Baen BooksISBN: 0-671-57828-6
A sea of mist drifted through the cloud forest: soft, grey, luminescent. On the high ridges the fog showed brighter as the morning sun began to warm and lift the moisture, although in the ravine a cool, soundless dimness still counterfeited a pre-dawn twilight.
Commander Cordelia Naismith glanced at her team botanist and adjusted the straps of her biological collecting equipment a bit more comfortably before continuing her breathless climb. She pushed a long tendril of fog-dampened copper hair out of her eyes, clawing it impatiently toward the clasp at the nape of her neck. Their next survey area would definitely be at a lower altitude. The gravity of this planet was slightly lower than their home world of Beta Colony, but it did not quite make up for the physiological strain imposed by the thin mountain air.
Denser vegetation marked the upper boundary of the forest patch. Following the splashy path of the ravine's brook, they bent and scrambled through the living tunnel, then broke into the open air.
A morning breeze was ribboning away the last of the fog on the golden uplands. They stretched endlessly, rise after rise, culminating at last in the great grey shoulders of a central peak crowned by glittering ice. This world's sun shone in the deep turquoise sky giving an overwhelming richness to the golden grasses, tiny flowers, tussocks of a silvery plant like powdered lace dotted everywhere. The two explorers gazed entranced at the mountain above, enveloped by the silence.
The botanist, Ensign Dubauer, grinned over his shoulder at Cordelia and fell to his knees beside one of the silvery tussocks. She strolled to the nearest rise for a look at the panorama behind them. The patchy forest grew denser down the gentle slopes. Five hundred meters below, banks of clouds stretched like a white sea to the horizon. Far to the west, their mountain's smaller sister just broke through the updraft-curdled tops.
Cordelia was just wishing herself on the plains below, to see the novelty of water falling from the sky, when she was jarred from her reverie. "Now what the devil can Rosemont be burning to make a stink like that?" she murmured.
An oily black column of smoke was rising beyond the next spur of the mountain slope, to be smudged, thinned, and dissipated by the upper breezes. It certainly appeared to be coming from the location of their base camp. She studied it intently.
A distant whining, rising to a howl, pierced the silence. Their planetary shuttle burst from behind the ridge and boomed across the sky above them, leaving a sparkling trail of ionized gases.
"What a takeoff!" cried Dubauer, his attention wrenched skyward.
Cordelia keyed her short-range wrist communicator and spoke into it. "Naismith to Base One. Come in, please."
A small, empty hiss was her sole reply. She called again, twice, with the same result. Ensign Dubauer hovered anxiously at her elbow.
"Try yours," she said. But his luck was no better. "Pack up your stuff, we're going back to camp," she ordered. "Double time."
They struggled toward the next ridge at a gasping jog, and plunged back into the forest. The spindly bearded trees at this altitude were often fallen, tangled. They had seemed artistically wild on the way up; on the way down they made a menacing obstacle course. Cordelia's mind ratcheted over a dozen possible disasters, each more bizarre than the last. So the unknown breeds dragons in map margins, she reflected, and suppressed her panic.
They slid down through the last patch of woods for their first clear view of the large glade selected for their primary base camp. Cordelia gaped, shocked. Reality had surpassed imagination.
Smoke was rising from five slagged and lumpy black mounds, formerly a neat ring of tents. A smouldering scar was burned in the grasses where the shuttle had been parked, opposite the camp from the ravine. Smashed equipment was scattered everywhere. Their bacteriologically sealed sanitary facilities had been just downslope; yes, she saw, even the privy had been torched.
"My God," breathed Ensign Dubauer, and started forward like a sleepwalker. Cordelia collared him.
"Get down and cover me," she ordered, then walked cautiously toward the silent ruins.
The grass all around the camp was trampled and churned. Her stunned mind struggled to account for the carnage. Previously undetected aborigines? No, nothing short of a plasma arc could have melted the fabric of their tents. The long-looked-for but still undiscovered advanced aliens? Perhaps some unexpected disease outbreak, not forestalled by their monthlong robotic microbiological survey and immunizations-could it have been an attempt at sterilization? An attack by some other planetary government? Their attackers could scarcely have come through the same wormhole exit they had discovered, still, they had only mapped about ten percent of the volume of space within a light-month of this system. Aliens?
She was miserably conscious of her mind coming full circle, like one of her team zoologist's captive animals racing frantically in an exercise wheel. She poked grimly through the rubbish for some clue.
She found it in the high grass halfway to the ravine. The long body in the baggy tan fatigues of the Betan Astronomical Survey was stretched out full length, arms and legs askew, as though hit while running for the shelter of the forest. Her breath drew inward in pain of recognition. She turned him over gently.
It was the conscientious Lieutenant Rosemont. His eyes were glazed and fixed and somehow worried, as though they still held a mirror to his spirit. She closed them for him.
She searched him for the cause of his death. No blood, no burns, no broken bones-her long white fingers probed his scalp. The skin beneath his blond hair was blistered, the telltale signature of a nerve disruptor. That let out aliens. She cradled his head in her lap a moment, stroking his familiar features helplessly, like a blind woman. No time now for mourning.
She returned to the blackened ring on her hands and knees, and began to search through the mess for comm equipment. The attackers had been quite thorough in that department, the twisted lumps of plastic and metal she found testified. Much valuable equipment seemed to be missing altogether.
There was a rustle in the grass. She snapped her stun gun to the aim and froze. The tense face of Ensign Dubauer pushed through the straw-colored vegetation.
"It's me, don't shoot," he called in a strangled tone meant to be a whisper.
"I almost did. Why didn't you stay put?" she hissed back. "Never mind, help me look for a comm unit that can reach the ship. And stay down, they could come back at any time."
"Who could? Who did this?"
"Multiple choice, take your pick-Nuovo Brasilians, Barrayarans, Cetagandans, could be any of that crowd. Reg Rosemont's dead. Nerve disruptor."
Cordelia crawled over to the mound of the specimen tent and carefully considered its lumps. "Hand me that pole over there," she whispered.
She poked tentatively at the most probable hump. The tents had stopped smoking, but waves of heat still rose from them to beat upon her face like the summer sun of home. The tortured fabric flaked away like charred paper. She hooked the pole over a half-melted cabinet and dragged it into the open. The bottom drawer was unmelted, but badly warped and, as she found when she wrapped her shirttail around her hand and pulled, tightly stuck.
A few minutes more search turned up some dubious substitutes for a hammer and chisel: a flat shard of metal and a heavy lump she recognized sadly as having once been a delicate and very expensive meterological recorder. With these caveman's tools and some brute force from Dubauer, they wrenched the drawer open with a noise like a pistol shot that made them both jump.
"Jackpot!" said Dubauer.
"Let's take it over by the ravine to try out," said Cordelia. "My skin is crawling. Anybody upslope could see us."
Still crouching, they made quickly for cover, past Rosemont's body. Dubauer stared back at it as they scuttled by, ill at ease, angry. "Whoever did that is damn well going to pay for it." Cordelia just shook her head.
They knelt down in the bracken-like undergrowth to try the comm link. The machine produced some static and sad whining hoots, went dead, then coughed out the audio half of its signal when tapped and shaken. She found the right frequency and began the blind call.
"Commander Naismith to Survey Ship Rene Magritte. Acknowledge, please." After an agony of waiting, the faint, static-scrambled reply wavered in.
"Lieutenant Stuben here. Are you all right, Captain?"
Cordelia breathed again. "All right for now. What's your status? What happened?"
Dr. Ullery's voice came on, senior officer in the survey party after Rosemont. "A Barrayaran military patrol surrounded the camp, demanding surrender. Said they claimed the place by right of prior discovery. Then some trigger-happy loon on their side fired a plasma arc, and all hell broke loose. Reg drew them off with his stunner, and the rest of us made it to the shuttle. There's a Barrayaran ship of the General class up here we're playing hide-and-seek with, if you know what I mean-"
"Remember, you're broadcasting in the clear," Cordelia reminded her sharply.
Dr. Ullery hesitated, then went on. "Right. They're still demanding surrender. Do you know if they captured Reg?"
"Dubauer's with me. Is everybody else accounted for?"
"All but Reg."
"Reg is dead."
A crackle of static hissed across Stuben's swearing.
"Stu, you're in command," Cordelia cut in on him. "Listen closely. Those twitchy militarists are not, repeat not, to be trusted. On no account surrender the ship. I've seen the secret reports on the General cruisers. You're out-gunned, out-armored, and out-manned, but you've got at least twice the legs. So get out of his range and stay there. Retreat all the way back to Beta Colony if you have to, but take no chances with my people. Got that?"
"We can't leave you, Captain!"
"You can't launch a shuttle for a pickup unless you get the Barrayarans off your neck. And if we are captured, the chances are better for getting us home through political channels than through some harebrained rescue stunt, but only if you make it home to complain, is that absolutely clear? Acknowledge!" she demanded.
"Acknowledged," he replied reluctantly. "But Captain-how long do you really think you can keep away from those crazy bastards? They're bound to get you in the end, with 'scopes."
"As long as possible. As for you-get going!" She had occasionally imagined her ship functioning without herself; never without Rosemont. Got to keep Stuben from trying to play soldier, she thought. The Barrayarans aren't amateurs. "There are fifty-six lives depending on you up there. You can count. Fifty-six is more than two. Keep it in mind, all right? Naismith out."
"Cordelia ... Good luck. Stuben out."
Cordelia sat back and stared at the little communicator. "Whew. What a peculiar business."
Ensign Dubauer snorted. "That's an understatement."
"It's an exact statement. I don't know if you noticed-"
A movement in the mottled shade caught her eye. She started to her feet, hand moving toward her stunner. The tall, hatchet-faced Barrayaran soldier in the green and grey splotched camouflage fatigues moved even faster. Dubauer moved faster still, shoving her blindly behind him. She heard the crackle of a nerve disruptor as she pitched backward into the ravine, stunner and comm link flying from her hands. Forest, earth, stream, and sky spun wildly around her, her head struck something with a sickening, starry crack, and darkness swallowed her.
* * *
The forest mold pressed against Cordelia's cheek. The damp earthy smell tickled her nostrils. She breathed deeper, filling her mouth and lungs, and then the odor of decay wrung her stomach. She turned her face from the muck. Pain exploded through her head in radiating lines.
She groaned inarticulately. Dark sparkling whorls curtained her vision, then cleared. She forced her eyes to focus on the nearest object, about half a meter to the right of her head.
Heavy black boots, sunk in the mud and topped by green and grey splotched camouflage trousers, encased legs spread apart in a patient parade rest. She suppressed a weary whimper. Very gently she laid her head back in the black ooze, and rolled cautiously onto her side for a better view of the Barrayaran officer.
Her stunner! She stared into the little rectangle of its business end, held steadily in a broad and heavy hand. Her eyes searched anxiously for his nerve disruptor. The officer's belt hung heavy with equipment, but the disruptor holster on his right hip was empty, as was the plasma arc holster on his left.
He was barely taller than herself, but stocky and powerful. Untidy dark hair touched with grey, cold intent grey eyes-in fact, his whole appearance was untidy by the strict Barrayaran military standards. His fatigues were almost as rumpled and muddy and stained with plant juices as her own, and he had a raw contusion across his right cheekbone. Looks like he's had a rotten day too, she thought muzzily. Then the sparkly black whirlpools expanded and drowned her again.
When her vision cleared again the boots were gone-no. There he was, seated comfortably on a log. She tried to focus on something other than her rebellious belly, but her belly won control in a wrenching rush.
The enemy captain stirred involuntarily as she vomited, but remained sitting. She crawled the few meters to the little stream at the bottom of the ravine, and washed out her mouth and face in its icy water. Feeling relatively better, she sat up and croaked, "Well?"
The officer inclined his head in a shadow of courtesy. "I am Captain Aral Vorkosigan, commanding the Barrayaran Imperial war cruiser General Vorkraft. Identify yourself, please." His voice was baritone, his speech barely accented.
"Commander Cordelia Naismith. Betan Astronomical Survey. We are a scientific party," she emphasized accusingly. "Non-combatants."
"So I noticed," he said dryly. "What happened to your party?"
Cordelia's eyes narrowed. "Weren't you there? I was up on the mountain, assisting my team botanist." And more urgently, "Have you seen my botanist-my ensign? He pushed me into the ravine when we were ambushed-"
He glanced up to the rim of the gorge at the point where she had toppled in-how long ago? "Was he a brown-haired boy?"
Her heart sank in sick anticipation. "Yes."
"There's nothing you can do for him now."
"That was murder! All he had was a stunner!" Her eyes burned the Barrayaran. "Why were my people attacked?"
He tapped her stunner thoughtfully in his palm.