The trek from the main entrance of the Residence to the Emperor's personal study was exactly a hundred and six of his paces. He knew this with perfect clarity, the chip capturing with merciless, exact precision - not only the number of paces, but also the number of times he'd taken the route. (Two thousand, five hundred and nine. Two thousand, five hundred and ten, after this.)
What the chip could not capture was the leaded sensation of every step, the way his feet felt like they were encased in lead, the way the climb up the stairs felt like he was shoving a boulder before him - reference Sisyphus, old Earth Greek Mythology, the chip supplied unhelpfully.
He paused before the first security station at the door, allowing the ImpSec officer on duty to run his ID through the scanner, moved to the next station for the obligatory retina and DNA scan, then to the third to surrender his stunner and his nerve disruptor, before walking through the weapons scanner, which pronounced him clear. A little excessive, perhaps, but he'd ordered the checks himself. And would have ordered more, besides, if he thought they would keep Gregor any safer.
Without being asked, the chip re-created the scene that had triggered the massive increase in institutional paranoia, calling to mind the exact timbre of the quaking ImpSec agent's voice as he reported that Lord Vorpatril had been seized and held following his attempt to murder the Emperor. It hadn't been Ivan, of course; it had been a Cetagandan construct, something not quite a clone and not quite … alive, but close enough in appearance. Close enough that only a lifetime of training and quick reflexes had saved Gregor, when the assassin had - without raising the slightest hint of suspicion - managed to penetrate Gregor's security simply by dint of pretending to be a childhood friend.
It had also been the opening shot of the war which now burned across the stars, spreading like wildfire and showing no signs of slowing. The chip told him that it had been two years; it felt more like ten.
Gregor's office was drenched in shadow when Simon entered, the only source of illumination the murky grey of failing winter light that slanted through the window. Gregor himself stood by the force-shielded panes, a tall and motionless silhouette, and the failing light turned his eyes into endless pools of darkness.
"Sire," Simon said.
His chip registered four minutes thirty seven seconds before Gregor spoke. "We lost Sergyar."
This, he knew. The same report had been delivered to their offices. He assumed that it was the reason for Gregor's summons. Still, there were things that needed to be said, and not for the sake of the listener. "Yes," he said, simply. There was little point in embellishing the answer, or trying to evade the truth. Sergyar was down; Komarr was next, and then Barrayar herself, or failing that, the wormhole. "The home fleet is on its way back," he offered.
"Temporarily," Gregor said, not quite a sigh, "I've ordered them to move on to Komarr after they've resupplied."
A response didn't seem to be required for that. Simon kept his peace, waiting patiently. Gregor had summoned him, which meant there had to be a reason - Gregor was only twenty two, far too young for the burden thrust upon him, but he had never been capricious. Aral and Cordelia had trained him well, Simon thought, and felt a pang of longing for their steady presence. But Aral was out amongst the stars, fighting for them yet again, and Cordelia was holding the capital together, rallying the home front and preventing it from falling into despair and chaos.
"Simon," Gregor said quietly - he was always quiet - "Speak to me of hope."
It's not my job, sire, Simon thought, then bit his tongue. He considered his responses more carefully. "What is it that troubles you?"
Gregor laughed, sounding far older than he was. "Always the interrogator. What doesn't trouble me, these days?" He turned from the window, and now his face was cloaked in shadow.
He thought for a moment. "One of my first assignments, upon becoming Chief, was to tear apart ImpSec, pull out all the elements that had given their loyalty to Vordarian, and put it back together again as a cohesive unit fit to protect the Emperor."
Gregor quirked an eyebrow at him, silently inviting him to continue.
"Negri ran the place like a secret society," Simon said, leaning against the wall and folding his arms. "Units were divided into cells, and those cells never spoke to each other. Everyone reported directly to him, and so very much institutional knowledge was lost when he died. I barely even had a functional roster - and even then it was far from complete. The entire task seemed insurmountable, especially given that my blue tabs were so new that they were still shiny.
"The thing about an insurmountable problem, I discovered, is that not all parts of it are equally insurmountable. Much of methodology that I deployed in dealing with it was to break down the problem into smaller chunks, dealing with the ones that could be solved, ring-fencing the ones that couldn't and whittling away at them. Whittle enough, and the problem - even if it cannot be solved, can be managed."
"Interesting," Gregor said. "And?"
"Applied to the present situation," Simon said, "The insurmountable problem at hand is a Cetagandan Empire that has more people, more resources, more technology and more firepower than we can ever hope to achieve. An Empire that is, apparently, only interested in our surrender. Lay aside the macro view for a moment. Sergyar is lost, but not without cost to the Cetas - Aral's systematic retreat cost them that much, and will buy us time while they regroup. Which returns us to the issues. One - people."
"Allies," Gregor murmured. "If we can win back the Hub…"
"The silver lining in this mess, if you could call it that, is that Pol, Aslund and Vervain are all equally keen to see the Cetagandans gone from the Hegen Hub," Simon agreed. "My agents are seeing some level of success at obtaining more mercenary support, if only because a Cetagandan-controlled Hub is bad for mercenary business in the long run."
"Intrinsic in that analysis are the questions of resources and firepower," Gregor sighed. "Still, even with our allies and as many mercenaries as we can buy off, we would still be outnumbered."
"But not necessarily outgunned," Simon reminded him. "Aral is the better person to consult, but leverage, applied where necessary, will sometimes avail even where numbers will not. The advantage of the Hub is that it is, ultimately, a chokepoint. We don't need to destroy the Cetagandans, we simply need to stop them."
"You haven't, I noticed, talked about technology," Gregor pointed out.
"There isn't much to say," Simon said, a little reluctantly. "Even if Beta Colony breaks with its time honoured neutrality and joins the fray, Cetagandan R&D is still lightyears ahead. We have to hold them in space, where the gap is significant smaller. The moment they get within orbit…" he spread his hands. He would not massage the truth, even for Gregor.
Gregor pressed his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose in a gesture that was reminiscent of Aral. He seemed to fighting some kind of internal war. Simon watched him carefully.
Finally, Gregor sighed, then glanced back at the window briefly. "So there we have it, then. If that's the best you can give me…"
He bit his lip and tried not to feel like he'd just failed a mission.
"I called you today because I need your particular experience with a certain… dilemma," Gregor said, glancing back at him. "Sit, Simon. You don't have to stand on ceremony."
He waved his hand in a slight, negating gesture, and stayed where he was.
Gregor moved to his desk, brightening the lights in the room with a soft, murmured command. He picked up an unmarked folder, and handed it to Simon, but didn't let go of it immediately when Simon took it. "This contains profiles of types of candidates who would potentially be physically and mentally compatible with a new and top secret biocybernic technology."
Simon's eyes narrowed immediately.
Gregor held his gaze steadily. "It's a chip, Simon. The original design was based on yours, then modified to boost not only memory, but also cognitive and predictive ability. Specifically, this is designed to be the next generation of tactical computing. This could be our answer to the critical lack of strategists that we currently face. Technology, people, resources, and, if deployed properly - firepower, all in one."
Simon dropped the file and stepped back sharply. It took all his effort to keep his expression under control.
"Simon," Gregor said with emphasis.
"Sire," Simon replied stiffly.
"This is war," Gregor reminded him. "Where no expense can be spared. We need every weapon we can afford."
"Human beings are not weapons. Or tools," Simon ground out. He couldn't help the anger - it boiled up in him, an immediate, instinctive reaction. "Or did you learn nothing from Cordelia?"
"Cordelia has been known to be wrong," Gregor said sharply. "We are too far past the time for niceties."
"Is that what you call it?" Simon asked, the words coming out so low that they were almost a growl. "Shall we label all our principles and ethics as niceties, to be cast aside in the name of expediency? What would be left of us, even if we win?"
"You seek to turn this into a massive, insurmountable problem," Gregor's reply was quiet, this time. Steady. This was no spur of the moment decision, no project embarked on because of some flight of fancy. "I do not take this decision easily. The candidates," he tapped the folder that he was still holding, "Will be volunteers. As you were, once upon a time."
He flinched. "Why, Gregor?" he asked.
Gregor's control, already shaky in the face of his resistance, snapped abruptly. "Because Uncle Aral is out there," Gregor said, between gritted teeth, and Simon saw naked fear and desperation in his eyes. "Out there, fighting for our lives, and he's all alone. He needs every advantage that he can get." He took a ragged breath. "If this meant the difference between him coming home after the war is over, and not coming home at all, would that change your mind, Simon?"
He bit his lip so hard that he tasted blood in his mouth. "You misunderstand," he said, forcing his tone back to neutral. "Why are you asking me? My job is security. If you have your list of volunteers and require my assistance in security screening, then you need only issue the order. I am not even remotely qualified to advise you on the more … philosophical matters concerning this decision."
Gregor's shoulders slumped. He dropped the folder, and it thudded heavily onto the desk. "Because, despite the sickening similarities in this situation, I am not Ezar," he said, and dropped heavily into his chair. "Because I've seen the arguments, both ways, but they come from people who haven't lived it. And what all those - philosophical, ethical, theoretical arguments can't address is the question that I need answered. Was it worth it? To you?"
And the unspoken question: would it be worth it, to all those starry-eyed volunteers.
He thought of Aral, and Cordelia, and Miles - Miles, who, if the war continued, would likely be posted to the frontlines, along with Ivan and all those other young cadets. He thought of the grey walls of his tiny apartment, the mantlepiece bare of photographs, the rooms dusty and barely lived in.
He thought of chances lost, loves that passed him by, of a million incidences of the chip being useless, and a very small handful of times where it was invaluable.
"I can't judge that," he said. "I can't help you there."
Gregor looked like he'd both dreaded and expected that answer. "Do you regret it?"
As for this question, the answer came all too easily. "More than anything," Simon replied quietly.
"Then tell them," Gregor said urgently. "Let them know how it was, what it really means. Tell them the things that only a person who's lived through it would know, so that they can make a truly informed decision. You went in blind. They don't have to."
"So that if they still choose to volunteer, we are hereby absolved of all responsibility?" Simon asked drily.
If Gregor noted the 'we', he said nothing of it. "No. It doesn't work like that. But the only way to close a wormhole is to lose a pilot."
Simon exhaled heavily. "As you know, the success rate from the last time we did this was … in a word, dismal."
"The team assures me that with advances in jump pilot implants and neurological sciences - and, of course, the data collected from you - the success rate should be much higher. Most importantly, a great deal more care will be taken to ensure that they can remove the chip as soon as they start to see any signs of … trouble."
"Do they, now," Simon said, almost to himself. His mind was sliding back into the past, past the crystal bright memories of the chip, into a fuzzier, nearly forgotten world. It was coming back to him now, the sharp stink of disinfectant, the way his skin prickled with nervous tension, the assessing gleam in Negri's eye as he looked over his application.
You might die, Negri had said.
I might not, he'd replied, with all the nervous, misplaced confidence of a twenty seven year old. And the potential upside…
He'd wanted to help. Really, that was all there was to it. Things had been so simple, back then. Maybe they still were.
"Simon," Gregor said, tentatively. It was a query.
"Gregor, this is Simon, your new Chief of Imperial Security. His job is to keep you safe," Aral had said, a long time ago.
"I know Uncle Simon," Gregor had replied. "He used to work for Grandda. Keeping him safe."
He'd smiled. "That's my job, my liege."
Outside, the dismal grey had given way to a murky black. The city bore few lights tonight. He did not, he realised, wish to see the day it would bear even fewer. Slowly, his eyes slid back to meet Gregor's waiting gaze.
"I would not do this if the need were not so great," Gregor said quietly.
"I know," Simon replied, and he realised that he believed it. As Gregor himself had said, he was not Ezar. "You asked the wrong question."
Gregor gave him a puzzled frown.
"You asked me whether I regretted it. You should have asked me if I would do it again."
Gregor sucked in a tiny breath. "And would you?"
Simon closed his eyes for a single, brief second. Years of alternately hating the chip and relying on it yielded no simple answer to that question. It was what it was. A sharp line in his consciousness, dividing his life into before and after. For all that he was good at holding alternate apart realities in his head, he did not care to speculate on the one where he'd never volunteered for it. Maybe because there wasn't one. Maybe because, given the chance, perhaps even knowing what he did, he would always sacrifice whatever was necessary, take up whatever weapons he could, if it would help him to serve his Emperor better. "The only answer I can give you the same one I gave to Ezar, back then." He sighed, moving to take the folder. It felt so light in his hands. "We live to serve, sire."
Ezar had looked satisfied at that response. Gregor, sinking slowly deeper into his chair, looked like every one of those words was a knife through his heart. Perhaps that, more than anything, was what convinced him in the end. He wasn't Cordelia - her job was to remind Gregor of what it meant to be human, when they were pressed on all sides by ugly necessity, when the ends were so great that it seemed like any means to achieve them were justified. It was sufficient for him, he thought, that there was enough of that in Gregor that he would undertake this exercise with far more tact and sensitivity than Ezar ever had.
"Send me the list of volunteers," Simon said quietly. "I'll speak to them. But I'd advise you to speak to your other advisers on this first. They may offer a … different perspective."
"For what it's worth," Gregor said, "I apologise. For this. And for the chip and what it did to your life."
Simon's smile was edged with sadness. "There's no need for that, Gregor. After all, I volunteered."