When Nikki finished bolting his dessert and galloped off, she added wryly, “And how was work today? I wasn’t sure if the extra hours represented progress, or the reverse.”
   How was work today. Her tone seemed to apologize for the prosaic quality of the question. Miles wondered how to explain to her that he found it altogether delightful, and wished she’d do it again. And again and… Her perfume was making his reptile-brain want to roll over and do tricks, and he wasn’t even sure she was wearing any. This mind-melting mixture of lust and domesticity was entirely novel to him. Well, half novel; he knew how to handle lust. It was the domesticity that had ambushed his guard. “We have advanced to new and surprising levels of bafflement,” Miles told her.
   The Professor opened his mouth, closed it, then said, “That about sums it up. Lord Vorkosigan’s hypothesis has proved correct; the embezzlement scheme was got up to support the production of a, um, novel device.”
   “Secret weapon,” Miles corrected. “I said secret weapon.”
   The Professor’s eyes glinted in amusement. “Define your terms. If it’s a weapon, then what’s the target?”
   “It’s so secret,” Miles explained to Ekaterin, “we can’t even figure out what it does. So I’m at least half right.” He glanced after Nikki. “I take it once Nikki got into his usual routine, things smoothed out?”
   “Yes. I’d been almost certain they would,” said Ekaterin. “Thank you so much for your help this morning, Lord Vorkosigan. I’m very grateful that-”
   Miles was saved from certain embarrassment by the chime of the hall door. Ekaterin rose and went to answer it and the Professor followed, blocking Miles from his planned counterbid,
   How did things go with the estate law counselor? I was sure you could get on top of it. The ImpSec guard was now on post in the hallway, Miles reminded himself; he didn’t need to make a parade out of this. Tucking the line away in his head for the next conversation-opener, he tapped open the airseal door and wandered out onto the balcony.
   Both sun and soletta had set hours ago. Only the city itself gave a glow to the night. A few pedestrians still crossed the park below, moving in and out of the shadows, hurrying on their way to or from the bubble-car platform, or strolling more slowly in pairs. Miles leaned on the railing and studied one sauntering couple, his arm draped across her shoulders, her arm circling his waist. In zero gee, a height difference like that would cancel out, by God. And how did the space-dwelling four-armed quaddies manage these moments? He’d met a quaddie musician once. He was certain there must be a quaddie equivalent to a grip so humanly universal…
   His idle envious speculations were derailed by the sound of voices within the apartment. Ekaterin was welcoming a guest. A man’s voice, Komarran accented: Miles stiffened as he recognized the rabbity Venier’s quick speech.
   “-ImpSec didn’t take as long to release his personal effects as I would have imagined. So Colonel Gibbs said I might bring them to you.”
   “Thank you, Venier,” Ekaterin’s voice replied, in the soft tone Miles had come to associate with wariness in her. “Just put the box down on the table, why don’t you? Now, where did he go…?”
   A clunk. “Most of it is nothing, styluses and the like, but I figured you would want the vidclipper with all the holos of you and your son.”
   “Yes, indeed.”
   “Actually, there is more to my visit than just cleaning out Administrator Vorsoisson’s office.” Venier took a deep breath. “I wanted to speak to you privately.”
   Miles, who had been about to reenter the kitchen from the balcony, froze. Dammit, ImpSec had questioned and cleared Venier, hadn’t they? What new secret could he be about to offer, and to Ekaterin of all people? If Miles entered, would he clam up?
   “Well… well, all right. Um, why don’t you sit down?”
   “Thank you.” The scrape of chairs.
   Venier began again, “I’ve been thinking about how awkward your situation here has become since the Administrator’s death. I’m so very sorry, but I couldn’t help being aware, watching you over the months, that things were not what they should have been between you and your late husband.”
   “Tien… was difficult. I didn’t realize it showed.”
   “Tien was an ass,” Venier stated flatly. “That showed. Sorry, sorry. But it’s true, and we both know it.”
   “It’s moot now.” Her tone was not encouraging.
   Venier forged on. “I heard about how he played fast and loose with your pension. His death has plunged you into a monstrous situation. I understand you are being forced to return to Barrayar.”
   Ekaterin said slowly, “I plan to return to Barrayar, yes.”
   He ought to clear his throat, Miles thought. Trip over a balcony chair. Pop back through the door and cry, Vennie, fancy meeting you here! He began breathing through his mouth, for silence, instead.
   “I realize this is a bad time to bring this up, much too soon,” Venier went on. “But I’ve been watching you for months. The way you were treated. Practically a prisoner, in a traditional Barrayaran marriage. I could not tell how willing a prisoner you were, but now-have you considered staying on Komarr? Not going back into your cell? You have this chance, you see, to escape.”
   Miles could feel his heart begin to beat, in a free-form panic. Where was Venier going with this?
   “I… the economics… our return passage is a death benefit, you see.” That same wary softness.
   “I have an alternative to offer you.” Venier swallowed; Miles swore he could hear the slight gurgle in his narrow neck. “Marry me. It would give you the legal protection you need to stay here. No one could force you back, then. I could support you, while you train up to your full strength, botany or chemistry or anything you choose. You could be so much. I can’t tell you how it’s turned my stomach, to see so much human potential wasted on that clown of a Barrayaran. I realize that for you it would have to start as a marriage of convenience, but as a Vor, that’s surely not an alien idea for you. And it could grow to be more, in time, I’m certain it could. I know it’s too soon, but soon you’ll be gone and then it will be too late!”
   Venier paused for breath. Miles bent over, mouth still open, in a sort of silent scream. My lines! My lines! Those were all my lines, dammit! He’d expected Vorish rivals for Ekaterin’s hand to come pouring out of the woodwork as soon as the widow touched down in Vorbarr Sultana, but my God, she hadn’t even got off Komarr yet! He hadn’t thought of Venier, or any other Komarran, as possible competition. He wasn’t competition, the idea of Vennie as competition was laughable. Miles had more power, position, money, rank, all to lay at her feet when the time was finally ripe-Venier wasn’t even taller than Ekaterin, he was a good four centimeters shorter-
   The one thing Miles couldn’t offer, though, was less Barrayar. In that, Venier had an advantage Miles could never match.
   There followed a long, terrifying silence, during which Miles’s brain screamed, Say no, say no! say NO!
   “That’s very kindly offered,” Ekaterin said at last.
   What the hell is that supposed to mean? And was Venier wondering the same thing?
   “Kindness has nothing to do with it. I-” Venier cleared his throat again “-admire you very much.”
   “Oh, dear.”
   He added eagerly, “I’ve applied for the administrative position as head of terraforming here. I think I have a good chance, because of the disruption in the department, HQ is surely going to be looking for some continuity. Or if the mud has splattered on the innocent as well as the guilty, I’ll do whatever I have to do to get another shot, a chance to clear my professional reputation-I can make Serifosa Sector a showcase, I know I can. If you stay, I can get you voting shares. We could do it together; we could make this place a garden. Stay here and help build a world!”
   Another long, terrifying silence. Then Ekaterin said, “I suppose you’d be assigned this apartment, if you succeeded to Tien’s position.”
   “It goes with it,” said Venier in an uncertain voice. Right, that wasn’t a selling point, though Miles wasn’t sure if Venier knew it. I can hardly bear being in this place, she’d said.
   “You offer is kind and generous, Venier. But you have mistaken my situation, somewhat. No one is forcing me to return home. Komarr… I’m afraid these domes give me claustrophobia, anymore. Every time I pull on a breath mask, I’m going to think about the ugly way Tien died.”
   “Ah,” said Venier. “I can understand that, but perhaps, in time…?”
   “Oh, yes. Time. Vor custom calls for a widow to mourn for one year.” Miles could not guess what gesture, what facial expression, went with these words. A grimace? A smile?
   “Do you hold to that archaic custom? Must you? Why? I never understood it. I thought in the Time of Isolation they tried to keep all women married all the time.”
   “Actually, I think it was practical. It gave time to be certain any pregnancy that might have been started could be completed while the woman was still under the control of her late husband’s family, so they could be sure of claiming custody of any male issue. But still, whether I believe in formal mourning or not won’t matter. As long as people think I do, I can use it to defend myself from-from unwanted suits. I so much need a quiet time and place to find my balance again.”
   There was a short silence. Then Venier said, more stiffly, “Defend? I did not mean my proposal as an attack, Kat.”
   “Of course I don’t think that,” she replied faintly.
   Lie, lie. Of course she bloody well did. Ekaterin had experienced marriage as one long siege of her soul. After ten years of Tien, she probably felt about matrimony the way Miles felt about needle-grenade launchers. This was very bad for Venier. Good. But it was equally bad for Miles. Bad. Good. Bad. Good. Bad…
   “Kat, I… I won’t make a pest of myself. But think about it, think about all your alternatives, before you do anything irrevocable. I’ll still be here.”
   Another awful silence. Then, “I don’t wish to give you pain, who never gave me any, but it’s wrong to make people live on false hopes.” A long, indrawn breath, as if she was mustering all her strength. “No.”
   And then, added more weakly, “But thank you so much for caring about me.”
   Longer silence. Then Venier said, “I meant to help. I can see I’ve made it worse. I really must be going, I still have to pick up dinner on the way home…”
   Yes, and eat it alone, you miserable rabbit! Ha!
   “Madame Vorsoisson, good night.”
   “Let me see you to the door. Thank you again for bringing Tien’s things. I do hope you get Tien’s job, Venier, I’m sure you could do it well. It’s time they started promoting Komarrans into the higher administrative positions again…”
   Miles slowly unfroze, wondering how he was going to slip past her now. If she went on to check Nikki, as she might, he could nip into her workroom without her seeing him, and pretend he’d been there all the time-
   Instead, he heard her steps return to the kitchen. A scrape and rattle, a sigh, then a louder rattle as the contents of a box were, apparently, dumped wholesale into the trash chute. A chair being pulled or pushed. He inched forward, to peek around the door port. She had sat again for a moment, her hands pressed against her eyes. Crying? Laughing? She rubbed her face, threw back her head, and stood, turning toward the balcony.
   Miles hastily backed up, looked around, and sat in the nearest chair. He extended his legs and threw back his head artistically, and closed his eyes. Dare he try to fake a snore, or would that be overdoing it?
   Her steps paused. Oh, God, what if she sealed the door, locking him out like a strayed cat? Would he have to bang on the glass, or stay out here all night? Would anyone miss him? Could he climb down and come back in the front door? The thought made him shudder. He wasn’t due for another seizure, but you never knew, that was part of what made his disorder so much fun…
   Her steps continued. He let his mouth hang slack, then he sat up, blinking and snorting. She was staring at him in surprise, her elegant features thrown into strong relief by the half-light from the kitchen. “Oh! Madame Vorsoisson. I must have been more tired than I thought.”
   “Were you asleep?”
   His Yes mutated to a weak “Mm,” as he recalled his promise not to lie to her. He rubbed his neck. “I’d have been half-paralyzed in that position.”
   Her brows drew down quizzically, and she crossed her arms. “Lord Vorkosigan. I didn’t think Imperial Auditors were supposed to prevaricate like that.”
   “What… badly?” He sat all the way up and sighed. “I’m sorry. I’d stepped out to contemplate the view, and I didn’t think anything when I first heard Vennie enter, and then I thought it might be something to do with the case, and then it was too late to say anything without embarrassing us all. As bad as the business with your comconsole all over again, sorry. Accidents, both. I’m not like this, really.”
   She cocked her head, a weird quirky smile tilting her mouth. “What, insatiably curious and entirely free of social inhibitions? Yes, you are. It’s not the ImpSec training. You’re a natural. No wonder you did so well for them.”
   Was this a compliment or an insult? He couldn’t quite tell, good, bad, good-bad-good…? He rose, smiled, abandoned the idea of asking her about the estate law session, bid her a polite good night, and fled in ignominy.


   Ekaterin made an early start the following morning to meet her aunt inbound from Barrayar. The ferry from Komarr to the wormhole jump station broke orbit before noon Solstice time. Ekaterin settled into her private sleeper-cell aboard the ferry with a contented, guilty sigh.
   It was just like Uncle Vorthys to have provided this comfort for her; he did nothing by halves. No artificial shortages, she could almost hear him enthusiastically booming, though he usually recited that slogan in reference to desserts. So what if she could stand in the middle of the cabinette and touch both walls. She was glad not to be rubbing shoulders with the crowds in the economy seats as she had done on her first passage, even if it was only an eight-hour flight from Komarr orbit to jump station dock. She had sat then between Tien and Nikki at the climax of a seven-day passage from Barrayar, and been hard-pressed to name which of them had been more tired, tense, and cranky, including herself.
   If only she’d accepted Venier’s proposal, she wouldn’t be facing a repeat of that wearing journey, a point in his favor Vennie could not have guessed at. Just as well. She thought of his unexpected offer last night in her kitchen, and her lips twisted in remembered embarrassment, amusement, and an odd little flash of anger. How had Venier ever got the idea that she was available? In wariness of Tien’s irrational jealousy, she’d thought she had tamped out any possible come-on signal from her manner long ago. Or did she really look so pitiful that even a modest soul like Vennie could imagine himself her rescuer? If so, that surely wasn’t his fault. Neither Venier’s nor Vorkosigan’s enthusiastic plans for her future education and employment were distasteful to her, indeed, they matched her own aspirations, and yet… both somehow implied, You can become a real person, but only if you play our game.
   Why can’t I be real where I am?
   Drat it, she was not going to let this churning mess of emotions spoil her precious slice of solitude. She dug her reader out of her carry-on, arranged the generous allotment of cushions, and stretched out on the bunk. At a moment like this, he could really wonder why solitary confinement was considered such a severe punishment. Why, no one could get at you. She wriggled her toes, luxuriating.
   The guilt was for Nikki, left ruthlessly behind with one of us school friends, putatively so that he would miss no classes, if, as Ekaterin sometimes felt, she really did do nothing of value all day long, why did she have to inconvenience so many people to take over her duties when she left? Something didn’t add up. Not that Madame Vortorren, whose husband was an aide to the Imperial Counsellor’s Serifosa Deputy, hadn’t seemed cordially willing to help out the new widow. Nor was adding Nikki to her household any great strain on its resources— he had four children of her own, whom she somehow managed to feed, clothe, and direct amidst a general chaos which never seemed to ruffle her air of benign absent-mindedness. Madame Vortorren’s children had learned early to be self-reliant, and was that so bad? Nikki had been fended off in his plea to accompany Ekaterin with the reminder that the ferry pilots had strict rules against allowing passengers on the flight deck, and anyway, it wasn’t even a jumpship. In reality, Ekaterin looked forward to a private time to talk frankly with her aunt about her late life with Tien without Nikki overhearing every word. Her pent-up thoughts felt like an over-filled reservoir, churning in her head with no release.
   She could barely sense the acceleration as the ferry sped onward. She popped the book-disk the law counselor had recommended to her on estate and financial management into her viewer, and settled back. The counselor had confirmed Vorkosigan’s shrewd guess about Tien’s debts ending with his estate. She would be walking away after ten years with exactly nothing, empty-handed as she had come. Except for the value of the experience… she snorted. Upon reflection, she actually preferred to be beholden to Tien for nothing. Let all debts be canceled.
   The management disk was dry stuff, but a disk on Escobaran water gardens waited as her reward when she was done with her homework. It was true she had no money to manage as yet. That too must change. Knowledge might not be power, but ignorance was definitely weakness, and so was poverty. Time and past time to stop assuming she was the child, and everyone else the grownups. I’ve been down once. I’m never going down again.
   She finished one book and half the other, got in an exquisite uninterrupted two-hour nap, and waked and tidied herself by the time the ferry arrived and began maneuvering to dock. She repacked her overnight bag, hitched up its shoulder strap, and went off to watch through the lounge viewports as they approached the transfer station and the jump point it served.
   This station had been built nearly a century ago, when fresh explorations of the wormhole had yielded up the rediscovery of Barrayar. The lost colony had been found at the end of a complex multijump route entirely different from the one through which it had originally been settled. The station had undergone modification and enlargement during the period of the Cetagandan invasion; Komarr had granted the ghem lords right of passage in exchange for massive trade concessions throughout the Cetagandan Empire and a slice of the projected profits of the conquest, a bargain it later came to regret. A quieter period had followed, till the Barrayarans, graduates of the harsh school of the failed Cetagandan occupation, had poured through in turn.
   Under the new Barrayaran Imperial management, the station had grown again, into a far-flung and chaotic structure housing some five thousand resident employees, their families, and a fluctuating number of transients, and serving some hundreds of ships a week on the only route to and from cul-de-sac Barrayar. A new long docking bar was under construction, sticking out from the bristling structure. The Barrayaran military station was a bright dot in the distance, bracketing the invisible five-space jump point. Ekaterin could see half a dozen ships in flight between civilian station and jump point, maneuvering to or from dock, and a couple of local-space freighters chugging off with cargoes to transfer at one of the other wormhole jump points. Then the ferry itself slid into its docking bay, and the looming station occluded the view.
   The tedious business of customs checks having been got through back in Komarr orbit before boarding, the ferry’s passengers disembarked freely. Ekaterin checked her holocube map, very necessary in this fantastic maze of a place, and went off to ensure a hostel room for the night for herself and her aunt, and to drop off her luggage there. The hostel room was small but quiet, and should do nicely to give poor Aunt Vorthys time to recover from her jump sickness before completing the last leg of her journey. Ekaterin wished she’d had such a luxury available on her own inbound passage. Realizing that the last thing the Professora would want to face immediately was a meal, Ekaterin prudently paused for a snack in an adjoining concourse cafe, then went off to wait her ship’s docking in the disembarkation lounge nearest its assigned bay.
   She selected a seat with a good view of the airseal doors, and faintly regretted not bringing her reader, in case of delays. But the station and its denizens were a fascinating distraction. Where were all these people going, and why? Most arresting to her eye were the obvious galactics, not-from-around-here in strange planetary garb; were they passing through for business, diplomacy, refuge, recreation? Ekaterin had seen two worlds, in her life; would she ever see more? Two, she reminded herself, was one more than most people ever got. Don’t be greedy.
   How many had Vorkosigan seen…?
   Her idle thoughts circled back to her own personal disaster, like a flood victim sorting through her ruined possessions after the waters have receded. Was the Old Vor ideal of marriage and family an intrinsic contradiction of a woman’s soul, or was it just Tien who’d been the source of her shrinkage? It was not clear how to sort out the answer without multiple trials, and marriage was not an experiment she cared to repeat. Yet the Professora seemed to be proof of the possible. She had public achievement-she was a historian, teacher, scholar in four languages-she had three grown children, and a marriage heading for the half-century mark. Had she made secret compromises? She had a solid place in her profession— might she have had a place at the top? She had three children-might she have had six?
   We are going to have a race, Madame Vorsoisson. Do you wish to run with your right leg chopped off, or your left leg chopped off?
   I want to run on both legs.
   Aunt Vorthys had run on both legs, reasonably serenely— Ekaterin had lived in her household, and didn’t think she overidealized her aunt-but then, she’d been married to Uncle Vorthys. One’s career might depend solely on one’s own efforts, but marriage was a lottery, and you drew your lot in late adolescence or early adulthood at a point of maximum idiocy and confusion. Perhaps it was just as well. If people were too sensible, the human race might well come to an end. Evolution favored the maximum production of children, not of happiness.
   So how did you end up with neither?
   She snorted self-derision, then sat up as the doors slid open and people began trickling through. Most of the tide had passed when Ekaterin spotted the short woman with the wobbly step, assisted by a shipping line porter who saw her through the doors and handed her the leash of the float pallet holding her luggage. Ekaterin rose, smiling, and started forward. Her aunt looked thoroughly frazzled, her long gray hair escaping its windings atop her head to drift about her face, which had lost its usual attractive pink glow in favor of a greenish-gray tinge. Her blue bolero and calf-length skirt looked rumpled, and the matching embroidered travel boots were perched precariously atop the pile of luggage, replaced on her feet with what were obviously bedroom slippers.
   Aunt Vorthys fell into Ekaterin’s hug. “Oh! So good to see you.”
   Ekaterin held her out, to search her face. “Was the trip very bad?”
   “Five jumps,” said Aunt Vorthys hollowly. “And it was such a fast ship, there wasn’t as much time to recover between. Be glad you’re one of the lucky ones.”
   “I get a touch of nausea,” Ekaterin consoled her, on the theory that misery might appreciate company. “It passes off in about half an hour. Nikki is the lucky one-it doesn’t seem to affect him at all.” Tien had concealed his symptoms in grouchiness. Afraid of showing something he construed as weakness? Should she have tried to… It doesn’t matter now. Let it go. “I have a nice quiet hostel room waiting for you to lie down in. We can get tea there.”
   “Oh, lovely, dear.”
   “Here, why is your luggage riding and you walking?” Ekaterin rearranged the two bags on the float pallet and flipped up the little seat. “Sit down, and I’ll tow you.”
   “If it’s not too dizzy a ride. The jumps made my feet swell, of all things.”
   Ekaterin helped her aboard, made sure she felt secure, and started off at a slow walk. “I apologize for Uncle Vorthys dragging you all the way out here for me. I’m only planning to stay a few more weeks, you see.”
   “I’d meant to come anyway, if his case went on much longer. It doesn’t seem to be going as quickly as he expected.”
   “No, well… no. I’ll tell you all the horrible details when we get in.” A public concourse was not the venue for discussing it all.
   “Quite, dear. You look well, if rather Komarran.”
   Ekaterin glanced down at her dun vest and beige trousers. “I’ve found Komarran dress to be comfortable, not the least because it lets me blend in.”
   “Someday, I’d love to see you dress to stand out.”
   “Not today, though.”
   “No, probably not. Do you plan on traditional mourning garb, when you get home?
   “Yes, I think it would be a very good idea. It might save… save dealing with a lot of things I don’t want to deal with just now.”
   “I understand.” Despite her jump sickness, Aunt Vorthys stared around with interest at the passing station, and began updating Ekaterin on the lives of her Vorthys cousins.
   Her aunt had grandchildren, Ekaterin thought, yet still seemed late-middle-aged rather than old. In the Time of Isolation, a Barrayaran woman would have been old at forty-five, waiting for death-if she made it even that far. In the last century, women’s life expectancies had doubled, and might even be headed toward the triple-portion taken for granted by such galactics as the Betans. Had Ekaterin’s own mother’s early death given her a false sense of time, and of timing? I have two lives for my foremothers’ one. Two lives in which to accomplish her dual goals. If one could stretch them out, instead of piling them atop one another… And the arrival of the uterine replicator had changed everything, too, profoundly. Why had she wasted a decade trying to play the game by the old rules? Yet a decade at twenty did not seem quite a straight trade for a decade at ninety. She needed to think this through…
   Away from the docks and locks area, the crowds thinned to an occasional passer-by. The station did not run so much on a day-and-night rhythm, as on a ships in dock, everybody switch, load and unload like mad because time was money, ships out, quiet falls again pattern which did not necessarily match the Solstice-standard time kept throughout Komarr local-space.
   Ekaterin turned up a narrow utility corridor she’d discovered earlier which provided a shortcut to the food concourse and her hostel beyond. One of the kiosks baked traditional Barrayaran breads and cannily vented their ovens into the concourse, for advertising; Ekaterin could smell yeast and cardamom and hot brillberry syrup. The combination was redolent of Barrayaran Winterfair, and a wave of homesickness shook her.
   Coming down the otherwise-unpeopled corridor toward them along with the aromas was a man, wearing stationer-style dock-worker coveralls. The commercial logo on his left breast read southport transport ltd., done in tilted, speedy-looking letters with little lines shooting off. He carried two large bags crammed with meal-boxes. He stopped short and stared in shock, as did she. It was one of the engineers from Waste Heat Management-Arozzi was his name.
   He recognized her at once, too, unfortunately. “Madame Vorsoisson!” And, more weakly, “Imagine meeting you here.” He stared around with a frantic, trapped look. “Is the Administrator with you…?”
   Ekaterin was just mustering a plan for, I’m sorry, I don’t believe I know you? followed by dancing around him blankly, walking away without looking back, turning the corner, and dashing madly for the nearest emergency call box. But Arozzi dropped his bags, dug a stunner out of his pocket, and fumbled it right way round before she’d made it any further than, “I’m sorry-”
   “So am I,” he said with evident sincerity, and fired.
   Ekaterin’s eyes opened on a cockeyed view of the corridor ceiling. Her whole body felt like pins and needles, and refused to obey her urgent summons to move. Her tongue felt like a wadded-up sock, stuffed in her mouth.
   “Don’t make me stun you,” Arozzi was pleading with someone. “I will.”
   “I believe you,” came Aunt Vorthys’s breathless voice, from just behind Ekaterin’s ear. Ekaterin realized she was now aboard the float pallet, half-sitting up against her aunt’s chest, her legs hung limply over the rearranged luggage in front of her. The Professora’s hand gripped her shoulder. Arozzi, after a desperate look around, set his meal-boxes in her lap, picked up the float pallet’s lead, and started off down the corridor as fast as the whining, overburdened pallet would follow.
   Help, thought Ekaterin. I’m being kidnapped by a Komarran terrorist. Her cry, as they turned down another corridor and passed a woman in a food service uniform, came out a low moan. The woman barely glanced at them. Not an unusual sight, this, two very jumpsick transients being towed to their connecting ship, or to a hostel, or maybe to the infirmary. Or the morgue… Heavy stun, Ekaterin had been given to understand, knocked people out for hours. This must be light stun. Was this a favor? She could not feel her limbs, but she could feel her heart beating, thudding heavily in her chest as adrenaline struggled uselessly with her unresponsive peripheral nervous system.
   More turns, more drops, more levels. Was her map cube still in her pocket? They passed out of passenger-country, into more utilitarian levels devoted to freight and ship repair. At last they turned in at a door labeled southport transport, ltd. in the same logo style as on the coveralls, and authorized personnel only in larger red print. Arozzi led them around a turn, through some more airseal doors, and down a ramp into a large loading bay. It smelled cold, all oil and ozone and a sharp sick scent of plastics. They were at the outermost skin of the station, anyway, whatever direction they’d come. She’d seen the Southport logo before, Ekaterin realized; it was one of those minor, shoestring-budgeted local-space shipping companies that eked out a living in the few interstices left by the big Komarran family firms.
   A tall, squarely-built man, also in worker’s coveralls, trod across the bay toward them, his footsteps echoing. It was Dr. Soudha. “Dinner at last,” he began, then he caught sight of the float pallet. “What the hell…? Roz, what is this? Madame Vorsoisson!” He stared at her in astonishment. She stared back at him in muzzy loathing.
   “I ran smack into her when I was coming away from the food concourse,” explained Arozzi, grounding the float pallet. “I couldn’t help it. She recognized me. I couldn’t let her run and report, so I stunned her and brought her here.”
   “Roz, you fool! The last thing we need right now is hostages! She’s sure to be missed, and how soon?”
   “I didn’t have a choice!”
   “Who’s this other lady?” He gave the Professora a weirdly polite, harried, how-d’you-do nod.
   “My name is Helen Vorthys,” said the Professora.
   “Not Lord Auditor Vorthys’s wife-?”
   “Yes.” Her voice was cold and steady, but as sensation returned Ekaterin could feel the slight tremble in her body.
   Soudha swore under his breath.
   Ekaterin swallowed, ran her tongue around her mouth, and struggled to sit up. Arozzi rescued his boxes, then belatedly drew his stunner again. A woman, attracted by the raised voices, approached around a stack of equipment. Middle-aged, with frizzy gray-blond hair, she also wore Southport Transport coveralls. Ekaterin recognized Lena Foscol, the accountant.
   “Ekaterin,” husked Aunt Vorthys, “who are these people? Do you know them?”
   Ekaterin said loudly, if a little thickly, “They’re the criminals who stole a huge sum of money from the Terraforming Project and murdered Tien.”
   Foscol, startled, said “What? We did no such thing! He was alive when I left him!”
   “Left him chained to a railing with an empty oxygen canister, which you never checked. And then called me to come get him. An hour and a half too late.” Ekaterin spat scorn. “An exquisite setup. Madame. Mad Emperor Yuri would have considered it a work of art.”
   “Oh,” Foscol breathed. She looked sick. “Is this true? You’re lying. No one would go out-dome with an empty canister!”
   “You knew Tien,” said Ekaterin. “What do you think?”
   Foscol fell silent.
   Soudha was pale. “I’m sorry, Madame Vorsoisson. If that was what happened, it was an accident. We intended him to live, I swear to you.”
   Ekaterin let her lips thin, and said nothing. Sitting up, with her legs swung out to the deck, she was able to get a less dizzying view of the loading bay. It was some thirty meters across and twenty deep, strongly lit, with catwalks and looping power lines running across the ceiling, and a glass-walled control booth on the opposite side from the broad entry ramp down which they’d come. Equipment lay scattered here and there around a huge object dominating the center of the chamber. Its main part seemed to consist of a wriggly trumpet-shaped cone made of some dark, polished substance-metal? glass?-resting in heavily padded clamps on a grounded float cradle. A lot of power connections slotted in at its narrow end. The mouth of the bell was more than twice as tall as Ekaterin. Was this the “secret weapon” Lord Vorkosigan had posited?
   And how had they ever got it, and themselves, past the ImpSec manhunt? ImpSec was surely checking every shuttle that left the planetary surface-now, Ekaterin realized. This thing could have been transported weeks ago, before the hunt even started. And ImpSec was probably concentrating its attention on jumpships and their passengers, not on freight tugs trapped in local space. Soudha’s conspirators had had years to develop their false ID. They acted as though they owned this place-maybe they did.
   Foscol spoke to Ekaterin’s fraught silence, almost as tight-lipped as Ekaterin herself. “We are not murderers. Not like you Barrayarans.”
   “I’ve never killed anyone in my life. For not-murderers, your body count is getting impressive,” Ekaterin shot back. “I don’t know what happened to Radovas and Trogir, but what about the six poor people on the soletta crew, and that ore freighter pilot-and Tien. That’s eight at least, maybe ten.” Maybe twelve, if I don’t watch my step.
   “I was a student at Solstice University during the Revolt,” Foscol snarled, clearly very rattled by the news about Tien. “I saw friends and classmates shot in the streets, during the riots. I remember the out-gassing of the Green Park Dome. Don’t you dare-a Barrayaran!-sit there and make mouth at me about murder.”
   “I was five years old at the time of the Komarr Revolt,” said Ekaterin wearily. “What do you think I ought to have done about it, eh?”
   “If you want to go back in history,” the Professora put in dryly, “you Komarrans were the people who let the Cetagandans in on us. Five million Barrayarans died before the first Komarran ever did. Crying for your past dead is a piece of one-downsmanship a Komarran cannot win.”
   “That was longer ago,” said Foscol a little desperately.
   “Ah. I see. So the difference between a criminal and a hero is the order in which their vile crimes are committed,” said the Professora, in a voice dripping false cordiality. “And justice comes with a sell-by date. In that case, you’d better hurry. You wouldn’t want your heroism to spoil.”
   Foscol drew herself up. “We aren’t planning to kill anyone. All of us here saw the futility of that kind of heroics twenty-five years ago.”
   “Things don’t seem to be running exactly according to plan, then, do they?” murmured Ekaterin, rubbing her face. It was becoming less numb. She wished she could say the same for her wits. “I notice you don’t deny being thieves.”
   “Just getting some of our own back,” glinted Foscol.
   “The money poured into Komarran terraforming doesn’t do Barrayar any direct good. You were stealing from your own grandchildren.”
   “What we took, we took to make an investment for Komarr that will pay back incalculable benefit to our future generations,” Foscol returned.
   Had Ekaterin’s words stung her? Maybe. Soudha looked as though he was thinking furiously, eyeing the two Barrayaran women. Keep them arguing, Ekaterin thought. People couldn’t argue and think at the same time, or at least, a lot of people she’d met seemed to have that trouble. If she could keep them talking while her body recovered a little more from the stun, she could… what? Her eye fell on a fire and emergency alarm at the base of the entry ramp, maybe ten steps away. Alarm, false alarm, the attention of irate authorities drawn to Southport Transport… Could Arozzi stun her again in less than ten steps? She leaned back against her aunt’s legs, trying to look very limp, and let one hand curl around the Professora’s ankle, as if for comfort. The novel device loomed silently and mysteriously in the center of the chamber.
   “So what are you planning to do,” Ekaterin said sarcastically, “shut down the wormhole jump and cut us off? Or are you going to make-” Her voice died as the shocked silence her words had created penetrated. She stared around at the three Komarrans, staring at her in horror. In a suddenly smaller voice she said, “You can’t do that. Can you?”
   There was a military maneuver for rendering a wormhole temporarily impassable, which involved sacrificing a ship-and its pilot-at a mid-jump node. But the disruption damped out in a short time. Wormholes opened and closed, yes, but they were astrographic features like stars, involving time scales and energies beyond the present human capacity to control. “You can’t do that,” Ekaterin said more firmly. “Whatever disruption you create, sooner or later it will become passable again, and then you’ll be in twice as much trouble as before.” Unless Soudha’s conspiracy was just the tip of an iceberg, with some huge coordinated plan behind it for all of Komarr to rise against Barrayaran rule in a new Komarr Revolt. More war, more blood under glass-the domes of Komarr might give her claustrophobia, but the thought of her Komarran neighbors going down to destruction in yet another round of this endless struggle made her sick to her stomach. The revolt had done vile things to Barrayarans, too. If new hostilities were ignited and went on long enough, Nikki would come of an age to be sucked into them… “You can’t hold it closed. You can’t hold out here. You have no defenses.”
   “We can, and we will,” said Soudha firmly.
   Foscol’s brown eyes shone. “We’re going to close the worm-hole permanently. We’ll get rid of Barrayar forever, without firing a shot. A completely bloodless revolution, and there will be nothing they can do about it.”
   “An engineer’s revolution,” said Soudha, and a ghost of a smile curved his lips.
   Ekaterin’s heart hammered, and the echoing loading bay seemed to tilt. She swallowed, and spoke with effort: “You’re planning to shut the wormhole to Barrayar with the Butcher of Komarr and three-fourths of Barrayar’s space-based military forces on this side, and you actually think you’re going to get a bloodless revolution? And what about all the people on Sergyar? You are idiots!”
   “The original plan,” said Soudha tightly, “was to strike at the time of the Emperor’s wedding, when the Butcher of Komarr and three-fourths of the space forces would have been safely in Barrayar orbit.”
   “Along with a lot of innocent galactic diplomats. And not a few Komarrans!”
   “I cannot think of a better fate for all the top collaborators,” said Foscol, “than to be locked in with their lovely Barrayaran friends. The Old Vor lords are always saying how much better they had it back in their Time of Isolation. We’re just giving them their wish.”
   Ekaterin squeezed the Professora’s ankle and climbed slowly to her feet. Upright, she swayed, wishing her unbalance really were artistic fakery to put the Komarrans off-guard. She spoke with deadly venom. “In the Time of Isolation, I would have been dead at forty. In the Time of Isolation, it would have been my job to cut my mutant infants’ throats, while my female relatives watched. I guarantee at least half the population of Barrayar does not agree with the Old Vor lords, including most of the Old Vor ladies. And you would condemn us all to go back to that, and you dare to call it bloodless!”
   “Then count yourself lucky you’re on the Komarran side,” said Soudha dryly. “Come on, folks, we have work to do, and less time than ever to do it. Starting from now, all sleep shifts are canceled. Lena, go wake up Cappell. And we have to figure out how to lock these ladies down safely out of the way for a while.”
   The Komarrans were no longer waiting for the Emperor’s wedding to provide their ideal tactical moment, it appeared. How close were they to putting their device into action? Close enough, it appeared, that even the arrival of two unwanted hostages wasn’t enough to divert them.
   Aunt Vorthys was trying to sit up straighter; Arozzi’s eye had returned to the boxes of cooling food at his feet. Now.
   Ekaterin launched herself forward, barreling into Arozzi and dashing onward. Arozzi swung around after her, but was temporarily distracted by a blue boot, thrown with surprising accuracy if limited strength by Aunt Vorthys, which bounced off the side of his head. Soudha and Foscol both began sprinting after her, but Ekaterin made it to the alarm and yanked down the lever hard, hanging on it as Arozzi’s wavering stun beam found her. It hurt more, this time. Her hands spasmed open, and she fell. The first beat of the klaxon smote her ears before the shock and blackness took her away again.
   Ekaterin opened her eyes to see her aunt’s face, sideways. She realized she was lying with her head on the Professora’s lap. She blinked and tried to lick her lips. Her body was all pins and needles and deep aches. A wave of nausea wrenched her stomach, and she struggled to lean sideways. A couple of spasms did not result in vomiting, however, and after a muffled belch, she rolled back. “Are we rescued?” she mumbled. They did not look rescued to her. They appeared to be sitting on the floor of a tiny lavatory, chilly and hard.
   “No,” said the Professora in a tone of disgust. Her face was tense and pale, with red bruises showing in the soft skin of her face and neck. Her hair was half down, straggling over her brow. “They gagged me, and dragged us both over behind that thing. The station squad burst in all right, but Soudha made all sorts of fast-talk apologies. He claimed it was an accident when Arozzi stumbled into the wall, and agreed to pay some enormous fine or another for turning in false alarms. I tried to make a noise, but it didn’t do any good. Then they locked us in here.”