Copyright 1996

by Lois McMaster Bujold


        Miles returned to consciousness with his eyes still closed. His brain seemed to smolder with the confused embers of some fiery dream, formless and fading. He was shaken by a fearful conviction that he had been killed again, till memory and reason began to place this shredded experience.
        His other senses tried to take inventory. He was in null-gee, his short body stretched out flat, strapped to a surface and swathed in what felt like a thin foil med wrap, standard military issue. Wounded? All limbs seemed present and accounted for. He was still wearing the soft bodysuit that had lined his now-missing space armor. The straps were not tight. The complex scent of many-times-refiltered air, cool and dry, tickled his nostrils. He secretly snaked an arm free, careful not to rattle the wrap, and touched his bare face. No control leads, no sensors-no blood-where are my armor, my weapons, my command headset?
        The rescue mission had been going as smoothly as such missions ever did. He and Captain Quinn and their patrol had penetrated the hijackers' ship, found the brig. Blasted through to the captured Barrayaran ImpSec courier officer, Lieutenant Vorberg, still alive though addled with sedatives. The medtech had pronounced the hostage clear of mechanical or chemical boobytraps, and they'd begun the exhilarating trip through the dark corridors back to the waiting Dendarii combat shuttle. The hijackers, very much occupied elsewhere, had made no attempt to jump them. What went wrong?
        The sounds around him were quiet: the bleep of equipment, the hiss of atmosphere recycling on normal operation, the murmur of voices. One low animal moan. Miles licked his lips, just to be sure that noise wasn't coming from himself. He might not be wounded, but somebody nearby was not in good shape. A tangy whiff of antiseptics escaped filtration. He slitted open his eyes, prepared to play unconscious again and think fast if he found himself in enemy hands.
        But he was-safely, he hoped-in his own Dendarii Fleet combat shuttle, strapped to one of the four fold-down bunks toward the rear of the fuselage. The emergency medical station was a familiar sight, though he didn't usually see it from this angle of view. Blue Squad's medtech, his back to Miles, hovered by a bunk across the aisle that held another strapped-down form. Miles couldn't see any body bags. Only one other casualty. He would add, Good, except that there weren't supposed to be any casualties.
        Only one casualty, Miles corrected his thought. A violent headache throbbed at the base of his brain. But he bore no plasma arc burns, no nerve-disruptor paralysis. No intravenous tubing or hypospray injector pierced his body, pumping in blood replacements or synergine against shock. He did not float in a narcotic haze of painkillers, and no pressure bandages hampered his slight movements. No sense-blockers. The headache felt like a poststun migraine. How the hell could I have been stunned through combat armor?
        The Dendarii medtech, still combat-armored but with helmet and gloves off, turned and saw Miles's open eyes. "You're awake, sir? I'll notify Captain Quinn." He hovered briefly over Miles's face, and flashed a light into his eyes, doubtless checking for abnormal pupil response.
        "How long . . . was I out? What happened?"
        "You had some kind of seizure, or convulsion. No apparent cause. The field kit test for toxins didn't turn up anything, but it's pretty basic. We'll go over you more thoroughly as soon as we're back to the ship's sick bay."
        Not dead again. Worse. This is still more of the left-overs from the last time. Oh, hell. What have I done? What have they seen?
        He would rather have been-well, no. He would not rather have been nerve-disrupted. But almost. "How long?" Miles repeated.
        "The seizure seemed to last four or five minutes."
        It had certainly taken more than five minutes to get from there to here. "Then?"
        "You've been unconscious for about a half hour, I'm afraid, Admiral Naismith."
        He'd never been out so long before. This was the worst attack ever, by far. He'd prayed the last one would be the last one. Over two months had passed since his previous unwitnessed, brief collapse. Dammit, he'd been certain the new medication had worked.
        He made to free himself, fighting out of the heat wrap and bunk straps.
        "Please don't try to get up, Admiral."
        "I have to go forward and get reports."
        The medtech placed a cautious hand upon his chest, and pressed him back onto the bunk. "Captain Quinn ordered me to sedate you if you tried to get up. Sir."
        Miles almost barked, And I countermand that order! But they did not seem to be in the midst of combat now, and the tech had a medically steely look in his eye, of a man prepared to do his duty whatever the risks. Save me from the virtuous. "Is that why I was out so long? Was I sedated?"
        "No, sir. I only gave you synergine. Your vital signs were stable, and I was afraid to give you anything else till I had some better idea what we were dealing with."
        "What about my squad? Are we all out? The Barrayaran hostage, did we get him out all right?"
        "Everybody got out all right. The Barrayaran, um . . . will live. I retrieved his legs; there's a good chance the surgeon will be able to reattach them." The medtech glanced around, as if seeking comradely assistance.
        "What? How was he injured?"
        "Uh . . . I'll call Captain Quinn for you, sir."
        "You do that," growled Miles.
        The medtech ducked away into free fall, and murmured urgently into an intercom on the far wall. He returned to his patient-Lieutenant Vorberg? IVs were pumping plasma and medications into the man through sites on both an arm and his neck. The rest was concealed by heat foil. At a light-signal from the forward bulkhead, the medtech hastily strapped himself into his station jump seat, and the shuttle went through a quick series of accelerations, decelerations, and attitude adjustments, in preparation for locking on to its mother ship.
        Properly, upon docking the injured hostage was rushed out first. In two parts. Miles gritted his teeth in dismay at the sight of the soldier clutching a large cold-container who followed the medtech and float pallet. There did not seem to be much blood smeared around, though. Miles had just given up waiting for Quinn and was releasing himself from his medical restraints when she appeared from the flight deck and floated down the aisle toward him.
        She had doffed the helmet and gloves from her space armor, and pulled back her bodysuit's hood to free her dark, sweat-flattened curls. Her beautifully sculpted face was pale with tension, her brown eyes dark with fear. But his little three-ship fleet could be in no immediate danger, or she would be attending to it, not to him. "Are you all right?" she asked hoarsely.
        "Quinn, what-no. Give me a general status report first."
        "Green Squad got the hijacked ship's crew out. All of them. There was a bit of equipment damage-the insurance company's not going to be as ecstatic as the last time-but our Life Bonus is safe and warm."
        "Praise be to God and Sergeant Taura. And our hijackers?"
        "We took their big ship and nineteen prisoners. Three enemy killed. All secured there; our prize crew is aboard cleaning up. Six or eight of the bastards escaped in their jump-pinnance. It's weak on armament-this far from the nearest jump point, the Ariel can overtake them at our leisure. Your decision, whether to stand off and blow them up, or attempt capture."
        Miles rubbed his face. "Interrogate those prisoners. If this is the same bloody-handed lot that took the Solera last year, and murdered all the passengers and crew, Vega Station will pay a reward, and we can collect three times for the same mission. Since the Vegans are offering the same reward for the proof of their deaths, record everything carefully. We'll demand surrender. Once." He sighed. "I take it things did not run exactly according to plan. Again."
        "Hey. Any hostage-rescue ploy that gets everyone out alive is a success by any sane standard. Assuming our fleet surgeon doesn't reattach your poor Barrayaran's legs left-to-right or backwards, this is a one-hundred-percenter."
        "Er . . . yes. What happened when . . . I went down? What happened to Vorberg?"
        "Friendly fire, unfortunately. Though it didn't seem all that friendly at the time. You fell over-surprised the hell out of us. Your suit emitted a lot of garbage telemetry, then your plasma arc locked on." She raked her hands through her hair.
        Miles glanced at the heavy-duty plasma arc built into the right arm of Quinn's space armor, twin to his own. His heart sank into his churning stomach. "Oh, no. Oh, shit. Don't tell me."
        "I'm afraid so. You kneecapped your own rescuee. Neat as could be, right across both legs. Luckily-I guess-the beam cauterized as it sliced, so he didn't bleed to death. And he was so tanked on drugs, I'm not even sure he felt much. For a moment I thought some enemy had taken over remote control of your suit, but the engineers swear that isn't possible anymore. You blew out a bunch of walls-it took four of us to sit on your arm till we could take the medic's can-opener to your armor and get in and get you disconnected. You were thrashing around-you damn near took us out too. In pure desperation, I stunned you on the back of your neck, and you went limp. I was afraid I'd killed you."
        Quinn was a little breathless, describing this. Her lovely face was not, after all, the original, but a replacement after her own violent encounter with plasma fire, over a decade ago. "Miles, what the hell was going on with you?"
        "I think I had . . . some kind of seizure. Like epilepsy, except that it doesn't seem to leave any neurological tracks. I'm afraid it might be an aftereffect from my cryo-revival last year." You know damned well it is. He touched the twin scars on either side of his neck, now grown faint and pale, the lesser souvenirs of that event. Quinn's emergency stunner-treatment explained his lengthy bout of unconsciousness and subsequent headache. So, the seizures were no worse than before. . . .
        "Oh, dear," said Quinn. "But is this the first-" She paused, and looked at him more closely. Her voice went flatter. "This isn't the first time you've done this, is it."
        The silence stretched; Miles forced himself to speak before it snapped. "It happened three or four," or five "times soon after I was brought back from stasis. My cryo-revival surgeon said they might go away on their own, the way the memory loss and the shortness of breath have. And after that they seemed to stop."
        "And ImpSec let you go out on a covert ops field mission with that kind of time bomb in your head?"
        "ImpSec . . . does not know."
        "Miles . . ."
        "Elli," he said desperately, "they'd pull me right off line duty, you know they would. Nail my boots to the floor behind some desk at best. Medical discharge at worst-and that would be the end of Admiral Naismith. Forever."
        She froze, stricken.
        "I figured if the seizures came back I'd try to solve 'em on my own. I thought I had."
        "Does anybody know?"
        "Not . . . very many. I didn't want to chance it getting back to ImpSec. I told the Dendarii fleet surgeon. I swore her to secrecy. We were working on a causal diagnosis. Haven't got too far yet. Her specialty's trauma, after all." Yes, like plasma arc burns, and limb reattachment. At least Lieutenant Vorberg could not be in better or more experienced hands right now, even if he could have been magically transported in an instant back to Barrayar's own Imperial Military Hospital.
        Quinn's lips tightened. "But you didn't tell me. Never mind our personal relationship, I'm your second in command on this mission!"
        "I should have told you. Obvious in hindsight." Blindingly.
        Quinn glanced up the fuselage of the shuttle, where a medtech from the Peregrine was wrestling a float pallet in through the hatch. "I still have some mopping up to supervise. You're going to stay in the frigging sick bay till I get back, right?"
        "I'm back on track now! It could be months till it happens again. If ever."
        "Right?" Quinn repeated through her teeth, with an open glare at him.
        He thought of Vorberg, and deflated. "Right," he muttered.
        "Thank you," she hissed.
        He scorned the float pallet, insisting on walking, but otherwise followed the medtech, feeling horribly subdued. I'm losing control of this. . . .
        As soon as Miles arrived in sick bay, an anxious tech administered a brain scan, drew blood, took samples of every fluid his body could be made to exude, and rechecked every vital sign he possessed. After that, there was not very much to do but wait for the surgeon. Miles withdrew discreetly into a small examining room, where his batman brought him his ship uniform. The man seemed inclined to hover solicitously and Miles, irritated, sent him away.
        This left Miles alone in a quiet room with nothing to do but think, possibly a tactical error. Quinn could be trusted with the mopping up, or why else had he made her his second? She had taken over competently enough the last time he had been violently removed from his chain of command, his chest blown out by that sniper's needle grenade on the mission to Jackson's Whole.
        He pulled up and fastened his gray trousers, and studied his torso, his fingers tracing the wide spidery burst of scars fading on his skin. The Jacksonian cryo-revival surgeon had done a superb job. His new heart and lungs and assorted other organs were nearly fully grown now, entirely functional. With the latest additions, the brittle bones that had plagued him since his defective birth were almost completely replaced by synthetics throughout his body. The cryo-surgeon had even straightened his spine while she was at it; there was barely a hint left of the hunchback curvature that, along with his dwarfish stature, had made his fellow Barrayarans snigger Mutant! when they thought he could not hear. He'd even gained a couple more centimeters in height out of the deal, an expensive little bonus, but it mattered to him. The fatigue didn't show. To the outward eye, he was in better physical shape than he'd ever been in his nearly thirty years of life.
        There's just one little hitch.
        Of all the threats that had ever shadowed his hard-won career, this was the most elusive, the least expected . . . the most fatal. He'd worked with impassioned concentration, overcoming all doubts as to his physical disabilities, winning his way to premier status as Barrayaran Imperial Security's most creative galactic affairs agent. Where the Barrayaran Empire's regular forces could not reach, past barriers of politics and distance in the chaining network of wormhole jump routes that strung the galaxy together, a supposedly independent mercenary outfit might pop up unimpeded. Miles had spent a decade perfecting his cover identity of "Admiral Naismith," self-styled leader of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. Daring Rescues Our Specialty.
        Such as the current mission. The grotty crew of hijackers had run seriously out of luck the day they'd stolen an unarmed freighter of Zoave Twilight's planetary registry, and found what they thought was the prize in the package in the form of a Barrayaran Imperial Courier, covertly transporting credit chits and vital diplomatic information. If they'd had any sense of self-preservation at all, they should have returned Lieutenant Vorberg and his packets, undamaged and unexamined, immediately to the nearest drop-point, with profuse apologies.
        Instead, they'd tried to sell him to the highest bidder. Slay them all, ImpSec Chief Simon Illyan had muttered. The Devil will recognize his own. Then he'd delegated the details to Miles. The Emperor did not approve of unauthorized persons impeding his couriers. Or torturing them, or attempting to market them like high-information-density slabs of meat. This was one mission where, although the Dendarii Fleet's official sponsor was the insurance company covering the Zoave Twilight ship, it wouldn't hurt to reveal that their cobacker was the Barrayaran Empire. Good publicity, for the protection of the next courier to run into similar bad luck.
        Assuming it was luck. Miles itched to go oversee the interrogation of the prisoners; Illyan's second sharpest concern after the retrieval of Vorberg alive was to determine if the courier had been kidnapped by accident or on purpose. If on purpose . . . somebody had some internal investigating to do. In all, Miles was extremely glad that sort of messy job did not fall into his area of expertise.
        The surgeon, still dressed in her sterile garb, entered at last. She put her hands on her hips, stared at Miles, and sighed. She looked tired.
        "How's the Barrayaran?" Miles ventured. "Will, um . . . he recover?"
        "He's not too bad. The cuts were very clean, and luckily just below the knee joints, which saved a world of complications. He'll be about three centimeters shorter after this."
        Miles winced.
        "But he'll be on his feet by the time he gets home," she added, "assuming that takes about six weeks."
        "Ah. Good." But suppose the random blare of the plasma arc had taken Vorberg through the knees. Or about a meter higher, cutting him in half. There were limits to the miracles even his Dendarii surgical expert could perform. It would not have been a career high point, after Miles had airily assured his ImpSec chief that he could rescue Vorberg with scarcely a ripple in his routine, to return him packed in a body bag. Two body bags. Miles felt faint with a weird mixture of relief and horror. Oh, God, I'm going to hate explaining this to Illyan.
        The surgeon studied Miles's scans, muttering medical incantations. "We're still on baseline, here. No obvious abnormalities show up. The only way I can get any leverage into this is to have you monitored while you undergo an attack."
        "Hell, I thought we did every kind of stress and electroshock and stimulus known to science, to try to trigger something in the lab. I thought the pills you gave me had brought it under control."
        "The standard anticonvulsant? Were you taking it properly?" She eyed him suspiciously.
        "Yes." He bit back more profane protestations. "Have you thought of something else to try?"
        "No, which is why I gave you that monitor to wear around." Her glance around the examining room did not disclose the device. "Where is it?"
        "In my cabin."
        Her lips thinned in exasperation. "Let me guess. You weren't wearing it at the time."
        "It didn't fit under my combat armor."
        Her teeth clenched. "Couldn't you have at least thought to-to disable your weapons?"
        "I could hardly be of use to my squad in an emergency, disarmed. I might as well have stayed aboard the Peregrine."
        "You were the emergency. And you certainly should have stayed aboard the Peregrine."
        Or back on Barrayar. But securing Vorberg's person had been the most critical part of the operation, and Miles was the only Dendarii officer ImpSec entrusted with the Barrayaran Imperial recognition codes. "I-" He bit his tongue on futile defenses, and started over. "You are quite correct. It won't happen again, until . . . we get this straightened out. What do we do next?"
        She opened her hands. "I've run every test I know. Obviously, the anticonvulsant isn't the answer. This is some kind of idiosyncratic cryonic damage on a cellular or subcellular level. You need to get your head to the highest-powered cryo-neurology specialist you can find."
        He sighed, and shrugged into his black tee shirt and gray uniform jacket. "Are we done for now? I urgently need to supervise prisoner interrogation."
        "I suppose." She grimaced. "But do us all a favor. Don't go armed."
        "Yes, ma'am," he said humbly, and fled.

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Baen Books 07/27/96