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With a Star

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Ekaterin stood on the balcony, watching the sun set over the ocean to the west. She felt, more than heard, her husband—even though they’d been married for over a year the joy that word evoked in her still seemed strange—move up behind her. His hands came around her hips, and his lips caressed her shoulder blade…about as high on her as they could reach if he didn’t use a stool.

“A mark for your thoughts,” breathed his voice behind her.

“I’m just thinking how beautiful it is,” she said softly.

She felt him snuggle up closer to her. “Humanity has spread out across hundreds of worlds…but for some reason this one still seems to have the best sunsets…other than the ones in the Dendarii Mountains of course.”

Ekaterin turned and smiled down at her husband. “Whatever wonders the galaxy has to offer…you will always find that there is something better in your home district.”

Miles nuzzled her breast…thanking whatever gods there may be that he was so short. “Not always. You’re not from the Dendarii district, and you are the greatest wonder I have ever found.”

Her hand came up and mussed his hair. “Oh, you are a charmer, Lord Vorkosigan.”

“Years of ImpSec training, Lady Vorkosigan. I can charm the pants off…well, actually I never was that good at charming the pants off anyone.”

Ekaterin smirked. “That’s not what Sergeant Taura told me.”

“Hey! She seduced me, and it was years before I even met you! And it was more a case of me being afraid she’d eat me if I didn’t make her happy than anything else…in the beginning anyway.”

Ekaterin laughed. “Don’t worry Miles. I’m not jealous of your past loves…A little sorry maybe that they got the chance to know you before I did, but not jealous.” She held him tightly.

Miles lost himself for a moment…or an eternity…in his wife’s embrace before he let his eyes look out over the lagoon to the west again. The sun had set, the sky was getting darker: fading from crimson to black. Stars were starting to appear.

A shiver ran down his crooked spine. For all its beauty, something wasn’t right here. He let his mind wander back over what the tourist brochures said about this place, how the cataclysmic collapse of an underground cavern had created this natural wonder. He hadn’t had much interest in geology since he was twelve—he knew less about it than he had known about meteorology before his first assignment—but something told him that the standard explanation for the circular bay beneath their balcony wasn’t the truth.

There had to be some other explanation for the Sunnydale Lagoon.

Miles let his bride distract him from the mystery for the rest of the night. Even though they’d been married for over a year now, this was their honeymoon trip after all. Whatever had happened here wasn’t a matter of Imperial Importance. It had happened nearly a thousand years ago, on a world thousands of light years from their home on Barrayar. Earth was still culturally important, a favourite tourist destination, and still one of the most populous worlds in the nexus, but it was an economic and strategic backwater: too far off the beaten track to be important to any of the powers vying for control of the galaxy. Its foreign exchange came mostly from the tourist trade, and from the R&D still done in its universities: many with histories going back over a thousand years. Information was still the cheapest thing that could be transported over interstellar distances. Earth being at the tail end of a long chain of wormhole jumps didn’t hurt its ability to do research, and trade tech developments. Even Beta Colony was behind Earth when it came to new tech.

Miles’ curiosity was piqued though, so next morning he and Ekaterin started their day by visiting the Information Center that The Greater North American District Park Service had set up to elucidate tourists with a geological bent about the history of the Great Sunnydale Subsidence. They entered the circular entry hall with Roic and Jankowski silently following them. Their Armsmen’s eyes scanned the room looking for threats that Miles was certain weren’t there…but you never knew.

Central to the hall was a large holographic display which gave a bird’s eye view of a computer generated recreation of the destruction of the city of Sunnydale California. When they first arrived it was just at the end of the sequence showing the flooding of the crater, but then it reset, to show the city that had stood there before the cataclysm. Miles listened to the voice from the earbug he had received on entering the pavilion as it described the events leading up to the collapse: telling how noxious gasses escaping from underground had forced the evacuation of the city mere days before, though at the time no one had known the source of the vapours, or what they foreshadowed.

Then the collapse began, centered on a building that the voice in his ear told him was Sunnydale High School. Miles watched the ring of destruction growing, racing outward from that center. He thought that the tiny image of some sort of yellow ground vehicle racing through the streets of the city ahead of the collapsing ground was a bit too much dramatic license though. He watched the scene replay a couple of times, and decided that there was nothing really to be learned from it. It gave the same false sounding account that he had already read in the tourist brochures.

They moved farther into the pavilion, and Miles saw that there were several flat images on the walls that depicted the same yellow vehicle. On these larger images he could clearly see the “Sunnydale Unified School District” in black lettering on the side of it, and the captions for the pictures identified it as a “School Bus.” As he approached one image that showed the bus stopped diagonally across the road, only tens of meters away from the edge of the crater, and surrounded by a group of people that appeared to be mostly teenaged girls, his earbug told him that this vehicle had been the last one out of Sunnydale. The picture he was looking at now had been taken by the first of the rescue squads that had been dispatched from surrounding cities to arrive on the scene.

More photos showed the same group of people…about twenty, mostly girls, most of whom Miles didn’t think could have been even eighteen years old. Three or four of them might have been in their early twenties. There were only four men, two of them over thirty, and another pair that looked like they were the same age as the oldest of the girls. He could see that many of them were injured. He could see the scrapes, lacerations and bruises. His combat experienced eyes didn’t see injuries that might have been caused by collapsing buildings, which was the explanation given for them by his earbug. He looked back at his Armsmen. “Roic? Back when you were with the Municipal Guard, if you saw someone who looked like that…” He pointed to a picture of a blonde girl who had bruises and cuts on her face, and judging by the blood on her clothes, some sort of wound in her side. “…what would you think?”

“I’d think she’d been in a hell of a fight, m’lord.”

“Not a collapsing building.”

“No, m’lord.”

“Didn’t think so,” said Miles.

He scanned the faces of the people in the pictures. There was something about them that didn’t mesh with survivors of a natural disaster. A look about their eyes, but it was too hard to tell such things from a static photograph. His earbug announced that a vid presentation, including archival 21st century material, was about to begin in the pavilion theatre. Miles decided he wanted to see it.

Roic took up station outside the small theatre where he could see anyone who tried to approach it. He and Jankowski had already surreptitiously scanned the few other people wandering around the pavilion and found that they were all weaponless. Not even a stunner among them. Earth was such a nice, civilised, peaceful (at least at the moment) planet, and it took special care to ensure that nothing happened that might cause the tourists to stay away. It did still have a small community of Komarran expatriates though, many of whom might jump at the chance to kill the son of the man who had conquered their old homeworld. M’lord’s Armsmen had been fully briefed on what had happened the last time m’lord had visited Earth.

Jankowski took up a position inside the entrance to the theatre, standing beside the door where he could keep an eye on the half dozen other people besides Lord and Lady Vorkosigan who had come in to see the show. He didn’t think that there was anything to worry about here. A young couple, with two small children, and a middle aged man who was accompanying a teenaged girl. He gave them a closer look and frowned. There didn’t seem to be any family resemblance between them; he wondered why they were here together. Maybe some sort of teacher and student?

The show began. It started with the same sort of description of the collapse that Miles had already gotten from his earbug, with computer generated imagery that this time showed the cooling magma chamber that had supposedly collapsed underneath the city. The chamber that no one had suspected existed before the event. Miles had gone through a phase when he was a boy during which he had been interested in volcanos…and throughout the galaxy this was the only known case of a collapse like that happening that wasn’t accompanied by a massive explosion and outpouring of volcanic ash. The underground chamber had supposedly formed slowly over millennia, during which the magma had cooled, and solidified, creating a vast cavern that had lasted for thousands of years…in earthquake prone California. Miles had done a quick search of geological journals before breakfast that morning. For every paper which proposed a new theory about how that could have happened, there were a dozen that tore the theory apart, proving it couldn’t have happened that way. He did learn that during the century preceeding the collapse, Sunnydale had suffered from many earthquakes. Most of which were atypical of the sort that usually happened in California. These were now blamed on the presence of the chamber.

The presentation segued into ancient archival footage: low resolution two dimensional vids of the group of survivors from the bus. Reporters tried to interview many of them, but for the most part they didn’t talk, and when they did talk, they didn’t really say anything substantial. The sole exception was one girl with long dark hair who gave a very excited description of watching through the back window of the bus as the street behind it collapsed away. Miles decided that maybe the image of the bus in the entry hall hologram wasn’t dramatic license. He’d seen enough rear guard actions to know that the girl was really describing what she’d seen. He recognised the swings in her mood: from elation to grief and back again. He’d seen it often enough in survivors of combat: one instant thankful that they were alive, and the next remembering that they had comrades who weren’t. Miles now knew what he’d been seeing in the eyes of the people in the photos, now that he had seen the vids. He’d seen it himself too often. It was the look you saw in the faces of soldiers who had just won a very costly victory.

He also noticed that even among the girls who would talk to the reporters, they got awfully vague about why they’d waited until the last instant before they got out of town. It reminded him of some of his reports to Simon Illyan, back in the day.

Outside of the pavilion, by the lip of the crater, was an obelisk. It was about four metres tall and made from black granite. Incised on all four of its sides was a simple epitaph: “They saved the world, a lot.” Beneath the epitaph were thousands of names. Mostly the names of women, though there were a few men’s names on it too. Miles’ earbug told him that no one knew where it had come from. It had appeared at this site only a few years after the collapse, and at the time it had only a dozen names on it. A few new names had appeared on it every year since. Many of the names were those of women who had died violently, or vanished at a young age. No one knew who added the names, or how. Surveillance equipment that was meant to catch whoever was responsible had a tendency to fail just before new names appeared. Human guards had a tendency to have lapses in their attention.

At various times over the centuries self appointed committees had tried to have the names of people they thought were deserving added to the obelisk, and in nearly every case, within a few weeks of the name being added, it had been removed by whatever unknown agency was maintaining it. At other times the obelisk had been defaced by someone who wanted to remove the name of someone who they thought was undeserving, and in every case that name had been restored. The entire obelisk had been destroyed three times, and each time it had been replaced within days.

Miles saw the girl who was accompanied by the middle aged man kneel before the obelisk, and trace her fingers across the newest name to have appeared on it. Sumalee Srisai had died twelve days ago in Thailand, the victim of some sort of wild animal attack—according to Miles’ earbug. He couldn’t help wondering how a girl who had been killed by a wild animal had saved the world.

Miles waited at a respectful distance until the girl stood up again. He watched her smile sadly at her companion, and say something quietly that he couldn’t hear. They both turned away from the obelisk, and started back down the path that led to the pavilion. “Excuse me, Miss,” said Miles as they passed.

She looked down at him in surprise. “May I help you, sir?”

Miles found himself slipping into his Betan accent. Terrans found it more recognisable, and Betans where universally known for their good manners. The Terrans who recognised a Barrayaran accent often reacted badly to it. Barryarans were universally known for some of the excesses that taken place during his father’s generation. Too many of those excesses were blamed on his father. “I beg your pardon, and feel free to tell me to go jump in the lagoon if I’m intruding, but I couldn’t help but notice what you were doing at the obelisk. Did you know Miss Srisai?”

“No,” said the girl. “No, I never met her.”

Miles pushed a little. “But you did know of her.”

“Yes, yes I did,” said the girl. “I’m sorry sir, but it is a personal matter.”

“Stop bothering the girl, Miles,” said Ekaterin. She came up beside him, and hooked her hand into his elbow. “I’m afraid my husband’s curiosity often gets the better of his manners.” She smiled at the girl and her companion. “I’m Ekaterin, by the way. Ekaterin Vorkosigan, and this is my husband Miles.”

“Marie Dumont,” said the girl. “And this is Arthur Campbell.” She nodded to her companion. Miles had seen the man’s eyes widen a bit in recognition when he had heard the Vorkosigan name and silently cursed his father’s undeserved infamy.

“Vorkosigan, as in the Prime Minister of Barrayar?” asked Mr. Campbell.

Miles was a little surprised by that. Most people who recognised his name didn’t come up with that association. He nodded to the man. “Father retired from the Prime Ministership a few years ago.”

“I suppose I’m not as current on Galactic politics as I should be,” said Mr. Campbell. “I can only hope that your Emperor has found someone of equal quality to succeed him.”

“Dad is a tough act to follow,” said Miles.

“I’m sure he is,” said Mr. Campbell. “Good day, Lord Vorkosigan.”

Miles was surprised again. He knew he hadn’t mentioned his title. The reactions of North Americans to aristocratic titles were problematic, ranging from fawning to disdain, neither of which Miles tolerated gladly. He nodded in acknowledgement. “Good day, Mr. Campbell.”

“You’ve been sitting at that comconsole for hours, Miles,” said Ekaterin.

Miles sighed, and rubbed his hands over his face. “This is so frustrating! There has to be some reason for it all!”

“Does it really matter?” asked Ekaterin. “It’s a mystery that’s a thousand years old. I don’t really think that the fate of the Empire rests on its solution.”

Miles gave her a weak grin. “I know, but I just feel like I’m so close. I’m on the edge of something important, but it’s eluding me.” He turned back to the comconsole, and pointed to the screen. “Look at this: the first six names are all those of people who were killed in the original collapse. This one here, Anya Jenkins, is marked with an asterisk. About one name in ten in the entire obelisk is marked that way. Every male name has a star. Some of the female names do too…the starred names are split about 50:50. See, here’s a Willow Rosenberg—star, and Dawn Summers-Harris—star. She was the sister to Buffy Summers—no star, and married to Xander Harris—star.

“An inordinate number of these people vanished, or died a violent death, especially among the starred names. Over all, about half of these people died of old age, but only about one in ten of the starred people did.”

Miles brought up another list of names. “Here is nearly everyone who was on that bus that got away.”

“‘Nearly everyone’?” asked Ekaterin.

“Yeah,” said Miles. “There was one person on that bus who didn’t have her name recorded. More about her later. Every one of the recorded names appeared on the obelisk at some point over the next ninety years. The last was Dawn Summers—one of the few people with a star who didn’t die young. She was one hundred and six when she died, ten years after her husband. Following farther down, a lot of the starred names are descendants of people who appeared earlier on the obelisk, either starred or unstarred. Dawn Summers-Harris had a grandchild and a great grandchild added to the obelisk—both with stars—before she died, but I haven’t been able to find any unstarred person who was anything other than a remote relative to someone earlier.”

Miles pointed to another name. “And now look at this one. Every other name on the obelisk that I can find any record for belongs to someone who had died or disappeared no more than a year or two prior to their name being added to it, but this woman, added in 2014, was originally reported as being one of the people who died in the actual collapse in 2003. Faith Lehane was also an escaped prisoner who had been convicted of multiple murders. Early pictures of the survivors from the bus show twenty-one people, but the authorities only got the names of twenty of them. By the time anyone got around to taking names, one of them had disappeared. The twenty-first girl in the early pictures was rather camera shy, there are no pictures showing her face, but her hair colour and build matches that of Miss Lehane.

“Some of the earliest reports filed at the time included the theory that Faith Lehane was the twenty-first person on the bus, but no one from the bus ever identified her as being on it. Five of the others on the bus were in Miss Lehane’s file as known associates, though. Buffy Summers was in the file as another suspect in the death of the first person Miss Lehane was convicted of killing, and was also apparently instrumental in her later arrest, but for some reason Faith Lehane was never pursued. Everyone accepted the story that Faith Lehane died in the collapse.” Miles gave Ekaterin a lopsided grin. “I know a quashed investigation when I see one. There was someone at a very high level who knew that Faith Lehane was on that bus, and didn’t want her back in custody.”

“There seems to be a lot of information available about this, for there to be some sort of cover-up going on,” said Ekaterin. “I’m surprised by how much you have dug up, on some thousand year old people.”

“I’m hardly the first to have taken an interest in the obelisk,” said Miles. “People have been trying to figure it out, ever since it first appeared, but there are precious few primary sources that have survived. Most of this is second or third hand. I suspect that a lot of the original data has been deliberately scrubbed over the centuries. Any actually useful information has been made to disappear. What’s left…” Miles’ breath hissed through his teeth.

Ekaterin recognized the sound of Miles thinking, so she waited a few seconds, until he stopped sounding like a tea kettle. “What’s left?” she asked.

“I think that they’ve left just enough information out there to bait a hook, to see what they might drag in.”

“Ah,” said Ekaterin. “And have they hooked you?”

“Not yet,” said Miles. “I’ve just been nibbling around the edges, so far; not doing anything that dozens of other people must be doing every day; only looking at things that are openly accessible to the public, and I’ve been going through the embassy’s anonymous taps into Earth’s DataNet, so anyone who does try to backtrack me should end up at a dead end, long before they even get as far as the embassy.”

“But if anyone is monitoring inquiries into information on the history of the obelisk, wouldn’t that anonymity itself raise a flag?”

“It could,” said Miles. “But so far I haven’t detected anyone trying to backtrace my access. I might have to try to dig deeper; see if I can provoke a response.”

“Do you really want them to get a line on you?”

“That’s the thing about lines,” said Miles. “They run both ways. If they have a line on me, that means I have a line on them.”

“Do you really want to have a line on them? What if you manage to reel each other in? What then?”

“That’s the million mark question,” said Miles. “Some of the better earlier researchers wound up with their names on the obelisk. Always with a star. I think that they might use it as a recruiting tool. Anyone who’s smart enough to figure it out gets asked to join.”

“Or maybe they just get eliminated, and their names are added as a warning.”

Mile shook his head. “I don’t think so. Some of them outlived Grandmother Naismith. It doesn’t really match with this, either.” Miles pointed to an image of the top of the column. “‘They saved the world, a lot.’ You know, there isn’t a single record, other than this obelisk, that says that about just about everyone on it.”

“‘Just about’?”

“Ah, yes. The only name on the entire obelisk that was voted onto it, and stuck.” Miles pointed to the image of the one hundred thirty-forth name engraved on the obelisk: *Abigale Simpson*.

“She’s the woman who…”

“Saved the world,” finished Miles. “2076, died piloting the mission that kept the asteroid Hades from hitting the Earth. It was a one way ticket, and she knew it. Every kid in the galaxy hears her story. Humanity would probably be extinct now if not for her. There was a grass roots movement over the next year, no one organized it, but in the end the whole damn world voted to put her name on the obelisk, and it stayed. She was first added without the asterisks though. Whoever keeps this thing added them a week later: two asterisks. No one else on the obelisk has two. Whatever these people normally do to get on this thing, Abigale didn’t do, but they obviously felt that she deserved to be there.”

“But none of the others seem to be famous?” asked Ekaterin.

“No…nowhere near that sort of fame anyway. Many had some local notoriety. Some of them died heroically. Quite a few of them had lots of people who came forward after their deaths and told stories of how these girls had saved them, from one thing or another. Some of the stories sound quite fanciful though.” Miles paused and thought a bit, his breath hissing between his teeth. “The same sort of fanciful stories often get told several generations apart, on opposite sides of the world.” Miles scrolled back to the beginning of the list, and pointed to a name. “This girl, Buffy Summers, was apparently nominated ‘Class Protector’ by her schoolmates four years before the collapse, but there are also several records of her having run-ins with the authorities, and not just the ones relating to Faith Lehane. Several of the others also seem to have led fairly…colourful…lives.”

“‘Colourful’?” asked Ekaterin. “Lord Vorkosigan, AKA Admiral Miles Naismith colourful, or you know, painted nice pictures colourful.”

Miles shook his head. “Some of these…I think that if their full stories were known, they’d put the Admiral to shame…They burned just as brightly, and burned out just as quickly.”

Miles still hadn’t figured it out, when the time came to leave the planet if they wanted to get home in time for the births of their children, but he couldn’t let it go. He left instructions with the senior ImpSec officer staffing the Barrayaran Embassy in London, and had those instructions added to the standing orders for that station, so that his successors would carry them out too. Every time a new name was added to the obelisk, he was informed. Everything that ImpSec could find about the new saviour of the world was forwarded to him.

He was sitting on the floor in the library of Vorkosigan House five years later, playing with his twin children, Aral and Helen, when Nick called from the comconsole. (Only Ekaterin could get away with calling him Nikki these days.) “There’s a message for you from Earth, Dad.”

Miles climbed to his feet and handed the model of the sleek Illyrican warship he was ‘commanding,’ and had named Ariel over to his adopted son. “You have the con, Pilot Officer!”

Nick grinned and saluted. “Aye-aye, Admiral!” He was still high from having been accepted to the Academy for pilot training, and was years away from actually attaining that rank, but Miles was sure he would reach it. Nick had never wavered in his ambition to be a starship pilot in all the years since Miles had first met him, playing with toy starships on the floor of his mother’s apartment on Komarr. He took Miles’ place on the floor with his half brother and sister.

Miles took the seat that Nick had occupied at the comconsole, and saw that the message waiting for him was a low security one, from the ImpSec station on Earth. He knew without opening it that it meant that a new name had been added to the obelisk. It was the tenth such message he had received since he had left that planet, and each one had told of the death of some woman. Some of them had been little more than girls who had died from one sort of violence or another, others had been women who had died in their beds at advanced ages, with family and friends nearby. Miles had found little beyond their deaths that linked them. He sighed, and opened the latest message, wondering if it was a girl, or an old woman he would read about this time.

This time there had been two new names added to the obelisk, and Miles already knew both of them: Marie Dumont, and Arthur Campbell, with a star.