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Narrow Red Line

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Oliver missed, quite dearly, the concept of a gods be damned flight line. A flight line with gods be damned controlled entry points, with red-line markers, and with servicemen who understood the sanctity of the flight line as a matter of course.

Ground forces never seemed capable of that understanding. There was something, Oliver suspected, about the fact that they never worked in hangar bays, either down- or upside, where the act of crossing into the space delimited as an active zone containing critical aviation units was not a trivial matter. Perhaps they were all too used to civilian flyers; perhaps they could not grasp that one thing gone awry - a piece of maintenance equipment left here, some random debris there - could lead to anything from the rapid and lethal failure of a multi-million-credit ground-to-space shuttle up to the explosive decompression of an entire in-space bay with all staff and equipment inside of it included.

Draw a red line in a meeting room with active space personnel in it and every last man would tiptoe around the boundary looking for designated EPs.

Draw a red line in front of a meeting room groundside in HQ, apparently, and every last man forgot their head, not to mention their reader which, yes, they had left in there just an hour ago.

It had been three days since Oliver had been assigned EPC duty at HQ. Entry point control: it was simple enough, and did not even warrant an explanation in spite of the inconvenience of having to ask all personnel to identify and certify themselves before entry was permitted to HQ's more sensitive meeting areas. This was neither a random countermeasure nor a drill: it was a sane and understandable necessity. The Third Cetagandan War was already yesterday's news, for all that Oliver's injuries from it - received in an unhappy incident in one of the war's penultimate skirmishes - were still troubling him. Komarr was in revolt again, and nominal members of the Imperium as they were, Komarrans were much harder to defend against. Internal sabotage was a much subtler knife than a M28-0 anti-warship missile delivered directly portside. The latter had killed 278 of Oliver's shipmates; the former could kill two million of his fellow subjects.

So here Oliver was, in the inner sanctum of HQ where captains and colonels served tea, a lowly lieutenant taking over what should have been an enlisted's door duty for reasons of what he could only assume was rank discrimination. Perhaps someone further up the command ladder felt this was a necessary part of his groundside rotation, something to keep a red-tab spacer humble. Considering Regent Vorkosigan seemed to hold meetings and war councils and debriefs at all hours of the day and night, Oliver was growing fast immune to the glares of those two or three grades above him when he stopped them for their identification. Do you know who I am, delivered by even the most notorious of Vor officerlings, now elicited not much more from him than a bland No, sir, not without your ID.

The chrono down the hall read 0239; less than two hours before the end of his shift. Oliver had long since hunkered down into a weight-distributing pseudo-slouch at front of the climate controlled and well-oxygenated hallway he was guarding. He had been at much worse duty stations in his time.

Footsteps sounded, and he snapped to strict attention with an alacrity that would have made the most genius of duty-shirking yeomen proud. Lieutenant Jole was squared away, security service rifle slung aside but nevertheless present, and glad only very briefly for a EPC duty man's relief from having to salute when Admiral Kanzian rounded the corner a moment later.

Admiral Kanzian, Lieutenant Jole was quick to note, was not having a pleasant or easy evening. He was in uniform but looked almost unkempt, as though only the mindfulness of his valet was preventing him from being in breach of dress regulation. At 0240, Lieutenant Jole could sympathise.

'Good morning, sir,' he greeted Kanzian, tone genial. 'We are conducting EPCs in this area today: I need to check your identification, please.'

Kanzian, who had had the forward momentum of an Admiral ready to barrel into an emergency meeting with the Regent at full tilt, ground himself to a halt. 'Excuse me?'

'I am sorry, sir,' Oliver said, keeping his gaze pinned just past Kanzian's head. 'I need to check your identification before you will be allowed to enter this IS-8 area.'

Kanzian growled. Oliver held his ground, for all that he did not want to: Admiral Kanzian was second only to Regent Vorkosigan in his eyes and the eyes of many others in the service; a hero of more engagements than Oliver could name and by every account a good man and better commander. Kanzian's valet looked ready to gut him for the perceived disrespect as Kanzian reached into his pocket and then swore.

'See now, lieutenant,' Kanzian said, snapping his wallet, which was sans ID, shut. 'I don't have the time for this.'

'I understand, sir, but I cannot break ECP protocol,' Oliver repeated, aware of an escalation of tension in the corridor. 'If you have left your identification elsewhere, sir, your valet can leave and acquire it for you, or I can call for a patrol officer to retrieve it. Unfortunately, since you have attempted entry, I cannot allow you to either proceed or depart until then.'

It was the last offer Oliver could make.

Kanzian took a step forward.

Grimacing, Oliver brought his service weapon to port-arms. 'Sir, I must ask you to halt,' he said, watching as his fellow ECP officer stationed down the hall began to radio in to ImpSec.

Kanzian took another step.

'Halt!' shouted Oliver, now engaged in full challenge protocol.

The other ECP officer was already talking in rapid undertone into his radio, but Kanzian seemed as helpless to disengage as Oliver was: he stepped forward again. 'Look, lieutenant, I have a meeting with the Regent at 0245 and I have no intention-'

Training took over. 'Hands up and drop to kneeling!' Oliver roared, engaging. 'All due force will be used against you!' He slid the bolt of his rifle and locked in a round; two seconds later and ImpSec was rounding in on Kanzian, and it was in that flash of a moment that Oliver saw the Admiral - likely exhausted and railroaded into automated responses - finally come back to himself. He gave himself over to ImpSec protocol without further protest or question. His valet was shoved up against the wall by the second ECP officer as Oliver handed off his rifle to one of the ImpSec officers - who looked so drolly deadpan that he could only be laughing his head off inside - and knelt to search and restrain Kanzian.

Admiral Kanzian. Oliver was mentally preparing himself for the hell he was to pay for when a door halfway down the corridor beyond the ECP line opened and hell came straight for him.

Regent Vorkosigan lumbered up to them, eyebrows raised. Oliver's insides seized, but he kept his hands on Kanzian's cuffed wrists, pressing them up against the Admiral's back while the Regent loomed over them.

'What did you do, Lev?' Regent Vorkosigan asked, looking down at Kanzian. It was not what Oliver had been expecting him to say.

'Left my identification and went temporarily mad,' sighed Kanzian in turn, unresisting. 'Sorry, Aral.'

'Be more sorry that you've generated a pile of paperwork and a tongue-lashing from Illyan,' Regent Vorkosigan grunted, clearly amused. 'Let him up, Lieutenant. I vouchsafe for him; you can send along the paperwork later. I won't let him leave until you've finished processing it.'

Oliver got up, removed the restraints on Kanzian, and then saluted more crisply than he had ever thought himself capable of. 'Yes, sir.'

The Regent looked him up and then down and then up again: Oliver did not manage to keep his gaze distant when Vorkosigan met his eyes. He attempted neutrality while praying that neither embarrassment or worship showed on his face. He felt more than saw Admiral Kanzian dust himself down next to him as the Regent lazily saluted him down from standing at attention. 'A job well done, Lieutenant...?'

'Jole, sir,' Oliver reported. 'Lieutenant Oliver Jole, on secondment to Headquarters from the 4th Fleet.'

The Regent paused, then smiled. 'Served under Admiral Knollys, if I had to guess?'

'Yes, sir,' Oliver replied, pole-axed.

'On rotation to HQ grunt duty out of Operations?'

Kanzian, tugging his jacket into place, snorted. 'Oh, come off of it, Aral,' he said. 'Only you could have staffing needs filled by people falling into your lap after shaming one of your senior officers into the next century. Nolly is not going to be so jolly when he finds out you're stealing one of his junior officers.'

Oliver blinked. Behind them, there was a shuffling of feet as people moved in and out of the crowded corridor, and a moment later Commander Illyan of ImpSec fame was - personally - handing Kanzian his identification card.

'Simon,' the Regent rumbled, still not looking away. 'Get another ECP officer for this corridor.'

'Hm?' went Illyan; the man managed to make a noise sound sceptical.

Regent Vorkosigan nodded at Oliver, eyes bright. 'This, I think, is Lieutenant Jole - my new secretary. Clear the lieutenant for the appropriate IS clearances, please, then send him along. If you can, I could use him before the night is up. What do you say, Jole? Tired of getting rotated around groundside?'

Oliver swallowed. 'It would be an honour, my Lord Regent.'

'We shall all see about that,' Vorkosigan murmured, then finally looked away and went down the corridor, elbow to elbow with Kanzian and already deep in conversation.

'Best if you got yourself a better poker face,' Commander Illyan said to him a moment later, startling Oliver out of his thoughts. 'Or you'll soon sabotage yourself and your career.'

'Excuse me, sir?'

Illyan just shrugged. 'You'll see,' he said. 'You'll see.'