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The Return of Lucas Haroche

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The antique clock in the library of Vorkosigan House softly chimed 22:00. Miles should have been home more than an hour ago. Ekaterin knew she shouldn’t worry, but this was Miles.  Simple, logical explanations were not usually part of his universe.  She looked over to her dinner guests for this evening, Lady Alys and, her husband in all but name, Captain Simon Illyan, retired.  “I’m so sorry.  I can’t imagine what is keeping Miles.” 

 

The three of them sat in the expansive library of Vorkosigan House, making small talk, waiting for her husband to return.  The last few months had been absolutely exhausting and gut-wrenching.  The death of the legionary Count Aral Vorkosigan, former Regent of the Empire, and Viceroy of Sergyar had taken a toll on family and friends alike.  Miles had difficulty processing it all.  She still saw him flinch when people addressed him as “Count.”  He hadn't been sleeping well, and was restless with an inner turmoil born of profound grief.  She had been through the loss of a parent when her mother had passed away.  Through her patience, support, and love of the extraordinary man whom she had married, it was getting a little better each day.  Relaxing family dinners, and time spent with her and the children, helped to heal the wound in his heart.  

 

 

Tonight had been planned as one of those relaxing family dinners;  pleasant talk of other things between old friends, and delectable Ma Kosti courses of comfort food,  followed by goodnight kisses for the children as they put them to bed.   She had then counted on cuddling with her husband, and maybe some other relaxing activities in their bed as the household quietly slipped off into another night shift. But the children had been fed and put to sleep by their nanny half an hour ago.  Their dinner had been put on hold in the kitchen where Ma Kosti was, no doubt, impatiently tapping her foot, between doing whatever she could to stop it from being ruined.  However, Ekaterin felt it was a lost cause at this point.

 

“The Council of Counts meeting must have run late,” said Simon.  “Miles mentioned to me last week that he expected the debate to be particularly fractious on this new proposal.”

 

“Still,” Lady Alys murmured as she adjusted her posture slightly in the comfortable sofa, her hand brushing against Simon’s.  “It is bad form to keep your guests waiting without so much as a com-call.”

 

Footsteps approached from the antechamber.  Pym, displaying an uncharacteristic look of concern, locked eyes on Ekaterin and stated in a flat voice, “M 'lady, General Allegre has arrived and is in the vestibule. He says he needs to speak with you.”

 

Ekaterin felt a coldness grip her heart.  She took Pym’s offered hand to steady herself and walked to the entrance of the great  house. Alys and Simon stood and followed, their hands entwined.

 

Get a hold of yourself,” Ekaterin whispered to herself. “Don’t be jumping to conclusionsMiles is fineHe’s just, he’s just...” The thought froze and then died as if struck by a nerve disruptor.  General Allegre, the head of Imperial Security, was flanked by two ImpSec Lieutenants standing on her parquet floor.  They looked apologetic, guilty, and profoundly sad.  He was holding Miles’s cane in his outstretched hands.  “Oh, God...” escaped from her lips before she could stop it. “I’m VorI will not cause a scene,”  she told herself, even as she felt her world lose its stability all around her.

 

 

“Countess Vorkosigan,” the General began,  “I regret to inform you that Count Vorkosigan...Miles is missing.”  His head bowed as he handed her the short, sturdy, well used cane.

 

Simon, in a chilly voice asked, “What happened, General?”  Simon might have retired from ImpSec ten years ago, but such was his presence that General Allegre came to attention, eyes locked on to his old boss.

 

“The Count’s ground car was ambushed.”

 

If Simon’s voice was chilly before, it then became absolutely arctic. “Ambushed? How the hell did that happen?  Where were his perimeter guards?” 

 

“It was a set-up and well planned.  The perimeter guards were killed with heavy duty plasma arcs using military precision.  The investigation has just started."  

 

"Where's Roic?" Ekaterin asked, her voice a little shaky.  She knew that the tall and steadfast Armsman would not have left Miles’s side, not willingly, that is.

 

“He was taken to ImpMil suffering from multiple stuns.  The Medics were still working on him when I left, but they assured me that he would recover.  When he wakes up, we will know more,” Allegre answered.

 

“They used stunners...” Simon’s gaze fell back on Ekaterin, “It’s a snatch then, not an assassination,” he said pursing his lips.  

 

Dear God, how could this be happening?  Who is behind it?”  Ekaterin thought to herself.  After all Miles had been through these last weeks, then to have this happen!  It brought up an anger in her that started to spill out from her narrowing eyes. How dare this unknown assailant do this to her family?  The earnest young lieutenants and General Allegre, seemed to have difficulty even looking at her.  They SHOULD feel guilty.  She glanced towards Simon.  His forehead scrunched together in thought.  He made one of his subtle gestures with his fingers towards his face, as if trying to pulling up information,  data that was unfortunately no longer there.  His hand fell back down to his side.  

 

“I sincerely hope you are right, Simon,” Ekaterin’s voice was calm and level again.  “But you and I both know what kinds of enemies Miles has made in his careers.”  She looked back to the head of ImpSec still standing in the vestibule.  “Thank you for coming and letting me know in person, General.  Now, please go and bring my husband home.”  She drew the cane to her breast.  

 

“Yes, M 'lady,” said Allegre.  “I’d also like to place an outer perimeter guard around Vorkosigan House.”

 

“Hasn’t the horse already been stolen from the barn, General?” she said dryly as her eyes locked onto his.

 

“Well... yes, but please humor me.”

 

“Very well,” said Ekaterin, giving in.  She found herself running her hand over smooth worn handle of her husband's cane.

 

“M 'lady, we WILL bring him home to you,” assured Allegre.  He hesitated only a moment more then bowed himself and his entourage out the double front doors.  They closed behind them with a solemn thud.

 

 

***

 

 

 

Miles awoke with another damn stunner migraine.  He was getting too old for this.   Unsure of his surroundings, he laid still, ears perked to every sound.  It was chilly.  The air was tainted with the redolence of something old and musty.  He heard a voice close by which generated a faint echo. 

 

“Get it over with and let’s leave!”  He heard a gruff voice sneer from only a few feet away.

 

 “This was my price.  He’s mine!  I will do with him what I want.  Your boss has nothing to worry about. He won’t survive the night.”

 

That voice!  He knew that voice!  Lucas Haroche, goddammit!  This was not a kidnapping or robbery.  This wasn’t political. It was payback!  

 

“We have our orders,” said another deep voice.  “If he’s not terminated by dawn, we will fulfill the contract.”

 

“Don’t worry, I understand the deal.  Rest assured, the Baron will be pleased.  Now, you four, set a watch on those doors. I don’t want to be disturbed,”  Haroche ordered.  Then, obviously talking to another henchman,  “Why isn’t the damn power turned on yet?” Haroche asked in a tone of voice that would not accept any excuses.  

 

How many are there?” thought Miles.

 

“The fucking Vor I talked to earlier this evening at Sultana Power said it would be turned on at midnight, not a minute sooner,”  said another voice.  “He got all indignant when I tried to bribe him.  Can you believe that?”

 

“That’s a Vor for you, the bunch of pricks.  This facility has some interesting abandoned machinery I’d wanted to play with tonight.  Go and call him again.  I don’t care what you have to do, but get it turned on!”  Haroche snarled.

 

“Yes, sir.” 

 

Miles heard footsteps fading away.  Oh shit, oh shit, OH SHIT!   “The Baron will be pleased...”. Jacksonians!  Which Baron?  ...Bharaputra?  It had to be.  And Lucas Haroche was in charge.   A little voice in the back of Miles’s head, which refused to be muted, whispered, “This can’t be good.”   He methodically took stock of his situation.  He’d been stripped down to his underwear.  His hands were stretched above his head.  Cold, metallic bands held them together.  He was laid out on a hard, wooden surface.  There were no traffic noises.  Off in the distance a slow drip of water kept a rhythm with his breathing.  Where was Roic?  He remembered there had been an accident on his way home.  It happened right in front of his ground car.  He’d grabbed the first aid kit from the back seat compartment and opened the canopy to go and render aid.  Then chaos rained down all around them.  Roic screamed for him to get back in the car, the whine of stunner fire, then oblivion.  The accident must have been staged. The whole thing was a setup, a trap.   Then you fell right into it. And you call Ivan an idiot!  Thinking back on the second before he went down, followed by Roic’s heavy body falling on him, he heard some very heavy plasma arc fire off in the periphery.  His ImpSec detail must have been taken down too. Good God, more people dead because of him.   How many did that make now?  Everything was meticulously planned.  Well, Haroche would know exactly how to do that now, wouldn’t he? Crap!   The chill of the place soaked down to the marrow of his artificial bones. "Well, how are you going to get out of this one, boy?" he asked himself. No answer was forthcoming.

 

Heavy footsteps came closer.  Miles heard the whisper of a knife released from its sheath, then burning fire in his right bicep as the point was driven in.  Well, pain was an old friend.  Figuring that being conscious was an integral part of Haroche’s plan and pleasure, Miles mentally gritted his teeth and remained immobile. 

 

“I know you’re faking it, Vorkosigan. The stun has worn off by now,” Haroche growled. “Open your eyes and let’s have a little chat.  I’ve been waiting ten years for this.”

 

Miles did not respond. Haroche bent down and whispered, “If you don’t want to play, I can always go back and get that lovely wife of yours, or maybe one of your children.”

 

Miles couldn’t help himself.  His eyebrows flinched in horror at the very thought of his sweet Ekaterin being subjected to this. OK, it’s Showtime.   He opened his eyes and said, “Well hello, Lucas.  What a surprise.”

 

“Hello, mutant!  Payback’s a bitch, isn’t it?”

 

 

***

 

 

“Well,” said Ekaterin after the front doors closed.  “Miles always said I was level-headed in emergencies.  It looks we are going to put that to the test.”  She lovingly caressed the cane one more time and carefully placed it in the stand by the front doors.

 

Armsman Jankowski appeared next to Pym.  “We have the last reported location on M 'lord’s ground car.  ImpSec com traffic is buzzing, but so far they’re not exactly sure where he’s been taken.”

 

“Daring rescues are our specialty...” murmured Ekaterin. Then with more assurance,  “Pym, gather the rest of our Armsmen.  All hands on deck.”  She turned to Simon and Alys. “I dare say, dinner will be indeterminately delayed.”

 

“Oh, Ekaterin,” Alys said with deep concern. “Forget dinner. What can we do to help?” 

 

“Yes,” seconded Simon.  “I know I'm not as young as I used to be, but whatever mental processes I still possess, are yours to command."  He then continued, trying to sooth Ekaterin's fears, "Miles has gotten himself out of some very nasty situations in the past.  He’ll be alright.”

 

Ekaterin took both of their offered hands. “Thank you for saying that.  Let’s adjourn to the Library.  I’m going upstairs for just a moment.  I’ll be right back.”  And with a swirl of skirts she bounded up the stairs while the rest of the party went back to the library.

 

Simon went straight to the comconsole and powered it up.  Pym helped Alys into a chair nearby, then he and Jankowski took up stations on each side.  Pym brought his comm link up to his mouth and started issuing orders to the other Armsmen currently present at Vorkosigan House.  They were all ex-ImpSec, smart, dedicated, and when necessary, deadly.  

 

Footsteps pattered down the stairs and Ekaterin sprinted into the Library.  Simon turned to her.  “I’m afraid we will need a level of security much higher than what is available even in your comconsole tonight, my dear.”

 

“No problem,” Ekaterin panted, only slightly out of breath,  and held up Miles’s Auditor seal.  However, before she could insert it, the comconsole chimed.  She reached over, pressed the accept button and sat down in the chair left vacant for her.  The long, serious countenance of Emperor Gregor Vorbarra coalesced in front of them. 

 

“Oh, Ekaterin,” he said, his voice effused with concern.  “I’m so glad you are not alone. Simon... Alys, thank you.” He nodded to their presence, then turned back to Ekaterin.  “General Allegre is keeping me informed on this situation.  I perforce, will call you immediately with any information we acquire.”

 

“Thank you, Gregor.”  Ekaterin’s head bowed slightly before she looked back up directly into Gregor’s cold, smoldering, hazel eyes.

 

Gregor continued, “I’m extremely sorry, Ekaterin.  Rest assured WE are doing everything in OUR power to rescue Miles.”  Then, in softer, more deadly tone, “Whoever perpetrated this crime made a serious mistake.  Miles is my Auditor, a Count, my brother, and my friend.  Every power I command will not rest until he is safely restored.  I must go now.  I’ll stay in touch.”  And with that, the Emperor of three worlds cut the com.

 

 

***

 

 

Miles quickly looked around.  He was in a large, dark, empty warehouse of some kind .  Old abandoned machinery was sprinkled around the periphery.  A lift van was parked in the rear by what appeared to be a sliding door.  It was hard to see much.  The only light was from a portable lantern placed on an upturned box nearby.  He wondered how long he'd been out.  ImpSec would certainly be looking for him.  Delay, yes delay was the ticket.  He had to draw this out for as long as possible. At least Haroche did not seem to be in too much of a hurry.  “Yes, play along andlet’s see what happens’,” he told himself.

 

“So, Lucas, how have you been?” Miles asked brightly.

 

Haroche laughed and answered, “So nice of you to ask.  I’ve had my ups and downs since last we met.  Today has definitely been an up day though,” said Haroche, his face effuse with pleasure.  “I’ve been waiting 10 years for this.  You Vor can appreciate a good revenge.  I was planning to use some of these outdated production fabricators on you;  take you apart, see what makes you tick.” He stretched out his arms, indicating the equipment lurking in the background.  “But alas, there’s no power at the moment.  So, I’ve decided to have my own little ‘Mad Yuri’ reenactment instead.   I think that’ll be even better and I’ve all night to enjoy it.  You won’t though.”  He then grabbed Miles’s wrists where the shackles bit into his flesh and yanked him up off the table he’d been laid upon and dragged him over to a thick, vertical support post, rising up into the darkness to the roof. Haroche had not aged well.  His gray hair was more sparse now. He’d lost weight and it made his wrinkles even more pronounced.  Lines around his mouth suggested a permanent frown.    Miles squirmed, trying to break Haroche’s grip, but was unsurprisingly unsuccessful.  Haroche still outweighed him by at least 40 kilos.  He lifted Miles up by his bound hands and drew them up over a large hook set in the post.  Miles’s body now dangled by the short chain connecting the steel manacles around his wrists.  His outstretched toes were a foot off the floor.  From this new vantage point he saw that Haroche was not alone.  Two strong and serious looking men were standing by Haroche.  If there were more, he couldn’t see them.

 

Miles quipped, “Who are your friends?”

 

“Witnesses,” said Haroche, eyes glinting as they caught the faint glow from the lamp. He turned back to the table and picked up the knife.  Like a striking snake, he slashed across Miles’s scared chest.  “The Baron sends his complements.”

 

Miles sucked in his breath through his teeth as the knife sliced through the thick, scarred flesh of his chest.  The cut was not too deep, and luckily most of that scar tissue no longer possessed many active nerve endings. However, the skin on the periphery of the massive scar on his chest had no such short-comings.  There, the cut burned like fire.   Keep him talking.  “Baron Bharaputra?” he squeaked.  Watch that tone, boy! Don’t give him any satisfaction.

 

“Oh, yes.  He was VERY pleased to hear from me.  Now, that’s a fellow with a LONG memory.  And Admiral Naismith left an indelible impression with him.”

 

Miles cleared his throat.  “Yes, well...I did some of my best work on Jackson’s Whole.  So you went to him, told him all about me and then what, got into bed with him?  I didn’t think you swung that way Haroche.”

 

Haroche flicked the knife to his left hand and swung his right fist, connecting with Miles’s jaw.  Miles tasted blood as he swayed from his chains.  The knife slashed again and Miles received a deeper cut on his right thigh.  When will you learn to keep your mouth shut, boy? 

 

“He and I came to a mutually profitable understanding.  I gave him some very valuable intel and he decided to fund my heart’s desire: your removal from the universe.  My life was ruined because of you,” Haroche growled.  “I want to see you pay for that.”  Haroche stopped, savoring his moment.   “I will, in fact, be doing the nexus a favor,” he tested the sharpness of the knife with his tip of his thumb.  “It will be far better off without you, runt.” Haroche turned his head from examining the knife’s sharp edge to lock on to Miles’s face.  “You, you...hyperactive, troublesome, obnoxious, spastic, deformed, wheezily, little mutant!” he spat.

 

“Now, I don’t think Emperor Gregor would agree,” Miles replied.  “I’m one of his permanent Auditors.  I am His Voice.  An attack on me is an attack on Him.”

 

“He is not here.  I only see you.”  Knife raised again, Haroche came closer.  Miles kicked  but did not connect, Haroche simply grabbing his foot then scored his shin with another savage, long cut.  “I gave the Emperor,” Haroche said with mock emphasis on that title, “thirty years of my life, and what did I get in return?  Ten years in one of his stinking prisons, then booted out on my butt with nothing to show for it.  I would have been the greatest Head of ImpSec ever.  But,” Haroche breathed rather sinisterly, “all that time in prison wasn’t totally wasted.  I spent it planning.  I knew he’d be too soft to execute me.  I just waited until I got out,  then smuggled myself to Jackson’s Whole.”

 

Miles knew that Gregor had originally planned to release Haroche in 5 years, but had doubled that in the hopes that any secrets still in Haroche’s head would become less dangerous, if not obsolete, after a decade of incarceration.  Besides, Haroche had showed a remarkable lack of contrition while in prison. Gregor was disinclined to let him out any sooner.  “You can’t think you’ll get away with this Haroche.” Miles stated.  “You’ll end up dieting in Traitor’s Square for sure this time.  Gregor will not stand for anyone harming one of his Imperial Auditors.”

 

“Oh, my friends and I will be long gone before anyone finds this place. And Bharaputra has lent me his fastest yacht. We’ll be through the jump point before anyone finds your body.”  Haroche raised the knife again.  He absentmindedly contemplated his reflection in its long shiny blade. “You are welcome to scream all you like.  No one will hear you way out here. In fact, please do.  I’d like that very much,” he said lowering his voice accompanied with a downright villainous smile.

 

Oh, brother!  The man was completely unhinged"On the other hand," thought Miles, "that  means he's more likely to make a mistake."   Miles gritted his teeth. As he hung from his wrists like this his breathing was becoming more difficult.  Survive, escape, sabotage.  To accomplish this first item, he had to find a way to delay.  Haroche wanted him conscious for this, to draw it out for as long as possible.  It wouldn’t be any fun for him if Miles was unconscious.  Haroche knew about his seizures.  He wasn’t due for one, but could he fake it?  He knew what one looked like because he'd had Roic record one for him.  It’s worth a shot.  Before the knife could strike again, he rolled his eyes back into his head and began to convulse.  He kept it going for as long as he could stand, counting in his head, “Dendarii-one, Dendarii-two, Dendarii-three...”. When he got to almost 300, he stopped and hung loosely in his chains.

 

“Well...shit,” murmured Haroche.

 

One of the Bharaputrans strode forward and asked Haroche, “Is it done, then?  Is he dead?”

 

“No, not yet.” Haroche stated, frowning.  His hot fingers felt for a pulse in Miles’s throat.   “He’s just had one of his seizures.”  Miles then felt Haroche’s hand surround his throat and constrict slightly, before it quickly retreated. “No, not yet, Vorkosigan. That would be way too easy for you.  It is so much more fun to play with a live thing, than a dead one.”    Haroche turned to the man who had just spoken.  “You... watch over him and keep him alive,” he ordered.  “And you...,” pointing to the other one.  “What’s your name...Sanders? Come with me.”  He strode off with the other guard. Miles could hear two sets of footsteps, then a door closed in the distance.  

 

Miles sneaked a peak with one eye barely open.  Only one guard stood there.  His weight was shifting from one leg to another.  It sure looked like he had to piss.  No other guards were in sight.  He couldn’t possibly be that lucky, could he?  Miles contained himself as his guard looked left, then right, then scooted off to a small room off in the darkened corner. Immediately Miles swung his legs up and managed to wrap them around the pole over his head, taking the pressure off his numbing hands.  Ekaterin was right! Yoga was good for him.  With a heave and a prayer he managed to get the chain of his manacles off the hook and he fell to the ground.  His abused body wanted desperately to rest.  Instead, he did his best to sprint off into the shadows at the rear of the building.

 

 

***

 

 

Ekaterin slid Miles’s Auditor seal into the override slot of the comconsole.  “This was your area of expertise, Simon, what are you thinking?”

 

“It has to be someone that Miles knows and has truly pissed off.”

 

“That list is depressing long,” added Pym dryly.

 

“It also has to be someone with the ability and knowledge to take out his ImpSec perimeter guards, NOT an easy thing to do," said Simon.  "Lucas Haroche is at the top of my short list.  He was finally released over a month ago.  But, he can’t be acting alone.  He would have had to contact someone with money and power who also hates Miles for help.  Baron Bharaputra is a loose end from Miles’s days in the Dendarii.  He would pay quite a bounty to get revenge on the Little Admiral.”

 

“I don’t understand.  Why would the man who tried to kill you and take your job be after Miles?” Ekaterin questioned.

 

“You were not here at that time, Ekaterin,”  said Alys.  “Hasn’t Miles told you the story?”

 

“Yes, but not in detail.  He just said that a man called Haroche got tired of waiting for his chance for promotion, poisoned Simon, and framed Miles.  But, of course, Miles figured it out and Haroche went to prison.  That was his first Auditorial case.”

 

“Oh, there was a lot more to it than that.”  Simon said.  “Haroche hated Miles for discovering what he had done to me.  If it hadn’t been for Miles, I’d be dead and Haroche would be the chief of ImpSec. I owe Miles my life.”  Sitting next to him, Alys reached over, put her hand over his and squeezed. “Huh, if I hadn’t fired Miles, or if he had gone back to the Dendarii instead of remaining on Barrayar, I wouldn't  have survived and we wouldn’t be together today.”  He gave Alys a loving look. “Funny how things work out.”

 

“Ok, Simon,” Ekaterin said. “Miles always talks about ‘threads’ in his investigations. How do we follow this one?”

 

Simon’s fingers went to the keyboard and beat out a staccato, typing furiously.  “Haroche would have had to have help for the size of this operation.  What do you think, Pym, four to six accomplices?” he asked turning to the senior Armsman.

 

“Yes sir, four to eight, belike.”

 

“They would have come in several days ago to set all this up.  Let’s access the security files of the transfer station and see what we can find.” Screens started to flash across the large display.  “Now let’s add in facial recognition to the search for our suspect and see what we can find.”  Simon looked over to Ekaterin and continued,  “It is a good thing that Miles didn’t take his Auditor seal with him today. We’d never be able to hack into the ImpSec database without it.” 

 

“He usually doesn’t take it when he goes to the COC.” Ekaterin added.

 

“But sir,” Jankowski interjected. “Haroche might have had a body mod.  I know they’ve recently upgraded their software, but is it good enough to pick him up with a new look?”

 

“Humm...let’s see.” Simon said as another image opened in the corner.  “Haroche was released from prison six weeks ago.  Even if he immediately went to Jackson’s Whole and made contact with Bharaputra, when you factor in travel time, there’s just not enough time for a body mod as well.”  Another window opened on Pym’s side of the display.  He gestured at Pym to look at it.  “Pym, here’s the security feed from the area of the attack.  See if you can spot anything.”

 

Ekaterin slowly sat into one of the chairs by the comconsole.  “ImpSec will already be doing all of this.  What can we do that they cannot?”

 

“Perhaps,” Alys stated thoughtfully, “they didn’t arrive on Barrayar by the regular commercial route.  If these brigands were well funded, they might have come in through the elite VIP station. Simon, humor me. Please check and see how many private ships or yachts have come in the last week.”

 

“You might have something, my dear.  Private hangers don’t have the same level of surveillance as the public ones do.”  He fingers tapped and yet another image appeared, data and pictures streamed through it.

 

“The street surveillance doesn’t show much, Captain Illyan,” said Pym from his end of the comconsole’s split screen, his voice low with anger. “M 'lord was placed in a lift van. Then it traveled north-northeast, but was lost shortly thereafter in the dark.  ImpSec needs to install more sensors in that part of town, dammit!” He pounded his fist on the sleek, black surface of the comconsole table, causing it to vibrate.  He looked over to Simon, “Sorry,” his voice forcibly returning to his normal, professional timber.  

 

“We’ll find him,” soothed Simon.  He turned back to the image and changed some settings. One large window took up the entire area.  “Ah, look at this!” he exclaimed.  It showed eight people exiting a private yacht in the VIP corner of the space port. They were dressed in long robes, obscuring most of their figures.  Their faces bent down as they walked.  “This is from a Jacksonian registered private yacht that touched down 5 days ago.  See the man in front?  See how he walks?  He’s turning his face away from every one of the cameras in the hanger.”

 

Ekaterin asked, “Almost like he knows where they all are, isn’t it?” 

 

“Yes, exactly.  My memory is not what it once was, but I swear I recognize that walk. I think we have something here.”  He typed again, and again Miles’s seal opened up reams of data.  “The reason for their trip is listed as a ‘pilgrimage’.”

 

“Horseshit! As M 'lord would say.” Jankowski blurted out.  “Like you said, see how they walk, how they carry themselves.  They are all big, fit men;  security goons, belike.”

 

“So far, this is all circumstantial,” said Ekaterin. “Can we find out where they went, what they did?”

 

“Hummm...”. Simon’s fingers attacked the keyboard again.  “The credit chit linked to the yacht’s VIP account was used to pay for a hotel in the outskirts of town.”  Tap, tap, tap... “and a lift van.”

 

“What else has that chit been used for?” asked Alys.

 

Tap, tap... “meals, fuel,...huh?” Simon paused.

 

“What is it?”

 

“About 30 minutes ago it was used as a deposit to initiate power and services to an old building north of town.”

 

“Well, isn’t that interesting,”  added Pym.  “What’s the ID on that lift van?”  Pym then pulled up the footage from the scene again, freeze-framed it, enlarged, and enhanced it.  He couldn’t bring out all the detail, but he did manage to make out a partial ID on the plate. Some of the numbers did correspond with those of the rented van.

 

“The hanger is on a short term rental.” Simon stated with a voice gone dull.  “They are shipping out at 06:00 in the morning!”  He turned to look Ekaterin straight in the eye. “I have a bad feeling about this.  It is circumstantial, I know, but it fits, and...I, I can’t let go of this string.   Past experiences have taught me to follow my instincts.  They have saved my life more than once.  This is a thread we need to pull.”

 

 

***

 

 

Miles silently limped to the back of the dark, cavernous building and hid by the lift van.   He did not see the men guarding the back exit.  Perhaps they were waiting outside.  There just wasn’t much for him to work with here.  The van’s control key was missing.  He had no tools to hot-wire it. The only other contents of this miserable building consisted of that table, the lamp and various piles of forgotten garbage and empty boxes scattered about.  Up against the back wall, blanketed in shadow, were a few machines that look like they hadn’t been used since the Time of Isolation.  His body hurt, his head ached, his hands felt slightly numb.  He was still bleeding. In the dim light he noticed the dim sheen of fresh blood drops in his wake from the deep cut in his shin.  He wished he had his cane.  Miles looked at the trail of blood he was leaving.  Maybe  I can use that.   He turned around and silently back-tracked, careful not to disturb his blood trail.  About half way back,  he saw an empty box laying off to the side, only eight feet away, just his size.  With as much stealth as he could muster, hoping his body wouldn’t leave any fresh drops of blood, he scooted behind the box, into its shadow, and made himself as small as possible.  For once his size was a distinct advantage.  Peaking around the side,  he saw his guard (now with a freshly voided bladder) had just returned to his post and was staring incredulously at the empty wooden post.  

 

Another door opened and closed.  Haroche and Sanders came out with flashlights in their hands.  In tandem, they illuminated first the empty post, then the guard, followed by the guard’s open fly.  Haroche’s face infused with anger as he pulled out his nerve disruptor and shot the guard all in one smooth motion.  As the guard’s lifeless body fell to the ground, Sanders shouted and grabbed at Haroche, “Haroche, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”  

 

Pushing him aside, Haroche yelled, “You can’t get away, Vorkosigan!  All the exits are guarded.”  The flashlight in his hand tilted down to the floor and illuminated blood drops leading away from the post.  Smiling, he added, “Play time is over.  This time, when I get you, I’m going to choke the life out of you with my own hands.”  Not daring to even breathe, Miles didn’t move a muscle as Haroche and Sanders slowly followed his blood drops past his hiding place.  

 

Well, boy, what’s your plan, eh?   An uncontrolled cascade of possibilities streamed through his abused head, still pounding with the stunner headache.  He could see only one chance, and took it.  He did his best to sprint to the fallen guard, dropped to the ground and grabbed for the dead guard’s holstered stunner.

 

Unfortunately, at that very moment the warehouse’s lights popped on. Shit! You knew your luck was too good to last.  He rolled back to the left, away from the fallen guard, just as a nerve disruptor charge dissipated into the plascrete floor where he had been a moment before.  

 

 

***

 

 

Two, large black ground cars sighed to the crumpled asphalt  around the corner from the address listed by the credit chit.  The thread has lead them here.  Four Armsmen had stayed at Vorkosigan House to guard the children.  Alys had also stayed behind to call Gregor and  let him know what they had planned to do.  Simon couldn’t suppress a slight smile when he thought of Miles’s old mantra that it was always better to ask for forgiveness than permission.  The canopies of the ground cars lifted silently. Simon, Pym, Jankowski, six other Armsmen, and Ekaterin quietly exited.  

 

“Promise me, M 'lady, that you will stay with the cars,” pleaded Pym in a soft tone.  “M' lord would never forgive me if anything happened to you.”

 

Ekaterin nodded.  “That’s not really agreeing, is it?” she asked herself.  Being with Miles has been absolutely wonderful. He was the true love of her life, but she had found that her ability to obfuscate the truth had increased under his influence.  She had fought Komarran terrorists.  She had helped stop a possible war with Cetaganda. This little action seemed a lot safer, surrounded by Vorkosigan Armsmen like she was.  She had spent 5 precious minutes arguing with Simon and Pym that she had a place here.  The stunner they had begrudgingly provided her, felt comforting in her hand.  She was where she needed to be.  And, she was going to do anything necessary to bring her husband back to her and their children. 

 

Pym peeked around the old, dilapidated brick wall hiding their ground cars. “There’s two armed guards dressed in black by the main entrance. I think we have the right place.”  He pointed to Jankowski and whispered , “Take Lodi, Summers, and Thornton and do a recon of the back.  Remember everyone,  stunners only.”

 

Jankowski’s little force melted into the shadows.  “How do you think we should play this, Simon?” Pym asked.  Simon took a quick glance for himself, then turned back to Pym.

 

“This place  looks like it hasn’t been used for years and it is totally isolated,”  he whispered taking a firmer grip on his heavy-duty stunner.  “I don’t like this at all, Pym.” Simon gulped and looked back towards the ground cars and Ekaterin standing there, like a statue. “If Miles is in there, he’s in a lot of trouble.  We can’t delay.”

 

Pym brought his hand up to his ear and listened.  “Jankowski says there is a large sliding door in the back with two men standing outside.  They have nerve disruptors.”

 

“How fast can you run, Pym?”

 

“Pretty damn fast when properly motivated.”

 

Simon looked at the small group of Vorkosigan Armsmen, all focused on their objective. "Blanket them with stunner fire. They may not all go down at this range, but you, Miller, Krackshaw and Sorkin can take care of that when you reach them.  I’ll be right behind you.  Jankowski’s detail can do the same in the back.  When we get inside we’ll...”

 

“Get M 'lord back!” Pym finished. Simon solemnly nodded.

 

After a  moment on the wrist-comms, the Vorkosigan strike force was ready.  Suddenly the lights turned on inside of the warehouse, followed shortly thereafter by the sickening whine of a nerve disruptor discharge echoing across to their location.

 

“Go, GO, GO!”  Pym shouted into his wrist-com.  They aimed, fired, and dropped the outside guards as they ran to the front door.  Once there, they shot each guard again point blank, then flew into the building, stunners raised and ready.  They were so focused on their objective, no one noticed Ekaterin sprinting to follow.

 

 

***

 

 

As Miles rolled out of the line of fire, he came up against another discarded crate with a jarring thump.  Streaks of pain from his open wounds stealing his breath.  Heavy footsteps rushed towards his location. He heard Haroche yell at Sanders, “No, don’t kill him! I told you, HE’S MINE!”  Miles turned his head and saw the guard begrudgingly holster his nerve disruptor.

 

Haroche strode towards him, hands outstretched, fingers flexing.  “We’re done playing now, Mutant. Time to end this,” he growled.

 

“About damn time,” mumbled the obviously impatient Sanders, not at all happy with Haroche or his lack of success at fulfilling the contract so far.  Sanders never understood why some people wanted to draw things out on a job. “Just shoot the bastard and be done with it,” he thought to himself.

 

Then, at that very moment, the hum of multiple stunner fire could be heard from the front and rear of the building.  Miles snapped his head over just in time to see a small army of brown and silver rushing in, Pym in the fore, Simon close behind.  Relief washed over him, but then he saw Sanders turn and pull out his disruptor again to fire on his Armsmen.  Without thinking, Miles quickly rolled back over and grabbed the stunner from the holster of the disrupted corpse. Sanders brought his nerve disruptor up and pointed it directly towards Pym.  Miles pointed the stunner in his bound hands not at Haroche who was bearing down on him, but instead to aim and fire at the Bharaputran that had Pym in his sights.  Miles’s shot brought Sanders down.  Pym ducked as Krackshaw and Sorkin brought down another Bharaputran that had appeared out of the chaos.  Miller and Simon shot towards Haroche, but Haroche ducked out of the way as he tackled Miles.    He knocked the stunner out of Miles’s hands.  Miles only got a glimpse of Simon’s anxious face before he felt Haroche’s hands around his throat, lifting him off the floor.  The Vorkosigan Armsmen momentarily hesitated, not wanting to inadvertently stun their Lord in his obviously physically distressed state. 

 

“Lucas, don’t do this!” shouted Simon.  “You’re a better man than this. Let him go.”  Other stunner fire echoed from the rear of the building. He heard Jankowski’s voice over his earbud, “All clear.”

 

Haroche looked around. Only a few seconds had gone by, but now all of his Bharaputrans were down and he was surrounded by very serious men dressed in Vorkosigan livery, their stunners all focused on him.  How the hell did this happen?  “Get back, all of you, or I swear I’ll snap his neck,”  he growled, fingers tightening around Miles’s neck.  “Hell, maybe I’ll do it anyway.  There’s nothing left for me now. This damn git ruined my life.”

 

“You did that to yourself, Lucas, when you tried to murder me,” said Simon his aim focused on his old subordinate.  His stunner did not waver in his hand, but it did not fire.

 

For just a moment, the man who had Miles’s life literally in his hands, showed an inkling of guilt.  “I didn’t mean to, Simon.  You know I didn’t.  I never thought it would actually kill you.”  His grip loosened slightly.  Miles, with his hands still encumbered by the manacles, vainly tried to break his grip.

 

“If it hadn’t been for Miles I’d be dead now, or hopelessly insane.” Simon said as the Vorkosigan strike team quickly shared concerned glances to one another.  Miles gasped for breath and his face started to turn purple.  

 

Pym turned towards Simon, “Stun him?”  He was seriously afraid that if he took one more step towards his adversary, Haroche's white knuckled hands would break his Lord's neck.

 

“Wait!  At this range, the charge might cause Haroche’s hands to convulse,” said Simon earnestly thinking along the same lines.  “He could break Miles’s neck in the process.”

 

Miles tried vainly to kick at Haroche, but his legs were too short, his body too exhausted.  As his vision started to blacken and he felt himself fade away, he last conscious thought was, “Shoot anyway, dammit!”

 

Ekaterin had moved towards this tableau from the front door where she had hid during the initial action.  She had a clear line of fire.  She wasn’t too close.  Miles had always made sure she got time in at the firing range and was comfortable with a stunner.  She knew she wouldn’t miss.  She aimed and fired.  Her shot hit the head of the man holding her husband and they both crumpled to the floor.

 

Pym lunged forward and gave the inert form of Haroche a savage kick to get him away from Miles. His knuckles shown white against his flesh of his hand as he gripped his stunner and shot Haroche again, point-blank, in the back of his head. “To bad it’s only a stunner,” he intoned.  Simon knelt down and checked Miles’s airway.  A moment later, Ekaterin was there too, kneeling down to cradle her husband’s large head on her lap.  Her long elegant hands stroked his hair.  His gray eyes slowly opened.  

 

“Am I...,” Miles wheezed between gasping in a lungful of air, ‘...still alive?”

 

“Yes!” Ekaterin breathed, “Oh yes!” Then, she kissed him fervently.  Her passion gave Miles a whole other kind of breathlessness.

 

Jankowski and his team trotted forward. His hand was up to his earbud.  “ImpSec will be here in just another moment.  Lady Alys convinced the Emperor to have a squad act on our hunch.”

 

“That wasn’t a hunch.” Pym responded.  “THAT was some of the best damn bit of deductive reasoning that I’ve ever seen.”

 

Simon drew all eyes towards him as he spoke, “We did it together!  We make a very good team.  But I think we also had luck on our side tonight, for which I am very grateful.”  His eyes narrowed then, looking towards Ekaterin. One of her delicate hands caressed Miles’s head, the other, held his blood spattered hand close to her heart.  “I thought you were going to stay by the ground cars?”

 

“What can I say?  Miles is a bad influence on me,"  she answered looking up at Simon. "I lied."   When her eyes blinked they did so with a definite air of unrepentance.

 

 

***

 

 

 “I can walk,” grumbled Miles at the earnest young medic who placed him on a float pallet.  They had just cut off those damn manacles with a surgical laser.

 

“I know, dear,” soothed Ekaterin. “But he’s just following orders.  Besides, from my point of view you still look a little green around the gills.  Do it for me, my love.”

 

If married life had taught Miles anything, it was when to just say, “Yes, dear.”  Now was one of those times.

 

Simon and Pym followed them to ImpMil.  Lady Alys met them there.  The other Armsmen went back to Vorkosigan House.  Miles had indeed been lucky. His blood loss had not been critical.  Ekaterin did not leave his side as his wounds were cleaned and closed with surgical glue. A shot of synergine did the rest.  

 

A commotion and loud footfalls could be heard coming down the corridor.  Emperor Gregor Vorbarra had arrived, his usually immobile features suffuse with concern.  General Guy Allegre was by his side. As they walked to Miles’s treatment room, people fell off to the side like water off the prow of a boat. Gregor halted by Miles’s bed, taking it all in at a glance. “Miles,” he husked as he lowered himself into a hastily vacated chair. “How are you?”

 

“No permanent damage, Sire.  No need for a cryochamber this time,” he chirped.

 

“Don’t be flippant,” said Gregor trying to be stern, but his eyes showed his immense relief. He knew all too well the cost to his soul when someone he loved was hurt. “General Allegre updated me on your rescue." His eyes narrowed as he turned his head to Allegre.  "Later, he will fully explain to me HOW all this was allowed to happen.” 

 

General Allegre’s face paled, but he had the courage to look his Emperor straight in the eyes as he stood at attention.  “I will not rest until this fiasco of security is completely understood and corrected so it never happens again.  Afterwards, you will have my resignation, if it is Your will, Sire.”

 

“No, Guy,” soothed Gregor.  “That won’t be necessary.  Just find the hole and plug it.”

 

“Yes, Sire.” Allegre looked back over to Count Vorkosigan, the man’s whose job it is to keep safe, and who he profoundly failed to do so tonight. “I’m so very sorry that ImSec failed you tonight, my Lord Auditor.”

 

“Luckily, my wife’s commando team got to me just in time,” said Miles, smiling up to his wife, his face exuding the great pride he had in her.  He nodded over to Simon, Alys, and Pym who were standing off to the side of his examination room, including them in his praise.

 

“Yes,” said General Allegre, “I thank you all.  Admiral Naismith could not have done better a better job.”  He then sincerely bowed to them all.

 

Miles started to laugh, but had to stop to wince in pain instead.

 

Ekaterin, still holding Miles’s hand spoke, “What of the men of the parameter guard that were killed tonight?  Is there anything we can do for their families?”

 

“That’s very kind of you, my Lady.  Everyone that wears this uniform and our ImSec silver eyes knows the risks we run each day, but I’m sure their families would great appreciate any kindness you could bestow upon them,” said Allegre.

 

“I will take care of that tomorrow,” said Ekaterin.  “Now, I appreciate all of you coming to wish my husband well, but I’d really just like to get him to rest.”  Realizing that she had just basically dismissed her Emperor as if he was some lackey, her eyes widened and her lovely mouthed opened slightly in aghast of her social faux pas.  “If that is alright with you Sire, of course.”

 

“Yes, indeed,” he responded good naturally, winking at both Miles and Ekaterin.  “Get some rest, Miles.  I’ll come and see you in a few days.”  Gregor warmly clasped his hand on Miles’s shoulder, smiled and said, “Good to have you back,” then stood and left with Allegre.

 

 

Later, Miles and Roic (who had recovered by then) were sent back to Vorkosigan House over the objections of the doctors who were not at all comfortable with a battered Imperial Auditor leaving their charge so soon.  However, Miles knew he would rest better in his own home with his family around him, and used his “Imperial Voice” to overrule them.  

 

 

As they exited ImpMil and approached the Vorkosigan ground car, Roic bent over Miles’s float-chair and whispered to his Lord in a voice so low that only he heard, “Thank God you’re alright, M 'lord, but if you EVER leave the car again before I give you the OK, I’ll strangle you myself.”

 

 

Epilogue

 

 

 

The six surviving Bharaputrans had Fast-Penta allergies.  ImpSec had no qualms about getting the information they needed about the plot by other, more creative means.  Gregor was insistent. 

 

Two days later, Emperor Gregor paid a call on Vorkosigan House.  Divesting himself of his Vorbarra Armsmen, he settled himself in the chair across from his foster brother.  The morning light shown through the windows with a gay brilliance into the Yellow Parlor.  It promised to be a wonderful, bright Spring day. On the table nearby sat a tray of tea and Ma Kosti delights.  Gregor was especially fond of her decadent peach tarts.  He smiled.  Yes, there were some artfully arraigned next to the almond cookies.  Once again he wondered what would happen if he "request and required" Miles's cook to be transferred to the Residence. No, I just couldn't do that to Miles and his family.   Instead, he turned to Miles and asked, “How are you feeling today, Miles?” 

 

“Much better now, Sire.  Between Ekaterin’s care and Ma Kosti’s nutritious culinary creations, I’ll be ready for anything in no time,” Miles responded, as he repositioned himself on the sofa with only a slight twinge. 

 

“Miles,” Gregor continued in a more serious tone, “I need to talk to my Imperial Auditor.” His face turned grave, hazel eyes locking on to gray.  “What Baron Bharaputra did to you, and to ME through you, was an act of war.  I cannot let it stand.”

 

Miles blinked.  Never before had an attack on him been the catalyst of a war where thousands might die.  The thought made him sick to his stomach.  “Gregor, Haroche’s act was personal, not political.”

 

“And he paid the price for that.”  After a cursory interrogation, Haroche had been executed. He had tried to murder an Imperial Auditor, after all.   He had proven to have no honor, so none was given to him.  A nerve disruptor and quick incineration of the body was ordered and Gregor did not feel one bit guilty about it.  “But others who are just as responsible have not.”

 

“Sire, you cannot send our fleet to Jackson’s Whole in retaliation for the actions of one Baron!”  As much as Miles (and his brother Mark) would like to see that planet shut down, he couldn’t condone that level of destruction. He rubbed his knuckles against his lower lip, thinking.

 

“That planet is a cesspool of depravity and House Bharaputra is especially egregious.  The nexus would be grateful.  And, quite frankly,  it would give me a great deal of satisfaction,” Gregor continued.

 

“Believe me, I’d love to see Bharaputra’s operation disemboweled.  But there may be another way to do that without getting Barrayar’s hands dirty.”  Miles took a deep breath and pitched his idea.

 

***

 

 

Four weeks later the Newsvids reported that Baron Fell of Jackson’s Whole succeeded in a hostile take-over of House Bharaputra.  Baron Bharaputra was killed in the fighting, his brain burned to a crisp with a plasma arc.  His house and holdings were completely destroyed.  His men, either dead or deserted.  

 

Coincidentally, a few days after that, several contracts were signed which supplied the Dendarii Fleet, who had just happened to be in orbit, with some of Baron Fell’s latest weapons.  

 

Two weeks after that, Miles received a message from the Durona Group on Escobar.  He called up the file.  Rowan’s sweet face quirked a smile and asked, “Well, Miles, what Machiavellian scheme have you been up to this time?  You have sent us a most interesting client.  He has received his first anti-aging gene splicing and seems to be assimilating it well. He is VERY pleased and has asked us for a favor, to forward you this message: ‘Tell the Admiral thank you for finally letting me in on his Betan Rejuvenation Treatment.’   What the Hell, Miles?”  Her face looked totally exasperated.

 

Miles leaned back in his chair and smiled. He looked out of the window of their second floor suite and saw Ekaterin puttering about in her garden.  Off in the distance of his old family home he heard the faint echoes of his children’s voices, full of laughter.  His wounds were now healed, leaving their own stories in his scared flesh.  He had truly become the paterfamilias he had once wished to be.  All the pain he had suffered along the way was well worth the cost. He wouldn’t change a thing.  “Life is good, Da.  Life is good,” he said smiling, tilting his head and looking upwards into the ethereal unknown. “Thank you.”  He grabbed his cane, got to his feet and joined his beloved wife out in their garden. 

 

FIN