It had been years since Gregor had last visited the ancient building that housed the archives of the Imperial Service Academy. The place was exactly as he remembered it, a vast labyrinth of ceiling-high shelves crammed with book-disks and flimsies. In Gregor’s memory, it was always crammed with nervous cadets, too. Today it was empty, by his command.
Major Cecil was waiting in the empty reading room. “Welcome, sire,” he said, standing at attention as Gregor walked through the door. Gregor nodded wordlessly, holding out a hand. Cecil reluctantly handed over the set of plastic code-cards that unlocked the sealed sections of the archives. “Sire," he offered, "You would find it easier if I helped you search for whatever you need…”
Gregor could practically see the man bubbling over with curiosity. He gave Cecil a long steady look in return. “Thank you, major,” he answered briskly. “You may leave Us now.”
Cecil left, glancing back over his shoulder. Gregor waited until he was out of hearing before he turned to his ImpSec guards. “You may all wait outside.” They looked uneasily at their commander. The Emperor was never unguarded.
“I want no surveillance of this room for the next two hours,” continued Gregor. “See to it.” The guard commander hesitated. The Emperor was never unwatched. “Sire…” Gregor waited, not lowering his eyes. At last, the commander gave him a crisp salute and marched out.
Six months ago, thought Gregor, they would have protested. They would have mentioned their orders from Illyan, and as a last resort, the Prime Minister, and Gregor would have relented before the prospect of yet another lecture. That had been before Vervain, before Gregor had discovered this strange new confidence that sometimes frightened even him.
As he surveyed the boxes of old files stacked neatly against the wall, he thought that he might well need all that confidence today. Slowly, he began pacing the length of the shelves, systematically scanning them for what he knew should be there. He did not have much hope that it would actually be there.
And he wasn’t sure he wanted it to be there.
It had begun years before, during Gregor’s Academy days. He'd had to write a paper on the Barrayaran strategy during the Escobaran campaign of fourteen years before, and of course he'd been confident of top marks - didn't he have an in-house expert?
To his surprise, the Lord Regent had looked at him through narrowed eyes and obstinately refused to discuss Escobar, remarking grimly that it had all been a mistake from the beginning, and Gregor had been too intimidated by his frigid expression to press the subject.
Gregor had written two pages on Prince Serg's glorious charge before realizing that his father was perhaps not the perfect hero he was made out to be. As always, his Regent had been right. Gregor was no strategist, all these years in the Great Admiral’s company had made that painfully clear, but even he could see that the invasion had been a stupid mistake.
But Prince Serg was still Gregor’s father, and even if he hadn't been a brilliant tactician, he had still died a hero's death. He was still the center of the imaginary universe that comforted Gregor in the middle of the night, where Gregor wasn’t the Emperor and he had a mother and siblings and a father instead of a forbidding Regent who could make him feel like an idiot simply by standing next to him.
In the retreat, of course, Gregor had found all the tactical genius the offense had lacked. Prince Serg had dropped a disaster in Admiral Vorkosigan’s hands, and the Great Admiral had responded to the plasma mirrors instantly and effectively. His retreat plan was almost precisely calculated to save the maximum possible number of lives in the face of an unbeatable enemy weapon.
That had not surprised Gregor at the time. It simply confirmed what he’d already known, that he would never be Aral Vorkosigan. He’d never match that brilliance. Men might serve him in name, but he’d never command the level of respect that his Regent did. Only years later, when he'd started actively searching for discrepancies, did Gregor realize that the retreat in question had been planned one month before the Barrayaran fleet left for Escobar.
Or perhaps it had truly begun that day on Komarr, when Gregor had demanded an apology from an Escobaran diplomat for insulting his father, and that lovingly constructed image had come crashing down in ruins all around him.
When Gregor had returned from the Hegen Hub, his first act had been to summon the Chief of ImpSec. Illyan had marched into his office incensed with rage, clearly armed with a long and brutal lecture. Gregor had looked him directly in the eye and demanded ImpSec’s complete file on his father’s life. Illyan had paled, stared at Gregor for a long and terrifying moment of comprehension, and then obeyed without a single word.
Gregor had shut himself in his private chambers for a day and forced himself to read the entire thing from beginning to end. He had stopped at least twenty times to gain control of his breathing, once to cry, twice to stagger to the bathroom and throw up the contents of his stomach, but he had read every word.
He hadn’t slept properly for a week afterwards. In the end he had spent his nights locked in the basement of ImpSec headquarters, reading, silently daring Illyan to say one word in protest. Gregor had had enough of being sheltered behind lies and deception. He was no longer a child, and there were things he needed to know. He needed to know exactly what sort of danger he was in. What sort of danger he was.
And the more he searched, the more he discovered gaps in what he found. Things were missing from ImpSec’s records of the war– small things, nothing major, a document here and there. There were a dozen possible explanations Illyan could give, of course. Things did get lost. So much had been damaged in the mess during Vordarian’s pretendership. But Gregor knew that it had been deliberate, and he wondered.
Thinking back, Gregor could remember any number of other things over the years, little hints that had slowly started coming together, coalescing into a nebulous mass of doubt and suspicion in his mind. And when, after fifteen minutes of patient searching in the archives, he opened the right file and found the small data disk resting in its correct place, he knew: it ends here.
The file, Gregor knew, contained the security recordings from the Barrayaran flagship at Escobar. The disk - he had no idea. What he did know was that every other copy of this record had disappeared or been destroyed or irretrievably damaged over the years. It had taken him months to remember an old tactical simulation at the Academy that had been set in the flagship at Escobar, and to wonder if perhaps something might have escaped the cover-up.
Tentatively, he removed it from the file and placed it in the secured comconsole. Nothing happened. Illyan did not emerge from the shadows wearing that terrible reproachful expression. Aral did not appear to rebuke him for his baseless suspicions. And yet Gregor couldn’t quite name the fear that took hold of him then, or the cold voice that whispered in his ear. Put it back. Destroy it. Let the dead stay buried.
He didn't know how long he just stood there, frozen, staring into the blank screen, unable to summon the courage to touch the comconsole again. Dammit, he was still sane, and if there were imaginary voices in his head he would fight them. And he had a right to know the truth. What had happened all those years ago that had needed to be buried? What are they hiding?
And then, angrily, I’ve had enough of them keeping secrets from me.
So Gregor ignored the voice and entered his Imperial access codes. Slowly the screen cleared before him, and he sat down before the comconsole.
Ten men were standing in the tactics room of the flagship, silent and frozen. Gregor followed their eyes to the screen before them, and understood. The little blips that represented Barrayaran ships were disappearing from the screen one by one, while all the men watched in disbelief, unable to comprehend the massacre unfolding before their eyes. Only the executive officer seemed capable of speech. "Sir,” he was saying to his comconsole, “I think you'd better come to the Tactics Room."
"I can't, Venne, without breaking arrest,” replied a voice, and Gregor's breath caught for a moment. He would know that voice anywhere. On the surface Aral sounded calm, but Gregor’s practiced ear could easily detect the tension beneath his words. “Where's Commodore Helski, or Commodore Couer?"
Venne’s face was pale, a mask of terror. "Helski went forward with the Prince and Admiral Vorhalas, sir. Commodore Couer is here now. You're the ranking flag officer aboard now." Gregor could see panic written clearly in his eyes, and those of all the men surrounding him. Yet he thought they still clung to a last shred of hope, as one by one their eyes turned to the comconsole.
"…the Prince is dead, sir," said Venne. “Is that confirmed?” Aral asked, sharply, urgently.
"It's- Admiral Vorhalas was with the Prince, sir. Their ship was hit." One of the officers cleared his throat, pointing with a trembling hand. Venne paused. "It's confirmed. The Prince's flagship has been obliterated. There's nothing left but debris. You're in command now, sir."
Aral’s voice seemed to change tone at once. It became suddenly decisive, certain, the voice Gregor knew so well. "Then transmit Contingency Blue orders at once. All ships cease firing immediately. Put all power into shields."
Venne protested, of course, what Barrayaran soldier wouldn’t have protested such an order? And then Aral cut him off sharply: "Commander Venne, the Escobarans have a new weapon system. It's called a plasma mirror field. It's a new Betan development. It turns the attacker's burst back on itself. Our ships are shooting themselves down with their own-"
Gregor abruptly slammed his hand down on the pause button, too shocked to think. He felt as though all the breath had been knocked out of him with one blow.
He knew, with sudden and sickening clarity, what had been kept hidden from him. He knew why, and most importantly, he knew who.
Aral had known about the plasma mirrors. He had known. It hadn’t been a brilliant deduction on the spot, as Gregor had always believed. He’d known what they were called. He’d even known where they came from. Prince Serg, Gregor was certain, had not known any such thing. Admiral Vorhalas had not known. The Emperor had not known. There was not a single word in the war plans, in all the discussions before and during the war, to indicate that anyone on the General Staff had known a thing about the Betans’ latest military research.
But Aral had. And Aral had told no one. Until he knew for certain that the Prince was dead. Gregor could feel the pieces of the puzzle fitting neatly into the empty spaces inside his head one by one.
The Escobaran bloodbath had saved Aral's career and set the stage for his Regency. Before it, Aral Vorkosigan had been a disgraced broken-back captain, all but exiled in punishment. After, he had been Barrayar’s greatest hero, the savior of the fleet, the only possible candidate to step into the place left vacant by the war. Gregor’s father’s place.
Gregor knew well that Aral had been entirely against the invasion of Escobar. He had opposed Prince Serg at every step, had refused to have anything to do with the war plan. But six months later, he had returned to Barrayar and accepted a place on the invasion fleet. What had happened in between to change his mind?
He had met a Betan. A Betan who knew about plasma mirrors?
The walls of the room seemed to close around Gregor, close and cold and suffocating, as the last pieces clicked into place, and Gregor could see the answer spelled out before him in all its terrifying hideousness.
It was the perfect murder, the body buried under a pile of other bodies so enormous that no one could suspect the truth, because the truth was simply too monstrous for a human being to believe. Yet Gregor forced himself to put the terrible suspicion into words, enunciating them clearly in the silence of his own mind, one by one.
Aral knew in advance that the invasion would fail.
If he had known, he could have stopped the invasion with a word. Obviously Emperor Ezar and his staff wouldn't have been stupid enough to go ahead with the plan if they had known what the enemy had waiting for them. He had not done so.
He allowed ten thousand soldiers to go to their deaths.
And when he knew that he had succeeded, he pulled a perfect retreat out of the air and brought the tattered remnants of the fleet home to a hero's welcome.
Gregor realized that he had unconsciously curled up in his chair, childlike; he felt cold and frightened and alone. His hands were trembling. He made no effort to still them.
Aral Vorkosigan deliberately sabotaged the Escobaran invasion to kill my father.
The last part of that sentence didn’t matter, he would have thanked Aral if that had been all. Gregor had gradually come to the conclusion that Prince Serg had been beyond any cure by the end. He had needed killing. But this wasn’t an assassination, this was a bloodbath unmatched in Barrayaran history since Vorkosigan Vashnoi. Not one, but thousands of men and women had died. And thousands more wounded. And, oh, the prisoners…
All that to hide one man’s treason?
All the old stories of his Regent’s life that had been whispered into Gregor's ears came back to him in a rush. He could almost hear Count Vordrozda’s silken voice again, whispering, insinuating…
He pushed back the chair violently, rising to his feet. He had shut those voices out of his head a long time ago. He wasn’t going to repeat that performance.
It couldn’t be true. Not Aral Vorkosigan, not him, not the incorruptible Lord Regent, not the man who over the years had taught Gregor by words and silent example what honor truly meant. Not the man who had defended Barrayar with his blood and labor, standing between the Empire and its enemies for half a century. Who had been the nearest thing to a father Gregor had had in life, far more than an imaginary hero. No man could do that and live with himself, let alone face his victim’s son every day for twenty years. Not Aral. No. It’s not possible, it can’t be.
Gregor leaned forward, resting his head on top of the console, trying to control the pounding of his heart as yet another precious image disintegrated around him. The room seemed to spin slowly, morphing into the image of another familiar room on Komarr. He felt as though the floor had been jerked out from under him and he was in free fall, all over again. He could see a balcony looking out onto a garden far below, a long wide railing to stand on, the cold night air to launch himself into…
Was nothing in the world true?
Perhaps not, murmured the voice in his ear, cold and hard and terrifying.
The Emperor switched off the comconsole and rose slowly, slipping the disk into his pocket as he left.
Gregor returned to the Residence late in the evening, barely in time for his regular meeting with his Prime Minister. After they had finished working through the day’s business and a bottle of the best Vorkosigan wine, Aral smiled warmly at him and asked, “So how was your trip to the Academy, Gregor? Did anything interesting happen?”
Gregor opened his mouth to speak. The question was on the tip of his tongue. And then at the last instant he bit it back.
What would I do if he said yes?
Gregor knew the Barrayaran punishment for treason far too well, and there couldn’t be any treason more terrible than what he suspected. If it was true, Gregor would have no choice in his judgement, he’d have to do his duty. As Aral had taught him.
And Gregor couldn’t ask the question. He knew his duty, and he simply couldn’t do it. Not to this man, not even now. He'd rather keep his knowledge to himself than be forced to give that order.
“Oh, no,” Gregor lied calmly, meeting Aral’s eyes across the table. “Nothing interesting.”
Traitor, he did not say.