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Chapter 10 - Can’t Trace Time by A.J. Hall

It was eerie to watch the effects as the antidote flushed the lingering traces of retcon from the patient’s system; to see personality and character flow into and define that vivid face. Owen had thought it more alive than the average person even before; now the rheostat which had dimmed its personality had been disconnected and the full power beamed out, unimpeded.

It sat up on the bed, swung its legs rather shakily to the ground, and ran the heel of its hand over its face, as though trying to wipe away the last lingering traces of confusion, fear and degradation. “Thank you. That was - well, if you’ve never pulled anyone out of hell before, count that a first. I begin to see why Miles -” It stopped itself, abruptly.

The voice, too, had changed; become more clipped and authoritative. And - Owen thanked God Petrova Comienski didn’t have access to that infernal mind-reading pendant as he formulated the thought - it came over as subtly but profoundly more masculine as a result.

So if you take the damsel out of the distress, does she stop being a damsel altogether?

It surveyed them both for a moment, as if trying to reach a decision. “Anyway, you gave me back my name. I guess that means you’re entitled to know it. Bel Thorne. Late commander of the fast cruiser Ariel, Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. Currently a herm of leisure. At your service.”

It bowed, ironically.

The fast cruiser made sense - Owen briefly pictured that chiselled face and short brown hair above a Jack Hawkins-style Aran sweater and duffel coat, binoculars slung negligently round its neck, standing on the bridge of a warship butting into a short steep sea in the North Atlantic, U-boats, death and glory at every turn. And then sanity clicked in.

Remember those aircraft outside the window? The shuttles blazing up from the suburbs? What’s the betting that when someone round here talks about a “ship” it’s a spaceship they’ve got in mind?

He gulped.

Forget the unofficial motto of Torchwood Three, did you? Mostly, it is rocket science.

Petrova Comienski held out a mug of tea to Thorne, and then looked suddenly self-conscious. “Sorry,” she said, rather awkwardly. “I should have asked how you took it. I’d sort of got used to guessing -“

It accepted the mug and took a swallow. “Thanks. And you’re not such a bad guesser, at that. Anyway. The story of my life. You wanted to hear it, yes?”

Owen nodded. “At least, since you landed on this god-forsaken planet. What brought you here, anyway?”

The herm’s face twisted a little at that. “You might well ask. Optimism. Desperation. A man.” Its face looked rueful. “Yes. That old chestnut. A twisty-minded little man who exudes more charisma than any given black hole could be expected to absorb in a hurry. Who, of course, turned out not to be here. That was where it started.” It stared into the steam coming off the mug of tea as though trying to read the future in it. Perhaps it could. Reflectively Thorne said, “No, actually I was wrong about that. He was here. Too much here, in one sense. Just not - physically present. But I understood some things - that perhaps I’d been shutting my eyes to before. I should, obviously, have caught the first shuttle out once I realised. But -” It rested its chin on its hands and sighed deeply.

“I’d come a long way and it seemed like cowardice to go straight home again. So - I decided to play the good little galactic tourist for once. Did all the tours. Went round Vorhartung Castle. Do you know they’ve got the scalp of one of their Emperors in a glass case there?”

Petrova Comienski looked aggrieved. “But of course. Mad Emperor Yuri. We went round there on a school trip once. What’s wrong with that?”

Thorne shot Owen something that was either an Us galatics need to hang together or a Birds! Who’d have ‘em? look. Owen wasn’t sure which version disconcerted him more profoundly.

He coughed. “Well, primitive people had all sorts of customs which - “

“Mad Emperor Yuri was dismembered,” the herm said precisely, “sixty one years ago. By a selection of his nearest relatives. Including - the most informative panel beside the exhibit told me - one Aral Vorkosigan. Who appears to have been thirteen years old at the time.” It dropped its head to its hands and the rest of its comments were lost in a mutter of which Owen could decode little apart from something which sounded like “Cannibals! The lot of them!”

Eventually Thorne looked up and said, “The ironic thing was, when I finally got beaten up I wasn’t even trying anything. I hadn’t even said anything. After Vorthartung Castle I seriously thought I was owed a drink. Well, I’d been passing as a woman - it seemed easiest - and I was just my bad luck I happened to walk into a bar where - ” It paused, still - Owen guessed - too confuzzled to have processed the information correctly, even now.

“Well, apparently there are bars in this town where women aren’t welcome. And not for the obvious reason. When I made that assumption things got even worse.”

Petrova’s eyebrows vanished into her hairline. “You went into a bar? In Vorbarr Sultana? As - I mean, um, posing as - a woman? On your own?”

Thorne - Bel - turned to face her. “You mean,” it breathed, “that it wasn’t just one bar on this planet where women on their own aren’t welcome? It’s all of them?”

Petrova stared back at it, in equal disbelief. “You mean there are bars on planets where they are?”

Owen coughed. “Socio-political comparisons, all very interesting. Feminist analysis and critique, got no problem with that either, darlin’. In your own time. Getting to the bottom of what’s going on in this hospital, now, that’s what I call critical path. ‘Specially to me, at least while it’s going to be my name on the charge sheets. So. Can the Bad Bar reviews, and start giving me something I can work with. Such as, for instance, the ID of whoever gave you the retcon.” He gestured towards his comconsole. “While we were waiting for the antidote to kick in I ran the vid and audio records - and the live security feeds - through to my terminal. I won’t guarantee the historicals are accurate - ‘smatter of fact I’ve checked them over, and I’ll guarantee they aren’t, and I should know - God, there are some sloppy data-fakers in this universe - but I’ve pulled the records from when you were brought in, and I suggest you look them over.”

It was about ten minutes later when Bel put a finger on the swirling images over the vid-plate. “Him.”

In the circumstances it would have been rather a shock had it been anyone other than Hasek. Fortunately they were spared that inconvenience.

“He came into the ward,” Bel explained. “When I’d been brought in - well, you have to understand that I was dipping in and out of consciousness. Hurt like hell, too. But the first thing I saw which I did see, if you understand, was that big portrait of the hospital’s patron above the admissions desk. And that - well, put it this way, once I’d seen that I wasn’t going to let on who I was. Being scooped up by the Family was the very last thing I thought I could put up with.

“So I was pretty noncommittal on the entry procedures, claimed I’d forgotten my name, that sort of thing. The doctor who admitted me - oldish guy, but fit with it: that sort of wiry type who always turn out to do 20 km desert yomps before breakfast - hadn’t been buying it, I could tell, but I don’t think he cared much, either. After all, all I needed was fast-stim for the bruising, synergine for the shock and a decent night’s sleep. My medtech on the Ariel would have had me fit for duty in an hour if she’d had to.” Its lips curled in a slow, dangerous smile. “Doubt she could have managed the same for the other guys, though. And they were lucky. Might have been Sergeant Taura who’d walked into that bar instead of me.

“Anyway, Hasek - that his name? - came onto the ward and I knew he meant trouble. He walked like -” Bel paused, as though taking thought to pin the simile as aptly as it could. Its voice, when it spoke again, held a note of profound surprise, as though amazed that it had taken so long to make a connection which now seemed obvious. “He walked like Baron Ryoval.”

Petrova and Owen exchanged glances of mutual bafflement. Bel shrugged. “Anyway, I heard him ask the nursing assistant, ‘Where’s the mutie amnesiac?’ and she pointed in my direction. I saw the smile on his face and -” Bel wiped its hands surreptitiously down the sides of its sweat pants. “I didn’t have to see the hypospray he was concealing in his palm to know what was coming.”

It swallowed. “Old Tung used to say, that there were two ways soldiers tried to beat mind-wipes. Difference being, one way stands a prayer of working, and the other - doesn’t.”

Owen raised his eyebrows, inviting it to continue.

“What most people try to do is hang on to everything. That’s the way that doesn’t work. There’s too much data and the effort’s spread too thin. And you don’t care equally about everything in your memory; if you’re anything like me there’ll be bits which you’d prefer to lose.”

Bel drew a deep breath. “The better way - the only way, really - is to latch on to just one thing. Anything you like - a lover’s face, a snatch of music - so long as it matters. Me, I concentrated like hell on the way he looked - how he was going to take my memory and how he was getting off on the thought of it. I thought - this may be the last thought I take down into Hell but I’ll see you down there with me if it’s the last thing I do.

It nodded its head, rather shakily. “The rest you know. Except, I suppose, the second set of bruises? I think, now, that was just some of the - more convalescent patients indulging in recreational therapy. Until now, I couldn’t be sure whether or not they were connected. But I don’t think Hasek planned on that happening at all. Whatever he had in mind for me, I think he had a very well-laid out script. What he failed to plan for was the random element.”

Abruptly Owen made a connection. Hasek lurking strategically around the outer office awaiting Vorsoisson’s departure, knowing that the administrator’s terminal would have been left logged onto the network.

Except that the smarmy boss from hell intervened, didn’t he? Yet another random element forcing him off-script. So what’s Hasek going to do next?

“Thorne -?” Owen began. The herm raised its eyebrows and tried to look bored. Its eyes glittered like a hunting cat’s, though.

“Don’t tell me. I’ve seen expressions like that too often. You need me as a stalking goat.”

He let his voice turn into a Sarf London drawl. “Goat? Well, whatever - floats your cruiser. But - yeah. That’s about the size of it.”

Bel rubbed its hands together and then, slowly and deliberately, cracked its knuckles; the gesture was oddly compelling. “Good. Because among the other useful memories you’ve retrieved for me I find I can now recall at least twenty-one ways of killing someone without using a weapon.”

Petrova’s mouth opened; Owen silenced her with a look.

“That’s the spirit,” he said blandly. “Though you might want to consider that we’ll need to have live witnesses if you want to nail the really big cannibals. The ones who are yanking Hasek’s chain. Whoever they are.”

Bel spun to face him, the speed of its reflexes showing that its last comment had almost certainly not been an empty boast.

It extended an improbably delicate long-fingered hand, palm uppermost.

“Yours,” it breathed, “to command.”

Owen, caught off-balance, heard a faint mocking voice in his ears.

Well? I don’t see why I can’t have chivalry as well as equality.

There was blood pounding in his ears and his body seemed no longer his own to control. He brushed his lips, feather-light, across the offered palm.

And looked up into a pair of intense blue eyes in which the laughter had abruptly died.

“Yours,” he said, “to the gates of Hell.” He paused. He could hear both their hearts beating in the stillness. He flicked out his tongue, moistening suddenly dry lips. “But - sorry, darlin’ - ‘fraid I can’t guarantee you get a lift back.”