LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD
Lois McMaster Bujold is a five-time winner of the Hugo Award and the winner of three Nebula Awards. She has published nearly two dozen novels, including several in her popular Barrayar series, which mostly feature aristocrat and interstellar spy Miles Vorkosigan. The first of these, The Warrior’s Apprentice, appeared in 1986, but she made her debut a few years earlier in 1984 when she sold a short story to Twilight Zone Magazine. Over the years, she hasn’t written much other short fiction, so this one is a rare treat.
Although Bujold’s career started off in science fiction, lately, she’s turned her hand to fantasy, writing first the Chalion series, then moving onto The Sharing Knife; volume four of that series, Horizon, came out in February. Learn more about her and her work at www.dendarii.com.
This story, which takes place in her Barrayar milieu, takes a rather grim look at some of the professions that will arise in the wake of interstellar war.
The shattered ship hung in space, a black bulk in the darkness. It still turned, imperceptibly slowly; one edge eclipsed and swallowed the bright point of a star. The lights of the salvage crew arced over the skeleton. Ants, ripping up a dead moth, Ferrell thought. Scavengers . . .
He sighed dismay into his forward observation screen, picturing the ship as it had been scant weeks before. The wreckage untwisted in his mind—a cruiser, alive with the patterns of gaudy lights that always made him think of a party seen across night waters. Responsive as a mirror to the mind under its pilot’s headset, where man and machine penetrated the interface and became one. Swift, gleaming, functional . . . no more. He glanced to his right and self-consciously cleared his throat.
“Well, Medtech,” he spoke to the woman who stood beside his station, staring into the screen as silently and long as he had. “There’s our starting point. Might as well go ahead and begin the pattern sweep now, I suppose.”
“Yes, please do, Pilot Officer.” She had a gravelly alto voice, suitable for her age, which Ferrell judged to be about forty-five. The collection of thin silver five-year service chevrons on her left sleeve made an impressive glitter against the dark red uniform of the Escobaran military medical service. Dark hair shot with gray, cut short for ease of maintenance, not style; a matronly heaviness to her hips. A veteran, it appeared. Ferrell’s sleeve had yet to sprout even his first-year stripe, and his hips, and the rest of his body, still maintained an unfilled adolescent stringiness.
But she was only a tech, he reminded himself, not even a physician. He was a full-fledged Pilot Officer. His neurological implants and biofeedback training were all complete. He was certified, licensed, and graduated—just three frustrating days too late to participate in what was now being dubbed the Hundred and Twenty Day War. Although in fact it had only been 118 days and part of an hour between the time the spearhead of the Barrayaran invasion fleet penetrated Escobaran local space, and the time the last survivors fled the counterattack, piling through the wormhole exit for home as though scuttling for a burrow.
“Do you wish to stand by?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “Not yet. This inner area has been pretty well worked over in the last three weeks. I wouldn’t expect to find anything on the first four turns, although it’s good to be thorough. I’ve a few things to arrange yet in my work area, and then I think I’ll get a catnap. My department has been awfully busy the last few months,” she added apologetically. “Understaffed, you know. Please call me if you do spot anything, though—I prefer to handle the tractor myself, whenever possible.”
“Fine by me.” He swung about in his chair to his comconsole. “What minimum mass do you want a bleep for? About forty kilos, say?”
“One kilo is the standard I prefer.”
“One kilo!” He stared. “Are you joking?”
“Joking?” She stared back, then seemed to arrive at enlightenment. “Oh, I see. You were thinking in terms of whole—I can make positive identification with quite small pieces, you see. I wouldn’t even mind picking up smaller bits than that, but if you go much under a kilo you spend too much time on false alarms from micrometeors and other rubbish. One kilo seems to be the best practical compromise.”
“Bleh.” But he obediently set his probes for a mass of one kilo, minimum, and finished programming the search sweep.
She gave him a brief nod and withdrew from the closet-sized Navigation and Control Room. The obsolete courier ship had been pulled from junkyard orbit and hastily overhauled with some notion first of converting it into a personnel carrier for middle brass—top brass in a hurry having a monopoly on the new ships—but like Ferrell himself, it had graduated too late to participate. So they both had been re-routed together, he and his first command, to the dull duties he privately thought on a par with sanitation engineering, or worse.
He gazed one last moment at the relic of battle in the forward screen, its structural girdering poking up like bones through sloughing skin, and shook his head at the waste of it all. Then, with a little sigh of pleasure, he pulled his headset down into contact with the silvery circles on his temples and mid-forehead, closed his eyes, and slid into control of his own ship.
Space seemed to spread itself all around him, buoyant as a sea. He was the ship, he was a fish, he was a merman; unbreathing, limitless, and without pain. He fired his engines as though flame leapt from his fingertips, and began the slow rolling spiral of the search pattern.