The Vor Slayer
I own neither the Buffyverse (that's Josh's) nor Miles Vorkosigan and family (that's Lois'). This is inspired by DonSample's WITH A STAR and refers back to it. Read that one first!
A young girl died in the streets of New New Orleans on a warm spring evening.
The Walls around the city, built while the world’s sea level was growing out of control, held back the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and provided a perpetual shadow which some of the city’s odder and older inhabitants found congenial.
The girl was with two of her comrades, her sisters in all but blood, and they brought vengeance on the Thing that had killed her, the Thing that was trying to bring down the Walls to drown the city and provide itself, by the deaths of the inhabitants, with enough energy to call even nastier Things to this world. But the girl, though avenged, was still just as dead.
Her death is just prologue to this story because it triggered two things that are at the centre of my tale. The first was the writing of her name on a memorial above a drowned city. The second was the passing on of an inheritance.
“Helen Natalia Vorkosigan, come back here!” Her mother was doing the full Operatic Diva projection that she did so well, her father’s face was retreating behind his ImpSec mask of inscrutability and their guests were various looking amused, embarrassed or interested as she strode to the door.
Apart from the one who was writhing on the floor, that is.
She paused in the doorway and glared back at the lot of them. She knew that she was posing but didn’t much care. Her family (melodrama addicts all!) had taught her the value of a good exit and she intended to make the moment effective.
am going to my room. I am not
going to apologise! I think if anything it should be the other way around!”
And she pulled the door open. It would have been a very good exit, if the door knob (which like everything else in Vorkosigan House was A Valuable Antique probably dating back to the Time of Isolation) hadn’t crumpled in her hand and the door itself hadn’t come right off its hinges. She looked at it and then back at her family and their guests. Their expressions had all (with the exception of the one still writhing of the floor) turned to total grogglement.
With as much dignity as she could muster she thrust the broken door at the Armsman who had been standing on guard in the corridor and stalked across the hall, up the stairs and to her room. She did not turn to see the Armsman stagger under the weight of the heavy wooden panel.
She changed out of her second best formal dress and into her ‘martial arts pyjamas’ (as her brother called them) and began to work out some of her aggression in katas. STUPID dinner parties. STUPID, STUPID family. And bloody, bloody, bloody, STUPID GUESTS!
It was bad enough being expected to be on her best behaviour because Father had invited some aging Vor Bore to dinner. Just so Father could worm out of him some sort of support on the Council of Counts. The Bore himself hadn’t been too bad, but his son was a disgrace to the Vor class, a patronising, conservative, braying, inbreed ass. And what is it you dew, Lady Helen? A STEWDENT? At the theah Universityeah? Aren’t yew a leeetle young for that? And what is it yew studeah? Heauh interestin’! I’m not much for books myself… More of a man of action!
And he had demonstrated the sort of action he was interested in by running his long, bony fingers up and down her thighs, beneath the table. She had firmly replaced his hand in his lap. Twice. The third time she had taken it, looked into his eyes and smiled prettily before giving it a little twist that her Koudelka Aunts had taught her. She had only meant it to hurt. Well, actually she had only meant it to be agonising enough to cause his eyes to cross. But there had been a snap and a grinding crunch and he fell backwards from the table, screeching in agony and calling her some very ungentlemanly names.
After about half an hour the sounds of people getting into ground cars floated up to her window and shortly after that a broom handle with a white handkerchief tied to it was thrust carefully around the slightly ajar door and a voice said:
”Can I come in? I bring gifts! Peace offerings!”
“Oh, yes, Oh yes of course, do come in Aunt Kareen.”
Kareen Koudelka-Vorkosigan put her makeshift flag of truce down and stepped gingerly into the room. In the other hand she held a bowl of strawberry flavoured ambrosia decorated with little sugar flowers.
“Here. Thought you might need some energy. Being furious takes it out of you.”
Feeling simultaneously ridiculous for having been so angry and aggrieved at having been set off in front of everyone, Helena took the bowl and began shovelling in the gorgeous dessert. She loved strawberry ambrosia: her taste for it had even survived Aral showing her how it was made when they were seven and visiting the Bug Vomit Farms in the Dendarii district.
“So want to talk about it.”
”What’s to talk about? You saw how that idiot…”
”Not that. Whatever’s been triggering your little temper tantrums lately. Been a lot of them haven’t there?”
That was Kareen: she wasn’t only married to Weird Uncle Mark and as a consequence one of the richest women on Barryar, she was also a practicing, galactically licensed therapist. And a famous one. She dearly loved to practice her art on her huge, bizarre and only partially functional extended family when they let her.
“Not so much.”
”At the school, twice. At your martial arts classes. And then there was that incident at the University Ball…”
”You know the Guard practically thanked me for knocking that man out. They’d been looking for him for weeks and the things they found in his house…”
”Yes, dear. But how did you know….”
She shrugged. Telling Aunt Kareen that she had seen something… other behind his very ordinary face seemed likely to cause trouble. “He looked at me funny.”
”Are you going to be hitting everyone who looks at you funny? Your mother and father would like to know. So would I.”
Helen said nothing but had a couple more spoonfuls of ambrosia.
“And your mother says you haven’t been sleeping well.”
“It’s just dreams.”
”It’s never just dreams to a therapist, dear: you know that. And they’re dreams that have had you wake up screaming two nights this week. Do you want to talk about them?”
”Can’t remember them.”
That wasn’t true. She could remember every horrid detail of them, every claw, tentacle and scream. But, although she dearly wanted to talk to someone about them she knew, somehow, that Aunt Kareen wasn’t the person to confide in. As she finished the last of the bowl of ambrosia, it was as if someone was at her elbow, whispering in her ear, You don’t want to tell them what’s going on. Not unless you want them to lock you up, the way they did me. Wait a while longer. There’ll be someone along you can tell everything to. And who can tell you everything.
It was odd but she could visualise the person whispering to her quite clearly. She had been in the dreams too. A small blonde girl carrying a huge two handed axe thing. There was another, a dark haired girl who sometimes held the axe or whatever it was. She was whispering in the other ear. Keep your cool, kiddo. And save the anger for the things that deserve it. They’ll be along soon enough.
“I’m sorry, Miles, but she just won’t open up.”
The little man looked up at his sister in law and ran a hand through his greying hair. He was nearing his fiftieth birthday (which was a surprise in itself: what with one thing and another he had never expected to live this long but the improvements in medical techniques that his brother had financed had meant a longer, healthier life for both of them) and the burden of being both an Imperial Auditor and a Count showed on him. But the one thing in his life that had worked without strain had been his children. His son was going to make a fine officer and his daughter had inherited her mother’s artistic and scientific flair and both of them had been the delight of his life. Until this sudden change of temperament and bursts of anger had darkened his little girl’s life.
“Thanks for trying, Kareen. I’ll let you know if anything changes.”
Distractedly he turned back to his comconsole and looked at the message from the embassy on Earth. It was part of a project he’d been working on, on and off, since his honeymoon, seventeen years earlier. He’d received dozens of messages down the years, one or two or even three in a year, the names of people who had died in obscure ways in out of the way places. People whose names had appeared on the Sunnydale Obelisk, beneath the epitaph:
THEY SAVED THE WORLD – A LOT.Soon be getting the messages from Earth much quicker. Wonder if I’ll go back to Earth once the Project is completed? If Gregor wants me to, perhaps or I finally get a chance for a vacation.
This message from Earth was a couple of months old. It told Miles Vorkosigan that there was a new addition to the names on the Sunnydale Memorial.
And an ImpSec report on a young girl who had left her home one day when she was fifteen and hadn’t been seen again until three years later, when her lacerated body had turned up in New Orleans. Did you Save The World, Alice?
Miles wondered, as he always did. And did you do it A Lot? No star by your name. Is that good or bad? Will I ever know?
“Sir, the tracer ritual has been competed.”
The younger man stood nervously in the doorway of the older man’s office. The windows looked out over the Cotswold countryside in spring.
”Yes? And where in the world is our next recruit coming from?”
”Well, sir it’s funny you should ask that… I think you’d better have a look at this…”
The Toscane Corporation’s passenger liner EMPRESS LAISA was on final approach to Barryar’s orbital starport and the crew of the station were busy getting ready to receive her passengers so no one was paying attention to the storage area by the passenger disembarkation corridor where the cleaners stored spare bottles of carpet shampoo and other necessities. And no one heard the slight whumph!
that came from the compartment or the voices that emerged from it shortly thereafter.
“Get off my head! Bloody amateur mages! Bloody teleports!”
”Sorry, Sarah! Is there a light in here?”
”Hang on! Yes there we are. Where’s Martha?”
”Over here, with one leg stuck in a bucket of… something green and gloopy and the other entangled in a machine of some sort. Could you please get me out of this?”
”Coming. Reggie, pull out your computer thingys and start getting us onto that passenger list.”
”Your slightest wish is my command….”
A short while later, as the crowd of passengers from the liner flowed down the corridor the door of the storage compartment opened three times, as first a man, round faced and in early middle age, then a striking dark skinned woman in her thirties and finally a matronly grey-haired woman, still leaving a slight trail of industrial cleaning fluid, joined the throng.
“And are you coming to Barryar on business or pleasure, Mr… Corcoran?”
”That’s Doctor Corcoran. Ah, a little of both. I’m on holiday from the University and my academic speciality is folk lore studies. I’m hoping to collect some of the stories from your Time of Isolation and compare them with the stories brought from Earth.”
He kept calm by reciting the names and titles of Sumerian deities in the original language as a sharp eyed young man with an Eye of Horus badge at each lapel looked momentarily over the shoulder of the immigration officer and then walked away. He did his best not to sag with relief that his hacking had managed to weave past ImpSec’s frighteningly good security measures. It’s only a backwater little planet, after all, for all its pretensions to Empire. And I did win the Rosenberg Memorial Trophy for Hacking at the Academy!
“….business or pleasure, Miss Stone?”
”Business. I’m here for the conference on biotechnics.”
”…or pleasure, Mrs Goodenough?”
“Oh, pleasure dear, pleasure. I’m retired you know, seeing the galaxy.”
They reunited once past passport control, acting like friends-for-the-voyage who meet again by chance. When the shuttle disgorged them at Vorbar Sultana Spaceport, they took a taxi together to the same hotel. As it happens, no one from ImpSec took the slightest interest in them, but they were careful not to mention their real business until they were in their hotel rooms and Reggie had swept the place for bugs.
Helen spent the next morning working rather half-heartedly on a project for her upcoming exams. She was taking a double tracked course in bio-technics and design, with half a mind to joining Weird Uncle Mark’s growing business empire when she graduated. Her Mother’s stories of the money she’d made from designing the Ambrosia Bugs before she’d married Father had been the starting point of her interest. It had grown as MPVK Industries had become the planet’s fasting growing industry, selling the products of his research arm on Escobar throughout the galaxy: improved anti-aging treatments, new forms of body modification without the pain associated with the old form.
She didn’t need the money, of course, but she wanted to have something in her life to give it direction. She knew too many daughters of counts and Vor Lords whose existence centred around parties and dating when they were young, husbands and babies when they were older.
Mother and Father had each other, of course: in fact it was embarrassing how much they still lusted at each other, often right in front of her friends! But they also had the things they did: Mother designing almost all the gardens of the Vor class and most of the parks in the city, Father being all Lord-Auditor-y and often off on mysterious little jobs for the Emperor. He didn’t go off and hunt down villains who plotted against the Empire much any more (“Thank goodness,” Mother would say): he had people who did that for him. But the only thing that made his eyes as bright as looking at Mother did, was the idea of a truly challenging hunt for some mystery or conspiracy.
So, if she was going to be as happy as they had been she needed something to fill her life. And she had thought that being a bio-designer, creating new life-forms and new ways to modify old ones would be the thing for her. But lately….
Lately, she’d been having dreams. Dreams and a curious sense that what her life needed had changed. To what she didn’t know. But something new.
So in the afternoon, not being in a mood to poke about at the comconsole any more she took herself off to the City, to shop and to pester her favourite uncle to take her to dinner.
Strictly speaking, Commodore Ivan Vorpatril wasn’t her Uncle. He was Father’s cousin. But even Father admitted (while deploring Ivan’s lackadaisical attitude, carefully cultivated air of blithe ignorance and general bachelor irresponsibility) that they had been as close as brothers back in the old days before Uncle Mark had appeared out of nowhere. And beside, he acted like a favourite doting Uncle to her and Aral, so Helen thought he deserved the title just as much as Weird Uncle Mark and her mother’s brothers.
She turned up at his office in Fleet Headquarters, where he did some job with a very long title, just as he was about to close up shop for the day. She’d timed it perfectly and he apparently wasn’t committed to dinner with any of his lady friends, so when she batted her eyelashes at him he was more than happy to take her to his favourite place in the Old Caravanserai.
“Course, the whole area isn’t what it was,” he was saying as he refilled her glass with some sweet and tart wine from the South Continent. “In the old days, there was real character in the Caravanserai. Real roughness.”
Helen sipped her wine demurely and wondered if he was really that nostalgic for the sort of street crime that killed off his father during the War of Vordarian’s Pretendership.
“Now look at it: middle class couples out for a bit of a thrill. People having sordid little assignations….”
”Well, you’d know about that, Uncle!”
”Now, don’t be pert with me, my dear. I’m sure the waiters think you’re my bit of fluff for the evening as it is.”
”How are things in the bit of fluff line, at the moment?”
”None of your business. But I think I’m getting old.”
”Sauce! They gave me a new aide-de-camp the other day. A female
”Uncle! I thought they weren’t graduating women from the Academy for another year?”
”She’s a transfer. From the Dendari, your father’s old mob. We should never have allowed them to come in from the cold. Life was so much more peaceful when we could deny we had anything to do with them.”
”Admiral Quinn appealed to the Emperor’s sense of honour: I think Father told her to. Anyway they’re much more useful as a Foreign Legion than as special ops.”
“Hmph, maybe.” Ivan grumped and refilled his own glass.
“What’s this got to do with getting old?”
”Well, dammit, thing is, they introduced her to me, gave me her record to review and, d’you know I didn’t even think about her as a woman, just as an officer. She’s a strapping looking lass too and she was out of my office and at her desk before I even started to think about what it would be like to…well, you know…”
Helen laughed out loud. “Oh dear Uncle. I’m afraid Grandmama’s Betan lectures have finally penetrated your poor Barryaran brain. You’ve become a feminist!”
“Cheek! I’ll tell you one thing though….” And with this he leaned forward and crooked his finger to get her to do the same. And then he whispered: “I don’t want you to look around just now, but the three people in the far corner are watching us. A little too professionally too for my liking. See what you think, off-worlders of some sort.”
She smiled and laughed again and paused for a moment to get her compact from her purse. Father had made sure that she and Aral had at least basic training in tradecraft from his former colleagues at ImpSec. She was the daughter of a Count, after all: the more exciting politics of the Time of Isolation and the Succession Wars were gone but there were still people who thought that kidnapping members of the nobility was fair play. She scanned the people in her mirror while adding a slight dab of makeup and wondered what to make of them. A man and two women. Tourists and from Earth almost certainly.
At the other table the younger of the two women picked up her glass and turned to look out of the window while murmuring: “She’s just made us.”
”My inner Slayer is….”
don’t use that word….”
”I think you’re being paranoid, Reggie, dear,” said the older woman. “There’s no evidence that we’re being watched.”
”This isn’t Earth, Martha. They don’t have quite the same attitude to human rights and care of prisoners. Her father could have us all under fast pentha without any sort of a warrant. And we wouldn’t want that, would we….”
“The protection spells would probably hold up…Probably. But you’re right. Let’s be extra careful.” The older woman turned to look out of the window too and asked: “Are we going to follow? It looks like she won’t be leaving without her companion…”
The younger woman suddenly stiffened in her seat. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem…”
”My inner Word-you-don’t-want-me-to-use just perked up again. Brace yourselves…”
Helen leaned in closer to Uncle Ivan and smiled as if telling a joke.
“I don’t read them as hostile. But perhaps it might be wisest to have ImpSec take a look at them.”
Uncle Ivan smiled and nodded. “I’ll just pop to the little boys room and give them a call shall I? Eh? What the devil…”
He turned and looked aghast as the large plate glass windows down one wall of the restaurant buckled inwards and three large men came through them feet first, scattering patrons and smashing tables. They were dressed as street toughs except for one who wore the uniform of a Sergeant in the Imperial Service. And there was something about their faces, something very disturbing. They looked around the room as if sniffing the air for something.
He glanced over at his niece to tell her to hurry out the back way through the kitchens and call the Guard. But she was already out of her seat and moving…Good God! The damn fool girl is moving towards the ruffians!
END OF CHAPTER ONE