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"No reply from the Ariel from this courier-hop either, sir," Lieutenant Hereld reported apologetically.
Miles's fists clenched in frustration. He forced his hands flat again along his trouser seams, but the energy only flowed to his feet, and he began to pace from wall to wall in the Triumph's Nav and Com room. "That's the third-third? You have been repeating the message with every courier?"
"The third no-reply. Dammit, what's holding Bel up?"
Lieutenant Hereld shrugged helplessly at this rhetorical question.
Miles re-crossed the room, frowning fiercely. Damn the time-lag. He wanted to know what was happening right now. Tight-beam communications crossed a local-space region at the speed of light, but the only way to get information through a wormhole was to physically record it, put it on a jumpship, and jump it through to the next relay station, where it was beamed to the next wormhole and jumped again, if it was economically worthwhile to maintain such a service. In regions of heavy message traffic, such couriers jumped as often as every half-hour or even oftener. Between Escobar and Jackson's Whole, the couriers maintained an every-four-hours schedule. So on top of the delay from the speed of light limitation, was added this other, arbitrary human one. Such a delay could be quite useful sometimes, to people playing complex games with interstellar finances, exchange rates, and futures. Or to independent-minded subordinates wishing to conceal excess information about their activities from their superior officers-Miles had occasionally used the lag for that purpose himself. A couple of clarification requests, and their replies, could buy enough time to bring off all sorts of events. That was why he'd made certain his recall order to the Ariel was personal, forceful, and crystal-clear. But Bel had not returned some counterfeit-demure What do you mean by that, sir? Bel had not replied at all.
"It's not some fault in the courier-system, is it? Other traffic-is other traffic on the route getting their messages through?"
"Yes, sir. I checked. Information flow is normal all the way through to Jackson's Whole."
"They did file a flight plan to Jackson's Whole, they did actually jump through that exit-point-"
Four bleeding days ago, now. He considered his mental picture of the wormhole nexus. No mapped jumps leading off this standard shortest route from Escobar to Jackson's Whole had ever been discovered to go anywhere of interest. He could not imagine Bel choosing this moment to play Betan Astronomical Survey and go exploring. There was the very rare ship that jumped through some perfectly standard route but never materialized on the other side . . . converted to an unrecoverable smear of quarks in the fabric of space-time by some subtle malfunction in the ship's Necklin rods or the pilot's neurological control system. The jump couriers kept track of traffic on such a heavily commercialized route as this, though, and would have reported such a disappearance promptly.
He came-was driven-to decision, and that alone heated his temper a few more degrees. He had grown unaccustomed of late to being chivvied into any action by events not under his own control. This was not in my plans for the day, blast it. "All right, Sandy. Call me a staff meeting. Captain Quinn, Captain Bothari-Jesek, Commodore Jesek, in the Triumph's briefing room, as soon as they can assemble."
Hereld raised her brows at the list of names even as her hands moved over the comconsole interface to comply. Inner Circle all. "Serious shit, sir?"
He managed an edged smile, and tried to lighten his voice. "Seriously annoying only, Lieutenant."
Not quite. What had his idiot baby brother Mark in mind to do with that commando squad he'd requisitioned? A dozen fully-equipped Dendarii troopers were not trivial firepower. Yet, compared to the military resources of, say, House Bharaputra . . . enough force to get into a hell of a lot of trouble, but not enough force to shoot their way back out. The thought of his people-Taura, God!-blindly following the ignorant Mark into some tactical insanity, trustingly thinking it was him, drove him wild inside. Klaxons howled and red lights flashed in his head. Bel, why aren't you answering?
* * *
Miles found himself pacing in the Triumph's main briefing room, too, around and around the big main tac display table, until Quinn raised her chin from her hands to growl, "Will you please sit down?" Quinn was not as anxious as he; she was not biting her fingernails yet. The ends remained neat, uneclipsed half-moons. He found that faintly reassuring. He swung into a station chair. One of his booted feet began tapping on the friction matting. Quinn eyed it, frowned, opened her mouth, closed it, and shook her head. He stilled the foot and bared his teeth at her in a quick false grin. Happily, before his nervous energy could materialize into some even more irritating compulsive twitch, Baz Jesek arrived.
"Elena is podding over from the Peregrine right now," Baz reported, seating himself in his usual station chair, and by habit calling up the fleet engineering ops interface from the comconsole. "She should be along in just a few minutes."
"Good, thanks," Miles nodded.
The engineer had been a tall, thin, dark-haired, tensely unhappy man in his late twenties when Miles had first met him, almost a decade ago, at the birth of the Dendarii Mercenaries. The outfit had then consisted only of Miles, his Barrayaran bodyguard, his bodyguard's daughter, one obsolete freighter slated for scrap and its suicidally depressed jump pilot, and an ill-conceived get-rich-quick arms-smuggling scheme. Miles had sworn Baz in as a liege-man to Lord Vorkosigan before Admiral Naismith had even been invented. Now in his late thirties, Baz remained just as thin, with slightly less dark hair, and just as quiet, but possessed of a serene self-confidence. He reminded Miles of a heron, stalking in some reedy lake-margin, all long stillnesses and economical motions.
As promised, Elena Bothari-Jesek entered the chamber shortly thereafter, and seated herself beside her engineer-husband. Both being on duty, they limited the demonstration of their reunion to the exchange of a smile and a quick hand-touch under the table. She spared a smile for Miles, too. Secondly.
Of all the Dendarii Inner Circle who knew him as Lieutenant Lord Vorkosigan, Elena was surely the deepest inside. Her father, the late Sergeant Bothari, had been Miles's liege-sworn armsman and personal protector from the day Miles had been born. Age mates, Miles and Elena had been practically raised together, since Countess Vorkosigan had taken a maternal interest in the motherless girl. Elena knew Admiral Naismith, Lord Vorkosigan, and just-plain-Miles as thoroughly-perhaps more thoroughly-as anyone in the universe.
And had chosen to marry Baz Jesek instead . . . Miles found it comforting and useful to think of Elena as his sister. Foster-sister she nearly was in truth. She was as tall as her tall husband, with cropped ebony hair and pale ivory skin. He could still see the echo of borzoi-faced Sergeant Bothari in the aquiline bones of her features, Bothari's leaden ugliness transmuted to her golden beauty by some genetic alchemy. Elena, I still love you, dammit... he clipped off the thought. He had Quinn now. Or anyway, the Admiral Naismith half of him did.
As a Dendarii officer, Elena was his finest creation. He'd watched her grow from a shy, angry, off-balance girl, barred from military service on Barrayar by her gender, to squad leader to covert operative to staff officer to ship-master. The retired Commodore Tung had once named her his second-best military apprentice ever. Miles sometimes wondered how much of his on-going maintenance of the Dendarii Mercenaries was really service to Imperial Security, how much was the wild self-indulgence of a very questionable aspect of his own faceted-or fractured-personality, and how much was a secret gift to Elena Bothari. Bothari-Jesek. The true springs of history could be murky indeed.
"There's still no word from the Ariel," Miles began without preamble; no formalities required with this group. Deep insiders all, he could dare to think out loud in front of them. He could feel his mind relax, re-blending Admiral Naismith and Lord Vorkosigan. He could even let his accent waver from Naismith's strict Betan drawl, and allow a few Barrayaran gutterals to slip in with the swear words. There were going to be swear words, this staff meeting, he was fairly sure. "I want to go after them."
Quinn drummed her nails on the table, once. "I expected you would. Therefore, could little Mark be expecting it too? He's studied you. He's got your number. Could this be a trap? Remember how he diddled you the last time."
Miles winced. "I remember. The possibility that this is some kind of set-up has crossed my mind. That's one reason I didn't take off after them twenty hours ago." Right after the embarrassing, hastily-dismissed full staff meeting. He'd been in the mood for fratricide on the spot. "Assuming, as seems reasonable, that Bel was fooled at first-and I don't see why not, everybody else was-the time-lag might have given Mark a chance to slip up, and Bel to see the light. But in that case the recall order should have brought the Ariel back."
"Mark does do an awfully good you," Quinn observed, from personal experience. "Or at least he did two years ago. If you're not expecting the possibility of a double, he seems just like you on one of your off days. His exterior appearance was perfect."
"But Bel does know of the possibility," Elena put in.
"Yes," said Miles. "So maybe Bel hasn't been fooled. Maybe Bel's been spaced."
"Mark would need the crew, or a crew, to run the ship," said Baz. "Though he might have had a new crew waiting, farside."
"If he'd been planning such outright piracy and murder, he'd hardly have taken a Dendarii commando squad along to resist it." Reason could be very reassuring, sometimes. Sometimes. Miles took a breath. "Or maybe Bel has been suborned."
Baz raised his brows; Quinn unconsciously closed her teeth upon, but did not bite through, the little fingernail of her right hand.
"Suborned how?" said Elena. "Not by money." Her smile twisted up. "D'you figure Bel's finally given up trying to seduce you, and is looking for the next best thing?"
"That's not funny," Miles snapped. Baz converted a suspicious snort into a careful cough, and met his glare blandly, but then lost it and sniggered.
"At any rate, it's an old joke," Miles conceded wearily. "But it depends upon what Mark is up to, on Jackson's Whole. The kind of . . . hell, outright slavery, practiced by the various Jacksonian body-sculptors, is a deep offense to Bel's progressive Betan soul. If Mark is thinking of taking some kind of bite out of his old home planet, he just might talk Bel into going along with it."
"At Fleet expense?" Baz inquired.
"That does . . . verge on mutiny," Miles agreed reluctantly. "I'm not accusing, I'm just speculating. Trying to see all the possibilities."
"In that case, is it possible Mark's destination isn't Jackson's Whole at all?" said Baz. "There are four other jumps out of Jacksonian local space. Maybe the Ariel is just passing through."
"Physically possible, yes," said Miles. "Psychologically . . . I've studied Mark, too. And while I can't say that I have his number, I know Jackson's Whole looms large in his life. It's only a gut-feeling, but it's a strong gut-feeling." Like a bad case of indigestion.
"How did we get blindsided by Mark this time?" Elena asked. "I thought ImpSec was supposed to be keeping track of him for us."
"They are. I get regular reports from Illyan's office," Miles said. "The last report, which I read at ImpSec headquarters not three weeks ago, put Mark still on Earth. But it's the damn time-lag. If he left Earth, say, four or five weeks ago, that report is still in transit from Earth to Illyan on Barrayar and back to me. I'll bet you Betan dollars to anything you please that we get a coded message from HQ in the next few days earnestly warning us that Mark has dropped out of sight. Again."
"Again?" said Elena. "Has he dropped out of sight before?"
"A couple of times. Three, actually." Miles hesitated. "You see, every once in a while-three times in the last two years-I've tried to contact him myself. Invited him to come in, come to Barrayar, or at least to meet with me. Every time, he's panicked, gone underground and changed his identity-he's rather good at it, from all the time he spent as a prisoner of the Komarran terrorists-and it takes Illyan's people weeks or months to locate him again. Illyan's asked me not to try to contact Mark any more without his authorization." He brooded. "Mother wants him to come in so much, but she won't have Illyan order him kidnapped. At first I agreed with her, but now I wonder."
"As your clone, he-" began Baz.
"Brother," Miles corrected, instantly. "Brother. I reject the term 'clone' for Mark. I forbid it. 'Clone' implies something interchangeable. A brother is someone unique. And I assure you, Mark is unique."
"In guessing . . . Mark's next moves," Baz began again, more carefully, "can we even use reason? Is he sane?"
"If he is, it's not the Komarrans' fault." Miles rose and began pacing again around the table, despite Quinn's exasperated look. He avoided her eyes and watched his boots, grey on grey against the friction matting, instead. "After we finally discovered his existence, Illyan had his agents do every kind of background check on him they could. Partly to make up for the acute embarrassment of ImpSec's having missed him, all these years, I think. I've seen all the reports. Trying and trying to get inside Mark's mind." Around the corner, down the other side, and back.
"His life in Bharaputra's clone-creche didn't seem too bad-they coddle those bodies-but after the Komarran insurgents picked him up, I gather it got pretty nightmarish. They kept training him to be me, but every time they thought they'd got it, I'd do something unexpected and they had to start over. They kept changing and elaborating their plans. The plot dragged on for years after the time they'd first hoped to bring it off. They were a small group, operating on a shoestring anyway. Their leader, Ser Galen, was half-mad himself, I think." Around and around.
"Part of the time Galen would treat Mark like the great hope for a Komarran uprising, or pet him and set him up with the idea that they were going to make him Emperor of Barrayar in a coup. But part of the time Galen would slip a cog, and see Mark as the personal genetic representative of our father, and make him whipping-boy for all his hatred of the Vorkosigans and Barrayar. Disguising the most ferocious punishments, tortures really-from himself, and maybe even from Mark-as 'training discipline.' Illyan's agent had some of this from a rather illegal fast-penta interrogation of an ex-subordinate of Galen's, so it's flat truth." Around and around.
"For example, apparently Mark's and my metabolisms are not the same. So whenever Mark's weight exceeded my parameters, instead of doing the intelligent thing and having Mark's appetite medically adjusted, Galen would first withhold food for days, then let him gorge, and then force him at shock-stick point to exercise till he vomited. Weird stuff like that, really disturbing. Galen apparently had a hair-trigger temper, at least where Mark was concerned. Or maybe he was deliberately trying to make Mark crazy. Create a Mad Emperor Miles, to replay Mad Emperor Yuri's reign and destroy the Barrayaran government from the top down. Once-this fellow reported-Mark tried to get a night out, just a night out, and actually got away for a while, till Galen's goons brought him back. Galen went nuts, accused him of trying to escape, took his shock-stick and-" his eye caught Elena's paling face, and he hastily edited his nervous outburst, "and did some ugly things." Which couldn't have helped Mark's sexual adjustment any. It had been so bad that Galen's own goons had begged him to stop, according to the informant.
"No wonder he hated Galen," said Quinn softly.
Elena's glance was rather sharper. "There's nothing you could have done. You didn't even know Mark existed, back then."
"We should have known."
"Right. So to what extent is this retroactive guilt distorting your thinking right now, Admiral?"
"Some, I suspect," he admitted. "That's why I called you all here. I feel the need of a cross-check, on this." He paused, and forced himself to sit again. "That's not the only reason, however. Before this mess with the Ariel leaped out of the wormhole, I had started out to give you a real, bona fide mission assignment."
"Ah, ha," said Baz with satisfaction. "At last."
"The new contract." Despite his distractions, he smiled. "Before Mark showed up, I had it figured for a mission where nothing could possibly go wrong. An all-expenses-paid vacation."
"What, a no-combat-special?" quipped Elena. "I thought you always looked down on old Admiral Oser for those."
"I've changed." He felt, as ever, a brief flash of regret for the late Admiral Oser. "His command philosophy looks better all the time. I'm growing old, I guess."
"Or up," suggested Elena. They exchanged a dry look.
"In any case," Miles continued, "Barrayaran high command wishes to supply a certain independent deep-space transfer station with a better grade of weaponry than they presently own. Vega Station is, not coincidentally, just off one of the Cetagandan Empire's back doors. However, said vacuum-republic is in an awkward junction in the wormhole nexus. Quinn, the map, please."
Quinn keyed up a three-dimensional holovid schematic of Vega Station and its neighbors. The jump routes were represented by sparkling jagged lines between hazy spheres of local space systems.
"Of the three jump points Vega Station commands, one leads into the Cetagandan sphere of influence via its satrapy Ola Three, one is blocked by a sometimes-Cetagandan-ally, sometimes-enemy Toranira, and the other is held by Zoave Twilight, politically neutral with respect to Cetaganda, but wary of its big neighbor." As he spoke of it, Quinn highlighted each system. "Vega Station is outright blockaded through Ola Three and Toranira against the import of any kind of major space-based offensive or defensive weapons systems. Zoave Twilight, under pressure from Cetaganda, is reluctantly cooperating with the arms embargo."
"So where do we come in?" asked Baz.
"Literally, through Toranira. We're smuggling pack-horses."
"What?" said Baz, though Elena caught the reference and suddenly smirked.
"You've never heard that story? From Barrayaran history? It goes, Count Selig Vorkosigan was at war with Lord Vorwyn of Hazelbright, during the First Bloody Century. The town of Vorkosigan Vashnoi was besieged. Twice a week Lord Vorwyn's patrols would stop this crazy, motley fellow with a train of pack horses and search his packs for contraband, food or supplies. But his packs were always filled with rubbish. They poked and prodded and emptied them-he'd always gather it carefully back up-shook him down and searched him, and finally had to let him go. After the war, one of Vorwyn's border guards met Count Selig's leigeman, no longer motley, by chance in a tavern. 'What were you smuggling?' he asked in frustration. 'We know you were smuggling something, what was it?'
"And Count Selig's leigeman replied, 'Horses.'
"We're smuggling spaceships. To wit, the Triumph, the D-16, and the Ariel, all fleet-owned. We enter Vega Station local space through Toranira, on a through-flight plan, bound for Illyrica. Which we really will be. We exit through Zoave, still with every trooper, but minus three aging ships. We then continue on to Illyrica, and pick up our three brand-new warships, which are being completed even as we speak in the Illyrican orbital shipyards. Our happy Winterfair gift from Emperor Gregor."
Baz blinked. "Will this work?"
"No reason it shouldn't. The spadework-permits, visas, bribes and so on-is all being completed by ImpSec agents on-site. All we have to do is waft through without alarming anybody. There's no war on, not a shot should be fired. The only problem is that one-third of my trade-inventory just left for Jackson's Whole," Miles concluded with a descending snort.
"How much time do we have to recover it?" asked Elena.
"Not as much as we need. The time-window ImpSec has set up for this smuggling scenario is flexible in terms of a few days, but not weeks. The fleet must leave Escobar before the end of this week. I'd originally scheduled it for tomorrow."
"So do we go without Ariel?" asked Baz.
"We're going to have to. But not empty-handed. I have an idea for a substitution. Quinn, shunt those Illyrican specs to Baz."
Quinn bent her head to the secured data cube in her comconsole interface, and released a burst of code to Baz's station. The engineer began keying through advertising displays, descriptions, specifications, and plans from the Illyrican shipbuilders. His thin face lit in a rare smile. "Father Frost is generous this Winterfair," he murmured. His lips parted with delight as the ships' power-plant specs came up, and his eyes moved avidly.
Miles let him wallow for a few minutes more. "Now," he said, when Baz self-consciously came up for air. "The next-up ship in the fleet from the Ariel in terms of function and firepower is Truzillo's Jay-hawk." Unfortunately, Truzillo was a captain-owner under independent contract to the Fleet corporation, not a Fleet employee. "Do you think he could be persuaded to trade? His replacement ship would be newer and faster, but while it's definitely a step up in firepower from the Ariel, it's a slight step down from the Jayhawk. I'd meant us all to trade up, not even, when we first cooked up this deal."
Elena raised her eyebrows and grinned. "This is one of your scenarios, isn't it?"
He shrugged. "Illyan asked me to solve the arms embargo problem, yes. He accepted my solution."
"Oh," Baz purred, still awash in data, "wait'll Truzillo sees this . . . and this . . . and . . ."
"So do you think you can persuade him?" asked Miles.
"Yes," said Baz, with certainty. He glanced up. "So could you."
"Except I'll be headed the other way. Though if things go well, it's not impossible that I might catch up with you later. I'm putting you in charge of this mission, Baz. Quinn will give you the complete orders, all the codes and contact-people-everything Illyan gave me."
Baz nodded. "Very good, sir."
"I'm taking the Peregrine to go after the Ariel," Miles added.
Baz and Elena exchanged only one quick, sideways glance. "Very good, sir," echoed Elena, with scarcely a pause. "I shifted the Peregrine from twenty-four-hour to one-hour alert status yesterday. When shall I schedule our departure with Escobaran flight control?"
"In one hour." And, though no one had asked for explanations, he added, "The Peregrine is the next-fastest thing we have that packs significant firepower, besides the Jayhawk and the Ariel itself. I think that speed is going to be of the essence. If we can overtake the Ariel-well, it's a lot easier to prevent a mess than to try to clean up after one. I'm sorry now I didn't leave yesterday, but I had to give it a chance to be simple. I'm assigning Quinn to myself as floating staff because she's had valuable previous experience with intelligence-gathering on Jackson's Whole."
Quinn rubbed her arm. "House Bharaputra is damn dangerous, if that's where Mark's headed. They have heavy money, heavy shit, and a sharp memory for revenge."
"Why d'you think I avoid the place? That's another danger, that certain Jacksonians will mistake Mark for Admiral Naismith. Baron Ryoval, for example."
Baron Ryoval was a persistent danger. The Dendarii had disposed of the latest bounty-hunter Ryoval had sent seeking Admiral Naismith's scalp only three months ago; he had been the fourth to appear so far. It was shaping up to an annual event. Maybe Ryoval dispatched an agent on each anniversary of their first encounter, as a memorial tribute. Ryoval did not command great powers, nor possess a long reach, but he had undergone life-extension treatments; he was patient, and could keep this up for a long, long time.
"Have you considered another possible solution to the problem?" said Quinn slowly. "Send ahead to Jackson's Whole and warn them. Have, say, House Fell arrest Mark and impound the Ariel till you arrive to retrieve them. Fell hates Ryoval enough to protect Mark from him for the annoyance-factor alone."
Miles sighed. "I have considered it." He traced a formless pattern on the polished tabletop with his fingertip.
"You asked for a cross-check, Miles," Elena pointed out. "What's wrong with that idea?"
"It might work. But if Mark has really convinced Bel he's me, they might resist arrest. Maybe fatally. Mark is paranoid about Jackson's Whole. Mark is paranoid, period. I don't know what he'd do in a panic."
"You are awfully tender of Mark's sensibilities," said Elena.
"I'm trying to get him to trust me. I can hardly start the process by betraying him."
"Have you considered how much this little side-jaunt is going to cost, once the bill for it arrives on Simon Illyan's desk?" Quinn asked.
"ImpSec will pay. Without question."
Quinn said, "You sure? What's Mark to ImpSec anyway, now that he's only a left-over from the exploded plot? There is no danger any more to Barrayar of him being secretly substituted for you. I thought they only watched him for us as a courtesy. A rather expensive courtesy."
Miles replied carefully, "It is ImpSec's explicit task to guard the Barrayaran Imperium. That includes not only protecting Gregor's person, and running a certain amount of galactic espionage-" a wave of his hand included the Dendarii fleet, and Illyan's far-flung, if thinly stretched, network of agents, military attaches, and informants, "but also keeping watch over Gregor's immediate heirs. Keeping watch not only to protect them, but to protect the Imperium from any little plot got up by them, or by others seeking to use them. I am acutely conscious that the question of just who is Gregor's heir is rather tangled at present. I wish to hell he'd marry and get us all off the hook soon." Miles hesitated for a long moment. "By one interpretation, Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan has a place as heir-claimant to the Barrayaran Imperium second only to my own. That makes him not only ImpSec's business, it makes him our primary business. My personal pursuit of the Ariel is fully justified."
"Justifiable," Quinn corrected dryly.
"If Barrayar-as you have often claimed-would not accept you as Emperor because of suspicion of mutation, I should think it'd go into spasms at the thought of your clone installed in the Imperial Residence," said Baz. "Twin brother," he amended hastily as Miles opened his mouth.
"It doesn't require the probability of success at gaining the Imperium to make the possibility of an attempt to do so into an ImpSec problem." Miles snorted. "It's funny. All the time the Komarrans thought of their faux-Miles as an imposter-claimant. I don't think either they or Mark realized they'd made a real claimant. Well, I'd have to be dead first anyway, so from my point of view the question is moot." He rapped the table and rose. "Let's get moving, people."
On the way out the door, Elena lowered her voice to ask him, "Miles-did your mother see those horrific investigation-reports of Illyan's about Mark, too?"
He smiled bleakly. "Who d'you think ordered them done?"
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