The scene in Simon's hospital room was almost exactly the same when Aral returned from ImpSec as when he'd left. He hadn't really expected any change, though he'd hoped for it, hoped to avoid what he had to do now. But the medical reports had been grimly clear, almost the only clear thing since this fiasco had begun, and at ImpSec he had found what he needed.
There was one difference in the scene before him: everyone was even more frustrated than before. Simon's secretary was taking his turn sitting by the bed, leaning forward, saying, "But how many were there, sir? You must at least know how many men there were."
"Five... seven, maybe..." Simon mumbled after a long pause. "I don't know, I can't think." His voice was slurring and faint, his eyes not tracking.
Commodore Margraves, standing a few paces away, sighed and shook his head. "He said ten last time. This is hopeless. I can't stay here indefinitely. If you really don't think we can't get anything out of him, I'd better get back to work. I'm needed at HQ."
That was true. ImpSec had been in chaos, all the holes and weaknesses in Simon's control of the erratic institution suddenly gaping wide without Simon there to hold them together. Aral had never second-guessed his decision four years ago to place Simon in charge of ImpSec: he had the intelligence, the talent, the loyalty, but it was true that he lacked the experience. The crisis response had run more or less smoothly, but it wasn't hard to spot the sudden jockeying for power amongst the ambitious and cunning men Simon carefully held together, and as one of Simon's most senior men, Margraves was certainly needed.
"You're not going to get any sense out of him until the drugs they gave him wear off, Commodore," the neurologist said, obviously not for the first time. "There's nothing we can give him to speed it up, not with the cocktail they used. You just have to wait until it clears his system. Come back in twenty or thirty hours."
"We don't have twenty hours. We might not have two hours." The commodore made a sharp annoyed gesture. "These were professionals. We lost three men just rescuing him, and they cleaned out their hideout perfectly. We need to know who they are and what their agenda is, why they took him, what he might have told them, everything we can find out. And it's got to be there, on his chip."
"It probably is," the neurologist responded, "but he can't tell you until the drugs he's on wears off."
"Sir," the secretary said almost pleadingly to Simon, "please, try again, sir. We need to know what happened."
Simon's eyes were foggy. "My name is Simon Illyan, my rank is captain, I am oath-sworn to Lord Regent Vorkosigan," he said in a clearer voice, and his secretary recoiled as if he'd been struck.
"Sir, it's me, sir--"
"Well, I think it's safe to say that they attempted to interrogate him," the neurologist said coolly across this. "Just let him rest, both of you. There's no way you're going to get any answers out of him right now."
"That may not be true," Aral said, and all three men turned abruptly. Simon's head turned too, his eyes opening wider. "How sure are you that the answers are on his memory chip, doctor?"
The neurologist gave a judicious frown. "About as sure as I can be. All the documentation is very clear about that. It doesn't matter what drugs they've given him, he'll have recorded everything he saw and heard. But he doesn't have the mental focus to access that data, and he barely formed any organic memories of the entire experience. I think they were trying to stop the chip recording anything, with this combination of drugs--and some of them are very unusual, and I suspect would have been cooked up specifically for this purpose--but I don't think they've succeeded."
"Then we may be able to get some answers. Both of you, leave now, please."
"I know what you need to know, Commodore. Let me handle this. Don't disturb us."
Their eyes were dark with misgiving, but they obediently headed for the door. Aral waited for it to seal behind them, thinking about time and their lack of it.
Twenty hours since a routine ImpSec operation Simon had been overseeing had intersected a previously unknown plot and Simon had been captured. Seventeen and a half hours before the ImpSec rescue mission had managed to retrieve Simon, injured and heavily drugged, but failed to capture any of the enemy or learn anything significant about them except that they were very clever and knew far too much about ImpSec and Simon himself. And two and a half hours of doctors and security personnel hammering Simon with questions he was unable to answer. Now it was Aral's turn.
"My lord," Simon managed as Aral went over to him and sat down, not on the chair but on the side of the bed. "I'm sorry..."
"It's all right. It can't be helped. But we do need to know what you saw and heard, Simon, as quickly as possible. And you know there's a way to find out."
Simon's eyes met his, and though they were clouded, Aral could see the understanding on his face. "You could try pulling my fingernails out," Simon muttered after a long silence. "'s easier."
"It's the only way left to do this. You know that, Simon. Don't you." It wasn't a question. But it was telling that Simon hadn't even tried to suggest this himself.
The silence was broken only by noises from the corridor outside, a trolley trundling by and low medical instructions. "I know," Simon said at last, his eyes closing defensively as if to block Aral out.
"All right then. I've been to HQ and I've got the drug. We can do this right now, get it over with, and then you can rest."
Simon sank back against the pillows that were propping him up in bed, looking uncharacteristically defeated. Not by his kidnappers, but by Aral. Aral closed his mouth on further words, and pulled the container out of his pocket. There were two hyposprays: the hypnotic that would crack Simon's mind open, force the chip to decant answers to whatever questions he asked, and its antidote, when he had answered everything Aral wanted to know. Negri and Ezar had used the drug frequently on Simon, playing back their personal vid-recorder, but Aral never had. Had sworn he never would.
The door of the room swung open and a brisk nurse came in. Simon jerked up, and Aral whirled around. "I thought I said we were not to be disturbed," he snapped.
"It's just the standard checks, won't take long," the nurse answered, impervious to his frustration.
"Not here," Simon murmured as the nurse poked around and made notes. "Not here, Aral." There was the slightest edge of pleading to his voice, making Aral feel queasy. Simon's kidnappers had done their best to crack him open, and instead of providing an overlord's protection to an injured liegeman, Aral was going to finish the job.
"Where, then?" he asked. It wasn't hard to understand Simon's discomfort. There was nothing private, nothing safe about a hospital room, territory that belonged completely to the hospital staff and that carried with it memories of nothing but pain. "Your HQ? The Residence? We can do that, I suppose." In his groundcar, it would scarcely add ten minutes to their time. And if he was going to ask this of Simon, he should try to make it as comfortable for him as possible.
"Residence," Simon said on a long sigh. "Just you. Please."
The medics had already treated Simon's physical injuries, which were not serious: bruising and cuts and a broken wrist, and there was nothing they could do for the cocktail of drugs he'd been given other than wait. Anything further could easily be done at the Residence if necessary. Aral slipped the pair of hyposprays back into his pocket and went over to the corner of the room, where a float chair rested, and powered it up.
"What are you doing?" the nurse demanded, looking up from her quick professional check of Simon. "You can't--"
"He'll be quite safe with me," Aral said. "Simon?"
Simon nodded, struggling to sit up. Aral brought the float chair alongside the bed and helped Simon into it. As soon as he was in the seat, Simon's eyes drifted shut again, and Aral draped a couple of hospital blankets over him and took the controls himself. He'd had quite a lot of practice with these over the past few years, though Miles was walking longer distances now inside their rooms. He ignored the nurse's remaining protests and headed for the door, calling his groundcar to be ready for him.
Outside, both the neurologist and Simon's secretary were waiting, Commodore Margraves evidently having returned to ImpSec. They both frowned at this. "We're going to the Residence," Aral informed them. "I'll contact you when I have the information you need." He didn't think he was glaring at them, but evidently something on his face kept them from speaking. He took Simon past them, through the familiar corridors and down to the main entrance.
Simon was trying to force his eyes open, looking around groggily as they went through the corridors, his instincts demanding alertness that his body and mind were incapable of providing. Aral steered the float chair one-handed and put the other on Simon's shoulder, saying, "Don't worry. We're well guarded here. Save your strength," and Simon slumped as if Aral had switched him off.
The Regent's groundcar had been adapted to leave space for a float chair, but Aral piloted this one in a bit more cautiously than usual, since it was larger than Miles's. Simon sat silently, eyes closed, and Aral said nothing. Simon would speak soon enough; until then, let him rest.
The usual ImpSec outriders cleared the roads for them to the Residence, and they went straight to the south wing, to the private door that led straight to the Regent's set of rooms. Halfway up the stairs, Cordelia came hurrying down to them.
"Oh, you're back, is everything--what the hell, Aral?" She ran down the last few steps to be level with them. "Simon, what on earth are you doing here? Are you all right?"
"He should be in hospital," Aral said a little grimly, "but we have work to do."
Simon's eyes had fluttered open at this exchange, and he managed a nod. "It's all right, m'lady."
"It doesn't look all right to me." She flanked them up the rest of the stairs and along the corridor. Aral chose the direction: not to any of the more public offices, but to his most private study, a place reserved for family and close friends. Cordelia did not miss the implications of this, he saw. "What is this?" she demanded when the door was closed. "Simon?"
Again, Aral answered for Simon, whose eyes had closed again when they reached his refuge. "It's our only option, my Captain. Simon can't tell us anything of what happened while he was taken, because of the drugs his captors gave him, but it's all on the chip. And we have to know, so that we can get those bastards and get them fast before they get us. They're banking on this being impossible, but it's not. Negri had a drug that will give me direct access to the chip." He touched his pocket.
"Direct access," Simon echoed, and even though the drugs were affecting his speech, the irony was unmistakable. "Quite."
Cordelia flashed him a worried glance. "And will it work? Is it safe?"
"I had a quick look through Negri's files. He tested the drug under, under, um, a variety of circumstances. I think it will work."
Cordelia looked like she'd just swallowed an angry wasp. "Negri tested ... and you read the findings... God, Aral--"
"The information is essential. This is the only way to get it."
She shook her head, but turned to Simon, stooping so that her face was level with his. "Do you understand what Aral wants to do?" Then, more quietly, "Do you agree?"
Aral saw Cordelia noticing the lack of answer to her second question. He too turned to Simon. "I gave you my word, four years ago, that I would never ask this of you," he said quietly. Without ceremony, he slid to his knees before Simon. "Now I must ask you to release me from this oath."
Even in this state, Simon recoiled from the reversal. He raised his left hand, the right medically stunned into immobility, and with an effort, placed it on Aral's hand. "I release you," he said, as clearly as he could. "It's fine, sir."
"It is not fine," Cordelia blurted out. "He obviously doesn't want to do this, and you can't--look at the state he's in, Aral, you can't just play him back like a machine!"
Simon looked almost more distressed by this outburst than the interrogation to come, and Aral raised a calming hand as he tried to answer. "Ssh, Simon. Cordelia, this is necessary, and the best thing is to get it over with as quickly as possible." He settled Simon's float chair at a height so that they could be eye to eye seated, and pulled up a chair of his own facing. "Are you comfortable, Simon?"
Simon made a vague noise, and Aral made his own assessment, straightening the hospital blankets and elevating Simon's broken wrist on a cushion borrowed from the sofa. Then he took out the hypospray.
"I swear as Vorkosigan," he said, "that I will not ask you for anything that is not relevant to this investigation, and if you say anything I should not hear, it will be forgotten instantly. Do you want Cordelia to leave?"
Simon's eyes slid sideways to Cordelia, then away. "Stay," he said.
Cordelia looked at them both, sighed, and pulled up a chair adjacent to them both, like a referee in a fencing match. "I'll take notes," she said. "Since you won't want this recorded."
"Thank you," Aral said. He removed the cap on the hypospray, then took Simon's good hand in his, turning it over to expose the wrist. Abruptly, Simon pulled his hand away with a gasp and a muttered, "Oh God, no." Panic flashed in his eyes. Cordelia tensed. Aral loosened his grip, but leaned forwards. "Simon. You know why this is necessary." Simon still pulled back, breathing fast, and Aral sighed. He took a moment to centre himself, pushing all his own misgivings aside, then filled his voice with authority. "Simon, I need you to do as I ask. Give me your hand."
Out of the corner of his eye he could see Cordelia opening her mouth to protest, and frowned at her. He knew what she would say. He had no right to order Simon to do this. And it was true. But there was no other way, not with Simon in this state, no other way to get through to him.
And indeed, Simon's movements stilled at his tone. He stared at Aral, then slowly turned his hand over, exposing the veins at his wrist, his eyes never leaving Aral's face. "Thank you," Aral whispered, and pressed the hypospray to Simon's skin.
Cordelia looked profoundly unhappy. "He'll understand, later," Aral murmured to her. "He wouldn't fight me if he knew what he was doing."
"Post facto consent," was Cordelia's response. "Fuck."
Aral looked at her for a moment and wished there was something he could say to make this better, to reassure her that it wasn't the same as what had happened to her. But there wasn't, and Simon needed--was owed--his complete and undivided attention now.
He focused on Simon, trying to tell when he was fully under. Simon's expression was growing even more distant, emotions draining from him like water from a bath, though he seemed, unexpectedly, more alert, some of the drugged lassitude leaving him.
"Tell me what happened at eighteen-hundred yesterday," Aral said. He wasn't sure how Simon was going to respond, but he had to start somewhere. "When you were kidnapped."
Simon said nothing for what felt like a long time, long enough that Aral began to fear that this wasn't going to work after all, that all this upset had been for nothing. Then, in a slow, distant voice, Simon began to speak. "No warning. They grab me from behind and shove a bag over my head. No visual input. There is an explosion to my right, I am knocked over by the concussion and temporarily deafened. I am carried out and lightly stunned and bound and put into a lightflyer. We fly for thirty-seven minutes and nine seconds before landing."
Cordelia was scribbling notes, but Aral didn't think this would be much use. ImpSec had located the place Simon had been held when they rescued him, and it was clearly a separate, disposable outpost, and by the time the rescue had broken in the conspirators had been gone without leaving a trace behind except for Simon himself, using him as a human shield to cover their own escape.
"Note to self," Simon went on, and then his tone suddenly changed, and he sounded--like himself, speaking his mind in some private conference, but for his distant eyes and his thickened speech. Aral hadn't entirely realised that Simon used the chip to store private memos to himself as well as letting it record data. "They must have had inside information to be able to spring that trap on me. Shortlist for the leak--" and then a list of names and ranks that Aral made Simon repeat slowly so that Cordelia could get it all down, though he knew the ImpSec investigators had made the same deduction about inside information, and the way they'd drugged Simon strengthened the hypothesis.
"Carry on," Aral said when Simon wound down. "What happened then?"
"Two people carry me inside." The distant, mechanical tone again. "Three steps down, then into a larger room. The footsteps have echoes. I hear six distinct voices, five male, one female. They put me down, then pick me up again and carry me further in and put me on a chair. A door closes. I begin to cough and choke." Aral blinked at that. Gas? "Someone says, "He's choking, lie him down," and pulls the sack from my head. I look around."
"Oh, nicely done," Aral said spontaneously as he understood the trick, and then sighed when there was not a flicker of response from Simon. "Um. Describe what you saw." It was a ploy that would only work for Simon, he thought, for someone who could see an entire room and all its contents in a single instant and not miss one detail. "How many people are there?"
"Nine people. Seven men, two women." Simon began to describe them all, careful and precise observations, a man looking at a photo in his head. "And Vassily Petrov," he finished, "wearing grey overalls and workboots, holding a small white plastic box."
"How do you know his name?" Aral asked, startled.
"Cross-reference to Vorbarr Sultana criminal database: conviction for being intoxicated in charge of a lightflyer, fined one hundred and fifty marks, five years ago. No further convictions."
"You have Vorbarr Sultana's entire criminal database in your head?" Cordelia interrupted. "Good heavens, Simon."
"Makes sense," Aral said. "There's a lot of overlap between lesser crime and the serious security issues. I think he has all Barrayar, actually." He shook himself. "All right. I'd better call this in to ImpSec right away, it's hot information. Stay with him, Cordelia."
He stood up. Simon's eyes tracked him as he went to the far side of the room and took out his comlink. To his surprise, he was instantly routed to Commodore Margraves. He must be doing well in the internal power games at ImpSec. "Ah, Margraves. I've got a break for you for the current investigation. Descriptions of all the people Captain Illyan saw, and positive ID on one of them."
"How the hell--I mean, how did you get that from him, sir?"
"That's not relevant. The information is solid." He took Cordelia's notes and read the descriptions out to Margraves, and the details of Petrov's conviction. "Petrov should be a good lead for you, and you might be able to follow him to the others. If I get anything else useful I'll let you know. Vorkosigan out."
He looked back. Cordelia was fussing over Simon, helping him drink some water and adjusting the tilt of the float-chair minutely. Simon sat unresponsive, his eyes still fixed on Aral, but blankly, listlessly, without the alert intelligence Aral was accustomed to see there. He felt an odd shiver go down his back. Someone walked over my grave. A moment later he placed the memory, which only made it worse. It was a memory of himself, with Ges, when he had been the one heavily drugged, doing whatever Ges told him to do, his own will and desires quite absent. As Simon's were now.
He went to sit down, choking off the desire to stop this whole thing, give Simon the antidote, send him back to the hospital and forget about it all. There were dangerous conspirators out there who were in all probability trying to kill him, trying to kill them all, and very soon. He had to continue.
"He's not going to be able to manage this level of detail for the whole eighteen hours or however long it was," Cordelia said as she took up the notebook again, her tone warning.
"I know. There are two periods when he'll have gained the most data: now, at the start, and towards the end, when they may have become careless around him. We'll focus on those, leave the rest." He sighed. "I'm so used to Simon summarising things for me. Not having to analyse the raw data myself. That's what he's good at, not spouting information like a machine."
"He's sitting right in front of you," Cordelia muttered.
Indeed, he was. Aral leaned forwards again, gathering Simon's mechanical attention to him and putting his hand for a moment on Simon's knee in an attempt to connect with the man who served him. "Ready to carry on?" he said. "You saw all the people in the room. What else was there?"
Simon blinked slowly at him for a full minute before beginning to speak, his voice slower and more halting now. Cordelia was right: he couldn't manage much more of this. But they had to press on for as long as he could. It was the only possible option now.
"There is a stack of white crates near the door," Simon said. "Six large crates, sealed, no labels or markings. A door leading to a washroom. A table and chairs, a kettle, mugs--" The list devolved into the deeply banal, but Aral waited it out to the end. The crates had been gone by the time ImpSec had arrived, and the other detritus they had left had provided no clues for identification.
"Then Petrov says, 'He's faking it,' and they stop trying to administer first aid. They are angry. They tie a new blindfold over me, just covering my eyes, and hit me six times, first--" He began to enumerate the blows, and Aral hastily raised a hand.
"Stop. What happens after that?" He looked at the bruises on Simon's face again, wincing.
"I am left alone for twelve minutes and nineteen seconds; I hear footsteps, but no voices within range. I hear the lightflyer leaving. Then footsteps approach me. Nobody speaks. I hear a box being opened, and then someone grabs my hand." His hand jerked as he spoke, and Aral looked down, understanding Simon's earlier refusal a little too clearly now. "He presses six hyposprays to my left wrist in succession. They work quickly, and it becomes difficult to think clearly." Simon's words were as cool and unemotional as before, but Aral had enough experience to know that the situation he was describing was terrifying. "Note to self: I think I'm being used as bait. God knows what the trap is. Or I'm a distraction. Damn, it's getting hard to think. Hope Aral keeps his head. His people are his weak spot. Rescuing me is not the top priority."
"Oh, it was," Aral murmured. "Sorry, Simon. We're going to have to agree to disagree, on that one."
"They leave me alone for fifteen minutes and two seconds while the drugs take full effect, then some people come back. They drag me across the room and put me on a chair, restraining my arms and legs. I am unable to resist effectively. Then they begin to ask me questions." Simon began to reproduce the entire dialogue, word for word, even imitating his own drug-slurred speech in his responses. Aral raised a hand.
"Stop. How long were you questioned for?"
A pause. "Eight hours and two minutes in total, in five sections."
Aral had no intention of sitting here listening to the full eight hours of interrogation, even if Simon could have managed it. If Simon were in his right mind, he could summarise it all easily enough; trying to figure out how to get a summary from him in this state would be a little more complicated. He glanced at Cordelia, and saw she too was contemplating the problem.
"Can you list all the questions you were asked in order of frequency?" he asked. "Tell me the top five."
Again, Simon paused; Aral could almost see his chip slowly processing this instruction. For a moment his eyes drifted shut, his head starting to nod. Aral sighed.
"Simon? The top five questions you were asked," he prompted again, raising his voice to recapture Simon's attention.
Simon blinked up at him again, then began to speak. "Describe the security procedures at Vorhartung Castle. List all the staff who work at Vorhartung Castle. What scanners are they using at the service entrances to Vorhartung Castle? Answer the question, damn you. Tell me when the shift changes are in the guard at Vorhartung Castle."
Vorhartung Castle. "Well," Aral said, "that seems pretty conclusive. Vorhartung Castle is the target. But when? And what kind of attack?" He frowned, not sure whether to carry on or call this information in as well. But he daren't waste any more time with Simon now. "All right. So that was the interrogation. Did they talk to each other in your hearing? Mentions or references to Vorhartung Castle and--and the next two days." Anything longer than that, and the odds were good that ImpSec would catch up with these conspirators. But surely their plan would be to move fast, before Simon was back at work, before ImpSec was back to its usual functioning.
They went through several rounds of false starts and irrelevant information before he managed to get Simon telling him what he needed to know. "Then Petrov says, 'The float van is ready. Come on, we'll get this lot ready and loaded up for the castle.'"
"What are they loading, Simon? Can you tell?"
Simon mumbled something inaudible in answer. Aral leaned forwards. "Repeat that, Simon, please."
"From the direction of the sounds... there's a high probability that it is the crates. Then Petrov says... he says..." His voice trailed away again, and his eyes closed.
"Carry on, Simon," Aral said after a moment.
No response. Damn, they needed this, he couldn't stop now.
"Simon! What did he say?"
Simon's eyes flickered open for a moment, then closed again, his face going slack. Aral grimaced, braced himself, and did not look at Cordelia.
"Captain Illyan!" he snapped in a drill-sergeant's snarl. "Pay attention! Tell me what they said!" He punctuated his words with a short shake, his hand tight on Simon's good arm. Simon gasped, his eyes suddenly wide with shock. Cordelia gasped too, but whatever she was going to say, she swallowed as Simon began to speak again.
"... he says, 'Get the labels for the boxes and stick them on. Make sure they're the right way up.' Then another man says, 'Shut up, you idiot, he's right there,' and the first replies, 'Nah, he's out of it, look--' and he squeezes my right wrist. I do not respond. 'There, you see,' he says. 'Catering supplies, eh? Whose idea was that? Are they really just going to let us take these boxes of eggs straight in?' There is a thud and they move a little away..."
Simon's voice faded out again, slurring so that Aral could no longer make out the words, intently as he listened. He was shivering. Cordelia closed her notebook and capped her pen with a snap.
"This is over," she said in a hard voice, unlike her. "You've got as much as you're going to get. I hope you think this is worth it, Aral."
Aral nodded grimly. "I think that was worth knowing. Catering supplies. Those white boxes were taken in disguised as catering supplies. Could be anything. Explosives, biologicals, live snakes... I'll call it in next. First, though--" He leaned in towards Simon again, taking his uninjured left hand in his. "That's it, Simon. You've finished. I'm going to give you the antidote now."
Simon did not respond, his eyes closed. Aral turned his hand over, quite limp and resistless now, and pressed the second hypospray to his wrist. Simon's shivering abruptly worsened, and he retched and began to slide out of the float chair. Cordelia snatched up an ornamental bowl in time, and Aral caught him and held on as his body registered its protest at all this mistreatment.
"It's over now," he murmured as the paroxysms subsided. "I am sorry. It's over."
Cordelia gently wiped his face and took the bowl away, giving Aral a minatory look as she went out. Simon was still sliding out of the float chair. Aral caught him and lifted him up. "You did very well."
Simon's eyes flickered open. Anger, betrayal, fear: Aral was braced for any or all of those, but instead Simon seemed calm, almost peaceful. "Sir," he whispered, and his eyes closed again.
"I'll take you to bed now," Aral said. "You've done ... everything. Here." He wrapped Simon in the blanket and was at the door as Cordelia returned, still drying her hands on her skirt.
"What now?" she asked wearily.
"Nothing. I'm taking him to lie down, then I'll go call the rest of this in to ImpSec."
Cordelia followed as he carried Simon along to the guest room nearby, and she turned back the sheets so that he could get Simon into bed easily. Simon's eyes opened again, then closed. Aral laid a hand on his forehead and stood still, suddenly very tired.
"I expect he'll sleep now," he said, "but will you stay with him? I have to talk to ImpSec, and everyone, but I don't want him to be alone, not now."
"I'll stay," Cordelia said. She looked at Aral, opened her mouth as if to speak, then shook her head and went to close the curtains and pull up an armchair. As he went to the door, Aral did not try to meet her eye.
Cordelia was still sitting with Simon when he returned, quietly reading something on a hand-viewer. She looked up unsmiling at him.
"All done," Aral said. "They're unravelling it all as we speak. Those white crates Simon saw were full of explosives, and they'd just got them past security at Vorhartung Castle. The plan was to blow the whole place up tomorrow morning, once the Council was in session. I would have been there. It seems they were a gang of old Grishnovites, anti-Vor activists. They were bargaining on the disruption to ImpSec without Simon there being enough to keep them from notice, and they were very nearly right."
"Hm," was all Cordelia said. She looked down at the bed. "Simon's been out of it, mostly, since you left. He woke up a few times, very disoriented, but went back to sleep again quickly each time. He hasn't stirred at all for the past hour."
Reports exchanged, Aral thought. He stood before Cordelia and waited.
"And so the ends justify the means," she said, and he couldn't tell whether she meant it or was throwing it at him as a weapon.
"It was the right thing to do," he responded. "When he's himself again, Simon will tell you so. I know that."
"I don't doubt it." Cordelia looked at the figure in the bed and sighed. "The question is, will he be telling the truth then, or was it the truth we had from him earlier?"
"I promised Simon I wouldn't take advantage of what I learned from him in this state. It's not fair to him. What he says when he's drugged to the eyeballs is not something I can or should take into account."
"It's not that simple and you know it."
"Of course it's not." Especially since the other half of what he had seen of Simon had been the naked and unquestioning loyalty and devotion. That, too, was kept out of sight the majority of the time, only revealing itself by the shadow it cast. "But it's the best I can do, and the fairest."
Cordelia grunted. "Someone from ImpSec came to ask whether they should take him back to the hospital. I said I'd ask you. He'd probably be better off there, don't you think?"
Aral shook his head. "He wanted to be here. The doctors said he just needed to sleep it off, and I don't want him waking up in a different place from where he went to sleep, not like this. It's fine. I'll sit with him tonight. Everything's cancelled and they want me to stay here quietly and keep my head down until they've finished unravelling this, and I have about a thousand papers to read and letters to write, and I can do that here. I don't want him alone until he's himself again."
Cordelia stood up, shaking her head. "I don't think I'll ever understand you," she said. "Or Barrayar. If you care about him this much, how can do you these things to him?"
Aral stood still beside the bed. "It's not ... that's not how it works. It's his duty to serve me, and my duty to protect him. Today he has done me extraordinary service, and requires extraordinary protection. It all fits together." He extended a hand to Cordelia. "It does work, my Captain. Do you see it?" He paused. "Isn't it what you have with Bothari?"
That made Cordelia look down. "I suppose it is. Though as Miles gets bigger he's starting to command Bothari's loyalty in his own right. He takes after you, that way." She met his eye at last. "All right, love. At least you and Simon are playing by the same rules. Take good care of him."
Aral nodded as gravely as any soldier given an order, and went to sit at the console in the corner of the room. Simon woke several more times, disoriented and distressed, but went back to sleep rapidly when Aral spoke to him, and Aral worked through his paperwork well into the night, then settled himself in the armchair to sleep until dawn.
A small noise from Simon woke him as the sky was lightening. He blinked awake, and saw Simon watching him, much more clarity in his gaze now and awareness on his face.
"Sir?" he said. "Are you all right?"
Aral gave a wry smile at the irony of that question. "I'm fine. No, don't try to get up--" He raised a hand firmly in a universal signal to stop, and Simon lay back, looking a little relieved. Aral saw the moment when he finally mustered the awareness to query his chip about what had been happening, the way he closed his eyes, the way he closed his face.
"Your information enabled ImpSec to capture and arrest your kidnappers yesterday evening," he said. "They also found about a hundred kilograms of explosives and some very detailed maps of the security systems at Vorhartung Castle. The attack, the preliminary fast-penta interrogations show, was scheduled for this morning, when the Council would have been in session. I would have been there too."
"Oh," Simon said after a long motionless silence. Then, "Good." He did sit up then, clumsily one-handed, supporting himself against the headboard. "My lord, I'm sorry I--my cowardice--you were right to--"
Aral shook his head. "I wish I could promise you I would never have to do anything like that again. I am sorry that I had to take back my word. You deserve better from me than that."
Simon gave an odd, sad smile. "No," he said quietly. "No, Aral. You were right. It was the only way, and you did what was necessary, with more kindness than I'd imagined possible, once." He opened his hand. "I never really understood, until I had command of ImpSec. We do the ugly, necessary things, and--and I try to make sure we do them as kindly as possible. You teach me well."
A shaft of light was falling on the bed, and it lit up the little pinprick hypospray marks on Simon's wrist. Aral placed his hand over them, and they sat still for a moment. Then Simon said, "I'm sorry about Margraves, though. I thought I'd rooted them all out of ImpSec, and he seemed like a good man. I trusted him. I'm afraid I haven't yet got your eye for character."
Aral blinked. "Margraves?"
"Didn't you--" Simon closed his eyes, visibly searching his chip, then sat bolt upright. "Shit. You never got that from me, yesterday. He was the ImpSec source, the one who betrayed me to them. He's still at large?"
Even before Aral could answer, Simon was pushing himself out of bed, shakily barefoot and pyjama-clad, scanning the room, stumbling for the console in the corner. Aral reached for his wristcom.
"Cordelia. Get Miles and go to Gregor and make sure you only have Vorbarra Armsmen around you. Do not trust anyone from ImpSec. Do you understand? No time to explain, just do it."
Simon nodded, attacking the console, using both his good and his injured hands to get to the data he needed. "He's here," he said after a moment. "Here in the Residence now. I'm sending out an immediate arrest order, but I need it to bypass Margraves himself or God knows what he'll do." Another pause while his hands moved on the keyboard. "Gregor's secured, so are Miles and Cordelia." He looked at Aral, visibly working through his list of people he must protect.
"I don't think I'm the target," Aral said in slow response to the look. "I think you are." He stood at Simon's shoulder. "His plan is blown to hell, all his tools have been captured, he knows you've been giving information--but he hasn't been arrested yet. He thinks he has a chance of getting away, but he has to stop you talking before you tell me--what you've just told me." He wheeled around. "He gave up hope, last night once you started providing information, but now he's got it back. He's coming for you."
Simon turned away from the console. He was unarmed, and in no state for hand-to-hand fighting either. Aral took his nerve disruptor and placed it beside Simon's good left hand. Simon shook his head, pushing it away.
"You need that." He typed again, not visibly wincing as he moved his broken hand. "Ah."
The screen was displaying the corridor cameras in the Residence, and Margraves was walking casually along towards their room. Aral nodded slowly, retrieved the disruptor and backed away from Simon to stand in the blind spot behind the door when it opened. Simon looked at the screen a second longer, then shut it down.
A moment later, there was a short knock, then the door opened. Simon stood up, still very shaky. Aral saw that Margraves' hands were empty, and held his fire for a moment. Better to take him alive, if possible.
"Sir," Margraves said casually, "I'm glad to see you up and about."
Simon said nothing, only nodded and took a step forwards, keeping Margraves' attention on him. "Though perhaps you shouldn't be," Margraves went on. "You could have a nasty fall, like that. And you only have to hit your head the wrong way once, and that's it." He moved closer, intent on Simon, who was making himself a deliberately easy target, looking even weaker than he was. Aral took two long silent steps and caught both the man's arms behind him and jerked up, letting out his anger at this whole situation, twisting fiercely enough to dislocate one of his shoulders. Margraves collapsed, gasping in pain. Aral stood over him.
"I don't think you need to worry," he said. "Simon has someone on hand to catch him." He pressed the panic button on his wristcomm then, and gave the disruptor to Simon, and by the time the guard arrived, Simon was holding a disruptor on Margraves, Aral's hand unobtrusively resting in the small of his back for support. He stood by as Simon instructed his men, and Margraves was taken away, to be imprisoned and no doubt given the necessary medical treatment. Aral wasn't at all sure he deserved it.
"All clear now?" he said to Simon when the crowd thinned.
"Yes, once Margraves is clear of the building they can go back to normal. I don't think there are any co-conspirators lurking, though we'll have to confirm that in the fast-penta interrogation and investigation." He sighed. "God, this is going to make a lot of paperwork."
"Ten percent action, ninety percent paperwork," Aral agreed. "Actually, that might be generous." He gave Simon a gentle push towards the bed. "Lie down before you really do fall and crack your head on something, please, Simon. Or sit down, or something."
Simon claimed the chair Aral had spent the night sitting in, and Aral perched on the edge of the bed.
A few moments later, rapid footsteps outside the door made them both look up, and Cordelia swept in.
"What on earth was all that about?" she said. "The boys are fine, they thought it was a great adventure. At least, Miles did, and Gregor came around to that viewpoint fairly quickly." She looked at them both. "How are you, Simon?"
"Much better, thank you, my lady." Simon gave Aral a look which clearly said explaining all this to her is your problem. Aral supposed that was fair enough.
"Everything's all right now," he said. "But it turns out we're not as good at interrogation and data analysis as Simon is. When he woke up properly, just now, he put the remaining pieces together and realised that we'd missed the traitor in ImpSec. It was Commodore Margraves. He's under arrest now, they've taken him away."
"Away from where?" Cordelia asked, with her unerring instinct for the exact location of the trouble. The faintest smile touched the corners of Simon's mouth. Aral sighed.
"Well. He was coming to finish Simon off. We got the jump on him, though. No harm done, except to Margraves, and I'm not going to lose any sleep over him. He thought he'd get to Simon before he could tell anyone what had happened."
"You know, Lady Cordelia," Simon said, "if I'd stayed at the hospital last night I'd probably be dead by now, even if Forensics did manage to uncover the rest of the plot without my information. Margraves would have had no trouble getting through security, there."
Cordelia sat down beside Aral on the bed. "It's still a shitty situation," she said. "Are you sure we can't interest you in having the chip removed, Simon? It's not right, you having to go through all this."
Simon gave a faint smile, and his eyes flickered to Aral. "It's a weapon, my lady. I can't give it up now that I have it. You've seen its worth."
"I've seen what it does to you, too. Having it put inside your head was utterly unethical in the first place, and even without Negri and Ezar's ruthlessness, now you know you're not even safe from Aral." She gave Aral a look which still held a residue of last night's anger.
"I don't need to be safe from Aral," Simon said at last. "The chip is my weapon and my burden, and I know I can bear it." His eyes were level on Aral.
"Nonetheless," Aral said, "Cordelia's not wrong. If you do change your mind, tell me, and we'll arrange for you to be rid of it. If you want my word on it, you can have it."
"There's no need," Simon said, and Aral wasn't sure whether he meant it was because he trusted Aral, or because he was certain he would never ask to have the chip removed. It worked out the same either way, he supposed.
"Very well." He could see Simon was uncomfortable with this whole conversation, and surely he'd put Simon through enough discomfort lately. He stood up. "We'll let you rest now. Because when you're better--when you can convince me that you're recovered," he added, and saw Simon's lip quirk in response, "then I need you back on duty."
Simon returned him a grave nod. "Yes, sir."