Alys followed Simon out of the stealthed shuttle and into the abandoned freighter. The freighter's passages were dark and musty, and she could hardly see anything in front of her. She stepped forward, then stumbled back as she bumped into something hard.
Simon caught her elbow, steadying her. "Careful, Milady," he said. Alys heard a soft rustling as he searched in his pocket. Then he drew out a small light and turned it on.
Alys stared at the piles of boxes in front of her. She turned around slowly, seeing boxes on all sides, packing the entire freighter from floor to ceiling. Very carefully, she went forward and opened one, reaching under the lid to find a coarse, powdery substance.
She held up a pinch to Simon. He came close to her and examined it carefully, then took her hand and sniffed at the powder in her fingers. "Hell," he whispered. "Explosives."
Alys closed the box at once, dusting her hands even as Simon raised his wristcom to his lips. He flipped it open, revealing the second wristcom concealed inside. "Doctor M?" he said. "Ghost was right, this is an emergency. The whole ship is an orbital bomb. We need a safe route to bring it down--" He paused, then stared down at his wrist as the comm crackled and died. "We're being jammed--"
Alys jumped back as she heard the sound of footsteps approaching, turning herself invisible by reflex. Around her, the room seemed to fade a little as it always did when she used her power, the colors less bright and the lines slightly blurred, as if she had drawn a veil to cover herself.
Simon was slower. A tangle-field shot out from behind them and caught him in its glittering strands, dragging him to the ground.
A thin, gray-haired man came into view, trailed by a group of armed men. He was dressed in a garish house uniform of violet and gold that made Alys wince, and his lips curled into a sinister smile as he saw Simon. "Welcome, Captain," he said. "Your timing is, as usual, perfect."
Simon stopped struggling against the tangle-field and looked up. "You won't get away with this, Count Vortrifrani."
"No?" said Vortrifrani, smiling even more. "I already have, Captain. Soon there will be nothing left of the Imperial Residence but a smoking crater. Soon I will be Emperor, and the galactic decadence of the past years will come to an end. It is time for Barrayar to return to the old ways of the Vor." He laughed at the thought, rubbing his hands together.
Alys stepped silently around the guards until she was standing directly behind one of them. Slowly, she reached out for the stunner in his holster. Vortrifrani was paying no attention, staring at Simon with eyes lit by triumph. "What a pity, Captain," he said softly, "that you will not survive to see it."
He raised a nerve disruptor and fired, and Simon crumpled. Alys went very still, suppressing a gasp.
"But before I leave this ship to crash into the Residence..." Vortrifrani deactivated the tangle-field and approached Simon, "I will find out who you really were, Captain Lightning." He reached out with one hand to remove the mask covering Simon's face.
Alys drew the stunner and fired at the man holding Simon. He fell, and at the same instant Simon moved, kicking one man's legs out from beneath him, taking the nerve disruptor from his hand, shooting a second guard and finally coming up pointing the weapon at Vortrifrani, all in one fluid motion. Alys paused to admire him as he stood there with his dark cape billowing around him; elegant, as well as reinforced with disruptor-proof fibers.
A disruptor's beam missed Alys by a whisker, and she abruptly realized that a stunner floating in mid-air was an easy target. She dodged sideways and concentrated hard for an instant. This should not be difficult, she told herself; after all, her clothes became invisible when she did, which was most fortunate. It followed logically that she could extend her invisibility to any object she touched.
The stunner became clear, vivid in her eyes, and the men looked around, wide-eyed and frightened as it disappeared from their sight. Alys fired twice more, and then it was over.
Vortrifrani's face twisted into a furious snarl, and he pulled out a small remote control from his pocket. Before Simon could act, he had pressed the button. Alys and Simon both looked up as the metallic voice of the ship's computer sounded above their heads.
"Five seconds to atmospheric entry," it said.
Vortrifrani turned and fled down the passage even as Simon stopped dead in his tracks.
Alys became visible again. Simon paled and raised his wristcom to his lips. "Ghost," he said desperately, "what the hell are we supposed to do now?"
Jole's voice came over the link, somehow managing to sound as calm and composed as ever. "Emergency control panel, sir," he said. "In the wall on your right. Don't panic, you'll know what to do."
"Three." Simon darted across the room and pried a panel loose from the wall, looking very panicked anyway. "Two..."
The ship lurched sideways, and Alys caught the wall to steady herself. Simon worked at a frenzied pace, pulling wires from the wall. "One..."
Simon pressed down a switch, and all of a sudden the ship steadied itself. "Orbit stabilized," came the voice, and Simon heaved a long sigh of relief and collapsed back against the wall.
Alys went over to him and caught his arm, steadying him in turn. "Well done," she said. And then, feeling that more was deserved, "That was brilliant, Captain."
Simon's eyes lit up, and he smiled at her. "Thank you, Milady," he said, bowing slightly. Then, still smiling, he reached back to the wall and flipped a switch, opening the Yarrow's intercom. "Count Vortrifrani," he announced, sounding almost happy. "Your plan has failed again."
Vortrifrani's furious shout echoed down the passage. "Curse you, Captain Lightning!"
"Ejecting lifepod," said the ship's computer. Then: "Lifepod ejected."
"Damn!" said Simon angrily, slamming down the intercom switch. "He's gotten away again. And we can't even pin anything on him without revealing ourselves. He'll be covering his tracks before the Council of Counts lets ImpSec get anywhere near him."
"Not so easily," Alys replied. "No matter what he does, he'll be finished as leader of the conservatives after this. And if he should chance to go around babbling about invisible people... well, that will hardly help his reputation." She smiled at him and stroked his arm soothingly. "You have won, my dear."
Simon gave her an intent look, and Alys fell silent and stepped back from him, removing her hand. She'd been growing too close to Simon in the last few months, she knew. It was hard to keep a decorous distance when they were saving each other's lives every other week, when she had come to see him for the hero he truly was. And she had seen Simon's eyes when he thought she wasn't looking.
They both knew they could not give in to those desires, could not afford to be seen behaving indiscreetly. They were too close to the center of power; the smallest rumour could create a scandal that would damage the government. And as this entire incident had demonstrated, they were both necessary for the safety of the Empire.
"Well," Simon said at last, breaking the uncomfortable silence. "It looks like we're done up here, Milady. I suppose we should get back to the planet." He offered her his arm, and slowly, an idea began to form in Alys's mind.
"Perhaps not just yet," she murmured. Simon looked at her uncertainly. "Milady, we need to get back before the orbital defence team turns up. And Gregor will expect me to report at the Residence--"
Alys switched on her own secret wristcom and connected to Minister Racozy. "Tornado? All clear, but we need a distraction. Would you please go to the Residence and keep Gregor busy for the next, oh, half an hour? And while you're at it, you might keep orbital security away from the Yarrow."
"We will go back a little later," she promised Simon. "Right now, I want to try a small experiment." She became invisible, and the world around her faded again. Simon stood still in his place, his eyes moving back and forth as he tried to understand where she was.
Alys stepped closer to him, and then closer still, until their bodies were touching. "Alys," he breathed, his eyes widening as he reached confusedly for her.
She traced her hands up Simon's arms, weaving a cocoon of invisibility around his body, and abruptly, he came into clear, sharp focus in her eyes. The rest of the world remained faded behind its dull veil. "What--" Simon began, confused, then stopped, his eyes fixed on hers, and Alys knew that he saw her clearly. She smiled, and slowly, Simon began to smile back.
They couldn't create a scandal, she thought, if no one could see them.