Mark's cover was a no-brainer. Just one look at him and anyone in this god-forsaken planet and in this dingy bar would think that the short, wide, fleshy man was in for a new body. Even a cursory checking of his genuine records would give out the same impression; Mark Vorkosigan, a rich kid from some aggressively old fashioned planet, in Jackson's Whole, where buying some serious body modification, or even a new body was equivalent to using the daddy's money to go to the whores the first time. A second look would reveal a whole lot more, but right now he and Ivan were counting on their first-glance boringness.
As seamlessly as Mark took into his cover, Ivan went as his bodyguard slash partying buddy. As non-uniform as Mark's cousin twice-removed was in Barrayan standards, in here he reeked of a born soldier. Mark guessed that all Barrayans smelled like that and they couldn't get rid of it even if they tried. A bodyguard was the most obvious cover, and most safe, as Ivan lacked the natural talent of lying that Mark possessed.
Ivan surveyed their first actual stop at the underground world, a seedy little cocktail bar. They had spent almost a week on the planet already, counting in their time in the orbit before receiving landing permission. All that time Mark had done what he did the best; information gathering. Ivan had learned new inventive ways to play solitaire, and had even invented a few new ones himself.
Ivan knew that he wasn't the only one who had been driven up the wall by the game of hurry up and wait, but Mark hadn't shown signs of frustration at any point. Ivan was jealous, really.
"I gather that you were briefed more thoroughly than I was before we departed." Ivan looked at Mark. "I hope." Their travel had taken weeks, but in an imperial ship and with the non-existent spaceship-privacy, they haven't had an opportunity to talk about this. Just as well. It wasn't Ivan's job to be strategic.
"No, we don't have such a luxury. You know as much as I do, that we are the last possible reserve for this. ImpSec must have been desperate to send us."
"Yes, but just think about how much it must have pained ImpSec to send us?" Mark grinned.
"Why didn't they send Miles?"
Mark's smile vanished. "Miles is... busy. So they had to settle for the poor copy."
"Brother," Ivan corrected automatically. It was always felt like running nails on a chalkboard to Ivan when Mark referred himself as a clone. It wasn't like Ivan would give a hoot about Mark's self-esteem issues, but the whole idea of cloning made him shudder involuntarily.
"So. The briefing was that somewhere, hopefully still on this planet, there is a patch of Gregor's stolen genetic material. Find it and destroy it."
Mark nodded his confirmation and took a sip of his toxic-looking but actually stimulant-free drink.
"I can see why, but why now? The material can't be new." They both knew that the most probable and possibly only time when Emperor Gregor's genetic material would have gone unnoticed was years ago, when the young Emperor to be had managed to get himself kidnapped. Or he'd ran away, went missing; there never had been an official account on what really happened to Gregor in his 20s. At least, nothing that would be accessible with either of their security clearances. There had been plenty of time to steal a sample when he'd been missing, though it could have happened later on, with someone ransacking wherever Gregor had been held, harvesting the tiny amount of DNA it took. But no matter how it had happened, that had been years ago.
"What is the usual reason for sudden moves? Something happened and the status quo changed."
"It's not possible that ImpSec wouldn't have known about this before, at least on some level. So what you are saying is that ImpSec knew about it, knew where it was kept for this whole time, and then what? It just disappeared?"
"You got it right at the first try. I always knew that you weren't just decorative." Mark continued, pointedly ignoring Ivan's scowl.
"Jackson's Whole is the mecca of cloning. The sample banks are the most valuable treasure in the planet, and the Houses guard them with all they got. The genetic material stored in the vaults is not only the root of their operations, it's the root of their reputation."
"So the local ImpSec agent had a spring chicken's chances to get Gregor's sample."
Mark nodded. "They have probably tried for years to buy it. I'm betting they tried to buy it a while ago, and what do you know, they got a sudden silent treatment."
"The house, House Dahl, couldn't just have sold it for the highest offer?"
"All secrets have a value here, and this particular one would have been affordable for ImpSec. But a house losing a sample? That's an inside job." and You are the expert, as you were born in this hell hole, was how Ivan could response to that, they both knew without talking aloud.
"So where are we supposed to start looking for the sample, when ImpSec with it's thousand times larger resources couldn't find it?"
"I don't think that we are looking just for a sample, anymore."
"Oh shit, you could be right." Mark had done it before. When ImpSec had been desperately searching and using all its time and resources to find his brother's frozen body in a cryopod, and after that turned out empty, Miles' rotting corpse, Mark had been counting the time it took to grow new organs for the corpse mentioned, and the revived man to turn up himself. Which turned out to have been exactly what had happened. But, still.
"You are not saying that instead of samples that we were supposed to flush down the toilet, we are now searching for the next imperial heir? What the hell would we do with a baby?"
"I don't know, flush it?"
Ivan instinctively smacked Mark. Hard.
"Hey!" Mark was more annoyed than surprised. "Barrayans." That came out with the same exasperated tone as Mark and Miles' Betan mother sometimes used. "You all got the idea that your emperor is the same as your planet fed in your mother's milk. He can do no wrong, and the sun shines from his… Hey!" Ivan had smacked him again.
"If what you say ends up being true, then we have a politically dangerous situation in our hands. There are still a lot of influential people in Barrayr who don't recognize cloned offspring. Some of them don't believe even in gestation tanks yet."
"If what you say is true, think about the potential mess of an Empress wannabe showing up, with a baby that looks disturbingly like Gregor."
Ivan couldn't help it; he let out an audible whimper. "I always wanted as many bodies as possible between myself and the throne, but that would be a catastrophe." They both were potentials to inherit the throne if worst came to worst, admittedly far down the line, but still in danger to become "it." Personally, Gregor having offspring would be a great relief for both of them, but not this way, thank you very much.
Mark didn't look very pained. Actually, he looked downright cheery. "It's your own fault that you still treat biological lineage as the command of god."
"Yeah, well. That would be pretty hard to change because the whole Vor system lays on inherited power structure."
"Democracy. Look it up."
"We have!" Ivan resisted the urge to smack Mark again. "I can't believe you got me hot and bothered over Barrayan societal structure! Me!"
"Ha!" Mark looked smug. Ivan let it slide. Let the man have his small victory.
"So, we are now waiting for the Empress wannabe, then?"
"I don't think that there is one."
"But you just said-."
"In a general sense, yes, but not in literal. That would be way too holovid romance. Or maybe a political thriller. And it would require a woman who actually wants to end up stuck as an Empress in your backwater planet."
"Our backwater planet. What, then?"
"I'm thinking of someone willing to grow a living bargaining chip. It doesn't matter if you count the kid as your next emperor, or want to flush it down the garbage chute, you want the progeny back like burning and that makes it a great bargaining chip."
"And why would this master planner meet us in this…" Ivan looked at his surroundings again. "Respected establishment?"
"We are not waiting for him. I'm not that far yet."
"We." Ivan corrected again, still looking around like he would expect to see a man with an actual cloak and dagger lurking around. "We are not that far yet. And who, then?"
Mark smirked. "Someone far more easier to find. I tuned all my feelers, started asking around and got... nothing. So far. But people who search for people who don't want to be found will find other people who search for other people. Meet-." Mark gestured towards a tall dark haired man that had just stepped in to the bar. "-Adam Lambert. Who, coincidentally, is also searching for stolen genetic material. Namely, his own."
"That one?" Hm. The man was about the same height as Ivan, and the black in his hair was about as fake as Ivan's was real. He was dressed quite flashy and dashy, but with confidence. Jackson's Whole was full of desperate people trying to make a false impression, but this man wasn't one of them. He didn't just try to be handsome, he actually was.
Adam Lambert's attention honed in on them immediately, and after a moment of silent recognition, he walked to them. Ivan mused over what kind of an impression they must give out to this man. He was obviously a soldier-bodyguard-watchdog -type, handsome in a forgettable way, just the way Ivan liked it. Mark, though... He was notably short, not a midget, but enough for it to be considered a handicap. Short and fat. But Lambert obviously wasn't a man who would be fooled by him. With Mark's air of confidence, expensive black clothes and that kind-of-Betan-but-not-really style, he reminded a shiny beetle. Or a cockroach; the man looked like he would survive, no matter how hard you would try to squish him dead.
"I'm Adam Lambert. And you are the man who single handedly took the House of Bharabutra down."
This one was all Mark's. "That I am. Mark Vorkosigan, and this is Ivan Vorpatril."
Ivan used the time it took for Adam to get a drink wisely for smacking Mark again and hissing to him, "What is this 'Your reputation predeceases you' -shit? How did he know about House Bharabutra?"
Mark didn't look concerned. "It was only a couple of years ago. He checked me out before the meeting. I checked him out, too. Fair game."
"And you didn't bother to brief me?"
Mark was saved from more wrath by Adam sitting on their table and inquiring straight away what they wanted. What Ivan had first written off as a small time hood had now an obvious "don't mess with me" –vibe that Ivan could respect. In a way, he found it even familiar, almost comforting.
"You don't find your runaway sample, so you offer to help me to get mine? What's in it for you?"
"Yes," Ivan started, nodding. It went against his gut reaction to just sit down and shut up while the guys dealt with the whole thing.
"Nothing that you should worry your pretty little head about," came from Mark at the same time. That must be an almost pavlovian reaction to good looking people, because Mark continued instantly, covering his gaffe. "Because your sample got stolen the same way as ours, out of thin air. These cases aren't every day occurrences even in here. And it was the same gene bank, around the same time. These incidents are too similar to be accidental. And even if they are… Free help for you, more information for us."
"He is really good, too," Ivan chipped in. "He is the type who eats information spam and shits government secrets."
Mark gave him a stink eye. "Not helping." Actually it was, and Mark had noticed it too. Mark's dismay seemed to only make the glimmer of interest in Adam's eyes intensify, so the abrupt rebuff was mostly an act.
"I still don't trust you."
"And we're not asking you to." So that was how Mark's earnest face looked like. Kind of like Miles' but less… Earnest. "We haven't done anything yet to earn your trust. But now you know that we aren't threatening your search, either, and hey, free help from foreigners who don't know better, what is there not to like?"
To that, Adam grinned, because it was actually pretty funny for Mark describing himself as a hapless foreign. "Okay, your move."
Information gathering, that was the next stage. That was also the best and the most fascinating stage if you asked Mark, but Ivan already knew that Mark's and his views on the fascination of information gathering were like night and day.
For Ivan, Adam and Mark interacting was pretty entertaining to watch. In Mark's and Ivan's decent sized hotel suite, neither of them wanted to sit their back to the door. They competed over the seating arrangement, moving their chairs ever so little when the other's attention was occupied elsewhere. And they didn't even notice they were doing it.
Adam was tall, dark and handsome. Mark was short, dark and anything but, but they didn't really give a damn of which way their appearance went when they were so obviously trying to charm the other to under their thumbs.
When they had nailed the starting information down; what had been stolen, when, and what had happened since then, it had been hours already and the room was littered with empty hotel food dishes and data flimsies.
They knew the House where Gregor's sample had been stolen from. ImpSec had cross referenced that info, House Dahl's employer records, the personal histories and connections of each and every one, and the House's own history with Barrayar's current, late and potential enemies, and turned out with nothing. But now they would do the
same thing with Adam as a third, additional reference point.
"So. Reasons why anyone would desire your DNA. Start with the most obvious ones."
"Um, I'm a singer." Well, that didn't impress anyone in attendance. "A really good singer."
"Among other things."
"Yes, among other things." Adam looked a bit insulted that his ability wasn't taken at face value but was instantly paired with some other abilities that possibly had something to do with his dashing looks. "Awhile ago I did a year length slave agreement for an entertainment and pleasure resort here."
"Fantasy Springs. They really liked me. I drew crowds. They wanted to prolong the agreement, or hire me. They very much didn't want to let me go. There were some individuals that wooed me also."
"How?" Mark was busy making notes.
"I got gifts, expensive gifts. Um, propositions, propositions with money, job offers… And private slave deal offers, marriage proposals… I was stolen once, but fortunately that was still during me slave year, so the resort got me back."
"And you think that one of them might have had the idea of brewing up a songbird of their own?"
Adam looked uncomfortable. Ivan didn't blame him.
Ivan jumped in, wanting to make the suddenly heavy topic lighter. Mark certainly wasn't made for that, he was more of an inquisitor. "You really were that good, then? What happened?"
"Nothing, I just wanted out."
"But after that. You must have attracted interest from other entertainment centers, why not go to work in them? Or was there a reason for you taking a break in the underground world?"
Adam wrapped his arms around himself, like he was giving himself a hug. Suddenly Ivan wanted to give him a hug too, but, yeah. No way.
"Nothing that would help us. I just wanted a break, to be on my own control for a while. I had a little money left, so why not."
Mark looked up again from his notes, obviously having difficult time understanding why someone wouldn't want to make more money if the opportunity was offered.
"Sometimes what you are comes more important than who you are, and you become a thing. Singing, what ever talent you have, can become a valuable thing, the only thing that matters. But it's not you anymore, you'll become possession."
"Yes, I can imagine," Mark bit out. Mark had originally been created to only be a possession. A weapon, actually. There hadn't supposed to even be a feeling, thinking human inside of the assassin. Still, he had managed. Emperor Gregor, too, in a way, was a creation and a possession of his planet, identified only through his position and thus eventually being interchangeable.
Hours later they were still at it, and Ivan was getting impatient. What Adam had told them was proven to be truth by the documents, but as Adam's willingness to share his history veined down, so did his records. He was just a man that came from obscurity, really could sing, did some bad career choices and managed to burn his singing career down while getting out. No political connections, no hidden talents, nothing.
"C'mon, say it aloud. Adam has no connection to Barrayr or Komarr at all. Where is the motive?"
"There isn't one, at least one that you or ImpSec would ever find."
"Using Gregor's DNA... We can't find any connection or logical explanation, because there isn't one. Using Gregor's sample was probably just a coincidence, one in a million. Maybe the perpetrators just run a search for a tall, dark, smart and handsome, a bit somber to balance the other donor... No wonder ImpSec didn't find anything. They were so desperate to find the supposed conspiracy against the Emporium that they failed to consider anything else."
"But if they wanted him, why use Gregor at all? If he isn't something they desired, why not just clone the one that they did?"
"Either they wanted to engineer something even better, or... they didn't know how."
That didn't make any sense. "This isn't mixing and matching sperm and eggs in a petri dish. If there really are embryos or babies around, it was done using DNA samples, and from two males, at that. So, what is it?"
"They wanted to make the progeny even better, and it's far easier to find a match with desired complementary attributes than to make an engineered clone. Cheaper, too. Much cheaper."
"We still don't have a confirmation that Adam would have anything to do with this."
"No, but I have hunch."
Ivan had now a headache. Not even from stimulants or other really good stuff, but just from too much coffee, not enough sleep, reading too many flimsies and squinting at his hand held in a bad lightning. He scrambled up to go through his sleeping kit in a search of a med patch, instigating an improbatu break for all three of them.
Mark almost threw the documents from his hands. "You have really spotty records, Adam. I'll have to interview you because there isn't enough information accessible."
Ivan concentrated on stripping open the patch that he had found. "Yeah, why are we reading this stuff about you anyway, when you are right here. You were chatty previously, why don't you just blab away and we'll ask details when you hit something interesting."
Adam looked defiant, and even when he tried to keep up a confident façade, not completely at ease. "Everyone in this cesspool of a planet have spotty records. Can't you just go with what you got?"
Mark threw him a are you a moron and how come I noticed it only now? -glance. "No, we can't. You want to get your sample, or whatever has already been cooked up from it, back or not?" Mark now talked Adam like he had some kind of comprehension in understanding. Well, good luck with trying to make him to cooperate now.
"Yes, I want it back."
"So you'll cooperate."
"But I don't have to like it."
Mark nodded, not to agree with Adam but affirm that his discomfort was noted. Then something came to him. "Why?"
Adam looked slightly confused. Look who was asking stupid questions now?
"Why I don't have to like it?"
"No, why do you want it back? What is it to you? You don't care about the biological lineage like us backwater hicks do, you don't have to be afraid of a clone son showing up and demanding your position or fortune. So why do you care?"
Adam looked agitated now. Bingo. "It's complicated."
"So we have a person who desires a mini-Lambert, but only better, is ready and able to either do it himself or order some under-the-counter breeding, and doesn't really care about the fallout from stealing the samples from a high profile gene bank. And, he also has either limited funds or he is a cheap ass. Sounds to me like someone motivated by really, really personal reasons. Adam, anyone come to mind?"
Gone was the charm and confidence that had drawn both him and Mark to like the man. Adam was now white on his face, clenching the table like it would be the only thing keeping him together and upright. Holy shit. The man was having a panic attack, and they hadn't noticed until now.
"Okay. Adam." Mark's tone was different now, lower and less biting. Mark stood up, but took a step farther from Adam, not nearer. Ivan just froze on the bed, the patch still in his hands. Mark would handle this, Ivan would just make Adam bolt. If the man ran now, the chances to ever find him were close to zero.
"Just, relax. Nothing's changed. There are just the three of us, in this nice, spacious suite. No people, no cameras, no locked doors, just us."
Mark continued to drone on. Maybe it mattered what he said, maybe only his non-threatening tone and open posture was what he tried to get through. Ivan slipped forward on the bed, just so, to get in Mark's field of vision. When Mark checked him, still running his mouth in his now slow, gentle pace, Ivan gave him a small, questioning nod. Did Mark want to do this his way or was he just calming Adam down for them to jump him?
Mark's eyes flickered towards Adam and then to him, a silent no. Ivan easily let Mark call the shots on this one. Personally, he would have jumped. It was safer to secure first that the target didn't physically bail, and only after check what the hell was wrong with him. Adam looked like he could bolt at any moment. Kind of reminded Ivan the wild horses he had seen in Dendrii Mountains when he was a kid. No one had tried to tame them without catching them first, either.
Ivan settled back to watch. Mark was obviously trampling down a desire to pace, something that he did to help him think. "You are here because you want to be here. You are here because you have a purpose, you are able to do this." Adam was listening now. At least he wasn't trembling. "You want coffee? A shower? A stiff drink?"
"A shower would be good." Adam bolted, not towards the door but to the bathroom.
Ivan listened for the lock to click behind him and then turned to Mark. He kind of wanted to do a fist pump. "You were good at that."
Mark run his hands through his short hair. "Yeah, I thought that your 'jump and catch' could have set us backwards on this."
"But then I didn't know that you were a horse whisperer, too."
"A what? And I was just bullshitting my way trough."
If Mark wanted to believe that, then by all means. What was Ivan to pound into Mark that he actually had people skills. "What ever you say."
The shower started running. Ivan went to dig into his luggage again, this time to fetch a fresh set of clothes for Adam to wear when he would eventually come out. And finally insert the pain patch, damnit.
Adam and him were roughly the same size. Ivan had only one clean outfit left outside a military uniform and his grey fleece shipknit set, but if it would make Adam feel better, then he would have it.
Thirty minutes of showering (and man was Ivan glad for not being the one to pick the bill from that one), a moment of a suspicious silence and a clothes change later, Adam was back again. He even sat back in the same seat, like nothing had happened. He looked almost the same, his clothes still severely black, only less relaxed, on the seemingly same man, only less… relaxed.
Adam took a sip from his fresh cup of coffee and almost chuckled, like he was saying 'okay, you got me'; his mind made up to take a chance on these strangers.
"I was illegally engineered. I'm man made, using samples that were stolen. I just don't want it to happen again, that's why I'm after the samples."
Of course he was man made. Of course. How Ivan could have been fooled by his Barrayan culture to assume that that kind of beauty was anything but man made? Ivan confessed to himself that he had been skirting around the fact, because Barrayan men didn't appreciate or even see beauty in other men. Adam had obviously had a bad skin at some point, but that was phenotype, not genotype. Dyed hair? Differentiating. At least Adam was too self-conscious and in control to go with the fat route to become unremarkable like Mark had done.
"Engineered by who? Do you know if he is still alive? I need a name." Mark didn't seem to be delighted by the new information, but rather annoyed. That was understandable because Adam could have spat that out as the first thing when they met and spare them hours or work, but no, because the guy had issues.
"Shaw. His name was, is, Robert Shaw. He raised me, too, until I left him in my late teens."
"This is too obvious. You actually know personally a man that you know is capable of illegal, amateur cloning, and you didn't think it was something worth mentioning?"
"I forgot." Right after saying that Adam seemed to get just how that sounded like. "Really. It just didn't come to me until now. It was a long ago. I don't think those times nowadays. At all."
"Shaw is now our most promising suspect. Or, scratch that. I know that he did it, or has something to do with it, these kind of similarities won't just happen. That's pretty active forgetting from your part."
Adam didn't deny it.
Mark punched the name in his hand held. "So for what reason you were created for? Not as a body transplant?" There was nothing that Mark hated more than people whore were wearing corpses.
"No, not… I don't look like him, and I don't remember… Well, I wasn't speed grown like body transplants are." Another thing that made Ivan feel really freaking uncomfortable. Body transplants were illegal clones ordered by too rich people afraid of dying. The transplant kids were young, perfect for their genotype, speed-grown, barely educated cattle. When they were finally slaughtered and used as a vessel for their owner's brains, the poor adult-sized bodies could be as young as twelve years old.
"How old are you, really?" Ivan just had to ask.
"Records say 26." That came almost the same time. Mark was now obviously scrutinizing the data, trying to decide what to make of the information. Adam could be 26 in real life, but it was hard to say. People that were speed grown looked perfectly normal, if not somewhat gangly at first. They gave out their real ages away usually only when their mental capacities were tested, and even then they could come up as younger as they actually were, giving that their mental development was often overlooked.
Ivan used the opportunity to ogle at Adam from head to toe, which Adam allowed, though clearly dismayed. Adam could as well be even older than the 26 given in the records, because he had the body type that hid age well. The shower had surfaced a less smooth but far more fresh looking face with freckles and a hint of crow's feet on the corners of his eyes.
"It doesn't really matter. It would have just given us a smaller time frame to look into if we're to trace Shaw's previous actions. If he successfully engineered Adam, maybe he will repeat the offence with our stolen goods. Again, do you have any idea of to what purpose you were created for?" Yep, if Adam wasn't a body clone, so why would Mark care about his age.
"As a singer. As a some kind of perfect specimen, I guess."
Huh. He'd better be the best singer in the planet, otherwise that didn't make any sense.
Mark wasn't buying that, either. "Well, that's incredibly stupid. Even if you do it yourself and not order it, cloning and gene engineering is extremely expensive, so if you weren't created for a specific, lucrative purpose (like as a weapon, or a body transplant or a sex toy, Ivan's mind helpfully filled the gaps), your creator either made you for a specific buyer in mind, or he made you for himself."
"...Or, there is a specific trait but we don't just know about it," Ivan added off-handedly. That earned him a double take from Mark. Ok, he would just shut up now, okay?
"If there was something special, wouldn't I know it? I can sing, all right, isn't that enough? I'm almost thirty, wouldn't the ability, or purpose, what the fuck ever, have come up already?!"
"Not if the engineering was botched. When did you left Shaw again? Maybe he just let you go, having not fulfilled his designs?"
Adam rose to his feet and went towards Mark, probably subconsciously wanting to secure his position by towering over the smaller man. He was left standing a few feet away from Mark, though. His subconscious was probably quick enough to remind him that the smaller man was probably very much more dangerous that what he looked like. "I was not a let-down! I ran away, not in a million years would he have let me willingly go!"
"You see, or saw, Shaw as your father, never mind if you like it or not."
"Yeah." Adam had a hard time admitting it.
"So you are a fucked up creation with daddy issues."
An insult was easier to attack against than just a statement. "I like being fucked up, and I solved my daddy issues a long time ago. I don't know about your emotional traumas, but leave me out of them."
"Yes, you keep thinking that you are fine and normal if it makes you better. At least admitting that you can't stand Shaw makes you somewhat aware."
"You don't know anything about me! You might know where I was created, and where I live and what my schooling stats are, but that doesn't tell shit about how it was for me to grow up!"
"Yeah? Do you remember a single kid thing that you did in your childhood? Was there anyone cheering you up and giving you hugs when you learned to walk? Kiss it better when you fell?"
"Yes I do!"
"A single, happy childhood moment? C'mon, tell me about it!"
"I-!" Adam made wild gestures, frustrated. "There was!" Adam squinted his eyes and tipped his face, like it would help him remember.
"I remember… I remember being tested, and if I did good, I got chocolate."
"And if you didn't?" Mark was calm, he hadn't raised his voice once.
Adam waved his hand in an arch, like wiping away the subject. "Then I didn't! What this has to do with anything, anyway?"
"You were home schooled, but only with learning programs. Did you have friends, anyone that was the same age group as you? Probably not, but if you had, they never came to your house because it was weird and scary to them. I bet that Shaw pushed you to become someone else, some ideal, but no matter how much you tried to mold yourself to his wishes, it was never good enough. I bet he got into a jealous rage when he caught you kissing some boy the first time."
"I can... I can read and write. And I learned a lot afterwards. I'm, I'm not stupid!"
"Is that what he called you? Stupid? No-good?"
"He ever had sex with you?"
Ivan didn't know how Adam managed to have enough control to keep him from attacking Mark. The guy must have more control than either of them had thought. And had Ivan thought just a while ago that Mark had people skills? He now stood corrected. "Hold that thought!" Ivan made a vague gesture to order Adam to stay put and dragged Mark to the other side of the room. Mark followed, still inhumanly calm.
Ivan's headache had suddenly flared into a red pain behind his eyes, he was tired and he was pissed. "Why the hell did you do that?" Ivan hissed at Mark. "What good did it do? He is not you!"
"It's a stress test. What, you thought that I'm in a habit of being mean for kicks?"
"I-." Now that Ivan thought it, no, Mark hadn't. He was insensitive, but never downright evil.
Mark turned to face the still sheething Adam, who had been in a perfectly clear hearing distance from them the whole time. "Can you do it? If it comes to that, can you face him?"
Adam was angry, but the rage was now gone. "Of course I can, what kind of question is that?"
"A realistic one. We can't afford for you to freeze at any point. Or get into a killing rage, either, now that I think of it."
"Why would I do that? It was a long time ago, and I'm over it."
"He was your father. You'll never get over it."
"I'm not going to lose it. I swear."
Mark hesitated, making a decision. "Okay, you're in."
Ivan let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding. Adam had given an air of strength and confidence right from the moment they met, and Ivan believed that even if he might have embellished his natural charm a little then, that still had been the truer Adam than this distressed and anxious one. Which meant that Adam had a good reason to be so off now. Or that Ivan was a far poorer at estimating people that he had thought.
The rest of the evening went waiting for Mark's contacts to get back to them on Shaw. Had it been up to Mark, he would have gather all the information himself, but now they were getting so close so fast that the promise of something actually happening soon justified some compromises. If they got a word now that Shaw had left the planet a week ago, that would just be bad timing. But if they hear a week from now that he'd managed to disappear seven days before… The mere idea of such frustration made them skip the usual procedures and rush ahead, even faster than might be smart.
Eventually they formed a plan to check out a small industrial facility, a laboratory of sorts, that Shaw had rented two months ago under an alias. ImpSec had checked the leads on all rented, bought and stolen machinery used for gene technology as well as the facilities that could use them, but as too many possibilities and grey areas to generate any results. Now, however, they had Shaw to cross reference their information with, and that had produced the info on the lab reasonably quickly.
They didn't have Shaw's schedule, or information on how many people they should expect to face, but apparently the security was minimal and the facility was in the area where people minded their own business. They shouldn't need any additional back-up. Adam would be there as a distraction, since Mark was sure that Shaw would be plenty distracted by him. Also, some of the older technology for growing progeny had fail safe features that could be fooled. In an emergency, Adam's genes might be enough to open any containers.
"You know," Ivan started, looking at Adam, but aiming his words at Mark. Adam focused on a complicated decision making process on what chocolate package he would open, as candy was the only food left in their suite. "He kind of reminds me of you, only taller, prettier, less psychotic and with no filter."
Ivan couldn't say which part of Mark's answer had been sarcasm.
Mark waited until Adam look up at them before telling him, "This is only my fenotype." It truly was. Without some seriously unfortunate circumstances, Mark would have looked rather like Ivan. Not that Ivan thought himself as a prime example of anything, but still. And why did Mark have the desire to explain himself to Adam? Mark never made excuses.
"You know," Adam said, willingly citing Ivan, "I think I needed that, you getting in my face about Shaw. I haven't thought about him in years, and here we are planning to pay him a visit tomorrow. So I understand that you needed to make me explode before we move."
"Pay him a visit. That's one way to put it."
Ivan was woken up by a noise that didn't fit. There was rustling coming from… The dayroom? Mark's bedroom? Mark wasn't one to sleep restlessly. He also wasn't one that you could sneak up on, but Ivan had to check. They weren't really working undercover, and if they had been wrong and there were big players in this scheme, their little hotel suite was like an open invitation. In this planet, Houses had their own small armies and there wasn't a hotel that wouldn't look the other way if the price was right.
He grabbed his stunner and quietly approached the dayroom. At the first look, the room was almost pitch black, the only light was the sliver of light coming under Mark's bedroom door. It was too dark to see and Ivan had to make a decision whether to turn the lights on or not. Turn them on, and the possible intruder would know he was awake. Keep them off, and Ivan had to waste time letting his eyes adjust and moving more carefully.
Oh hell. Ivan slowly stepped at the door to check it. The door to the corridor felt untouched, but that didn't mean that anyone hadn't let an intruder in, either from the outside of from the inside. Ivan cursed in his mind and turned to face the room. Adam. Everything was like it was supposed to be, except Adam wasn't on the sofa where Ivan had left him sleeping. There were again slight noises, this time distinctly coming from Mark's room.
Ivan hurried to Mark's door, slowly pushed it ajar and peeked in to assess the situation. Mark and Adam were both in Mark's bed, their clothes discarded, intertwined in embrace and kissing passionately.
Really? Really? Oh boy. After his brain had processed what he was actually seeing, Ivan turned to back away as fast as he was capable of, while still keeping quiet. He was the regular innocent bystander and he wanted to keep it that way.
And then Mark twitched, did something that made the alarms go off in Ivan's head, but then it was too late as Mark struck with his stiffened fingers right at Adam's throat. They both made a sound; Adam would have screamed in surprise if he had any air moving through his windpipe, and Mark just made a horrified, abortive sound.
Adam went down, tried instinctively to spin farther away from his attacker and fell on the floor. He was left curled there, hands on his throat and face red, not yet able to breathe.
"Oh fuck!" Ivan punched the lights and rushed to Adam, but there wasn't much that he could do. (Plus, the guy was naked, the little voice in his head helpfully reminded him. Ivan told his little voice to shove it and go clutch his pearls somewhere else.) Adam was obviously alive and wasn't dying this very moment. If Mark had wanted him dead, he'd already be dead. Or, Ivan mentally corrected himself, hadn't Mark been able to pull back at the last possible moment, the man would have been dead. Mark hadn't been trained to maim, he had been trained to kill.
Mark was flailing a little. The first time during this mission Ivan saw him insecure. "Damn damn damn-."
"Wha-?" Adam finally forced a deep breath in and out. "What was that?"
That had been a panic reaction, but it had also been instinctively efficient and a breath away from deadly. And people with assassin training didn't panic. Mark had, and that was dangerous
Ivan saw that Mark had himself back in gear, and fast. That was something, but it didn't erase the fact that he had almost killed Adam, no matter how accidental that would have been. "That was the most expensive therapists that Beta colony can offer being useless hags after all."
Adam just stared at him, eyes vide, clutching at his throat.
"I used to have… Issues. Obviously I still do. Good to know." Mark picked his trousers up from the floor and maneuvered a foot in. "Maybe I should ask my money back." He spared a questioning glance at Ivan.
Ivan just spread his hands, exasperated. "Hey, I was supposed to be the bodyguard."
It felt like a small eternity before Adam was able to draw a full breath. He scrambled to sit with his back against the side of the bed and drew slow, wheezing breaths. Finally he tried out his vocal chords again. "Man you are crazy."
"That I am. Never said that I wasn't."
They apologized, because Mark was sorry and Ivan was embarrassed, and because they didn't want Adam to decide that the free help was too hazardous to his health and just slip away during the night. Mark would sleep in Ivan's room the rest of the night.
Ivan would never admit it, but this caught him off guard big time. Mark accidentally trying to kill someone, that he had regrettably witnessed before. That hadn't really been a surprise, more like an accident waiting to happen. But the other thing. Ok, Mark had had a... peculiar upbringing, but Ivan couldn't stop himself from thinking about what this new revelation about Mark would tell about Miles.
"Really? You don't... seem like his type."
"Yes, let's pretend that you were thinking about me for even a second and not my magical brother who isn't even on the same planet."
"Let's pretend that I never saw that, okay? Never happened, don't know about it, period. Not that I have anything against it, but if I knew about it, I couldn't shut up about it when Miles is around. Because I'm Ivan, who's unable to keep secrets from Miles. Okay?"
The laboratory was near the city, only a couple hours away by a ground car.
"Does this feel familiar?" Ivan asked Adam as they were getting closer to the area.
"No… I don't remember living here or visiting this area. Though they all look pretty much the same when you are, like, five. I remember being tested in a lab-type setting, though."
"What kind of tests were they? You never elaborated your history about those."
"Just… Test, for kids. Cognitive stuff."
Ivan didn't have the time to ask further as they arrived to the dingy industrial area. There were halls and bunkers, and based on the continuous electrical hum and a smell of ozone, plenty of cheap electricity.
"So, we just break in?" Adam was still more a singer than an underworld mastermind, that was for sure.
"Yes." Ivan gave Adam his stunner. He and Mark had their nerve disruptors, which made far uglier damage than the neat and tidy stunner.
The place was locked down and empty, but not abandoned. Mark made sure that their presence hadn't instigated a silent alarm and signaled to Ivan and Adam that it was safe to enter.
Shaw's underground facility consisted of only a few rooms. The lighting was dim and the musty air and constant hum told that the ancient air conditioning was working on its limits. The place looked better suited better for an illegal dog food factory than a fertility laboratory, but the basics were there. This was what they had been looking for.
Ivan walked towards the freezer and the small cryo tank. If they contained Gregor's samples, the ones in the freezer would be easily debunked by pulling the plug from the freestanding device. The cryo tank required opening, and if there were other samples in there too, well. Too bad for them.
Ivan looked more closely at the tank. Damn. It was transportable, and that meant a code lock. He had been hoping for one that you could just pull open and throw to the floor to manage the destruction needed. He glanced over his shoulder, muttering, "Mark, I think that we'll have to take this with us." There was a code lock and it came with stabilizers and dampeners, making the device almost indestructible. And… Oh shit.
This was what they had been afraid of: Standing on the table in a neat row, with their information screens glowing faintly, were gestation pods. Old models, but obviously still usable. And in use, it looked like.
Adam had stopped in front of the steel table, his hand automatically risen like to wipe the condensation or frost from the transparent but murky sides of the pods, to see what was inside.
"Mark, please tell me that all but one are empty." This was not good.
"Nope. They are all in use. All seven of them." Mark sounded so very calm. He had placed himself closer to the door and tried to keep an eye on the whole area.
"There are several?" Ivan had to take his time to wrap his mind around the issue. There were seven babies?
"That's so unprofessional. He probably went to grow all the viable stem cells at once. A smarter person would have left some of the material untreated. Was he actually afraid that his material would die? That's child's play, just how amateurish is he?"
"Whose side you are on, anyway? And more importantly, I just want to know if this was done well enough. I don't want to think that the Little Adams were dropped on their embryonic heads while they were still in their larva stage. Or little Gregor's, neither." Seven babies. Just, fuck.
Ivan tried to calculate the time that it had taken for them to travel here through the jump stations, plus the time for ImpSec to notice that the sample had gone missing, plus the time it took for the Imperial Security to confess that they had screwed it up and now would be the time to throw in the unexpected joker... It didn't help much, as they didn't know if they'd used the samples immediately and how long it took to have the embryos conceived. Which made him think… He peered the pod's control panel. "Hey, are the embryos stasis now?"
"What, you are afraid they'll spontaneously gestate to full and climb out of their pods?"
Ivan peeked through the murky surface of the pod that had a visible, rather developed embryo in it. It kind of looked like a shrimp. "I wonder if this is a girl or a boy?"
Ivan tinkered with the controls, trying to activate the small holo that told the gender and age of the shrimp occupying the pod, but the pod wasn't cooperating. With a rude bleep, it went back to the basic state instead.
"Ooh, she doesn't like me, already!"
"The pod probably tries to save power. We don't know how much running power there is left in them."
Ivan was drawn away from the pods when he heard Adam letting out a yell. There was a man holding Adam by his hair and pointing a crude ugly nerve disruptor to his head. In theory, nerve disruptors were non-lethal. But even if Adam had worn a neuro net under his clothes, a shot to the head from that close distance would turn him to a vegetable.
Ivan swore. In the short time they've had, they hadn't managed to authenticate the blueprint of the facility. Obviously there had been another door, maybe Shaw had built it during the two months he had occupied the space. And Shaw that man was. Though all the photos of him had been old and poor quality, it was easy to recognize the man holding the nerve disruptor as Shaw.
"You came to return my son to me. For that, I thank you." Ivan couldn't say if this was Shaw's idea of a joke or if he was serious.
"And nuh huh!" The last bit was a to Ivan, coming with a gesture to put the disruptor down. He had to comply. Shaw was keeping Adam such a close grip that nothing he or Mark did would be quicker than Adam's destruction.
"Hello, Shaw. Nice place you have here. Pretty advanced work, I dare to say." Mark acted like he didn't even notice Adam who now on his knees, his face red and jaw clenching from distress. Mark had clearly decided that Shaw was serious, and was willing to indulge him in his delusion.
"Yeah? You saw my babies? And who are you?" Was Shaw alone? How trigger happy was he, and how willingly would he shoot Adam?
"I'm Mark Vorkosigan and this is Ivan Vorbarra. We are here to escort the embryos to their lawful owner and genetic father."
Now the nerve disruptor swerved a little. "I'm the owner and he-," Shaw pressed his knee against Adam's back. "-is the father. My best genetic work so far."
"And how is that working out for you? How many clone brothers did he originally have, because I see that you have quite a good success percentage this time." Mark had somehow managed to get closer Shaw and Adam.
"I have thanked you and now I want you to leave."
"But you have so many embryos. Couldn't you spare a few for us? We brought you the original, after all." Adam's eyes flashed white. No, he couldn't believe Mark's rambling to be true, could he?
"Do you know whose genetic material you stole? Or do you just not care?"
"It was a good sample, a great sample." Obviously Shaw had never heard about the mad Emperor Yuri, then.
"Yes, we know. And that's why we want it back." Mark gave a sideways glance at Ivan, telling that he would attack as soon as he got the disruptor away from Adam's head. Ivan gave him a miniscule nod. His headache had suddenly returned, with a vengeance.
"Get back!" Damn, Shaw had noticed Mark's movement. Also, he wasn't stupid enough to enforce his order with raising the disruptor towards them, which would have left an opening for Mark. Also an opening for Mark to get shot, but that was Mark's decision to make, not Ivan's.
Mark took a few steps back, his hands raised is respectful surrender. Now he was again farther away than Ivan. "Give the pods to us, let Adam go and leave. If you go now, you still have time to disappear."
"That's it? You would just take the embryos and go?" Shaw might be coming out of his delusion. Ivan didn't know if that was a good or a bad thing.
"We aren't here to seek punishment for you. This goes beyond two guys from Barrayr and a bunch of half-cooked babies. We're not in this alone, you can't control this by killing us, and the world will be out soon. We just want to make sure we have all of the genetic material you stole from our employer. The House Dahl on the other hand would be ecstatic to get their hands on you."
"I... I can't let him go. I love him. " Shaw had pushed the side of Adam's face against his thigh, like the younger man was genuflecting before him, adoring him. Adam's nose was bleeding.
"Come on, be reasonable." A wrong thing to say. A wrong thing to speak at all and draw attention. The man had already gone beyond the point of reason the moment they saw him. But one thing he had revealed; he wasn't going to shoot Adam. Ivan jumped towards Shaw's disruptor.
Ivan yelled as the disruptor wave hit him. There was no recoil so Ivan's now limp body continued its trajectory towards where Shaw had been only seconds ago. Ivan's world was turning to a red haze, but he managed to see Mark coming towards them, Shaw pointing the disruptor straight at Marks head, and then Shaw's head exploded.
What? And then his world turned to black.
Ivan came around on the cold lab floor, with lingering traces of a headache and a familiar numbness on his left side. Someone had placed a folded garment to support his neck. Shaw has missed his heart and lungs and the rest could be handled with rejuvenation and physical therapy. Speaking of which… Ivan managed to turn his head enough to see both Adam and Mark standing. Shaw's body was on the floor, without a head. Ivan hadn't been imagining that.
Ivan coughed a little, to clear his throat. He wondered if his voice worked. The cough brought the others to him. They looked fine, though Adam's lower face was smudged with blood that he had unknowingly wiped all over.
"Adam, don't tell me that you killed him with just using your mind."
He didn't get an answer.
"Okay, then!" Ivan knew that they had about two hours, three hours tops. One call to the Barrayan agents and the place would be crawling with people, and it would be the end, they all knew it. But even if Ivan had been in any shape to move on his own, and even with the transportable gestation pods, a man could carry only one pod with him. Also, with Ivan down, the pods wouldn't fit in their ground car. They couldn't do much else than call it a day and get some help.
"You damaged nothing vital, all the seven pods are still on green, and Adam and I are unharmed. And Shaw is dead and missing his head." So Mark saw him worth enough to give him a status report now? Nice.
Ivan settled into a better position on the ground. He didn't think they were in any hurry, so he'd just rest for a while. "Shaw really thought that he could engineer the first human with working mind powers, almost thirty years ago? And what do you know, your mad scientist managed to pull it off, eventually. A good thing that he never knew you were a success, after all."
Adam just shook his head, not really denying what Ivan said, but not willing to talk about it yet, either.
Mark continued where Ivan had left. "His goal really was to engineer a perfect person, so perfect that he would have telepathy, telekinesis, or whatever it is that just woke up in your brain. That was what he tested on you when you were a kid."
Adam nodded, not really looking at them.
"He never knew that he succeeded. I understand why he tried again, but why now, so years later?" Ivan was getting good at this, bouncing the ideas with Mark.
"I would say that he kept up hope that Adam's... powers would manifest at some point, and only gave up some time before he left. I think the main reason was that Shaw was getting older, and lonelier, so he wanted a new son to love him unconditionally. Like Adam probably did when he was a child. Shaw probably didn't even see it himself why he wanted to create a new Adam, but explained it away with now having an even better design."
"So instead of having a bunch of botched up little Gregors, we have the creations of a genuine mad scientist in out hands?"
"Yes." Mark turned to check the gestation pods again. "These kids will grow up to be really special." And yep, Ivan was definitely getting better at picking up Mark's sarcasm.
"I didn't lose it."
"Yes, you did great, we are very proud," Ivan said, distracted. Packing your belongings one-handedly was a harder task than what he'd thought.
He noticed Adam for real only after a heavy bowl crashed into the wall near him. Of course it didn't break, synthetics almost never did, and Adam had aimed it so that it wouldn't hit Ivan, but the intention to throw things was clear. Ivan focused on him right away.
"But I think that I'm losing it now." Just a stated fact.
"What? Oh." Yes, Adam had held it together admirably but that didn't mean he was over his issues. People didn't magically get better, even if they killed the villain of the story. "It's okay, go ahead and lose it; you're safe in here."
Adam slumped on the hotel bed and folded his big frame as small as he could. "How could he do that? Why? I never got an explanation. At the time I left I just wanted out, nothing else mattered, but now I need to know why he wanted to create such a thing. I can't get rid of him before I'll know why."
Oh shit. Ivan wasn't good at this. Maybe better than Mark, but still not good. He limped to sit beside Adam, near but in a respectful, non-touching distance.
"Sometimes there is no reason. It wasn't anything that you did, or didn't do. He was insane, and unfortunately he had the means to produce a live human being to inflict his delusions onto. It's not even about him winning, or you winning over him."
"But I'll have to prove to myself that he didn't win."
"No, forget the 'I'll have to succeed or else he wins' –thing, that's bullshit. If you feel bad from time to time, that's okay. You should never feel guilty about feeling down. Except if you are actually like clinically depressed, then there are pills for that."
Adam chuckled a bit and wiped his face with his palm. "If there only were pills to make this better."
"But hey, you did good, you really did. You should be proud."
Their bags were packed, their rooms given away, and the next thing would be a drive to the spaceport and to the ship to accompany the gestation pods on a trip to home. Both Mark and Ivan had been keeping an eye on Adam the whole morning, and it seemed to get on Adam's nerves.
Ivan felt a bit bad for him. Or actually, more than a bit. "You know that we can't just let you go. You are a biological parent to the imperial litter, and then there is that other thing."
"Can't you just lie? Say that you don't know who the other generic donor is?" Adam still thought that he might be able to talk himself out of this.
"ImpSec isn't very big on lying. As a matter of fact, you don't lie to ImpSec, period. Not even about the other thing."
"So, what, then? I'm not going to move in to your backwater planet. For what I have gathered, half of the population wants to see me breastfeed the next king of the universe, and the other half wants me dead. I'm willing to let my progeny to go with you, no questions asked, but I'm not going with you."
"But you have to understand..."
"Okay, how about this." Mark to the rescue. "You'll travel with us as far as Komarr, that's Barrayr's subsidiary, but you'll never have to step a foot on Barrayr. ImpSec can get their de-briefing done there. And your new thing? Maybe you should give it some thought. Train a little. And definitely keep it under wraps."
"And then what?"
"And then they will let you go. Not completely, because sorry to say, as the genetic other half of Gregor's new litter of offspring, the probability of Barrayan security ever letting you out of their sight is practically nil."
"What if I would just disappear?" Adam was definitely not happy with their answers.
"I wouldn't recommend it. You'll try to disappear even once, and they'll put you on a tight leash. And don't think that they wouldn't find you, because they will. They might look a bit incompetent now, but don't underestimate their resources."
"This is just. Great. I never asked for any of this."
"Well, as you might say it, tough shit. And you never know what might happen. You might even get offered a job."
Ivan turned to look straight at Mark. "You thinking what I'm thinking you're thinking?"
"The fleet?" Ivan asked.
Before his planet finally managed to hobble it's brightest son down to the ground, Miles Vorkosigan had single handedly invented, created and mastered a mercenary fleet, the Dendarii Free Mercenaries. It had ended up as the emporium's secret weapon, but Miles eventually giving up his galactic toy army was a small grievance when you compared it to the fact that it was actually punishable by death in Barrayr to own a private army.
The Dendarii Free Mercenaries was still a successful fleet. At the moment, they were also in need of a leader. The best thing was that while the Empire's involvement in the fleet was hidden from most of its mercenaries, the ships were still, figuratively, on Barrayar's soil. That made it a perfect solution for this mess.
Keeping hundreds of blood thirsty but fiercely loyal men and women in check, that would probably keep Adam's attention for a while.
"I never thought that I would say this, but I think that you are a genius." And Ivan even meant it.
"So," Ivan grinned and turned to Adam. "What's your stand on space travel?"