When Commander Simon Illyan enters the headquarters of the Imperial garrison at Jalna in Vorhalas's District, he does so with three soldiers surrounding him and a nerve disruptor pressed to his back.
Simon finds something strangely reassuring in the plain, clean military corridors, entirely unlike the opulent halls of the Imperial Residence. Walking through them, he can pretend for a moment that he is back in the world of the ordinary military, the world he’d joined up for; the world he’d belonged to, briefly, before he'd ever set foot in the Residence.
The pretence lasts only for a fraction of a second before his chip brings him back to reality. Men pass him in the corridors, giving him suspicious stares as they go by. Simon matches their faces to names, ranks, chains of command. His chip supplies an organizational chart of this sector’s military, and with every step he marks off names in brown and silver. It is irrelevant. Simon knows he will leave this place either dead or forsworn.
He is led to an empty office. He is not offered a seat, and the nerve disruptor prevents him from taking one. He stands there for five minutes before the door opens.
Simon needs no chip to recognize Admiral Rulf Vorhalas; still less does he need one to recognize Admiral Count Vorkosigan. But as Vorkosigan steps into the room, Simon focuses on him, and without any will on Simon’s part his chip supplies an image to match the face: Vorkosigan striding down the corridors of the Residence a year ago, his steps firm and his expression set, only his shoulders bowed as if by a great weight. Simon had watched Vorkosigan then and wished that he could follow that man to Escobar. But he had known that his dreams of ship duty were impossible, known that his place was at Ezar’s side.
That had been before the news of the disaster from the front. Before Simon had entered Ezar's office to find his body slumped over the desk. Simon sees it now, as clearly as if it had happened a second instead of a year ago. Every line on Ezar’s face. That image is a stark, sharp barrier that divides Simon’s life into two parts, before that day and after. After had been, in rapid succession, Crown Prince Serg’s return to Barrayar, Simon’s promotion, and Simon’s nightmares.
The third person to enter the room surprises Simon. He had not expected to meet the Betan Countess Vorkosigan. He looks at her curiously, standing by her husband’s side. The price on her head is as high as her husband’s; Serg still rages over the murder of Ges Vorrutyer.
“Commander Simon Illyan, sir,” says the guard. “Of the Emperor’s” – he spits out the word like poison – “security staff.”
Vorkosigan’s gaze fixes on Simon, and Simon comes to attention and salutes. The list of his treasons adds up in his head; the punishment for saluting either of these two men is death. But Simon had earned a death sentence the moment he’d left his post in Vorbarr Sultana for Vorhalas’s rebellious District. Not even Serg can kill him more than once.
“Admiral Count Vorkosigan,” he says. “I have to inform you, sir, that your location has been compromised.”
Vorhalas raises an eyebrow. “Clearly.”
Simon goes on. “The Emperor knows where you are, sir. Imperial forces will attack Jalna within the next two hours." Vorhalas pales at that. "You need to evacuate yourself and your people at once. I’ve been able to clear a route for you to Tanery Base. The commander there is your ally, I believe.”
Vorhalas and Vorkosigan both tense at this unexpected knowledge. Simon can see all of them wondering whether to trust him. Yes, he thinks, there is blood on my hands. Almost literally - Simon’s chip-memory would supply the blood. It would supply, if Simon allowed it to, the screams of the dying, the bodies of the dead, fires raging through Vorbarr Sultana. Simon thinks the chip would break him, if he let his control slip for a moment.
“What do you offer us, Commander?” asks Admiral Vorhalas.
“Whatever you want," Simon answers. "Whatever I can. I can’t get past the Emperor’s armsmen, but I can give you information. In the end - the Residence.”
Vorhalas’s eyebrows fly up. “And in exchange?” he asks skeptically.
Simon takes a deep breath. “Sir," he says. "I have an Illyrican memory chip implanted in my head. It can store and replay my memories on demand. It was put in by Imperial order. When this is over, I request – I request that I be permitted to have it removed, if it is medically possible to do so.”
Vorkosigan’s gaze on Simon becomes, if possible, a hundred times more intense. Simon averts his eyes. Vorkosigan knows why he wants the chip removed. The Count and Countess Vorkosigan look at each other for a long moment, seeming to exchange thoughts without any words.
“He is a traitor,” Vorhalas says quietly.
“Aren’t we all?” Vorkosigan returns. He turns his hand over slowly, palm up, and Simon knows that the decision has been taken. "Begin the evacuation," he orders. "And as for you, Commander, return to the capital. We will get in touch with you soon. Wait for your orders."
When Simon receives his orders, he is taken aback. He had not expected them to come from the lips of a young and beautiful Vor lady at the Emperor’s ball. But Lady Vorpatril tells Simon what information she needs and when she needs it, and Simon gives it to her and goes on doing so.
Simon hides people, damages evidence, saves lives. He knows he saves lives. He even thinks he’s saved more than he’s taken. On some days, that knowledge comforts him. On some days, it is nowhere near enough.
It’s not enough in the week after Vordarian’s plot breaks. That is a week of seventeen executions in the Great Square, and other executions not in the Great Square. Standing close to the Emperor throughout that week, Simon contemplates, several times, pulling out his nerve disruptor. But Serg is surrounded by a circle of Vorbarra armsmen, and Simon has replayed their practice sessions in his head, has measured their reaction times. He knows it would be a futile gesture.
In the end, Empress Kareen is dead, and Serg’s son looks at Simon with an expression that Simon doesn’t want to remember, and there is nothing he can do. When the Emperor requires his presence no longer, Simon sits alone in his office and opens a bottle. He shouldn’t drink, not on duty, but he needs numbness. It’s not enough, though. Alcohol doesn’t interfere with his chip. Simon would give anything to not have the damned chip.
He needs something that would interfere with the chip. A nerve disruptor would do the job, Simon thinks idly, and he finds himself taking the weapon from his belt and turning it over in his hands. There should be nothing to hold him back; his oath is already shattered and ground into dust. But he does not pull the trigger.
He waits for his orders.
When his orders come, they come in the person of Countess Vorkosigan herself, marching into Simon’s office dressed in servant’s garb and carrying a swordstick on a tray.
“He’s kidnapped my daughter,” is all she says, and then Simon finds himself running, and afterwards he is not entirely certain what happened next.
He remembers finding the infant Lady Olivia. He remembers realizing that it was a trap, remembers Serg entering the room with an expression of vivid, cruel delight on his face. One look at him had told Simon that his cover was broken. He remembers feeling nothing but a weary relief.
After that, Simon cannot say clearly what happened. He thinks he fired a nerve disruptor. He thinks he fought the Emperor's armsmen. He is fairly certain that at some stage they had set fire to the Residence.
This has never happened to Simon before, this confusion. At first he fears that his chip is malfunctioning, but it isn’t. Simon is capable of replaying his memories and seeing for himself what happened, only he can’t, because all his memory is devoted to one image. The swordstick’s blade falling. The surprised expression on the Emperor's face. And blood, once more, on Simon’s hands.
The Countess and her daughter are gone, and Simon is left to put out the fire. He whispers the news of the Emperor's death in the right ears, and watches as the fighting begins. He diverts troops from the beseiged Ministry to the Residence, waiting until Grishnov is dead before he allows them to move. Simon controls the Residence now. No one can enter; no one can leave. Droushnakovi gives him a look that is part fear and part helpless anger as she realizes what he is doing and why, but Simon has not given his oath to Serg Vorbarra’s son.
Simon does not send troops to guard ImpSec. He has already removed the necessary files from ImpSec's archives. The evidence will be preserved. The guilty will be tried for their crimes. Except for him.
Two days after Vorbarr Sultana falls, Simon is summoned to the Emperor’s office. Eight people are seated around the room. The Count and Admiral Vorhalas, Minister Quintillan, Admiral Kanzian, and Lieutenant Koudelka look at him with steady curiosity as he enters. Cordelia Vorkosigan smiles at him, and Lady Alys Vorpatril gives him a polite, acknowledging nod.
Vorkosigan is seated in the center, and Simon notes the way all their eyes are drawn to him. Indeed, he thinks, all revolves around him now. Apart from Vorkosigan himself, there is very little of a formal planetary government on Barrayar at the moment. This unofficial council has been giving all the orders for the last two days, and everyone obeys them.
The war is over, and with it Simon’s job. He goes to one knee before Vorkosigan.
“Commander Illyan,” Vorkosigan says. “I have spoken to the surgeons at ImpMil, and they have spoken to the surgeons on Illyrica. They have informed me that they are confident that they can remove your memory chip without any permanent damage.”
Simon releases a long, slow breath. “Thank you, Sire.” It truly is over. He will get the chip removed at last. He will leave the Service and go somewhere peaceful and far away, some place where he can try to forget.
“However,” Vorkosigan continues sharply, and Simon looks up, his eyes drawn upward by the tone of that voice like steel to a magnet.
“I find that I need a security service, Commander, and I don’t have one at present. What I have is a mess. I have a collection of men who don’t talk to each other, don’t trust each other, and who I wouldn’t trust further than I could throw." He pauses for a long time, watching Simon.
"I need," he says softly, "a Chief of Imperial Security who I can trust. Captain Illyan.”
Vorkosigan takes out a pair of blue Captain’s tabs and lays them on the table before him. Simon blinks and stares at them for several moments before he understands what is happening.
“Sire,” he says, shaken. “You want me to take over ImpSec?”
“No,” replies Vorkosigan. “I want you to tear ImpSec down to its foundations. I want you to break it apart and throw everything out and rebuild it from scratch. I suggest you start from the Residence security staff and work your way outwards; I will not bring my son to the capital until I can be certain of his safety.”
He pauses for a moment. “I do not-” his lips twist suddenly as if over an unpleasant word – “I do not request and require this, Commander. You can go to ImpMil right now and get that chip taken out of your head. You can then take an honorable discharge on medical grounds, if that is your wish. Or you can stay and serve. Your choice.”
“Sire," Simon manages to say. "I’m hardly qualified for that job.” From the corner of his eye he sees several smiles. He is not, he realizes, the first to say those words.
Vorkosigan exchanges a sardonic look with his wife. “Commander, every single one of us in this room is doing a job we’re not qualified for. I need someone to do this. You can. Will you?”
Simon stares at him and tries to think. Vorkosigan means it, he knows. Simon can get rid of the chip at last. He can walk away from it all, from this world of blood and madness, and no one will stop him.
Or he can serve. Simon's mind is reeling, and try as he might, he cannot understand. Vorkosigan has men who were loyal to him from the beginning. He knows what Simon is and what he's done. Yet he offers this. Simon remains kneeling in the center of the room, and Vorkosigan's words play over in his head.
Honorable discharge, Vorkosigan had said. But it would not be honorable except in name.
Simon can run away from his duty with the memories of the past two years. Or he can serve. He can give to Vorkosigan the service he had once hoped to give to Ezar, had never truly given to Serg. Simon lifts his head and looks up at Vorkosigan, and he sees a second chance.
Slowly, ceremonially, without saying a word, he raises his hands and places them between Vorkosigan’s.