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Chapter 18 - Can’t Trace Time by A.J. Hall

“Oh. My. God.”

Bel, its grin nothing more or less than demented, tipped the light-flyer through ninety degrees. Edge-on, they skimmed through the gap in the on-coming rocks with barely a metre to spare either side.

“Hang on! There’s a waterfall coming up.”

The gorge between the limestone cliffs was narrow and twisting; the cliff walls grew higher above them with every nanosecond that passed. It had been dusk when they started this game. Now, in the shadow of the towering rocks, it was fully dark. Bel was piloting on instinct and instruments, at a speed which Owen - after one shuddering glimpse at the dash - resolutely tried not to think about.

The thunder from the thousands of tonnes of water rushing over the edge of the precipice ahead was more than sound; it was a physical presence which invaded you, used your breast-bone as its very sounding board, made you realise you’d never understood what ‘alive’ meant before.

Made you realise just how very good ‘alive’ feels. Especially when compared to the alternatives.

And in that instant the restless air-currents which were churned up - once and ever - by the pounding waters caught their fragile craft, twisted it, made it the sport of gods and giants.

So then the fun (as Bel no doubt considered it) really started.

One could hardly describe the herm as being at the controls. Rather, it was the controls; the thinking part of a living thing, fused flesh and metal. The light-flyer danced on the winds of the world, partner to a million hovering deaths, embracing them, teasing them, handing them disdainfully off to finger ends in flawless rhythm.

Aware, all the time, of the dangers of coming in late on the beat.

Owen caught his breath at the incandescent beauty in Bel’s face: utterly focussed, blazingly alive, riding the hurricane like an avenging seraph amid the blare of trumpets.

A thought popped into his head, full-grown and unbidden.

Is that what it’s like for those who find flying better even than sex?

They burst from the gorge and Bel, for the first time in what felt like eternity, slowed the light-flyer’s speed to a sedate 350 kph as the plain - dotted with the occasional lights of farmsteads and villages - spread out below them.

Owen swallowed. “Don’t tell me,” he said shakily. “You used to bulls-eye whomp rats in your T-16 at home, too?”

Bel turned, laughing. Its skirts had been tumbled every which way by the speed of their passing. Owen caught a glimpse of the cream silk and lace underwear which Bel and the saleswoman in that preposterously expensive dress-shop had been giggling over a few hours earlier.

All girls together? He pictured that saleswoman - uptight, 50-something and inclined to patronise off-worlders, even those with extensive credit at their disposal - until disarmed by Bel’s expert manipulation of the situation. Somehow Bel had managed to present itself as a combination of adoring new girl worshipping the ground which the school Games Captain walked upon, and as a desperate, neglected spinster needing to be given her best shot at happiness. Whatever the key was, it had opened up the whole shop to them. With all good will.

Suppose you could see that enormous stiffy thrusting out those knickers now. I’d bet you’d laugh the other side of your face.

Bel caught his glance, followed it downwards. It smoothed its gown back into place, flipping an extra fold or so of the full skirts into its laps by way of camouflage. Owen cursed under his breath.

Why is nothing ever simple?

The herm’s voice was calm. “I’m glad I insisted on the anti-nausea meds before we started. The shade of green you were showing back then really doesn’t suit you.”

It wasn’t as if he didn’t have practice at these sorts of games. He made his voice studiedly non-committal.

“I don’t think they’d have worked if I’d not skipped lunch. So don’t even think of a return match on the way home.” He paused. “Assuming they feed us. And I bleedin’ hope they do.”

“Rather than simply throw us out into the snow?”

Bel’s voice was unexpectedly bitter; the ease and uncomplicated pleasure of a moment ago already dissipating. Owen thought he saw animation leaching out of Bel’s face and body with every kilometre they approached closer to Hassadar. It occurred to Owen that the last few minutes had been rather more than the opportunistic sneaking of an illicit thrill.

Displacement activity, much?

An unfamiliar sensation - perhaps protectiveness - swept him. Again, on the edge of hearing, that mocking voice - Diane’s?- sounded.

And why should protectiveness be so unfamiliar?

He slipped his arm round Bel’s shoulders and squeezed. It wasn’t, perhaps, recommended practice to distract the driver in mid-air but Bel could probably fly this thing with half an eyelash anyway. The herm clearly thought so; it flicked a switch on the dash - presumably the light-flyer’s equivalent of cruise control - and leaned into his grasp, its breath quickening just a trifle as it did so.

“Go on,” Owen said, running the ball of his thumb lightly over Bel’s cheek. “Confess. What is it you haven’t been telling me about the Countess? Isn’t she just the usual kind of blue-rinsed aristocratic old battleaxe who takes up hospitals for her charity work?”

Bel turned its head slightly more towards him.

“You really don’t know a lot, do you?” Without waiting for a response it continued, “Though battle-axe is right. I always remember - they’d brought us up from Quartz for the day, on a school trip, so we could see the heroes of Escobar come home and get their medals. She was supposed to be the star of the whole show - after all, she’d slit the throat of the Barrayaran Fleet Admiral and turned their invasion into an ignominious retreat practically single-handed - and she was, though not in the way they’d intended.”

Mischief lit in the herm’s face at the memory. “Steady Freddie - I mean, the President - stood up to hand her the medal, and something went horribly wrong - it looked from where we were standing like she was having some sort of fit, though it actually turned out to be combat trauma - she’d been a POW, and the Barrayarans had earned a pretty unsavoury reputation for prisoner abuse.”

It paused, looking slightly rueful. “Plus ça change. Anyway, she started flailing around, and next thing, she’d kicked him right in the balls. He went straight back off the podium into the front row of the crowd. You can imagine how we reacted. I was about thirteen at the time.”

For want of alternatives Owen tried to picture the scene with Tony Blair and Camilla Parker-Bowles in the lead roles. He had to agree; he couldn’t think of anything he’d have enjoyed seeing more at that sort of age. Well, that and that fit blonde presenter from Blue Peter stark naked, obviously.

And then a few things clicked, abruptly. “Wait a moment. She slit the throat of the Barrayaran Fleet Admiral? And it was your President - on, um, Beta Colony? - that was giving her a medal for it?”

The herm’s eyes looked grimly triumphant. “Getting the picture, are you? Yes. She’s from the old sand-box too. About two months later she defected to Barrayar and married Aral Vorkosigan. There couldn’t have been a bigger row. People were screaming for her blood - of course, all Betans regard capital punishment as a barbaric impossibility, so they were carrying placards saying things like Make her therapy perpetualrather than hang the bitch but you get the picture.” Its lips twisted. “In theory we’re conscientiously opposed to unregulated inter-planetary arms-dealing and sex tourism, too, but it’s worth taking a look at our balance of payments from time to time.”

“And you?” Owen prompted. “Were you out on the streets with placards too?”

Bel smiled, a little sadly. “Like I said, I was thirteen. The droopy romantic sort of thirteen, in case you’re wondering. I couldn’t imagine anything better than to sacrifice your planet and cross the galaxy for lur-rve.” It squared its shoulders, twitched out of Owen’s grip, and started to pay attention to the controls, just as a tinny voice started blaring out into the light-flyer’s cockpit informing them that they were entering Hassadar Municipal air space, and would they kindly acknowledge and confirm approach and landing path.

“Of course,” it added briskly, these formalities completed, “come a couple of years later I couldn’t imagine anything better than to sacrifice my planet and cross the galaxy just for the sake of getting out of Quartz.”

It turned to eye Owen narrowly. “But you’d better be aware before you meet her that she’s going to be just as likely to peg you as a fraud and a scam artist as I did.”

Owen let out a gasp of shock. The herm made an irritated, brushing-away sort of gesture.

“You might have been able to fool the hick locals with that “not from round here” stunt, but from where I’ve been standing over the last few hours it couldn’t have been more obvious that you were in well out of your depth and treading water frantically to survive. Not that I was going to complain, of course, since you seemed inclined to throw me a life-line while you were in there. “

“Oh,” Owen said. There didn’t seem a lot else to say.

It was only when they had successful parked the light-flyer in a space crowded with other vehicles, in front of a large imposing building from which light and music streamed, towards which throngs of people in elaborate evening-wear were parading, that the herm added, “Notice I’m not asking you what you’re up to. But this is just a friendly warning. If the Countess should ask, you tell her. Believe me; she doesn’t take prisoners.”

Owen took a deep breath. “Well,” he said, taking Bel’s arm and arranging the drapings of its gown punctiliously, “we’d better aim to go down fighting, hadn’t we, darlin’?”