Lois McMaster Bujold


Chapter One

His combat drop shuttle crouched still and silent in the repairs docking bay—malevolent, to Miles's jaundiced eye. Its metal and fibreplas surface was scarred, pitted and burned. It had seemed such a proud, gleaming, efficient vessel when it was new. Perhaps it had undergone psychotic personality change from its traumas. It had been new such a short few months ago. . . .

Miles rubbed his face wearily, and blew out his breath. If there was any incipient psychosis floating around here, it wasn't contained in the machinery. In the eye of the beholder indeed. He took his booted foot off the bench he'd been draped over and straightened up, at least to the degree his crooked spine permitted. Commander Quinn, alert to his every move, fell in behind him.

'There,' Miles limped down the length of the fuselage and pointed to the shuttle's portside lock, 'is the design defect I'm chiefly concerned about.'

He motioned the sales engineer from Kaymer Orbital Shipyards closer. 'The ramp from this lock extends and retracts automatically, with a manual override—fine so far. But its recessed slot is inside the hatch, which means that if for any reason the ramp gets hung up, the door can't be sealed. The consequences of which I trust you can imagine.' Miles didn't have to imagine them; they had burned in his memory for the last three months. Instant replay without an off switch.

'Did you find this out the hard way at Dagoola IV, Admiral Naismith?' the engineer inquired in a tone of genuine interest.

'Yeah. We lost . . . personnel. I was damn near one of them.'

'I see,' said the engineer respectfully. But his brows quirked.

How dare you be amused. . . . Fortunately for his health, the engineer did not smile. A thin man of slightly above average height, he reached up the side of the shuttle to run his hands along the slot in question, pull himself up chin-up fashion, peer about and mutter notes into his recorder. Miles resisted an urge to jump up and down like a frog and try to see what he was looking at. Undignified. With his own eye-level even with the engineer's chest, Miles would need about a one-meter stepladder even to reach the ramp slot on tiptoe. And he was too damn tired for calisthenics just now, nor was he about to ask Elli Quinn to give him a boost. He jerked his chin up in the old involuntary nervous tic, and waited in a posture of parade rest appropriate to his uniform, his hands clasped behind his back.

The engineer dropped back to the docking bay deck with a thump. 'Yes, Admiral, I think Kaymer can take care of this for you all right. How many of these drop shuttles did you say you had?'

'Twelve,' Fourteen minus two equalled twelve. Except in Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet mathematics, where fourteen minus two shuttles equalled two hundred and seven dead. Stop that, Miles told the calculating jeerer in the back of his head firmly. It does no one any good now.

'Twelve.' The engineer made a note. 'What else?' He eyed the battered shuttle.

'My own engineering department will be handling the minor repairs, now that it looks like well actually be holding still in one place for a while. I wanted to see to this ramp problem personally, but my second in command, Commodore Jesek, is chief engineer for my fleet, and he wants to talk to your Jump tech people about re-calibrating some of our Necklin rods. I have a Jump pilot with a head wound, but Jumpset implant micro-neurosurgery is not one of Kaymer's specialties, I understand. Nor weapons systems?'

'No, indeed,' the engineer agreed hastily. He touched a burn on the shuttle's scarred surface, perhaps fascinated by the violence it silently witnessed, for he added, 'Kaymer Orbital mainly services merchant vessels. A mercenary fleet is something a bit unusual in this part of the wormhole nexus. Why did you come to us?'

'You were the lowest bidder.'

'Oh—not Kaymer Corporation. Earth. I was wondering why you came to Earth? We're rather off the main trade routes, except for the tourists and historians. Er . . . peaceful.'

He wonders if we have a contract here, Miles realized. Here, on a planet of nine billion souls, whose combined military forces would make pocket change of the Dendarii's five thousand—right. He thinks I'm out to make trouble on old mother Earth? Or that I'd break security and tell him even if I was. . . . 'Peaceful, precisely,' Miles said smoothly. 'The Dendarii are in need of rest and refitting. A peaceful planet off the main nexus channels is just what the doctor ordered.' He cringed inwardly, thinking of the doctor bill pending.

It hadn't been Dagoola. The rescue operation had been a tactical triumph, a military miracle almost. His own staff had assured him of this over and over, so perhaps he could begin to believe it true.

The break-out on Dagoola IV had been the third largest prisoner-of-war escape in history, Commodore Tung said. Military history being Tung's obsessive hobby, he ought to know. The Dendarii had snatched over ten thousand captured soldiers, an entire POW camp, from under the nose of the Cetagandan Empire, and made them into the nucleus of a new guerrilla army on a planet the Cetagandans had formerly counted on as an easy conquest. The costs had been so small, compared to the spectacular results—except for the individuals who'd paid for the triumph with their lives, for whom the price was something infinite, divided by zero.

It had been Dagoola's aftermath that had cost the Dendarii too much, the infuriated Cetagandans' vengeful pursuit. They had followed with ships till the Dendarii had slipped through political jurisdictions that Cetagandan military vessels could not traverse; hunted on with secret assassination and sabotage teams thereafter. Miles trusted they had outrun the assassination teams at last.

'Did you take all this fire at Dagoola IV?' the engineer went on, still intrigued by the shuttle.

'Dagoola was a covert operation,' Miles said stiffly. 'We don't discuss it.'

'It made a big splash in the news a few months back,' the Earthman assured him.

My head hurts. . . . Miles pressed his palm to his forehead, crossed his arms and rested his chin in his hand, twitching a smile at the engineer. 'Wonderful,' he muttered. Commander Quinn winced.

'Is it true the Cetagandans have put a price on your life?' the engineer asked cheerfully.

Miles sighed. 'Yes.'

'Oh,' said the engineer. 'Ah. I'd thought that was just a story.' He moved away just slightly, as if embarrassed, or as if the air of morbid violence clinging to the mercenary were a contagion that could somehow rub off on him, if he got too close. He just might be right. He cleared his throat. 'Now, about the payment schedule for the design modifications—what had you in mind?'

'Cash on delivery,' said Miles promptly, 'acceptance to follow my engineering staffs inspection and approval of the completed work. Those were the terms of your bid, I believe.'

'Ah—yes. Hm.' The Earthman tore his attention away from the machinery itself; Miles felt he could see him switching from technical to business mode. 'Those are the terms we normally offer our established corporate customers.'

'The Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet is an established corporation. Registered out of Jackson's Whole.'

'Mm, yes, but—how shall I put this—the most exotic risk our normal customers usually run is bankruptcy, for which we have assorted legal protections. Your mercenary fleet is, um …'

He's wondering how to collect payment from a corpse, Miles thought.

'—a lot riskier,' the engineer finished candidly. He shrugged an apology.

An honest man, at least . . .

'We shall not raise our recorded bid. But I'm afraid we're going to have to ask for payment up front.'

As long as we're down to trading insults . . . 'But that gives us no protection against shoddy workmanship,' said Miles.

'You can sue,' remarked the engineer, 'just like anybody else.'

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