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Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Publisher: Baen, 2010
Series: The Vorkosigan Saga: Book 12
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Galactic Empire
Space Opera
Avg Member Rating:
(210 reads / 108 ratings)


Miles Vorkosigan is back!

Kibou-daini is a planet obsessed with cheating death. Barrayaran Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan can hardly disapprove-he's been cheating death his whole life, on the theory that turnabout is fair play. But when a Kibou-daini cryocorp-an immortal company whose job it is to shepherd its all-too-mortal frozen patrons into an unknown future-attempts to expand its franchise into the Barrayaran Empire, Emperor Gregor dispatches his top troubleshooter Miles to check it out.

On Kibou-daini, Miles discovers generational conflict over money and resources is heating up, even as refugees displaced in time skew the meaning of generation past repair. Here he finds a young boy with a passion for pets and a dangerous secret, a Snow White trapped in an icy coffin who burns to re-write her own tale, and a mysterious crone who is the very embodiment of the warning Don't mess with the secretary. Bribery, corruption, conspiracy, kidnapping-something is rotten on Kibou-daini, and it isn't due to power outages in the Cryocombs. And Miles is in the middle-of trouble!


Chapter One

Angels were falling all over the place.

Miles blinked, trying to resolve the golden streaks sleeting through his vision into mere retinal flashes, but they stubbornly persisted as tiny, distinct figures, faces dismayed, mouths round. He heard their wavering cries like the whistle of fireworks from far off, the echoes buffeted by hillsides.

Ah, terrific. Auditory hallucinations, too.

Granted the visions seemed more dangerous, in his current addled state. If he could see things that were not there, it was also quite possible for him to not see things that were there, like stairwells, or broken gaps in this corridor floor. Or balcony railings, but wouldn't he feel those, pressing against his chest? Not that he could see anything in this pitch darkness-not even his hands, reaching uncertainly before him. His heart was beating too fast, rushing in his ears like muffled surf, his dry mouth gasping. He had to slow down. He scowled at the tumbling angels, peeved. If they were going to glow like that, they might at least illuminate his surroundings for him, like little celestial grav-lights, but no. Nothing so helpful.

He stumbled, and his hand banged against something hollow-sounding-had that bit of wall shifted? He snatched his arms in, wrapping them around himself, trembling. I'm just cold, yeah, that's it. Which had to be from the power of suggestion, since he was sweating.

Hesitantly, he stretched out again and felt along the corridor wall. He began to move forward more slowly, fingers lightly passing over the faint lines and ripples of drawer edges and handle-locks, rank after rank of them, stacked high beyond his reach. Behind each drawer-face, a frozen corpse: stiff, silent, waiting in mad hope. A hundred corpses to every thirty steps or so, thousands more around each corner, hundreds of thousands in this lost labyrinth. No-millions.

That part, unfortunately, was not a hallucination.

The Cryocombs, they called this place, rumored to wind for kilometers beneath the city. The tidy blocks of new mausoleums on the city's western fringe, zoned as the Cryopolis, did not account for all the older facilities scattered around and underneath the town going back as much as a hundred and fifty or two hundred years, some still operational, some cleared and abandoned. Some abandoned without being cleared? Miles's ears strained, trying to detect a reassuring hum of refrigeration machinery beyond the blood-surf and the angels' cries. Now, there was a nightmare for him-all those banks of drawers bumping under his fingertips concealing not frozen hope, but warm rotting death.

It would be stupid to run.

The angels kept sleeting. Miles refused to let what was left of his mind be diverted in an attempt to count them, even by a statistically valid sampling-and-multiplication method. Miles had done such a back-of-the-napkin rough calculation when he'd first arrived here on Kibou-daini, what, just five days ago? Seems longer. If the cryo-corpses were stacked up along the corridors at a density, on average, of a hundred per ten meters, that made for ten thousand along each kilometer of corridor. One hundred kilometers of corridors for every million frozen dead. Therefore, something between a hundred and fifty and two hundred kilometers of cryo-corridors tucked around this town somewhere.

I am so lost.

His hands were scraped and throbbing, his trouser knees torn and damp. With blood? There had been crawlspaces and ducts, hadn't there? Yes, what had seemed like kilometers of them, too. And more ordinary utility tunnels, lit by ceiling tubes and not lined with centuries of mortality. His weary legs stumbled, and he froze-um, stopped-once more, to be sure of his balance. He wished fiercely for his cane, gone astray in the scuffle earlier-how many hours ago, now?-he could be using it like a blind man on Old Earth or Barrayar's own Time of Isolation, tapping in front of his feet for those so-vividly-imagined gaps in the floor.

His would-be kidnappers hadn't roughed him up too badly in the botched snatch, relying instead on a hypospray of sedative to keep their captive under control. Too bad it had been in the same class of sedatives to which Miles was violently allergic-or even, judging by his present symptoms, the identical drug. Expecting a drowsy deadweight, they'd instead found themselves struggling with a maniacal little screaming man. This suggested his snatchers hadn't known everything about him, a somewhat reassuring thought.

Or even anything about him. You bastards are on the top of Imperial Lord Auditor Miles Vorkosigan's very own shit list now, you bet. But under what name? Only five days on this benighted world, and already total strangers are trying to kill me. Sadly, it wasn't even a record. He wished he knew who they'd been. He wished he were back home in the Barrayaran Empire, where the dread title of Imperial Auditor actually meant something to people. I wish those wretched angels would stop shrieking at me.

"Flights of angels," he muttered in experimental incantation, "sing me to my rest."

The angels declined to form up into a ball like a will-o'-the-wisp and lead him onward out of this place. So much for his dim hope that his subconscious had been keeping track of his direction while the rest of his mind was out, and would now produce some neat inspiration in dramatic form. Onward. One foot in front of the other, wasn't that the grownup way of solving problems? Surely he ought to be a grownup at his age.

He wondered if he was going in circles.

His trailing hand wavered through black air across a narrow cross-corridor, made for access to the banks' supporting machinery, which he ignored. Later, another. He'd been suckered into exploring down too many of those already, which was part of how he'd got so hideously turned around. Go straight or, if his corridor dead-ended, right, as much as possible, that was his new rule.

But then his bumping fingers crossed something that was not a bank of cryo-drawers, and he stopped abruptly. He felt around without turning, because turning, he'd discovered, destroyed what little orientation he still possessed. Yes, a door! If only it wasn't another utility closet. If only it was unlocked, for a change.

Unlocked, yes! Miles hissed through his teeth and pulled. Hinges creaked with corrosion. It seemed to weigh a ton, but the bloody thing moved! He stuck an experimental foot through the gap and felt around. A floor, not a drop-if his senses weren't lying, again. He had nothing with which to prop open the door; he hoped he might find it again if this proved another dead end. Carefully, he knelt on all fours and eased through, feeling in front of him.

Not another closet. Stairs, emergency stairs! He seemed to be on a landing in front of the door. To his right, steps went up, cool and gritty under his sore hand. To his left, down. Which way? He had to run out of up sooner, surely. It was probably a delusion, if a powerful one, that he might go down forever. This maze could not descend to the planet's magma, after all. The heat would thaw the dead.

There was a railing, not too wobbly, but he started up on all fours anyway, patting each riser to be sure the step was all there before trusting his weight to it. A reversal of direction, more painful climbing. Another turning at another landing-he tried its door, which was also unlocked, but did not enter it. Not unless or until he ran out of stairs would he let himself be forced back in there with those endless ranks of corpses. He tried to keep count of the flights, but lost track after a few turnings. He heard himself whimpering under his breath in time with the angel ululations, and forced himself to silence. Oh God, was that a faint gray glow overhead? Real light, or just another mirage?

He knew it for real light when he saw the pale glimmer of his hands, the white ghosts of his shirtsleeves. He hadn't become disembodied in the dark after all, huh.

On the next landing he found a door with a real window, a dirty square pane as wide as his two stretched hands. He craned his neck and peered out, blinking against the grayness that seemed bright as fire, making his dark-staring eyes water. Oh gods and little fishes let it not be locked....

He shoved, then gasped relief as the door moved. It didn't creak as loudly as the one below. Could be a roof. Be careful. He crawled again, out into free air at last.

Not a roof; a broad alley at ground level. One hand upon the rough stucco wall behind him, Miles clambered to his feet and squinted up at slate gray clouds, a spitting mist, and lowering dusk. All luminous beyond joy.

The structure from which he'd just emerged rose only one more storey, but opposite it another building rose higher. It seemed to have no doors on this side, nor lower windows, but above, dark panes gleamed silver in the diffuse light. None were broken, yet the windows had an empty, haunted look, like the eyes of an abandoned woman. It seemed a vaguely industrial block, no shops or houses in sight. No lights, security or otherwise. Warehouses, or a deserted factory? A chill wind blew a plastic flimsy skittering along the cracked pavement, a bit of bright trash more solid than all the wailing angels in the world. Or in his head. Whichever.

He was still, he judged, in the Territorial Prefecture capital of Northbridge, or Kitahashi, as every place on this planet seemed to boast two interchangeable names, to ensure the confusion of tourists no doubt. Because to have arrived at any other urban area this size, he would have had to walk over a hundred kilometers underground in a straight line, and while he would buy the hundred kilometers, considering how his feet felt right now, the straight line part was right out. He might even be ironically close to his downtown starting point, but on the whole, he thought not.

With one hand trailing over the scabrous stucco, partly to hold himself upright and partly from what was by now grim superstitious habit, Miles turned-right-and stumbled up the alley to its first cross-corri-corner. The pavement was cold. His captors had taken away his shoes early on; his socks were in tatters, and possibly also his skin, but his feet were too numb to register pain.

His hand crossed a faded graffiti, sprayed in some red paint and then imperfectly rubbed out, Burn The Dead. It wasn't the first time he'd seen that slogan since he'd come downside: once on an underpass wall on the way from the shuttleport, where a cleaning crew was already at work effacing it; more frequently down in the utility tunnels, where no tourists were expected to venture. On Barrayar, people burned offerings for the dead, but Miles suspected that wasn't the meaning here. The mysterious phrase had been high on his list of items to investigate further, before it had all gone sideways....yesterday? This morning?

Turning the corner into another unlit street or access road, which was bounded on the opposite side by a dilapidated chain-link fence, Miles hesitated. Looming out of the gathering gloom and angel-rain were two figures walking side-by-side. Miles blinked rapidly, trying to resolve them, then wished he hadn't.

The one on the right was a Tau Cetan beaded lizard, as tall, or short, as himself. Its skin rippled with variegated colored scales, maroon, yellow, black, ivory-white in the collar around its throat and down its belly, but rather than progressing in toadlike hops, it walked upright, which was a clue. A real Tau Cetan beaded lizard, squatting, might come up nearly to Miles's waist, so it wasn't exceptionally large for its species. But it also carried sacks swinging from its hands, definitely not real beaded lizard behavior.

Its taller companion....well. A six-foot-tall butterbug was definitely a creature out of his own nightmares, and not anyone else's. Looking rather like a giant cockroach, with a pale pulsing abdomen, folded brown wing carapaces, and bobbing head, it nonetheless strode along on two sticklike hind legs and also swung cloth sacks from its front claws. Its middle legs wavered in and out of existence uncertainly, as if Miles's brain could not decide exactly how to scale up the repulsive thing.

As the pair approached him and slowed, staring, Miles took a firmer grip on the nearest supporting wall, and essayed cautiously, "Hello?"

The butterbug turned its insectile head and studied him in turn. "Stay back, Jin," it advised its shorter companion. "He looks like some sort of druggie, stumbled in here. Lookkit his eyes." Its mandibles and questing palps wiggled as it spoke, its male voice sounding aged and querulous.

Miles wanted to explain that while he was certainly drugged, he was no addict, but getting the distinction across seemed too much of a challenge. He tried a big reassuring smile, instead. His hallucinations recoiled.

"Hey," said Miles, annoyed. "I can't look nearly as bad to you as you look to me. Deal with it." Perhaps he had wandered into some talking animal story like the ones he'd read, over and over, in the nursery to Sasha and little Hellion. Except the creatures encountered in such tales were normally furrier, he thought. Why couldn't his chemically-enchanted neurons have spat out giant kittens?

He put on his most austere diplomat's tones, and said, "I beg your pardon, but I seem to have lost my way." Also my wallet, my wristcom, half my clothes, my bodyguard, and my mind. And-his hand felt around his neck-his Auditor's seal-ring on its chain. Not that any of its overrides or other tricks would work on this world's com-net, but Armsman Roic might at least have tracked him by its ping. If Roic was still alive. He'd been upright when Miles had last seen him, when they'd been separated by the panicking mob.

A fragment of broken stone pressed into his foot, and he shifted. If his eye could pick out the difference between pebbles and glass and plastic on the pavement, why couldn't it tell the difference between people and huge insects? "It was giant cicadas the last time I had a reaction this bad," he told the butterbug. "A giant butterbug is actually sort of reassuring. No one else's brain on this planet would generate butterbugs, except maybe Roic's, so I know exactly where you're coming from. Judging from the decor around here, the locals'd probably go for some jackal-headed fellow, or maybe a hawk-man. In a white lab coat." Miles realized he'd spoken aloud when the pair backed up another step. What, were his eyes flashing celestial light? Or glowing feral red?

"Just leave, Jin," the butterbug told its lizard companion, tugging on its arm. "Don't talk to him. Walk away slowly."

"Shouldn't we try to help him?" A much younger voice; Miles couldn't judge if it was a boy's or a girl's.

"Yes, you should!" said Miles. "With all these angels in my eyes I can't even tell where I'm stepping. And I lost my shoes. The bad guys took them away from me."

"Come on, Jin!" said the butterbug. "We got to get these bags of findings back to the secretaries before dark, or they'll be mad at us."

Miles tried to decide if that last remark would have made any more sense to his normal brain. Perhaps not.

"Where are you trying to get to?" asked the lizard with the young voice, resisting its companion's pull.

"I..." don't know, Miles realized. Back was not an option till the drug had cleared his system and he'd garnered some notion of who his enemies were-if he returned to the cryonics conference, assuming it was still going on after all the disruptions, he might just be rushing back into their arms. Home was definitely on the list, and up till yesterday at the top, but then things had grown....interesting. Still, if his enemies had just wanted him dead, they'd had plenty of chances. Some hope there... "I don't know yet," he confessed.

The elderly butterbug said in disgust, "Then we can't very well send you there, can we? Come on, Jin!"

Miles licked dry lips, or tried to. No, don't leave me! In a smaller voice, he said, "I'm very thirsty. Can you at least tell me where I might find the nearest drinking water?" How long had he been lost underground? The water-clock of his bladder was not reliable-he might well have pissed in a corner to relieve himself somewhere along his random route. His thirst suggested he'd been wandering something between ten hours and twenty, though. He almost hoped for the latter, as it meant the drug should start clearing soon.

The lizard, Jin, said slowly, "I could bring you some."

"No, Jin!"

The lizard jerked its arm back. "You can't tell me what to do, Yani! You're not my parents!" Its voice went jagged on that last.

"Come along. The custodian is waiting to close up!"

Reluctantly, with a backward glance over its brightly-patterned shoulder, the lizard allowed itself to be dragged away up the darkening street.

Miles sank down, spine against the building wall, and sighed in exhaustion and despair. He opened his mouth to the thickening mist, but it did not relieve his thirst. The chill of the pavement and the wall bit through his thin clothing-just his shirt and gray trousers, pockets emptied, his belt also taken. It was going to get colder as night fell. This access road was unlighted. But at least the urban sky would hold a steady apricot glow, better than the endless dark below ground. Miles wondered how cold he would have to grow before he crawled back inside the shelter of that last door. A hell of a lot colder than this. And he hated cold.

He sat there a long time, shivering, listening to the distant city sounds and the faint cries in his head. Was his plague of angels starting to melt back into formless streaks? He could hope. I shouldn't have sat down. His leg muscles were tightening and cramping, and he wasn't at all sure he could stand up again.

He'd thought himself too uncomfortable to doze, but he woke with a start, some unknown time later, to a shy touch on his shoulder. Jin was kneeling at his side, looking a bit less reptilian than before.

"If you want, mister," Jin whispered, "you can come along to my hide-out. I got some water bottles there. Yani won't see you, he's gone to bed."

"That's," Miles gasped, "that sounds great." He struggled to his feet; a firm young grip caught his stumble.

In a whining nimbus of whirling lights, Miles followed the friendly lizard.

Jin checked back over his shoulder to make sure the funny-looking little man, no taller than himself, was still following all right. Even in the dusk it was clear that the druggie was a grownup, and not another kid as Jin had hoped at first glance. He had a grownup voice, his words precise and complicated despite their tired slur and his strange accent, low and rumbly. He moved almost as stiff and slow as old Yani. But when his fleeting smiles lifted the strain from his face it looked oddly kind, in an accustomed way, as if smiles were at home there. Grouchy Yani never smiled.

Jin wondered if the little man had been beaten up, and why. Blood stained his torn trouser knees, and his white shirt bore browning smears. For a plain shirt, it looked pretty fancy, as if-before being rolled around in-it had been crisp and fine, but Jin couldn't figure out quite how that effect was done. Never mind. He had this novel creature all to himself, for now.

When they came to the metal ladder running up the outside of the exchanger building, Jin looked at the bloodstains and stiffness and thought to ask, "Can you climb?"

The little man stared upward. "It's not my favorite activity. How far up does this castle keep really go?"

"Just to the top."

"That would be, um, two stories?" He added in a low mutter, "Or twenty?"

Jin said, "Just three. My hideout's on the roof."

"The hideout part sounds good." The man licked at his cracked lips with a dry-looking tongue. He really did need water, Jin guessed. "Maybe you'd better go first. In case I slip."

"I have to go last to raise the ladder."

"Oh. All right." A small, square hand reached out to grip a rung. "Up. Up is good, right?" He paused, drew a breath, then lurched skyward.

Jin followed as lightly as a lizard. Three meters up, he stopped to crank the ratchet that raised the ladder out of reach of the unauthorized and latch it. Up another three meters, he came to the place where the rungs were replaced by broad steel staples, bolted to the building's side. The little man had managed them, but now seemed stuck on the ledge.

"Where am I now?" he called back to Jin in tense tones. "I can feel a drop, but I can't be sure how far down it really goes."

What, it wasn't that dark. "Just roll over and fall, if you can't lift yourself. The edge-wall's only about half a meter high."

"Ah." The sock feet swung out and disappeared. Jin heard a thump and a grunt. He popped over the parapet to find the little man sitting up on the flat rooftop, fingers scraping at the grit as if seeking a handhold on the surface.

"Oh, are you afraid of heights?" Jin asked, feeling dumb for not asking sooner.

"Not normally. Dizzy. Sorry."

Jin helped him up. The man did not shrug off his hand, so Jin led him on around the twin exchanger towers, set atop the roof like big blocks. Hearing Jin's familiar step, Galli, Twig, and Mrs. Speck, and Mrs. Speck's six surviving children, ran around the blocks to greet him, clucking and chuckling.

"Oh, God. Now I see chickens," said the man in a constricted voice, stopping short. "I suppose they could be related to the angels. Wings, after all."

"Quit that, Twig," said Jin sternly to the brown hen, who seemed inclined to peck at his guest's trouser leg. Jin shoved her aside with his foot. "I didn't bring you any food yet. Later."

"You see chickens, too?" the man inquired cautiously.

"Yah, they're mine. The white one is Galli, the brown one is Twig, and the black-and-white speckled one is Mrs. Speck. Those are all her babies, though I guess they're not really babies any more." Half-grown and molting, the brood didn't look too appetizing, a fact Jin almost apologized for as the man continued to peer down into the shadows at their greeting party. "I named her Galli because the scientific name of the chicken is Gallus gallus, you know." A cheerful name, sounding like gallop-gallop, which always made Jin smile.

"Makes... sense," the man said, and let Jin tug him onward.

As they rounded the corner Jin automatically checked to be sure the roof of discarded tarps and drop cloths that he'd rigged on poles between the two exchanger towers was still holding firm, sheltering his animal family. The tent made a cozy space, bigger than his bedroom back before....he shied from that memory. He let go of the stranger long enough to jump up on the chair and switch on the hand light, hanging by a scrap of wire from the ridge-pole, which cast a bright circle of illumination over his secret kingdom as good as any ceiling fixture's. The man flung his arm up over his reddened eyes, and Jin dimmed the light to something softer.

As Jin stepped back down, Lucky rose from the bedroll atop the mattress of shredded flimsies, stretched, and hopped toward him, meowing, then rose on her hind legs to place her one front paw imploringly on Jin's knee, kneading her claws. Jin bent and scratched her fuzzy gray ears. "No dinner yet, Lucky."

"That cat does have three legs, right?" asked the man. He sounded nervous. Jin hoped he wasn't allergic to cats.

"Yah, she caught one in a door when she was a kitten. I didn't name her. She was my mom's cat." Jin clenched his teeth. He didn't need to have added that last. "She's just a Felis domesticus."

Gyre the Falcon gave one ear-splitting shriek from his perch, and the black-and-white rats rustled in their cages. Jin called greetings to them all. When food was not immediately forthcoming, they all settled back in a disgruntled way. "Do you like rats?" Jin eagerly asked his guest. "I'll let you hold Jinni, if you want. She's the friendliest."

"Maybe later," said the man faintly, seemed to take in Jin's disappointed look, and after a squinting glance at the shelf of cages, added, "I like rats fine. I'm just afraid I'd drop her. I'm still a bit shaky. I was lost in the Cryocombs for rather a long time, today." After another moment, he offered, "I used to know a spacer who kept hamsters."

This was encouraging; Jin brightened. "Oh, your water!"

"Yes, please," said the man. "This is a chair, right?" He was gripping the back of Jin's late stepstool, leaning on it. The scratched round table beside it, discarded from some cafe and the prize of an alley scavenge, had been a bit wobbly, but Custodian Tenbury had showed Jin how to fix it with a few shims and tacks.

"Yah, sit! I'm sorry there's only one, but usually I'm the only person who comes up here. You get it 'cause you're the guest." As the man dropped into the old plastic cafeteria chair, Jin rummaged on his shelves for his liter water bottle, uncapped it, and handed it over. "I'm sorry I don't have a cup. You don't mind drinking where my mouth was?"

"Not at all," said the man, raised the bottle, and gulped thirstily. He stopped suddenly when it was about three-fourths empty to ask, "Wait, is this all your water?"

"No, no. There's a tap on the outsides of each of these old heat exchanger towers. One's broken, but the custodian hooked up the other for me when I moved all my pets up here. He helped me rig my tent, too. The secretaries wouldn't let me keep my animals inside anymore, because the smell and noise bothered some folks. I like it better up here anyway. Drink all you want. I can just fill it up again."

The little man drained the bottle and, taking Jin at his word, handed it back. "More, please?"

Jin dashed out to the tap and refilled the bottle, taking a moment to rinse and top up the chickens' water pan at the same time. His guest drank another half-liter without stopping, then rested, his eyes sagging shut.

Jin tried to figure out how old the man was. His face was pale and furrowed, with sprays of fine lines at the corners of his eyes, and his chin was shadowed with a day's beard stubble, but that could be from being lost Below, which would unsettle anybody. His dark hair was neatly cut, a few gleams of gray showing in the light. His body seemed more scaled-down than distorted, sturdy enough, though his head, set on a short neck, was a bit big for it. Jin decided to work around to his curiosity more sideways, to be polite. "What's your name, mister?"

The man's eyes flew open; they were clear gray in color, and would probably be bright if they weren't so bloodshot. If the fellow had been bigger, his seedy looks might have alarmed Jin more. "Miles. Miles Vo-well, the rest is a mouthful no one here seems able to pronounce. You can just call me Miles. And what's your name, young....person?"

"Jin Sato," said Jin.

"Do you live on this roof?"

Jin shrugged. "Pretty much. Nobody climbs up to bother me. The lift tubes inside don't work." He led on, "I'm almost twelve," and then, deciding he'd been polite enough, added, "How old are you?"

"I'm almost thirty-eight. From the other direction."

"Oh." Jin digested this. A disappointingly old person, therefore likely to be stodgy, if not so old as Yani, but then, it was hard to know how to count Yani's age. "You have a funny accent. Are you from around here?"

"By no means. I'm from Barrayar."

Jin's brow wrinkled. "Where's that? Is it a city?" It wasn't a Territorial Prefecture; Jin could name all twelve of those. "I never heard of it."

"Not a city. A planet. A triplanetary empire, technically."

"An off-worlder!" Jin's eyes widened with delight. "I never met an off-worlder before!" Tonight's scavenge suddenly seemed more fruitful. Though if the man was a tourist, he would likely leave as soon as he could call his hotel or his friends, which was a disheartening thought. "Did you get beaten up by robbers or something?" Robbers picked on druggies, drunks, and tourists, Jin had heard. He supposed they made easy targets.

"Something like that." Miles squinted at Jin. "You hear much news in the past day?"

Jin shook his head. "Only Suze the Secretary has a working comconsole, in here."

"In here?"

"This place. It was a cryofacility, but it was cleared out and abandoned, oh, way before I was born. A bunch of folks moved in who didn't have anywhere else to go. I suppose we're all sort of hiding out. Well, people living around here know there's people in here, but Suze-san says if we're all real careful not to bother anyone, they'll leave us be."

"That, um, person you were with earlier, Yani. Who is he? A relative of yours?"

Jin shook his head emphatically. "He just came here one day, the way most folks do. He's a revive." Jin gave the word its meaningful pronunciation, re-vive.

"He was cryo-revived, you mean?"

"Yah. He doesn't much like it, though. His contract with his corp was just for one hundred years-I guess he paid a lot for it, a long time ago. But he forgot to say he wasn't to be thawed out till folks had found a cure for being old. Since that's what his contract said, they brought him up, though I suppose his corp was sorry to lose his vote. This future wasn't what he was expecting, I guess-but he's too old and confused to work at anything and make enough money to get frozen again. He complains about it a lot."

"I... see. I think." The little man squeezed his eyes shut, and open again, and rubbed his brow, as if it ached. "God, I wish my head would clear."

"You could lie down in my bedroll, if you wanted," Jin suggested diffidently. "If you don't feel so good."

"Indeed, young Jin, I don't feel so good. Well put." Miles tilted up the water bottle and drained it. "The more I can drink the better-wash this damned poison out of my system. What do you do for a loo?" At Jin's blank look he added, "Latrine, bathroom, lavatory, pissoir? Is there one inside the building?"

"Oh! Not close, sorry. Usually when I'm up here for very long I sneak over and use the gutter in the corner, and slosh it down the drainpipe with a bucket of water. I don't tell the women, though. They'd complain, even though the chickens go all over the roof and nobody thinks anything of it. But it makes the grass down there really green."

"Ah ha," said Miles. "Congratulations-you have reinvented the garderobe, my lizard-squire. Appropriate, for a castle."

Jin didn't know what kind of clothes a guarding-robe might be, but half the things this druggie said made no sense anyway, so he decided not to worry about it.

"And after your lie-down, I can come back with some food," Jin offered.

"After a lie-down, my stomach might well be settled enough to take you up on that, yes."

Jin smiled and jumped up. "Want any more water?"


When Jin returned from the tap, he found the little man easing himself down in the bedroll, laid along the side wall of an exchanger tower. Lucky was helping him; he reached out and absently scritched her ears, then let his fingers massage expertly down either side of her spine, which arched under his hand. The cat deigned to emit a short purr, an unusual sign of approval. Miles grunted and lay back, accepting the water bottle and setting it beside his head. "Ah. God. That's so good." Lucky jumped up on his chest and sniffed his stubbly chin; he eyed her tolerantly.

A new concern crossed Jin's mind. "If heights make you dizzy, the gutter could be a problem." An awful picture arose of his guest falling head-first over the parapet while trying to pee in the dark. His off-worlder guest. "See, chickens don't fly as well as you'd think, and baby chicks can't fly at all. I lost two of Mrs. Speck's children over the parapet, when they got big enough to clamber up to the ledge but not big enough to flutter down safely if they fell over. So for the in-between time, I tied a long string to each one's leg, to keep them from going too far. Maybe I could, like... tie a line around your ankle or something?"

Miles stared up at him in a tilted fascination, and Jin was horribly afraid for a moment that he'd mortally offended the little man. But in a rusty voice, Miles finally said, "You know-under the circumstances-that might not be a bad idea, kid."

Jin grinned relief, and hurried to find a bit of rope in his cache of supplies. He hitched one end firmly to the metal rail beside the tower door, made sure it paid out all the way to the corner gutter, and returned to affix the other end to his guest's ankle. The little man was already asleep, the water bottle tucked under one arm and the gray cat under the other. Jin looped the rope around twice and made a good knot. After, he climbed back onto the chair and dimmed the hand light to a soft night-light glow, trying not to think about his mother.

Sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite.

If I ever find bedbugs, I'll catch them and put them in my jars. What do bedbugs look like, anyway?

I have no idea. It's just a silly rhyme for bedtimes. Go to sleep, Jin!

The words had used to make him feel warm, but now they made him feel cold. He hated cold.

Satisfied that he'd made all safe, and that the intriguing off-worlder could not now abandon him, Jin returned to the parapet, swung over, and started down the rungs. If he hurried, he would still get to the back door of Ayako's Cafe before all the good scraps were thrown out at closing time.

Copyright © 2010 by Lois McMaster Bujold


Enjoyable Story, but Not a Good Introduction ...

- Allie
Solid but disappointing my high expectations

- Birgitte SB

- justifiedsinner

- shoreylj

- Adele1967