”
The boy stirred in the man’s arms, and blinked the sleep out of his eyes, then looked around curiously. His eyes were brown, Elizabeth noticed, as he considered her with an assessing gaze that was rather disconcerting in a face that young. After a long moment, the boy turned away and hid his face in Mr. Vorinich’s shoulder, clutching him tightly around the neck as he did so.
The man glanced down, and made another apologetic gesture with his free hand. “I should go. Thank you for taking my message.”
“It’s no trouble,” Elizabeth replied, for it really wasn’t any trouble, her constant level of irritation with her daughter and the whole situation notwithstanding. “Good day to you both. And – good luck.”
“Thank you.” He nodded gravely, and turned to walk down the corridor.
Elizabeth watched him go until a bend in the corridor took him out of her sight, and listened to the fading echoes of his voice that floated down the corridor towards her, as he spoke to the child: “Are you hungry, Gregor? No? Well I certainly am, and there is a nice lunch waiting for us in our quarters, so if you change your mind we can… .”
When she could not see or hear them anymore, Elizabeth shook her head in bemusement, and stepped back into the flat, letting the door slide shut in front of her.
A brief note on the house computer to remind herself to tell Cordelia about Mr. ‘M-435’, and then she could finally, finally, return to her research. Elizabeth settled back in at her computer terminal with a relieved sigh, and only spared a brief moment to wonder what Cordelia could possibly want with a misguided Barrayaran politician, of all people, before she let her research consume her thoughts again. She’d simply ask Cordelia later, once she had returned and seen Mr. Vorinich. And if her daughter proved to be her customary elusive self, then time would tell. Or not. But either way, Elizabeth Naismith had work to do.
When Cordelia did return, finally, late in the evening, looking exhausted and careworn, Elizabeth abandoned her research for the night and made her daughter sit down at the small kitchen table while she prepared some cold dinner for them both. Uncharacteristically, Cordelia did not protest this arrangement, but merely sat there in silence, and then ate her food half-heartedly and looked so tired and weary that Elizabeth almost did not have the heart to tell her about Mr. Vorinich. It was unlikely that the man would be expecting Cordelia to stop by so late in the evening, after all, and the boy was certainly asleep by now … whatever the Barrayaran wanted could surely wait until morning.
But she had promised, and when Cordelia looked up from where she was pushing some salad around on her plate and asked if there had been any messages for her, or if anyone had come by to see her, Elizabeth dutifully answered with the truth, and said: “Mr. Vorinich wanted me to let you know that he and his boy have been assigned quarters in this building. M-435, to be precise.”
Cordelia frowned pensively, and replied: “Mr. Vorinich? Hmm. I don’t think I know him, but then I haven’t met every new arrival that is processed by the center. Did he tell you who assigned him here? And did he say what he wanted?”
Now it was Elizabeth’s turn to frown at her daughter. “You don’t know him? That’s … strange. He seemed absolutely certain of who you were, and claimed that you two had spoken recently. In detail. And that you’d given him food. Maybe you should be careful and take security along when you go see him. Or maybe you should not go see him, and let security handle it. I am sure they can answer his questions.”
Cordelia’s frown deepened. “Well, that does sound strange. We don’t supply victuals at all … the policy is to hand out credit chips for the vending units and let everyone make their own requisitions unsupervised. But the center does vet all new arrivals pretty carefully now, after Rustav Gubovich attacked those two herms in Silica, so I doubt security would find anything. And do you really think it necessary?”
Ah, yes, Elizabeth thought. That incident she did remembered hearing about on the news channel. Mr. Gubovich had been one of the earliest Barrayaran refugees to arrive, and apparently been a … troubled … individual all his life, and then the outbreak of the civil war had destabilized his psyche even further. The incident in Silica had not made for good press for the Barrayaran refugee effort, and security checks and vetting procedures had been increased in the aftermath.
Elizabeth made a deliberating motion with her hands. “Oh well, I don’t actually think it’s as bad as all that. He did not seem unstable and did not behave in an overly threatening manner, either … at least once he had convinced himself that I was not hiding any of his enemies in our apartment – but … its just that he did claim to know you. Said he had spoken to you. And about the strangest things! It did seem a rather unlikely story to me at the time. So … I don’t like it. You had better be careful.”
“Mother, I think you had better tell me as much as you can about him, and what his message was. And what precisely it is that I allegedly gave to him. Did he say? It’s possible, after all, if unlikely, that I’ve merely forgotten his name – and I don’t want to needlessly scare some poor refugee by sending security to check him out!”
Elizabeth looked unhappy, but finally conceded with a shrug. “All right. He’s, well … dark hair, dark eyes, stocky build, about your height. Recent regen job on his face. In his forties, maybe, though it was hard to tell. Said his name was Aral Vorinich and that he wanted to talk to you about, of all things, possibilities for political careers, and the differences of staying versus passing through, whatever that means, and all per your recent discussion. Or, no, not recent – ‘not too long ago’ discussion, that was what he said.” She waited, to see if this sparked any recollections for her daughter, but so far it did not seem like it. Cordelia kept frowning in concentration, with what might be a faint, tentative look of … hope … on her face.
Elizabeth shrugged, and went on: “And, stranger and stranger still, he also wanted me to let you know – and this is no joke – that the blue cheese you gave him was delightful. And what does that even mean? Cordelia, is that some sort of code word? It must be some sort of code word, since you said you don’t supply victuals! You had better be careful! And he did have a boy with him that looked nothing like… .” Elizabeth trailed off, startled to notice the sudden change in her daughter.
For Cordelia was looking at her with wide, startled eyes, and then started to – was she laughing? It seemed like she was. But she was also, definitely, crying. Elizabeth frowned in concern as Cordelia hastily wiped the tears away and visibly controlled herself, smothered both the laughter and the tears and tried to affect a more composed look, obviously – if unsuccessfully – not wanting to worry her mother. Or not wanting to have to explain this rather startling and inexplicable emotional outburst to her mother. Fat chance. And, oh, for goodness’ sake, whatever that man had done to her poor daughter, he would be sorry, the Barrayaran lout!
But then, when Cordelia did manage to control herself after a minute or so, her face settled into a smile that one might almost label a grin, and she really did not look unhappy at all, not even to Elizabeth’s worried and suspicious eyes. So, on second thought, maybe the motherly one woman revenge commando would have to restrain itself, after all. For now.
Cordelia certainly didn’t sound as if any motherly revenge commandos would be necessary – or appreciated. No, her daughter sounded relieved, more than anything else, when she replied: “Oh! He’s alive! When the news came, I'd thought for sure that ... . Though I have no idea what he is doing here, of all places – besides the obvious – there is no reason to worry, mother, I promise. … I … he’s …a good man.” She finished a little lamely, and paused, but then quickly continued on, obviously sensing some of the growing mix of confusion, indignation, worry and sheer curiosity that Elizabeth was feeling, and tried to forestall its outbreak by adding: “So yes, I do remember the man! And we did speak about all those things, and I did indeed give him some blue cheese. We were hungry at the time, you see, and I happened to have some. Not very much else, though. And, well … I just did not know that his name was Vorinich.” Cordelia paused again, and looked like she might add a vital tidbit of information that might help Elizabeth understand all of this, but frustratingly, she didn’t. Instead, she pushed her chair back from the table resolutely and got up, adding: “Well, I had better go see what he wants.”
Elizabeth swiftly rose from her chair as well and put out a restraining hand, holding her daughter back. “Cordelia, be sensible! It is rather late. People might well be asleep at this time. Wait till the morning! And why don’t you rather explain to me precisely where you know this Mr. Vorinich from? It sounds like a fascinating story.”
“Well… .” Cordelia replied and looked pensive for a moment, but then shook her head resolutely, apparently not swayed from her decision by her mother’s demand. “No, it might be important, mother. I’d best go and see him now. I’ll explain … later.”
Which probably meant never, Elizabeth thought in annoyance. Meanwhile, Cordelia had hurried to the door and was already out in the corridor, but once she got there she turned around to step back into the doorframe and add cheerfully: “And, mother – whatever it is, I have a feeling that it might take a while – so don’t wait up!”
And before Elizabeth could come up with an appropriate response to that rather outrageous statement Cordelia had turned around again and was gone, the door sliding closed silently behind her.
Elizabeth stood there, in the middle of the flat, for a long moment, entirely motionless, and just listened to the reassuring hum of the air circulation system. Then she took a deep, deep breath, and let it out with a sigh. Whatever this was, she thought she had better get to know this Barrayaran ‘good man’ a little better, and soon. For now, she tried to convince herself not to worry too much. Tried – and failed.
- to be continued -