Chapter 12 - Consequences
The first half hour had ticked by, minute by minute, while the crew of the Triumph
stood at red alert. After an hour, with no shots being fired, Quinn had downgraded code red to code amber, and sent Taura and Tara back to their cabin. Now, the lights were out, and the room was shrouded in darkness. They were lying side by side, looking up at the bobbing light globe Tara had summoned, small and yellow and comforting. She'd got it nicely under control now, it hardly took any concentration at all.
Tara looked at the patterns the globe was throwing on the ceiling. "Think they're going to let us go?"
Taura shrugged. "They just might. If Sanford really is some big guy in the government, they won't want anyone watching when the knives come out." She shifted uncomfortably, "I just hope it's soon."
Tara rested a hand on Taura's wrist. Her pulse was racing, but then it was always racing. Maybe not this fast, though?
"So," said Taura, "What's it like being dead?"
Tara shook her head. "I don't remember being dead at all. I sort of remember being shot, but I can't feel
it you know? And I can remember Willow, and my friends, and my life before. But I can't feelthat, either. It just seems really long ago, and a bit like a dream." She shrugged, helplessly.
"Willow?" Taura had turned to look at her.
Tara turned too, and smiled, and the globe bounced a little, into her line of sight again. "My girlfriend, when I was alive. She was a witch too, and a really amazing one. I'm just a kind of okay witch, but she was so full of power..." Tara shook her head. "I wonder what happened to her, what she did with her life. It would have been amazing, whatever it was."
"Seems to me like you've got plenty of power. You can make light," Taura gestured to the globe, "and cut through metal just by thinking about it - and there's probably a whole lot of other stuff you haven't mentioned yet."
Tara nodded, "My access to magic is easier here, for some reason. But still, it's small stuff. Willow could have cracked a planet in two if she really tried, and if she didn't care about the consequences."
There was an odd note in Taura's voice. Tara looked across at her, at her heavy features softly outlined in the glow of the light ball. Was that the faintest suggestion of a frown wrinkling Taura's brow? She'd been getting better and better at reading Taura's features. She reviewed the conversation so far. Ah yes, going on to your new girlfriend about how super-special your old girlfriend was - not recommended. Of course, she'd only ever had the one girlfriend so the matter hadn't arisen before... until Taura anyway. If she could call Taura her girlfriend - surely she was here to be a spirit guide? Could she call Taura her girlfriend? Taura was pretty clear to Admiral Quinn that they weren't... But that was before they did it the second time - and the third time, and then there was ... could she call that a fourth time? She blinked, her thoughts were getting tangled.
"Anyway," she said, "the point is, I'm not much use to you, since I can't remember anything about the afterlife, assuming I ever got there. And I haven't got any really clear religious beliefs or anything."
"Me either," said Taura, "Though I've been trying really hard."
"I know there is
an afterlife, though." Tara sighed, remembering, "Buffy - that's another of my friends - she died and came back to life. But she never really said much about it. Maybe she didn't remember either. And then, there were Angel and Spike and all their buddies ... they were dead, but still walking."
"Coming back from the dead seems to be a big thing in your part of the universe." Taura frowned - properly this time. "Here people pretty much just stay dead, as far as I know. Unless you can get them into cryo them really quickly, and they have a lot
"I don't think it was actually that much of a good thing," offered Tara, rather weakly, moving to rest her head against Taura's shoulder. "And even Buffy never said what death was like. Sorry."
"Ah." Taura placed an arm over her and pulled her close. Tara could hear her heart racing, and the heat was rising off her in waves, "Well, I guess I'll have to find out the hard way, then." She huffed out a long breath, "But first I have to talk to Miles."
Tara sat nervously at the console, Taura's knee pressed against hers. The comm channel was about to open, and they'd be talking to Miles on the other end. The Miles everyone seemed to be so scared of. The Miles Taura had said was a bit of a freak himself. I wonder if he's got two heads or something?
The channel opened, out of her line of sight, and Quinn lifted her chin. She looked as immaculate as ever, but there were dark rings under her eyes. It had been six hours now since they'd passed the name to Roscovensky, but the Colonel had not come back to them, and the warships off their bow still had their weapons primed. Tara chewed her lip.
Quinn was nodding to the person on the other end of the comm. "Evening, sir."
"Evening, Elli. And congratulations. I have some news for you from the surface, from a source who shall remain anonymous. Your Colonel came storming down to the Military Prison after your conversation with him, and stuck all six of the Pelete
crewmen under fast penta again - which is rather ruthless of him, because two of them died immediately. He then showed the survivors some action shots from the latest Military Council meeting. Didn't take them long to point out Gul Sanford." He paused, "Nice to know you still have the knack."
His voice didn't sound that scary, at least. And he had a rather pretty accent, different to everyone else on the ship. That must be Barrayaran. He sounded tense, though.
"But have you read this thing?" There was a faint tapping noise. "You need to get Taura back to Beta now. No more delays. This has gone too far already."
"I'm afraid Taura still refuses, sir."
"I still think we should try and make her look at the options," the voice said doggedly, "Make her another offer, now that she's seen this report - she has seen this report, hasn't she?"
Quinn nodded, "She has, and she's busy plotting the fastest course to Margulis station on her own console, and pestering Nav Division with questions. They're being very patient with her." She glanced at Taura, who gave a little disgruntled huff. Quinn turned back to him, "You can speak to her yourself, Miles." She shifted her chair back. "Sergeant Taura?"
Taura swallowed, then she shifted her chair into the line of the camera, dragging Tara with her. And there was Miles. NOT what Tara had expected, not at all. He couldn't be more than five feet tall, and his body was twisted, beneath a head that was too big for him. Plenty of personality though - she could feel the force of it from here. It was unnerving. She drew a big, shaky breath. How had Taura managed to stand up to him?
He was looking at her, and not with a friendly expression.
She looked across at Taura, who was sitting frozen in her seat; seeing her with Miles' eyes for a moment. This evening Taura was finally looking sick. There were bruises and splotches marking her face, and the way her clothes hung on her suggested a lot of weight lost. And now Tara noticed, she was holding herself gingerly, as though something hurt.
"Taura," Miles was groping for words. "I'm very glad to see you, and to talk to you about Beta. I know you have a plan, regarding Margulis station - and certainly, prayers and, um, spiritual guidance are very important. I wouldn't want you to think that I didn't realise they were important... but you really, really do need to come back to Beta. The doctors here could save you."
Taura unfroze, and her long lips quirked into a half smile. "Could they, Miles? Really?"
"They might." It sounded threadbare, even to Tara. And Taura was shaking her head.
"Miles, I know you're trying to help. You've always helped me. But I'm going to Margulis station. I'm doing what is right for me, with Tara's help." Taura looked at her, and she gave her a little encouraging smile.
"Oh yes, and what does the mysterious Miss Maclay have to say about spiritual matters?"
She felt a pair of dark eyes boring into her. She squeezed Taura's big hand, and looked back at him, trying not to be stared down. "I say that Taura should do what she wants to do - not what you want her to do. And I'm going to help her. I hear you're a bad enemy to make, Mr Vorkosigan, though it also seems like you're mainly a good person." Quinn gave an exasperated snort, but Tara pushed on. "But right now you're wrong, and I'm right. Taura prayed for a Guardian Spirit to help her passage into the next world. That's me, and I'm doing what she asked me to do." He was listening at least.
She took a breath, "I knew someone else who had a lot of power and thought she could use it to fix everything and everyone around her. But some problems can't be fixed. They just have to be faced. I'm sorry, really I am."
"And I'm not going anywhere but Margulis station." That was Taura, the heavy frown back on her face.
Miles stared at them both blankly, then turned to Quinn, a faint sheen of sweat on his face. "Admiral Quinn, I order you to bring Sergeant Taura to Beta."
Quinn rubbed her forehead, tired. "I hear you. But Miles, I'm not taking her to Beta."
"You're not taking her to Beta? I'm ordering you to take her to Beta."
Quinn was looking at Miles now with something that looked suspiciously like pity in her eye. "Then I must respectfully refuse. Sir. I'm going to take the pair of them to Margulis station. Let Taura do her ceremony and then see what she wants to do next." Miles closed his eyes for a second, and Quinn pressed on, "It's what Taura wants. It's what she wanted all along. It's what I should have done all along. I was wrong, you were wrong."
"But if you go there she's going to die." Tara blinked, just then he'd sounded like a little boy. He really did care for Taura, then. It wasn't all ego.
Quinn seemed to feel it too. Her tone was gentle as she replied, "Yes. My responsibility, Miles."
"No, mine." That was Taura. Quinn gave her a quick glance and dipped her head, acknowledging the point.
Miles looked at them all, a small figure made even smaller by the Com, and Tara could almost see his mind racing. Then he put his head in his hands, "Gods, I hate being this helpless. Okay, Elli, Taura, what can
Tara saw Quinn relax. "Well, you could fix Imp Sec for me. I'm meant to be somewhere else right now. And, assuming they actually let us go, it would be nice if you can stop Bathory from impounding our ship again on the way back. They're bound to have thought of it by then."
"Done." Miles looked at the time glowing on the console, and Tara looked down too. Two minutes left. "I'd like to talk to Taura. Alone." He looked at Taura's face, still expressionless. "No persuading," he said quietly. "I promise."
"Okay, then," said Taura. And, after a gentle squeeze of her hand, Tara got up and followed Quinn from the room.
Quinn and Tara stood outside the bridge, waiting.
Quinn was reading the little data disc Miles had just sent her. "Ministry of the Interior, eh?" she said absently, "Tsk, tsk. Ser Roscowinski is a bad boy." She read on, and blinked, "This next bit is about you," she said, gesturing at the screen. Tara leaned forward to read, startled. "Not a single trace of you or your DNA, or of anyone else sharing some of your DNA, anywhere. And the linguist Miles sent the tape of your interview to is baffled, though that's not a word he used - not scientific enough. He says earth is more likely than anywhere else, but as far as I can tell that's only because there are more accents on earth than anywhere else. And your blood work is bizarre. You have antibodies they don't recognise, for diseases I didn't know existed." She read the report again, frowning. "Chickenpox. Do you catch it from chickens? From touching them or something? Or from eating them?" Her lip curled a little in distaste.
"Um, I'm not sure about chickens," said Tara, doubtfully, "most people get it from other people. Or they did. I got it from a little girl called Cathy Saenz, in third grade."
Quinn looked at her. "On Old Earth? Three hundred years ago?"
Tara nodded, "Yes. I know it's hard to believe."
Quinn raised an eyebrow. "Just a bit ..." But she was interrupted. The Comm in front of her beeped, and she flicked the switch. "Quinn." She listened for a moment, then nodded. "Standby, Mr Nevin." She turned back to Tara, a smile on her lips. "Both our guard dogs have gone. I expect a call from the Colonel any minute."
There was a heavy thud next door in the communications room. Quinn sprang to open the door. The comm had gone dark, and Taura was lying on the floor. She looked up at them, a grimace on her face, "Umm, I think maybe I need the doctor." Tara fell to her knees beside her, and touched Tara's face, Quinn beside her, already speaking urgently on her communicator.
The comm screen above them flickered to life. Captain Nevin appeared in the place of Miles, standing on the bridge. "We have a incoming call from Colonel Roscowinski, Admiral."
Quinn nodded, "Patch the Colonel through to the Comm next door. And in two minutes time be ready to fly, Mr Nevin. Top speed for Margulis, no stopping to admire the scenery on the way."
Quinn looked at Taura, lying on floor, Tara bent over her, whispering something, her fair hair brushing Taura's face. "Let's just hope we get there in time," she muttered to herself, "we've screwed up enough already."
"Welcome to Margulis station." Quinn waved a demonstrative hand.
Tara looked around. They were in a large, dark metal hangar, smelling of tinned air and motor oil. There were crates stacked at one side, some rusted and oil spattered signs which seemed to be about the dangers of radiation, and one battered counter labelled 'Arrivals', with a bored clerk sitting behind it. Kimura was making her way towards the desk, dataclip in hand. A couple of motorised trolleys clattered past, piled high with freight, making Tara step back abruptly to save her toes. She looked in vain for some sign "Um, is this all of it?"
Quinn nodded. "Pretty much. Not living up to your expectations?"
"I'm not sure I had any expectations. Only, I suppose I did - because this is disappointing them." She looked behind her, "I really hope Taura wasn't expecting some... you know... some kind of ..."
"Some kind of civilised spot with a decent restaurant?"
Tara frowned at Quinn. "Some kind of manifestation of the spiritual. Because it isn't here. At least not yet." She felt outwards with her newly discovered witchy sense, seeking a spark. Nothing. What was with Quinn, anyway? she thought absently. But her attention was distracted almost at once. Taura's float bed appeared out of the shuttle's freight entrance, tiny in the huge hangar. After that first heart attack, it had taken another three days for the next to come, but there had been more since, and a minor stroke, and now, tiny blood vessels were rupturing almost everywhere as she moved, and the bed was the only way to transport her.
The drip bag was twisting on its hook, shining in the harsh overhead light, and casting a dramatic black shadow across Taura's face. No, it was another bruise. "Oh, sweetheart," said Tara helplessly, a bolt of pain running through her.
Tara barely heard an indrawn breath from Quinn beside her, as she ran to the float bed, and took Taura's hand. "How're you doing?" Taura's yellow eyes opened, no longer glowing, but sunken in the shadow of her heavy brow. As Tara leant over her, yellow light fell on her face, picking up the sheen of sweat.
"We're nearly there." Tara turned to Quinn. "We need to go now." But Quinn was staring at her as though she'd grown an extra head, and she had her hand resting on her gun. "Now," said Tara impatiently. She looked around. Everyone was standing still, staring at her. Quinn, the doctor, the guards, the station staff. She looked down self-consciously, and then startled. Oops. A faint, clear nimbus of golden light surrounded her. She was glowing. "Oh," she said, clearing her throat self-consciously. "Um, it's nothing to worry about, really. I'm just a bit tense."
She looked down at Taura, who was grinning up at her, fangs gleaming. "Now that's my golden girl," she said, her hand tightening momentarily on Tara's, her voice only slightly slurred. "So beautiful she glows." Her eyes closed again, and the doctor moved forward, frowning, to adjust the level of the drip.
Tara closed her eyes and concentrated. She found the strands of magic she'd gathered up without even noticing, unknotted and released them. "See?" she said, trying to sound as harmless as possible, "No more glow."
Quinn moved towards her, and took her arm gingerly, pushing her sleeve up her arm, and turning her wrist upwards. Tara tried her best, most friendly smile.
"How the hell... Later," she said, her tone angry, "You are going to explain to me just how the hell you did that."
Tara shrugged. "I already told you I'm a witch, days ago. You just didn't listen." Quinn stared at her, hard - and she could hear a rising chorus of whispers behind her back. Her ears were getting hot. But hopefully there aren't any actual flames. That would freak them all out again.
Kimura came back from the arrivals desk, oblivious to all the drama that had taken place behind her back. "Uh, sir, we have a problem. The Lovelock Hub is closed - they've got a big magnetic storm due, so everyone's here hunkered down in the station."
Quinn frowned. "Damn. Okay, we need to get everyone back on the shuttle. We'll ride the storm out in space, and Taura can have her meds."
Tara drew a deep breath; her sense of urgency was growing, the tingling of prescience becoming stronger until it was almost painful. "It'll be too late. Taura's going now, soon. Very soon."
Quinn stared at her. "We can't get to the Hub, Tara. Unless you want to magic us there. No arguing with a magnetic storm. And we don't want to be stuck here when it arrives. Getting back to the shuttle is the smartest thing."
It was Kimura again. "The Director of Lovelock Hub is here, sir. Says he'd be happy to help." She lowered her voice, "He seems to be pretty much royalty around here, or head priest anyway. I think it would be smart to talk to him."
Quinn drew a deep breath and turned around on her heel. Advancing towards them across the hangar was a large man in a flowing white robe, matched by a flowing white beard. His hands gleamed with silver rings, and his eyes were a piercing blue. "Greetings, Admiral. I hear you have returned a Gaian daughter to us."
Quinn's back stiffened. "Actually, sir," she said stiffly, "Taura is a Dendarii ..."
Tara drifted quietly back towards Taura's float bed, leaving them to argue it out. Taura's eyes were still closed, and the dark blotch on her face had grown.
Tara looked at the doctor, "She's getting worse."
He nodded grimly. "I'd insist she goes back to the medlab, but I couldn't do anything for her there either."
Tara looked around, at the drab grey plascrete walls, the crates, the fuel and feeder tanks, the puddle-stained oily floor. It didn't look much like heaven.
But, as Taura had earnestly explained, the Lovelock Hub was meant to be a confluence, a place where invisible swirls of spiritual energy mixed and converged, with the crater catching and concentrating that energy like a giant satellite receiving dish. And Margulis Station itself couldn't be far from the Hub, since it served nothing else.
She reached out with her newly powerful witch's senses, seeking some hypothetical great swirl of energy, trying not to have any preconceptions about what it would be like, lest she overlook it in all the confusing noise and sparkle that she saw now whenever she closed her eyes. And there was something, scratching away at her, tapping at the door, trying to engage her attention. But there was too much interference here - metal, plastics, the dull roar of the engines underneath them, and the hiss and sigh of all the artificial systems keeping the little station running.
She shook her head impatiently. "Is there a window anywhere on this station?"
One of the station crew coughed, and bobbed his head nervously. "Uh, yes, ma'am. At the top - there's a little viewing bubble. You won't see much today though - there's a real big storm out there."
"Oh, I don't think I need to see much," said Tara absently. She looked back at Quinn and the Director. They seemed to have reached a rather strained accord.
She walked over to them, and they turned, identical frowns on their handsome faces. "We're going to the viewing bubble," she said, trying to sound as decisive as possible.
"You are not in command of this expedition, Tara," said Quinn marching over. "We are going back to the shuttle."
"All of us would be delighted to pray with your friend, said the Director quickly, "and the bubble sounds like an excellent choice, since the Hub is closed to us." He had reached the float bed now, behind Quinn. As he reached the bed, he saw Taura for the first time. His face paled. "What is that?
"She is Sergeant Taura of the Dendarii Mercenary Corps, and your 'daughter of Gaia'." Quinn folded her arms. "Got a problem with that?"
His face became stone. "That is no one's daughter. It is not a natural creature. It's an abomination. And it should not be here. You suggest that leave in your shuttle at once, Admiral Quinn, as you intended. But do not return."
"And I suggest you shove it up your ass."
Quinn gestured to the six troops behind her, who formed up around the float bed. "Let's go and find this viewing bubble, guys," she said pleasantly. "Looks like we all have some praying to do, since the folks here aren't willing."
Tara stood in the lift, crammed uncomfortably against the wall by the floatbed, its paraphernalia, the doctor, Quinn and six troopers.
"That asshole," Quinn was vibrating with anger. Tara could feel it radiating from her. And grief, that was radiating from her too. Tara placed a hand on her arm, and Quinn blinked.
"He's not important, or his prayers," she said quietly. "I've spent the last few weeks not knowing where I was, or what I was doing, or why I was here, but this is it. I'm sure."
The lift thumped to halt, and the doors opened. Facing them was a grey door, with the words 'Viewing Point' stencilled upon it. The nearest trooper touched the keypad. It remained red. He touched it again.
Quinn pushed him aside and tried herself. The door remained stubbornly at red. "That holier than thou, hypocritical son of a bitch has sealed it," she said, furious. "Right." She drew her gun, and turned back to the lift.
Tara coughed, "I think I can sort it out." And let's not just burn a hole in it this time. Try for a bit more delicacy. And then if delicate doesn't work, blow it to hell.
She placed her hand on the lock and concentrated, drawing the energy towards her. "Be open." The light clicked to green, and the door drew back. She walked through it, the troopers in the way backing away from her nervously. The room was circular, and domed, the clear plasteel walls scuffed and whitened by the dust, which she could see being thrown continuously against it, in patterns and waves of force. There was no sound, only the continual ominous ebb and flow of the dust particles down and across the transparent walls.
"Gods," one of troopers shivered. Quinn flicked him a reproving glance and he fell silent, shifting his feet anxiously.
"It's perfectly safe, said Kimura, tapping the window, "this stuff will withstand a vacuum."
"Still creepy as hell," murmured another trooper.
Tara listened, to the storm, and to the swirling patterns beyond and outside it, and the great solar wind beyond. It didn't seem conscious to her, but she could feel the threads of magic, even closer and stronger than they had been when she was in space. Perhaps the Gaians felt it here too, and called it spiritual energy. Whatever it was, she thought it was what they'd come to seek.
"This is it," she said, her voice grown hoarse. She barely heard Quinn herding the troopers out, ordering them to hold the lift. Taura stirred a little, and Tara bent over her. "Journey's end, sweetheart." She took her little bag out of her pocket and began to mark the circle, lips moving as she spoke the words. As she came to the last mark, she bent over and kissed Taura, then moved back and completed the pattern, and bent over Taura again. Broken blood vessels had bloomed in Taura's lips where she had touched her, and Tara felt tears starting in her eyes. But she closed the circle, nonetheless, and ended the ritual.
Taura made a huge, painful effort, her body creaking, and raised herself on one elbow. The doctor moved forward to the drip, his foot in the circle, and then stopped, as a large claw pricked the skin on the back of his hand. "No more drugs," Taura said, faintly but clearly. She turned, one eye now red. "Bye Elli, and say goodbye to Miles for me. Bye, Tara, though maybe I'll see you again soon. I hope so." There was pause. "This really hurts like crap," said Taura, sounding annoyed. And then her eyes closed, and she slid back into her pillows. Tara closed her eyes to pray, and Quinn knelt down beside her, awkwardly. In a few minutes, she knew that Taura was dead.
She opened her eyes and looked across at Quinn, who was crying silently, and the doctor, who looked more angry than anything. Then she looked down again at Taura. "Peace, sweetheart. And safe passage."
The storm was continuing, beating the sand against the walls, creating abstract patterns that formed and faded and ran. The doctor had filled out a death certificate, and was now using a desk outside, filling in forms in triplicate for the Margulis authorities. Quinn was outside too, engaged in a viciously polite exchange with the Director. But in the viewing bubble the silence was absolute.
Tara got up stiffly from her kneeling posture by the bed, and brushed back a lock of Taura's hair, then stopped; the hand in front of her was growing transparent. She looked at her fingertips, which rested on Taura's heavy ridged forehead. They grew paler, more nebulous. Pale skin, long fingers, chewed nails - all fading away.
"I wonder where I'm going?" thought Tara, "I wonder if Taura will be there, and all her thousands of ancestors. And Willow, and everyone. Or if it doesn't work that way at all."
And then she faded entirely and was gone. The End