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Possible Futures

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The change in her husband was abrupt and total, but Olivia didn’t talk with him about it for almost a full day. As she’d been directing Aral and Dory in the usual post-breakfast cleanup, trying as she always did to keep it from becoming a larger mess than they had started out with, she’d seen Piotr, out of the corner of her eye, go utterly still. She noticed it because Piotr was always moving, always reminding her that he and therefore she was alive in some way; it was one of the things that most attracted her to him, and had led her to marry him despite her mother’s begging her to consider school on Beta, or perhaps a life there, as though she hadn’t bought into the whole Vor construct herself about ten minutes after meeting Papa. And taken the misogyny of the place, for love, as women had done throughout all of human history. 

Piotr radiated vitality, her own personal sun, and though he sometimes condescended to her, in his Vorish way, he never told her to be quiet; he couldn’t do so, after all, without making of himself a hypocrite, and though Barrayar had her concession on many things, she found hypocrisy to be particularly intolerable, in some abstract yet intensely personal way. Piotr was like Barrayar, was Barrayar, a beating heart of a man; and so when he stopped moving, she noticed. 

It was as though he had come into his body from a great distance. His eyes went cold, then blank, then, meeting hers, seemed to contain some vast emptiness that filled her with profound terror. Olivia had never been frightened of her husband—for his enemies, some days, but never of him—and still did not fear physical harm, but felt, suddenly and absurdly, as though he might transmit to her by eye some terrible and all-consuming madness. And then the look was gone, and she jerked her eyes away just in time to see Dory pour a full carton of milk over Vanya’s head, and the subsequent supervision of that cleanup and the logistics of the day demanded her full attention, and she thought no more of it.

That night, Piotr wanted to make love to her. He communicated primarily through touch, fumbling his words when he attempted to convey the intensity of his desire. She was tired, and wanted to sleep, but there was something raw in Piotr’s eyes that Olivia didn’t entirely understand—which was odd, alien, unsettling. Olivia had thought she’d known everything there was to know about Piotr, aside from the small details of memory and thought that proved the core of partnership. But the way he looked at her made her feel hot and cold at once, like she was being seen in an entirely new way, needed, and clearly his need was greater than her fatigue in this instance. In her marriage to Piotr, Olivia had learned that loving another person came in stages, that there was always some more intense height; a marriage, the end of a war, the birth of a child. Perhaps Piotr was ahead of her on this new depth of feeling, and she would have to catch up, and that was all. 

His hands shook when he touched her, which he did all over. They didn’t speak, or get around to sex, but Piotr obviously needed the comfort of her body, which she was happy to provide. Especially when he gathered her into his chest, his hands running through her hair until she gave herself, purring, unto sleep.

The next day was Monday, and so the preoccupations of Monday—Aral’s perpetually untied shoes, Dory’s unavoidable oversleeping, Vanya’s sudden need of homework help mere minutes before Ma Orlov came to collect them all for the trip to school—kept Olivia in motion practically from waking. Piotr trailed her that morning, like one of the children, his sharp eyes on her every movement. Was he seeing something different in her that she’d not yet noticed? He would be out with it, in his own time, or when she got curious enough to ask it of him. She watched him from the doorframe, leaning against it and looking around the kitchen of Vorkosigan House. The tile really did need to be re-done, one of these days, and the cabinets were beginning to look old. Perhaps she’d bring Sonia and Ma Demos to pick out new cabinets and tiling and matching dishware, make a day of it.

“What do you want to do today?” Piotr asked her. 

She smiled at him, trying not to look too befuddled. “Well, I’d like to take a lightflyer up to Vorkosigan Surleau and spend the day with you,” she said. “But you’re meeting with Vorhalas to strategize whipping up votes for the appropriations bill, and I’ve been invited to judge a contest of large gourds in Hassadar.” At his blank look, she peered openly. “Are you alright, love?”

“Is this some kind of joke?” Piotr asked her, in so casual a tone it took her a moment to register the words. “Isn’t the point of an afterlife that you get to stop working?” His face took on a kind of speculative horror. “What’s the reward for a life well lived?”

Olivia watched this display with a queer fascination. It suddenly became evident to her that her husband had gone quite mad. “Afterlife?” she asked mildly.

“We’re both dead, are we not?” Piotr said. “And this is the end? You, and the house, and the children?” His mouth twisted. “I half can’t believe Aral was ever so small. Or so… unburdened.”

“In answer to your question,” Olivia interjected, “we most certainly are not dead, though I’m ever so interested to hear how you came around to that notion. Either you are mad, or you are sane; either way, you are my husband, and I will stand by you in this as in all things.” She frowned. “Although I’d rather you let me talk you out of it first if you’re planning on doing anything suicidally insane. You’re lucky we’re not on Beta, they’d stick you in involuntary therapy until you lost all semblance of personality.” She smiled to herself at this notion, but not a very nice smile. “I’ll take Barrayar, in all its lovely madness.” Rather like her husband, she reflected. And her. You could take a Vor out of Barrayar, but you couldn’t take Barrayar out of the Vor. 

Piotr was arrested. “My God,” he said. “You’re exactly like Miles. Miles is exactly like you.”

“Who?”

His eyes twinkled. “Why, our grandson, of course.”

At this, Olivia rubbed her forehead. She sensed a longer conversation, possibly one that would, in fact, take all day, and probably longer than that. Whatever this madness was, it seemed to have enveloped him completely; the day was going to be a wash. She might as well spend it with a view.

“Let’s go up to Vorkosigan Surleau, then,” Olivia said, unable to keep the pleasure out of her voice, or her toes. It had been too long, and the city was beginning to cut into her, making hard edges in places she preferred to keep fluid. It would be good to sit by the lake with Piotr, mad as he was now, and feel the flecks of water on her face in the receding heat of early autumn. He nodded, and they dispersed, once again distracted by the practicalities of life. She thought she heard him mumbling about heaven and housework, but elected to ignore it. Practically, the lake was good for another reason: if they got into a screaming match, they wouldn’t have the entirety of Vorbarr Sultana for an audience.

Vorkosigan Surleau hadn’t been expecting them, and the retainer staff was rather flustered for a moment before regrouping. Armsman Orlov volunteered himself to their service, “M’lord and m’lady permitting, of course,” which Olivia approved with an indulgent wave of the hand. Orlov was twenty-four now, just beginning to see his own future stretch out endlessly ahead of him, but he still had the appetite of a boy ten years younger. Olivia wondered a bit wistfully where all the food went, though of course the answer was the series of mutual beatings the Armsmen as a whole seemed to consider practice.

“What are you thinking?” Piotr asked her, and it startled her, and then startled her that she had been startled. 

She answered honestly, and he quirked his head at her. “You’re really very Betan,” he told her, though for perhaps the first time she could recall there was no frustration or secret resentment in his tone. “Ever practical. To all our benefits.”

“That’s… not how I thought you saw Beta Colony.”

“It wasn’t, when I was forty.”

“You’re forty-two,” said Olivia, inanely. 

“I’m ninety-eight,” he said, and she looked him in the eyes. He seemed far more together than this morning, though his words carried the same madness. “You think I’m mad.”

“Well, yes.”

Piotr smiled at her and pulled her into his lap, the lake sparkling under the early afternoon sun. She did not object, but watched him, trying to find a foothold from which to grasp Piotr and pull him out of himself. None presented itself to her.

“As best I can tell, I’ve been sent back in time fifty years,” Piotr said. “Or… no. There’s no way I could have made all of that up.” His eyes flashed with doubt, then returned to their usual simmer. “No. Whether or not I remake that future, it did exist.”

“Why you?” Olivia asked, allowing him to draw her in a little. Not too far, that was all she had to remember: Vorkosigans could hypnotize you, if you let them. Or if you didn’t. She fancied it was part of the reason she took so well to the name.

“I have no idea,” Piotr said, which comforted her. Surely madness justified itself to its victims. Could madmen see the holes in their delusions? Surely not, or they wouldn’t have the delusion at all. She drew herself away from this, and onto the new issue. Time travel. It was strange, but at least theoretically possible, whereas Olivia was certain that neither she nor Piotr were dead. People had been time traveling to the future for—

“What are you thinking?” her husband asked again, engrossed. “I suppose I was all wrapped up in myself still, when I was young. But you’re thinking all the time, aren’t you? About everything.”

“Aren’t you?” she echoed.

Piotr chuckled. Something about the gentleness of it made her want to believe him. “Will you tell me what you’re thinking?”

“I was thinking that time travel is already proven to occur, at least in the future tense, and in very short increments. I’ve never heard a story of backwards time travel that held water, though, my love. And I was thinking about the nature of madness. I’m quite sure I’m not dead.”

“I believe you,” Piotr said. “Hence, the new insane theory.”

“This is muddled,” Olivia said. “For me. Tell me what you remember?”

“Of course.” His final day of life, he told her, had been dull. The only bright spot had been a visit from the aforementioned Miles, the very mention of whose name lit up Piotr’s face in a way only his children ever did. Miles had tried to join the military academy, and failed, but Piotr seemed nonplussed by what to her, at first glance, seemed a terribly embarrassing mark on their Vor name. Miles loved horses, and spaceships, and, it sounded like, his grandfather, the truth of which label she was beginning to accept. She had never heard of madmen making up grandchildren or real love for them, and while the scope of true things she did not know was exactly as vast as the universe, she trusted Piotr, and hadn’t yet reason to stop trusting him. Even if he was mad, she was now more familiar with his madness and did not find it so frightening a thing to share.

Piotr was looking at her in a way he had never looked at her before, except this past day, a look of raw, boundless joy that hurt to touch, and hurt even more not to. “When did you lose me?” she asked, and watched the joy grow. Maybe, if she observed it for long enough, she would begin to understand its character, and share it with him.

“A long time ago,” he said, distantly, his arm around her tightening. At her unimpressed gaze, he said, “My madness is nothing compared to Yuri’s. You, Dory, Vanya, dead at once. Five years into the future, now.”

“Or not at all.” His eyes burned brighter, bore into hers. “Tell me more.” Be my partner in this, Piotr. Allow me to be yours. “Tell me more, and we’ll figure out what to do together.”

They did not make it very far into his very bloody tale before the demands of life once again interrupted. Olivia had promised Dory and Aral she would watch ballet vids with them, and would have to begin to reschedule things now that Piotr—well. Piotr wasn’t himself today, was he?

But he was still himself, unmistakably, which was why she allowed him to take her hand as they walked back to the lightflyer and Vorkosigan Surleau. And soon there would be their children, and she delighted suddenly at the idea of changing the future by having one more, not one alive but four human beings out in the world that she and Piotr, together, had made. Time seemed to have worn away the worst of his conservative views, and she wondered if he wouldn’t object to the next one getting incubated outside of her body for a change. 

“What are you thinking about?” Piotr asked again. She wondered, a bit fondly, how long it would take him to stop begging for scraps of her. She already belonged to him, and he belonged to her, and they both belonged to Barrayar, which meant they would forever be entangled, or had before the children had done that job. And they too were for Barrayar.

“Another baby,” she said, and Piotr stumbled, which pleased her greatly. “And war. Do they use uterine replicators, in your future?”

“More by the hour, feels like,” Piotr said, and then, “Miles came out of a replicator,” and she knew she’d won.

The sun was falling towards sunset before them, blue light experimenting with purple, and the Earth-import trees silhouetted against the Dendarii Mountains. Their mountains. Below and before them, the lights of Vorkosigan Surleau danced, promising to carry them through any number of possible futures.