Mirror Dance (Vorkosigan Saga)by Lois McMaster Bujold
Not everyone would envy young Lord Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, even though he had formed his own mercenary fleet before attending the naval academy, and even though his mother was the beautiful Cordelia, the ship captain who has taught the Lords of Barrayar much about the perils of sexism. Even the fact that Miles is the third in line to the throne and personally owns a major chunk of his home planet would not tempt any normal person to change places with him.
When assassins came to rid the world of his father, his mother, pregnant with Miles, was in the line of fire, and Miles was but an egg for the omelet in an all too literal sense. Thanks to heroic medical intervention, Miles survived his near fatal brush with war gas - as a pain-filled dwarf with bones as weak and brittle as some malign composite of chalk and glass. Miles is often mistaken for a mutant by his mutant-loathing countrymen.
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By Lois McMaster Bujold
Bean BooksISBN: 0-671-72210-7
Chapter OneThe row of comconsole booths lining the passenger concourse of Escobar's largest commercial orbital transfer station had mirrored doors, divided into diagonal sections by rainbow-colored lines of lights. Doubtless someone's idea of decor. The mirror-sections were deliberately set slightly out of alignment, fragmenting their reflections. The short man in the grey and white military uniform scowled at his divided self framed therein.
His image scowled back. The insignia-less mercenary officer's undress kit-pocketed jacket, loose trousers tucked into ankle-topping boots-was correct in every detail. He studied the body under the uniform. A stretched-out dwarf with a twisted spine, short-necked, big-headed. Subtly deformed, and robbed by his short stature of any chance of the disturbing near-rightness passing unnoticed. His dark hair was neatly trimmed. Beneath black brows, the grey eyes' glower deepened. The body, too, was correct in every detail. He hated it.
The mirrored door slid up at last, and a woman exited the booth. She wore a soft wrap tunic and flowing trousers. A fashionable bandolier of expensive electronic equipment hanging decoratively on a jeweled chain across her torso advertised her status. Her beginning stride was arrested at the sight of him, and she recoiled, buffeted by his black and hollow stare, then went carefully around him with a mumbled, "Excuse me ... I'm sorry...."
He belatedly twisted up his mouth on an imitation smile, and muttered something half-inaudible conveying enough allegience to the social proprieties for him to pass by. He hit the keypad to lower the door again, sealing himself from sight. Alone at last, for one last moment, if only in the narrow confines of a commercial comm booth. The woman's perfume lingered cloyingly in the air, along with a frisson of station odors; recycled air, food, bodies, stress, plastics and metals and cleaning compounds. He exhaled, and sat, and laid his hands out flat on the small countertop to still their trembling.
Not quite alone. There was another damned mirror in here, for the convenience of patrons wishing to check their appearance before transmitting it by holovid. His dark-ringed eyes flashed back at him malevolently, then he ignored the image. He emptied his pockets out onto the countertop. All his worldly resources fit neatly into a space little larger than his two spread palms. One last inventory. As if counting it again might change the sum ...
A credit chit with about three hundred Betan dollars remaining upon it: one might live well for a week upon this orbital space station for that much, or for a couple of lean months on the planet turning below, if it were carefully managed. Three false identification chits, none for the man he was now. None for the man he was. Whoever he was. An ordinary plastic pocket comb. A data cube. That was all. He returned all but the credit chit to various pockets upon and in the jacket, gravely sorting them individually. He ran out of objects before he ran out of pockets, and snorted. You might at least have brought your own toothbrush ... too late now.
And getting later. Horrors happened, proceeding unchecked, while he sat struggling for nerve. Come on. You've done this before. You can do it now. He jammed the credit card into the slot, and keyed in the carefully memorized code number. Compulsively, he glanced one last time into the mirror, and tried to smooth his features into something approaching a neutral expression. For all his practice, he did not think he could manage the grin just now. He despised that grin anyway.
The vid plate hissed to life, and a woman's visage formed above it. She wore grey-and-whites like his own, but with proper rank insignia and name patch. She recited crisply, "Comm Officer Hereld, Triumph, Dendarii Free ... Corporation." In Escobaran space, a mercenary fleet sealed its weapons at the Outside jumppoint station under the watchful eyes of the Escobaran military inspectors, and submitted proof of its purely commercial intentions, before it was even allowed to pass. The polite fiction was maintained, apparently, in Escobar orbit.
He moistened his lips, and said evenly, "Connect me with the officer of the watch, please."
"Admiral Naismith, sir! You're back!" Even over the holovid a blast of pleasure and excitement washed out from her straightened posture and beaming face. It struck him like a blow. "What's up? Are we going to be moving out soon?"
"In good time, Lieutenant ... Hereld." An apt name for a communications officer. He managed to twitch a smile. Admiral Naismith would smile, yes. "You'll learn in good time. In the meanwhile, I want a pick-up at the orbital transfer station."
"Yes, sir. I can get that for you. Is Captain Quinn with you?"
"Uh ... no."
"When will she be following?"
"Right, sir. Let me just get clearance for-are we loading any equipment?"
"No. Just myself."
"Clearance from the Escobarans for a personnel pod, then ..." she turned aside for a few moments. "I can have someone at docking bay E17 in about twenty minutes."
"Very well." It would take him almost that long to get from this concourse to that arm of the station. Ought he to add some personal word for Lieutenant Hereld? She knew him; how well did she know him? Every sentence that fell from his lips from this point on packed risk, risk of the unknown, risk of a mistake. Mistakes were punished. Was his Betan accent really right? He hated this, with a stomach-churning terror. "I want to be transferred directly to the Ariel."
"Right, sir. Do you wish me to notify Captain Thorne?"
Was Admiral Naismith often in the habit of springing surprise inspections? Well, not this time. "Yes, do. Tell them to make ready to break orbit."
"Only the Ariel?" Her brows rose.
"Yes, Lieutenant." This, in quite a perfect bored Betan drawl. He congratulated himself as she grew palpably prim. The undertone had suggested just the right hint of criticism of a breach of security, or manners, or both, to suppress further dangerous questions.
"Will do, Admiral."
"Naismith out." He cut the comm. She vanished in a haze of sparkles, and he let out a long breath. Admiral Naismith. Miles Naismith. He had to get used to responding to that name again, even in his sleep. Leave the Lord Vorkosigan part completely out of it, for now; it was difficult enough just being the Naismith half of the man. Drill. What is your name? Miles. Miles. Miles. Lord Vorkosigan pretended to be Admiral Naismith. And so did he. What, after all, was the difference?
But what is your name really?
His vision darkened in a rush of despair, and rage. He blinked it back, controlling his breathing. My name is what I will. And right now I will it to be Miles Naismith.
He exited the booth and strode down the concourse, short legs pumping, both riveting and repelling the sideways stares of startled strangers. See Miles. See Miles run. See Miles get what he deserves. He marched head-down, and no one got in his way.
He ducked into the personnel pod, a tiny four-man shuttle, as soon as the hatch seal sensors blinked green and the door dilated. He hit the keypad for it to close again behind him immediately. The pod was too little to maintain a grav field. He floated over the seats and pulled himself carefully down into the one beside the lone pilot, a man in Dendarii grey tech coveralls.
"All right. Let's go."
The pilot grinned and sketched him a salute as he strapped in. Otherwise appearing to be a sensible adult male, he had the same look on his face as the comm officer, Hereld; excited, breathless, watching eagerly, as if his passenger were about to pull treats from his pockets.
He glanced over his shoulder as the pod obediently broke free of the docking clamps and turned. They swooped away from the skin of the station into clear space. The traffic control patterns made a maze of colored lights on the navigation console, through which the pilot swiftly threaded them.
"Good to see you back, Admiral," said the pilot as soon as the tangle grew less thick. "What's happening?"
The edge of formality in the pilot's tone was reassuring. Just a comrade in arms, not one of the Dear Old Friends, or worse, Dear Old Lovers. He essayed an evasion. "When you need to know, you'll be told." He made his tone affable, but avoided names or ranks.
The pilot vented an intrigued "Hm," and smirked, apparently contented.
He settled back with a tight smile. The huge transfer station fell away silently behind them, shrinking into a mad child's toy, then into a few glints of light. "Excuse me. I'm a little tired." He settled down further into his seat and closed his eyes. "Wake me up when we dock, if I fall asleep."
"Yes, sir," said the pilot respectfully. "You look like you could use it."
He acknowledged this with a tired wave of his hand, and pretended to doze.
He could always tell, instantly, when someone he met thought they were facing "Naismith." They all had that same stupid hyper-alert glow in their faces. They weren't all worshipful; he'd met some of Naismith's enemies once, but worshipful or homicidal, they reacted. As if they suddenly switched on, and became ten times more alive than ever before. How the hell did he do it? Make people light up like that? Granted, Naismith was a goddamn hyperactive, but how did he make it so freaking contagious?
Strangers who met him as himself did not greet him like that. They were blank and courteous, or blank and rude, or just blank, closed and indifferent. Covertly uncomfortable with his slight deformities, and his obviously abnormal four-foot-nine-inch height. Wary.
His resentment boiled up behind his eyes like sinus pain. All this bloody hero-worship, or whatever it was. All for Naismith. For Naismith, and not for me ... never for me....
He stifled a twinge of dread, knowing what he was about to face. Bel Thorne, the Ariel's captain, would be another one. Friend, officer, fellow Betan, yes, a tough test, well enough. But Thorne also knew of the existence of the clone, from that chaotic encounter two years ago on Earth. They had never met face to face. But a mistake that another Dendarii might dismiss in confusion could trigger in Thorne the suspicion, the wild surmise....
Even that distinction Naismith had stolen from him. The mercenary admiral, publicly and falsely, now claimed to be a clone himself. A superior cover, concealing his other identity, his other life. You have two lives, he thought to his absent enemy. I have none. I'm the real clone, damn it. Couldn't I have even that uniqueness? Did you have to take it all?
No. Keep his thoughts positive. He could handle Thorne. As long as he could avoid the terrifying Quinn, the bodyguard, the lover, Quinn. He had met Quinn face to face on Earth, and fooled her once, for a whole morning. Not twice, he didn't think. But Quinn was with the real Miles Naismith, stuck like glue; he was safe from her. No old lovers this trip.
He'd never had a lover, not yet. It was perhaps not quite fair to blame Naismith for that as well. For the first twenty years of his life he had been in effect a prisoner, though he hadn't always realized it. For the last two ... the last two years had been one continuous disaster, he decided bitterly. This was his last chance. He refused to think beyond. No more. This had to be made to work.
The pilot stirred, beside him, and he slitted open his eyes as the deceleration pressed him against his seat straps. They were coming up on the Ariel. It grew from a dot to a model to a ship. The Illyrican-built light cruiser carried a crew of twenty, plus room for supercargo and a commando squad. Heavily powered for its size, an energy profile typical of warships. It looked swift, almost rakish. A good courier ship; a good ship to run like hell in. Perfect. Despite his black mood, his lips curled up, as he studied that ship. Now I take, and you give, Naismith.
The pilot, clearly quite conscious that he was conveying his admiral, brought the personnel pod into its docking clamps with a bare click, neat and smooth as humanly possible. "Shall I wait, sir?"
"No. I shouldn't be needing you again."
The pilot hurried to adjust the tube seals while his passenger was still unbuckling, and saluted him out with another idiot broad proud smile. He twitched a returning smile and salute, then grasped the handlebars above the hatch and swung himself into the Ariel's gravity field.
He dropped neatly to his feet in a small loading bay. Behind him, the pod pilot was already re-sealing the hatch to return himself and his pod to its vessel of origin, probably the flagship Triumph. He looked up-always, up-into the face of the waiting Dendarii officer, a face he had studied before this only in a holovid.
Captain Bel Thorne was a Betan hermaphrodite, a race that was remnant of an early experiment in human genetic and social engineering that had succeeded only in creating another minority. Thorne's beardless face was framed by soft brown hair in a short, ambiguous cut that either a man or a woman might sport. Its officer's jacket hung open, revealing the black tee shirt underneath curving over modest but distinctly feminine breasts. The gray Dendarii uniform trousers were loose enough to disguise the reciprocal bulge in the crotch. Some people found hermaphodites enormously disturbing. He was relieved to realize he found that aspect of Thorne only slightly disconcerting. Clones who live in glass houses shouldn't throw ... what? It was the radiant I-love-Naismith look on the hermaphrodite's face that really bothered him. His gut knotted, as he returned the Ariel's captain's salute.
"Welcome aboard, sir!" The alto voice was vibrant with enthusiasm.
He was just managing a stiff smile, when the hermaphrodite stepped up and embraced him. His heart lurched, and he barely choked off a cry and a violent, defensive lashing-out. He endured the embrace without going rigid, grasping mentally after shattered composure and his carefully rehearsed speeches. It's not going to kiss me, is it?!
The hermaphrodite set him at arm's length, hands familiarly upon his shoulders, without doing so, however. He breathed relief. Thorne cocked its head, its lips twisting in puzzlement. "What's wrong, Miles?"
First names? "Sorry, Bel. I'm just a little tired. Can we get right to the briefing?"
"You look a lot tired. Right. Do you want me to assemble the whole crew?"
"No ... you can re-brief them as needed." That was the plan, as little direct contact with as few Dendarii as possible.
"Come to my cabin, then, and you can put your feet up and drink tea while we talk."
Excerpted from Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
A science fiction legend, Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most highly regarded speculative fiction writers of all time. She has won three Nebula Awards and six Hugo Awards, four for Best Novel, matching Robert A. Heinlein's record. The majority of Bujold's works comprise three separate book series: the Miles Vorkosigan Saga, the Chalion Series, and the Sharing Knife Series. The mother of two, Ms. Bujold lives in Minneapolis.
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Like the whole superb saga, this novel begins slowly (slower than most) but picks up speed about a third of the way through when it becomes compulsive reading. You can't put it down.
excellent sci-fi without too much erotica. Funny, entertaining, made me laugh out loud several times. love all her books. Can't wait for her new books 'Cryoburn & Captain Vorpatril's Alliance to be available as ebooks. C.
The story is great. Gardner, as reader, was excellent. The editing of the recording was terrible. Gardner had to correct himself in a number of places and the mistakes were not removed.
Another wonderfull story from LMB. Mark heads for Jacksons Hole to rescue his fellow clones. What he finds is a lot of trouble and family that he didn't know he wanted. Another entrancing tale of the family Vorkosigan. Like the rest of the books, I had a hard time putting it down.