“Who did you say you’d invited?”
Miles was less able these married days to surprise Ekaterin, usually a source of pleasure at her increasing ease with high Vor society and the politics over which their lives in Vorbarr Sultana constantly tripped. Looking now at her slightly frozen face he found himself remembering why it had never been a good idea to try.
“Um … several people, actually.”
Ekaterin’s eyebrows rose. “Including ‘Gregor and Laisa’.” Her voice put the inverted commas neatly in position. “Who are as it happens our reigning Emperor and Empress.”
“Yes. That’s rather the point.” Ekaterin’s eyebrows stayed up. “It will all be very unofficial. I need Gregor to meet someone. And someone needs to meet him. It should all be … interesting. I hope.” What, Miles wondered, was spooking her so soon? Despite his excitement, he’d been careful working around to this. “Um … you know Gregor and Laisa pretty well now, love.”
Ekaterin contemplated her husband of five months with bemusement. “Know them? Yes, I suppose that’s true, but I don’t recall having the Emperor over for dinner before. Nor down for the weekend. With the Empress. And who did you say?”
“Guy Allegre and Yuri Vorlynkin.”
“The chiefs of ImpSec and the Imperial General Staff. Wonderful. And presumably your mysterious, needful someone as well. Keeping that company, whom should I expect?”
Miles grinned at her. “No-one you’ve ever heard of.” Or me, before last week. “A Terran scientist. Or so he says, and we can’t prove otherwise—nor anything else. Which is giving Guy conniptions, but it’s the classic can’t trust/got to meet problem writ large, and there’s ways.” And ways. “An ImpSec squad will come in beforehand. The same people who were behind the scenes for Gregor at our wedding, I expect. No-one will be there officially except us Vorkosigans, so security will have to be discreet—and a friendly atmosphere will help everyone, you see.” He looked up at her, smiling ingenuously.
“Help us do what, love?”
Who knows? “Um … digest. Think. Decide, ultimately, if he asks Gregor what I think he will, how to advise our Emperor.”
Ekaterin relaxed a bit. Emperor Gregor Vorbarra was the least stampedable human being she had ever met, which—besides being foster-brothers—was probably how he and Miles survived as friends. The Emperor’s presence could be relied on as a brake if her own novice control of Miles in his more manic moments proved uncertain. Still, he was now using his seizure stimulator regularly without much prompting, and growing (she felt with secret pleasure) less embarrassed that she saw him in that helpless indignity. Keeping the vow he made while he watched Tien die. Memory of her unlamented first husband no longer troubled Ekaterin much, even in dreams, but her present diminutive husband was another matter. And today there was, beneath the slight mania that was Miles-normal, a clenched place in him she had sensed before and been unable to reach. He was also being annoyingly mysterious.
“If who asks Gregor what, Miles? Your Terran?”
Miles looked at her in mild protest. His Terran? Much as his fellow Auditors assumed his personal ownership of ImpSec, no doubt, because he had once worked for that organisation. At least Gregor had lost his inverted commas.
“Yes. My Terran. I want him to talk for himself, to you as much as Gregor, but, briefly, he turned up last Wednesday, down in Hassadar, and asked to see me both as Count’s Voice and as a Lord Auditor. Which if he wasn’t confused was … interesting. Introduced himself as Dr Jack Chandler and showed some very pretty Terran documentation, all with a Barrayaran security seal of a kind that, ah, had never been successfully forged. Not least because it’s still on the developing-board in ImpSec’s deepest lab at Cockroach Central. Supposedly. Then he said he was led to believe I might do his credentials justice.”
Ekaterin looked at Miles’s lopsided grin and animated eyes. “So your heart warmed to the man, I suppose. As a worthy conundrum.” His smile blazed at her, making her heart trip. There were moments of inattention in her university classes, or pauses when pleasantly alone weeding in the garden at her Aunt Helen’s house, when she still couldn’t quite believe she had, not just in fact but in high Vor panoply and splendour, married Miles Vorkosigan last Winterfair. Outside in the snow. And with Gregor and Laisa as witnesses, come to think of it, so it wasn’t actually that unreasonable of Miles to expect her to have them as guests for a Vor country weekend. Yes it was.
“Ah, heart’s lady, it did. Troublesome thing that it is.” At the same time as it sank through my boots. “I confess I liked Dr Chandler and he made his impossible forgery into an excellent opening pitch, the better for proving relevant to his problem. Now our problem. Barrayar’s.” Miles gestured expansively. “The good doctor has a hypothesis, you see, of compelling interest, and would like our views on its, ah, implications. Not least, I begin to realise, for us and Cetaganda.”
For a moment Ekaterin’s mind chased in all directions. How was the immense enemy empire with which Barrayar had struggled all her life involved? Miles, she knew, had actually been to its central planet of Eta Ceta on one of his odder covert ops missions a decade ago. Now for all his intensity he seemed distant.
“I want you there because we will need all our truth, and all our beauty. And our courage.”
This time Ekaterin’s heart felt as if it had stopped, not stumbled. It was Gregor more than anyone who had made her aware of how those few men who knew about them admired her desperate actions the previous year on the Komarran jump-station, apologising at their first meeting for the need to defer public recognition. Thinking about the Emperor’s words crediting her with a personal account of honour with the Imperium of great depth could still make her head spin—but it was Miles’s humbling, matter-of-fact admiration that still flummoxed her insides. Usually he seemed to know exactly what such words could do to her and looked thoroughly smug about it; today he didn’t notice his own effect at all. Suggesting … Ulp.
“And the minds of women as well as men.” Miles was still babbling away. “I’d really like to get my parents here from Sergyar, but I can’t see how. Unless … hmm, anyway, we will be Vorkosigans, all on our summer holidays in Vorkosigan Surleau, just as we ought. Think of it as a family weekend. A sort of … retreat. Or seminar. I’ll have to ask Gregor, but I want to invite your aunt and uncle.” A second Lord Auditor would be useful; even necessary, maybe. And Vorthys was an engineer, which is what half of it would come down to, Miles bet. If it comes to anything.
“Oh good. I know it’s silly of me but I do find Gregor makes me less breathless when Uncle Georg is there too.” Or Nikki. How odd. Ekaterin’s ten-year-old Nikolai had developed a special if inevitably intermittent relationship with the Emperor after Miles short-circuited the horrible problem of what she couldn’t tell Nikki about his father’s death by taking the boy directly to Gregor. But she hadn’t realised explicitly until that moment that Gregor was, to her at least, subtly different in Nikki’s company; or was it that she was different herself with her son in sight? Miles had loving laughter in his eyes.
“Not silly at all. I believe your uncle considers Gregor a bioelectrical field phenomenon.” He gave her a slow grin. “You should tell Georg he damps Gregor down for you.” That earned a soft snort, and Ekaterin’s face relaxed a little more, he thought, not that most people would see any difference. But she wasn’t smiling back at him yet.
“Um … have you thought about Nikki in all this, Miles? School ends next week, so after his medical he’ll be free for the summer—but should I have him stay here? I could ask the Pyms to take him.”
“Actually I think Ma Pym and Arthur will be in Vorkosigan Surleau themselves. They usually come down for the summer. Denis and Ma Jankowski, too, and some of the others.”
Of course, Ekaterin realised, being District-born the Vorkosigan armsmen probably had relatives in half the villages and hills round the long lake. Summer pastoral for everyone, it seemed; Miles, at any rate, was trying to combine airs of faint accusation and injured innocence at the notion he might not have considered his stepson in his plans. Hmmm.
“Nikki can come with us for all of me, unless … you want to spare him more secrets? I did wonder about that, but there will always now be some hidden things he will know as a member of our household. Confidential District business, for example, and the edges of Auditorial matters. This weekend is no different, and I respect his integrity.”
Yes, Miles did that, Ekaterin thought, beginning with models of jump-ships emptied from an old box to array on a study floor. and a surprise morning conversation in a locked bathroom.
“The medical is just a formality, isn’t it, love? The retrogenes all took properly?”
“Yes, entirely.” She hadn’t meant to worry him about that. “They said last year it was all fine, but he should have annual checks just to be on the safe side.” The days were blessedly gone when Ekaterin had watched Nikki every fresh and poisoned morning in secret terror that today might be when the first effects of his Vorzohn’s Dystrophy became visible. The mutation inherited from his father caused a tiny, simple failure in a protein whose lack led to progressive self-destruction of neural tissue, loss of motor control, and early, senile death. And not only inherited but left untreated, year after year, because of Tien’s own crippling Barrayaran fear of being known as a mutant in a culture that until recently had on principle routinely cut the throats of misshapen infants. If there was one thing for which Ekaterin did blame Tien, fiercely, in the cold places of heart and mind, it was for forcing on Nikki the secrecy of his own cowardice, making something that was with galactic medicine wholly treatable an enduring occasion of personal shame. Miles had said nothing but she knew he shared her contempt. Now fully in possession of the facts, including his retrogenetic cure and disqualification despite it from military jump-pilot training, Nikki silently accepted her reassurances of health and love but never talked of his condition or the heartbreak Tien’s concealment of it had brought him. Nor had he so much as mentioned his Da when telling her and Miles he had decided he too would take his stepfather’s name, and become Master Vorkosigan. Ekaterin had to admit to herself, though, as Miles was inadvertently pointing out, that Nikki’s harshly taught guard of his tongue was an important maturity.
“He’s kept his word to Gregor impeccably, you know—never a hint to anyone about Komarran events. So what’s not to trust? Besides, children see things clearly, sometimes.”
“So do you, love.” And at the same level. “So when exactly am I to host my Emperor with his Empress and an ad hoc secret cabinet for a friendly weekend retreat? Or seminar. As it may prove.” Ekaterin’s eyebrows crinkled. Had she really just said yes to this absurdity, as if it were perfectly normal? Miles looked more pleased than chastened.
“The weekend after next, when we would have been down at Vorkosigan Surleau anyway. Your classes have finished, haven’t they? You said you’d be happy to go down to the District then.” Hastily he searched his conscience. Certainly her distraction by botany and biochemistry finals had been useful in the last week, but that was none of his planning. And she had said. “I’m sorry to invade our first weekend there with this business, love, but using Vorkosigan Surleau solves the security problem.” Not that Allegre or Vorlynkin thought solves was quite the word. “We’ll still be doing all we’d planned down there. Just not that weekend. Whatever the outcome there’ll have to be some quiet time afterwards. We can go riding. Swimming. Fishing, if you like.” Or thinking of his own last fishing expedition with Simon Illyan perhaps not, if he didn’t want Nikki trying to bomb fish with buggered stunner power-packs for himself. “I know some good camping places in the mountains I’d like to show you.” Miles paused, looking carefully at her, suspecting what one part of her fear might be. “You will be very much liked as well as respected in the village, you know. You need only ever be yourself and you will make your own name for them.”
Now her smile came and twisted, though her warm alto stayed level and serious. “Yes. My new name, and its effects on people. I have noticed the quality of Vorkosigan liege-families. So have others. Do you remember what Guy Allegre said that morning, about Roic and Taura? That half the secret of the Vorkosigans’ political pre-eminence since the Time of Isolation was the quality of the people they attracted to their service.” Does that include me, now? “What’s the other half, do you suppose? I’ve never heard you say.”
Miles blinked. Where was Ekaterin going with this? Her oblique reference to their wedding-morning, after Roic’s and Taura’s discovery of the gift intended to kill her even as she spoke her vows, was uncomfortably pertinent. Still, Miles didn’t have to think about his answer. “Inbred persistence. Dumb hill-man stubbornness. Vorkosigans just don’t stop. It’s well known. I even learned it myself.”
“And great loyalty runs both ways. Yes. I don’t doubt it, Miles, and I know it’s Vor, but I had no real experience of it at all before I met you. You and the worlds you bring.” Ekaterin looked away for a minute from his puzzled, patient face, still sensing that knot of tension in him under the animated intensity. Whatever it was didn’t arise between them, she thought, but from outside the partnership they had begun to forge. From his father. She compressed her lips, gathered herself, and looked back at him. “But Vor doesn’t need understanding. And while I don’t know about making a name, I agree it will grow about me anyway.” Like gripweed, probably. “Imperial visits, however, are less … certain. So may I request an addition to your, um, guest-list. Lady Alys.”
“Oh. Yes.” Miles digested this. “And Simon?”
Ekaterin moved her hand slightly. “As you wish. I’ve come to like him, very much. But … if I am to grow to be this person I appear to have become with our marriage I need some proper help, and for this that means your aunt.” She considered her wardrobe, vastly expanded since her wedding from that reliable all-purpose half-mourning dress and black bolero, but still, she knew, of nothing like the scale and range that would be demanded once she graduated from the university at the end of the year. Then as Lady Vorkosigan she would become ever-open game for the reporters and tourists, now present in alarming numbers in the Barrayaran capital. “And her modiste, sooner rather than later, please.” She gave Miles a wry smile. “After Taura I shall barely qualify as a challenge.” She hesitated. “Perhaps you could tell General Allegre that while the outside cover is that nothing at all is happening, the inside cover is that there’s a, um, friendly family retreat. For … Count and Countess Vorbarra? And so naturally Alys would be there, as family.”
Miles thought about it. “Well, we’ll all be there, ultimately, for Gregor, and it can’t not be for the Emperor. He’ll need to be that before we’re done, I hope.”
Need to be Emperor? That did not sound reassuring, though Miles seemed blithely unaware of the alarm he generated.
“But you’re right that Count Vorbarra will be there too. And Count Vorkosigan, by proxy if nothing else.” So an extra security layer, Miles thought, could be that what was really going on was, yes, a very secret meeting, under government and ImpSec aegis, of certain high Vor and imperial officials; purpose—wait and see. Politics not science. Besides, it’ll be true. Which was always the best cover, and in any case—
With a scrabbling noise and the sound of expensive fabric suffering a small grey-and-tabby head thrust itself over the arm of his chair. He sighed as Ekaterin grinned. Zap the Cat had numerous, invariably bold kittens, and this recent addition to his menagerie had taken to following him about whenever and wherever it could. The back of his brain wondered what a suitable name for such a misguided beast might be as his hand reached out to rub a determined, bony cheek. A rough tongue began to wash his fingertips.
“I’ll add Aunt Alys and Simon, and your aunt and uncle. They all have the highest clearances, anyway. But that must be it. Too many voices would be as bad as too few. Heh. Actually, I think Gregor will be relieved. Keep to normal, and let’s see what happens.”
That useful phrase always worked for Gregor, as Miles had often seen and admired, and the oddly marked kitten was purring like an engine on his lap, pushing its head imperiously against his hand and writhing in ecstasy. So why was Ekaterin looking at him with such resigned alarm?
* * * * *
Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, left the day before looking quietly askance at his most senior military men as Miles departed, cheerfully assuring all that everything would be fine, had even then had the wit to be grateful Miles had insisted on Laisa’s inclusion in the meeting, and spared him having to spring news of this strange weekend on his wife. Understanding at once when Miles called to relay Ekaterin’s request for Lady Alys and his own for the Vorthyses, he had immediately agreed to the expanded guest-list and now faced Guy Allegre feeling slightly guilty. Bother Allegre.
“Of course, it’s not Lady Alys, Sire. Or Chief Illyan, God knows. Or Lord Auditor Vorthys and his wife. But … Sire, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan has just highjacked the Imperium for a mystery weekend.” Allegre rubbed his forehead. “I can’t honestly say I’m surprised, given his track record. But I am thoroughly alarmed. If there is any substance at all in this Dr Chandler’s, ah, hypothesis, it may be ImpSec cannot guarantee your safety.” Silence stretched. “I cannot approve your meeting him.”
“No, Guy. But while I never ignore you, sometimes I must overrule you. Please.” Gregor gestured, gently, smiling. “Relax.” Startled, Allegre did anything but. Gregor sighed. “You are perfectly right, General, there are no guarantees. There is a finite chance Miles has been horribly fooled, and that during the weekend something hostile will happen. All usual and some unusual measures will be in place. You can do no more. And the chance is small. The greater probability by far is that Dr Chandler does indeed have something new, that he is by careful choice offering to us. To Barrayar. So Miles is also right. Yes, Dr Chandler requires us to trust him. But he is and will be on our ground, under whatever security we care to put in place. You cannot suppose him invulnerable to us. He offers the trust he craves.” In the summer light Gregor’s narrow face was lit in equal detail of etched light and soft shadow. He paused a moment, looking out on the gardens Ezar had designed. “And as you say, if he is telling the truth, or an earnest of it, everything will change, and we must know.”
Gregor looked at Allegre consideringly.
“You said Lord Auditor Vorkosigan had highjacked the Imperium. Not that Miles had.” He gave Allegre a sudden imperial grin. “Now that would worry me. Cordelia always said a sensible government wouldn’t trust Miles with a screwdriver, never mind a battle-fleet. But Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, now … after Komarr and the Vorbataille case, if he were, ah, temporarily to highjack the Imperium for a particular … purpose, that he had explained, I should not be unduly concerned for its safety. Or mine. But I think we will face a dangerous decision at this mystery weekend.”
The observation that Miles was after all, as Allegre knew perfectly well from his ImpSec files, an unusually experienced highjacker of many things hung unspoken. Then Gregor smiled again, taking Allegre even more by surprise as it was edged with … a quiet glee?
“I wonder if you are forgetting that you are also invited to this … weekend party, Guy. And Yuri Vorlynkin. Hmm. Perhaps I’d better request and require that you delegate command of the security squads. Free yourself of any immediate duties for that Saturday and Sunday, please. This is strategy time, not yet action time. Miles is right that data makes far more sense than threat at this stage.” Gregor’s hands were clasped. “One of the things you and Yuri must start thinking about, Guy, is what effect Dr Chandler’s hypothesis, if true, has on our relations with Cetaganda. Just now they’re as good as they’ve ever been, not that that’s saying much. But the hypothesis is potentially a very serious problem, and that may be our main business when it comes to it.”
“I have been thinking about it, Sire.” Allegre’s face was tense.
“Good. And consider this also, Guy. I think there’s something Miles didn’t say” There’s volumes. “About Dr Chandler.” Allegre frowned. “I’ve known Miles a long time, Guy, and while he can never be entirely predicted I know this look. Lord Vorkosigan is intent upon serving someone—probably his father or me, though no doubt with a side-agenda of his own. And you’ve said yourself Miles has an amazing eye for personnel, the Vorkosigan talent at a very high pitch. So perhaps he’s done it again. But in any case what he’s seen in the good doctor, I strongly suspect, is a man who is looking to give unusual service. And Miles thinks that service is genuine, so he is turning it to what he thinks Barrayar’s maximal advantage. He is Vor, Guy, and utterly loyal.” He shrugged slightly. “Bad reason says we have to do this anyway, just to find out, but good reason says the same.”
Gregor came upright in his chair, and Allegre automatically braced even though he was sitting down.
“In any case, Guy, it’s just a weekend with guests. As when I went to Miles’s wedding as Count Vorbarra, if you like. I shall certainly be waiving imperial protocol. Khourakis or whatever squad-commander you choose can wrap Vorkosigan Surleau up inside as many security shells as he likes, and go on searching for anything you can get on Dr Chandler. Who may also be searched in person, very thoroughly, once. I’ll have my usual Armsmen, of course. But the ImpSec perimeter stays outside the house, Guy. And unless your search finds something serious, Dr Chandler comes in.”
“Yes Sire.” Allegre could say nothing else in direct response. “I still strongly advise against it.”
“You’re still overruled. Drop it, please, General.” Gregor gave his ImpSec chief another, very neutral smile. “We’re going to see what happens. And you will be there, Guy—as a guest.”
* * * * *
What was going to happen would be spectacular, if Miles had anything to do with it. Once Ekaterin left for a hastily arranged meeting with Lady Alys, he sequestered himself in his study and prepared to try the supposedly comconsole-like device the Terran physicist had left as the best means of contacting him. It had been described simply as a dedicated unit and Pym said while security screening showed nothing to cause concern, neither did it give a single clue as to how the unit worked as it contained no detectable components save the one visible button. There was a slight anomaly in the base, suggesting a hollow, but nothing Pym could make open.
Frowning, Miles took the metal frame, a dull iron-grey rectangle a foot or so square on a base, and set it on the desk before him. The base was plain, but one recessed red button sat invitingly on the upper bar, so with only slight hesitation he pushed it firmly. When nothing happened he cursed and mentally gave it five minutes. Who knew what sleep schedule the Terran kept? But while it seemed longer it was actually only two minutes or so before the frame abruptly filled with the vivid image of Dr Chandler, more as if Miles looked at him a few feet away through a window than through any kind of lens and projecting-device.
“Lord Vorkosigan. Good evening.”
As the Terran spoke Miles’s eyes automatically scanned all he could see of the closed space. Chandler was in what looked a general workroom with tables covered in piled books and arrays of electronic instruments, including several with uncommonly large circular green oscilloscope screens and one with a protruding needle-toothed clamp that had a distinctly threatening air. The scientist had a deep bass voice, gruff but full of warmth. Miles liked it, as he was coming to like the man.
“Dr Chandler. I’m sorry to disturb you, but I had a question. By way of singing for my supper first I can report you are invited to Vorkosigan Surleau the weekend after next, with other guests we mentioned. There will probably be some, ah, intensive army and ImpSec exercises going on just then in the District, but we shan’t be disturbed in the house.”
Chandler looked pleased. “Quick. And efficient. Good.” The scientist also looked momently nervous. As he should be. “Thank you, Lord Vorkosigan. What was your question?”
“Uh …” Just how quick is that brain in your head, Doctor, and what gets you off-balance? “In sketching your hypothesis the other day, Doctor, you implied that one, ah, possible implication was very rapid communication. Would this”—Miles gestured at the iron frame and Chandler’s image—“be an example of it? Where do I find you just now?”
Chandler was still. “On Barrayar, not far from you. But yes, the device we are using is, um, an implication of the hypothesis. At this small distance, however, there is very little distinction in speed from standard comconsole technology.”
“But there could be?”
“Over what distance?”
Miles looked at the man, almost shocked. “Any?”
“What would be the effective time-lag at interplanetary distance?”
“Realtime galaxy-wide communication?”
“Is one possible implication of the hypothesis, yes. But communication only. That can be done with purely waveform energy. Matter cannot pass through this device, nor any other I can, ah, hypothesise.”
“Plainly you can hear me. Can you see me as clearly as I see you?”
“Where is the ’vid-pickup?”
“Its equivalent has been made a function of certain atoms in the frame. Anything detectable on any scale above subatomic is relayed to the matching frame I have. The display is actually a new optical phenomenon, but practically it’s just a better sort of holographic projector.” A pause. “The frame is over-simple to look at just now for a reason.” I bet it is, Doctor. A longer pause. “Terrans have good reason to fear new technologies.”
“As do Barrayarans.”
“Yes. Did I answer your question?”
“Half of it. If I am right that you could not, before next weekend, transport two people from Sergyar to here; but you could get to Sergyar a frame such as this one, or larger, with a, a twin that might be installed at Vorkosigan Surleau?”
Chandler looked away for a moment thinking. “Yes. That could be done.” He hesitated. “You are referring to your parents, yes? If you can tell me what you wish, I can think what can be done.”
Uncharacteristically, Miles felt himself unsure. Wasn’t it slightly absurd as an adult to seem to run to your parents? No more than to your emperor. Whom this man wants to serve.
“I do not speak only as their child when I say the Viceroy and Vicereine of Sergyar are wise. They are de facto Gregor’s parents, too. Their voices will be … needed. And they are, in duty, far away. So if there is some way of getting their voices at least to Vorkosigan Surleau next weekend, please tell me now.”
“Of course. And yes, there is.” Chandler touched something out of sight and swivelled to look at a display apparently conjured out of thin air. Peering through his own screen Miles could see an excellent tactical map of the nexus, with wormhole routes between Barryar and Sergyar highlighted. “I could send a frame there and link to it as you suggest. But as it happens I already have a link to Sergyar, so if there is someone there who can contact your parents, who will know you by sight, and whom you and they can trust in this, it should be possible to get them to leave for Barrayar in time to arrive by”—his face wrinkled concentration—“sometime next weekend, maybe. And they could carry the existing Sergyaran frame with them, making them available at any time.”
It was much more than Miles had hoped for, though he had done a lot of wondering about what exactly Chandler might have up his capacious Terran sleeves. And confirmation of an existing interplanetary link to Sergyar required some urgent follow-up. But his attention was riveted by the glowing model of the nexus.
“I don’t suppose, Doctor, you could make my, um, frame generate that sort of nexus map, could you?”
“Easily, as it happens.” Chandler’s hand moved again on unseen controls. “If you press the base of your frame to its extreme right you should see … Ah, you have.”
Dimly Miles realised his face must have betrayed him instantaneously as his searching fingers pressed what had seemed solid metal but now moved under his touch as a small panel slid aside. Or perhaps Chandler had another way of telling what happened with any frame; he’d certainly released a lock of some kind.
“First button to the right turns the map-projector on. The others control magnification and rotation. Last one to the left brings up a small menu of graphic options on the left side-bar of the frame. Enjoy.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s why I came to you, Lord Vorkosigan. Political consultancy, on the grand scale.” Chandler’s smile widened. “Daring rescues your speciality too, just as I need, if I read those particular runes aright. ImpSec does not leave much evidence to be found, you know.” His smile faded. “I’m sorry. But I’m right, aren’t I? You’re thinking about what my presence here rather than, oh, somewhere on Eta Ceta, say, means for the balance of power across this whole side of the Nexus?”
Miles smiled thinly. “That would be one way of putting it, certainly, Doctor.”
Chandler grimaced. “Put it how you will, Barrayarans are very unusual people—the biggest galactic surprise of the last long while. And you’re a very unusual Barrayaran, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. You have not only, uniquely among senior Barrayarans, actually met both the haut Fletchir Giaja and the haut Rian Degtiar but are in some sense their … friend. As well as a childhood intimate of an Emperor closer to hand.”
Miles was bolt upright by then. Faint praise of ImpSec’s leavings and sly Dendarii allusions be damned, that was guessing way close to the bone. “Dr Chandler, I have to know how you know that. And exactly what you understand about the Star Crèche.”
“Oh, I looked long and hard at His Celestial Majesty the haut Fletchir Giaja, and those strange haut women who made him, before I came to look at your Emperor Gregor. Nothing less would be conscionable. And my hypothesis allowed me to sidestep their security a little, as it does yours. Besides, the announcement of your Cetagandan Order of Merit was on record in the Ghem Imperial Information Bureau—made by General Benin himself, no less, if in a rather strangled voice. They also had ’vidshots of a state funeral with you and the haut Fletchir Giaja side by side as he reconfirmed the haut Rian Degtiar as his number one empress, along with a lot of watching Cetagandans, haut and ghem alike, looking almost as poleaxed as your ambassador.”
Even at a decade’s insulating distance Miles winced a little. Chandler’s information was much too good all round. He certainly understood something rarely even known about the workings of gender in the Cetagandan Imperium, and considerably sooner than later Miles was going to have to find out exactly how sidestepping Cetagandan Imperial Security worked. Not to mention sidestepping ImpSec. Chandler was looking carefully at his face, which had perhaps betrayed more than it ought. Again.
“The Ghem IIB didn’t—and don’t—know I looked at those vidshots, mind you. Nor do the haut know anything.”
“Ah.” Chandler’s answer was all and nothing. “So all Cetagandans know nothing. But …” Miles let his voice trail away, invitingly. Chandler listened ironically to the silence for a moment and smiled appreciatively.
“But … I find, Lord Vorkosigan, that Barrayar makes … a better beast of burden. For everyone’s sake, I fervently hope. And perhaps I should add I find I greatly prefer the view from Vorbarr Sultana. But I also very much want to know how exactly you, Lord Vorkosigan, would best interpret this damned hypothesis of mine to … rechannel Barrayaran–Cetagandan relations. I believe you follow me.”
Oh yes, I follow you, Doctor. Like a shadow. There was a pause in which both men could hear the other’s breathing.
“The frame I mentioned on Sergyar is there because I considered first approaching your father. But to realise the hypothesis, or suppress it, must be your Emperor’s decision, and he is here. As are you.” There was another pause. “The man with the Sergyaran frame is an academic friend, visiting the medical facility where they did the work on the worm vaccine. He’s perfectly respectable, though as a Terran doubtless watched by your ImpSec people on principle.”
Miles certainly hoped so. Even on Chaos Colony galactic specialists warranted a security file. Chandler glanced at a display unit, presumably showing real-time chrono-comparisons.
“You could speak to him in a few hours, early morning there. He could then fetch whomever you ask for, or deliver the frame to Sergyar House. Then you could talk to them directly yourself.”
“That will do nicely.” And so will this star toy. “Thank you, Dr Chandler.” The man unnerved Miles, but not with doubts; it was the extent to which Chandler already lived with the possible realities of his hypothesis. “Tell me, Doctor, how old are you?”
Chandler stared at him briefly. “Younger than I seem. Not so much older than you, really.” He blinked several times, looking tired beneath his surface vitality. “Having a genuinely different view of what reality might be is … educational. Will you excuse me now? I’ll call back with the Sergyar link at … 23:00, if that will suit? Yes?”
Miles nodded and the display blinked out. There was much to ponder about Chandler’s admissions of a frame already on Sergyar and that he had looked at the Cetagandans before he came to Barrayar, and Miles. But meantime the new buttons on his frame beckoned his fingers, and a quick prod had the same wide view of the nexus he’d seen on Chandler’s machine floating outside the frame. In fact his own disproportionate head was in the way of Barrayar. Chance, surely. Rising and retreating a few feet the sweep of the nexus seen from Barrayar came into easy view; other buttons brought up controls as promised, and before long he could lean against the wall and consider a politically shaded map of this side of the nexus as a whole.
For his grandfather’s and father’s generations the great problem had been the long, crooked tube of connected wormholes budding outwards at Komarr that was Barrayar’s only connection with the Nexus proper. Beyond Komarr lay Pol and, passing the Hegen Hub, Vervain and Aslund, forming with Barrayar the systems of the Hegen Hub Alliance. In the other direction lay Sergyar, then Escobar, with its wormholes to Beta Colony and Kline Station. Pressing against and twining around the Barrayaran–Vervani end of the Alliance were the eight Cetagandan planets with their associated wormholes and local space. Behind the largest Cetagandan cluster was isolated, independent Marilac, whose only connection to Barrayar avoiding Cetagandan space was from another direction entirely, a sweep of light-centuries through Sergyar, Escobar, Tau Ceti in the Western Orion Arm, and finally the Zoave Twilight.
The long—or wide?—frontier between Barrayaran and Cetagandan imperia blazed across three sectors, tinted in the most lurid clash of imperial purples Miles could conjure from the controls. Away beyond Beta towards the study door was the blue dot of Terra. Much closer, just outside the region of inter-empire boundary, was the small, multi-wormhole system of Jackson’s Whole, reached through Escobar; it pulsed in a malevolent yellow, expressing Miles’s opinion of the hideous trades whereby its hackwork gene-crackers and robber-barons grew obese on the vilest solutions to age and boredom technology and amoral license could conjure. Not to mention genetically customised bioweapons for contract assassinations.They will pay, for Ekaterin, and Mark, and Taura. And for Da.
Rotating the display, at first for the thrill of the graphics (and however Chandler was doing them, Miles had to admit they were a serious upgrade), he saw it wasn’t just of the Nexus but the Nexus picked out from fuller astrocartographic display. In anything other than spaceship command functions, space not of interest wasn’t usually shown; there was too much of it. Absent-mindedly he scooped from his feet an inquisitive grey-and-tabby shape that had somehow passed a closed door, and turning Chandler’s model saw a far greater volume of unexplored local space around both empires than he was used to thinking about. All his travels had been inward, always by wormhole, with time lagging even as it stretched. The kitten began to purr in his arms. And wormholes were a military fixation, for good reason. Even realtime galactic-wide communication wouldn’t change that. But it would change a lot. And if it could change Barrayar, could it change Cetaganda?
No, how would it change Cetaganda? When he took Chandler’s call in—he glanced at his chrono—two hours, something new would start. The kitten tried to eat his thumb, and he looked down at it in mild admonition. Chandler’s genie was about to leave its bottle.
 A Civil Campaign, Ch. 15.