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Tales from the Academy

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Tales from the Academy

 

 

A Fan Fiction Novel set in the Worlds of Miles Vorkosigan

 

 

 

By Scott Washburn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This story includes characters and settings created by Lois McMaster Bujold and are used without her permission or knowledge.

 

 

 

Prologue

 

 

Countess Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan often felt that the Barrayaran penchant for pomp and circumstance—particularly when she was obliged to sit through it—was taken too far. But not today. This was one ceremony she was perfectly willing to sit through. Indeed, she had to struggle to keep the expression on her face from morphing from stately satisfaction to outright glee.

 

She was sitting in the garden courtyard of the Count’s Residence in Hassadar, capital of Vorkosigan District, watching her grandchildren being presented to the people of the city. It was a tradition that stretched far back into the Time of Isolation when the birth of a Count’s heir, or in this case, the heir’s heir, was an event of great significance and a time for celebration. It had also been a way to show that the heir was mutation free—something that was still of particular significance in many minds. Her gaze drifted over to her son, Miles. He and his wife, Ekaterin, were standing behind the two display cribs and grinning ear to ear. Miles was holding little Helen Natalie and chatting with a townswoman. Cordelia knew full well how important this was to him. It was vindication on more levels than she could count at the moment.

 

Miles’ impeccably tailored brown-and-silver Vorkosigan house uniform could not disguise the fact that he was scarcely five feet tall, nor completely hide the slight hunchback that he’d had his whole life. And while he had learned to ignore the hurtful whispers of mutant, to be able to show off his two perfect children, produced by him and his lovely wife, must eclipse all his other accomplishments. Although, Cordelia noted with a wry smile, Miles wasn’t being shy about displaying those other accomplishments, too. His uniform coat was adorned with a selection of his many medals and awards, and the gold Imperial Auditor’s seal hung around his neck on its elaborate chain.

 

A line of people wound past the flowering roses and out the garden gate and, from reports, went for many blocks through the city. They had been coming to pay their respects and see and praise the children for several hours now and would continue to do so for the rest of the day. The Vorkosigans were popular rulers and this was the first excuse for a major celebration since Miles’ and Ekaterin’s wedding a year and a half ago.

 

But it made for a long day. They had agreed to take things in shifts to give themselves a break from time to time. Aral was off somewhere now and ought to be back shortly, unless some local politician had gotten hold of him. Cordelia rose from her chair. She would take her turn now, she decided. After all, she hadn’t held her grandchildren since breakfast.

 

But as she smoothed her skirt, she caught sight of a small commotion in the line of people. A young woman was talking intently with one of the armsmen, who was shaking his head emphatically. What was this all about? Oh. Cordelia caught sight of the envelope in the woman’s hand. A petitioner. Why hadn’t she left her petition in the basket at the gate? The armsman was offering to take the envelope, but the woman pulled it away and gestured in Cordelia’s direction.

 

As she did so, their eyes met and locked and the woman froze. The armsman, Holt, it was, turned to follow the woman’s gaze, saw his countess, and frowned in annoyance. He turned back and grasped the woman’s arm. The people next to her in line were growing angry, too. After waiting hours to get in, they didn’t want the moment spoiled.

 

And neither did Cordelia. Making up her mind, she strode quickly down the line to stand next to Armsman Holt. “Is there a problem here?” she asked.

 

Holt, startled, turned to look at her, his face coloring slightly. “No, my lady. Nothing you need trouble yourself with.” The nearby townspeople and the young woman, were all staring, wide-eyed. The woman, scarcely more than a girl, she saw now, clutched her envelope, clearly mustering her courage to dispute Holt’s statement.

 

“Is that for me, Miss…?” asked Cordelia, indicating the envelope.

 

“Yes, my lady,” said the girl, bending a knee in an awkward curtsy. “Or… or for the Count. Or the Lord Auditor. Anyone who…”

 

“Anyone who’d pay attention?”

 

“Yes, my lady.”

 

“There’s a basket at the gate,” growled Holt. “And I offered to take it if that wouldn’t do.”

 

“That’s true,” said Cordelia. “And there are several official channels for electronic mail, too, that you could try.”

 

“I have tried!” cried the girl, who clapped her mouth shut in shock at how loudly she had spoken. The line was moving forward and a number of people cut around the woman, but she didn’t seem to care. Her eyes remained fixed on Cordelia. “Please, my lady, I’ve sent messages to everyone I could think of and nothing’s happened.”

 

Cordelia frowned. It was probably something trivial then. Miles, acting in his capacity as Aral’s heir while they were away on Sergyar, had set up a very good system for people to register complaints or petitions and get results if they warranted them. If this girl’s petitions had gone unanswered it was unlikely they had much substance. Still, it would be simple enough to hear her now and avoid a scene. She put out her hand. “What’s your name?”

 

“Anny… I mean Andreanne Payne, my lady.” She held out the envelope and Cordelia took it. She smiled when she saw that Aral’s, Miles’ and her names and full titles were neatly hand-written on it. The girl wasn’t leaving any route untried. She’d give her points for persistence, if nothing else. She popped open the seal and drew out a sheet of paper—real paper, not a flimsy—and unfolded it. She quickly scanned down the page—and stopped.

 

“Heavens. Are you serious about this, Anny?”

 

“Yes, my lady!” The look on her face screamed sincerity—and fear.

 

“Anywhere else I wouldn’t have to ask this, but here I do: why?”

 

“M-my family has always served, my lady. But my older brother was killed in a logging accident and…” she drew herself up and her expression of fear became one of determination. “And I’m the eldest now.”

 

“I… see. What in the world makes you think that you can do this?”

 

“He did.” The girl jerked her head in Miles’ direction. Cordelia wasn’t sure if she was pleased or offended by the answer. But then she sensed someone coming up behind her and she knew it was Aral even before he spoke.

 

“What’s this?” he asked. Holt, the girl, and all the nearby townspeople bowed and curtsied and ‘m’lorded’ right and left.

 

“Ah. Dear, this is Anny Payne. Anny, this is… well, I guess you know who this is, don’t you?”

 

“Yes, m’lady,” gulped Anny.

 

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Payne. What can we do for you?” Aral looked from the girl to Cordelia. She held out the paper.

 

“It seems that Anny has been unfairly denied admittance—to the Barrayaran Imperial Service Academy.”

 

Cordelia had to give Aral credit: he barely flinched at all. “Indeed?” he rumbled, taking the paper and looking it over. “You took the entrance exam? How?”

 

“Y-you can take the academic parts on-line, now, m’lord. I… I put down my brother’s name. But when I passed the first tests they asked for more information and… and…” She held out her hands helplessly.

 

“I see…”

 

“Dear, let’s not all stand here like this,” said Cordelia. “People are beginning to stare. Why don’t we all go over there where we can talk?”

 

“Certainly, dear Captain. A good idea. Come, Miss Payne.” To Armsman Holt’s obvious dismay, Aral unhooked the velvet-covered rope that was herding the visitors past the cribs and ushered Anny through. There was no security risk: everyone was thoroughly scanned before they were allowed through the force field guarding the Residence, no, Holt’s concerns were propriety, not security. Anny’s face had gone nearly as white as the paper of her petition to find herself trapped between her count and countess, but she didn’t falter. The girl certainly had courage, Cordelia granted. But did she really understand what she was doing? The Barrayaran military was a males-only bastion that clung to the old ways more obstinately than almost any other part of Barrayaran society.

 

They walked down a short path to a shaded spot where there were some chairs and refreshments, out of sight of the visitors. Coming in the opposite way was Miles who handed off Aral Alexander to a nurse for a diaper change. Miles strolled over with his hands in his pockets and nodded at each of them and looked quizzically at Anny. “Hullo,” he said.

 

“Miles, dear, this is Anny Payne,” said Cordelia. “Anny has an interesting… situation.” Aral handed him the paper. Halfway through it he glanced up sharply at Anny.

 

“These are really your test scores?” he asked.

 

“Yes, my lord auditor,” whispered Anny.

 

Miles whistled. “Only two points below mine, although I imagine the test has changed a bit.” Cordelia smiled. Not just because Miles could remember the exact score he received fifteen years earlier, but because she could remember her own entrance exam scores from the Betan Astronomical Survey Academy from half a century ago. “Still, you must realize what you are up against here, Anny.”

 

“Yes, my lord auditor.” The girl set her jaw and looked stubborn.

 

“The law is quite clear,” said Aral. “Men only.”

 

“Laws can be changed,” said Cordelia.  “You’ve changed enough over the years to know that.”

 

Miles scratched at his nose. “Sooner or later, someone was bound to try this. Actually, I’m kind of surprised that it took this long, what with you here, mother.”

 

“This would be very… unpopular in certain circles,” said Aral.

 

“But probably more popular in others,” countered Cordelia. “Why, I imagine Count Dono would be quite happy to sponsor a bill…”

 

Miles cleared his throat noisily. “I don’t know if this would be the best time, mother. And I don’t know if it would even be necessary. The Academy has always had quite a bit of latitude to make… exceptions.” He glanced at Aral and her pointedly. “Perhaps if I had a word with General Vorgarin.” Miles frowned and looked unhappy. In his role as Imperial Auditor his Word was very nearly law, but it was not a power to be used frivolously or often.

 

“Now love,” said Cordelia, “you are still on vacation. And it’s been far too long since I stirred things up around here.” She smiled and took Anny by the arm.

 

“Let me take a crack at this.”

 

 

 

* * *

 

BOOK  ONE

 

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Chapter 1

 

 

Come on, Anny! Hit me! You fight like a girl!” The woman darted in, seized Anny by her tunic, and tossed her to the mats. She landed heavily, but rolled and was back on her feet in a moment as she’d been trained. I am a girl, darn it! What do you expect? The session had been going on for nearly an hour. She was tired and sweaty and getting very frustrated. She knew that she was incredibly fortunate to be getting these lessons from Drou Koudelka, but it was hard to accept that this woman who was forty years her senior--almost sixty years old, for God’s sake!—was mopping the floor with her.

 

They circled each other for a few moments and then Anny made a tentative lunge. She was rewarded with a blow to her protective helmet that sent her sprawling again, stars floating in her vision like glowflies. Drou stood over her, shaking her head. “Anny, you can do better than that! You have to concentrate!”

 

She sat upright and pulled off her helmet. “I’m sorry, Drou. You’re right, I can’t pay attention to this right now. Countess Cordelia should have been back an hour ago with the word! What do you think is happening?”

 

Drou stared at her for a moment longer and then put out her hand to haul Anny to her feet. She smiled: “Why do you think I was pushing you so hard? I was trying to take your mind off it.”

 

“Fat chance of that,” muttered Anny.

 

“Yeah. Well, it’s almost lunchtime. Let’s take a break.” Anny nodded in grateful agreement. They each grabbed a towel and left the small gym on the third floor of Vorkosigan House. They headed down the steps, mopping off the sweat as they went. They had been heading for the kitchen, but an armsman intercepted them on the second floor landing.

 

“Ah, Madam Koudelka, Miss Payne, I was just coming to get you. The Countess commed a moment ago and asked that I have you meet her in the Yellow Parlor for lunch. She should be here shortly.

 

“Oh,” said Drou. “All right. No time for a shower. I guess she won’t mind us being all smelly.”

 

“Did… did the Countess say anything else?” asked Anny nervously.

 

“No,” said the armsman. “But she did sound to be in a good mood.” The man winked at her and went back down the stairs. Anny stared after him, but decided that any further questions probably wouldn’t yield anything. She looked to Drou and raised her eyebrows, pleading.

 

“No use guessing in a vacuum, Anny. We’ll know soon enough. Come on.” The Yellow Parlor was on the second floor so it only took a few moments to reach it. Ma Kosti, the Vorkosigan’s amazing cook, was there putting out some appetizers at a table set for three. Anny sat down but could scarcely force herself to nibble on the exquisite dainties. Her stomach was tying itself in knots.

 

I can’t believe I’m doing this!

 

It was also hard to believe that nearly a year had passed since that fateful day in Hassadar. She could still feel the raw terror that had filled her when she found herself face-to-face with the Count and Countess. But they had both been kinder and more helpful than she’d dared to hope for. The legendary Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan had taken an interest in Anny and decided to make her case a personal ‘project’.

 

But even with her full support, nothing had happened quickly. Anny had been expecting a simple yes or no (in all probability a no) and that would be the end of it. Either she would be sent home in failure or sent to the Academy. It wouldn’t take more than a day or two for a decision like that, right?

 

Wrong. The Countess had set the ball rolling before she returned to Sergyar with the Count, but even though the ball had considerable momentum, it could not just roll straight to the goal. Instead, it bounced and banged and clanged around like one of those remarkable pin-ball machines imported from Earth that had become all the rage in the city. The ball never seemed to come to a complete stop, since few people had the nerve to give a flat no to Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, but for the longest time it never got any closer to the goal, either. One obstruction after another was thrown up and Anny had to miss entering the Academy with the next class. She found herself taking new tests and retaking old tests and then waiting weeks for the results—even though the computers could grade the darn things in micro-seconds. Men in officer’s uniforms glared at her and asked lots and lots of questions.

 

Days passed and then weeks and Anny had to return home. Her mother, who quite openly thought Anny had lost her mind, reminded her daily that she couldn’t just keep waiting for something that was never going to happen. She had to find a job, or even better, find a husband! Her younger sisters, who had been so excited for her at first, were now making fun of her behind her back. The Countess had told her that with her school grades she could probably get a scholarship to a good college and as the time dragged on, that was looking like a better and better idea.

 

But just as Anny was getting ready to give up, the Countess returned to Barrayar to give the ball another shove. She shrewdly appraised Anny’s situation at home and suggested that she come to Vorbarr Sultana for some ‘advanced training’. With more than a few trepidations, Anny had agreed.  She had never been to a city larger than provincial Hassadar before, so the capital of Barrayar had frightened and dazzled her. And when the Countess had told her that they would ‘find a place for her to stay’ she had never imagined that meant Vorkosigan House! The huge, old Count’s Residence probably had more square footage than all the houses in her home village combined. She’d been given a very nice room on the third floor and introduced to a mob of new people.

 

“Drou…?”

 

“Hmm?” Drou answered around a mouthful of pastry.

 

“I… I just wanted to tell you that no matter what answer I finally get, I’m so grateful for all of your help. And the Commodore, too. You’ve all been so kind to me.”

 

Drou swallowed and smiled. “It was our pleasure, Anny. With our girls all married and out of the house we were both at loose ends—or at least we will be until the grandchildren start coming.”

 

Two of the first people Anny had been introduced to were Drou and Kou Koudelka. Drou had once—over thirty years ago—been the personal bodyguard of the ill-fated Princess Kareen and later of Countess Vorkosigan. She took charge of Anny’s physical and close-combat training. The officers who were opposing Anny’s entry into the Service Academy—and there were a lot of them—insisted that she meet the same physical standards as the male cadets. Fortunately, Anny was a big, strong girl to begin with, but under Drou’s instruction she was now in better shape than she had dreamed possible. She still couldn’t match most of the men in raw strength, but she could pass every one of the tests. The close-combat training had been ‘optional’ since she’d get that training at the Academy, but Drou insisted that she learn it now, hinting she might need it for other things than passing tests. Anny didn’t like close-combat and wasn’t much good at it, but Drou had been very patient with her.

 

Equally patient had been Commodore Clement—‘Kou’—Koudelka, Drou’s husband. The Commodore had once been Count Vorkosigan’s military aide and had recently retired after a long and accomplished career. He schooled Anny in military matters and the ins and outs of the Academy. Unlike most of the officers she had met, the Commodore did not seem to have any objections to what Anny was trying to do. Drou had joked that was mostly due to some not-so-subtle threats made by their four headstrong daughters, but Anny didn’t believe that. Kou had become like a father to her and it was obvious that he really wanted her to succeed. He wasn’t just going through the motions because the Countess had asked him to. All these people doing so much to help me. What if I fail?

 

“Drou?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Am I crazy? To want to do this, I mean.”

 

“Probably.” Anny looked at her sharply, but the woman was smiling. “The people who bring about the big changes are all probably a little crazy. Look at the Countess. Ha! Look at Miles!” She snorted a laugh. “But where would we be without them?”

 

“I’m not trying to change things! But if… if it had been possible for you, back when you were my age, would you…?”

 

“Anny, I would have grabbed it with both hands and run like hell and never looked back.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Really. Oh, that’s not to say that I’d do it differently if I had the chance to go back now. I love the life I’ve had and I wouldn’t give up my marriage or my children for any prize. But without knowing about this future, if I’d been allowed to actually wear the uniform and hold the rank that went with my job, then, yes, I’d do it.”

 

Anny nodded numbly. She envies me! That’s just not right. “To wear the uniform,” she whispered.

 

“That is what you want, isn’t it?

 

Was it? That was a part of it, she supposed, but what did she really want? Another part was family tradition. The Paynes had served the Imperium and the Vorkosigan counts before that for a dozen generations or more. There was an ancient sword that hung over the mantelpiece back home that supposedly had been given to some great-great-etc-grandfather by one of those counts after doing something heroic somewhere. Other martial heirlooms cluttered shelves and closets that no one could quite remember the stories about. So, it was a family duty, but was it her duty? Her father had been a twenty-year man and very proud of it. He’d thrilled Anny with his stories of travelling with the squadrons escorting the trade fleets. Tales of different worlds and the close-knit comraderie of the service had kindled a fire in her heart. So that was another piece of this puzzle, but there were other ways to see the universe and other people she could give her loyalty to. Why do it the hardest way possible?

 

And then there was her brother.

 

Peter had been two years her senior and growing up there had never been a doubt in anyone’s mind that he would uphold the family traditions and enter the Imperial service. She had envied him, just the way Drou seemed to be envying her now. But life wasn’t easy in the Dendarii Mountains and Peter had taken an after-school job with a logging company until he was old enough to join up. It was dangerous work and one day it killed him.

           

It killed her father, too, it just took a little longer.

 

Her Da had always seemed just the right age to Anny, but in reality he was an old man. He’d waited until he retired from the service to marry. He’d been forty-five when Peter was born. His health was already failing when his son died. Anny had watched her father’s life just drain away after that. On his deathbed he said his only regret was that the long family tradition of service would end with him. Weeping, Anny had promised him she would take Peter’s place. Her Da had smiled and patted her hand and then he was gone. You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep.

 

“Anny?” Drou was looking at her with a puzzled expression.

 

“Oh! Yes! Yes, that’s what I want.” Is it?

 

“Actually, I should be thanking you,” said Drou. “If—I mean when—you do this, it will open up worlds of possibilities for my own granddaughters—possibilities I never had.”

 

Anny looked at her in horror. Don’t say that! I’m carrying enough as it is! But before Drou seemed to notice her reaction there was a high-pitched squeal from out in the hallway and she turned and smiled. “Speaking of grandchildren…”

 

Another shriek and the patter of tiny feet announced the entrance of 18-month old Helen Natalie Vorkosigan. The toddler ran across the room and ricocheted off the sideboard and then stood in a patch of sunlight, turning in circles. Following at a more sedate pace was the Countess and behind her came Helen’s mother who was holding her brother Aral. Anny and Drou got to their feet automatically. The Countess was never a stickler for ceremony, but somehow she just did that to you. Helen careened over and grabbed Anny’s trousers in a tiny fist to steady herself. “Hi, Anny! How doin’?”

 

“I’m fine, Helen,” replied Anny, but her eyes never left the Countess. She was smiling and came over and scooped up little Helen and proceeded to tickle her, producing gales of laughter that was so high-pitched it neared the edge of hearing. This went on for a minute or more until Drou finally spoke up.

 

“Cordelia, are you going to tell us what happened or are you going to keep this poor girl dangling?”

 

The Countess stopped tickling and shifted the breathless child in her arms. She sat down and looked right at Anny. “Relax. You’re in.”

 

Anny found herself back in her chair although she had no memory of sitting down. She just goggled for a few moments and then managed to choke out: “I am? Really?”

 

“Really,” said the Countess. Drou clapped her hands and then came over and gave Anny a hug.

 

“You are going to have to tell us everything, Cordelia!” said Drou.

 

“Everything would keep us here far into the night. And some of it is even classified, although I can’t see why. But let’s just say that it went all the way to the top before it was resolved.”

 

“The top,” gasped Anny. “You… you mean the Emperor?”

 

“Higher than that: his wife,” said the Countess with a laugh. “Laisa pointed out to Gregor that his hope of reconciling Komarr’s people to being a permanent part of the Empire was doomed if half the population was barred from the surest path to advancement. Smart woman, that one. Of course, no Komarran women have even tried yet, but once they get a look at you, Anny, who knows?”

 

Anny sat there in a daze. She was really going to the Academy. ‘Thank… thank you. Thank you all.”

 

The Countess gave a sour laugh. “You might not be thanking us a few months from now. This was the easy part, girl! We could help you get in, but that’s as far as the help is going to go. Staying in is another matter and it will be entirely up to you!”

 

 Anny felt like a huge weight was descending on her shoulders. First her father and Peter, then Drou’s hypothetical granddaughters. Now all the women of Komarr. She was amazed that her chair didn’t collapse under the load. But all these people had enough faith in her to give her this chance. Drou, the Commodore. The Countess.

 

 She forced herself out of her chair and stepped next to Countess Cordelia. She sank to one knee and looked up into her surprised face.

 

“I won't fail you, my lady."

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

Yes, I’ve seen the order! I’ve seen all the orders! I’ve got orders from the General Staff, orders from the Council of Counts—countersigned by the Emperor, himself!—orders from the Bureau of Personnel, orders from the Chief Surgeon and a dozen others! Half of them contradict the other half! What the hell am I supposed to do with this girl?”

 

Anny sat bolt upright on the edge of a chair in the room outside the Academy Commandant’s office. She was fairly certain she wasn’t supposed to be hearing the half of the comconsole conversation that was coming through the thin walls. She glanced at the Commandant’s aide working at his desk, but he made no sign that he even heard the tirade, although there was no way anyone could have missed it.

 

“Treat her like any other cadet? Yes, that’s what the order from BuPers says! But am I to take that literally? Payne is due to report for her physical testing—yes, I know she’s passed all of them already but she’s taking them again today with the other cadets anyway—and do you remember what the regulation uniform is for the testing, Emil? It hasn’t been that long since we were here as cadets, has it? That’s right: shoes and shorts—and nothing else! Do I send her out there topless?”

 

Anny paled and she automatically crossed her arms across her chest. Most of her was horrified at the possibility, but a tiny part of her almost wanted to do it just to let them know she could take anything they could dish out. Almost.

 

She’d arrived at the Academy early that morning. Drou had borrowed a bright red lightflyer from the Vorkosigans and flown her here herself. Anny had suggested taking the monorail alone, as most other arriving cadets did, but Drou wanted a last chance to talk to her. She’d been so excited and nervous she scarcely remembered what they talked about but the Academy was only a few hundred kilometers north of Vorbarr Sultana so it had been a short conversation anyway. The hug that Drou gave her on the landing pad seemed to last longer than the flight. The woman seemed reluctant to let go of her.

 

Her arrival had caused as much confusion among the processing staff as it now seemed to be causing to Colonel Sylvanus. Surely, they knew I was coming! They all acted as if she was some alien creature who had just fallen out of the sky into their midst. I guess it probably seems exactly like that to some of them. No one knew what she was supposed to do or where she should go. Even a relatively simple matter like issuing uniforms and gear had caused a commotion. She tried to explain that she already had a full set of uniforms. She didn’t mention that they were custom-tailored to fit her female body-shape and paid for by Countess Vorkosigan. But it wouldn’t have mattered anyway: the quartermaster sergeant insisted that every incoming cadet must be issued a full set of uniforms—‘regulations, miss’—so now she had two enormous duffle bags and two sets of uniforms. Identical, except that one set fit and the other set probably did not.

 

At least they admitted that she existed. She was on their computer rosters: A. Payne. She had no doubt the sort of jokes that would soon generate! She’d already heard them all on her journey through school. After several hours of passing the payne up the chain of command, she’d ended up in the Commandant’s Office.

 

“Use my common sense?” bellowed the Commandant. “If I was allowed to use my common sense, she wouldn’t even be here! And what about the shower and toilet facilities? What about the barracks? They are not co-ed, Emil! I’ve got another order here from the Adjutant General’s Office reminding me that no harassment of Cadet Payne will be tolerated except—and I quote—‘such as is normal for any cadet at the Academy’. What the hell does that mean? Upperclassmen harassing plebes has been going on as long as the Academy has existed! If a 1st Battalion cadet swats Payne on the a…the backside to hurry her along is he going to be hauled up on charges? And that’s not the worst thing that could happen by any means. Put a young woman into a company of young men full of testosterone and you know damn well what’s going to happen! What? Yes, she’s attractive. I’ve seen her pics and she’s very pretty. But after a month or so here it wouldn’t matter if she looked like Sergeant Major Szytko! Can you imagine the nightmare if we had to court-martial a dozen Vor lordlings on rape charges?  I’m telling you, Emil, this is going to cause chaos!”

 

Now Anny was blushing. The Countess had given her some very frank information on the dangers she might face. There had been an odd tone in her voice that had made Anny shiver. Drou had given equally frank advice on just what to do if the dangers materialized. She felt she could fight off one or two attackers, but not a whole mob. Would they really do something like that? Now even the secretary was stirring uneasily and he threw a glance in her direction.

 

“Perhaps you should wait outside, cadet,” he said quietly. Anny immediately sprang to her feet.

 

“Yes, sir. Uh, where…?”

 

“Out on the porch should be okay. Just don’t wander off.”

 

“Yes, sir.” She left the office and retreated down the hallway and through the double doors and onto the porch where her two duffle bags sat forlornly. The Commandant’s office was in a big, old house that dated from the Time of Isolation. It had once been part of an estate owned by the Vorbarra family, but Emperor Ezar had given it and the land around it to become the Academy. The porch thrust out from the front of the house and was covered by a roof set on thick, white pillars. A white balustrade ran between the pillars except where the steps went down to the ground. Immediately to the front was a vast parade ground over a kilometer square. It was flat as a griddlecake with lush, closely-mowed grass, starting to yellow slightly with the end of summer. A battalion of cadets were drilling in the bright sunshine, their black fatigues a sharp contrast to the grass. Anny put her back to the wall beside the door and watched.

 

She decided they must be the junior or possibly even the senior class because they were very good; certainly not raw recruits. Commodore Koudelka had drilled her for weeks and she knew every paragraph of Vorcasey’s Tactics like the back of her hand. School of the Soldier, School of the Company, School of the Battalion, she felt like she could carry out the moves in her sleep. Of course, except for the manual of arms and a few basic marching maneuvers that could be executed in the garden of Vorkosigan House, she had never actually done any of it.

 

These cadets were doing it and doing it very well. Each company, though composed of sixty or seventy men, moved like it was a solid object; the building blocks of the battalion. They wheeled and obliqued as the battalion went from line to column and back again. She whistled silently as they formed a square: a defensive formation against cavalry attack. A few generations earlier there might have been cavalry drilling on this field, too. It was impressive. Totally impractical for fighting with modern weapons, but still impressive. And that was the whole point, of course. Close order drill instilled a sense of pride and solidarity. The battalion on the field was accompanied by a small fife and drum band which helped keep the cadence. Some of the tunes sent chills down her spine. Anny’s heart beat faster and she longed for the chance to get out there and do it herself.

 

She became so caught up in watching that she almost didn’t notice the approach of a pair of officers coming along the walkway. When they started up the steps, she spotted them and instantly came to rigid attention. A captain and a lieutenant in undress greens, they were talking about some administrative matter and didn’t give her a glance until they reached the doors. When they did look at her they both stopped dead as if they’d run into a force barrier. Now that they had noticed her existence, she was obliged to salute, which she did. The captain very slowly returned it. “What… who are you?” he asked.

 

“Cadet Payne, sir.”

 

“Good God, so the rumors were true for once. What are you doing, standing here?”

 

“Waiting to see the Commandant, sir. I was told to wait here by his aide.”

 

They stared at her for a moment longer and then passed through the doors, shaking their heads in unison. She heard the captain say: “There’s going to be Hell to pay now!”

 

She waited and waited and wondered if they had forgotten about her. Deliberately, perhaps? The drilling battalion was dismissed and dispersed into the buildings along the edges of the parade ground. A bugle sounded the mid-day meal but Anny did not dare leave to search for a mess hall. More people entered and left the headquarters buildings, most giving her a surprised look, but saying nothing. She saluted when appropriate and listened to her stomach growling. She grew progressively more worried; the physical testing that she was supposed to repeat started at 1400, she’d been told. What if she missed it standing here?

 

Perhaps fifteen minutes after the lunch call another man approached. He was wearing the uniform of a regimental sergeant major and he moved with an easy precision that bespoke a lifetime in the military. He wasn’t particularly tall, but seemed to project an aura of authority mixed with menace. His dark hair was cut short and was distinctly white at the temples. His face was rugged with a slightly crooked nose and a faint scar running down his left cheekbone to his jawline. There were multiple rows of ribbons on his chest and hashmarks on his sleeves denoting many years of service to the Imperium. Anny came to attention, but did not salute as he marched past her. His eyes flicked in her direction, but he didn’t pause or change expression.

 

Anny sighed and slumped slightly against the wall. This was becoming ridiculous. Hurry up and wait, just like the Commodore said. Stay cool, don’t let it get to you or you’ve lost half the fight right there. She took off her cap and ran her hand through her own closely-cropped hair. She’d once had long brown hair which she liked to weave into elaborate braids. All gone now, per the regulations. Countess Cordelia had told her, when she asked about those regulations, that they should try to win the important battles and not waste ammunition on minor items. She could hardly argue and went to a barber the next day. It was the sensible thing to do, but she didn’t quite recognize the person in the mirror these days. If I make it through this, will I recognize myself at all?

 

“Cadet Payne! Front and center!”

 

She snapped to attention and scrambled for the door so instinctively she almost fell over one of her duffle bags. The shouted command had seemed to bypass all the higher reasoning sections of her brain and go directly to the parts controlling her motor nerves. She quickly returned to the office where she’d been sitting. The door to the Commandant’s personal office was now standing open and the aide indicated she should go in.

 

Colonel Sylvanus was sitting at his desk and the sergeant major she’d seen earlier was standing off to one side. Both of them were looking at her. She stopped in front of the desk, came to attention and saluted. “Cadet Payne reporting as ordered, sir.” The Commandant was a broad-shouldered, balding man in his mid-fifties. His undress greens sported a host of ribbons—but not quite as many as the sergeant major. He returned her salute with an irritated flick of his hand.

 

“Cadet, this is Regimental Sergeant Major Szytko. He will be… overseeing your introduction to the Academy. You will follow whatever instructions he gives you, understood?”

 

“Yes, sir.” Anny glanced at Szytko but the man stood at parade rest and looked right past her.

 

“Cadet, you are due on the obstacle course in forty-two minutes. Move out.”

 

Anny hesitated for an instant and then saluted. “Yes, sir!” She faced about and headed for the door. Szytko was already two paces ahead of her. She caught up but then fell behind again when she had to stop and grab the two duffle bags. They had shoulder straps, but they probably weighed twenty kilos apiece and she struggled to get them up and positioned properly. Once done, she could only move forward in an awkward waddle. It wasn’t the weight so much as the size and mass that defeated quick movement. Szytko was thirty paces ahead by this time but he halted and looked back until she caught up. He did not offer to help. He then led the way with Anny puffing along behind.

 

After a few minutes Anny realized that they were passing by the cadet barracks and heading for a patch of woods in the distance. “Where… where are we going?” she gasped.

 

“Your quarters,” replied the Sergeant Major.

 

“Aren’t I staying in the barracks?”

 

“No.”

 

“But… but I thought I was to be treated like any other cadet.”

 

Szytko was silent for a dozen paces before he replied. “The Colonel has decided that the equal treatment should be limited to those things on which cadets are graded or evaluated. Sleeping, washing and… certain other activities are not graded and do not fall under the equal treatment orders.”

 

“Separate but equal, eh?” snorted Anny.

 

“Something like that, cadet. It’s for the good of the service.”

 

“Maybe you should just take me off in the woods and kill me, Sergeant Major. That would simplify everyone’s life, wouldn’t it?”

 

Another lengthy pause. Perhaps he’s considering it. “Less talk and more walk, cadet. You have thirty-five minutes.”

 

They reached the woods and Anny saw an overgrown path leading into it. They followed this for three or four hundred meters and came to a clearing with a small house in the center. Some sort of guest cottage? The place had clearly been unoccupied for a long time. Szytko had to throw his weight against the door before it squealed open on badly rusted hinges. Inside, the place was covered in dust, the furnishings old and shabby, and a few empty liquor bottles were scattered about. The Sergeant Major looked around in distaste. “You can police this later. Dump your kit and change into your PT gear, cadet. I’ll wait outside.”

 

Anny dropped the duffle bags with a grunt of relief. “No need, Sergeant Major, I’m wearing it under my fatigues.” She unzipped her tunic and trousers and shucked them off. Underneath, she wore the regulation shorts and a non-regulation black T-shirt. They locked eyes for a long moment. Anny slowly began to remove her top but Szytko put out his hand.

 

“That will do, cadet.”

 

“Equal treatment?” she asked, arching her eyebrows. The corner of Szytko’s mouth twitched, but no one would call it a smile.

 

“Save your breath for running, cadet. The obstacle course is three kilometers from here and you have nineteen minutes. Move out.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Three kilometers in fifteen minutes didn’t even have Anny breathing hard. She’d trained with Drou to run at twice that pace for long distances. But Szytko matched her stride for stride and looked no more fatigued than she felt when they arrived—and he had to be nearly Drou’s age.

 

Clustered around the start of the obstacle course were about a hundred new cadets. Anny suddenly realized that this was her company. She’d be spending the next four years with these boys—at least the ones who made it through. The Commodore had described the close-knit comraderie that normally developed within a company. Not just during the time at the Academy, but for the rest of their careers. How would these boys react to her presence? Would they let her truly join them or would she be an outsider now and for always? She had wanted to become a part of the Imperial military, but it wasn’t really up to her, was it? She could do everything right, pass every test and every challenge, but if her peers refused to accept her, there was nothing she could do about it.

 

She came to a halt at the rear of the group. They were all looking at a sergeant who was holding a notepad and they hadn’t noticed her yet. But the sergeant had. He snarled out a rather amazing obscenity and then looked at Szytko. “Sergeant Major! By all the saints what in blazes have you got there? Please don’t say you’re bringin’ it to me!”

 

“’Fraid so, Jon. Punishment for your many sins,” replied Szytko with no sympathy in his voice. He left Anny and went over to talk with the sergeant. Their conversation was inaudible but there was a lot of gesticulating on the other sergeant’s part. By now, all the cadets had turned to face her and were staring with gape-mouthed astonishment. She looked right back at them. One of the things the Commodore had drilled her on was looking people right in the eye. He’d taken her on walks through Vorbarr Sultana and insisted that she look boldly and squarely at each person they passed. Now she was grateful for the practice. What she saw was a mob of young men about her own age (probably a little younger since they hadn’t had to waste a whole year getting permission to come here). They were tall, short, thin, stocky, fair and dark. All had close-cut hair and they were all bare to the waist. Most looked quite fit, although a few were a tad chubby. She swept her gaze across them and looked them in the eyes.

 

After a few moments she realized that most of them weren’t meeting her eyes. It seemed like they were staring a bit… lower. Anny reddened slightly. Her endowment was about average, but the physical training she had received had enlarged her pectorals and flattened her abdomen and left her looking rather… statuesque.

 

The other cadets seemed to have noticed.

 

“All right, you apes! Screw your eyes back into your heads and face me!” growled the sergeant. Everyone obeyed and Anny was at the back of the crowd instead of the front once again. The two sergeants had finished their discussion and Szytko had stepped off to the side and stood there with folded arms. The other sergeant cleared his throat noisily. “Now, as I was saying before we were interrupted: I am Sergeant Byrne and you are “C” Company! I will have the… privilege of commanding you until such time as you’ve earned the right to have your own company officers and NCOs. As of this moment, I am your company commander and you will address me as ‘sir. Got that?”

 

“Yes, sir!” A hundred voices, including Anny’s, shouted back as loudly as they could. They had all watched those movies on the vids and knew what was expected of them. Sergeant Byrne looked as though he was going to give them the old I can’t hear you routine anyway, but then thought better of it.

 

“In a few minutes you will begin the obstacle course. You will start in pairs at thirty-second intervals. Once begun you do not have to remain in your pairs. Proceed at your best speed. Sound off when I call your names and line up over there. Lafney! Land!” A pair of boys shouted back here! and moved over to the start line. “Leignitz! Lentov!” Two more answered and lined up behind the first two. Okay, C Company starts with the Ls, thought Anny. That should put me right about in the middle. I wonder how many of these cadets are Vor? For a long time no one but the Vor class could even come to the Academy. That restriction was eliminated during the reign of Emperor Ezar and during the regency and reign of Emperor Gregor the percentage of non-Vor had risen steadily. Still, Anny was willing to bet that over half her company were Vor, even though that honorific was dropped from every cadet’s name during his time here.

 

Sergeant Byrne called off a dozen more names; he was up to the Ns now. “Naddel! Nevitch! Halt! Scratch that!” Two boys had started forward but pulled up short at Byrne’s sudden command. He stared at his notepad for a moment and then scribbled on it with his stylus and nodded his head. “Naddel! Payne!” It took an instant for Anny to realize that her name had been called—out of order. But she shouted here! and trotted over to the start line with a dark-haired boy about her own height who looked at her suspiciously. She dared a small smile.

 

“Hi. I’m Anny Payne.”

 

“Jer. Jer Naddel.” He didn’t offer his hand, but there was a distinct accent to his voice.

 

“You’re Komarran?”

 

“And you’re a girl.”

 

“You noticed that, did you?”

 

“I didn’t think Barrayarans had girls. In the military, I mean.”

 

“Glad you clarified that.”

 

“So, what are you doing here?”

 

“We’re about to find that out.” Naddel frowned but said no more. Sergeant Byrne finished calling off the pairs and then went to the front of the line and started sending the cadets out on to the obstacle course at intervals. Anny glanced back and saw that Sergeant Major Szytko was still there, watching her.

 

Another few minutes and it would be her turn. She took a deep breath and forced herself not to shake. This was it. Everything that had happened up to now was just preparation for what  was to come. She didn’t have any worries about the obstacle course, itself. She’d trained on harder ones than this with Drou. But once she crossed that line, she was committed and could not turn back. Success or failure, it was all up to her now.

 

“Go!” Sergeant Byrne released another pair. Only one more in front of her. Can I do this? No other choice now, girl!

 

“Go!” Her turn next. She tensed and took her spot at the start line.

 

“Go!”

 

Anny Payne sprinted toward the future.

           

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

Anny poured the chilly water over herself with one hand, while scrubbing with her other hand and hoping she was getting all of the soap off of her. The last of the water dribbled out of the plastic jug and she dropped it and grabbed a towel, spluttering and shivering hard. The weather was turned unseasonably cold and her ‘quarters’ had no heat, aside from a tiny fireplace.

 

The plumbing didn’t work, either.

 

She had been here for two weeks and submitted numerous requests for maintenance, but so far nothing had happened. She was obliged to haul water from the nearest source, about 500 meters away, and make do. Although the toilet didn’t work, at least the drain in the bathtub was functioning—so far. Some days she had the time and energy to heat up her bath water over the fire, but not today. Separate but equal—yeah, right. She dried herself with the towel and pulled on her uniform. There was no electricity in the cottage, either, but Sergeant Major Szytko had provided a few field lanterns. Making sure she had everything she needed, she turned off the lanterns and went outside. It was well before dawn, but a brilliant glow from the floodlights surrounding the parade ground gave enough light for her to follow the path through the woods.

 

“Halt! Who goes there!”

 

She stopped and sighed. Two figures were silhouetted against the light at the end of the path. They both had rifles with fixed bayonets. “It’s just me, sentry: Cadet Payne.” Who else would it be? I’m the one you are here to guard, remember?

 

“Advanced and be recognized!” She stepped forward until she was two meters from the figures and halted. A hand light switched on and she squinted as the beam was played across her face. “Present your ID and pass!” She had both items near at hand and passed them over to the sentry with the light. He took them and shined the light on them and then back on her and then on documents again.

 

“This pass is dated yesterday. It’s no longer valid.” Oh great, they’re going to play their little game.

 

“It was issued by the Provost yesterday. It’s valid until I can get another one today.”

 

“It doesn’t say that here. I’ll have to check.” He clicked on his wrist com and spoke into it. “Corporal of the Guard? Post 10. We have a situation here.” He looked at Anny and even in the dark she could see the grin on his face. She said nothing and just went to parade rest and waited. After about five minutes another cadet with corporal’s chevrons arrived but, as she had expected, he wasn’t willing to accept her pass either. The Sergeant of the Guard was summoned and he showed up after a ten minute wait. He looked over her ID and the pass and checked his chrono several times. Finally, he handed the items back to her and said she could go—just as reveille sounded over the loudspeakers. She instantly broke into a run and sprinted for the parade ground.

 

They were getting the timing down perfectly. The first time they did this they had actually caused her to be late for formation, but they had forgotten that their communications were recorded and when she was able to prove that the sentries had tied her up for nearly thirty minutes on a simple check of ID and pass, they had gotten the chewing out and punishment duty and not her. After that, they carefully left her just enough time to get to formation—if she ran and if she got up a half hour early to be ready. They’re trying to drive me out.

 

Anny wasn’t exactly sure who They were, but the incidents seemed too persistent and involved far too many people to just be the routine hazing of a new plebe—even a female plebe. But the big question was where did this originate? If it was just something the upper classes had come up with (the freshman class wasn’t well enough organized yet to be behind it) then she could probably handle this. If nothing else, they would get bored with it after a while if she refused to let them get to her. But what if it came from higher up? If the Academy staff were involved, maybe even the Commandant, himself, then what could she do?

 

She reached the parade ground just in time to fall into ranks with her company and not quite be the last one there. Sergeant Byrne glanced at her but said nothing. Byrne and Szytko had both been fair with her so far, so she wasn’t sure where they stood in all this. In fact, everyone had been fair if your definition of fair was that it fall within the letter of the regulations. They weren’t going to give her any grounds for an official complaint—and that alone was enough to make her suspect a conspiracy from higher up: mere bullies wouldn’t be this careful.

 

Sergeant Byrne called off the role and everyone was there. After he’d reported this to the battalion adjutant, C Company, and the others, took intervals to give them room for the morning PT. All of them took off their tunics and trousers and left them folded on the dewy grass. Everyone had on their PT gear underneath, just as she had the first day. This was followed by a brisk hour of calisthenics that left them dripping hot despite the chilly morning. Then came the order to get back into their fatigues…

 

Her tunic was gone.

 

She’d left it piled with her trousers, right behind her during the exercises. But now it was gone. She looked around, but she didn’t see it and none of the cadets seemed to have it. None of them would meet her eyes, but some appeared to be smiling. Great, now what do I do? There was nothing she could do but fall in with the company. Naturally, she was in the front rank, right under Sergeant Byrnes’ nose. He noticed instantly.

 

“You’re out of uniform, cadet.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Where’s your tunic?”

 

“I don’t know, sir.”

 

Byrne looked distinctly displeased. The sun was just peeking over the rim of the world and it cast horizontal shadows across the parade ground. The other companies were being sent to breakfast, but Byrne called C Company to attention and walked up and down the line. He returned to the center of the formation and glared. “Has anyone here seen Cadet Payne’s tunic?” Silence. “She was wearing it when she arrived. It did not walk off on its own and it did not blow away. Theft is a dismissible offence at the Academy. Now, I’ll ask again: has anyone seen Cadet Payne’s tunic?” Silence, but a very uncomfortable silence now. Byrne’s glare grew darker. “Very well, we shall search for it. Break ranks and sweep the area. Move!”

 

The company spread out and slowly moved across the parade ground. A black tunic on the closely-mowed grass would have stuck out like an anti-flare in the morning sunshine, but there was nothing to be seen. They reached the edge of the field and in short order her tunic was located in a trash receptacle next to the bleachers that were used by visiting dignitaries. It was returned to her and she quickly put it on. Byrne called them back into ranks. His glare had achieved new levels of darkness.

 

“There is a thief in the company,” he said. His voice was pitched low, but somehow that was more menacing than if he’s been shouting. “Quite probably several thieves since I saw no one break formation during PT. Now, we could find the thieves. They probably left DNA evidence on Cadet Payne’s tunic. If necessary, we could call in the JAG people and fast-penta the lot of you.” Anny sensed cadets shifting uneasily all around her. “But I’m not going to waste their time on a batch of sneak-thieves. Whoever you are, you have dishonored this company. And since you refuse to come forward, the whole company will have to pay along with you. Company! Right—face! Forward—march! Double time—march!” He led them off at a brisk trot, past the barracks, past the mess hall and onto a road that went into the huge training area that bordered the Academy. On and on…

 

And on.

 

By noon cadets were starting to collapse and Byrne finally ordered a halt. They were in a forested area that had to have been at least thirty kilometers from where they started, maybe more. They were all exhausted and even Anny was feeling the effects of her early start and a lack of food. Her legs and feet ached and her stomach felt like an empty sack. She flopped down under a tree and closed her eyes. She had thought about taking a few ration bars with her when she left her quarters that morning, but had not. She silently vowed she’d never do that again.

 

“Anny!” a voice whispered to her from behind the tree.

 

“Jer?” she whispered back, but didn’t move. It sounded like Jer Naddel, the Komarran cadet she’d met on the obstacle course.

 

“Anny, I saw who took your tunic.”

 

“Well, don’t tell anyone. It doesn’t matter now.”

 

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter! The whole company is being punished because of them!”

 

“Yeah, and if you rat on them, what do you think is going to happen to you? Just forget it.” Naddel didn’t say anything more for quite a while. Anny hoped he would realize what a huge mistake it would be to try and turn in the perpetrators. It was extremely unlikely, despite Sergeant Byrne’s dire statement, that anyone would be kicked out of the Academy over what they would insist was just a prank. Naddel would make a lot of enemies for no good purpose.

 

“It’s not fair,” whispered Naddel.

 

“Welcome to Barrayar.”

 

The trip back was a nightmare. The break had allowed their muscles to stiffen and they were all in real pain from the first step. At least they were headed back—or so they hoped. By mid-afternoon some of the cadets could go no farther on their own, so those that still could were obliged to help those who could not. Anny found herself with Jer half-carrying a smaller boy who hardly looked old enough to be a cadet.

 

“Thanks…I think,” he gasped as they hobbled along. By this time the company’s formation had completely unraveled. Cadets were scattered along a kilometer of road, singly or in small groups. The pace was about that of a slow walk. Sergeant Byrne moved along the column urging them on. The scoundrel hardly even looked winded.

 

During another short rest break the boy they were helping pulled off his shoes. Anny winced at the blood-stained socks underneath. “Drat, I was rather afraid this was the case,” muttered the boy.

 

“Next time wear two pairs of socks,” said Anny. “It helps.”

 

“Next time? Can we expect this bracing exercise frequently?”

 

“In all probability, yes,” said Jer, looking at Anny with a pointed expression.

 

“Oh dear. By the way, my name is Alby. Alby V… Worth. I know you, Miss Payne, by reputation. And Mr. Naddel, I’ve seen you around the barracks. You might have missed seeing me, being at the short end of the line as I am.” Anny would have known to put the Vor in front of Alby’s surname even without his slip just from his demeanor. Still, he didn’t seem as stuck-up as a lot of Vor.

 

They all groaned when Byrne ordered them up and back on the march. Alby had tears on his cheeks by the time he had his shoes back on, even though he didn’t make a sound. It must have hurt like hell. A short while later a truck appeared on the road in front of them. It stopped and waited for the cadets to approach. Anny was interested to see Sergeant Major Szytko standing next to it.

 

“You’ve got another eight klicks back to base,” he said to the group, as a whole. “Anyone who can’t make it, climb aboard.” A number of the cadets hobbled over and flopped into the open back.

 

“Alby, you should go on the truck,” said Anny.

 

“What? I’m just starting to get my second wind! No, if you’ll permit me to continue leaning on you, I think I can make it.”

 

“All right.” Silently she wished he would get on the truck. She was nearing the end of her own endurance and half-carrying Alby wasn’t easy. Still, she wasn’t about to say so. They aren’t going to beat me! They continued past the truck. Several of the cadets inside were watching and two of them gave a curse and got back out and followed along. Szytko was watching her, too.

 

The last eight kilometers, which Anny normally could have covered in forty-five minutes, took three hours. It was dark by the time they stumbled and dragged themselves onto the parade ground. Of the ninety-eight members of C Company who had left that morning there were still seventy-five left in the ranks when Byrne called the roll. “I hope you have all learned something today,” he said. “The company is dismissed. Break ranks-march!”

 

Slowly, painfully, the company dispersed. A few headed for the mess hall, but most turned towards their barracks. Anny, contemplating the kilometer back to her own quarters, nearly curled up on the grass right there.

 

“Thank you, Miss Payne.” She looked up with a start. It was Alby. “I wouldn’t have made it without your help.”  Anny started to smile, but then another voice snarled out from close at hand.

 

“Yeah, thanks a lot!” She turned and saw a cluster of cadets shuffling past. They all had looks of raw hatred on their faces. Anny just stood there and watched them pass. Alby looked on curiously.

 

“Whatever is the matter with that batch? They act as if you were to blame for our unfortunate day.”

 

“I suppose I was,” replied Anny glumly. “Alby, you better go to the Infirmary and have them do something for your feet. Can you make it on your own?”

 

“It’s that building over there? Yes, I can make it. And thank you again.” He turned and hobbled away.

 

“My pleasure,” whispered Anny.

 

She briefly considered going to the mess hall for a proper meal, but the ration bars she had stashed in her quarters would just have to do. She slowly walked towards the woods.

 

“Halt! Who goes there!”

 

Oh, for God’s sake!

 

The sentries halted her, demanded her ID and her pass, and then absolutely refused to let her through because she hadn’t gotten a new pass from the Provost. She tried to reason with them, toyed with the idea of just killing them, but eventually, she found herself trudging to the Provost’s office—which was a kilometer in the opposite direction. There was a half-hour’s delay in getting the new pass since it was past normal office hours. Then another kilometers back to the cottage. The sentries let her through without comment this time.

 

She flicked on one of the lanterns and dug out a ration bar and munched on the tasteless thing. As tired as she was it wouldn’t have mattered if it was a Ma Kosti meal. The pain in her body slowly gave way to a kind of numbness, a numbness that eventually filled her brain along with the image of the hatred on the faces of those cadets. They can turn everyone against me. It was true. Today’s incident could be repeated with an infinite number of variations. Do something to Cadet Payne and the whole company gets punished. Again and again until every cadet in C Company would be her enemy. She began to shake. What can I do?

 

She finished the ration bar and realized that she hadn’t brought any water back with her. She was parched and filthy. Nothing to drink and no bath in the morning. She was too tired to even care. She collapsed on the bed and curled up in a ball.

 

She had sworn that no matter what happened she would never let them see her cry.

 

But no one was watching right now.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 

Nine ring! Two o’clock!”

 

Anny lay on her stomach and squinted through the sight of her rifle at the distant target. She steadied the weapon, slowly let out her breath, and then squeezed the trigger. The slug-thrower slammed her shoulder and let out a sharp crack.

 

“Eight ring! Five o-clock!” said the spotter.

 

 “Keep the weapon tight against your shoulder, cadet,” said Sergeant Byrne from behind her.

 

“Yes, sir,” she answered without looking up. Byrne was strolling up and down the firing line giving those helpful little bits of advice to all the shooters. Naturally, he couldn’t have been behind her three shots earlier when she scored a dead-center bulls-eye! She knew that she wasn’t an especially good shot, but as the Commodore had told her, marksmanship was ninety percent technique and only ten percent raw talent. Of course, that ten percent was the difference between an average shooter and a truly great one, but Anny didn’t need to be great—just a bit better than average. She took another breath and aimed very carefully…

 

“Bulls-eye! Three-o’clock! All right, you’re done.” Anny rolled over and sat up. She got to her feet and handed the rifle to the spotter, who was an upperclassman. He seemed bored but not hostile—which was all Anny could hope for. “Your total score is ninety-two out of a hundred, cadet,” he announced. “Not bad.”

 

Anny retreated from the firing line to make room for the next section from her company. She sat down on the grass and was strangely pleased when Jer Naddel sat down next to her. “How’d you do?” he asked.

 

“Ninety-two.”

 

Jer whistled. “I only managed an eighty-four. You’re a sharpshooter!”

 

“Not really.”

 

“Yes you are. Any score over ninety rates a sharpshooter ribbon.” Anny looked at him in surprise. She had known that, but somehow it had never occurred to her that she might actually get one. Anny glanced around at the other cadets.

 

“You’re taking a risk talking with me like this,” she whispered.

 

“Why? Because I might make myself unpopular with our comrades? I’ve got news for you, Anny: I made myself unpopular with my friends and family back home just by coming here. And our esteemed colleagues in C Company don’t like me because I’m a Komarran. So to hell with the lot of them, I’ll talk to whomever I please.” Jer spoke in a normal tone of voice and didn’t seem to care that there were dozens of cadets within earshot.

 

“I hope they don’t treat you as badly as… as…”

 

“As they treat you? No, with you to focus on they don’t pay much attention to me. It’s no worse than I expected.”

 

Anny continued to whisper: “I’ve never been… hated before.”

 

“It’s not who you are, it’s what you are. Any other woman in your spot would be treated exactly the same way. It’s not personal it’s just… just…”

 

“Barrayaran.”

 

Jer snorted. “I was going to say stupid, but that will do just as well.”

 

They had a few rare minutes of free time while the remaining two section of the company took their turn on the firing range. Anny decided to take advantage of it. “So what are you doing here, Jer?”

 

He shrugged. “Trying to stay ahead of the curve.”

 

“What?”

 

“Oh, that’s just a Komarran expression. Basically, I’m taking advantage of an opportunity to get ahead. No one back home would ever admit it, but Komarran society is nearly as stratified as Barrayar is with its Vors. If you’re not born into a family with a lot of planetary shares, there’s damn little chance to ever claw your way to the top. Oh, you can make money, that’s every Komarran’s birthright, but to really get ahead is about as rare as to become a Vor.”

 

“It does happen from time to time,” said Anny.

 

“Yeah, about once a generation, from what I’ve read. The Vors dangle that possibility in front of you just to keep the peasants in line. But it hardly ever happens. It’s not that different on Komarr. But military service is a way to outflank it all if you’re good enough.” He paused and smiled at her. “Besides, I have this thing for shiny black boots.”

 

Anny laughed out loud, the first real laugh she’d had since she got here. It felt good. A number of heads turned in her direction. “Yes, I’m rather partial to the boots, myself. I hope they actually let us wear them soon.” She had a full set of the cadet dress grays in her quarters, but they had not been issued to the other cadets yet: full-dress formations were still a ways off. She grew more serious. “So you are just an opportunist?”

 

Jer shrugged again. “I’m a loyal citizen of the Empire. Komarr is a part of the Empire and likely to stay that way. Only a fool would think otherwise. And despite what my neighbors think, there are some good people on Barrayar. The Emperor seems like someone… worth following. And there is something about all of this,” he paused and waved his hand at the cadets, but Anny sensed he meant far more than just the company in front of them, “which is rather… grand.”

 

“Yes. Yes, I know what you mean. I want to become a part of it but… but I don’t know if they’ll ever let me in.”

 

Jer said nothing.

 

They sat in silence as the third section finished its target practice. The fourth section took their place and they noted that Alby Vorsworth was at the position right in front of them. He seemed to be having trouble getting his rifle set properly. Eventually, he was ready and fired off a round. “Miss!” declared the spotter, staring into his telescope.

 

“You’ll have better success if you keep your eyes open when you fire,” said Sergeant Byrne, who came up behind Alby.

 

“Really, sir? Who would have guessed? I’ll give it a try.” Alby fired again.

 

“Two ring! Eight o’clock!”

 

“Heavens, that does make a difference, doesn’t it? Let me try that again.” Alby took aim, but just as he fired, his whole body twitched, pulling the muzzle of the rifle sharply to the side.

 

“Miss!” said the spotter.

 

“Are you sure? I could have sworn I hit the target.”

 

“You did!” snarled the cadet at the firing position to Alby’s right. “You hit mine!”

 

“Oh, dear.” Sergeant Byrne knelt down beside Alby and Anny couldn’t hear what he said.

 

“So what’s the story with Alby?” she asked Jer. “He seems as out of place here as… well, as me.”

 

“The word around the barracks is that he’s the grandson of Admiral Vorsworth and the son of General Vorsworth,” said Jer.

 

“Ah. Wait, the Admiral Vorsworth? But he must be nearly a hundred years old.”

 

“Yes, that one. Retired and nearly dead, apparently. But I heard some of the Vors in the company talking about it. The Vorsworths have a military tradition going back a long time…”

 

“Yes! Centuries!”

 

“Right. Well, the tradition nearly came to an end when the Admiral’s two grandsons were both killed in action a few decades back—before they had produced any little vorlings of their own. It seems that the General and his wife, both of them in their sixties, used uterine replicator technology to whip up Alby, there, to carry on the tradition.”

 

“Oh, my.” Anny stared at Alby, who was busy blowing holes in the ground in front of the target. Almost exactly the same situation as me! Except… except…

 

Except she was here because she wanted to be. Alby was here because someone else wanted him to be.

 

“He seems awfully young.”

 

“They say he’s only fifteen.”

 

“What? But you have to be eighteen to come to the Academy!”

 

“You also have to be male—and yet here you are,” said Jer with a grin. “With the right connections, anything is possible.”

 

“True.”

 

“As you pointed out, the Admiral is nearly a hundred years old. I guess they wanted to get Alby into uniform before the old man died.”

 

“That’s… that’s not fair.”

 

“Welcome to Barrayar.”

 

Alby finished his fusilade and got up. “Your total score is… nine, cadet,” said the spotter. “A record, if I’m not mistaken.”

 

“Ah, well, we can’t all be destined for the ground forces, can we?” replied Alby. “I see myself more suited for a desk job, anyway.” Alby sauntered over to where Anny and Jer were sitting and plopped down next to them. “I think I’ll stick to weapons where the computer does the aiming.”

 

“It might be safer—for everyone,” said Jer. Alby grinned and didn’t seem the least offended at this slur on his marksmanship. Sergeant Byrne was conferring with the spotters and the NCO in charge of the firing range, so the whole company had a few moments free.

 

“So, how are you today, Miss Payne?” asked Alby. “We see so little of you around the barracks.”

 

“I’ve never been in the barracks. And please call me Anny.”

 

“I’ve noticed that, Anny. And I must confess that I’m a little mystified by the…”

 

“Hey, Worth!” shouted one of the cadets. “You’re wasting your time! She don’t like men—not that you qualify, anyway!” He laughed, as did a number of others.

 

“Well, that was rude,” said Alby. “Do you wish to give him a thrashing, or should I?”

 

Anny snorted a laugh despite her anger at the remark. “Fighting is against the rules, Alby.”

 

“I’ve heard that. Rather odd for soldiers, don’t you think? I mean what else are they good for?”

Anny laughed again. For some reason Alby’s irreverent manner lifted her spirits. He’s a misfit—just like me.

 

“How are your feet, Alby?” It had been nearly two weeks since their Death March and he seemed to be getting around with no trouble.

 

“Oh, very well, thank you. They have some amazing remedies at the Infirmary. One of the techs there gave me a complete history of the Imperium’s long struggle against blisters. I’m right as rain now. And the tech endorsed your advice about wearing two pairs of socks. I have on two right now. You did mean two on each foot, didn’t you?”

 

“All right! Enough goldbricking!” shouted Sergeant Byrne. “Fall in! We’ve got work to do!” They scrambled to their feet and fell into ranks and Byrne marched them away from the firing range and back toward the main part of the campus. When they reached the parade ground he halted them and stood out in front.

 

“The easy part is over gentlemen! It’s time to start turning you into soldiers. The first step is to get you to march like soldiers. To do that we have to get the company properly organized. For the purpose of this instruction I’m going to appoint some temporary officers and NCOs. Those of you who are selected, don’t get a swelled head! These aren’t even brevet promotions. You will just be placeholders until the company rates real officers and NCOs. You cannot give orders to anyone, so don’t try. Got that?”

 

“Yes, sir!” Everyone looked on with interest. Anny began to get excited over the prospect of doing some real close order drill. Byrne took out his computer pad and looked it over.

 

“I’m going to be placing you based on a number of factors including your scores on those things for which you’ve received scores. For those of you who aren’t named right now, don’t get your noses out of joint! Everyone will have a turn over the next few weeks. As I call your name, step out of ranks and wait over there. Levis! Lompoc! Maddan…!”

 

As Byrne called off their names, the cadets went where they were told. Most had large grins on their faces. “Naddel!” Oh good, Jer got chosen. “Payne!”

 

What? She was so startled that she froze for a few seconds until the boy next to her gave her a nudge. Feeling awkward and incredibly conspicuous, she went over with the others. Jer was grinning at her. “He can’t be serious, can he?” she whispered to him.

 

“Looks like.” But the other cadets didn’t look like they could believe it any more than she could. Some looked surprised, others looked outraged. Byrne finished his selection, sixteen cadets in all. That left about sixty to be the privates. C Company had shrunk quite a bit in the month it had existed. Some of those who had left simply couldn’t stand the pace, others got fed up and resigned. Seven had left the day after the Death March.

 

“We’ll start by placing the corporals,” said Byrne. “One on the flank of each section, eight in all.” He began shifting cadets around and inserting the ‘corporals’. Anny fully expected to be one of those. Jer was placed at the right of the third section. They were supposed to be positioned by height, the tallest at the right end of the line. She ought to be next… But she wasn’t. He finished placing the corporals.

 

A sergeant? Me? As Byrne had said, this was only temporary, but still…

 

“Lompoc! First sergeant, right end of the line, rear rank. Payne! Second sergeant, left end of the line, front rank.”

 

Second sergeant! Anny couldn’t believe it. While the first sergeant of a company had a lot of important administrative duties, when it came to the drill, the second sergeant had more responsibility than anyone except the captain. Apparently, at least one other couldn’t believe it, either.

 

“Sergeant!” Exploded a Vor cadet named Levey. “You can’t be…serious…” The boy’s protest fizzled into silence under Sergeant Byrne’s icy gaze. Anny didn’t hesitate this time, she trotted over to her position and stood there at attention. Alby, shortest cadet in the company, and thus near the left of the line, right beside the shortest corporal, gave her a friendly wink.

 

Byrne, having silenced the opposition, placed the other three sergeants, the two lieutenants and the cadet who would play captain. They were all Vor and that came as no surprise. Test scores were important, but few things counted as much as having those three letters in front of your name—no matter what the regulations might say. No, the only surprise was Anny, herself.

 

“In each rank, count twos!” commanded Byrne.

 

For the rest of the afternoon Sergeant Byrne drilled them in the School of the Company. Anny had studied the tactics manual intensely before coming to the Academy and knew exactly what she was supposed to do in each maneuver. Most of the other cadets, however, did not.

 

Instinctively, Anny tried to help out and immediately her help was rebuffed by the cadets—some of whom were openly contemptuous. Alby, on the other hand, seemed grateful for her advice and he surely needed it: he seemed to have two left feet.

 

But in spite of the snubs, Anny thoroughly enjoyed herself. The company made a lot of progress just in those few hours and by the time Byrne was ready to dismiss them, they were actually starting to look like soldiers. And feel like soldiers; the pride and confidence in the air was almost palpable. As the company dispersed, Byrne called Anny aside.

 

“Good job today, cadet.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” replied Anny, very pleased that he’d noticed.

 

“You seem quite familiar with the post of second sergeant.”

 

“I did a lot of studying before I came here, sir.”

 

“It shows. Keep up the good work and pay no attention to the twits.”

 

“Yes, sir, I’ll try.” They exchanged salutes and Anny made her way to the mess hall. The upper classes were just starting to assemble on the parade ground to conduct their evening dress parades. She was tempted to stay and watch because it really was a grand sight. But she was hungry and she had a lot to do. She caught up with Jer and Alby in the chow line.

 

“Nice job, Sergeant,” said Jer with a grin.

 

“Yes, you do seem to have a knack for this marching about business,” said Alby.

 

“Thanks. You were doing pretty well, yourself, Jer.”

 

He snorted. “Nothing for me to do except remember if I’m a One or a Two—although I’ll admit even that seemed beyond a few of our comrades.”

 

“If that remark was directed at me, corporal, I was quite busy differentiating my left from my right. Surely, you don’t expect me to remember two things at once,” said Alby. They all laughed.

A cadet, coming the opposite direction with a full tray, suddenly lurched right into Anny—hard. Some of the drink on his tray splashed her. She turned and looked at him angrily. It was Levey.

 

“Don’t think for one second you’ll ever be a sergeant, Payne!” he snarled. “You’ll never even be a soldier!” He moved off before Anny could think of anything to say.

 

“Bastard!” hissed Jer.

 

“From what I’ve heard of the Vorleveys that’s a real possibility,” said Alby. “But heavens, what a lout. They are supposed to be turning us into officers and gentlemen here. He might become one, but never the other.”

 

Despite the incident, Anny’s good mood quickly returned as she ate with her two friends. They are my friends! It was almost astonishing. She’d made a hundred enemies, but also two friends. Just at the moment it seemed like a very good deal.

 

Later, as she made her way back to her quarters she found herself smiling. Second sergeant! And a sharpshooter ribbon! It had been a good day. A day like she’d dreamed about before she got here. Maybe things were looking up at last. Even the sentries gave her no trouble. She’d managed to get an open-ended pass from the Provost and they hadn’t figured out any new way to harass her yet. Perhaps she’d reward herself with an actual hot bath tonight…

 

She froze when she saw that the door to her quarters was standing half-open. There was no lock on the door, but she was always careful to make sure it was shut when she left. She was quite certain that it had been closed. Slowly, silently, she crept up to a window, on full alert. She tried to peer inside, but it was too dark to see anything through the filthy glass. She moved around to the door and listened. Nothing, except some insects chittering loudly in the trees. She slipped inside and felt for the lantern she kept next to the door. Her fingers found the switch and flicked it on. She tensed for combat, but no one was there.

 

But somebody had been.

 

The place was a wreck. Furniture had been smashed or upended. All her uniforms had been scattered on the floor. They looked oddly red in the lantern light…

 

Paint. Red paint. All over her uniforms and her gear. It was still wet. Then she saw the message painted on the wall:

 

Get out Bitch!

 

She stood there for a long while surveying the disaster. Her blood alternately boiled with rage and froze in fear. What should she do? If she reported this there would have to be an investigation: Academy property had been destroyed. The thought of whoever had done this being punished was incredibly satisfying, but could they actually find the person (or persons)? Would it end up like the Tunic Incident? Another Death March for C Company? What good would that do?

 

But how could she avoid it? All of her uniforms were ruined. Or were they? She got a bit of water and… no, the paint wasn’t water-based. She’d need a solvent to get rid of this and it would never come completely clean. Hell, even the uniform she was wearing had grape juice on it thanks to Levey! So, even if she didn’t report this, there would be no hiding it for long.

Wait a minute! Did they get everything?

 

The second set of gear! The huge duffle bag she’d been issued against her will on the first day! She’d stuffed it into a closet at the rear of the cottage and forgotten about it. She dashed to the closet and sighed in relief when she found it untouched. Yes! She’d roll with this punch and pretend it had hit nothing but air. The bastards were probably watching and waiting for her to come running out of the woods crying for the guard. But if she did nothing… They’d be puzzled and then frustrated. Perhaps they would even make a mistake.

 

Her decision made, she got to work. One of her tunics, which had been completely saturated, she turned into an impromptu paint brush. She carefully painted out the message on the wall, turning it into an odd, but not incriminating, red rectangle. Then all the ruined uniforms went on the trash pile behind the cottage. They weren’t Academy property, after all, they were a gift from the Countess. She cleaned up the remaining mess as best she could. The intruders had spent most of their energy on her kit so it actually wasn’t as bad as it first appeared. Two hours work had the place looking almost normal. As she was unpacking the second duffle bag she realized that they could easily come back and do this again and there would be no replacement this time. But there was little she could do about that—unless she could wheedle a few fragmentation grenades from the Ordnance Sergeant and set a tripwire... A very satisfying fantasy came and went.

 

She was just about to call it a night—no hot bath, darn it—when she spotted something under the little table by the door. Ah, one of her fatigue caps. Not even any paint on it, they must have missed…

 

It wasn’t her cap.

 

Carefully printed on the inside sweatband was P. Mederov. It must have been dropped by one of the intruders! Mederov, he was a tall husky fellow, as she recalled. Not Vor and not one of the ones who had been openly rude to her. But he’d been here.

 

She’d found two friends today.

 

Had she found her enemy?

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

 

“Jer, I need to talk to you.”

 

Jer Naddel looked quizzically at Anny. They were sitting across from each other in the mess hall and they had been talking, around bites of their breakfast. “What about?’ he asked.

 

“Something happened last night. Are you about finished? We’ve got ten minutes until formation, could we go out and talk in private?” Jer nodded and they took their trays to the kitchen and then hurried outside. There were people everywhere, but none paying any particular attention to them. They found a spot on the side of the building which seemed like it would do.

 

“So what happened? Are you all right?”

 

“No damage to me, but someone trashed my room, ruined all my gear.” Jer looked her up and down. “I had a second set,” she said in explanation. “Jer, you said that you saw who took my tunic on the day of the Death March, who was it?”

 

“A little late to be pressing charges now, isn’t it?”

 

“Please, Jer, I need to know.”

 

He shrugged. “You probably won’t be surprised to learn that it was Levey. I saw him grab it when you weren’t looking. He couldn’t break ranks without drawing attention, so he tossed it to Runna and he tossed it to Palen. After that I couldn’t see who passed it along, but obviously it was sent hand-by-hand to someone near the edge of the field who dumped it in that trash can.”

 

“Was Mederov one of them?”

 

Jer looked surprised. “The big guy? No, I don’t think so. No, he couldn’t have been: with his height he would have been up the line the other way. Why?”

 

“Has Mederov ever said anything nasty or threatening about me around the barracks? More than the others, I mean?”

 

“Not that I recall. In fact, I can’t remember him saying much at all. He tends to be pretty quiet. Anny, what’s going on?”

 

“I’m not sure. And until I am sure, I don’t want to talk about it.”

 

“You must think he’s involved with the incident last night or you wouldn’t be asking about him. Please credit me with a few brains.”

 

“Well, all right. Yeah, I found a cap with his name on it in my quarters.”

 

“That was pretty careless. In fact, it seems damn suspicious. I mean, how could he lose his cap without noticing?”

 

“He couldn’t,” said a voice from right behind them. They spun around…

 

“Alby! What are you doing there?”

 

“Why, eavesdropping, of course, what does it look like?”

 

“Alby, you shouldn’t have been listening to this. It doesn’t involve you,” said Anny.

 

“Yeah,” added Jer, “and it’s not something you would want to get involved with, either.”

 

“Hmm, it seems to me that only I can be the judge of that, Mr. Naddel. And as I find myself branded as one of your friends by our comrades, I will probably be involved whether I want to be or not.”

 

Anny considered that and had to admit that Alby was probably right. “So how much did you hear?”

 

But before Alby could answer, the call to fall in rang across the parade ground and they had to go. “We’ll talk later,” said Alby and he trotted away. The rest of the morning was spent in close-order drill. Anny was still in the second sergeant’s position and she was quickly absorbed in carrying out her duties. Under Sergeant Byrne’s watchful and relentless eye, there was no chance to speak with Alby or Jer, but at least there was also no opportunity for anyone to give her much trouble.

 

They managed a few words during lunch, but Alby really had nothing to add except his conviction that the hat Anny had found was probably deliberately planted. She wasn’t certain: it did seem too obvious, but who said that her tormenters were smart? They agreed to keep a closer eye on Mederov.

 

In the short time she had after lunch Anny performed her daily ritual of carrying two five-liter containers of water back to her quarters. She stopped in dismay when she found the door to her quarters standing open. Oh no! Not again! She slowly crept to the door and looked inside. She was surprised to see Sergeant Major Szytko standing there. He turned to face her when he heard her small gasp. He was holding one of her ruined tunics. He must have gotten it off the trash pile. The rest of her quarters were untouched.

 

“It looks as though you had an accident here, cadet,” he said. “Is there anything you’d like to report?”

 

Anny hesitated. Should she tell him what had happened? What would that set in motion? Investigations? Arrests? Chaos? She would dearly love to see the perpetrators hauled up on charges, but would that really accomplish anything? There were dozens more ready to take their place. And she would be branded as a stool pigeon for ratting on her comrades. The Commodore had warned her to keep a low profile. There’s nothing the bureaucracy hates more than to have its nice routine upset. The Commandant hadn’t been happy to have her here in the first place. He’d be even less happy if she forced him to take official notice of what had happened.

 

“No, Sergeant Major. Nothing to report.”

 

“I see. Well, I suggest you put in a request to get the lock on your door fixed.”

 

“I have, Sergeant Major. And for the plumbing and for the electricity.”

 

He looked around in distaste. “Captain Vorthalon is in charge of Physical Plant. I don’t have much influence there, but I’ll put in a word.”

 

“I’d appreciate that, Sergeant Major.”

 

He checked his chrono. “You have formation in ten minutes. You begin close combat instruction this afternoon?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Sergeant Jervis will be your instructor.” Szytko took a step closer and his voice fell to a near-whisper:

 

“Watch out for him.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“All right, gentlemen, listen up and pay attention. I am Sergeant Jervis and for the rest of this afternoon, your asses belong to me! I am going to introduce you to the arcane mysteries of close-combat. If you learn your lessons, they might just save your lives someday! Do you understand me?”

 

“Yes, sir!”

 

Anny studied their close-combat instructor. He wasn’t a particularly big man, but he was trim and fit and obviously in fine physical condition. He had a rugged face with a hooked nose and his scalp was shaved bare. He didn’t look as old as Byrne or Szytko, but he was clearly a veteran of long experience who knew his business. The Academy staff all tended to be the best the Imperium could find. C Company was in the huge gymnasium the Academy boasted. It was big enough for battalion drill, but today it was divided up into smaller areas for individual company exercises. Anny’s company was standing in its PT gear around a large, padded floor mat. Sergeant Byrne had marched them here and turned them over to Jervis for instruction. She was interested, and a little worried, to see Sergeant Major Szytko watching from a distance. What was he expecting to happen?

 

“We are going to start you off with the simple stuff: take downs,” continued Jervis. “Getting your opponent on the ground is a big advantage and puts you in position to finish him off. There are many different ways to accomplish this. I’ll start off by demonstrating some of them. Let me see, I need a volunteer… You! Cadet… uh… Payne! Step forward!”

 

Anny froze. Was this what Szytko was warning her about? Jervis was staring right at her and a very unsettling smile was on his face. “Come on, cadet! Are you afraid?” There was nothing for it. Anny stepped forward. “Good! Just stand there and don’t move. Now, as I was saying, there are many ways to take a man—or a girl—down. Observe.” Without warning, he seized Anny and flipped her across his hip and flung her to the mat. She’d been expecting it, but not quite so soon. She landed heavily and slowly got to her feet. “Let me demonstrate that again.” He threw her down again. She was prepared this time and broke her fall as Dru had taught her. She got back up. “Now here’s another method.” He grabbed her arm and tossed her over his shoulder in a classic throw. She rolled as she landed, so it didn’t hurt much. He kept throwing her and she kept going down. Five, ten, a dozen times, until Sergeant Byrne interrupted.

 

“I think they get the idea, Jervis.” Anny looked over to Byrne. The expression on his face was unreadable, but he didn’t seem pleased. Jervis just smirked.

 

“Relax, Byrne, I’m not hurting your little pet.” He looked out at the other cadets. “Of course, you have to realize that in actual service you’ll face real opponents who are just a bit more dangerous than Cadet Payne.” He laughed and moved in to throw her again.

 

Drou Koudelkas had taught Anny one move that she called the sucker throw. It was something you could use against an unsuspecting opponent. She used it now. As Jervis came at her, she grabbed him, fell backwards, and tossed him over her head. He landed on the mat with a very satisfying thud. Anny got up and stared down at him. Jervis twisted around with a look of astonishment on his face which quickly changed to raw anger. He slowly got up and Anny backed away. She saw Sergeant Major Szytko grimace and shake his head.

 

“Well! That was an interesting move!” exclaimed Jervis who seemed to have quickly gotten control of his anger. He smiled at her. A smile that wasn’t the least bit friendly. “Yes, a very interesting move, indeed. However, it is a move that is quite easily countered. Cadet Payne, when I attack, you will try to do that again. The exact same move. Do you understand?”

 

A shudder of fear went through her. The move would work against an unwitting opponent. But against someone expecting it, you were left wide open.

 

“I said: Do you understand, cadet?”

 

“Yes, Sergeant, I understand.”

 

He came at her and she tried to throw him as she’d done before. She knew it wasn’t going to work… He rammed his forearm and elbow into her chest at the level of her collarbone. The impact knocked her down and a cry of pain escaped her lips. “There, do you see? Stand up, cadet, I want to let them see that again.” Gasping for breath, Anny struggled to her feet. He came at her again. She couldn’t even attempt the sucker throw before he flattened her with another blow. Jervis stood over her and then faced the class.

 

“Watching is good, but there’s no substitute for doing. I want each of you to try what I just showed you. Cadet Payne has kindly volunteered to continue to be our demonstrator, haven’t you? Good girl. Let’s get started. Uh… Palen, you’re first.” One of the cadets moved in front of her and then rushed forward. She braced herself and tried to use the sucker throw, but it was no use. He slammed into her like a thugby player going for the ball and she was thrown to the mat with another stab of pain. “Good!” cried Jervis. “Exactly how you do it! Next!”

 

Anny got to her feet and was quickly knocked down again. She managed to twist a bit just before impact and take some of the blow on her shoulder instead of her chest, but it still hurt. The whole company? Seventy-five of them? Another cadet loomed up in front of her and down she went again. Stars danced in front of her eyes as she struggled back to her feet. She couldn’t even brace herself before she was hit again.

 

“If you’re getting tired, Cadet, just let me know,” she heard Jervis say. “All you have to do is stay down and we’ll move on to something else. Just stay down—where you belong.”

 

Anny stood up.

 

“I’m fine, Sergeant.” She stared him right in the eyes. He stared back at her for a few moments and then chuckled.

 

“Good. Next!”

 

It began again. Another cadet, another impact, another collision with the mat. More pain. One of them, accidentally or deliberately, hit her high, in the face. Her head was snapped back and when she dragged herself up this time, she was spitting blood.

 

“For God’s sake, Anny! Stay down!” hissed someone. She thought it was Jer.

 

She got up again.

 

A half-dozen more impacts. She staggered to her feet. The next cadet merely nudged her, but she still fell.

 

“Oh no, that wasn’t right!” called Jervis. “Cadet…uh…Naddel, you’ll have to do that again. Do it again until you get it right.” Strong hands hauled Anny to her feet and she was facing Jer. His face was twisted in anger.

 

“I’ll do it to him, the bastard!” he whispered.

 

“No, Jer, no! Just get it done with. Hit me. He’ll just have you do it again if you try to fake it.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s all right.” Jer was close to tears, but he backed off and rammed into her. Not nearly as hard as some of the others, but she didn’t have to fake her groan of pain.

 

“Better! Next!”

 

Through the fog of agony that enveloped her, another cadet rushed forward. She had an instant to see that it was Levey. His arm slammed her square in the face and a bolt of white pain blasted her to the ground. She landed face-down and she could feel the blood leaking out of her nose. Stay down you idiot! What the hell are you trying to prove? But somehow, automatically, her arms started pushing her up. There was a roaring in her ears but through the noise she could hear a babble of voices. Some of them seemed to be telling her to stay down, but others were urging someone on.

 

“Hit her! Hit her! Come on, Mederov, hit her!”

 

Mederov! The red haze of pain floating before her eyes turned into a boiling sea of anger. The enemy! You… can’t… beat… me! She surged to her feet to see the large man moving toward her. But this time she didn’t just stand there and take it. As he neared her, she dodged to the side, pivoted, and drove out her foot with every ounce of strength she had left. She connected with the side of Mederov’s knee and there was a crunch loud enough to be heard above the clamoring voices. Anny fell and so did Mederov. There was a howl of pain and for once it wasn’t hers.

 

Silence. Except for the pounding in her ears and the groans of Mederov, there wasn’t a sound for a long, long moment. But then a strong hand gripped her by the back of her T-shirt and yanked her to her feet. She found herself staring at a grinning Jervis from only a few centimeters distance.

 

“Cadet Payne, you have disobeyed a direct order and deliberately caused serious injury to another cadet.  This is a very serious infraction and I’m going to see you brought up on charges—after we complete this exercise!”

 

“The exercise is over, Jervis.” The hand released her and Anny fell to her knees. Sergeant Major Szytko was standing a few meters away.

 

“I’m in charge of this detail, Sergeant Major,” said Jervis, but all the mockery and confidence was gone from his voice. “You have no business interfering.”

 

“I’m making it my business.” Anny stared at Szytko. His face was as expressionless as ever, but his hands were twitching at his sides. She had never seen a more lethal-looking man in her life. He stepped right up to Jervis and said in a whisper that only she and Jervis could hear: “And if you want to leave this building alive, you’ll leave right now.”

 

Jervis stepped back, his face twisting in a quick series of emotions. He stared at Szytko for a few moments longer. Then he turned and snarled: “Byrne! The company’s yours!” Then he stalked off, walking just a bit too fast.

 

“Jon,” said Szytko, “Call a medic and then get the rest of them out of here.”

 

“Already on the way,” replied Byrne. “C Company! Fall in!” Anny tried to stand up. But Szytko put out his hand.

 

“Not you. We need the medic to have a look at you, too. Then, unfortunately, we’ll have to go and see the Commandant.”

 

“The C-commandant? Why?”

 

“Because you’re up on charges, cadet.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Your nose is broken,” said the doctor. “You have a greenstick fracture of your… uh breastbone. And your whole upper torso is a mass of bruises and contusions. Just what the hell were you doing?”

 

“I’m sure you’ll hear the story, sir,” replied Anny awkwardly. Her lips were swollen, too. They had taken her and Mederov back to the Infirmary for evaluation. This had caused a bit of commotion. The staff was entirely male and they weren’t quite sure how to go about handling her. Finally, they had summoned an older, married doctor and he had taken over. The scans showed that she was hurt more seriously than she’d guessed.

 

“Well, I’ve reset your nose and I’ll tape up your chest. The synergine I gave you will help with the bruises and swelling. How do you feel? Are the painkillers helping?”

 

“Yes, sir. Quite a lot, thank you.” In truth, she felt like she’d been run over by a ground car. A big heavy one like the Vorkosigans had. There wasn’t a part of her that didn’t hurt, but at least in most places it was just a dull ache now, instead of a red-hot pain.

 

“Good. Well, you just rest here a bit. I’ll be back in a while to see how you’re doing.” The doctor left the small exam room where she was sitting and closed the door. She leaned back and shut her eyes. This had not been a good day. Charges! God, what have I gotten myself into? As the drugs and the fatigue took effect, she sank into misery and then finally into sleep.

 

She woke with a start and a groan of pain and was amazed to see the morning sunshine streaming through the window of a room she had no memory of. She was in a bed, wearing a hospital gown. She’d slept a whole night away? Apparently so, an orderly brought her breakfast on a tray. After a while she decided that she felt well enough to move. She still hurt, but it wasn’t too bad. There was an attached bathroom and she took a gloriously hot shower and attended to other necessities. She was shocked to see herself in the mirror. Both of her eyes were as black as road tar. A white bandage covered her nose. She looked like hell.

 

When she came out, she could find no trace of her PT gear. But while she was looking, there was a knock on the door. She pulled the gown around her and retreated to the bed. “Come in.” She was delighted to see Jer and Alby.

 

“Good morning!” said Alby. “Cripes, you look like hell, Anny!”

 

“Thanks, I know.”

 

“They had us bring you a fresh uniform,” said Jer. “Took us a while to find it: you have your stuff hidden pretty well.”

 

“They are actually making you live in that dump?’ asked Alby.

 

“Yeah. And I guess I didn’t hide it well enough.”

 

“Anny, I’m so sorry I hit you yesterday.”

 

“You didn’t have any choice. Don’t worry about it. So, what’s happening?”

 

“The company is in an uproar. Hell, probably the whole battalion.”

 

“The whole Academy from what I’ve observed,” said Alby.

 

“Why? You mean because of what happened?”

 

“Yeah. Seems like you’ve split things right down the middle.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“What you did yesterday, I mean the way you kept getting back up when you could have stayed down. That… that was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen. And it really got to a lot of us. Even some of the ones who hit you at first were ashamed of themselves, You could see it in their eyes later. They were trying to get you to stay down and end it. But you wouldn’t.”

 

“You said there was a split. I assume that means that not everyone feels that way?

 

“No. Unfortunately not. The twits were crowing and strutting and bragging about how badly they pasted you. That seriously pissed off the rest of us. We had half a dozen fist-fights in the barracks last night.”

 

“Good God! Serious?” Anny looked more closely at Jer and realized he had a bruise on one cheek.

 

“Not really. Nothing that needed the Guard to put down or anything. Byrne had to come and break things up a couple of times.” Jer looked uncomfortable. “Oh, and I’m afraid we were wrong about Mederov.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“He isn’t one of the twits. I’m sure his hat was planted in your quarters. You were too stunned to see, but he really didn’t want to hit you yesterday. He tried to refuse. Tried to hold back, but Jervis was threatening him with punishment if he disobeyed a direct order. Finally, he went ahead.”

 

“Just at the moment I decided to fight back,” said Anny bitterly. “Damn! How bad did I hurt him?”

 

“You smashed his knee pretty good. He’ll probably be a week in here.”

 

“Hell.”

 

“Anny?” said Alby. For some reason he was blushing.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Anny, I want to apologize.”

 

“What? What for?”

 

“I… I, uh haven’t been honest with you.”

 

“About what?”

 

“When I was acting like your friend earlier. I… wasn’t really.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“I was only doing it because it seemed to tick off the other Vor so much. Bunch of stuck-up jerks. They don’t dare touch me because of the connections my parents have. I was just rubbing their noses in it.” His blush was deepening and he wouldn’t meet her eyes. “But… but after yesterday that all changed. I am your friend now. Really. I’ll do anything I can to help you. Anything.”

 

She was moved. She reached out to touch his arm. “Thank you Alby. I really, really appreciate that.”

 

There was an awkward silence for a moment and then Jer held out the bundle of clothing. “Here, you better get dressed. You have to report to the Commandant’s office in less than an hour.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Sergeant Major Szytko escorted her from the Infirmary to the Commandant’s Office. Her company was on the parade ground drilling and she desperately wished she was out there with them. “What’s going to happen?” she asked.

 

“The charges against you will be reviewed by the Commandant. What happens then will…depend.”

 

“Depend on what?”

 

“Do you know why you are up on charges, cadet?”

 

“Uh, because I disobeyed Sergeant Jervis’ order and because I injured Cadet Mederov.”

 

“You are up on charges because Sergeant Jervis said you were up on charges in front of a whole company of witnesses. We have a certain way of doing things here, cadet, and I’d advise you to remember that.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“You made two mistakes yesterday. Twice, you let your anger get the best of you and you did something stupid. Don’t let it happen a third time. Keep your head, say as little as possible, and you might just come through this.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

They walked on in silence for a time and then Anny said: “Sergeant Major?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Would you really have killed him yesterday?”

 

Szytko didn’t answer.

 

They reached the headquarters building and passed the sentries. A few moments later they were ushered into the Commandant’s office. Colonel Sylvanus was seated at his desk, just as he was the last time Anny had been here. The Sergeant Major took up his position of parade rest just as he had before.

 

“Cadet Payne, reporting as ordered, sir.” She saluted, even though she could barely raise her arm above her waist, and the Colonel returned it.

 

“Yes. Stand at ease, cadet,” said Sylvanus. He looked her over and his frown deepened.  He shuffled some papers around on his desk and then cleared his throat.  “Cadet Payne, charges have been made against you. There are two ways we can deal with this. You can elect to have an Administrative Review which means that I will look over the evidence, make a decision, and decide on any punishment. You will not be permitted legal counsel and any decisions I make cannot be appealed. Do you understand?”

 

Anny gulped and nodded. She wished the Commodore had spent more time on military legal matters. “Yes, sir, I understand.”

 

“The other option is for you to demand a general court-martial. In such a case all the usual legal procedures will apply. Which do you prefer?”

 

Anny’s stomach seemed to fall away into a dark hole. Court-martial! She hadn’t realized that this was so serious! The Commodore had told her not to upset the bureaucracy and she could think of few things more upsetting than a court-martial. But if she gave up that right, her fate would be entirely in Sylvanus’ hands. He could throw her out of the Academy with a word—and no one would be likely to challenge it. Could she trust him? She looked at Szytko, but he was staring past her again. Don’t make that third mistake! But which was the mistake? You let your anger get the best of you. With a court-martial she would be able to testify, give her side of the story, level counteraccusations against her tormentors—in other words, give vent to her anger! Was he warning her not to do that?

 

“Cadet?” Sylvanus was waiting for her answer.

 

“Sir, I request an Administrative Review.”

 

There was a palpable lessening of the tension in the room. Sylvanus leaned back a little in his chair and even Szytko seemed more relaxed. “Very well,” said Sylvanus. “Let me review the charges. Cadet Payne, did Sergeant Jervis order you to use only that one specific close-combat move against the cadets sent to attack you?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“And did you willfully disobey that order and use another, completely different move, against Cadet Mederov?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Did your move result in serious injury to Cadet Mederov?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Sylvanus leaned farther back in his chair and stared at her for a long time. What was he thinking? Had she made the wrong choice after all? Finally, he leaned forward again. “Cadet, your actions could easily be considered a dismissable offense.” She caught her breath. “However,” Sylvanus’ hand went briefly to his nose and then dropped back to the desk. “Having heard testimony from Sergeant Major Szytko, Sergeant Byrne, and several other witnesses, I have to conclude that there are a number of mitigating circumstances that must be taken into consideration. Therefore,” he paused and let out a long breath, “you will remain here at the Academy, and there will be no permanent record of this incident in your files. You will, however, be required to serve a certain number of rounds of administrative punishment, the specifics of which shall be determined later.”

 

Anny gasped in relief. “That… that’s it?”

 

“That’s it, cadet. You’re dismissed.”

 

“Thank you, sir!” She saluted. It hurt.

 

He returned it and added: “I trust I won’t be seeing you again anytime soon, cadet. Now get back to your company.”

 

She didn’t waste a moment. She faced about and was out of the office in two seconds. Szytko was right beside her. As they marched down the hallway they heard the Commandant bellow to his aide:

 

“Scoggins! Tell Sergeant Jervis to get his ass over here! And I mean right now!”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“I’m here to see Cadet Mederov,” said Anny to the clerk at the Infirmary desk. The man looked at her in surprise. She wasn’t sure if it was because of her sex or because of her black eyes and bandages.

 

“Uh, room twelve.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

She went down the corridor and found the correct room. She hesitated outside the door and peered abound the frame. Mederov was sitting up in a bed with some large contraption encasing his left knee. Anny softly rapped on the door frame. Mederov looked over and his eyes got very wide when he saw her. “Can I come in?” she asked.

 

“Uh, sure! Come on in.” He tried to sit up a little straighter. She walked over next to the bed.

 

“Mr. Mederov, I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry I hurt you the way I did.”

 

“I… Uh, that’s okay. If I’d been in a fix like you were I probably would have done the same. And I’m real sorry about trying to hit you, Miss Payne. I didn’t want to.”

 

“I know. How’s the knee?”

 

“Oh, it’s getting better fast. I’ve had worse working back on the farm.”

 

“Really? I’m from a farm, too. Where are you from?”

 

“South Continent. You?”

 

“Vorkosigan District. The Dendarii Mountains.”

 

“I’ve heard of those. I’d like to see them sometime. It’s flatter’n the parade ground where I live. Uh… how are you, Miss Payne? It made me mad to see them hurting you that way.”

 

“I’m all right. And please call me Anny.”

 

“Fine, Anny. If you’ll call me Patric.”

 

“Okay.” She held out her hand and smiled. After a moment he took it.

 

“I’m pleased to meet you, Patric.”

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

 

D ear Drou,

 

I’m sorry that I haven’t written before now, but this is the first time I’ve been able to get access to a comconsole since I’ve been here. They don’t leave us much time for writing letters, either! I did receive the four letters you sent and I want you to know how much they meant to me. I can’t thank you enough. Please say thank you to the Commodore for the notes that he added as well. Word from home is very welcome!

 

Anny paused in her typing and sighed. She hadn’t received anything at all from her real home. Granted, that letter writing was a chore for both her mother and her sisters, but still. None of them understood what she was trying to do. Her mother probably still believed that she would give up and return home any day. She should probably send her a letter, too, but this was the first time the cadets had been given a Sunday afternoon off and she had so much else she wanted to do.

 

I’ve been here four months now and despite all my preparation it has been much different than I expected. Harder, more challenging, but with unexpected rewards, as well. That’s not to say all the preparation I received from you and the Commodore wasn’t needed. Far from it! I never would have made it past the first week without your physical training. The close-combat instruction has also been very useful. The instruction we receive here is pretty rudimentary compared to what you gave me. In fact, our new instructor (the first one was transferred) has made me his assistant in some of the drills.

 

Anny paused again. She didn’t know who might look at this message before it made its way to Drou so it was probably better to stick to generalities and not include any serious complaints or criticisms. But she had been so relieved when Sergeant Jervis was transferred. The thought of having to deal with him again was enough to make her physically ill. But she had never seen him again after that day and Sergeant Major Szytko had taken over the close-combat training. She had no idea where Jervis had been sent, but she hoped it was to the other side of some collapsing wormhole.

 

We got our first snow here yesterday and many of our activities are being moved indoors. All during the autumn nearly all of our training was of the physical variety, but now we are starting to get some classroom instruction, too. I’m looking forward to that. So far things have been going pretty well. I did get into a little trouble a month or so ago (stupid mistake on my part) but it only led to administrative punishment and it’s all been forgotten now—except by me. An important lesson learned.

 

Administrative punishment seemed to consist of cleaning latrines. She had done that for two weeks after the review by the Commandant. But only during her ‘free’ time, so it really hadn’t amounted to much. She had scrubbed floors and sinks and toilets and urinals but only in the classroom and administration buildings. They had not let her into any of the barracks as that would have been too disruptive. Most of the cadets probably never knew she even had the punishment. Certainly, no one had mentioned it.

 

I have made a few friends here and that has really helped me keep my spirits up. As you can imagine, not everyone has been very friendly, but I’m learning to deal with it. The members of my own company seem to be coming to accept my presence. If this trend continues, I should be okay.

 

Actually, there was a trend taking place in C Company and it was not nearly as reassuring as her words to Drou. Following the incident with Sergeant Jervis (and all the incidents following the incident with Sergeant Jervis) there had begun a slow but steady trickle of cadets out of C Company. They weren’t resigning or being kicked out, they were transferring to other companies. Normally, the Academy didn’t allow that: you sank or swam with the company they assigned you. But somehow cadets were getting out—and they were all Vor. Clearly, they were using their connections to get the rules waived.  And since the Academy also liked to keep its companies nearly the same size (the drill looked prettier that way) they were transferring cadets in to C Company to equalize the number—and all the incoming cadets were not Vor. At the start, Anny guessed that over two-thirds of the cadets in C Company were Vor. Now, the percentage was probably less than one-quarter. And unfortunately, many of the cadets who were being transferred in didn’t exactly seem to be the cream of the crop. Apparently, the other companies when told they had to send a few cadets to C Company took the opportunity to get rid their inept and their goof-offs. This influx had resulted in a noticeable deterioration in their drill, which annoyed Anny quite a lot.

 

Please tell the Commodore that I was selected to fill the second sergeant’s post for several weeks and since then I’ve been rotated around to some of the other NCO positions. Thanks to his instruction, I’ve been able to perform well in each post. Oh, and I’m afraid that there was a bit of an accident that happened to the Countess’ gifts to me. I feel really bad about that. If you have a chance, please pass on my apology to her.

 

There! That might get a subtle message across to them. She wasn’t going to complain openly, but she was still angry about the incident. Perhaps if this piqued the Countess’ curiosity she might use her formidable resources to investigate further.

 

Well, I have to run. We are supposed to get some leave at Winterfair. I don’t know if I’ll be able to go anywhere, but if I can get away I’ll try to drop by and see you.

 

Fondly,

Anny

 

 

She shut down the comconsole and stood up. She was in the library and this was the first time she’d been allowed to use the facility. She checked the time and saw that she had nearly four hours until evening formation. What a luxury! She had some reading to do for one of her instructional classes and some laundry to do, but she might even be able to take an hour for an actual nap! The pace had been grueling and she was lucky to squeeze in six hours of sleep a night. She was tired, that was for sure.

 

Anny sealed up the front of her overcoat as she left the library building. Some very cold weather had followed the snowstorm and the forecast was for a hard winter. They had gotten about twenty centimeters of snow the day before and there were enormous piles of it around the edges of the parade ground. The daily dress parades had to be done come rain, sleet or snow and the Academy had a small fleet of ingenious power sweepers that could shove the snow off the parade ground without damaging the grass. Most of the sidewalks and roads were cleared that way, too. She followed the swept paths towards her quarters, but she would still have to trudge through a half-kilometer of snow since the plowing program didn’t include the little path through the woods. At least the Sergeant Major had provided her with a few portable heaters so she didn’t have to depend on the fireplace to keep warm.

 

She had nearly reached the woods when her wristcom pinged. There was a text message on the tiny screen reading:  C Company, 4th Battalion: Assemble at the front of your barracks immediately. “Damn,” she muttered. “Now what?” She reversed her course and headed back the way she had just come. The cadets were just starting to pour out the door when she arrived. Patric Mederov spotted her and came over. “What’s going on?” she asked.

 

“Don’t know. We just got told to get our coats on and come out here.” The rest of the company quickly arrived and Anny nodded to Jer and Alby. After a few minutes Sergeant Byrne came up with an officer she’d never seen before. He was wearing the white cord of a staff officer on his overcoat. Byrne bellowed at them to fall in. Anny’s current assignment was as the fourth sergeant, which put her two paces behind the main line of cadets. She took her spot and waited.

 

“Company, attention to orders,” said Byrne. “This it Lieutenant Vordura, the Officer of the Day.”

 

Vordura stepped forward and looked them over. “C Company, you have reached the next step in your training.” For a moment Anny grew excited. Did he mean that they were going to have their permanent NCOs and officers assigned? Perhaps they would finally be allowed to participate in the dress parades and Sunday reviews. But why would he be only telling that to one company?

 

“It is a long-standing and time honored tradition,” continued Vordura, “that the duty company for the week be selected from the juniormost battalion. Up until now your training schedule hasn’t allowed for that, but that is about to change. It is also policy that from within the 4th Battalion the duty be given to the company with the greatest number of demerits. C Company currently holds that honor. Congratulations. Sergeant, take over.” Vordura exchanged salutes with Sergeant Byrne and then walked away. Byrne watched him go for a few seconds and then turned back to face them.

 

“All right, you heard the man. We are the duty company for the next week. That means we provide all the sentries and also do any other work that needs to be done that isn’t handled by the normal maintenance personnel.” A number of cadets groaned at this news. “There will be a schedule set up that will allow you to continue with the rest of your normal duties. We’ll relieve the current duty company on guard at 1800 hours. But for the rest of the afternoon we have a lot of snow to shovel! I hope you all brought your gloves!”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Anny pulled her scarf more closely around her head and tried to stop shivering. God, it was cold! A biting wind was sweeping down from the northeast and it seemed to cut right through her despite the many layers of clothing she had on. She shifted the rifle to her left shoulder and stamped her feet. She was standing sentry duty at one of the more remote gates along the Academy’s perimeter. It was still an hour until her relief was due. She walked back and forth in front of the gate to try and keep warm. It wasn’t working.

 

C Company was nearing the end of its week as the duty company. During that time they had shoveled snow, unloaded trucks, run errands, and mounted the guard. The only mercy was that they didn’t have to scrub latrines. Apparently, that was a privilege reserved for individual screw-ups rather than entire companies. It still irked her that her company had ‘earned’ this duty. Prior to the exodus of the Vor and the influx of the ‘dregs’, the company had been one of the best in the battalion (at least in her opinion). Well, the week was nearly done.

 

She was stamping her feet some more when she noticed a figure approaching. She was very surprised when she realized it was Alby Vorsworth. Alby was acting as corporal of the guard for this shift, but he wasn’t due with the relief party for another hour. What was he doing out here in this cold? As he got close, she went through the ritual motions—there was no telling who might be watching. “Halt! Who goes there?”

 

“Just me, Anny,” replied Alby. Who’d ya think it was?”

 

“It is pretty hard to not recognize you,” she admitted.

 

“God! You look just like that painting in the library, Anny!”

 

“Which one?”

 

“The one with the sentry standing in the snow. You know: General Piotr’s army that winter in Forge Valley during the Cetagandan invasion.”

 

“Oh, right. I hope I don’t look quite as bad as that poor fellow.”

 

“Almost.”

 

“So what brings you out here in this delightful weather?”

 

“Anny, we have a problem.”

 

“Oh no, what now?”

 

“I think we’re screwed.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“This duty company thing: are you enjoying it?”

 

“About as much as you are, I would guess.”

 

“Yeah. Well, how would you like to be the permanent duty company for the next year?”

 

“What?”

 

“I’ve been doing a little research.”

 

“What kind of research?”

 

“Oh, just looking through the Provost’s records.”

 

“What? How?”

 

Alby’s cheeks were already a rosy red from the wind, but it looked like he was blushing. “My… uh, hobby has always been computers,” he said. “I’m really good with them. Really good. And the security systems here are years out of date…”

 

“Alby! You mean you hacked into the Provost’s computer system?”

 

“Yeah, it was a piece of cake.”

 

“You could get in so much trouble!”

 

“Only if I get caught, which I won’t. Do you want to know what I found?”

 

“What?”

 

“We’re screwed.”

 

“You said that! How do you mean?”

 

“The duty company is selected from the company in the battalion with the most total demerits, right?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Note that the regs say the most total demerits, not the most demerits for any given week.”

 

“Right, and when they transferred in those guys from the other companies, some of them had a lot of demerits.”

 

“Well, what is not in the regs, but what is very apparent from the Provost’s records is that the standing policy here is that during the week the duty company is on duty they don’t accrue any more demerits.”

 

“Okay, that makes sense,” said Anny. “Considering that the duty company will have less time than ever to clean the barracks and shine their shoes, they would probably collect a bunch of them and never get out of their hole… wait, are you saying that’s what’s happening to us?” A wave of panic swept through her.

 

“Exactly. I was only able to go back about ten years in the records, but every duty company was listed as having the same number of demerits at the end of its week as it did at the start. Every company except us. We’ve already accumulated seventy-five new demerits this week.”

 

“Which means we’ll be the duty company again next week.”

 

“And the week after that and the week after that until the new incoming class reaches this point next year. That’s assuming that any of us are even still here by then.”

 

“What do you mean?” she demanded, afraid that she knew exactly what he meant.

 

“It’s a feedback loop, Anny. The more demerits we get, the more extra duty we get which means we’ll collect even more demerits the next time around. Anny, they can kick some people out if they get too many demerits.”

 

“I know that. By ‘some people’, you men the non-Vor!”

 

“Well, yeah, although you’re probably safe.”

 

That was true: she had almost no demerits for the simple reason that no one ever came to inspect her quarters or her kit. She could guess why that was, too. But for the other non-Vor in the company, people like Jer and Patric…

 

“This isn’t fair.”

 

“Welcome to Barrayar.”

 

Anny thought furiously, now unmindful of the freezing weather. There was only one reason they would have changed a policy that stretched back years and years.

 

“They’re doing this because of me. That’s why they let most of the Vor transfer out.”

 

“Seems very likely.”

 

“Hell. So what do we do?”

 

“Anny, I don’t know. Once the others figure out what the score is—and it won’t take them long—morale in the company is going to be rock bottom. And… and…”

 

“They’ll blame me.”

 

“Probably. Whoever is behind this is very clever.”

 

“Then you do think someone really is behind this?”

 

“There has to be. Those earlier incidents could have just been cases of small-minded individuals acting on their own. But this is bigger. You can bet Lieutenant Vordura didn’t come up with this all by himself. Nor the Provost.”

 

“But… but I can’t believe the Commandant is behind it!”

 

“Maybe not. But he wouldn’t normally be concerned with minor stuff like this. He might not want to interfere with his subordinates—especially if there is someone powerful outside the Academy pushing this. Anny, I promised I would help you any way I can, but I don’t know how much I can do. Unfortunately, my father is one of the one’s who is not in favor of what you are doing and don’t even ask about my grandfather! They’ll look out for me, but not for you. I suppose I could write my mother…”

 

“Alby, I’m not going to quit!”

 

“No, you definitely shouldn’t do that. But I’m afraid things are just going to get tougher. Of course, there is one thing I can do…”

 

“What?”

 

“Well, I could go back into the Provost’s computer and erase a few hundred demerits…”

 

“Alby! Don’t you dare!”

 

“Why not? They’re screwing with us, why don’t we screw with them?”

          

 “You couldn’t possibly get away with it and then we’d all be in trouble. Plus, I’m honor-bound to turn you in if you try.”

           

He stared at her for a few seconds. “You would, too, wouldn’t you? You really believe all this honor and duty crap they sell us.”

           

“Don’t you?”

           

 

“I refuse to answer. Just let me say that the view from inside the Vor class is a bit different from the view outside it. But, no, you’re right: I couldn’t get away with it. If I’m right about this, there is someone who is expecting us to be duty company again next week and if we suddenly weren’t they would get suspicious. And the preliminary company demerit reports are still done by hand on flimsies. No way I could alter those.”

           

“So, what can we do?”

          

 “I don’t know. Like I said: we’re screwed.”

 

 

Chapter 7

 

 

Anny was standing guard—again. As Alby had feared, C Company had been the duty company for the last three weeks. It was now Winterfair and they had not been granted leave. Even though nearly all the other cadets were gone and a great deal of the staff, too, the Academy still had to be guarded lest someone walk off with it. At least the weather had moderated a bit. There was still snow on the ground, but the sun was out, the wind mild, and if she wasn’t so depressed, it might have seemed a nice day.

 

Morale in the company was about as low as it could get. Nearly all the Vor had managed to get out and more high-demerit non-Vor had been transferred in. Only Alby and a couple of other Vor remained. She wondered how long it would be before they left, too. Alby had sworn he would not go, but she wouldn’t blame him if he did. Two months ago she would have been thrilled to see the last of the likes of Levey and Palen, but now… Be careful what you wish for.

 

There had not been any ‘incidents’ directed against her recently but she wasn’t sure if that was a result of apathy, of because her company-mates hadn’t quite realized that she was the source of their troubles. If it was the latter, then it was only a matter of time before this respite came to an end.

 

“Hey, Payne!”

 

She spun around and saw Hal Lindvig, the acting sergeant of the guard coming toward her with another cadet. “You’re relieved. Report to the Commandant’s office.”

           

“Why? What’s up?”

           

“No idea. Just go.”

           

“Right.” The other sentry took her spot, she gave her rifle to Lindvig and trotted toward the Commandant’s Office.  Now what’s going on? Her post was not too far from the office so it only took a couple of minutes to get there. But that was plenty long enough for all sorts of disaster scenarios to pop up in her head. She reached the building, went up the steps and made her way to the outer office. The Commandant’s aide was there. His expression was… odd.

 

“You have some visitors, cadet. The Commandant isn’t here, but they’re waiting in his office. Go on in.”

 

Totally mystified, she opened the door, went in and…

 

“Drou! Commodore!”

 

Without consciously moving she was hugging Drou and trying not to cry. She’d never been happier to see anyone in her life. Drou was hugging her back just as tightly and the Commodore was standing close by with a large smile on his face.

 

“Oh! Oh, this is the best Winterfair gift ever!” she exclaimed when they finally let go of each other.

 

“Well, when we heard that you weren’t able to get away, we decided that we would come and see you instead,” said Drou.

 

“Thank you so much! But… but I’m on duty right now.”

 

“Not for the next six hours,” said the Commodore happily. “Rank hath its privileges, even when the rank is retired.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes, really,” said Drou. “You have a six-hour pass and we have the lightflyer, where would you like to go?”

 

“Oh… anywhere!”

 

“Anywhere but here, eh?” said the Commodore.

 

“Well… yeah.”

 

“Understandable. But let’s not waste a minute. We can decide where we’re going once we’re airborne.” A short time later they were in the red lightflyer, climbing skyward.

 

“Actually,” said Drou, “at max we are only twenty minutes from Vorkosigan House. They have it all decorated for Winterfair. We could have lunch there and spend the afternoon and still get you back in time.”

 

“What do you say, Anny?” asked the Commodore.

 

An enormous wave of homesickness swept over Anny. And yet her thoughts were not turned to the modest cottage where she grew up, but to the huge house where she had lived for only six months prior to coming to the Academy. Ma Kosti, Lady Ekaterin and her children, the armsmen… “I think that would be a wonderful idea.”

 

“Good! We’re on our way!” Anny was pressed back in her seat as the sleek machine accelerated to its maximum velocity.

 

“This is so nice of you,” said Anny. “But I feel guilty about all the others in my company who have to stay behind.”

 

“Uh, yes,” said the Commodore. “Well, to be honest with you this trip has more than one purpose. We’ve been hearing some… rumors about what’s been going on there and Miles and I wanted to have a little talk with you.”

 

“The Lord Auditor?” asked Anny in surprise. “Will he be there?”

 

“Kou!” said Drou sharply. “You’re giving it away!”

 

“Oops.”

 

“Well! Whatever talk you plan to have, it can wait until after lunch! For right now, no business! Anny, tell us about the Academy.”

 

Anny suspected that there was more than a simple lunch waiting for her at Vorkosigan House. The people there never did anything by halves! But for the next fifteen minutes she just talked about the good things at the Academy. The interesting things she had done, the friends she had made, her hopes for the future. Still, it was impossible to hide everything.

 

“So, you’re not living in the barracks?” asked Drou.

 

“No, there’s this little house out in the woods. I guess it used to be a guest cottage or something. They have me there.”

 

“Private quarters!” said the Commodore. “Quite a luxury!”

 

“Is it nice?” asked Drou.

 

“Uh, well, it could use some fixing up.”

 

“How much fixing up?”

 

“Electricity and running water would be nice,” she admitted.

 

Drou gave an outraged snort. “You can’t be serious!”

 

“Sadly, I am.”

 

“Kou! That’s disgraceful! Something has to be done!”

 

“I thought you said no business until after lunch,” replied Kou.  Drou fumed the rest of the way to Vorkosigan House.

 

Anny’s suspicions proved right when they entered the huge, old mansion. The Lord Auditor, his wife and children were there along with all of the Koudelka girls, and most of their husbands. She was a bit disappointed that the Count and Countess were still on Sergyar, but the warm welcome given by everyone else more than compensated.

 

“Anny! Anny!” screamed young Helen when she saw her. The girl ran over and demanded to be picked up.

 

“Goodness! Look how big you are!” exclaimed Anny, hoisting her high. “What have they been feeding you to make you grow so much?”

 

“She eats anything she can get her hands on,” said Lady Ekaterin. “And around here it’s not hard for her to find things.”

 

“Speaking of eating,” said the Lord Auditor, “I believe lunch is about ready. Considering how little time Cadet Payne has, we shouldn’t dally.”

 

‘Lunch’ was a Ma Kosti affair that would have been called a banquet in most places. The food at the Academy was really very good, for the most part, but compared to this it was like processed cardboard. Anny savored every bite.

 

Conversation around the table was as carefully choreographed as the meal itself, it seemed to Anny. Questions about her experience at the Academy were very generalized and most of the talk concerned local goings-on. She was interested to learn that two of the Koudelka girls, Olivia and Delia, and their husbands had started their first children using uterine replicators. She gave them her congratulations. Lord Mark, Kareen Koudelka’s… intended was off-planet, but his business involving those amazing little bugs was doing very well. Martya’s husband, the Escobaran scientist who invented the bugs, spoke at length about the progress being made in adapting them to eat native Barrayaran vegetation. Apparently, parts of the current meal had been created with some of their by-products, although the Lord Auditor interrupted him before he could mention which ones. Anny thought everything tasted wonderful.

 

Afterwards, Lady Ekaterin, Helen and Aral gave her a quick tour of the house to show off the Winterfair decorations (which were beautiful). But before long the Lord Auditor, Commodore Koudelka, and Delia’s husband, Commodore Galeni, collected her and took her to one of the smaller rooms for a private conversation.

 

“Anny,” said the Lord Auditor after they were all seated. “I’d like you to give us a frank account of what’s happened to you at the Academy. The unusual incidents, I mean—and I think you know what I’m talking about. We have our own sources of information, but we’d like to hear your side of things. And please don’t hold anything back for fear of appearing to be complaining or whining or getting anyone in trouble. We—and since I’m acting on the Emperor’s behalf, you can consider that to be a we with a capital ‘W’—need to know the full story.”

 

The Emperor! Why does he want to know?

 

Despite her considerable trepidations, with quite a lot of nudging and penetrating questions, the trio got pretty much everything out of her in about a half an hour. She really didn’t want to complain or whine, but the Lord Auditor clearly already knew enough of her troubles that it was impossible to hold much back. They seemed particularly interested in the incident with Sergeant Jervis. By the time she was finished with that, Commodore Koudelka was fuming.

 

“The bastard,” he muttered.

 

“You’d already seen the medical report, Kou,” said the Lord Auditor.

 

“Yes, but that’s only half the story. Jervis ought to be arrested!”

 

“Ultimately, he might be, but we don’t want to tip our hand too soon.”

 

Anny looked from one man to the next. “Please, My Lord, what’s going on?”

 

The Lord Auditor looked at her in silence for a few moments, as if considering how much he wanted to tell her. Anny had the feeling of falling into water that was way over her head. Finally, he leaned forward and fixed a penetrating eye on her. “Anny, I’m going to tell you some things you have to keep in confidence. Can I depend on you for that?”

 

She gulped and nodded.

 

He smiled slightly. “Don’t look so tense. No great State Secrets, Anny, but just some things that ought not to be spread around, okay?”

 

“Yes, My Lord Auditor.”

 

“Good. Now, I think you already know that the Emperor has taken some interest in your case, correct?”

 

“Yes, your mother, that is, the Countess, mentioned that the final decision to allow me to go to the Academy was made by the Emperor.”

 

“Right. Well, his decision was considered overly-progressive by some of the more conservative counts and some high-ranking officers. There was quite a lot of opposition to it in some quarters, but they didn’t have the votes to make an open issue of it. I think that most of the opponents were willing to just sit back and watch you fail.”

 

Anny sat up straighter and frowned.

 

“Don’t look so surprised, cadet,” said Commodore Galeni. “Considering their prejudices, they would naturally expect you to fail and fail quickly.”

 

“But you didn’t fail,” said the Lord Auditor. “You were being watched more closely and by far more people than I’m sure you suspect, Anny. You took everything that was thrown at you and kept on going. You impressed a lot of people and surprised a lot more. Those first few incidents, the tunic, the paint, were probably just spontaneous acts that your comrades dreamed up. But the later incidents, Sergeant Jervis and this situation with the duty company, we… suspect that there is more behind it than simple resentment on the part of stiff-necked reactionaries in the Academy staff and the corps of cadets.”

 

“We… Uh, that is, I thought that there might be something more to it than that, My Lord,” said Anny.

 

We,” said the Lord Auditor with a smile. “Yes, tell us a little about your friends, Anny.”

 

With considerably more reluctance, she told them about Jer and Alby and Patric. She didn’t want to get them involved in whatever was going on. But they’re already involved, aren’t they? “I… I don’t think I could make it without them,” she finished.

 

“I’m glad you have such friends, Anny,” said Commodore Koudelka.

 

“Jer Naddel and Patric Mederov are no more than they seem to be,” said Commodore Galeni. Anny glanced at the ImpSec ‘Eyes of Horus’ pins on his collar; he’d have ways of finding out, she supposed. “But this Vorsworth boy is a bit of a mystery. We know surprisingly little about him considering who his parents are. Anny, are you certain he really is your friend?”

 

Anny twitched in surprise. “I certainly think so, sir. Nothing he’s said or done lead me to think otherwise. And… he was the one who tipped me off about the business with the demerits and the duty company.”

 

“Ah. Did he happen to say how he discovered that?”

 

“I… I’d rather not say, sir.”

 

“Hmmm...” Galeni’s stare seemed to go right through her and she feared she wasn’t concealing anything about Alby’s unauthorized computer foray, but Galeni didn’t pursue it any further.

 

“So, Anny,” said the Lord Auditor, “what are your plans now?”

 

“My Lord? I’m going back to the Academy and… try to ride this out.”

 

“Good. As we discussed: there’s more to this than there seems. You may not have thought about this too much, but you realize that if you do succeed, you’ll be opening the door to every other woman in the Empire who wants to follow you?”

 

Anny thought back to her conversation with Drou. “Yes, My Lord Auditor.”

 

“The news media has picked up on this, too. It’s generated quite a lot of interest. A dozen more petitions for admittance have already reached local counts or the Emperor, himself. For now he’s holding them in abeyance, but if you can hang on, he plans to eventually approve them.”

 

“The newsies on Komarr have also gotten hold of the story,” said Commodore Galeni. “We can expect more petitions from there—and the Empress will be backing them.”

 

Anny shuddered. This was all too much! I was just doing this for Peter and my Da… and me. How can I carry the hopes of all these other people, too?

 

“You’re expecting an awful lot from Anny, Miles,” said Commodore Koudelka, as if reading her mind. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

 

“Well, that’s the rub, isn’t it?” replied the Lord Auditor. “Sure, the Emperor could get directly involved, issue some ‘cease and desist’ orders, maybe send a certain Imperial Auditor on an inspection, and make sure Anny gets a fair shake for the rest of her time there. But the opposition would just cry foul and claim that we coddled her along and that her success doesn’t actually mean anything. It wouldn’t matter that we were just evening things out, they would claim special treatment and we’d be hard pressed to prove otherwise.” He paused and looked right at her. “I know this is tough on you, Anny, but we really can’t give you much help.”

 

“I understand, My Lord Auditor,” said Anny. But privately, she thought she could use a little coddling right now. Just a little? Please?

 

“But, Miles,” said the Commodore, “this business with the permanent duty company could sink her. I mean the other cadets in her company are going to see what the score is very soon. Every one of them has just as much at stake as she does. They all want to make it through the Academy and if they see her as a real threat to that goal, who knows what they might do? There’s no way we can predict their actions—or protect Anny from them. This crap with the demerits is all administrative. We could pull some strings to get it put back the way it used to be and hardly anyone would ever know.”

 

Yes! Please! Just a tiny little string!

 

The Lord Auditor pursed his lips. “I see what you’re saying, Kou, but there’s no way we could keep it secret. But you know, there might be another way to handle this.” He looked at Anny again. “It won’t be easy, but if you could pull it off, not only would it solve the immediate problem, but it would really impress a lot of fence-sitters.”

 

“What are you proposing, Miles?” asked Commodore Koudelka.

 

The Lord Auditor smiled. “Come, come gentlemen, it hasn’t been that long since you were at the Academy! All Anny and her company have to do is win the Vorbarra Pentathalon!”

 

 

* * *

 

 

After Drou and the Commodore deposited her back at the Academy, the whole incident seemed like a dream. She reported in and got some very strange looks from some of the others in the company. Two hours later she was dismissed for the rest of the day. Even though being denied leave at Winterfair was a drag, at least they had no regular duties at all. At normal times they had to fit in their extra duty around their regular daily activities. Now, once they had taken their turn with the duty company, they were free. Anny spent the evening doing her laundry and polishing brass and leather and thinking about what she’d been told by the Lord Auditor. His suggestion was audacious. But how could she sell it to the others? She was tempted to seek out Jer and Alby and Patric, but two of them had duty and anyway, she was tired. She actually had the opportunity to get a decent night’s sleep. She was getting ready for bed when there was knock on her door.

 

Cautiously she opened it, telling herself any vandals or attackers probably wouldn’t knock. She was relieved and puzzled to see Jer standing outside.

 

“Jer! Why are you here?” she asked, ushering him inside and shutting the door. “How did you get past the guards?”

 

“I totally outwitted them by the unconventional tactic of cutting through the woods rather than taking the path. Reminds me of a Komarran joke about ImpSec guards and an escaping fugitive. And I only got lost once.” He stamped snow off his feet and looked at her. “But as for why I’m here, can you come back to the barracks with me, Anny?”

 

“The barracks! Why?”

 

Jer looked nervous. “They’re having a meeting tonight.”

 

“What sort of meeting?”

 

“To discuss what to do about… you.”

 

“Me?”

 

“The hotheads have figured out what’s going on. They’ve decided that you are the source of our woes. They plan to discuss what to do about it. I think… I think you ought to be there.”

 

A chill went through Anny that had nothing to do with the weather. She’d hoped that there would be more time, but apparently, time had run out. “When is this meeting?”

 

“It’s probably already started. Sergeant Byrne is off somewhere and those who have to report for duty in an hour wanted to have their say before they left. Can you come with me now?”

 

“All right, let me get my coat.” She quickly dressed and followed Jer outside. With all the leaves off the trees it wasn’t as dark as it usually was, but it still took her eyes a while to adapt. Jer led her back the way he had come, following his own footprints in the snow.

 

“You know, since our company is supplying the guards,” she said after walking a while, “we could have just taken the path.”

 

“Anny, you haven’t been invited to this meeting. They don’t know you’re coming.”

 

“Oh. “ Oh!

 

They emerged from the woods and headed for the barracks. Most of the buildings were dark, but some lights could be seen on one floor of the building where C Company was living. Jer took her in by a back door he had propped open and up the stairs to the third floor. Even before they got there, Anny could hear some angry voices from up ahead.

 

“I tell you we’ve got to do something!”

 

“Yeah? Like what?”

 

“Get her to leave!”

 

“How? She won’t quit!”

 

“Well, if we don’t think of a way, every one of us is going to be flunked out! You can see what they’re doing to us!”

 

“I worked too hard to get here, my parents sacrificed everything to give me this chance. I’m not going to lose it because that bitch refuses to… to…”

 

“To what, Mr. Gerhardt?” asked Anny as she strode into the midst of C Company. Sixty faces looked at her in surprise. “What would you like me to do?” She looked boldly back at all of them, but ended up facing Cadet Gerhardt. She supposed it wasn’t fair to single him out, but he was the one who had been speaking last. He blushed, but wasn’t intimidated.

 

“To quit! You should quit!”

 

“Why? I worked just as hard to get here. My family sacrificed just as much. Why should I quit?”

 

“Because you’re taking all of us down with you!” cried another cadet. “They’re out to get you, we can all see that!”

 

“So you want to just throw her to the wolves to save your own skins?” demanded Jer angrily.

 

“You stay out of this, Komarran!” snarled a cadent named Krasner. “You shouldn’t be here, either!” Several others shouted their agreement. Jer bristled and there might have been a fight right there except Anny stepped in between.

 

“So you want me to quit?” she asked. “All of you?” She looked from face to face. Many nodded their heads or said yes emphatically, but others seemed less certain and some of the original members of the company couldn’t meet her eyes. Still, she was torn. Despite the pep talk she’d received earlier that day, despite all the hypothetical women of Barryaar and Komarr waiting to follow in her footsteps, the boys in front of her weren’t hypothetical. They were real and they didn’t deserve to have their own futures ruined because of the fight over Anny Payne. Maybe she should quit; take a bullet for her company…

 

“It hardly seems unanimous,” said Jer.

 

“It’s not!” said another voice. Anny turned and saw Patric Mederov and Alby Vorsworth framed in the doorway. They were just coming off guard duty and still wore their heavy greatcoats. “Anny shouldn’t quit and we have no right to ask her,” said Patric.

 

“No?” asked one of the cadets angrily. “You expect us to just sit here until they decide to flunk us out for demerits? That’s what they’re going to do, you know! The other cadets are already calling us “L Company”—L for Leper!”

 

“That’s right,” said Alby. “They think we’re no good. But if you try to force Anny out then they’ll be right: we aren’t any good!”

 

“Easy for you to say, Worth!” snapped another cadet. “With your parents you don’t have to worry about being kicked out!” Alby frowned and didn’t have any comeback. It was true and they all knew it.

 

“We have to stick together,” said Patric. “They’re trying to turn us against each other. If they succeed then were finished. Even if Anny were to quit and they stopped trying to wreck the company, do you think that would be the end of it? Everyone would know what we did. They’d know that we turned our backs on a comrade to save ourselves. No one would ever trust us again! We might survive to graduate from the Academy, but our careers would be over before they ever began!”

 

That struck home. Anny could see that Patric’s words had gotten through with an idea they hadn’t considered before. Anny hadn’t thought in those terms, either. But he was right: something like this would put a stain on them that nothing could wipe away. It would follow them like a curse forever after.

 

“But what can we do?” moaned Gerhardt. “We’re screwed no matter which way we jump!”

 

“Then we jump in a new direction!” said Anny. “A direction they don’t expect, and we beat them at their own game!”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“They’re trying to crush us with demerits—so we get rid of them/”

 

“Yeah, right! How do we do that?”

 

“By winning the Vorbarra Pentathalon.”

 

A few faces lit up, but most looked puzzled. “What the hell is that?” demanded Gerhardt.

 

“It’s a competition held by the Academy every spring,” said Alby who had obviously caught Anny’s drift. “The companies in each battalion compete against each other in a series of five athletic events.” Alby paused and a devilish grin appeared on his face. “And the winning company has its demerits—all its demerits—erased!”

 

“Exactly,” said Anny. And we are going to win!”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 8

 

 

The equestrian phase is really going to set us back, Anny”, said Alby Vorsworth. “Three-quarters of the company have never even been on a horse and the rest of us are all casual riders at best.”

 

“I know,” replied Anny, “we’ll just have to make up for it in the other phases.”

 

“That much? Some of the other Vor-heavy companies have got some good riders and shooters. I can ride pretty well, I guess, but you know how poor a shot I am.”

 

Anny nodded and rubbed her eyes, These late night planning sessions were wearing her down. She could get by with six hours sleep, but four wasn’t nearly enough. “We’ll just have to do the best we can. I think we can do really well on the other three phases. But the howitzer haul will make or break us, I’m thinking.”

 

The Vorbarra Pentathlon consisted of five phases: The Obstacle Course, which was little different from what they’d been training on, The Long Distance Run, which was like a marathon except with full field gear, The Equestrian Ride and Shoot, which involved riding a horse over a course with halts to fire a pistol at targets, the Rifle Competition, which was just a scored shooting match and finally, The Howitzer Haul. This last phase was always the big attraction of the competition. Each team had to haul a small cannon over what amounted to an obstacle course, including a wide chasm which required the gun to be disassembled and taken across in pieces on a rope and pulley system—which had to be carried along and erected by the team. There were several stops along the course where the team had to fire at a target—using ammo that had to be carried along, too.

 

“It’s a shame that this is all so archaic,” said Alby. “If they had some modern events like Computer Hacking, we’d be a shoo-in.”

 

“These were all things that were still important to the military when the competition was invented. I guess they didn’t want to change anything.”

 

“Still planning for the last war,” said Alby shaking his head.

 

“In any case, we have to plan for this war. Here are the rosters I’ve put together for the obstacle course, distance run and rifle shoot. What do you think?” The rules of the Pentathlon required 25-man teams for each of the phases except the Howitzer Haul. They also specified that each person in the company had to participate in at least two phases, but no more than three. The Howitzer Haul included everyone in the company.

 

Alby yawned. “Can I look this over and get back to you tomorrow? I can’t keep my eyes open, let alone make any rational judgment.”

 

“All right, but we’ve only got six more weeks to prepare. We’ve got to get our teams set and training.”

 

Alby said good night and left Anny in her little house. She put out the lights and got into her bed. Despite her exhaustion, sleep did not come quickly. So many thoughts were swirling around in her head. To her amazement, she had managed to sell the idea of winning the pentathlon to C Company. But turning the idea into reality was proving to be an enormous challenge. They were still duty company and they still had their normal daily activities. The only place the additional hours for planning and training could come from was out of their sleep. Anny feared that by the time of the actual event they would all be too tired to compete.

 

Still, things were going better than she’d expected. Her comrades seemed truly inspired, not so much to help her, or even themselves, but to stick it to the other companies who held them in such contempt. Everyone was working hard to prepare. There had also been some unexpected help. Sergeant Byrne was clearly on their side. He had cut back on the normal training as much as he dared and quite a bit of that training now seemed to be applicable to the pentathlon. Even better, someone was pulling some strings—in their favor, for once. Normally, the duty company was composed of the First Form company with the most demerits. But every company in the Corps of Cadets had screw-ups and goof-offs who got assigned extra duty. Usually that meant scrubbing latrines the way Anny had. But lately, those people were being assigned to the duty company instead. With that extra manpower available, Sergeant Byrne had been able to meet all their requirements for sentries and such and still give a lot of the members of C Company time off to train. Anny wasn’t sure who was helping them out, but she wasn’t about to complain!

 

Somehow, she had found herself in charge of the whole operation. She’d fully expected one of the few remaining Vor to try and take control, but none of them had. The others were willing to follow her lead. She wasn’t sure if it was really because they trusted her to do the job, or if they wanted to put themselves as far away from the blame as possible if they failed. We aren’t going to fail! We can do this! We can! Anny fell asleep running obstacle courses in her head.

 

The weeks both sped and crawled by. The training and the duties and the crushing fatigue seemed endless, but the time left to get ready slipped through her fingers like sand. They had their teams selected: the quickest and most agile for the obstacle course, the toughest and most hardy for the long distance run and the best shots for the rifle competition. For the equestrian phase they had the twenty-five cadets least likely to fall off their horses. The fact that the upper classes were monopolizing the limited number of horses at the Academy for their own training wasn’t helping things. Anny had assigned herself to the obstacle course, rifle competition and equestrian. She wasn’t much of a rider, but at least she’d been on a horse a few times.  Jer, who was obviously very uneasy around horses (nobody rode on Komarr), was slated for the obstacle course, long distance run and rifle shoot.  Patric was one of their better riders, so he had the equestrian, obstacle and long distance run. Alby was also in the equestrian event, despite his terrible marksmanship. His second event was the obstacle course and he had no third event.

 

For the first month of their preparations no one paid much attention to them, which was fine. The Pentathlon was primarily for the upper classes, who put huge amounts of effort into it. The first year cadets were allowed to compete, but much less emphasis was placed on it for them. Anny was grateful that C Company wouldn’t have to compete against the upper classes: they would have no chance at all. But eventually, the other companies of their own battalion started their preparations and it wasn’t long before whoever was out to get her figured out what she was planning. Suddenly, the other companies were training like maniacs. There would be no easy win. Maybe no win at all…

 

“Take a look at the figures, Anny,” said Alby one day, handing her his computer pad.  Her eyes opened wide in surprise. It was an event by event breakdown of the likely scores of the companies based on their training scores.

 

“Where… how did you get this?” she demanded.

 

Alby shrugged. “All of our esteemed competitors are tracking their progress—just like we are—and recording it on their computers. Military-issue computers, I might add. It wasn’t hard to get this.”

 

Anny looked again at the computer pad and realized that it wasn’t military-issue. It was a very expensive and very capable private model. “Alby, someday you are going to get caught!”

 

“Maybe, but not today. Look at the numbers.”

 

Anny did as she was told and was soon frowning. Alby leaned over her and started pointing items out on the screen. “If the margins stay as they are, G Company is looking to be our toughest competitor. We have a slim edge on them in three of the events, but they are going to clobber us in the equestrian. To make that up we would have to beat them by nearly ten minutes in the Howitzer Haul.”

 

“Then that’s what we’ll have to do,” said Anny, firmly.

 

Alby shook his head. “No one’s ever won by that big a margin, Anny. The only exceptions have been a few rare times when the closest competitors all suffered some major disaster like broken ropes that dumped their cannons into the gorge. We can’t count on something like that—unless you wanted to try and arrange something…”

 

“You mean sabotage? No, if we can’t win fairly, then I don’t want to win at all.”

 

“How did I ever let myself get hooked up with a pureheart like you?” asked Alby in mock-exasperation. “But seriously, Anny, if you want to win this, I don’t see any other way.”

 

“We need to increase our margins on the three events we can win and we have to do… something to win big on the Howitzer Haul.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“I don’t know. I’ll have to think on it.”

 

“Don’t think too long: we’ve got barely a month left.”

 

“I know! I know!” she cried, letting far too much frustration slip into her voice.

 

Alby stared at her for a few moments and then said: “So what’s Plan B?”

 

“Plan B?”

 

“Plan B: if we don’t win.”

 

“We are going to win!”

 

“Of course. But what if we don’t?”

 

Anny returned his stare for an even longer time and then finally said: “I guess I’ll have to quit.”

 

Alby raised his eyebrows and then excused himself. Anny sat and stared at nothing for a long time. Eventually, she got up and left her cottage. Winter wasn’t quite over, but the weather had turned milder and most of the snow was gone. Thanks to Sergeant Byrne’s manipulation of the duty schedule, she had a free hour this afternoon and she used it to walk and think.

 

Did you mean what you said? Will you quit? What other choice do I have? I all but promised everyone else that we would win. If we don’t, then we’re right back where we started—with no options left at all. What else could I do?

 

Her feet seemed to be able to stay focused on the problem better than her brain, because they took her to the course for the Howitzer Haul without her having told them to. There were a number of teams from the upper classes practicing. They had the priority, of course, since their competitions actually mattered. The first year teams would have to practice at odd hours; fortunately, there were lights installed along the course for that very purpose. She followed one team, trying to learn what she could about the proper techniques.

 

The cannon, itself, was a small ‘pack’ howitzer. The original design was for a weapon that could be disassembled and carried through difficult terrain on pack animals. The current model was a far more modern version meant to be transported in assault shuttles. It was a weapon considered obsolete in most militaries, but the Barrayaran military still found uses for it besides this traditional athletic event. It was small and sturdy and weighed about a thousand kilos. It could be broken down into four main pieces: the gun tube, the carriage, and the two wheels.

 

The team she was watching was pulling the gun along the course, which consisted of small hills, ditches, mudholes and various other obstacles that could be overcome with brute force. There was a second, identical, course running parallel about fifty meters away. A gravel path for observers ran in between. Traditionally, the competition was run with two teams at once. About twenty cadets were harnessed to the gun like draught animals, while many of the others stood ready to push, yank or lift as necessary. Anny couldn’t see any way to do it more efficiently. A number of the cadets were carrying six long metal poles and lots and lots of rope and pulleys for the gorge crossing. The rest had specially made backpacks for carrying the ammunition, although for this practice they just had dead weights.

 

Despite the obstacles, the team moved at a good clip and she was obliged to trot to keep up. Most of the course ran through the woods, but there were two cleared areas where the teams stopped to fire at targets prior to reaching the gorge, although for this run they just pretended to load and fire. Accuracy of fire was a very minor factor in scoring compared to the elapsed time, so the stops to fire took no longer than was needed to feed in the shells and yank the firing lanyard five times. The cadets carrying the gear for the gorge crossing did not stop when the howitzer did. They kept going, but the weight and the awkward poles didn’t allow them to move all that fast and they didn’t reach the gorge more than a minute before the gun, itself.

 

The gorge was a rocky creek bed about fifteen meters wide and five or six meters deep. In many places the sides had been reinforced with concrete to prevent further erosion, but there were still plenty of natural rock exposed. This was fortunate, because the only legal way for the competitors to get their first people across was to scramble down one side, jump or wade the creek, and climb up the other. There was also a sturdy modern bridge spanning the gorge between the parallel courses, but that was only for spectators and officials. The woods, which came to within about twenty meters of the gorge on either side, had been cut back near the bridge to provide room for a small set of bleachers.

 

By the time Anny arrived one batch of cadets had already made it across and were busy driving the anchors for the small foot bridge that was to be installed. It wasn’t large or strong (or stable) enough to use for the gun, but it would allow the pole carriers to get across. Apparently, there had been some teams in the past who had dispensed with the footbridge and just manhandled the poles and gear down and up the sides of the gorge, but much experimentation had proven the footbridge faster and safer. Meanwhile, three of the long poles were being erected on the near side of the gorge in a tripod to act as the support for the pulley system that would carry the gun. Another batch of cadets were taking the gun apart. There had been other experiments with trying to pull the gun across in just two pieces instead of four, but they had all met with disaster

 

As she watched, the foot bridge was dragged across and secured. Then the other set of three poles were carried over and set up. Ropes were thrown across and the pulley system started to take shape. This team was good, but the whole crossing would still probably take then a half hour or more—far longer than the entire rest of the course would take. Was there any way to do this faster? It seemed to Anny that this was the key to the entire problem.

 

While she pondered, she suddenly noticed that Sergeant Major Szytko was standing off to the side, also watching the activities. She walked over to stand next to him. “Good afternoon, Sergeant Major.”

 

“Afternoon, cadet,” he replied. “Here trying to pick up some pointers?”

 

“If I can. We have to do really well on this event. Really well.”

 

“They’ve been doing this for nearly a hundred years. A lot of different things have been tried. Still, the current methods haven’t changed much at all in fifty years or more. Usually, I’m all for tradition, but a lot of other things have changed.”

 

Anny looked closely at Szytko. He was one of the least talkative individuals she had ever met. But when he did say something you’d be a fool not to listen. “Like what, Sergeant Major. What has changed?”

 

“Oh, well, the gun, itself has changed. Up until about ten years ago they were still using the old ones with the wood carriages and spoked wheels. They’d been around almost since the Academy was founded. Pretty darn sturdy, but nothing compared to these new alloys. When the old batch got hit with dry rot they had to replace them with these. I bet these could take a real pounding.  And the ropes they’re using: not ‘rope’ at all anymore. The old hemp ropes were pretty strong, but they could still break if you weren’t careful. These new synthetics are practically unbreakable.” Szytko paused and looked around. “Even the setting’s changed. Most of these trees were just saplings when I first came here. They’re getting pretty near full grown now.” He fell silent for a while and then nodded to Anny. “Well, I have to be going. Good luck to you, cadet.”

 

She thanked him and watched him go before turning her attention back to the team in front of her. They had their pulley set up and were slowly hauling the gun carriage across. The tripods held the lines about four meters above the lip of the gorge, but the weight still made the lines sag alarmingly. Pulling the weight ‘uphill’ once it had past the midpoint took all their strength. There had been some attempts at making the far tripod shorter to reduce the angle, but apparently it hadn’t worked very well.

 

What did he mean? He wasn’t just passing the time of day! He was trying to tell me something , but what? The gun is stronger, the lines are stronger, but we aren’t any stronger! And what do the trees have to do with…?

 

She saw it.

 

In her mind’s eye the solution to the problem materialized like an engineering diagram. She stood there with her mouth hanging open as she tried to detect the flaw. There had to be a flaw. Didn’t there? Try as she might, she couldn’t find one.

 

The other team was still struggling to get the last piece across when she turned and ran back the way she had come.

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Can this work?” demanded Jer Naddel.

 

“The engineering looks, solid,” said Alby Vorsworth, pointing to the display on his computer.

 

“I’m no expert, but I can’t find anything wrong using this program. The trick will be pulling the gun up to that height and praying the pulleys don’t jam.”

 

“What about the ropes? Can they take the weight?” asked Anny.

 

“With margin to spare,” replied Alby, pointing to a batch of figures near the bottom of the screen. “Szytko wasn’t kidding about those. They could take twice this amount of stress before they would break.”

 

“We have to get the main cable really, really tight. If it deflects too much the gun will hit the far lip of the gorge.”

 

“Yeah, that’s true. I’m sure a trained engineer could tell you just how tight, but I can’t. We really need to test this out.”

 

“We don’t dare,” said Anny. “If anyone else sees what we’re doing, the cat will be out of the bag. There’s nothing magical about this, just no one’s thought of it before. Anyone else could do it this way and then we’d be sunk. Our only hope is to surprise them.”

 

“You’re sure there’s nothing in the rules against this?” asked Jer.

 

“Nope, not a thing,” said Alby. “I’m an expert on getting around the rules and there is not one thing in the Pentathlon rules to forbid this.”

 

“We have to test it,” insisted Jer. “The rig is all different from the usual method. If we try to do this on the fly we’ll end up losing more time than we gain.”

 

“You’re right,” conceded Anny. “Maybe late at night, right before the Pentathlon starts. In the meantime we’ll practice using the normal methods.”

 

“Yeah, that way we’re covered if this new setup doesn’t work.”

 

“It has to work,” said Anny.

 

“Okay,” said Alby. “I’ll work up an alternate loading schedule for the team, but in the meantime, not a word about this to anyone else!”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“The coast looks clear,” said Patrick Mederov. “I didn’t see anyone else around. So what’s the big secret?”

 

“Let’s get out there and I’ll tell all of you,” replied Anny. She glanced around and hoped that all the rest of C Company was here with her. It was three hours before dawn and the others were just dark blobs against a slight less-dark background. Up ahead the Howitzer Haul course was brightly lit, but Anny had held them back to make sure the area was deserted. As far as they could tell, it was. Now she led them to the area where the gear was stored. The guns were kept in an unlocked shed, but each company had a locked storage container for their individual gear. Past experience had shown that the competition was desperate enough for a little sabotage, but the guns, themselves were used by everyone and carefully checked. Anny had wheedled the key to their locker from Sergeant Byrne. There was no way they could have arranged the duty schedule for this expedition without his help anyway, but he did not seem to have any problem with it.

 

She opened up the locker and the cadets began pulling out their gear. They were surprised when she told them to put some of it back. They were more surprised when instead of taking them to the start of the course she headed backwards toward the gorge. The course was actually laid out in an oval so the finish was near the start. “We’re only concerned with the gorge crossing tonight,” she told them.

 

“What?” demanded one of them, “we’re going to try something new? The competition starts in two days!”

 

“That’s right,” said Jer. “And this is going to blow the competition away—which is why we have to keep it secret.”

 

There was a great deal of excited chatter—and entirely too much noise—on their way to the gorge. Anny could hardly believe that the competition was finally near. They had all worked so incredibly hard to prepare for this. Everyone was exhausted from the workload of their normal training, preparations for the Pentathlon, and the duty company. But tomorrow they could rest. All normal duties were cancelled during the event and even the sentry posts would be occupied by someone else: the Emperor usually attended the Vorbarra Pentathlon and Impsec would be taking over all security for the Academy.

 

They reached the gorge and took the bridge to the other side. This is where they would be during the actual event. Alby unpacked his computer and called up the diagram he’d created. “Okay, gather round,” said Anny. “Take a look at what we are going to do.”

 

Two hours later they had tried it three times. The first time, as Jer had predicted, had been a mess and taken nearly an hour. The second time had only taken twenty-five minutes and the third time they did it in less than fifteen.

 

And it had worked every time.

 

The company sat next to the howitzer, catching their breath, rubbing sore muscles, and exulting.

 

“It worked! It really worked!” said Patric Mederov. He wore an enormous grin

 

“And in fifteen minutes!” added Jer Naddell. “That’s over ten minutes off the all-time Academy record—let alone what we can expect any of our competitors to do!”

 

“We can do it,” said Cadet Gerhardt. “I never really believed it, but we can win!”

 

“We can if we keep this secret,” said Anny loudly, addressing everyone. “The Pentathlon starts the day after tomorrow. Our class goes first to get us out of the way for the upper classes. The Howitzer Haul is the last event. So that means six days until we do this for real. We all have to keep our mouths shut! Not one word to anyone outside the company! Understand?” Everyone nodded emphatically. “Okay, let’s get everything cleaned up and all the gear back to the locker before someone sees us.”

 

They set to it with a will, but after only a few minutes Alby suddenly said: “Where’s Fallon? Anyone seen him? He was here earlier.” Everyone stopped and looked around, but Cadet Fallon was nowhere to be seen.

 

“Maybe he’s off taking a leak, or something,” suggested Jer, pointing to the nearby woods. They looked but there was no one. Anny had never had any particular reason to even notice Cadet Fallon, except that he was… Vor!

 

“Oh shit!” snarled Alby.

 

“What’s wrong?” asked Patric.

 

“He’s been acting twitchy all week,” said Alby. “I’ve kept my eye on him. He’s going to spill the beans on us!”

 

Oh God, no! Anny looked around frantically. Betrayed! “Alby! Patric! Get this sorted out! Jer! Follow me!” Without waiting to see if she was being obeyed, she broke into a run and headed for the barracks. She ran like she’d never run before. She had no clear plan, just the overwhelming need to stop Cadet Fallon. She had no idea how. She veered into the woods to cut off a loop of the road. Dead undergrowth grabbed at her legs and branches slashed at her face, but she didn’t slow. She burst out of the woods into the cleared ground near the campus buildings. She stopped, gasping for breath, and looking hard… where… there! A figure, following the road, was just emerging from the woods about a hundred meters away. She had no doubt it was Fallon. He looked back the way he had come several times, but he didn’t seem to see Anny. In her black fatigues, against the black woods, she’d be nearly invisible.

 

Crouching low, she sped across the ground separating them and got between Fallon and the buildings. At the last moment he spotted her and came to a halt with a cry of surprise. “Going somewhere, Fallon?” she said. “We still have to put all the gear away.”

 

“I… I… uh, I’ve got something to do,” he stuttered.

 

“I bet you do. Why don’t we go back to the others and maybe you can explain what.”

 

Even in the dim light Anny could see Fallon’s face go pale. “You… you’ve got no authority over me! Let me pass!” It was true: she had no authority of any kind over Cadet Fallon. Right at the moment, she didn’t give a damn. But what could she do? And where was Jer? She suddenly realized that he wasn’t with her.

 

“We’re going back to the others. Come on.” She took a step toward Fallon.

 

“No! Leave me alone!” Fallon dodged to the side and tried to run past her. She lunged out and tackled him. They rolled on the ground, Fallon thrashing and punching at her. She just held onto his legs and prayed that Jer would show up soon to help. Help what, she still didn’t know.

 

“Why?” she hissed through clenched teeth. “Why are you trying to do this?”

 

“You… don’t… belong… here!” Fallon pulled free of her and lurched to his feet. Anny managed to grab one of his arms and hang on. He threw a punch at her but she ducked and tried to twist his arm around behind him. “Help! Someone, h—urk!” When Fallon began to shout Anny drove her fist into his solar plexus and he doubled over, the wind knocked out of him. He staggered around in a circle trying to get his stunned diaphragm to suck some air into his lungs. Just then, Jer ran up.

 

“Anny! I lost you in the woods! What… what do we do now?” he asked, looking at the wheezing Fallon.

 

“I don’t know.” What could they do? Tie him up and lock him in a closet for the next six days? No good, he’d be missed at roll call in just a few hours. Her adrenalin high was seeping away and a feeling of gloom was descending on her. It was over. Fallon would betray their plan to the other companies and their advantage would be lost. So would the Penatathlon. So would her dream… Her lip was quivering and tears filled her eyes. It wasn’t fair. Welcome to Barrayar.

 

“Is there a problem here?”

 

Anny spun around and there was Sergeant Major Szytko, standing a few meters away.

 

“Uh…” said Jer.

 

“Gwerk,” gurgled Fallon.

 

“No. No, Sergeant Major, no problem,” sighed Anny.

 

“Good! I was just on the com with Sergeant Byrne. I told him I needed a strong back from the duty company for a little errand and he said that you were all out on the practice field and that I should take whoever I wanted. So… you, Cadet…Fallon, I’ll be needing your services for the next… oh… six or seven days. I’m afraid you’ll miss the Pentathlon, but that’s just the way things are in the service, I’m afraid.”

 

“B-but…” Fallon shook his head and looked dazed. Szytko spoke into his wrist com and in an amazingly short time an air car landed on the road a few meters away. The Sergeant Major took the protesting Fallon firmly by the arm and hustled him aboard. “Where are we going?” he demanded.

 

“Oh, just a little trip up north—to Kyrill Island.” Fallon’s squawk was cut off as Szytko shut the door from the outside.

 

Anny stared at Szytko. “Thank you, Sergeant Major. Thank you very much.”

 

“I don’t want your thanks, cadet,” he replied. “But there is one thing you could do for me.”

 

“What?”

 

Szytko’s lips twitched up in the nearest thing to a smile she’d ever seen on his face.

 

“Kick their asses.”

 

 

Chapter 9

 

 

Hold still, you miserable sack of oats!” Anny pulled sharply on the reins in hopes that would get the horse’s attention, but the beast just spun in a circle, defeating her attempts to get a steady shot at the targets.

 

For an instant, her pistol was pointed directly at a cringing scorekeeper, but she didn’t fire. The man was in no danger: the pistols only fired blanks and their accuracy was determined by a low-powered laser mounted next to the barrel. A tragic accident a decade earlier had brought about that change. A good thing, too, or Alby Vorsworth might well murder half the officials on the equestrian course.

 

Anny’s horse finally settled down enough that she could draw a bead on the six man-sized targets about fifty meters away. She fired off the shots as rapidly as she could and she was reasonably certain she had hit all of them, but there was no time to wait and find out. “Okay, you want to run, so run!” she cried, digging her spurs into the horse’s flanks. The beast sprang away, nearly leaving Anny behind. She hung on and fortunately the animal headed in the right direction. With all the practice runs by all the classes, the critter could probably do this in its sleep.

 

At a full gallop, they charged up hills and down dales, splashed across streams and wove between the trees, Anny ducking to avoid low-hanging limbs. She reached the next target range and reined in the horse and reached for her pistol. She cursed under her breath when she saw Hal Lindvig, one of her teammates, on foot and chasing after his horse. There was nothing she could do to help him under the rules, so she maneuvered her horse where she wanted it—and for once the horse consented—and fired off her shots. For some reason, this time the noise startled the animal and it reared up, almost forcing Anny to join Lindvig afoot. She stayed aboard somehow and got it under control again and headed down the trail toward the finish. She galloped across the line and brought her horse to a stop next to a bored-looking scorekeeper.

 

“Name?” he asked.

 

“Payne, C Company.”

“Twenty-two minutes, four seconds.” He entered it into his computer pad and paid no further attention to her. She moved off to where the horses were being collected and dismounted. Glancing back, she saw Lindvig emerge from the course and at least he was back on his horse. She spent the next half-hour walking her mount to cool it off and then gave it a rub-down and turned it over to the handlers. From there she headed back to the main spectator area where she would find the rest of her team. She was the last rider for C Company—or she would have been if Lindvig hadn’t fallen off—so everyone else was there. They didn’t look very happy—not that she expected them to be. She spotted Alby with his ever-present computer pad. “So, how’d we do?” she asked.

 

“Well, everyone finished,” he replied. “No dead or wounded left on the field of battle, so I suppose you could count that as a major victory.”

 

Alby… how’d we do?”

 

“Pretty bad. Well, terrible to be brutally honest. There are still two more teams to go in the Equestrian, but unless there are any big surprises there, we are now in sixth place among the first year companies.”

 

“Sixth!” she groaned. “We had been in first!”

 

“I warned you. And we’re only in sixth because we did so well in the first three events. But, hey, no need to look so glum: if we do as well as we hope tomorrow, we can still win.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yup. As I predicted, G Company is in first place. We need to beat them by ten minutes and eighteen seconds in the Howitzer Haul to win.”

 

“We can do that,” said Jer emphatically and then looked around to make sure they couldn’t be overheard.

 

“Yes we can,” said Anny. “And we will.” She sat down on the grass with the others and pretended to watch the huge video monitor that was displaying the ongoing events of the Pentathlon. It was Day Four of the competition and the first day for the senior class. On the first day the first year companies had competed alone in the Obstacle Course and scarcely anyone else had even paid attention. C Company’s team had won the event and that was a great way to start off.  On the second day the second year companies did the Obstacle Course and the first year moved on to the Long-Distance Run. They had come in second and it was a close second, so they were still in first place on Day Two. Day Three saw the third year companies join the cycle and first year moved to the Rifle Competition. They had done really well there, better even than they’d hoped. Although a lot of the non-Vor cadets transferred into C Company weren’t the best at shining shoes or polishing brass or making their beds the regulation way, many of them were from the hinterlands and knew how to shoot. Anny scored a personal best of ninety-six out of a hundred and C Company extended its lead.

 

They had given all of it back today, of course, but they had known this was going to happen. They all put on cheerful, confident faces, but Anny suspected they were all as worried underneath as she was. One slip, just one tiny little mistake and we’re finished.

 

When the last two first year companies finished their runs on the Equestrian Course, they were called back into ranks. Sergeant Byrne marched them back toward campus. Just as they neared the barracks, a loud roar from overhead had them all looking up. A phalanx of five assault shuttles screamed past a few hundred meters above the treetops. The center shuttle was bigger and painted blue and red, a glittering gold crest blazoned the side. They disappeared in the direction of the Academy’s landing field. “He’s early,” said Byrne.

 

“Sir?” said Anny.

 

“The Emperor, or at least that’s his shuttle, I assume he’s aboard. He usually shows up for the last two or three days of the Pentathlon. He’s early this year.”

 

I wonder why?

 

On the parade ground, Sergeant Byrne called them to attention, looked them over and then stood back. “Tomorrow’s the big day. Stand by each other and you’ll come through fine. But no matter what happens tomorrow, you’ve all earned the right to feel mighty proud of yourselves for what you’ve done. Now go and get some rest. Dis-missed!” The company broke ranks and headed for the mess hall.

 

The other first year companies were either already there or filed in shortly after. The companies leading the Pentathlon were all loud and boisterous, regaling their comrades with their glorious exploits. The cadets of G Company were in first place and were, thus, the loudest. By some bit of cosmic irony, Anny’s old nemesis, Olaf Levey, was now in G Company and apparently the team leader. The last thing in the world she wanted right now was to talk to him, but unfortunately he spotted her and came sauntering over with a batch of his friends.

 

“Well, well,” he chortled, “it’s C Company and its Amazon leader! You made quite a spectacle out there today. I trust you learned why riding is considered a sport for gentlemen?”

 

“Really?” said Alby Vorsworth. He consulted his computer pad. “I guess that’s why you weren’t on G Company’s equestrian team, then, eh, Olaf?”

 

Levey’s face reddened and he clenched his fists. “I yielded my spot to men I knew were better riders,” he said stiffly. “As any true Vor would! But your rabble must have been truly desperate to let you anywhere near a horse, Worth!”

 

“At least I didn’t fall off,” replied Alby. “But speaking of falls, I’m sure you’ve heard about how the bigger they are, the harder they fall. And if they were talking about egos, you’ve got a hell of a fall coming, Levey.”

 

“Ha! You’re living in a dream world! All of you! It’s over and you know it! You may as well start writing out your resignations right now—unless you come to your senses and get rid of the Payne that’s causing all your troubles!”

 

“You just wait!” cried Cadet Gerhardt. “Wait until you see what—mmmpf!” Jer Naddel clapped a hand over Gerhart’s mouth.

 

“Wait until I see what?” demanded Levey with a huge smirk.

 

“What real loyalty can accomplish,” said Patric Mederov, stepping in between Gerhardt and Levey. Anny breathed a sigh of relief over the distraction.

 

“You’ve given your loyalty to someone who isn’t worthy of it,” snapped Levey, but he eyed Mederov warily. Patric was nearly a head taller and much stronger.

 

“Come on, guys,” said Anny. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow. Let’s eat.” The two groups backed off and ended up eating on opposite sides of the mess hall. Anny quietly warned everyone to watch their mouths and then left for the evening. She went back to her own little cottage, marveling at the lack of sentries: ImpSec apparently had not seen any need to post one of its men there and there was no duty company this week. She did all her chores and went to bed early. Despite her worries, she slept like the dead.

 

 

* * *

 

 

The morning dawned bright and clear for the first year’s Howitzer Haul competition. Despite the lack of interest in their earlier events, Anny suspected there would be quite a few spectators to watch them today.  The potential for amusing disasters would be a strong draw if for no other reason. The company formed up and marched off to the competition area. They got there plenty early since they would be in the third group. Normally, the teams went in the order of their scoring so far in the competition. The tenth and ninth place teams would compete against each other first and so on down to the first and second place teams, one of which would probably be the overall winner. Since they were in sixth place, they would be matched with the fifth place team. Sergeant Bryne let them break ranks and relax. The tenth and ninth place teams were getting their gear ready, even though they weren’t scheduled to start for nearly an hour. It would probably be noon before C Company had its turn.

 

“Uh, ooohhh…” said Jer suddenly.

 

“What?” asked Anny.

 

“Look there.” Anny followed his pointing finger and to her surprise and dismay she saw Cadet Fallon walking in their direction accompanied by Sergeant Major Szytko.

 

“What the hell’s he doing here?” demanded Alby.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Well, don’t panic,” said Jer. “If he spilled the beans now it would hurt the other teams more than it would help. Remember what a mess it was the first time we tried it. With no chance to practice, the other teams would be fools to try our method.”

 

“Unless they file a protest and get our method banned or something,” said Alby.

 

“Always looking on the bright side, Alby,” said Jer.

 

But as Fallon got closer, it didn’t look as though he was any happier to be here than they were to see him. He looked distinctly uncomfortable and cast a nervous glance in their direction. Szytko took him over to meet with Sergeant Byrne but they couldn’t hear what was said. By this time most of the company had gathered to watch and there were more than a few grumbles of outrage. After a minute or two Szytko moved aside and Byrne brought Fallon over to them. “Cadet Fallon has something to say to you,” said Byrne. He motioned the young man forward.

 

Fallon stood there nervously and then said: “I’m sorry for what I tried to do. I haven’t told anyone about what you’re up to. I want to be back on the team.”

 

“Like hell!” cried Cadet Gerhardt.

 

“Not bloody likely!” added Alby. The others added similar or even less polite comments.

 

“Why should we trust you?” asked Anny after things had settled down.

 

“You don’t have any reason to, I’ll admit,” said Fallon, his face reddening. “But I give you my word I won’t betray you… my name’s word.”

 

“What?” exclaimed Anny. A quiet gasp came from the assembled cadets.

 

“I give you my word as Vorfallon that I will not betray you and will serve the company faithfully.”

 

Anny just stared at him, shocked into silence. Finally, someone from behind her said: “We still can’t trust him!”

 

“We don’t have any choice,” said Alby, looking very somber. “None at all.”

 

“No… we don’t,” said Anny slowly. And it was true: they didn’t. A Vor had given them his name’s word, a binding oath among the Vor class. In theory, he would die before breaking such an oath, although certainly many a Vor had broken them over the centuries. But more importantly, they couldn’t refuse to accept his word, not without being as thoroughly disgraced as any oathbreaker.

 

Betray and serve are words open to interpretation,” said Jer. “Let’s be a little more specific, shall we? Do you swear to do everything you can to help us win the Howitzer Haul competition today and promise to do nothing to help any of the other teams?”

 

“Yes,” said Fallon.

 

“On your name’s word?”

 

“On my name’s word.”

 

Jer raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “Good enough for me. I’m not happy, mind you, but it would be a legal contract on Komarr.”

 

“It’s good enough for me, too,” said Alby.

 

“And me,” said Anny with a small sigh. “Welcome back, Mr. Fallon. But might I ask you why?”

 

Fallon glanced in Sergeant Major Szytko’s direction. “It’s a long story. Too long for right now.”

 

“Well, you might trust all this Vor crap,” said Cadet Gerhart angrily. “But I’m going to be keeping a close watch on you, Fallon! One false move and…”

 

“There won’t be any false moves,” said Alby. “But just to be sure, I’m switching you to Ammo Carrier #1, Mr. Fallon.” He had his computer pad out and was entering data. Anny nodded: they had one spare ammo carrier, just in case of mishaps, so even if Fallon deliberately dropped his load in a creek or something, they still had a safety margin. And once his ammo was expended at the first target…

 

“Just carry your ammo and stay the hell away from the gun after that, understood?” said Alby.

 

“Right. I understand,” said Fallon. He clearly followed the line of reasoning. With that settled, the company dispersed again to await the start of the competition. The conversations were considerably more animated than they had been before. Fallon sat down by himself, Anny stayed with Jer, Alby and Patric.

 

“Can we really trust him?” asked Patric.

 

“I hope so,” said Anny. “In fact, I think we probably can.”

 

“But why would he change sides so suddenly?”

 

“Maybe he wasn’t all that willing a spy to begin with,” said Alby. “The other Vor might have put all sorts of pressure on him. Fallon’s family doesn’t have much influence at all, so it would be easy to twist his arm.”

 

“Maybe,” said Anny. “Well, I’ll ask him later—when this is all over.”

 

“Hell, what now?” said Jer suddenly. Anny looked up and saw that Olaf Levey was heading their way with one of the Pentathlon officials, an officer in undress greens. A chill went through her. What if Levey had found out about their plan and just as Alby had said was trying to get the technique banned? From the smirk on Levey’s face it seemed a distinct possibility.

 

But the official looked bored and he walked right up to them. “C Company?” he asked. They nodded. “The G Company team is offering a challenge match in the Howitzer Haul. If you accept you’ll be paired with them for the last run of the day. The other team that would have been paired with G Company has already yielded its spot. Do you accept?” Anny breathed a silent sigh of relief. Apparently, Levey just wanted the satisfaction of beating them face-to-face. Well! That was fine!

 

“We accept, sir,” said Anny. The official looked the tiniest bit surprised to be getting the reply from her and his eyes darted to the others, but when they said nothing or just nodded, he shrugged and made an entry into his computer pad.

 

“You’ll be in the fifth pairing. Make sure you’re all here no later than 1400. You step off around 1500.”

 

“We’ll be ready, sir.”

 

“You wish!” snorted Levey. “Ready to lose!” The official just rolled his eyes and walked off, his duty done.

 

“Your ego’s showing again, Olaf,” said Alby. “Be careful you don’t trip over it.”

 

“And you’re a disgrace to the whole Vor class!” snapped Levey. “Your father and grandfather won’t live forever! And when they’re gone who’s going to watch out for you then?” Levey turned and stalked off before Alby could think of a reply, but then pulled up short when he caught sight of Cadet Fallon. The two stared at each other for an instant, but then Fallon turned away. Levey shot a puzzled glance back in Anny’s direction and then frowned and left.

 

“Whew!” said Jer. “I was afraid that the jig was up!”

 

“No, we’re fine,” said Anny, “even if we do have six hours to wait now.”

 

It was a very long six hours.

 

The first pair of teams went out and they watched their progress on the big video monitors in the spectator area. Both teams put on a very workmanlike performance and there were no surprises. The teams used the standard bridging methods that had been used for fifty years and got their guns across the gorge in pieces without mishap. They crossed the finish lines about an hour after they started—not very good times, but for the last place teams the goal was to finish at all. They didn’t see much of next teams’ runs because today the senior class was beginning its competition and the video monitors switched to follow their activities on the obstacle course. But each team that went out was carrying the standard gear and finished in about the expected times.

 

All except F Company. They tried something clever and paid the price. They attempted to send the gun carriage and the wheels across the gorge in a single load. But the main cable sagged so much under the added weight the carriage hung up on the opposite lip of the gorge and got stuck there. This was amusing enough that the man in charge of the video monitors switched them back to the Howitzer Haul. It took F Company nearly an hour to get their gun freed from its predicament and then get back on the course. Their finishing time was so bad they dropped from fourth place to last and many of the spectators—mostly older officers—had a good laugh at their expense.

 

“That could be us if we’re not lucky,” said Jer

 

“If we’re careful, luck will have nothing to do with it,” said Anny. She hoped she was right.

 

Noontime came and they broke out the field rations they had brought with them. They seemed unusually tasty and Anny almost laughed out loud when she looked at the wrapper. They were made by the company owned by Lord Mark Vorkosigan, the Lord Auditor’s clone brother. She’d heard all about that enterprise during her stay at Vorkosigan House, but this was the first she’d heard that they was making rations for the military now. Her comrades were also commenting on the improvement and she had to restrain herself from telling them where they had come from. C Company: powered by bug vomit!

 

As she finished up her meal, Jer suddenly nudged her. She looked up and saw a small group of people in civilian clothes, carrying bags of gear talking to one of the officials. He shook his head, but then shrugged and pointed in their direction. The people came over and stared at them like they were exhibits in a zoo. They unpacked some items and then one of them stood a few meters away with his back to Anny and started speaking at the others.

 

“In addition to all the usual pageantry of the Vorbarra Pentathlon, this year’s competition has a new and unprecedented addition: Andreanne Payne, the Academy’s first female cadet, is not only taking part, but is actually the team captain for her company. While their team isn’t expected to win top honors, her mere presence makes this a special event. Sadly, we’re not permitted to speak with any of the cadets, but you can see Cadet Payne behind us…”

 

It’s a news crew! She realized in surprise. “Who elected me team captain?” asked Anny after they finished up and moved on.

 

“Well, you are, aren’t you?” asked Jer.

 

“Not that I was told.” Jer, Alby and Patric just smiled at her.

 

At last it was time for them to get ready. They went to their locker and pulled out their gear and checked it over very carefully. Every pulley, every meter of line was inspected and tested. No slip-ups today! The ammo carriers went over to the armored ordnance van and were issued their rounds, which were placed in their carrying backpacks, two per man. Everyone watched Cadet Fallon closely, but he did exactly as he was supposed to. The gun haulers checked out their harnesses and the gun, itself. The superstitious ones in the company were happy that it was a different gun than the one used by the ill-fated F Company. Anny ran back and forth between groups trying to supervise everything. She had no specific task during the competition but would be giving the orders. I guess I really am the captain. It wasn’t something she’d planned for or aspired to, it had just happened. Finally, when all was ready, they moved to the start line.

 

Immediately, they began to attract attention: they were not carrying the long metal poles for the tripods, nor the parts for the foot bridge. People began to point and talk excitedly. It wasn’t long before Cadet Levey came over. “Forgotten something, haven’t you?” he asked. He tried to act as arrogant as ever, but there was a nervousness in his eyes.

 

“Nope, we’ve got everything we need to beat you,” said Jer.

 

“What are you planning to do? Fly over the gorge?”

 

“Yup,” replied Alby. “Cadet Fallon brought back a weather balloon from Kyrill Island and we’re gonna fill it with all your hot air and float right across!” Levey snorted, but he cast a glance in Fallon’s direction before returning to his own team.

 

C Company wheeled its gun up to the starting line and got ready to go. About half the company was directly involved with pulling the gun. The rest were hauling ammo or the equipment for the gorge crossing. Without the long tripod poles or the footbridge, they had managed to spread out the load so that these cadets could move pretty quickly. Anny hoped they could outdistance the G Company men and get a head start on the crossing. 

 

Levey’s challenge had handed them one piece of good fortune: as the challenged, they could pick which of the two courses they wanted to run on. Each course was as nearly identical as they could be made, but the trees on the right-hand course near the gorge were placed just a bit better for their purposes than on the left-hand course. They had practiced on each course, but had been hoping to get the right-hand one. Now they could just choose the one they wanted. And in one last bit of pre-event jitters, Alby and Jer had made a scouting expedition that morning to make sure the trees hadn’t been cut down or blown over or sucked into some other dimension.

 

“Teams, take your positions!” shouted the official. They were already in their positions, but now they tensed for the start. The official looked them over and raised his starter’s pistol.

 

“This is it, guys,” said Anny. “Just like a drill.”

 

Pow! They were off.

 

They shot forward like horses out of a starting gate. The twenty main haulers were harnessed like horses, too. Patric Mederov was the biggest and strongest man in the company, so he was the center lead hauler. Several guides were in front, looking out for obstructions and making sure the haulers were going the right direction. Everyone else followed along, most carrying burdens of their own. The first few hundred meters were just a straight run and they got up a pretty good speed. But then there was a sharp turn and they nearly took it too fast, the gun rising precariously on one wheel.

 

“Take it easy, guys,” called Anny. “Not too fast, not too slow.”

 

After the turn they hit the first series of hills. These were just steep mounds of compacted dirt about three meters high that the course went up and then down again in a washboard-like sequence. The trick here was to maintain the right momentum. Not enough and you would stall partway up and lose time. Too much and you might lose control coming down again. And that was a real danger beyond just costing time: a 1,500 kilogram pack howitzer, out of control, could crush someone unable to get out of the way. There were ropes attached to the rear and sides of the gun where cadets could act as brakes, if necessary, but serious injuries had happened all-too frequently over the years. Anny was determined that no such thing would happen today!

 

They made it over the first four humps in good order, but got stalled on the last one. Muscles strained and shoulders were applied and they were over and down and on the flat again. The same thing happened on the next series of hills, but only a few seconds were lost and then they were approaching the first target range. They steered the gun onto the firing platform and then turned it around so the muzzle was pointing downrange. The team members carrying the other gear kept right on going. Jer Naddel had shown an affinity for hitting targets with the howitzer, so he was their gunner. He threw himself into position and squinted through the sight, spinning the aiming wheels like mad to line it up on target. Cadet Fallon was in his position and the loaders pulled the shells out of his carrying rig.

 

Anny grimaced when she heard the crack of G Company’s gun a few seconds before the first round was slammed into the breach of their own. It doesn’t matter! The gorge crossing is what counts! Jer and the gun crew fired off the five rounds in a matter of seconds, the howitzer recoiling sharply with each discharge despite the light load and dud projectiles.

 

“Go! Go! Go!”

 

The haulers pulled the gun away and back on the course again. The next section was rougher, winding through trees, over ditches and into mud holes. Here they discovered the disadvantage of being the last group: many of the muddy areas had been churned to a sticky goo by the previous teams. Still, they managed to get past without too much lost time, although they were covered with mud to the knees by the time they were through. They reached the second target range and this time they got their first shot off a few seconds before they heard the report of the G Company gun. Good! They’d picked up some time in the mud.

 

“Come on, move!”

 

Back onto the trail, they pulled toward the gorge. It wasn’t far and they arrived in just a minute or so. Their teammates were already hard at work, and the G Company counterparts had barely begun. Alby and two other cadets had climbed a dozen meters up a large tree on this side and some of others had scrambled across the gorge and were sending men up another tree over there. Both trees were well back from the edge of the gorge so they were over a hundred meters apart—an impossible distance for any hemp rope that was light enough to carry easily, but well within the capacity of the new synthetics. Anny directed the haulers to move the gun over next to the tree Alby was in.

 

A light-weight line was tossed across the gorge and this was used to pull the heavier main cable. It was dragged over to the far tree and the end was tied securely to it at a height of about five meters above the ground. Once that was done, another light line was used to carry the other end of the cable up to Alby and his helpers in their tree. The cable was fed through a set of pulleys and then passed between a fork in the tree and the end tossed back down to the waiting hands below. There was a lot of slack in the cable that had to be taken up. The husky gun haulers, led by Patric, seized hold and pulled. They quickly had the slack out of it, but now they had to really put some tension into it. They pulled with all of their might, grunting and groaning. Anny dashed over to the edge of the gorge, trying to judge the strain. The far tree was actually starting to bend a bit. She looked up at Alby; he had a locking mechanism fastened around the cable to secure it in place. He waved at her.

 

“Looks good from here!” he shouted. She looked to Patric and his crew: they weren’t making any more progress. Okay, this would have to do.

 

“All right! Lock it!” she cried to Alby. He latched down the mechanism and the pullers relaxed. The tree leaned slightly once the strain was transferred to it. The main cable was now stretched tight as a fiddle string. “Good! Get the gun hooked up!”

 

While some of the team had been working to get the main cable strung, others had removed the pull harness from the howitzer and attached a lifting rig that would hold it securely. Lines were now run through the pulleys that Alby had installed on the main cable. There was one pulley that was for lifting and it was attached to another that just rode on the main cable like a trolley. This was secured to the tree to keep the whole assembly from rolling away until they were ready. They had to lift the gun up almost to the height of the cable. Once the line was sent back down again, Patric and his crew grabbed hold and pulled again.

 

One-and-a-half metric tons of cannon slowly left the ground and headed skyward. “Heave! Heave!” the pullers chanted in unison. The pulleys squeaked and the lines gave off strange creaking sounds, but they held and the gun moved up in a series of jerks. Five meters, ten meters, nearly there… One more heave…

 

The gun didn’t move.

 

“Another half-meter!” cried Alby. There was another locking mechanism on the pulley, but it wouldn’t engage until the gun reached the right height. “You’re almost there! Keep pulling!”

 

“We are pulling!” gasped Patric. “It’s stuck!”

 

“More men on the rope!” cried Anny, running over to them. Two or three cadets added their strength, but that was all that could fit. Any more would just get in the way of those already pulling. The gun moved up a tiny bit more, but refused to go the rest of the way. Damn! They could lower the gun down and reset the lock, but that would cost precious time, and they needed every centimeter of height they could get. Anny ran around the straining mass of cadets trying to figure out what to do.

 

“Give me a boost!” She spun around and Cadet Fallon was standing there. He pointed to the cable just above the clutching fists of Patric Mederov. Patric was actually completely off the ground, adding all his weight to the effort, but it wasn’t enough. If another person could grab on just above that point…

 

Anny made a split-second decision. She said: “Okay!” and bent over locking her fingers together like a stirrup. Fallon backed off a few steps and then sprinted toward her. His foot went in her hands, his hands on her shoulders, he sprang, she heaved, and up he went. Anny stumbled backwards but Fallon seized the cable just above Patric and let his weight jerk downward. There was an alarming squeal from the pulley overhead, but the howitzer lurched upward and there was a loud click.

 

“You got it!” screamed Alby. “The gun is secure!” A groaning cheer went up from the pullers as they let go and stumbled away. The howitzer hung fifteen meters above them. A pair of guide lines came down from the sides of the gun and these were used to stop any spin and get it pointing the proper direction: toward the gorge. Alby sat on the tree limb with a small mallet, ready to hit the release mechanism that would send everything sliding down the cable and, hopefully, across the gorge.

 

Anny ran back and forth surveying everything in a last check. It all looked good. Taking a deep breath she shouted to Alby:

 

“All right! Let ‘er go!”

 

Alby gave it a whack, but nothing happened. He reared up and hit it again. There was a crack like a rifle shot and the release popped open. Immediately, the whole assembly began to move. The pulleys and the gun rolled down the cable, faster and faster until it was moving at what seemed a terrifying velocity. No one breathed as the gun flew over the gorge. The cable was sagging and Anny’s heart stopped beating when it looked as though the gun would smash into the far edge. But it cleared by centimeters, hit the bank beyond, bounced, and then careened crazily along the ground until it came to rest, nearly at the foot of the far tree. For one more instant there wasn’t a sound from anyone and then every member of C Company was cheering at the top of their lungs.

 

“It worked! It worked! We did it!”

 

“We’re not done yet!” screamed Anny above the tumult. “Come on! Move! Move!”

 

The cadets came back to the senses and got to work. The rules required them to take every last bit of equipment with them, so they had to pack up everything and get it all across the gorge. Fortunately, taking it all apart was a lot easier than putting it together had been. Alby released the main cable and it was pulled across to the other side. Patric and his team scrambled down into the gorge and pulled themselves up the other side on a couple of ropes that had been let down for them. Alby and his helpers slid down from their perch and everyone else grabbed up any loose gear and followed Patric. Anny looked around for any stray items, but didn’t find anything.

 

“Anny! Come on!” cried Jer. “Let’s go!” She was the last one across and pulled up the rope behind her. She coiled it up and slung it over her shoulder. The howitzer and most of the others were already gone by this time. She glanced over at G Company: to her astonishment they were just getting their foot bridge secured! They hadn’t even gotten the poles for their second tripod across the gorge yet! God! We must have done this all in ten minutes! It felt like an hour! As she turned to sprint after her team, she noticed Cadet Levey shouting at one of the officials, pointing in her direction and then waving his arms and jumping up and down. She ran down the trail with an enormous grin on her face.

 

She had fallen behind and she had to catch up. Their official time would depend on when the last member of the team crossed the finish line and she wasn’t about to cost them any seconds! Still, she heard the crack of the howitzer at the last target range before she emerged from the trees. They were done firing and back on the trail just as she arrived.

 

“Another hundred meters!” screamed Alby. “Go! Go! Go!”

 

The finish line was just ahead and everyone who still had breath to spare started to cheer. Anny darted next to Patric and grabbed hold of his harness and helped drag him across the line. They were almost run over by their own speeding howitzer, but managed to stop it with no injuries. They all collapsed on the ground, gasping and grinning ear to ear.

 

Only then did they look around.

 

A huge crowd had gathered. The bleachers had overflowed and filled the area around the finish line. A lot of them were cadets from teams not currently competing, but there also many officers in undress greens and even some civilians. Most of them seemed to be cheering and applauding. The announcer could barely be heard above the noise:

 

“The C Company team has finished in twenty-seven minutes, forty-two seconds, a new Academy record! And it looks like G Company is trying a desperation move in hopes of making up some of the time!”

 

Their eyes were drawn to the huge video monitors and Anny saw that it was true. Despite the object lesson provided by F Company that morning, G Company was trying to take their gun across in just two pieces, the carriage with the wheels still attached and then the gun tube.

 

“They’ll never make it,” said Jer.

 

Nor did they. The gun hung up, just the way F Company’s had, although it took G Company far less time to free it.

 

“Okay, folks,” said Alby, looking at his computer pad. “We have all the other companies beat and unless G Company teleports across the finish line in about thirty seconds, we’ve got this in the bag!”

 

The official commentator figured this out at about the same moment, and the scores and times were superimposed over a close-up of a foaming–at-the-mouth Olaf Levey. The clock was ticking down to a C Company victory. They started to chant:

 

“Five… four… three… two… one…” The cheers erupted anew as the number reached zero.

 

“C Company has won the first year competition at this year’s Vorbarra Pentathlon,” said the announcer, but no one needed to tell them that.

 

They sat there, physically drained, but emotionally filled, exulting in their accomplishment. Sergeant Byrne came over to join them, with an uncharacteristic smile on his face. Anny looked around hoping to spot Sergeant Major Szytko, but she couldn’t find him in all the mob. We kicked their asses, Sergeant Major.

 

Eventually, G Company dragged itself across the finish line, but the time they had lost on their desperation move dropped them to seventh place overall. Things slowly began to quiet down and Sergeant Byrne reminded them that they still had to clean and stow all of their gear. This produced a groan, but they slowly pulled themselves up and got to work.

 

They were interrupted almost immediately when an officer trotted up and demanded: “Where’s the C Company team captain?”

 

Everyone froze and looked around. Then Jer pointed at Anny. Alby and Patric did the same. A few moments later everyone was pointing at her. “I guess that’s me, sir,” she said.

 

“Well, follow me to the judges’ stand, cadet. A protest has been filed against you.”

 

“What?” cried a dozen people at once. But the officer didn’t reply and Anny was obliged to follow along. Oh no, what now?

 

The eyes of the whole crowd seemed to be following her and the noise had almost stopped. She reached the raised platform and trotted up the steps, her eyes wide. There were a dozen officers there, including the Commandant, several generals and at least two admirals. A harried-looking major with a computer pad seemed to be caught between them. Over in one corner was a red-faced Olaf Levey. He caught sight of her and gave a nasty sneer. But no one else seemed to be paying any attention to her.

 

“It was an entirely illegal action!” said one of the generals. “They should be disqualified!”

 

“Sir, as I tried to explain,” said the major, “there is nothing in the rules forbidding what they did…”

 

“I don’t care what’s in the rule book! This violates the spirit of the event! It is supposed to simulate a mountain campaign!”

 

“There are no trees in the mountains?” asked the Commandant in an innocent tone.

 

“Not in every location!” snapped the general.

 

“But surely if there were trees, they would use them, wouldn’t they?” asked one of the admirals.

 

“That’s not the point!”

 

“Well, what is the point, Johann?”

 

“It’s not fair to the other teams!”

 

“Why not? They could do this too, if they had thought of it.”

 

“It’s the tradition, damn it! If we start letting in things like this, what next? Lift vans?” The officers all started talking at once. It seemed like they were fairly evenly split, for and against. Could they disqualify us? After all this work? Anny started to quiver. Tired muscles? Terror?  The major was being browbeaten from all sides and he seemed as uncomfortable as Anny felt. But who was in charge? Who had the final say?

 

“I’m warning you,” said the general, “if you don’t put a stop to this right now, all the upper class teams are going to try to use this and without a chance to practice, someone’s going to get killed!”

 

That seemed to make an impression, and the voices supporting C Company faltered. They’re going to do it. They’re going to take it all away…

 

“What seems to be the problem, gentlemen?” A soft, but penetrating voice entered the mix and all the others were instantly silenced. Anny spun around.

 

Even without the escort of armsmen in Vorbarra colors, Anny would have instantly recognized the tall, dark-haired figure that had silently mounted the judge’s platform.

 

“Sire!” a dozen voices blurted out in unison. Anny kept her mouth shut and just goggled, suddenly very aware of her sweat and mud-stained fatigues.

 

No one answered the Emperor’s question, so he asked again: “Is there a problem? When this much brass assembles in one spot, there has to be a problem.”

 

“Uh…”

 

“That is, Sire…”

 

“A protest has been lodged against the C Company team, Sire,” blurted the major. “We… we’re trying to figure it out, Sire.”

 

“A protest? What sort of protest? I was watching and I can’t recall seeing anything illegal. Unconventional, to be sure, but not illegal.”

 

That opened the floodgates and all the generals and admirals began to talk at once. The Emperor stood silently, taking it all in. For one instant his gaze fixed on Anny, but his expression revealed nothing. Finally, the officers paused for breath.

 

“Major,” said the Emperor. “You say that there is nothing in the rules against this?”

 

“No, Sire, nothing that I could find.”

 

“And you, General Vorzarren, you object on the grounds of tradition?”

 

“Yes, Sire! And safety as well!”

 

“Well, tradition is a fine thing, most of the time,” said the Emperor. “But we’re training future officers here, General. Surely, you wouldn’t want those officers to ignore superior methods simply because they go against tradition. Seems to me that’s a good way to lose wars.”

 

“I didn’t mean that, Sire!” protested Vorzarren. “But there’s still the safety issue!”

 

“True, that can’t be ignored. Uh, Major…”

 

“Hanley, Sire!”

 

“As I recall, Major Hanley, by tradition…” The emperor paused and glanced pointedly at General Vorzarren. “By tradition, the Emperor holds the honorary position as chief official at the Pentathlon, isn’t that correct?”

           

Yes, Sire! You have the final say in any disputed ruling!” The Major looked enormously relieved. Someone to pass the buck to!

 

“Very well. Then my ruling is that the results of today’s event shall stand.” Anny was so relieved that she missed the next few words. “…remains the winner. But for safety sake, all the other classes will not be permitted to use this new technique—or anything similar—in the upcoming competitions over the next three days. As for the future, well, you can make new rules or just cut down all those trees.”

 

“But, Sire!” said Vorzarren, looking at Anny angrily. “This… these… plebes set a new all-time record! By nearly ten minutes! It will be in the record books!”

 

A small smile flickered across the Emperor’s face. “You may have to put an asterisk next to them in the book, General. But for now, let’s see what happens.” He nodded to the Major, who bowed back with a look of gratitude. Then the Emperor turned to Anny. “Congratulations, cadet. That was ingenious. Please pass along my compliments to your team. And I’ll see you at the awards ceremony on Saturday.”

 

Anny was so flustered, that she nearly dropped a curtsey instead of bowing. She caught herself at the last instant. “Thank you, Sire. Thank you, very much!” As she straightened up she saw a fuming Olaf Levey on the opposite side of the platform. She retreated as quickly as she dared and fairly ran back to her company.

 

She got there just as the announcer confirmed their victory. She didn’t have a chance to say anything before they hoisted her up on their shoulders and cheered.

 

 

They carried her all the way back to the parade ground.

 

 

Chapter 10

 

 

Almost time, Cadet-Captain.”

 

Anny Payne looked up to see Cadet-First Sergeant Jer Naddel standing in her doorway. She smiled and waved him inside.

 

“That’s acting Cadet-Captain, Sergeant,” she corrected.

 

“Bullshit,” snorted Jer. “If you’re not the captain, who is?”

 

“Good question. How do I look?”

 

“Like the captain. You look fine, Anny, come on, we can’t be late. Not today.”

 

She lingered for one more moment in front of the small, cracked mirror hanging on the wall. She was wearing her cadet dress grays for the first time (well, the first time on duty) and she wanted everything to be perfect. She was so glad the vandals hadn’t managed to ruin these when they got her other stuff. They’d been stored in a rear closet and since the other cadets hadn’t been issued them yet, they hadn’t thought to look for hers. The tunic and trousers were closely tailored and standard issue would not have fit her well. The gray fabric, picked out with black piping, looked very different from any other uniform worn by the Barrayaran military—and that was the whole point: cadets were not real soldiers yet.

 

But today, a whole batch of cadets would become real soldiers. It was Graduation Day for the senior class and it was an even bigger event than the Vorbarra Pentathlon. It would be a day of pomp and circumstance and everyone would be a part of it.

 

Anny brushed a few microscopic bits of dust off her uniform, checked for the hundredth time to make sure that her rank tabs were on straight and then carefully set the dress shako on her head. The leather-and-felt contraption added almost twenty centimeters to her height—forty if you included the tall black plume. The gold double-headed eagle, symbol of the Imperium, gleamed on the front of it. Damn, it looked sharp!

 

“Anny, come on!” growled Jer.

 

She picked up her sword from the table and clicked the carriers onto the scabbard and then hooked it to her belt. They went out the door and Jer picked up his rifle from where he’d left it leaning against the wall. As an officer—acting officer—she carried no rifle.

 

It was a beautiful spring day, the trees were in full-leaf and you couldn’t ask for better. They walked side-by-side, in perfect step, down the path. Anny quickly put the weather and the trees out of her mind and started worrying about the upcoming ceremony. Winning the Vorbarra Pentathlon two months earlier had not only eliminated all their demerits and relieved them of being the duty company, it had also automatically made them the battalion Honor Company. In every battalion formation, C Company would have the post of honor in the center of the line and would have the color guard attached to them—once they had been given their colors.

 

That was going to happen today, too.

 

Just as cadets were only considered potential soldiers, the members of the first year class were technically just potential cadets. They had so much to learn and usually had so many people flunk out, that they were not formally integrated into the Regiment of Cadets until the very end of their first year. Today, after the senior class was graduated and their battalion disbanded, each of the other classes would move up. The first year class would become the second year and they would receive their battalion colors. This would call for the honor company to come forward, receive the colors from the Emperor’s own hands, and then ‘troop the colors’ back and forth across the battalion front.

 

Anny was a tad nervous about being in command of that.

 

If, indeed, she was going to be in command of that.

 

She was still amazed that she had been selected to be the cadet-captain of C Company. Normally, the top slots always went to the Vor. But C Company only had a few Vor left in it and those that remained had made it known that they would not accept the post of cadet-captain even if it was offered to them. She suspected Alby had a leading hand in that small bit of near-mutiny. Discounting a Vor-birth, the selection of officers and NCOs was usually based on grades, demerits, and most importantly, the recommendation of the veteran sergeant who had been the acting commander through the year. Sergeant Byrne had made his recommendations and Anny had been at the top of his list.

 

Not surprisingly, this had not pleased a certain group of people.

 

Having Anny in the Academy at all was bad enough. Having her the team captain of the upstart winners of the Pentathlon Howitzer Haul was worse. But to have her standing out in front of her company with cadet-captain’s tabs on her collar! Well! Outrageous!

 

She had heard that Sergeant Byrne had been put under tremendous pressure to change his recommendation, but he had stuck to his guns and apparently the Commandant was refusing to overrule him. Even so, there had been a series of ‘delays’ in actually confirming her promotion. So, even though all the other companies had been assigned their permanent officers and NCOs and C Company had all of its junior officers and NCOs, for some reason, C Company’s cadet-captain was just the acting cadet-captain, and Sergeant Byrne continued to command at all the battalion formations.

 

“It’s gonna look damn silly if Byrne is still leading us today,” said Jer, suddenly.

 

“I was just thinking that.”

 

“I know. As first sergeant, it’s part of my job to read your mind. But honestly: one guy in dress greens in the middle of a whole line of gray cadets? He’ll stick out like a sore thumb!”

 

“Well, the battalion staff are all still regular officers, so he won’t be the only one in green, but you’re still right.”

 

As they reached the barracks, they saw that the object of their conversation was standing there and the cadets of all the companies were spilling out the doors. Jer hurried to take his post.

 

“C Company! Fall in!” he bellowed.

 

            Anny walked up to Byrne. “Good morning, sir,” she said and saluted. He returned it very formally.

 

“Good morning, Cadet-Captain.” He had not said acting! Anny’s eyes widened. She stood there, watching Jer form up the company with one eye, and glancing at Byrne with the other. When all was ready, Jer came up and saluted both of them.

 

“Sir, the company is formed.”  Byrne returned the salute, but Anny did not, as she was not technically in command. Jer went back to his post and Byrne stepped forward, pulling a flimsy out of his pocket.

 

“Company, attention to orders,’ he commanded. “By order of the Commandant, Imperial Service Academy, Cadet Andreanne Payne is hereby confirmed as cadet-captain of C Company, 4th Battalion, effective this date. Signed, Colonel Thayer Sylvanus, Commandant, et cetera, et cetera.” He turned to face Anny. “Congratulations, Cadet-Captain.”

 

A cheer began to come from the company, but Jer snapped out: “Quiet in the ranks!” and it died aborning. Anny stood there blushing and flustered. The silence dragged on for several seconds until Byrne raised his eyebrows and looked at her expectantly.

 

“Oh!” said Anny, even more flustered. Remembering her duty, she stepped directly in front of Byrne, came to attention and her hand flashed up to her shako’s visor in salute. “Sir, I relieve you.”

 

Byrne returned the salute. “I stand relieved.” His hand came down, but not all the way to his side. Instead, he extended to Anny. She took it and squeezed.

 

“Thank you, Sergeant. For everything.”

 

“No thanks, necessary. I didn’t recommend you for this position because I like your smile. You’re smart, you work hard and you showed some outstanding leadership. You’ve earned this.” He released her hand and stepped back. “Now, give ‘em hell, kid.” Before she could think of any reply, he faced about and marched off.

 

Anny watched him for a moment and then turned back to the company—her company! She suddenly felt incredibly nervous. Byrne had been letting her run the company for the last month in everything but the battalion formations, but somehow, now that he wasn’t there looking over her shoulder, the job seemed a whole lot bigger than it had before.

 

“Cadet-Captain?” said Jer.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Permission to cheer, sir?” His face broke into a grin.

 

“Uh, well, I suppose so. Just not too lou…” her caveat was drowned out by a very loud ‘three-cheers’ that had all the other companies looking in their direction. Anny blushed redder than ever. “Thank you,” she said quietly when they were finished. She cleared her throat and tried to regain control of herself and the situation. She checked the time and saw that they had quite a while to wait before anything happened. “First Sergeant, open the ranks and we will inspect the company.”

 

“Sir!’ Jer did as she directed and for the next half-hour she went up and down the ranks inspecting the weapon, uniform, and gear of each cadet. They were all in perfect order, even Alby who was notoriously sloppy. Just as they were finishing up she spotted the battalion adjutant coming her way with a small group of cadets. Ah, the color guard.

 

The adjutant was only a lieutenant, but he was a real lieutenant, so Anny saluted him when he came up to her. His return gesture hardly qualified as a salute, but she could see that he was looking rather harried so she didn’t think it was deliberate disrespect. “Payne,” he began immediately, “I don’t have to tell you how important that there are no screw-ups today. As Honor Company, you are going to be right out in front of everyone. You are the 5th Company in the line. You understand what you have to do?”

 

“Yes, sir. I’ve studied the procedures thoroughly and we’ve been practicing it all week.” As you well know!

 

“Good. Now the color guard goes on the left end of your company, in three ranks…” Anny patiently allowed the adjutant to tell her a lot of things that she already knew. He personally arranged the color guard, even though she was perfectly able to do so herself. The guard consisted of eight corporals and a sergeant, one man taken from each of the other companies in the battalion. The sergeant would be the one actually carrying the flag. Except… “…of course we don’t have the colors yet,” droned on the adjutant, “but you should just pretend that we do. I’ll be standing out on the color line with the general guides and you come up to me and pretend to take the flag. Understand?”

 

“Yes, sir,” said the color-sergeant, a cadet named Paley.

 

“Good.” The adjutant turned to Anny again. “We’ll be starting in about thirty minutes, Payne. Remember: your company steps off as soon as the bugler starts playing ‘To the Colors’. The rest of the companies won’t start moving until the call is finished, so don’t get flustered that you’re out there all alone, okay?”

 

“I understand, sir.” We did this a dozen times last week—with you watching us, of course I understand!

 

“All right. I have to go. No screw-ups!” The adjutant hurried off.

 

“Cripes!” said Jer after he was out of earshot. “That guy better throttle back or he’s gonna have a coronary!” Everyone laughed.

 

“I guess this is the first time for him, too,” said Anny. Heck, he’s probably only five or six years older than we are.

 

As the minutes slowly passed, Anny walked up and down the lines of her company, exchanging a few words here and there, exchanging nods or smiles elsewhere. There were still a few hardheads who resented her being there, but just a few. For the most part, the company seemed to be solidly behind her now and that was more flattering than the praise of Sergeant Byrne or the Emperor or even the two tiny pins on her tunic for winning the Howitzer Haul and the First Form Vorbarra Pentathlon. Comrades. They’re my comrades. What more could I possibly ask for? A wave of affection passed through her. Jer and Alby and Patric were her friends, but the other sixty-four members of C Company were her comrades. They had suffered and endured and worked together, side by side. They had come through the fire together and they were all better people for the experience. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted when I came here. Now I know: I want this.

 

“Looks like they’re getting ready, Anny,” said Jer. Yes, out on the vast parade ground, the four battalion adjutants and their general guides were moving into position. The adjutants of the other three battalions were all carrying their colors, but not 4th Battalion. The battalion command staffs were also out there and the regimental band was taking its spot on the far right of the line. A crowd of spectators was growing on the far side of the field: family and friends of the cadets, here to watch the ceremonies. A large reviewing stand had been erected opposite the place where the senior class would be, but it was too far away for her to see anyone clearly. She supposed the Emperor was there along with a lot of important people.

 

Oh yes, he’s here all right…

 

A pair of officers with ImpSec insignia on their collars came down the line of companies and ran a scanner over everyone in the company, including her. No chemical explosives, no high-energy power cells, no poison gas or toxins, no assassins. They don’t seem to be worried about our swords or bayonets… The pair moved on to the next company. A few minutes later a bugle call rang across the field, calling them all to attention. Anny drew her sword, brought her troops to shoulder arms, and waited. A few more minutes passed while some last-second adjustments were made and then the bugle sounded again.

 

To the Colors was one of Anny’s favorite bugle calls. It sent chills down her spine every time she heard it and this time was no exception, even though she had no time to stop and listen. “Company! Left—face! Forward—march!” She led her company out onto the field. The color companies of the other three battalions were doing the same. The adjutant and the two general guides, sergeants carrying the small battalion guidons, were posted on the color line at the exact center of where the battalion was supposed to be. Anny directed her line of march to a spot about forty meters to the right of them. Halfway across the field, the bugle call ended and there was a crash of drums and a blare of brass as the regimental band struck up a lively march. As they did so, all the other companies began to move. Forty parallel columns of troops moved in unison. When Anny had watched the upper classes doing this months earlier, she thought it was the grandest thing she’d ever seen. Now she was a part of it and she swelled with pride.

 

They neared the color line and she ordered a turn to the left. She led them just past the adjutant and halted with the color sergeant directly opposite him. “Company—front!” The color sergeant stepped up to the adjutant and Anny posted herself slightly to his left. She looked down the line and saw Jer step out and position himself in line with the two general guides. “Company, Left—dress!” All the cadets, in both ranks, moved up into position, heads turned to look at her and lined themselves up precisely. “Front!” Every head snapped back to look straight ahead.

 

The other companies of the battalion were now approaching on either side of them, four on their right and five more on their left. The captain of the 6th Company halted right beside her. Anny stepped back and he took her spot and dressed his company to the right. When he had finished, Anny commanded: “Fifth Company, Support—Arms!” All her cadets brought their rifles up onto their left shoulders. Each company, one by one, did the same thing. Eventually, all ten companies were on the line, dressed and at support arms. The adjutant stepped back and looked them over.

 

“Battalion! Shoulder—arms! Guides—post!” Anny moved across the rear of her company and took her post on the right in the front rank. Jer was right behind her. The battalion commander put them at parade rest and she let out a sigh of relief. That had gone very well. No screw-ups that she had seen. She could relax for a while.

 

The ceremonies involving the graduation of the senior class went on for nearly two hours. There were speeches and awards and Anny didn’t pay a great deal of attention, except when it came time for the graduates to swear their oaths of loyalty to the Emperor. That she listened to intently. Far down on the right of the formation, the graduating class, dressed in their new red-and-blue parade uniforms, knelt down and took their oath to Gregor Vorbarra, Emperor of Barrayar. The wording was carefully chosen to have the maximum emotional impact and Anny found herself tearing up. Someday that will be me!

 

Finally, the ceremonies drew to a close with an enormous cheer from the graduates. But the day wasn’t over yet. There was still the Grand Review of the entire regiment, but before that could happen, 4th battalion had to receive its colors. Anny was suddenly very nervous. Jer nudged her in the back. “Just like we practiced, Anny.”

 

“You’re getting too good at this reading minds business, Jer,” she whispered back at him.

 

“I can lie real good, too: hell, I’m sweating bullets back here! You ready for this?”

 

“No choice.”

 

There was a stir in the crowd off to her right and shortly she saw a party headed her direction. A pair of Vorbara armsmen led the way in full dress uniforms. The Emperor, and a short woman who surely must be the Empress, were guided to a position in line with Color Sergeant Paley. The Commandant and a few aides followed, one of them carrying the flag in its case. The battalion commander, a regular captain named Veluska, marched up to the Emperor and saluted. They exchanged a few words and then he saluted again. He turned around, stepped slightly to the side and then bellowed:

 

“Fifth Company! To the front and center!” This is it! She took two paces forward, turned left and moved to the exact center of her company and then faced front.

 

“Company! Shoulder—arms! Forward—march!” The company stepped out and marched straight forward. This was the easy part: no turns, no fancy maneuvers, just keep going until… “Company—halt!” They stopped with the color sergeant exactly four paces short of the Emperor. “Company! Present—arms!” With a slap and a crack, her troops brought forward their bayonet-tipped rifles and saluted their emperor. Anny brought the hilt of her sword up in front of her eyes and then slowly lowered it until the point was near the ground. The Emperor solemnly acknowledged the salute and Anny ordered them back to shoulder arms.

 

The officer with the flag removed the cloth case and unrolled it and then handed it to Commandant Sylvanus. He stepped forward and presented it to the Emperor with a bow. The Emperor tilted the pole slightly and shook out the folds. A gold imperial eagle floated on a dark blue field. A red scroll was in one beak that read: Imperial Service Academy. Another scroll in its claws identified it as the banner of the 125th Class of Cadets. The 122nd class was graduating today, in three more years it would be their turn. The Emperor put the butt of the flag pole on the ground and began to speak:

 

“Cadets of the 125th class, it is my honor and privilege to present to you this day the banner of your battalion. It represent the long and proud tradition of this Academy and a long and proud tradition of service to the Imperium.” The Emperor went on with what was obviously a prepared speech. Anny tried to remember every word, but about halfway through she suddenly realized that the Empress was staring right at her. She had scarcely noticed the short, slightly plump woman, but now she was unable to look away. Her gaze was piercing. They locked eyes for a dozen heartbeats and then the woman smiled slightly, nodded almost imperceptibly and then turned her attention back to her husband. Anny fixed her eyes on a distant building and forced herself not to look at the Empress again. Almost.

 

The Emperor kept his speech blessedly short—it was turning into a very long day—and then the battalion commander stepped forward again. “Color Sergeant! Three paces forward—march!” Cadet Paley, must have been the most nervous person on the field, but he took those three paces without tripping or passing out and stopped directly in front of the Emperor. The Emperor lifted the pole and handed it to Paley who took it and set the butt end into the socket attached to his belt. “Color Sergeant! To your post—march!” Paley, slowly walked backwards until he was back in his spot. Now Captain Veluska’s eyes were on Anny. “Fifth Company! Troop the colors!”

 

 

Okay, this was the tricky part. They had to swing ninety degrees to the right and march down the line. But they couldn’t do their wheel from where they were without forcing the Emperor to give way and that wouldn’t do at all. Equally unacceptable was to do an about face and turn their backs on him. So, the only thing left was to march backwards until they had room to wheel. “Company! Backwards, half-step—march!” Slowly, carefully, the company walked backwards. Anny silently thanked God that Alby kept his mouth shut. During practice—every damn time—Alby had made a beep beep noise like they were a truck with its back-up alarm! But this time he was quiet and the lines remained reasonably straight until they had opened up enough room to maneuver. Anny halted them and then commanded: “Company! Right wheel—march!”

 

The whole company swung to the right like a door on its hinges. Jer Naddel was the hinge and at the left end of line, Cadet Sergeant Lindvig was the swinging edge of the door. To keep the line exactly straight, each cadet had to adjust the length of his step depending on his position in the line. It wasn’t easy, but today they did it just about perfectly. As the swing neared ninety degrees, Anny ordered forward march and they headed down toward the right end of the battalion. A light breeze made their new flag billow out nicely. During the Time of Isolation this was more than just a ceremony, it had an important practical function. Regimental banners often had very unique designs and it was vital that the troops knew exactly what their own banner looked like so that they could spot it in the smoke and confusion of battle and know where to rally. Today, all the banners were nearly identical and were never carried into battle, but the tradition remained.

 

As they approached the end of the battalion, Anny ordered another right wheel. This time they had to do a full one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn to come back the other way across the front of the battalion. The line bent a little bit during the swing, but not too much and they made it around and headed back the other way. As they passed by the Emperor they did an ‘eyes right’ and Anny saluted him with her sword. Then they went down to the left end of the line and on past. A pair of left wheels in close succession took them behind the battalion and then one final left wheel brought the company back into its proper place in the line. Anny halted them and dressed the line and then stepped back into her position on the right of her company.

 

“Whew! Well done, C Company!” she whispered.

 

“Damn right,” said Jer.

 

“Battalion!” cried Captain Veluska. “Present—arms!” One last salute to the Emperor and the ceremony was over. He acknowledged it and then the Imperial party headed back to the reviewing stand.

 

“One more thing and we’re done, guys,” she said. “Hang in there.”

 

The Grand Review would conclude the events of the day. Fortunately, it was fairly simple. The entire regiment, all four battalions, presented arms to the Emperor and then all forty companies wheeled to the right simultaneously into a column one company wide and forty companies long. The band took the lead, followed by the Commandant and his staff and then all the rest followed along. First they marched to the right and then two left wheels reversed their direction to bring the whole regiment right by the reviewing stand where the Emperor waited. The band peeled off to the left and the Commandant and his party to the right and the regiment passed in between.

 

The newly graduated officers were in the lead and 4th Battalion was last, so they passed each other at the halfway point. Anny thought that her own battalion was looking pretty sharp, but she had to admit that the seniors made them look shabby by comparison. Their ranks were laser-straight and they moved in perfect unison, like they were a machine. Someday… someday we’ll look that good—or even better!

 

The 4th battalion reached the turning point and made its counter-march to come past the reviewing stand. The band was playing one of Anny’s favorite marches and the hair was standing up on the back of her head. As each company marched past the reviewing stand they made their salute to the Emperor and he returned it. But now it was C Company’s turn and they were the Color Company. “Company! Eyes—right!” commanded Anny. Every head snapped to the right and she saluted with her sword. Color Sergeant Paley brought the staff of the flag to a forty-five degree angle and dipped the battalion’s colors. The Emperor returned the salute as he had for all the companies, but every other person in uniform on the reviewing stand—and there were a lot of them—saluted the colors as well.

 

As they marched past, Anny noticed a short figure in a brown and silver uniform to the right of the Emperor. And just behind him was… The Countess! And there’s the Count! Wait, was that Drou…? But the company moved on and she didn’t dare twist around and search the crowd. I’ll have to look for them later! But the thought that the Countess and the Lord Auditor and maybe Drou and the Commodore were here and that they had seen her filled her with an incredible pride. I didn’t fail you, My Lady! Somehow the full realization of what she’d accomplished only now began to sink in. I did it! I really did it!

 

She became so caught up in her own thoughts that she nearly forgot to give the order to wheel when they reached the turn at the far end of the field. But they avoided disaster and shortly the entire regiment was back where it had started and all the companies wheeled back into line. One final present arms and it was over. The senior class gave an enormous shout and tossed their hats into the air and their formation disintegrated as the 122nd Class of Cadets figuratively and literally was dissolved.

 

The other battalions were not dismissed in such a chaotic fashion, but it was just a short march back to the barracks where they were dismissed. Anny gave her company a heartfelt well-done and then let them break ranks. “Remember,” she called after them, “our leave doesn’t begin for another week. We’ve got the day off tomorrow, but there’s an inspection the day after! No slacking off!” That brought some laughter and a few groans, but the cadets quickly dispersed, either to get out of their stiff uniforms or perhaps to find family who had come to watch. Speaking of which… Anny started walking back toward the parade ground in hopes of finding Drou and the others.

 

At first it seemed pretty hopeless. Nearly two thousand cadets and former cadets and easily five times that many spectators were swirling around the field. Trying to find a few specific people out of the mob… Why don’t I let them find me? She took off her shako and just stood there. Her hair had grown out a bit (although it was still within regulation) and as the only woman in uniform on the parade ground, she hoped she would stand out.

 

She did. But the attention she attracted was not from the people she was looking for. Lots of folks paused and gawked, but where were…?

 

“There she is!” cried a familiar voice. Anny turned and…

 

“Drou!” The older woman wrapped her arms around her and she nearly dropped her shako.

 

“Anny! Oh, Anny, look at you! I’m so proud I could burst!” Drou had tears on her cheeks and alternately hugged Anny and then held her at arms’ length to look her over.

 

“Thank you so much for coming! I had hoped you would.”

 

“Well, we weren’t going to miss this,” said the Commodore who was coming up behind his wife, leaning on his stick. But right beside him was…

 

“Sergeant Major Szytko,” said Anny in surprise. “Do you know the Commodore?”

 

The Commodore laughed. “Oh, we’ve run across each other a few times over the years.”

 

“Just a few,” said Szytko. He looked at Anny and then at the Commodore. “But I should have known that someone had given Miss Payne some training: she was just too damn good to be a raw recruit.” Anny frowned, she had mentioned the Sergeant Major several times during her ‘debriefing’ at Vorkosigan House at Winterfair, but the Commodore hadn’t said a word about knowing him—the scoundrel! But then she smiled.

 

“I thought I saw the Countess on the reviewing stand.”

 

“Yes,” said Drou, “she’s here with the Count. And then there’s Miles and Ekaterin and Martya and Duv and Alys Vorpatril with Simon Illyan and a whole gaggle of others. They’re not all here to see you, of course,” she laughed.

 

“Of course not,” said Anny in a small voice.

 

“But most of them will be expecting you for dinner at the officers club.”

 

“Uh… but, cadets aren’t allowed…” protested Anny in near-panic.

 

“No, but cadets can be guests of people who are allowed,” said the Commodore.

 

“I… I ought to go and change out of this uniform…”

 

“Don’t you dare!” cried Drou. “You look fabulous just as you are! And a cadet-captain, too!”

 

“Yes,” said the Commodore. “No more back-talk, cadet! Fall-in and come with us!”

 

“Yes, sir,” said Anny.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Something was pounding inside Anny’s head and she groaned. The pounding got louder and she dragged the pillow over her head, which muffled it slightly.

 

“Anny! Come on, wake up!”

 

Wait, that wasn’t inside her head… She reluctantly pulled off the pillow and squinted when the light hit her eyes. Someone was calling her name and knocking on her door. She rolled over and a dagger of pain shot through her head.

 

“Ooohhh, damn… There’s a regulation against cadets drinking, why the hell didn’t someone enforce it?” The memory of last night’s (she hoped it was last night’s) ‘dinner’ at the Academy’s officers club slowly returned. The food had been wonderful and the company even better. The look of pride on the Countess’ face had made all the pain and effort of the past year more than worthwhile. It had been a marvelous evening… but all those toasts! Anny’s tolerance for alcohol was small, but there was no avoiding the toasts. She had probably drunk more last night than she had in her whole life leading up to that point. She had always smirked when she heard other people talk about hangovers. “I didn’t mean it! I swear I didn’t!”

 

“Anny! Are you in there? Come on, Cadet-Captain, we have work to do!”

 

It was Jer Naddel. What the hell was he doing here? What time was it? “Whaddaya want?” she mumbled. “No duty today. Go’way!”

 

“Anny, it’s 0900 and the day’s wasting! Get up!”

 

“All right! All right! Give me a minute.” She forced herself to a sitting position on the bed and the room spun around her. A wave of nausea swept through her and she grabbed the nearest container in case she vomited. Fortunately, the spell passed. Doubly fortunately, she realized when she saw that the container she had grabbed was her dress shako. Her dress grays and gear were scattered on the floor. She had no memory of taking them off. In fact, she had no memory of how she got back here… She searched around for something else to wear and finally found a set of utility coveralls and dragged them on. She was still wearing her shirt and underwear from yesterday.

 

“Anny!”

 

“Coming, damn it!”

 

She stumbled out of the bedroom and yanked the front door of the cottage open, ready to bite Jer’s head off.  “What the hell…” she snapped—and then stopped.

 

All of C Company was standing outside.

 

She blinked in the morning light.  A crowd of cadets, all wearing coveralls just like hers, had gathered outside her cottage. But what was all that junk they were carrying? She rubbed her eyes and looked again. Bundles of pipe, coils of electrical conduit, buckets of paint, boxes of tools, rolls of carpeting, sheets of plywood… what the hell…?

 

“What the hell…?”

 

“Cadet-Captain,” said Jer, “as you mentioned yesterday, there will be an inspection tomorrow. And it has come to our attention that the quarters of our company commander—our very own company commander—is an absolute disgrace.”

 

“Yeah,” said Alby Vorsworth, “and if you think that after all the work we did to get rid of our demerits that we’re going to let you start piling them up again, well! You got another think coming! Sir.”

 

“Exactly,” continued Jer. “Therefore, we have decided to take matters into our own hands and fix this dump up! So, if you’ll just stand aside, sir…”

 

“But…” Despite her protest, Jer and some of the others began pushing past her. Another group had already started scraping old paint off the outside walls. Still others were digging a trench, apparently to lay new pipes and conduit. They even appeared to know what they were doing. A lot of farm boys in the company, they know how to fix things.

 

She briefly tried to tidy up inside and hide her personal items, but gave up. Well, if they haven’t noticed by now that I’m a woman, I guess it’s time they learned! She went back outside. She was amazed at all the tools and materials and she grabbed Jer when he came past. “How’d you get all this stuff?’ she demanded. “I’m not going to be bailing you out of the stockade for theft, am I?”

 

Jer laughed and pointed towards the wood. “Ask him.” She turned and saw a figure standing among the trees. It didn’t surprise her a bit that it was Sergeant Major Szytko. She walked over to him.

 

“I understand I have you to thank for this, Sergeant Major.”

 

“Not at all,” he replied. “But I did happen to see Commodore Koudelka huddled with Captain Vorthalon outside the OC last night. This morning Vorthalon ordered me to put together a detail to deal with this. Amazing what a little rank can accomplish.”

 

Anny nodded. “But you still have my thanks, Sergeant Major. I owe you another one.”

 

“I’m not keeping track.”

 

No, but I am.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Anny decided that she had packed everything she needed and zipped up her bag. Drou would be there in about an hour to pick her up and she wanted to be ready in plenty of time. Two weeks leave! As hard as she had fought to get here, she had to admit that she’d be very glad to get away from the Academy for a while. Of course, now that she had such nice quarters, she was almost tempted to stay. The boys had done a marvelous job. Lights, running water, fresh paint, even carpet on the floor and curtains on the windows.  I am one lucky girl.

 

She was certain that the next three years would present her with all sorts of challenges, but she was confident that she could meet them now. That first step had been a doozy, and it landed her flat on her face. But she had picked herself up and kept going. And that was all she had to do: keep going.

 

After wandering through the cottage about a dozen times, Anny decided she didn’t want to wait inside any longer. She’d take a walk through campus and meet Drou at the landing field. She slung her bag over her shoulder and went out, locking her door behind her. The boys had worked on the path leading to the cottage, too. The trail was paved with gravel and the undergrowth cut back on either side. There were no sentries at the end of the path: nearly everyone was on leave. She didn’t know if the duty companies would be posting sentries there in the future, but if they did she would manage.

 

Anny emerged from the woods and wandered aimlessly for a while. Large sections of the campus were almost unknown to her: classroom and laboratory buildings that she had never been inside. That would all change in the coming years. This year had been almost all physical training and learning basic procedures. Next year—that was to say in about two weeks—she would begin training for the career path she would follow as an officer. She looked forward to that eagerly.

 

She checked the time and turned toward the landing field. Drou was going to take her back to Vorkosigan House. She wanted to spend some time there before the Countess left again. She supposed she really ought to go home—to her real home—for at least a few days. But the few communications she’d had with her mother since she left had been strained. She wasn’t looking forward to it. Alby had invited her to come visit him in his home and she was seriously considering it. Maybe I’ll just sleep for a few days…

 

She turned a corner and noticed a cadet with a travel bag heading for the monorail station. She recognized Cadet Fallon. On impulse she trotted to catch up. “Fallon, wait up.” He stopped and turned toward her, looking surprised.

 

“Cadet-Captain?” he said, his voice and face expressionless.

 

“Headed home?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Uh… I never got around to asking… I mean, when I asked you why. You said it was a long story. Have you got time for it now?”

 

“I suppose.” He didn’t look at all happy.

 

“If you don’t want to, it’s all right.”

 

“No, I guess I owe you that much.” He set his bag on the ground and then grimaced. “Levey put me up to it, as I’m sure you’ve guessed. I didn’t want to. Not so much because I objected to it in principle, but because I didn’t want to be stuck in the duty company forever. But Levey promised… well, never mind. Anyway, after you caught me and I found myself on an aircar to Kyrill Island with the Sergeant Major, well, it’s a long flight up there. The Sergeant Major doesn’t talk much…”

 

“No, he doesn’t” agreed Anny.

 

“Have you ever taken a look at all those ribbons on his chest? A close look?”

 

“Not really,” she admitted. There were so many of them…

 

“You ought to sometime,” said Fallon. “Ask him about them. He’ll open up like you wouldn’t believe. By the time we got to Kyrill I was amazed. He’s been just about everywhere and done more stuff than you could imagine. A real hero. A real soldier. And then after we got up there, the way all the troops there—including the officers—treated him! Everyone seemed to know him and you’d think he was a general the way they acted. We spent a couple of days up there—just killing time—and I talked to some of the people.” He paused as if searching for the right words.

 

“Szytko is a better soldier… a better man than I could ever hope to be. That’s not an easy thing for a Vor to say about a commoner, but it’s true. And well… he… he seems to think a lot of you. That’s not something I could ignore. So we talked. About things like loyalty.” Fallon looked her right in the eye. “You stand by your comrades not because you like them, but because they are your comrades. You do it or you’re no good. That’s about all there is to it.”

 

“I see,” said Anny. “Well, thank you for telling me. And thank you for…”

 

“I don’t want your thanks!” said Fallon angrily. “Don’t misunderstand me, Payne: I’m your comrade, not your friend! Not your friend and not your admirer! I don’t like what you’re doing here and I don’t like you!” He paused and a long silence ensued while they stared at each other. “I’m your comrade and that’s all!”

 

“Well,” said Anny, “I guess that will have to do.”

 

Fallon picked up his bag and turned away. Anny watched him until he vanished behind a building.

 

Not my friend, but a comrade I can trust. Fair enough.

 

She laughed out loud.

 

 

“Welcome to Barrayar.”

 

 

 

 

END OF BOOK ONE

 

Chapter Text

First Interlude

 

 

The tavern had existed almost as long as the city itself. When the Vorbarra clan had selected this spot on the river to make their stronghold, it wasn’t long before a small town sprang up and like any town it had a tavern. The original building was long gone, as was the family who had owned it; the location was different, too, but the name was the same and the current owner claimed the originally lineage, tenuous though it was. Few of the patrons cared about the history of the place. The ale it served was very good and that was enough. In addition to the ale, the tavern had a well-deserved reputation for discretion and this was a greater attraction to some. The private rooms upstairs had hatched many a business deal, a murder or three, and even a few rebellions.

 

Nothing so dramatic was being discussed in one of those rooms on this night. Two men, one young and one old, had spent an hour talking about politics and related matters when the old one said: “So what do you think about this situation at the Academy?”

 

“Which situation is that?” asked the young one.

 

“That damn girl they’ve let in!” snapped the old one. “What did you think I was talking about?”

 

“Oh that. You’re not happy about it, I take it?”

 

“Of course I’m not! You mean to tell me it doesn’t bother you?”

 

The young man shrugged. “It’s not high on my list of things to be upset with the government about, no. I mean we’re seeing more and more women in the workplace and other non-traditional roles. This was probably inevitable.”

 

“Something is only inevitable if no one is willing to fight it. And what you said about women in non-traditional roles is precisely my point: this is just another example of encroaching galactic corruption in our society. And you realize who were the chief conspirators backing this, don’t you?”

 

“Countess Vorkosigan and… and…”

 

“And the Empress! The two most influential women on Barrayar and neither one of them one of us! Haven’t you ever wondered about that? First the Regent and then the Emperor seduced by galactic women? It’s a plot, I tell you! The rest of the galaxy fears us; they fear our strength and our courage. But they won’t meet us in open battle, so they try to weaken us from within. This slow erosion of our ancient values has been going on for decades. This is just the latest example. Fill the military with women!”

 

“Just one woman so far,” pointed out the young one. “And from what I’ve heard, she’s hardly a galactic. Her background’s about as Barrayaran as you can get.”

 

“Yes, she’s the perfect tool for them! Barrayaran to the core, the family’s served in the military for generations. But she’s just a silly schoolgirl with a schoolgirl’s fantasy. If it hadn’t been for the meddling of those other two, they would have just sent her home where she belongs. But if she makes it through she’ll just be the first! More and more will want to do it. And that’s not even the worst of it! The vast majority who will want to do it will be from Komarr! Imagine a military filled with galactic women! Women officers! It would subvert our entire defense!”

 

“So what can be done about it? It seems like the political battle is lost, at least for the moment. So that only leaves the girl, herself. From what little I’ve heard, the other cadets used just about every dirty trick that can be used against a plebe and she survived it all. I’m assuming you don’t want to do something so obvious as killing her?”

 

“No,” said the old one, scowling. “I’ve never had a woman killed and I’m not going to start now. I’m trying to keep our women from getting killed! And it wouldn’t do any good in any case: it would only make her a martyr. They’d let more women in just to memorialize her. What’s needed is something that would discredit the whole idea of letting women into the military.”

 

“What about a good, old-fashioned sex scandal? She would certainly be a disruptive factor among the cadets, I would think.”

 

“I’ve considered that,” snorted the old one. “And it’s something we can keep in our back pocket, but for right now it won’t work.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because—believe it or not—right now there aren’t any regulations against those sort of shenanigans.”

 

“Really?” laughed the young one. “But no, I don’t suppose there would be. With no women in the service there’d be no need for any such regulations—and the powers-that-be would never admit that any shenanigans not involving women are even possible.”

 

“Correct. Those would be covered by the ‘conduct unbecoming’ regulations. But this is something different and the regulations haven’t caught up yet. If they ever do, then perhaps something can be arranged.”

 

“So what do you propose doing in the meantime?”

 

“I’m not sure…”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Colonel Thayer Sylvanus, commandant of the Barrayaran Imperial Service Academy, strode down the corridor of the General Staff Headquarters. His polished boots clicked on the equally polished stone floor. He was here for the annual budget reviews. It was dead boring, but he still appreciated the chance to get back to Vorbarr Sultana and see some old friends. There was one more session this morning and then he was going to have lunch with…

 

“Colonel, have you got a moment?”

 

Sylvanus turned and then came to attention when he saw the general’s tabs on the undress greens. It was General Vorsworth, the head of Ops. Another officer, a major, trailed behind him. “Sir?” said Sylvanus.

 

“Good to see you again, Thayer,” said Vorsworth. “You know my aide, Major Vorpatril, don’t you?”

 

He recognized him now, although he’d been a captain the last time he’d seen him. “We’ve met a few times, I believe, sir.”

 

“I was wondering if you could spare me a few minutes?”

 

“I have a meeting in about twenty minutes, sir, but I’m free right now.” He had been hoping to hit the lavatory, but you can’t tell that to a general.

 

“Good! This won’t take long. Walk with me, won’t you? Ivan, you can wait here, I’ll be back shortly.” Vorpatril nodded and stepped over to help hold up the wall. Vorsworth gestured down the corridor and Sylvanus started off, but immediately had to slow his pace. The general was walking slowly and rather stiffly. That’s right: he had both hips replaced last year as I recall. I hope I have the sense to retire before I’m in that condition!

 

“So, how have things been going for you lately, Thayer?” asked Vorsworth.

 

“Oh, well enough, sir. Running the Academy is quite a challenge, but I enjoy it most of the time.”

 

“Surely! Surely! And it’s some of the most important work that anyone can do: molding the next generation of leaders. I don’t think enough of the high command understand just how important it is. And I know you’ve been doing a fine job.”

 

“Kind of you to say so, sir.” What’s this all about? All during the time when his son was in the middle of that crap with the duty company I never heard a word from him. Why now?

 

“Just the simple truth. And I imagine that this past year was a bit more trying than most, eh?”

 

“I’m not sure what you mean, sir,” said Sylvanus. Privately, he was afraid he knew exactly what he meant.

 

“Come now! This balderdash about that girl they’ve foisted off on you! What a pack of nonsense! And I know the pressure that’s been put on you from up above to keep her there. It’s completely unfair to you and all the real cadets. To work their tails off and then see someone else being coddled along because she’s got the right connections! Can’t be good for morale!”

 

Sylvanus bit his tongue. You mean like being a non-Vor at the Academy? “I wouldn’t exactly call the treatment Cadet Payne received this year as ‘coddling’, sir,” he said aloud.

 

“Oh, I know you have to make it look fair and that can’t be easy.” Vorsworth stopped and nodded toward him. “I just wanted to let you know that you do have friends here, Thayer. Don’t think that you have to compromise your principles for fear of what might happen to your career.”

 

“I’ve never been one to compromise my principles for anyone, sir,” he said stiffly.

 

“Course not! Course not! I wasn’t suggesting that you would! I just wanted to let you know that if you should find yourself under pressure that you do have friends you can call on, eh? And when your term as commandant is done you’ll be up for promotion and a new posting. Can’t hurt to have a friend or two reviewing that, eh?”

 

“That’s good to know, sir.”

 

Vorsworth stared at him for a moment and then smiled. “Well, I’ll let you get to that meeting, Colonel. Feel free to contact me any time.” Sylvanus saluted and Vorsworth returned it and then slowly went back the way they had just come.

 

Pressure from above, huh?

 

 

* * *

 

 

Ivan Vorpatril watched his boss return from his chat with Colonel Sylvanus. He had a fair idea what it had been about and an even better idea why he’d been excluded from it. Vorsworth was a good officer, one of the better ones he’d served under, but he was as Old Vor as they came. He’d overheard a few loud rants about the ‘corruption’ taking place at the Academy and it was obvious that he was referring to the Payne girl. Probably trying to pressure Sylvanus to get rid of her. Well good luck! Ivan knew that Gregor, Empress Laisa, Aunt Cordelia and Cousin Miles were all backing her and anyone trying to take all of them on at once would have a better chance arm-wrestling with a wood-chipper. Ivan wasn’t sure how he felt about it. He’d met the girl a few times at Vorkosigan House and she seemed smart and dedicated. She’d probably make a better officer than a lot of the young twits that came out of the Academy these days. Still… Barrayar was already short on women. The thought of them going off and getting killed in the military wasn’t a pleasant one. But…

 

I suppose I ought to mention this to Miles—the next time I see him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* * *

 

BOOK  TWO

 

* * *

 

 

 

 

Chapter 11

 

 

Alby Vorsworth started out the window of the aircar and tried not to feel nervous. He told himself that there was no reason to feel nervous: after all, he was going home. Home! The one place in the galaxy he’d been longing for all this past year at the Academy. He hadn’t even been able to get home at Winterfaire because of all that nonsense with the duty company and the demerits. He’d been so envious of Anny when she’d managed to slip away even for a few hours. Her friends had come for her! But no one had come for him…

 

“Almost home, sir,” said Kurt, the driver. “I guess you’ll be pretty glad to get there after so long.” Alby stared at the man. He was ex-military, like nearly all the male servants at Vorsworth House. He’d once heard his father joking that the Barrayaran armed forces didn’t need a retirement program because all the old soldiers ended up working for all the old generals and admirals until they all dropped dead. Considering the collection of relics tottering around the mansion, Alby could almost believe it. Kurt was one of the younger ones and he must have been in his sixties.

 

“Yes,” he replied. “It seems like a long time.”

 

“The place hasn’t been the same without you, sir. Everyone has missed you.”

 

“Really? Like who?”

 

“Uh… well, everyone, sir. Carla and Danno and Julie and…”

 

“All the staff, you mean. What about my parents?”

 

“Well, of course they missed you, too, sir!” exclaimed Kurt. “I hardly thought it was necessary to say so!”

 

“I notice that they didn’t miss me enough to come and pick me up today. Or even try to visit all year.”

 

“Your father is a busy man, sir. And you know your mother hasn’t been well.”

 

“She ‘hasn’t been well’ for as long as I can remember. And yet it never seemed to stop her from doing anything she really wanted.”

 

Kurt made a small harumpf noise but didn’t reply. Alby resumed staring out the window. The river snaked back and forth beneath them, glistening in the afternoon sun. They had followed it all the way from Vorbarr Sultana and now it was nearing its end. It was growing broader and meandering more and more. Soon it would break into a hundred channels that made up the delta emptying into the sea. The land around it was very flat and marshy. Except for a small ridge that was rising up to the left. The aircar banked and headed that way. The Vorsworth estate was in Count Vorgannon’s district. The Vorsworths had been liegemen to the Vorgannons as far back as the records went into the Time of Isolation. There had once been a castle on the ridge, but the Cetagandans had flattened that during their occupation in an attempt to stamp out the resistance in the delta region. It hadn’t worked here any better than it had anywhere else on Barrayar. At least they hadn’t nuked the place.

 

The castle had been replaced with a stout mansion built from the local brick, whose distinctive yellow color made it one of the region’s main exports. Alby spotted it now, gleaming like gold in the afternoon sun. It sat on the highest part of the ridge and the town of Worthington was scattered on the surrounding slopes, spilling all the way down to the canal which linked it to the river a few kilometers away. The river had been the chief means of transport before the monorail had arrived. Even now there was still considerable barge traffic. The brick works with its tall chimneys lined part of the canal. Most of the rest was taken up by the fish processing plant which was the area’s other chief industry. Vorsworth House was located where it was as much to avoid the smell as for its aesthetic and defensive value.

 

The aircar slowed and spiraled toward the landing pad near the garage at the rear of the main house. A figure stood there waiting. Alby smiled when he saw that it was Cahill. The old man was the nearest thing he’d had to a friend while he was growing up. The aircar settled to a rest amid a spray of dust thrown up by its fans. Alby unfastened his safety harness and popped the canopy. “Hi, Cahill!” he called as he jumped out.

 

“Hello, Master Alby,” replied Cahill with a smile. “Welcome home. Although I suppose I should address you as ‘Cadet Worth’ now, shouldn’t I?”

 

“Oh, please don’t! I’ve had enough of that nonsense to last a lifetime! I’d prefer ‘hey you’ to that any day!”

 

“As you wish, Master Alby. Let me get your luggage.” Alby quickly moved to grab the heaviest of his bags before Cahill could get them. He was much stronger now than the old man thanks to all the physical training at the Academy, even though he was still half-a-head shorter. At sixteen he still had at least one more growth spurt left in him—he hoped.

 

The house was laid out like a huge ‘H’ with two long wings connected in the middle by a shorter section. Formal gardens filled the space between the wings and a path led from the landing pad to the rear doors in the central section. Those doors were standing open and a chubby, red-cheeked, gray-haired woman was waiting there with a broad smile. “Hi, Maria!” shouted Alby. He jogged forward, dumped his load on the floor and embraced the house cook. She folded him into her ample bosom and squeezed.

 

“Alby! Welcome home!’ said Maria. She held him at arm’s length and then frowned. “Look at you! Nothing but skin and bones! Don’t they feed you at the Academy?”

 

“Oh, they feed us plenty, all we can eat. But they burn it all off us again just as fast.”

 

“Well! We’ll take care of that soon enough! Starting at dinner tonight! Or would you like a snack right now?”

 

“Oh no, I can wait until dinner, Maria. I wouldn’t want to spoil my appetite. And your cooking will be a great change from the mess hall, that’s for sure!” He glanced over his shoulder and saw to his annoyance that Cahill had scooped up the bags he had dropped and was heading for the lift with the whole ungainly load. “I’ll talk to you later!” He sprinted after Cahill and relieved him of several bags.

 

“No need for that, sir, I can manage,” protested Cahill.

 

“I know you can, but I need to stay in shape. I’ll be back at work in only two weeks.” They took the lift to the second floor and then went down the hall to where his suite of rooms was located. He had about a quarter of one of the wings for his use. Several guest rooms separated him from his parents’ much larger suite. The other wing was occupied by his grandfather and his rather extensive retinue of medical people.

 

He helped Cahill unpack his bags. He frowned at the several sets of uniforms he had brought along. “I suppose the General will be expecting me to dress for dinner tonight? Will undress do or do I need the full get-up?”

 

“Ah, yes, I hadn’t had the opportunity to inform you,” said Cahill. “You father is in Vorbarr Sultana. Some important conference I understand. He won’t be back for three days.”

 

“Huh,” said Alby. He’d flown right by the place on the way here. “What about Mother?”

           

“She accompanied him.”

 

“More shopping,” sighed Alby. “Doesn’t she ever get tired of it?”

 

“I couldn’t comment on that, sir.”

 

“What about the Old Man?”

 

“The Admiral rarely takes his meals anywhere other than his bedroom these days. However, I’m to inform you that upon your parents’ return a welcome home dinner has been scheduled with all the proper pomp and ceremony.”

 

“Ah. Joy. Three days, you say? Well, that will let me catch up on my sleep if nothing else.”

 

“Your parents did want to be here to meet you, Alby,” said Cahill. “They’re very proud of you, you know.”

 

“Yeah, sure. Well, thanks for helping me with all this junk. I think I’ll stroll around a bit before dinner.”

 

“My pleasure, sir.” Cahill nodded and withdrew and closed the door.

 

Alby sighed and looked around his bedroom. It was exactly the way he remembered leaving it a year ago: The big four-poster bed with the canopy, the rich wood paneling, the bookcases and storage cabinets with all his toys, the old swords hanging on the walls, it was like he had only left yesterday. He turned and stared at the portrait hanging over his dresser. It showed a smiling young man in a naval uniform.

 

It was his brother, Carl. This used to be his room. Alby had never met the man.

 

“So what do you think of all this?” he asked the picture. “If they succeed in making me into a soldier then you and brother Lawrence just become footnotes, dead-ends on the family tree. Of course, that would have happened anyway even if they hadn’t decided to make me to replace you. Still, it would kind of stick in my craw if I was in your place. Being dead would sort of suck, too.”

 

Carl didn’t say anything.  He was a lousy conversationalist.

 

Alby shrugged and left his room and headed downstairs, taking the grand staircase instead of the lift. Vorsworth house was a lavish place. The Vorgannon District was prosperous and the Vorsworths a favored family. They had all been on the right side during the various civil wars, coups, and ‘incidents’ over the centuries and the Vorsworths were quite wealthy by Barrayaran standards. There were counts living in places less grand than Vorsworth House. It had all seemed entirely natural to Alby growing up, but after a year in the barracks at the Academy, he looked on it with different eyes now.

 

The east wing of the first floor was taken up by a large salon, the dining room and Maria’s kitchen. A quick inspection showed him that nothing had changed there. The west wing held the library and another room filled with all sorts of antiques and family heirlooms. At the south end was what Alby always thought of as the War Room. He went there now. In addition to swords and lances and a number of painted battle scenes, the walls were lined with shelves filled with exquisitely painted model soldiers. Thousands of them, from a dozen different periods in Barrayar’s history and even some from Old Earth’s. Other cabinets held model tanks and cannons and other war machines. The center of the room was taken up by a large table. When he’d been very little the table held carefully crafted model landscapes over which his father and grandfather and their friends played wargames with the model soldiers.

 

By the time he was old enough to be allowed to play, the game table had been replaced with a very expensive holo-display. There was a frozen battle tableaux on it right now, apparently a game in progress. Thousands of tiny soldiers, horses and cannons were lined up facing each other. Except for the smallest hint of transparency and a level of detail no craftsman could hope to match, they might have been toys like the ones lining the walls. He turned and went over to one of the cabinets and spotted one particular musketeer with a missing bayonet. He’d broken that off when he was four. Shortly after that, the toys went on to the shelves for good and the holo-display had arrived. Alby went to the control panel and hit the ‘resume’ button and immediately, the battle came to life. The soldiers began moving and the cannons firing. Clouds of smoke started to drift across the battlefield and small explosions could be heard. He pressed ‘pause’ and it all froze again.

 

He had been fascinated with the game at first and played with it a lot. But his father and grandfather were so much better at it that he soon became frustrated. Eventually, however, he put his skills with computers to work and managed to break into the software that ran the game. He could still remember the look on his grandfather’s face when his carefully arrayed horse-and-musket army had suddenly been blown to bits by a flight of modern assault shuttles. Alby had rolled on the floor laughing, but the grown-ups had not been amused. They hadn’t used the game much after that.

 

Alby left the room and then left the house to stroll around the grounds for a bit. The sun was nearing the horizon and shadows stretched across the lawn. The heat of the summer day was passing and a cool breeze was coming up. He stared back at the house. A strange feeling of dislocation had been growing in him for weeks and returning here had made it worse not better. Why doesn’t this feel like home? Was this ever home? He was still wondering when Maria called him to dinner.

 

It was a fine meal but sitting alone at a table meant for twenty-four lent it a surreal air. He tried to get Maria and Cahill to sit down with him, but they politely refused. He was forced to follow them back to the kitchen and sit there while they cleaned up in order to have any sort of conversation. Even that wasn’t satisfying since the only thing they wanted to talk about was his experiences at the Academy—the last thing he wanted to discuss. Except he couldn’t figure out what he did want to discuss…

 

He finally ended up back in his room wondering what he had done with so much personal space. He browsed through the cabinets of toys and marveled that he’d ever wanted to play with them. It was like he was in someone else’s room. He should have been exhausted after the long flight today and the weeks of effort before that, but instead he was filled with a restless energy that could not find a focus.

 

“Two weeks of this?” he snarled aloud. “I don’t think so!” he went to the comconsole and started tapping in a code.

 

 

 

Chapter 12

 

 

My God, Alby, you actually live here?” cried Jer Naddel as he stepped out of the air car. Anny Payne and Patric Mederov were just standing there with their mouths hanging open.

 

“Well, I try to,” said Alby. “I realize it’s not much, but I’ve learned to scrape by somehow.”

 

“Yeah, right!” snorted Patric. “I wish I could scrape by so well!”

 

“It is quite a pile of bricks, isn’t it? I was born here so it doesn’t seem unusual. But I’m so glad you could all come! This is going to be great!”

 

“Thank you for inviting us, Alby,” said Anny. Alby found that he was having trouble keeping his eyes off Anny. This was the first time he’d ever seen her out of a uniform. She was wearing a traditional blouse, bolero and a skirt that went down to her shins. Except for her very short hair she might have been a typical Barrayaran young woman. An extremely pretty Barryaran young woman…

           

“Oh, don’t thank me, Anny,” he replied. “I should be thanking all of you. I was getting bored here all by myself after ten minutes. Two weeks of this would have driven me crazy.”

 

“All by yourself?” asked Jer. He looked around at where Cahill and Kurt were unloading luggage from the aircar.

 

He almost answered by saying that the servants didn’t count, but caught himself just in time. It would have sounded terrible and it wasn’t what he meant in any case. “Well, not by myself, but there’s no one else here that was even born in the same century as me.” The others smiled and laughed in understanding. “And my parents are both away on business. They’ll be back later today.”

 

“Do they know you’ve invited us here?” asked Anny.

 

“It’ll be a surprise,” said Alby. “Oh, did you bring your uniforms like I asked?” They all nodded. “Sorry about that, but at least for the dinner tonight my father and grandfather are going to expect us to dress. The curse of living in a military household, I’m afraid.”

 

“It’ll be fine, Alby,” said Anny. “Uh… will your father or grandfather have any problems with… with me?”

 

“If they do, screw ‘em!” said Alby with feeling. “You’re my company commander—and my friend—and if they can’t accept that then to hell with them both!”  Cahill’s head swiveled sharply at that, but Alby didn’t care. The presence of his friends had buoyed his spirits and he was feeling marvelously rebellious just at the moment.

 

He had intended to give them a quick tour of the house, but it ended up taking most of the day. Things which he no longer gave a second glance were fascinating to the others and he ended up having to draft Cahill to fill in a lot of details which he had either forgotten or never known.

 

“These two stone columns holding up the door arch were salvaged from the original Vorsworth castle,” said Cahill at one point.

 

“My God,” said Jer, “you can see traces of plasma fire on these!” He ran his hand over a deep scar that Alby had never given any thought. He looked closely at the Komarran youth and then at Cahill. There were still some Barrayarans who held a grudge against the Komarrans for letting in the Cetagandans—just as there were Komarrans who held a grudge against the Barryarans for conquering their planet a generation later. But there was no trace of anger on either face, so he let it pass without comment.

 

Inevitably, they ended up in the War Room, playing with the game. Their next three years at the Academy would see them using similar devices and even more sophisticated simulators, but they hadn’t been allowed on any of them in their first year. None of the others had ever used anything like this before and they were fascinated with it. Alby patiently let them play and even joined in. It was fun. They were still at it when Alby heard the whine of an aircar’s turbines fast approaching. Oh crap, they’re here.

 

“Attention on deck, guys,” he said. “My parents are home.” The others were suddenly looking as nervous as Alby felt. Despite his earlier statements, he was worried about how his parents would react to his friends.

 

“Uh, your father’s a general,” said Patric. “Do we salute or what?”

 

“We’re not in uniform and we’re not on duty,” said Anny. “We should not salute. We should act in the same respectful fashion as we would with any elder gentleman.”

 

“So says, our walking regulations manual,” said Jer with a grin.

 

Alby ushered them out through the back doors. The aircar was on the ground with its doors open. His father had already exited and he was offering his hand to help his mother out. Cahill and Kurt were unloading luggage and piles of boxes which Alby was quite sure came from some of Vorbarr Sultana’s poshest boutiques. Alby awkwardly led his friends up to his parents.

 

“Father? Mother? Welcome home.”

 

“Alby!” said his mother with a smile. She held out her arms and he moved in to give and receive a hug. Her perfume was a bit overwhelming and he pulled away to breathe as quickly as he decently could. “Goodness! You’ve grown six inches, I swear!” she said when she looked him over.”Oh, and you’ve brought some friends!”

 

Alby looked at his father and extended his hand. “Good to see you again, sir.” His father was wearing undress greens and he smiled and shook Alby’s hand.

 

“Welcome home, son. Sorry I missed seeing you at the ceremonies, but I was tied up with a bloody exercise down on South Continent.” His eyes kept wandering past him to where his friends were waiting. Oh well, no putting this off!

 

“Sir? Mother? I’d like to introduce a few friends of mine from the Academy. He gestured to Anny. “This is Cadet-Captain Andreanne Payne. My company commander.”

 

Anny give an awkward little half-bow and said: “It’s an honor to meet you, General Vorsworth, Lady Vorsworth.” His father frowned and his mouth opened and closed. His mother’s eyebrows shot up and her hand was over her mouth. A dozen heartbeats went by and then his father jerked his head in an odd fashion.

 

“Miss Payne, welcome to Vorsworth House,” he said. Alby breathed a sigh of relief and introduced Jer and Patric. His father responded to their greetings with a simple: “Cadet.” Then they all trooped inside. His parents walked slowly and stiffly after their long aircar ride. They were only a few years short of eighty, after all. How much longer is father going to put off retirement? Alby grimly realized that he was probably waiting for him to get his commission. One last duty to perform…

 

The rest of the house staff was waiting just inside the doors and Alby was interested to see that his grandfather’s doctor was there, too. The man quietly informed his father that the Admiral would be attending dinner that night. The General then turned to Alby. “Your mother and I need to rest a bit, son. We’ll see you at dinner.” They took the lift up and the other staff dispersed leaving Alby and his friends alone in the vestibule. He checked the time. Three hours until dinner.

 

“So who’s up for another game?” asked Jer.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Dinner was… interesting. The four of them were in their dress grays, although since they were indoors they could thankfully leave the uncomfortable shakos in their rooms. Alby’s father wore dress greens with a chestful of medals and his mother had a gown that was almost elaborate enough for a ball. He suspected it was probably brand new. His mother had always loved clothes.

 

When they arrived, his grandfather wasn’t there yet, so they all remained standing in a rather awkward silence. Alby and his friends collected in a small clump near one end of the dining room while his parents were at the other. Several servants came in from time to time making last minute (and totally unnecessary) adjustments to the table settings. His parents kept staring at Anny who he could see was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the silent scrutiny. Alby began pointing out various paintings and antiques in the room just to distract her.

 

Finally, they heard the lift doors slide open. Somehow, without a word being said, Alby’s parents formed a short line on one side of the door while the cadets did the same on the other. A moment later the Admiral rolled in seated on a power-chair. For the first time in Alby could not remember how long, his grandfather was wearing a uniform. The space-black uniform of a vice admiral, glittering with gold braid and medals, looked completely out of place—and much too large—on the wizened old man in the power-chair. Alby had a few vague memories from when he was very young of his grandfather tottering about using a cane, but for at least ten years he’d been bound to that chair.

 

Alby’s parents made odd little half-bows and the old man acknowledged them with a twitching wave of his hand that was not quite a salute. Alby, himself wasn’t exactly sure what to do, but then he heard three pairs of heels click together almost in unison and out of the corner of his eye he saw his friends saluting and he instinctively followed suit, a half-heartbeat behind. His grandfather turned his chair to face them and his thin white eyebrows jerked upward.

 

“Well, well, what have we here?” he said. His voice was stronger than Alby remembered it, although it was high-pitched and rasped like the rusty hinges on Anny’s cottage at the Academy. He rolled over and stopped right in front of him. “Cadet Worth, is it? I know you by reputation, but I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.” To Alby’s surprise the admiral held out his hand. After a moment of hesitation he grasped it and squeezed gently. There was no strength in the old man’s grip and he felt like he could crush the bones if he squeezed harder.

 

“Hello, sir,” said Alby.

 

A tiny smile creased his grandfather’s face. He released his hand and rolled over to Patric who was next in line. “And you are?” he asked.

 

“Cadet Mederov, sir!” Patric looked relieved when he didn’t offer his hand but moved on.

 

“Cadet-Sergeant Naddel!” said Jer without being prompted.

 

“Cadet-Captain Payne!” said Anny.

 

The Admiral nodded at all of them. “Welcome to Vorsworth House, gentlemen. Well, let’s not stand here! Be seated, be seated! I know Maria is anxious to show off her art and it would be a shame to keep her waiting.” He rolled toward the head of the table. Alby’s friends looked nervously around, unsure where to sit. Fortunately, Cahill was there and quickly directed them to the proper places.

 

Alby didn’t know who had come up with the seating plan. His grandfather was at the head of the table and his father at the opposite end as was proper. His mother was on his father’s right and Alby was placed between her and the Admiral. His three friends were on the opposite side, Patric next to father and Jer right in the middle—which put Anny next to his grandfather. Of course, with only seven people sitting at a table built for twenty-four, each of them had meters of room on either side. Even so, only Jer looked even moderately comfortable in his insulated position. The servants bustled around with wine bottles and the appetizers. Maria had, indeed, outdone herself with the food, but somehow Alby couldn’t pay much attention to it.

 

“S-so how are things in the capital, sir?” Alby said to his father.

 

“A bit hectic,” replied the General. “The Emperor’s daughter is scheduled to be born in a month or so and there’s uncertainty about the level of celebration that’s going to accompany that.”

 

“Oh, I remember how exciting it was when the crown prince was born,” said Alby’s mother. “An heir at last! The whole planet was celebrating! You remember that, don’t you, Dear?” She directed the last remark at Alby.

“Sure, it was only three years ago.” It hadn’t made much of an impression on him at the time, but he did remember it. The chief memory, however, was of mounds of bags and boxes filled with new clothing for his mother piled in the foyer…

 

“If they do decide on a major gala that will almost certainly include the Regiment of Cadets from the Academy,” said his father. “I hope you bo… you people are keeping your drill up to snuff.” His eyes darted toward Anny.

 

“We all looked pretty damn good at the graduation two weeks ago,” said Alby.

 

“Alby!” said his mother. “No barracks language at the table, please!”

 

“Sorry.”

 

“And so how are things at the Academy these days?” asked Alby’s grandfather.

 

“Well enough, sir,” he replied. “I don’t imagine it changes much year to year. Probably not much different from what it was like in your day.” To his left his father abruptly coughed on a swallow of wine. What…?

 

“Well!” snorted the Admiral. “I sometimes wondered how much attention you paid to all the boring stories told by the old men around the table, boy. Now I know. In my day, if by that you mean when I was your age, the Academy was a burnt-out pile of debris left by the Cetagandans. I learned my trade in the field, not in some classroom.” An awkward silence fell for a moment, then, unexpectedly, Anny stepped into the gap.

 

“Yes, sir, I was hoping I’d get the chance to ask you about that. The records are all so incomplete from the time of the occupation. And most of the attention seems to focus on the activities of General Piotr Vorkosigan in the Dendarii Mountains. But from what I’ve read, what was happening here in the delta was every bit as important to the final victory. Can you tell us about that, sir?”

 

The Admiral looked pleasantly surprised. “Certainly, certainly. Of course, I was a mere child when it all started. And you can’t take anything away from Vorkosigan, either. If he hadn’t kept the resistance alive until the rest of us could get organized we might never have won. One of my first memories is of my mother leading me and my brothers into the swamp with Vorsworth castle ablaze on the hill behind us. Heh, I was only worried about my pony at the time. Never did see the beast again.” The old man paused for a moment as if reliving old memories. “Then for the next ten years it was a matter of staying alive and avoiding the Cetagandan patrols. Again, we have to thank Vorkosigan. He made so much trouble in the mountains we were almost left alone around here. Of course, that all changed once the off-world help started coming in.”

 

“Yes, sir,” said Anny. “That’s what I was especially interested in: how the pipeline for smuggled weapons got started.”

 

“Heh,’ chuckled the Admiral. “Smart lad.” Anny looked sharply at Alby and his own eyes widened. Was it possible that his grandfather didn’t realize that Anny was a woman? But he was going on: “If you believe all the claptrap they pass off as history today along with the popular stories, you’d be led to believe that we threw the Cetagandans out just by being brave and noble and using what we had at hand. Poppycock! All the bravery in the world isn’t going to help when the enemy can just sit behind a force dome and send out hunter-killer drones that can sniff out gunpowder and chemical explosives from ten kilometers away. Without off-planet equipment we would have been helpless. No resistance could survive long when you can’t do a damn thing to even hurt the enemy. But as for how I got involved with running the blockade, well, that was mostly a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The main technique for the runners was to come down over the ocean and then sneak into the delta in this area. We had a half-dozen secret bases for unloading. One of the more successful runners was docked and was short a crewman and there I was…” The Admiral launched himself into a long story that took the rest of dinner. Since his digestion could tolerate little of Maria’s feast, he rarely needed to pause.

 

Alby had heard bits and pieces of the tale before, but now, hearing it all together and actually listening to it he had to admit it was riveting. Barrayar had only had a few years from the time it reconnected with the rest of the galaxy until the Cetagandans had invaded, but that had been enough time for them to purchase a few jump-ships and get a few pilots trained. A handful had avoided capture and were able to maintain a tenuous link between Barrayar and the outside. It was unbelievably dangerous and from this vantage point it seemed incredible that his grandfather had survived to reproduce.

 

“…so anyway, by the time it was over, I was left in command of the ship. Since there was only one other of the original ships left by then I had quite a bit of say in forming the post-war navy. Not bad for twenty-three, eh?” said the Admiral as the desert dishes were being collected. He paused and took a drink of the nutrient solution that was his primary source of sustenance these days.

 

“That’s amazing, sir,” said Anny. “But one thing I’ve been wondering about: where did all the smuggled weapons come from? And who paid for them? It doesn’t seem like Barrayar would have much capital to trade on.”

 

“Ah,” said his grandfather fixing an eye on Anny. “You’ve touched on a key point, lad. Who indeed? I never did find out, even after I earned these.” He tapped his rank tabs with a bony finger. “The suppliers we dealt with were clearly middlemen and the equipment itself could have come from a dozen different worlds. We never paid a farthing for any of our cargoes. They had all already been paid for and we were never told who by.”

 

“Some… some people say that the Betans were behind it,” said Jer.

 

This produced an angry growl from Alby’s father. “Bastards,” he muttered. Grandfather didn’t hear or pretended not to.

 

“Aye, if I had to make a guess that would be mine,” he said. “The Betans have always tried to maintain the status quo. If the scales tip too far in one direction they add their weight to balance it. When the Cetagandans were expanding the Betans helped their opponents. Later, well… But they usually try to keep their involvement a secret if they can.”

 

“There was nothing secret about their involvement at Escobar!” snapped Alby’s father. “We lost a lot of good men because of those scum!” Oh, that’s right, father commanded a brigade during the Escobar Adventure. Somehow these events all seemed like ancient history to Alby, he couldn’t really picture his father or grandfather actually having taken part in them.

 

“Heh” snorted his grandfather. “You just picked the wrong war, son.” He shifted his gaze to Anny. “But you, young man, you ask some sharp questions. Vorpayne? I don’t think I know your family…”

 

Anny’s face went a little pale, but she answered steadily. “It’s Payne, sir. Just Payne.”

 

“Ah? And a cadet-captain? You must be good. My compliments.”

 

“Thank you, sir.”

 

“Ann… she…Cadet-Captain Payne is the best damn officer in our battalion, sir,” Alby managed to fumble out.

 

“He’d have to be good to keep a rascal like you in line,” chuckled the admiral. “But when we were fighting in the delta, before I got my ship, it didn’t matter a damn if a man—or woman—was Vor or not. We were all too tired and filthy to care…” His grandfather’s voice trailed off and he seemed to sag in his chair. “But speaking of tired… I think it’s about time for me to call it a night. A shame… I’ve enjoyed this a great deal…”

 

Alby’s father was out of his chair immediately and calling for the Admiral’s attendants.  They must have been waiting right outside, because only seconds passed before they arrived. The old man did look very tired, but he still managed a short good night to everyone before he was pushed out. Everyone else was on their feet, too and it was obvious that dinner was over.

 

“Alby, said his father, “once you have your… friends settled, please come and see me in my study.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

He left the others in the War Room and then made a quick side trip to his room to shuck off his uncomfortable dress grays. He was afraid he knew what was coming and there was no need to be uncomfortable on two fronts. None of his more formal civies fit him anymore so he ended up wearing the same casual clothes he’d been wearing earlier. He left his room and walked down the hall to his father’s study and knocked on the door.

 

“Come in.”

 

His father’s study was a miniature version of the downstairs library: paneled walls, shelves filled with leather-bound books, mementos, and antiques. Two small portraits, one of the emperor and the other of Count Vorgannon, hung behind the old polished desk. The general sat in his chair with the collar of his tunic open. There was a frown on his face. “You wanted to see me, sir?” asked Alby.

 

“Yes. Can you please tell me just what in God’s name you think you’re doing?”

 

“Uh, that’s a pretty open-ended question. What do you mean?”

 

“I mean those… those friends of yours!”

 

“What? Did they use the wrong fork on their salads or something?” Alby knew perfectly well what his father meant, but a simmering anger was growing inside him and he wasn’t going to make it easy for him.

 

“Don’t play the fool!” snapped the General. “Of all the people, all the respectable Vors, you could have taken up with at the Academy, who do you become friends with? A prole lout from South Continent, a Komarran, and a… a girl! My God! That bloody girl!”

 

“Well, I guess you can rack that up to my inexperience in making friends—never having had any before!” Alby couldn’t keep the anger out of his voice and to his surprise it actually seemed to get through to his father.

 

“Yes, this is partly our fault,” he growled. “Keeping you isolated here with tutors instead of sending you off to a good Vor school was a mistake. But Alby you have to realize that the friends you make, the contacts you make at the Academy will have a huge impact on your later career. The ‘Old Boy Network’ is how the military functions! I don’t really care about this Mederov kid and considering who our empress is the Komarran might even prove useful to you at some point. But stay away from that girl! She’s toxic! Anyone even associated with her is going to face hell later on. As soon as you get back to the Academy you put in for a transfer to another company, I’ll make sure that it’s approved. You understand me?”

 

“Should I have the servants toss Anny down the hill while I’m at it?” Alby clenched his fists. He couldn’t ever remember being this angry. “We wouldn’t want anyone to know she’s actually been here would we?”

 

“Damn it! You keep a civil tongue in your head, young man! And you do what I tell you!”

 

“I respectfully decline, sir. I’m quite happy with the company I’m in.”

 

“Your happiness has nothing to do with this!”

 

“And it never has!”

 

“You will do as you’re told!” His father’s face was getting quite red. Alby reminded himself that he might look young compared to Grandfather, but he was still an old man. Still, he wasn’t about to knuckle under just to spare his blood pressure!

 

“Or what? You’ll whip up another little Vorsworth and hope he works out better?” Even as he said the words Alby realized that he had gone too far. This had lain, unspoken, between them for years. Perhaps it should have remained unspoken. His father’s face drained of color and an icy silence engulfed both of them.

 

“Go to your room and stay there,” said his father at last.

 

“I’m being confined to quarters, sir?”

 

“Yes. Now go.”

 

Even though he wasn’t in uniform he saluted and then spun on his heel and walked out of the room. But instead of going to his room, he went downstairs to where his friends were still playing with the game. Apparently the traces of the confrontation were still on his face because Anny immediately asked: “Alby, what’s wrong?”

 

“Change in plans, folks. Get your stuff. We’re leaving.”

 

“Leaving?” asked Jer. “We just got here.”

 

“Where are we going?” asked Patric.

 

“Anywhere but here.”

 

 

Chapter 13

 

 

Company, attention to roll call!” Alby stood in the ranks and watched Jer Naddel call the roll. He stifled a yawn. This was way too early in the morning! He was just getting adjusted to being able to sleep late when he’d been rudely dragged back to the Academy.

 

After their late-night escape from Vorsworth House they had eventually ended up in Vorbar Sultana at the legendary mansion of the Vorkosigan clan. Anny had been more-or-less adopted by the Vorkosigans and when none of them had been able to think of anywhere else to go, Anny had dragged them there. Everyone except Anny had been relieved that all the really important people: Count, Countess, and Imperial Auditor were not at home. But there were still plenty of staff and the Auditor’s wife had been a gracious hostess.

 

Alby had been amazed at how… alive the place had been. People (like them!) coming and going at all hours, servants bustling, children shrieking, kittens scampering and Lady Ekaterin ruling it all with a firm but enlightened hand. When he compared it to the crypt he had grown up in it was like emerging into the sunlight after years underground. And somehow, the Vorkosigan’s cook was even better than Maria! The Lord Auditor’s almost-three-year old daughter seemed to have formed a special attachment to Anny and she followed her everywhere. Well, almost everywhere. The foursome of cadets made numerous expeditions into the city during their stay and little Helen could not go with them—much to her annoyance.

 

He had cringed a bit when it was announced that there was going to be a special dinner. The memory of how the last one of those had ended was still fresh in his mind. But the dinner had been as refreshing a change as Vorkosigan house itself. The cadets, themselves, were the guests of honor and two special friends of Anny’s, a Commodore Koudelka and his wife attended with several of their daughters and their husbands.

 

One of those husbands was a serious-looking ImpSec Commodore who was also a Komarran. Jer seemed to know him by reputation and the commodore seemed to know all of them… somehow. The two Komarrans spent quite a bit of time talking. Commodore Koudelka’s wife, a lovely woman named Drou, was nearly as attached to Anny as little Helen. As the evening progressed it became apparent that Drou considered Anny as her own personal project. Alby couldn’t help but notice the expressions of what he could only classify as hurt on the faces of Drou’s real daughters, but the woman seemed oblivious to them. Maybe Alby was just more attuned to the symptoms of parental neglect…

 

Even so, it was a splendid dinner and a splendid evening. The two commodores didn’t appear to have any trouble with Anny’s aspirations or her choice of friends. Oddly, Alby found himself getting on better with Lady Ekaterin’s thirteen year old son, Nicholai than with any of his other new acquaintances. He was a product of Lady Ekaterin’s first marriage and it was obvious that he was a bit jealous of all the attention his younger half-siblings got. Alby wondered what his own bothers would have thought of him if they’d ever had the chance to know him.

 

Alby’s mother tracked him down the morning after their departure (not much of a trick since all she had to do was ask Kurt where he’d dropped them off).  But when Alby made it quite clear he wouldn’t be coming home she’d cut the connection and not called back. It didn’t bother him as much as it should have. He was still angry about the confrontation with his father.

 

I’m just a replacement! An interchangeable spare part. ‘Uh, sir, the last two vorsworths have broken down and there are none in the storeroom.’ ‘What? Well don’t just stand there, get the Quartermaster on the line and get another one shipped up here right away!’ It had rankled from the time he realized what the true score was, but now it was all breaking out into the open, like a scab torn too soon off an unhealed wound… and it hurt. It didn’t matter to his father who he was, just so long as his last name was Vorsworth and that he did what he was told.

 

Well, suppose I don’t? What are they going to do about it? His crack about whipping up another one wasn’t a possibility anymore. His parents wouldn’t live long enough to see it through. He was all there was. At least if they wanted another Vorsworth in the military. He did have an older sister. Much older. Thirty years his senior. He’d met the woman exactly once at the funeral of some extremely distant cousin. Apparently she had committed the sin of marrying for love instead of marrying who she’d been told to. Gabrielle was never mentioned in Vorsworth House. Maybe I ought to give her a call… But his father had been an only child and none of his grandfather’s siblings had survived the occupation, so you had to look very far afield to find any other branches of the Vorswoth family.

 

“Worth…  Worth!” Jer’s voice snapped him out of his musings.

 

“Uh, here!”

 

“Glad to hear it,” said Jer, getting a small laugh from the rest of the company. Jer called off a few more names and then turned and saluted Anny. “C Company, all present or accounted for, sir.” Anny returned the salute and then faced her company.

 

“Welcome back everyone. I hope you had a good rest while you were away because there isn’t going to be much rest on the schedule from here on. As I’m sure you are all aware, the coming year is going to be much different from the last one. We’ll still have drills and enough physical training to keep you up to form, but the emphasis is going to be on classroom work, simulations, and study, study, study! The day is going to come when you’ll miss the obstacle course and 40 kilometer hikes.” This produced a groan from everyone. “Thanks to our winning the pentathlon last year we’re still the Honor Company and obviously we have the fewest demerits in the battalion. But that is not a license to slack off! There are several other companies not that far behind us and we are not going to allow them to overtake us. We are going to remain the Honor Company for the rest of this year, is that clear?”

 

“Yes sir!” Alby shouted along with the rest, but privately he wondered if they would be able to do it. And, of course, there would be the next Vorbarra Pentathlon at the end of the year. If they didn’t win it again, they would lose their spot as the Honor Company no matter how well they did in everything else. Still, the critical thing was to avoid getting stuck with being the duty company again. They would have to make some really serious screw-ups to fall that low and eventually some company in the incoming plebe class would be stuck with the job anyway, but there was no telling who was still out to get Anny or what they’d stoop to. They were going to have to stay on their toes.

 

Despite Anny’s comments about the changes coming, the rest of the morning was spent exactly like every morning the previous year: physical training and drill. Just to make sure they hadn’t forgotten everything during their two week leave, Alby supposed. It all seemed entirely familiar, although they found themselves chuckling over the sight of the new class of cadets. It was nice not being a plebe anymore!

 

But after lunch the changes became apparent. They marched off to one of the classroom buildings that Alby had never had cause to enter before and spent the rest of the day being lectured. They had three courses that day, one in Barryaran military history, one in mathematics and—to his initial delight—one in computers. The classroom environment was something new for Alby. Growing up, his parents had hired tutors for him instead of sending him to a regular school. He had come to realize that this had been their way of squeezing twelve years of schooling into just nine, so he could enter the Academy at age fifteen. The most amazing thing about the classroom process was how easy it was to slack off. With a tutor, you were front and center every minute. Here, the instructor was talking most of the time and even when he called upon a student, there was only one chance in sixty-five he would call on you. Alby quickly found himself becoming bored. Even the computer class was a disappointment. It was being taught at an elementary level that Alby had mastered years earlier. He supposed that this was for the benefit of cadets who hadn’t had as much exposure to computers. Each student was provided with a computer pad to follow along with the lesson, but Alby quickly discovered how to turn his to more interesting subjects…

 

“Mr. Worth.”

 

Alby jerked upright in his chair. “Uh, yes sir?” The instructor, a young lieutenant named Dubrovin, was staring at him.

 

“Would you care to show the class how you’d handle a problem like this?” Alby glanced at the main display screen at the front of the room and instantly saw that it was just a basic information search problem.

 

“Yes, sir,” he said. “I’d do it like this.” He switched his own pad back to the lesson plan and then hooked it to the main display—even though they hadn’t been instructed how to do that. His fingers flew over the keyboard and a dizzying sequence of screens flashed by and a moment later he had the solution. He leaned back and smiled.

 

Lieutenant Dubrovin looked at the display with his mouth hanging open. Then he frowned and looked back at Alby. “That is definitely… the correct answer, Mr. Worth. Would you mind doing it again? This time slowly enough that we can see what you are doing.  Please explain each step.” Alby did so. Since he hadn’t been paying attention, he knew he probably wasn’t doing it the way Dubrovin wanted and the Lieutenant confirmed that when Alby was done. “Interesting, Cadet. However, I would prefer that you use the methods I have been teaching here, understood?”

 

“Yes, sir.” Alby sighed. Boring! Dubrovin called on him several more times before the class was over, but Alby was paying attention now and gave him the answers he wanted. When the class ended Dubrovin called for him to remain behind.

 

“Sir?” Alby eyed his departing comrades uneasily.

 

“Don’t worry, I won’t make you miss the dress parade,” said Dubrovin as if reading his mind. “I just wanted to ask about your skills with a computer. They’re quite impressive.”

 

“Oh, it’s just something I’ve always been interested in, sir,” replied Alby. “I’ve been tinkering around with them as long as I can remember.”

 

“Well, I might be able to use you as an assistant instructor. A lot of your comrades will probably need the help.”

 

“I’ll do what I can, sir.”

 

“Good. Dismissed.” Alby saluted and hurried after the rest of the company.

 

 

* * *

 

 

After the evening dress parade and dinner Alby discovered one other major change from the previous year. He was coming out of the shower room, with nothing but a towel around his waist, when he came face-to-face with Anny! “Gaak!” he exclaimed.

 

“Cadet?” said Anny, trying hard not to smile.

 

“What… what are you doing here?” gurgled Alby.

 

Anny sighed. “If you’d bothered to check the bulletin board you’d have seen that Sergeant Byrne’s old bunk space is now the company office. I’ll still be bunking in my cottage, but I will be spending quite a lot of time in the barracks, doing paperwork, you know. So, you might want to keep your trousers handy.” Anny turned and went into what had once been Sergeant’s Byrne’s room. Alby went the other direction and hastily dressed. A number of cadets were laughing at him. He glared at Jer, who was trying not to laugh, too.

 

“You set me up for that, you rat,” he growled.

 

“Who, me?” said Jer. “You might recall that I did remind everyone to check the bulletin board for announcements this morning.”

 

“Yeah, but you didn’t say why!”

 

“If I announced it all myself, what’s the point of having a bulletin board?”

 

Alby just growled and flopped down on his bunk, pulled out his ‘pad, and tried to do his homework. He noticed that Anny stayed in her office until just before Lights Out and then left to go back to her cottage.

 

The next afternoon found the company marching to another new building for instruction that even Alby found interesting. “Introduction to Simulators” had not sounded like much when he saw it on the schedule, but he quickly realized that it was probably one of the most important classes he would take at the Academy. Modern combat, either on the ground or in space, was so technical, so expensive, and so deadly that attempting to train new soldiers in a realistic fashion would inevitably end up with an empty treasury and a lot of dead cadets. The way around this was to use simulators: computer-controlled devices that could duplicate a combat environment but without the danger or the expenditure of real ordnance. Of course simulators had been in use long before Man had left Old Earth, indeed, they’d first been invented to help get off Earth, but they were only crude approximations compared to modern simulators. The building they were in, Vorwood Hall, was filled with the things and C Company was assembled in a large room that held at least a hundred.

 

“All right, gentlemen,” said their instructor, a Lieutenant Carstairs, “if each of you would take a seat in one of the capsules, we can get started.” He indicated the rows and rows of simulators, each one looked rather like the cockpit of a small shuttle or one-man lightflyer, except there were no windows at all. “Please don’t touch any of the buttons,” Carstairs continued. “The technicians will be along to help you. Go ahead: they’re all identical, just find an empty one and sit down.”

 

The cadets dispersed and Alby found one in the third row back. He gingerly squeezed through the open door and sat down on a padded seat. There were only a few buttons to be touched and he managed to restrain himself from fiddling with them. The seat had a safety harness as if the simulators could actually take flight, but the only other object of interest was a rather sinister-looking helmet that was poised over his head. After a few minutes an enlisted man came along and helped get the harness fastened. “What’s this for?” asked Alby. “These things don’t move, do they?”

 

“No, sir, but once the neural connection goes live your body will go limp. We wouldn’t want you to slump down on the floor, would we?”

 

“Heavens, no,” said Alby. “How unmilitary!”

 

“Plus you’d lose the connection if your head wasn’t in the helmet. There you are, sir, ready to go.” The man moved on to the next capsule. With the harness fastened, Alby was pressed back into the seat and his head nearly immobilized. The helmet was on a slide which would lower it onto his head. It all felt like some Time-of-Isolation torture device…

 

After a few minutes Alby heard Lieutenant Carstair’s voice over a speaker that was built into the helmet. “Okay, I think everyone is ready. I’m going to close the doors to your capsules.” A moment later there was a hum of servos and the door slid into place, sealing Alby inside. He wasn’t terribly fond of enclosed spaces, but he noticed the emergency release lever on the door. As long as he could always get out, no problem. “Next,” said Carstairs, “is to lower the helmet with the neural connectors. These will almost completely cover your head and block your vision. There’s no need to be alarmed. There is an emergency disconnect button under a shield by your right hand. Please do not use it unless you feel truly panicked. Okay, here we go.” The helmet slid down over Alby’s head and he did feel a moment of panic, but he fought it off. I don’t like this…

 

But there was no option except to endure it. Simulator training was essential and anyone who couldn’t handle it was going to have serious trouble completing the course at the Academy. Non-Vor cadets would just be expelled and Vor cadets… he’d heard whispered stories about where such cadets ended up. “The final step,” said Carstairs, “is to calibrate the neural interface. This is going to take a few minutes, so just sit back and relax. You may feel some momentary dizziness or vertigo or see flashes of light, but that’s normal.” Alby tried to relax as he’d been told but instead sat there tensely waiting for dizziness, vertigo and flashes of light. He did experience a few, but they weren’t bad and he slowly relaxed. He reminded himself that there was nothing physically invading his brain, it wasn’t like the neural connections that jump pilots had to have installed. Even so, a scanner, linked to a computer was analyzing his brain waves and preparing to insert information directly into it.

 

After what seemed a lengthy wait Carstairs addressed them again: “Very good! We are ready to proceed. For this first session we will start with something simple. Brace yourselves.”

 

There was a moment of disorientation and then Alby found himself standing in the middle of a battlefield. A tortured landscape stretched away in all directions. Craters pocked the ground, charred tree trunks, stripped of foliage, stood here and there amid the rubble of shattered and smoldering buildings. The rest of the company was scattered around him. They were all wearing infantry combat gear and they all looked just as gobsmacked as he felt. It was all utterly convincing. He knew that he was really still sitting in that simulator capsule in Vorwood Hall, but every sense told him otherwise. He could smell the smoke, he could hear and feel the crunch of the rubble beneath his boots…

 

Without warning the dazzling glare of a plasma arc shot past his face and he could feel the heat from it. Explosions erupted all around.

 

“Take cover!” Anny’s voice screamed at him through the speaker in his combat helmet. Without a second thought Alby threw himself into a shell crater and hugged the ground. More explosions shook the air and dirt and debris rained down on him.

 

“Holy shit!” he gasped.

 

“C Company, stay down!” Anny’s voice again. “I’ve just received orders that we are to fall back 500 meters to the south until we reach friendly positions. There’s a compass on your heads-up-display, look at it!  I repeat, we move south! Keep low, crawl if you have to, make full use of any cover. Move out!” Alby looked and saw the tiny display projected on the inside of his helmet visor. Sure enough, there was a compass and south was to his right. He scrambled around and started crawling in that direction. He reached the lip of the crater he was in and steeled himself to keep moving. More plasma bolts were streaking overhead and explosions still tore up the world around him. He waited until there was a lull in the fire and then launched himself forward, crawling like mad until he tumbled into another crater. He fell right on top of someone else and he saw that it was Patric Mederov. The boy wore a lunatic grin on his face.

 

“Is this cool or what?” he shouted.

 

“They’re shooting at us, you maniac!’ he screamed back.

 

“Yeah!” Patric lurched up out of the crater and disappeared. Alby paused a moment to catch his breath and then followed. But Patric was nowhere to be seen and then a nearby explosion filled the air with smoke and dust and by the time he reached the next shell hole, he was all alone again. But as he made his next dash he pulled up short when he saw Patric lying on the ground with a huge, smoldering hole blasted right through him. Not real… it’s not real! But it sure looked real. He could smell the stink of cauterized flesh and he swallowed down the saliva that was suddenly pouring into his mouth. He knelt there frozen for a moment until an explosion sent him sprawling. Coughing and spiting dirt he dragged himself into the next shell hole and lay there shaking.

 

“Worth! Keep moving!” The voice came through his helmet speaker and he thought it was Anny. He twisted around but saw no one. How did she…?  Then he noticed that the heads-up-display didn’t just show which way was south, it also showed a swarm of dots that represented the company. Anny’s command helmet probably allowed her to identify all her troopers. But how the hell can she keep track of everyone in this insanity? But he did as she’d ordered and kept moving. Yard by yard he made his way toward the objective. He passed more bodies. At one point he saw someone lurch to their feet and dash forward—only to be blasted to pieces before he’d gone ten steps. Stay down, stay down…

 

After what felt like hours he tumbled into a trench and saw the remains of the company huddled there. Maybe twenty-five others. Over half of us killed?

 

“All right, we are all here,” said Anny, who he saw about twenty yards away. “Good job.”

 

Another voice came from the speaker. “Mission completed. Simulation terminating.” The trench and the battlefield and all the survivors faded away and Alby found himself sitting in the simulator capsule. He halfway expected to be covered with dirt and dripping sweat, but he wasn’t even breathing hard. The door swung open and he unfastened the safety harness and got out.

 

Everyone began to talk excitedly about their experience. Alby went over to Patric. “Sorry you got killed, big guy,” he said.

 

“Me?” exclaimed Patric. “I made it fine! But I saw you sliced in half by a plasma arc!”

 

“Not me, must have been someone else.”

 

“No it was you,” insisted Patric.

 

But as they compared stories it became obvious that every single person in the company was convinced that they had made it to safety while seeing comrades messily killed all around them.

 

“Attention,” commanded Lieutenant Carstairs after awhile. He had a grin on his face. “I hope you found that entertaining. You all responded well to the simulators. Next time we’ll find something a bit more interesting for you. Dismissed.”

 

They were still talking about their experiences at dinner and in the barracks afterwards. You’d think we’d been in a real battle, thought Alby. But he had to admit that it had been darn impressive. He’d heard about things like this, but he’d never experienced it firsthand. In the empire the technology was strictly controlled. Not because of any concerns about military secrecy—the techniques were used all through the Wormhole Nexus—but because of concerns about what it could do to Barrayaran society if it became commonly available. Because it could be used for a lot of things besides military training. With the right software a user could experience anything that someone could think of. A person could be a warrior, a lover, an explorer or just about anything they wanted and it would all be perfect. A perfect world filled with perfect people and perfect adventures. With something like that available, who would want to bother with the dreary, dirty, boring real world? It could be more addictive than any drug. Several planets—including Old Earth—had come to the brink of collapse because their people had started spending all of their time in fantasy worlds instead of the real one doing the dull, but necessary things like growing food and generating power. These days it was closely regulated on most worlds, although there were a few…

 

Over the next few days they used the simulators several times and Alby could see how easy it would be to become addicted. Everyone in the company was eager to ‘play’ some more. It was fun, but their other classes were more demanding and not nearly as much fun. Most nights Alby sat on his bunk studying until Lights Out. Then, one evening…

 

“Hey Alby.” He looked up and saw Jer standing at the foot of his bunk. “Anny wants to see you.” He jerked his thumb toward the company office.

 

“Now what’s up?” he started to grumble, but then he caught the serious expression on Jer’s face. “What?”

 

“Just go see her.”

 

Puzzled, he did so. No one else was in the small room so he didn’t bother to salute. “You wanted to see me, Anny?” Her face was as serious as Jer’s and a queasy feeling was growing in the pit of his stomach. What’s going on?

 

“Yes,” she replied and handed him a flimsy. “Alby, you’ve been transferred—to G Company.”

 

 

Chapter 14

 

 

Alby marched fifty paces west, halted, faced about and marched fifty paces east. He’d been at this for nearly two hours. His feet hurt and the heavy rifle was digging a groove into his shoulder. It was unusually warm for early fall and he was dripping with sweat.

 

“Squad… halt!” The bellow caught him by surprise and his feet took a few more steps on their own before he convinced them to stop. He turned and saw Sergeant Cutlus standing there.

 

“Done already?” asked Alby. “I was just getting warmed up.”

 

“Two hours by the clock, cadet,” said Cutlus. “You’re done. Scram, kid.”

 

“Right. See you next week, Sarge.” Alby eased the rifle off his aching shoulder and started to walk away.

 

“Next week?” said Cutlus in puzzlement. “They don’t schedule the punishment rounds that far in advance what makes you think you’ll… oh.”

 

“What do you think, Sarge?” said Alby with a sour smile.

 

“What’s with you, kid? Until two months ago I never laid eyes on you and since then you’ve been here walking rounds almost every week.” Cutlus was one of the veteran NCOs that were often chosen for duty at the academy. He was attached to the Provost Office which, among other things, was responsible for overseeing cadet punishment. Alby had seen quite a bit of the Sergeant lately.

 

He shrugged. “Square peg in a trapezoidal hole, I guess.”

 

“You must have seriously pissed someone off to get stuck here today of all days.”

 

“I seem to have a talent for that. But hey, I couldn’t ask for a better day: they are all in Vorbarr Sultana doing a hell of a lot more marching and standing around than I had to. And now I can go back to an empty barracks and goof off for the rest of the day!”

 

Cutlus smiled and shook his head. “Enjoy yourself. Now get out of here so I can do some goofing off.”

 

Alby returned the smile and did as he was told. He left the Provost compound and headed across campus toward his barrack. The place was totally deserted, not a person to be seen anywhere. The entire corps of cadets, along with most of the academy staff, were all in the capital taking part in the celebration for the birth of Princess Kareen, the Emperor’s new daughter. A part of him regretted missing out, but it was only a small part. A steadily shrinking part, actually.

 

It had been two months since his transfer to G Company and it had been two months of pure hell. He hadn’t realized just how important the friends he’d made in C Company were until he’d had them taken away. Anny and Patric and Jer were still his friends, but he hardly ever saw them anymore and they couldn’t lend him the kind of support that had made academy life tolerable.

 

He’d protested the transfer, of course, and naturally it had done no good. He could still remember the clerk telling him with a straight face that his transfer could not be reversed and no, he couldn’t apply to transfer back to C Company because cadets weren’t allowed to transfer! It quickly became clear that the transfer order had come from very high up and that almost certainly meant his father. There was no way anyone—not even the Commandant—was going to overrule something like that.

 

So he was stuck in G Company. He was a stranger, a newcomer, and his old nemesis, Olaf Vorlevey had wormed his way into a lieutenant’s rank and was able and willing to make Alby’s life as miserable as possible. Somehow it didn’t surprise him a bit that his father had pulled the strings to arrange the transfer out of C Company but hadn’t bothered to find out what he might be transferring him into. He probably just glanced at the roster, saw that G Company held the scions of the most prominent Vor families and said: put him there!

 

As in most of the companies there was a dominant Vor clique and a non-Vor clique that had formed for self-preservation. Alby didn’t fit into either one. After the events of the Vorbarr Pentathlon he was a pariah with the G Company Vors and the non-Vors had the sense not to befriend him either and risk the wrath of their Vor cadet-officers. So Alby was shunned by half the company and actively tormented by the other half. There hadn’t been any physical abuse yet (aside from his aching feet and shoulders) but it could still come to that.

 

For Alby had struck back in the only way he could: by becoming the poorest cadet possible. Why not? His tormentors could hardly treat him any worse and what loyalty did he owe them? Owe anyone at this point? He’d racked up more demerits in two months than most cadets accumulated in four years, dragging the company standing in the battalion down three places all by himself. The others had not been pleased.

 

He was actually starting to relish his punishment rounds. It got him away from the barracks and every step he took was a black mark not just against himself, but against his tormentors. This latest punishment had been the result of some back-talk he’d given Volevey. He was going beyond mere sloppiness to actual insubordination. His Vor status protected him from being kicked out entirely for these minor offenses, but he wondered just how far he could push things…

 

He got to the barracks and put his rifle back in the rack and then flopped down on his bunk and pulled off his boots and massaged his feet for a while. It wasn’t even noon yet and the others wouldn’t be back until late tonight. Obviously, there were no classes or formations scheduled. Paradise!

 

He lay there for a while, but eventually became restless. He didn’t even have any studying that needed to get done. For some reason he had not been able to bring himself to deliberately screw up his class assignments. All the military bullshit was one thing, but education was… something else.

 

He took a shower and prowled around the company office for a while –just because he wasn’t supposed to. Eventually it was time for lunch but he ended up having to walk halfway across campus to the enlisted mess to find anyone serving food. The main mess hall was shut down with everyone being away. There was a vid screen on the wall and it was showing the festivities in the capital. Most of the shots were of the Emperor and Empress and the Crown Prince and the new princess, but there were a few shots of the parade and he spotted the cadets among all the other troops and military hardware on display. He imagined that Anny was eating it all up. She loved that sort of thing.

 

There was a time when you did, too.

 

He had to remind himself that his current hatred of the military was something new. It had become so all-consuming that it was easy to forget that when he was younger, before he’d figured out what was really going on, he’d been as military-mad as any other Vor boy. Maybe more. His father, or more often Cahill, had taken him to parades and reviews and exercises where he could watch troops and military hardware being put through their paces. Once his grandfather had pulled some strings to allow him to watch some of the fleet maneuvers from a ship in space. He had been thrilled and being told that someday he’d go to the Academy and become an officer had not bothered him a bit.

 

So why am I so pissed about it now?

 

He supposed that it started with the realization that other boys his age didn’t have parents who were in their seventies. While that might not have been unusual on planets like Beta Colony or Earth, it wasn’t usual at all on Barrayar. And then there was the mad rush to complete his education as quickly as possible. They pushed and pushed and pushed. It hadn’t been all that hard, he was naturally bright, but again, it just wasn’t normal. Alby had a knack for seeing patterns—or something that didn’t fit the pattern—and it slowly became clear that his life just didn’t fit the normal pattern, even for a Vor.

 

And then there had been the one brief meeting with his sister…

 

He’d known that she existed, although he couldn’t quite remember when or how he’d learned that fact. The only picture he’d ever seen of her had been taken when she was even younger than he was so it came as a shock that Gabrielle was a middle-aged woman with a husband and children older than him. The introduction at that funeral had been short and stiff but later Gabrielle had managed to intercept Alby and speak to him alone for a moment before his mother had hustled him away. All she’d said was: Don’t let them make you something you’re not! Live your own life!

 

From that point on, the pieces had slowly fit together.

 

They were trying to make him live the lives of his two dead brothers. He could only assume that they had both willingly gone into the military—nearly every male Vor did. Not all of them made a career of it, of course, but most did a ten-year tour before moving on to something else. His brothers were in their second ten years when they died. If either of them had left after ten they might have had kids and then Alby never would have been… made. But they’d both managed to get themselves killed and left Vorsworth House with no heir.

 

He hadn’t started thinking of himself as the heir until recently, but he had to admit that the prospect of inheriting the house and the land and the family fortune—he assumed there was one unless Mother had spent it all on clothes—wasn’t unappealing. But to get it…

 

To get it he would have to be a good little Vorsworth and do as he was told and put up with all the bullshit and get his commission and serve honorably—at least until his grandfather and his parents were dead. It wasn’t a bad bargain if you looked at it that way.

 

So why is it sticking in my craw like this?

 

He was only sixteen. Three more years at the Academy, ten years of active duty and then out at twenty-nine. His parents would probably be gone by then and he could do anything he damn well pleased at that point. Surely he could put up with the bullshit for long enough to gain that. But if he walked away…

 

Live your own life, she said. But what is my own life? Damn it, he wished he could talk to someone. But the only people he could talk to about this were off marching in that stupid parade…

 

He suddenly grabbed his computer pad and switched it to communicator mode. Cadets weren’t permitted unauthorized outside communications, but he’d managed to find a way around that the first week he was here. It only took a minute to get the code he wanted and after a few seconds more the screen lit up and he was looking at a young woman he recognized as his niece. It was pretty obvious that she didn’t recognize him. “Hello?” she said.

 

“Can I… can I talk to your mother?”

 

“Who shall I say is calling?” she asked politely.

 

“Cadet Worth.”

 

 The woman looked puzzled, but called over her shoulder: “Hey Mom! A call for you! Some kid wearing a uniform.”

 

After a few moments Gabrielle came to the comconsole. Her eyebrows shot up as she looked at him. “Alby…?”

 

“Hi, Sis. Hope I’m not interrupting anything. Got a minute?”

 

“We were… we were just watching the parade. I had assumed you were in it. Is something wrong?”

 

“Not really. I just… wanted to talk to you.”

 

She glanced away for a moment. “Let me take the call in the other room.” She put him on hold and then shortly she was back again with a different room in the background. She looked a bit more composed, too. “It’s good to see you again, Alby. But this is certainly a surprise.”

 

“Yeah, I guess I should have called you sooner than this, huh?”

 

“I’ve tried calling you a few times but they have me blocked from Vorsworth house.”

 

“Really?” anger flared in him. “They had no right to do that!” She just shrugged and gave an ironic smile.

 

“So what do you want to talk about, Little Brother?”

 

“When you… when you left. Was it hard?”

 

“I kind of thought that was it,” she said, nodding. “Are you thinking about leaving, Alby?”

 

“Thinking about it, yeah.”

 

“Well, don’t do anything rash. When I left I had a darn good reason.”

 

“Charles?”

 

“Yes. I was in love—really in love—and the man I loved didn’t have ‘Vor’ in front of his last name. Mother and Father couldn’t tolerate that. So it was either give up Charles or give up everything else. I made my choice… and I never regretted it.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Really. I’m still in love, I have three wonderful children and I wouldn’t give them up for anything. I made the right choice, Alby. But it was still the hardest thing I ever did. If you’re thinking about walking away from them, you better be sure about what you want—not just what you don’t want.”

 

Alby didn’t know what to say to that. He suddenly realized that she was right: he was reacting solely to what he didn’t want without any idea of what he did. Gabrielle stared at him and then said: “But if you do walk away, you are welcome to come here for as long as you need to. No matter the circumstances or the years, you’re still my brother.”

 

Alby was deeply and truly touched. But before he could think of anything to say there was a faint beeping sound and his sister glanced aside and looked annoyed. “I’ve got an incoming message marked priority. Can you hold on for a minute, Alby?”

 

“Sure.” It was more than a minute but despite the delay he still didn’t know what he was going to say next. But he needn’t have worried because the look on Gabrielle’s face when she came back froze him in place. What?

 

“Alby,” she said. “Grandfather is dead.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

His grandfather’s funeral was a series of surprises for Alby. For all his life his grandfather had just been the old man who lived upstairs. He’d known about some of Admiral Vorsworth’s exploits but somehow he’d never really connected the stories in the history books with the relic he saw around the house. But now those stories were all over the news and Barrayar pulled out all the stops honoring the last of the great resistance fighters from the Cetagandan occupation. The body lay in state in Vorhartung Castle and there was a solemn procession through the city with a huge escort, including the Emperor and a nebula of counts, admirals and generals. In some bit of cosmic irony Alby’s cadet company was part of the honor guard. It was almost comical watching the cadets paying homage to the grandfather of the kid they held in such contempt. But it all went without incident and eventually the venue shifted from Vorbarr Sultana to Vorsworth House for the interment.

 

Most of the throng was left behind, but not all. The Emperor and Empress, most of the Imperial Auditors, selected counts, and much of the Imperial General Staff along with family members were all there for the burial and the reception that followed. Gabrielle and her family were not excluded and Alby made a point to spend time with them. With his father and mother so wrapped up in the activities, they weren’t able to interfere. Alby, emotionally exhausted, but wound tight as a spring, slipped into the same reckless mood that he’d been in during the confrontation with his father. He dragged Gabrielle and her family around and introduced them to everyone whether he knew them or not. His sister was startled at first, but quickly fell into the swing of things and seemed to relish it all as much as he.

 

Alby made a point of talking with Lady Ekaterin and her husband, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, thanking them for their hospitality when he had been there. “Ah, yes,” said the Lord Auditor, “I was sorry to miss you and Anny and the others. But you are all welcome to come back any time.” He nodded at Gabrielle and her husband, too, implying the invitation wasn’t just for Alby. “I remember seeing your grandfather at Vorkosigan House fairly often when I was young,” he continued. “My father and my own grandfather had a lot of respect for him. I was too young to have much interaction, of course. But this is a sad day, the end of an era, really. Growing up, whenever anyone said ‘The War’, you knew they meant the resistance against the Cetagandans rather than any more recent conflict. But that generation is all gone now.” The short man shook his head.

 

“My memories of him are mostly good ones,” said Gabrielle. “As the only girl in the family I think he doted on me. Of course he was still on active duty when I was young, so I didn’t see that much of him. Later… well, later I didn’t see him at all, of course. Now I wonder how much of that was his decision…” She blinked and seemed to realize she was talking in front of strangers. Lord Vorkosigan raised his eyebrows and gave her an odd, but knowing look.

 

“So how are things at the Academy, Alby?” he said, changing the subject. “My Cousin Ivan—your father’s aide over there—tells me you’ve been transferred to a different company. I guess you don’t see much of Anny now, do you?”

 

“Not much. I… I really miss her. She was a real inspiration for me. All the shi.. all the obstacles they threw in her path and she never faltered.”

 

“Are they still throwing a lot of shit in her path?”

 

“Not so much now, I guess. As a cadet-captain, and not a plebe anymore, she’d be safe from most of the minor crap that the cadets can do. Still, a lot of people are really pissed about her being there at all.” He glanced toward his father. “And not just the cadets.” Vorkosigan followed his gaze and quirked an eyebrow.

 

“I wonder what Grandfather would have done if I had tried to go to the Academy?” said Gabrielle with a smile. “I’ve heard about this Anny Payne. She must be very dedicated—and brave.”

 

“She is,” said Alby. “I hope she can make it through.” But what about you? Are you still hoping to make it through? He had no answer.

 

Eventually the long day wore to an end and the guests departed and Alby was able to retreat to his room and shuck off his dress uniform. He flopped down on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He was exhausted. He was just glad that he didn’t have to report back to the Academy for another two days. What if I just don’t go back…? As tempting as that seemed, he couldn’t see himself following through. He lay there and let his mind wander. The events of the last few days swirled around in his head.

 

So the Old Man was gone. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He could hardly consider it tragic: a hundred years old was hardly being cut off in his prime. And it wasn’t like he’d been particularly close to him. But still… And how was Father going to react? He’d clearly been hurt and stunned despite the inevitability of this. Try as he might, he couldn’t imagine his father ever being his age and grandfather being in his forties. What had their relationship been like? Surely nothing like the one that existed between Alby and his father now! He remembered how close his sister’s family seemed, the Vorkosigan family. What would it be like to really belong…?

 

He woke with a start. He’d fallen asleep on his bed. There was a faint beeping sound and he slowly realized that it was coming from his comconsole. A priority message. For me? Here? Now? It made no sense, but he rolled to his feet and staggered over to the chair by the desk and sat down.

 

The call identifier read: Robert Vorstein, Esq. A lawyer? Why would a lawyer be calling him? Today of all days? Curiosity aroused, he hit the accept key. Immediately a man appeared; a middle-aged man with a long, narrow face and bald forehead. “Ah, Master Vorsworth,” he said. “Please forgive the intrusion on this sad day. I’m Robert Vorstein, a lawyer retained by your late grandfather. I have instructions to contact you and deliver a message.”

 

“A message? From who?”

 

“Why from your grandfather, of course. I believe the message will be self-explanatory, but if you have any questions about it, feel free to contact me at any time. My contact information is attached to the message, which I’m transferring to you now. Again, let me convey my deepest sympathy for your loss. Good day, sir.” The man vanished from the screen and now a new incoming message alert was flashing. Alby reached for the accept key but his hand pulled up short. A message from a dead man? A feeling of awful anticipation filled his stomach. He didn’t want to see this… But, no matter how long he put it off, the message would still be waiting for him. He bit his lip and hit the key.

 

There was a short introductory screen certifying that the following vid message had indeed been recorded by Vice Admiral Albustus Vorsworth. The date was a little over a month ago. Then his grandfather was on the screen. He was propped up on his bed surrounded by a lot of medical equipment. He looked much worse than he had the last time Alby had seen him. He only had a month left to live…

 

“Well, Grandson,” said the recording, “if you’re watching this it means that I’m dead. An event not unexpected and certainly not before its time. I don’t imagine you are grieving and I can hardly expect you to.” He paused and Alby couldn’t tell if it was to marshal his thoughts or catch his breath, which was coming in short, raspy gasps. “I had initially intended to send this message as a kind of apology to you, Alby. An apology for what’s been done to you. But then I realized that you might take that as a regret that you were ever born. That’s certainly not what I mean. The more I thought about it, the more confusing it became. I thought about making excuses, like telling you that I had no idea your parents were planning this, that I never asked them to do it. But what would be the point of that? And again, it might seem like I was sorry you exist. I’m not. Then I thought of apologizing for how you were treated once you were here. But there are worse places to grow up than Vorsworth House and worse parents or grandparents. So again, what’s the point? Should I apologize for forcing you down a path that wasn’t your choice? I certainly didn’t chose the path that led down into the swamps of the delta and the long struggle against the Cetagandans. Few people ever get to choose their path. If you’re Vor the choices are even fewer.

 

“So, no apologies!” The old man paused and took some oxygen from a mask. Alby was starting to feel angry. If this wasn’t an apology what was it? Get to the point! If you have one!

 

“No apologies,” continued his grandfather, “but, perhaps, some explanations. I know you must feel angry, being thrown into this life. I was certainly angry down in the swamps with my home destroyed and my pony dead or gone. The easiest focus for my anger was the Cetagandans. Probably the focus for your anger right now is your parents and probably me, too. Well, fair enough. You’ve a right to be angry, just as I had.

 

“But we can’t choose the life we’re born into, Alby. The fishermen down at our docks couldn’t choose, the Cetagandan soldiers I helped kill couldn’t choose and neither your parents or you or I had a choice, either. Our choices only come later. We can choose how we live the life we’ve been handed. That’s the choice facing you now.” His grandfather paused to take some more oxygen and Alby stared at him, stunned. Not so much at his words, but that he’d spoken them at all. That he’d known of Alby’s anger, that he even cared about it. He’d never expected…

 

“It all comes down to duty, lad,” Grandfather continued. “Being Vor is all about duty. Duty to your liege-lords, to the empire, to your people and to your family. It’s all part and parcel. As Vors we have privileges, but there’s a price, always a price. And we Vorsworths have always done our duty. Always. Your parents felt it was their duty to have you, Alby. Because duty passes on, each generation paying back the one that came before in the only way they can. And now it’s your turn. Unfair as it might be, it’s your turn now.

 

“Your parents expect you to carry on the family tradition and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect it, too. But I’d rather you broke with tradition and not become an officer rather than become a bad officer. When you’re in combat you have to trust the man next to you, the man leading you. Better to have an empty file than one filled with someone you can’t trust. Why I remember one time when…” The old man paused and shook his head. “Sorry, starting to ramble. Hard to concentrate these days. But what I’m trying to say is that the decision is yours. You have to decide and you have to really mean what you decide. And it can’t be your decision if someone else is holding a sword over you ready to strike. So, I wanted to let you know that in my will I’ve left a tidy sum to you, Alby. The house and most of the estate goes to your father, of course, but I’m leaving you enough so that you can get by no matter what you decide. It’s only fair.” He stopped and looked very old, very tired.

 

“God keep you, Alby. I doubt that we’ll meet again. But make me proud. Whatever you decide, whatever road you choose, make me proud. Goodbye, Grandson.” The screen went blank.

 

Alby stared at the empty screen for a long time.

 

 

Chapter 15

 

 

Squad… halt!” shouted Sergeant Cutlus. Alby gladly obeyed. Today there were several other unlucky cadets walking punishment rounds with him, so the Sergeant did not engage in any casual conversation as he sometimes did. He simply recorded the completion of their punishment and dismissed them. Alby didn’t know the other cadets so he headed back toward his barracks alone. He felt numb. Still numb. He’d been numb ever since his grandfather’s funeral, a week ago. What in the world was he going to do? He could quit. Any time he wanted he could walk into the Commandant’s office and hand in his resignation. No one could stop him. But was that what he wanted to do? It was a one way trip. He wouldn’t be given another chance if he changed his mind later.

 

He’d been shocked at the size of the ‘tidy’ sum his grandfather had left him. Handled carefully, he could live a comfortable life and never have to lift a finger again. If he did manage to find some sort of job on top of that, he could be very comfortable. So why not? Why not just walk away? The other people in his company had not let up on him, it had gotten worse if anything. Why continue to endure it? Maybe he should…

 

“Alby?” He twisted around in surprise at the sound of that familiar, feminine voice.

 

“Anny!” There she was, standing near the entrance to the formal gardens that covered a few acres near the main gate. She was wearing fatigues and she waved him over to her.

 

“Got a few minutes, Alby? I’d like to talk to you,” she said.

 

“Sure,” he replied. “I’ve got no duty until this evening.” He felt a smile forming on his face. Damn, it was good to see her! He followed her into the gardens where they found a bench with some privacy. “What’s up?” he asked once they were seated.

 

“I wanted to say how sorry I was about your grandfather. I really enjoyed talking with him at dinner that time.”

 

“Thanks. But he’d lived a long time. I don’t think he was sorry to go at last. But that’s not what you want to talk to me about, is it?” He stared into her eyes and surprisingly she blinked and looked away.

 

“No. I wanted to… Alby, what’s wrong? Why are you doing this?” She was looking right at him now and he knew there was no use pretending he didn’t know what she meant. His recent ‘activities’ were the talk of the Academy.  Now it was his turn to look away.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“You weren’t the best cadet in C Company when you were there, but you never got into this sort of trouble! It seems like you are deliberately trying to get kicked out of the Academy!”

 

“Well, since I’m not in C Company anymore why do you even care?”

 

“Alby!” cried Anny looking hurt. “You’re my friend! And even if you’re not in my company anymore you’re still my comrade. Friends and comrades look out for each other. Help each other. I want to help. It’s… it’s my duty.” Her hands came up as if she wanted to embrace him.

 

Alby was trembling. Duty. There was nothing he wanted more than to hug Anny and cry on her shoulder. He really needed a shoulder to cry on right now. Instead he turned away. “I don’t think you can.”

 

He twitched when she touched his arm. “This is about your… your family, isn’t it?”

 

“I don’t have a family!” he said bitterly.

 

“Yes you do!” said Anny and she forcibly turned him around, gripping both of his shoulders. “We’re your family! Me and Jer and Patric! My own family practically disowned me for trying to come here, but I found another! It’s pretty much the same with Jer, his leaving Komarr and all. After all we went through together last year you’re my brother now, Alby! Family!” Her eyes blazed and the fierce conviction in her face reminded Alby of her determination to win the pentathlon. But after a moment her face softened. “And sometimes being family means having to slap some sense into your brother. Am I gonna have to slap you, Alby?”

 

His lip was quivering and suddenly he was hugging her, clutching her like a drowning man clutches a floating log. He squeezed his eyes shut and a hot tear squirted out and dripped down his cheek. She returned the hug, gently patting him. Eventually he sniffed and pulled back, an awkward smile on his face. “Slap away, sis.” She grinned and softly tapped him on the cheek. “I miss you guys so much,” he whispered.

 

“We miss you, too.”

 

With a realization that came like sunrise, Alby knew that she really meant it. She really did care about him. The others did, too. Family. And in that moment he finally figured out what he wanted, what he needed. To belong. To be a part of something bigger than just himself. The ties that bound him to his parents were just too thin, too distant, too… artificial to ever fill that need. But Anny and Jer and Patric, his ties to them… He remembered working with them to win the pentathlon. He’d never felt so alive, so happy. This is what I want! But…

 

“I wish I was back in C Company.”

 

“I wish you were, too. But there’s nothing we can do about that, Alby. But there’s no reason why we can’t still get together. We’re all taking the same courses this year. There’s no rule saying you have to do all your studying with your own company! We can all work together. And frankly, we could use your help. Patric’s really struggling with the computer course and no one knows computers better than you.”

 

“I’d… I’d really like that,” said Alby. It seemed like a wonderful idea…

 

“Of course with you spending so much of your ‘free’ time marching punishment rounds it makes scheduling things a little difficult.” Anny smiled and raised an eyebrow.

 

Alby flinched backwards dramatically, clutching his cheek as if she’d slapped him hard. “Ouch! Okay, okay! I get the message!’ They both laughed. “Thanks,” he said. She nodded.

 

“So how are you doing, Anny?” he asked after a while. “Everything okay in C Company? You look tired.” Staring at her he realized that she looked very tired. There were dark circles under her eyes and she looked more wrung out than she had even during the worst times in their duty-company days last year.

 

But she just waved it away. “I’m all right. Just all that paperwork being the cadet-captain.” They spent a few minutes exchanging some stories but eventually Anny checked the time and stood up. “Got to go. But I’ll check with the others and we’ll set up a study schedule when we can get together, okay?”

 

“That’ll be great,” he said. They walked back toward the barracks together, not saying anything, but Anny’s presence was like a balm on a painful wound. Comrades. Friends. Family. That’s what the Academy, Imperial Service, had to offer. Not just an inheritance, a big house and a famous name. He’d never thought about it that way before. And in an odd way he realized that his father had been right: the contacts he made here would affect the rest of his life. Father had just been talking about his career, but Alby knew that there was far more to it than that. My friends can give me a life, not just advance my career. He felt better than he had in months… maybe ever.

 

He got back to his barracks and put his rifle in the rack. Guess I’ll be seeing a lot less of you in the future!

 

 

* * *

 

 

In the following weeks Alby transformed himself. No more demerits, no more punishment rounds. He even took up Lieutenant Dubrovin’s offer to help as an assistant instructor in his computer class. Vorlevey continued to harass him, but he seemed to be so annoyed at Alby’s lack of response that it was actually more satisfying than his earlier back-talk had been. He was rewarded evenings and Sunday afternoons by spending time with his friends. The study sessions were fun and he managed to help Patric out of his computer nose-dive. Jer and Anny helped him in the military history course. Vorlevey had tried to interfere, but Anny outranked him and stared him down in one memorable confrontation. It had been beautiful and left Vorlevey fuming and Alby feeling closer to his friends than ever. The other members of his company seemed to be getting bored with tormenting him, especially since Alby was no longer making the rest of them look bad. It was a tolerable situation and Alby began to believe that he could survive and graduate after all. The only dark spot was that Anny seemed even more exhausted. He cornered Jer one time and asked what the problem was. He shook his head and looked worried.

 

“I’ve noticed it, too, but she insists it’s nothing. But I’ve been watching her and I think it’s the simulator.”

 

“The simulator?”

 

“Yeah, I think so. She comes out of the pod rubbing her head like she’s in pain. It takes her hours to recover.  And her performance while we’re hooked up is getting worse and worse.”

 

“Damn,” said Alby. “If she’s having some sort of adverse reaction like some people do…”

 

“Yeah,” said Jer grimly. “It could get her kicked out.”

 

“But it wasn’t bothering her at first!” protested Alby. “She loved it as much as anyone! She couldn’t wait for the next session!”

 

“I know. I’ve asked her to go see the medical people, but… I think she’s afraid to. She’s just going to try and tough it out, I think.”

 

“Well, she can if anyone can, I guess,” said Alby.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Winterfair arrived and they were given a week’s leave, unlike the previous year. He and Jer went with Anny to Vorkosigan House. Patric went back to South Continent to be with his own family. It was the best Winterfair ever. Vorkosigan house was packed. The Count and Countess were visiting from Sergyar with most of their impressive retinue. Armsmen, servants and their families filled the place to bursting. Alby and Jer ended up on cots in the attic amidst an incredible collection of Vorkosigan artifacts while Anny had a small room she had occupied during her quest to get into the Academy.  Alby didn’t mind the accommodations at all.

 

Lady Ekaterin’s children, the armsmen’s and servant’s children and the children of the Koudelka clan made for a laughing shrieking… wonderful Winterfaire. Alby used some of his new money to buy gifts for his hosts and his friends. For Jer he arranged for a day of intense riding lessons at Vorbarr Sultana’s best stables, reminding him that the next pentathlon wasn’t that far off. He and Anny came along, of course, so it was a double gift. He had a top-of-the-line computer pad with lots of instructional software delivered to Patric’s home. He pondered long and hard for something for Anny. He owed her so much, what to get her that would have meaning? He almost settled for some ordinary bit of jewelry, but then realized that not only didn’t Anny need some bit of useless junk, but that it might be interpreted the wrong way. There were people who would deliberately interpret it the wrong way. Not that he wasn’t very fond of her… Eventually he had a jeweler make up a solid gold replica of the pin they were awarded for winning the pentathlon. It wasn’t really meant to be worn and it came with a nice little display box. Anny got all teary-eyes and kissed him on the cheek.

 

The week off seemed to do wonders for Anny. She perked up and the dark circles under her eyes faded. They all stayed up late, but got up even later. Naturally, there was a spectacular Winterfair dinner and all ninety-six places in the large dining room were used with some spill-over into another room for some of the younger folks. Alby paid special attention to the relationship between the Lord Auditor and his legendary father, Count Aral Vorkosigan. They treated each other almost as equals, but the huge respect the younger Vorkosigan held for the elder was evident. There was love there, too, no doubt about it. Could that have been me and Father? It hardly seemed possible.

 

One of the dinner guests—and a frequent visitor to Vorkosigan House it appeared—was Major Ivan Vorpatril, the Lord Auditor’s cousin and, as he was already aware, his father’s military aide. After the feast had ended Vorpatril waved Alby over to him. “Evening, Cadet,” he said.

 

“Good evening, sir.”

 

“Splendid party, isn’t it? My coz’s lady-wife has outdone herself.”

 

“Yes, sir, it’s wonderful.”

 

“I have a message for you from your father.”

 

“Sir?”

 

“He… uh… asks that you pay him and your mother a visit at your home before you return to the Academy.”

 

“Asks, sir?” Not orders? Not requests and requires?

 

“That’s right. You’ve got, what, three more days of leave?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Should be enough time then.”

 

“I’ll… think about it, sir.”

 

“Do that.” Vorpatril raised his glass as if in salute and then wandered off to the dessert table.

 

Alby tried not to think about it but the mood had been spoiled. He put it off the next day, but the following day he gave in and made the trip--alone. He could have called the house and had Kurt come and get him, but he didn’t want to put his transportation at the mercy of his parents. Instead, he hired a lightlfyer and driver and had him take him to Vorsworth House. The meeting was polite and gifts were exchanged, but the tension couldn’t be missed. Alby stayed for dinner but then returned to the city. Vorsworth house had never seemed less like home. He put the whole incident out of his mind and enjoyed his last day of leave with his friends.

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Where’s Anny?” asked Alby as he took his seat at the study table in the library. The looks on Jer’s and Patric’s faces brought him to full alert.

 

“The infirmary,” said Patric.

 

“Why? What’s wrong?”

 

“Yesterday in simulator class,” said Jer shaking his head. “She nearly passed out. She’s been trying to hide it, but this time there was no way she could. Lieutenant Carstairs saw and ordered her to report for testing.”

 

“Damn…” hissed Alby. “I could see it was bothering her again after we got back from the leave, but I’d hoped…”

 

“Yeah,” said Patric. “We all did. But this could be bad. I mean really bad.”

 

“Hell.” Alby sat there frowning. “Something’s not right here.”

 

“Obviously,” said Jer.

 

“No, I mean something else isn’t right. Vorlevey and a couple of the others were talking about it last night…”

 

“What? Why?” interrupted Jer. “How could they…?”

 

“It’s not exactly a secret, Jer,” said Patric. “I’ve heard some cadets from the other companies talking about it, too. They said… they said it proves that women just aren’t meant to be soldiers.”

 

“Yeah,” said Alby, “Vorlevey and the others were crowing about it. But then Vorlevey said something else. I didn’t pay attention at the time, but thinking about it now…”

 

“What?” demanded Jer.

 

“He told one of the others that they hadn’t seen anything yet. It was almost like he knew something was going to happen.”

 

“Maybe just wishful thinking on his part,” suggested Jer.

 

“Maybe,” admitted Alby. “Still…” He flipped open his computer pad and his fingers started flying.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Seeing what I can find out about this sort of reaction to the simulator,” he replied without looking up. The other two knew enough to leave him alone and he spent the rest of the study period checking medical journals and simulator journals for whatever he could find on the phenomenon. What he found wasn’t reassuring. It was called Simulator Rejection Syndrome, SRS. Some people couldn’t handle the artificial sensory inputs from the simulators. Their brains were just wired differently. And the percentage of people affected was small enough that little effort had been made to find a solution to it. If Anny’s condition continued to get worse she might well be discharged from the Academy.

 

The next day Anny was back on duty. The medical people had given her some medicine and she claimed that it was helping her. But it was clear that she was still suffering.

 

“It’s gonna hit the fan next week,” said Jer to Alby privately a few days later.

 

“Why?”

 

“We’ve got that big tactical exercise, remember?”

 

“Oh crap, that’s right.” For the past few months they had been getting infantry combat training in their company groups. But now they were progressing to larger things. Their whole battalion would participate in a large scale maneuver that would last an entire day. The longer Anny spent in the simulator the worse her reaction seemed to be. If she collapsed in the middle of the exercise it would be brought to everyone’s attention.

 

“What the hell can we do?” asked Jer.

 

“I’ve been looking at every resource I can find,’ said Alby in growing frustration. “The thing that still has me puzzled is that she wasn’t affected at first. Every account I’ve read says that the reaction ought to have been very evident right from the start.”

 

“People are different,” shrugged Jer. “And maybe she just concealed it from the start.”

 

“Maybe…”

 

He continued to work on it even though it made his grades slip a bit and he picked up a few new demerits. But he didn’t care. He owed Anny more than he could say. And something was nagging at the back of his brain. His talent for seeing patterns was at work and there was something here that just didn’t fit…

 

There were only two days left before the exercise when he found it. He was skimming through an article in an Escobaran cybernetics journal when he came upon a passage which read: SRS symptoms are nearly identical to those seen when the neural interface of a simulator is improperly calibrated. He stopped and read it again.

 

“Improperly calibrated…”

 

 

* * *

 

Alby walked into Lieutenant Dubrovin’s office, stopped in front of his desk and saluted. Dubrovin smiled and returned the salute. “You’re up bright and early, Alby. Your class isn’t until this afternoon. What can I do for you?”

 

“Morning, sir,” he replied. I’d like your help in committing a court martial offense.”

 

 

Chapter 16

 

 

“I think that’s it, sir,” said Alby, pointing at the computer screen. Lieutenant Dubrovin squinted and then nodded his head.

 

“I think you’re right.” Dubrovin studied the lines of code for a few minutes and then swore. “Damnation, that’s one sophisticated little worm. This is no student prank, Alby. Whoever wrote this was good. Damn good. Way better than me. Maybe even better than you. If we hadn’t know exactly what we were looking for we never would have found this.”

 

“Can we get rid of it?”

 

“I don’t think that will be a problem. The good news is that this seems to be designed to remain inconspicuous rather than to aggressively defend itself or spread itself around like most viruses or worms. In fact, look here: if I’m reading this right it is self-terminating! In another two months it will just erase itself leaving no trace. Damn, that’s slick!”

 

“It does its job and then vanishes,” Alby frowned at the screen. What it showed was a tiny bit of computer sabotage, sabotage aimed directly and specifically at Anny Payne. Someone had inserted a program that caused the computer controlling the simulator pods to subtly alter the input into Anny’s brain. The altered input would be out of sync and produce symptoms that were indistinguishable from Simulator Rejection Syndrome. And it was clever, very clever. Not only did it have to be able to conceal itself from the frequent anti-sabotage scans that routinely ran through all the Academy computers, not only did it have to be set to affect Anny and Anny alone, but it had to be able to find Anny wherever she went. This wasn’t just one bit of sabotage installed in a single simulator pod. The cadets weren’t assigned specific pods. So it had to be able to instantly shift itself to whichever pod Anny happened to pick. The more Alby thought about it, the angrier he got. “Is there any way we can find who did this?”

 

Dubrovin shook his head. “I doubt it. Whoever did this was surely smart enough to cover his tracks.”

 

“But we’ve got a pretty good idea of when the worm was inserted in the system: a week or so after Anny first started using the simulator. That will narrow down the search, won’t it?”

 

“Maybe. We can try, although we really ought to report this to the authorities. They can probably bring better resources to bear on this than we can.”

 

If they want to. Alby was only too aware of the fact that there were people, powerful people, who wanted Anny out of the Academy. They had tried one strategy the previous year which had nearly worked. Apparently they—the same or perhaps some other they—were trying something different now. He had no idea how the authorities would react if this was brought to their attention. He glanced at Dubrovin. The man had been skeptical when Alby first approached him for help. He’d have done it alone but he didn’t have the proper authorization codes to get into the computers’ controlling software. That wouldn’t have stopped him, but he couldn’t afford to get caught or leave tracks before he found his quarry. This was too important. So he’d managed to convince the Lieutenant to help. He suspected that Dubrovin had treated it as a sort of training exercise, not really expecting to find anything. But they had found something.

 

“Well, first things first,” he said. “We need to erase this thing so that it can’t affect Anny anymore.”

 

“Yes,” said Dubrovin, but then he paused. “Actually, I’m not sure we should…”

 

“What? Why?”

 

“This is a crime scene, Alby. This is a deliberate and malicious assault on one of the cadets. We really have to report this.”

 

“But…”

 

“No choice, Alby.” Dubrovin reached for the communicator.

 

“Wait, sir.” Dubrovin looked at him and quirked an eyebrow. “We have to… we have to proceed carefully, sir. You’re aware of all the crap that’s been going on concerning Anny being here. And you said yourself that this worm had to have been put together by a pro. There could be powerful people behind this. Who were you going to report this to?”

 

“Well, the Provost would be the logical choice…” Alby frowned. The Provost was the equivalent of the village sheriff. He wouldn’t know how to deal with this, so he’d start calling other people who would call other people… Which would put the whole thing right out in the open. Whoever was responsible could cover their tracks and even worse, plan some new attack.

 

“Excuse me, sir, I happen to know that there are also some very important people who are interested in seeing Anny Payne succeed here at the Academy. People all the way to the top. This isn’t just an attack on Anny. I think… I think we need to call in some bigger guns.”

 

Dubrovin turned pale. Alby could see that the man didn’t like where this was going. He was just a lieutenant and not even Vor. “Like who?” he asked suspiciously.

 

Alby grinned.

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Miles, what the hell am I doing here?” demanded Commodore Duv Galeni. “I’m the head of Komarran Affairs and this clearly has nothing to do with Komarr!” Alby watched the ImpSec officer square off with Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. He’d met both men several times at Vorkosigan House and he knew that Jer Naddel, as a Komarran himself, had had a few lengthy talks with Galeni. Both men, plus another ImpSec officer, were standing in a small computer lab on the Academy campus. Commandant Sylvanus looked on with a deep frown. Lieutenant Dubrovin was trying to become invisible.

 

“But it’s family business, Duv,” said the little Auditor with a strange half-grin.”Anny is a very close friend of your mother-in-law. I’d think you’d grab a chance to score a few points with her.”

 

Galeni rocked back with an I-hadn’t-thought-of-that expression on his face. But then he growled: “My little daughter already has all the points there are to score. But all right, what do we have here and what do you want from me?”

 

“Well, mostly you’re here as a witness, but I also needed the talents of your computer boffin, Captain Higgins, here,” he waved at the other ImpSec officer. “And I didn’t want to go entirely around the normal chain of command.”

 

“Why not?” grumbled Galeni. “It’s never stopped you before.”

 

“Getting mellow in my old age, I guess,” grinned the Lord Auditor. “But what we have here, if I’m understanding Lieutenant Dubrovin and Cadet Worth correctly, is a rather nasty bit of computer sabotage meant to drive Anny Payne out of the Academy.” He dragged Dubrovin forward and made him explain—again—the computer worm and what it did. Galeni swore under his breath when the symptoms it inflicted were described.

 

“And the program is designed to make the symptoms grow worse over time,” continued Dubrovin. “So far Cadet Payne has been able to endure the symptoms through sheer grit, but before much longer there’s no way anyone would be able to stand it. Really nasty, stuff, sir.”

 

“So,” said Vorkosigan, “we’re hoping that Higgins can track down whoever inserted this into the system. Not only is this criminal tampering in its own right and an assault on an Imperial officer-candidate, but it directly threatens Imperial policy—Gregor’s hope to open Imperial service to women. I thought that ImpSec might be interested and, well, I figured I’d give you first crack at this.” That strange grin was on his face again. Alby was still trying to figure out what to make of Vorkosigan. On the one hand he seemed easy-going, almost comical at times, but when he sank his teeth into some problem… watch out! Convincing Dubrovin to call Vorkosigan in the first place had taken every bit of Alby’s persuasiveness. But now that he was here and taking charge, he thought that the Lieutenant was actually relieved to have passed the buck so completely.

 

“Yes, I guess I can see that,” said Galeni. “But I’ll have to report this to General Allegre, you realize.”

 

“Of course. I’ll do that myself. And to Gregor, too. You and the Captain are here at my pleasure.”

 

“Right,” said Galeni rolling his eyes. “Okay, Captain, see what you can find for the Lord Auditor.”

 

“Yes sir,” said Higgins, plunking down in a chair and grabbing the comconsole on the desk. He demanded Dubrovin’s authorization codes to access the heart of the Academy computer network and the Lieutenant already had them written on a flimsy which he handed to him. Everyone stared for a few minutes and Alby looked on eagerly, hoping to learn a few things. But when there were no immediate cries of Eureka! from the Captain the Lord Auditor stuck his hands in his pockets and strolled over to the Commandant.

 

“Thanks for your cooperation, Colonel,” he said. “I know that no one in your position wants folks like us invading your turf.”

 

“I could hardly have done otherwise, my Lord Auditor,” said Sylvanus. “But I have to admit that I’m rather disturbed by all this. I was aware of the… activities aimed at Cadet Payne last year, but since none of them were actually criminal in nature—well, almost none—there was little I could do about them. But this! It’s not just illegal it’s… it’s… dishonorable.” The man looked like he’d swallowed something very sour.

 

“Yes, it is,” Vorkosigan replied, nodding. He turned to face Alby. “And I want to thank you, Cadet, for discovering this. Otherwise Anny might have been forced to give up and no one would have known the real reason. But…” he paused and looked thoughtful.  “But for the time being I think it might be best if this not go beyond this room, eh? At least until we’ve got all the facts.”

 

“Perhaps Cadet Worth should return to his normal duty,” suggested the Commandant. “Lieutenant Dubrovin has him listed as on ‘special duty’ right now I believe.” Alby nearly screamed in protest, but Vorkosigan smiled and shook his head.

 

“He’s earned the right to be here. I remember how pissed I was when I was first working for Simon Illyan and I’d turn in some hot bit of intelligence to him—and then never hear anything about it again. You can keep a secret, can’t you, Alby?”

 

“Yes, My Lord. But… but surely we’re going to tell Anny that the simulator isn’t going to hurt her anymore, aren’t we?”

 

“It will be obvious enough to her the first time she links up,” said Commodore Galeni. “I imagine she’ll be so relieved she’ll hardly question why.”

 

Vorkosigan chewed on his lip for a few moments. “Let’s keep this under our hats for the time being until we see how this turns out. We can always tell her later, okay?”

 

“Yes, sir,” said Alby. He wasn’t too happy about that. Anny might not hurt anymore, but she might well be in fear of it for quite some time…

 

A half hour passed and the Commandant sent for coffee. The Lord Auditor and Galeni chatted about family matters. The gruff ImpSec Commodore’s face softened amazingly when he talked of his baby daughter. Vorkosigan smiled knowingly.

 

“My Lord? Commodore?” said Higgins suddenly. Every eye turned toward him. “I think I’ve got something.” They all crowded around the comconsole.

 

“Yes?” said Vorkosigan.

 

“It’s pretty much as the Lieutenant and the Cadet deduced, sir. Simple, elegant, and very professional. I’m of the opinion that it was locally produced rather than a galactic import. Our local hackers have improved dramatically in recent years. I can provide a list of possible suppliers that you might want to track down.”

 

“That would be good. Any guess on how it was introduced into the system?” said Vorkosigan.

 

“That was even simpler—and more elegant, My Lord. I couldn’t find any trace of an intrusion from outside, the Academy firewall seems to be intact, so I deduced that the worm was introduced from inside.” The Commandant made a growling noise. “The elegance here was that the worm didn’t actually hide from the security software scans, it disguised itself as a legitimate bit of software. As you might know, military software all have unique code prefixes identifying them as ‘friendly’. That’s not our only defense of course, but well, never mind about that. Whoever designed this had access to at least one of these prefixes and attached it to the worm. Once introduced, the security software wouldn’t be alerted by it. And since its effects were so subtle no one would notice its actions. Well, almost no one.” He looked at Alby. “My hat’s off to you, Cadet, that was a top bit of deduction on your part.” He smiled. “When you graduate I’d be happy to have you in my department.” Alby found himself blushing.

 

“But can you figure out the where, when and who of this, Captain?” asked Vorkosigan. “Who put it into the system?”

 

“Well, it’s a good-news-bad-news situation, My Lord. The good news is that while the security prefix allowed the worm to survive within the system, it also left a recorded trail. I was able to trace it back to a specific chip-reader slot here at the Academy and the date it was introduced.” He pointed to a code number on his screen. “Normally I’d call that pretty sloppy, but since the worm was designed to erase itself after its work was done and the chance of it being discovered so small I guess the programmer felt it was worth the risk. The bad news is that the trail ends there. Any ordinary computer data chip could have been used and all the perpetrator had to do was insert the chip for a few seconds and then take it out again. Anyone with access to the room the reader was in could have done it and I imagine the chip itself has long since been destroyed. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful, My Lord.”

 

“So, someone has the worm written—probably supplying the programmer with the prefix—and puts it on a chip and gives it to someone to bring in here and insert?” asked Vorkosigan. Higgins nodded. “So it could be almost anyone here at the Academy. Cadet, staff, even a casual visitor.”

 

“A lot of suspects to work through,” said Galeni. “Too many.”

 

“Uh… M-My Lord?” stuttered Lieutenant Dubrovin. Everyone looked at him. He had a small computer pad in his hand. “The chip reader the Captain indicates is in Vorwood Hall.”

 

“That’s where most of the simulator pods are located,” said the Commandant.

 

“Well, that would make sense, I suppose,” said Vorkosigan.

 

“Except that entrance to Vorwood Hall is closely regulated to prevent any… unauthorized use of the simulators. That should rule out a lot of your possible suspects.”

 

“All… almost all of them, sir,” continued Dubrovin. “During the time period indicated by the Captain the room with that chip reader was being used by G Company, 3rd Battalion.”

 

“That’s my company!” exclaimed Alby. Every eye turned to him.

 

“Anyone particularly suspicious in your company, Alby?” asked the Lord Auditor.

 

“Uh… pretty much all of them, My Lord,” said Alby. “But I could name a few more suspicious than the rest.” And he did. Vorlevey was on top of the list. He didn’t much like ratting on his erstwhile comrades, but damn it, they were attacking Anny! He had no doubts where his loyalties lay in an issue like this.

 

Vorkosigan made a few notes on his own compad and then nodded. “All right, I think we’re done here. I’ll be turning our findings over to General Allegre to investigate further. I ask all of you to keep quiet about this.” He fixed his gaze on Alby who nodded nervously. “Have you disabled that worm, Captain?”

 

“Yes, My Lord. I left it in place just in case any… interested party has a means to check on it, but I altered its target to a random cadet who graduated last year but whose brain scans were still on file. The worm will sit there, warm, happy and harmless, looking for a target who will never appear.”

 

“Good work, Captain,” said Vorkosigan. “Good work, all of you.”

 

“We still need to move fast, Miles,” said Galeni. “It will become obvious pretty quickly that Anny isn’t being affected by this anymore. That will tip off anyone who’s monitoring this.”

 

“Right. Well, let’s get going, shall we?”

 

The Commandant escorted Vorkosigan, Galeni and Higgins out of the lab, leaving Dubrovin and Alby alone. Dubrovin looked ready to faint. “How’d I let you talk me into this?” he said, collapsing into a chair.

 

“This will be quite a feather in your cap I would think, sir,” said Alby. “But you do look tired, sir. You should go back to your quarters and rest.”

 

Dubrovin nodded and staggered out of the lab, leaving Alby by himself. He looked around. He really ought to get back to the barracks. Dubrovin had ‘requisitioned’ Alby’s services from the G Company captain and he’d missed a whole day of duty already. And it was only another day until the big tactical exercise. He smiled when he thought about Vorlevey and the others’ disappointment when Anny was unaffected by the simulator. They were probably expecting her to collapse right in the middle of the exercise. His smile faded. Those bastards! I hope Vorkosigan is able to hang them all by their own petards!

 

But as he thought about it he realized that the chances that any of them would face any real punishment were pretty slim. They were all Vors and no one would want this to turn into some huge scandal. No, it probably would be mostly swept under the rug. Somebody might pay but it would probably be the non-Vor hacker who wrote the worm rather than the Vor Anny-hater that paid him. Not fair at all. Welcome to Barrayar, as Anny would say. Oh for the olden days when you could challenge those scum to a duel. Not that Alby could beat any of them with a sword. Probably just as well that those days were gone…

 

Alby froze. Then he looked toward the comconsole. The flimsy with Dubrovin’s authorization codes was still lying there.

 

I can’t beat them with a sword… so how about if I chose a different weapon?

 

 

Chapter 17

 

 

About time you got back here, Worth!” snapped Cadet-Lieutenant Levey. “Goofing off again while everyone else works. You damn well better not screw us up today!”

 

Alby stifled a yawn, but said nothing in reply. He’d been awake for thirty-six hours straight and could barely keep his eyes open. He quickly shucked off the set of fatigues he’d been wearing and put on a slightly cleaner set. No time for a shower. Oh well, no one will have to smell me except me once I’m in a pod.

 

The order to fall-in came just as he was sealing up his boots again. He grabbed his greatcoat and followed the other members of G Company down the stairs and out onto the parade ground. A light snow was falling and Alby pulled up his collar and shivered. The first sergeant called the roll and then turned the company over to the Cadet-Captain. This was a Vor named Garron. Unlike Levey, he didn’t seem such a bad sort and hadn’t given Alby all that much trouble—even when he was deliberately screwing up. He wasn’t sure if it was because Vorgarron was a nicer guy or if because tormenting Alby was simply beneath him and he left it to his more enthusiastic subordinates. Vorgarron was from a very important family, so Alby suspected the later.

 

Vorgarron gave a short and not-terribly rousing speech to fire up his company for the impending maneuvers and then marched everyone off to Vorwood Hall. The other companies of the battalion were all converging on the same location and it took a while to get everyone inside and up to their proper rooms.

 

Alby’s sleepiness vanished as he prepared to enter a simulator pod. In just a few moments he would find out if all the hours of effort he’d spent were going to pay off. He thought he’d done everything right, but there were an enormous number of variables and if even one of them were wrong it could send up signal flares to the controlling personnel or maybe even crash the whole system. Oh, but if it worked…!

 

The pod’s door swung shut and Alby strapped himself in as he’d done dozens of times before. All through Vorwood Hall six hundred other cadets were doing the same thing. Somewhere, Anny would be cringing and bracing herself for the pain. But thank God today there wouldn’t be any pain for her. Even if everything else went wrong he could take pride in that.

 

The helmet slid down over his head and the usual moment of dizziness that came with starting the neural link flickered past and then Alby was standing in full combat gear in the hanger bay of some huge warship. Rows of assault shuttles were lined up in front of him. Vorgarron gave the command and the company began to board. He’d been through this before, but he glanced down the bay and saw that the rest of the battalion was there doing the same thing. Good. He wanted them to witness what was coming! Or at least he hoped it would come. The mere fact that the simulation was up and running was a good sign.

“Shake out the lead, Worth!” snapped Vorlevey. “Get aboard!”

 

“Yessir.” He scrambled up the loading ramp and found an unoccupied seat and strapped himself in. Everyone was excited, but they quieted down as they received their mission briefing through the display in their combat helmets. Alby paid little attention since he already knew the mission—far better than anyone else here! It was actually a fairly simple operation, the only thing making it novel for the cadets was its size. The battalion would drop in a large crescent and then converge inward on the objective. One company would act as a spearhead by advancing slightly in advance of the rest of the battalion, the idea being that the enemy reserves would be sent against that spearhead, allowing the other companies to envelop the defenders.  Alby perked up his ears when the briefing got to the point where it would assign the spearhead company…

 

“… G Company will lead the advance,” said the computerized voice. A loud cheer echoed through the assault shuttle and Alby’s voice was part of it. Not because he wanted the honor of leading the way like the others did, but because it meant that the simulation program that was running was his and not the proper one. It’s working!

 

Of course it wasn’t actually his simulation. He’d had neither the time nor the expertise to build a simulation of this size from scratch. He’d just taken the existing, planned, simulation and using the authorization that Lieutenant Dubrovin’s codes gave him made a few modifications of his own. Until those modifications became obvious, no one should notice what he’d done. He hoped.

 

The briefing wrapped up and a moment later Alby felt the shuttle lurch under him and then he was pressed back against the acceleration pads as the vehicle launched. The acceleration lasted about a minute and then they were in Zero-G. The simulator was able to mimic physical sensations precisely so Alby really felt like he was weightless. And when he arrived dirtside his gear and weapons would weigh him down and he would get tired and sore exactly as if it were real.

 

The shuttle began to vibrate as it entered the atmosphere and despite knowing this was all a fake, Alby felt nervous. He never liked this part of an assault drop. The simulator couldn’t create actual emotions in a person, but it could duplicate all the physical sensations that went along with the emotions—and let the person’s imagination do the rest.

 

Alby reined in his imagination and hung on as the shuttle finished its reentry. The ride grew smoother although there were a few sharp banks as the vehicle changed course. Then the thrusters kicked in again.

 

“Stand by!” shouted Vorgarron.

 

The shuttled touched down with a sharp jolt and the rear hatch fell open. “Go! Go! Go!” all the officers and NCOs were shouting. Alby slapped the release on his safety harness and spilled out the hatch with all the rest of the company. The platoons and squads quickly sorted themselves out and deployed to either side of the vehicle which only waited a moment before lifting off in a spray of dust.

 

The surroundings were very like that war-torn landscape he’d seen in the first simulation session months before: shattered trees, burned buildings, blast craters. He quickly found one of the latter and hunkered down. The main action in this simulation wouldn’t come until later, but there were still random bits of mayhem thrown in and Alby didn’t want to attract any of them. Not because he was afraid of getting hit, he’d made sure that wouldn’t happen by tagging himself as an observer, but he didn’t want to give it away to his comrades by not taking cover like the rest of them.

 

“G Company, move out!” commanded the captain and Alby started forward in a low crouch as he’d been trained, the other members of his squad on either side of him. He could hear the rumble of explosions in the distance, but nothing seemed to be happening in their immediate vicinity. They covered about a kilometer and he was sweating in his combat gear and getting tired. They halted for a minute to let the stragglers catch up and then Vorgarron addressed them:

 

“Okay, guys, that was the easy part. We’ll be running into real resistance just up ahead. Stay on your toes and let’s kick some butt!” Most of the others cheered but Alby thought: Oh yeah, a major butt-kicking is imminent!

 

The advance began again. They covered a few hundred meters and then cadets started calling out:

 

“Contact! I’ve got multiple contacts! Presumed hostile, range five hundred meters!”

 

“Yeah, I’ve got ‘em, too!”

 

“At least a hundred contacts!”

 

“And they’re coming this way! Range closing fast!”

 

“Hey, aren’t hostile blips supposed to show red on this display…?”

 

Alby grinned when he heard that last comment. The blips on his Heads-Up-Display were reading a bright pink.

 

“All right, pipe down, all of you!” snapped Vorgannon. “Looks like we’ve accomplished our mission already. We were supposed to draw in the enemy reserves and here they come! Find some cover and get ready to open fire!”

 

They scrambled to obey. Alby found a spot with a good view, but Levey, his platoon commander, decided it wasn’t defensible enough and ordered him to another spot. Alby stuck his tongue out at him, but Levey couldn’t see it because of the helmet visor. Alby shifted to the new position and waited for the show to start. It didn’t take long.

 

“Visual contact! I… I… think,” said a sergeant on the left of the line.

 

“Yeah… what the hell are those…?”

 

Alby caught sight of a large pink object bounding through the ruined buildings to his front. Then another. And another. Yes! It’s working!

 

“What the…?” came a dozen voices over the communicator.

 

“Never mind what they are!” shouted the captain. “Open fire!”

 

That was an order no Barrayaran Vor—not even Alby—could ever ignore. Seventy fingers pressed triggers and a storm of fire roared out from G Company’s line. Plasma arcs, hyper-velocity rail guns and various other mayhem-makers blasted the approaching enemy with…

 

… no effect whatsoever.

 

The already tortured landscape was tormented some more as gouts of flame and eruptions of dirt appeared all around the pink shapes, but that was all.

 

“They’re still coming!”

 

“What are those things?”

 

“Some sort of force bubbles…?!”

 

“Keep firing!”

 

Everyone except Alby continued to blast away, but the targets got closer and closer. Finally they emerged from the smoke and flames, close enough to see that they were…

 

“Rabbits!”

 

“Giant Rabbits!”

 

Indeed, three-meter tall (if you included the long ears) pink rabbits. They were bouncing along on their hind legs and they cradled enormous daisies in their fore legs as if they were rifles. They had dopey grins on their rodent faces and didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned about the firepower that was bouncing off their furry hides. Although the fire was now slackening off as the cadets stared in gobsmacked wonder.

 

“It’s a trick!” shouted Alby to get things rolling again. He started blasting away and most everyone else did so as well. The rabbits were no more affected now than they had been before, but they bounded to a halt right in front of the cadets’ line and leveled their daisies.

 

As Alby watched in glee one of the bunnies pointed its flower right at Cadet-Lieutenant Olaf Levey. A stream of what looked like soap suds shot out with the force of a fire hose. The stream leapt across the fifty meters and engulfed Levey completely. He vanished for a moment and then the soap bubbles quickly popped leaving the hapless cadet standing there wearing a ballerina’s outfit. Combat armor, weapons and helmet were all gone, replaced by a girl’s tutu, slippers and a small tiara. All pink, of course.

 

There was an instant of stunned silence as everyone took this in, but then the rest of the bunnies fired and G Company disappeared under a tidal wave of bubbles. When they cleared all the cadets were outfitted just like Levey. The boys looked at themselves and each other in shock and embarrassment.

 

The bunnies bounced closer.

 

They paused ten meters away and their grins became anything but dopey, revealing rows of very un-bunny-like fangs. They growled, too.

 

Okay, this was the critical moment. Alby knew the simulator was feeding them all the physical sensations that would go with terror, but there was no way it could override the free will of the cadets. They could still react with humor, indifference, anger, or outrage if they chose. Alby decided to give them a nudge.

 

“Run!” he screamed at the top of his lungs and then turned and fled.

 

Then, just like his first simulator experience where every cadet thought he was coming through okay while everyone else was getting killed on either side of them, here every cadet could see all the other cadets running, leaving them alone to face the ravenous bunny-monsters. Within seconds all the rest of G Company was running for real. Back the way they had come, through the craters, past the ruins, with bouncing pink death close on their slippered heels.

 

“G Company, why are you falling back?” The voice of their battalion commander reached them despite the lack of combat helmets or communicators. A chorus of shouts was the reply but then Alby added: “We have encountered overwhelming enemy forces, sir. Request immediate assistance.”

 

“Acknowledged. But dammit, what’s going on there?” The battalion commander was a regular commissioned officer and not a cadet.

 

“Hard to explain, sir,” gasped Alby.

 

“Crap someone must have thrown in an unscheduled tactical problem.”

 

“You might say that, sir.”

 

“All right, C Company is coming to your assistance. Try to rally on them.”

 

“Right, sir! Thanks!” Oh yeah!

 

The boys were about at the end of their strength when a line of armored troopers appeared just ahead. “G Company! Hit the deck!” shouted someone who sounded like Anny. Everyone gladly obeyed and Alby skidded to a halt in the dirt. A storm of fire passed over their heads as C Company opened fire. Alby twisted around to look back at their pursuers. I sure hope I did this right…

 

He had. Unlike G Company’s ineffective fire, C Company’s weapons had an immediate, though unusual effect. Instead of blowing the enemy into pink hasenpfeffer, the overgrown leporidae were abruptly transformed into bunnies of the ordinary garden variety which immediately ran like, well, rabbits. In a matter of moments they had all vanished into the blasted landscape leaving the cadets, victors and vanquished, staring at each other.

 

“What the hell happened to you?” demanded a C Company trooper. Alby thought it sounded like Jer Naddel.

 

G Company picked itself up off the ground, a few automatically brushing dirt off their tutus. Many were blushing a pink nearly as bright as their outfits. But not all. Some were red with fury. Levey was nearly foaming at the mouth.

 

Someone laughed. Then a few more. In moments C Company was roaring with laughter and pointing at their hapless comrades. As Alby watched, more troops arrived. The whole battalion was converging at the decisive point. The laughter spread through the ranks as each company took in the spectacle before them.

 

“You!” snarled Levey suddenly, pointing right at Alby. “You did this!”

 

Alby looked down at himself. He was still in combat gear. No pink tutu. Crap, when I tagged myself as an observer it must have…

 

“Oops.”

 

But before anyone could move, the battalion commander addressed them again. “All right, this has gone far enough, I’m terminating the exercise.”

 

A moment of dizziness and Alby was back in the simulator pod in Vorwood Hall—in the same room with all the other G Company cadets…

 

He tore off the safety harness, pulled the emergency release handle on the pod, scrambled out, and ran like a rabbit.

 

 

Chapter 18

 

Alby dashed out of the room and down the corridor. He heard several angry shouts behind him but he didn’t look back. Shoulda figured they couldn’t take a joke. He reached the end of the corridor and slapped the lift button. But when the doors didn’t open immediately he turned and ran to the stairs and leapt down them three steps at a time. He wasn’t sure where he was going to go, but anywhere had to be better than a room full of angry and humiliated Vors. He’d been on the fifth floor of Vorwood Hall and he was gasping by the time he reached the bottom of the stairs. He burst into the lobby, but as he did, the doors of one of the lifts slid open and a mob of cadets spilled out. He cringed when he saw Olaf Levey in the lead. They were between him and the exit. He spun back toward the stairs, but more angry cadets were emerging from there. He was trapped.

 

“Oh shit.”

 

He held out his hands and tried to smile. “Just a little joke, fellas.” But then he frowned and said: “You guys should be used to playing jokes on people in the simulator, right, Olaf?”

 

Levey’s face went pale, but he was quivering with rage. “You miserable son of a bitch!” He stepped right up to Alby and punched him in the face.

 

Alby went down in a heap, shocked by the pain. But that was only the beginning. A crowd converged around him and more blows rained down on him and he curled into a defensive ball. They kicked him, too. It just went on and on. They might actually kill me… Not quite the result he’d been hoping for…

 

“Get away from him!”

 

A familiar voice came to Alby through a red haze of pain and the pummeling abruptly stopped. But the noise got louder, rising to a roar. He uncurled a bit and looked up. Anny Payne was standing over him, exchanging punches with Levey. Both had blood on their faces. Anny’s expression was one of fury, but Levey looked astonished. Suddenly Patric Mederov appeared and grabbed Levey by the scruff of the neck and hurled him away. More punching, cursing cadets shoved their way into view and the melee became general.

 

C Company… C Company came to get me…

 

It seemed to continue for quite a while, but then Anny was kneeling next to him and propping him up. The brawl was still going on, but a protective ring of C Company cadets had formed around him. “Are you all right?” shouted Anny.

 

“Not sure,” he croaked. “Hurts a bit.”

 

“Well hold on, we’ll get you some help.”

 

He gripped her hand. “Thanks. Thanks a lot, Anny,”

 

She smiled. “I should be thanking you.”

 

“For what?”

 

“You know darn well for what!”

 

“Figured it out, did you?” She just patted his hand.

 

Suddenly there was a shrill whistle blast. “Break it up!” shouted a loud voice. “Break it up or I’ll stun the lot of you!” The noise quickly faded away and Alby could see from his vantage point a new batch of legs pushing through the mob. The cadets in front of him parted and a squad of the provost guard with drawn stunners were shoving the two sides to opposite ends of the lobby. Sergeant Cutlus looked down at him and shook his head.

 

“Cadet Worth. Why am I not surprised to find you in the middle of this?”

 

 

* * *

 

 

He spent the night in the Infirmary. He had a broken nose and collar bone and several cracked ribs. Plus an impressive collection of bruises and other minor scrapes and cuts. And yet, somehow, he didn’t mind at all. They were like badges of honor. Wounds honorably sustained in a noble cause. A couple of dozen other cadets spent the night there as well.

 

The rest of C and G Companies spent the night in the stockade.

 

An improvised stockade, actually, since the real one couldn’t begin to handle the numbers involved. Apparently there had never been a ruckus like this in the long history of the Academy.

 

He stayed in the Infirmary for three days. On the second day he was startled to be questioned by an officer from the Judge Advocate General’s office. The man told him that he didn’t have to answer any questions if he didn’t want to, but Alby gave him the whole story, describing exactly what he had done. But remembering Lord Auditor Vorkosigan’s instructions, he said nothing about why he had done it. He was getting the idea that he might get into some serious trouble for his little prank, but that didn’t bother him any more than his injuries. The JAG officer made no comments but simply took his statement and went away.

 

On the third day Anny and Patric and Jer came to visit. They all had bruises on their faces. Anny had an amazing shiner on her left eye. He was delighted to see them. “Whoa!” he cried. “Call out the guard! There’s been a jailbreak!”

 

“How are you doing, Alby?” asked Anny.

 

“Pretty good. They’re letting me out tomorrow. But what about you guys? They let you out of the slammer?”

 

“Yeah, for now,” said Jer and he couldn’t keep the worry out of his voice. “There’s some sort of hearing set for the day after tomorrow.”

 

“Hearing? For who?”

 

“Everyone, I guess.”

 

“Fighting is against the rules,” added Anny.

 

“Yeah, I remember you telling me that. But if they’re bringing up everyone at once it can’t be too bad. Not like they’ll kick out two full companies of cadets.”

 

“We can hope,” said Patric.

 

Alby could see that they were all worried. None of them were Vor, so offenses that might get a Vor a slap on the wrist could get commoners expelled. He’d never thought that his actions could lead to something like this. “Guys… guys, I’m sorry I got you all involved in this,” he said. “But thanks. Thanks got getting me out of that jam.”

 

“You’re our friend, Alby,” said Anny. “We couldn’t let them beat you to a pulp.”

 

“Although they nearly did anyway,” said Jer pointing at his bandages. “Bastards.”

 

“It was just a gag,” said Alby. “A little payback for what they… But I didn’t want to get any of you in trouble.”

 

“We know why you did it, Alby,” said Anny. “And I’m pretty sure I know what else you did, too. When the simulator started and my head didn’t feel like it was going to explode I knew that someone had done something. And when Jer and Patric told me about all the research you were doing… well, I put two and two together. Thank you, Alby.” He blushed but couldn’t think of anything to say.

 

“And it was a really good gag,” said Jer, grinning.

 

“Really good,” agreed Patric. “How’d you manage to pull it off?”

 

“Oh, I just tinkered around with the scheduled simulation a bit. Took some time, but it wasn’t really that hard.”

 

“But those rabbits! They must have taken some work!” said Jer.

 

“No, I got lucky with those. Originally I just planned to use Cetagandans as the enemy since those were already on file, but then I found this folder with a bunch of comical stuff like the rabbits. It must have been something the simulator techs put together to play jokes on each other. Anyway, when I saw them, it was just a matter of substituting the images. Actually, the most work was creating the ballerina costumes.” He grinned.

 

“Yeah, that was the perfect touch,” said Patric. “Those jerks are never gonna live this down! The whole battalion saw them!”

 

“But you realize,’ said Jer thoughtfully, “we’ve made ourselves a whole batch of enemies. They are never going to live this down and they are never going to forgive us for doing it to them.”

 

“But I’m the one who did it to them!” protested Alby. “You had nothing to do with it!”

 

“You think they are going to believe that? Or that it would even matter to them? We are going to have to watch our backs forever.”

 

“Oh hell, I never thought…”

 

“One thing at a time, guys,” said Anny. “Let’s just get through that hearing first. Oh, and if at any point they give you the choice between an administrative review and a court martial, take the administrative review!”

 

Alby had trouble sleeping that night. He couldn’t imagine Anny getting kicked out of the Academy over this. Not when people like Lord Auditor Vorkosigan and even the Emperor were backing her. But what about Jer and Patric? What about all the other non-Vors in C Company? They had come to his defense, too. They were his comrades and friends. He could imagine the parents of the humiliated G Company cadets demanding that someone pay a price for what had happened. What if they decided to pick a few people from C Company to make an example of? With actions come consequences. Anny said that a lot. It was some quote of Countess Vorkosigan. He’d never really thought about the consequences of his actions… Eventually he slept.

 

 

* * *

 

 

The hearing was anti-climactic after all the worry they put into it. All the offenders, both companies, were assembled in an auditorium and a panel of three officers were up on the raised stage. They read off the charges which, stripped of all the legalese, came down to beating the snot out of fellow cadets. As Anny had warned, anyone who wanted a court martial was given that opportunity, but apparently the word had gotten around because no one asked for one. The triumvirate lectured them on the seriousness of their crimes and the stain it put on the honor of themselves, their companies, their battalion and so on up the chain of command until Alby was feeling a little guilty about besmirching the honor of infant Princess Kareen.

 

But finally they wound down and announced that each of them would receive one hundred demerits. There were a few hastily shushed groans over this, but by and large, most of the cadets were sighing in relief. “In addition,” continued the officer in charge, “each of you will be assigned forty hours of punishment rounds to be carried out over the next eight weeks.” This produced a slightly louder groan. “This hearing is concluded.”

 

The officers started getting to their feet but there was an angry squawk from the far side of the room: “But what about…?” The officers paused and Alby could see Olaf Vorlevey pointing in his direction. But Vorgarron had him by the arm and was shaking his head vigorously. Vorlevey subsided and the officers left.

 

“C Company cadets!” said Anny in her command voice. “Fall in outside!” Vorgarron did the same a moment later and a chill went through Alby. Fall in with G Company? Go back to the barracks with them? Would he wake up dead in the morning? Anny looked sharply at him, obviously thinking the same thing. “Alby… maybe… maybe you should come with us.”

 

“But how can I…?”

 

As they stood there, undecided, an officer approached them. “Cadet-Captain Payne? Cadet Worth? The Commandant wants to see you both right away.” A summons to the Commandant’s Office would normally be something to fill a cadet with terror, but both of them breathed a sigh of relief instead. Anny told Jer to take the company back to the barracks and then she and Alby went with the officer.

 

Spring was only a month away, but winter hadn’t given up and Alby shivered in his greatcoat as they walked across campus. Big mounds of snow lined the walkways. “I wonder what he wants?” said Alby to Anny.

 

“I don’t know, but he seems like a fair man,” replied Anny.

 

“Yeah.”

 

They reached the HQ building and divested themselves of their greatcoats. After only a very brief wait they were ushered into Commandant Sylvanus’ office. His aide closed the door behind him as he left. Alby and Anny stood at attention and saluted.

 

“Stand at ease,” said Sylvanus. He sat at his desk staring at them for a minute or more. “Miss Payne,” he said at last. “When they first dumped you in my lap I foresaw a host of problems. Most of those problems did, in fact, come to pass and yet somehow all of us managed to survive them. But this latest incident… this wasn’t something I expected at all.”

 

“Sir?” said Anny. She looked as confused as Alby felt.

 

Sylvanus’s eyes shifted to Alby. “Cadet, you admitted to the JAG officer that you were the one who buggered the simulator software, so I don’t imagine you’ll try to deny it to me.”

 

“Uh… no sir.”

 

“There are certain people who are demanding that whoever sabotaged the recent battalion simulation should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Technically, such sabotage could call for a dishonorable discharge and a prison sentence.” Alby turned pale.

 

“Sir!” exclaimed Anny. “Cadet Worth was just…” Sylvanus held up his hand and Anny desisted.

 

“However,” he continued. “The Academy Provost tells me that the infraction could also be interpreted to fall under the rather broad category of ‘Cadet Pranks’. It seems I have the authority to decide which set of regulations should apply to you.”

 

Alby held his breath, pinned like a bug in the Commandant’s gaze.

 

“My judgment is that since you did not actually strike a single blow in the fight, the punishment meted out by the review board will suffice to cover this other infraction. The matter is closed.”

 

“Thank you sir!” The Commandant made a little ambiguous gesture with his hand.

 

“One thing you didn’t tell the JAG officer was why you did it. I think I know, but I’ll ask you now: why?”

 

Alby hesitated. Sylvanus had been right there when they dug up the computer worm and discussed its implications. But Anny hadn’t. Still she had to suspect… “It was payback, sir. For what they tried to do to Anny.” He stared straight at Sylvanus but he could sense Anny looking at him.

 

“I wasn’t aware that the Lord Auditor had issued any report on his investigation yet,” said the Commandant very dryly. “There certainly haven’t been any arrests made here at the Academy. Perhaps you received some secret communiqué from Lord Auditor Vorkosigan to carry out your ‘payback’? He’s got a reputation for unconventional methods.”

 

“No sir. But… but we know who did it!”

 

“Do we?”

 

“Well… it had to have been… they must have…” he sputtered to a stop.

 

“’They’? All of G Company? They were all in on it?”

 

“Well no…”

 

“But they were hurting Miss Payne? Trying to drive her out of the Academy?”

 

“Yes! You know they were, sir!”

 

“But the plot had been foiled. You foiled it, Cadet. But that wasn’t enough. You felt you needed to punish the people behind it. The people who were hurting your former company commander.”

 

“I… I was afraid they’d escape any real punishment because they were Vor. Sir.” Alby stared at the Commandant. Why was he doing this? He knew what the score was!

 

Sylvanus was silent again for a while, tapping a finger on his desk. He looked back to Anny. “Winning the respect, the loyalty, of those under your command is something we try to teach here at the Academy. Law, tradition, and sometimes brute force back up an officer’s authority, but it’s always best if you can lead your people rather then drive them. It’s one of the most important skills a good officer can have. And it’s very hard to teach. Miss Payne, it seems as though you’ve already learned that skill. I confess, I didn’t expect it.”

 

Anny frowned but didn’t say anything.

 

“Well!” said Sylvanus suddenly as if he’d made some decision. “Mr. Worth, if it will satisfy your demand for justice, I can let you know that there will be some real punishment for what was done. Perhaps not as severe as you’d wish, but we do what we can. However, it is obvious that we cannot return you to G Company. We need to find somewhere else to put you to keep you out of trouble.” He looked at Anny again. “Cadet-Captain Payne, you have shown a knack for keeping Cadet Worth under control. Do you think you could do so again?”

 

A grin broke out on Anny’s face. A ray of sunshine seemed to blaze inside Alby’s heart.

 

“Yes sir. I think I can handle him,” said Anny.

 

“All right then. He is transferred to C Company, effective immediately.  That’s all. You’re both dismissed.”

 

They both saluted and Sylvanus returned it. Anny faced about to leave, but Alby hesitated. “Sir? Thank you sir. But… but this could make some problems for you.” His father wouldn’t be happy about having his plans for Alby thwarted.

 

“Perhaps,” replied the Commandant. “But they’ll be my problems. You just deal with you own from now on, eh?”

 

“Yes sir.” He turned and followed Anny.

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Detail—Halt! Ten minute break! Fall out!”

 

A hundred and thirty weary cadets stopped in their tracks and lowered heavy rifles from aching shoulders. A routine had established itself and G Company went to the north end of the courtyard while C Company went south. Alby flopped down on the flagstones and propped his back against the wall. Anny, Jer and Patric were close by. This was the fourth week of their punishment. Four more to go. It was getting a bit old, but Alby was still so happy about being back with C Company that he didn’t really mind. He suspected that the others weren’t quite so happy about it.

 

Still, none of them had put any blame on him and if anyone started griping about it someone would get up on their tip-toes in a ballet pose and they would all crack up laughing. C Company had had a running feud with G Company long before the current incident. No, nobody in his company was giving him trouble over the situation.

 

But there were a lot of people in G Company who would like to!

 

He glanced over to where Olaf Levey was sitting. His uniform tunic was bare of any decoration. The Commandant had made good on his promise that there would be significant punishment for the assault on Anny via the simulator. Every officer and NCO in G Company had been busted back to private and others promoted over them. That had to hurt nearly as much as the Great Rabbit Hunt (as it had come to be called). Naturally they held Alby to blame. They hadn’t been able to exact any sort of revenge yet, but Alby was careful where he went and tried to always stay in a group. He wasn’t sure how long he’d have to worry about that.

 

Not that he let it bother him.

 

He was back where he belonged. He had found where he belonged! He couldn’t remember ever being happier than he was right at that moment. Friends. Comrades. Family. Everything that he’d been wanting without even knowing it. He needed to call his sister and let her know she didn’t need to keep the guest room ready for him. He would be staying here.

 

Still, with actions came consequences…

 

“Anny? I’m… I’m sorry that with all the demerits we got we’re not the Honor Company anymore. I know it meant a lot to you.” Indeed, with 6,500 demerits added in a lump C Company was now ranked second to last in the battalion. Only G Company had more. Anny looked at him for a moment and then smiled.

 

“Acceptable losses, Cadet. Especially considering what we won.”

 

“Won? What did we win?”

 

“You tell me.”

 

“But… the only thing you got out of this was… was…”

 

“Yeah,” said Patric Mederov, smiling in turn.

 

“A bargain at twice the price,” added Jer Naddel.

 

The meaning sank in and Alby was suddenly blinking back tears. “Thanks,” he whispered.

 

“You’re more than welcome,” said Anny.

 

“And hey,” said Jer. “The pentathlon is coming up in a couple months. We’ll just win it again.”

 

“That’s right,” said Patric.

 

“Yes, our loss was negligible,” said Anny. “And you want to know something else?”

 

“What?”

 

She looked over to where Olaf Levey was glowering. She slapped her fist into the palm of her other hand.

 

“It was worth it!”

 

They were still laughing when Sergeant Cutlus called them back into ranks.

 

 

 

End of Book Two

Chapter Text

Second Interlude

 

 

Two men, one young, one old, strolled through the park that lined the river which bisected Vorbar Sultana. They often met here in good weather at the lunch hour to discuss their mutual passion: Barrayaran politics. Today the early summer weather was very pleasant and there were many other people in the park. Perforce, the pair kept their talk to less than sensitive subjects as eavesdropping would be far too easy.

 

“So,” asked the young one, “what do you think of this latest proposal by the Progressives to give seats in the Council of Counts to representatives from Sergyar and Komarr?”

 

The old one snorted. “Naturally I don’t like it, but it was inevitable that this was going to come up sooner or later. While Sergyar only had a tiny population and while Komarr was still actively plotting rebellion it was easy to ignore any ‘requests’ for representation. But now…”

 

“Yes, now Sergyar has nearly the same population as all of South Continent. Hard to pass them off as some inconsequential colony anymore. And things have been quiet on Komarr for a long time now. The Emperor’s marriage is having the desired effect there, I think.”

 

“So it would appear. But now they think their good behavior entitles them to a say in how the whole empire is run!”

 

“Well, it’s hard to blame them…”

 

“Bah! We mishandled the Komarr situation from the start! We should have set up counts’ districts there right after the conquest. Appointed some new counts from the worthy younger sons and given all the larger domed cities to them. Import some solid Barrayaran yeoman to back them up and left the damn Komarrans to run their shops!”

 

“Hard to entice people to live in those dreary domes,” said the young one.

 

“Not with the incentives we could have given them,” said the old one. “Too late now, though, damn it.”

 

“Yes, if we tried to transplant Barrayar’s Vor system there part and parcel now there would be a planet-wide revolt!”

 

“So instead, they want to transplant their prole system here!”

 

“Of course this current proposal would only have the representatives as non-voting members of the Council…”

 

“That won’t last!” snapped the older one. “Once they’ve got their feet in the door, they’ll want a real say. Before you know it our own proles will be demanding to elect their counts and the emperor, too! Madness!”

 

They walked in silence for a while and the younger one noticed a well-dressed man in the pathway ahead. He was looking around as if searching for someone. Then he caught sight of the pair, stiffened and then came purposefully in their direction. “Say, isn’t that…?” began the younger.

 

“Sven Vorlevey, I wonder what… Sven, hello, old fellow, nice to…”

 

“Don’t ‘old fellow’ me!” snarled Vorlevey, stopping in front of them. The man was quivering with rage. “How dare you—how dare you—involve my son in one of your schemes?”

 

“Why, Sven, whatever are you…?”

 

“Don’t pretend you don’t know! I just heard from him and he’s been interrogated by ImpSec! ImpSec! With fast-penta! My own son treated like some common street criminal! And he’s been stripped of his cadet rank! All because of your vendetta against that bloody Payne girl!”

 

“Sven, calm down…”

 

“Just stay away from him! You and your thugs! Leave me and mine alone!” Vorlevey spun on his heel and stalked off.

 

A dozen heartbeats passed in silence and then the young one spoke: “Well, I’d been meaning to ask how things had been going on that front. Not too well, I’m guessing.”

 

The old one frowned. “No. Even worse than I realized, apparently. There’s no way anything can be traced back to me… but perhaps it’s time to lay low for a while.”

 

“So it would seem.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Colonel Thayer Sylvanus, sat at the conference table and listened to his staff give their annual reports. Another year had gone by and another class had been graduated. And a new year was about to begin. The returning cadets would be back from their summer leaves in a few days and shortly after that the new incoming class would arrive. The cycle would begin again.

 

“… and I’m afraid that ImpSec still hasn’t approved the security clearance for Professor Glickman,” said Major Vordenny, head of the Social Sciences Department. “If they continue to drag their heels I’m going to have a rather gaping hole in my faculty, sir.”

 

“Did they give any reason for the delay?” demanded Sylvanus.

 

“Apparently Glickman wrote a letter to his college newspaper when he was a freshman condemning the invasion of Escobar,” sighed Vordenny.

 

“That was almost forty years ago!” snapped Sylvanus. “There probably isn’t anyone from Pol who was alive then who didn’t condemn the invasion!”

 

“I know, sir and I pointed that out to ImpSec, but they can be rather… narrow-minded on issues like this.”

 

Sylvanus frowned. Yes, ImpSec—and a lot of other officers—didn’t like the idea of bringing in off-worlders as faculty members. But what was he supposed to do? Seven years earlier—four years before he became the commandant—a major reorganization had taken place at the Imperial Service Academy. Prior to that time the Academy had offered a three-year course of instruction whose focus had been almost entirely on turning out combat officers. The curriculum had been on equipment and tactics and leadership and not much else. There had been almost no time off for the cadets and nearly all the cadets had been Vor. Sylvanus, himself had gone through that mill and as one of the few non-Vors to make it through he was well aware of just how tough it had been. The times had demanded warriors.

 

But times had changed.

 

Barrayar had not attempted a new conquest since the ill-fated Escobar Adventure that Professor Glickman had so objected to, almost forty years earlier. There had been intermittent skirmishing with the Cetaganadans for a few decades afterwards, but even that had petered out in the last decade. Except for the threat of piracy and a few minor conflicts between minor powers, the Wormhole Nexus was at peace and looked to stay that way. Barrayar had gone from being conquerors to being occupiers and had now become administrators and colonizers.

 

It had taken a while, but eventually the realization had occurred that Barrayaran officers needed to be more than just warriors. They needed more skills than just how to plan an assault landing or lead a platoon of soldiers or command a warship. So, year by year new courses had been added to the old curriculum. Eventually there was no way to fit it all into three years so the course had been lengthened to four. Many of the more advanced courses on strategy and command had been shifted to the Imperial War College and several other post-graduate schools that were created to meet the need. The Academy was now as much a university as it was a training school for officers. It turned out well-rounded, educated young men—who could also fight if necessary.

 

Sylvanus wasn’t sure how he really felt about this transformation. The old warrior traditions died hard, even among the non-Vors. But his personal feelings didn’t matter. As Commandant it was his job to make sure his young gentlemen received the education that the regulations mandated. And at the moment he was short one professor of Galactic Sociology. Barrayar was unable to provide one from its own scholars, so there had been no choice but to look elsewhere. This Glickman was one of the very few who was qualified and also willing to move to Barrayar.

 

Sylvanus sighed. “All right, I’ll have a word with ImpSec and see if we can move this along.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” said Vordenny. “That’s all I have.” He sat down.

 

Sylvanus looked to the next officer, Captain Pohanaka, his adjutant. “Everything square with the battalions, Brian?” he asked.

 

“Yes, sir, no problems there—especially since we had that bit of luck last semester.”

 

“Not exactly what I’d call luck. A silver lining perhaps…”

 

“As you say sir,” said Pohanka, but he couldn’t keep a small smile off his face. And Sylvanus had to admit he was probably right. The matter they were both not referring to was the field and staff officers for the incoming third year class. The first year class didn’t get its own officers and NCOs until the end of their first year. The second year had their own officers and NCOs at the company level, but the battalion officers were still real, commissioned officers. At the start of their third year they would have these replaced by cadet-officers. A cadet-lieutenant colonel, cadet-major, cadet-adjutant, and several other cadet-lieutenants in various staff positions. The top post, the cadet-lieutenant colonel, always went to the Vor cadet in the class with the highest academic and military scores. But the other positions would go to the next best cadets, Vor or non-Vor.

 

Until a certain unfortunate incident involving a fight between two of the companies, the cadet in line for the major’s post was one Cadet-Captain Andreanne Payne of C Company. Except for the hundred demerits that resulted from that fight, Payne would have--should have—had that post. She’d nearly won it anyway. Her company came within just a few seconds of winning the Vorbarra Pentathlon for a second straight year which would have erased all those demerits. While there was a part of him that was sorry she hadn’t done it, Sylvanus had to admit that he was relieved. There were enough important people annoyed that Payne was here at all, that she was a cadet-captain. To have her a field officer as well… no, he was glad to avoid having to deal with that, too.

 

Especially considering all the new problems that would be arriving in a few days.

 

“All right, gentlemen, I think that covers routine matters. But as I’m sure all of you know by now, we have a rather large issue that is in no way routine…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* * *

 

BOOK  THREE

 

* * *

 

 

 

Chapter 19

 

 

Anny Payne waited in the rain for the bus to Hassadar at the Red Rocks stop. This region of the Dendarii Mountains had been in a severe drought for several years and she imagined all the inhabitants were happy to see the rain, brief as it was likely to be. But it would have to choose this particular morning… She could have sought shelter in Giverson’s Store, but that would have meant enduring Mr. Giverson’s endless prattle and the scrutiny and whispered comments of the usual gang of idlers who hung out there. She’d had all she could take of both; the rain was just a minor annoyance by comparison. Her mood was as dark as the clouds overhead. I’m never coming back here.

 

The thought didn’t dismay her as much as it should have. Red Rocks, a village southeast of Hassadar, in the foothills of the mountains, had been her whole world for most of her life. She’d grown up here, gone to the little school here, worked the small family farm here. Except for one rusted-out link in the chain holding the load of logs that had crushed the life out of her brother she probably would have gotten married here and never left. But Peter’s death and her impossible promise to her father on his own deathbed had taken her away from Red Rocks. Far away. To Hassadar, to glittering Vorbarr Sultana and ultimately to the Imperial Service Academy. It still seemed like a dream. Well, if it is, I have no intention of waking up!

 

She hadn’t been back to Red Rocks in almost three years. She’d exchanged a few brief messages with her mother and sent some notes to her sisters on birthdays and holidays, but she hadn’t been back—until now. She had two weeks leave at the end of her second year at the Academy and instead of spending the time at Vorkosigan House as she had last year, she decided that she really ought to go home and see her family and old friends.

 

It had started out well enough. A small crowd had welcomed her at the bus stop and there had been hugs and happy reunions. To her surprise she was something of a celebrity in tiny Red Rocks. There had been a dance held in her honor the first night and the village speaker had said some nice things about her. It had been a lot of fun.

 

Things had gone downhill from there.

 

It soon became clear that her sisters and even some of her old friends resented her new status. The young men seemed to think that after all that time in sophisticated Vorbarr Sultana and surrounded by thousands of male cadets she was going to be willing to hop into to bed with them at the drop of a hat. When she disabused them of that notion the friendly smiles vanished and the ugly whispers began. The people who she’d grown up with seemed ignorant and uncouth, downright embarrassing at times. It was obvious that she didn’t fit in here anymore.

 

And then there was Monti.

 

Her mother had a boyfriend. A live-in boyfriend. It shouldn’t have surprised her. Her mother was in her mid-forties, over twenty years younger than her father, and it was entirely proper that a widow of her age might find another husband. But they hadn’t married and from what her sisters told her Monti had no intention of getting married because that would have cut off her father’s pension payments. Monti didn’t seem like too bad a sort and treated her sisters kindly enough, but he was obviously an opportunist. He treated the house and the farm like he owned them, even though technically they belonged to her mother. He’d even sold off some things—including the old sword over the mantle. He’d started asking Anny about the disposition of her salary once she graduated and started getting one. The implication was that he might consider marrying her mother if Anny could make up for the loss of the pension payments. Her mother was clearly in favor of such a move. When Anny had not immediately agreed to anything they both turned surly.

 

After three days she bought a bus ticket and was now standing in the rain waiting for it to arrive. No one had come to see her off. The Paynes had lived in Red Rocks for nine generations. Once her sisters married or left, there would be no more.

 

 

* * *

 

 

The bus to Hassadar was crowded. Most of the empty seats were next to elderly men and women on an outing to the provincial capital and Anny didn’t want to get them wet with her sodden clothing. But she spotted a seat next to a thin teenage boy. She stuffed her bag into the overhead rack, took off her jacket and cap and sat down. He did a double-take. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “Good mornin’… uh,  Miss. I thought…”

 

You thought I was a boy, didn’t you? She was wearing a shirt and trousers and her hair was close-cropped per the Academy regulation. “’Mornin’,” she replied stiffly. He flinched slightly at her tone and Anny reminded herself that even though she might feel angry with the whole world just at the moment there was no reason to take it out on this poor kid. “Hi,” she said more mildly. “I’m Anny.”

 

“Zac, Zac Karal. Nice t’meet you, Anny. Goin’ to Hassadar?”

 

“Just a stop-over. Then I’m off to Vorbarr Sultana on the monorail.”

 

“Really? Me, too! I just enlisted and I hafta report in there. God knows where they’ll send me after that.”

 

Now she did a double-take. Zac didn’t seem old enough to enlist. But obviously he was. She was tempted to one-up him by telling him where she was going after Vorbarr Sultana. But no, she was tired of explaining herself. “Well, good luck to you.” she stared out the window on the opposite side of the bus and the conversation died. The bus crept along the narrow, twisting roads, stopping at one village after another. Few people in the mountains owned a vehicle and the bus was the best way to get around. The rain soon stopped and the sun came out, promising another hot day.

 

A bit later Zac got up to use the rest room at the rear of the bus. When he came back Anny got up to let him in to his seat, but he was frozen, looking at her travel bag. What…?

 

“Where’d you get that?” he asked, pointing. She grimaced; the bag had the Academy seal printed on the side.

 

“It’s mine,” she said, gesturing him to his seat.

 

“What? Your brother or something at the Academy? He bought it for you?” he asked, taking his place.

 

“No, it’s mine. I got it at the Academy.”

 

“What? You were visitin’? Takin’ a tour?”

 

She sighed. “No, I go to the Academy. I’m a cadet there.”

 

“Yeah, right!” he snorted.

 

“’S’true.” She looked away and refused to say anything more.

 

“City folk,” Zac muttered.

 

“What?” She looked back at him.

 

“You city folk think you can tell us hillsmen any lie you like and we’ll believe it.”

 

“I’m from Red Rocks.”

 

He looked at her skeptically. “Then why you lyin’ to me?”

 

She signed again and pulled out her Academy ID card and handed it to him. “Not lyin’. Satisfied?” She had almost eradicated her Dendarii Mountains accent while at the Academy, but the last few days were bringing it back full strength. Zac goggled at the ID and then goggled at her.

 

“You’re Anny Payne!” he exclaimed. A number of heads turned in her direction.

 

“Shh! Everybody’ll want one.”

 

“What are you doing here?” he asked in a near-whisper.

 

“Just visitin’.”

 

“That’s right! She… you’re from Red Rocks! I saw it on the vids when you won that pentath-a-thingy last year!”

 

“Home sweet home.” She managed to keep the bitterness out of her voice.

 

“Guess your folks must be pretty proud.”

 

Why wouldn’t this kid shut up? “Belike. What about you? Where’re you from?”

 

“Silvy Vale.”

 

That was much farther up in the mountains than Red Rocks. “The bus gets all the way up there now?” Anny had faint memories of huge machines cutting the road through Red Rocks when she was very young.

 

“Nah, not yet,” replied Zac. “Another few years they say. I had to walk down to Three Pines yesterday. Got the bus there.”

 

“Your folks proud of you joinin’ up?”

 

“Yeah, I guess they’re happy. My Grandda Serg was right proud, he was a twenty-year man himself, but my ma is kinda worried, tho’.” Anny stared at him and tried not to grin. No doubt that he was just as worried as his ma.

 

“Just do what your sergeant tells you and you’ll be fine. He might seem nasty, but he really wants you to make it through. Try to make some friends among the other inductees. That’ll help a lot. Just remember that everyone else is just as nervous and lonely as you are even though they won’t admit it.”

 

“Guess you’ve been through the mill already. This is what? Your third year?”

 

“Just startin’ it. And, yeah, I’ve been through the mill.”

 

“Pretty tough?”

 

“Tough enough.”

 

“Huh. Well if you can do it I guess I can.” He stopped, embarrassed. “Uh, I didn’t mean….”

 

“Yes you did. Now you’re lyin’ to me.” She smiled and after a moment he did, too.

 

“Yeah, I guess I was. Just not used to… It’s a new idea.”

 

“That it is. But don’t worry, seems to bother a lot of folks.”

 

“Not sure if it bothers me… just takes some gettin’ used to. But I guess if you’re good enough to make it through that ought t’be good enough for everyone.”

 

“I wish everyone felt that way, Zac.”

 

They spent the rest of the trip to Hassadar talking quietly. Zac, once he got over the shock of it all, quizzed Anny relentlessly on what he should expect. She reminded him repeatedly that the Academy course was a bit different than what he’d encounter in normal basic training, but she gave him all the advice she could. More than once she stopped cold when the image of her brother Peter suddenly popped into her head. In another reality, this might have been him on the bus heading off to the training camp.

 

Eventually the bus came down out of the mountains and picked up speed on the much better roads leading to Hassadar. They arrived just before midday. The bus station directly adjoined the monorail station and Anny invited Zac to have lunch with her at a restaurant across the street. But he spotted a group of youths who were obviously also recruits and decided he better join up with them even though their train wouldn’t leave for another hour.

 

“I’m sure we’ll all be back in third class, so I guess I won’t be seein’ you on the train. But it was great talkin’ with you, Anny. Thanks for your help.”

 

“Good luck to you, Zac. Maybe we’ll bump into each other again some time.”

 

“That would be good—except I’ll hafta salute you the next time I see you!” He laughed and she did, too. But the thought that someday she would be expected to command boys like Zac was sobering. She offered her hand and he took it without hesitation. “Good luck to you, too, Anny.”

 

They parted and Anny ate a solitary lunch before catching the monorail. She had ridden it enough times that it was no longer the novelty it had once been and she slept most of the way to Vorbarr Sultana. The sun was westering, but the long summer day was far from over by the time she trudged up to the gate of Vorkosigan House. Home. She’d told herself a thousand times not to think about it that way. It wasn’t her home. Never could be. Wasn’t right to even think about it that way. But she couldn’t help it.

 

The ImpSec guard, a corporal, let her through after scanning her. They’d seen each other before and he knew she was on the permanent guest list, but ImpSec was nothing if not thorough. Armsman Pym let her in the front door. “Welcome back, Miss Anny,” he said cordially. “We weren’t expecting you so soon.”

 

“Change of plans. Sorry to drop in without warning. I should have called.”

 

“No trouble, Miss. You’re always welcome here.” Her black mood from the morning had almost entirely evaporated and Pym’s sincere greeting finished it off like a strong sun on morning dew. She found herself smiling as she trotted up the grand staircase to her little room on the third floor.

 

The house was unusually quiet. The Count and Countess and their large retinues were back on Sergyar, of course, but the Lord Auditor, Lady Ekaterin and their family were all off at their summer home in Vorkosigan Surleau. She wasn’t sure why Pym hadn’t accompanied them; he seemed to be their favorite among the armsmen. Before she’d left for Red Rocks they had invited her to stop in and visit them on her way back and she was sorry she hadn’t taken them up on that. Patric was back on South Continent and he’d persuaded Jer and Alby to go along. She really missed them. In fact, she was feeling rather lonely. Maybe she’d go and visit with Drou Koudelka tomorrow.

 

Automatically she unpacked her computer pad and turned it on to see if she had any messages. She was expecting a few from the boys down on South Continent, but she came immediately alert when a priority message from the Academy popped up on the screen, blinking a demanding red.

 

It was short and simply instructed her to report to the Commandant two days hence. Her leave wasn’t over for another four.

 

Oh dear, what now?

 

 

* * *

 

 

Anny stood at attention before Commandant Sylvanus’ desk and saluted. “Cadet-Captain Payne, reporting as ordered, sir.”

 

“At ease, cadet. Have a seat. Sorry to drag you back here early.”

 

She found a chair and perched on the edge of it feeling very self-conscious. Sylvanus was shuffling through some flimsies. He didn’t seem upset about anything, which was a relief. She’d caused the poor man so much trouble over the last two years…

 

“Well!” he said suddenly. “Another year begins. You ready for it, Cadet-Captain? What shape will your company be in?”

 

“I expect they might be a bit hung-over the first day, but they’ll be fine after that. They’re a good group, sir. The best.”

 

“You’re pretty proud of them, aren’t you?”

 

“Yes sir, I am.” And she was. They had worked so hard. They had come so close to winning the Pentathlon for a second year. They could have been the honor company again. A few seconds on the races, another bulls-eye on the rifle range… darn.

 

“You’ve done an excellent job with them, Anny.” It took her a moment to realize that he’d called her by name. He’d never done that before.

 

“T-thank, you, sir,” she stuttered. She could tell she was blushing. What was this all about?

 

To her surprise now the Commandant seemed to be blushing. “Cadet, I have a rather awkward question to ask you, but I need a completely honest answer.”

 

“Sir?”

 

“Have any of the cadets made any… inappropriate advances toward you since you’ve been here?” Yes, there was no doubt that he was blushing. “I know you’ve never lodged any complaints, but…”

 

“Sir? No, sir. Nothing physical, anyway.” Well, there had been a few times during close-combat training where her opponents had tried some holds that weren’t quite… conventional, but she didn’t think that was what the Commandant was asking about. Hell, one time she’d accidentally grabbed Cadet Kirkwood right by the…

 

“What about verbally?”

 

“There were a few things at first, sir. Comments about… about certain aspects of my anatomy. Nothing too far out of line. I heard worse in high school.”

 

“’At first’. What about now?”

 

“In the last year nothing at all from my company. From the other companies… some. Not much.”

 

“So you are telling me that your own company have behaved like gentlemen with you? Truthfully? It’s important, cadet.”

 

“Yes, sir, they have.”

 

Sylvanus nodded. “They respect you. That’s good. But you’re their captain…” He paused and stared past her for a few moments. She’d noticed that he’d do that when thinking. But what in the world was he thinking about now? She couldn’t believe that at this late date he was planning to discipline anyone for trying to cop a feel…

 

“Anny, I have a problem. I need your help.”

 

“I’ll do whatever I can. What sort of problem, sir?”

 

“Well, six problems to be exact.” He leaned forward and handed her a small pile of flimsies. She looked at them and saw that they were standard personnel files for a cadet. Each sheet had all the personal information about a cadet, including a photo.

 

She looked. She looked again.

 

“Good Lord…”

 

Sylvanus chuckled at her reaction. “You’ve got no one to blame but yourself, cadet.”

 

 

Chapter 20

 

 

Anny, what’s going on?” demanded Jer Naddel. She looked at her first sergeant and gave him a grim smile.

 

“Trouble. What else? Sorry to drag you back here early, but I needed to give you a heads up.”

 

“What sort of trouble? And what’s that all about?” He pointed.

 

‘That’ was a new wall that had been constructed across the end of their barracks floor, sealing off about a quarter of the space. A pair of workmen were putting on the final coat of paint as they watched. A single door was set in the center. It didn’t have a handle.

 

“The door has a palm-lock,” said Anny. She held up her hand. “I’m told that I am the only one in the entire universe who can open that door—from either side.”

 

“Do I want to know what’s on the other side? That used to be our study space, you know.” Anny nodded. The floor had originally been designed for one hundred cadets, the normal size of a plebe company. Natural attrition had whittled them down to sixty-five and the spare room had been taken over as a study/lounge. Now that was gone.

 

“Sorry about that. But as for what’s on the other side, well, there’s a small room for me…”

 

“You’re moving in here?” interrupted Jer. “You’re not in your cottage anymore?”

 

“No. There’s my room, a toilet/shower room and there’s bunk space for six cadets.”

 

“Six cadets? But what… oh Dear God, you don’t mean…?”

 

“Yes, six cadets. Six female cadets.”

 

“Saints preserve us, as Sergeant Byrne would say. But… but are they going to be part of our company?”

 

“No. Count your blessings. They’re just plebes and they’ll be assigned to plebe companies just like I was. But they bunk here. I imagined you noticed the new exterior stairway that’s been constructed.”

 

“Yeah, I was wondering about that.”

 

“That’s how they come and go. There’s a palm lock on that door, too and it will only open for me and them. There will never be any reason for them to use this door here. They should never be in this part of the barracks.”

 

“Why even have the door?”

 

Anny shrugged. “I guess they were trying to be nice to me since I do have business here. Trying to save me the trouble of walking down three flights, coming over to the other door and walking up three flights—as if I’d care after having to walk half a klick each way from my cottage.”

 

“So I’m assuming that you’ve been assigned as some sort of mother hen for these girls?”

 

“That’s the idea,” nodded Anny. “But there’s more to it than that. That’s why I wanted to meet with you early.”

 

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…” said Jer.

 

“Yeah. As well you should.”

 

“Great. You gonna explain why or just leave me dangling here?”

 

Anny let out a long sigh. “Well, the Commandant feels that since all you fine, healthy, testosterone-filled, young lads of C Company have managed to go two full years without gang-raping me you can be trusted to guard the honors of the six newbies.”

 

“That’s perhaps the most back-handed compliment I’ve ever heard,” muttered Jer. His eyebrow quirked up and he smiled. “But I’m reminded of the legend of how the young lovers managed to avoid having the girl sacrificed to the monster since they only took virgins. There might still be a way out of this…”

 

Anny snorted, but it was a measure of the trust that had grown up between her and her first sergeant that they could even joke about such things. “Too late for that, I’m afraid. Although you should know that the Academy regulations have been amended so that sex between cadets in now officially against the rules.”

 

“You mean it wasn’t? But are all these girls from Barrayar?”

 

“No. Three of them are. One is from Sergyar and the other two are from Komarr—neither from your dome, I already checked that.”

 

“So what exactly are we expected to do to ‘guard their honors’? What the hell do we do if they don’t want to have their honors guarded? Komarran girls aren’t quite so straight-laced as Barrayaran ones.”

 

“It’s all a bit vague,” replied Anny, frowning. “Other than me, we have no specific orders or duties regarding this. We are to—and I quote: keep our eyes open and help the newbies stay out of trouble, unquote.”

 

“What the hell does that mean?”

 

“Beats me. The Commandant seemed kind of… flustered explaining all this to me. But I’m remembering a conversation I had with Lord Auditor Vorkosigan last year. The Emperor is hoping to open up Imperial service to women. Other important people are backing him, but there are those who oppose the idea…” Jer snorted loudly. “Yeah. But anyway, the people supporting this have to walk a fine line. They need to protect the women from unfair persecution…”

 

“Like they did with you?” demanded Jer sarcastically. “Some protection!”

 

“I’m still here,” said Anny with a shrug. “But they also can’t appear to be unfairly coddling the women or the opponents can justifiably claim that it doesn’t prove anything if we succeed.”

 

“Yeah, I can see that. But I ask again: what are we supposed to do?”

 

“About the only thing I can think of is for you guys to sort of act like big brothers to these girls. Don’t follow them around—we’re not supposed to be bodyguards—but if you see them being harassed, try to intervene. Maybe let it be known that you won’t take it kindly if your ‘little sisters’ aren’t treated with respect.”

 

“Oh, that’s gonna go over real well with the other cadets!”

 

“Hey, we’re third year now. The girls will have the most contact with the first year class. You can’t tell me you guys can’t lean on a bunch of plebes!”

 

“True,” said Jer. “And we don’t even have to beat them up. There are so many different ways we can make their lives miserable.” He grinned.

 

“Don’t overdo it,” warned Anny. “Remember how they tried to get me to quit when I was a plebe.”

 

“They made us all miserable and tried to get us to blame you for our misery,” said Jer nodding. “Yeah, we have to be careful.”

 

“Can we do it?”

 

“Maybe. I’ll give some thought about how to properly motivate our guys. But tell me: with this new batch of women here can we expect fewer attempts to target you? I’ll tell you, Anny, some of us were getting tired of dodging shrapnel from the grenades tossed at you.”

 

“I hope so, Jer. I really hope so.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Anny left Jer to his calculations and passed through the door into what was officially the Women Cadets’ Barracks. She imagined it would pick up a few less savory names as time went by. Other than smelling of fresh paint it looked like a miniature version of all the other barracks. Well, that wasn’t quite true: despite being on the third floor, there were metal security screens over the windows. She glanced into her room. She’d spent the morning getting everything transferred from her old cottage. She was going to miss that place—sort of. Once it had been fixed up it had been a quiet and peaceful refuge. But it had also been lonely out there. Despite the new worries that came with it, she was sort of looking forward to being in the middle of things.

 

She checked the time and spent a few minutes making some final adjustments to her quarters. She had to set a good example for the girls. But then she had to go. She trotted down the new steps and out onto the campus. It was nearly deserted. The cadets wouldn’t be coming back until tomorrow.

 

Except for the six who were arriving today. Arriving right now, actually.

 

She made her way to the monorail station with two minutes to spare. She stood at parade rest until the train slid, almost silently, into the station. The doors opened and a number of officers, Academy staff, she supposed, got off. She came to attention but they didn’t come close enough that she needed to salute. A few did glance in her direction. Farther down the platform she spotted her charges. The Commandant had told her that all six of them had been ordered to report to Vorbarr Sultana so that they could travel here in a group. They were in civilian clothes and carrying commendably small travel bags.

 

They looked around nervously until they spotted her walking toward them. They snapped to attention and saluted her awkwardly as she approached. “As you were,” she said, not returning their salutes. “I was told that you were all well prepared, but apparently that was incorrect. I see you haven’t read the Academy regulations.”

 

“I did!” cried one of the girls, Abigail Vorburn. Anny had memorized their names and faces as part of her own preparations. The others were all nodding as if to say they had read them, too.

 

“Indeed?” said Anny. “Then what did you all do wrong, Ms. Burn?”

 

“Uh, we saluted you, ma’am,” said another, Jenna Lempic, one of the Komarrans. “We’re not in uniform. We shouldn’t salute, ma’am.”

 

“Correct, Ms. Lempic. And in a situation like this, you can call me ‘ma’am’, but on duty call me ‘sir’. The regs haven’t quite caught up on that yet.” She smiled briefly. “All right, grab your bags and let’s go. We have an appointment with the Quartermaster.” She turned and marched away, assuming the others would follow. Silently she sighed. They were so young! Fresh-faced, bright-eyed and probably completely ignorant of what they were facing. Did I look like that? No, she’d been a year older and she’d had months of priceless training by Drou and Commodore Koudelka. She’d come here as prepared as it was possible to be—and she’d still very nearly been crushed. How many of these girls would survive the hammer and anvil? And what the hell were they even doing here? Surely they weren’t all trying to fulfill some impossible promise made to dead relatives!

 

Just because she could, she ordered the double-quick and they all trotted to the warehouse building where the girls would be issued their uniforms and gear. She was pleased that none of them were even breathing hard when they arrived. At least they’d had some physical training it seemed. The Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant, a man named Sheads, was waiting for them with a bemused expression on his face. Anny remembered the first time she’d encountered him. He appeared to be better prepared to deal with the situation than he’d been then. He even had a state-of-the-art body-size scanner now. He’d nearly died of embarrassment when he’d had to use an old-fashioned tape measure on Anny two years earlier.

 

“’Mornin’, ladies,” he said. “I’m all ready for you.” he indicated a row of tables where small mounds of gear were laid out in six piles. “Everything’s there except your clothing. Just pick a pile and stand there. I’ll take your measurements and you can pack the rest of the stuff while I get your uniforms and such.” He paused and reddened slightly as he turned to Anny. “I… uh… Cadet-Captain, I’m assumin’ that the ladies are still responsible for their own… uh…”

 

“Undergarments?” replied Anny with a smirk. “Yes, Quartermaster Sergeant, that hasn’t changed.” The man looked relieved. He took up the scanner and used it on each of the girls. Just a quick up and down motion and then a read of the codes off their IDs and it was done. The Sergeant went off to collect the clothing that was automatically being pulled out of inventory. Meanwhile the girls began packing their other gear into enormous duffle bags. Anny observed for a moment and then called them to attention.

 

“I don’t see any of you comparing what you’re packing against the master list of gear on those clipboards on the table.” The girls looked nervously between her, their duffles, and the clipboards. “You have to sign for everything on that list. If anything’s missing from the list and you need it later, you’ll earn demerits the same as it you’d lost it. The QMS is very efficient, but mistakes do happen. I’d suggest you do your own inventory.”

 

It wasn’t an order, just a suggestion, but she was happy to see them all pulling out the stuff they had already packed and then start again, checking each item with what was on the lists. They were nearly done when Sheads returned with two assistants carrying big piles of clothing. They placed a bundle in front of each girl and Sheads nodded approvingly when they counted the items and checked them off the lists and packed them away.

 

“All accounted for?” asked Anny when they were finished. A chorus of yes ma’ams came in reply. “Good. Sign the sheets, take your copies and let’s go. Thank you, Quartermaster Sergeant.”

 

“My pleasure, Cadet-Captain. Good luck.” Anny just barely caught the “You’re gonna need it,” that he muttered as she turned away. She led her charges back toward the center of campus, across the vast parade grounds, and up to their barracks, pointing out buildings of interest along the way. The girls waddled along with the enormous duffle bags on their shoulders. She showed them the palm lock on the door and had each one try it to make sure it worked. It did. She then took them up the steps.

 

“These are your quarters,” she said. “All other barracks are off-limits to you. The rest of the Academy facilities are open to you as your duties permit, but you will never enter any of the other barracks even under a direct order from an upperclassman. If any of them try to tell you otherwise, you tell them you have orders from Commandant Sylvanus to the contrary. Understood?”

 

“Yes, ma’am!”

 

“Good. Unpack your gear and get squared away. Your footlockers and wall cabinets have combination locks you can set yourselves. When you’re done, change into your PT gear and we’ll go for a little tour. You have one hour.”

 

She left them to their unpacking and went into her room and shut the door. After a bit she could hear some talking and giggling through the wall. The wall separating the Women’s Barracks from the C Company side of the floor was built like a bank vault. For sound insulation the Commandant had said; Anny suspected it was to keep any peep holes from being drilled. But the walls within the Woman’s Barracks were paper-thin. She couldn’t quite hear what was being said, but she could certainly hear the girls. She tried to put them out of her mind and study her course schedule for the coming year. It was going to be a lot different from the previous two years.

 

Unlike some other worlds, Barrayar had a single-service military. There was no separate army, navy and marines. Personnel served wherever they were needed and it wasn’t unusual for people to shift from one branch to another during their careers. The current academy curriculum was divided into four phases. In the first year it was all the basic stuff: physical training, discipline, marching, basic weapons drill. The second year, the one Anny had just finished, was devoted to ground combat training—plus all the non-combat stuff they had to fit in. This year it would be space combat training plus space-oriented technical instruction. At the end of this year she would have to choose a specific career track and her fourth year would be tailored to fit that. She was looking forward to the space training. The idea of getting out into the wormhole nexus was very exciting. Unfortunately, despite Barrayar’s powerful fleet, ten times as many officers were needed in the ground forces than in space. Ship assignments were coveted and very hard to get. Well, she’d do her best…

 

A knock on her door roused her from her planning. She opened the door and all six girls were standing there in their PT gear: shoes, shorts and T-shirts. “Uh, you told us to report to you in an hour, sir,” said Kara Dunvich. Anny was chagrinned. She hadn’t realized an hour had gone by and she wasn’t in her own PT gear. She didn’t want them to realize that they caught her unprepared. Well, there was no regulation that said she couldn’t run in her fatigues! A large part of leadership, she’d learned, was to always at least look like you knew what you were doing.

 

“All right. Let’s go.” She led them back outside and then on a jog around the Academy campus. As they went, Anny fired off a continuing barrage of questions about basic regulations and procedures. They managed to get most of them right although she stumped all of them when she started demanding to know who the various people were who the Academy buildings were named after. “That one over there’s just been called ‘The New Classroom Building’ since it was built,” she said, pointing at one of the newest structures, “But they’re going to rename it Vorsworth Hall in a ceremony next month. I imagine you all know who he was.” The girls answered in the affirmative; Alby’s grandfather had been in the news for weeks right after he died. “I got to meet him once, just before he died,” she added and they seemed impressed.

 

The tour ended at the enlisted staff’s mess hall. The main cadet dining hall wasn’t open yet, but a lot of the Academy staff were already there, preparing for tomorrow’s influx. Anny was able to wheedle the mess sergeant into feeding her brood. There were a lot of NCOs there getting their lunch and the appearance of seven young women in their midst drew many stares and more than a few comments. None of the comments were especially rude, however. Sergeant Major Szytko kept a tight rein on the Academy NCOs and they had all been reasonably polite to Anny—with one notable exception. She wondered what he thought of this new influx of females, but she didn’t see him in the mess hall.

 

Despite the lack of overt rudeness, Anny could see that a few of the girls were uncomfortable under the scrutiny. “You’d think they’d never seen a woman before,” said Elin Vlydak, the other Komarran girl.

 

“Get used to it,” said Anny.

 

“Yeah, said Marissa Carges, “if this is the worst that we have to deal with, we’ll be lucky.”

 

“I guess… I guess you had to deal with a lot worse, sir?” said Tabitha Kresge. She looked nervous.

 

“A bit.” She resisted the urge to elaborate. She didn’t want to spook the girls—or sound like she was complaining. “But the main thing is to control yourselves. Bullies do what they do in order to get a rise out of you. If you react, you’ve put them in control and only invite more. If you refuse to take the bait they’ll lose interest. And as plebes you have to expect—and accept that the upperclassmen are going to pull all the tradition bullshit with you. They can order you to do damn near anything—with a few very obvious exceptions—and you’ve got no choice but to obey.”

 

“That’s hardly fair,” said Jenna Lempic.

 

“Welcome to Barrayar.” She looked at the six faces around the table and sighed. “Girls, I’ve been ordered to look out for you and give what help I can. I’ll do that because I’ve been ordered to and… well, because I’ve already been through the mill. But there are limits to what I can do. And there are limits to what I should do. Despite the fact that there’s no war going on right now, each and every one of you has to realize that we’re being trained as officers. If a war should break out, we’ll be expected to be able to lead men in combat. That’s too important a responsibility to give to half-baked officers. The Imperial Service Academy was considered to have one of the toughest courses of any such institutions in the wormhole nexus even before they let me in. They didn’t make it any easier because of me and they won’t because of you. The only thing I can do is try to make sure they give you the same chance as they give the boys. But the rest is up to you! If you can’t cut it, don’t expect me to save you. I can’t and I won’t. It wouldn’t be fair to the men you’ll be in command of someday. You are looking at the toughest four years you’ll probably ever face. Each of you has your own reason for wanting to come here—you have to decide if it’s worth the price you’ll have to pay to make it through. I’ll do my best to see that you get a fair chance, but you have to take that chance and run with it on your own. You understand me?”

 

The girls looked very serious, but after a moment they all nodded. “Fair enough, sir,” said Abigail Vorburn.

 

“Good,” said Anny. “Now come on, I’ll show you the obstacle course.”

 

 

Chapter 21

 

 

So, how are your baby chicks making out, Anny?” asked Alby Vorsworth. Anny was sitting at her desk in the C Company office. She pushed away the report she was filling out, leaned back and stretched.

 

“Well enough, I guess.” It had been a month since she first laid eyes on them. “They’re all still here, anyway.”

 

“That’s something,” grinned Alby. “They getting harassed like you did?”

 

“Some. Nothing too bad so far. I think the other cadets were taken by surprise the same way they were with me. May take them a while to get organized for the really nasty tricks.”

 

“Or they may think that it just isn’t worth the effort anymore. They’ve got to know that they can’t drive you out and that others are going to make it, too. Trying to keep women out is a lost cause.”

 

“Maybe. But I haven’t graduated yet. And some may give them trouble just to give them trouble.”

 

“Yeah. And I hear one of them is Vor.”

 

“Abigail Vorburn,” said Anny nodding. “And she’s from Sergyar. Born there, I understand.”

 

“Kind of amazing her family is allowing this. The Vors have been the ones who most objected to you coming here.”

 

“From what I hear about Chaos Colony it’s pretty wild and wooly,” replied Anny. “Everyone, male and female, Vor and non-Vor is expected to roll up their sleeves and get dirty when necessary. Abigail’s just taking that to the next logical step, I guess.”

 

“You getting any feedback from their company commanders?”

 

“Some. Mostly questions on how to handle them.  Usually I just refer them to Szytko or Byrne. But they’ve been assigned to the companies in pairs, so each one always has someone to watch their back.”

 

“Why not just put them all in one company?” asked Alby. “Safety in numbers and all that.”

 

Anny shrugged. “I guess they didn’t want to put all their eggs in one basket. Split up the targets. Anyway, it seems to be working so far. The girls are pretty well prepared—both physically and emotionally. I’ve hardly had to do a thing—which is good, ‘cause I’ve got enough to do keeping you jerks in line.” She smiled.

 

“Come on! This batch of angels? When have we ever given you any trouble?” asked Alby in mock outrage.

 

“Never, of course. But I am worried about the exercise next week. This isn’t a simulation, Alby. It’s the real deal and if someone screws up they could get themselves or their teammates killed.”

 

“Well, that’s the whole idea, isn’t it? Put us in real danger so we don’t get all soft and careless from nothing but simulations?”

 

Anny frowned. Alby was right, of course. While the Academy relied heavily on the simulators to cut costs and save wear and tear on equipment and prevent training accidents it also threw in enough real exercises to avoid the complacency that Alby spoke of. Next week would see the biggest one so far for the battalion. They would be transported to orbit, spend two days on an attack transport, and then make a combat drop on South Continent, go through a three-day live-fire maneuver and then be retrieved back to orbit and then come back to the Academy. They were supposed to have done this last spring as part of their ground-combat instructions, but all the hoopla over the birth of Princess Kareen along with a few glitches in the Fleet’s scheduling forced a postponement. They were squeezing it in now.

 

“Yeah, I know, but it’s my job to worry. I’ve gotten pretty fond of you guys and I’d hate to lose anyone.” She smiled and Alby snickered.

 

“Actually, it is pretty exciting,” he admitted. “Kind of looking forward to it myself. A few days away from 5-D math anyway.”

 

“True.” They were getting a lot of technical courses this semester and some of the cadets were floundering. Anny was managing to get by, but she realized that she was never going to be a jump pilot or a hyperdrive engineer. A week of dirty, exhausting combat maneuvers seemed almost like a vacation. “But in any case,” she continued, “I’m having a full kit inspection the day after tomorrow. We’re going to be ready.”

 

“Oh joy,” said Alby, rolling his eyes. “But don’t worry, we’ll be ready.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“By squad, board—ship!”

 

The order echoed across the Academy landing field and the battalion started to move. The eastern sky was a bright blue ribbon along the horizon, but dawn was still twenty minutes away. The field’s floodlights had been switched off and the troops and the assault shuttles they were boarding were gray shapes in the early morning gloom. Anny twitched her shoulders in a vain hope that her load would settle into a more comfortable position. A full set of combat gear weighed nearly thirty kilos even without any ammunition, rations, or ordnance. Some of the smaller cadets were definitely waddling instead of marching.

 

Anny’s company was split among three shuttles and she watched to make sure they were all aboard before she and her small headquarters squad followed. She took her place in a padded seat, forward near the control cockpit, and buckled the safety straps. Jer Naddel was directly opposite her. “C Company, ready for lift,” she reported. Only a few moments later the shuttle’s engines roared to life and with a lurch they were airborne. Acceleration pushed Anny down against her seat, but it wasn’t bad, maybe three gees.

 

“Excited, Skipper?” asked Jer. He used the private circuit that linked captains with their first sergeants.

 

“A bit,” she admitted. “I’ve never been off-planet before. I guess this is old hat for you, though.”

 

“Not really!” said Jer, his voice strained by the gees. “I had to get here from Komarr, but I didn’t come by assault shuttle!”

 

After about three minutes the acceleration eased up a bit and she was able to lean forward enough to look into the cockpit. She was a little disappointed that the view through the windscreen only showed blackness. She had hoped to catch the transition from sky to space, but she’d already missed it. Well, there would be other chances—she hoped.

 

Another few minutes went by and then the acceleration cut off completely, leaving them in zero-g. Her stomach felt a little queasy, but she was glad to discover that it felt identical to the simulator and she was in no danger of losing her breakfast. “End of acceleration,” announced the pilot. “Free-fall protocols in effect. Rendezvous in thirty-eight minutes.”

 

“Keep your straps on everyone,” ordered Anny. “It’s too crowded to have you all floating around at once. But you’ll all get your chance.” She unstrapped herself and carefully pulled herself into the hatchway of the control cockpit. She may have felt weightless, but with all her equipment she still massed over a hundred kilos and if she didn’t watch out she could end up crashing into things with more force than she could control. The pilot turned toward her with a bored expression which quickly turned to surprise when he saw her face through the open visor of her helmet. “Permission to rubberneck, sir?” she asked. “A lot of my troopers have never been off planet.” Including me.

 

“Who the hell are you?’ he demanded. “The Academy have a cheerleading squad now?”

 

Cadet-Captain Payne is the commanding officer of C Company, 2nd Battalion, ensign,” said Jer coming up behind her. “And she asked you a question.”

 

“Don’t get too big for your britches, snotnose,” growled the pilot, who couldn’t have been more than a couple of years older than them. But he was real officer, not a cadet.

 

“Take it easy, Jer,” said Anny. “Permission for my troopers to rubberneck, sir?” she asked again.

 

He frowned but then nodded. “Suit yourselves. But don’t touch anything.”

 

“Thank you, sir. Second platoon, by half-squad, unstrap and come forward for a look-see.” Her troopers began coming up to take a look out the windscreen. The pilot was even considerate enough to turn the shuttle so that some of Barrayar was visible. Anny went back to her seat and let the others have their look first. She knew they would appreciate her consideration, but actually, by waiting until last, she would have a better chance of getting a look at their destination: the Imperial Attack Transport Stalwart.

 

The minutes passed and eventually all the others were back in their seats and Anny and Jer took their turns. Barrayar was white and blue and brown below them. The glare from the dazzling white clouds overpowered the stars, so space was a just black backdrop. A few flashes of reflected light marked ships or stations in orbit.

 

“I… uh… I didn’t mean anything by that crack about the cheerleaders, Cadet-Captain,” said the pilot quietly.

 

“Not a problem, sir. I tend to startle a lot of people. Is that Stalwart over there?” She pointed to a white speck that was growing larger rather quickly.

 

“Yup, that’s her.” He turned the shuttle so the ship was dead ahead. “Home sweet home. Not a bad ship for a transport. But you boys… er, you folks will only be aboard for a couple of days, right?”

 

“That’s the plan.”

 

“Well, if you have any free time, look me up and I’ll buy you a drink in the officers’ lounge. M’name’s Kershaw, Kev Kershaw.”

 

Anny suppressed a grin. “Thank you, ensign. I doubt I’ll have time, but if I do, I’ll take you up on the offer.”  The ship was much bigger now and Anny looked it over while Ensign Kershaw pointed out details. It was nearly as large as a capital ship but carried only a fraction of the armament or defenses to make room for all the troops and shuttles it had to carry. Still, it was impressive.

 

“Okay,” said Kershaw, “everyone strap in, I have to maneuver in two minutes.” Anny thanked him and returned to her seat and made sure everyone was secured. Jer looked at her and shook his head.

 

“I’ll buy him a drink, the jerk!” he said over their private circuit.

 

“Now, now, he was only being polite.”

 

“Polite my ass! He has other things in mind, Anny.”

 

“Well, I suppose I can’t blame him for being attracted. I’m sure he was impressed by my figure.” She smiled and gestured to her bulky combat armor. Jer snorted, but then smiled, too. Anny’s smile faded. Was Jer actually jealous? He’d never made even the slightest romantic gesture toward her… Which was a little disappointing somehow. She had set aside any plans for romance until after she had graduated, but she hadn’t set them aside forever

 

Her musings were cut off by the muted roar of the shuttle’s thrusters. With a jerk, a lurch, and a bump, the vehicle found its way into its docking bay and was clamped down. A few minutes went by in silence and then the artificial gravity in the ship switched on and the command to debark came over their helmet speakers. The rear hatch swung open and Anny led the way out.

 

Enlisted ratings, members of the ship’s crew, were waiting for them and directed them to the barracks compartments which, amazingly enough, were located almost directly adjacent to the shuttle bays. The accommodations were cramped, but reasonably comfortable with bunks stacked four-high and rows of lockers to stow gear. There were separate compartments for the company officers which in this case were actually quite spacious. The Academy, for reasons of tradition, had kept an older, long-abandoned table of organization for the cadet companies. A modern infantry company had four platoons and six officers while the cadet companies had only two platoons and three officers. So Anny found herself with her two lieutenants in a compartment designed for six. It had its own attached shower/toilet for which she was grateful. So far she’d never found herself in a situation where the only facilities available had been communal. She supposed that if she ever did she’d just have to arrange some sort of schedule…

 

She tossed her gear on her bunk and unbuckled her combat armor and piled it there as well and then found Jer. “Have everyone stow their gear and then stay here and wait for orders. All the officers have to meet with the ship’s exec at 0800 to go over the schedule.”

 

“Right,” said Jer. “I’ll get your stuff put away, too.”

 

“Thanks.” She collected her lieutenants and then spent ten minutes trying to figure out how to get to the briefing room that was mentioned on her orders. She had deck plans of the ship on her hand computer, but they seemed to bear no relation to what they were actually finding. But by following the others and with the help of a merciful chief petty officer, who reminded her a bit of Sergeant Major Szytko, they finally arrived and not even late. The room—compartment, she tried to switch mental gears to Navy-speak from Every-one-else-speak—was about half filled with the thirty-five cadet-officers of her battalion, Captain Ramsey, the Academy officer who was overseeing the operation, and a couple of officers wearing Navy black. Ramsey introduced one of them as Commander Vorserran, the ship’s executive officer.

 

“Welcome aboard the Stalwart, gentleman,” said Vorserran. “As I’m sure you know, we have a lot of work ahead of us. While I know you are all excited about your upcoming maneuvers on South Continent, for the next two days all of your asses belong to me. I intend to make you as familiar with this ship and our shipboard procedures as it’s possible to do in fifty-two hours. Starting at 0930 hours we will begin a series of drills as outlined on the display you see here. We will commence with…”

 

Forty-five minutes later Anny and the others left the briefing. Her head was spinning with all the information Commander Vorserran had thrown at them. She hurried back to the barracks and called her company together and began briefing them on what they had to expect. She was still at it when an alarm began to blare with noise that would have woken the dead.

 

“General quarter! General quarters! All hands, man your battlestations!”

 

“All right!” shouted Anny. “For us that just means vac suits! Helmets and gloves! Move!” Her company exploded into action, heading for their lockers. Anny found hers and pulled out her helmet and gloves. Fortunately, they were all still wearing the close-fitting one-piece garment that went under their combat armor. By attaching the gloves and helmet it could function as a space suit. She clicked them into place and then assembled her company. Jer was grinning at her.

 

“Welcome to the Navy!” he said.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Eight hours later Anny stumbled into the mess hall—galley, eating compartment, whatever the hell the Navy called it—and got a tray of food and sat down. There was actually a window in one wall—bulkhead—and she found a seat near it. Jer, Alby and Patric followed her.

 

“Cripes!” exclaimed Alby. “I’m beat! And here I thought we were going on a relaxing cruise.”

 

“Boat drill, damage control drill, evacuation drill, loading, unloading,” said Patric, “I’m surprised they don’t have us scrubbing the decks, too!”

 

“That comes this evening,” said Anny.

 

“You’re kidding!”

 

“Probably. But they do have more stuff scheduled until 2500 tonight. I forget what all it is.”

 

“Is there any sleep on the schedule?” demanded Jer. “They keep this up and we’ll hit South Continent flat on our faces!”

 

Anny frowned and chewed on her lip. “Sleep won’t be a problem,” she said quietly. “I understand they’ll be issuing Dynatrim to us before the drop.”

 

“Bloody hell!” snorted Alby.

 

“Really?” said Jer.

 

“Yeah, really,” said Anny. Dynatrim was a powerful stimulant drug sometimes given to troops going into combat. It could keep them alert for days on end—but at a price.

 

“Come on, Alby, it’s not that bad,” said Patric.

 

“Bad enough! The last time they gave us that crap I felt like shit for a week afterwards!”

 

Anny had, too. She wasn’t looking forward to it, although it was quite a rush while the drug lasted. While the others complained, her gaze drifted out the window. Barrayar slowly turned below them. Her eyes widened when she realized that she could recognize the landscape. Usually, in the pictures she’d seen, the swirling clouds made it hard to spot landmarks, but today large portions of North Continent were cloudless. “Hey, is that Vorbarr Sultana down there?” she asked, pointing. The others turned to look.

 

“Yeah, I think so,” said Alby. “There’s the river and Lake Serg, yeah it must be.”

 

“The Academy would be right about there, south of that big forest, wouldn’t it?” asked Jer.

 

“Maybe. Can’t really see it from this high.”

 

“There’s the delta,” said Anny. “Can you see your house, Alby?”

 

“Sure, it’s that teeny-tiny speck right there. Can you see your home?”

 

She followed the river back the other way and then southward toward the Dendarii Mountains. She could pick them out easily enough, but they were far too high to see any details. “It’s over there… somewhere.” She stared, but she couldn’t even find Hassadar. Unlike most of the continent, there were some thin, wispy clouds drifting across the mountains from the southwest, obscuring parts of the district. Oh well, tiny Red Rocks wouldn’t have been visible on the clearest day.

 

The respite for dinner was all too short and they were soon back at it. More drills, including one where the hanger bays were opened to space putting them in real vacuum, not just simulated vacuum. It was a little scary knowing that just on the other side of some thin fabric was… nothing at all. But everyone made it through all right and the drills were concluded for the day. They all gratefully stowed their gear and headed for their bunks.

 

Anny was just negotiating with her lieutenants for first crack at the shower when the intercom came to life: “All cadet-officers, report to the briefing room immediately. Repeat, all cadet officers…”

 

“Oh hell, what now?” Wearily they headed out of the barracks. At least this time they knew how to get to the briefing room. A few minutes later they were all there, including several additional navy officers. Anny perked up when she spotted the captain’s tab on one of them. The ship’s skipper. What was this about?

 

“Attention,” said Commander Vorserran. “This is Captain Vorwallace.” The man nodded at them.

 

“Evening, gentlemen. There’s been a change in plans. Your combat drop has been cancelled.” A low groan ran through the compartment. “Oh, don’t look so disappointed. You’ve been promised a live-fire exercise and that’s exactly what you’re going to get!” He gestured to Vorserran and the Exec activated a large display screen. It showed an image that displaying a section of a planet’s surface. For some reason it looked very familiar to Anny and with a start she realized it was the very section of the Dendarii Mountains she’d been looking at at dinner!

 

“Most of you probably haven’t heard,” continued the Captain, “but there’s a major forest fire that’s broken out in Vormuiran District. There’s been several years of drought in that region and the place is like a tinder box. Frankly, there’s been nothing like this happen in living memory and the locals are completely unable to cope with it. The winds are driving the fire northeast into Vorkosigan District and unless it can be stopped the damage to the forests will be immense. Generations of work could be lost. The Emperor has ordered the military to provide whatever assistance it can in meeting this crisis. We are moving assets there as quickly as possible.” He paused and looked them over.

 

“As luck would have it, your battalion is one asset we can get there very quickly, indeed. You’ll be dropping at 0800 tomorrow morning to help fight this fire. Alert your troopers and then try to get what sleep you can between now and then. We’ll have another briefing here at 0600 with details on your specific assignments. Dismissed.”

 

“Good Lord…” whispered Anny.

 

 

Chapter 22

 

 

The shuttle rocked and shuddered as it plowed its way through the upper atmosphere. Anny clutched her seat and tried not be nervous. She wasn’t nervous about the reentry.  The key to survival at the Academy was preparation, Commodore Koudelkas had told her. So she had tried to prepare for every conceivable situation; academic, tactical, social. But in her wildest dreams she never imagined herself in a situation like this! What did she know about leading a crew of firefighters? Just about as much as anyone else, it seems.

 

That was, perhaps, the most frightening thing of all. No one seemed to know what to do. As Captain Vorwallace had said, nothing like this had ever happened before. The last major forest fires had occurred during—and been caused by—the Cetagandan occupation and no one had worried about fighting them—they had other things to fight. No doubt there had been fires during the Time of Isolation, but in those days the only thing anyone could do was to get out of the way. Barrayaran fire-fighting techniques were sadly underdeveloped. Anny had stayed up half the night pulling up everything she could find on her hand computer, but it was mostly stuff from Old Earth and centuries out of date. Apparently they didn’t have forest fires on Earth anymore… or anywhere else in the wormhole nexus.

 

“Going subsonic, ETA, six minutes,” came the pilot’s voice over the com. “Hang on back there, Anny.” Across from her Jer just rolled his eyes. Apparently Kev Kershaw hadn’t given up yet.

 

But she had other things to worry about. In a few minutes her company was going to be landed in a remote section of the mountains with orders to cut a fire break through the forest. It was a centuries-old tactic and apparently still the best one available. Captain Vorwallace had said that shuttles and large cargo carriers were being adapted as water-bombers, but they wouldn’t be ready for several more days and there was no time to spare.

 

“Are you sure there will be tools waiting for us?” asked Jer. It was about the fifth time he’d asked the question.

 

“That’s what we’ve been promised.” Her troopers had been stripped of their combat armor and weapons (except for her and her two lieutenants who still had their hand plasma arcs per the regulations) and carried only their survival gear and what tools the ship had been able to lend them: a few cutters and hand-tractors.

 

“I hope they keep their promise. We can’t uproot trees and move them with our bare hands! It’s a shame they can’t just blast a firebreak with heavy weapons.”

 

“Unfortunately, the only thing they’ve got really suited to something like that would be heavy plasma arcs and they would set more fires than they would stop. Captain Vorwallace said something about kinetic impact weapons, but they’re worried the effects are too unpredictable. They’re bringing in tanks and bulldozers where they can, but most of the terrain is just too rough.”

 

“So it comes down to us poor grunts wandering through the forest chopping down trees,” said Jer shaking his head.

 

“Looks like.”

 

“ETA one minute, Anny,” said Ensign Kershaw. “Damn, there’s no place to land. You’re gonna have to rappel down, I’m afraid.”

 

“From how high?” said Anny, alarmed.

 

“Twenty, thirty meters. I’ll get as low as I can. I’ll come in first, the other two will circle.” Her company filled three shuttles and they were coming in as a group. The other companies were being dropped in a long line to either side. The fire had grown to a monstrous size, stretching hundreds of kilometers along the mountains. Regular military units as well as thousands of civilian volunteers were moving to help, but the cadets would be among the first to go into action.

 

“Right.” Anny and Jer unfastened their safety harnesses and stood up. They grabbed two cable units out of a locker and clicked the ends to the forward bulkhead. “Okay!” she called out. “We’re landing the hard way! Make sure your harnesses are secure and get ready to hook on!” Her troopers looked as nervous as she felt, but they started getting ready. We’ve all done this before… you’ve done this before! She was suddenly sweating.

 

The shuttle banked and Anny had to put out her hand and steady herself on the shoulder of one of the cadets. It turned several more times and seemed to bump into something. “Low as I can get!” said Kershaw over the com. “Get ready, I’m opening the hatch!”

 

Anny inserted the cable into a gizmo on her harness called a rig descender. A moment later the rear hatch of the shuttle opened, letting in sunlight, swirling dust, and the roar of the shuttle’s engines. She clung to the cable and moved to the edge of the deck and looked down. The ground was about thirty meters away, but it looked like a hundred. Tall pines were on all sides. She spotted someone on the ground waving frantically. She tossed the free end of the cable unit out and it unwound itself as it fell. Jer did the same.

 

“Corporal Mederov!” she screamed. “You’re the anchor! Check each man as they prepare to go, then bring up the rear!” Patric waved his acknowledgement and came up to stand beside her.

 

“All right! Let’s go!” She took a deep breath and jumped out of the shuttle. She fell a couple of meters and then the rig descender gripped the cable and let her gently down. Well, almost gently, as soon as she got below the shuttle, the blast from the thrusters buffeted her like a hurricane. She was wearing goggles, but bits of debris stung her face and she was glad when her feet touched the ground. Jer, on the second cable, was only moments behind her. She looked up and saw the next pair already coming down. She unhooked from the cable and looked around.

 

They were on the floor of a rock-strewn forest high up on the north side of a ridge. The fire was to the south, on the other side of the ridge. Anny wasn’t sure how far, but she could smell the smoke. The trees were close together, obviously wild growth rather than a managed forest. Kershaw’s shuttle had actually pushed a smaller tree aside to get as low as it had. There was a narrow trail leading up to the left and down to the right. Two men in green and brown Vorkosigan Forestry Service tunics were standing there, looking up in awe at the shuttle. There were two mountain motorcycles leaning against trees with large bundles strapped to their backs. She went over to the older of the two men.

 

“I’m Cadet-Captain Payne!” she shouted. “What are you guys doing here? We’re in Vormuiran District, aren’t we?”

 

“No access from the south!” said the man in reply. “Fire’s in the way! We were sent up here to meet you. Mighty glad to see you fellows! We gotta hell of a job if we’re gonna keep the fire from crossing over into our district!” He held out his hand. “Name’s Istvan, Cam Istvan!” She took his hand and shook. With her fatigue cap and goggles it was obvious he didn’t realize she was a woman. Well, no time for that now. Her cadets were clustering around her awaiting orders. Patric slid down the cable and that was the last of this load. He touched the controls on the cable units and they wound themselves back into the shuttle.

 

“Kershaw!” she said into her com. “You’re clear!”

 

“Right! I’ll be back later with supplies!” The engines went to a higher pitch and the shuttle lifted away, the bent pine sprung back and waved from side to side. Within moments the second shuttle eased down into the same position and started dropping more troopers. Anny turned back to Istvan and got out her hand computer and brought up the map of the area.

 

“Okay, we’re right here. I’ve been told that we’re supposed to cut a firebreak about ten kilometers west and link up with D Company who’ll be working from that point. F Company is landing east of us and will work this way.”

 

“Ten kilometers?” said Istvan. “How many men you bringin’ in here?” He looked up at the troopers rappelling down.

 

“Sixty-five.”

 

The man snorted and shook his head. “Shit! With that many it’d take a week! We got a day, day and half before the fire will be right through here!”

 

“With the proper tools we can fell trees and move them pretty fast. You got the sonic cutters and hand tractors, right?” She looked to the bundles on the ‘cycles.

 

“We got saws and axes and shovels, boy!” said Istvan. “And even if we had the fancy tools, you ain’t seen this country! Hell, you’d have trouble just walking those ten klicks in two days, let alone cuttin’ a break!”

 

“Damn!” said Anny. “Well, we’ll have to do what we can…”

 

“Unless you can cut a solid break, at least thirty meters wide, it’ll be wasted effort!” cried Istvan. “Three kilometers of break ain’t worth shit with a seven klick gap in it! What the hell were you folks thinking?”

 

“Maybe they weren’t thinking anything,” growled Anny. “Hold on.” She clicked her com circuit to the command frequency. “C Company to battalion, come in.” There was an infuriating delay, but eventually she got through to the battalion commander.

 

“Captain Ramsey here, go ahead C Company.”

 

“Payne here, sir. We’ve completed our landing and made contact with the local officials. But, sir, they only have unpowered tools for us and according to them even with the proper tools we’ll never be able to complete our section of the break in time. Request instructions, sir.”

 

“Yes, we’re finding the same thing all along the line, Captain,” said Ramsey. She could hear the irritation in his voice. “I’ve already talked to higher command and our orders are to proceed as planned. We’ll be flying in more tools and reinforcements as quickly as possible. We’ll bring additional companies into the gaps and hopefully you’ll only have to go a few klicks. That’s all I can tell you, cadet. Now get to it.”

 

“Yes sir!” She turned back to Istvan. “They’re sending help. In the meantime we get cracking. Jer, break out those tools and hand them out. Now, sir, if you can give us some advice on the best way to drop trees and build this break, I’d be grateful.”

 

Istvan looked skeptical, but then he shrugged. “Okay, let’s give this a try.”

 

They went to work. They had three of the sonic cutters which could slice right through a large tree in a matter of seconds. They used them on the big ones and left the smaller ones and brush to the men with the axes and saws. Their three hand-tractors moved the fallen trees and other cuttings and tumbled them down the slope. The men with shovels turned over the turf and small bushes, trying to cover anything that would burn. But it was hard, brutal work and after a couple of hours their break was still only a few hundred meters long.

 

“Istvan’s right,” gasped Jer. “We’re never gonna make it without a lot more help.”

 

“It’s coming,” said Anny in reply, wiping sweat out of her eyes. “Ramsey tells me the whole Academy is on its way. Regulars, too. Four full regiments of infantry will be here before dark. They’re mobilizing everything they can lay their hands on.”

 

“Good! Feels damn lonely out here all by ourselves. Nothing at all like Komarr…” He looked at the towering trees, shook his head, and turned away and went back to work.

 

An hour later a shuttle landed in their break. It carried more power tools along with water and other supplies. They were glad for the water, their canteens were nearly empty. It was hot. There was a brisk breeze which helped, but that same wind was carrying the fire ever closer. When they could see the sky, there was a solid haze overhead now and the smell of smoke was stronger than ever. When the shuttle lifted out it was carrying Cadet Jerwood who had fallen and smashed his knee. The ground was rough and minor injuries were mounting. Anny requested that a medic be sent. She hated losing the man, but she was heartened by the nearly continuous sound of shuttles flying over. Ramsey called to tell her that a company from 4th Battalion was landing a few klicks to the west.

 

“They’re sending the plebes?” said Jer in surprise when she told him.

 

“They’re sending everyone, Jer! Anyone who can work. The Commandant is on his way to take command of this sector of the line. The Emperor is in Hassadar to observe.”

 

“Holy shit.”

 

The additional power tools helped and they made better progress for a while, but they couldn’t keep up the pace. Anny’s troopers were exhausted and she was, too. When they stopped for dinner, their break was barely a kilometer long.

 

“We gonna try to work through the night, Anny?” demanded Jer. “The boys are nearly shot.” She wasn’t sure what to say, but just then her communicator pinged. It was Ramsey.

 

“Attention all cadet-officers,” he said. “You’re ordered to use your Dynatrim tablets. Repeat, have your men take their Dynatrim tablets. Sorry about that, but there’s no choice. Good luck, Ramsey out.”

 

Anny looked at Jer. “We work through the night.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Tim-ber!” shouted Alby Vorsworth. Anny looked to see a huge tree toppling over with a roar. Her night-vision goggles showed it all clearly. Alby looked at her and grinned. At least someone was having fun. It was two hours before dawn and they were still at it. In addition to making Alby slightly loopy, the drug had given them an inhuman energy and stamina and they had made quite a lot of progress. But would it be enough? There was an ominous red glow tinting the whole sky to the south and it wasn’t the dawn. Reports said the fire was leaping up the opposite side of the ridge. It wouldn’t burn as quickly once it was over and trying to burn downhill, but the wind was still driving it forward at a frightening pace. Ash had been falling since midnight and they were having to detach men to look for embers that might start new fires beyond the break they had cut. At least their IR gear would make it easy to find them. And they’d lost four more cadets to injuries, two serious with broken bones. Anny was running out of manpower.

 

But they were getting close. Somewhere down in the dark to the west was the break that the company from 4th battalion had started. Her map told her it couldn’t be much more than five hundred meters away and she was curving their break to link up with it. She’d sent Patric and another cadet down there to try and find it. They ought to be back soon.

 

“We might make it after all,” said a voice. She turned and saw it was Cam Istvan. The forestry man was filthy and looked exhausted—probably just like she did. A dozen more of the locals had joined them during the night, but they only had the hand-tools. Still, every bit helped.

 

“With a little luck we just might.” They nodded to each other and Istvan went back to work. Anny moved down to the right of the line and smiled when she saw Patric’s large form trudging up the slope toward her. She was slightly surprised to see that there were seven other people with him instead of just one. “Did you find it?” she called out.

 

“Yeah!” he shouted back, quickening his pace. “Right where it’s supposed to be. About four hundred meters that-a-way. Oh, and I brought some reinforcements.”

 

“What? Who?”

 

“I think you know them.” Patric was grinning.

 

She did.

 

Anny stopped in her tracks and stared in confusion as the six young women who lived in the room next to hers came up and saluted. “What… what are you doing here?”

 

“We’ve been assigned to you, sir,” said Abigail Burn.

 

“All of you? But you’re in three different companies!”

 

“They lumped us all together on the shuttle, sir,” said Elin Vlydak. “They said we were to join up with you when you got close.”

 

“They had us carrying water and making coffee while the boys worked,” growled Marissa Carges sourly.

 

Anny frowned. Yeah, she could believe it. “We’ll we can find real work for you here, cadets!” Alby! Get over here! Patric I’m assigning Cadets Dunvich and Kresge to you. Show them the ropes.”

 

“Yes sir!”

 

A moment later Alby trotted up and did a double-take. “Cadet Worth, you will be in charge of cadets Burn and Lempic. Put them to work.”

 

“But…”

 

“You heard me.”

 

“Right… sir.”

 

“You other two, you’re with me. I need some runners.”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

She clicked to the company circuit. “Everyone listen up! We’ve got four hundred meters to go. Four hundred! We can do this! Now get cracking!”

 

They got cracking.

 

Just before dawn they could clearly see flames at the top of the ridge. The wind was picking up even more and there was a roaring sound and a strange noise, almost like distant artillery. “What’s that?” asked Jer Naddel.

 

“I was reading that in a really hot fire the trees can just blow up as the water in them flashes to steam,” said Anny.

 

“Great, so we gotta dodge shrapnel, too?”

 

“We might. But let’s get this done so we can stand back a ways.”

 

Meter by meter they carved the break. Cadets posted back along way reported that burning embers were falling and they were snuffing them out as best they could. Shortly after that a shuttle landed and delivered a few dozen water tanks with backstraps and spray nozzles that Anny distributed to the troopers along the break to help with the embers.

 

Four hundred meters, three hundred, two hundred, they were getting close. But so was the fire. The smoke was thicker and the noise of exploding trees was getting louder. A couple of shuttles flew in low and dropped a load of water on the fires, but it didn’t seem to do much. “Pissing on a bonfire,” growled Cam Istvan.

 

Dawn came, but a solid roof of smoke turned the sun to a faint red orb.

 

 

“All right! One last push!” cried Anny. “Cutter men, slice it all down! Don’t wait for the hand tractors, just cut a swath straight through to the other break! We’ll clean up behind you!” Trees fell and crashed and they redoubled their efforts. Cadets Vlydak  and Carges worked at her side. Sweat poured down faces that were blackened by soot. Even with the drug Anny could feel her muscles knotting with the effort. She could feel the heat on the side of her toward the fire. Damn, it was close!

 

But then another tree fell and she could see the other break only a few dozen meters beyond. They could do it! “Go! Go! Go!”

 

They sliced down the brush and tossed it away, the shovel men frantically threw dirt on everything. The roar of the fire was like a hundred shuttles hovering overhead. Anny coughed and put a kerchief over her mouth. The last section of the break was swept clean of combustibles.

 

“That’s it! Get to the downslope side! Everyone fall back! Look for new fires across the break! Marissa! Run back up the break and make sure everyone got the word to fall back!” The girl sprang away like a deer. “Move, people, move!”

 

They retreated away from the onrushing blaze and spread out, back along the break. The trees to their immediate front whipped wildly in the wind and began to erupt in flames. The heat was so intense that it drove them farther down the slope, forcing them to crawl and stumble across all the trees and brush they’d dumped there. The power of the fire was unbelievable, terrifying. Primal. Anny began to worry about what the hell they would do if the fire did jump the break. Where could they run?

 

 Small fires did flare up on their side but they managed to douse them with the water canisters. The men with the hand tractors continued to drag trees and brush farther away from the roaring flames just across the cleared area. The fire was spreading all along the length of the break as far as they could see in either direction, but bit by bit it started to die down as all the fuel was consumed.

 

Anny felt like she’d been holding her breath for an hour and she finally let it out as the flames lessened. Blackened tree trunks stood in serried ranks all along the upslope of the ridge and white smoke drifted upwards in immense clouds. But…

 

“We stopped it,” gasped Jer. “Did we stop it?”

 

“Looks like…” She turned and looked downslope. Hectare after hectare of greenery met her eyes. Untouched, unburned. We did it. Some of her cadets, the few with the breath for it, began to cheer.

 

Anny stood and watched, too drained to do anything else until a hand touched her arm. It was Istvan.

 

“Captain? Captain, thanks.” He gestured up to the smoldering forest. “Without your help that would have rolled right over us.”

 

“Glad we could help. Your people did a hell of a job, too.”

 

“We were fighting to protect our homes, Captain.”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, me, too.”

 

“Eh?” The man looked puzzled.

 

“I’m from Red Rocks,” said Anny and she was amazed at the note of pride that crept into her voice. “Over that ways a fair piece, but this might still have gotten there.”

 

“Well I’ll be damned, er, darned,’ said Istvan. “Sorry.” Anny grinned. She wasn’t quite sure when the man had realized her true gender, but at some point during the night he’d stopped cussing in her presence.

 

“Don’t worry about it. I hear that all the time. I’m a soldier.”

 

He looked her right in the eye and then nodded and stuck out his hand. “I can see that, Captain. I can see that.”

 

A sudden thrill went through her unlike anything she’d ever felt before. The damn drug could do screwy things to your emotions, but Anny took Istvan’s hand and shook it firmly. She was still standing there thinking about it when her communicator pinged.

 

“Second battalion companies! Report your status.” It was Ramsey.

 

“C Company, all secure on our front,” said Anny immediately and proudly. “We’ve stopped it cold, sir.” The other companies started reporting in. The news sounded good. They had done it!

 

“Good work, people,” said Ramsey, but Anny tensed. The man’s voice didn’t sound like that of a victorious commander… “All companies will fall back to grid coordinates F-97 and await pick-up for redeployment. On the double, people—and bring your tools.”

 

“What… what’s happening, sir?” asked Anny.

 

There was a long pause and then Ramsey spoke again.

 

“It’s broken through.”

 

 

Chapter 23

 

 

So where’re we headed now?” asked Jer Naddel. The shuttle had just lifted off and Anny sat wearily across from her first sergeant.

 

“Short hop. About fifty klicks to the east. Pretty major breakthrough in that area.”

 

“You mean all that work was for nothing?”

 

“No, not at all. At least that’s what Ramsey tells me. The fire breaks stopped most of it and it only got through at three points. Instead of one really, really big fire we’ve now got three just moderately big fires. And the other two are off at the western end of the line, not our concern.”

 

“Good. But we were the first ones in. Why can’t some of the reinforcements handle the mop-up?”

 

“Tired?”

 

“Gettin’ that way, yeah. The Dynatrim must be wearin’ off. If they’re throwing us back in we’re gonna hafta take another dose. Really rather’d not do that.”

 

Jer’s words were starting to slur. Yeah, they were going to have to take another dose of the drug. That meant sleeping for two days instead of one once they came off it. “Hey, beats 5D math, don’t it?” Jer snorted and then smiled.

 

“Gotta keep remindin’ myself that this is the real thing. Not some training sim. Servin’ the Empire for real.”

 

Anny nodded. Yeah, they were fighting a real enemy. An enemy that didn’t rest or sleep, an enemy that was fearless and had no mercy at all. And right now their enemy was coming down out of the high mountains, down into the hills where people lived.

 

They had to stop it.

 

By the time they landed the order had come through to dose up again and Anny was feeling that strange hyper-aware sensation the drug gave. At least this time they landed at a forward base camp and not in the middle of the wilderness. Hot food and coffee was waiting for them, served by some of the local people, and they wolfed it down. The drug burned a huge number of calories and they had to keep their bodies fueled up.

 

And then it was back on the line. A new line that was being constructed to stop the fire. This area was not as rugged as where the first line had been. It was possible to move in heavy equipment in some spots. And they were better prepared now. Water bombers appeared regularly. They still didn’t seem to do all that much, but they’d get a cheer from the grunts on the ground anyway. Anny’s research had mentioned fire retardant chemicals dropped from the air but there weren’t any factories on Barrayar to turn them out. Still, they all felt that the odds had shifted in their favor.

 

Unfortunately, the wind started shifting, too.

 

In the lee of the mountains, the wind did strange things. Things even the most advanced meteorology couldn’t manage to predict. And the wind seemed to be conspiring with the fire. It would sidestep their fire lines, jump over them, outflank them and force them to retreat. So they fell back, regrouped and tried again.

 

But now every time they failed, people paid. Farms burned and people died. A cadet in 3rd Battalion was killed by a falling limb. Anny didn’t know him, but that didn’t matter. He was one of their own and they all hurt. Civilians died, too, trying to save their homes. They fought on. Injuries mounted. The company was down to sixty men, even with the six girls added in. They were ordered to dose themselves a third time and then a fourth. Four was the maximum the regs allowed…

 

Still, bit by bit, they were beating this red monster. Killing parts of it, hemming in the rest. By the fifth day the worst of it appeared to be over and then, almost unbelievably, they were told they were done. Others would take over for them. They were pulled out of the line and sent to the rear.

 

The remains of C Company, 2nd Battalion, Imperial Service Academy, stumbled down out of the hills toward a rest camp. They could sleep there. Sleep for days and days and days and when they woke up it would all be over and they could go back. Back to the Academy; back to 5D Math. Back to their bunks.

 

They marched—or tried to. The shuttles and other air vehicles were still needed to attack the monster and its two brothers off to the west. The foot soldiers could use their feet. The constant reshuffling and repositioning had left their company at the far eastern end of the line and the trail they marched along took them away from the rest of the battalion; they would regroup with them later.

 

Anny watched her tired, sore, filthy troopers shuffle past her. She was so proud of them she didn’t have words. They had fought a battle and won. No battle honors would adorn their flag, no medals would be pinned to their chests for this, but they had met the enemy and not been found wanting. She noticed Alby walking side by side with Abigail Vorburn. Alby made some joke and Abigail laughed. Anny was amazed that either one had the strength for it.

 

“Your girls did a hell of a job, Anny.” She turned as Jer came up beside her.

 

She wasn’t exactly sure just when the six had become ‘her girls’ but there was no doubt that they had. They might not be C Company, but she was just as proud of them. Thrown into this nightmare with hardly any training they had kept up, worked hard, and never complained—or at least no more than anyone else. “They sure did,” she replied.

 

“I don’t think you have to worry about the guys filling that ‘big brother’ role you were talking about, Anny. After this any one of ‘em would take on a whole company of seniors for their Little Sisters.”

 

“After this, I don’t think it’s going to be a problem,” said Anny. “The Academy isn’t going to be divided into plebes or upperclassmen or men or women anymore. After this there’s only going to be those who were here and those who weren’t. Nothing else is gonna matter.”

 

Jer chuckled. “Yeah, you may be right.” He paused and looked at her. “You did a hell of a job, too, Anny. A hell of a job.” She blushed under a layer of soot.

 

“We all did. Now come on, let’s get to that camp so we can all sleep.”

 

It was late afternoon by the time they reached the little village where they were supposed to stop. She didn’t even know what its name was. But they were welcomed warmly by the people there. She only saw children and older men and women. Apparently everyone else was still off fighting the fires. But the youngsters and oldsters pressed mugs of steaming coffee into their hands and offered them sandwiches and fruit.

 

“We’ve set up a place for you to sleep,” said a white-haired grandmother. “In the grove back over there. We put it away from the trail so nothing will disturb any of you.”

 

Anny thanked her and smiled. Once the Dynatrim wore off a nuclear explosion wouldn’t disturb any of them. She checked the time. They had about an hour until they collapsed. She warned her people to get their bedrolls set up and attend to any last personal necessities. When they crashed they were going to crash hard.

 

They moved back to the sleeping area and painfully unslung their packs and spread out their sleeping bags. The locals had laid down thick pads of straw for them to lie on and no feather bed would have suited them better. A few splashed water from their canteens on their soot-blackened faces and hands, but most didn’t bother. She walked slowly among them for a while, patting a shoulder here, making a joke there. Damn, they were good people! Finally she spread out her own bedroll and lay down. She picked a spot closest to the houses and the trail so if anyone was trying to find her they could—not that they’d be able to wake her up, of course. Until the drug fully wore off it wouldn’t be possible to actually sleep, but she closed her eyes and waited for blessed oblivion. She started to drift…

 

“Damn it, General, there’s got to be someone you can send!”

 

An angry voice off toward the houses pierced the fog that was settling on Anny’s brain. It sounded oddly familiar…

 

“No! That will be too late! We need reinforcements and we need them right now!”

 

Her eyes opened and she looked around in confusion. No, she hadn’t been asleep, so that meant that only a few minutes must have passed. Who was that talking…?

 

“Well if you can’t send us somebody a whole village is going to be destroyed! What? All right! All right! We’ll try to hold out, but do the best you can, General! Damn!”

 

There was nothing in the universe that Anny wanted more than to just close her eyes again. But that voice… she knew it. Somehow she levered herself up and then rolled over and got to her feet with a groan. She stumbled toward the voice.

 

“I’m sorry, Lem, but they can’t send us anything right now. We’re going to have to do it on our own.”

 

“There aren’t enough of us and you know it, M’lord,” said another voice.

 

“I know, I know, but all we can do is try!”

 

Anny came around a house and stopped. Ten meters away was a short figure in a dirty white shirt. A dusty red lightflyer was sitting behind him in the middle of the trail. He was talking to an older man. And just beyond him another man…

 

Pym! Lord Vorkosigan! She stood and gawked.

 

Pym spotted her and his eyebrows shot up. He caught Vorkosigan’s attention and the Lord Auditor spun around. “Anny!” he cried, a look of surprise and hope lit up his face. “What are you doing here? Is your company here?” He came toward her.

 

“They… they’re back there,” she whispered.

 

“Anny, we have a real problem here. The main fire line is anchored on the reservoir, you know that, right?” She nodded numbly. “That was the eastern extent of the fire. But two hours ago the wind shifted for a while, almost directly out of the west. It’s come back around to the south again now but a new fire has side-stepped the reservoir and is coming round the eastern side. There’s a town, Silvy Vale, about ten klicks from here, that’s right in its path. Most everyone’s off along the main fire line and they can’t spare anyone. We need help or we’re going to lose that whole town! Can you help?”

 

Anny opened her mouth and then she swayed and had to grab the side of the house to keep from falling. Pym was at her side in an instant.

 

“Miss Anny! Are you all right?’ he asked.

 

“I… we… my men haven’t slept in five days, M’lord,” she mumbled.

 

“Oh crap,” said Vorkosigan. “You’re the ones they’ve had on the Dynatrim? The General said he’d pulled a bunch of people out of the line but that they weren’t in any shape to go back in. That’s the cadets?”

 

She nodded.

 

Vorkosigan looked down at his filthy boots. “Hell,” he muttered. “Anny… Anny I don’t have any right to ask but…”

 

“M’lord!” said Pym in a voice as close to angry as she’d ever heard him use.

 

She stood there and looked back toward the grove. Go in again? How could they? Her troopers were used up. Nothing left. Nothing at all. “M’lord,” she croaked. Stopped, swallowed. “M’lord, how can I… how can I possible ask them…?” Her stinging eyes were filling with tears.

 

“You don’t have to ask, sir,” said a voice. She looked behind her and a small crowed of her troopers had silently gathered. More were coming up from the grove. It was Lieutenant Fallon who had spoken, her 1st Platoon commander. “You don’t have to ask,” he said again. “We’ll go.”

 

“But…”

 

“Damn straight,” said Alby Vorsworth. ”What’s one more pill? Come on folks! On your feet! We gotta job to do!”

 

Anny watched in stunned amazement as her people dragged themselves up, shouldered their gear and began to move. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she didn’t care. Someone pressed a white tablet into her hand. She put it in her mouth and swallowed it.

 

 

* * *

 

 

The next twelve hours were a nightmare. They had reached the limits of what their bodies could do, even with the Dynatrim. Reached and passed it. Anny hurt, every part of her. Her muscles still worked, her feet still moved, but it was like they belonged to someone else and she was just watching. A fog had settled into her brain that muffled sound, misted her sight, dulled her wits. She shambled along with her troops like a zombie. Only the fact that the task was the same one they’d been doing for five days without pause allowed them to accomplish anything. It had become so routine that their hands did the job on their own.

 

And mercifully the job was modest in comparison to what they’d been doing before. The line to save Silvy Vale needed to be only a little over a kilometer long. The right rested on the reservoir and the left ended on a rockslide that wouldn’t burn. Even if the fire managed to outflank them to the east, it wouldn’t be able to threaten the town until help arrived.

 

Or at least that was what Vorkosigan said. The little Lord Auditor seemed to be everywhere; giving directions, giving encouragement, giving hope. Pym said that he’d been on the scene almost from the first alarm, flying the length of his father’s district, rallying the locals, fighting to save the land.

 

Their land.

 

Her land.

 

Somehow… somehow it was her land again. She’d tried to turn her back on it, cut her ties to it—but failed. Dendarii Hillsmen. Dumb as their rocks—and twice as tough.

 

They had marched the ten klicks to Silvy Vale, arriving just after dark. Vorkosigan had shuttled most of their heavy gear in his lightflyer, allowing them to move more quickly. The ‘town’ was about a hundred log houses of various sizes and shapes. Smaller than Red Rocks, but it still reminded her of it. The people there did, too. Just as in the place where they’d hoped to sleep, most of the able-bodied men and women had gone, volunteered to help elsewhere, not realizing their own homes might be in danger. Only the young and the old and the infirm remained. But they were all out, working to save their town. The village speaker, a man named Lem Csurik, the man she’d first seen Vorkosigan talking with, and his wife Harra led the villagers. They met them as they trudged up the last slope, fed them, but then it was off to the fire line. All of them. They went to work.

 

Despite their fatigue, the cadets’ night-vision equipment and power tools—and experience—proved critical. The line took shape. And for once the cruel winds gave them a break. They died down for a few hours during the night, slowing the fire’s approach, giving them more precious time. Word came through that the main fire had hit the lines west of the reservoir. Hit them, but had not broken them—yet.

 

“If they can keep it contained until morning the General says he can start sending help to us,” said Vorkosigan.

 

“Morning,” said Csurik. “That’s about when the fire will get here. We’ve got to be ready.”

 

“We will be,” said Vorkosigan.

 

Anny hoped he was right. But everything seemed to take so long, or was it just her fatigue that made everything seem to be moving in slow motion? No, it wasn’t her imagination, everyone was slowing down, running out of fuel. She walked up and down the line cajoling, urging, pleading with her people to move faster. They tried, but that led to accidents. Dom Gerhardt fell off a rock and broke his wrist, Stan Krasner sliced part of his foot off with the sonic cutter he was using. Everyone had cuts bruises and burns. Even Lord Vorkosigan was sporting a blood-stained bandage around his head from where a branch had hit him. Pym seemed nonplussed and never strayed far from him.

 

Around midnight small groups of civilians began coming through their lines from the south: families from outlying farms who hadn’t gotten the word or who waited in the vain hope that their farms might be spared. Stone-faced men and women and weeping children, carrying bundles of possessions. They were led to the village and cared for. Some of them came back after a while and helped man the line. They couldn’t save their own homes, but they’d help to save their neighbors’. Hillsmen, by God.

 

A white-haired man trudged the lines carrying coffee for the workers. Pouring deftly despite a missing hand. He paused when he got to Anny and looked at the remains of her uniform. “Things have sure changed since my day!” he exclaimed. “But you’re welcome all the same, Missy. Karal’s m’name, Serg Karal.”

 

Anny started. Yeah, she could see the resemblance. “I think I know your grandson, sir.”

 

“Eh? What’s that? Young Zac?”

 

“Met him on the bus on his way to Basic.”

 

“I’ll be damned. Got a message from him the other day. His training battalion’s off to the west fightin’ the fire, too. Wish t’hell he was here.”

 

“Yes sir, me, too.” The man moved on. Anny gulped down her coffee and went back to work.

 

The dawn was coming, but so was the fire. By the time the eastern sky was brightening the southern sky was that same awful, hated, red that it had been for days. The wind was freshening, too, damn it.

 

But Anny’s troopers, the people of Silvy Vale, the Dendarii Hillsmen, looked around and realized they were done. The line was finished. Or at least it seemed that way. Anny and Lord Vorkosigan and Lem Csurik and Pym walked the line from the rockslide to the water. She could barely feel her feet anymore.

 

“Will it hold?” demanded Vorkosigan.

 

“I’ve seen weaker lines hold,” said Anny. She looked south. “We’ve got less than an hour. I don’t know what else we can do in that time. Maybe get the townsfolk to fill anything they’ve got that will hold water and stand by to douse embers.” Csurik went off to see to it. It was hard to think. Had she forgotten anything? Were they done? Done was a very good word. They’d been told they were done before. A thousand years ago yesterday. It hadn’t been true then, had it? But done was still a very good word withal… A thick drowsiness was filling her up.

 

“What?” said Pym suddenly. She turned and saw the armsman talking on his wristcom. “You’re sure it’s this sector? You’ve pinpointed them? Bloody hell! All right, we’ll take care of it.”

 

“What is it?” asked Vorkosigan.

 

“M’lord, the emergency monitors picked up a message from some people trying to escape the fire. Ten or twelve of them. They say they’ve located them about a klick beyond our lines here, bearing one-eight-four from where we are.” He pointed almost due south—towards the fire.

 

“Can they make it here?”

 

“Don’t know, M’lord. They’ve got children and some injured and are asking for help.”

 

Vorkosigan frowned. “No way I can get my lightflyer to them through those trees…

 

“We’ll go get them, M’lord,” said Anny suddenly. He looked at her.

 

“You’re exhausted, maybe I should send someone else…

 

“M’lord…”

 

“For God’s sake will you call me ‘Miles’?”

 

M’lord, my troopers are trained, organized and our IR gear will let us find them quicker than anyone else.”

 

It only took him an instant to decide. “Go.”

 

“Jer! Round up a detail! Rescue mission!” she shouted. Her first sergeant froze for an instant in confusion and then began grabbing people. In short order he had about twenty troopers. She was glad to see Patric Mederov there, if any heavy carrying was needed he’d be the one to have along.  She stood before them. “Okay, there are some folks out there who need help. We’re going to go out and bring them back. Let’s move.”

 

“I’ll take the detail, Captain.” She jerked to a halt. Lieutenant Fallon was standing there.

 

“What?”

 

“I said I’ll lead this detail, sir.”

 

“But…”

 

“God damn it, Anny!” exploded Fallon. “You can’t do everything! Your place is here with your company! I’ll lead this detail… sir.”

 

Jer was grinning widely, his white teeth bright against his blackened face. “He’s right, Cap’n. We can do it.”

 

She stood there a moment longer and then jerked her head convulsively. “Go.” She watched woodenly as they moved out. She almost stopped them when she saw Alby and Abigail Vorburn and Jenna Lempic following the others, but she held her tongue. They’re soldiers, too. Just like all the rest. She twitched when Lord Vorkosigan touched her arm.

 

“It’s hard, isn’t it? Sending others into danger while you stay behind?” The little man was staring into the woods with an odd expression on his face. She didn’t know what he was seeing just then, but she knew it wasn’t the trees.

 

“Yes sir. Harder’n I expected.”

 

“They’ll be fine, Anny. They’re good men. And women.”

 

“Yes sir. The best. God don’t make ’em any better.”

 

The minutes ticked by and Anny tried to inspect the line, but her eyes kept looking off to the south. The fire was definitely closer now. The wind was picking up even more. If they’re caught out there they won’t have a chance. Fifteen, twenty minutes went by and then Fallon checked in.

 

“Got ‘em, Skipper! Two men, four women and six kids. We’re bringing them in!”

 

“Good work! Better hurry.”

 

“Damn right! The fire’s right on our tails!”

 

Anny breathed a little easier, but the following minutes were as tense as any she’d ever known. The eastern sky was much brighter now and a gray, smoky half-light surrounded her. She almost shouted for joy when the first trooper emerged from the woods. He had one of the sonic cutters to help clear a trail, but then came the rescued and their rescuers. Fallon had a woman half-draped over him and Patric was carrying another woman who was obviously very pregnant. Other troopers were carrying children pig-a-back. Jenna Lempic had a little girl clutching her and sobbing in fear. One by one they emerged and were met by some of the locals who guided them back toward the town. Jer spotted Anny and stepped out of the column and came over to her, grinning. “Piece of cake,” he said.

 

“Well done,” she sighed. “All our people accounted for?”

 

Jer suddenly looked uncertain. “I… uh… I think so.”

 

“Better do a head count.”

 

“I’m… I’m not sure who all went out with us.”

 

“Well then call the roll for the whole company. Good time to do that anyway. Better be sure.”

 

“Right. C Company! Attention to roll call!” Jer said into his com. He started calling names and people started answering. But he wasn’t halfway through when a sudden shout came over Anny’s earphone.

 

“Captain! Captain Payne! Answer please!”

 

“Payne here, who’s this?”

 

“Abigail Vorburn! Captain, Alby’s hurt! I can’t… I can’t move him myself!”

 

Oh Good Lord! “Where are you?”

 

“Maybe halfway back. Alby hurt his leg. Please! We need help! The fire is very close!”

 

Anny looked from side to side, but there wasn’t anyone within a hundred meters. They’d all gone back to the town with the folks they’d rescued. “Jer! Come on!” They plunged into the woods along the new-cut trail. Anny heard someone shout her name from behind. It sounded like Vorkosigan, but she didn’t look back.

 

They ran. The path wasn’t smooth, but they ran. Anny tripped and fell several times, but she got up and kept running. The drug and her last drops of adrenalin gave her the strength. It was still dark under the trees, but a hideous red glow was growing stronger and stronger in front of her. The roar of the fire could be clearly heard. Smoke and glowing embers whipped past her on the wind. It seemed like they must have come five hundred meters at least, but they’d found no one. Where the hell were they? She skidded to a halt…

 

The fire was in front of them. Right there.

 

“Oh God, no!” she groaned.

 

“It’s okay!” cried Jer. “The path makes a hard right just ahead! We can make it!” He dashed past her and she followed. As he’d said, only a few strides further on the path turned right and the fire was off to the left. Another hundred meters and Jer tripped right over Alby and Abigail.

 

“Captain! Help us!” cried Vorburn.

 

“What happened?” said Jer, struggling to his feet. Alby was on the ground but didn’t look badly hurt.

 

“It was my fault!” said Vorburn. “We were bringing up the rear and I slipped and Alby grabbed for me and fell down a ravine.”

 

“It wasn’t your fault, I was just clumsy,” protested Alby.

 

“Well, if you’d just let me call for help sooner! But no, you had to try and be the tough guy!”

 

“I did not!”

 

Shut up both of you!” screamed Jer. “We gotta get outta here!”

 

“Can you walk at all?” demanded Anny.

 

“Don’t think so,” he grimaced. “Might be broken… I can’t put any weight on it.”

 

“Then we’ll carry you,” said Jer. He tried lifting Alby up on his back but only took a few steps before falling. “Can’t…” he gasped. Five days ago he probably could have. But now… now, it was impossible.

 

“We’ll both take him,” said Anny. She and Jer each took an arm over their shoulder and pulled Alby to his feet. Abigail tried to help, but Anny was half a head taller and much stronger and she waved her off. “Let’s go.”

 

They made it halfway back to the bend in the trail before the fire cut them off. A wall of searing flames had covered the path back. “That way!” cried Jer indicating off to their left with a jerk of his head. “Due north! We’ll hit that big meadow and our line is just beyond.”

 

They turned and hobbled into the woods. The fire was howling behind them now, the monster was nipping at their heels, but somehow they stayed ahead of it. Vorkosigan called for them on the com, but they couldn’t stop to answer, there wasn’t anything he could do anyway. Step by step, meter by meter they moved. She could feel the hot breath of the monster just behind.

 

“There’s the meadow!” gasped Jer. “We can do this!” Just ahead the trees ended and a long slope covered in tall yellow grass stretched up to a small hilltop, strangely peaceful in the growing dawn. The fire lines lay just on the other side of that hill, maybe three hundred meters away. Anny looked back. The fire was a hundred meters behind them and coming fast. “We can do this!” cried Jer again.

 

No we can’t.

 

A million years ago on the Imperial Attack Transport Stalwart, Anny had read a horrible story about a band of firefighters on Old Earth who’d been caught in a situation just like this: fire behind and a meadow sloping above them. It had seemed like a quick way out. But the fire, when it reached the meadow, had exploded into a firestorm that moved ten times faster than a man could run. They’d all died.

 

All but one…

 

They reached the edge of the meadow. Jer tried to surge forward, but Anny held back. “Wait!”

 

“What? Why? We gotta move, Anny!”

 

“No! We can’t make it through here!”

 

“It’s the only way!”

 

But it wasn’t. Not like this. She let go of Alby and he and Jer fell to the ground.  She reached to her belt where that useless, heavy, plasma arc had hung all these days. She drew it, set it to maximum power, aimed and fired.

 

“Anny! What are you doing?” screamed Jer.

 

The beam, hot as the sun, hotter even than the monster, blasted into the standing grass and it exploded. She held down the trigger and swept the beam back and forth, back and forth. The near side of the meadow erupted into flames, leaping skyward. She kept at it until the power cell died.

 

“Well… well this isn’t good,” gasped Alby, looking at the wall of fire in front of them and then back at the wall of fire behind.

 

“Are you out of your mind?” moaned Jer. “We’re trapped!”

 

“Not quite… not quite.” She dropped the weapon and stooped to grab Alby up again. Vorburn just looked on with a stunned expression. “Come on.”

 

“Where?” said Jer. “There’s nowhere to go!”

 

“Yes there is. Come on.” She dragged them forward—right toward the blazing meadow.

 

Blazing, but it was just grass. Just grass. Not big tree trunks, not thick branches, just grass. As she watched, it shriveled, blackened and crumbled to ash. The wall of fire to their front faltered, wavered, died. The wind drove the flames northward across the meadow, but in its wake was just black, smoldering ash. There was still some fire, trying to burn back toward them, against the wind, but it was hardly anything. “Let’s go!” They surged forward, through the thin curtain of flame and out into the field of ash.

 

The main fire was right behind. Right behind.

 

Jer was shouting something, but it was lost in the roar of the monster. The wind was hot as an open furnace, swirling around them. They staggered forward another dozen steps and then Anny pushed Jer and Alby to the ground, threw Abigail down next to them, and then she flung herself on top of the pile.

 

The inferno roared past them, around them, over them, a hurricane of fire. The heat on Anny’s back grew to a bright pain, but she just clutched her friends and waited for it to pass. The air seemed too hot to breathe. Had she made a terrible mistake? But slowly, slowly the roaring subsided, the heat lessened, puffs of cooler air touched her face and she greedily sucked them in to famished lungs. The pain, though…

 

Jer pulled himself out from under her. “God! Anny, you’re on fire!” He started beating on her back with his hands. Ow. Abigail scrambled up and poured out her canteen on her. Damn, I was really on fire…

 

“Are you all right?”

 

“Still… still breathing.” Now it was starting to really hurt. She tried to look around, but she was flat on her face in the hot ash. “How… how we doing?”

 

“I think we’re good.” He turned her on her side and brushed ash off her face. “Fire all around but nothing coming this way now. Sure hope the line held.”

 

“Well call ‘em and find out!” snapped Alby. “Cripes, do I hafta think of everything? Sending a little help would be good, too!”

 

But before Jer could do so, Vorkosigan was calling them. “Captain Payne! Anny! Answer me dammit!”

 

“Take that will you, Jer?” mumbled Anny. “I’m busy.”

 

“Lord Vorkosigan, this is Sergeant Naddel. We’re okay.”

 

“Thank God!”

 

“How are you guys doing?”

 

“The line’s holding. I think we’ve got this beat. But where the hell are you? How’d you survive that?”

 

“Anny had a little trick up her sleeve. We’re in the middle of that meadow.”

 

“Really? But how…? Well, never mind, you can tell me about it later. Can you get back? I mean when the fire dies down.”

 

“Maybe. We’re kinda beat up.”

 

“I’ll try to put together a party. All your troopers are here and there won’t be any lack of volunteers! But it may be a while.”

 

Alby suddenly gave a snarl of exasperation and activated his own com. “Lord Vorkosigan? Alby Vorsworth here. Would you please call my father at HQ and tell those lazy bastards to—if it’s not too much trouble—to send us…a …friggin’…shuttle!”

 

There was a moment’s silence and then a chuckle.

 

“Can do, Cadet. Can do.”

 

 

Chapter 24

 

 

For conspicuous service during a planetary emergency, the Second Battalion of Cadets, Imperial Service Academy is hereby awarded the Imperial Unit Citation.” Anny watched as the Adjutant stepped back and the Battalion Color Sergeant dipped the standard so that Emperor Gregor could attach a long red, blue, and gold ribbon to the flag pole just below the finial.

 

She’d been wrong: there would be honors and medals for the battle that had been fought and won in the mountains. When the Emperor had declared the situation a planetary emergency that had brought in a whole new set of rules. She’d been told that eventually they’d all get a small ribbon they could wear on their tunics, but they hadn’t arrived yet.

 

The award was quite an honor. It had only happened a few other times in the history of the Academy. The last had been forty years ago during the Vordarian Pretendership when the cadets had taken up arms to support the Regent.

 

She stood in front of her company on the huge Academy parade ground. All four battalions of the Regiment of Cadets were there. Each would be given this same award. The seniors in 1st battalion had already gotten theirs, now it was 2nd Battalion’s turn. The Emperor finished and stepped back. The Color Sergeant brought up the flag and the order rang down the line: “Battalion! Present—Arms!” Six hundred and fifty white-gloved pairs of hands brought up their bayonet-tipped rifles with a slap and a crack. Anny and the other officers saluted with their swords and the Emperor saluted with his hand. They held it for a moment and then were ordered back to shoulder arms. The Emperor and his party—which included a very short man in brown and silver—turned and went down the line toward 3rd Battalion. The Color Sergeant returned to the ranks and the Color Company marched backward to take its place back in the line. It was smartly done.

 

A part of Anny still rankled that C Company wasn’t the Color Company anymore, but it was a very small part now. She had been right about one thing: there was a new spirit at the Academy. In the month since they’d returned it had been evident that the old feelings, that the other companies and the other battalions were rivals and competitors, had been replaced by a feeling of solidarity and comradeship. Instead of trading snubs they were trading stories. Instead of bullying plebes they were comparing battle scars. Some said it wouldn’t last, but Anny wasn’t so sure. To her it seemed that the fiery crucible of the Dendarii Mountains had done something to all of them. It had boiled away the lighter, volatile elements, burned off the impurities. The metal that remained was solid and strong. The petty things that had concerned them before seemed trivial now.

 

There had been some legendary classes at the Academy, classes who had produced admirals and generals and heroes out of all proportion to their numbers. Anny suspected that these four classes might produce some legends of their own.

 

The Emperor was repeating the ceremony with 3rd battalion now. There was already a ribbon on their flag—a black one. Cadet Hod Gatchell was by no means the first cadet to die in the line of duty while at the Academy, but he was the first in a while, the first while Anny had been here. The Academy had a lot of traditions, but the oldest was that it always took care of its own. Always. Gatchell had been posthumously commissioned an ensign, and his name was now inscribed on the marble wall of Memorial Hall. A memorial offering had been burned last week in the ancient bronze bowl that rested there.

 

Anny thoroughly approved, but she had to wonder what the other members of his company were feeling. What was the company commander feeling? She glanced back at her own company. Jer, Patric, Alby, all the rest. She’d sent them into the jaws of the monster and only by the Grace of God had she gotten them all back again. The fact that they’d volunteered to go didn’t make it one bit easier. It came with the job description, she supposed, but someday, someday she might have to order men into a situation where it wasn’t just a possibility that they’d be killed, but a certainty. What will you do then, girl? What will you do then?

 

She banished those gloomy thoughts as the Emperor moved down to the 4th Battalion. Awarding all four battalions individually had created a bit of a problem: 4th Battalion didn’t have its colors yet. Didn’t even have cadet officers or NCOs yet. Hell, they didn’t even have their dress grays. From what Anny had heard, there had been a lot of head-scratching among the Academy staff and then a mad scramble to get ready for this ceremony. So, as a result, the battalion of plebes were getting their colors over six months ahead of schedule. The Emperor was handing them over right now. That hadn’t ever happened before as far as Anny knew. She doubted that any class had ever presented themselves to an emperor wearing black fatigues, either. There had been no time to procure nine hundred sets of dress uniforms.

 

Well, there were a few other odd things about the ceremony, too. Six of them to be exact. ‘Her girls’ were back with their own companies which was only right and proper. While it had been a privilege and a blessing to have them during the crisis, it just wasn’t right to strip them away from their comrades. They’d proved themselves to C Company—a dozen times over—but they needed to be given that same chance with their own companies. One of the first things Anny had done after getting out of the Infirmary was to collect Sergeant Major Szytko and pay a little visit to the girls’ company commanders, their battalion commander—and the Commandant. She’d told them, told all of them, politely but firmly that it would not be necessary to do that again. They’d blushed, mumbled some incoherent replies, and then agreed.

 

Anny craned her neck to try and see down to 4th Battalion. As she did so she felt a tug and pinch on her neck and back. The synthetic skin they’d sprayed over her burns was being absorbed into her regrowing flesh, but the process wasn’t quite complete. Another month or so the doctors said. They’d promised her there wouldn’t be any scars. The hair on the back of her head was starting to grow back, too. The treatments hadn’t been bad, really. Far more painful was being separated from her company. Despite her protests, they’d evacuated her and she hadn’t been able to march out with the rest of them after they’d woken back up from a three-day nap. Of course, they’d been in no shape to march far, just a few klicks down to Three Pines where they were loaded into trucks. Lieutenant Fallon had led them and done a good job. Fallon was shaping up splendidly. His Vor status had gotten him the rank, but since then he’d grown into it. Even so, she wished she’d been there with them—especially when they drove through Red Rocks…

 

One unexpected result of her burns was pinned to her chest. She’d been awarded a Wound Medal. The emergency status allowed them to give out the medals for serious injuries. But in the mysterious ways of the military bureaucracy, the decision of what was considered serious seemed strangely arbitrary. Alby had gotten one for breaking his ankle, while Dom Gerhardt had not for breaking his wrist. Cadet Jerwood’s smashed knee had rated one, but Andi Redman’s lacerated thigh hadn’t. All-in-all a dozen members of the company had the little medals pinned to their tunics—including Cadet Krasner who was much happier about having his toes pinned back on to his foot. When they got the unit citation ribbons they’d been promised and added that to their pins for winning the Howitzer Haul and the Pentathlon it would make a nice little collection. Not bad for third-year cadets.

 

‘It is with baubles such as these by which men are led.’

 

The quote was from some history class Anny had taken. Who had said it? Napoleon, maybe. Well, whoever it had been, they were wrong. The battered, exhausted troopers of C Company hadn’t followed her to Silvy Vale for medals. The twenty cadets who went with Lieutenant Fallon on the rescue mission hadn’t been looking for them, either. Jer had only run with her into the inferno with one thing on his mind: saving his friends. No, medals didn’t make heroes.

 

Still… they were kind of neat to have.

 

The Emperor finished up with 4th battalion and then the Regiment passed in review. The sun was shining, the band was playing, the flags fluttered proudly in a pleasantly cool and smoke-free breeze.

 

Life was good.

 

 

* * *

 

 

There weren’t as many spectators as came for graduation, but there was still a fair crowd and when the formation was dismissed the cadets were free for the rest of the day. Most hung around the parade ground, looking for friends and family. The band stayed and played spirited tunes. Anny lingered in hopes that Lord Vorkosigan might seek her out. Sadly, Drou and the Commodore had not been able to come. One of their daughters was opening up their uterine replicator today and grandchildren came first. Jer and Patric kept her company but Alby ran off immediately.

 

Abigail. It was quite obvious they were attracted to each other and Anny wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. On the one hand, Abigail’s Vorish, take-no-shit attitude was probably exactly what Alby needed. But on the other hand it was totally against regulations and could lead to more trouble than she wanted to think about. She wasn’t sure there was anything she could do about it if the pair was determined. The supposedly impregnable palm lock on the door between the barracks would stop Alby about as long as their first fire line had held the fire. Not that he even needed to use the door. The only thing she could think to do was to have a little talk with the both of them. Explain the consequences. Appeal to their good sense—not that Alby had ever had much of that…

 

“Anny! There you are!” She turned and smiled. Lord Vorkosigan and Lady Ekaterin had found her as she’d hoped.

 

“Good afternoon, My Lord,” she said.

 

“What do I have to do to get you to call me ‘Miles’?” he asked. “We’re comrades now, Anny. And not in the same chain of command. No discipline problems.”

 

“It just doesn’t seem… right. Sir. I’ll settle for sir. Sir.”

 

Vorkosigan smiled and shook his head.

 

“It’s all right, Anny,” said Lady Ekaterin. “Miles was courting me for months and I was still calling him Lord Vorkosigan. Of course the fact that he hadn’t told me he was courting me had quite a bit to do with that.”

 

“Dear…” sighed the Lord Auditor. “All right, Anny. If you insist, sir will do.”

 

“Thank you, sir.” She smiled.

 

“No thank you. All of you,” he turned to take in Jer and Patric, too. “I’m so glad I was able to get away for the ceremony today. The fires may be out, but there’s an unbelievable mess that still needs to be cleaned up. Hundreds of people have lost their homes and livelihoods. Years of work to fix it up.”

 

“This is the first day Miles has taken off since it all started,” said his wife with a scolding look.

 

Vorkosigan shrugged but then his face took on an odd, almost shy expression. “Anny… I’d like… please let all of C Company know how… how personally grateful I am to them. Everyone worked so hard to save the whole district but… well… Silvy Vale is very important to me. Without you…” he trailed off.

 

“Of course, sir.” She’d suspected that there was some special connection. Some of the things he’d said, the way he’d acted out on the line. “I’ll let them all know, sir” He smiled, nodded, and an awkward silence dragged on. And on. For the first time since she’d met him, Vorkosigan seemed at a loss for words.

 

“Where are the children?” asked Anny desperately. “I had half expected to see little Helen cartwheeling across the parade ground.”

 

“Back at the house,” replied Lady Ekaterin, stepping into the gap. “We gave Pym the day off.”

 

“Yeah,” said Vorkosigan. “He’s been mumbling about ‘being too old for this sort of thing’ ever since we got back. But in any case, I’m glad I was able to be here. And I’m truly glad the efforts of the cadets has been acknowledged. Without you, the damage would have been ten times worse.”

 

“How are you feeling, Anny?” asked Lady Ekaterin. “I understand you were hurt.”

 

“I’m fine, My Lady. Well, getting fine.”

 

“Anny got the skin burned right off her back,” said Jer.

 

“Glad you’re doing better,” said Vorkosigan. “You were looking pretty used up when they evacuated you. I see they gave you a ‘bad luck charm’ for it.” He pointed at her wound medal.

 

“Miles has a box full of those,” said Ekaterin. “I’ll pray you don’t get any more. Either of you.”

 

Anny was trying to think of something to say when Jer nudged her and pointed. Alby was headed their way. Abigail was with him and so was… Good Lord…

 

“General Vorsworth,” said Lord Vorkosigan turning to follow their gazes. “Good to see you again, sir.”

 

Alby’s father was walking slowly with the aid of a cane. Anny was startled. The old man looked much thinner than when she’d last seen him at Vorsworth House. He was almost gaunt and had dark circles under his eyes. “My Lord Auditor,” he said and made a stiff half-bow. “Cadets.” He nodded in their direction. Anny, Jer and Patric all saluted and he returned it.

 

“I was… I was just thanking the cadets for their efforts,” said Vorkosigan. “But I’d like to thank you, too, General. The way you got things organized, whipped things into shape. It probably proved decisive, sir.”

 

“Thirty years in Ops did teach me a thing or two even though I’ve never fought a battle quite like that one.”

 

“No one has, sir.”

 

“No, but now that we have we’ll damn well make sure we’re not caught flatfooted like this again. I’ve put your cousin, Major Vorpatril, to work coming up with some procedures.”

 

“That’s good to hear. I’ve already put in a proposal to the Council of Counts for some long-range, planet-wide, planning to meet future emergencies.”

 

“Good. Good. But… excuse me, My Lord Auditor, that’s not what I came to talk about.” He turned toward Anny. “Cadet-Captain Payne, Cadet-Sergeant Naddel, I… I wanted to thank you for saving my son’s life.” Anny’s mouth fell open. She couldn’t force a sound to come out. “And, I wanted you to know that I’ve recommended both of you for a decoration.”

 

“I...sir,” gurgled Anny. “That’s… that’s not necessary.”

 

“I think it is.”

 

“Anyone else in the company would have done the same thing, sir. For anyone else in the company.”

 

“I know… I know. But you’re the ones who did do it. And… and I’m glad you were there, Captain. I’m glad… I’m glad you’re here.” He held out his hand and pinned her with his eyes.

 

Anny stared back disbelievingly. Slowly her hand came up and took his. There wasn’t much strength in it, but she shook it firmly. He released her, stepped back and saluted. Anny awkwardly returned it. “Thank you,” he whispered and then turned away. No one made a sound as he slowly walked away. Alone.

 

Suddenly Alby whistled. “Well, I will be dipped in shit.”

 

Jer and Patric snorted. Lady Ekaterin’s hand came up to hide a smile. “Alby!” cried Anny. It was a hillsman expression. Where’d he pick that up? But then everyone laughed and she did, too, despite herself.

 

“Well put, Cadet,” said Lord Vorkosigan, chuckling. But then his smile faded. “He’s put in for retirement, you know. Effective the end of this year.”

 

“Well, dip me again,” said Alby, clearly surprised.

 

“It’s not fair,” said Anny. “About the medals, I mean.”

 

“Welcome to Barrayar,” said Jer, Patric and Alby in unison.

 

“Well, it’s not,” she insisted. “Everyone else worked just as hard, took the same risks.”

 

“It’s the way things work, Anny,” said Jer, “And not just here. Every military I’ve ever read about, a unit does good and the medals go to the commanders. No getting around it. And frankly, I’m not turning it down! I need every good thing I can get on my record!” He smiled.

 

“He’s right, Anny,” said Vorkosigan. “And it’s well-deserved. Very well deserved.”

 

“I turned down a medal once,” said Lady Ekaterin suddenly, a thoughtful expression on her face. “Always sort of regretted it…”

 

“Dear! You did not! Did you? I mean I could talk to Gregor about it… I’m sure he could arrange something…” The Lord Auditor seemed very flustered for reasons Anny couldn’t guess. But his wife just patted his shoulder.

 

“Never mind, never mind.”

 

“Well!” said Vorkosigan, trying to regain his composure. “Anyone hungry? How about some food? A late lunch, early dinner, whatever. At the Officers’ Club. My treat.”

 

Anny automatically tried to refuse, but her comrades immediately agreed, so she was outvoted. In truth she was perfectly happy to spend some time with the Lord Auditor. He dragged them all off to the Officers’ Club and in an amazingly short time they were seated around a large table sipping drinks and waiting for food. Anny, remembering the last time she’d been here, limited herself to a single glass of wine.

 

Vorkosigan, back in control again, kept the conversation going briskly. He told funny stories, hinted at adventures that he couldn’t really talk about, chatted with Abigail about Sergyar and with Jer about Komarr. Lady Ekaterin chipped in with anecdotes about the children—and her husband. Alby had a fair store of jokes of his own and several glasses of wine had erased any trace of inhibitions about telling them. Patric didn’t say much, but he rarely did and seemed to be enjoying himself, nonetheless.

 

But the conversation kept coming back, again and again, to the Great Fire. Anny suspected that the same thing was happening at all the other tables around them. What they had seen, what they had heard, what they had felt. The great adventure rehashed and retold from six different perspectives. Lady Ekaterin made all the appropriate oohs and ahhs at the right moments. Anny began to realize that no matter what might come later, this had been one of the great events of their lives.

 

“You know, Anny,” said Vorkosigan at one point, “you never did tell me where you got that trick you used in the meadow.”

 

“Oh. It was just something I’d read about. It’s called a ‘rescue fire’. It won’t work in every situation, but this time it did.”

 

“And mighty glad we are that it did!” said Alby, a bit too loudly.

 

“Yes!” added Jer. “I thought you had gone crazy and decided to immolate us like some pagan warrior-king, er, queen.” The others laughed and Anny smiled.

 

“Well, it was damn clever,” said Vorkosigan. “We’ll have to make sure Ivan puts it in those new procedures he’s working on. In fact, I think he should probably sit down and pick your brain sometime.”

 

“I’d be happy to help out however I can, sir.”

 

More food arrived and the conversation went on.

 

She, herself, didn’t say a lot, although the others kept trying to draw her out. She really wanted to talk to Vorkosigan—alone. But there was no opportunity. The question she had asked herself back on the parade ground: What will you do then? kept nagging at her. The young people sitting around the table, back at the barracks, were more precious to her than any medal, any treasure. If someday her oath to the emperor demanded that she sacrifice one of them—or all of them, would she be able to do it? Officers are born for sacrifice. It said so right in the manual. Would she be able to do it?

 

But Vorkosigan… that look on his face back at Silvy Vale, some of the things he’d said there, those really… wild rumors about his early career, did he have an answer to her question? She suspected that maybe he did. If anyone did. Maybe there were no answers. Just decisions. And consequences. She’d have to ask. Maybe at Winterfaire. It seemed like he actually liked her. It might just be possible…

 

The late lunch merged into an early dinner and beyond, but eventually they had to call it to an end. Good-byes were said, hands were squeezed, Lady Ekaterin had a hug for each of them. The cadets weaved their way out of the Officers’ Club and back toward their barracks. Alby could barely walk. Abigail helped hold him up. Yeah… really gotta do something about that…

 

The sun was just setting and halfway across the parade ground a lone bugle suddenly rang out. Retreat. The huge Imperial Flag on the tall, tall flagpole was being slowly lowered, just as it was every evening, day after day, year after year, to a bugle call as old as the hills. Everyone stopped, came to attention, faced the flag and saluted. Even Alby.

 

She loved this. Everything about it. As she stood there she realized she’d never been happier in her life. Friends, comrades, duty. What more could she want?

 

The last note died away, the flag was folded and carried off until the next dawn. Anny sighed and turned toward home.

 

The others were already laughing and joking again. She wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

“Back to the grind tomorrow,” griped Alby, leaning on Abigail.

 

“Five-D math,” moaned Jer. “Dull, dull, dull!”

 

“Well,” said Anny. “If you want excitement, I forgot to tell you: our live-fire exercise has been rescheduled for next month.”

 

“Ha!” snorted Alby. “What’s so exciting about that?”

 

“Yeah,” said Jer. “Compared to what we’ve been through, that’ll be a piece of cake!”

 

Anny smiled. They were right:

 

A piece of cake.

 

 

 

End of Book 3

Chapter Text

Third Interlude

 

Winterfair Reflections

 

 

Vicereine Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan stepped from the ground car halted in front of the Viceroy’s Residence on the planet Sergyar. An armsman and several servants stood there waiting to greet her return. She’d only been gone a few hours, but from the expressions on their faces you’d think she’d been away for months. She exchanged a few words with them, assuring herself that there had been no catastrophes in her absence, and then climbed the short flight of stairs leading to the front door.

 

The residence was a very modest affair by the standards of the Barryaran Empire. Only a fraction of the size of the Emperor’s residence, not even as large as Vorkosigan House in Vorbarr Sultana. It was built almost entirely from local materials and in an architectural style several generations out of date which, unfortunately, her husband was unaccountably fond of. But, she had to admit, the result was quite appropriate to the setting and function. The building had the grandeur expected for the man ruling the planet in the Emperor’s Name, but was not so ostentatious as to seem an insult to the hard-working frontiersmen—and frontierswomen!—who made up most of the planet’s population.

 

The building was still decorated for Winterfair, which had come a few days ago, even though Sergyar’s seasons bore no relationship to Barrayar’s and nothing resembling winter ever came to these regions. But tradition was tradition and few people were more enamored to tradition than Barrayarans.

 

She handed off her shawl to a servant and then made her way through the glass-walled corridor that connected the main building with the attached administrative annex that was the nerve center of the planetary government. She breezed right past the secretary with a wave of her hand and into Aral’s office and his face broke into a smile when he saw her. She planted a kiss on his cheek and then stepped back. “Good afternoon, Love,” he said. “The inspection go well?”

 

“Well enough,” she replied. “Although I tried not to make it seem like an inspection.”

 

“But that’s what it was, wasn’t it?”

 

“Yes,” she sighed and plunked down in a chair. She’d spent the morning touring the schools of the capital city. Among the several duties she’d assumed for herself, both to lighten Aral’s load and to prevent herself from going crazy from boredom, she was the head of Sergyar’s Department of Education. “I don’t like coming across as the heavy-handed Imperial Authority, but I do want them all to know that someone is interested—and watching. It’s walking a fine line, sometimes.”

 

“But you were satisfied?”

 

“For the most part, yes. The city schools are at least on the level you’d find in Vorbarr Sultanna or any of the big cities on Barrayar. We’ve got some good teachers and the facilities aren’t bad, either. It’s just…

 

“Only a fraction of the planet’s population lives here,” finished Aral.

 

“Yes. That’s it exactly. The vast majority live on isolated farms or tiny villages in the outback. The planetary information net is available to anyone who cares to use it and the on-line classes are very good, but I’m afraid for all those kids out there who are too busy to take advantage of it.”

 

“We’re a frontier world, Love. Survival has to be first priority.”

 

“I know. And there isn’t really a great deal I can do in any case. But it is frustrating at times…” She suddenly got up from the chair. “Well, I’m keeping you from your own work. I’ll see you at dinner?”

 

“Of course. Estavan Vordalla and his wife are coming. He wants to bend my ear about accelerating the program to introduce new terrestrial species to the environment.” He rolled his eyes. “He’s got his heart set on a sheep empire in the Galgan Highlands.  Perhaps you can remind him of the need for a thorough study of the environmental impact.”

 

“I’ll do my best. See you at dinner.” She left his office and went down the hall to her own suite of rooms. She let her secretary bring her up to date on the day’s events and then went to her desk, sat down and activated the comconsole. She took care of a few routine matters and then turned to a batch of messages that had arrived by courier from Barrayar. Most of the Winterfair greetings had come with the previous ship, but there were a few from Miles and Ekaterin with vids of the grandchildren enjoying the festivities. She watched them several times with a soft smile on her face. She wished they’d been able to get home this year, but the plan was that Miles and Ekaterin and the children would make their first trip to Sergyar in a few months. She was looking forward to that enormously.

 

She read through a few tardy messages from other friends and then stopped. A smile came to her lips. Anny! A message from Anny Payne. The young woman who she’d helped get into the Academy rarely had the time to send messages, but Cordelia always enjoyed hearing from her. She hit the key and Anny’s image appeared on the screen. She was smiling and Cordelia found herself smiling, too. Anny’s buoyant personality always did that to her. The nervous girl she’d first seen in the courtyard of the residency in Hassadar was now a confident, mature woman. She recognized the small room in Vorkosigan House that Anny used when she was there, so she had come for Winterfair. In fact, now that she thought about it, she’d seen Anny in the background of a few of the vids that Miles had sent.

 

“Happy Winterfair, My Lady,” said Anny. “I was sorry to hear that you weren’t coming to Barrayar this year. I hope all is well with you and the Viceroy on Sergyar. I especially wanted to thank you for the message you sent when I got the medal for… for what happened during the fire. It was very thoughtful of you both.” Cordelia nodded in satisfaction. Anny had acted with great professionalism and bravery during a terrible forest fire in Vorkosigan District and personally helped save two of her comrades from the flames. She’d been awarded the Distinguished Service Star, a mid-level decoration in the large array of Barrayaran military awards. It was a solid vindication of all the efforts she’d made to get Anny into the service.

 

“I can’t begin to thank you for all that you’ve done for me, My Lady,” Anny continued. “But… but I was really hoping to talk to you.” The smile on Anny’s face faltered and she looked very serious. Cordelia sat up and frowned. What’s wrong? “Something… something happened during the fire. Something that took me by surprise. I’d been so focused on the immediate problems of getting through the Academy that I… I don’t think I’d ever really thought about what would happen after I made it through. Being in command…” Anny paused and shook her head. Cordelia sucked in her breath and suddenly knew what was wrong. She looked Death in the eyes and didn’t like what she saw. Damn, she’s still so young!

 

“I’m sorry, My Lady, I’m not being very clear, I know. It’s still pretty confused in my head, too. But just talking about it helps, I guess. The next time we meet, if you can spare me a few moments I’d really like to talk to you. I… your son, the Lord Auditor, has agreed to talk to me tomorrow about this. Maybe we can…” Anny was growing visibly flustered and after another moment she made an awkward good-bye and the message ended. Cordelia leaned back in her chair and sighed. She was slightly amazed that Anny had actually sent the message. But clearly there was something really bothering her and she was reaching out to anyone she thought might help. But Miles… She checked the date on the message and saw that it was from two days ago. Anny would have already talked to Miles…

 

What did you say to her, son?

 

 

* * *

 

 

Miles gestured to a chair that sat by the large windows overlooking the gardens. “Have a seat, Anny.” The young woman did so and sat perched on the edge of it, her back ramrod straight. She looked like a cadet even in civilian clothes. He took another chair facing her.

 

“Thank you for making the time to see me, sir,” she replied. She looked very tense, had been looking very tense for the last several days. Miles was afraid he knew why.

 

“Glad to do it, Anny. You’re not just a guest here, you know. I’d like to think that we are friends, too.” She smiled briefly and nodded. “But what’s on your mind?”

 

She looked down and the floor and rubbed her hands. “During the fire… when we were at Silvy Vale, I mean… you said… you asked me if it was hard to send people into danger. It was. A lot harder than I’d expected. It’s been bothering me ever since.” She paused and looked at him. He nodded at her to go ahead. “As an officer it’s going to be my duty to order people into danger. Probably dangers a lot worse than the fire. Some of them are going to get killed or wounded, sir.  During the fire… there wasn’t any time to think about things then. We just did what we had to. But now that I’ve had some time to think, I’m worried. Worried that…”

 

“That you won’t be able to do it when the situation arises again?” asked Miles.

 

“Yes, sir. That’s it exactly. What if I can’t? Or what if I hesitate? In combat seconds are critical and even hesitating could get more people killed. If I can’t do this I don’t belong in the military. But how can I know until the time comes?”

 

“You can’t,” he said. “But if it’s any comfort, in combat you probably won’t have any more time to stop and think than you did during the fire. You didn’t hesitate then and you probably won’t in combat. But if you didn’t worry about the possibility… well, you’d hardly be human, would you? It’s not the sort of thing any rational human wouldn’t worry about.”

 

“I guess that’s true, sir. But the reason I wanted to talk to you was because… because I’m guessing you’ve faced the situation before. I tried to look up your military record, but it’s mostly classified, but I’d heard rumors and I thought… I thought it might help to talk to you, sir. If you don’t mind.” She looked at him earnestly, almost pleadingly.

 

But not hatefully. Thank all the gods, saints and demons, not hatefully!

 

Miles silently sighed in relief. It was clear that this had been eating at Anny ever since it happened. But it had been eating at Miles, too. She hadn’t seen, thankfully no one but Pym had really seen, how he’d very nearly come apart when he thought she and the other three cadets had been killed in the fire—the fire he’d forced them to fight.

 

He could still see himself standing there, grinning like a fool, as the rescue party returned with the family of refugees, as the fire line was completed. Oh yeah, he’d done it again! Pulled a miracle out of his ass, saved the day, saved Silvy Vale! Lem and Harra would be so pleased with him. And that’s what it had all been about, hadn’t it? Pleasing Lem and Harra, looking good in their eyes. What a damned idiot! Then it had all crumbled to ash. The cry for help over the com, Anny and Jer dashing off to save their friends and him, still standing there, unable to do a frigging thing about it. He’d shouted, screamed into the com, but there was no answer. And then the fire had come. A howling red beast, eating everything in its path, it had come right up to the edge of the firebreak. Nothing that lived could have survived.

 

He’d wept and cursed and screamed at Pym to call for a medical shuttle with cryo-pods, even though there was no point in trying to freeze a body that had been roasted black. He kept shouting into the com for Anny, even though he knew there was no hope.

 

But then there’d been an answer. Against all reason, Anny and the other three were alive. It was a miracle. He’d very nearly collapsed right there. He’d held himself together long enough to arrange for an evac shuttle, but then Pym had to practically carry him back to his lightflyer. He wasn’t due for his seizure stimulator for another three days, but he felt like he was having one right there. But he’d never felt more relieved in his life, not even the day his children were born. He’d been given a new chance, a reprieve from a fatal screw-up. But if they had died… Sergeant Beatrice slipping through his fingers again into the shrieking dark, Bothari bleeding to death in front of him… Silvy Vale had been important to him, to a lot of people, but in the end it was still just a pile of logs and shingles, not worth four young lives…

 

“My Lord?” He jerked and saw Anny looking at him, concerned.

 

“No, no, I don’t mind at all, Anny. Glad to do it. It can be a hard thing… a very hard thing.”

 

“And you’ve done it, haven’t you, sir?”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I have.” Just a few weeks ago. She doesn’t seem to realize that, does she? I was worried that she did—and that she hated me for it. But there was no hate in her eyes. There ought to be, but there wasn’t. You didn’t put your friends in harm’s way, girl, I did. But someday it might be her turn. Her question was still a valid one.

 

“Anny… Anny, I know you can keep your mouth shut when you have to, I’ve asked you to before. I’m asking you to again. I’m going to tell you about some of that classified career of mine. Most of it’s not really that much of a secret anymore, but I’d still prefer you didn’t go blabbing this around, okay?”

 

“Of course, sir.” He eyes were wide and he had her full attention.

 

“For ten years I was ImpSec Galactic Ops, working for Simon Illyan. You’ve met Simon a few times, haven’t you? Well, don’t let the ‘kindly uncle’ act fool you, he was the hardest, sharpest leader ImpSec ever had. He demanded results… and I was one of the guys who produced them. As part of my cover I was… I pretended to be the commander of a mercenary unit. It was a mixed space and ground force of about squadron/brigade size. We were good, too. Oh yeah, we were good. I was as proud of them as you are of C Company. Some of the stuff we pulled off…” He paused and thought back to a few of their more spectacular successes. He was tempted to elaborate, but no, this wasn’t the time. “Anyway, as their commander, sometimes I had to order them into danger. Our specialty was cleverness rather than brute force, but even so, sometimes some of my people didn’t come back.”

 

“And it hurt, didn’t it, sir?” Anny’s expression was very solemn, her large green eyes followed his every move.

 

“Yes. Yes it did. And not just because I loved them, every blessed one of them, but because they loved me in return.” Anny’s eyebrows rose and he gave her a grim smile. “That’s the worst part of this, y’know? A good commander has to care for his troops, take care of them, make them feel proud of themselves. That’s how you get the maximum results from them. They try to teach you those tricks at the Academy, don’t they? But what they don’t tell you, Anny, is that if you succeed, if you succeed, your troops will love you for it. C Company loves you, Anny, don’t they?”

 

The look of shock and embarrassment on her face made Miles smile. “I… They…” she stammered.

 

“Of course they do. I could see it in their faces when they thought they’d lost you in the fire. We had to hold some of them back from dashing into the inferno to find you. And the joy on their faces when you turned up alive. Of course half of them—probably more than half—are in love with you, or think they are. No getting around that with a bunch of horny boys that age. My merc outfit was a mixed crew and there were women in it who were in love with me. A few men, too, for that matter, we were very galactic, y’know. But even without the sex, the love that soldiers can have for a favorite commander can be as intense as any other kind of love. So you take these people, make them into soldiers, give them victories, give them pride, get them to love you—and then send them out to die.” Miles paused and shook his head, this wasn’t doing Anny any good, he was getting way too cynical. “It’s a trap. The better you do your job, the harder it makes it to do your job.”

 

“So how do you do it, sir?”

 

Miles shrugged. “There’s no secret, Anny, no magic way to avoid the pain. Some people just harden themselves, refuse to let themselves love their people and ignore the love that they give back. It can work sometimes. Others… Well, you either find a way to do it that doesn’t drive you crazy—or find a different line of work.” The woman frowned. Clearly, this wasn’t the answer she was hoping for. He wished he had a better answer for her, but there wasn’t one.

 

“The one thing, the only thing that really made it bearable for me,” he continued, “was knowing that deep down they weren’t really dying for me. Not for me. My troopers were mercenaries, of course, and each one had their own reasons for being there. You’ll be commanding Barrayarans and you need to realize that while you might be the one giving the order that sends them to their deaths, they aren’t dying for you, Anny. Not for you, not for the idiots who put you all in that situation, not even for the Emperor. If they die they are dying for Barrayar. You’re willing to die for Barrayar, aren’t you?” Anny nodded. “Well, so are they. You have to accept that. You have to accept that now and when the time comes to give the order.”

 

“I… I’ll try, sir.” The look on her face was very thoughtful.

 

“And there is one thing you can do, Cadet-Captain. Having your troops killed is bad enough, but there’s something far worse: having them killed needlessly. Wasting your peoples’ lives.” Like I nearly wasted yours. “Getting them killed because you didn’t do your job the best you could. That’s the one thing about this whole mess that you can control. Learn your trade and then do your job as best you can—and pray the price doesn’t get too high.”

 

He stopped and looked at her and she looked back. The silence went on for quite a while and slowly she began to nod her head. Finally she stood up. “Thank you, sir,” she said quietly. “Thank you very much.”

 

He stood up, too. He was tempted to offer her a hug, but he wasn’t sure how she’d respond to that. And with the Winterfair mob in Vorkosigan house the only private spot available had been the sitting room in his and Ekaterin’s suite. No… he offered her his hand instead and she took it. “Any time you want to talk, Anny,” he said. “I’m available any time.” She thanked him again and left, shutting the door behind her.

 

He turned and looked out the window. A fresh snow had covered the gardens and some of the plants made long rows of lumps that looked unpleasantly grave-like. He hoped that he’d helped Anny, but he knew from experience that this was a fight she could only win on her own. It was something every officer had to deal with, but Anny had been forced to face it much sooner than most. And Barrayar’s warrior traditions could barely admit that the issue even existed. Unlike in other galactic militaries, there were almost no official channels to get psychological help. These young officers were just expected to deal with it. And it was a dozen times worse for Anny. She was clearly worried that if she dared approach anyone in the chain of command with her doubts that they would just brand her a weak, emotional girl, unfit for command. And she was right, they would, the bastards. No doubt that was why she’d come to him in the first place. She’ll make it through. There’s iron in that one. But damnation, what a burden for someone so young… You were even younger, kiddo.

 

Barrayar eats its own children…

 

He suddenly turned and went through the doors into the private areas of the suite. Little Aral and Helen were playing with some of their Winterfair gifts and Ekaterin was watching them. He thumped down on the floor beside them and gathered both into his arms and pressed his face into their hair. They squealed and squirmed, but he held them tight.

 

“Miles…?” said Ekaterin. “Is everything all right?”

 

The kids wriggled free of his grasp and he turned to face his wife.

 

“Yes. Everything’s fine.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Jer Naddel wandered through Vorkosigan House and despite all the people bustling about, felt a little lonely. Patric had returned to South Continent to be with his family on the holiday and Alby was spending some time with his parents. Anny had disappeared somewhere this morning. He knew he was very lucky being able to spend his breaks from the Academy here or at the homes of his friends. He couldn’t afford to return to Komarr and when he first came to Barrayar he’d expected to be stuck in the barracks during leaves for lack of anywhere else to go. He’d never imagined that he might make some real friends who would care enough about him to invite him home with them.

 

But he had. Friends, real friends. It still sort of amazed him. Growing up on Komarr he’d only had a few close friends and looking back now none of them seemed all that close, not compared to how he felt about Patric and Alby… and Anny. Coming here he’d hoped that he might make friends with some of the handful of other Komarrans at the Academy, but there hadn’t been any in his company. He’d just assumed that none of the Barrayarans would want to be his friend.

 

But one of the first people he’d met had been Anny Payne. A Barrayaran, but even more of an outcast them himself. They’d become friends, more out of self-preservation than anything else—at least at first. Before long they had drawn Alby Vorsworth and Patric Mederov into their little group. From there… from there they’d become closer friends than Jer would have believed possible.

 

Alby, smart-assed, wise-cracking, never-met-a-rule-he-wouldn’t-like-to-break, Alby Vorsworth gave an irreverently irrepressible air to the group. When everyone else got too serious you could always depend on Alby to put things in perspective. By all rights Jer shouldn’t have liked spoiled, privileged, Alby at all, but somehow it was impossible not to.

 

Patric was quiet and thoughtful. He didn’t say much, but when he did say something it was worth listening to. He had a strength that went far beyond his impressive physique. He was someone you could trust to watch your back.

 

And then there was Anny. Jer couldn’t think of anyone he’d ever met who he admired more. Of course, Jer had to admit that he was a romantic at heart. Komarr had never had anything resembling a military tradition. It’s only military force was its navy which was strictly a defensive force and an escort for the trade fleets and the first and only time it had ever faced a serious threat—the Barrayarans—it had lost badly. Jer’s fascination with things military wasn’t quite normal among his people, but instead of ignoring it and going into business like his family expected, he’d astounded them all by applying to the Academy. He was honest enough to realize that his illusions about military glory were exactly that: illusions, but he didn’t care. There was something about it all, the pomp and circumstance, the long traditions, the comradeship that tugged at his secret soul. He could find nothing in Komarran society to fill that longing, so he’d come to Barrayar.

 

He’d quickly realized that Anny was a kindred spirit and shared many of those same feelings. But she faced obstacles far, far worse than he did in trying to make her dreams a reality. While it was true that many Barrayarans didn’t like Komarrans and didn’t want to see them in the military, at least he wasn’t the first Komarran to try it. Others had gone before him, blazing the trail. Anny was the first woman to ever attend the Academy and there were a lot of people outraged by her attempt. Some of the things they’d done to her to try and drive her out had left him furious and desperately wishing there was some way to help her—or strike back at her tormentors. But Anny had just taken it. Taken everything they’d dished out and kept right on going. If they’d done half the stuff to him that they’d done to her, he would have been back on Komarr two years ago. Her cool courage and determination had impressed everyone else in the company. There wasn’t a man in C Company who wouldn’t follow her to hell. We did follow her to hell—just a few months ago. Anny’s tireless leadership during the fire had fused the bond. It was solid and unbreakable now. Jer’s position as company first sergeant made him her right hand and there was nothing else he’d rather be.

 

His wanderings in the huge old mansion had led him—as they often did—to the library on the first floor. The shelves and shelves of bound books fascinated him. Komarr had never had its high-technology civilization interrupted the way Barrayar had so virtually all books and documents were electronic. Bound books weren’t nearly as convenient, but there was just something about them. The feel, the smell, even the sound of the rustling pages… the romantic in him again, no doubt.

 

He was heading for a shelf that he knew held dozens of old volumes on military history during Barrayar’s Time of Isolation when he realized that he wasn’t alone in the room. Abigail Vorburn was curled up on one of the overstuffed chairs with a book in her lap. Abigail had gotten help from Countess Vorkosigan on Sergyar to get into the Academy, just as Anny had, and that had included a standing invitation to Vorkosigan House. She looked up and smiled. “Oh, hi, Abbie,” he said.

 

“Hello, Jer,” she replied. “Looking for something to read?”

 

“Yeah. But I’m surprised to find you here. I figured Alby would have dragged you off to his house with him.”

 

Her smile faded. “He tried, but I told him no.” Her expression grew very pensive. “Jer, can I talk to you?”

 

“Sure. What about?”

 

“Alby.”

 

“Oh. What, is he…? Um…?”

 

“Getting too pushy? Yes, you might say so. Or maybe not, I don’t know. He hasn’t done anything… inappropriate. I mean not really. Nothing physical, anyway… well…” She was blushing and Jer felt his face heating.

 

“If he tried anything, Anny would skin him alive—after I got done with him!”

 

“Oh dear, I don’t want to get him into trouble! It’s not anything he’s done, it’s… it’s what he wants to do—and I don’t mean that!” The girl was getting flustered and Jer sat down in a chair facing her.

 

“Well, what does he want to do—if it’s not ‘that‘?”

 

“He wants to fall in love with me. And he wants me to fall in love with him. Not that I’m against that in principle, I mean he’s a very nice boy and considering who his family is under any other circumstances I’d be thrilled. But… but…”

 

“This isn’t the time or the place?” suggested Jer.

 

“Yes! Exactly! Even if it weren’t against regulation, this just isn’t the time! I’m serious about wanting to get my commission and this could just wreck… everything!”

 

“It sure could—and not just for the two of you.”

 

“I know! There would be people who’d claim I was trying to seduce Alby for his family’s money or that having women here was disrupting things or some other such nonsense. They’d use that to try and discredit the whole idea of women in the military!”

 

Jer raised an eyebrow. Abbie had clearly thought this through—or been thoroughly warned of the consequences by Countess Vorkosigan. Perhaps someone needed to warn Alby of the consequences. It was pretty clear that Alby had been emotionally starved while growing up. Since coming to the Academy he’d been given a taste of real affection and friendship. Was he craving even more now?

 

“I’ll have a talk with him. Knock some sense into him.”

 

“Oh please don’t be too hard on him, Jer! I mean I do like him a lot. I still want to be friends with him. If there was just some way to… to work things out. Y’know, the way you and Anny have.”

 

“What?”

 

“Well, it’s pretty obvious that you two…”

 

“Pretty obvious that we what?” Jer looked at the girl with a growing sense of shock. What the hell does she mean?

 

“Well, that you… y-you really care for each other,” stuttered Abbie, becoming flustered in turn. “And… and you both seem to deal with it so well I just thought…”

 

Jer rocked back in his chair with his mouth open. “I… She’s my company commander,” he managed to force out after a moment. “And I’m her first sergeant. It’s natural that we’d have a close working relationship.”

 

“Oh! I… I thought it was more than…”

 

“You were mistaken, cadet.” Jer frowned at her and she flinched.

 

“I-I’m sorry!”

 

Jer got up from his chair. “I’ll have a talk with Alby,” he said and then left the library. He managed to keep his stride steady until he was out of sight of Abigail and then he staggered to a halt. My God, is she serious? Does everyone else think that we…? He could scarcely believe this. He’d been so careful to make sure that his relationship with Anny was strictly professional. Or he thought he had. Because he was attracted to her. Quite a lot. But he had realized, just as Abigail was realizing with Alby, that this was not the time or the place to fall in love. Had he botched it? Was everyone whispering and snickering behind their backs? It didn’t seem possible.

 

He stiffened when he saw Anny coming down the grand staircase. She had an odd expression on her face and seemed to be lost in thought, her eyes on the floor in front of her. For some reason he felt incredibly tongue-tied. Even a simple Hi Anny felt too… too… something.

 

But she just nodded at him as she passed. She had on a heavy coat and she went out the door without a word.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* * *

 

BOOK  FOUR

 

* * *

 

 

Chapter 25

 

 

Mr. Naddel, would you please summarize our readings on the strategic situation facing the Komarran Navy at the time they let the Cetagandan’s carry out their invasion of Barrayar?” Captain Vordranis was staring right at him from the front of the lecture hall. Jer groaned silently and got to his feet.

 

“Yes, sir. The Cetagandan Empire was in an expansionist phase and was demanding passage of its warships through Komarran space in order to launch an invasion of Barrayar. The Komarrans had reason to believe that if they did not accede to the Cetagandan demands they might be attacked themselves instead. They therefore had no choice but to…”

 

“Excuse me, Mr. Naddel,” interrupted Vordranis, “I don’t recall that as being in the assigned reading.”

 

“Uh, well it’s common knowledge on Komarr, sir.”

 

“Indeed? So all Komarrans believe that their shameful betrayal of Barrayar was justified?”

 

Jer’s face reddened, but he held his temper. He wasn’t sure what Vordranis’ problem was with him, but this wasn’t their first encounter. Maybe he just hated Komarrans… The captain was hoping to get a rise out of him and he wasn’t about to let him succeed. “I couldn’t comment on that, sir.”

 

“But you just did,” said Vordranis smoothly. “But proceed—and please stick to the information in the text and not add your own editorial comments.” This got a few laughs from the other cadets.

 

“Yes, sir,” said Jer, gritting his teeth. “The Komarran’s had very strong fixed defenses and naval units guarding the wormhole leading to Cetagandan space. A Cetagandan assault through the wormhole would have been extremely expensive. However, they had virtually no defenses guarding the wormhole leading to Barrayar. If they permitted substantial Cetagandan naval units to cross through their space and on to Barrayar they would have been faced with a powerful potential foe in both front and rear. That being the case, they only allowed the Cetagandans to pass troop carriers and light escorts through to Barrayar. No heavy units were given transit. The lack of heavy orbital fire support substantially handicapped Cetagandan efforts to subjugate Barrayar and prevented them from establishing an airtight blockade of the planet.”

 

“You’re editorializing again, Mr. Naddel,” said Vordranis.

 

“Uh, no sir, that’s an almost exact quote from Vormahan’s The Influence of Spacepower Upon History, which was part of our assigned reading this semester.”

 

Now it was Vordranis’ turn to redden. He scowled and then cleared his throat. “Proceed, cadet. How did the Komarran’s adjust their strategic planning once the Cetagandan’s withdrew?”

 

“Yes sir. The Komarran’s continued to treat the Cetagandan’s as the main threat to them. Although they had built some minor defenses facing the wormhole to Barrayar while the Cetagandans were there, they did little to strengthen them during the time that Barrayar was constructing its own fleet. Also, in order to reduce costs, most of the mobile forces facing Barrayar were hired mercenaries, who fled almost immediately. Therefore when Admiral Vorkosigan led his attack into the Komarran system he encountered only minor resistance at the wormhole exit. This allowed him to con… er, occupy Komarr with relative ease.”

 

“And how would you account for this fatal lack of foresight on the part of the Komarrans, cadet?”

 

“Uh, clearly they didn’t anticipate that Barrayar could construct such a formidable fleet in so short a time. Also, there was an economic recession on Komarr and funding for the military was severely cut during that time period, sir.”

 

“Butter before guns, eh, cadet? Hiring someone else to do your fighting for you? But that’s to be expected from a nation of shopkeepers and cowards, wouldn’t you say?”

 

Jer clenched his fists, but kept his voice as steady as he could. “I’m not in a position to comment on that as it was not part of our readings, sir.”

 

“Oh, but I would think that you could comment, Mr. Naddel,” said Vordranis, putting emphasis on Jer’s Komarran surname. “You are certainly better qualified than anyone else here. So how do you account for the almost instantaneous collapse of Komarran resistance once Admiral Vorkosigan broke through to Komarr proper? Cowardice? Stupidity? Or perhaps Komarrans just aren’t fit to be soldiers? What do you think, Mr. Naddel?”

 

Jer could feel his temper coming to a boil. He knew that anything he said now would just make things worse. He should keep his mouth shut. But damn it, this bastard had no right to…

 

“Excuse me sir,” said another voice. Jer jerked his head around and there was Anny, a few rows away, on her feet and facing Vordranis. “I had the privilege of speaking with Admiral Vorsworth last year, just a month or so before he died. We were discussing his role in the early phases of the Occupation and later as a blockade runner. He was quite clear in his opinion that bravado, fighting strictly for the sake of pride and honor, was just a waste of resources and lives. Living to fight another day made far more sense to him. I was wondering if this same philosophy could be applied to the Komarran defenders? Once Admiral Vorkosigan had secured the wormhole exit and taken the high orbitals around Komarr itself, any counterattack by the mobile forces from the other wormhole exits would have been doomed to failure and only led to needless casualties, both military and civilian. Perhaps they realized that and capitulated?”

 

Vordranis seemed startled. He glanced at Jer and then turned to face Anny. “Are you suggesting the Komarrans are still planning to ‘fight another day’, cadet?” he growled.

 

“Well, let’s hope not, sir,” said Anny with a small smile on her face. “Although as I recall, some Komarran ships did flee through the wormholes rather than surrender. Not all of them were accounted for—although that was forty years ago.”

 

Vordranis frowned and cleared his throat. “We’ve drifted away from the topic, I think. We were discussing the strategic difficulties of defending a system with multiple wormholes. Now let’s look at some examples from farther back in history…” Vordranis turned his eyes on the class as a whole and Jer and Anny sat down. Jer could feel his hands twitching slightly. The class ended a few minutes later and it was lunch time. Jer headed for the mess hall. Anny was walking ahead of him and although she glanced back at him once he didn’t attempt to catch up, nor did she slow her pace. He got a tray of food and found an empty table.

 

But it wasn’t empty long. A moment later Patric Mederov sat down across from him. “Hi Patric,” he said.

 

“Hi yourself,” replied the big farmboy. “So Jer, tell, me: what the hell happened while I was home for the holiday?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“What do you mean what do I mean?” He stretched out his hands, one pointed to Anny sitting at one table and the other at Alby sitting at another. “Alby’s not talking to you or Anny, you’re not talking to Anny or Alby and Anny’s not talking to anyone! I don’t see any bruises on any of you or I’d think I missed a hell of a brawl in Vorkosigan House!”

 

“You noticed that, eh?”

 

“Hard not to! So what gives?”

 

“Well, as far as Alby’s concerned, he’s pissed because I read him the riot act about the way he’s been sniffing after Abbie Vorburn. And then Anny read it to him again, not realizing I’d already done so, so he’s mad at her, now, too.”

 

“It had to be done before things got out of hand,” said Patric, nodding. “The company had a pool going on how long it was going to take her to box his ears. Glad I didn’t place a bet.” Jer snorted. “Well, he’ll get over it. Okay, that explains that, but what’s the deal with you and Anny?”

 

Jer had been afraid he was going to ask, but he just said: “There’s no deal, everything’s fine.”

 

“Yeah, right.”

 

“No, really. Nothing’s wrong. Well, Anny has been kind of quiet lately, but there’s nothing between us.” Nothing. Nothing between us at all!

 

“Huh,” said Patric. “Well, she did pull your chestnuts out of the fire with Vordranis just now, didn’t she? What’s his problem anyway? Seems like he tries to ride you every class.”

 

“Beats me. Maybe he thinks my great-grandfather is responsible for getting his great-grandfather killed. Beyond that I don’t have a clue.”

 

“Vor twit,” muttered Patric. “So, you excited about getting back to Komarr next month?”

 

“What? Oh yeah, nearly forgot about that.” As part of their space training their class was going to be assigned by company to warships of the fleet for short periods to become familiarized with their procedures. This would also include a series of wormhole jumps and since the only place the wormhole from Barrayar led to was Komarr, that’s where they’d be going perforce. “Are you sure they’ll be giving us shore leave?”

 

“Well, that’s what I heard. Probably only a day or so, but enough to let us Barrayarans claim we’ve been on another planet. ‘Course you’ve already done that by coming here. I hope they give you a chance to see your family, Jer.”

 

“It would be nice,” he said, not really sure if it would be.

 

The conversation lapsed for a while as they ate, which was a fairly rare occurrence, but with half their usual quartet missing… Suddenly Patric muttered “This is ridiculous,” and got to his feet. He stalked over to the table where Alby was sitting and grabbed the much smaller boy by the back of his tunic and hoisted him into the air with one hand while picking up his tray with the other. Alby squawked and thrashed his legs for a moment. Patric calmly walked back to where Jer was sitting and plopped Alby into an empty chair and set his tray down in front of him.

 

“Hi Alby!” said Patric, resuming his seat. “How ya been?” Dozens of cadets all around were laughing even though they couldn’t understand what was going on and Jer saw Anny with a hand over her mouth trying not to laugh, too.

 

Alby scowled at Patric and then scowled at Jer. They both just stared back at him, trying to keep their faces straight, but failing. Alby’s lips were tightly squeezed together, but they started to quiver and after a few moments the ends began to curve upward and then he laughed. “I… I’m fine Patric,” he gasped. “How are you?”

 

“Not bad, not bad at all. I understand you don’t have a girlfriend.” Jer choked on his drink. Alby stopped laughing and frowned.

 

“It’s not funny,” he muttered. “I really like her.”

 

“Well, in three more years when she graduates you can go tell her that. Problem solved. You gonna eat your dessert?”

 

“Yes I am, so keep your paws off it.”

 

“Just asking.”

 

“So,” said Alby, “You gonna haul Anny over here, too?”

 

The smile faded from Patric’s face. He glanced at Anny who was still looking at them. She quickly looked away. “I… uh… there’s probably some regulation against manhandling a cadet-officer,” said Patric a bit lamely.

 

“What is going on with her?” demanded Alby. “Outside of duty she’s hardly said a word to anyone since we got back.”

 

“I don’t know,” replied Patric. “She’s been acting different ever since she got out of the infirmary. Maybe something happened during the fire…?”

 

“We all got out alive,” said Alby. “We’re all heroes, she even got a medal. Why would she be acting like this?”

 

“She did get hurt…” said Jer.

 

“Ha! Since when did she let getting hurt even slow her down? You remember our first close-combat session, don’t you?”

 

“Not likely to forget,” growled Jer. The memory of it still made him angry.

 

“Maybe we should just ask her,” said Patric.

 

“Too late, there she goes,” said Alby. Anny had gotten up from her table and was carrying her tray toward the kitchen. “We’ve got duty in a few minutes. Maybe we can talk tonight.”

 

But there was no opportunity that evening, nor the next day. Anny always seemed to be busy with something and spent more time in her room behind the security door and less time in the company office. On duty she was nearly the same as she always was, but it seemed like she was deliberately making sure that there were no private moments with her friends. At first Jer thought that it was just him she was avoiding. He theorized that Abigail Vorburn had said something to Anny like she’d said to him and that Anny had been equally horrified and determined to counter any rumors of a romantic involvement. But it soon became evident that she was avoiding Alby and Patric, too. None of them could figure out why.

 

And it hurt.

 

 

Chapter 26

 

 

“Mr. Payne, any change in the status of those two bogies?” demanded Jer Naddel.

 

“No, Captain, they’re still hovering right on the edge of detection range,” replied Anny. “I can’t get a good read on their size or type. Sorry, sir.”

 

“Very well, keep an eye on them.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Jer tried to keep his mind focused on the simulator exercise, but it always seemed so odd when the rotation of duties made Anny his subordinate. The command structure of the Regiment of Cadets and its constituent battalions and companies was set up for all the daily routine activities and ceremonial functions, but the true purpose of the Academy was to train them all to be officers. In class or in the simulators or in field exercises the cadet ranks were usually put aside and everyone got a chance to try themselves out in every position. So today he was playing the captain of His Majesty’s battlecruiser, Furious, and Anny was the sensor operator. A dozen other members of C Company made up the remainder of the bridge crew. The rest of the company were playing in their own ships elsewhere.

 

“Sir, that merchant ship, the Free Enterprise, is off-station again,” said Hal Lindvig, who was acting as the ship’s executive officer. He pointed at the tactical display.

 

“Communications,” snapped Jer. “Tell them to get their asses back in formation.” This was the third time the ship had lagged behind. He was particularly annoyed because it was a Komarran ship, part of the convoy they were escorting. Slowly the icon representing the ship crept back into its proper place.

 

Jer studied the display and tried to figure out what was going to happen. Something was sure to happen. That was the whole purpose of the simulation: to give them tactical problems to solve. Of course, the first few times they’d done this, nothing had happened, they were just learning the ropes. But now, it was almost guaranteed that there would be some sort of hostile threat or emergency to deal with.

 

The most likely threat would be a pirate attack attempting to capture and carry off one of the merchant ships in the convoy. Those two faint contacts were probably pirates, but there was no way to be sure. As the sole escort for the convoy, he couldn’t risk leaving his charges unattended while he went for a closer look.

 

Fifteen minutes went by and everyone was getting edgy when Anny suddenly spoke up: “Contacts are closing, sir! Getting a better read on them now… looks like a pair of frigates… one a little larger than the other, maybe a small destroyer.”

 

“Can you identify them?” demanded Jer.

 

“No ID transponders. Configuration and power signatures… the smaller one looks Jacksonian-built, the larger… maybe an older Earth design. Neither one is an exact match for any of the profiles in the latest Jane’s. Sorry, sir.”

 

“Huh,” said Jer. Two small ships. Neither individually nor together did they pose any threat to his vessel. If they got within weapons range he could blast them both out of the sky in a matter of minutes. But the smaller ships were also probably faster than his so closing to effective range was going to be difficult if they didn’t want that. So what were they planning? The mere fact that they weren’t broadcasting an identity beacon indicated they were up to no good. Still…

 

“Communications, issue a standard challenge.” The communications officer did so, but there wasn’t any answer, Jer hadn’t expected one.

 

“Continuing to close, sir,” said Anny. The bogies were still well outside weapons range, but wouldn’t be for much longer if they kept coming.

 

“All right,” said Jer. “If they want to play, we’ll oblige them. Mr. Lindvig, clear the ship for action.” 

 

“Yes sir!” Lindvig grinned and flipped open a plastic cover on his control panel and pressed the button underneath it. A recorded bugle call blasted from the bridge speakers and then was followed by the message: General Quarters! General Quarters! All hands, man you battlestations! As many times as Jer had been through this, it still sent a chill down his spine. All through the imaginary ship imaginary crewmen were rushing to their imaginary stations. Jer had the mental image of electrons donning their vac suits. Speaking of which…

 

Regulations called for all crewmembers to be in vac suits when at battle stations. Often the simulations started with the cadets already wearing vac suits, but not this time, so they would have to put them on. Jer pulled his own suit out of a cabinet next to his command chair and began shucking off his uniform. To properly make all the necessary plumbing connections you had to pretty much get naked which, in his opinion was a damn undignified thing for the captain of a battlecruiser to have to do in front of his crew. But rules were rules…

 

Despite himself his eyes flicked over to where Anny was going through the same procedure. Whoever had programmed the simulator had clearly been given some strict instructions from… somebody. Except for her head, Anny’s body was now just an indistinct blur, censored by the computer. She’d told them that from her perspective all her male comrades were similarly blurred-out. Jer could see himself and all the other male cadets as clearly as if they were really there on the bridge of a ship instead of linked to their simulator pods, but Anny could not. Presumably, she could see herself clearly… where had they gotten the data for that image…?

 

Stop that! Mind on your job, you idiot! He was quite certain that everyone else on the bridge was also stealing glances at Anny in hopes of some computer glitch. Damn it, she was a good-looking woman. Somehow, ever since Abigail Vorburn had made that shocking statement back at Vorkosigan House, he’d become more aware of that fact than ever.

 

He finished up and took his seat again, placing the suit’s helmet and gloves in their holders, close at hand. Everyone else was also back at their stations and after a moment Lindvig announced that the whole ship was reporting ready for action.

 

But what sort of action?

 

The two bogies were curving their courses toward the head of the convoy, but were still keeping out of effective weapons range. Clearly they had no desire to tangle with an Imperial battlecruiser. Unfortunately, the virtually defenseless merchant ships could be damaged at far greater ranges and  if they could disable one of them then Jer would be faced with the dismal prospect of either halting the entire convoy to cover the cripple, or abandoning the ship—which is clearly what pirates would want. Jer ordered a small increase in speed to keep his ship between the bogies and the merchants. At least they weren’t splitting up and forcing him to try and cover two different approaches.

 

Why not?

 

It was an obvious tactic. Come in from two directions and while Jer defended against one of them, the other could dart in for a shot. But they were both coming in together—from the front.

 

“Anny—Mr. Payne, are you reading anything to the rear? Anything at all?”

 

Anny studied her displays and then shook her head. “No sir. Nothing at all back there on my scopes. Just empty space.”

 

Jer frowned. Anything trying to overtake them from behind would have to be using enough power that they’d be spotted at a considerable distance despite any stealth technology they might have. A surprise strike from the rear while Jer was occupied in front seemed unlikely. So what are they up to?

 

“Opinions, gentlemen?”

 

He was the captain, he had the final say on any decisions, but their instructors had drummed it into their heads that only a damn fool would ignore advice from his officers. To him it seemed an entirely reasonable thing, but apparently it went against the grain of a lot of Vors to ask for help.

 

“Unless there are more of them hiding somewhere they can’t hope to match us,” said Lindvig.

 

“They’re after the merchants, not us,” said Alby from the damage control station.

Others piped in, but none had anything to offer that he hadn’t already considered. This wasn’t helping. “Options?”

 

“We need to broadcast an official ‘scoot or we’ll shoot’ warning before we do anything aggressive,” said Anny. Yeah, that was true: they couldn’t just start firing no matter what they might suspect about the two unidentified ships.

 

“Right,” said Jer. “Communication, issue the warning.”

 

Yes, sir,” said the cadet at the com station. He pressed a key and then said: “Attention unidentified vessels. This is the Barrayaran warship, Furious. You are instructed to leave the area. Repeat: leave this area or you will be considered hostile and we will fire on you. This is the only warning you will receive.” There, that was done.

 

“They’re not going to let us shoot at them if there’s any way they can avoid it,” said Alby.

 

“Then we need to trick them somehow,” said Wil Jerwood from his helm station. “Sucker them into range.”

 

“Without getting suckered ourselves,” countered Alby. “It might feel good to blast a pirate, but not at the price of losing a merchant. Lieutenant Cattani made that pretty clear before the sim started.” That was true, too: killing a pirate would not count as much on their score as losing one of their charges.

 

They were still debating when the bogies made a lunge at the far side of their formation. Jer brought their ship over and managed to drive them off before they could draw a bead on any freighters, but it had been close. “They can keep doing this all day,” complained Lindvig. “And they only need to get lucky once.”

 

Minute by minute the opinions of his bridge officers swung toward doing something aggressive. Jer had to admit that the idea appealed to him, too. They started brainstorming on a plan to draw the bogies in while not risking the merchant ships. While they were doing so the bogies made another lunge, but they managed to parry that, too.

 

Finally they thought they were ready. Their plan required some precise cooperation from the merchant ships. It took a while and quite a bit of persuasion to get them to agree, but eventually all was set up. Or Jer hoped it was.

 

“Okay, let’s give this a try,” he said, rubbing sweaty palms on the legs of his vac suit. “Helm, reduce speed by 10%, let the merchies draw ahead of us a little.” Jerwood complied and the icon for Furious on the tactical display slowly fell back a little. Meanwhile, one of the merchants, the fastest one, edged a little to the left.

 

“The bogies are coming about, sir,” said Anny. “Looks like they might be buying this.”

 

Jer held his breath as the enemy turned toward the bait being dangled in front of them. If they held their course for a few minutes longer…

 

“Captain, that lead merchie is signaling us,” said the communications officer. “He’s not happy.”

 

“Put me through to all the merchant skippers,” said Jer.

 

“You got ‘em, sir.”

 

Jer cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, if you’ll just bear with me for a little while longer we can hurt these bastards and probably drive them off for good.”

 

“Longer!” came back a shrill voice. “Longer? They’re coming down my throat right now!”

 

“They’re still well out of range,” insisted Jer. “Hold your course another thirty seconds and we’ll have them.”

 

A snarl of frustration erupted from the speaker, but a quick glance at the tactical display showed him that the merchant ships were still on course. The display was also showing a stream of data and probabilities. While Jer and his comrades may have come up with a plan, it was the main tactical computer that was really doing all the work. It was analyzing the strengths and relative positions and vectors of all the ships and projecting their future movements and probable actions. There were two sliding scales that had his attention. One was predicting the chance of losing a merchant ship to enemy fire, while the other was predicting the chance of getting close enough to pot one of the raiders. Both were still low, but rising steadily. The computer was telling him that the optimum moment, the moment where the chance of catching the pirate was highest while the chance of losing a merchant was still acceptably low would come in … twenty-three seconds.

 

Furious to all convoy ships,” said Jer. “Stand by to come about on my order. Steady… steady… Now!” He looked to Cadet Jerwood. “Helm! Full ahead! Come to course two-two-three, mark seventeen! Engineering, emergency power! Give me everything you’ve got!”

 

His commands were acknowledged and he looked on in satisfaction as the lumbering merchant ships reversed their courses. The leading ship, the one who’s master had been complaining so strongly, was the fastest of the lot and completed its turn in a commendably short time. The raiders were still heading toward it, but the colored circle on the display that represented their effective weapons range was still well short of the targets. Furious’ circle, on the other hand, was now closing rapidly on the icon labeled Bogie One.

 

“Damn, we might just pull this off,” said Alby.

 

“They see it, sir,” said Anny. “Both bogies are veering off now.”

 

“Good. Signal the merchies to form up behind us.” Even if they didn’t bag a pirate, at least the merchant ships were safe.

 

Second by second the distance to the target dropped. “Twenty seconds to effective range,” said Patric from the gunnery station.

 

“It’s all yours ‘Guns’,” said Jer with a wolfish grin on his face. “Open fire as soon as the computer has a lock.”

 

“Ayer, aye sir!”

 

The enemy was accelerating away as fast as it could, but it wasn’t going to be fast enough. Furious would get off at least a couple of salvoes. With any luck…

 

“Main batteries firing… now!” said Patric. There was no sound or sense of motion, but a moment later a bright fleck of light appeared on the enemy icon in the tactical display.

 

“A hit!” cried someone and everyone gave a cheer.

 

“Solid hit on Bogie One,” confirmed Anny. “I’m reading debris and leaking air.”

 

“Well done!” cried Jer. “Now do it again!”

 

“Firing…” said Patric.

 

“Another hit! Dead on!” They’d hurt him, but his speed hadn’t been slowed at all and now the frantic enemy was clawing his way out of range again. Another salvo went out, but with no hits this time. Two more and still nothing. The range was becoming extreme and Jer ordered cease fire. Darn…

 

“Well, we gave him a bloody nose,” he said. “He’ll think twice about…”

 

“Sir!” cried Anny suddenly.

 

“What?”

 

“That merchant, the Free Enterprise, it hasn’t turned with all the others! It’s heading away from us!”

 

Jer looked at the tactical display in shock. The rest of the convoy had done just as he’d ordered: turned away from the enemy, circled around behind the battlecruiser and then reversed course again to follow their escort.

 

All except Free Enterprise.

 

It had kept right on going and was now far, far behind Furious and the rest of the convoy. A sinking feeling filled Jer’s gut.

 

“Contact them. Tell them to get back in formation,” he ordered.

 

After a few moments the communications officer shook his head. “They’re not answering, sir.”

 

“Keep trying.”

 

“Sir, Bogie Two is swinging wide around us to port at high speed,” reported Anny. “Looks like they are on an intercept course with Free Enterprise, sir.”

 

“But why would the merchie be doing this?” demanded Lindvig. “I mean they’re giving themselves… oh. Crap.”

 

“Hijackers,” snorted Alby. “While we were distracted by their buddies, they took over the ship and ran.”

 

“Isn’t there anything we can do?” demanded Wil Jerwood. He stared at his console as if there was some course he could steer that would fix things.

 

Jer shook his head. “We could catch them, but only by leaving the rest of the convoy. Bogie One is still out there and probably hoping we do exactly that.”

 

“What about the cutter?” persisted Jerwood. “We could load it with troops and try to retake the merchie.” It was true that Furious carried a very fast shuttle, but…

 

“No, the other pirate would blow it apart before it could get there. They planned this well, damn them.”

 

“I’m sorry, Captain,” said Anny. “I should have noticed they weren’t staying with us and warned you sooner. This is my fault.” The look of sorrow on Anny’s face sent a weird feeling right through him.

 

“No, we all screwed up here,” he said automatically. “It was a group effort.”

 

“Well, it hardly seems like a fair test!” exclaimed Alby. “I mean what could we do about hijackers on another ship?”

 

“You could have just ignored the pirates and done the job you were ordered to do, Mr. Worth,” said a new voice. Everyone turned and their instructor, Lieutenant Cattani, had materialized on the bridge. “If you kept the merchies tightly bunched you could have fended off the pirates until you reached your destination and never given the hijackers a chance to grab their prize and run. That was the correct solution to this problem.”

 

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Jer. “I-I guess I blew it.”

 

Cattani circled around the bridge staring at each cadet in turn. “You all did,” he said finally. “As you said: it was a group effort. You were all eager to take a crack at the pirates. Too eager. Sometimes, sometimes you just have to just sit there and do your jobs—no matter how boring or un-glorious that might seem. This was one of those times. But…” he paused and looked them over again. “Not one group of cadets  in a hundred is able to resist the urge to go hunting. That is why they don’t give battlecruisers to newly commissioned ensigns. Or Lieutenants for that matter,” he added with a small smirk. “And, if it will make you feel any better, not one group in ten actually manages to score any hits on the raiders before losing the merchie anyway. That part at least was very well done. Without the hijackers in the mix this would have been a nice little victory for you.” This brought a few smiles from the cadets. “But, unfortunately, the hijackers were there and this wasn’t a victory. I trust you’ll remember that.”

 

“Yes, sir,” said Jer.

 

“Good. Class dismissed.”

 

A moment later Jer found himself in his simulator pod. He sighed and unstrapped the safety harness and open the door and stepped out. The rest of his ‘crew’ were also emerging. Most of them seemed pretty upbeat despite their defeat.

 

“Well, could have been worse,” said Alby.

 

“Yeah, a lot worse,” agreed Hal Lindvig.

 

They made their way out of Vorwood Hall and headed toward their barracks. Jer went over to walk next to Anny. “Want to study together tonight?” he asked. Alby and Patric drifted closer.

 

“It has been a while,” said Patric.

 

Anny looked embarrassed. “I… uh, I can’t tonight, guys. I promised to help Kara Dunvich with some things. Sorry.” She quickened her pace and left them behind.

 

“What the hell is going on?” asked Alby, looking after her.

 

“I wish I knew,” said Jer.

 

 

Chapter 27

 

 

“Jer! Have you seen this?” Jer Naddel jumped in surprise as Alby Vorsworth thumped down on the bunk next to his. He was holding a flimsy in his hand and waving it at him.

 

“Uh, no, what is it?”

 

“It’s our ship assignments for the training cruise! The company is being split up between a couple of frigates!”

 

“Happens sometimes,” said Jer, shrugging. “They aren’t going to rearrange the fleet’s schedule just to put you on a battleship, y’know. What have they given us?”

 

Daring and Swiftsure. But that’s not what I’m talking about! Anny is the one who drew up the roster and she put you, me and Patric on Daring, while she’s going on Swiftsure! What do you think of that?”


“It’s her call,” he replied, trying to hide his own disappointment.

 

The anger vanished from Alby’s face and suddenly he looked terribly young. Young and hurt. Like a five-year old who’d just lost his puppy. “Why’s she doing this?” he whispered. “Why doesn’t she like us anymore?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Was it something we did?” he persisted. “I mean everything seemed fine until the Winterfair break. Did something happen then when I was …?”

 

“I said: I don’t know!” snapped Jer. “Leave me alone, will you? I’m trying to study!”

 

Alby’s face twisted into a snarl and he stomped off, muttering something under his breath.

 

Great.

 

What the hell was he going to do? This wasn’t just affecting him and Alby and Patric, it was affecting the whole company. Anny had been utterly fair, utterly professional—and utterly distant with everyone. The marvelous sense of solidarity the company had had since the fire—hell, since the end of their first year!—was starting to come apart. It saddened him beyond words.

 

She has to see it! She has to see what’s happening. From some of the things she’d said, from the looks on her face Jer was convinced that she did see it—and didn’t like it. But she hadn’t changed the way she was behaving. Why? And what could he do about it? As first sergeant the morale of the company was part of his responsibility. And there was so much important stuff coming up. This cruise to Komarr was just three days off and then mid-terms right after they got back and then, on top of everything else, somehow, they had to start getting ready for this year’s Vorbarra Pentathlon.

 

We’re gonna finish last if we can’t figure this out!

 

Jer sat there on his bunk and totally failed to regain the train of thought he’d been following before Alby interrupted. Part of him wanted to pound on the door leading to Anny’s quarters, drag her out here, and demand an explanation. But somehow he didn’t think that would do any good. Damn it, he wished there was someone to talk to about this! But who? Anny had never really hung out with anyone outside the company. Maybe one of the new girls…?

 

Wait a second…

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Sergeant-Major? Can I talk to you for a minute?” Sergeant-Major Szytko looked at Jer through the doorway of his quarters with a mild expression of surprise on his face.

 

“It’s ‘lights-out’ in twenty-five minutes, cadet,’ he replied. “You don’t want to be AWOL.”

 

“Please, sir, it’s important.”

 

“Well come in then.” He stepped aside and let Jer through the door. He’d never been in the Sergeant-Major’s quarters, indeed he’d never had call to be in the Academy’s NCO Staff Quarters before. His eyes darted around taking in details. On the one hand it was exactly the sort of utilitarian space he would have expected from the veteran Szytko, but unexpected details started jumping out: The shelf of bound books that didn’t look the least bit like military manuals, the embroidered pillow on the corner of the bed, a framed picture on his desk…

 

“Have a seat,” said Szytko, pulling up one of the room’s two chairs while sitting down in the other. “What’s on your mind, Cadet-Sergeant?”

 

Jer sat down and opened his mouth, but couldn’t decide what to say. He’d rehearsed a half-dozen opening on the way over here, but they all stuck in his throat. Szytko stared at him and raised an eyebrow. He was still wearing his fatigues from the day’s duties, but for the first time Jer could remember, his collar wasn’t buttoned.

 

“Spit it out, kid!” snapped Szytko.

 

“I… uh… I’m worried about Anny, sir.”

 

“I assume we are talking about Cadet-Captain Andreanne Payne?”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

“And you’re coming to me because…?”

 

“Sir? I just assumed… I mean it always seemed like you… uh… liked her, sir.”

 

“I admired her spunk. And I tried to see that she got a fair shake. Damn few people get a fair shake in this world. It’s almost as rare to get the chance to give someone a fair shake. A shame to pass up a chance like that. But that’s all I did. She did the rest—all the rest—on her own.”

 

“Yes sir, I know…”

 

“Last I heard she was still sticking her finger in their eye. A medal before she even graduates. Not many can claim that—‘course you got one of those, too. So what’s the problem?”

 

“She… she’s changed lately. Before… before we were close, really close. Like this.” Jer held up his hand with the first two fingers squeezed together. “Not just her and me,” he added hastily, “me and Alby and Patric, heck she was close to everyone. But now… now it’s like she’s a stranger—and wants to stay a stranger. We don’t understand it and the company’s starting to come apart at the seams. I don’t know what to do about it, sir.”

 

“And this is a recent development?”

 

“Yes, sir. She seemed… she seemed a little different after we got back from the fire. But it really became noticeable after the Winterfair break.”

 

“You had a quite an adventure during the fire, didn’t you?”

 

“Yes sir! It was really… something.”

 

“You were nearly killed. You and some of your friends. How’d that make you feel?”

 

“Sir? Well, it was a near-run thing, but we made it out okay. Anny got burned some, but she’s fine now. Are you saying that her getting hurt is the cause? But why would that make her push the rest of us away? A lot of the company got hurt!”

 

Szytko stared at him for a while. Finally he spoke: “I knew a man once, long time ago, he was the most popular man in our company. Made friends with everyone, everyone liked him. But he had one special buddy. They were just like that.” He held up his hand with the fingers like Jer had done. “But then his buddy got sliced in half by a plasma arc during a ground action. Really tore him up—the guy I’m talking about, I mean, not his buddy—although he was really torn up, too. He was different after that, kept his distance after that, didn’t make any new friends. Didn’t want to risk losing another buddy, I guess.”

 

“But we got out okay!” protested Jer. “We didn’t lose anyone! I… I don’t think she even knew that guy in 3rd Battalion!”

 

Szytko shrugged. “Hard to know what’s goin’ on inside a man’s head.” He looked at the time. “You got twelve minutes to get back to your barracks, cadet.”

 

The ‘audience’ was clearly over. Jer got to his feet, thanked Szytko and left. He had to double-quick to get back before ‘lights out’, but he made it. He lay awake in his bunk for a long time before sleep came.

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Mind the gravity! Mind the gravity! Full gravity on this side of the red line, gentlemen! Right this way! Keep moving!” The chief petty officer was clearly having to restrain himself from just grabbing the cadets and hauling them aboard the frigate Daring. The warship was so small it didn’t even have an internal hanger bay with artificial gravity. The shuttle which had brought them up from the Academy was just nestled into a pocket in the ship’s hull. Jer held onto his duffle bag and awkwardly made the transition from free-fall to a full gravity. He managed to do it without falling on his face—which was more than a few of the cadets could say.

 

He went to stand by Cadet-Lieutenant Fallon and they waited until all thirty of their charges were aboard. He and Fallon got along well enough, but it felt very awkward being his right-hand man instead of Anny’s. He could tell that Fallon was uncomfortable with the arrangement as well. Oh well, the cruise was only going to last eight day, they would get used to it.

The last cadet stumbled out of the shuttle and Fallon turned to the petty officer. “That’s the lot, Chief.”

 

“Very good,” said the man. “If you gentlemen will just follow me, we’ll get you squared away.” He led them aft, through several pressure doors and then into a compartment that seemed nearly filled with humming and clanking machinery. “’Fraid we haven’t got much spare room for you fellows. You’re going to have to sleep with the recyclers. There’s a pile of hammocks over there, just string them up wherever there’s room.”

 

“But… but we can’t fit all of us in here!” protested Fallon. “There are thirty-two of us!”

 

“Oh, we once fit sixty-eight troopers in here with all their combat gear,” said the CPO cheerfully. “Lots bigger than it looks. And once you get assigned to your watches, only a third of you will be here at any one time. In any case, the exec says you’re to go here and I’m not going to be the one to argue with him. But you’re welcome to try, of course.” He grinned at them, giving Jer an idea of what their chances would be. “The showers and toilets are just aft and inboard, past frame thirty-eight. Right on down the same companionway we took to get here. You can’t miss it. Well, I’ll leave you to get settled in. Someone ought to be along shortly with your duty assignments.” He turned and left.

 

“What a dump,” said Alby.

 

“Sure ain’t the Princess Kareen,” agreed Fallon, referring to Barrayar’s most luxurious passenger liner.  “But we’ll make out. I hadn’t thought about the watch schedule. At any given time most of us won’t be in here. Let’s figure out the best spots to sling the hammocks and then a spot to store our gear. Right, Sergeant?” He looked to Jer.

 

“Yes sir. Okay, let’s get to it.” They had only just begun when a ship’s officer arrived with a couple of enlisted ratings and called them to attention.

 

“All right, listen up,” said the man. He was a lieutenant and didn’t look terribly happy. “I am Lieutenant Vorkagan, welcome aboard Daring. I hope you come to love this ship as much as the rest of us do. First thing: your cadet ranks mean nothing here! Strip off any insignia you might have. Second: as cadets you are at the absolute bottom of the heap. The greenest spacer-third-class outranks you here! Get that through your heads! You do not give orders, you take them! Understand?”

 

“Yes sir!”

 

“Third: since you come here with no useful skills whatsoever… don’t give me that look! I was in your place not that many years ago and I know what I’m talking about! In any case, the Exec has decided that you will be assigned tasks appropriate to your abilities.”

 

“Scrubbing bulkheads?” muttered Alby. Jer would have sworn that Alby’s whisper could not have been heard more than two meters away, but apparently the compartment’s acoustics allowed the comment to reach the lieutenant’s ears, because Vorkagan’s head swiveled around and he stared at Alby.

 

“That’s right! Scraping, scrubbing and painting bulkheads, to be exact! And those will be the more pleasant chores. Daring hasn’t had a proper refit in almost ten years and there’s a lot of hard, dirty work that needs to be done and we’re short-handed.  We mean to take full advantage of the fact that you all have two arms, two legs, strong backs, and apparently enough brain power to keep them moving. So don’t worry about finding space to hang you hammocks—you won’t be using them! For the next three days you work. You can sleep during the wormhole jumps! Then, for reasons I can’t fathom, you’ll be given a day’s leave on Komarr and then it’s back home. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?” Jer and the others stared back at him blankly.

 

“Enough talk!” said Vorkagan. “You’ll be in three groups. When I call your name come over here and wait with Hansen, there.  Lafney! Lentov! …”

 

 

* * *

 

 

The next three days weren’t quite as bad as Lieutenant Vorkagan had implied. They were allowed to sleep—now and then. And they were fed—now and then. They were even permitted to wash up. And even though it was every bit as hard—and dirty—as he had warned, it was also instructional. In three days Jer learned more about the inner workings of a military starship than he would have from a month of reading or simulations. While they did scrape, scrub and paint some bulkheads, far more time was spent crawling around in accessways watching far more skilled people do repairs and replacements, the cadets lending muscle where it was needed. Air recyclers, sewage recyclers, power conduits, sensor suites, targeting systems, one thing after another, the guts and sinews of the ship were revealed to him. There was a lot of information overload, but by the third day when someone handed him a heavy roll of flex-conduit and told him to take it to accessway G-97, he was able to find his way there unassisted.

 

And as his familiarity with the ship and the crew grew, he could see the obvious pride the men had in their vessel, despite their non-stop complaints about it. And some of that pride wore off on him and the other cadets. The real crew, who had just treated them as beasts of burden at first, were slowly starting to accept them and appreciate their labors. Given time, they would become part of the ship, just as these men had.

 

Except they wouldn’t be given the time. The three days flew by in a blur of ducts, pipes, and circuitry and then, suddenly, they were accelerating out of Barrayar’s orbit and heading for the wormhole terminus along with Swiftsure and a small convoy of merchant ships. That didn’t stop the work, but with the ship underway many systems were no longer available for maintenance. They found themselves painting more bulkheads, but they were even running out of them. Eventually, the grueling schedule slowed and Jer ended up in the mess hall getting one last meal before they made the first jump. The other cadets had been warned to eat lightly since the jump often made people nauseous. Jer had been through it before and knew that it didn’t affect him too badly, so he had a regular meal. Patric insisted he would be fine, too, but Jer kept warning him to be careful.

 

“Yeah,” snorted Alby, “wouldn’t want to get vomit all over those freshly painted bulkheads.”

 

“They’ll be issuing us all with puke bags before the jump,” said Fallon, who, somehow, had become part of their group. It was kind of amazing when you thought about it. He’d tried to betray them back in their first year, but had later repented and become a loyal part of the company. Bit by bit they’d accepted him and now here he was, a member of the group. Sort of. He rattled around in the huge hole that Anny had left but he couldn’t fill it and he seemed to realize that. But he wasn’t a bad guy once you got to know him. He was Vor, but not a jerk like Vorlevey and some of the others had been. Jer was actually coming to like him.

 

“So what’s it going to be like on Komarr?” asked Patric.

 

“Well, about all we’re going to have time to see is the Solstice Dome. It’s the capital and there’s a major military base attached to it and that’s where they’ll be sending us from what I’ve heard. I’m from a dome almost on the other side of the planet, so I’ve only been to Solstice a few times. I think you’ll find it interesting. It’s nothing like Vorbarr Sultana. Very galactic.”

 

“What about the countryside?”

 

“Dull. Flat, swampy, cold. And those are the nice parts.”

 

“Oh, come on, Jer,” said Alby, “you’re leaving out the best thing about it!”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“It won’t burn!”

 

They all laughed at that. “Yeah, that’s certainly true,” chuckled Jer. “Not enough oxygen in the air for an open fire. But keep that in mind: even though we probably won’t be going outside, you’ll be issued breath masks. Keep them handy.”

 

“You going to be able to meet up with your family while you’re there, Jer?” asked Alby.

 

Jer frowned. “I don’t know. There won’t be time for me to travel home, but I sent them a message that’d I’d be there on that date. Maybe they can come to Solstice. I’ll find out when we arrive.”

 

“It’s been a long time since you were home, hasn’t it?” asked Patric.’

 

“Yeah, quite a while.” Quite a while…

 

Now hear this! Now hear this! Shouted the wall speaker. The ship will jump in five minutes! All hands to jump stations! Repeat: all hands to jump stations!

 

“Which means we stay right here,” said Fallon. It was true: they had no jump stations. From this point on, they were just passengers. A rating appeared and handed them a stack of puke bags which they distributed.  The cadets were growing excited and chattered loudly. There were no windows and they could only follow what was going on by the occasional announcements over the speakers. Swiftsure would make the jump first, followed by the freighters and then Daring would come last.

 

Minute by minute the time wound down and Jer found himself growing excited, too.

 

I’m going home.

 

 

Chapter 28

 

 

S hore leave party now boarding at lock three! Shore leave party now boarding at lock three!

 

The announcement rang through the frigate Daring, but the only ones who paid it any mind were the thirty-two cadets in their bunk room. Jer looked around at his comrades, all freshly showered, hair slicked down, and wearing their best black fatigue uniforms. Since no one had told them not to, they were all wearing their cadet rank insignia.

 

“Whew!” exclaimed Alby. “I thought they were never going to let us go dirtside!”

 

“Yeah,” said Patric, “I was getting a little claustrophobic in this tin can. I need some fresh air—or whatever passes for that down below.”

 

“Well, if it stinks in here you’ve got no one to blame but yourself—you and about a dozen others,” smirked Alby as they made their way down the corridor. Patric blushed. He had lost his lunch during the first jump and it hadn’t all fit into the puke bag. Quite a few others had gotten sick, too. They’d spent the time waiting for the second jump cleaning up the mess from the first. But by the fifth and last jump they were all taking it pretty well and there were no more mishaps.

 

From the wormhole exit it had been another sixteen hours to Komarr orbit and they had been put back to work. This time it was mostly tidying up and ‘polishing the brass’, not that the ship had much brass. But the skipper, Commander Arnsberger, had scheduled an inspection and the Exec had warned that there would be no liberty if he wasn’t satisfied. Jer suspected that the threat was only for the regular crew since the Academy wanted their young gentlemen to go ashore, but by this time the cadets didn’t want to let down their new comrades and the ship had been very ship-shape indeed by the time the inspection occurred—less than an hour before they made orbit.

 

But rank hath its privileges, and since the cadets had no rank at all, they were the last ones to be allowed to go down to the planet. Nearly all the rest of the crew had already left. Now it was their turn. They crowded into the shuttle and strapped themselves into their seats and in a commendably short time they were cut loose from Daring and made their de-orbit burn. They were on their way!

 

There was about a twenty minute span between the burn and re-entry and the shuttle’s pilot was kind enough to allow the cadets to come up and take a look out the front canopy. Jer had seen it all before, so he let everyone else go first. In truth, except for the Soletta Array, the enormous orbiting mirror that added light and heat to the centuries-long terraforming project, there wasn’t much to see. Komarr was a nearly uniform gray-brown sphere with just the few sparkles of widely spaced city domes. Home.

 

“Wow, the Soletta is really something!” said Patric as he came back from the cockpit.

 

“Yeah,” agreed Alby. “Hard to really get an idea of the scale of the thing until you see the tiny specks of the construction vessels all around it.”

 

“It’s what? About five hundred klicks across?” asked Fallon.

 

“When the new ring of mirrors is added, yeah, about that,” replied Jer. “Right now they’re just finishing up the repairs from the accident.”  Five or six years earlier there had been a terrible accident where an ore ship had collided with the array.

 

“How long until the atmosphere is breathable?” asked Patric.

 

“Longer than any of us will live to see,” said Jer. “Actually, I’m not really sure now,” he amended. “Before the new ring was planned, the figure was about two hundred and fifty years. The added mirrors will speed that up, but I’m not sure by how much.”

 

“Must be… strange spending all your time indoors,” said Fallon.

 

“Hey, it probably seems strange to Jer to spend so much time outside on Barrayar,” said Alby.

 

“That true?’ asked Patric.

 

“A little maybe. Some of the domes are so big it’s almost like being outside. A few Komarrans are seriously agoraphobic, but it doesn’t bother most people to go outdoors on Barrayar or other habitable planets. For me, the strangest thing is not having my breath mask. It’s drummed into us from the time we can walk to always keep a mask handy and never even think about going outside without one. My first year on Barrayar I was constantly reaching for my mask even though it wasn’t there. Kind of gotten out of the habit,” he grinned sheepishly. “Hope I don’t embarrass myself once I’m dirtside.”

 

“Don’t worry, we’ll keep you in line!” promised Alby.

 

Shortly after that the shuttle started its re-entry and conversation lapsed as the vehicle began shaking and the muted roar of the wind filled the compartment. Eventually that died down and after a few turns the shuttle lurched to a halt. But then there was a considerable delay while the vehicle was pulled in through a huge airlock from the landing pads into the dome covering the military base that adjoined the Solstice domes. Finally, the hatch was opened and the cadets trooped out—for most of them, their first time on alien soil.

 

Well, concrete, actually. Jer had never been inside the base since he had taken commercial transport to Barrayar but it had a remarkable resemblance to Fort Plattsburg on South Continent where they had conducted an exercise the previous fall. Standard military engineering, he supposed.

 

A bored-looking sergeant was waiting for them and he led them to a building where an equally bored-looking ensign was waiting. He gave them a short, but thorough briefing on breath masks and standard safety procedures while on Komarr. He then checked the time and announced: “It is now 1035, local time. You will have liberty until 2500, local midnight. You are free to go to any public area of Solstice, but you are not to leave the city. No exceptions to that—we’ll be tracking you via your wrist-coms. Anyone not back here by 2500 will be considered AWOL.” He paused and pulled out a stack of white cards. “The Academy has graciously provided you with credit chits for fifty marks as spending money.” He paused and smirked. “Enough for a couple of meals and a souvenir or two, but not much else. You are reminded that Komarr and the City of Solstice are parts of the Empire like any other. You are to act as you would in Vorbarr Sultana or the streets of your own home town. Anyone violating local laws will wish they were never born. The main gate into Solstice is to the west and clearly marked. Have fun.” He handed the chits to Fallon and started to leave.

 

“Excuse me, sir,” said Jer. The ensign paused and looked back.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Did another batch of cadets—from Swifsure—come through here yet?”

 

“Almost an hour ago. They’re already in the city.” He left.

 

Fallon handed out the chits and the cadets were out the door as soon as they had them. Jer, Patric, Alby—and Fallon—followed at a more sedate pace. The main gate was a double airlock big enough for a heavy tank—several of which they’d seen parked nearby—but the doors were standing open. A quick scan of their IDs was all that was needed to get them through and a fifty meter walk brought them through another set of locks into the Solstice Dome.

 

“Well!” said Alby, “We’ve got almost fifteen hours to explore a strange new world. Why do I feel like finding a hotel and sleeping for about fourteen hours?”

 

Patric snorted. “Yeah, I think they worked us so hard on the way here so we wouldn’t have the energy to find any trouble.”

 

“Not that it would take much energy to find trouble,” said Fallon, jerking his head toward a row of buildings just ahead.

 

“Saints preserve us!” exclaimed Alby. “Will you look at that!”

 

The buildings were commercial establishments and there wasn’t any doubt about what they were serving. Lurid holo-signs hung over the doors and women in revealing outfits lounged outside. A few soldiers were chatting—or bargaining—with them. Many of their fellow cadets were lingering to watch.

 

“In the middle of the morning?” said Patric, amazed.

 

“The base runs round the clock and I guess they know it,” said Fallon.

 

“Wow, I would have expected something like this at Beta Colony, but not…” said Alby.

 

“Oh, on Beta Colony I’m sure it would have been much more tastefully done,” said Jer. “And there would be men and—other things—besides women. They know who they’re catering to here.” He spoke almost flippantly, but in fact he was a bit embarrassed for his homeworld.

 

“My God,” said Patric suddenly.

 

“What?” Jer looked around but didn’t see anything any more shocking than what they’d already seen.

 

“Anny… Anny would have had to walk by here.” The look on the tall farm boy’s face was grim and the expressions on the faces of the other Barrayarans mirrored his. Despite nearly three years of working with Anny, following Anny, there was still an ingrained social duty to protect their women in most Barrayarans. Even Jer was disturbed.

 

“She’s tough as nails, you know that,” he said a bit lamely.

 

“I… I wonder how she made out on Swiftsure?” said Alby. “The close quarters, the showers… some of the ratings on Daring seemed a little on the rough side…” The boy looked worried.

 

“I told the guys who were going with her to keep on watch,” said Jer. “They’ll look after her.”

 

“We could always call her,” suggested Fallon. “She’s got a wristcom.”

 

It was tempting, but Jer was afraid that if they did and suggested they meet up Anny would make another of her painful excuses to avoid them. Alby and Patric seemed to feel the same and the suggestion died. We can get by without her. The thought didn’t seem as outrageous as it once had.

 

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” he said. “The rest of the city’s not like this.” He led the way and soon they left the seedy establishments that clustered around the military base behind. As they got away from the edge of the dome, it soared higher and higher above them until it was nearly invisible. The buildings, which had been clustered closely together, were farther apart and gardens, parks and wide boulevards greeted eyes tired of steel bulkheads and black space.

 

“Ah, this is more like it!” said Patric, swiveling his head from side to side. Jer had studied the layout of the city before they left so he could act as tour guide. They walked for a bit and then Patric suggested lunch.

 

“All the places we’ve passed so far looked pretty expensive,” said Fallon, eyeing his credit chit doubtfully.

 

“Tish tosh!” exclaimed Alby. “Follow me!” He had his ubiquitous computer pad out and used it to lead them to a bank. He left them outside while he went in. A short while later he emerged holding a credit chit that looked quite different from the ones they’d been given. “Suspecting that Our Glorious Superiors would attempt to hamstring our efforts to have fun by restricting our funds, I planned ahead. We now have an unlimited—well, nearly unlimited—budget!” he announced. “Pick any establishment you like, gentlemen! Lunch is on me. Dinner, too!”

 

They tried—for about five seconds—to turn him down, but were soon in a very nice restaurant being served a very nice meal. It sure beat the stuff the modest galley on Daring could provide. Jer hadn’t been sure how the locals would react to their uniforms, but Solstice had a far larger Imperial presence than his own home and they had seen many others in uniform on the streets. Once they had been assured of Alby’s solvency, the staff of the restaurant treated them with professional courtesy.

 

They sampled the local beer, which seemed a bit thin and watery compared to what they served on Barrayar, but it was good. Alby tried to order a second round but the others stopped him. “Throttle back, Alby,” said Patric. “We’ve got the whole day ahead of us and Abigail’s not here to carry you! Don’t expect me to!”

 

Alby snorted, but didn’t seem angry at the mention of his non-girlfriend. Good. It seemed like he was getting over his earlier infatuation.

 

Back outside they bumped into some of their company-mates who had been on Swiftsure. They compared notes for a while as they walked the streets. It seemed like their skipper had viewed them in exactly the same fashion as Commander Arnsberger: a pool of manual labor.

 

“Did Anny have any problems?” asked Patric. Jer had been wanting to ask the same question.

 

“Don’t think so,” the cadet shrugged. “They closed off the shower room for her a couple of times. One of the officers hung around a lot to keep an eye on her and keep the ratings from pestering her. Didn’t hear about any problems. We watched out for her, too, of course.”

 

After a while the two groups split up again. Shortly after that Jer’s wrist com pinged. It was his mother. “Hi Mom. Yeah, I’m in Solstice, got here about two hours ago. I can stay ‘til midnight. You and the others coming? Good! Where shall we meet? Okay! I’ll see you there around 2100!”

 

He turned to the others. “My folks are on their way. I’m meeting up with them this evening. You’re all welcome to come, of course, but I understand if you’d rather not.”

 

“Sure,” said Alby. “You’ve endured our families, only fair that we return the favor.” Patric agreed as well. Fallon was non-committal. Jer, himself, wasn’t sure how he felt about the coming reunion. His family had never been terribly close-knit and most had either opposed or ridiculed his decision to come to the Academy. He didn’t know how they felt about it now. They are making the effort to come here…

 

He put his worries out of his mind and they spent the rest of the afternoon touring the city. It was a big place, larger than Vorbarr Sultana—in population, if not actual area—and no one could hope to see it all in a week let alone an afternoon. So he took them to a few of the main highlights like the government buildings, hydroponics plants, and major parks. They spent over an hour at the Terraforming Institute which had a large museum chronicling Komarr’s long effort to make their world habitable. They learned that with the planned addition to the Soletta Array it might be possible for people to walk around outside without a breathing mask in as little as a hundred and fifty years.

 

“So, in other words: don’t hold your breath,” quipped Alby.

 

By late afternoon they were in the Market District looking over the amazing array of goods that Komarr’s trade fleets brought back to the Empire from the rest of explored space. The place was acting like a magnet for the other cadets, too and they saw many of their friends from C Company. The variety of products was dazzling and even Alby was amazed. “Why don’t we see stuff like this in Vorbarr Sultana?” he demanded, holding up a clever gizmo that the tag said was from Kline Station.

 

“Not expensive enough,” said Jer. “Until Barrayar develops a real middle class, there will only be enough demand for the really high-end luxury goods there. Or at least that’s what my uncle once told me. He follows the trade fleets very closely.”

 

“Huh,” said Alby, putting the gizmo back on the shelf.

 

By some unspoken agreement they limited their purchases to what the fifty marks on their original credit chits could manage. Somehow it just didn’t seem right to go back to the ship with something big and expensive—even if they could manage to smuggle it aboard—when their comrades couldn’t do the same. They each picked up some bit of junk that was plainly marked Made on Komarr and left it at that.

 

Meals were a different matter, of course.

 

“I guess we’ll be going to dinner or something when your family gets here, Jer?” asked Patric.

 

“That’s the plan.”

 

“Two more hours until then. I’m kinda hungry now.”

 

“You’re always hungry,” observed Alby.

 

“Hey, I got way more tonnage to keep fueled than you, pipsqueak!” replied Patric, grinning and thumping his impressive torso with a fist.

 

“Well, no reason we can’t get something to tide us over,” said Alby twirling his credit chit in the air. “Pick a place.”

 

Their wanderings had brought them to the edge of the Market District and they spotted a street that appeared to have several modest-looking pubs where they could get a beer and a bite to eat. As they turned into it Jer spotted a figure ahead of them and jerked to a halt. “Hey! Isn’t that…?”

 

“Anny!” exclaimed the others. Sure enough, there was Anny Payne strolling down the street, looking from side to side. She was alone and not in any apparent hurry.

 

“Maybe she’d like to get a bite with us,” suggested Patric.

 

“Doubt it,” grumbled Alby.

 

“Can’t hurt to ask,” said Jer firmly, suddenly filled with a need to talk to Anny again. “Come on, let’s…”

 

“Ho ho! You were right, Yosef! The little bitch really fills out a uniform nicely, doesn’t she?” The loud voice from close at hand stopped all of them in their tracks as if they’d hit a force field.

 

Four men in navy officers’ undress blacks were turning into the street from the other direction. They seemed oblivious of the cadets, their eyes were all focused on… Anny.

 

“I told you, gentlemen,” said one of them. “While I was only able to catch a glimpse of the delights that await beneath the uniform, I assure you they are well worth your attention.”

 

“But you say you weren’t able to sample them aboard your ship?” asked a third.

 

“Sadly no. The damn cadets with her stuck closer than the Emperor’s bodyguard, leaving me no opportunity.”

 

“Guarding their own territory, no doubt,” said the fourth one. “Must be some interesting times at the Academy these days!”

 

“That son-of-a-bitch!” hissed Alby. “How dare he…!” Patric’s huge hands were curled into fists and a red rage was boiling up inside Jer. Without another word all four of them were following the officers.

 

“Well, she’s got no guard around her now, gentlemen. I suggested yonder establishment to her as a fine place to eat that welcomes Barrayarans and the little idiot seems to have swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Look, she’s going in.” Anny, unaware of what was going on behind her, went into one of the pubs that had attracted their attention.

 

“Well, let’s go in, too,” said one of them. “No point in wasting time when an inviting target awaits!”

 

“Rather public place for a seduction, isn’t it, old chap?” said another.

 

“There are private rooms upstairs,” assured the one called Yosef.

 

“Still need to get her into one.”

 

“Have no fear,” said the first one, patting a pocket in his tunic. “I have a little something I picked up on Hegan Hub last year that will not only assure her enthusiastic cooperation, but take care of any possible complaints on her part afterwards. If the little whore has the temerity to thrust herself into our world then she deserves to experience all of it! I trust you are prepared for an extraordinary evening, gentlemen?” They were all laughing as they approached the door Anny had just gone through.

 

“Holy shit!” exclaimed Fallon. “What do we do? Call for the Patrol?”

 

“No time for that!” cried Jer. “We’ve got to stop them!”

 

“Come on!” shouted Alby and Patric in unison.

 

All four of them charged through the door, nearly tripping each other in the process. The interior was dim and it took them a moment for their eyes to adjust. There was a bar at one end, tables and chairs in the center and rows of booths down either wall. There were a few Komarran patrons, but the place was mostly empty—except for one booth near the back.

 

The four officers had all sat down, trapping Anny in the booth, and the look of alarm on her face turned to relief when she spotted Jer and the others. “Anny!” he cried and then all four of them were standing there, the startled officers turning from their prey to gape at the would-be rescuers.

 

“What are you doing in here, cadets?” snapped one of them, regaining his poise. “Beat it! Officers only.”

 

“Certainly, sir,” said Jer, barely containing himself. “Come on, Anny,” he said holding out his hand toward her. “You heard him: officers only.”

 

“Oh no!” said another. “Miss Payne, here is our guest. She stays, the rest of you go.”

 

“Please, sir,” said Anny, “I really have to go.” She tried to stand, but his hand gripped her arm and pulled her down into her seat again.

 

“We all go together… sir,” said Fallon. “Or not at all.”

 

“Oh really?” said one on the end of the bench who stood up. “We are giving you a direct order to scram, cadet-lieutenant! Now do it, or I’ll put you on report.”

 

“Not a chance in three worlds, sir!” said Jer taking a step forward.

 

The men, suddenly seeming to realize that this wasn’t some easily handled disturbance, grew angrier. Three of them got up, while the fourth continued to hold Anny. One took a computer pad from his pocket. “What are your names?” he demanded, menacingly. Jer could smell alcohol on his breath.  He seemed surprised when the threat didn’t send them packing.

 

“Cadet-Lieutenant Denis Vorfallon.”

 

“Cadet-Sergeant Jer Naddel.”

 

“Cadet-Corporal Patric Mederov.”

 

Alby stared at the officer, his face twisted into an expression unlike anything Jer had ever seen on him before. “Cadet Albustus Marion Vorsworth… the Ninth,” he hissed.

 

The officer rocked back for a moment but then he sneered. “Your grandfather’s dead and your father’s retired, kid. Do yourself a favor and get out of here before you get spanked.”

 

“I’ll see you in hell first, you bastard!”

 

The man’s face turned crimson and he slapped Alby across the mouth. “Insolent whelp!” he roared. He brought his hand back for another slap, but suddenly his arm was caught in Patric’s iron grip. An instant later the astonished officer was flying halfway across the room to crash into a table and some chairs and tumble to the floor in a heap.

 

A second man slammed a stiffened hand into Patric’s solar plexus that even doubled over the huge farm boy, but then Jer’s fist caught him in the mouth and spilled him backwards into the booth. I just struck an officer… part of his mind jibbered with the realization, but the rage that gripped the rest of him didn’t care. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Fallon and a resurgent Alby grappling with the third one.

 

“Jer! Look out!” screamed Anny suddenly.  He looked to the fourth one, the one still in the booth, and his heart stopped. The man had a weapon in his hand. Not a stunner… He recognized the deadly shape of a nerve disruptor swinging in his direction.

 

But then the weapon was bouncing across the table to clatter at his feet and there was a squawk of pain and Anny had the fourth one’s arm twisted behind his back.

 

Jer scooped up the weapon and even though he didn’t point it at anyone the brawl came to a sudden end. The one he had hit pulled himself upright, but did nothing more. The one Fallon and Alby had grabbed pulled free of their grasp, but just stood there. Behind him he could hear the last one groaning.

 

“We are in so much trouble,” hissed Fallon.

 

“You’re all under arrest!” snarled the one Anny was holding. “Let go of me, bitch!” Anny just twisted his arm a bit more.

 

Jer pointed to the stunned barkeep. “You! Call the patrol! The base military patrol! Do it!” The flustered man did as he was told. All the other Komarran’s seemed to have vanished.

 

“If you’ve got any sense, you’ll all get out of here and pretend this never happened,” said the one Jer had hit, wiping his mouth with his hand and looking at the blood on it.

 

“Oh no!” said the fourth one, still trying to get free from Anny. “These bastards are all up on charges!”

 

“Don’t be a fool, Yosef!” snapped the one facing Alby and Fallon. “This has gone way too far already! Let’s get out of here!” But Patric had recovered from the blow he’d taken and blocked any escape. He glanced back at Jer.

 

“Whadda we do, boss?”

 

“We wait for the Patrol,” said Jer.

 

The officers, even the fourth one, quickly lost all their bravado and looked around uncertainly. “Hey there, Cadet-Sergeant,” said the one he’d hit. “No hard feelings, eh? We were just keeping the lady company. No harm done.”

 

“Not yet!” growled Patric, “But you sure had some planned!”

 

“Says who? You? Who’s going to take your word against an officer’s?” snapped the one in Anny’s grip. “Let go of me, will you?”

 

“We heard you talking outside… sir,” said Alby. His cheek was a bright red where it had been slapped. “Wonder what the JAG people will have to say about that ‘little something’ in your pocket that you got on Hegan Hub?”

 

“And they won’t have to take anyone’s word on anything,” added Fallon. “They’ll fast penta the lot of us, I expect.

 

“Good God…” hissed the one Jer had hit. The fourth one’s face drained of all color.

 

A noise behind him made Jer turn his head. The one Patric had thrown was on his feet and limping for the door, but he ran right into the arms of the Patrol who had arrived in commendably short order. The lieutenant in charge demanded to know what was going on.

 

At that point everyone started talking at once and the lieutenant’s face took on a decidedly tired and depressed expression. The four officers tried to talk their way out of it, passing the whole incident off as a misunderstanding, but the Patrol lieutenant looked much more interested when Jer handed over the nerve disruptor and Alby grabbed a small vial out of the fourth officer’s pocket and gave him that, too.

 

“This sort of weapon is not allowed in the city,” he said, staring sharply at the officer who had it.

 

“It… it’s not mine!” the man cried in panic. “They had it!”

 

“Where would a cadet get a nerve disruptor?  Sorry, you are all coming back to headquarters, where someone else can sort this out. Sergeant, call for a wagon.”

 

While they waited, the four boys formed a protective circle around Anny. She seemed very shaken. “Are you all right?” asked Jer.

 

“Not hurt,” she said. “Just… just…” She suddenly looked at them, all of them. “Thank you. If you hadn’t come along I don’t know what… Thank you.”

 

“Do you know these idiots?” asked Alby gingerly touching his cheek.

 

“The loud one is Lieutenant Vorritter. He’s from Swiftsure. I’ve never seen any of the others before. What… what was that thing you took out of his pocket?”

 

An embarrassed silenced followed for a moment. “He said… he said it was something to ensure your… cooperation, Anny,” replied Jer quietly.

 

“My God…” she whispered. She was shaking and Jer put his hand on her shoulder. “Thank you,” she said again.

 

Eventually a large vehicle pulled up in the street outside and they were all loaded into it. They sat so as to keep Anny as far away from the others as possible. As they pulled away, Jer’s wristcom pinged. He looked at the caller and groaned.

 

“Uh, Mom, I think I’m gonna be late for dinner.”

 

 

Chapter 29

 

 

They spent the next several hours being shifted from one holding area to another inside the military base. Midnight came and went. Their ships were scheduled to leave orbit at 0600. Jer wondered if they’d be aboard. Officers came and questioned them several times, both singly and together. They seemed to be taking the incident very seriously. Jer wasn’t sure if that was good or not. Anny confirmed that she had selected that particular tavern on Lieutenant Vorritter’s recommendation, but had no clue that he or his friends would be there. Sometime, either very late at night or very early in the morning, they took Fallon away for a fast-penta interrogation.

 

“Guess we’ll be next,” said Patric uneasily after a half-hour had passed.

 

“Hey, we got nothing to worry about,” said Alby. “We did nothing wrong!”

 

“We struck superior officers. We disobeyed direct orders…”

 

“Illegal orders! You remember the taped lecture from Count Vorkosigan on that topic, don’t you? We can’t be ordered to commit murder, or any other crime, or stand aside while someone else commits it. They were gonna… they were gonna…” he looked at Anny and blushed.

 

“They were going to rape me,” she said quietly. Suddenly she huffed out her breath. It might have been a laugh. “I remember how before I got to the Academy the Countess and Drou Koudelka warned me, trained me to protect myself. Told me I might have to face something like this. But they—and me!—were all thinking about you! The other cadets, I mean! Being on the campus with all those thousands of boys all around. I never even thought about an officer trying something like this!” She paused and looked them over. “But it was the cadets who saved me from the officers.” Her eyes were gleaming and a warm feeling passed all through Jer.

 

“It was just lucky we happened by,” he said. “And it was just luck, Anny, we weren’t following you or anything.”

 

“Then I’m the luckiest girl in the universe,” she replied, smiling. “Not just today, but every day since I met you.” She paused for a moment, looked down at the floor and then opened her mouth to say something… But just then the door to the room opened and Fallon was led back in. He looked a little shaken up, but okay.

 

“Who’s next?” asked Alby.

 

“I’ve got no orders to take anyone else right now,” said the sergeant who had brought Fallon. “Just sit tight.”

 

“Sit tight? Not much else we can do in here.”

 

“How’d it go, Fa… Denis?” asked Jer.

 

“Weird… really weird,” he replied slowly.

 

“But you told them what happened, didn’t you?” demanded Alby.

 

“I guess so. It’s all sort of jumbled together, but I think I told them everything. Man, I need some sleep!” He started to doze in his chair.

 

Almost an hour passed and then the door opened again and this time a major came in. He was the highest ranking officer they’d seen so far. They sprang to attention.

 

“At ease,” he said. “Cadets, you are to return to your ship. A shuttle is waiting. Cadet-Captain Payne, you have been reassigned to the frigate Daring. Your gear is being sent over right now. You are all ordered to discuss the…  incident with no one until you’ve been cleared to do so by your superiors back on Barrayar, understand?”

 

“Yes sir,” Jer’s relief vied with his surprise, but the relief won. The major left and they were escorted out by an NCO to where a shuttle was, indeed, waiting for them. Almost before they could catch their breaths they were boosting toward orbit.

 

“Well, thanks for the tour, Jer,” grunted Alby, his voice strained against the gees. “A real interesting place, Komarr!”

 

“Sorry you missed meeting up with your folks,” said Patric.

 

“There’ll be other chances.”

 

I hope.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Jer had never been in the Commandant’s Office before. It had been two weeks since they’d gotten back from Komarr. Mid-terms were over and they were starting preparations for the Pentathlon. But the uncertainty over the fallout from the incident on Komarr had been a serious distraction for all of them. Fending off questions from the other cadets hadn’t been easy, either. They all knew something had happened with Anny’s mysterious transfer to Daring—and Lieutenant Vorritter’s equally mysterious disappearance from Swiftsure. Just telling them ‘we can’t talk about it’ had done nothing to quell their curiosity.

 

The mere fact that Vorritter had not returned to the other frigate told them that something official must have happened, but they’d gotten no word—until the order had come for all five of them to report to see the Commandant. They were seated in a small conference room facing Colonel Sylvanus who was slowly tapping the table with a finger.

 

“Cadet-Captain Payne,” said Sylvanus after an unnervingly long silence.

 

“Sir?”

 

“From the first moment I heard that you were coming here, three years ago, I was afraid that something like this might happen. But I’m extremely grateful—and forgive me if this sounds selfish—extremely grateful that it did not happen on my campus.”

 

“I understand, sir.”

 

“An incident like this here could have ruined the place. Stained its honor for a generation.”

 

“I don’t believe an incident like this could happen here, sir,” said Anny. “Not now. Not with the people who are here.” She glanced toward Jer and the others with a look of pride on her face that sent a thrill through him.

 

“I’ll pray that you are right,” said Sylvanus. He glanced at the others, too. “And I think you probably are.”

 

“What… what’s going to happen, sir?’ asked Alby.

 

“To you? Why nothing, cadet, nothing at all. No punishments—which you don’t deserve, and no commendations, either—which you probably do deserve. And no loose lips! Officially—from our end of things at least—the incident never happened. I have that right from the top. You are not to discuss the events on Komarr with anyone, understand?”

 

Everyone nodded—except Alby. “You… you mean those bastards get off scot-free?” he exploded.

 

“Alby…” said Anny. Sylvanus held up his hand.

 

“I mean no such thing, cadet. All four of the officers involved are under arrest and facing some very serious charges. Vorritter’s compatriots might escape jail, but I seriously doubt he will. And I doubt any of them will be wearing an Imperial uniform again. Satisfied?” He stared right at Alby who blushed and nodded. “But nothing good can come from getting the Academy all riled up by this incident. As Cadet-Captain Payne has noted, the people here hold themselves to a higher standard already. You can take full pride in that fact.”

 

“I… I still can’t believe it even happened, sir,” said Patric. “I mean didn’t they realize they would get caught?”

 

The expression on the Commandant’s face grew very somber. “Would they?” he asked shaking his head. “Cadet-Captain, you don’t have to answer this, but if these… men’s scheme had succeeded without interference, do you think you would have brought charges against them?”

 

Anny was silent for a long time, but she eventually shook her head. “No, sir, probably not,” she said in a near-whisper.

 

“What” exclaimed Alby. “But…”

 

“Alby, leave it be,” said Jer. Alby glanced at Anny, who was blushing, and subsided.

 

“Yes,” said Sylvanus. “Let’s all leave it be. Justice will be done and we can take satisfaction in that. As for us, well, gentlemen, you all have my admiration and my thanks. That’s all, you’re dismissed.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Two days later Jer was working on a possible team structure for the Pentathlon when his wristcom pinged. It was a text message from Anny which simply said: Meet me at the cottage. Puzzled, he grabbed his cap and left the barracks and walked toward the woods where the little guest cottage that had once been her quarters was located. Halfway there he saw Patric and Alby headed the same direction. He waited for them.

 

“Anny send for you, too?” he asked when they got closer.

 

“Yeah,” said Patric. “What’s up?”

 

“Dunno.”

 

“Maybe she’s got some new secret plan for the Pentathlon,” said Alby. “We’re gonna need one to win this year.”

 

“Well, let’s go find out,” said Jer and he led the way through the woods. The path was a bit overgrown now that there was no traffic to and from the cottage. Or not much; he knew Anny would still go there from time to time if she wanted to think. What’s she been thinking now? She’d been acting oddly since they got back, but he suspected it was a delayed reaction to the near-horror on Komarr.

 

They reached the little house and knocked on the door. Anny let them in and she had them sit down on the old, but serviceable furniture. “Thanks for coming so quickly,” she said. Jer thought she looked nervous.

 

“No problem. What’s up?”

 

“I… I wanted to thank you again for what you did on Komarr,” she said, looking down at the floor and twisting her hands together. Jer started to reply but then stopped, sensing that something else was coming. To his surprise and dismay he saw that there were tears on her cheeks.

 

“Anny, what’s wrong?”

 

“Oh, Jer! Alby! Patric! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

 

“Sorry?” said Alby. “Sorry for what?”

 

“For the way I was acting! The way I treated you! Oh, how could I have been so stupid!” The pain on her face was like a knife in Jer’s heart.

 

“What… what are you talking about?” he asked.

 

Now she was actually crying. “When I nearly lost some of you… in the fire… I was so scared. I couldn’t stand the thought of… I didn’t know what to do. I thought an officer couldn’t risk getting too close to her people. So I tried to push you away! Tried to pretend that I didn’t…” She looked at them, her face twisted with anguish.

 

“Oh, God, I love you guys so much!” She stood up and stretched her arms wide. In an instant he and the others were on their feet and closed in around her. She wrapped her arms around them as much as she could and squeezed. He could feel her trembling and several small sobs escaped her. Awkwardly, he stroked her head, Alby touched her arm, Patric patted her back.

 

The group-hug lasted quite a while, but eventually Anny sniffed loudly and pulled back. She ran her hand across her eyes and smiled. “I’m done being stupid. Can you forgive me?”

 

“Sure we can,” said Alby, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “We all love you, too, Anny.”

 

“That’s for sure,” said Patric, smiling.

 

“It’s unanimous,” said Jer. There was a light inside him bright as the Soletta Array.

 

“It’s going to be just like it was before,” said Anny firmly. “Just like before. I promise.”

 

“That sounds good, Cap’n,” said Alby.

 

“Real good,” added Patric.

 

“Well, okay then,” she said rubbing water off her cheeks. “If you gentlemen will excuse me, I’ll make myself presentable and meet you back at the barracks. We’ve got a Pentathlon to win!”

 

They laughed and did as she asked. Jer felt like his feet weren’t even touching the gravel path. They had Anny back! He felt so good he was a hundred meters away before he realized he’d left his cap back in the cottage.

 

He told the others to go on and trotted back to the little house. The door was still open and he went right through—and collided with Anny.

 

“Oh!” they both exclaimed and then laughed. He had instinctively grasped her by the arms and they were face to face.

 

Face to face.

 

Her green eyes were right there, staring into his. Her mouth was open with a sudden intake of breath. His heart was suddenly pounding.

 

And then their arms were around each other and their lips pressed together and Jer thought his brain was going to explode.

 

“Oh! Oh!” gasped Anny when they finally pulled apart. Her face was flushed and her eyes incredibly wide. Jer had no idea what he looked like or what sort of idiot noises he was making.

 

“Oh!” she said again. “I… I don’t think that just happened.”

 

“No… no…” he agreed breathlessly. “Of course it didn’t. But… but… maybe someday it could, do you think?”

 

A small smile appeared on her lips. “Maybe… someday… yes.”

 

A long but not awkward silence ensued while they just looked at each other and smiled. Then Anny shook herself and held up her hand. “You forgot your cap,” she said and they both laughed.

 

“I know, thanks.” He took it from her and put it on his head.

 

“See you back at the barracks.”

 

“Right, Cadet-Captain!” He smiled and saluted.

 

She returned it with a flourish. “Carry on, Cadet-First Sergeant!”

 

He was whistling all the way back to the barracks.

 

 

Chapter 30

 

 

Take your ready positions! Two minutes!”

 

Jer Naddel looked over the C Company team for the Howitzer Haul and exchanged glances with Anny. They both nodded: they were as ready as they could be. Twenty cadets, led by Patric, were harnessed to the small cannon, everyone else was carrying ammunition or the equipment that would be needed for the gorge crossing. He eyed the long poles for the support tripods and wished they could do it the way they’d done it the first year. The officials for the Pentathlon had responded to their unorthodox methods of using the trees near the gorge instead of the traditional tripods in true military fashion: first they had approved the methods—and then they had cut down all the trees. Still, C Company had a trick or two up their sleeves.

 

And they were going to need them.

 

It was the fifth and final day of the Vorbarra Pentathlon for the junior class. C Company had done very well so far. They had placed first in the obstacle course and in the rifle competition. Anny had scored a personal best with a 99 out of 100 on the rifle range. They had come in a close second on the long distance run. The equestrian phase had cost them, as it always did, but not as much as in previous years. Alby had managed to find a riding simulator program and persuaded Lieutenant Dubrovin in the computer department to allow the company to use the simulator pods in off-hours. It wasn’t quite like the real thing since every horse is different, but it was still far better than nothing and with the seniors still having first call on the real horses, that was the usual alternative. So, they had done better in the equestrian event and as a result they were in second place, just a handful of points behind F Company, the first place team. If they could win the Howitzer Haul by forty-five seconds they would win the Pentathlon.

 

And they really wanted to win. While most of the attention was on the senior class, their competition really didn’t mean all that much. The seniors would be graduating in another two months and be gone. But the junior class, whoever won the Pentathlon now, would be the Honor Company all during the next year, right up to the next Pentathlon. Every man in C Company wanted that privilege—for Anny. Jer had not said a word about what had happened on Komarr and he was certain that no one else had, either, but the rumors had been swirling and almost everyone was now convinced that something had happened. Something bad. But Anny’s rediscovered good humor and closeness had also convinced them that whatever it had been, she had endured and triumphed. She hadn’t let them down and they sure as hell weren’t going to let her down, either. They were determined to win this for her.

 

“Ten seconds!” cried the official. Everyone tensed. The F Company team was fifty meters away on the parallel course and also ready to move. “Get set… Go!” The starter’s pistol banged.

 

The company surged forward dragging the awkward cannon behind them. Jer was the gunner again and he had no specific task except to watch for trouble and lend a hand when necessary. They reached the first turn and then hit the first series of hills. All their practice paid off and they kept just the right momentum to carry the gun up and over the five inclines without losing control of it. Some poor kid in the plebe battalion had gotten his leg crushed two days earlier when they tried to take it too fast. No mishaps like that today!

 

They nearly stalled on the second set of hills, but made it over and then headed for the first target range. They swung the gun up onto the low platform and Jer flung himself into the firing position and pressed his face against the sighting eyepiece while his hands found the two aiming wheels by touch. He spun the wheels bringing the crosshairs onto the target three hundred meters away. He heard the breech being worked and then someone tapped his shoulder and shouted: “Ready!”

 

He made one last adjustment to the aim and then squeezed the trigger as he pulled himself back from the eyepiece. The howitzer barked and jumped up and back despite the buffer of the recoil mechanism. The crew pushed it back into position and he was already re-sighting the piece as the loaders slammed in another round. The accuracy of the fire didn’t count for much in the competition, but Jer was determined to do the best he could without wasting precious time. He fired again and again until all five rounds were expended. Then he leapt up and out of the way as the haulers grabbed the gun and dragged it back onto the course. As he did so, he heard a shot echoing across from the other course. Good! They were ahead!

 

The next section of the course was rougher and they had to navigate the mud holes left by the previous contestants. They reached the second firing station and he fired five more shots downrange, quickly and—he hoped—accurately. Then it was back on the trail with the gorge-crossing next!

 

The ones with the equipment for that were already at work when they arrived. A hundred meters away so was the F Company team. Their gun hadn’t arrived yet, but that really didn’t matter unless it had actually gotten stuck. The gorge-crossing was the make-or-break point.

 

Jer stood there watching and forcing himself not to interfere. Each of the teams knew what to do and didn’t need his input—although they would need his muscle soon enough. The near-side tripod was already up and the team with the foot bridge hauled it into place and secured it, allowing the second tripod to be carried to the far side. The gun was being disassembled and the cables and pulleys started going up. Here was where they hoped to gain an edge. A few weeks earlier Anny had gotten a message from Lord Vorkosigan. A friend of the Lord Auditor had pointed out a rather obscure engineering text from the previous century that had an unorthodox, but superior set-up for the cable system. It had been intended for another use entirely, but the Lord Auditor’s friend suggested it might work for the cadets as well. They’d tried it and it did work. The advantage was that it could be set up and taken down faster. Not a lot faster, it was true, but here every second counted.

 

“Everyone to the ropes!” shouted Anny. Jer went over to the near tripod and grabbed one of the ropes coming from it. The tripod raised the main cable to about three meters over their heads, but unless the cadets used their own weight to counterbalance the load from the gun, the weight would just topple the tripods right over and dump everything into the gorge.

 

“Pull!” They pulled and the first load, the gun carriage, rose up into the air and started to slide across the gorge, pulled by more ropes. The cables and pulleys were working perfectly. Jer glanced over toward where F Company was working and was heartened to see that they were still getting their first load hooked up.

 

The carriage swung its way across and they lowered it to the ground. The carrying rig was unhooked and quickly reeled back to attach the next load. These were the two wheels and the lightest load of the three. They were going next so that the crew on the other side could be putting them back on the carriage while the rest of them tackled the gun barrel. The wheels made it across with no problem and now it was time for the gun barrel. It was smaller than the carriage, but heavier.

 

Jer grunted and the other cadets groaned and the metal tube went up and then slowly across the chasm. Meter by meter it went in a series of jerks. By the time it reached the other side the carriage was ready and waiting for it. They carefully let out the slack and the barrel settled into place and was locked down. The cadets gave a cheer.

 

“No time for that!” cried Anny. “Gun team, get moving! The rest of you, pack up this gear!”

 

Jer made his way across the footbridge as quickly as the wobbly structure would allow. By the time he was across, Patric had the haulers harnessed up again and the gun moved out, leaving all the others to pack up the crossing gear. F Company was still moving the last piece of their cannon across the gorge. “We can do this!” he shouted.

 

They arrived at the last firing station and Jer dropped into his position. He forced himself to aim carefully as he put the five rounds into the target one after the other. When the last shell casing popped from the breech he sprang up and got out of the way of the haulers. Just a few hundred meters more!

 

As they left the firing platform they joined up with the rest of the team, carrying all the gear. They had to take it all with them and naturally it wasn’t packed as neatly as it had been when they started! Anny was urging them on and Jer grabbed up a bunch of rope that had spilled out of a bundle. “Go! Go! Go!”

 

The finish line was in sight when he heard the F Company gun fire five shots in impossibly rapid succession. They can’t be aiming those! They’re in a panic to get done!

 

But there was no way they could beat C Company now! Jer and the others dashed across the finish line and braked their cannon to a safe halt. All around them people were cheering and applauding. They had won the Howitzer Haul—but would it be enough to win the Pentathlon?

 

The big video monitors were showing F Company and also the relative times of the two teams. C Company had crossed the finish line in thirty-eight minutes, twenty-seven seconds. If F Company didn’t finish before thirty-nine, twelve, they had it made… The seconds were clicking by—but much too slowly.

 

“Damn it, trip or something,” hissed Alby, watching the monitor. But no one tripped and a moment later the F Company gun appeared from around a bend in the trail, sprinting toward the finish line. Thirty-eight, fifty-seven… thirty-eight, fifty-eight…

 

“They’re going to do it,” sighed Patric.

 

And they did. F Company crossed the line at thirty-nine, oh-two. Ten seconds faster than they needed. A groan seemed to pass through C Company, although it could not be heard because of all the other noise. Sixty-five sets of shoulders drooped a little. Darn! Ten seconds! They’d come so close…

 

“We won three out of the five events,” said Fallon. “Nothing to be ashamed of.”

 

“Wait!” said Alby. “It’s not over yet!”

 

“What do you mean? We only won by thirty-five seconds we needed…”

 

“Look!” he said pointing at the big monitor. It was showing both times, but then another line appeared reading:

 

Gunnery Modifier:

 

“That’s’ right!” cried Patric. “They modify the time with the shooting scores! I’d forgotten about that!”

 

“The scores aren’t usually close enough for it to matter,” said Anny. “But maybe this time…”

 

There was an agonizing delay. Jer supposed that the targets were being examined and the results sent to the scorekeepers. Hope began to grow in him. Those last five shots… they can’t possibly have aimed them… Suddenly the screen changed:

 

C Company Gunnery Score: 139

 

“Out of a possible one-fifty!” said Anny. “Not bad, Jer!” Then the screen changed again.

 

F Company Gunnery Score: 105

 

“It’s one second off the time for every point of difference, isn’t it?” demanded Patric.

 

“I think so,” cried Alby.

 

They all held their breaths and then the times for each team changed:

 

C Company Final Time: 37:53

 

F Company Final Time: 39:02

 

“That’s… that’s sixty-nine seconds!” screamed Alby. “We won!”

 

“We did it!” shouted Jer.

 

You did it, our eagle-eyed sharpshooter!” cried Anny. “Way to go, Jer!” The company erupted in cheers and a moment later the announcer confirmed that C Company had won the 2nd Battalion competition in the Vorbarra Pentathalon. They whooped and hollered and tossed their caps in the air. Somehow, somehow this felt even getter than the first time they’d won. The first time they’d worked to win it just to survive, this time it was… something else. Jer didn’t have words for it, but it sure felt good.

 

Before long he and Anny had been hoisted onto the shoulders of their comrades, but then they spotted the company commander and first sergeant of F Company headed their way and they all paused. The memory of Olaf Vorlevey’s protest of their first win came to everyone’s mind. Anny slid to the ground and so did he. But there was no official with the approaching pair and their faces didn’t look angry. Anny walked up to her opposite number and he stuck out his hand.

 

“Congratulations, Captain,” he said. “That was very well done. My compliments to you and your team.”

 

Anny looked very pleased and took his hand and shook firmly. “Thank you, Captain. Your team did wonderfully, too. Please pass on my compliments to them.”

 

The cadet smiled and nodded and then said: “We’ll get you next year.” Jer exchanged nods with the cadet-sergeant and then they parted.

 

“Well!” said Anny, “That’s a welcome change from the other time!”

 

“There are some good people here,” said Jer.

 

She looked at him and smiled. “Yes there are. Some very good people.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Company, left wheel… March!”

 

At Anny’s command Jer’s eyes looked to the ground in front of him. The slightly flattened path in the grass left by the passage of 1st Battalion and the first four companies of 2nd Battalion showed him exactly where he had to step to make the arc they needed for the wheel. Every other eye in the company was looking to him as their guide and he could feel the light pressure of the corporal’s right elbow against his left. No slip-ups now!

 

It was Graduation Day at the Academy and the Regiment of Cadets was passing in review for the Emperor.

 

C Company completed its wheel in perfect fashion and then marched straight ahead, past the bleachers filled with family and friends of the cadets and toward the reviewing stand where the Emperor and a galaxy of generals, admirals, and officials waited and watched as 1st battalion marched by. The seniors were in their parade red-and-blues and blazed in comparison to their gray-clad comrades. The day had dawned with the threat of thunderstorms, but they had held off so far and the sun was even peeping through now, although it was still warm and muggy. Sweat dripped down from Jer’s shako and trickled down his back.

 

But he didn’t care. He was the first sergeant of the Honor Company in the 2nd Battalion of Cadets. The Color Guard was attached to the opposite end of the company carrying the battalion’s colors and two paces out if front was Cadet-Captain Andreanne Payne, the best damn cadet in the whole Academy! His eyes flicked down to the ribbons on his tunic, the Distinguished Service Star, the Unit Citation, the Pentathlon pins. He was proud of them, but just as proud that Anny wore a duplicate set—plus a wound ribbon. She had showed them, showed all of them, what she was made of. That he’d been able to help her do that made him as proud as he was of his own decorations. More.

 

The seniors were finished and now it was 2nd Battalion’s turn. The band struck up a new tune, Sabre and Spurs, and the hair stood up on the back of Jer’s head. If there was one thing the Barrayaran’s could do it was write military marches!

 

The first four companies passed the reviewing stand and then Anny shouted: “Company! Eyes—right!” She saluted with her sword and the color sergeant dipped the flag and every head snapped to the right. Except his. As the guide, he kept his head looking straight forward so that wouldn’t wander from the precise path they needed to follow. For one instant he risked glancing to his right. There was the Emperor, returning the salute and another thrill passed through him. Jer knew that Gregor Vorbarra took his position as commander-in-chief very seriously. Not just because of the enormous power it bestowed, but because of the enormous responsibility. These were his officers passing in front of him. Sworn to him personally, sworn to lay down their lives in his service. It wasn’t something to take lightly and the Emperor did not.

 

And then they were passed. Anny commanded ‘front’ and all eyes were forward again. They marched down to the end of the parade ground, made two more left wheels, and then came back to their original position and wheeled back into line. One final present arms and it was done. Off to the right, the newly-graduated seniors yelled and threw their shakos in the air.

 

Next year it’s our turn.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Jer hated this time of year. For reasons he couldn’t quite fathom, the Academy scheduled graduation for a full week before the end of the year. During the week that followed there were a few inspections and other meaningless activities, but every cadet’s thoughts were on the upcoming leave and trying to maintain any sort of discipline in the company was almost impossible.

 

Right now there was a pillow fight—a pillow fight, for God’s sake!—going on in the barracks. Jer just shook his head, dodged a flying pillow and flopped down on his bunk. Wow, he was tired. It had been a hell of a year! He figured he’d sleep for about a week-and-a-half of the two week leave.

 

He glanced over as Patric crashed down on the bunk next to his with Alby close behind, beating him unmercifully with a pillow. Patric laughed and tried to fend Alby off and finally grabbed him by the ankles and held him upside down until he stopped.

 

“No fair!” gasped Alby. “Your arms are twice as long as mine!”

 

“Not my fault,” said Patric, smugly. The pair settled down and looked at him.

 

“So you’re headed back to your home on South Continent for your leave, Patric?” asked Jer.

 

“Yup, got to. My brother is getting married and he wants me to stand in the circle with him. Wants me in my dress uniform and all. Can’t miss that.”

 

“No, I guess not. I guess I’ll be staying at Vorkosigan House again,” said Jer.

 

Patric gave Alby a very strange look and Alby grinned and nodded. What are they up to now?

 

“Well, as a matter of fact you won’t,” said Alby.

 

“What? What do you mean?”

 

Without replying, Alby dashed off to his footlocker and in a moment returned with an envelope which he tossed to Jer. He looked at it and his eyes widened. It had the logo of one of Komarr’s biggest shipping lines embossed on it. “What’s this?” he demanded suspiciously.

 

“Look at it!” said Patric.

 

Jer opened the envelope and drew out a long plastic card. It was a round trip ticket to Komarr. First Class. “What…?”

 

“We felt bad about you missing your family when we were there,” said Patric. “Figured you could try again.”

 

Jer looked sharply at Alby. “This must have cost a fortune! I can’t…!”

 

“It’s not all my money,” denied Alby. “Everyone chipped in.”

 

“Everyone!” exclaimed Jer. His eyes went to where most of the company were still pummeling each other with pillows, but a few were looking in his direction. “You didn’t tell them what happened did you?” he hissed.

 

“Jer, they’d pretty much figured out that something happened on Komarr,” said Patric.

 

“Well, yeah, but…”

 

“We didn’t give out any details,” said Alby. “Just that Anny ran into some trouble and you helped her out and missed seeing your folks.”

 

“It wasn’t just me!”

 

“Details… details…” said Alby waving it away.

 

“But… but…”

 

“Just say thank you, Jer,” smiled Patric.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome,” said Alby.

 

“And you are, too,” added Patric. “Y’know, sometimes when we’re all saying how we’ve got the best Captain at the Academy—which we do, of course—we forget to mention how we’ve also got the best first sergeant.”

 

Jer blushed and looked away. “Thanks, guys. That… that really means a lot.” He looked down at the ticket. They actually like me…

 

When he looked up, all the others were gathering around. “Thanks, guys,” he said to them. “Thanks a lot.” They nodded or made replies of various sorts. This was amazing. A small part of him was a bit annoyed because he’d hoped to spend some time with Anny at Vorkosigan House, but he realized that this was probably for the best. Don’t fall into the same trap Alby did! Not the time or the place. Patience, boy!

 

“Uh… where is Anny?” He hadn’t seen her all morning.

 

“She got a message to go see the Commandant,” said Denis Fallon.

 

“The Commandant!”

 

“Bloody hell, what now?” said Alby.

 

“It’s not automatically trouble,” said Patric.

 

“Yeah, right!”

 

But just then the door to the girls’ quarters slid open and there was Anny. She had an odd, but thankfully not distressed, look on her face. She walked right over to the group.

 

“Everything all right?” asked Jer.

 

“Oh, yes. Everything’s fine,” she replied and then hesitated for a moment. “The Commandant… the Commandant offered me the major’s position in the battalion.”

 

“What?” “Hey, that’s great!” “Congratulations, Anny!” Everyone seemed to be talking at once.

 

“You’re leaving C Company?” said Alby suddenly. Everyone got quiet.

 

“It’s a big honor for her, Alby,” said Fallon. “The highest ranking position open to a non-Vor.”

 

“I know, I know, it’s just…” Everyone knew exactly what he meant. The thought of losing Anny, just when they’d got her back was… painful.

 

“Don’t make it hard for her,” said Patric. “She’s earned this.”

 

“Guys…” said Anny.

 

“I’m not!” said Alby. “I know she’s earned it, but…”

 

“Guys!” said Anny more loudly. Everyone looked at her and she smiled.

 

“I turned him down.”

 

“What!” Jer tried not to smile, but he couldn’t stop himself. Alby was grinning ear to ear.

 

“But, Anny,” said Fallon, “This would be a huge feather in your cap! It could mean all sorts of things once you graduate!”

 

“Hey, trying to get command of the company, Fallon?” asked someone.

 

Fallon’s face turned red and he sputtered: “That’s not what I’m…!”

 

“I know, I know!” laughed Anny, reaching out and patting his shoulder. She turned slowly around, looking at all of them. A warming smile was on her face. “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing. And I know exactly where I belong.”

 

“I belong right here.”

 

 

 

END OF BOOK 4

Chapter Text

Fourth Interlude

 

 

Well, Anny, I think that just about wraps it up,” said Major Ivan Vorpatril. “I want to thank you for taking time off from your leave to let me pick your brains. If they didn’t keep you cadets so infernally busy I’d have tried to do it during the normal year.”

 

“Glad to do it, sir,” said the young woman sitting opposite him in his office in the huge Operations Building. “Hopefully we’ll never have to face anything like that fire again, but if we do, at least the next time we’ll be better prepared.”

 

“I think we will,” said Ivan. “Oh, and once I get all this organized I’d appreciate it if you could give it a looking over and let me know if there’s anything you can think of to make it better.”

 

“Certainly, sir.”

 

“And now let me make it up to you for interrupting your leave. Can I take you to lunch?”

 

“Uh…” a look of … of panic seemed to wash over Anny’s face for a moment and he mentally kicked himself. Ivan, you idiot! Think before you speak for once in your life!

 

“But if you’d rather not, I understand,” he said hastily. “I’m sure you’re anxious to get out of that hot uniform…” urk! “I mean, get back to Vorkosigan House and relax.” Ivan hoped he wasn’t blushing as badly as it felt like he was. Damn!

 

“No, no, sir, I’d be happy to have lunch with you, thank you, sir,” said Anny Payne. Her face was a bit pale, but she forced a smile and got to her feet, brushing some invisible spec of lint from her undress blacks.

 

Ivan rose from his own chair and suddenly felt incredibly awkward. What was the proper etiquette for escorting a woman in uniform? A lower ranking woman in uniform. An incredibly pretty, lower ranking woman in uniform…? Damn it, stop that! Why couldn’t she have just turned him down? It would be so much simpler. No getting out of it now. Make the best of it.

 

He grabbed his cap and told his aide he’d be out of the office for an hour or so. He still hadn’t quite gotten used to the fact that he was a major now. It might only seem like one step up from captain, but it was a huge step. Captains answered to just about everyone, but majors… majors were the ones captains usually answered to. Of course, he still answered to people above him, but at this level there were so many fewer of them. They still hadn’t picked a permanent commander for Ops since General Vorsworth retired and the temporaries they’d put in his place tended to leave Ivan alone.

 

They walked down the broad corridor, heels clicking in unison on the polished stone floor. More than a few people did a double-take when they passed Anny. Any woman in uniform would have attracted attention, but Anny Payne was something special. The shy, uncertain girl who he’d first seen at Vorkosigan House over three years ago had turned into a confident, striking young woman. Let her hair grow out, put her in something less restrictive than that uniform and… damnation! Stop thinking that way!  

 

They reached the elevator lobby but Ivan suddenly turned and led her down the broad staircase rather than taking a lift. Ivan’s initial plan—as much as he had one—was to go to a nice little restaurant down the street that the Ops officers favored, but instead he continued down the stairs to the first sub-level where the building’s cafeteria was located. Anny seemed relieved by the choice and he had no trouble understanding why. No cozy restaurants—no enclosed lifts for that matter. No private spaces with Vor officers.

 

The ‘incident’—stop mincing words, the attempted rape—on Komarr had not been publicly announced, but most everyone around headquarters knew something about it by now. There was no way the court martial of four officers—four Vor officers—could be hushed up—not from the military anyway. Ivan didn’t think all that many knew the specifics, but he did. He’d encountered Cousin Miles at Vorkosigan House a few months ago in an absolute rage and he’d blurted it out.

 

Ivan had slept with more women in his life than he could count, and while a few of the times could probably be labeled seductions, he’d never, ever, come close to forcing himself on anyone. The thought was repugnant to him. It would be easy to condemn the four as trash, as a disgrace to the Vor class, as unworthy to wear an imperial uniform. Kick them out, pretend they never existed, and forget them. But damn it, he knew one of them! Had served with him for a couple of boring years when he was a new lieutenant. The man hadn’t seemed like a monster, although people change. He and Anny got trays and selected some things from the menu. It wasn’t bad food for a cafeteria, really. They found a table and sat down.

 

“I guess you’re sort of rattling around inside Vorkosigan House these days, aren’t you?” he asked. “With my coz and his brood all off to Sergyar it must seem pretty empty.”

 

“Yes, sir. Most of the normal staff is gone with them. With Ma Costi gone, I’m even cooking my own meals. I used to be a pretty good cook, but I’d gotten out of the habit.”

 

“I’m amazed they got Ma Costi to go off-planet. She used to pitch a fit just taking an aircar to Vorkosigan Surleau.”

 

“I’m told it took quite a bit of persuasion, but one of her sons is stationed there and I think that did the trick,” laughed Anny. She had an amazingly nice smile. A damn fine looking woman. Yeah, he could see exactly how Vorritter and the others had arrived at their ill-fated plan. And it wasn’t just that Anny Payne was an attractive woman. Hell, that was probably the least of the factors. The frigate Swiftsure was old, small, and obsolescent. Ship duty was highly sought by most officers, but no one would be seeking out an old bucket like that. Anyone with any influence would try for a newer, bigger ship. A ship that did interesting things and went interesting places. Swiftsure and its sister ship, Daring, did nothing but escort freighters from Barrayar to Komarr and back again. An almost pointless precaution since nothing like a pirate could get into Barrayaran space unobserved.  It was boring, unglamorous work. A dead-end assignment. Officers on those ships would drink too much and think too much.

 

Playing nursemaid to a batch of cadets would be bad enough, but the sudden appearance of a female cadet… Yeah it would push all sorts of buttons, none of them good ones. Vorritter would naturally try to make the best of a bad situation. He’d find reasons to talk to Anny. Hang around. Make a few suggestive remarks—just like Ivan would have done in his place. Nothing like rape would even be contemplated at that point, but if she was willing… why not? And Anny would have cut him off at the ankles. Politely, of course, but after a year being trained and prepared by Tante Cordelia and Drou Koudelka, Ivan had no doubt that she would have rebuffed him.

 

Which would have made him angry. Add to that the fact that Anny’s cadets would have still treated her like their commander even though they’d been ordered to drop their cadet ranks. They’d look to her for leadership, it would be habit by this time, and that would piss off Vorritter all the more. A non-Vor and a woman, challenging his authority! Ivan had no idea what Vorritter’s stance on letting women into the military was, but if he was like a lot of Vor he’d be against it. And now he was having the whole issue rubbed right in his face. Oh yeah, by the time they reached Komarr he’d be wanting some sort of payback. A few drinks, some talk with some old buddies he knew dirtside, and the rest was almost inevitable. Ivan could see it as clearly as if he’d been there himself.

 

He didn’t think he would ever stoop to what Vorritter had attempted, but in some different reality, who knew? Most officers probably wouldn’t but there would be more than a few who would. The Barrayaran warrior class had an unfortunate penchant for rape that went back a long, long time into history. He remembered his childhood playmate Elena Bothari, the product of a more recent example of Barrayaran rapine. Anny Payne was stepping into a very dangerous profession in more ways than one.

 

“So, what are your plans for your senior year, Anny?” he asked when the conversation had lain dead for too long. “You’ve got some serious choices to make about your career track, don’t you?”

 

“Yes, sir,” she replied. “I’ll be meeting with an advisor next week to decide which way I’m going to go.”

 

“From what my coz tells me about your record at the Academy I’d think you could pretty much write your own ticket. Ship duty, the Imperial War College, the General Staff School, anything.”

 

“It’s all a bit overwhelming, sir,” she nodded.

 

“You’re on the fast-track, Anny. You are aware that you’ll be commissioned as a lieutenant and not an ensign when you graduate, aren’t you?”

 

“So I’ve been told, sir,” she glanced down at the ribbon on her tunic. There was an old and rarely-used regulation which said that any cadet decorated for gallantry while at the Academy would be bumped one rank at graduation. Some count had rammed it through generations earlier on behalf of a nephew that had managed to win a medal and the rule was still on the books. It wasn’t actually all that big of a deal since most ensigns were promoted to lieutenant within a year or two anyway, but it was still quite a distinction and would give her seniority over most of her classmates during the long period between lieutenant and captain. Anny Payne was going places—if she wanted to. It was clear that a number of powerful people were looking at her as the poster-child for letting women into the military. If she could stay out of trouble, he might end up having to salute her in ten or fifteen years.

 

If she could stay out of trouble.

 

While she had some powerful friends, she was also making some powerful enemies. Once the full story about those court martials came out—and it would—a lot of officers were going to be royally pissed. Not at Vorritter and his cohorts, but at Anny Payne. They’d argue that if Anny hadn’t been there, where she didn’t belong, then none it would have happened. Four officer, officers with otherwise good records, lost to the service because of temptations that had no place aboard a ship. Or in a barracks. Or… Oh yeah, there was going to be some backlash from this. And that was the best case scenario. If Vorritter and the other three had friends or family who might decide to take some sort of personal revenge against Anny…. Damn. Had Miles thought about this? Probably. the little git usually thought of everything.

 

Or maybe not. Miles’ career had kept him far away from the day-to-day realities of the Imperial Military. He’d spent his time with the sexually and racially integrated Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. They didn’t have issues like that there. Once the word got around, what ship commander in his right mind would want Anny Payne aboard? Even if he fully endorsed the notion of women in the military in general, he still wouldn’t want the potential trouble on his ship. Or in his battalion. Or on his staff. And that was only the professional side of it. What officer who was genuinely interested in her, with motives as honorable as any love-smitten man, would take the risk of approaching her? Ivan found himself feeling sorry for the woman. Anny Payne was facing a very lonely career, he was afraid.

 

“Are you planning to make the military a career, Anny? Be a twenty-year… person?”

 

“I haven’t really thought that far ahead, sir. But after so many people worked so hard to get me in, it would seem… ungrateful if I didn’t stick with it for a while.”

 

“To say nothing of all the work you put in yourself. Well, I have to get back to my office and I’m sure you’ve got some serious relaxing to do. Thank you again for your help on those procedures. Maybe I’ll see you around Vorkosigan House.” They got up from the table and exchanged salutes. Ivan saw her out of the building and then headed back upstairs. She’s really quite something, isn’t she?

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Anny!” cried Drou Koudelka. “It’s so good to see you again! It’s been too long!” The woman stepped up to Anny and embraced her.

 

“It has been a while,” replied Anny when Drou released her. “We’ve all been so busy. Me at the Academy and you with all those grandchildren.”

 

“Good heavens, yes! The girls have been turning them out like clockwork the last three years! And with uterine replicators it is like clockwork. I’m sorry we haven’t been able to stay in closer touch the way we used to but…” Drou trailed off.

 

“Being Gran’mama comes first, I understand,” said Anny smiling. In truth it had saddened her a bit when the distance between her and Drou had widened. But it was probably for the best. She couldn’t help but notice that Drou’s daughters who had been so friendly at first had grown a bit… cold as Drou threw herself into the project of getting Anny ready for the Academy. Jealous? Maybe so. But the arrival of the grandchildren had reversed the trend. Drou was paying far more attention to her family and the daughters were much warmer towards Anny. It was only proper. “Thank you for inviting me over today. It was getting a bit lonely at Vorkosigan House with only me and the security guards there.”

 

“I would think so! Even with a dozen people there you could wander around all day without bumping into anyone! I should have thought to ask you sooner. But you are in luck,” said Drou, taking her arm. “Olivia and Dono are here with little Pierre today! Come on, they’re in the sitting room.” She guided Anny through a doorway and into the parlor of the big old house. A small crowd of people were already there. Commodore Koudelka was holding his newest grandchild and smiling ear to ear. Olivia was right beside him fussing with some bit of the baby’s clothing. Count Dono Vorrutyer was standing a pace away, smiling, with his hands clasped behind his back. An armsman in Vorrutyer livery was standing in a corner. Several other women who Drou introduced as neighbors were also fawning over the baby.

 

“Anny!” exclaimed the Commodore when he saw her. “Come meet my grandson.” Before she could figure a way to refuse Anny found herself holding the squirming bundle. It had been quite a while since she had held a baby and she was uncomfortably aware that it was a count’s heir. What if she dropped it?

 

But disaster was avoided and eventually Anny was able to hand the infant off to someone else. The morning passed pleasantly enough although Anny couldn’t force herself to take all that much interest in the endless chatter about babies and all the myriad details of their care and upbringing. She’d been exposed to it while helping raise her younger sisters, but even then her interest had been limited. She found herself wishing she could discuss the theories of Clausewitz with someone or maybe field-strip a heavy plasma arc…

 

“So, Cadet-Captain Payne, we meet at last,” said Count Dono, suddenly sitting next to her. “I’m amazed our paths haven’t managed to cross before, what with us both in and out of Vorkosigan House so much.”

 

“Uh, I think we did meet for a moment, the Winterfair before last, my lord,” said Anny awkwardly.

 

“Really?” said Dono, his eyebrows going up. “Oh, that’s right! How embarrassing. But you were still keeping a pretty low profile back then. I’ve heard a lot more about you since .”

 

“I… I’ve heard quite a bit about you, too, my lord,” stammered Anny.

 

“I imagine you have!” laughed Dono. The man was a little shorter than her but with his full beard it was hard to believe that he had once been Lady Donna Vorrutyer before she travelled to Beta Colony to have her sex changed so that she could—successfully—challenge a  relative for the countship of her/his district. “But you and I have so much in common, Anny: we’ve both set Barrayaran society on its ear. Me in the Council of Counts, and you at the Academy.”

 

“That was never my intention, my lord.”

 

“Well, it wasn’t really mine, either. I suppose that if I could have done what I did—what I needed to do—without upsetting everything I would have. It would have been so much easier. But I couldn’t and neither could you. We each had a destiny to fulfill and neither one of us was going to let tradition or Barrayar’s notion of propriety stand in our way, eh?”

 

“I guess that’s true, my lord. I hadn’t really thought about it in that way before.” Anny wasn’t quite sure what to make of this.

 

“Well you ought to sometime. In the long run what you did will be far more important than what I did. My situation might come along once every few centuries, but the changes you’ve forced are already bearing fruit. There are how many women at the Academy now?”

 

“Six beside me, my lord. I understand there will be about twenty more arriving with the new freshman class.”

 

“Well there you are, Anny! None of them would be there but for you. You should be very proud of yourself.” Anny found herself blushing.

 

“You’re embarrassing the poor girl, Dono.” Anny looked up and the Commodore was standing there.

 

“I would seem so,” said the Count. “But every word was true.”

 

“No doubt. But before you can turn her head completely, I’m afraid I need to borrow her for a while. Anny, could Drou and I talk with you in private for a bit?”

 

Anny sprang to her feet, a bit relieved to have an excuse to get away from the intense Count Vorrutyer. “Certainly, sir.” She followed him out onto the back porch of the house which overlooked their small garden plot. Drou joined them with a pitcher of lemonade and glasses. They settled themselves on comfortable chairs and Anny looked at the Koudelkas in anticipation. What was this all about?

 

“You’re meeting with your advisor tomorrow, aren’t you, Anny?” asked the Commodore.

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Have you decided on what you’re going to do?”

 

“There were so many choices, it was hard to decide. But I’ve decided to pursue the naval track, sir. Ship duty if I can get it.”

 

The Commodore frowned and pursed his lips. Drou looked worried. What is this?

 

“Anny,” said the Commodore, “I--we’ve gotten a message from Miles on Sergyar and he was acting on behalf of… well, some other important people. He asked me to talk to you.”

 

“Sir?”

 

Drou leaned forward. “Anny, perhaps ship duty isn’t the best choice right now.”

 

“I-I don’t understand.”

 

“Anny, we know about what happened on Komarr,” said the Commodore. The look on his face was a veneer of concern over seething anger.

 

“Oh! It… it could have been a lot worse, sir. And your training helped save me, Drou.”

 

“You should have torn that bastard’s arm off and stuffed it up his…” snarled Drou.

 

“No doubt,” said the Commodore, casting a strange look at his wife. “But the issue here is a lot more complex than just protecting you from this sort of thing, Anny. It shouldn’t be, damn it, but it is. The high command is afraid of the… disruptive effects that might result from your presence aboard a ship. The close quarters, the long tours of duty, the restrictive spaces… and the fact that for years to come you’d be the only woman aboard any given ship. The example they’ve made of those four on Komarr would probably keep most men in line—but not all. And even if there were no overt assaults…”

 

“A non-ship assignment might be better,” said Drou, an odd, awkward tone in her voice. “Less confined, more space, more…”

 

“More room to run?” asked Anny, a note of bitterness leaked into her words and both of the Koudelkas caught it immediately. “Sorry.”

 

“There’s nothing for you to be sorry about!” said Drou heatedly. “Nothing!”

 

“Drou…” said the Commodore.

 

“Damn it, Kou! We shouldn’t even be having this conversation! I agreed that I’d try to help, but this is just plain wrong! Anny shouldn’t have her career put in a straightjacket just because some… some…” the woman ran out of breath and just glared.

 

“I know, I know, but we have to deal with reality, not with wishful thinking. And even if Anny went ahead with the naval track the high command could still decide they didn’t like the risks and just deny her ship duty anyway. They’d end up sticking her in BuShips or BuPers or… or Docks and Wharfs, for God’s sake! Pushing paper behind a desk! Is that what you want to do for the next twenty years, Anny?”

 

Anny felt stunned. Not just by the possibility, but by the intensity in both Drou and the Commodore. “N-no, sir. I-I love commanding my company. Leading… being in charge…”

 

“It’s what you’re good at,” nodded the Commodore.

 

“It’s what you were born for, Anny!” exclaimed Drou. “Don’t let the bastards take it from you!”

 

“That is why we’re having this little talk, Drou,” said the Commodore. “Miles was no happier asking us to do this than we are doing it. But he’s right: the high command will probably have the final say on Anny’s posting once she’s graduated. And if she insists on following a track that they oppose it could end up torpedoing her career right off the mark.”

 

“So… so what are my options, sir?” asked Anny. She was trying to grasp the whirling fragments of the plan she’d had before this conversation started. The pieces kept bouncing off her fingertips.

 

“Miles was rather vague,” said the Commodore, shrugging. “Which with him means that the information he received must have been pretty vague, too. The only definite thing was that they don’t want you pushing for ship duty. I know this is disappointing to you, Anny, every young officer wants ship duty, but that still leaves a huge number of options available to you. And quite a few of them involve commanding troops.”

 

“I suppose so, sir.” She couldn’t hide her disappointment, but if the Academy had taught her anything it was how to pick herself up off the ground after taking a fall. Still, it was disappointing. She had dreamed of getting out into the wormhole nexus that was the highway between worlds. Despite its horrid conclusion, the trip to Komarr had been thrilling, just a taste of things to come. Ship duty wasn’t the only way to get out there, but it was the surest. She’d hoped to be part of the escorts guarding the trade fleets on their long journeys to distant worlds, just the way her father had.

 

Her father.

 

He’d gotten out there, but he hadn’t been in the navy… Perhaps…

 

“I’ll have to give this some thought, sir,” she said aloud.

 

“Of course,” said the Commodore. “It’s a big decision.”

 

“We’re sorry to ruin your last day of leave like this,” said Drou. “We hope you’ll stay and have lunch, but if you feel like you need to go and think for a while, we understand.”

 

“None of this is your fault,” said Anny. “Thank you. Thank you both for helping me out—again.” She got to her feet and held out her arms to Drou. The woman rose out of her chair and hugged her fiercely.

 

“I’m so damn proud of you, girl,” she whispered in her ear. “Don’t take any shit from anyone, you hear me?”

 

“I hear you, ma’am,” she whispered back. Then she pulled away and smiled. “And I’ll be happy to stay for lunch.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Cadet-Captain Payne, reporting as ordered, sir,” said Anny, saluting.

 

“Ah, Miss Payne, have a seat,” said Captain Vorigley, returning the salute and gesturing to a chair, without actually looking up from his comconsole. Her advisor was a middle-aged man who, just at the moment, looked a little frazzled. There were only ten advisory councilors for over six hundred senior cadets and every last one of them would be trooping through their offices for the next four days. Anny, due to her rank, was among the first ones to see the councilors. She didn’t want to know what Vorigley would look like by the end! He glanced at her and then back at the screen. His expression shifted from frazzled to worried. Had he been given the same message as the Koudelkas? Turn Anny Payne away from ship duty? She’d  be surprised if he hadn’t.

 

“Well!” he said after a few more  moments studying the comconsole. “You have an outstanding record, Miss Payne. But active service isn’t the same as the Academy, nor vice-versa. You’ve got some serious decisions to make about your final year and the direction you want to go. I hope you’ve given this some thought already.”

 

“Yes, sir, I have.”

 

“Good! Good! You’d be amazed at the number of cadets who come in here without a clue. Of course most of them don’t have nearly the number of options open to them as you do.” Vorigley paused and eyed her. “Of course the other thing that happens all too frequently is a cadet coming in here hell-bent on getting ship duty.” Okay, here it comes. “The sad fact is that we just don’t need that many personnel or officers on the naval track. Most of those who try either fail or end up in some boring planetside assignment. And even if you get a ship, there’s no war on right now. Most of our ships just cruise around in the same star system doing nothing. Why for a bright young officer like you it would be terribly boring! Now perhaps I can suggest…”

 

“Excuse me sir,” said Anny. “I’ve already ruled out the naval track.” There, she’d said it. And it hardly hurt a bit.

 

“Oh, thank G…! Er, I mean: really?” An expression of relief washed over the Captain’s face, followed by puzzlement.

 

“Yes, sir. For all the reasons you mentioned.” And a few more you didn’t!

 

“Well, good! That’s remarkably mature of you, Miss Payne, but I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised, given your record and all. So what have you decided on?”

 

“I was looking at the Ground Forces, sir.”

 

“Ah, well, that opens up a huge range of possibilities. There’s Intelligence, Supply, Quartermaster Corps, considering your two victories in the Howitzer Haul perhaps you’d be interested in Engineering? And if you want to pursue post-graduate work there is the General Staff College, the War College, why you could even end up an instructor here at the Academy! Why don’t we look at…”

 

“I was thinking more along the lines of a combat branch, sir. I like commanding troops.”

 

“Oh!” Vorigley seemed taken aback. “Well, I suppose that could be a possibility. Infantry, Artillery, Armored Cavalry…”

 

“Actually, sir, I’ve already decided what I want. From what I was able to determine, I’m completely qualified.”

 

“Really? For what?”

 

Anny grinned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

* * *

 

BOOK  FIVE

 

* * *

 

 

Chapter 31

 

 

Assault Troops? Really?” asked Jer Naddel. For some reason he didn’t look as surprised as Anny had expected. She was sitting in the barracks with Jer, Alby and Patric.

 

“That’s a pretty tough group,” observed Patric. “Why’d you pick them, Anny?”

 

“Well, I’d hoped to get out into the Nexus but I didn’t like the naval track too much…”

 

“Well, I can understand that!” snorted Alby, frowning.

 

“Yeah,” she joked, ”those guys don’t do anything but scrape rust and paint bulkheads. Who wants to do that?” Her friends smiled but didn’t laugh. They knew damn well what she really meant, but she had no inclination to discuss it. “Anyway, the assault regiments get the most space duty of any of the ground troops and they also provide all the shipboard troop detachments. My own father was an assault trooper. I’ve probably got a better chance of getting on a ship with them than I do on the naval track.” She didn’t add that if she could win the respect of her troopers then she’d have the best imaginable bodyguard if she did manage to get on a ship. No navy man—officer or rating—would dare bother her.

 

“Makes sense to me,” said Jer. “I sure hope it works out for you, Anny.”

 

“Thanks! So what did you chose, Jer?”

 

“Oh, why I chose… Assault Troops.”

 

“What?” exclaimed Anny. “Why?”

 

“Oh, I always wanted to get out in the Nexus but I didn’t like the navy track—too much scraping rust and painting bulkheads—and I figured this was the next best choice.” Anny just stared at him with her mouth open. Jer was smiling. She’d had no chance to discuss her choice with anyone. Jer had just gotten back from Komarr and Patric from South Continent and Alby from his home. A warm feeling filled her at the thought of having him with her during training but what were the chances…? A thought struck her.

 

“What did you choose, Patric?”

 

“Well, with my grades I had no shot at the naval track anyway, but I did want to get out into the Nexus. My advisor said that with my size I was a natural for a combat unit. But I didn’t want just any old combat unit, I wanted to be with the best. So I looked around and…

 

Patric!”

 

“Oh. Uh… Assault Troops?”

 

Anny felt a smile coming on despite herself. Her gaze drifted over to Alby. “Don’t tell me that you…”

 

“Hey, I hate scraping rust and painting bulkheads as much as the next guy, but I really wanted to get out into space,” shrugged Alby. “It’s a perfectly natural choice, right guys?” The others nodded, trying—and failing—to suppress grins.

 

“But you… you…” Anny was about to say that Alby was too small to be an assault trooper, but that wasn’t really true anymore, was it? The fifteen year old Alby of their first year, who Anny had topped by a full head, had grown up and now he was actually a bit taller than she was. Still skinny as a rail, but he’d fill out, she supposed. But how…? Alby!

 

“I’m guessing that this is not just a remarkable coincidence,” she sighed. “So what did you do, Alby? Hack into the Academy Registrar’s database and see what I’d chosen? I made my choice before any of you, so you’d have the chance to see what I did before you saw your advisors.”

 

“Egad! She’s on to us, guys!” cried Alby in mock alarm. The others grinned and tried to look innocent. “But hey, I’m also taking a secondary track in electronic warfare and I thought I’d do a little practicing.”

 

“You’re all a bunch of scoundrels!” she said, frowning. But then she laughed. “But bless you! Oh, this is wonderful. And thank you, thank you for being such good friends.”

 

“It’s what friends are for,” said Jer. He was smiling at her and it sent a thrill through her.

 

“Sure is,” said Patric. Alby nodded.

 

“But are you sure about this?” Her face grew serious. “This isn’t like pulling strings to get into the same history class, this is about the rest of our lives in the military. Our whole future careers. I’m flattered that you want to go where I go—more flattered than I could ever say!—but you have to do what’s right for you! Are you really sure?”

 

“I’m sure,” said Jer.

 

“Never a doubt,” said Patric.

 

“All for one and one for all, Anny,” added Alby. “Why bust up a winning team?”

 

Anny sat and looked at them. Had anyone ever had better friends? She’d expected a lot of things to happen at the Academy, but she’d never expected this. Inside, she knew that the chances were slim that they’d manage to stay together once they graduated, someday duty would separate them. But there was no harm in putting off that day as long as possible, was there? Then a new thought struck her.

 

“Uh…” she looked around at the other cadets in the barracks. “You didn’t… not everyone chose Assault Troops did they?”

 

Jer laughed. “No! We didn’t let them all know what we were up to! As far as I know they all made their choices without coaching.”

 

“Actually, Denis Fallon did choose Assault Troops, too, but it must have just been chance,” said Alby.

 

“How do you know what he chose?” Alby just smiled and rolled his eyes. Anny chuckled and reached out to punch his arm.

 

“So how were your leaves?” she asked. “Everything go all right on Komarr, Jer?”

 

“Yeah, it was great! But Alby, you know that first class ticket you bought me was a big mistake.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yeah! It’s spoiled me forever! I mean I couldn’t believe how luxurious it was! It was ridiculous, really. Don’t know how I’ll be able to stand the accommodations on a warship after that.”

 

“You’ll just have to make general real quick so you’ll have better quarters,” said Alby. “Consider it incentive to excel.”

 

“Yeah, right.”

 

“Everything go okay with your family, Jer?” asked Anny. She still felt bad that when Jer and the others rescued her he missed a chance to see them.

 

“Not bad at all. I think that after three years they’re finally coming to accept my decision. Or at any rate they know I’m not going to come running home with my tail between my legs. It went fine, really. How was your brother’s wedding, Patric?”

 

“Good, good. He went through with it and everyone seems happy. Nice girl. And my uniform was a big hit.”

 

What about you, Alby? How are your folks?”

 

Alby shook his head. “It’s amazing how much my father has mellowed. He invited my sister and her family to come and visit while I was there. Except for the funeral it’s the first time she’s been home since she ran off to get married. They’ve cleared out the whole wing that my grandfather used to occupy to make more guest space. It was kind of awkward at first, but it worked out okay.”

 

Anny nodded. It was kind of a touchy subject so she changed it. “Well! We’ve got a heck a year coming up!”

 

“That’s for sure,” said Jer.

 

“And our last,” added Patric. “Hard to believe.”

 

It was hard to believe. Her journey, which had started with her doing odd jobs for the neighbors in order to make enough money for a bus ticket to Hassadar and that fateful meeting with the Countess, was entering its final stages. Or at least the final stage of the first stage. It was so easy to lose sight of the fact that getting to the Academy was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

 

“While you were busy tracking what I was doing did you bother to take a close look at what you were following me into?” asked Anny.

 

“A bit,” said Patric.

 

“Some,” said Alby.

 

“Yes,” said Jer smugly. “Assault troops specialize in attacking difficult targets both on the ground and in space. They’ll spearhead planetary assaults and they’re also specially trained for boarding actions on ships and space stations. Lots of zero-g and vacuum training. Highly specialized work.”

 

“Yes it is,” agreed Anny. “And we’ll only get the rudiments of it here at the Academy. Assuming we make it through, we’ll be looking at another year of training once we’re done here. It’s not going to be easy.” The others nodded, but she hoped they realized what they were getting into. The assault regiments were elite troops. Not the super-elite, covert-ops sort of forces that ImpSec maintained, but the best regular infantry in Barrayar’s military. Past militaries might have called them rangers or airborne or commandoes or marines. On Barrayar they were assault troops and they were tough, proud men with long traditions.

 

“I saw that there will be a substantial training cruise involved,” said Patric. “Not like the little jaunt we had last year.”

 

“No, it’ll be much longer, maybe four or five months, probably starting this fall,” said Anny. “And that means that we’ll have to take our classroom assignments along with us and get them done on the cruise. No way we can miss that much class and still graduate.”

 

“Oh joy”, said Alby.

 

“Hey, you can still change your mind. Go into military accounting or something.”

 

“Not a chance! Someone’s gotta stick with you clowns and keep you out of trouble!”

 

They all laughed but then Anny checked the time. “Speaking of trouble, I have to go check on something.”

 

“Mother-henning?” asked Jer.

 

“Yup, squared and cubed. See you later.”

 

Anny trotted down the steps and out the door, humming to herself. She could still scarcely believe that the boys had done what they did. To follow her! And after the way she’d treated them last year! She was still kicking herself for having been so stupid. After her talk with Lord Vorkosigan she’d decided that she was too close to them, that she needed to put some distance between her and them. She’d told herself that it was for the good of the service, so that she’d be able to make the hard decision if the time ever came. But she realized now that she’d been lying to herself. She hadn’t been doing it for the good of the service, but for her own good. To try and spare herself the pain of losing a dear friend.  Well, she’d been wrong—doubly wrong. There would be no escaping the pain no matter what she did. And by even trying she’d nearly wrecked her company. Being an officer was about sacrifice and there was no way to avoid it. So, she’d do her duty and she’d keep her friends and be ready to pay whatever price that entailed. Lesson learned.

 

She reached the path leading to the cottage and smiled. The arrival of women at the Academy was not just upsetting traditions and procedures, it had set an ongoing challenge to the Physical Plant Department. The narrow gravel path had been replaced with a paved road, wide enough for vehicles. She followed this and at the edge of the woods she came to a gate in a high metal fence. The sentry at the gate was Cadet Jenna Lempic who came to attention when she saw Anny approaching.

 

“Morning, Cadet,” said Anny.

 

“Good morning, sir.”

 

“The baby chicks arrive?”

 

“Yes, sir. Cadet Burn just brought them back from the Quartermaster a few minutes ago.”

 

“Good. How do they look?”

 

Lempic gave her a lopsided grin. “Young, sir. Incredibly young.”

 

“Just like you did a year ago?”

 

“Maybe not quite that young, sir.” Her smile grew broader and Anny laughed. She nodded to Lempic and passed through the gate. The road went a few hundred meters through the woods and then came to a clearing. The clearing was a lot larger than it used to be. The cottage where she’d lived for two years was still there but just beyond it was a new building, a new barracks.

 

Anny stopped and looked at it in satisfaction. This, more than anything else, was confirmation that the trail she had blazed was here to stay. For three years the Academy had scrambled to adapt to Anny’s coming and then to the arrival of the Second Six (as they’d started calling themselves). They’d exiled Anny to the cottage and then they’d carved a space out of the boy’s barracks to make room for her and the others. Make-shift improvisations at best. But the building that towered over the cottage was a real barracks. The Women’s Barracks. Twenty-six women would be living there this year, but the place could accommodate three hundred if necessary. The mere fact that it had been built showed that someone believed that someday it might be necessary.

 

No turning back now.

 

She’d told Count Dono Vorrutyer that she hadn’t come here to change Barrayaran society and that was true enough. But she had changed it. Without intending to she’d opened the door to the women of Komarr, Barrayar and Sergyar… and to Drou’s granddaughters. Maybe someday to her own daughters. She’d caused an awful lot of trouble for an awful lot of people, but the Empire would be all the stronger for it in the end. She could take pride in that.

 

She passed by the cottage. It was unoccupied, but someday it might become the office of some female officer who was in charge of all female cadets at the Academy. The Commandant had explained that to her and it seemed like he was hinting that someday that officer might be her. Well, who knew? Maybe twenty years down the road she might be ready for a desk job. Not right now, though!

 

She came to the barracks and the palm lock let her through the door. For reasons she couldn’t quite fathom, the girls had all been put on the top floor despite the huge building being nearly empty. Did they think the girls might find themselves under siege by a horde of horny cadets and need to dump boiling oil—or just cold water—on them from the upper windows?  Probably. Despite everything she’d accomplished, Barrayaran men could still be terribly… Barrayaran.

 

As she neared the top of the steps she heard Abigail Vorburn’s voice: “They didn’t make it any easier because of us and they won’t because of you. The only thing we can do is try to make sure they give you the same chance as they give the boys. But the rest is up to you! If you can’t cut it, don’t expect us to save you. We can’t and we won’t. It wouldn’t be fair to the troops you’ll be in command of someday.”

 

Anny grinned and went through the door.

 

 

Chapter 32

 

 

Come on, girl! Hit me like you mean it!” Anny lashed out but Sergeant Major Szytko easily deflected the blow, darted in, and an instant later Anny found herself on the mats with Szytko’s foot pressing uncomfortably against her throat. He glared at her, applied a bit more pressure just to make his point, and then let her up.

 

“Sorry, Sergeant Major,” she gasped, rubbing her neck.

 

“Sorry don’t cut it kid. Not when your enemy is out to kill you. Or render you helpless.” He quirked an eyebrow at her and she blushed and turned away. Damn. Did everyone know what happened on Komarr?

 

“There’s no reason you can’t do this, Cadet,” continued Szytko. “You’ve got the reflexes and enough raw strength to beat anyone less skilled than you—which when I get done with you will be just about everyone. But you’ve got to want to do it. And not just to protect yourself. I’ve known many an assault trooper and if you can’t hold your own in close combat training with them, they’re never going to give you the respect an officer must have. You hear me, Cadet?”

 

“Yes, Sergeant Major,” she replied. But then she muttered: “Drou thought I was pretty good.” She didn’t think she’d spoken loudly enough for him to hear, but he looked right at her.

 

“With all due respect to the Commodore’s wife, she was flattering you. Oh, you’re good enough to handle an over-amorous cadet or some bastard in a bar, but I’m talking about a trained fighting man. Someone who’s going to kill you if you give him half a chance. Do you want to win that fight? Or are you going to just roll over and die?”

 

“I want to win, Sergeant Major.”

 

“What was that? I couldn’t hear you.”

 

Anny almost laughed, hearing the old drill sergeant’s trick, but she did what was expected and shouted back: “I want to win! Sergeant Major!”

 

“Good. Now prove it.” He came at her again.

 

An hour later, bruised, sore, and dripping with sweat, she was finally allowed to quit for the night. “Better,” was all that he would say. She limped to the small women’s locker room—more evidence of the changes that were happening—and let herself in. Wonderful things, palm locks. She stripped off her clothes and went into the shower. Hot water was pretty wonderful, too. She remembered the sponge baths with cold water she’d had to endure during her first year. Yes, things had changed. The hot water eased some of her sore muscles. Not all the soreness was courtesy of Sergeant Major Szytko, either. She and her friends were all spending more time on physical training. Their first year had gotten them all into good shape, but the last two years, with so much time spent in the simulators or classrooms, they’d gotten a bit soft. That wasn’t going to be good enough when they left on their training cruise with a batch of assault troopers. So, every hour they could spare from their normal classes and duties were spent running and working out. The Sergeant Major was helping them with unarmed combat training. They were all getting into better shape then they’d ever been in. Even Alby, who seemed to be eating about six meals a day and was bulking up amazingly.

 

But it made for very long days. Anny dressed and checked the time and saw that she was due at the women’s barracks for bed check in ten minutes. She was a little annoyed that she had to oversee both the women and her own company, but at the same time it was flattering that the Commandant trusted her to do both jobs. She left the gymnasium and broke into a brisk trot. The late summer evening was still warm and humid despite the hour and she was soon sweating again. She crossed the parade ground and then down the road to the women’s compound. Newly installed lights illuminated the way.

 

One of the new cadets, it looked like Kate Dunnigan, was standing sentry at the gate. She stiffened when she heard Anny’s footsteps and was preparing to issue a challenge when she recognized her. She came to attention and presented arms. Anny stopped and stared at her.

 

“Only field-grade officers and above rate a present, cadet. Captains and below you just come to attention. If they directly approach you, you give the rifle salute, understand?”

 

“Y-yes, sir! Sorry, sir!”

 

“Another month and it will be second nature. Carry on Miss Dunnigan.”

 

“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!”

 

Anny suppressed her grin until she was through the gate. The new batch of girls were shaping up pretty well, she thought. They were less trouble than she’d feared—of course she was also getting more help from the Second Six than she’d expected, too. The path through the woods and the clearing in the center were lit up, bright as day, with far more lighting than was really necessary. She wasn’t sure how the women managed to sleep with all that light streaming in their windows. She was just glad she was still in her little room in the C Company barracks. When she had time she really ought to talk to someone about having the lights dim down after Lights Out. It’s not like anyone could sneak in here with the new fence and the sensors they had attached to it.

 

The barracks building was still brand new and the main door slid open soundlessly which is why Anny heard the noise in the stairwell before the source of that noise heard her on the steps. She froze and listened: A muffled sob from the landing above her. Someone crying? She went up a few steps and one of the boards creaked and the noise stopped abruptly. She quickened her pace and she heard someone moving just above her. “Whoever that is, stop where you are,” she commanded. The movement stopped. She reached the next landing and just above it was a cadet, looking back at her with wide eyes.

 

“Captain Payne!” exclaimed the girl. Anny took a step closer and saw that it was one of the new plebes, a Barrayaran named Sandra Woitek. Her eyes were red and her cheeks were wet.

 

“You’re supposed to be in your bunk, Miss Woitek. Is something wrong?”

 

The girl looked around as if searching for some route of escape. But then her shoulders sagged. “Sir? How do I go about resigning? I… I want to go home, sir.”

 

Anny sighed. She was tired, she wanted to go to bed. She nearly told the girl to go to her bunk and that she’d fill out the paperwork in the morning. She did not want to deal with this right now. What if the Countess hadn’t wanted to deal with it? Or Drou? Or Szytko? Or Jer and Alby and Patric? Instead, she went and sat on the steps next to where Woitek was standing.

 

“Home? You just got here, cadet. Six weeks and you’re ready to quit?”

 

“I know,” replied the girl, misery filling her voice. “I’m sorry, but… but this just isn’t working out.”

 

“What, exactly, isn’t working out? Is the training too tough? The discipline too severe? Or is being a soldier just not as much fun as you thought it would be?” She let a little sarcasm seep into her voice and Woitek flinched.

 

“I never thought it would be fun! I want to serve the Empire! But… but they won’t let me!”

 

“Who? Who won’t let you?”

 

“The others. The boys in my company, I mean. They’re all so… so cruel.” The girl clamped her mouth shut and sniffed. Fresh tears glistened in her eyes.

 

“Just the ones in your company?” asked Anny. Just as had been done last year, the girls had been parceled out, two to a company. “What about the upperclassmen?”

 

“No, not really. They’ve given the boys a hard time, but they’ve never bothered me personally.”

 

Anny frowned. The wonderful solidarity that had grown at the Academy after the Fire was starting to fade. The incoming plebe class hadn’t been there—and the upperclassmen weren’t going to let them forget it. She’d seen it again and again: upperclassmen hazing the plebes far more harshly than they had when she was a plebe. It wasn’t right—it wasn’t the plebes’ fault they hadn’t fought the Fire—but it was probably inevitable. Veterans looking down their noses at new recruits, it probably happened in every army in history.

 

But oddly, they weren’t harassing the plebe girls. She liked to think that it was because of how well the Second Six had performed in the fire. They’d earned the respect of C Company and, as the word spread, of everyone else. Perhaps that respect was spilling over to this new batch of girls. Or perhaps the word of what had happened to the officers who had accosted Anny on Komarr had spread and no one wanted to risk having the same thing happen to them. Whatever the case, the plebe girls were being left alone by the upperclassmen, while their male comrades were being hazed unmercifully. Which probably put those boys in a pretty bad mood…

 

“Has there been any physical abuse?” she asked Woitek.

 

The girl’s face turned red. “They’ve grabbed me and pinched me a few times,” she admitted.

 

“Nothing worse than that?” Woitek shook her head. “Did you report it to your sergeant?”

 

“N-no. I didn’t want… I didn’t want to look like a rat… or a whiner.”

 

Anny nodded. “But it’s mostly verbal abuse and mean tricks?”

 

“Yes, sir.” Woitek’s face twisted in dismay. “Sir, please, I know it all sounds trivial, but they never let up! The…the girls in 3rd Battalion, Abbie and Jenna and the others, have told us stories about what they did to you when you were a plebe and I know it was a lot worse for you. But I just can’t take this anymore!”

 

Anny sat there silently for a while. What to tell this kid? Suck it up and stop complaining? How would she have responded if someone had said that to her in the blackest days of her plebe year? Laughed in their face probably. But was there anything she could do? On average about a third of the male cadets didn’t make it through for one reason or another. She knew that the screening process for the women was being especially thorough to weed out those who didn’t have what it took, but it was inevitable that some of them were not going to graduate. Perhaps Woitek was one of those. Still, it couldn’t hurt to try and help her. What she wouldn’t have given to have another woman around during her own plebe year! She couldn’t just turn her back on her.

 

“I made it through, cadet,” she said at last. “But I only made it because I found some friends I could count on. You girls have been assigned to your companies in pairs. You’re supposed to stand by each other, watch each other’s backs. Is your teammate helping you?”

 

Now Woitek’s face turned red and she looked angry and frustrated. “No sir, she… she sides with them! Against me!”

 

Anny stiffened. “What? You’re paired with…?”

 

“Gloria Kolgan, sir.”

 

“She’s Vor, isn’t she?”

 

“Yes sir! And there’s a Vor clique in the company. She joins up with them! The non-Vors won’t help me because they’re afraid of the others! It’s… it’s not fair!” The girl was on the verge of tears again.

 

“Welcome to Barrayar,” muttered Anny. She sat for a moment longer and then took a deep breath and stood up. “Change into your PT gear, cadet.”

 

“What?” said Woitek.

 

“You heard me. Now come on.” She proceeded up the steps and opened the door into the barracks room all the girls shared. The lights were out and everyone was in their bunks but many heads turned in their direction when they entered.

 

“Cadet Kolgan!” shouted Anny. “In your PT gear! Now!”

 

There was a muffled squawk of surprise from about halfway down the row of bunks and then the sound of hurried movement. Anny looked at Woitek, who was just standing there gawking. “I gave you an order, too, cadet.”

 

“Yes, sir!” Woitek ran to her locker and began changing. Anny stood there, slowly tapping her finger against the side of her trousers and ignoring the nearly two-dozen pairs of eyes staring at her. After about a minute Cadet Kolgan ran up and stopped in front of her. “Sir?” she said. Anny didn’t reply until Woitek was ready, too.

 

“Follow me.”

 

She led them down the steps and through the door and then around to the side of the barracks. The ground there had been recently sodded and was quite soft. It would do just fine. She stopped and stared at the two girls.

 

“Sir?” said Kolgan. “What… what’s going on, sir?”

 

“This is an unscheduled close-combat training exercise,” said Anny. “They happen from time to time—when necessary. I realize that neither of you has had close combat training yet. Consider this a preview.”

 

“But what—akk!”  Anny stepped forward, grabbed Kolgan, and threw her to the ground in one easy motion. The girl thudded quite satisfactorily. Woitek looked on in surprise and started to smile—until Anny grabbed her and threw her down next to Kolgan.

 

“Get up,” she ordered and the girls complied. “One of the primary objectives in close combat is to get your opponent on the ground. There are a number of ways to do this.” She darted forward and in an instant both girls were down again.

 

“Up.” For the next fifteen minutes she threw them again and again, giving a running commentary on what move she was using and possible defenses against them. The girls tried, but they were hopelessly outclassed.

 

She looked down at them as they painfully hauled themselves up again. “We can keep doing this all night, cadets,” she said. “And we will until you beat me.”

 

“But… but we can’t beat you!” gasped Kolgan. “You’re too good!” Woitek clearly agreed but didn’t have the breath to say anything.

 

“Individually, no, you can’t beat me. The only way you’ll win is by working together. As a team.” She stared at them and they awkwardly looked at each other and then back at her. Then they attacked.

 

She threw them both down.

 

They got up and attacked again.

 

She’d been lying to them, of course. Even together they had no chance at all of beating her. But she wasn’t going to let them know that, nor that eventually she would let them win.

 

Eventually.

 

It went on for at least a half hour. They were all sweating and gasping and groaning and covered with mud. They had torn the hell out of the Grounds Department’s new sod. But the pair got up each time. Eventually they started talking, making plans, working together. At one point Anny looked up and saw twenty-three faces pressed against the third floor windows. Good. Finally she decided it had gone on long enough. She let them get her down and after quite a bit of wrestling around, she was face down in the mud with Woitek sitting on her back and Kolgan pinning her legs. Both of them were laughing, whooping and giggling.

 

“That will do, cadets,” she said. “On your feet.” For a moment they didn’t move, fearing some trick on her part, she supposed, but then they got up and she painfully got up as well. The girls were a muddy mess, but grinning ear-to-ear.

 

“You still have a lot to learn. But there’s one lesson you must learn right from the start. Here at the Academy we work in teams. No one can go it alone and succeed. You have to depend on the cadet next to you and they have to be able to depend on you. And we don’t always get to choose who our teammate is. But that doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter who your comrade is or whether you like them or not! You stand by your comrade because they are your comrade. You do that or you’re no good. And everyone will know you’re no good.”

 

Their grins were gone now. She stared hard at them and they glanced nervously at her and at each other. Finally, Kolgan took a half step forward.

 

“Thank you for the lesson, sir. We won’t forget it.”

 

Anny nodded. “Good. Now get showered and get to bed. It’s way past Lights Out.”

 

The pair saluted and she returned it. They walked toward their barracks and Anny walked toward the gate. She was nearly out of earshot, but she heard one of them say:

 

“She let us win, you know.”

 

“Yeah, but it still felt good, didn’t it?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

She was smiling, but then she winced when she neared the gate. Cadet Dunnigan was still on sentry. Damn. The cadets didn’t post a guard all night. When Anny finished her nightly bed check she dismissed the guard, shut the gate, and activated the alarm system. Dunnigan was up way past her bed time!

 

“You’re dismissed, cadet,’ she told her. “Sorry about that.”

 

“I was beginning to wonder, sir. Good night.”

 

“Good night.” She locked up and then headed back to her own room. She was definitely going to need another shower.

 

Sleep? Who needs sleep?

 

 

Chapter 33

 

 

Stand by to click-on. Low impact! Don’t let them hear us!”

 

Anny Payne was falling, falling through vacuum toward the hull of a hostile vessel. The utter blackness of space was all around her, the usual dusting of stars washed out by the brilliant white of the ship that filled almost half the sky. Seven other troopers fell with her.

 

“Ten meters… five…. thrusters… now!” The small thrusters built into Anny’s battle armor hissed briefly and nulled out almost all of her velocity. As gently as a falling feather the padded soles of her boots touched the hull plates and clung. The others, all heavily laden with equipment, landed in a circle around her.

 

“Jer, Kal, Alby, get the bubble set up. Patric, Len, unpack the cutter. Denis, you and Wil keep an eye open for hostiles.” The others were already doing what she wanted before she’d even spoken. They had learned the drill well. She watched them working and kept a special eye on the three members of the team not from C Company. The senior year was bringing a lot of changes. Now that they’d picked their specific career tracks they were no longer working exclusively with their own companies anymore. The sixty-five members of C Company were now on over thirty different tracks. It was the same with all the other companies and those on the same track were being grouped together in new teams. A total of thirty-five cadets had chosen the assault troops track and they’d been grouped into four teams. It was a little strange at first, but they were getting used to it. At least the boys from the other companies didn’t seem to have any problems working with her.

 

“Team Two, report your status.” The message crackled over her com speaker. It was the mission commander. She opened the circuit and replied:

 

“Team Two, we have successfully landed. Preparing to make our breach. No sign that we’ve been spotted. Over.”

 

“Hurry it up. Team One’s almost ready to move.”

 

“Acknowledged.”  She looked and saw that Jer’s team was just finishing up. They had unfolded a large plastic bubble, well, a half-bubble actually, and fastened it to the ship’s hull with a self-sealing strip along the edges. A tiny burst of gas from a cylinder was enough to inflate it in the vacuum and it expanded into a blister large enough for their entire team. They moved inside through a flexible airlock, sealed it, and then fully pressurized the bubble. Patric and his partner had already assembled their cutting device and once inside fastened it to the hull of the ship.

 

Their objective was to get inside the ship and seize control of it and rescue some hostages. The simulation didn’t bother with details of where they were or why the situation had occurred. It was strictly a tactical exercise. So, they had to get aboard. And they couldn’t just blast a hole in the hull with their weapons. Not only would that have alerted the enemy (whoever they were) to their presence, but it would have depressurized whatever section of the ship they did it to. Hatches and emergency bulkheads would have automatically slammed shut and then they’d be forced to cut their way through each and every door or bulkhead as they reached it. Slow, dangerous, and probably fatal to the hostages.

 

Hence the bubble. When they cut through the hull, the thin, but extremely tough material would keep the air from escaping and—hopefully—allow Anny and her team to move quickly through the ship before the enemy was aware. A second team was going to do the same thing on the other side of the ship.

 

“Okay, we’re ready to go,” announced Patric, straightening up from the cutter, which was a rectangular framework about a meter on each side. It mounted a powerful laser which should slice through the ship’s hull like the proverbial hot knife through bug-butter. Anny slapped Patric’s armored shoulder and opened the circuit to the commander.

 

“Team Two, ready.”

 

“Good work. Okay, we move in ten seconds. Stand-by… “ Anny signaled Patric, who held the cutter control. “Stand-by… Now!” Anny’s hand flashed down and Patric hit the switch. A dazzling glare appeared around the edges of the cutter that rapidly moved along the path of the framework. Clouds of vaporized metal wafted up and condensed on the inside surface of the bubble.

 

It took less than thirty seconds to complete the cut. When the laser went out Patric and Kal Dravich grabbed the frame and pulled. A neat section of the hull slid out with the frame. As soon as there was room to get by, Anny slipped through the hole. “Follow me!”

 

Once through the hole she fell about a half-meter to the deck as the ship’s artificial gravity field took hold of her. But she scrambled up, weapon ready, and looked around. She seemed to be in some sort of storage room. Large crates and boxes were all around, including several that had burst and scattered their contents when the cutting laser had inadvertently sliced through them. There looked to be a hatch on the far bulkhead and Anny went over to it. The rest of her squad assembled behind her. She called up the deck plan of the ship on her Heads-Up-Display. It was only an approximation, based on the type of ship, but it was all she had until their sensors went active. She’d memorized it before the mission started, but she took one last look. “Everyone ready?”

 

“Let’s do it,” said Jer. All the others signaled they were ready.

 

“Okay, let’s go!”  She opened the hatch.

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Hoo-eey!” said Patric two hours later as they emerged from Vorwood Hall. “That was murder!”

 

“The mission, or Captain Vorgood’s evaluation of how we handled it?” asked Alby. “Frankly, I’ll take enemy plasma fire over Vorgood’s tongue!”

 

“Even if the plasma fire cuts you in half?” asked Jer.

 

“Over quicker and didn’t hurt near as much,” quipped Alby.

 

Anny grimaced. The simulation hadn’t gone very well and Captain Vorgood’s critique had been particularly cutting. Oh, they took the ship, but half their troopers had been killed or wounded and nearly all the hostages had perished. Alby had had a fatal encounter with an enemy plasma arc that had gotten past his battle armor’s defenses and four others in her squad had been badly wounded. She wished the simulator wasn’t so damn detailed in what it showed, but she supposed that it was probably desensitizing them to the horrors of actual combat. But it was still like a punch in the gut to see one of her friends ‘dead’. She hoped she never came to accept something like that as routine.

 

“We’ve got to move faster,” she said aloud. “The first part, getting aboard, went perfectly, because we were doing it all by the numbers and we could take our time. But once it hit the fan, we spent too much time making decisions.”

 

“Didn’t we just spend half an hour hearing the same thing from Captain Vorgood?”  asked Alby. The others snorted.

 

“All right, all right,” said Anny. “But he was right and we have to do better.”

 

“We will,” said Jer. “We’re still new at this.”

 

“Less than a month until the training cruise,” grumbled Anny. “We don’t want to look like idiots once we start doing this for real.”

 

“Wonder what ships we’ll get?” said Patric. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance we’ll all be kept together.”

 

“Are you kidding?” said Jer. “They’ll put us on four different ships heading in four different directions. That’s the way the military works, you know that.”

 

“Yeah, probably.”

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” said Alby. They looked at him and he wore a familiar grin.

 

Now what have you done?” asked Anny, rolling her eyes. “Hacked into the Ops computer system and modified our orders?”

 

“Well, I thought about that, but in the end I decided to use an older and well-proven technique that almost always works: the Vor ‘old-boy’ network.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I asked my father for a favor.” Alby was grinning.

 

“What?”

 

“Hey, what’s the point of being Vor if I can’t use it to abuse the system? I asked my father to pull some strings and even though he’s retired, he still has plenty of strings to pull, believe you me! He made a few comconsole calls and he’s assured me that we’ll all be assigned to the same squadron for our training cruise.”

 

“Oh man, that’s great!” exclaimed Patric. Jer was smiling and she found herself doing so, too. “He probably wanted Anny and Jer close by to pull your fat out of the fire again if necessary,” added Patric

 

Alby snorted. “You’re closer to the mark than you know. We Vor are a superstitious lot, y’know. I think Father considers Anny a good luck charm for me now. Keeping me out of trouble and all.”

 

“If I’m supposed to keep you out of trouble then I’m the one who needs a good luck charm!” exclaimed Anny and they all laughed.

 

There was a brisk breeze blowing across the parade ground. Autumn was coming and the weather had turned colder. The second-year battalion was out drilling and Anny and the others were forced to detour around the field instead of cutting across it like they usually did. She watched them with a critical and slightly envious eye. The seniors didn’t drill nearly as much as the underclassmen and she sort of missed that. She wondered if the assault regiments did much close order drill? She mentally slapped herself; she still had another eight months before graduation and she was already getting nostalgic about this place!

 

They reached the barracks and Anny trotted up the main set of stairs with the others rather than taking the special stairs they had built for when the Second Six lived here. She went into the company office, planning to do a little paperwork before dinner call. She twitched in surprise when she caught sight of a tall stack of envelopes sitting in the middle of the desk. What…?

 

She picked up the top envelope and her eyes grew wide when she saw that it was addressed to her in a very formal and flowing script. The envelope itself was a heavy blue parchment and it was closed on the back with a wax seal bearing the arms of the Academy. Oh good grief! She suddenly realized what this was and a chill went down her spine. She cracked the seal and drew out the paper inside and confirmed her suspicion. Great. Just great.

 

Sighing, she picked up the stack of remaining envelopes and carried them out to where Jer was sitting on his bunk. He looked up as she approached. “Here, First Sergeant,” she said. “Hand these out.”

 

“What are… Oh! The Senior Class Fall Formal?”

 

“Yup.”

 

“Did… did you get one of these?” Jer’s eyes were gleaming and he was trying hard not to smile.

 

“Oh yeah.” Anny was not smiling.

 

“What are you going to do?”

 

“What choice do I have? It’s not an optional formation.”

 

“Well, you could ask Patric to break your leg.”

 

“Don’t tempt me.”

 

“Come on, Anny, it will be fun.” He paused and his smile faded. “You uh… you didn’t get any special instructions with your invitation, did you?”

 

“Do you mean was I ordered to wear a dress instead of my uniform? No. Not yet, anyway. There’s still three weeks for someone to think of that, though.”

 

“Stop worrying.”

 

“How can I stop…” The pinging of her wristcom interrupted her. She saw that it was Abigail Vorburn. “Yes?”

 

“Uh, sir, could you come by the barracks when you get the chance?” said Vorburn. “We’ve got a… situation.”

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Uh, nothing, really. It’s just a situation.”

 

“All right, I’ll be right over.” She grimaced and looked at Jer. He just raised an eyebrow.

 

“Duty calls?” he asked.

 

“Duty never stops calling,” she sighed. “See you at dinner.”

 

She grabbed her cap and headed back down the stairs, growing more grumpy with each step. The Fall Formal! That’s all that I need! She’d known it was coming. It was an Academy tradition that stretched back almost as long as there had been an academy. Each fall there was a formal dance for the seniors. Young eligible women from all the prominent Vor families were rounded up to provide partners. For generations it had been seen as a match-making exercise as much as anything. A good many marriages that followed graduation were set in motion by the Fall Formal. In recent years daughters from some of the more respectable non-Vor families had started to be invited due to a shortage of unmarried Vor women. A lot fewer marriages were resulting, too, but the tradition went on. Somehow Anny had been hoping that she might be excused, but, the invitation—the command to attend—was sitting on her desk and there was no escaping it.

 

And it wasn’t like she could just blend into the background. It was set up so that they had to participate. So what the hell was she going to do when they paired off the couples for the Grand March? Which side of the room was she supposed to line up on? I am NOT going to wear a dress and line up with the girls! What if she was ordered to? What if she wasn’t ordered to and she ended up paired with a girl? She could just imagine the rumors that would start! Bloody hell…

 

She stomped right past the sentry at the gate to the Women’s Barracks, wondering what Abbie wanted her for. Things had been going fairly smoothly since she’d had her little session with Woitek and Vorkolgan. What had happened now? She went up the stairs to the third floor, only slightly reassured by the lack of shouts or screams or rivers of blood pouring down the steps.

 

She went through the door and all of the girls turned to face her. She opened her mouth to ask what was going on, but stopped, her eyes growing wide.

 

“You have got to be kidding me!”

 

Each one of the girls was holding a blue envelope.

 

 

Chapter 34

 

 

But they aren’t even seniors, sir!” said Anny.

 

“I know, I know,” said Commandant Sylvanus, “but I’m afraid there’s nothing that can be done about it, cadet.”

 

“Nothing? But… but you’re the commandant, sir!”

 

Sylvanus gave a sour chuckle. “There are lots of people who outrank, me cadet. And when it comes to any sort of social matter, Lady Lewelynne Vorgallan is one of them.”

 

“Until now I’d never even heard of her, sir,” said Anny a bit grumpily.

 

“You don’t travel in the same circles as her, cadet. Neither do I. But she’s a close confidant of Lady Alys Vorpatril—I imagine you’ve heard of her!”

 

“Yes, sir. “I’ve met her a few times at Vorkosigan house. I know her son, too. But what…”

 

“Vorgallan’s grandmother was the one who first dreamed up the Fall Social when her own son was a cadet here, over eighty years ago. It became a tradition and the Vorgallan women have considered it their right to run the affair ever since. Just the way Lady Alys has laid claim as the Emperor’s social coordinator. Past commandants have been happy to let them do it, and I’m afraid there’s no changing it now. When I saw the invitations I did make some inquiries, but Lady Lewelynne is determined to include all the female cadets, no matter what year they are. She thinks it will be…’lovely’.”

 

“But she didn’t invite any of us last year!”

 

“I think she’s only recently become aware of your existence.”

 

Anny gave out a long sigh and Sylvanus quirked an eyebrow. “Why are you so against this, cadet?”

 

“It… it seems like it is going to be very awkward, sir. I just thought if it was only me there, it would be twenty-five times less awkward.”


“Well, an officer should be able to handle any situation, cadet. I’m afraid you’ll just have to adapt.”

 

“Yes, sir,” said Anny miserably. “But what about the dresses?”

 

“Dresses?”

 

“Yesterday Lady Lewelynne contacted me directly, asking for the measurements of all the girls. She wants to have gowns made for all of us! Sir! I am not going to…!” She bit off her remark before she was insubordinate.

 

“What’s this?” said Sylvanus, frowning. “She had no business going to you directly. And she didn’t even copy my office!”

 

“Sir! We are cadets, not… not dance partners!”

 

“Yes, yes, surely. You’ve earned the right to wear your uniforms. I will let Lady Vorgallan know that all the cadets will be in uniform.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” sighed Anny in relief. She had been steeling herself to fight the commandant over this if necessary and her stomach had been in knots all morning. That was the reason she’d tried to get the other girls uninvited. She didn’t want to get them into trouble if she did have to cross the line.

 

Sylvanus gave her a twisted look that might have been a grin. “Y’know cadet, every year I think that I’ve finally gotten a handle on having you here—and each year I’m proven wrong. But my term as commandant is over next year and I’m going to be very glad to get back to a combat command.”

 

“I can understand that, sir. And… and I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused you, sir.”

 

He looked at her for a quite while in that way he did when he was thinking. “I was wrong about something else, too, cadet.”

 

“Sir?”

 

“When I first heard you were coming here… well, I wasn’t happy. All I could think about was all the trouble it was going to cause…”

 

“I can understand that, sir.”

 

“But you don’t understand why I was so unhappy. I was quite sure that after all the trouble it would all be for nothing in the end and there’s nothing I hate more than wasted effort. I didn’t think you could do it, Anny. But I was wrong. And I’m glad that I was.”

 

“I… I… thank you, sir.” Anny could feel herself blushing.

 

“Don’t thank me. You’ve earned it all—the hard way. But you know you’ve set a hell of a standard for the other girls to try and match.”

 

“I’m sure they’ll manage, sir. Most of them, anyway. Just so long as they don’t have to wear dresses at the formal.”

 

Sylvanus laughed. “At least we can spare them that! I’ll take care of it, cadet.”

 

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Anny got up from her chair and saluted and the Commandant returned it.

 

“Carry on, Cadet-Captain.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Why are you springing this on us now, Payne?” demanded Cadet-Captain Gearing. “The dance is only two days off!” The eight other company commanders of the battalion all nodded or growled their agreement.

 

“Because I only got the word myself this morning,” replied Anny, trying to hold on to her temper. “I’ve been trying to get some sort of directive for the last three weeks! But now it’s official: each company will have two or three of the girls attached to it for the formal. You’ll get the list of which one’s you’ll have as soon as I can write it up.”

 

“It’s gonna throw off our drill,” grumbled one of the other captains. “Most of ‘em are just plebes!”

 

“They’ve been getting extra practice,” said Anny. “And it’s not like we’re doing any intricate battalion maneuvers. Just the march into the hall and then the Grand March at the start. Nothing complicated. After that, they’re on their own. And they’ve been excused from their regular duty tomorrow, so if you want to do some practice with them in your companies, you can.”

 

“Why can’t they just put them all in a lump?” asked another. “Just have one screwed up company instead of ten?”

 

“Look, none of this was my idea!” snapped Anny, letting her irritation creep into her voice. “This comes straight from the Commandant’s Office. If you don’t like it, take it up with him! Now I’ve got to go.”

 

She turned and strode off, leaving the nine peeved cadet-captains to stew on their own. She couldn’t really blame them for being ticked off, but she didn’t have much sympathy left for anyone else just at the moment. In just eight days she would be leaving on the big training cruise. She had a million things to do to get ready for that and here she was still wasting time on this damn dance!

 

She checked the time and broke into a trot. After a few minutes she reached the warehouse where the Quartermaster Department had its offices. She barged through the doors and went up to the counter where a corporal was checking something on the comconsole. He looked up as she approached.

 

“Where’s the RQS?” she asked without preamble.

 

“Uh, he’s in the back somewhere…”

 

“Well get him!”

 

The man stared at her, pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow. She had no authority over him and they both knew it. She sighed and said: “Please? Pretty please?” She batted her eyelashes at him.

 

Finally he chuckled. “I’ll see if I can find him.” He disappeared through the door that led to the main warehouse. Anny stood there for a good five minutes, tapping her fingers on the counter before Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Sheads appeared.

 

“Well, Miss Payne, what brings you here today?” he asked.

 

“Sergeant, I’m hoping—praying—that you’ve got some of the black braid for the dress grays.”

 

Sheads scratched at the side of his nose. “Oh, I imagine I’ve got a roll or two of that around here somewhere. How much do you need?”

 

“All of it! Every meter you’ve got. And I’ll need two dozen rolls of black thread, needles, pins and scissors. If you don’t have enough of the braid then I’m gonna need some black dye. It’s an emergency.”

 

Shead’s eyebrows shot up. “You have a requisition for all this?”

 

“This comes straight from the Commandant’s Office. The paperwork will follow, but we need this stuff right away!”

 

“What’s all the rush?”

 

“It’s for the Formal, Sergeant!” said Anny in exasperation.

 

“Oh ho! Why didn’t you say so?” He turned to the corporal. “Hans, you scare up the other stuff, I’ll get the braid. You’d never find it yourself.” He looked back at her. “I’ll be back in a jiffy.” The pair went through the door, leaving Anny alone.

 

She wasn’t sure just what constituted a jiffy, but it was nearly twenty minutes before Sheads and the corporal returned. It hadn’t been entirely wasted time as she’d been able to use her compad to make up a list of which companies the twenty-six girls were going to be assigned to and fired it off to them and the nine other company commanders.

 

“Here you are, Miss Payne!” said Sheads. He indicated the box the corporal was carrying. “Looks like I’ve got maybe a hundred… hundred and fifty meters of the braid. Some of it’s pretty old…”

 

“It’ll do!” said Anny. She snatched the box and hurried out. “Thanks!” she called over her shoulder. She went back the way she had come and awkwardly balanced the box under one arm while she used her wrist com. “Abbie? I got it! Start ripping!”

 

Lady Lewelynne Vorgallan had been ‘terribly saddened’ by the Commandant’s insistence that the female cadets wear uniforms like all the boys, but she had kindly offered to help the twenty plebes to acquire dress grays when it became apparent that the normal supplier could not meet such a short deadline with no prior notice. Anny had been grateful and her opinion of Vorgallan had ticked up several notches. If the plebes had been forced to attend in their undress blacks they were going to stick out like twenty very sore thumbs. Vorgallan had engaged several of Vorbarr Sultana’s finest tailors to do the job and several large boxes had been delivered to the Women’s Barracks that very morning.

 

Anny could still feel the sensation of horror that had surged through her when she read the note from Lady Vorgallan that had come with the boxes. Especially the part that read:

 

I do hope you appreciate the marvelous little improvements that were made to those dreary gray uniforms.

 

 

Skirts. The skirts they could deal with. They were separate pieces and could just be left in the boxes. But the braid! Pink braid on the uniforms instead of black. Pink. Very, very pink.He turned to the corporal

acquire dress grays when it became apparent

 

At first she’d despaired—after she’d kicked one of the boxes across the room—but then several of the girls with sewing experience claimed they could fix things if they had the black braid. So, after meeting with the other company commanders, it had been off to see Sheads. Maybe, just maybe they could pull this off. She wasn’t entirely sure why she even cared. It wasn’t like this damn dance really mattered! But somehow… somehow she couldn’t leave something undone if there was a way to do it at all. Everything done well for the glory of God, as the Countess would say. She doubted that God gave a damn about the Formal, either, but here she was anyway.

 

She got back to the barracks and dumped the box into the hands of the girls who could use it and slumped down on a bunk amidst a pile of torn off pink braid to try and catch her breath. She was so tired she wished she had a few tablets of Dynatrim to keep her going for the next seventy-eight hours…

 

“Captain?” She looked up and there was one of the girls with a large box in her hands.

 

“What’s that?” She asked suspiciously. She was quite certain she didn’t want to know the answer.

 

“Dunno, sir. It was just delivered to the gate. It’s got your name on it.”

 

Anny sighed and took it and set it on her lap. There was a flimsy on top and she winced when she saw that it was from Lady Vorgallan. She opened it. Anny Dearest, it began. She snorted; she’d never even met the woman.

 

Anny Dearest, here is the finishing touch. Remember: they go on the left side. LLV.

PS, see you soon! It will be marvelous!

 

She opened the box and groaned.

 

“What is it, sir?”asked the cadet.

 

“Our corsages.”

 

 

* * *

 

“Battalion! Present—Arms!” Cadet-Lieutenant Colonel Vorharris’s voice rang down the serried ranks of the 1st Battalion of Cadets, Imperial Service Academy. Anny brought her sword up in front of her face and then slowly lowered the point until it was near the ground. Every other cadet in the battalion did the same thing. It looked and felt odd: normally all the rank and file carried rifles, but for the Fall Formal, the rifles had been left back in the barracks and everyone was wearing their swords. Their formation was odd, too: half the battalion was in line facing the other half, forming a long corridor in between them. C Company was at the left end of the right wing and approaching from the left was a… gaggle of flouncing, giggling young women in a kaleidoscope of ball gowns.

 

To the right was the imposing entrance to Emperor Ezar’s Hall. The place had once been an enormous indoor riding arena. The Cetagandan invasion had left it a burned-out shell with just the massive stone walls remaining. By the time the Academy had been rebuilt, the military was phasing out horse cavalry and the hall was converted into a multi-use facility. Tonight it would host the annual Senior Class Fall Formal, as it had done for decades.

 

The horde of women were led by a vanguard of older Vor women, who in turn were led by Lady Vorgallan. Beside her was Lady Alys Vorpatril and they seemed to be chatting gaily. Anny had so far managed to not actually meet Vorgallan face to face and now she breezed right past without a flicker of recognition. Good. Anny hadn’t told her about the braid… Or the corsages…

 

The young ladies were straggling past now and they looked from side to side at the cadets and giggled and laughed as they talked among themselves. Quite a few looked right at her since she was standing in front of her company. A few of them took on puzzled expressions, but the majority didn’t seem to realize her true gender. The visor of her tall shako nearly covered her eyes and made a good disguise. All the other female cadets had been deliberately placed in the rear ranks of their host companies.

 

As the first of the women reached the doors, the regimental band, which was already inside, began playing an old march by Vorsousa: ‘The Fairest of the Fair’. Another tradition.

 

It took nearly ten minutes, but finally the last of them were herded through the doors of the hall, a strange, and not exactly pleasant, mixture of perfumes lingering behind until the early evening breeze could disperse it. Several more minutes passed while things were organized inside and then someone came to the doors and signaled Vorharris.

 

“Battalion! Shoulder—Arms! Sheath—Sabers!” Anny and all the rest put their swords back in their scabbards. “By platoon, right wheel—March!” The oversized doors of Emperor Ezar Hall were wide, but not wide enough for a full company front to pass through. So each company split into its two platoons, each swinging to the right like doors on their hinges. Anny spun about to oversee the wheel of the first platoon while Denis Fallon dashed around the end of the second platoon and took charge of that. As the wheels neared ninety degrees, Vorharris commanded: “Battalion! Forward—March!”

 

The right wing of the battalion, in a column of platoons, headed for the doors. But the left wing was marching in the opposite direction and Vorharris ordered it to countermarch and follow the right wing. As the leading platoon reached the top of the steps there was a crash of drums and a blare of brass as the band struck up the ‘Cadets’ March’.

 

“By platoon—Un-cover!” As the first troops passed through the doors, they doffed their shakos and tucked them in the crook of their right arms. It wasn’t considered proper to wear hats indoors. Platoon by platoon they passed inside. C Company was the fifth in the column and as Anny marched through the doors she removed her shako and squinted in the bright light.

 

The hall had been lavishly decorated for the event. The walls were easily twenty meters tall and they were draped with old flags, banners, and colored fabrics. More streamers hung from the arched ceiling high overhead. Flowers and more flowers were everywhere. There was a raised stage at the far end and Anny could see the Commandant and his wife along with all the other Vor ladies there watching the incoming cadets. All the young women had been gathered along the left side of the hall in a mob.

 

When the leading platoon neared the end of the hall it swung left and countermarched smartly and headed back the way it had come, right past the young women—passing in review, as it were. All the other platoons followed. As she approached the stage Anny caught Vorgallan’s eye. She frowned and spoke to Lady Vorpatril and then to the Commandant, who smiled guiltily and shook his head. Lady Vorpatril was staring at her, too. The few times they’d met it seemed to Anny that she didn’t fit into the neatly ordered world of Lady Vorpatril. Not that she’d ever been anything but courteous, but it was clear she didn’t know what to make of her.

 

 Anny paid them no further mind as she concentrated on the countermarch. It was done perfectly, of course, and now she was headed back the other way, only a few meters from the line of young women. Now there was no concealing who she was and hundreds of wide eyes and gaping mouths and pointing fingers followed her along the line. As she passed, the laughs and giggles seemed to rise to a higher pitch. Anny set her expression to neutral and stared straight ahead.

 

When the column reached the other end of the hall, it wheeled left and marched to the wall opposite where the girls were gathered and then wheeled yet again to march back toward the stage, but this time as tightly against the wall as they could manage. Finally, when the head of the column was nearing the stage again, Vorharris bellowed: “Left into line wheel—March!” All twenty platoons simultaneously swung back into the line-of-battle facing the ladies. Anny dressed her company and then took her spot just ahead of Jer Naddel.

 

“What a circus,” whispered Jer.

 

“You aren’t kidding!”

 

“Advance the Colors!” commanded Vorharris. Anny tensed and glanced down toward the left of her company, but the order wasn’t for her. The entire Color Guard left her company and marched forward and then wheeled right and strode toward the stage. It halted just in front and presented arms. Commandant Sylvanus returned the salute and then the Color Sergeant stepped forward alone and went around to the set of steps on the right of the stage. He went up and placed the butt of the staff into a holder that was waiting and then returned to his spot. There was already a set of the Imperial Colors on another holder on the other side of the stage. The Color Guard then returned to its spot on the left of C Company. It had been smartly done.

 

The music stopped and an almost-silence filled the hall. The cadets were utterly silent, of course, but a low chatter continued to come from the ladies. “In place—Rest!’ shouted Vorharris. The cadets relaxed a bit, but didn’t move from their spots. The front rank troopers handed their shakos to the men in the rear ranks who placed them all on tables that lined the walls behind them for that very purpose.

 

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the room, a batch of cadets from the junior class had been trying to get the women into some semblance of order without screaming at them, pushing them, or just picking them up and carrying them. Anny didn’t envy the cadets and idly wondered how she’d managed to escape that duty last year.

 

Eventually, the women were herded into ten groups, each one opposite one of the companies. Theoretically, the numbers in each group exactly matched the number of cadets in the company across from them. Anny would consider it a small miracle if it actually turned out that way. She eyed the group opposite her. One of the women would be paired with her for the Grand March and the first dance. She didn’t really care which one it was as long as she didn’t scream in protest or faint in shock when she found out who she was paired with.

 

Now the Commandant stepped forward to a podium in the center of the stage. He made a mercifully brief speech welcoming everyone to the eighty-third Senior Class Fall Formal and then introduced Lady Vorgallan and stepped aside.

 

Lady Lewelynne came up to the podium. She looked to be in her mid sixties, but from Anny’s position, halfway down the hall, she couldn’t really tell for sure. But her voice sounded like that of an older woman and her phrasing slightly archaic to young ears. She droned on for perhaps fifteen minutes, waxing enthusiastically about the flower of Barrayaran womanhood and the flower of Barrayaran manhood coming together to create a garden for the future. In fact, she used so many botanical metaphors that eventually Jer growled: “Are we cadets or petunias?” The young ladies were growing quite restive by the end of it.

 

But it did, finally, draw to a conclusion and Vorgallan stepped back. The Commandant’s adjutant came forward and said: “Ladies and Gentlemen! Take your places for the Grand March!” None of the cadets had to move, but there was a bit of shuffling among the ladies. During Vorgallen’s speech there had been some reshuffling among the musicians, too. Most of the drums and some of the fifes and bugles had disappeared to be replaced by men in red-and-blue parade uniforms. These were members of the Emperor’s Own Regiment, flown here from the Capital, who often provided the music at state functions. They carried woodwinds and stringed instruments so that when the music began to play it had a less military sound than earlier.

 

Anny had become a connoisseur of military marches during her time at the Academy, but she didn’t recognize the piece being played now. But she knew what she had to do. On a signal from the adjutant all ten company commanders stepped forward and walked straight ahead. A little less certainly and a far less uniformly, ten of the young ladies moved forward as well. There was a thin line down the center of the hall on the wood floor and Anny stopped a pace short of it. Her ‘partner’ a slim brunette only a little shorter than her, approached from the opposite direction, her eyes getting bigger with each step. When she stopped, Anny bowed crisply from the waist. After a moment’s hesitation, the girl curtsied with a rustle of silk petticoats. Anny then moved to the girl’s left side, passed her hand through the crook of her elbow and snugged the girl’s arm against her side, all the while turning them both to face the stage.

 

And they were off. After a few steps they wheeled to the right and walked, slowly, steps in time with the music, toward the gap between the head of her company and the tail of the next company over. As they walked, she passed Denis Fallon, coming the other way to meet his own partner. All her other troopers were lined up waiting their turn.  After passing through the gap, they turned right again and walked down toward the other end of C Company. Anny glanced back and saw that a line of couples, about ten meters apart were following her. Slightly concealed from the others now, the girl stiffened and hissed: “Who...  what are you?”

 

“Cadet-Captain Andreanne Payne, at your service, Miss.”

 

“But… but… you’re a girl!”

 

“Noticed that did you?”

 

“They said there would be boys here!”

 

“They’re all around you, Miss. I’m sure you’ll get to meet some later.”

 

“Oh!” she huffed. “This is just… delightful!”

 

 They reached the end of the company and then made another right and moved through the gap back into the center of the hall. Fallon and his partner, a short redhead, had done exactly the same thing, except they had turned left and passed behind the row of ladies and they were now coming directly toward them. They halted facing each other and she and Denis bowed while the ladies curtsied and then both pairs swung toward the stage, Anny taking the other girl’s right arm with her left. The foursome then marched forward.

 

Fallon’s partner was goggling at her just as the first girl had done, but then she spoke past Anny: “What a… handsome partner you have Silvie.”

 

“Oh shut up, Hanna!” hissed back the other girl. “I am going to get Linda for this! And here I thought she was being so nice for letting me go first! She must have known!”

 

When they reached the spot where they had started, the foursome wheeled to the right and began the circuit again. Back around, they met another foursome—Jer was in it with a dazzling blonde as his partner—and they became a group of eight. Around again and they became sixteen. The same thing was happening with all ten companies: twos to fours, fours to eights and so on, all while the music played.

 

Finally, they were in an unwieldy group thirty-two people wide which met another group coming the other way. They awkwardly swung into a line of sixty-four. Awkwardly because of the undrilled women, of course. If it had just been cadets, they could have done it perfectly. In fact they had done it perfectly just the day before in a practice run.

 

But sixty-four was as far as it went. The hall wasn’t wide enough for anything larger. When all the groups of sixty-four had been formed—more or less, not every company was exactly the same size—they all marched forward toward the stage. The music reached its crescendo and they halted. Six hundred and fifty cadets, six hundred and fifty young women, in twenty lines. It had been done pretty well, even to Anny’s critical eye. When the music stopped, they all applauded. Anny’s partner seemed especially happy to have her arm free of hers.

 

“Just one dance and you’ll be free of me Miss… Silvie.”

 

“You can call me Miss Vorsenger.” She tilted up her nose and looked away.

 

“I beg your pardon. We hadn’t been introduced.”

 

“Just what are you supposed to be, anyway?”

 

“She is our company commander,” said Denis Fallon. “And a damn fine one, too, Miss.” He frowned at her and she flinched.

 

“I… I’m sorry,” she gasped.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” said Anny. “And don’t think that you’ve been singled out for some special humiliation. There’re twenty-six other woman cadets here tonight.”

 

“Really?” she looked around in amazement. “I didn’t realize…”

 

“Silvie, dear, you really ought to watch the news vids once in a while,” said Denis’ partner, smirking. “The Academy has been co-ed for a while now.”

 

Before Miss Vorsenger could think of a response, the adjutant announced the first dance. All the groups except the first one turned around and walked back down the hall, opening up about a dozen paces between each group. Then the cadets and the women in each group moved apart, forming two lines facing each other. What followed was a fairly standard line dance with the partners moving forward, changing places several times, and then the lead couple swirling down the line, spinning past each of the others until they were at the other end of the line and then forming an arch with their clasped hands that all the other couples passed through until the line was reformed with a new couple at the head and then it all began again.

 

When it was Anny’s and Miss Vorsenger’s turn she exchanged a spin with each of the other women all the way down the line. Many of them looked shocked, but at least none of them flinched away. It was actually kind of fun. By the end of it she was smiling. She bowed to her partner. “Thank you for the honor of the dance, Miss Vorsenger. I hope you have a pleasant evening.”

 

“So how did you… how did you get here?”

 

“Lots and lots of hard work, Miss,” said Jer Naddel, coming up. “More work than you can imagine.”

 

The woman looked very thoughtful, but then she swirled away with a group of her friends who were laughing shrilly. Jer looked at Anny. “New recruit?” he smirked.

 

“Who knows? I suppose that at one point I was just as… just as…”

 

“Stupid?”

 

“Yeah,” she laughed. “Where’s your partner? She was very pretty.”

 

“Her? Oh, as soon as she discovered I wasn’t a Vor she dropped me like a live grenade. Anyway, I’d rather spend my time with a real woman.” He grinned at her.

 

She blushed and wasn’t sure how to respond. “Jer, I…”

 

“Anny, if you think you’re gonna get away without giving me at least one dance, you’ve got another think coming! Cadet-Captain.”

 

“I’m not sure we should…”

 

“Why the hell not?  Look, there’s Alby with Abbie Vorburn. You can bet they’re going to dance!” She looked where he pointed and it was true. Alby and Abby were talking and laughing in an animated fashion. A small group of women in gowns were staring at them and looking peeved. The next dance was about to start. It was going to be a slow dance… for couples.

 

Jer suddenly seized her hands. “Anny, can I have this dance with you?” He was staring right into her eyes.

 

She smiled. Why the hell not?

 

 

* * *

 

 

A dozen dances later, they took a side door out of the hall. A lot of couples were already outside. There was a perimeter of sentries to prevent any of the women from straying too far away from their chaperones, but the sentries made no effort to stop two cadets walking by in the dark. Once out of sight, Jer took her hand and they strolled like that for a while. Despite the season, it was warm and pleasant that evening. Very pleasant.

 

“So what did Lady Vorgallan have to say to you?” asked Jer. The woman had finally cornered her between dances.

 

“Oh, she was upset about the braid and the corsages. And by having us grouped with the boys it threw her numbers off and with us dancing with the boys it threw them off even more and now there were some poor girls who didn’t have partners.”

 

“Tragic,” snorted Jer.

 

“I don’t want to talk about her anymore.” She leaned against Jer and he put an arm around her. It felt very nice. They walked on in silence.

 

 Finally they stopped under a big tree and Jer slowly and very gently kissed her. They hadn’t done anything since that amazing kiss in the cottage last year, but now they kissed again. And again.

 

“Anny?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“I think I love you.”

 

“It’s against regulations.”

 

“I know. I don’t care.”

 

She leaned against him and sighed. She cared about Jer very deeply, but did she love him? He was the first cadet she had met at the Academy and he was the first to become her friend. There’s no way she would have made it this far without him. She owed him more than she could say—but did she love him? Right at that moment there was a part of her that wanted to tear his uniform off and make love to him right there under that tree. She was pretty sure there was a part of him that wanted the same thing. But they weren’t going to do that. Not this night, anyway, and they both knew it.

 

“I think I love you, too,” she said, at last. “So what are we going to do?”

 

Now he sighed and pulled away slightly, holding her arms. “I think… I think that for now we keep our heads and do our duty. Graduation is less than eight months away. After that… After that we can see what happens.”

 

A feeling of relief and even deeper affection passed through her. “I do love you, Jer.” She pulled him a little closer and whispered: “Thank you.”

 

He smiled. “Glad they invited you to the Formal?”

 

“Very.”

 

They kissed again and then found a spot to sit and watch the stars.

 

 

Chapter 35

 

 

You are not officers, you are not even soldiers. You cannot give orders to soldiers and they would be wrong to obey any order that you gave.”

 

Anny sat in the lecture hall and listened to Major Harcourt, the Academy’s Provost, tell her something she already knew. She glanced around and could see that the several hundred other cadets present were thinking the same thing: We know all this! Get on with it! Jer, sitting next to her, caught her eye and shrugged.

 

“You are officer candidates—potential officers, potential soldiers.” Harcourt paused and looked them over from the front of the hall. “However, for your upcoming apprentice tours of duty it will be necessary for you to act as real officers. You must be able to issue legal orders. You need to be in the chain of command of whatever unit you are assigned to. Therefore, today you will be sworn into the service of the Imperium as temporary ‘ensigns-junior grade’. As such, you will be superior to all enlisted men and non-commission officers, but junior to every other commissioned officer. Since this rank only exists for this purpose, the only others you will encounter with this rank will be other cadets. Seniority among yourselves will be established by your cadet rank or class rankings.”

 

Anny looked down at the sleeves of her brand new undress greens. This was the first time she’d ever been permitted to wear the uniform and once the cruise was over she wouldn’t wear them again until after graduation. A thin gold welt circled the sleeves a few centimeters above the cuff. Ensign, junior grade. The lowest commissioned rank there was. The joke went that if anyone ever saluted an ensign jaygee the light must have been bad. Still, she felt proud of it. A real officer, even if just temporarily.

 

“Cadets!” said Harcourt loudly. “Are you prepared to take the oath? Let any who have doubts of their ability to carry out this grave responsibility leave now!” Anny tensed, this was all part of the ceremony. Silence filled the hall and no one moved. “Very well! Stand and raise your right hands.” Everyone was on their feet in an instant, hands raised and faces intent.

 

“Repeat after me: I, state your name…”

 

“I, Andreanne Payne…”

 

“Do hereby solemnly swear and affirm, that for the duration of this commission I will, as an officer of the Imperial Forces, bear true faith and allegiance to His Imperial Majesty Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, and will faithfully serve His Imperial Majesty in whatever duties are assigned to me. That I will defend the Barrayaran Imperium against all enemies, even unto death. That I will obey all lawful orders given to me by His Majesty or such deputies as He shall appoint, and that I will duly lead those placed under my command, respecting their oaths as they respect mine.”

 

Anny had studied the oath and its meaning before, but somehow now, when it was for real, it seemed to roll over her with the force of an avalanche. She found herself short of breath and tingling from head to toe. Around her many cadets were adding their own postscripts to whatever god they possessed. Except for the small but important ‘for the duration of this commission’ it was identical to the oath they would swear at graduation when they became officers permanently.

 

Harcourt looked them over again but to Anny’s surprise his stern expression slowly became one of amusement and he leaned back against a table that was at the head of the lecture hall and folded his arms across his chest. “One word of advice before you ship out: Don’t let it go to your heads,” he chuckled. “You are all about to join active combat units. Veterans, gentlemen! They aren’t going to be the least bit impressed by that scrap of braid on your cuffs, or the tabs on your collars. Oh, the enlisted men and NCOs will obey your orders, because that’s what they’ve been trained to do, but make no mistake: you are there to learn from them! Not vice-versa. I’m sure your commanders will drill this same lesson into you when you get there—and probably a lot less politely than I’m doing now. If you go off and start acting like the lords of creation because of an ensign jaygee rank, you are going to have a very tough time of it.”

 

Everyone seemed to be sobered by this—at least on the outside. But Anny could feel her own excitement and she imagined that every other cadet—excuse me, every other officer—in the room felt the same way.

 

“All right,” said Harcourt. “Attention!” Everyone snapped to. “Gentlemen, carry out your assignments! The formation is dismissed!” The assemblage relaxed and a low murmur of voices rose up, but most people started heading for the exits immediately. They had less than an hour until their shuttles left and they had brought their duffle bags to the lecture hall so that they wouldn’t have to go back to the barracks. Anny found hers where she had left it outside and waited until Jer, Alby, Patric, Denis Fallon, and the three other cadets all heading to the same destination, were ready and then they all trooped out and headed for the Academy landing field. The mass of others had all sorted themselves into similar groups. Some were headed up to ships waiting in orbit (the lucky ones on the naval track), some would be leaving for ground units of various kinds, while others were off to technical training schools. Anny and her friends were on their way to a base on South Continent where they would be hooking up with the 42nd Infantry (Assault) for a few days of orientation and then they, too would be heading into orbit.

 

Anny shifted the awkward duffle on her shoulder. Unlike their brief trip to Komarr, this time they would be away for months and they needed to bring a lot more stuff along, including their classroom assignments, although those were all in electronic form and didn’t add to the load—except psychologically. “Last chance to run back and grab anything you’ve forgotten,” she said to the others.

 

“If I’ve forgotten it, I’ll learn to live without it,” said Alby. “Or buy another. And that reminds me: don’t you peasants be shy about borrowing some money if you need it. Those monthly allowances they grant you are a joke.”

 

The others laughed, but there was a slightly embarrassed ring to it. What Alby said was true: the Academy did provide its cadets with a tiny pittance for living expenses, but it was hardly even spending money. Not that things would get much better when they graduated. One of the ways the Vors had tried to keep non-Vors out of the officer corps even after the legal restrictions were lifted was to keep the pay scales so low that anyone without an independent source of money was going to find it very hard to get by on just their salary. Things had improved somewhat in recent years, especially in the upper ranks, but impoverished junior officers were all too common.

 

But two salaries together, that wouldn’t be so bad… She glanced at Jer. She could still feel the warmth, the love and the calm of the night of the Formal. Just having him there beside her, all her cares and worries had seeped away—if even for just a few hours. It had been heaven. He was her refuge against an insane universe. She wanted that refuge there… always. Ensigns aren’t allowed to marry, but we’ll graduate as lieutenants. Marriage? Had she actually let that thought creep into her head?  Now that was insane! Don’t even think about it. Later, there’ll be time for that later.

 

They reached the landing field just as a shuttle was taking off. Theirs wouldn’t be along for another twenty minutes or so. They dumped their bags on the ground next to their assigned pad and waited. Anny smiled when she saw that not only her immediate comrades, but all the others were just standing or wandering aimlessly. One important lesson they’d learned was: ‘never stand when you can sit and never sit when you can lie down’. Under normal circumstances, dressed in their fatigues, they’d be sprawled all over the place, propped against their duffles or stretched flat on the ground. But today, wearing their brand new undress greens, no one was risking getting them dirty or rumpled. And they did look good! The only thing to set them apart from a regular ensign was a white stripe that diagonally bisected their pale blue collar tabs. She looked Jer over admiringly. The chests of most of the troopers’ uniforms were unadorned. The unit citation awarded the battalion and the pins for the Vorbarra Pentathlon and Howitzer Haul had no place on a real uniform. But she and Jer were permitted to wear their other decorations, because those were real. The ribbon for their Distinguished Service Star was blue with two gold stripes and a tiny gold star in the center. She also wore the ribbon for her Wound Medal which was blood red with two white stripes.

 

“So, Patric, what’s it like at Fort Vormeyer?” she asked the tall, brawny farm boy. “I know we’ll only be there a few days, but will we need overcoats or sunblock?”

 

Patric shrugged. “It’s almost a thousand klicks from my home and I’ve never been there. But it’s mid-spring down there, so the temperatures probably are about like here. ‘Course Vormeyer is up on the LaGuren Plateau, that’s over a thousand meters above sea level. Might tend to get chilly at night.”

 

“Is it as flat as that other place we were at?” asked Alby.

 

“Flatter,” grinned Patric.

 

“I wonder what they’ll be like?” said Jer. “The Forty-second, I mean.”

 

“The 42nd Regiment Imperial Infantry, the ‘Countess Theresa Fusiliers’ can trace their lineage back to a regiment first raised by Count…” quoted Alby.

 

“I know the official history!” snapped Jer rolling his eyes. “But what will the men be like? How will they react to us?”

 

“They’re going to split us up, you know,” said Anny quietly. “They aren’t going to need eight ensign jaygee’s assigned to one company.” The others nodded grimly. The cruise was slated to last a little over five months. They might not even see each other that whole time.

 

“But we’re supposed to all be assigned to the same convoy,” insisted Alby. “We’ll get to meet up dirtside at all the stops if nothing else.”

 

“Assuming they give us liberty,” said Denis Fallon. “As the junior-most officers, they’ll probably assign all the scut work to us. We might never get ashore.”

 

“Always looking at the bright side, aren’t you, Denis?” asked Alby.

 

“Just being realistic. This isn’t going to be any pleasure cruise.”

 

“It’s not supposed to be,” said Anny. “We’ve all got to be more on the ball than ever before. One real screw-up and we’re done.” None of the others replied, but they knew it was true. The whole purpose of these apprentice assignments was to see if the cadets were really qualified for the track they’d chosen. If the officer evaluating their performance was dissatisfied, the cadet might be transferred to a different track—probably not one they’d have chosen voluntarily. That’s where quartermaster and personnel and weather officers came from. In rare cases the cadet might be given a second chance on their chosen track, but that could mean repeating their senior year. Anny was worried that if the officer deciding her fate was really, really opposed to women in the service then she might end up with a down-check no matter what she did. But then she faced that danger no matter which track she chose.

 

The low wail of an approaching shuttle shook her out of those gloomy thoughts. In fact, it was two shuttles. One landed at a pad far down the line of waiting troopers, but the other put down directly opposite them. The call-sign matched the one they were waiting for. Anny picked up her duffle and along with the others headed toward the hatch which swung open. A bored-looking enlisted man checked their orders and ushered them aboard. He hadn’t bothered to salute them, but remembering Major Harcourt’s warning, none of them felt inclined to make an issue of it. Anny found a seat next to Jer, stowed her bag and then buckled herself in. Only moments later the machine’s engines roared back to life and they were airborne.

 

“Well, we’re off,” said Jer.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Fort Vormeyer proved every bit as flat as Patric had warned. Aside from the buildings and the hint of some hills off to the south, it was like standing on an enormous table top. The plains stretched off to distant horizons and the sky seemed impossibly huge. To the mountain-bred Anny, it just seemed… wrong.

 

The landing field was enormous, Anny supposed there were times when the entire regiment got shipped out and they needed the space for all the shuttles that would require. The private who had accompanied them on the long flight pointed out a building in the distance and said they should report there. Before they had time to ask any questions, he had shut the hatch and the shuttle lifted off in a spray of dust. The building the man had indicated looked to be several kilometers away—maybe more, it was hard to judge distances. No vehicles was waiting or coming to collect them, so there was nothing for it but to shoulder their duffles and walk. Anny was actually glad for a chance to stretch her legs.

 

“Hey, look!” said Alby after a minute or so. They looked where he was pointing and their shuttle was landing again, near a large building that must have been a hangar. It was only a few hundred meters from the building they were walking towards. “I think we’ve been taken for a ride,” he grumbled.

 

“Having fun with the new ensigns, I guess, “said Patric.

 

“And what do you want to bet the duty officer in that building will have the exact time the shuttle landed and will want to know where we’ve been for the past twenty minutes?” asked Jer.

 

“Well, there’s a cure for that,” said Anny and she broke into a trot.

 

“Welcome to the Assault Troops!” groaned Alby.

 

Fortunately the air was pleasantly cool and despite their heavy bags, they reached the building in less than ten minutes without breaking much of a sweat—although their nice undress greens were a tad dusty. The duty officer checked them in without comment but he did do a double-take when he saw Anny. “You’re all assigned to Barracks Twenty-Nine. Go there and await orders,” he said. He detailed a sergeant to guide them through the huge base.

 

As they walked, Alby pointed to the insignia on the sergeant’s collar. On the right side was a ‘42’ in brass and on the left side in elaborate intertwined script ‘CTF’. Anny had noticed that the duty officer had been wearing a similar set, pinned on top of his collar rank tabs. They looked very sharp. “Hey, Sarge,” said Alby, “do they issue those or can we buy them at the post exchange?”

 

The man, who had seemed bored, but friendly enough suddenly turned to ice. “They can’t be bought, sir—at any price. And they certainly don’t issue them, either. The only way to get them is to earn them… sir.”

 

Alby—and all the rest—were silent for a moment and then Alby suddenly smacked himself in the head. “And Alby Vorsworth puts his foot in it a mere twenty-three minutes after landing! A new Academy record!” Anny and the others grinned and even the sergeant snorted in amusement. “Sorry, Sarge,” said Alby. “Guess that was pretty stupid of me, huh?”

 

“We expect our new young gentlemen to be a bit wet behind the ears, sir.”

 

“Not refuting the ‘stupid’ part, eh?”

 

“I wouldn’t presume to, no, sir.”

 

Their quarters were remarkably similar to what they had at the Academy, although only built for about twenty people. Some sort of NCO quarters, perhaps. There was no private space for Anny and she hadn’t expected one. The toilet/shower room didn’t have a door.

 

They dropped their bags after the sergeant left them and Patric checked the time. “About time for chow,” he said. “D’you think we dare go look for the mess hall?”

 

“Should have asked the Sarge for directions,” said Alby.

 

“I dunno,” said Denis Fallon. “We were ordered to stay here and await orders. Wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they’re just waiting for us to leave and then have someone come looking for us so they can gig us for being AWOL.”

 

“That bit with the shuttle might have just been an idea of the crew,” said Anny. “They’re not necessarily all out to get us.” She sure hoped she was right.

 

“How can you have gone through all that you have and not be any more paranoid than that, Anny?” asked Alby with a smirk. “But I’ve got some food hidden in my duffle and I bet all the rest of you do, too. Come on, let’s make our own dinner.”

 

They’d all learned in their plebe year never to go anywhere without at least a ration bar in their pocket. Unscheduled duty could often make a cadet miss regular meals. Between them they had several standard rations in self-heating packs, crackers, candy bars and various other stuff. Pooling their resources they had a nice little dinner. No one came with any orders.

 

“Maybe they’ve forgotten us,” suggested Alby. “We spend five months here relaxing and then they’ll be so embarrassed about the foul-up they’ll give us passing grades anyway.”

 

“Dream on,” said Jer.

 

After dinner, for lack of anything else to do, they dragged out their computers and worked on some of the assignments they had been given before leaving. As the ranking officer in the group, one of Anny’s duties was to make sure that the others didn’t neglect their studies. It seemed like they’d been given an awful lot to do…

 

Later, the boys let Anny use the shower while they kept a look-out for approaching officers with orders, but none came. “Maybe I’m catching Denis’ paranoia, but I can’t believe they are going to be this easy on us for much longer,” she said as she came out. “I’m wearing my PT gear to bed tonight in case they have any ideas about surprising us.” The others thought that was a good idea and they all went to bed wearing theirs after they’d showered. Anny’s bunk was next to Jer’s and they managed a quick hand-squeeze after the lights were out. Of all the things I expected to find at the Academy, love wasn’t one of them, thought Anny in wonder. She was still thinking about it when she fell asleep.

 

 

* * *

 

 

She had been right.

 

At some point, long before dawn, the door to their barracks crashed open and several loud, rude men barged in. “On your feet! In your PT gear! Two minutes ago! Move it! Move it!” The lights came on and Anny sprang from her bunk and jammed her feet into her shoes and then stood at attention at the foot of the bunk. The others were only seconds behind. She looked out of the corner of her eye without turning her head and saw two men in black fatigues standing near the door. After a moment they stalked up the aisle between the bunks, staring at each of them as they passed. One of them had captain’s tabs and looked to be in his mid thirties. The other was a first sergeant and looked considerably older with gray at his temples. He reminded her a bit of Sergeant Major Szytko except this man’s nose looked to have been broken so many times he’d stopped bothering having it fixed.  Both he and the captain paused for a few seconds in front of her but then moved on.

 

“I am quite certain that each of you has been told that you are now officers and gentlemen!” snarled the captain without preamble. “Bullshit! As of this moment, and for the next two days you are all busted back to private! Don’t bother complaining or crying to your mama, the order comes straight from Colonel Vordavid and nobody this side of the Emperor is gonna overrule him! You get me, children?”

 

“Yes, sir!”

 

“Hell, you aren’t even privates! You gotta earn that! You’re nothing but raw recruits, you gotta earn the right to be anything in the Forty-second! Understood?”

 

“Yes, sir!”

 

“For the next fifty-two hours, your asses belong to First Sergeant Masucci, here. Don’t let his smiling, friendly exterior fool you! You get on his wrong side and you are gonna rue the day you were born! It so happens that we just got in a batch of fifty recruits who think they’re good enough for the Forty-second. You will train with them and we’ll see what you’re made of.”  He paused and looked right at Anny. “And don’t think for one instant that we will cut you any slack! Any slack at all! If any of you can’t cut it, we’ll ship you back to the Academy so fast it will make your head spin! Got it?”

 

“Yes, sir!”

 

“Good. Now get to it. They’re all yours, First Sergeant.” The man turned and left. He hadn’t even told them his name. Masucci gave them another looking over without comment and then said: “Let’s go. Follow me.” He went out the door and they scrambled to follow. He set off at a brisk trot. The sky was still dark but there were many lights on and between the buildings. Masucci led them to a large parade ground that was different from the landing field only in that it wasn’t paved. The ground was a sort of red gritty dust.

 

As they’d been promised, there was a batch of other men in their PT gear already there. A couple of corporals were getting them into lines and Masucci just added them to the rear of the formation. Then it was two hours of vigorous calisthenics. When they started there was the faintest streak of blue clinging to the eastern horizon. Minute by minute the blue grew broader and slowly changed color to pink, orange, yellow and then a dazzling white. They had them facing right into the dawn and it was one of the most impressive things Anny had ever seen. Stark and beautiful and immense—like the land itself.

 

By the time they quit Anny was sweating and a bit tired, but the months of extra training they had done at the Academy had them all prepared for this. Their clothing was coated in a layer of red dust. She was actually a bit surprised when they gave them a breakfast break. They trotted off to the mess hall just as reveille for the rest of the base was being blasted over loudspeakers. They were among the first in line and the food was hot and good. Anny warned them not to eat too much but to drink a lot. She had a good idea of what would be coming up. Some of the other men only now noticed that she was a woman. They goggled at her like she was… what? Anny had run out of metaphors a long time ago. She ignored them.

 

After breakfast they ran. Masucci led them away from the base at a brisk trot. On and on and on. Sometimes they had to run flat out, other times it was just a fast walk. There was one five minute break each hour and then they moved out again. The base shrank to low bump on the horizon while the sun got higher and higher in the sky. It wasn’t hot, fortunately, but the air was very dry. Anny forced herself to breathe through her nose to cut moisture loss, but it was hard when they were moving fast. The air seemed too thin to sustain the effort. Still, it wasn’t too bad. Her friends were doing okay, too, but some of the other trainees were having trouble. She wasn’t sure where these guys had come from, but some weren’t in all that great shape. Surely they must have had at least basic training before they came here—you didn’t get assigned to an assault regiment right off the street!

 

Away from the base they saw more and more of the native Barrayaran plants. Much of South Continent was still being terraformed (as were some areas of North Continent) and the base had clearly been built in an area that would probably be the very last place to get terraformed—if, indeed, it was ever deemed worth the effort. Anny knew a lot of the native plants that could still be found in the Dendarii Mountains, but here, half a world away, there were few she recognized. Patric, and a couple of others who were locals, warned them which ones to avoid. “See that purple and red one? Don’t touch it! It’s got little spines and you’ll swell up like a balloon!”

 

“What’s it called?” gasped Alby.

 

“Don’t know the real name. We just call it ‘pussbucket’.”

 

“Charming.”

 

They started to encounter gullies and ravines cut into the flat plateau and had to scramble through them. Some of it was pretty rough going and they all accumulated scrapes and cuts. They were getting very thirsty, too. Sometime in early afternoon Masucci finally gave them a real break. They found a spot in a ravine that offered a little shade and flopped in the dirt. Anny’s eyes and mouth seemed filled with grit. They had come thirty or thirty-five kilometers, she guessed. Presumably they were at the halfway point and would start back after the break. Or maybe not. That captain had said something about two days. Maybe they’d keep going, spend the night out here and march back tomorrow. She looked at the crystal clear sky. It was going to get damn cold out here at night. Well, they’d have to clump together to stay warm and the thought of cuddling with Jer all night was actually quite attractive.

 

But after about twenty minutes they heard the sound of an approaching shuttle. “We get to fly back?” asked Alby in amazement. “I thought these assault guys were tough.” Anny was surprised, too. This hadn’t been all that rough, not nearly what she’d been expecting.

 

But when the shuttle got close they saw that it was a small model, not big enough to carry all of them. “Maybe it’s bringing rations or bedrolls,” suggested Jer. The vehicle landed, throwing up a cloud of red dust. First Sergeant Masucci and his three corporals walked over to it. The corporals got inside and Masucci turned back to them.

 

“I’ll see you all back at the base.” He got inside, the hatch closed, and the shuttle took off. A few moments later it was a speck in the distance.

 

“Well, this is a fine kettle of fish,” said Alby.

 

“But hardly unexpected,” said Fallon.

 

“So we have to march back,” said Patric. “No big deal. We marched out here, we march back.” He looked up at the sky. “I suggest we get moving.”

 

A lot of the other recruits were grumbling and swearing. Jer looked at them and then back at her. “Masucci didn’t leave anyone in charge, so I think that leaves you in command by default, Anny.”

 

“According to that captain, we’re all privates,” said Fallon.

 

“That’s bullshit,” said Alby. “Our commissions might be temporary, but they are as real as any other and no colonel can void them just on his say so! Ensign Payne is the senior officer here and she is in command!”

 

Some of the others were gathering around and one big gruff fellow pushed his way to the front. “Her?” he snapped. “In command? Like hell!” Many of the others growled agreement.

 

Patric stepped forward to face him. Patric was even bigger. “The eight of us here are all commissioned officers on special assignment. Ensign Payne is the senior. That puts her in command. You got a problem with that?” All her friends moved up on either side of Patric. Anny just watched.

 

The big guy looked at them uncertainly, glanced at Anny and then backed off. “What the hell, we’re just marching back to base, what difference does it make?” He started to walk away.

 

“Stop right where you are!” said Anny coming forward. Everyone was looking at her. “The march back isn’t going to be nearly as easy as the march out. We’re tired and we’ve had no water. People are going to start getting into trouble and we’ve got to be ready for that. We need to work together and look out for each other. All of you others, fall in!” The others just gawked.

 

“You heard her: Fall in!’ shouted Jer. “Two ranks! Shoulder to shoulder! Move!” Jer and the others shoved the men into formation. Anny stood in front of them.

 

“Jer, Denis, you are with me,” she said. “The rest of you we’ll divide into five squads with an officer with each one. Get the names of your people and appoint one as your second. Move.”

 

It was quickly and efficiently done. Despite their brief rebellion, most seemed relieved that someone had taken charge. Even the big guy, who Patric made his second. “Okay,” said Anny, “who has any food with them?” No answer. “Come on! You aren’t raw recruits!” She pulled a ration bar out of her pocket. “Who’s got food? Raise your hands!” About half the people sheepishly raised their hands. “Good! All food is now company property. Squad leaders take an inventory, distribute half of it now and make sure they eat it. We’re gonna need our strength.” She took a bite out of her own ration, even though she really didn’t want it and then tossed the rest to Jer. “Hang onto that. Keep the rest for now, but watch your squadmates. Anyone in difficulty gets first priority on the food, but we’ll try to save the rest until dinner. I don’t suppose anyone had a canteen hidden on them? No? Too bad. All right, let’s move out.”

 

She led them up out of the ravine and then sidled over toward Patric. “The shuttle flew off that way,” she whispered, indicating with a jerk of her head. “But I don’t think that’s the way back.”

 

“It’s not,” he confirmed. “About ten degrees to the left of the way we’re heading.”

 

“You’re sure?”

 

“Pretty sure. Growing up in the flat lands you get a good sense of direction. We just keep heading that way and we ought to be close enough to see the lights of the base by dark.”

 

“Good.”

 

But they hadn’t marched far before the big guy exclaimed: “Hey, this isn’t the way back! She’s gonna get us lost!”

 

Anny sighed and went over to him. “What’s your name, trooper?”

 

“Why? You gonna put me on report?”

 

“If you don’t answer me I’m gonna put my foot up your ass! Now what’s your name?”

 

“McGill,” he grumbled.

 

“All right, Private McGill, to ease your mind—and the minds of all you others,” she added, raising her voice, “we’ve got a local here as our guide and we’re not going to get lost. And in any case,” she held up her hand, displaying her wristcom, “it’s not like we can get into real trouble. We can always call for help. I’m sure that First Sergeant Masucci and his bosses are expecting us to do exactly that. But we’re not going to give them the satisfaction, are we? We’re gonna get back on our own and show them! Right?”

 

A few people answered back.

 

“What was that? I couldn’t hear you! Are we gonna show ‘em?”

 

“Yes sir!”

 

“Good. Now just keep your mouths shut and conserve water. One foot in front of the other and we’ll be fine.” McGill frowned but said no more. She went back to Patric. “You better be right,” she whispered.

 

“I’m not exactly a local, but don’t worry, Anny, we’re gonna be fine. Good job with the big lunk.”

 

The march back took seven hours. It was bad, but not really as bad as that first ‘death march’ with Sergeant Byrne back in her plebe year. She and her comrades were all in superb shape, but many of the other were not. They ended up having to half-carry some of them. McGill continued to grumble and question Anny’s decisions, but she let Patric keep him in line rather than argue with him herself. 

 

They had one stroke of luck when Patric discovered a patch of local plants that you could squeeze water out of. There was only a mouthful for each of them, but it made a huge difference. They stopped there and had their ‘dinner’.

 

Even before nightfall they spotted the base in the distance and after dark, it shone like a beacon leading them back. And they were marching back in like soldiers. Even McGill stopped grumbling after that. Anny had been watching him and now she moved to march next to him. “Private McGill,” she said.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Or should I call you ‘Sergeant McGill’? Perhaps ‘Sergeant-Major McGill’?”

 

He stared at her for a moment and then said: “How’d you know… sir?”

 

“Just the way you carried yourself. Your march discipline. How you knew how to help the guys who needed it. A real jerk would have left that to others, but you couldn’t help but help. The little things.”

 

“I’ll be damned.”

 

“So was this a test for everyone or just the officers?” Or just me?

 

“The Colonel has found it a useful way to take the measure of our young gentlemen.”

 

“So did we pass?”

 

“I… I think he’ll be pleased, sir.”

 

 

Chapter 36

 

 

They let them sleep in the next morning. That is, they let the normal reveille wake them along with the rest of the base. Having no orders to the contrary they dressed in their black fatigues and went to the mess hall for breakfast. They were stiff and sore, but ravenous. Anny packed away twice what she’d normally eat. She hoped she wouldn’t have cause to regret it later.

 

“So, any bets on what they do to us… I mean what they have us do today?” asked Alby around a mouthful of eggs.

 

“It was basic physical training yesterday,” said Denis Fallon. “If they only have two days to sweat us out…”

 

“No time for anything fancy,” said Patric. “No null-g or vac suit drill.”

 

“Marksmanship training is too easy, physically anyway,” added Jer.

 

“Close-combat training,” said Anny, hoping she was wrong.

 

“Yeah… probably…” said Patric.

 

“Of course. They want to see what we’re made of, what better way than to crack us open and look,” said Alby. “What fun.”

 

Unfortunately, she was right—again. While they were still in the mess hall a runner found them with orders to assemble in the base gymnasium in half an hour. He said to wear their fatigues but bring their PT gear. Anny and the others hurried back to their barracks. Anny shook out her PT gear as best she could and then put it on underneath her fatigues. It was a trick she used often back at the Academy. When they got there they were directed to a locker room where they could stow their fatigues. Anny shucked hers off and put them in a locker and then got out so the boys could change.

 

When they emerged they found a group of other troopers waiting for them. She saw that many were from the batch of ‘recruits’ they had marched with yesterday. She wasn’t sure if they really were new men joining the regiment or had just been plants used to test them. There were also several officers and a batch of NCOs although none of them were in PT gear. She smiled when she saw McGill with them. It turned out he wasn’t the regimental sergeant major, but he was a company first sergeant. He nodded to her, but said nothing.

 

They then spent a half hour in exercises to work out the kinks left by yesterday’s exertions. Then it was an hour of drills with the basic close-combat moves. After a short break they got down to the real business. They were broken up into small groups with an NCO instructor and ordered to fight each other in pairs while the others watched. They were issued helmets, gloves and knee and elbow pads to reduce injuries, but they were expected to really fight, not just go through the motions. They deliberately put the ensigns into separate groups, so Anny found herself with a batch of strangers. They eyed each other warily. The NCO gave them their instructions: certain especially dangerous moves were not permitted along with things like ripping out eyeballs and such. Other than that, anything went. Put your opponent down as quickly and efficiently as possible, but try not to kill or disable him if you could avoid it. Anny tried to prepare herself mentally. She knew the moves, she’d practiced this before, but she still hated it. But she had to do it. She was being watched and Szytko’s words of warning about how assault troops felt about close-combat training came back to her. She had to do well in this if she was going to win their respect.

 

Fortunately, she wasn’t in the first pairing. She got a chance to watch two of the others fight while she got herself into the proper mood. She was heartened when neither of them seemed especially skilled. If the oppositions wasn’t any better than this… She was next up and she put her opponent down pretty easily. He was clearly surprised and it seemed like the others in her group and the NCO in charge of it were, too. But the next time, against a different opponent, the man was more careful. She still managed to beat him, but it was harder. They kept at it until lunch. Anny had won eight of her ten bouts and made a respectable showing in the two she had lost. She was tired and bruised, but basically intact. She felt pretty good about her performance.

 

They didn’t go back to the mess hall for lunch, a carton of field rations was delivered and they munched them down while they rested. “You okay, Anny?” asked Jer.

 

“Fine. How about you?”

 

“Sore, but alive.”

 

Alby, are you all right?” she’d suddenly noticed that he had blood on his T-shirt and traces on his face.

 

“Oh yeah. Just a bloody nose. Had worse a zillion times.”

 

“You mean like when Vorlevey and his buddies beat you to a pulp after the Great Rabbit Hunt?” asked Patric.

 

“That one does come to mind, yes. Today I even tried my most effective defensive tactic of curling into a ball and whimpering, but the instructor said that was illegal. Pity, I was really wearing out my opponent.”

 

“Some of these guys are pretty good,” observed Fallon. “I don’t think they are all recruits.”

 

“More ringers like yesterday, d’you think?” asked Jer.

 

“Maybe.” Conversation lapsed into silence. They were all too tired for much else.

 

All too soon they were ordered back on their feet. Then it was announced that the best sixteen of them would participate in an elimination tournament while the others watched. To her dismay Anny was named as one of the competitors. I should have lost a few more bouts. Patric and Jer were also named and she hoped she wouldn’t have to fight either one of them. They’d try to let her win and that might get them all into trouble.

 

But both of her friends were eliminated in the first round and she didn’t have to face either of them. The man she did face was the best she’d fought so far, but somehow she managed to win two out of three falls and moved on to the next round. She was finding that her fatigue was actually working in her favor. She wasn’t able to think so much and overanalyze things the way she usually did. She was starting to fight on instinct. Szytko had tried to get her to do that during his training and while there had been a few moments, she’d never really let herself go before.

 

The eight survivors were allowed to rest a bit before the next round. The men were staring at her with strange expressions. Not exactly respect, not exactly fear, a sort of cautious calculation. She noticed McGill in an animated discussion with an officer but they both stopped abruptly when they saw her watching them. Apparently she was making an impression. But what sort?

 

The next round was the worst. Her opponent was fast, strong and skilled. He took her down in the first fall in a humiliatingly brief encounter that left her ears ringing and stars dancing in front of her eyes. As she hauled herself up someone said something and a few others laughed. She hadn’t caught the comment, but she could guess what it might have been. Anger flared inside her. What are you going to do? Roll over and die? Szytko’s words came back to her. I want to win, Sergeant Major! When the next fall started she launched herself at her opponent so quickly and so violently she took him by surprise and put him down even quicker than he’d done to her a moment before. There were no laughs this time, just a stunned silence among most of the watchers and a hastily hushed whoop from Alby.

 

But now they were lining up for the last fall and there would be no quick win this time. The look in her opponent’s eyes sent a chill through her. Damn, now she’d gotten him mad. They went at it and she had no idea how long it went on. Blow and counter-blow, grappling, rolling, and pain, pain, pain. Finally, her face was being mashed into the mat and her arm was being pulled out of its socket and she had no choice but to slap the mat with her free hand and surrender. She’d lost.

 

But then a strong hand was pulling her to her feet and her opponent was there with a huge grin on his face. “Damnation, girl! Who the hell’s been training you?” She couldn’t do anything but mumble an incoherent reply. The man slapped her on the back and she stumbled over to the side and collapsed with her friends.

 

“Holy, shit!” said Alby. “Sure glad I never got you mad like that, Anny!”

 

“That was impressive as hell, Anny,” said Patric.

 

“I still lost…”

 

“I don’t think so,” said Jer.

 

“Huh?”

 

“That was the regimental champion. I overheard some of the others talking.”

 

Anny just blinked and slowly began taking off her protective gear. Jer helped her. There were two more rounds and she was very glad she could just sit and watch. Her last opponent went on to win and she had to admit that he was way better than she’d ever expect to be. Her one win was surely a fluke. Still, she’d take it.

 

“All right, on your feet everyone!” shouted the officer who seemed to be in charge. They scrambled up and got themselves into a line. “A very instructive afternoon, I would say. Good job, everyone. Now, get yourselves showered and dressed and report back here in ten minutes. Dismissed.”

 

Anny had just started to relax, but now she tensed and came to full alert. Damn. The other men headed for the locker room and reluctantly Anny followed. Her friends closed around her.

 

“Anny maybe we can work something out…” began Patric.

 

“No time for that,” she replied steadily.

 

“Anny, you don’t have to do this!” hissed Jer.

 

“Yes I do. It’s an order and I have to obey it.” She looked at him and forced a smile. “It will be all right.”

 

She grabbed a couple of towels and went to her locker. She stripped off her t-shirt and draped one of the towels around her shoulders and then removed her bra. She tied the other towel around her hips and then pulled off her shorts and underwear. She took a deep breath and headed for the showers.

 

It was full of naked men.

 

Keeping her eyes fixed on a spot on the floor about three meters ahead of her she found a shower in one of the corners. Taking another breath she took off the towels and hung them on a hook. She turned on the water and scrubbed herself with the soap and then rinsed off. She’d never been happier about her short hair than at that moment. She turned off the water, dried herself and put the towels back in place and then returned to her locker.

 

Aside from the running water there had been a dead silence the whole time. Now there were several loud hoots and somewhat to her surprise, angry retorts to shut up. She didn’t think it was any of her friends talking. She sure hoped they didn’t get into a fight over her. She dressed quickly and was one of the first ones back out in the gym. The others soon joined her. Jer was fuming.

 

“Damn them! They had no right to…”

 

“Yes they did,” she interrupted and she looked him square in the eyes and then swept her gaze across the others. “When I’m on active service there are going to be times when no privacy is going to be possible. If I can’t deal with that then I’ve got no business trying to command combat troops. They have a right to know whether I can handle it. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long for it to happen.” She turned back to Jer. “It’s all right. Really.”

 

After a moment he nodded and dropped his eyes. All the others did, too, except Alby. He gently punched her in the shoulder. “You did good, Anny, you did real good.”

 

“Attention,” commanded the officer. “Except for our eight new ensigns, you are all dismissed.” The others broke ranks and quickly dispersed. The officer, a captain, Anny realized it was the same captain who had gotten them up the morning before, walked down the line looking at each of them and then stood out in front. “Gentlemen, welcome to the Forty-second. Colonel Vordavid is giving a little dinner tonight and you will all attend. 1900 hours at the HQ. You have until then free. Dismissed.” He walked away.

 

Anny checked the time and to her surprise saw that they had almost three hours until the dinner. The day had already seemed weeks long. Her hands were trembling. “Come on, we gotta get our uniforms cleaned up,” she sighed.

 

As they left the gym she heard the others talking behind her and then Denis Fallon trotted off. “Where are you going?” she called after him.

 

“Meet you back at the barracks,” he shouted back without pausing. Anny just shrugged. Her feet felt like lead. Damn she was tired! She was going to fall asleep in her soup at the Colonel’s dinner…

 

They got to the barracks and she slumped down on her bunk. Undress greens. She needed to get out her undress greens. Brush the dust off of them from their arrival. Polish her boots…

 

“Anny, here.” She started and there was Fallon with his hand held out. There was a pink pill in the palm of his hand.

 

“Whazzat?”

 

“Pain pill. Got it from the infirmary.”

 

“Now you take it like a good girl and then have a little nap,” said Alby.

 

“What? Gotta get ready for tonight.”

 

“We’ll take care of everything,” said Jer. “Now do as you’re told.”

 

She stared at them and then slowly took the pill and swallowed it. “Yessir.” Jer gently pushed her back on the bed, pulled off her shoes and threw a blanket over her. She was out in seconds.

 

 

* * *

 

 

They let her sleep for two hours. When she woke up her spotless greens were hanging there with a pair of gleaming boots underneath. The others were mostly dressed already and on their advice she took another shower. She started it out hot and then gradually turned down the temperature until it was icy cold, shocking her awake. Dried, dressed and her hair combed, she joined the others. They were all looking pretty sharp, although there were bruises and cuts on every face.

 

“So what do we know about this Colonel Vordavid?” asked Patric as they walked toward the headquarters building.

 

“Solid record,” said Denis Fallon. “Old military family. Been in command of the Forty-second for five years, was second in command for quite a while before that. Hasn’t seen much combat, but who has these days?” It was true: with the last major war over a generation earlier, few had much combat experience.

 

The regimental headquarters building was the same sort of concrete construction as nearly all the others at Fort Vormeyer. From the outside there was nothing to distinguish it from the administration building or the mess hall. A pair of sentries stood outside and they came to attention as the ensigns approached. They passed through the doors and a sign directed them down a corridor past rows of standard offices toward what was called the Regimental Hall. There was another set of double doors and they could hear voices beyond.

 

The doors swung open and Anny’s eyes grew wide and several of her friends made exclamations of surprise and pleasure. While the fort and the buildings might all be standard construction, something special had been built here. Rich wood paneling covered the walls and thick beams held up a coffered ceiling. A parquet floor with intricate inlaid patterns stretched out before them. Heavy drapes flanked the tall windows along one wall. The Imperial flag and the regimental colors stood at one end of the room and rows of other flags and banners hung from the walls. Some of them were quite old and Anny’s eyes were drawn to one that was all in tatters. It was faded almost to illegibility, but she could just make out the letters ‘CTF’ in one corner. She realized that some of the tatters were actually bullet holes… Anny knew perfectly well that she was in a concrete building with a metal roof, but the illusion of being in a castle or some large country estate was completely convincing. And it had probably all been paid for by the officers themselves.

 

There were several dozen of those officers milling about and what appeared to be the regimental band setting up in one corner. Long tables created a ‘U’ shape and stewards in white tunics were bustling about with plates, silverware, and glasses. A table near one wall had an array of bottles and more glasses. One of the officers turned as they entered and Anny saw that it was the captain who had routed them from their beds on their first morning there and supervised the close-combat exercises. But unlike then, this time he was smiling. He came over to them.

 

“Welcome, gentlemen,” he said, waving off their proffered salutes. “No salutes here, we’re quite informal at dinner. Well, less formal anyway. I’m Captain Vortaglia, the regimental adjutant. Please feel free to mingle and help yourselves to the drinks over there. Dinner won’t be starting for a while yet, but make yourselves at home.” They all thanked him and began to disperse. Alby started heading for the table with the bottles. Anny caught his eye and gently shook her head. He winked at her and kept going. Then she realized that Vortaglia was still standing there, looking at her.

 

“Ensign Payne.”

 

“Sir?”

 

“We’ve received a number of instructions concerning you and your… ah, situation, but none of them mentioned the proper form of address. Do I call you ‘mister’ or ‘miss’? Are you one of the ‘gentlemen’ or are you a ‘lady’ with the ‘gentlemen’? It’s all a bit confusing.” His demeanor seemed friendly and curious.

 

“I imagine it is, sir,” she replied. “At the Academy we keep everything male for simplicity. So ‘mister’ and ‘gentleman’ would do fine.”

 

“I see. Well, you’ve managed to survive the Academy—and vice versa—for over three years now, so I suppose it can be made to work. At least under controlled conditions. I’ll be most curious to see what happens under field conditions.” Vortaglia’s manner had grown noticeably colder and Anny’s hope that she had found an ally faded.

 

“It’s worked in some conditions that weren’t exactly controlled, too, sir.” Vortaglia’s eyes flicked briefly to the ribbons on Anny’s chest. Although the captain had several rows of his own decorations Anny could see there weren’t any for gallantry. And no wound medals, either. He opened his mouth to reply, but just then another officer approached.

 

“ Erik, old boy, are you going to try and hog her all for yourself? That’s rather selfish, isn’t it?” The speaker was a major and he’d obviously gotten an early start on the drinks. Vortaglia turned and then bowed slightly.

 

“Ensign Payne, let me introduce Major Lou Fullard, 3rd battalion. Lou, this is Ensign Payne.”

 

“Oh, I know who she is, Erik! Pretty hard not to, eh?” the man chuckled and nudged Vortaglia with his elbow.

 

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” said Anny.

 

“And I you! Damme, Erik, but doesn’t she brighten up this dreary place? They should have done this years ago! Years and years ago! Very good to have you here, my dear.”

 

“She’ll be leaving with 2nd Battalion in the morning, you, know,” said Vortaglia.

 

“Yes, yes, isn’t that always the way of the service?” said Fullard, shaking his head sadly.  “They give you a brief look at paradise and then snatch it away again, the bastards.” But then his face brightened. “But we do have this one evening, don’t we? Live for the moment, I always say! Can I get you a drink, m’dear?”

 

Other officers had started to congregate around them and Anny was spared having to turn the major down. She had no intention of drinking anything beyond what the inevitable toasts might require. A flurry of introductions followed and Anny had no hope of remembering all the names, but she’d already memorized all the senior officers in the 2nd Battalion, the one she’d be shipping out with, so she did manage to identify any of those who were part of the crowd. But the battalion commander wasn’t among them, nor Colonel Vordavid. Would they be coming tonight?

 

She responded to all the greeting as best she could but did feel a bit uncomfortable with all of them crowing around her. More were entering the hall through the doors. She caught a glimpse of a worried Jer watching from a distance, but there was nothing threatening or even unfriendly about the men.

 

“I understand that you made quite a showing today in close-combat exercises, Miss Payne,” said one of the captains loudly enough to be heard above the others. “Are they training all the cadets that thoroughly these days?”

 

“Uh, no, sir. I’ve been getting some advanced training in preparation for coming here. I was told that assault regiments take their close-combat very seriously and I can see that it is true.”

 

“She threw Sergeant Hotchkiss on his ass!” said another officer “You should have seen his face!”

 

“No way! Her?”

 

“I was lucky,” said Anny, blushing. “And then he very thoroughly beat me to a pulp, sir.”

 

“Not surprised! Not surprised! That would have pissed him off to no end!”

 

“He was very, uh, gracious in victory, sir.”

 

“And how were you in defeat, ensign?” asked another.

 

“Truthfully, sir? Relieved. I was way out of my depth by that point.”

 

“I’d think you’d be used to being out of your depth by now, Ensign. Haven’t you been way out of your depth for the last three years?”

 

Anny froze. Was this an honest question—however tactless—or a provocation? “At first. sir, perhaps. But I seem to have grown into it with time.”

 

“And now you think you can grow into being an officer in an assault regiment.”

 

“That is my hope, sir.”

 

“Oh stop interrogating her, Jacob!” snorted one of the other officers. “This is a social occasion and you’re being rude to our guest.”

 

“Just idle curiosity, Franz. No offense intended, Miss Payne, I assure you.”

 

“And none taken, sir.” She looked at the surrounding throng. “And thank you all for your welcome. I hope that me and my fellows can live up to the glorious traditions of the Forty-second, even for the short time that we’ll be with you.”

 

“Well said, miss!”

 

“Ensign Payne has informed me that the proper form of address for her is ‘mister’,” said Captain Vortaglia.

 

“Really?” laughed the one who had spoken. “That might take some getting used to! Perhaps we should extend our first-name privileges to our guests, eh?”

 

But before anyone could respond to that suggestion, there was a commotion near the door and in walked Colonel Vordavid. She’d seen pictures of him and she also recognized the man with him as Major Lurray, commander of the 2nd Battalion, and the man she’d be serving under on the upcoming cruise. Everyone turned to face the Colonel and a chorus of polite welcomes erupted from around the room. He motioned for quiet and instantly got it.

 

“’Evening everyone,” he said. “As you all know, but perhaps our young ensigns do not, it’s traditional when the regiment or a part of the regiment departs on an extended mission to have a farewell dinner. Tomorrow 2nd Battalion will be joining Admiral Vorkoff’s task force and they’ll be gone for four or five months. So tonight, we say goodbye to Major Lurray and his officers and bid them fair jumps and a prosperous voyage.” A polite round of applause started and Lurray bowed slightly to everyone.

 

“At the same time that we are saying goodbye,” continued the Colonel, “we are also saying hello to eight jaygees on loan to us from the Academy. It’s been several years since the Forty-second has been so… honored.” He paused with a grin on his face and many of the officers laughed. “And I must say I’ve been a bit curious about just what sort of product the Academy has been turning out these days. Well, as most of you know, we ran a little test over the last two days to see for ourselves. I’m happy to report that the current model seems to be entirely up to snuff.” He turned slowly and looked each of the jaygees in the eyes. “Welcome to the Forty-second, gentlemen.” Anny and the others stammered out their replies. Colonel Vordavid then nodded to the principle musician and the band began to play. Apparently this concluded the formal remarks because everyone began talking and drinking again. Anny took the opportunity to slip out of the ring that had formed around her and seek refuge with her friends.

 

“Seems friendly enough,” said Patric.

 

“Who?” asked Alby.

 

“Well, all of ‘em, I guess. Nice bunch.”

 

And so it seemed. Anny found herself talking with a number of the officers and they were all quite cordial. Part of her kept wondering if this was some sort of new test and what trap might be waiting for her. I’m getting as paranoid as Denis and Alby. She tried to force herself to relax and enjoy herself, but it was hard.

 

Eventually, there was a roll of drums and a crash of cymbals from the band and an announcement that dinner was ready. Stewards appeared to guide them to their spots as there were no name cards on the table. As was to be expected, the colonel was seated at the head table at the base of the ‘U’. To his left the officers of the regiment not in the 2nd Battalion were arranged in order of rank stretching down the side tables. But to his right, in the places of honor were the 2nd Battalion officers. And rather than being in order of rank, the eight jaygees were interspersed with the other officers. As a result, Anny found herself sitting directly between Colonel Vordavid and Major Lurray. Somehow she didn’t think this was just a matter of chance. She nodded and smiled briefly to the two men as she took her seat and she could tell that Vordavid was resisting the urge to stand and help seat her. She focused on the table setting in front of her: china plates, gleaming silverware and fine crystal glasses. A steward appeared and filled one of the glasses with an amber liquid. She didn’t know what it was, but she suspected it was something potent.

 

Suddenly a bugle rang out and dead silence followed. Vordavid stood up and all the others did as well. Anny sprang to her feet. The Colonel looked down to the far end of the tables. “Mister Vorsworth, I believe you are the junior here,” he said.

 

Anny held her breath, but Alby didn’t falter. In fact, the expression on his face was as serious as Anny had ever seen. He took his glass and raised it and said in a loud voice: “Colonel, gentlemen, the Emperor.”

 

“The Emperor!”

 

Anny had resolved that she would just wet her lips for the toasts, but for this, for the Emperor she would drain her glass. And she did. The drink was brandy and it burned going down and then sat like a fire in her belly. But it wasn’t unpleasant and as she retook her seat a warm glow seemed to pass all through her and an amazing realization came to her:

 

I passed their tests!

 

She had been so tired, so focused on immediate tasks—and immediate worries—that she hadn’t stopped to think about just where she was. The regimental officers’ mess was the heart and soul of the Barrayaran military. This was where all the lineage, the traditions, the glory, and the honor of the officer class was stored. It was not something casually shared with strangers.

 

But they are sharing it with me!

 

For centuries the mess had been a Vors-only bastion, but slowly some non-Vors, like Major Lurray, had worked their way in. And now here she was, too… They didn’t have to do this. They could have excluded her. They could have excluded all the jaygees if they’d been afraid of some sort of backlash. They could have just skipped the dinner entirely rather than invite her. But they hadn’t. They had let her inside their fortress.

 

“You’re very quiet, Mister Payne,” said the Colonel. “I hope we didn’t wear you out completely.”

 

“Oh, no sir. I was just thinking.”

 

“What about, if I may ask?”

 

Before she could answer, a voice rose above all the murmuring conversations. A rich tenor voice raised in song. She glanced over to where the band was and saw a young man with corporal’s insignia singing. All there paused to listen. It was a song about war and glory and death… and glory. It sent a shiver through her and she blinked back tears.

 

“Beautiful,” she whispered when it was over.

 

“Yes,” said Colonel Vordavid and she amazed to see a tear glinting in his eye. “We have a lot of talent in the regiment.” He pulled himself back from whatever place the song had taken him. “But we were speaking about your thoughts.”

 

“I… I just was thinking about how grateful I am for this opportunity, sir.”

 

Vordavid nodded and she sensed that he knew exactly what she was talking about. “Times change, people change, but some things don’t change. The Regiment is far more than flesh and blood. It lived long before we were born and we can pray that it will continue long after we’re gone. Those of us here are just caretakers. And if a m… person is worthy of it, they are welcome here. So fill your glass again, Mister Payne! The night is young and we have many a tradition to uphold!”

 

“Thank you sir.”

 

She leaned back in her chair as the first course was served. She banished her cares and resolved to live for this night alone.

 

 

Chapter 37

 

 

There will be no shenanigans aboard my ships, Mister Payne! I want you to be absolutely clear on that! None! With anyone! You step one centimeter out of line and I’ll ship you home on a fast courier with a report that will make sure you never set foot on an imperial warship again! You understand me, girl?”

 

Anny sat bolt upright on a chair in Admiral Vorkoff’s cabin and tried not to let either her fear or her anger show on her face. She glanced at Major Lurray in the chair next to her, but his expression was unreadable. “I understand, Admiral. No shenanigans. I’ll continue to behave exactly as I have for the last three years at the Academy.”

 

The Admiral snorted and the expression on his face told her that he didn’t believe a word she’d said. “I’ll be perfectly blunt with you, girl: I didn’t ask for you and I don’t want you. I was ordered to take you so here you are. But I will not tolerate any disruptions to my command. And I don’t give a damn if you’re as pure as the Maiden of the Lake! If there are any incidents caused by your presence, anything at all, I’ll hold you responsible even if you didn’t do anything to deliberately cause them!”

 

Major Lurray cleared his throat. “That’s hardly fair to Ensign Payne, sir. You can’t hold her responsible for…”

 

“The hell I can’t, Major! This is my command, and there will be order! If I see something or someone disrupting that order I’ll take the steps I must to rectify the problem. So if you want Payne to be treated fairly then I suggest you and your troopers make damn sure no disruptions occur! You read me, Lurray?”

 

“Yes, sir, I think you’ve made yourself perfectly clear.”

 

“All right then, I’m holding you both responsible. Dismissed.” Lurray got to his feet and Anny did so as well. They exited the cabin and walked down one of the corridors of His Majesty’s battlecruiser Indomitable. They had shuttled up from Fort Vormeyer yesterday. When they reached a spot where no one was in earshot, Lurray stopped and turned to face her.

 

“Well, I think that was plain enough, don’t you, Ensign?”

 

“Yes, sir. Couldn’t have been much plainer. I’m sorry if I’m causing you problems, sir.”

 

“I’ve survived worse problems. I’d be hard pressed to name a stranger problem, but worse ones, definitely.” He gave her a small smile. “But tell me, Ensign, are you honestly telling me—and the Admiral—that you’ve never engaged in any ‘shenanigans’ during your time at the Academy?” Anny flinched but Lurray went on: “Normally it wouldn’t be any of my damn business, but since the Admiral seems to have made your chastity my problem, I feel I do have a right to know.”

 

Inside Anny was furious; not at the question itself but because he was doubting her word. “I told the Admiral the truth, sir,” she said through clenched teeth. “And now I’m telling you the truth. On my word as an officer.”

 

“I see,” said Lurray who gave no sign that he noticed her anger. “One of the reasons I asked was that I’ve seen your medical records and I noticed that you’ve had a contraceptive implant installed. I had to wonder.”

 

Anny’s anger abated slightly, but only slightly. What business did he have with her medical records? “That was at Countess Vorkosigan’s suggestion, sir. We had no way of knowing what I might end up facing at the Academy and she felt it was a reasonable precaution. And since it would stop my menstruation, it would also solve another problem at the same time.”

 

Now Lurray did react, blushing slightly. “I see…”

 

“You’ve seen my record, sir, but you might not be aware that it took over a year to get all the red tape straightened out to permit me to go to the Academy. During much of that time I was receiving preparation from the Countess, Commodore Clement Koudelka, and his wife, who was the personal bodyguard to the Emperor when he was a child. The Countess is Betan, sir and we discussed the sexual aspects of the situation quite thoroughly. The Commodore and his wife also made it quite clear how disruptive… shenanigans on my part, or even the hint of shenanigans, could be to military discipline. I have been very careful, sir. And I will continue to be very careful.”

 

“Interesting,” said Lurray. “When I learned you would be assigned to my battalion I did some checking. There are some rumors about you and Ensign Naddel. So those rumors are false?”

 

Anny bit her lip. Damn. All those dances… “We’re good friends, sir. He’s been my first sergeant since my first year and we have a close working relationship. But Ensign Naddel is every bit as much aware as I am of the potentially disastrous impact on our careers if we became anything more than friends. Still, I can see how rumors like that might get started.” Had she just lied to him? She and Jer were certainly more than just friends. But they hadn’t done anything except in their hearts. Well, the night of the Formal… but that’s what the damn Formal was for! They’d just been carrying out orders, right? Thoughts don’t count the Countess had once told her, only acts of will. Or in this case acts of won’t. Whatever they felt for each other it would not get in the way of their duty. But why did it all have to be so complicated?

 

“Yes,” said Lurray. “Well in any case, I’ll be assigning the two of you to different companies for the voyage. You might run into each other dirtside, but I trust you’ll have the sense to, uh, continue to avoid shenanigans.”

 

“Yes, sir. I was assuming that would be the case.”

 

“All right then. You carry out your end of the bargain and I, and the rest of the battalion, will give you all the support we can. We look out for our own here. But don’t let me down, Mister Payne.”

 

“I won’t sir.”

 

“Good. Carry on.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

The personnel pod eased out of Indomitable’s hanger bay into the blackness of space. Anny unfastened her seat belt and pushed herself into the pilot’s compartment, moving carefully in the zero-g. Alby Vorsworth was right behind her. The pod was automated. There was no pilot, but there was still a control station in the event of emergencies. “Sure hope this thing knows where it’s going,” said Alby. They buckled themselves into the chairs and looked out through the large viewport.

 

Barrayar floated below them, beautiful in her greens, browns, blues and white. Anny never tired of looking at her home from space, but today her eyes were elsewhere. A dozen white specks were around them, distinct shapes rather than the bright pin-points of the stars, the other ships of the task force. “I think that one’s Courageous,” said Anny, pointing at one of the specks.

 

“We do seem to be headed towards her,” replied Alby. “Wonder what it will be like?”

 

So did Anny. Not so much the ship as the people aboard her. She’d studied the layout of the heavy cruiser, of course. She was relatively new and had been modernized during a refit just the previous year. Fast, powerful weapons, and strong defenses for something that wasn’t considered a capital ship. Of more concern to Anny, she could carry a full company of assault troops. At this moment she was carrying G Company, 2nd battalion, 42nd Infantry. Anny and Alby were on their way to join them.

 

The task force consisted of the battlecruiser, three heavy cruisers and nine frigates. In just a few hours they would be leaving Barrayar and making the wormhole jumps to Komarr. There they would become the escort for a large convoy of nearly forty merchant ships heading out on an extended trading voyage through the nexus. The four companies of the battalion would be quartered on the battlecruiser and the three heavies but would have squads detached to the frigates on a rotating basis, and, if the rumors were true, to some of the merchant ships as well. If the jaygees were treated as real officers then Anny might well find herself in command of a squad or a platoon all by herself.

 

“So how are you doing, Anny?” asked Alby. “Seems like we’ve hardly had time to say howdy-doo since this little pleasure excursion began.”

 

“Yeah, it does seem that way sometimes. I guess I’m okay. Tired, of course, but who isn’t? How about you?”

 

“Surviving. Not bad, really. I… uh… Anny, I’ve been wanting to talk to you alone and this is the first opportunity in ages. I’ve been writing to Abigail quite a bit. Was doing it even when we were still back at the Academy. I know you told us to cease and desist, but I didn’t think… I hoped you wouldn’t mind us writing to each other.”

 

Anny smiled. “No, I don’t have any problem with that. What goes on in your hearts and your heads is none of my business. As long as you act sensibly, it’s okay.”

 

“Like between you and Jer?”

 

Anny blushed. “Yeah, like between me and Jer. Is it that obvious?”

 

“For those of us who are with you all the time, yeah, it’s kinda hard to miss. I don’t think anyone else is going to notice. You both do a good job of staying professional. You really love him, Anny?”

 

“Yeah, I think so.”

 

“I’m glad. Really. Before I met Abbie, I think I might have been jealous, but now I’m glad for you both.” He looked out the window for a moment. “Too bad you got paired with me instead of him.”

 

“It might be for the best,” said Anny with a smile. “We’re only flesh and blood after all.”

 

“Really? I thought you were computer circuits and battle armor, Anny.”

 

“Oh, that’s just a façade. Underneath I’m this scared little girl who thinks she can be a soldier.”

 

“You are a soldier, Anny. You prove it a dozen times a day.”

 

”Yeah, and then I have to prove it again the next day and the next and the next. It’s wearing me out, Alby.” She wasn’t sure why she was saying all this to him—but it was a relief to be able to talk freely with someone.

 

“Someday you won’t have to prove it to anyone anymore. You’re going to show them all, Anny.”

 

“I hope so,” she sighed. But then she smiled. “Thanks for all your help, Alby. Thanks for being such a good friend.”

 

Alby blushed. “Heck after all you’ve done for me, it’s the least I can do.”

 

“No it’s not. I see the ‘least people can do’ every day. You do a lot more than that.” She reached out and gripped his hand. “I can’t tell you how much it means to know there’s someone beside me I can count on absolutely. You and Patric and Jer. They try to teach us this stuff about loyalty and comradeship, but those are just words.” She squeezed his hand hard. “This is real. Thanks.”

 

“You can count on me, Anny. Always.”

 

“I know I can.” She let go of him and leaned back. “So how are you and Abigail getting along? Do you think you’re in love with her?”

 

“Maybe. I’m not really sure. I like her an awful lot, but…” He trailed off.

 

“Well, at least she’s Vor.”

 

“Yeah, that shouldn’t matter, but it does make things easier. Her family’s not nearly as prominent as mine, but they are pretty important on Sergyar. And…” Alby laughed weakly and shook his head. “My father isn’t doing too well. Grandfather’s death and his retirement has taken a lot out of him. Before much longer there might not be anyone left to disapprove of a match with Abbie.”

 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. Anny wasn’t sure just how she felt about Alby’s father. At first he’d been an enemy and then later an ally of sorts. He was retired now, but the mere fact that he’d been able to arrange that all of Alby’s friends were assigned to the same unit during this apprentice cruise showed that he still had power. Not someone to be trifled with, that was for sure. “But you said that he’s reconciled with your sister, right? If he did that, I can’t see he’d be all that upset about Abigail.”

 

“I can hope. But yeah, it was pretty amazing seeing him with my sister’s kids. Grown grandchildren that he’s hardly ever seen. It was awkward as hell at first, but by the end of my leave he was… well, he was acting like a grandfather.  Or at least I guess he was, my experience with grandfathers is a bit skewed, too. Amazing.”

 

Anny glanced out the window and saw that their destination was growing large. Barrayaran warships had a characteristic shape to their hulls that lent them a distinctly—and deliberately—menacing feel. Legend said that Mad Emperor Yuri’s eccentric architect had some input in the designs of the first Barrayar-built warships even though he knew nothing about space ships. Whatever the case, Imperial ships looked powerful and dangerous and the heavy cruiser Courageous was no exception. A tiny thrill went down Anny’s spine at the sight of her.

 

“Home sweet home,” said Alby.

 

“For the moment anyway.”

 

A short while later the pod was clamped to an airlock and the pair debarked, carrying their gear. There was an ensign at the lock in navy black. “Permission to come aboard, sir?” asked Anny saluting. The man returned her salute and told them where to report to. He didn’t seem the least surprised at seeing her, nor the least bit interested in engaging in conversation. She supposed that Admiral Vorkoff had issued bloodthirsty orders to the whole task force forbidding anyone to look crossways at her. That might seem silly, but it might actually be for the best, too. If everyone just avoided her, she could deal with that. At least she’d have Alby to talk to.

 

The ensign had only given them a compartment number as their destination and hadn’t offered any directions nor any help. But Anny had studied the ship’s layout and had her hand computer to guide her and they managed to find their way without too much trouble. The assault troops had their own section of the ship assigned to them and there was a sentry at the hatch that led to it. He came to attention as they approached.

 

“Private, we’ve just been attached,” said Anny. “Where can we find the OOD?”

 

“Right through there, sir. First compartment on the left.”

 

“Thank you.” They went through and found the company office just where it was supposed to be. A lieutenant in fatigues sat at a desk and he looked up as they entered. Anny and Alby both saluted. “Ensigns Payne and Vorsworth reporting for duty, sir,” she said.

 

“Ah, right,” said the man. “We’ve been expecting you.” To her surprise he got up and shook hands with both of them. He touched me! He touched me! Shenanigan alert! Call the Admiral! “I’m Ben Fenwick, the exec. The Skipper isn’t here at the moment, but welcome to Georg Company.”

 

“Thank you, sir. Good to be here.”

 

“Yeah, right. Well, Mister Vorsworth, you’ll be bunking with the other junior officers.” Fenwick came around the desk and stepped past them into the corridor. They followed. “Third hatch on the right,” he said, pointing. “I’m afraid we’re a bit cramped at the moment. You’ll have to sling a hammock. Once we start sending out squads to the other ships we’ll have more room.”

 

“Not a problem, sir, I’ve been in a hammock before.” Alby picked up his gear and headed down the corridor. Fenwick turned to face Anny.

 

“Your quarters, Ensign, are in here.” He stepped to the first hatch on the right and pressed the entry button and the door slid open. He stepped back and motioned for Anny to look. She did so and saw a small but comfortable cabin with a single bunk, desk, and its own attached shower/toilet. She looked sharply at Fenwick.

 

“These are the company commander’s quarters, sir.”

 

“Indeed they are, were, but for the moment they are yours. There will be a palm lock keyed to you installed by the end of the day. The orders to you are as follows: No one but you will ever be allowed in this compartment. No exceptions. You will remain in your quarters except for meals any time you are not on duty. Understand?”

 

“I… I’m being confined to quarters, sir?”

 

“Technically, yes. In practice, we will be keeping you so busy for the next few weeks the only time you’ll be in here is to sleep and probably not nearly enough of that as you’d like. Once the convoy embarks things will change and we’ll just have to see. But for now, that’s it.”

“Yes, sir, I understand.”

 

“Good. Get yourself squared away and then report to Ordnance Sergeant Gilroy in the armory. Carry on.”

 

“Yes, sir.” Fenwick went back to his office, leaving Anny alone in the corridor. She shrugged and hauled her gear into the room and let the door shut behind her. Exiled again. Just like my cottage back at the Academy!

 

Stowing her gear took about five minutes. She didn’t even touch the desk and kept a lot of her stuff in her duffle bag rather than trying to find a spot for it. She couldn’t imagine she’d be in here for the whole trip! Then she changed into her black fatigues, refreshed her memory about where the armory was, and left the cabin.

 

She looked into the cabin where Alby was bunking, but he was already gone. She saw his gear piled in a corner with a hammock tossed on top of it and felt guilty about her soft bunk. Her path took her past the main barracks compartments for the company and saw that it was swarming with troopers busily storing equipment. She had to remind herself that the whole battalion was newly arrived on the ships. The company commander, Captain Vorhuber, wasn’t being kicked out of a cabin he’d occupied for years on her account. A few heads turned to look at her as she passed and she heard a couple of laughs. She reached the hatch to the armory. A sentry stood there, but he let her pass without challenging her. There was a loud voice talking inside…

 

“…typical bureaucratic foul up! When the hell are they going to start talking to us before they pull these little stunts? All right, we’ll just have to…” The speaker was a tall man in fatigues just like hers, except there were blue captain’s tabs on the collar. Vorhuber? He turned as she came in. “Ah, there you are, Payne. I was just telling Vorsworth and the others here that we’ve got a hell of a mess and you are the lucky ones to get it sorted out.” She looked at Alby, who just rolled his eyes. There was a small crowd of enlisted men gathered round, too. The Captain hadn’t even introduced himself…

 

“We’ve had the great good fortune to have been issued the latest model battle armor,” continued Vorhuber. “Normally that would be a good thing. But the bastards at BuOrd just sent the new stuff directly here and ordered the ordnance officer at Fort Vormeyer to send our old suits into storage! We’ve got two hundred suits still in their packing crates! Those idiots know perfectly well that a set of armor takes nearly thirty man-hours of prep work before it’s ready to use! So I’ve got a company with no armor! What the hell am I supposed to do if there’s an emergency? Well, there’s nothing for it, we’ll have to do it ourselves and I want it done before we reach Komarr! Sergeant Gilroy, I’m putting you in charge of this. Take our young gentlemen and anyone else you need but get it done, you read me?”

 

“Yes sir,” said an older man with sergeant’s chevrons and an ordnance insignia. “We’ll take care of it, sir.” Vorhuber nodded at the man and then left. Gilroy ran his eyes over the assembled troopers and then came back to Anny and Alby. He grinned.

 

“Hope you don’t mind gettin’ your hands dirty!”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Lieutenant Fenwick had been right about her cabin: she didn’t get to use it nearly often enough. For the next four days they worked twenty hour days and Anny learned more about the inner workings of battle armor than she’d dreamed possible. She was tempted to say that she learned more than she’d ever want to know, but that wasn’t really true. Assault troopers lived and died by their armor and you could never be too familiar with it. She’d need an advanced engineering degree to know how it all worked, but that wasn’t necessary. It was enough to know that the targeting unit G874-B should put out exactly these reading on the test monitor and if it didn’t then replace the damn thing with a new one and run the test again. That and a hundred other systems. Power supply, weapons, defensive screens, life support, communications, they all had to be tested, tuned, and tested again. Anny had four enlisted men working as part of her team. Unpack the armor, assemble it, run the tests, they all had a job and Anny had to make sure each step was done properly. No shortcuts here! Someone’s life would depend on the job they did. It was hard, grueling work, but Anny didn’t resent a moment of it. Alby had his own team and there were eight other teams led by experienced non-coms. Anny didn’t have any trouble with the men assigned to her, but then they were doing by-the-book tasks that they all knew were important. Suit by suit they did the job.

 

Each night she’d flop on her bunk and be out in an instant and then get up seemingly moments later and start again. Still, all in all she was happy. She was learning new things and meeting new people and she was doing an important job as a part of her company. Most importantly, the other members of the company were letting her do her job.

 

But there were one hundred and eighty-nine sets of armor to check and even working round the clock they only had half of them done when the last jump to Komarr was being set up. Anny leaned against a workbench with a cup of coffee during a rare break and shook her head at Sergeant Gilroy. “We’re not gonna make it, Sarge.”

 

“Of course we’re not. The Captain knew that when he gave the order.”

 

“But then why…?”

 

“Just his style of doin’ things, missy. And it gives me an excuse to ride all your tails with no mercy.” He grinned at her. “But we’ll have enough for two full platoons by the time we make the rendezvous. That will let him send those off to the other ships. Nothin’s gonna hit the fan while we’re at Komarr or Sergyar and we’ll have ‘em all up and running before we get anywhere else.”

 

“You seem to have it all planned out, Sarge.”

 

“Part of my job. You’ll get the hang of things after you’ve been here a while.” Anny sighed and went back to work.

 

Shortly after the last jump into Komarr space Captain Vorhuber came to check on their progress. He growled and griped about the fact that they hadn’t finished and at the same time managed to convey an unspoken ‘well done’ that had them all feeling pretty good. Anny resolved to study the Captain’s command style. It was… interesting. He also ordered them to stop breaking out new suits and to get the ones that were done adjusted to their owners. They’d be rendezvousing with the convoy in another day and he wanted 1st and 2nd platoons ready to deploy. Sergeant Gilroy gave her a wink when they heard that.

 

“Oh, and Payne,” Vorhuber paused as he turned to go. “Pick out a suit for yourself. You’ll be going with 1st platoon.”

 

“Sir? Yes sir!” She was surprised. She and Alby hadn’t been assigned to platoons yet, hadn’t even really met any of their officers or NCOs except in random encounters in the mess hall. She had been half-expecting never to be assigned to a platoon. Maybe the Captain was planning to keep her around as a gofer where he could keep a close eye on her. Apparently not.

 

Fitting a suit of battle armor to its owner didn’t take as long as prepping a cold suit for use, but it was just as exacting. For obvious reasons all suits of battle armor were identical in their size and shape although there were numerous variations in the weapons and equipment attached to them. But the men wearing the armor came in a variety of sizes and shapes and the armor had to be adjusted for a good fit if it was to function properly. Anny remembered how if Patric had been just one centimeter taller he would have been disqualified for assault troops: he wouldn’t have fit into the armor!

 

So, one by one the troopers of the first two platoons came and got fitted for their armor. It only took a couple of hours per man, but the complaints were non-stop. A well-worn set of armor was like an old, comfortable pair of shoes to these troopers. None of them were happy about giving up their old set despite all the fancy gimcracks in these new ones. Of course there wasn’t any choice since their old suits were all light years away back at Fort Vormeyer. So they grumbled and bitched and as soon as the fit-out was complete they were painting regulation unit patches and non-regulation pictures and slogans on their suits as happy as kids with new toys.

 

Not all the troopers were old veterans. The company had a few other new people besides Anny and Alby: replacements for men who had retired or transferred or been lost to injuries or other mishaps. A transfusion of fresh blood for the regiment. Anny glanced at the next trooper in the queue to be fitted out and saw that he was one of the newbies, way younger than the others she’d been working with. “You’re next private… uh, Karal,” she said consulting her list. Karal? She took a closer look at the man, who was grinning openly. His hand snapped up in a parade-ground salute even though the standing order was for no salutes on shipboard.

 

“I said I’d hafta salute you the next time we met,” said the man, his voice tinged with a familiar Dendarii Mountain’s accent.

 

“Zac? Zac Karal?” gasped Anny. It was really him, the same kid she’d met on the bus to Hassadar! He was a little taller and far more muscular, but it was really him! “What the hell are you doing here?”

 

“Same’s you, I guess: tryin’ to be an assault trooper.”

 

“But… but you’ve only been in the service, what? Eighteen months?”

 

“Nineteen.”

 

“And you made it through Basic and Infantry School and into an assault regiment in nineteen months?” That seemed unusually fast to Anny.

 

Zac grinned and scratched his head. “Got lucky. And all the advice you gave me helped, too. The drill sergeant was so impressed with all the little tricks you told me about I was made a brevet corporal in my training company. Then we were in the Fire—I know you were involved in that, too—and I kept my head in an emergency we had and well, that seemed to impress some folks. I was posted for advanced training and one thing led to another and here I am.”

 

“Well, that’s amazing. Oh, and I met your folks when I was up that way during the Fire.”

 

“I know. They wrote me about it—and what you and your men did. Thanks for that, sir, thanks a lot.”

 

Anny nodded. “So how come this is the first I’ve seen you here?”

 

“Oh, we’ve all been ordered not to bother you. And they’ve kept me real busy, too.”

 

“I can believe that! Well, we better get on with your fit-out before Sergeant Gilroy catches us goofing off.”

 

“You out-rank him don’tcha?”

 

“Yeah, maybe, but it’s still his armory and in here he makes the rules. Come on, step over here.” They got down to business, but had only been at it a few minutes when Gilroy came up and he seemed unusually flustered.

 

“Ensign? Uh, Ensign we’ve got a problem.” Was the man blushing?

 

“What kind of problem, Sarge?”

 

“It’s uh… it’s about your armor. Y’see I was getting a suit ready for you, like the Captain said, and it just struck me that the … the… uh…” Yeah, he was definitely blushing.

 

“The what?”

 

“The… uh… the plumbing connections! They… they won’t work for a… a…” the man was turning an amazing shade of crimson.

 

“A woman?” Anny tried not to grin—and failed.

 

“Yes! I don’t see how I’m gonna, I mean how you’re gonna, I mean…” Gilroy sputtered to a stop.

 

“Relax, Sergeant,” laughed Anny. “I was meaning to talk to you about that.”

 

“But… but…”

 

“I’ve already got an undersuit modified for my anatomy. How’d you think I’m able to wear a space suit?”

 

“But that still needs to connect to the armor’s plumbing!” protested Gilroy. “How am I gonna…?”

 

Anny walked over to her little work bag and rummaged around in it for a moment. She pulled out a small contraption of plastic pipes and flexible tubes and handed it to Gilroy. “I had the workshop at the Academy tinker this together for me before I left. It’s a standard item in other militaries who already have women. I think it will solve our problem, Sergeant.” He took it like it was a live grenade. “You should be able to figure out how it fits into the armor.”

 

“Well I’ll be damned…” He started to wander off, scratching his head. “Now how the hell does this thing go…?”

 

Anny turned back to Zac who was trying not to laugh. “Now where were we?”

 

 

* * *

 

 

They jumped into Komarr space and then immediately proceeded to the wormhole jump point leading to Sergyar. The convoy was assembling there and waiting for its escort. There would be no stop-over at Komarr itself and Anny was perfectly happy to miss it this time. She had little time to worry about that or anything except getting ready to deploy. The members of 1st Platoon were not all strangers to her since she’d been helping fit some of them to their armor for a full day, but most she did not know. The commander was Lieutenant Ovrasky and he already had one ensign working for him, a sandy-haired youth, named Palese who didn’t look much older than her. Under normal circumstances there wouldn’t be much need for a second ensign, but convoy duty was different. The platoon was going to be broken up into three slightly over-strength squads and sent out to different ships. Ovrasky would take one, Palese the second and technically she’d be in command of the third. Technically, because the platoon’s senior NCO, Sergeant Zeckman, was also being assigned to the third squad and Ovrasky made it clear that Anny was in command only so long as she followed Zeckman’s advice. It honestly didn’t bother her to have a watchdog like that: as long as she listened to him she couldn’t get into too much trouble. Alby had been assigned to 2nd Platoon with a similar arrangement except that 2nd Platoon didn’t have the luxury of another ensign so one of the squads was going to be commanded by a sergeant. A brief message she’d gotten from Jer told her that the other jaygees from the Academy were being similarly handled in the companies they’d been assigned to, so she wasn’t being treated any differently from the rest.

 

“Three of the squads will be assigned to frigates to act as shipboard troops,” explained Captain Vorhuber during their briefing. “If it hadn’t been for the screw-up with the armor you would have been over there before we left Barrayar. The other three, Vorsworth, Palese and Payne, you’ll each be assigned to one of the merchies. As you might know, we’ll provide escort to non-Imperial ships on the same run for a fee. But we’ve been having problems with hijackers the last few years and almost every time they’ve been aboard these non-Imperial ships. So the Admiral wants a closer watch kept on them. Mister Vorsworth you’ll be aboard a ship from Earth, Mister Pelese, your ship is from Pol and Mister Payne, you’ll be on an Escobaran ship. Keep in mind that you are guests aboard those ship up to the moment that the Admiral declares an emergency. At that point you are in charge and don’t take any shit from the ship’s skipper. Understood?”

 

“Yes sir.” Anny was surprised and excited at the prospect of getting aboard a foreign ship. She didn’t think she’d ever met anyone from Escobar. Oh wait, that’s right, Martya Koudelka’s husband was from Escobar…

 

Ten hours later they rendezvoused with the convoy and Anny and her squad—which to her delight included Zac Karal—found themselves on a shuttle heading for the Escobaran merchant-liner Pogthress. She wasn’t sure what the name meant, she’d have to ask. They were all wearing their undress greens. Their armor and weapons, except for sidearms, were all stowed with their other gear. They’d been ordered not to appear like a hostile boarding party.

 

The shuttle hooked up to an air lock and Anny went in and waited for it to cycle. When the hatch swung open Anny was surprised to see the ship’s captain waiting to greet her. She’d expected a junior officer. She was even more surprised that the captain was a woman, a tall, dark-haired woman who she’d guess was in her late thirties. The woman smiled and offered her hand.

 

“Ensign Payne? Welcome aboard. I’m Captain Bothari-Jesek.”

 

 

Chapter 38

 

 

D ear Countess Vorkosigan,

 

It is such a shame that I am passing through the Sergyar system and will not have an opportunity to see you. The convoy is not stopping at Sergyar and will be making the jump to Escobar in a few hours. I waved at you through a window, but I guess you didn’t see :) I will get this letter finished and transmitted before the jump, though. You and the Count have my fondest greetings.

 

I also send along another greeting, although you may be getting one direct as well. I’m currently stationed on an Escobaran merchant ship whose captain is an old friend of yours. Elena Bothari-Jesek sends her regards. Meeting her was quite a surprise!

 

Anny leaned back in her chair and ran her fingers through her short hair. It had been quite a surprise when Bothari-Jesek had identified herself as an old friend of the Vorkosigans. More than a friend really, virtually a foster daughter who had grown up with their son, the Imperial Auditor. She’d already known that Anny had a connection with the Vorkosigans—only a small bit of research would have been enough to reveal that—but Anny’s own research had revealed far more about Bothari-Jesek’s past. Some of it had been quite an eye-opener!

 

When they’d jumped into Sergyar Anny had sent a query for information on her to the military jump station. It had seemed like a reasonable thing to do considering she’d be working closely with her and she’d gotten back a whole dossier. Bothari-Jesek was a Barrayaran by birth, the daughter of one of the Vorkosigan’s armsmen. She’d been the childhood playmate of Miles Vorkosigan, Ivan Vorpatril—and Emperor Gregor! Other than her remarkable playmates, there had been nothing particularly remarkable about her childhood or teenage years, but then around age twenty, under circumstances that were frustratingly classified, she had ended up with the Dendarii Free Mercenaries. She’d risen to the rank of captain and gotten her ship master’s rating. She’d married another Barrayaran expatriate and then about ten years ago retired from the Dendarii and become an independent ship master.

 

At face value it had been an unusual (especially for a Barrayaran woman), but not extraordinary career. But put together with the things the Lord Auditor had told her during that memorable Winterfair conversation, it became extraordinary, indeed! Upon reading the dossier Anny had immediately called up everything she could find on the Dendarii Free Mercenaries. There had been quite a lot, the group had pulled off some rather remarkable exploits over the years. And it had become instantly apparent to her that this must the group that the Lord Auditor had been referring to—and he had been the commander! The public records had stated that the commander, an Admiral Miles Naismith, was a clone of Miles Vorkosigan, but that was clearly a cover story. It had really been Miles Vorkosigan all along. He and Bothari-Jesek. The more she thought about it, the more amazing it became.

 

Of course, it didn’t seem to have any bearing on the current situation that Anny could see. As far as the records indicated—and by Bothari-Jesek’s own statements—she was done with her mercenary days. But she was still friends with the Vorkosigans and she had been friendly enough with Anny, too.

 

Captain Bothari-Jesek has kindly provided me with a nice cabin, although I rather suspect that Admiral Vorkoff may have had a hand in that. He seems to be of the opinion that given the chance I will try to seduce every man in his command and reduce his task force to chaos. I’ve come to the conclusion that my current assignment was decided upon deliberately to get me off the navy warships and the berthing arrangements here to keep me separate from my own squad when not on duty. That’s probably how I got assigned to this ship: Bothari-Jesek is one of only three woman ship captains in the convoy and hers is the only one of the three with much in the way of passenger accommodations. I don’t imagine Admiral Vorkoff did it to match me up with your old friend! Perhaps he thought by sending me off with ‘my own kind’ he could neutralize the ‘threat’ I pose. I had been warned that some officers were going to consider me a sort of leper, but it is discouraging to actually encounter it like this. On the other hand, the officers and men of my battalion have been friendly and willing to give me a chance to prove myself. All in all, it’s a bargain I can live with.

 

Anny paused and re-read the last paragraph. She wasn’t sure she actually wanted to send it. The Countess had provided her with a transmission code that would ensure any communications to her would be unseen by anyone except ImpSec, so she wasn’t worried that it might be seen by the Admiral. But still… she didn’t want to appear to be whining. After a moment she went back and deleted everything except the first half of the first sentence. It didn’t really matter, she supposed. As long as she could stay out of trouble and make sure her squad did everything it was supposed to, she could go back to the Academy with a passing grade and get on with her life.

 

Speaking of her squad… She checked the time and saw that the drill she’d scheduled for that morning would be starting in about an hour. She needed to get ready for that. She quickly finished up the letter to the Countess and sent it off.  Then she put on the skin-tight undersuit she wore with her battle armor. The armor itself was standing in one corner of her cabin. It was an unusual arrangement but in the event of an emergency she didn’t want to have to run all the way down to the compartment where the rest of the squad was bunking to armor-up. Having it here would save precious time. On the other hand, having someone to help would also save time. A person could get into armor on their own, but it was awkward and the more usual arrangement was to work in pairs and help each other out. Anny had no helper, so she squirmed and wriggled her way inside the suit and closed it up around her. Fully equipped the thing massed over a hundred and fifty kilos and until she activated the power servos it was like being trapped in a metal coffin. She made the plumbing connections—Sergeant Gilroy had made the adapter work perfectly—and then went through the suit’s check-out list.

 

The new model battle armor was significantly different from the older models in that it contained a neural interface similar to what they used in the simulator pods back at the Academy. Information from the sensors and computers were fed directly into the user’s brain and commands went out in the same fashion. Most of the information was still displayed visually except that instead of using a Heads-Up Display with the image projected on the inside of the helmet, it just looked that way—it was really all inside the user’s head. But the range of information available was greatly expanded and there was actually tactile feedback from the feet and hands of the suit that made it almost like you weren’t wearing a suit at all. You could feel the floor under your feet, you could sense air temperature and wind direction, you could even smell things. If you wanted, you could turn on the ‘no helmet’ mode and it was as though your head was out in the open with a full range of peripheral vision—while still keeping your head inside an armored helmet. The tactical options were much greater, too. It took a little getting used to, but Anny was starting to love it.

 

She finished her check-out and headed for the hatch. Here she encountered one of the disadvantages of the suit: she had to turn sideways to fit it through the door. She stomped down the corridor, a startled steward shrank against the wall to get out of her way and more than one head appeared in doorways to see what the noise was. But she quickly left the passenger section of the ship behind and made her way to the compartment her squad was using as their barracks. First Sergeant Zeckman saluted her as she approached. He was already in his armor and nearly all the rest of the squad was, too. A last few were finishing their check-outs. “Just about ready, sir,” said Zeckman.

 

“Good.” She activated her communicator to the ship’s channels. “Payne to Captain Bothari-Jesek.”

 

“Bothari-Jesek, here. Good morning Ensign,” came the reply almost immediately.

 

“We’re about to start our exercise, Captain. You might want to warn the passengers.”

 

“I’ll keep them out of your way, Ensign. Have fun, but try not to break anything, okay?”

 

“Thank you, si--ma’am, we’ll do our best.” She clicked off and turned back to the squad. There were a total of sixteen of them which was much larger than a normal squad. Georg Company had the usual organization of three ‘rifle’ platoons and a weapons platoon which had heavier gear. The Captain had kept most of the weapons people with his headquarters squad back on Courageous, but some of them had been attached to the other squads for this deployment. And then there was First Sergeant Zeckman, her watchdog. The squad already had its own sergeant, a man named Minz, so they had the rather awkward arrangement of three levels of command for a single squad. When the last trooper was suited up, Minz reported that fact to Zeckman who then reported it to Anny, even though they were all standing right there. To top it off, they had the squad’s normal corporal plus another corporal from the weapons platoon. Anny was reminded of a quote from one of her military history classes: ‘never in the annals of human warfare had so few been commanded by so many’. Still, it would allow her to split the squad into five fire teams if she wanted and each team would have an officer or NCO. A lot of flexibility if she needed it.

 

“All right people,” she said once they were lined up. “Basic orientation drill today. I know you all had a thorough tour of the ship yesterday without your armor, but today we are going to be sending you to various parts of the ship in groups or separately and you’ll be expected to get there quickly and with no fuss and then wait for the next order. Any questions? Good, let’s get started.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“So, Ensign, how did your exercises go today?” asked Captain Bothari-Jesek. Anny was seated at the head table with the Captain and a half-dozen of the passengers in the small dining salon the ship contained. Most of the other passengers—about forty in all—were sitting at the other tables while stewards bustled about serving dinner. Anny felt very guilty about eating in this luxury—the ship boasted a fine galley—instead of with her men. But Sergeant Zeckman had told her that it just wouldn’t be proper for her to chow down with her troopers. And his tone of voice had told her that this was an issue where he was quite willing to use the override authority Captain Vorhuber had given him. She supposed she could have requested the same chow as her troopers got and had it delivered to her cabin but that would have seemed petty. Besides, she enjoyed talking with Captain Bothari-Jesek.

 

“Very well, Captain,” she replied. “I’m getting my troops familiarized with the layout of your ship so that they can respond quickly to any emergency.”

 

“And just what sort of ‘emergency’ do you anticipate, Ensign?” asked a man across from her. He was a middle-aged business man, from Pol, she thought, named Fergussin.

 

“Well, any sort, sir, but our primary mission is to foil pirate boarding parties or hijackers.”

 

“By turning this ship into a shooting gallery?” The man was clearly not happy and he looked to Bothari-Jesek. “Captain, I again protest at having these… these stormtroopers aboard! In the unlikely event that any such trouble does arise I’d much prefer to have the situation handled diplomatically—paying ransoms if necessary—than leave our lives in the hands of this child and a bunch of trigger-happy Barrayaran savages!”

 

Anny reddened slightly but held her peace. Bothari-Jesek shifted in her chair and glared at the man. “First, Mister Fergussin, you might observe that Ensign Payne is wearing the Barrayaran Distinguished Service Star. I assure you they do not hand those out for keeping your boots shined! She may be young, but she’s hardly inexperienced. Second the terms of the agreement by which we are receiving Barryaran naval escort gives them the right to station troops on this ship if they so choose. Frankly, I’m thankful for the presence of Ensign Payne and her squad. But in any case, we have no choice, so I suggest you enjoy your dinner and try not to worry.”

 

The man snorted but subsided. Anny looked gratefully at Bothari-Jesek. While her medal wasn’t for combat operations, it was definitely for actions during an emergency. She could see the other people at the table regarding her with a new look of respect.

 

“Yes, be grateful, Ernesto,” said one of them. “The Merganthal Reaches aren’t like the parts of the Nexus you’re used to! Wild and wooly out there! Just crawling with pirates, freebooters, fanatics and space monsters, all itching to steal your cargo. Well, maybe no space monsters,” the man ended with a grin.

 

“None that I’ve ever seen,” said Bothari-Jesek, chuckling with the others. “That’s not say there aren’t any out there, of course.”

 

“But what is out there?” asked Anny. “Forgive my ignorance of business matters, but what profits do you hope to make out there? Aren’t most of those worlds frontier societies?”

 

“Trade items fall into two general categories, Ensign,” said the man, a younger fellow from Zoave Twilight named LeClerque. “Manufactured goods that the locals can’t make themselves and luxury items that can’t be found anywhere else. Shipping basic commodities like food, fuel, or non-precious metals has never been profitable except in a few rare cases. So, we’re all hoping to sell computers and power generators and automated foot massagers to these frontiersmen for stuff that is unique to their worlds.”

 

“Like what, sir?” Anny asked with genuine interest.

 

“That’s what a lot us are here to find out,” interjected a woman sitting further down the table.

 

“Yes,” continued LeClerque, “that’s always the goal: to find something new and unique that you can sell to the more developed worlds before someone figures out how to flood the market with manufactured copies.”

 

“Biological products are always best,” said another. “As incredible as it seems there is still a market for genuine Earth-grown pearls and amber even after all these centuries. Of course in those cases it’s as much where it comes from as what it is. Anything we find in the Reaches will have to be of interest in its own right since no one’s going to care which backwater world it’s from.”

 

“True, but if you find the right item,” said LeClerque. “You’re probably too young to remember, Ensign, but about ten years ago one lucky fellow stumbled across this stuff, very similar to Earthly amber now that I think about it, but it glowed in the dark with an amazing variety of colors. He made a fortune on his first cargo.”

 

“But then the poor sod went broke trying to bringing in a second, much bigger load,” said the woman, Anny thought her name was Itashi, “By the time he got back the stuff had been synthesized in all the major markets and was cheap as plastic.”

 

“That’s the big danger,” nodded LeClerque. “It’s a matter of the product and timing. Some products have a far longer window of opportunity, harder to duplicate or whatever. That’s where the real money can be made.”

 

“I see,” said Anny. “Very interesting. “But I take it you depend on the locals to find these things for you rather than tromping the backwoods yourself.”

 

“Usually, yes, the locals will know their worlds far better than any visitor. But there have been a few times…”

 

The discussion went on with the people at the table recounting legendary voyages with legendary profits. Anny listened in fascination for a while but then during a pause she asked Bothari-Jesek: “Are you carrying a cargo of your own, Captain? Or just transporting the cargo of others?”

 

The woman smiled. “I have a few items for trade aboard. The ship owners are assured of finishing the voyage in the black just on the transport fees, and I get paid in any case, but if I can turn an extra profit as well…” she shrugged.

 

“Are all the other passengers merchants hoping to strike it rich?” asked Anny nodding to the other tables.

 

“Not all, I don’t believe. We have a pair of missionaries—I forget which god they’re selling—a scientist or two checking out these different eco-systems, and a few others who’s business is their own. The usual mix, actually.”

 

The meal and the discussion continued and it was very pleasant. Mr. Furgussin got over his initial pique and joined in after a while and had some interesting things to say, too. And there was not a single question about Anny’s choice of careers or what it was like being in the military or any of the other questions she was usually asked back on Barrayar. Here she was nothing out of the ordinary—and she liked that.

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Uh, Ensign? Ensign Payne?” Anny turned her head and saw Corporal Krenshaw approaching her. They were both in battle armor and Anny had been monitoring a mock combat exercise her squad was running.

 

“What is it Corporal?”

 

“There’s been an… uh… an accident down in the cargo bay.”

 

“What sort of accident?” she asked in alarm. She instantly called up the bio-metric readouts for the whole squad, but they were all green.

 

“No one hurt, sir, but we sorta busted up one of the cargo lockers. Not real bad, but Sergeant Zeckman sent me to bring you.”

 

“Why didn’t he just com me?”

 

“Dunno, sir.”

 

“All right, I’ll come. Lead on.”

 

The man took her to the main cargo hold  and then through a maze of shipping containers until they reached an area near the back where there had been an area fenced in with metal netting. It had been fenced in, now it was torn wide open. Several smaller containers were scattered around. Half a dozen of her troopers were standing there She wasn’t sure how a person could look embarrassed while encased in armor, but somehow they did. As she approached Zeckman came up to her with his helmet open and he motioned to her to open her as well.

 

“What is this, Sergeant?”

 

“Could you turn off your com system, sir?” he was whispering. Puzzled, she did as he asked. “I’d rather not have a record of this if we can avoid it, sir.”

 

“Ah,” said Anny, beginning to understand. He didn’t want any of the men getting in trouble over the damage. The com system would make a recording of everything. Although it had already recorded everything, so she wasn’t sure what good it would do now. “So what happened?”

 

“Hide ‘n seek around the cargo, sir. Some of the boys got a trifle too spirited.”

 

“It was me, sir,” said one of the troopers. She sighed when she saw it was Zac Karal. “I got into hand-to-hand with Owins, there, and I sorta threw him too hard. I’m sorry, sir.”

 

“I told you all to be careful in here.” She didn’t raise her voice.

 

“Sorry, sir,” said Karal again.

 

“I think we can fix this up, sir,” said Zeckman. “Not quite as good as new, but maybe no one will notice.”


Anny sighed. “I have to report this.” Zeckman looked unhappy. “But I’ll name no names unless Captain Vorhuber insists. Is he likely to ask. Sergeant?”

 

“Sort of depends on how you word it, sir. He might not…”

 

“But in any case, fix this up as best you can. Maybe we can pay for it out of the company fund.”

 

“Yes, sir. But sir, there’s something else.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yeah, look over here.” The troopers parted and Zeckman led her to where one of the packing containers had popped open.

 

“Oh my.”

 

Yes sir.” The lid of the case had come open and there, neatly sitting in their gel packing, were several rows of hand plasma arcs. She looked around and saw that there were at least fifty similar containers stacked up inside the enclosure.

 

“What do we do, sir?” asked Zeckman. It was the first real question he’d asked her so far during this deployment. Something outside your experience, Sergeant? Well, me, too!

 

“Close up the container and get the enclosure fixed up like you said.”

 

“But… but shouldn’t we report this?”

 

“I’ll tell the Captain, but I doubt he’ll do anything. There’s nothing illegal about shipping weapons, Sergeant.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Really. A lot of planets have laws regarding importing and exporting, but as far as I know there aren’t any laws against shipping weapons from place to place. And from what I’ve heard about the Merganthal Reaches there probably aren’t any laws at all about importing stuff like this.”

 

“But…”

 

“It’s none of our business, Sergeant, and I expect you to tell that to all the men so that they believe it. You read me?” She stared at him and after a moment he nodded.

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Good. Carry on.” She watched as they used the powerful servos in their suits to try and bend the enclosure back into place. It was going to be a pretty sloppy looking job, she was afraid. Some of the metal stanchions had been twisted badly and there was no way they’d get them perfectly straight again.

 

Weapons, huh? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Wonder who they belong to?

 

As the men worked she noticed a flat piece of metal lying on the deck. It looked like it had been ripped off the enclosure. She bent and picked it up. Neatly lettered on the other side was printed:

 

Captain’s Stores. Authorized Personnel Only.

 

 

Chapter 39

 

 

She contacted Captain Vorhuber and told him the story. After he had chewed her out for letting the incident happen he pretty much agreed with the actions she’d taken. “Talk to the ship’s skipper and see if she wants damages paid. If we can keep the fee low enough we can just use the company fund and there’ll be no need for any official record of this.”

 

“And the weapons, sir?”

 

“You did rightly. They’re no damn business of ours. We’re convoy escorts, not customs agents. Tell your men to keep their mouths shut.”

 

“Will do, sir.”

 

“And don’t let this happen again, Ensign.”

 

“No sir.” She sighed and cut the connection. She was back in her cabin using what was supposedly a secure comconsole. The convoy was currently making the jumps from Escobar to Shinkibou Ni at which point they would then branch off the highly travelled routes of the Nexus and head out into the Mergenthal Reaches. It was an exciting prospect to Anny, but at the moment she needed to face the music—again—about the damage.

 

She found Captain Bothari-Jesek on the bridge and had to wait for a few minutes until she was free. “Hello, Anny,” she said. “What’s up?” Bothari-Jesek was less formal in private, but Anny refused to be anything less than correct.

 

“We had a bit of an accident down in the cargo hold, ma’am.” The Captain’s eyebrows went up and she made a little go on motion with her hand. “Nothing serious, really. One of the troopers collided with a meshed-in enclosure and damaged it a bit. We managed to straighten it out pretty well, but I wanted to apologize and offer to pay for any repairs that might be needed.”

 

“I see. Which enclosure was it? Any damage to the cargo inside?”

 

Anny felt herself blushing. “Uh, no, ma’am, no damage to the cargo, but I’m afraid the enclosure was yours.”

 

“I… see.” Bothari-Jesek’s expression had become quite neutral. “I’ll have to take a look and see if I’ll need to bill you for the damage, Ensign. Thank you for telling me. But I’d appreciate it if you kept your exercises out of the cargo hold from now on.”

 

“Yes, ma’am, my captain has already given me that order.”

 

“Good. And I… uh… I don’t think there’s any need to alarm the other cargo owners aboard by telling them anything about this, do you, Ensign? They can get worried so easily you know.”

 

“No, ma’am. I’ve already ordered my men not to mention it.”

 

“Good.” The Captain seemed to relax. “Well, I’ve got work to do. See you at dinner.” She turned away and went back on to her bridge. Anny stood there for a moment, a part of her oddly disappointed that Bothari-Jesek hadn’t suddenly grabbed her and screamed: Oh no! You found the weapons! You fools have ruined everything! Then she shrugged and went back to her cabin. It was no business of hers.

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Hey guys!” cried Anny, but the filter mask she was wearing muffled her shout and they didn’t hear her. Jer and Alby and Patric and Denis Fallon were half a block away and looking the opposite direction. She broke into a trot and caught up with her friends who greeted her with delight.

 

There was nothing she wanted more than to hug all of them, but she restrained herself and deftly fended off their attempts to hug her. There were other members of the convoy escort wandering the streets and any one of them could be a spy for Admiral Vorkoff. Yup, I’m really getting paranoid.

 

“So how are you fellows doing?” she asked. She had exchanged brief messages with them during the trip but this was the first time she’