"Simon," said Lady Alys firmly, "I refuse to take another step unless you tell me where we are going."
“It was meant to be a surprise, milady,” Simon replied, a faint smile hovering on his face. “As I recall, you agreed to that.”
Alys tightened her lips. She had indeed agreed to that. She would have agreed to anything after seeing Gregor walk into the Residence this morning. But Gregor was safe now, Aral and Miles were safe, the Cetagandans were defeated, and Alys had been so exhausted and relieved to see the end of this crisis that when Simon had offered to take her out to dinner, she had accepted without asking where.
After ten minutes of walking through the darkest, narrowest alleys of the caravanserai, she was beginning to regret that decision. She tightened her grip on Simon’s arm and walked faster, her steps echoing on the old cobblestones.
“Here we are,” Simon said at last. Alys looked up to see a small, dilapidated building at the end of the road. Then she stopped, recognizing the man who stood leaning against the wall.
"Good evening, Captain. Milady," said Lieutenant Jole. He took Alys’s hand and bowed low over it, as elegantly as though he were welcoming her to Vorkosigan House. He was not wearing his Service greens, but a strange black uniform that Alys had never seen before.
"Good evening, Lieutenant," she replied, not changing her expression in the least. She glanced up at Simon. No doubt there would be a good explanation for this.
"This way, please." Jole ushered Alys and Simon inside, taking Alys’s wrap and Simon’s coat. Alys found herself in a small room with dusty furniture and paint peeling off the walls. Jole held open a door in one corner. To her surprise, it opened into a shining metal lift-tube. She stepped in, Simon following after her, and the door slid shut.
“Well, Captain?” Alys asked coolly as they shot down. “This does not appear to be a restaurant, nor one of your usual ImpSec offices. May I ask what I am doing here?”
Simon’s posture was tense, his eyes uncomfortable. “Alys, please trust me on this. I know I brought you here under false pretences, but it is important. Believe me, I had no choice."
Alys softened a little. But even if this was some sort of ImpSec operation, Simon should have told her in advance. Ever since the incident with the gravitic torpedo, Simon had known better than to keep such things secret from her if they intersected with her social territory.
The door opened. Alys gasped as Simon and Jole led her out into a huge underground chamber. Vast screens and monitors lined the far wall, and a sleek black armored lightflyer was parked in the middle. Even Alys could tell that it was the very latest technology. And heavily armed, too. Above it, the closed hatch of a flight tube formed the center of a domed ceiling.
“What in the world is this?" she asked. "Does ImpSec have a secret base under the caravanserai, Simon? And why are you here, Lieutenant Jole?”
Jole cleared his throat. “Actually, milady, this isn’t ImpSec at all. And, ah…” he looked faintly embarrassed. “In this building, I go by ‘Golden Ghost’.”
Alys stopped and stared at him for a second. “Excuse me, Lieutenant?"
Jole gestured to where six men and one woman were waiting in front of the lightflyer. All of them wore flashy black suits identical to Jole’s. Alys blinked in surprise as she recognized Minister Racozy. And – she froze – Gregor's youngest armsman, Gerard.
Every muscle in Alys’s body tensed. She discarded the first thought as soon as it entered her mind - Simon would never be involved in any sort of treasonous plot, far less involve her in it. But then...
The woman came forward and shook Alys’s hand. “Lady Alys Vorpatril, I presume? You may call me Doctor M."
Alys gave her a long, steady look. Jole grinned. "The M is for Mehta."
Alys had had enough. "You may call me milady,” she said. “Until someone explains to me who you are and what you are all doing here. And what I am doing here.” She shot a glare at Simon.
Mehta smiled. “Gladly, milady. You already know many of us – at least, you think you do. What you do not know is that we all have one thing in common. The so-called Illyrican memory chip.”
“It’s true,” said Simon. “I was Ezar's eighth attempt. These are the first seven.”
“I was the fifth,” said Mehta. “After four failures of the memory chip in men, Emperor Ezar decided that the next attempt should be on a woman auxiliary. It failed anyway." She swept her hand to indicate the rest of the group. “All of us, until Captain Illyan, were supposed failures. Our brains reacted against the chip, and we showed no signs of improved memory. Only our surgeons decided not to kill us." Her lips curled in anger. "They kept us alive - as test subjects."
“That sounds… most unpleasant,” said Alys carefully.
“It was,” said Mehta. “Fortunately for us, we escaped. It was not so fortunate for our doctors. Some of us returned to Barrayar under false names, while others took asylum on Beta Colony. I eventually became a therapist in the Betan Survey; but privately, I conducted my own experiments. It was five years before I found out the truth. Lady Alys, the Illyrican memory chip is not a memory chip at all.”
“Indeed?” asked Alys, raising her eyebrows. “What is it, then?”
“A device that amplifies the brain’s latent psychic powers." Mehta smiled. "I, for example, can sense people’s reactions before they happen. It proved to be quite useful in my profession. Others among us have acquired more… interesting abilities.” She turned to Minister Racozy. “Tornado, will you please give Lady Alys a demonstration?”
Racozy raised a hand and closed his eyes in concentration. The black lightflyer began to rise from its landing pad.
“Still not convinced,” said Mehta.
Racozy raised his other hand, and to her shock, Alys felt herself rising into the air. She fought down the impulse to scream. “Very well,” she said calmly, when she was hovering about a foot above the floor. “I am convinced, Minister. Now let me down, please.”
Racozy returned Alys gently to the floor. She immediately spun to face Simon. “Does Gregor know about this?” she demanded. “Does Aral know about this?”
Jole and Simon looked acutely uncomfortable. “No, milady,” Simon replied. “All of us have been laboratory subjects once. We have no intention of allowing that again. But I promise you that we work for the good of Barrayar. Listen." He turned to Armsman Gerard. “Sentinel reads minds. We put him in his present position after Vordrozda. Now he defends the Emperor from at least five potential threats, of one sort or another, every month. Do you remember the double agent who passed information to us in the Third Cetagandan War? There was no agent. Specter is capable of remotely viewing anything in a radius of twenty light-years, including the enemy fleet. Aral would never have won the war without us. In fact, he might have died long ago, if not for Doctor M's intervention.”
“How long has this been going on?” Alys demanded. "How long have you been lying to all of us, Captain Illyan?"
“Years. Decades.” He paused, as if fighting with his next words. “When I went to Escobar with the fleet - protecting Aral was not my only mission. Phantom here was ADC to the commander of the Escobaran fleet. Between the two of us, we made sure that Prince Serg’s flagship was destroyed in battle.”
Alys stared at him, truly horrified for the first time. “You…”
“We work for the good of Barrayar,” Simon said softly. “Sometimes we do things that need to stay hidden from official eyes. It’s best for everyone that our existence remains a secret.”
"And what will you do," she asked, forcing her voice to remain steady, "if I repeat this entire story to Aral tomorrow morning?"
Simon smiled suddenly. "I'd be there just to see his reaction. He might actually believe it, coming from you. But it won’t happen, milady."
A short, gray haired man, about fifty years old, took Alys's hand and bowed over it. His manner seemed strangely familiar to Alys, even though she had never seen him before. “Good evening, milady. We have met several times in the last few months. You know me as Ensign Anton Vorlakail. Here, I am Chameleon.”
Alys stared. Only a handful of people knew that one Ensign Anton Vorlakail had spent the last several months pretending to be the Emperor of Barrayar.
He sighed. “Lady Alys, I don't look the least bit like the Emperor. I'm not even an ensign. I just modified everyone's memory so that after meeting me, they thought they'd met the Emperor.”
“I... see,” Alys said weakly. She pinched her arm. Nothing happened.
“Lady Alys,” said Doctor Mehta, “we have an offer to make you. Should you refuse, Chameleon will ensure that you remember nothing of this, Simon will take you home, and you will suffer no ill-effects from this evening. But we ask that you listen to us."
"You see," Simon began, "All these years, we thought we could keep the Empire safe. And then Gregor went and disappeared and took us all by surprise. All nine of us working together were barely able to prevent a civil war from breaking out."
Mehta nodded. "This fiasco has made it clear that there are too many threats to Barrayar for us to handle on our own. We need to recruit new members. And Captain Illyan has recommended you very highly.”
It took a minute for her words to sink in. Then - “You want to implant a memory chip into me?” Alys backed away rapidly. Her Vorfemme knife was in her boot; her hand went for the stunner concealed in her jacket. “Simon, what-”
“No!” Simon raised his hands. “Never, milady. No chip.”
"As Simon says," said Mehta reassuringly. "There would be no surgery. We intend to induce the same effect as the chip, but with direct chemical stimulus. ” She held up a small hypospray.
“And you intend to turn me into – what?” A woman with a silly name and a black jumpsuit?
“We can’t say for certain,” Simon explained. “The chip affects each person differently, depending on their natural tendencies. When I went to Illyrica, I already had a good memory and an attention to detail. It will not change who you are, Alys.” He lowered his voice. “It will make you more than you can ever imagine.”
Jole cleared his throat. “This process has already been tested, milady. I can assure you that it is safe.” He smiled. “It turned out to be precognition, in my case. When the Prime Minister jokes about me being supernaturally courteous, it’s not merely a figure of speech.”
"'Superneurological' is the word I prefer," said Mehta.
Alys stared back and forth. "Simon," she whispered. What are you doing?
Simon caught her arm and drew her away from the rest of the group. “Milady – Alys," he said. "I know I’ve taken you by surprise. But please, give this offer careful consideration. We’ve thought and thought before choosing you. We need you. And Barrayar needs you.”
Alys looked back at him, at all of them watching her. She could not deny the truth of his words. Gregor’s disappearance had shown all of them how easily the whole Empire could fall into disaster, without people who had the power to hold it up. If Alys needed to be such a person - if that was what it took to keep the Empire safe - then she would do whatever it took to be that person. Her mind was already racing, possibilities unfolding before her as she contemplated the future.
A thought struck her. “You didn’t tell me your code name.”
Color rose in Simon’s face. “It's, er...”
Alys raised an eyebrow. “Captain Lightning,” Simon said in a rush.
She looked at him incredulously. "Captain Lightning?"
Simon shrugged his shoulders. "I was young. I thought it sounded dashing."
“Did you? And do you have one of those black uniforms as well?”
“Ah… yes," he admitted. "It’s hanging in a secret compartment in my closet.”
Alys shuddered briefly. “I will not be seen wearing those things, not even for Barrayar.” She paused, thinking. “Very well,” she said at last. “I accept your offer, on two conditions. I intend to redesign the uniforms.”
Simon’s eyes had lit up at her words. “I suppose we can do that,” he murmured, his lips curling into a smile. “And the second condition?”
Alys caught his hands in hers. “That you take me out to dinner now,” she told him. “You did promise. I don’t intend to let you escape so easily. After this, Simon, you owe me the finest dinner in Vorbarr Sultana.”