John Reese, slumped against a filthy wall in the warren that was Vorbarr Sultana's caravanserai district, dizzy and half-stunned with rotgut liquor, had pretty much decided he didn't care about anything anymore. He certainly didn't care about words. He'd heard lots of them, in the weeks since he'd arrived in this city that would never be home but was a good place to drink himself to death, because no one cared; no one owned him here; and the natives were used to the spectacle of slow suicide. He'd heard drunk (true) and beggar (not true) and reprobate, degenerate, wastrel, which all amused him; he'd forgotten there were places on Barrayar where people still used words like that. He'd heard the words in English, Russian, French and Greek. They all rolled off him like the rain that seemed to be constantly falling, this bitter autumn before the winter he intended to be his last.
Except one. There was one word he wouldn't take.
He squinted up at the man who'd spoken the word. A slight, bespectacled man, older than himself, though not by much. Not age lines in that face, but pain lines. Reese hadn't seen the man walking, but he could tell from the way he held himself that there was something wrong with him. Mutant? he wondered first, and then decided no. Injured. Nerve disruptor damage, maybe, or just old-fashioned physical trauma. He didn't appear to be armed, though he wore a loose-fitting coat buttoned up high on his neck, under which he could be hiding anything short of a rocket launcher.
It didn't matter. Reese could take him piss-drunk and one-handed, and he didn't care about getting shot. Innate caution, however, told him to be sure of his target before he aimed himself at it.
"What did you call me?" he growled.
"I said 'Armsman,'" the man repeated in clear, precise tones.
"That's what I thought," said Reese. In three seconds, he'd unfolded from his dreary slump, sprung to his feet, and thrown the man hard against the wall. Holding him there by both shoulders, he put his face close. "Don't call me that," he said between his bared teeth. "No one calls me that."
"Very well then," said the man, paused, and added, "Mr. Reese."
It was not a common mode of address for Barrayarans. Cultural instinct preferred the rank, the title, the professional courtesy of specific labels. Reese had long ago given up professionalism and courtesy, even before he'd sacrificed his job. "Mister" was more than he deserved. He eased his grip a little.
"And how do you know my name?" he asked, not really caring.
"Sources," said the man. "You may call me Mr. Finch, by the way."
"I wasn't planning to call you anything. I was planning to kick you in the head a few times and leave you for the wolves." Or just to walk away and go to ground; it was child's play to hide, in the caravanserai.
"Ah," said Finch. "I see. I'm sorry."
"Sorry about what?"
"That the drink has already managed to erode your curiosity this far. I'd have thought the man who sniffed out the Katsaros hit squad before they could assassinate his Count would retain... more of a sense of wonder about his world."
Finch, it seemed, was just as suicidal as Reese. Knowing about that epic fuck-up, that black hole of skillful competence, that triumph that Reese would never stop regretting, was one thing, and a highly unusual thing at that. Daring to mention it, now; that would be Finch's fatal mistake.
"And I wonder why you're still here," Reese breathed.
"The grip you have on my collar might have something to do with it."
He wasn't holding Finch's collar. Although he'd be happy to start strangling him any time now, his hands were still braced hard against Finch's shoulders. He loosened his grasp and unbuttoned the highest button on Finch's overcoat, pushing the fabric aside.
Pale flesh, a prominent Adam's apple, and the green serge of dress uniform. Reese tore at the coat until he revealed, on either side of Finch's collar, the silver Horus eyes that meant Imperial Security.
"Shit," he hissed. He snatched his hands away from Finch as if they'd caught fire. The only choice he had now was to knock the man out and run, get away and hope like hell that Finch's backup squad wasn't right on top of him. He drew back his fist for the punch, and felt the prick of the hypospray in his opposite arm; he staggered, fell, and everything went black.
When he came back to himself, he was looking at the stained ceiling of an unfamiliar room. He listened to the slum symphony outside its windows for a moment: the tinkle of glassware in a bar welcoming the evening shift of tipplers; the muted animal grunts and harsh smacks that meant someone was being beaten for both punishment and pleasure; the bells of the little Greek church a few streets away. He'd been hearing the same concert of sounds before Finch found him, so they hadn't gone very far.
Next, he assessed his physical condition. Heavy limbs, sick headache, but he could move fast if he needed to, and he wasn't tied to the bed, or restrained in any way. His back felt bruised, his ass, the backs of his legs: Finch had dragged him here, probably up a flight of stairs. He wished he'd been there to see it. So, likely he was in the building he'd been leaning against, one of those ancient Vor mansions long abandoned to whatever low forms of life wished to colonize them: squatters, prostitutes and, apparently, ImpSec officers. Lone ImpSec officers, or he would have been carried up those stairs.
"What do you want from me?" he said out loud, to test his voice as much as to communicate. A bit slurred still, but serviceable.
"Nothing you don't wish to give, Mr. Reese," said Finch. A curiously ambiguous statement, Reese thought, and then he made himself sit up and swing his legs to the floor. Finch was seated, bolt upright, in an armchair upholstered in worn floral-patterned cloth. He didn't look exactly at ease, but he didn't look scared either, and his uniform might have been freshly pressed. "I thought you might be able to help me," he added.
"Help you," Reese echoed. "You want my help" – he peered at the insignia – "Lieutenant?" A low rank for a man Finch's age, but ImpSec could be odd that way. Their current chief held the rank of Captain, as had his predecessor, and commensurate lack of power had seldom been a problem for either. "Or, alternatively," he said, "I could break your neck and walk out of here."
Finch produced a stunner from behind his back. "I would hate to have to use it," he said. "I deplore weapons, even the non-lethal variety. And it would be inconvenient to wait for you to wake up. Again."
And he already felt like shit; he didn't need a stunner migraine on top of it. No one ever hesitated to use a stunner, either. He relaxed clenched fists and said, "I'd hate to cause you inconvenience. Tell me what you want. We'll have a discussion."
"I want to give you a job."
"ImpSec wants to hire me?"
Finch spoke, out loud, his own inner self-assessment. "A drunk? A self-hating derelict, a traitor and a murderer, a disgrace even to the utterly disgraced uniform you wore? Yes, Armsman Reese; and that was, until last autumn, your name, your rank, your self-identity: the most loyal defender of Count Vordarian. Until you betrayed him, that is, a gesture of rectitude and great personal sacrifice, but that information is, unfortunately for you, deeply classified." Finch paused for breath, blinking owlishly behind his spectacles. "And I didn't say ImpSec wanted you. I do."
Captain Simon Illyan strode along the greenly-lit, oddly clammy corridors in the belly of his treasure house, his prize, his dreary albatross of an edifice. It was spring outside; to those buried in here, the sunshine might have belonged to another world. Before the fateful day two autumns ago, in the middle of the war of Vordarian's Pretendership, when he'd been handed the job of Imperial Security Chief on a platter stained with Captain Negri's blood, he'd joked with his fellows about "the bowels of ImpSec HQ." He didn't use that phrase any longer; it felt too... viscerally accurate. Some days he expected to see the walls dripping mucus, and he was, alas, quite used to running into obstructions.
The man he was about to visit was not one of those. To think of him as a laxative would be to carry the metaphor too far, but he was certainly one of Simon's more efficient employees. And among the less obviously mysterious.
Harold Finch had grown up in Vorsmythe's District, son of a metal worker and a cook; had attended a technical college there, studying computer engineering and receiving stellar marks; had worked for various manufacturing firms before Negri, in one of his last business-as-usual acts before the usual went temporarily (and Negri permanently) belly-up, had recruited him. Personally. But then everything had been personal with Negri.
Simon's memory chip reproduced for him a perfect eidetic image of Finch's CV and the cross-checks made to verify it. It was advantageous to be able to hold all the information in his head at once; other people just saw parts of totality, missed the overall pattern. There was something wrong in Finch's pattern, but Simon hadn't yet isolated what it was: a flaw, a scar, a too-perfect shiny veneer. The key to the puzzle had likely died with Negri, irretrievable, but Finch was still here. And there was nothing wrong with popping in to have a chat with him. Simon liked popping in on his subordinates; surprise visits provided him a good assessment of their qualities, and he enjoyed the looks on their faces.
Finch was hard to surprise, though. His "Good morning, sir" as he looked up from the comconsole had an air of "oh, there you are," and his vague gesture of hand to forehead was an absolutely average reproduction of the ImpSec analyst's well-if-I-really-must-salute pantomime. Simon returned it, equally casually. Finch looked even less like a military man than he did: far less, in fact. Simon at least visited the gym regularly, unable to shake that inborn hope of someday dying honorably in hand-to-hand combat, defending something or somebody. And staying in shape was one of the requirements of ImpSec service, a rule he'd drafted himself. Finch had been excused this duty due to unspecified but plain-to-the-eye medical reasons; it had apparently not occurred to anyone to question why a computer programmer who'd cut his teeth in the blatantly non-military industries of plumbing and refrigeration looked like he'd barely survived a firefight or two. Or it might have been a lightflyer accident, of course; no one liked to ask.
Though Negri probably had. Or no; Negri hadn't needed to ask.
Finch also seemed to have decided why Simon was there. "We're receiving footage again from the westmost security camera overlooking the Star Bridge, sir. The temporary malfunction was merely a programming glitch; I take full responsibility. I've sent a tech to check it out, just to be certain."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Simon said, finding the detail in a pages-long briefing on his chip. "I hope we didn't miss anything while it was offline. There's an area no other camera covers, yes? Only a few square meters, though."
Finch gave him a glance of keen, admiring respect. "I'm sure no important data were lost, sir."
"There's no such thing as an unimportant datum, Finch," Simon said blithely; he was painfully aware that this wasn't true.
"The very hairs of your head are all numbered," Finch agreed, or Simon thought it was agreement. It might have been a joke about Simon's potential for going bald as a result of this job. "Was there anything else, sir?"
"No, just wanted to see how you were doing."
"We should have whole-planet surveillance up and running in seven weeks from today, sir," Finch replied. Simon hadn't really expected him to take the remark as an inquiry into his personal life, but the plural pronoun showed an interesting degree of detachment. "And as you know our program has already identified six terrorist acts sufficiently early in the planning stage for us to prevent them."
You mean your program, Lieutenant, Simon thought, and said aloud, "It's also misidentified two, if you recall. Not that Countess Vorinnis's tea parties are not a horror and an abomination" – or so Lady Alys had told him privately – "but they hardly count as acts of terror. Nor does the Seligrad Flower Show."
"Yes, sir, but allow me to point out that the Flower Show was last summer and that I have since corrected the bugs that led to the poor targeting." Ah, thought Simon, the key to first person singular: unfair criticism. "Also, sir, one of the vendors was murdered."
"Most unfortunate, but that's what we have municipal guards for. I suppose you'll tell me next that someone's reputation was slaughtered at the tea party." It had been, and Tasha Voraronberg had killed herself as a result: Lady Alys's intelligence, again.
"No, sir," said Finch, flushing slightly.
"Well, carry on," Simon said, "and when I'm certain the Barrayaran system is working as desired, we'll send you to Komarr to consult on their surveillance. A promotion would also be appropriate at that time, I believe."
"Thank you, sir, but I would rather remain on this planet. I have an antipathy to space travel."
"Ah." Some people did, of course, but unless there were holes in his records, Finch had never been off Barrayar, so it would need to be an antipathy based on no data. Which didn't sound like Finch. "Very well, then, Lieutenant. We'll find something else for you. The work you've done so far has been invaluable, and I feel certain I will say the same of any future contribution you make to the Imperial Service."
"Thank you, sir." It was, Simon noted, possible for Finch to sound pleased. He glanced around the cubicle; it was efficiently organized and registered absolutely no personality. It looked like Simon's office, writ small. He hadn't been able to think of anything to display, a picture of his mother being too sentimental and one of any of the Vorkosigans, even little Miles, too political. Perhaps he could ask Lady Alys to pick out a tasteful landscape painting.
The image of Miles lingered as Simon looked at Finch again. He hadn't had that gimpy walk all his life, had he? No: he was older than Simon, and Simon remembered from childhood how babies suspected of mutation had had their throats slit, even in the larger towns. It still happened today, in the backcountry. Finch's injuries had likely occurred in adulthood. Like Koudelka's, though the spasms of nerve damage were not present.
Lightflyer accident, Simon tried to persuade himself. He clapped Finch on the shoulder, gently, made another complimentary noise, and passed out of the room.
Before he'd got halfway down the corridor he'd tuned to the bug's channel on his comm link. Nothing for a few seconds, and then: "Mr. Reese? Are you still there?"
There must have been a reply, but Simon's surveillance device didn't pick it up. Coming in over an earbug, probably. Finch went on, "And the camera?"
Oh. The tech. Simon felt the closest he ever did to abashed at his habit of distrust, until the chip reported that no ImpSec tech named Reese was in its database. "Good," said Finch. "But you can't lose her. Hold on..." The sound of keying on the comconsole. "She'll be at her violin lesson this evening at seven." He rattled off an address. "And please do try to keep it quiet this time, Mr. Reese. Yes, I know," he added after listening, "the Vor make things difficult. But I know you'll do your best. Oh, just a moment," Finch went on. "There is an insect on my shoulder."
A loud burst of static, and the comm channel went dead. Damn.
Distrust was now screaming along Simon's nerves. He didn't have enough data yet to march back in for confrontation and arrest. But he knew where he'd be tonight at seven.
Unfortunately, he was afraid that Finch knew that too.
The house was in the University district: solid, professorial, well-lit. Simon eased himself into a shadow across the street to observe. It was a warm spring evening, the air redolent with the scent of cherry blossom, and music was pouring out of the house's open windows. Two violins, twining around each other in a lovely adagio, echoing, exchanging leads, a heart-aching beauty. He could have stood there listening forever, but then the music cut off abruptly; he could hear a faint murmur of voices, and the violins started up again, repeating the previous phrase and going forward.
Good; he hadn't missed the lesson. He'd been caught in his office at quarter to seven by one of his more plodding and thorough analysts, presenting a report that he unfortunately did have to hear out, and then Aral had called with a question, and now it was nearly eight. He assessed the vicinity. A groundcar, idling at the curb: probably the violin student's driver. Lights on in most of the houses; no one on the street. Except... he peered at the dark hedges of the house next door. Yes.
Slowly, so as not to draw the eye, he worked his way around so he could approach the man from behind, thinking all the time how much he missed fieldwork. Aral hated it when he assigned himself a task like this; he didn't even have to say Simon, I can't afford to lose you for Simon to fold and put another agent on the job. Of course, Aral understood what it was like to be stuck in an office when your heart was demanding to be out on the front lines, watching, reacting, thinking on your feet. Shooting people. Simon really didn't miss shooting people. He drew his stunner and strolled the last few meters without bothering to mask the noise of his feet.
The man turned. He was tall, strong-looking, dark and handsome and not the least dismayed at someone sneaking up on him in the dark. But he didn't have a weapon drawn, which gave Simon the upper hand.
"Mr. Reese, I presume?" he said.
The man nodded. "Captain Illyan," he offered in return. "I was expecting you some time ago."
"Apologies," said Simon. "Held up at the office; you know how it is. So I'm not too late to watch... is it murder you're planning? Or merely kidnapping? Lydia Vorfolse," he added, nodding at the house. He'd looked up the violin teacher, a music professor at the university, and established who had the seven o'clock appointment. Not a Count's daughter, but High Vor through her mother's family. A valuable target.
The corner of Reese's mouth lifted; the light of the streetlamp made it a threat rather than a smile. "That's not Lydia," he said. "You're lucky you missed Lydia's lesson; she's terrible." He shook his head slightly, as if still ridding himself of the sound. "That's Ioanna Stavros. Talented prole; she's only sixteen, and she and the professor are preparing for a concert together."
The music came to a triumphant flourish and stopped. "I hope you'll excuse me," Reese went on: no sarcasm in his voice, no urgency, just stated fact. "I believe I'll be needed soon."
"Move and I shoot," Simon said evenly, and the next thing he knew he was on the ground, wrist aching, rubbing his jaw, and Reese had his stunner. "Shit," he spat out. He knew he was out of practice doing fieldwork, but no one had ever managed to disarm him so quickly. He drew his nerve disruptor, reflexively, but Reese had already vanished.
The door to the house opened, and a girl came out, carrying a violin case. She walked down the steps and toward the gate, then came through it and onto the street. And then Simon spotted Reese, lurking behind the groundcar: a clear shot. Simon aimed, but something in him refused to fire. Not with a nerve disruptor, anyway; not to kill or permanently maim. The thought of all the magnificent coiled power that was Reese, reduced to walking with Finch's hitching gait, leaning on a stick like Koudelka... Simon holstered the disruptor and reached for his second stunner instead.
In that moment of distraction, everything happened. A huge man in Vorfolse livery stepped out of the groundcar and moved with determined speed toward Ioanna. He was still short of his goal when Reese barreled into him, knocking him over. Reese rolled free and came up fighting: a battery of lightning kicks and punches against a man easily half again his size. Remarkably, he managed to knock the Armsman down, but not out, and he appeared to have lost Simon's stunner and to carry none of his own. And there was a new threat: a young woman stepped out of the car, beautiful and blonde and aristocratic in bearing. Lydia, Simon assumed. She was wielding, of all things, a plasma arc.
Without stopping to think, he aimed and dropped her with the stunner. Then he stunned the Armsman as well. And then he turned around and walked away into the night.
Cordelia was sitting with her feet up in the little private parlor of the Regent's suite in the Imperial Residence, answering letters. The Regent-Consort got dozens in her own name every week, and she tried to give as many as possible a personal reply; some of Aral's were more appropriately answered by her as well. Nearly all of them asked for some sort of help, frequently of a kind she couldn't give.
She'd just finished reading Gregor a story, one of the Betan tales she'd grown up with, about a girl saving the lives of her companions on a desert trek gone awry. Her own mother would have said it was too frightening for a six-year-old, but Gregor was bored with "baby books" except the occasional story about animals – wild and wonderful Earth animals, resident on neither Barrayar nor Beta except in zoos – and it was better than another tale of Vorthalia the Bold rescuing swooning maidens. Let the maidens do the rescuing for a change, dammit.
Miles was asleep in his crib in the next room, finally really asleep after a bad, pain-filled day, and after reading the book she'd left her foster son in the charge of his nurse, who could neither be enticed into "one more story, please, Tante Cordelia!" nor swayed from her task of getting him to sleep by qualms about bossing around the Emperor of three planets. And now she could finally have her glass of wine and her time alone—
A knock, and, "Excuse me, milady, but... you have a visitor..." and somehow the suppressed panic in the maid's voice told her who her guest was before the door opened all the way and he came in, clearly hesitant at the invasion.
"Good evening, Simon," she said. "Grab a glass and a chair." He gave her a smile and a little abbreviated bow, and did as he was told. The maid retreated, obviously with great relief.
People's reactions to Simon amused Cordelia. He was so entirely inoffensive in appearance – he could erase himself completely from notice, in fact, and would if allowed to – and he never ever raised his voice; he was polite and deferential, if decisive and keenly intelligent. And yet she knew why he was feared, and it wasn't just because he remembered everything he saw, or because his minions could drag people away in the middle of the night and leave them languishing in prison. That didn't happen very often, no matter the public perception of ImpSec, and both Aral and Simon were doing their best to make sure it didn't have to happen at all. She knew Simon could be ruthless and that he'd killed with his own hands, but the most dangerous thing about him, in her opinion, was how deeply he cared about anything or anyone he dedicated himself to. Though she wasn't sure that he hadn't repressed his own knowledge of that devotion to the point where acting on it was an autonomic reflex. Which was probably even more dangerous.
Psychoanalyzing the Emperor's servants again, Cordelia? said Aral's dry voice in her head. She filled Simon's glass with wine and replenished her own, smiling inwardly.
"You've missed Aral, I'm afraid," she said, "but you probably knew that. And it'll take him till at least midnight to get enough Ministers drunk enough to agree to his proposals."
Simon's mouth twitched. "Yes, I know. It was you I wanted to talk to. Not that Aral's opinion wouldn't be valuable, if it could be unofficial, but..."
"But everything he does is official, bar snoring." And a few other things. "All right, then. You may speak to me in confidence. If I had a rose handy, I'd hang it over my head. What's up?"
"I think I may have just aided and abetted an altruistic pair of criminals," Simon reported.
"I feel like I'm doing that most days," said Cordelia. She gave him a pot-calling-the-kettle grimace and a more, please gesture.
"You know about the surveillance project," Simon said. "We have, in fact, clashed over it several times."
Cordelia sighed. "I believe in basic human rights, including the right to privacy. But... they watch us on Beta, too. For our protection, they say, though the illogical human instinct seems to be to worry that someone is looking at you and laughing. Really, there are too many people on any planet for everyone to be watched constantly."
"Not by other people, no. By machines, yes. And machines need controlling programs so they can pick out which observations constitute a threat and which don't. It's a marvelously complicated algorithm. I have a man – Harold Finch is his name – who did most of the work constructing and testing the program we're using."
"And is he one of your criminals?"
Simon gave her a pained look; he hated not having clear answers. "Maybe. He's certainly a genius, and I would very much hate to lose him. We've got the system up and running in Vorbarr Sultana and the more populated areas of the North Continent Districts, with the rest of the planet to follow shortly. And it seems to be working; we've already scrubbed six terrorist plots."
"Oh." Aral had mentioned three to her. "So what's the problem?"
"The system doesn't just identify treasonous threats against the Imperium. It identifies threats of any kind, including those against individual subjects. Ordinary people who are likely to be murdered or attacked. But it doesn't give us very much information about them, just a name and an ID number if they have one; many people don't, still. It's a safeguard," he added dryly to Cordelia's inquiring look, "of the right to privacy. But it's also just a function of the shitload of data we've got. Finch says the computer doesn't necessarily know, so to speak, which bits of information are relevant to a particular threat. It just knows there is one."
"And so?" Cordelia asked.
"It was Finch who told me what we had. A system that predicts murders. And I told him, no; we need to focus on generalized, large-scale threats, and conspiracies against the Emperor and other top officials. Such as the Regent."
"Thank you for that," said Cordelia quietly. "But I can see how one might want to protect others as well."
"Yes, but... we simply don't have the manpower to track down jealous husbands and sacked employees and people trying to inherit Grandda's money a bit prematurely. ImpSec doesn't, and the municipal police forces don't. Your husband gave me a mandate," Simon went on, "when he handed me this job. Modernize ImpSec, dig out the rotten bits and build up again from the foundation. Make it work. For the good of all of us. And I've made a decent start at that, and I'm damned if I'll sacrifice any of it, waste any resources that could be spent keeping Aral and Gregor alive on stopping one petty criminal from whacking another, which is what half of it would come down to, or even from stopping innocent people from being smothered in their beds because they have money someone else wants or they looked at the wrong person the wrong way or they refused to sleep with someone. Even if it's no less fair that they should die than should the people who are propping up the Empire every day with their bare hands and sheer strength of will."
Simon's voice had faded nearly to a whisper during the latter part of this speech, which, to Cordelia's educated ear, meant that he could barely contain the passion roiling under the bland surface. That "Aral and Gregor" had been very telling, but she knew he also felt deeply the injustice to all those other potential victims, could visualize them in their individual humanity.
"So," she said calmly, "you can't do much about it; I can see that. And Finch is?"
Simon nodded abruptly. "I think so. I think I just witnessed an example." He summarized, with the kind of supporting detail only Simon could manifest, a fight outside a University district house, ending with Simon's own intervention. She remembered, suddenly, his remark about becoming a little bit pregnant. He'd already made his choice; he just didn't know it yet.
"And I heard her play," he said finally, his voice tight with no-longer-repressed emotion. "The Stavros girl. It was beautiful. I would have done anything..."
"Simon. Drink your wine." He obeyed, gulping it till he nearly choked, and his hand was no longer shaking when he put down the glass. "Can you get me in a room with these two?" she asked.
"Milady, no. It's too dangerous."
"Simon." She looked at him reproachfully, and caught the moment when he stopped thinking of her as "sympathetic female" and remembered what had happened when she'd been in rooms with Ges Vorrutyer and Vidal Vordarian. "I'll bring Bothari," she added.
He gulped a little, and then said, "Certainly, milady. I'll see what can be arranged."
Finch had always known that this day would come; that his enterprise wouldn't last. And he'd had Reese's warning, so he wasn't surprised when he was called into Illyan's office. Illyan sat him down and closed the door.
"So," he said, "tell me about Ioanna Stavros."
"It was not the easiest of our cases," Finch explained. "She comes from one of the... more questionable neighborhoods, and her family, being poor but honest, has found itself on the wrong side of several local disagreements. We didn't think, at first, that the threat could be connected to her little haven, the time she spent at Professor Duval's home. He discovered her, gave her free lessons, arranged her concert debut. There was nothing inappropriate in his attention to her, but apparently not everyone thought so. It was, in the end, a case of jealousy run amuck. Sexual jealousy, but also the deep envy that the untalented feel for those who have a gift."
Illyan nodded; Finch knew he appreciated succinct reporting. "I have had no reports of dead or even unconscious bodies in the University district," he said, "therefore I assume your colleague restrained any revengeful impulse and simply escaped with the girl, and her attackers woke up and went about their business, hopefully chastened."
"I expect so. Thank you, by the way, for your efficient and moderate act of violence. Mr. Reese, you will be aware, is not legally allowed to carry a weapon, being neither Vor, a Count's Armsman, nor a member of the Imperial Service."
"Well," said Illyan, rubbing his jaw thoughtfully, "he does manage to make up for the lack. But you're welcome. What do you usually do if they come back for a second try?"
"Either Mr. Reese speaks to them, or... we have an asset in the Vorbarr Sultana police department. And the Machine will inform me if the same person is threatened again."
"The Machine," said Illyan dryly. "You mean the computer system to which you retain no intellectual property rights and whose hardware belongs exclusively to ImpSec?"
"There are matters that transcend property," Finch replied. "But if I am no longer to be allowed access..."
"I didn't say that. And I wouldn't put it past you to have a back door in, anyway."
Finch bowed. He'd finished the programming at Winterfair, long hours tucked away with the cockroaches while the streets filled with revelers and snow. "Am I not being fired, then, sir?"
"I haven't decided yet. May I meet with you and Mr. Reese privately? I may invite a very trustworthy colleague. Or two. But I give you my word of honor that no arrest will be made during this meeting, and no one else will know of your activities unless I decide to release that information subsequently."
Finch smiled; Illyan was a master at speaking in loopholes. "May I choose the venue?" he said.
"That would be traditional, I suppose. But if you might refrain from bringing swords or pistols, I would appreciate it."
"Mr. Reese possesses a clean if spartan apartment in the caravanserai district. Would you object to venturing into... well, a questionable neighborhood?"
"I feel like I'm doing that most days," Illyan said with a twitch of his lip.
Finch had survived thus far by trying very hard not to be blindsided, and not showing it when he was. But even he couldn't help letting out a small noise of astonishment as Illyan entered Reese's hastily tidied flat followed by a woman who could only be the Regent-Consort of Barrayar, Cordelia Vorkosigan.
"Milady," he said, recovering and bowing to her, "welcome. Please be seated." He waved her to the flowered armchair. She wasn't wearing one of the elaborate gowns he'd seen on the holovids, just a simple dress, but the confident posture and the red hair swept up from her neck were instantly familiar. "Captain Illyan," he said, gesturing at another chair. "And... your man..."
He looked at Reese, expecting him to bring out a third chair, but he was staring at the tall, ugly, powerful man wearing brown and silver uniform, who was clearly Lady Vorkosigan's bodyguard. Armsman, in fact. Ah. Well, that's unfortunate.
"Sergeant Bothari will stand, I expect," said Lady Vorkosigan. He retired to a position near the door; Finch and Reese took their own seats. "We haven't officially met," she went on. "I'm not a stickler for protocol, but perhaps Captain Illyan will do the honors?"
"Milady," he said on cue, "may I introduce Lieutenant Harold Finch, late of Vorsmythe's District? Unless his vital records lie which I wouldn't be surprised if they do. I may be wrong about the name, but I should think Finch will do for now."
"Charmed to meet you, Lieutenant." Her tone was full of self-mockery; Finch had heard that she was impatient with High Vor style.
"And," Illyan went on, "may I also make known to you John Reese, lurker in the shadows, formerly Armsman in the service of the man whose head I still vividly recall you depositing on a conference table at Tanery Base? Not, I hasten to note, up till that moment; in fact he left his master's side rather abruptly some weeks before in order to deliver to Captain Negri a piece of evidence that would have secured our case against the Count. If he hadn't secured it himself by attempting to usurp the throne, that is."
Illyan had been doing his homework. "It's a honor, Mr. Reese," said Lady Vorkosigan.
"Gentlemen," Illyan went on, "Lady Cordelia Vorkosigan, Regent-Consort, formerly Captain Naismith of the Betan Astronomical Survey and Betan Expeditionary Force, always and forever someone to be reckoned with. She desires an audience with you about your little project."
"Now, now, Simon," she corrected. "Not 'little,' I don't think. Not a small undertaking at all." She looked to Finch for confirmation.
"No, milady," he said. "Or at least... not to us."
"Or to the people whose lives you've saved. How many, now?"
It was Reese who answered, though Finch had counted them as well. "Forty-eight, milady."
"Congratulations. Not that the number matters. Ten sparrows for a mark, I think is about the going price. And some of us try not to forget any of them."
Finch sat up abruptly. "Yes, milady," he said. "But many do fall to the ground, despite our best efforts."
"You can't save them all," she said. "Which doesn't mean you should save none." She threw a glance at Illyan; he didn't quail. "How do you decide?" she asked Finch.
"The computer gives us the most likely prospects," he said. "Mr. Reese can sometimes travel outside of Vorbarr Sultana, but practically speaking there are geographic constraints. Some people, victims or perpetrators, are too well-guarded for us to touch. Although Mr. Reese cleans up very nicely, and has by now attended several Ministerial luncheons, a consulate reception, a yachting party—"
"Who goes out in boats at Winterfair?" Reese put in, shivering.
"He came home rather chilled, and inexplicably wet. And one of Countess Vorinnis's tea parties," Finch added, nodding at Illyan. "There are only the two of us, and I have physical limitations, in addition to rather more than full-time employment. So available time is an issue as well. Sometimes we must simply choose the more expedient of two offered cases. We do attempt not to make moral judgments, but it's only human to decide that some people deserve our protection more than others."
"Also Finch has a weakness for brunettes," put in Reese.
"Very funny, Mr. Reese. So, you can see," he added to Lady Vorkosigan, "we try, but it's never enough."
"What's your rate of false positives?" she said.
Oh, he liked this woman very much. "Extremely low. And we can't be sure that they are, in fact, false; it may simply be that we fail to spot the crime. Or that our presence changes something."
"You mentioned Ministerial luncheons. These are all crimes against individuals as... persons, I suppose, rather than as personages?"
"Anything touching on the security of the Empire and its officials is channeled directly to the appropriate ImpSec department. Automatically, by my program. Mr. Reese and I would never deal with such crimes."
She nodded. "Simon," she said, rounding on Illyan, "when you say you don't have the manpower to take on these cases...?"
"We don't, Cordelia. Honestly." She kept him in her sights. "Perhaps two or three a quarter," he amended.
"And your police liaison?" she asked Finch.
"The police take over one or two cases a month. When the evidence is strong enough to justify investigating before a crime is committed."
"Yes," she said, sitting back and examining him; he resisted the urge to squirm. "That's the sticking point, isn't it. Judgment before the crime. Punishment – and I gather Mr. Reese doesn't pull his punches – before it's strictly deserved. Because to punish crimes of thought is a very, very slippery slope, and believe me, I know."
To Finch's surprise, their staring match was interrupted by a low rumble of throat-clearing, and Armsman Bothari spoke. "Sometimes," he said, "if you don't stop them, they do what can't be forgiven. Or forgotten. Things that change the world so much..." He seemed to run out of words, then, but Finch understood, deeply and personally, what he meant.
So, apparently, did Lady Vorkosigan. "Yes, Sergeant," she said, addressing him as though he were an equal. "You're right. But... good comes out of evil, sometimes, don't you think?"
He shook his head firmly. "Good may come despite evil, milady. That doesn't mean you don't stop the evil."
Lady Vorkosigan nodded, and then turned her head and addressed Reese. "But... fear not them that kill the body but can't kill the soul? Isn't that how it goes?"
Finch had been doing the quoting; he wondered how she'd known it was Reese who believed the words. Reese just looked at her, silent communication, and she went on, "I suppose you really can't be responsible for the state of anyone's soul. Bodies are hard enough to save." She sighed. "And it's very difficult not to try. Sergeant Bothari, I hear you rustling back there. I think you have something else you want to say. To Mr. Reese."
The room seemed to generate thunderclouds, as Bothari faced Reese for a moment in silence, and then grated out, "Armsman."
"Yes, Armsman?" Reese answered, voice steady.
"Why you?" Bothari said. "What makes you think you deserve... this, this mission? You betrayed your liege lord, and it didn't even help anything. Oathbreaker," he spat, and then he bit his lip hard. Something was hurting him; Finch knew pain when he saw it. Bothari clutched his head.
"Sergeant," said Lady Vorkosigan, "sit down. It will pass. Mr. Reese, answer the question."
"I did break my oath. And all I got out of it was that I kept living," Reese said. "It seemed to make sense to spend the rest of my life helping others. Though Finch had to convince me of that," he added, with a flash of humor. "It's a job. Some people might call it redemption. But to answer the Sergeant's question... why us? Because no one else will. I'd be happy for a weekend off, on occasion. I might go yachting."
"That brings us back to manpower," said Lady Vorkosigan firmly. "Or, in many cases, womanpower. For example, unless you truly enjoy gossiping and fighting off the Vor buds at tea parties, Mr. Reese, I have an excellent agent already staking out that territory who would be happy to assist if given pertinent information." Finch stole a look at Illyan; he was smiling. "I think if we put our heads together we can come up with similarly-placed and trustworthy accomplices who can take your data and do good with it. Don't you think so, Captain?"
"Yes," Illyan said, still looking amused, "I do. Captain."
"Could you work with us, Lieutenant Finch? Mr. Reese? You really don't have to be alone in this. Sheep among the wolves, although I don't think that's a very appropriate description of either of you."
They looked at each other. Finch saw, in the well-groomed lean-bodied man next to him, the specter of a forsworn, sin-eaten, abandoned wretch in a gutter; and he fancied he knew what Reese saw in him. It had been a long five months together, despairing and glorious and often companionable. And it wasn't going to end. Still, something in him advised grabbing Reese and limping out the door, to head for the South Continent, or Komarr, or out of the Empire entirely. Finch had been alone most of his life by this point; to be alone with a companion, even a scarred and taciturn one, had been more than he thought he'd ever have.
He turned back. "Your word on it, Captain Illyan," he said, "that this won't end with either of us in a dungeon somewhere?" Alone.
Illyan smiled. "I can't promise that about myself, Finch. I'll try. You'll have friends in high places. The Regent will have to know, you realize."
"Although," said Lady Vorkosigan, "he is used to indulging our whims. And he keeps secrets rather well." She examined both of them, and seemed to like what she saw. "Why don't you talk about it, and Finch can report to Captain Illyan tomorrow?"
"And if your antipathy to space travel undergoes a sudden cure," Illyan said, as if he'd been reading Finch's mind, "I will make sure my shuttleport agents look the other way. But I hope that won't be necessary."
"Thank you, sir," said Finch.
Simon shuffled the flimsies on his desk, hoping that they'd end up in a more artistic pattern this time. Really, he was very glad to have this job, not least because it let him spend his days in a temperature-controlled, dry, relatively safe place, that wasn't at all like doing fieldwork in the summer rain. That wasn't at all like hiding in the woods outside the city with John Reese, and running like mad between a clearing with an honest-to-God cabal of Komarran conspirators and an outdoor theatre presenting Julius Caesar with a real murder in the interval. Or there would have been one, if they hadn't stopped it. He had to give Alys credit for that, actually, but she'd smiled at him so pleasantly when he showed up to help. Unless she'd been smiling at John...
Well, he was glad to have this job, because he was in charge and no one could stop him from doing fieldwork now and then as circumstances allowed. Even if he did need to get through ridiculous amounts of paperwork in the meanwhile.
Somehow, in all the shuffling, the printout of Harold Finch's CV had ended up on top. He hadn't even thought it was still on his desk. Blah, blah; Vorsmythe Technical Institute; programming jobs in factories; he didn't believe a word of it, but he still didn't know why. Why a refrigeration factory needed a programmer who could work Finch's kind of magic with data... well, Falcon Refrigeration Inc. had been lucky to have him. Or that's what the young woman on the other end of the comconsole call had said when HR had checked it out, at Simon's request. "Oh, Harold! We were so lucky to have him." And no, there'd been nothing wrong with the way he walked.
Bustard Plumbing, A Family-Owned Business, had also been lucky to have Harold. Was there really a family named Bustard in Vorsmythe's District? Thank goodness they'd never distinguished themselves in service to early Emperors; "Vorbustard" would bring him out in giggles every time he heard it. It must be a French-derived name... curious, he did a search. Not a Barrayaran surname. But a legitimate noun.
A kind of bird. Like Falcon. Like Finch. Like... he checked the CV. Like Harold's first post-college employer, Wren Industries. The other companies might be inventions, but this one existed; Simon had reason to know, because they'd given him temporary shelter on that dangerous journey between Vorbarr Sultana and Tanery Base in the early days of the Pretendership. They weren't in Vorsmythe's District, either, but a young tech college graduate couldn't always expect to get a job close to home.
Wren Industries did varied work, including plumbing and refrigeration, though mostly in their military contexts. They were primarily known as weapons manufacturers, and some of the work was classified. No reason that a young Harold Finch shouldn't have had a job there, programming something mundane and innocent.
Simon dumped all of Wren Industries' files onto his comconsole, skimming them at lightning speed, letting his chip do the sorting. Harold, Harry, Hal; he told his agents that the best cover names lay close to home. The chip stopped processing, hummed happily, and presented him with a name. Harold Wren. Son of the company's founder.
Vital statistics were the work of a moment. Harold Wren was of an age compatible with the man he knew as Finch, except for one detail: Harold Wren was dead. Simon stared at the death date. It was familiar. Very, very familiar.
It was the day they'd set the Ministry of Political Education on fire. Dozens of innocent and not-so-innocent people had been caught in the riots and the shooting and the flames. Many had died; others had been badly injured.
Simon had all the data in the world at his fingertips. He checked for lightflyer crashes, groundcar crashes, shuttle crashes, anything banging into something else hard enough to steal life or cripple a man. He checked hospital deaths; hospital admissions. He checked police records; he checked top-secret ImpSec files only he could access. No accounts of Wren's death under that name. He found three men who could possibly be Harold Wren under a false name, marked as dying on that date.
He squeezed them all tight in his fist; two of them slipped out, complete and whole and mourned by loved ones. The third one came up empty: a phantom, constructed out of air and wishes and computer data. Harold Wren was alive; he was sitting at a desk several floors below Simon right now, cleansing lepers and casting out demons, or at least fixing bugs in South Continent surveillance.
What Simon didn't know yet was why he'd had to die. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to find out. But of course he would, nonetheless. It was his job. Sparrow after sparrow, finch after wren: in the end none fell without the eye of Imperial Security taking note.
He opened another file, and started reading.