Lois McMaster Bujold - Vorkosigan 07.3 - Labyrinth

By Tiffany Ross,2014-10-31 10:45
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Lois McMaster Bujold - Vorkosigan 07.3 - Labyrinth



    Lois McMaster Bujold




    ??????????? Miles contemplated the image of the globe glowing above the vid plate, crossed hisarms, and stifled queasiness. The planet of Jackson's Whole, glittering, wealthy, corrupt....Jacksonians claimed their corruption was entirely imported-if the galaxy were willing to payfor virtue what it paid for vice, the place would be a pilgrimage shrine. In Miles's view thisseemed rather like debating which was superior, maggots or the rotten meat they fed off. Still,if Jackson's Whole didn't exist, the galaxy would probably have had to invent it. Its neighborsmight feign horror, but they wouldn't permit the place to exist if they didn't find it asecretly useful interface with the sub-economy.

    ??????????? The planet possessed a certain liveliness, anyway. Not as lively as a century ortwo back, to be sure, in its hijacker-base days. But its cutthroat criminal gangs had senescedinto Syndicate monopolies, almost as structured and staid as little governments. An

    aristocracy, of sorts. Naturally. Miles wondered how much longer the major Houses would be ableto fight off the creeping tide of integrity.

    ??????????? House Dyne, detergent banking-launder your money on Jackson's Whole. House Fell,weapons deals with no questions asked. House Bharaputra, illegal genetics. Worse, House Ryoval,whose motto was "Dreams Made Flesh," surely the damndest-Miles used the adjective precisely-procurer in history. House Hargraves, the galactic fence, prim-faced middlemen for ransomdeals-you had to give them credit, hostages exchanged through their good offices came backalive, mostly. And a dozen smaller syndicates, variously and shiftingly allied.

    ??????????? Even we find you useful. Miles touched the control and the vid image vanished. Hislip curled in suppressed loathing, and he called up his ordnance inventory for one final checkof his shopping list. A subtle shift in the vibrations of the ship around him told him theywere matching orbits-the fast cruiser Ariel would be docking at Fell Station within the hour.

    ??????????? His console was just extruding the completed data disk of weapons orders when hiscabin door chimed, followed by an alto voice over its comm, "Admiral Naismith?"

    ??????????? "Enter." He plucked off the disk and leaned back in his station chair.

    ??????????? Captain Thorne sauntered in with a friendly salute. "We'll be docking in aboutthirty minutes, sir."

    ??????????? "Thank you, Bel."

    ??????????? Bel Thorne, the Ariel's commander, was a Betan hermaphrodite, man/woman descendantof a centuries-past genetic-social experiment every bit as bizarre, in Miles's private opinion,as anything rumored to be done for money by House Ryoval's ethics-free surgeons. A fringeeffort of Betan egalitarianism run amok, hermaphroditism had not caught on, and the originalidealists' hapless descendants remained a minority on hyper-tolerant Beta Colony. Except for afew stray wanderers like Bel. As a mercenary officer Thorne was conscientious, loyal, andaggressive, and Miles liked him/her/it- Betan custom used the neuter pronoun-a lot. However....

    ??????????? Miles could smell Bel's floral perfume from her. Bel was emphasizing the femaleside today. And had been, increasingly, for the five days of this voyage. Normally Bel chose tocome on ambiguous-to-male, soft short brown hair and chiselled, beardless facial featurescounteracted by the grey-and-white Dendarii military uniform, assertive gestures, and wickedhumor. It worried Miles exceedingly to sense Bel soften in his presence.

    ??????????? Turning to his computer console's holovid plate, Miles again called up the image ofthe planet they were approaching. Jackson's Whole looked demure enough from a distance,mountainous, rather cold- the populated equator was only temperate-ringed in the vid by a lacyschematic net of colored satellite tracks, orbital transfer stations, and authorized approachvectors. "Have you ever been here before, Bel?"

    ??????????? "Once, when I was a lieutenant in Admiral Oser's fleet," said the mercenary. "HouseFell has a new baron since then. Their weaponry still has a good reputation, as long as youknow what you're buying. Stay away from the sale on neutron hand grenades."

    ??????????? "Heh. For those with strong throwing arms. Fear not, neutron hand grenades aren'ton the list." He handed the data disk to Bel.

    ??????????? Bel sidled up and leaned over the back of Miles's station chair to take it. "ShallI grant leaves to the crew while we're waiting for the baron's minions to load cargo? How aboutyourself? There used to be a hostel near the docks with all the amenities, pool, sauna, greatfood..." Bel's voice lowered. "I could book a room for two."

    ??????????? "I'd only figured to grant day passes." Necessarily, Miles cleared his throat.

    ??????????? "I am a woman, too," Bel pointed out in a murmur.

    ??????????? "Among other things."

    ??????????? "You're so hopelessly monosexual, Miles."

    ??????????? "Sorry." Awkwardly, he patted the hand that had somehow come to rest on hisshoulder.

??????????? Bel sighed and straightened. "So many are."

    ??????????? Miles sighed too. Perhaps he ought to make his rejection more emphatic-this wasonly about the seventh time he'd been round with Bel on this subject. It was almost ritualizedby now, almost, but not quite, a joke. You had to give the Betan credit for either optimism orobtuseness... or, Miles's honesty added, genuine feeling. If he turned round now, he knew, hemight surprise an essential loneliness in the hermaphrodite's eyes, never permitted on thelips. He did not turn round.

    ??????????? And who was he to judge another, Miles reflected ruefully, whose own body broughthim so little joy? What did Bel, straight and healthy and of normal height, if unusual genitalarrangements, find so attractive in a little half-crippled part-time crazy man? He glanced downat the grey Dendarii officer's uniform he wore. The uniform he had won. If you can't be sevenfeet tall, be seven feet smart. His reason had so far failed to present him with a solution tothe problem of Thorne, though.

    ??????????? "Have you ever thought of going back to Beta Colony, and seeking one of your own?"Miles asked seriously.

    ??????????? Thorne shrugged. "Too boring. That's why I left. It's so very safe, so verynarrow...."

    ??????????? "Mind you, a great place to raise kids." One corner of Miles's mouth twisted up.

    ??????????? Thorne grinned. "You got it. You're an almost perfect Betan, y'know? Almost. Youhave the accent, the in-jokes..."

    ??????????? Miles went a little still. "Where do I fail?"

    ??????????? Thorne touched Miles's cheek; Miles flinched.

    ??????????? "Reflexes," said Thorne.

    ??????????? "Ah."

    ??????????? "I won't give you away."

    ??????????? "I know."

    ??????????? Bel was leaning in again. "I could polish that last edge..."

    ??????????? "Never mind," said Miles, slightly flushed. "We have a mission."

    ??????????? "Inventory," said Thorne scornfully.

    ??????????? "That's not a mission," said Miles, "that's a cover."

    ??????????? "Ah ha." Thorne straightened up. "At last."

    ??????????? "At last?"

    ??????????? "It doesn't take a genius. We came to purchase ordnance, but instead of taking theship with the biggest cargo capacity, you chose the Ariel-the fleet's fastest. There's nodeader dull routine than inventory, but instead of sending a perfectly competent quartermaster,you're overseeing it personally."

    ??????????? "I do want to make contact with the new Baron Fell," said Miles mildly. "House Fellis the biggest arms supplier this side of Beta Colony, and a lot less picky about who itscustomers are. If I like the quality of the initial purchase, they could become a regularsupplier."

    ??????????? "A quarter of Fell's arms are Betan manufacture, marked up," said Thorne. "Again,ha."

    ??????????? "And while we're here," Miles went on, "a certain middle-aged man is going topresent himself and sign on to the Dendarii Mercenaries as a medtech. At that point all Stationpasses are cancelled, we finish loading cargo as quickly as possible, and we leave."

    ??????????? Thorne grinned in satisfaction. "A pick-up. Very good. I assume we're being well-paid?"

    ??????????? "Very. If he arrives at his destination alive. The man happens to be the topresearch geneticist of House Bharaputra's Laboratories. He's been offered asylum by a planetarygovernment capable of protecting him from the long arms of Baron Luigi Bharaputra's enforcers.His soon-to-be-former employer is expected to be highly irate at the lack of a month's notice.We are being paid to deliver him to his new masters alive and not, ah, forcibly debriefed ofall his trade secrets.

    ??????????? "Since House Bharaputra could probably buy and sell the whole Dendarii FreeMercenary Fleet twice over out of petty cash, I would prefer we not have to deal with BaronLuigi's enforcers either. So we shall be innocent suckers. All we did was hire a bloodymedtech, sir. And we shall be irate ourselves when he deserts after we arrive at fleetrendezvous off Escobar."

    ??????????? "Sounds good to me," conceded Thorne. "Simple."

    ??????????? "So I trust," Miles sighed hopefully. Why, after all, shouldn't things run to plan,just this once?

    ??????????? The purchasing offices and display areas for House Fell's lethal wares weresituated not far from the docks, and most of House Fell's smaller customers never penetratedfurther into Fell Station. But shortly after Miles and Thorne placed their order-about as longas needed to verify a credit chit-an obsequious person in the green silk of House Fell'suniform appeared, and pressed an invitation into Admiral Naismith's hand to a reception in theBaron's personal quarters.

    ??????????? Four hours later, giving up the pass cube to Baron Fell's major domo at the sealedentrance to the station's private sector, Miles checked Thorne and himself over for theirgeneral effect. Dendarii dress uniform was a grey velvet tunic with silver buttons on theshoulders and white edging, matching grey trousers with white side piping, and grey synthasuedeboots-perhaps just a trifle effete? Well, he hadn't designed it, he'd just inherited it. Livewith it.

    ??????????? The interface to the private sector was highly interesting. Miles's eye took in thedetails while the major domo scanned them for weapons. Life-support-in fact, all systems-appeared to be run separately from the rest of the station. The area was not only scalable, itwas detachable. In effect, not Station but Ship-engines and armament around here somewhere,Miles bet, though it could be lethal to go looking for them unescorted. The major domo usheredthem through, pausing to announce them on his wrist comm: "Admiral Miles Naismith, commanding,Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. Captain Bel Thorne, commanding the fast cruiser Ariel, DendariiFree Mercenary Fleet." Miles wondered who was on the other end of the comm.

    ??????????? The reception chamber was large and gracefully appointed, with iridescent floatingstaircases and levels creating private spaces without destroying the illusions of openness.Every exit (Miles counted six) had a large green-garbed guard by it trying to look like aservant and not succeeding very well. One whole wall was a vertigo-inducing transparentviewport overlooking Fell Station's busy docks and the bright curve of Jackson's Wholebisecting the star-spattered horizon beyond. A crew of elegant women in green silk sarisrustled among the guests offering food and drink.

    ??????????? Grey velvet, Miles decided after one glance at the other guests, was a positivelydemure choice of garb. He and Bel would blend right into the walls. The thin scattering offellow privileged customers wore a wide array of planetary fashions. But they were a warybunch, little groups sticking together, no mingling. Guerrillas, it appeared, did not speak tomercenaries, nor smugglers to revolutionaries; the Gnostic Saints, of course, spoke only to theOne True God, and perhaps to Baron Fell.

    ??????????? "Some party," commented Bel. "I went to a pet show with an atmosphere like thisonce. The high point was when somebody's Tau Cetan beaded lizard got loose and ate the Best-In-Show from the canine division."

??????????? "Hush," Miles grinned out of the corner of his mouth. "This is business."

    ??????????? A green-sari'd woman bowed silently before them, offering a tray. Thorne raised abrow at Miles-do we... ?

    ??????????? "Why not?" Miles murmured. "We're paying for it, in the long run. I doubt the baronpoisons his customers, it's bad for business. Business is emperor, here. Laissez-fairecapitalism gone completely over the edge." He selected a pink tid-bit in the shape of a lotusand a mysterious cloudy drink. Thorne followed suit. The pink lotus, alas, turned out to besome sort of raw fish. It squeaked against his teeth. Miles, committed, swallowed it anyway.The drink was potently alcoholic, and after a sip to wash down the lotus he regretfullyabandoned it on the first level surface he could find. His dwarfish body refused to handlealcohol, and he had no desire to meet Baron Fell while either semi-comatose or gigglinguncontrollably. The more metabolically fortunate Thorne kept beverage in hand.

    ??????????? A most extraordinary music began from somewhere, a racing rich complexity ofharmonics. Miles could not identify the instrument- instruments, surely. He and Thorneexchanged a glance, and by mutual accord drifted toward the sound. Around a spiralingstaircase, backed by the panoply of station, planet, and stars, they found the musician.Miles's eyes widened. House Ryoval's surgeons have surely gone too far this time....

    ??????????? Little decorative colored sparkles defined the spherical field of a large null-geebubble. Floating within it was a woman. Her ivory arms flashed against her green silk clothesas she played. All four of her ivory arms.... She wore a flowing, kimono-like belted jacket andmatching shorts, from which the second set of arms emerged where her legs should have been. Herhair was short and soft and ebony black. Her eyes were closed, and her rose-tinted face borethe repose of an angel, high and distant and terrifying.

    ??????????? Her strange instrument was fixed in air before her, a flat polished wooden framestrung across both top and bottom with a bewildering array of tight gleaming wires, soundboardbetween. She struck the wires with four felted hammers with blinding speed, both sides at once,her upper hands moving at counterpoint to her lowers. Music poured forth in a cascade.

    ??????????? "Good God," said Thorne, "it's a quaddie."

    ??????????? "It's a what?"

    ??????????? "A quaddie. She's a long way from home."

    ??????????? "She's-not a local product?" "By no means."

    ??????????? "I'm relieved. I think. Where the devil does she come from, then?"

    ??????????? "About two hundred years ago-about the time hermaphrodites were being invented," apeculiar wryness flashed across Thorne's face, "there was this rush of genetic experimentationon humans, in the wake of the development of the practical uterine replicator. Followed shortlyby a rush of laws restricting such, but meanwhile, somebody thought they'd make a race of freefall dwellers. Then artificial gravity came in and blew them out of business. The quaddiesfled-their descendants ended up on the far side of nowhere, way beyond Earth from us in theNexus. They're rumored to keep to themselves, mostly. Very unusual, to see one this side ofEarth. H'sh." Lips parted, Thorne tracked the music.

    ??????????? As unusual as finding a Betan hermaphrodite in a free mercenary fleet, Milesthought. But the music deserved undivided attention, though few in this paranoid crowd seemedto even be noticing it. A shame. Miles was no musician, but even he could sense an intensity ofpassion in the playing that went beyond talent, reaching for genius. An evanescent genius,sounds woven with time and, like time, forever receding beyond one's futile grasp into memoryalone.

    ??????????? The outpouring of music dropped to a haunting echo, then silence. The four-armedmusician's blue eyes opened, and her face came back from the ethereal to the merely human,tense and sad.

    ??????????? "Ah," breathed Thorne, stuck its empty glass under its arm, raised hands to clap,then paused, hesitant to become conspicuous in this indifferent chamber.

    ??????????? Miles was all for being inconspicuous. "Perhaps you can speak to her," he suggestedby way of an alternative.

    ??????????? "You think?" Brightening, Thorne tripped forward, swinging down to abandon theglass on the nearest handy floor and raising splayed hands against the sparkling bubble. Thehermaphrodite mustered an entranced, ingratiating smile. "Uh..." Thorne's chest rose and fell.

    ??????????? Good God, Bel, tongue-tied? Never thought I'd see it. "Ask her what she calls thatthing she plays," Miles supplied helpfully.

    ??????????? The four-armed woman tilted her head curiously, and starfished gracefully over herboxy instrument to hover politely before Thorne on the other side of the glittering barrier."Yes?"

    ??????????? "What do you call that extraordinary instrument?" Thorne asked.

    ??????????? "It's a double-sided hammer dulcimer, ma'am-sir..." her servant-to-guest dull tonefaltered a moment, fearing to give insult, "Officer."

    ??????????? "Captain Bel Thorne," Bel supplied instantly, beginning to recover accustomedsmooth equilibrium. "Commanding the Dendarii fast cruiser Ariel. At your service. How ever didyou come to be here?"

    ??????????? "I had worked my way to Earth. I was seeking employment, and Baron Fell hired me."She tossed her head, as if to deflect some implied criticism, though Bel had offered none.

    ??????????? "You are a true quaddie?"

    ??????????? "You've heard of my people?" Her dark brows rose in surprise. "Most people Iencounter here think I am a manufactured freak." A little sardonic bitterness edged her voice.

    ??????????? Thorne cleared its throat. "I'm Betan, myself. I've followed the history of theearly genetics explosion with a rather more personal interest." Thorne cleared its throatagain, "Betan hermaphrodite, you see," and waited anxiously for the reaction.

    ??????????? Damn. Bel never waited for reactions, Bel sailed on and let the chips fall anyhow./ wouldn't interfere with this for all the world. Miles faded back slightly, rubbing his lipsto wipe off a twitching grin as all Thorne's most masculine mannerisms reasserted themselvesfrom spine to fingertips and outward into the aether.

    ??????????? Her head tilted in interest. One upper hand rose to rest on the sparkling barriernot far from Bel's. "Are you? You're a genetic too, then."

    ??????????? "Oh, yes. And tell me, what's your name?"

    ??????????? "Nicol."

    ??????????? "Nicol. Is that all? I mean, it's lovely."

    ??????????? "My people don't use surnames."

    ??????????? "Ah. And, uh, what are you doing after the party?"

    ??????????? At this point, alas, interference found them. "Heads up, Captain,"

    ??????????? Miles murmured. Thorne drew up instantly, cool and correct, and followed Miles'sgaze. The quaddie floated back from the force barrier and bowed her head over her hands heldpalm-to-palm and palm-to-palm as a man approached. Miles too came to a polite species ofattention.

    ??????????? Georish Stauber, Baron Fell, was a surprisingly old man to have succeeded sorecently to his position, Miles thought. In the flesh he looked older than the holovid Mileshad viewed of him at his own mission briefing. The baron was balding, with a white fringe ofhair around his shiny pate, jovial and fat. He looked like somebody's grandfather. Not Miles's;Miles's grandfather had been lean and predatory even in his great age. And the old Count'stitle had been as real as such things got, not the courtesy-nobility of a Syndicate survivor.Jolly red cheeks or no, Miles reminded himself, Baron Fell had climbed a pile of bodies to

attain this high place.

    ??????????? "Admiral Naismith. Captain Thorne. Welcome to Fell Station," rumbled the baron,smiling.

    ??????????? Miles swept him an aristocratic bow. Thorne somewhat awkwardly followed suit. Ah.He must copy that awkwardness next time. Of such little details were cover identities made. Andblown.

    ??????????? "Have my people been taking care of your needs?"

    ??????????? "Thank you, yes." So far the proper businessmen.

    ??????????? "So glad to meet you at last," the baron rumbled on. "We've heard a great dealabout you here."

    ??????????? "Have you," said Miles encouragingly. The baron's eyes were strangely avid. Quite aglad-hand for a little tin-pot mercenary, eh? This was a little more stroke than was reasonableeven for a high-ticket customer. Miles banished all hint of wariness from his return smile.Patience. Let the challenge emerge, don't rush to meet what you cannot yet see. "Good things, Ihope."

    ??????????? "Remarkable things. Your rise has been as rapid as your origins are mysterious."

    ??????????? Hell, hell, what kind of bait was this? Was the baron hinting that he actually knew"Admiral Naismith's" real identity? This could be sudden and serious trouble. No-fear outranits cause. Wait. Forget that such a person as Lieutenant Lord Vorkosigan, Barrayaran ImperialSecurity, ever existed in this body. It's not big enough for the two of us anyway, boy. Yet whywas this fat shark smiling so ingratiatingly? Miles cocked his head, neutrally.

    ??????????? "The story of your fleet's success at Vervain reached us even here. So unfortunateabout its former commander."

    ??????????? Miles stiffened. "I regret Admiral Oser's death."

    ??????????? The baron shrugged philosophically. "Such things happen in the business. Only onecan command."

    ??????????? "He could have been an outstanding subordinate."

    ??????????? "Pride is so dangerous," smiled the baron.

    ??????????? Indeed. Miles bit his tongue. So he thinks I "arranged" Oser's death. So let him.That there was one less mercenary than there appeared in this room, that the Dendarii were nowthrough Miles an arm of the Barrayaran Imperial Service so covert most of them didn't even knowit themselves... it would be a dull Syndicate baron who couldn't find profit in those secretssomewhere. Miles matched the baron's smile and added nothing.

    ??????????? "You interest me exceedingly," continued the baron. "For example, there's thepuzzle of your apparent age. And your prior military career."

    ??????????? If Miles had kept his drink, he'd have knocked it back in one gulp right then. Heclasped his hands convulsively behind his back instead. Dammit, the pain lines just didn't agehis face enough. If the baron was indeed seeing right through the pseudo-mercenary to thetwenty-three-year-old Security lieutenant-and yet, he usually carried it off-

    ??????????? The baron lowered his voice. "Do the rumors run equally true about your Betanrejuvenation treatment?"

    ??????????? So that's what he was on about. Miles felt faint with relief. "What interest couldyou have in such treatments, my lord?" he gibbered lightly. "I thought Jackson's Whole was thehome of practical immortality. It's said there are some here on their third cloned body."

    ??????????? "I am not one of them," said the baron rather regretfully.

    ??????????? Miles's brows rose in genuine surprise. Surely this man didn't spurn the process asmurder. "Some unfortunate medical impediment?" he said, injecting polite sympathy into hisvoice. "My regrets, sir."

    ??????????? "In a manner of speaking." The baron's smile revealed a sharp edge. "The braintransplant operation itself kills a certain irreducible percentage of patients-"

    ??????????? Yeah, thought Miles, starting with 100% of the clones, whose brains are flushed tomake room....

    ??????????? "-another percentage suffer varying sorts of permanent damage. Those are the risksanyone must take for the reward."

    ??????????? "But the reward is so great."

    ??????????? "But then there are a certain number of patients, indistinguishable from the firstgroup, who do not die on the operating table by accident. If their enemies have the subtletyand clout to arrange it. I have a number of enemies, Admiral Naismith."

    ??????????? Miles made a little who-would-think-it gesture, flipping up one hand, and continuedto cultivate an air of deep interest.

    ??????????? "I calculate my present chances of surviving a brain transplant to be rather worsethan the average," the baron went on. "So I've an interest in alternatives." He pausedexpectantly.

    ??????????? "Oh," said Miles. Oh, indeed. He regarded his fingernails and thought fast. "It'strue, I once participated in an... unauthorized experiment. A premature one, as it happens,pushed too eagerly from animal to human subjects. It was not successful."

    ??????????? "No?" said the baron. "You appear in good health."

    ??????????? Miles shrugged. "Yes, there was some benefit to muscles, skin tone, hair. But mybones are the bones of an old man, fragile." True. "Subject to acute osteo-inflammatoryattacks-there are days when I can't walk without medication." Also true, dammit. A recent andunsettling medical development. "My life expectancy is not considered good." For example, ifcertain parties here ever figure out who "Admiral Naismith" really is, it could go down to aslittle as fifteen minutes. "So unless you're extremely fond of pain and think you would enjoybeing crippled, I fear I must dis-recommend the procedure."

    ??????????? The baron looked him up and down. Disappointment pulled down his mouth. "I see."

    ??????????? Bel Thorne, who knew quite well there was no such thing as the fabled "Betanrejuvenation treatment," was listening with well-concealed enjoyment and doing an excellent jobof keeping the smirk off its face. Bless its little black heart.

    ??????????? "Still," said the baron, "your... scientific acquaintance may have made someprogress in the intervening years."

    ??????????? "I fear not," said Miles. "He died." He spread his hands helplessly. "Old age."

    ??????????? "Oh." The baron's shoulders sagged slightly.

    ??????????? "Ah, there you are, Fell," a new voice cut across them. The baron straightened andturned.

    ??????????? The man who had hailed him was as conservatively dressed as Fell, and flanked by asilent servant with "bodyguard" written all over him. The bodyguard wore a uniform, a high-necked red silk tunic and loose black trousers, and was unarmed. Everyone on Fell Station wentunarmed except Fell's men; the place had the most strictly-enforced weapons regs Miles had everencountered. But the pattern of calluses on the lean bodyguard's hands suggested he might notneed weapons. His eyes flickered and his hands shook just slightly, a hyper-alertness inducedby artificial aids-if ordered, he could strike with blinding speed and adrenalin-insanestrength. He would also retire young, metabolically crippled for the rest of his short life.

    ??????????? The man he guarded was also young-some great lord's son? Miles wondered. He hadlong shining black hair dressed in an elaborate braid, smooth dark olive skin, and a high-bridged nose. He couldn't be older than Miles's real age, yet he moved with a mature assurance.

    ??????????? "Ryoval," Baron Fell nodded in return, as a man to an equal, not a junior. Stillplaying the genial host, Fell added, "Officers, may I introduce Baron Ryoval of House Ryoval.

    Admiral Naismith, Captain Thorne. They belong to the Illyrican-built mercenary fast cruiser indock, Ry, that you may have noticed."

    ??????????? "Haven't got your eye for hardware, I'm afraid, Georish." Baron Ryoval bestowed anod upon them, of a man being polite to his social inferiors for the principle of it. Milesbowed clumsily in return.

    ??????????? Dropping Miles from his attention with an almost audible thump, Ryoval stood backwith his hands on his hips and regarded the null-gee bubble's inhabitant. "My agent didn'texaggerate her charms."

    ??????????? Fell smiled sourly. Nicol had withdrawn-recoiled-when Ryoval first approached, andnow floated behind her instrument, fussing with its tuning. Pretending to be fussing with itstuning. Her eyes glanced warily at Ryoval, then returned to her dulcimer as if it might putsome magic wall between them.

    ??????????? "Can you have her play-" Ryoval began, and was interrupted by a chime from hiswrist comm. "Excuse me, Georish." Looking slightly annoyed, he turned half-away from them andspoke into it. "Ryoval. And this had better be important."

    ??????????? "Yes, m'lord," a thin voice responded. "This is Manager Deem in Sales andDemonstrations. We have a problem. That creature House Bharaputra sold us has savaged acustomer."

    ??????????? Ryoval's Greek-statue lips rippled in a silent snarl. "I told you to chain it withduralloy."

    ??????????? "We did, my lord. The chains held, but it tore the bolts right out of the wall."

    ??????????? "Stun it."

    ??????????? "We have."

    ??????????? "Then punish it suitably when it awakes. A sufficiently long period without foodshould dull its aggression-its metabolism is unbelievable."

    ??????????? "What about the customer?"

    ??????????? "Give him whatever comforts he asks for. On the House."

    ??????????? "I... don't think he'll be in shape to appreciate them for quite some time. He's inthe clinic now. Still unconscious."

    ??????????? Ryoval hissed. "Put my personal physician on his case. I'll take care of the restwhen I get back downside, in about six hours. Ryoval out." He snapped the link closed."Morons," he growled. He took a controlled, meditative breath, and recalled his social manneras if booting it up out of some stored memory bank. "Pardon the interruption, please, Georish."

    ??????????? Fell waved an understanding hand, as if to say, Business.

    ??????????? "As I was saying, can you have her play something?" Ryoval nodded to the quaddie.

    ??????????? Fell clasped his hands behind his back, his eyes glinting in a falsely benignsmile. "Play something, Nicol."

    ??????????? She gave him an acknowledging nod, positioned herself, and closed her eyes. Thefrozen worry tensing her face gradually gave way to an inner stillness, and she began to play,a slow, sweet theme that established itself, rolled over, and began to quicken.

    ??????????? "Enough!" Ryoval flung up a hand. "She's precisely as described."

    ??????????? Nicol stumbled to a halt in mid-phrase. She inhaled through pinched nostrils,clearly disturbed by her inability to drive the piece through to its destined finish, thefrustration of artistic incompletion. She stuck her hammers into their holders on the side ofthe instrument with short, savage jerks, and crossed her upper and lower arms both. Thorne'smouth tightened, and it crossed its arms in unconscious echo. Miles bit his lip uneasily.

    ??????????? "My agent conveyed the truth," Ryoval went on.

??????????? "Then perhaps your agent also conveyed my regrets," said Fell dryly.

    ??????????? "He did. But he wasn't authorized to offer more than a certain standard ceiling.For something so unique, there's no substitute for direct contact."

    ??????????? "I happen to be enjoying her skills where they are," said Fell. "At my age,enjoyment is much harder to obtain than money."

    ??????????? "So true. Yet other enjoyments might be substituted. I could arrange somethingquite special. Not in the catalog."

    ??????????? "Her musical skills, Ryoval. Which are more than special. They are unique. Genuine.Not artificially augmented in any way. Not to be duplicated in your laboratories."

    ??????????? "My laboratories can duplicate anything sir." Ryoval smiled at the impliedchallenge.

    ??????????? "Except originality. By definition."

    ??????????? Ryoval spread his hands in polite acknowledgment of the philosophical point. Fell,Miles gathered, was not just enjoying the quaddie's musical talent, he was vastly enjoying thepossession of something his rival keenly wanted to buy, that he had absolutely no need to sell.One-upsmanship was a powerful pleasure. It seemed even the famous Ryoval was having a toughtime coming up with a better- and yet, if Ryoval could find Fell's price, what force onJackson's Whole could save Nicol? Miles suddenly realized he knew what Fell's price could be.Would Ryoval figure it out too?

    ??????????? Ryoval pursed his lips. "Let's discuss a tissue sample, then. It would do her nodamage, and you could continue to enjoy her unique services uninterrupted."

    ??????????? "It would damage her uniqueness. Circulating counterfeits always brings down thevalue of the real thing, you know that, Ry," grinned Baron Fell.

    ??????????? "Not for some time," Ryoval pointed out. "The lead time for a mature clone is atleast ten years-ah, but you know that." He reddened and made a little apologetic bow, as if herealized he'd just committed some faux pas.

    ??????????? By the thinning of Fell's lips, he had. "Indeed," said Fell coldly.

    ??????????? At this point Bel Thorne, tracking the interplay, interrupted in hot horror, "Youcan't sell her tissues! You don't own them. She's not some Jackson's Whole construct, she's afreeborn galactic citizen!"

    ??????????? Both barons turned to Bel as if the mercenary were a piece of furniture that hadsuddenly spoken. Out of turn. Miles winced.

    ??????????? "He can sell her contract," said Ryoval, mustering a glassy tolerance. "Which iswhat we are discussing. A private discussion."

    ??????????? Bel ignored the hint. "On Jackson's Whole, what practical difference does it makeif you call it a contract or call it flesh?"

    ??????????? Ryoval smiled a little cool smile. "None whatsoever. Possession is rather more thannine points of the law, here."

    ??????????? "It's totally illegal!"

    ??????????? "Legal, my dear-ah-you are Betan, aren't you? That explains it," said Ryoval. "Andillegal, is whatever the planet you are on chooses to call so and is able to enforce. I don'tsee any Betan enforcers around here to impose their peculiar version of morality on us all, doyou, Fell?"

    ??????????? Fell was listening with raised brows, caught between amusement and annoyance.

    ??????????? Bel twitched. "So if I were to pull out a weapon and blow your head off, it wouldbe perfectly legal?"

    ??????????? The bodyguard tensed, balance and center-of-gravity flowing into launch position.

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