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A Bit Too Much Good Work

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Allegre nodded. “Vorrutyer does good work, on his level. It may actually have been a bit too much good work, lately...”
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, ch. 15

“... At first I thought he was in it for the money, and then for the mischief, and then I figured both of those were covers for this crazy Barrayaran patriotism all these Vor fellows go on and on about. Then I thought maybe it was for revenge, for nailing the guilty. Now I wonder if this furtive obsession for sorting truth from lies is actually in aid of clearing the innocent.”
“That sounds like two sides of one coin, to me.”
“Yeah, but it’s like the man bets tails, every time.”
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, ch. 13

 

Chapter One: A Typical 26.7-Hour Day at the Office

The less said about the Vormercier debriefing, the better. Of course, Byerly Vorrutyer wasn’t really a man of few words, so he would have told you about it in a fair amount of detail anyway.

He’d been arrested at the shuttleport – which he’d expected, since that was a standard ruse for getting undercover operatives into ImpSec discreetly. You could generally tell whether your handler was in a good mood by how gently, or not, the arresting officers handled you. Captain Eugene McSorley, it seemed, was pissed.

“McSorley, my love, I know you couldn’t wait to get the cuffs on me again, but don’t you think they’re a little intimate for shuttleport wear?”

McSorley refused to dignify this comment with more than the briefest of eye-rolls. Major Guillaume, who had never met Byerly before, looked startled. The two lieutenants on the other side of the table, who were familiar with the Vorrutyer-and-McSorley double act, looked at each other and grinned.

As By sat there rubbing his wrists, he was, first off, raised a pay grade for several months of exhausting and hazardous work; and then promptly docked one pay grade for involving someone who wasn’t officially need-to-know in his operations, even though Ivan had known about his job for years. Also for saddling Barrayar with a couple of inconvenient, though extremely attractive, refugees from a Jacksonian Great House coup.

McSorley accused him of white-knighting, a vague but dire transgression whose definition usually stretched far enough to fit any sin By might have committed. Anything that was clearly not white-knighting fell into the general category of trying to be an artist or, when McSorley was being unusually honest about the real cause of their spiky relationship, being a high-born twit who thinks he’s above following rules. (This last was particularly unfair, since By didn’t think he was above following rules; it was just that other things often seemed to be more important.)

Byerly attempted to explain that it had been necessary to locate Tej’s apartment as a favor for Theo Vormercier, who had been trying to abduct her because he needed a quick influx of cash; that he’d attempted to make sure the girl was safely out of the way by encouraging Ivan to take her out on a date; that he hadn’t realized there was a second, astonishingly competent young woman involved, and the women would manage to get Ivan out of the way instead of the other way around; but luckily everything had ended well, at least for values of “well” that included an almost-kidnapping, two attempted-but-fortunately-not-completed suicides, a hasty marriage of convenience, and ImpSec getting handed a bill for the destruction of Ivan’s electronic door lock. (This was another McSorley crime, though a lesser one: giving overly Byzantine explanations. But what else were you supposed to do if you had an overly Byzantine life?)

“But,” asked one of the lieutenants when he had finished, “why didn’t you simply tell Vormercier you hadn’t been able to locate the girl?”

“Because,” By explained wearily, “Vormercier was getting to the loyalty-testing stage of paranoia. If I hadn’t found a reasonably large favor to do for him at that point, it’s likely that I would have suffered a breath-mask accident. An embarrassing breath-mask accident, if I have any sense of how his mind works. Are any of you familiar with the concept of erotic asphyxiation, by any chance?”

There was a brief silence as five people contemplated erotic asphyxiation. “Point taken,” said the lieutenant.

“Why Captain Vorpatril, of all people?” asked Major Guillaume. “Did you think about the fact that you were exposing a man who is sixth in the line of succession to galactic kidnappers?”

“Well, no, I have to admit I wasn’t thinking about that. I mean, to me, he’s just Ivan. He used to date my cousin. Back when he was a girl. When my cousin was a girl, I mean, not Ivan.” Because jump-lag did weird things to one’s brain, By found himself abruptly distracted by the question of what Ivan would be like as a girl, and decided it would be a good idea to stop talking.

“The high Vor,” remarked McSorley, with the air of a zoologist describing a peculiar species of animal, “are different from you and me.” Byerly was not sure whether this remark referred to the idiocy of regarding the Emperor’s near relative as “just Ivan,” or to the phenomenon of one’s girl-cousins becoming male halfway through life, but as it seemed to be addressed to everyone in the room except him, he ignored it.

“Look, it’s not like I had my choice of potential confidants. I didn’t know anybody else on Komarr who was remotely trustworthy, let alone anyone I could reasonably call on for a favor.”

McSorley and Major Guillaume lectured him a bit more, in tag-team, on the general irresponsibility of involving cousins-of-the-Emperor in undercover operations. (Byerly had reason to believe that ImpSec, as an institution, was very hypocritical on this point, but since he wasn't supposed to know about that, he couldn't bring it up in his defense.) McSorley seemed principally concerned that the women could easily have taken Ivan as a hostage and held him for ransom, which was an alarmingly valid point; but Guillaume seemed more worried about the possibility that they might have somehow brainwashed him into becoming an interstellar terrorist.

“There isn’t enough brain-soap in the galaxy to brainwash Ivan into becoming a terrorist,” Byerly finally protested. “Just trust me about this.”

“Vorrutyer would know, of course,” said McSorley, “since Captain Vorpatril used to date his cousin.”

To By’s experienced ears, this was clearly a sarcastic remark, laden with subtext about social privilege and not-so-old-boys’ networks; but fortunately, Guillaume decided to take it literally. Byerly wondered whether he was about to run off to the chemicals lab to ask about the formula for brain-soap.

After that, there were quite a lot of forms to fill out, and much tedious discussion of budgeting; the only amusing moment came when the other lieutenant decided to commend Byerly for the economics of his return transport arrangements.

McSorley snorted. “I doubt that Vorrutyer chose to share his cabin with two call girls from motives of economy.” (This comment caused Major Guillaume to acquire a very particular look of distress and confusion: But I had just put him in this convenient little homosexual box, are you telling me he isn’t going to stay there?)

McSorley’s suspicions, as usual, were half-right: it hadn’t been about economy. But it also hadn’t been about sex, although Byerly wouldn’t have been averse if either (or both) of them had been making the offer. Mostly, it had been about the fact that Desirée had been completely freaked out, not without cause, and had refused to sleep unless he joined them and took the bunk nearest the door. Apparently, having a Y chromosome was the only qualification you needed to be a bodyguard. Byerly, who had never met an assumption about masculinity that he didn’t immediately want to subvert, had tried to argue her out of it, and the other girl, Destinée, had rolled her eyes at the idea in a distinctly unflattering way that made him hope he’d get a chance to show off his bodyguarding skills after all. But in the end, the three of them had gotten along very well together. They had spent a lot of time playing an Old Earth game called poker, which had been a mainstay of ImpSec training, and Destinée had become rather good at it, and had also absorbed all of the other lessons By had seen fit to impart to her.

He tried to explain all of this and put in a good word for Destinée, and McSorley nodded and said they were both already slated to begin at the women operatives’ training camp next week.

“Really? Both of them?”

“They both came off well in your reports. And they were willing.”

“Any chance one of them could get assigned to my particular milieu? I could do with some backup.” He’d never been able to talk McSorley into allowing him to train and mentor potential operatives, the way Lev Brodsky had done for him. (You’d only teach them all of your bad habits, Vorrutyer.) But surely he could be permitted to have a colleague sometime, once ImpSec had done the training to its satisfaction.

“We’ll see,” said McSorley, in a tone that did not promise much.

After that, everyone spent at least an hour hashing out exactly what the party line on Ivan’s impulsive marriage ought to be. Once they had agreed on something more or less close to the truth, with By’s role as ImpSec informer left out, McSorley informed him that he had an appointment with Lady Alys Vorpatril in the morning, and he could brief her then.

“But surely,” By tried hopefully, “she’ll have already heard the whole story from Ivan.”

“She specifically asked to hear it from you. And, by the way, once you’re out and about, you should spread the word that you’re going to be called in for further questioning, and you intend to cooperate. It’ll make all of our lives easier if you can duck in and out of here over the next few weeks.”

“But people don’t really confide in you if they know you’re about to be having a friendly chat with ImpSec,” By protested.

“You won’t need people to confide in you,” said McSorley. “Apart from general cleanup related to the Vormercier case, you have one charge until further notice, and it involves an individual who is already aware of your position. Which, by the way, you seem to have advertised rather freely while you were on Komarr. You do understand the concept of deep cover?

“I was dealing for information. I got more out of them with dealing than any of you could have done with fast-penta. They’re Jacksonians, that’s the language they speak. Um, which individual were you talking about?”

“The second girl. I’m going to trust Captain Vorpatril can keep an eye on his wife for now, but this other woman ought to have someone watching her. See what sort of contacts she makes here, find out what you can about the Jacksonian situation, let us know if she seems to be planning anything. Plus, it’s better people meet her. If she keeps out of sight, even more lurid rumors are going to spread. So, take her out, turn on the charm, and try to get her to trust you. Also, watch out for anyone who might be trying to snatch her.”

“She’s not a mutant, you understand,” added Major Guillaume apologetically. “It’s all genetic engineering.”

Guillaume had clearly never seen images or vids of Rish, or he wouldn’t be under the impression that being asked to take her out on the town constituted some sort of penance. A phrase from a Barrayaran children’s tale came to mind: Oh no, please don’t throw me in the razor-grass patch.

With a carefully neutral expression, By looked across the table at his superiors. “I don’t know. You got my reports on my, uh, activities with certain people involved with the Vormoncrief case? I was sort of hoping to have a break from that kind of thing.”

McSorley looked genuinely sympathetic. “You don’t have to sleep with her if you don’t want to. It’s just a matter of taking her out and keeping an eye on her activities. You can put on a gay-best-friend act if you like, I know you can do that very convincingly. That might be the best thing, in fact, in terms of making her want to spend time with you without raising unnecessary complications.”

It was still unclear to Byerly whether he was supposed to be spying on Rish, guarding her, or simply showing her off, which struck him as an unnecessary complication in itself, but he decided not to complain. “You understand, of course, that the lady’s quite sophisticated, and used to being treated like a queen? I’m going to need a budget if I’m going to take her somewhere nice enough to make her want to spend time with me. Particularly since I’ve just been deprived of a pay raise.”

“Fair point,” said Guillaume, taking an ImpSec credit chit from his pocket.

McSorley was frantically, though nonverbally, trying to signal Guillaume. The meaning of his gestures was all too clear to By: NO NO NO DO NOT GIVE THIS MAN A CREDIT CHIT! Guillaume, fortunately, seemed oblivious, since he was looking at By and not McSorley. The lieutenants were biting their lips, looking down at the table, and generally trying not to roll around on the floor. Neither of them spoke up, from which By concluded that they had been betting on whether Vorrutyer or McSorley was going to win the next round. (It was a very strict rule, in games of that sort, that you didn’t intervene as events unfolded – not even when the man whose matrimonial prospects you were betting on decided to tie the knot a matter of days before his thirty-fifth birthday and made you be his witness.)

He pocketed the credit chit, and had his suspicions confirmed when one of the lieutenants made an obscene gesture under the table, and the other one smirked.

Then there were some more forms to fill out, and lots of questions about impossibly minor details from his reports from Komarr, half of which he’d already forgotten. At one point, someone turned up with a box of Service-issued ready-meals; they were as soggy and bland as usual, and there wasn’t anything to drink with them but soda. Really, if McSorley had to eat that sort of thing on a regular basis, no wonder he was usually in a bad mood. Still, By hadn’t actually had lunch, so he finished his anyway.

Some time later (between jump-lag and the windowless building, Byerly had long since lost track of time), McSorley looked sharply at him, ordered everyone else in the room to look at him too, and said, “For God’s sake find Vorrutyer somewhere he can get some sleep, and let him tell the rest to Lady Alys in the morning.” There were times when, in spite of everything, he had to like McSorley.

“Somewhere” turned out to be one of the witness apartments deep in the bowels of ImpSec. They were spartan, but clean and tolerably comfortable, and By tried not to think about how much he would rather be home. He threw himself onto the bed and fell into a thick, brain-fogged slumber.

* * *

Much too early in the morning, the janitor started rattling about in the corridor outside the apartment. Byerly rolled over and tried to ignore it for a few minutes, then decided he might as well get up in time to have a leisurely shower and a bit more time to dress. (Being properly groomed gave one a psychological advantage, something that had been distinctly lacking in his dealings with the officers on the previous day.)

He inspected himself critically in the mirror: a bit haggard, still, for a man who was about to go courting, but conversely, not nearly pale or exhausted enough for someone who was supposed to have been questioned all night under fast-penta. His employers always seemed to want him to be several contradictory things at once.

He got some dishwatery coffee in the cafeteria, and then went to turn in his expense report to Souzana in Accounting. The call girls were on ImpSec’s payroll as irregulars, and he’d filled out all the proper forms for that; he had receipts for enough liquor to float a boat; but Vormercier had also wanted drugs, and By hit an impasse when he had to explain to Souzana that juba pushers didn’t give receipts. He had explained this before, but it never took. The argument went through its usual permutations, ranging from “I had a discretionary budget of 80,000 marks for this project and all the right people signed off on it, so does the receipt part actually matter?” to “Well, there was a fellow asleep in a doorway just across the street, why don’t you go out and ask him whether juba pushers give receipts? I can guarantee you he’ll be able to confirm the current street price, too.”

In the end, she did call someone to confirm the price, only it was the Narcotics division of the municipal guards instead of the street-sleeper. Byerly had been doing admirably well at keeping a straight face, until Souzana asked, rather plaintively, “But are you absolutely sure they don’t give receipts?” and he could hear the guard laughing his head off at the other end of her wristcom. (You laughed in front of Souzana at your peril, since she always assumed people were laughing at her; to be fair, she was usually right.)

She also got stroppy about the fact that the price he’d filled in on his expense forms didn’t match the municipal guard’s quote, even though he’d given the Komarran street price, which was lower because it had to be smuggled through fewer wormhole jumps. As this seemed an absurd thing to argue about, he re-filled the forms and pocketed the difference between the Komarran and Barrayaran prices. It was, he thought, insufficient recompense for having to deal with Souzana.

He glanced at the time: nine-thirty, still another hour before his meeting with Lady Alys. Enough time to stop by the Records office, where his colleague Alain Anderson greeted him with undisguised pleasure. “Welcome home! I heard you were back, so I brought Contraband. They wouldn’t let his carrier through security, so you’ll have to pick him up at the side entrance.”

“Thanks for looking after him. Did your girls enjoy his visit?”

“So much that we’ve decided to get them a kitten for Winterfair.”

“You’ve got two daughters. Why not two kittens?”

“You know,” said Alain, “people warn me about you sometimes. They warn me that you are going to lead me down the road of excess and dissipation. And when you make outrageous suggestions like that, I start to believe them.” He poured coffee – good coffee, this time – without being asked, and produced a packet of biscuits from his desk. “How was Komarr?”

“Domed.”

“Come on, By!”

“Well, I didn’t really get to see a lot of the place. Um, parts of Solstice are like a regular city, just under domes, and they’re so high you don’t really think about it. Parts are more like a space station. If you’re in a high-rise you can see outside the domes – very bleak, and there are these fantastic rock formations. There are vid screens everywhere reminding you about breath-mask safety. There are a lot more women in the workforce, they do pretty much everything men do. And everybody, men and women, wears these loose trousers that aren’t very flattering on anyone, but the jackets and shawls are nice.”

He wasn’t sure whether those were the kinds of details Alain wanted, but Alain was taking it all in eagerly. “I’m jealous. I’ve never been anywhere.”

“I’m not sure I’ve been to Komarr, in any meaningful way. Mostly, I spent the whole time hanging out with the Vormercier crowd, who aren’t just a nest of vice and treason, they’re boring. And, I’d add, boring in peculiarly Barrayaran ways, so it wasn’t very different from hanging out with them here.”

“Well, you’ve been other places. You’ve even been to Earth.”

“Yes, when I was nineteen and stupid. You’ll get there someday, and you’ll make far better use of the opportunity than I did. Think about it, Alain: all those glorious works of art, millennia-old castles and cathedrals, battlefields ... and I spent my time experimenting with old-Earth intoxicants. I could have gone to see Shakespeare in London. I didn’t even go to see The Mousetrap, because I was too busy trying to find out what happens if you combine absinthe and hashish.”

“What does happen if you combine absinthe and hashish?”

“Well ... you know how the Galactic Narcotics section of the training manual says THC is an anti-nausea drug? It isn’t a very effective one.”

Alain laughed. “But – you didn’t have any money when you were nineteen. How’d you swing it?”

“The usual ways. Sponged off of people, borrowed, got an under-the-table job in a dodgy pub, traded sex for lodgings, maxed out a credit chit and then threw it away. That last isn’t a good idea, by the way, it turns out to impede your ability to borrow in the future.”

“But you saw it all as possible. Your kind of people are brought up to imagine possibilities. Mine aren’t. I was taught to imagine a respectable job, a secondhand groundcar, maybe the occasional holiday at a south coast resort if I saved very carefully.”

“There’s such a thing as imagining too many possibilities. Theo Vormercier, for instance, seems to have imagined himself all the way to life in maximum-security prison, if he’s lucky. If you’re going to romanticize something, Alain, don’t romanticize being impoverished-high-Vor. All it gives people is a foolish sense of entitlement.”

“Can I still romanticize travel? Tell me more about Komarr.”

“Well, the shopping’s very good ... That reminds me, I brought you a souvenir. Thank-you gift for cat-sitting.”

Of course it was one of those Komarran jackets, because the only thing more fun than dressing himself was dressing other people, and Alain was one of the few men of his acquaintance who permitted that sort of thing. (He’d had hopes of his cousin, Count Vorrutyer, but they’d been disappointed when Dono had declared himself to be thoroughly sick of thinking about clothes.) Besides, Alain had the sort of cornflower-blue eyes that demanded to be set off.

Alain examined the lining of the jacket. “Thank you, but – this is really good-quality, isn’t it? Handmade?”

“Of course. You think I'd buy you one of those knock-offs they sell at the souvenir stalls?”

“Can you even afford it?”

“Alain, sometimes you are the most hopeless prole. You don’t ask questions like that, particularly not when someone gives you a gift.”

“Sorry.” Alain looked momentarily abashed, then thoughtful. “Can I ask what sort of favor you expect in return, then?”

“In really high Vor circles, that would go unsaid ... But yes, you understand how the game is played.”

“What sort of favor do you expect in return?”

“Nothing terribly difficult. I need copies of as many vids as you can find of a gengineered dance troupe from Jackson’s Whole, known as the Jewels of House Cordonah.”

“Um. There’s been kind of a run on the originals, including some requests from ... very high up. I can get copies through my counterpart in Galactic Affairs, but it’ll take a while.”

“No problem. It’s no hurry, I can wait until they’re finished with them. Also, and I do need this as soon as you can manage it, I want you to look up whether there’s any precedent for hiring non-subjects of the Imperium as irregulars, or maybe even regular civilian operatives. I know it’s been done on the galactic side, but I want to know about Domestic Affairs.”

“Will do, but I don’t think that was a Komarran jacket’s worth of favors. You’re going to call in some more, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure yet what they are.”

“Good Lord, By, what are you planning?

“You’ve heard about these women, our two refugees ...?”

“Nobody here has been talking about anything else for the last week.”

“Right, well, I’ve been asked to take one of them out – the one who isn’t married to Ivan, obviously – accustom her to our strange backwater planet and vice versa, and keep an eye on her. The higher-ups seemed to be under the impression that this was some sort of hardship, and I didn’t disabuse them. Oh, I’d almost forgotten, look what I’ve got!”

Alain’s eyebrows shot up. “McSorley trusted you with a credit chit? After the last time?”

“Major Guillaume did. McSorley was frantically trying to signal him not to, but he didn’t pick it up in time.”

“I can just imagine,” said Alain, laughing. “Where are you taking her?”

“I was thinking Genevieve’s.”

Alain whistled. “Making the most of that credit chit, I see.”

“She’s gengineered. Enhanced senses. It would be criminal not to take her to Genevieve’s. Anyway, that’s part of what I’m planning. This girl’s going to need a job if she stays here much longer, and did you know she’s basically a trained operative already? It seems Baronne Cordonah had them all spying on her party guests. It would be a shame to let her go to waste. I’ve needed backup for ages, Alain, I wouldn’t have had to involve an outsider in this whole Vormercier business if I’d had proper support, and if I can get buy-in from the higher-ups, I think this woman is about the most ideal partner I can imagine.”

Alain was so astonished by this speech that he said nothing at all for a minute or so, and then, rather feebly, “Is it really true that she’s blue?

“A very attractive shade of blue, yes. It’s one of those things that should be all wrong, but just ... isn’t.”

“Ah. An ideal partner in more than one sense?”

“Maybe.”

Alain started to get a knowing look, as if this conversation were finally making sense to him. “I hate to say it, but I don’t see how you get buy-in from the higher-ups. McSorley has an anarchic streak, but he won’t bite because it’s you, and most of the others are hopelessly rule-bound. I think you might be better off taking the girl out, seeing if she likes you, and not trying to make things excessively complicated, just for a change. Always a bit dicey dating your colleagues anyway.”

“If I don’t succeed in making her my colleague, the alternative is surveillance subject.”

“Fair point, I guess that would make things ... awkward.”

“Yes. Rather.”

* * *

The security guard was pet-sitting not only Contraband, but a cage of white mice, which By’s cat was eyeing hungrily through the bars of his carrier. Byerly thought that he might almost be willing to eat mice. He glanced at the time again: exactly 26.7 hours since he’d landed at the shuttleport, a full Barrayaran day. He’d had exactly one thing that might generously be termed a meal during that time, unless you counted the fact that he’d just eaten Alain’s entire packet of biscuits. Alain, with his usual politeness, had not commented.

He collected the cat carrier and stepped outside onto the pavement. A light rain was falling; the fine, cold droplets made him feel awake and alive, in ways he hadn’t on climate-controlled Komarr. This was his city, and stepping out onto these streets still gave him the same feeling of liberation he’d had when he first came here as an unsophisticated kid from the rural west. A lot had changed since then; most of the experiences he’d thought he wanted had long since palled; but this never got old, the rush of traffic and the constant pulse of human activity, and the sense of being at the center of the world. If he hadn’t been burdened with a suitcase, an overnight bag, and a cat carrier, he would have been tempted to decline the ride and walk to Lady Alys’s; as it was, he stepped into the ImpSec groundcar with some regret.