I do not own, or receive any profit, from any of the Vorkosigan properties.
A Kinder Killing
By Larry Huss
Cordelia Naismith tried to avoid gritting her teeth. It would do no good, and her dentist wouldn't like it when she got back to Beta. Besides, letting these barbarians get under her skin was probably inevitable. Showing them that their crude manners and tricks worked was under her control, however. And in any case, she'd won (at least this far); she was going to get her conference with the local head barbarian, Aral Vorkosigan himself. Soon, anyway. Currently she was sitting in an odd-smelling anteroom in the Vashnoi Kremlin, still under construction. She could feel the slightest vibrations from time to time, as new major components were mated to the existing structure on the far side of fortress. The view through the window (an honest to God window… only a few centimeters between her and vacuum) didn't look out on the construction site. Barrayaran paranoia or chance? She wouldn't have bet a Betan centidollar either way.
It was only a few minutes more, not nearly enough time to be exactly rude, that the tall officer came in to escort her to her objective. He was wearing his green undress uniform, black boots, and on his collar were the blue tabs of a captain. If circumstances had been different Cordelia would have thought him handsome: dark hair in a less than military cut, light olive skin, and a beautiful smile on a friendly face. She was careful not to let her approval show; he probably knew what effect his looks had on women all too well. She noted his name tag, Vorpatril, and wondered where he fitted in the unclear web of Vorish nepotism that staffed their fledgling empire. At least he wasn't all grim and military, despite his uniform. They talked easily on the topics spacefarers easily did when going through a new installation: size, and staffing (in a military structure necessarily far more than a civilian one), and what short-cuts the contractors had tried to get away with.
From where she was picked up it was a short trip through a corridor, a twenty second elevator ride toward the core of the fortress, and through another short corridor (with a ship-worthy airlock) into another corridor, this one wide, carpeted and traversed by groups of three or four men (mostly young) chatting with each other as they strolled by. They were quick enough to get out of Vorpatril's way, but didn't seem to be doing any of the bracing and saluting she'd expected. Cordelia looked at her escort, and asked, "Aren't these… men being a bit informal?"
Vorpatril nodded, "cousin Aral has declared this section as off-duty-land during construction; non-military manners are allowed. Though military justice is still in effect in other ways."
'Cousin Aral,' she thought. Even the complicated interbreeding of the Vor didn't go so far as to allow any of them to make that sort of claim without there being a fairly close relationship in effect. So now she could place her handsome escort in the web of nepotism connections. How you could run a space-vessel, much less a planet with a system like that? She had no idea how they got away with it.
All men, no women on the station. That was something the briefing had gotten right, at least. If some of the other cultural notes had been accurate… there would be a good deal of unresolved sexual tension also. She wasn't enough of an anthropologist to ask the obvious questions, and in any case they had arrived at their destination. It was the first place on this level that had a guard on it. In fact, he was the first person she seen on this level with a weapon on him. A Nerve Disrupter in a holster on the left, a Stunner in a holster on the right, and an interesting assortment of knives (both powered and natural) showing on the man's belt, and sticking up discreetly from the top of his boot.
"Captain Vorpatril escorting Captain Naismith in to see Admiral Vorkosigan, Sergeant," Vorpatril said. Evidently there were limits on how far off-duty things were allowed to be on approaching the commander of the occupied zone. The gaunt and ugly guard nodded, checked the name tag on Cordelia's khaki uniform tunic, and went back to scanning up and down the corridor for some hypothetical assassin. The door behind him opened without any sensor or switch being activated that she could see, and they were let into a vestibule with a manned check-in area with storage lockers, and a series of doors leading off into different directions. She wondered if all this travel time was going to be counted against her promised half-hour meeting with Vorkosigan. Vorpatril took her to the one furthest away from the entrance, and then led her into an odd fantasy.
Wood, natural and undoubted wood everywhere. All the paneling of a room at least 15 meters long, six wide and at least four high was done in various types and shades of wood. The tables, chair frames, shelving, and free-standing cabinets were all made of it. There was even an actual fireplace burning away what was no doubt her daily salary's worth of real, organically grown wood. Her nose automatically sniffed in the aroma of the fire. It wasn't just something burnt though. It smelled…
"Cherry," the other occupant of the room said. "Cherry wood. It's all to impress you, of course. Open flames in a space station; how can you not feel some respect for people willing to do that? Or at least be properly terrified at anyone who'd import something that many light years just to destroy it for nostalgia's sake, and don't mind the inherent environmental risks. On second thought… maybe 'appalled' is a better word than 'respect'? Please, take a seat." He gestured to a pair of fabric covered chairs on either side of a small table, cups and teapot already present, some meter and a half from the fire.
She nodded pleasantly, a vague and embarrassed smile on her face, and moved in the indicated direction, taking stock of the man as she did. He continued to talk as they got into their seats.
"My diplomatic attaché wanted me to burn native Barryaran vegetation; give you a more 'authentic' experience so to speak. I would have too, if there wasn't the awful chance that you'd have a hellish allergic reaction to it. We've lived on Barrayar for a double-dozen generations and more, and we still have to check exactly what we're cooking dinner with before we light it up. It wouldn't be fair to have you breaking out in a rash so early in your mission to us."
He was shorter, she noticed, than most of the Barryarans she'd seen up to now. Sort of stocky (as his photographs had shown), grey, cropped hair, and solid. Hard-bodied enough for it to appear strange that he was the remote brains behind the stunning victory over the Selby Fleet that had been hired to protect Komarran space, and then the lightning seizure of all the wormhole exit points in the system. The man she saw should have been some hard-bitten colonel in charge of ground assaults, speaking more in grunt-like fragments than the warmly amused tones his gravelly voice managed to convey.
"Admiral, a pleasure to meet you."
"Captain, even more of a pleasure to meet you. I suppose you're going to show me the legendary versatility of the Betan Survey Service: find a wormhole, survey a system, arrange a treaty… it's all just part of a day's work for you! We poor specialists-"
"Admiral Vorkosigan, you know as well as I do why I'm here, there's no reason to try to charm me out of my sarong. Can I go down there? Will I be let up again? And what will you charge in service fees?"
"Captain Naismith: yes, yes, and ten percent. Because you're Betan, and I'm sentimental, I'll even refund you the bribe you gave to my appointment secretary. Not to be offensive, but he says that you really don't have the gift for it. You paid far too much, and… well, he said you were almost painfully awkward at corrupting him. Don't be, that's how he winnows out the petitioners that aren't serious. Those that are willing to put up major money, well… those are the ones we focus our investigations on. It also gives us some extra leverage, bribing an Imperial Officer is such a serious crime!" Vorkosigan gave a rumbling chuckle at that, and Cordelia couldn't prevent herself from smiling at his obvious glee.
"And the ones who won't, or can't cough up major money, Admiral?"
"We keep on processing their business at the normal rate. Doing things this way lets us concentrate our Intelligence resources where they'll do the most good. And it lets honest businessmen get along with their lives. I bet when Henri took your bribe you felt devilishly wicked, didn't you?"
Cordelia poured herself a cup of tea, looked over at Vorkosigan, and poured one for him at his miniscule nod. She wondered if she was expected to somehow sneak the B$20,000 into her personal accounts. And, if so, if it was going to be Barryaran or Betan Intelligence services who would be looking hardest to see where the money ended up.
"You don't tell everyone you play with what your games are, do you Admiral?" Cordelia asked.
"You impressed Henri. You absolutely loathed doing it, but you squared your shoulders, and soldiered on. They say Diplomats are honorable men who are paid to lie for their country. If so, you should never get a major ambassadorship. You have no taste for that type of thing. In fact, you should get out of the political business completely. It stains the soul. And in the end you paid too much, anyway."
Cordelia chuckled lowly: "I'm not completely pure, Admiral. Even in the sand-clean Survey Service we have to stain ourselves a bit, from time to time. If you can teach me how to wallow here, properly, it might be the making of my career."
"No, that will be when you return to Beta with a credit chip for twenty or forty million in your pocket. Somehow everyone loves the person who brings home the money, at least for a little while. I advise you to make the most of that most transient of emotions, gratitude. I've discovered it has a half-life shorter than most of the transuranics."
It seemed a bit much, coming from him. Connected to the ruling house, born into the highest nobility to begin with, and one of the youngest admirals she'd heard about. Yes, nepotism had certainly played its huge role in his opportunities, but here he was, satrap of a major wormhole junction. She didn't see how he'd know much about ingratitude, except as the dispenser of it.
Seeing the look of incredulity on her face, he continued.
"You don't believe me? You are looking at the newest minted Admiral in Barrayaran service. 'What?' you say! 'Wasn't he the officer who commanded the original occupation of the Outer System here?' I was broken a month into the clean up. Kill one little political commissioner! Pfft! There goes your career, welcome home to Camp Permafrost! You don't know what it took to get back into place where I can use my talents for my Emperor!"
Cordelia had never heard so much controlled mocking bitterness in a single burst of speech. Embarrassed for him she looked around the room, and saw plaques mounted on the walls, and the heads of beasts on them. Fighting back her revulsion, she filled the awkward silence with an inquiry if they were his personal… trophies.
Vorkosigan's face lit up like a boy's.
"Fakes! Fakes every one! This room is supposed to be some sort of lounge area, like a private club for pre-spaceflight officers and aristos. And the Interior Designer insisted that there had to be hunting trophies up on the walls, with little brass labels below them describing the circumstances of their assassinations. Well, Barrayar doesn't have wildlife that is either large or impressive, and the costs of shipping a hunting party all the way to Terra was considered too much. So the prop department of the leading theater in Vorbar Sultana ran these up, inspired by the theory that there couldn't be too many tusks or antlers on a Vorish trophy. They're much better than real, you know. No rotting or mold, guaranteed good for two hundred years standard or your money back."
From then on, all serious business settled, they chatted, and with no clocks or interruptions, by the time Captain Vorpatril showed up to remind the Admiral that he had a diplomatic dinner to attend with the Escobaran Ambassador, she had certainly gotten more than a half-hour for her bribe. And that had been refunded anyway.
"They're eating us alive," Cordelia's Komarran 'minder' repeated for the third time that day. Her native guide wasn't showing any notable signs of malnutrition. He was wearing a presentable but fairly drab version of the ubiquitous generic 'galactic' standard garb; shirt, long vest, trousers, half-boots. Indoors… and on Komarr you were either indoors or in full enviro gear with a reserve air-tank if you were serious about things… it was enough to be comfortable anywhere in the 'domes' of any of the cities on the planet.
In a way it felt like home to her; a world inside a constructed tube, the only advantage compared to a pure space station was a thicker protective layer of atmosphere, and on Beta somewhere to burrow into for protection. If planetary settlements hadn't become a tradition before proper knowledge of wormholes and gravity control technology had become widespread it would probably have just been easier to avoid planets entirely except as convenient piles of building materials. She was lucky herself; most other Betans were more or less uneasy when they first met a shirt-sleeves planetary environment. Spaceships, of course, provided all the visual, auditory and other sensory clues to ease their agoraphobic selves. Betans were famous for the attention they paid to their ships as they orbited their destinations. They rarely found the time to get away from their important maintenance duties and visit the dirtballs below.
As they went from one fiscal institution and trading company to the next one on her list (doing personal contacts had been stressed, minimal use of comms that might be tapped by… anyone), much the same sort of comment had been made by bankers and merchant princes (now rapidly descending the Komarran power pyramid), and industrial moguls who were seeing their futures as the foremen of boutique machine shops: "We're dying." We're strangling." "They're bleeding us like some vampire!"
At each office she arranged for the pick-up or the settlement or the account closing. Her instructions had been clear, and the business itself was simple enough. She did wonder, however… why her? Why a Captain of the Survey Service to arrange the closing out of Betan commercial contact on Komarr, the new lost planet?
True, she was under government security in a way that a civilian wasn't. Beta didn't have all that many government officials that had as varied experience with alien cultures as a Survey officer, and most of them were booked months in advance. The Barrayaran notice that all investments, accounts, and inventory on Komarr would become inaccessible when extra-planetary communications was to be subjected to a six months 'systems upgrading' had spurred (finally) the government to rush out the least unqualified person for dealing with the Barrayaran barbarians that they could find. Maybe… it still didn't really track for her, but at least it was safer than a blind jump through an unproven wormhole.
So she arranged for unpaid for and warehoused Betan owned or consigned goods to be shipped up to the orbital transfer stations they shouldn't have diverted from in the first place, and had bonded security firms check each container to see if a little 'shrinkage' had taken place since the original, irregular transfer. Betan-owned real estate was sold off (with canny buyers realizing it was going at fire-sale prices). On a more profitable note, a discrete arrangement transferred half the remaining Galen merchant fleet to Betan registry, also at fire-sale prices, but this time in Beta's favor. It wasn't as if the Galen Oligarch was going to get much else use or profit out of them; the window for such transfers was coming to an end too soon to allow the current crippled communications off planet to arrange a better deal.
As she arranged one deal to cover the next, she realized her prior career in supply and command had been a better fit for this type of thing than she had originally imagined. Also, dealing with out-worlder's legal systems and quaint social customs (bribes not being only a Barrayaran practice) was something her shepherding of her Survey ship through a dozen different jurisdictions had prepared her for.
She knew she was doing a good job. Still, that was not enough reason for it to be her here being the one to do it.
They were right, the Komarrans. They were dying, rotting by a hair's width more each day. Without the income from the factories, repair shops, and ships chandlers the dull sun shone redly on an increasingly dingy world. The high tolls they had charged, to the anger of those who had to go through the system, had been their luxury budget. Mostly the luxury of those who controlled thousands of votes through their family's accumulation through the centuries (those who control the votes, controlled the laws. And the government contracts, and the access to business opportunities…), but some had trickled down to the independent companies that scrambled for the crumbs of commerce the major families hadn't yet decided were worthwhile snapping up. Now all the trickling stream was dry, and as neither imports nor exports nor tolls were coming in everyone was feeling the economic vise tighten.
The Barraryarans allowed fuel for the power plants to come in, and a decreasing amount of low tech and small scale manufacturing equipment. And damn little else. Hence the flight of Betan capital from the Independent but isolated planet called Komarr. All the wormhole termini, and all the outer asteroids and debris was under Barryaran control. The only Komarrans who were in space now were the few thousand who had been wildcatting when the conquest had taken place, and those that had been crewing the Komarran argosies at that time.
And as they had came in to their home, before the news had gone out of the change in ownership of the wormholes, they had been taken neat as a fox took a hen (to use an expression old before Beta had been discovered), except for the Toscane Venture, which had been vaporized as it came in-system. She remembered now, there had been something messy about that; claims and counterclaims about responsibility. Yes that must have been when Vorkosigan first lost the rank he had held when he first commanded the takeover. She supposed he must have been cleared of responsibility in the end. "Kill one little political commissioner." He must have felt aggrieved to have his near-perfect conquest blighted by a trigger-happy fool. "Kill one…" he was dangerous. He had felt dangerous. She hadn't felt the least bit threatened… why not? Another mystery of this whole assignment.
This time she didn't bother nerving herself up to finding who to bribe. Even pretending at that game would have been too depressing; the entire, almost completed Vashnoi Kremlin being in official mourning. There was sad music playing over the announcement system, and everyone wearing black armbands as they went about their duties. The Prince was dead, and his heir was young, too young, while the Emperor was old, too old. Even Cordelia could feel the hidden anxiety; the Old Order was soon to pass away, and the New Order was going to be in the hands of whoever ended up controlling a child. On Barrayar wars had been fought over that, who was to be the regent for a juvenile heir. No one knew if it would be happening again.
When Vorpatril brought her to the system's commander he wasn't in a chatting mood. He didn't bring her to the same, informal, meeting place. Instead they entered a medium-sized office that either had the best screen view she'd ever seen, or else the room was graced with a wall on the exterior of the fortress. The desk and chairs in the room were large, ostentatious, and exactly what a warrior-admiral should have been equipped with. Near Vorkosigan there was, standing in a corner, a slender, blond man who's self-effacing stance and demeanor made Cordelia instantly suspicious about him. No one on the up-and-up had the right to be so nearly invisible.
Behind Vorkosigan were three photos mounted on the wall. The one on the right, the one of a young man, had black ribbons draped on its frame. The others; a white haired man who looked like the grandfather you wanted, if you wanted a grandfather that had fought in one war after another until he ruled an empire, and a dark haired young boy. They were spared any ribbons. So: the Prince, the Emperor, and the new Heir Apparent. On Vorkosigan's desk was another picture frame in a stand. This one had ribbons also; a nosegay-like arrangement in white and pink. She wondered who that one was of. Oddly enough, Vorkosigan was the calmest and least affected by the recent events of all the Barrayarans that she had met since the news had broken.
Perhaps he saw an opportunity for advancement, though how much further up the pole could he go… ah. She remembered her briefings; he was the Admiral in charge of the biggest cash cow in the Barrayaran Empire, with most of the fleet under his command while the fortresses defending the Komarran Wormhole Junction were put on-line. His father was not only a major noble, but a general in their ground forces back on Barrayar. And also how he was now only two lives away from the throne; one of them too old, and one of them too young. She thought about how that sort of situation usually played out.
She wondered if the little boy portrayed up on the wall was lucky, and Vorkosigan had a daughter or sister not too different from him in age. If the hard man in front of her was by their standards honorable, perhaps the boy might live to see his next birthday. The Prince was dead, and the Count had a festive display on his desk. She had to ask.
"So you've received some good news? And my condolences on the Empire's recent lose."
"Yes, Serge's demise is proving quite unsettling to us all. But few men are completely irreplaceable, even Princes, and My Lord Ezar has, as usual, a plan for even this turn of events."
"And your good news is? Something familial to lessen the sting of the Prince's… misfortune?"
"Yes," Vorkosigan said, "I've lost my ex-brother-in-law." He turned the picture frame around so she could see a darkly handsome man. Something about the smile, the way his eyes were set, made her shiver.
"I can see that you're a perceptive person, Captain Naismith," Vorkosigan continued, "not many people would have known to run from Ges on just seeing his photograph. I didn't." The last was said in one of his sudden changes of tone and emotion. A raw hatred had darkened and hardened his voice. "He was the second most evil person I've ever met."
Cordelia couldn't see any merely social conversation going anywhere from that point. The only way that topic of conversation could have continued would have been if they were alone, at midnight, and a large bottle or two of high-proof whiskey was at hand.
She gulped a bit, and then surged on with her proper and official business.
"I'm sure you've gotten all my reports, requests for lift-space, and monetary transfers. Do you have problem with any of them?"
Vorkosigan had turned Ges' picture back to face himself, looked at it again, and smiled as he shook his head.
"Honest, efficient, thorough. Beta should be proud of you. All approved, all approved, if there are any minor paper-errors they'll be smoothed over. We all want this business over before Komarr is… temporarily incommunicado. And Beta is our friend."
"Will it be temporary?" Cordelia asked, her eyes boring into his, noting his smile turning to gentle mockery again.
"Of course; most temporary, in the scheme of things.
"How did you find conditions Downside? Surprised to find a lack of armored troopers on every street corner? Was all the air still blowing clean, and enough food on the tables? We'd allow them more imports, but they are having some cash-flow problems at the moment. We'd had something like that ourselves, when they controlled the wormholes and set the toll rate, so we understand the problem."
Anger began to seep into her voice as she replied: "You're de-industrializing them; how long do you think they can survive without access to galactic commerce? Without their fleets and tolls how can they afford things like new supplies for their Uterine Replicators, or the maintaining the Soletta? That's their hope for the future; are you that cruel?"
Vorkosigan took in one or two harsh breaths, and then a genuine smile crossed his face, as if he was seeing something pleasant.
"Prince Gregor," and with that he half swiveled his chair and his head gave a slight nod of respectful acknowledgment to the picture of the three-year-old boy, "has promised, in memory of his father's name," but this time there was no motion by the Admiral, or respectful gesture, "that the Komarran Soletta satellite will have two new, additional, vanes installed. We've made the budget adjustments for that, and maintenance. It'll be paid for out of the tolls; it will take a few years, though. When we dropped them to fifteen percent from twenty-five we lost a bit of fiscal flexibility, though the diplomatic fall-out was very… positive. Two percent will be allocated to that project and an emergency fund for Komarr; we'll have to forego a new cruiser for the Navy next year, but keeping the good opinion of our friends is worth it, don't you agree?"
Seeing some hint of humanity in the man she forged ahead, hoping to get at least a little benefit of his good humor over this Ges' death. Barrayarans!
"And medical supplies and the Replicators? How will they have a next generation if they can't have babies?"
"Replicators? Oh, Uterine Replicators… something reproductive, I guess?" He turned his head to the self-effacing presence in the corner and cocked his head in inquiry, "Simon?"
The man's head nodded slightly: "Yes, Admiral. Artificial wombs. Genetic material is examined, has any problems fixed, is put in, and months later babies are taken out." The Nearly-Invisible Man looked a little embarrassed to have actually had to confirm his presence in the room.
Cordelia heard Vorkosigan say in a low voice, "We could use something like that back home."
Yes, even barbarians could be educated!
Back into his 'business' tone, Vorkosigan continued: "Any needed medical supplies will be allowed down-side, we'll find some room in the budget, somewhere. We mustn't shortchange the next generation." Then his voice went inquiring and uncertain again, almost boyish, "Really, it's that common?"
Cordelia replied, "Yes, totally standard. I'm a UR girl myself. Much safer than the… old way."
How sad and dangerous it must be for the women of Barrayar, doing body-births. She hadn't realized that it still existed outside of historical novels. It probably explained so much about their history; they were practically living in another time-period!
Vorkosigan opened a drawer in his desk and took out a large sealed envelope, and an open edged folder. She took them in hand and looked into the folder; in it were her clearances for both material and cash transfers, as well as her travel permits, all approved. Evidently Vorkosigan was being as good as his word.
"The envelope has materials you should look at when you're back in your room, there should be someone coming to meet you there in a little while," he said. "You're rather arid honesty hasn't gone un-noticed; you have to expect that sometimes. I must say that I'm most impressed with your performance, and wouldn't object to having you under my command any day."
After such a commonplace formal compliment she wondered why… Simon, was it, gave such a start. Oh, purely male military. That Vorkosigan said something like that… interesting.
"Thank you, Admiral, but I'll stay in the Survey. I'd rather not be shooting at people if I can avoid it."
He surprised her with "That's actually true about most of us in the military too. What's even worse, of course, is when someone is shooting back, though." And then he chuckled at her grin.
There wasn't a formal dismissal, but Cordelia felt she shouldn't stay any longer. With Simon showing no inclination to leave his corner-filling duties it would have been awkward to try to engage Vorkosigan in… less official conversation. As she stood up the Admiral flipped a switch on the console built into his desk, and Vorpatril entered all too efficiently to escort her back to her suite, where she supposed she would be soon getting a surprise guest. She wondered who…
It was over an hour later that Commodore William Tailor, her superior in the Betan Astronomical Survey, buzzed her door and was admitted. Being Betans there wasn't any great deal of saluting or exchange of military courtesies. She got right to the point.
"What the hell is this contract about, Bill?" She demanded as she waved the paperwork she had pulled out from the sealed envelope she had been given in Vorkosigan's office.