Lois McMaster Bujold
A science fiction novel by
Lois McMaster Bujold
Gupta rolled in his tank, his long webbed fingers reaching to touch the smooth, clear side. His head ached horribly. He blinked his inner eyelids, the transparent ones, trying desperately to clear his scummed vision. His burning chest muscles labored, opening and closing the winking red slots of his rib vents to pump the water through his gills. He bent double and captured one foot, brought it up under his nose, spread toes as long as most men's fingers, and examined the webbing between. The frightening dusky purple hue was fading, becoming a dusty rose color which, while still not his webbing's normal shade, promised that the worst was nearly over. Along one side of the tank, bright bubbles from the oxygenator rose in a life-giving sheet. The machinery was in order. It was his complex body that had nearly failed.
He floated in dull, dreary exhaustion, almost beyond the terror that had so gripped him - how long? He blinked again, trying to see out into his dim cabin, to guess the time. Gras-Grace had helped him into his tank and staggered off herself for the ship's infirmary hours ago. She hadn't ever come back. No one had come. No one.
He couldn't stay under like this much longer. His bladder ached with pressure; ten more minutes and he'd end up pissing in the water he breathed. Weakly, he reached up and unfastened the seal locks. The tank's safety-top, designed to keep its contents in place regardless of unscheduled variations in the aging jump ship's gravity, rose smoothly. Gup wrapped his long fingers around the hand grip in the tank's corner and pulled himself up out of the water.
He almost passed out. The sphincter muscles inside his nose and ears spasmed and fluttered, giving up their water-seal; his heart pounded as his blood circulation switched over from gills to lungs, and the feathery gills deflated and hid themselves under his closing rib slits. He coughed and hacked up what seemed half a liter of pink slime, spat, leaned over the side of his tank and vomited bitter bloody bile on the floor, then, at last, drew in a shuddering lung full of air. Another. Another. He breathed; he lived. For now.
Legs trembling, he stepped up over the little stile and out of the tank to stand naked and dripping on his mat. He bent his head. The subtle susurrations of the ship's air vents sounded normally in his aching ears. The faint vibrations of its machinery came through the floor, reassuringly, to his long, sensitive feet. But no sound came except that of automation -- of living beings, no whisper. No clashing music, no footsteps, no murmuring voices or snoring or loud arguments or raucous laughter echoing. He clenched his toes to fold his webbing and staggered to his cabin's little head. Relieved himself. Stared in the tiny mirror at eyes bloodshot scarlet. Shivered uncontrollably. Dried himself. Clumps of lank dark hair came off his scalp on the towel. He swore, and dropped it on the floor.
Creeping along the walls, holding himself upright with both hands, he made his way to his cupboard and found a long, heavy robe to wrap himself in. One of Gras-Grace's garments, handed off to him in careless generosity, because she claimed her plump body was never cool enough at shipboard temperatures, even as his lanky, thin one never seemed warm enough. She'd accused him of having been given frog genes by his designers. For all he knew, it might be true.
He found Gras-Grace's body on the corridor floor, five paces from his door, where she had apparently collapsed. At least, he thought it was Gras-Grace.
At least, he thought it was a body.
Only her familiar clothing identified her, and the braid of undissolved red hair. And the suggestive size of the puddle. What kind of hell-disease liquefied bones?
His internal nostril muscles clamped closed against the stunningly acrid smell, a cross between grilling meat and sewage treatment. He felt his way along the corridor, his inner eyelids winking as tears of grief and fear flooded through them. He was beyond swearing now.
Firka had made it to the infirmary, for all the good it had done him. He'd dropped his clothing in a trail on the floor, and staggered to the bed in which he'd died. He was not quite as dissolved as Gras-Grace, but his big body was flaccid, as though half-deflated, and slime dripped over the side of the bunk to puddle on the floor. He stank as badly as Gras-Grace, or worse. Faint steam rose from his decomposing corpse; disbelieving, Gup held his hand out toward it, then jerked it back.
Hewlet, what was left of him, lay in his pilot's chair in Nav and Com. The jump pilot's seat, center and core of the ship they'd all dreamed of owning, to be cleared of debt by one, or two, or surely at the most three last, risky, profitable runs. The fine wires of Hewlet's pilot's headset, not yet collapsed, held his dissolving skull braced, but his features seemed to be sliding off his face, like a caricature of sadness. Had he been trying to send any communication when he'd died? Emergency. Help us. Biocontamination aboard. Had he succeeded? Gup scarcely dared reach for the controls; one of Hewlet's hands had ruptured on them, and they glistened with... Gup could hardly imagine what it was.
He staggered to a wall of the control room and sank shivering to the floor, and sat there. What the hell happened to us? Gras-Grace, always the quickest of the four of them, had guessed it first, from the way it had begun, four little pink wheals like insect bites, on the backs of Firka's and Hewlet's hands, on Gup's arm, on her own cheek. That had swollen, throbbing, to the size of eggs, as the blinding headaches began, and the fevers shot up insanely, impossibly high...
You Cetagandan bastard. This wasn't the Deal.
The gig had seemed easy, almost effortless, and highly paid. Take a little mixed freight run through the fringe of the Cetagandan Empire, jumping through the wormhole nexus from the Hegen Hub, via Vervain, into the Empire. All the arrogant, suspicious inspectors boarding them at the jump point border stations turned up nothing to hold against the little consortium of would-be ship-owners from the independent world of Jackson's Whole, because there was truly nothing to be found but the cargo to which the manifest attested. Nothing at all until, heading out from Rho Ceta for the last jump out of the Cetagandan hegemony and into the Barrayaran Empire at Komarr -- nearly equally unfriendly to Jacksonian entrepreneurs -- they had made one little, brief mid-space rendezvous that didn't appear on their flight plan. Nor on the flight plan of the ship they'd silently sidled up to, Gup guessed.
A Cetagandan government ship, by its elaborate Imperial markings, although not by any other identification. Certainly not by any violation of the agreed-upon radio silence. Not a big ship, but fast, fresh and classy. One quick linking of flex tube to freight lock. One man, one heavy cargo, several thousand kilos worth, but he'd handled it all himself with grav pallets and hand tractors, shifting it as delicately as eggs into the climate-controlled freight hold that awaited it. They had seen, and heard, no one else from the Cetagandan ship but their passenger. A few minutes after he and his cargo had been hoisted safely aboard, the Cetagandan ship had gone off in a blare of engines from its normal space drives. On an odd trajectory, Hewlet had remarked, not toward any of the jump points leading from the binary, uninhabited star system, but inbound, deeper into the suns' dangerous, complex gravity well.
The passenger had been courteous, but aloof, eating his own rations in his cabin, taking no meals with the four partners. By the time they reached the Barrayaran jump point inspection, Firka had altered the ship's manifest to account for him, in an identity he certainly hadn't borne when he'd departed the Cetagandan vessel, and give provenance to his goods. They had deposited him at the Komarran orbital transfer station without incident. Not naturally expressive, he had nevertheless seemed pleased to have arrived safely and without incident, going around to each crewmember to personally hand them their agreed-upon bonuses. He'd shaken Hewlet's and Firka's hands. Asked in shy fascination to see Engineer Gupta's finger webbing, which Gup had agreeably spread for him to inspect, leaning over and gripping Gup's arm. He'd given Gras-Grace a friendly, overly-familiar tap on her suety cheek, and a special smile. Bonus in hand, she'd refrained from decking him.
You gave us all something special, all right.
You Cetagandan bastard. This wasn't the Deal.
They hadn't lingered in the Barrayaran Empire even to disembark upon the transfer station for a little leave, a party or some shopping to spend their new money. They could party later, Gras-Grace had said. Komarr wasn't a healthy place, Firka had said. Not for the likes of them. Remembering now what Firka had said, Gup laughed distractedly, weakly shuddering, curled on the floor of Nav and Com in company with Hewlet's liquefying form.
Six days out from Komarr, past the jump to Pol, almost to the safety of the Hegen Hub and the run for home, the fevers had begun. All four within an hour of each other. Three fatal within another hour, one... different.
I always had to be different.
Gup waited hours to die, shivering in the corner. Instead, he grew gradually better, his head and vision slowly clearing. He wasn't sure if this was any benefit worth the having.
No contact sounded from the communications console, no inquiring ping, no promise or offer of rescue, no request to Repeat that last message, please, it came through too garbled to decipher. Hewlet hadn't been able to get out an emergency call, apparently, before his brains had started turning to bubbling gray slime. Or else he had sent too much information, and the biocontamination warning was keeping rescuers away. Why, after all, should the good citizens risk anything for them? Just Jacksonian smuggler scum, that's all we are. Better off dead, aye? It saved the trouble and expense of prosecution.
Emergency call or not, they'd been required to file a flight plan when they'd passed the jump point out of Barrayaran space into the region controlled by the planetary polity of Pol. Sooner or later, they would be missed. Sooner or later, some Polian patrol would come looking.
Mournfully, in the haze of his ebbing fever, Gup mulled over murdered dreams, counting and recounting on his long webbed fingers. Gras-Grace had used to tickle his webs, when she'd accepted his long, odd body into her bed. Gras-Grace and her three husbands, they'd joked about the partnership. Hewlet and Firka and Gup, all three losers together, had maybe added up to one functional spouse for her fat, ugly, laughing energy, Gup supposed. One for all and all for one, because it was damn sure that a crew of refugee Jacksonians, without even a House or Baron to protect them, wasn't going to get a break from anyone else in the Nexus.
He supposed he was the inheritor of the partnership's assets now. Such as they were. Without Hewlet and Gras-Grace and Firka, he would lose the ship to their creditor's aggressive loan collectors quickly enough. The ship, and the independence it had promised, had proved a deceptive dream after all, a scrambling, ever-receding goal that had killed them in the end.
Wasn't the dream that killed us. It was that Cetagandan bastard. This wasn't the Deal.
Gup was a tolerable engineer, running a career on catch-as-catch-can apprenticeship, robot repair systems, and a faked license -- one of Firka's talents -- but he was no pilot. He could do little more than send out a distress call and wait for a pick up. And then what? Quarantine, he supposed. Arrest, when the truth came out.
Worse. Being held by the Polians would give the Cetagandans time to catch up with him. He didn't know if their deadly passenger had been an official Cetagandan secret agent -- or a criminal or an enemy spy. If the former, the Cetagandan Empire must be frantic to send other agents to finish silencing him, as originally intended, like Gras-Grace and Firka and Hewlet. If the latter... then they must be equally anxious to send agents to make him talk. He shuddered uncontrollably, but not from his waning fever this time.
At length, the needs of his body forced an attempt at motion, and he staggered reluctantly to the galley. Drank, ate, kept it all down. Grew, to his regret, stronger. Began to think more clearly.
The ship was useless to him. But he had his money -- he had all the moveable wealth aboard, really, everyone's credits chits, odd cash, and small valuables. Documentation for a dozen identities. And he had a known start-point -- the Komarran orbital transfer station -- and a lead.
The Cetagandan doubtless had the skill and resources to doctor his identity at will, even better than anything Firka could have produced. But he also had a cargo, one very, very valuable to him -- valuable enough to kill for, evidently. Too valuable to abandon. And the cargo had a mass, and that mass was precisely recorded in Gup's records. The man might be a chameleon, but his cargo would leave distinct tracks in any ship's manifest.
He made the rounds of all their cabins. Firka, and he shouldn't have been surprised, Gup supposed, had hoarded a startling supply of assorted planetary credits and cash. Gras-Grace had probably given all hers away, or lost it gambling, or spent it, or let it slip through her fingers somehow, which made her smarter than Firka, in the end. Hewlet had been secretly drinking. But with the total accumulation, and a little care, Gup could travel to the ends of the Nexus.
Wherever you've gone, Cetagandan. There will I go also. And when I find you, you'll die as Gras-Grace and Firka and Hewlet did... better still, something more frightening and painful and horrible, except that Gup couldn't think of anything worse. And the Cetagandan carried sophisticated bioweapons.
Plenty of time to work that one through. He was in for a long stern chase. He staggered with his inheritances to the ship's escape pod and decontaminated everything as best as he could, several times, till no taint of the horrible death smell remained, before loading it. He climbed in, sealed off, and folded his long, awkward body into the pilot's couch. He punched up the control program designed to help the least ship-savvy injured passenger guide the pod toward whatever passed for safety in local space.
You double-crossing Cetagandan bastard. You're going to pay for this. Gup's gonna cut you a new Deal. In the name of Gras-Grace, and Hewlet, and Firka, amen.
Obedient to the fruity, maddeningly calm voice of the emergency escape instructions, he reached up and yanked the red handle. His body jerked as the pod blew away from the side of the drifting, abandoned death ship. His brain seethed with all the ways a deadly man could be made to die, churned up with confused plans for accounting for his presence and his ship's absence, and for slipping himself back through Polian jump point security. When he grew too exhausted to maintain the rage, he just cried. When he grew too exhausted to cry, he slept.
Diplomatic Immunity Prologue