The Other Bunker
It all began as a quiet evening at Vorkosigan House. For a change, Aral had come home at a reasonable hour. They’d eaten dinner and were relaxing in the library, Aral and Cordelia snuggled on the couch with readers, and Piotr in an armchair near the fire. He was reading, too. An actual book, from the shelves. Betan Cordelia was afraid to touch anything for fear it would disintegrate and there was Piotr, fully enjoying the contents of his huge library.
Cordelia’s eyes were beginning to drift closed when the screech alarm on Aral’s wristcom blared. Captain Negri barely had time to announce that the Residence was under attack when the transmission went dead.
“Father, take Cordelia to the bunker,” Aral ordered. “I’ll alert Padma. GO!”
They’d done the drills. It began with abandoning their electronics. Bothari smashed everyone’s wristcoms as Esterhazy opened a panel hiding a miniature armory and Piotr opened the panel next to the fireplace. Cordelia knew the underground passage from the library led – somewhere? Somewhere far away, her aching feet and back informed her, as Esterhazy led the way in the darkness, Bothari guarding their flank. When had hiking become so difficult? The year before, she and Aral had trekked all over newly-named Sergyar. Of course, she wasn’t nearing the third trimester of pregnancy then.
She wouldn’t have spotted the door in the Stygian blackness of an old transport tunnel if Esterhazy hadn’t shined his light directly on it. Piotr produced the metal key he’d grabbed off the passage wall and inserted it into a well-oiled lock. The door swung open soundlessly, revealing a dark room.
“One more minute and you’ll have a chair and a drink, Cordelia,” Piotr promised as they all stepped inside. Esterhazy rushed to crack cold lights as Bothari barred the door with one of the largest metal beams Cordelia had ever seen outside a construction site. As the lights flickered on, Cordelia realized the room was very large. And very empty, without a stick of furniture. She was wondering how her father-in-law was planning to conjure a seat out of thin air when Esterhazy disappeared through a door in the back of the room. He returned with two camp stools and water bottles for everyone.
“Where the hell are we?” Cordelia asked.
“In the heart of Vorbarr Sultana,” her father-in-law answered, draining his bottle and accepting a second. “Not far from Padma and Alys’ house. They should’ve beaten us here.”
“Piotr, Alys is so pregnant, she can barely waddle. That baby was due last week.”
“Just as well he’s not here yet,” was the unruffled response. “One less potential hostage. Are you hungry?”
“I’m pregnant,” Cordelia reminded. “I’m always hungry. Oatmeal and blue cheese dressing?”
“Reddi-meal and rat-bars. Not gourmet cuisine, but it’ll have to do.”
Cordelia was finishing a chocolate-flavored rat-bar and the armsmen were busy in the storeroom when she heard the sound of a key in the lack. Piotr went on alert, ordering her to go to the storeroom and send the armsmen out. She was marveling at the long walls of crowded shelves when Count Vorkosigan called, “Cordelia, we have company.”
Lord Padma Vorpatril looked tired. His normally-elegant wife looked disheveled and exhausted. The reason became clear when she gasped, put a hand to her belly, and doubled over in pain.
“Her contractions were just starting when Aral called,” Padma explained. “I’m going for the doctor.”
“Touch that door handle and I’ll shoot you myself,” Piotr told his beloved nephew in a conversational tone that was all the more chilling for its matter-of-factness. “Women have been having babies without doctors for millennia. Add one more to the list.”
“But nobody here knows how!” Padma almost wailed.
“Alys’ body knows how. You’ve seen foals born, Padma. Humans aren’t that different. At least your cousins, Serg, and Gregor weren’t. And it’s not like we don’t have supplies. We’ll be fine, Alys, my word as Vorkosigan.”
“What kind of supplies?” Cordelia asked.
“Nappies, blankets, bottles, formula. Didn’t expect my grandson or great-nephew would be born down here, but we needed to be prepared if either of you fled with a babe in arms. We’ve got some drugs in the med-kit, too. Maybe not as good as what a doctor would give, but better than nothing. Esterhazy, how are you doing making a bed for Lady Vorpatril?”
“Almost done, My Lord,” the armsman answered calmly. “Just need to inflate the pillows. Bothari will inflate another for Lady Vorkosigan after he finishes connecting the food sink. Commode’s ready if anyone needs it.”
“Show me where,” Cordelia demanded. “Quickly.”
Piotr escorted her to the storeroom and pointed to an open sliding door at the far end. Cordelia was expecting a chemical camp toilet. Instead, there was an old-style flush toilet, with a long pipe and pull chain attached to a water tank above their heads. There was a small hand sink, too.
“Don’t drink the water,” Piotr warned. “It’s fine for washing.”
“Where’s it coming from?” the former ship captain asked.
“Municipal water pipes above, municipal sewers below. Don’t dawdle, girl. Others need a turn.”
‘Others’ mostly meant Alys, before her contractions became too close together for her to move. Cordelia tried sitting beside her as support, but found the stool too uncomfortable. Piotr solved the problem by repositioning the second airbed so Cordelia could lie next to her laboring friend.
Padma had just checked his wife’s progress when there was the sound of another key in the lock. Everyone froze. Bothari and Esterhazy took up positions as someone tried a second time to unlock the door. That’s when the tapping again. Cordelia recognized it as Morse code, but couldn’t decipher any words. There was a pause before the message was repeated. Then came a second message, a longer one. And then a third. And then all three, in sequence.
“Who is it?” Cordelia whispered to Padma, who’d been listening intently, his handsome head tilted to one side.
“Gregor,” Padma whispered back. “Or someone stole the codes. I’m not sure.”
The armsmen were statues as Piotr slowly tapped out a response. There was a pause before Cordelia recognized the rhythm of a children’s song. One she’d heard Princess Kareen sing to her son.
“We’re opening it up,” Piotr decided, walking over and handing his nephew an old-fashioned projectile weapon. “Everyone be ready to shoot to kill if it’s not Gregor. Okay, men, open it up.”
Weapons were lowered as everyone recognized the blood-soaked woman holding the sleeping emperor.
“Is the boy hurt?” Piotr demanded as Esterhazy pulled the woman inside and Bothari quickly secured the door. “Are you?”
“We’re uninjured,” Ludmilla Droushnakovi said hoarsely. “The blood is Captain Negri’s. He laid down the covering fire to get us into the tunnel. A needler got him just before I fused the access door shut.”
“You’re a hero,” Piotr declared. “Esterhazy, take the boy before Drou drops him. Bothari, get her a chair and some water.”
“Take Gregor away,” Alys gasped. “It’s time.”
“Drou, you need to hang on just a little longer,” Cordelia commanded. “Esterhazy, take Drou and Gregor into the storeroom. We’ll be there after Alys and Padma become parents.”
“Now?” Drou gulped.
“NOW!” Padma confirmed, checking under his wife’s sheet. “Uncle Piotr, I can see the head.”
Cordelia was shocked to find that her gruff, abrasive father-in-law was an excellent midwife. His voice was calm and soothing as he supported his niece’s back and gave his nephew instructions. Soon Lord Padma Vorpatril was holding a dark head. And then an entire squirming, crying, perfect infant.
“Ivan,” Alys wept as she accepted the wrapped bundle. “Our Ivan Xav.”
“A proud, strong name,” Piotr praised. He continued to give instructions until Alys was clean and comfortable in a freshly-made bed. “And now we must see to our other child,” Piotr ordered as he creaked to his feet.
The scene in the storeroom was significantly better than Cordelia dared hope. The boy emperor was sound asleep on an air mattress, wearing clean pajamas and clutching a stuffed dinosaur. Drou was clad in ship knits, her long hair damp, but no longer flecked with her boss’ blood. The lingering scent of food was proof Esterhazy had fed her, too.
“Can you talk?” Piotr asked. “Tell us what happened?”
“I don’t really know,” Drou confessed. “Princess Kareen was hosting a small reception, so I was on evening detail. The Emperor had just fallen asleep when I heard weapons fire. I grabbed him and carried him to the sitting room. I didn’t see any armsmen, just Captain Negri trying to hold off at least three men in fatigues. We weren’t followed, my Lord Count. Not only did I fuse the access door, as soon as we were safely away, I followed Captain Negri’s instructions and blew the tunnel.”
“Well done! And what of Princess Kareen?”
“I have no idea, my lord. Though I smelled burning as we escaped.”
“And you carried Gregor the entire way?” Cordelia asked.
“Yes, my lady. He stopped kicking and screaming after about an hour. Wore himself out. It wasn’t just the shooting. The Emperor’s afraid of the dark. The tunnels were very frightening to him.”
“They’re frightening to all of us,” Piotr growled. “When Ezar and I designed the routes, we hoped no one would ever use them. Don’t worry about the dark, Drou. We’ve got boxes and boxes of cold lights. Use as many as Gregor needs.”
“How long are we going to be here, my lord?” Drou asked.
“I have no idea,” he admitted. “Until my son comes to get us or one of my armsman declares it safe. My men need to grab some things off the shelves. After that, we’ll leave you and Gregor to sleep. No protests, girl, you’ve earned your rest. So have you, Cordelia,” Piotr added. “You look ready to drop. Esterhazy, please find Lady Vorkosigan some pajamas and her toiletries.”
Cordelia was shocked by the small bag containing a brush, toothbrush, and her preferred grooming products. She shouldn’t have been, not after what she’d already seen, but the part of her mind that was still semi-conscious was reeling at the level of care someone had put into these disaster preparations.
It seemed like she’d barely closed her eyes when she was awakened by a hungry baby. And then a hungry emperor, who wanted to see where he was and who he was with.
Piotr’s unknown minions were more thorough than he let on. Cordelia would’ve been perfectly happy to drink water or tea. Included in boxes marked Gregor were juice and milk bulbs, groats, and some sweets. There was even a box of toys. Moving exhausted Alys and the baby into the storeroom allowed Gregor and his playmate of the minute to zoom vehicles all over the room. And if some made loud clatters when they hit the floors or walls, well, it was better than the nightly crying for his mother.
They were on the seventh day and Gregor was bored of being cooped up with a screaming baby and playing with the same toys when Piotr’s promise came true. Aral’s Morse code was as long and complex as the Emperor’s. The rest of the code was personal, too. Gregor’s identifying tune was a lullaby. Aral’s was the first stanza of the age-old Betan Good Sex Song.
“What an idiot,” Padma laughed. “Grandma used to sing that to us whenever Granda wasn’t around.”
“Xav hated it as much as I do,” Piotr growled as he ordered the door unbarricaded and Gregor brought from the storeroom.
“Oh, thank God,” Aral breathed as he counted heads. “Wait, we have an extra!”
“My wife is amazing,” Padma swore. “Uncle Aral, meet Ivan Xav.”
“Time for that later!” Piotr snapped. “What’s happening above? Are we at war?”
“Not anymore,” Aral answered as he gently took the proffered swaddled infant from his cousin and used his other arm to hug his wife. “Count Vordarian tried to declare himself emperor.”
“But I’M the emperor!” Gregor insisted. “Everyone says so, since Granda Ezar died.”
“Everyone is right,” Aral confirmed, ruffling the confused head. “And I’m your regent. Silly Count Vordarian thought he could steal your camp stool. But we stopped him. Actually, one very brave man stopped him. Commander Lord Evon Vorhalas is a very, very good archer. He shot an arrow with a gas grenade into a room where Count Vordarian was. The soltoxin made him very, very sick.”
“And what about Mama?” Gregor asked next. “Where’s Mama?”
The entire bunker exhaled when Aral answered, “Mama’s at ImpMil, Gregor. The gas made her a little sick, but we gave her the antidote right away and she’s getting much better. In fact, there’s nothing more she’d like than to see you. What to you say, Sire? Are you ready to go see Mama?”
“Yes, my Lord Regent,” Gregor replied with a happy giggle. “But how do we get out? Does Droushy have to carry me again?”
“Does it have to be Droushy?” Aral asked. “I thought maybe you’d like riding on my shoulders. And I promise we’re not going far. Less than a kilometer. Then you’ll climb a ladder and we’ll be in a nice clean house with a big tub. You need to take a bath and wear your uniform to see Mama, Gregor. I’m sorry, but those are the rules when we go to ImpMil.”
“You’re not wearing YOUR uniform,” the emperor pouted.
“It’s waiting with yours. And a beautiful clean dress for Lady Cordelia.”
“Is my uniform waiting, too?” Piotr asked.
“No, it’s not,” Aral responded. “I need you to stay with Padma, Alys, and Ivan Xav. Their house needs some repairs, thanks to Vordarian’s thugs. Vorkosigan House was unscathed. I’d like you to go there, Padma. You’ll be much safer. Even safer after we put up the force screens. Until yesterday, it never occurred to me that an archer could outsmart armsmen and ImpSec.”
“Sounds logical,” his cousin agreed. “What about ImpSec? Who’s in charge?”
“For now, I’ve promoted Ezar’s computer on legs. We’ll give it a few months, see how Captain Illyan fares in the job. I have high hopes.”
“Aral, I don’t think I can walk a kilometer,” Alys confessed.
“I don’t expect you to,” Lord Vorkosigan promised. “I’ve got six armsmen and two carry chairs waiting in the tunnel. Okay, who besides Gregor is ready to go above ground?”
“Part of me likes it here,” Cordelia confessed. “Reminds me of home. Aral, I don’t need to be carried.”
“Up to you,” he shrugged. “Just wanted to be prepared. Father, Cordelia, Gregor and I are going on ahead. Lock up and we’ll see you at the safe house. I promise there’ll be a hot meal waiting.”
“And Droushy!” Gregor cried. “Droushy has to give me my bath.”
“And Droushy,” Aral agreed. “In a few months, you’re going to give Droushy something, Sire. A big, shiny medal, to thank her for taking such good care of you. You’re going to give medals to some other people, too. And a super special one to Commander Vorhalas, too, for helping keep Mama safe.”
“Do I get a medal, too, for being a good boy?” Gregor asked.
“We’ll talk about it,” Aral chuckled, enjoying the various expressions on the other adults’ faces. “Not today. Today is about seeing Mama.”
“I don’t really like the tunnels, my lord,” Gregor confessed as they stepped outside. “Too dark.”
“That’s why you’re riding on my shoulders. You can point the light so you’ll see exactly where we’re going.”
“And you’ll get to the ladder first,” Cordelia reminded, knowing Gregor loved climbing. “Can we please go? I really, really need a hot shower.”
And with that, off the foursome went, the Emperor astride his regent, Lady Cordelia on one side, and Droushy, carrying the new stegosaurus, on the other.