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The Equal and Opposite Reaction

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It was with some satisfaction that the Head of ImpSec received the urgent encrypted tightbeam message from Lord Vorreedi on Eta Ceta IV, forwarded immediately for his attention as soon as it arrived:

“Something’s stirred up a hornet’s nest amongst the Ghem – not sure what exactly – but given all the Generals have suddenly made themselves scarce at social events and there are no leaks (not even a hint of one!) I presume whatever has happened will lead, in due course, to the recall of a selection of senior officers who will make their no-doubt-permanent apologies to the Emperor.”

It was midday, well outside the usual timeframe for messages to be received. The cost of such an irregular transmission came from the local operating budget of the originator, which acted as a strong motivator not to use the tightbeam for anything other than an emergency. Simon allowed himself a smile of satisfaction; he presumed Miles had been successful at Dagoola IV.

Simon’s first clue the operation had not gone totally to plan came the next day. As was his wont he turned on the galactic news while eating his morning groats: one of the biggest prisoner-of-war escapes in the history of mankind, they were saying. It seemed Miles had excelled himself; Simon looked forward to reading his post-action report.

Early morning of the next week brought the usual sealed communiques sent to him daily by courier, from both within and outside the Barayarran Empire. Everything sent to ImpSec HQ bore Illyan’s name; it was a carryover from the years when Negri had commanded the service, a time when the sheer volume of correspondence had been less…voluminous. (Negri had also been something of a control freak. Once in a while, Illyan, who had the dubious honour of being one of the few who actually could remember the man, would have a mental image of Negri trying to open everything now, the way he had in the old days; it normally brought a smile to his lips – often in duller-than-usual meetings with department heads, who would wonder just what it was they had said that was humorous).

Regardless of how they were labelled, however, the majority of dispatches never reached Illyan’s office, being dealt with by the post-room which routed them to the various departments. His personal assistant dealt with many of the rest. He possessed the code key to open all but a handful and he was expected to finish sifting through them long before Illyan arrived at the office. Illyan had once asked him how early his day began, and been startled to learn the sorting normally took two hours.

Most reports were transferred by secured comconsole. Only the tiniest number – proportionately speaking – were deemed too sensitive for e-messaging, which, notwithstanding modern security measures, was at greater risk of hacking than printed flimsy. Even they were too numerous for all to receive his personal attention, so his ever efficient assistant triaged them by code and origin and allowed only a select few through to be placed on his desk for his attention when he arrived. He had been waiting for…there it was, encoded for his eyes only. He pressed his thumb to the electronic seal on the envelope, and removed the single flimsy and small data wand from within.

“Sir, I refer to your memo dated 23rd of July which alerted me to expect a courier delivering a briefing from a covert operative located within the Dendarii Mercenary Fleet. I regret to inform you that while I can report a ‘sighting’, of a sort, of said fleet, I am unable to provide the operational report as expected. I enclose a vid of the local news summary which should be self-explanatory.”

Simon inserted the tiny wand into his reader and watched while three pocket battleships and assorted other (smaller) craft jumped into Escobaran space, and, within minutes, out again, pursued by three Cetagandan cruisers. An unseen female commentator speculated on the eventual destination of both fleets. Simon sincerely hoped she was wrong.

A week later his assistant brought him a report from Jackson’s Whole. Morosov had smuggled his news in a consignment of perishable exotic fruits being priority shipped through Cordonah Station.

“As you can see from the attached holo, one of the ships – not the command ship – appears to have suffered a significant amount of damage to its port nacelle from Cetagandan weaponry, before it arrived in Jacksonian space. As per standing orders to assist, I intercepted and rerouted messages between Prestene Station and the Cetagandan attache, which delayed pursuit sufficiently for the Dendarii to make their escape.”

After that, it was several days before a further report arrived. In the meantime, Illyan had to make his daily reports to the Emperor and Prime Minister. It was not easy to meet those eyes every day and not have anything to say. (The only saving grace was that he knew it would be worse to meet them and have to say the unthinkable.) Gregor’s looked hopeful each time he arrived and saddened when he left. Aral’s looked as they always did; he had had more practice at schooling his emotions.

The fleet’s stop at Kline Station was brief. He knew better than to expect a full operational debriefing from that locale; but the two-day stopover enabled Illyan to send Miles instructions via tightbeam to report to Security Command at Tau Ceti HQ. The reassurances about Miles’ welfare Simon forwarded to Gregor and Aral. Later that evening, he met Countess Vorkosigan at a reception Gregor gave for the Cetagandan Ambassador, and was relieved to be able to meet her steady gaze. The Cetagandan delegation was, as always, suave and polished in their presentation. He wondered just how much the Ambassador really knew about Barrayar’s involvement in the renewed Marilacan resistance. The Dendarii was a mercenary outfit, after all: someone must have paid for the breakout. As usual, Illyan circulated and participated little. He did, however, direct the positioning of more listening devices than usual round the Cetagandans. One never knew just what interesting tidbits they might let drop.

The next information came four days later from a stringer they paid periodically for choice intelligence. Illyan hated having to rely on someone whose loyalty was worse than merely suspect; but Mahata Solaris was too small and insignificant a system for Barrayar to maintain any presence, even that of an outlying business agent, so he had no other choice. This particular informant had a reputation for reliability which was unparalleled in espionage circles, even if he did play both sides against the middle. Illyan knew whatever he had sold to Barrayar would also have been traded to the Cetagandans; and he hated the feelings of impotence engendered when he knew information but could not act on it. What was the point of an eidetic memory and a sinister reputation when there was nothing one could do?

He played the vid, wincing as he watched outclassed ships duck and dive while plasma cannon fired repeatedly from five Cetagandan cruisers. Fortunately the smaller ships had the edge of manoeuvrability. It was their sole advantage. The wormhole offered their only chance of escape, but was covered by an armed scout. Illyan remembered well his lessons from Escobar; leaving such minor firepower to guard the only exit from local space proved a major error on the Cetagandan’s part; and he watched with bated breath as, one after another, the Dendarii ships made the jump. A groan of protest was wrenched from him when the recording cut out abruptly while two remained: one with a damaged nacelle (clearly slower than the rest in its approach to the wormhole), the other obviously the command ship which was providing covering fire for its wounded colleague. He searched the packing to check if there were anything more and found a short note of explanation: the vid had been recorded by an amateur in a merchant vessel caught in-system when the closely pursued Dendarii arrived, a merchant who had been more concerned to move away from the firefight as swiftly as possible, rather than shift closer to get a better view (something he had clearly accomplished before the end of battle). The stringer informed that all the ships, despite damage, eventually made the jump to some unknown destination. That Simon believed; had they been captured – particularly had Miles’ ship been captured – he rather thought he would have heard by now. It was cold comfort though. Damaged ships usually contained injured men. He had a momentary vision – firmly dismissed – of Miles lying dying in the ship’s infirmary. It was all after the fact (Illyan double checked the date stamp on the original transmission – well after the fact, at least in galactic space battle terms). Whatever had happened was over and done. The only outstanding task now was to forward the information to the appropriate people. Aral would at least have the dubious satisfaction of knowing his son had absorbed his lessons in battle tactics.

The next week brought no word. Illyan was party to lengthy discussions between Gregor and Aral about possible routes the Dendarii might have taken from Mahata Solaris. The problem was there were too many potential directions. “If I were them I’d try to get out of jurisdictions open to Cetagandan military traffic – try to go somewhere they were persona non-grata. If it was some place I could also be sure of my welcome, so much the better.” The Great Man had spoken; Illyan sent out urgent instructions to the ImpSec Aide to the Barrayaran Trade Envoy at the Hegen Hub about actions to take in the event the Dendarii approached the nexus.

He did not have long to wait for a response. The next evening at an urgent appointment with the Emperor he found himself explaining about Cetagandan assassination teams, rewards, and close squeaks.

How much?”

“Reportedly 50,000 Cetagandan crowns, roughly the equivalent of 125,000 Betan dollars, paid in the currency of the earner’s choice.”

Gregor’s eyebrows rose; there was a long, tense pause while he contemplated his foster brother’s monetary value – dead value, clearly. Living, Illyan thought Gregor would likely place an even higher price on Miles.

“I have sent the order to retrieve Lord Vorkosigan’s clothes from the storage crate where he abandoned them,” offered Illyan.

“It isn’t his clothes I want back,” protested Gregor.

“Yes, Sire.” What else could Simon say?

“Do you at least know which direction he went in this time?”

Sadly, Illyan shook his head.

Three weeks later a Polian dockyard submitted an invoice to the Barrayaran Imperium for repairs to a damaged docking shuttle. Routine queries about how the charges had been incurred revealed a hair-raising story about sabotaged stabilisers and a near collision with the commercial space station. Some fancy flying by Elena Bothari-Jesek had averted disaster. Grateful Polians had decorated her with all due ceremony, but the Dendarii had been asked to leave Polian jurisdiction by the swiftest route possible.

“And they went…?”

“Back to the Hub, Sir.”

“I don’t suppose they could have taken the other wormhole…?”

“I have been informed they suggested it; but there was a long queue and the Polians were not prepared to risk another incident in their space. Unfortunately, my sources in the Hub tell me they did not even pause there but simply transited to Aslund, which is a dead end.”

“Dead end?”

“It isn’t clear why they exited in that direction, given the lack of any other wormholes in that system, and…,” Illyan admitted reluctantly, “my best sources have been unable to find them there.”

Count Vorkosigan looked grey and sighed heavily before he reasoned, “They won’t have wanted to chance Jackson’s Whole again, given what happened last time; and while I have no doubt the Dendarii would be warmly welcomed in Vervain, that only leads to Cetagandan space. So Aslund it had to be.”

“Except they patently are not there.”

“No, by my reckoning, they’ll be right abouthere.” Aral pointed to a blank space on a star chart about mid-way between Aslund and Beta Colony.

“In normal space.”

“Going the long way round, yes; but the safe way – safer at any rate. There’s nothing to stop the Cetagandans sending a warship – a fast warship – in long pursuit and it would be highly unlikely for any other ship to be within hailing distance to observe any battle, so, no witnesses. The only way we’d know would be the smug looks on Cetagandan faces.”

“Is that likely?” Gregor asked quietly.

Count Vorkosigan shrugged. “Well, the Cetagandans would have to find them first; space is a fairly large place and ships really quite small in comparison. But there are still only a certain number of routes to take, unless, of course one is captaining a survey ship with the job of going off into the unknown.”

He paused a moment before saying, “It’s possible. The alternative would be to have someone waiting the other end when they get close to their destination, which is less costly in terms of time and fuel. It all depends on how badly they want him.”

“The reward for his capture is now up to 100,000 crowns,” offered Illyan.

“Dead or alive,” added the Prime Minister.

Illyan alerted the embassy at Beta Colony to watch for the Dendarii and render all assistance required, and resigned himself to a long wait. It was not as if he had nothing to do meanwhile. Marilacan guerrilla fighters had recaptured Fallow Core and intelligence suggested their next attack would be on Garson Transfer Station. If they could control their side of the wormhole connecting them to the Cetagandan Empire, impetus would shift in their favour. And if they couldn’t control it, but made sure no one did – if they sent through a fireship the same way Aral had blocked the wormhole that connected Escobar and Sergyar twenty-five years ago – the guerillas could make it bloody difficult for Cetagandan resupply lines. Illyan forwarded the briefing to Admiral Desplains; his own sphere was intelligence after all; it was operations who would make the decision about how best to support Marilacan freedom fighters.

The Emperor took a rare break from his political duties; he had gone down to his District to relax (and, if Illyan knew his Gregor, catch up on overdue paperwork associated with his Count’s responsibilities). Simon lunched with Alys Vorpatril that weekend. He was sure she must know something of what was happening; she was too close to both the Vorkosigans and the Emperor not to be aware. She said nothing, for which he was grateful. Instead they talked about an up-and-coming artist who was giving his first show at the Vorbarr Sultana Gallery of Modern Art.

He felt some satisfaction, early next week, when confirmation came through from the Cetagandan desk that quiet funerals had been held on Rho Ceta for three Ghem Lords. Regardless of the worry about Miles, the work of ImpSec went on. The Komarran Desk reported some unusual activity within activist cells in Vorbarr Sultana; encrypted communication with a House Minor on Jackson’s Whole had been intercepted. The briefing was simply to keep him informed: the analyst in charge had already ordered decryption and additional monitoring. The potential value of a sweep was being considered. A report from Pol included a sample of a new animal-based (no, snake-based!) poison, believed prepared for use against the CEO of the Hub’s Consortium; there was nothing like loving one’s neighbours in international politics. Illyan approved it being added to the evidence room.

The second half of the week included training three new members of the palace guard. Illyan set them a series of trails to follow to assassination plots; they were, of course, paper exercises for training purposes, but based on real-life ploys of recent past. Inevitably palace guard recruits were drawn from operational ranks: the brightest of the bright, but always somewhat dismissive of the ‘backroom boys’, seeing ImpSec as a cushy kind of soldiering. By the end of two days with him, as usual, these three had considerably greater respect for the paper-shufflers of ImpSec than ever before. Next he enlisted Count Vorkosigan’s assistance in polishing the guards’ hand-to-hand combat skills. When Bothari had still been around he had borrowed him; but for many years Aral had offered. No doubt the simplicity of wrestling recruits helped the Prime Minister to take his mind off matters less easy to fight into submission. For the final day Illyan placed the guards in the tender hands of Lady Alys and Madam Koudelka. He always liked to watch that part. Despite the anxiety that niggled at the back of his brain, this time was no exception. Once they pronounced themselves satisfied, he knew he could count on the new guards being alert to all potential threats from female sources. He and Lady Alys joined the Koudelkas for a celebratory evening meal at the end of the day.

It was easy to keep busy. Illyan was always busy, no matter how much he tried to delegate to others. Ultimately he held responsibility for everything within ImpSec which led to long days. But it was not just that it was his responsibility; it was his passion (as much, he acknowledged to himself if not to anybody else, as anything could be given the chip in his brain). The difficulty currently, Simon realised, was that he didn’t know. He was used to knowing – to being able to give precise answers with an exactitude unmatched. He appreciated that there were things he could not know; the known universe did not contain the answers to everything (not to mention that the unknown universe was just that: full of things nobody knew anything at all about). But ask him at any given moment and he could tell you where each operative was; what they were tasked with; what, in all probability, they were actually doing; and where they would be next. With the exception of Miles. It was nothing new, of course; you’d think he would have got used to it. Beyond the broad brush of whether Miles was at home in Barrayar or out playing Admiral, all he ever really knew about Miles was that he would carry out his orders but in such a way that he exceeded them—no: transformed them—and left those around him open-mouthed. It appeared he had done just that where Dagoola was concerned. But the laws of physics applied to Miles just as much as everything else: an equal and opposite reaction had set in. He just hoped Miles would survive it. On reflection, perhaps, in his need to know, he was as much a control freak as his predecessor had been, albeit in a different way. Illyan aired his musings when he dined with the Vorkosigans two days later. Aral’s lips quirked and he spoke of hostages to fortune. Cordelia spoke about the ephemeral quality of ‘knowing’ and the enduring nature of ‘love’. None of it held any real comfort.

Illyan gritted his teeth the next evening when the newscasts appeared on prime time showing a running battle on the streets of Beta City not far from the Barrayaran Embassy. Quite how the Cetangandan hit team had got their weapons through the notably efficient Betan customs he probably would never know. The Dendarii’s outclassed personal stunners had been supplemented by Taura’s peculiar skills, and enabled the party to make a strategic retreat, carrying several wounded but with Miles intact. The Betan authorities were irate, and exceedingly voluble. For a supposedly covert mission by covert operatives, both Dagoola and all its aftermath had attracted considerable publicity. Perhaps the next time he saw Miles, he should suggest a refresher course in the art of discretion and subtlety. Meanwhile, Illyan sent instructions for the four dead Dendarii bodies to be disposed of or repatriated – each according to the customs of his original world – at the expense of an ‘anonymous benefactor’.

The Dendarii had already decamped in the direction of Earth. One saving grace, he supposed, was that the bruised and battered Cetagandan hit team would not be allowed to leave Beta until they had completed therapy. (He expected that would take a very long time.) No doubt the Cetagandans would task a new assassination team; but that could not be achieved immediately, which would give the Dendarii a nice head start. Illyan sent word to Sector II HQ to be on the look-out for the mercenaries.

It was the last he heard for a few weeks. Illyan sent questions in the regular courier’s pouch, then one by urgent courier, and finally by daily tightbeam. Miles ought to have reached Earth long since; but it was as if he had dropped into a wormhole that exited in another galaxy! Or been found by the Cetagandans.

Finally, Illyan ordered a briefing prepared for the Emperor about potential deep space hazards enroute from Beta Colony to Earth, and booked a special appointment for the next morning to discuss the probable demise of the Count Vorkosigan’s sole heir (and the political implications thereof). He arrived at work to find an urgent tightbeam message from Elena Bothari-Jesek, forwarded through Sector II HQ. Tension Illyan had not been conscious of loosened at the back of his neck, and he closed his eyes in relief. To the average Barrayaran, eighteen million marks would sound like a high price tag for one operation; Illyan was all too aware it could have been infinitely higher.

Twenty minutes later he was briefing the Emperor about the urgent report just received about the hijacking of a Tau Cetan passenger vessel in Sector IV.

“What have we decided to do about it?” asked Gregor.

“I thought I’d send Miles.”