Ivan had discovered in himself a talent for his second career. Of course, his family connections no doubt helped but he rather thought at least some of his rapid rise within diplomatic circles was down to his own abilities, not just his mother. He had never aspired to the kind of meteoric sprint to the heady heights of power that Miles had sought; but nonetheless he had felt some satisfaction with each promotion, and his steady progression from junior attaché to junior consul – from backwater assignment to a posting on a more important planet. There was something to be said for obscure mid-level service; a peaceful life was a good life. But then there was also something said for more interesting assignments. Like Earth. It might be a political and economic backwater now, but its history and culture made his position as Senior Aide to the Ambassador a plum job. If he made good here, his next assignment should see him Consul, at the very least, on some medium-important planet—fingers crossed, one close enough to Barrayar to see old friends a little more often.
Not to mention family. His mother (and Simon, inevitably) foremost among them, though they were the ones who had so providentially decided to visit Earth. Ivan promptly seized the opportunity to leave the children in their capable hands and whisk his wife away for a second honeymoon.
Upon hearing these plans, his mother had made a dry sarcastic comment which he took pains not to hear. (She was their grandmother, after all. She was supposed to want to spend time with her grandchildren.) Ironically, it was Simon who had leapt at the chance; he loved nothing better than spending the afternoon playing space invaders games with the younger generation. Yet, for all Ivan had called him ‘Uncle Simon’ when he was young, he didn’t remember Illyan doting on children back then. Not that he had exactly hated them – more just seemed distant and reserved. Except with Miles, of course. No one had ever had the chance to be distant around Miles, when he’d been a precocious child, demanding he be the centre of everything. As an adult too, come to think of it. Ivan felt a sense of self-satisfied superiority: he settled for being the centre of just his family’s attention, and when it really came down to it, Tej’s attention.
And so, childminders booked, and sworn to secrecy, Ivan had set about organising a surprise holiday to Alpha Colony to give his wife for their wedding anniversary. Closer to Earth (and its first attempt at galactic expansion, as its name implied), Alpha Colony had long-since been bypassed by the hubbub of interstellar travel. It was an altogether sleepier world than its more famous cousin Beta Colony, and therefore there was, from Ivan’s perspective, no more idyllic place for a quiet, relaxing break from day-to-day cares. It was only one day’s travel from Earth in normal space which meant there was no need for Tej to suffer the misery of any transitions. One wormhole led to Rho Ceta, another to Jackson’s Whole, so if Tej really wanted, they could take a side trip to see her Dada and the Baronne. (On balance, Ivan hoped she would not.)
Ivan had told his children the day before embarkation, not trusting them to keep their excitement to themselves for too long before he sprang the celebratory trip on his wife. It was Ivan’s habit to take his son and daughter to the children’s play park in Kensington Gardens every Sunday. Named after some obscure royal, who had died long before humans achieved economically viable spaceflight, its centrepiece was a mock pre-industrial pirate ship. Young Padma Shiv, armed with a toy cutlass, made a beeline for the tallest mast, while Ivan sat with his daughter making castles in the sand and decorating them with shells. He wondered what Lady ghem Estif would have made of his children if she still lived. Would she have thought he and Tej made the right choice when they refused her offer of gengineering? As they grew tall and slender and supernaturally good looking – as little Udine Alys’ hair grew – Ivan could not help but wonder. Had Tej’s haughty grandmama accepted their decision? Tej had reassured him that Lady ghem Estif would never tinker with anything without permission. And recessives did throw up the unlikeliest attributes. At least Padma had inherited the familiar Vorpatril nose.
Ivan’s doubt about the wisdom of utilising the services of Tej’s grandmother when they started their family acted like gentle background music which never really disappeared; but it had been superseded by the overwhelming rush of love he had felt the first moment each baby had been placed in his arms. Unexpected love. Oh, Ivan had been prepared to feel some affection for his children; after all they were his and, more importantly, they were what Tej wanted. What he had not expected was this upwelling of devotion. Was this what his mother had been feeling for him all these years? Marriage had certainly begun Ivan’s transformation from devil-may-care, suave man-about-town; but the birth of baby Padma Shiv seven years ago had completed the change in the space of two seconds. Little Udine Alys three years later had simply consolidated her father’s protective instincts.
The children’s picnic lunch was topped off by 99s bought from a vendor, over which Ivan explained that he and their Mama were going away for a bit, just the two of them, while they were staying behind with Grandmere and Grandpere, who had all sorts of special plans for their entertainment while their parents were away. Two happy, excited children were taken home, brimming with the importance of their secret to share with their Mama over dinner that evening. The next day saw a flurry of packing, last minute instructions; and Padma and Udine had last been seen waving their parents goodbye at the shuttleport.
Simon and his mother were to bring them to Alpha Colony in a little over a week’s time so the whole family could enjoy a few days at the Pamukkale Water Park. Although the colours of Alpha showed predominantly the verdant green and gold of agriculture and brilliant green-blue of clean clear seas, its main continent possessed an inner plain where a series of small geysers and thermal vents had led to the formation of travertines containing natural thermal baths. They had been discovered by a delighted Karim Kemal in the first geo-mapping exercise of the colony; he immediately named it after similar (but perhaps not quite so large) springs in his Turkish homeland on Earth. As Alpha’s economy gradually matured from one in which primary industry dominated in the early years of settlement, to, as the centuries progressed, one increasingly based on tourism, these natural warm pools had been supplemented with water shutes and slides for children plus an artificial wave pool cunningly designed to look just like one of the travertines. Ivan had booked ten days in a luxury three bedroom chalet for Tej and him together; the rest of the Vorpatril family was expected to join them for the last three days. Meanwhile, Tej kept in touch through daily tightbeam.
Ivan, too, kept in touch with the office. He had long since realised that there was only one real problem with success: with each promotion it became more difficult to keep to office hours. Increasingly the buck stopped with him. True, he was paid reasonably well, but not well enough to want his job to take over. Interesting work just didn’t cut the mustard in comparison with Tej (or, since their birth - one’s own offspring). So, he trained up juniors rigorously, enabling him to delegate as much as possible. He had learned to spot the up-and-coming who could use their brains, rather than simply respond by rote. Even so, no matter how he tried to weed out the by-the-book company man who followed the rules meticulously but had no head for decision-making, he had found that seemingly inevitably, there was one in every embassy. Also inevitably, that person always seemed to be assigned to him. (Ivan suspected purposely, given his reputation for…hmm…personnel selection had been established under Admiral Desplains and commented on in almost every annual performance review since.) He normally managed to move the person on within a relatively short time; but sadly this Earth version of VorBuggins had proven more difficult to shift into a position where he could do no harm. Until now. The young and wet-behind-the ears but nonetheless extremely bright junior attaché assigned to assist Ivan’s chief assistant had (fortunately) used his initiative to go over his dull-witted supervisor’s head and had sent an urgent message this morning, begging Ivan’s support in untangling the mess his time-serving manager had managed to make. It had stolen the better part of one day’s holiday for Ivan to resolve the matter, simultaneously finessing the lateral transfer of the blundering mid-level supervisor to the legal section, while strongly recommending a brevet promotion to the ensign (now lieutenant). Ivan trusted he would not be troubled again for the rest of his holiday.
On his way back to the resort, Ivan stopped at a local shop to pick up a bottle of bubbly to celebrate, along with some nice-looking vat steaks. This would be one of their last nights alone together before the rest of the family arrived and Ivan planned to make the most of it. He arrived to find empty accommodation. Tej must still be soaking in the hot springs. No matter. Ivan took a quick shower and changed into more comfortable clothes before laying the table and organising the makings of the meal on the kitchen counter, ready to cook when Tej arrived back. Soft music completed the romantic scene.
He woke, hours later, neck stiff from sleeping in an awkward position on the sofa, with a nasty, tinny taste in his mouth and a splitting headache. The dining table was overturned; an armchair was shoved out of position; a police dog was making short work of the steaks; and a doctor was checking his pulse.
“Right. I’ve administered the antidote,” the doctor said. “He’s able to answer your questions.” Then he added, closing his bag with a snap, “He’ll have one hell of a headache, though.”
Tell me about it, thought Ivan, as he moved his head to the left to straighten out the kink and deeply regretted it. He leaned over and retched.
“And movement is likely to bring on nausea.”
Now he warns me, Ivan thought.
A middle-aged policeman with sympathetic eyes helped him to sit upright at the other end of the sofa. One corner of Ivan’s brain admired how neatly he avoided the smelly mess Ivan had just made. But the rest of him …
“Tej–” Ivan croaked.
“It appears she’s been kidnapped, Mr Vorpatril.”