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As he struggled to find the right words for his classified post-action report Miles scratched his head in puzzlement: this mission had not worked out as planned. Not that its outcome was exactly bad. Actually, he thought he had done rather well by his Emperor. It just wasn’t quite the result Illyan had asked for. He squinted at the comconsole screen, typed a few lines…erased them, and sat frowning blackly, silently. His head ached with trying to decide what to say. Finally, he retyped the same words again, only to delete them seconds later and sit, staring blankly at the screen, remembering….

By Order of the Emperor: Go to Escobar. Establish credentials as a neutral escort hired for safe passage.

Establish credentials: such a simple order….

Escobaran customs and immigration did not have quite as high a reputation as Betan for being sticklers over import/export regulations and the screening of foreign nationals. But Escobar had originated as a colony of Beta’s whose officers had set the standard for the rest of the galaxy. True daughter of its parent: Escobar prided itself that its officials were efficient and effective. However, the pre-screening briefing beamed as a matter of course to every ship entering Escobaran space did not mention its security staff having the memories of elephants. That quality became quickly apparent when Miles reached the head of the queue (yes, they still demanded the chief officer of any visiting vessel present himself in person for interview) and plastered his most winning smile on his face as he finally came face-to-face with the Immigration Officer.

“Yes, Mr Naismith,” said the woman, “I have reviewed your entry form.” The slender electronic device in her hands was turned around so Miles could view the screen. “But you command a fleet of ships that gained some notoriety a few months ago, so you must understand our caution when you arrive unannounced in our space, first requesting permission to dock at our orbital platform and then applying for actual entry to this planet.”

Miles glanced down, expecting to find some minor irregularity in his application form highlighted on the screen. Instead he saw two newsvids, side-by-side, one showing a running battle between a Cetagandan assassination team and some of his men on the streets of Beta City, the other a burning wineshop on Old Earth.

“Not to mention the latest intelligence that places you as a Jacksonian clone of one Lord Miles Vorkosigan, sole son and heir of Admiral Vorkosigan who invaded Escobar just 26 years past.” The contemptuously scathing tone which framed the reference to Jackson’s Whole was only eclipsed by the frigid hostility in which Admiral Vorkosigan’s name was sounded.

Belatedly, Miles took in the woman’s correct military stance, iron grey short-cropped hair, and the fine wrinkles round her eyes and mouth. Neither a young woman who might be susceptible to charm, nor the motherly type. He hastily discarded the protest that rose to his mouth that Admiral Vorkosigan had only commanded the retreat from Escobar.

“A clone commissioned by enemies of the Vorkosigans and the current Emperor Gregor Vorbarra,” Miles replied in his flattest Betan accent. Had the counter he stood before been a little bit lower he thought he might have rested one arm on it and slouched, thus presenting himself as the antithesis of the Barrayaran Vor. However, his head and neck merely cleared the countertop, so he did his best by cocking his head to one side instead. Unfortunately, that set off a paroxysm of hoarse coughing.

“Not to mention your current infectious condition, spreading who-only-knows-what foreign bacteria amongst our healthy citizens.”

“Not at all,” Miles sputtered from behind his handkerchief, as soon as he was able to catch his breath. “The mere tag-end of a simple head cold, I assure you.”

But it was too late. She had already added REJECT ON MEDICAL GROUNDS in bold red lines across the screen.

“But I am just here to ferry some people to Barrayar,” protested Miles.

“Then I suggest you communicate with them from your ship and arrange for them to come to you instead of the other way around,” she snapped.

“This way, Sir.”

A security sergeant had appeared to Miles’ right, and he was politely but firmly escorted back to his ship.

* * * * *

A discrete chime at the door to his cabin brought Miles back to the present. Commander Quinn entered with a tray of chicken soup and mug of lemon tea which she placed in front of him.

“I thought I requested a vat beef sandwich,” Miles said plaintively, “and a mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream.”

“Doctor’s orders,” replied Quinn. “She says nothing works better on the common cold than the traditional remedy of hot, clear soup. Apparently, milk products are bad for nasal congestion and lemon will do you more good.”

She stayed while he ate, bringing him up to date about latest work assignments, who was on the sick list, and plans for staff training, but declined his invitation to keep him company in bed once he had finished the last drop of soup.

“I have an hour’s yoga workout booked,” she said, “and you have a report to finish. Not to mention the fact that, weakened as they are from the other virus, half the ship’s personnel has now come down with what you have, and I don’t want to catch it too.”

Disgruntled, Miles turned back to his comconsole and typed:

I remained in orbit and contacted the relevant persons by secure link.

That would do. There was no need to add extraneous detail (a positive waste of scarce resources paying for extra transmission time).

Miles fell into a reverie as he thought about how to word what came next….

Order: Pick up four people: Aidan Allenby, Richard Winter, Jonathan Thomson and Aristella Vorkalloner (dates of birth enclosed) all potential heirs of Barrayaran nationals who were born after the war who have an interest in their ancestral claims on Barrayar.

Initially all four appeared quite unexceptional. Miles was predisposed to like anyone who wanted to establish a life on Barrayar. After all, he felt passionate about his homeland, why not others? He had been somewhat taken aback in his travels around the galaxy to realise his home world was not held in the same degree of esteem by most galactics. But these four – raised on cosmopolitan Escobar - wanted to be Barrayaran.

Once the doctor had established their credentials by gene-scan (a mere formality as they had all provided blood and tissue samples months before in their original applications to the Barrayaran embassy for patriation) and all were on board, Miles invited them to a welcome reception with his senior officers. The three men were only a few months older than Miles, all born from Barryaran fathers and Escobaran mothers. The dates of their birth placed conception squarely during the early stages of the war, when Barrayaran forces were (temporarily) ascendant. How had true love found its way across the divide of war to enable their parents to….

Miles suddenly realised just why he had been the person tasked with this duty. His brain flashed him a sudden brilliant picture of Elena Visconti, her beautiful face twisted into a mask of rage and horror. It seemed not every Escobaran woman victimised by the dead Admiral Vorrutyer’s corrupt military chain of command and sadistic standards had opted for placental transfer to replicator. A tiny handful had chosen to take their babies home. As he circulated around the party and drew each young man out, Miles realised none had had an easy time growing up on Escobar. Their paternal antecedents had been known. Their mothers were pitied and supported, but the offspring were at best ostracised, sometimes actively bullied. Highly educated (Barrayar had been required to provide generous educational trust funds as a part of war reparations), nonetheless all three young men had seen themselves passed over in their chosen careers for other less well qualified rivals and had known it was because of their fathers. One had applied for Barryaran citizenship within weeks of his mother’s death; the second after seeing his mother safely – finally – married to a man who had refused to wed her while her son still lived with her. The last had decided to emigrate after his fiancée jilted him on learning his personal history.

Miles remembered the information from the doctor’s report about which Barrayaran families these young men belonged to. All were bastards, which still counted for something amongst the more conservative Old-Vor. Fortunately, none of their progenitors (all mercifully dead) had been direct heir to any count; they were related through collateral lines sufficiently distant from the seats of power that no apple-carts would be upset. However, none would be exactly welcome on Barrayar, any more than they had been accepted on Escobar. The more conservative still muttered conspiracy theories about losing the Escobaran campaign. If Miles knew his Old-Vor (and he rather thought he did) these three young men would be unexpected reminders of a painful past, tolerated because honour demanded it, but not thanked for it. Plus, his generation was top-heavy with unattached males already; the last thing the Vor-class needed was more bachelors. Miles could foresee difficult times ahead for these three with their Escobaran names.

The Vorkalloner girl posed a different conundrum. Technically she had been born after the war; however, she had been conceived a good four years before it. Conceived in a test-tube, zygote frozen, and subsequently brought to term in a uterine replicator at a time chosen by the parents. Parent, in this case. Commander Aristede Vorkalloner had been a casualty of the Escobaran campaign two years before she was born. Product of a genuine love affair, her parents had been married. But theirs was a failed love affair, with parents who had met when the father was on a galactic tour of duty, and a mother who had balked at moving to Barrayar when he was recalled home. Yet she had cared enough, regardless, not simply to flush the conceptus after Vorkalloner’s death but to bring the embryo to term, give her a name which announced her Barryaran heritage, and raise her daughter to know herself the sole heir to the Vorkalloner estates (which were considerable).

It was not until Miles came face-to-face with Aristella Vorkalloner over the buffet table that he realised her mother had not been Escobaran. The doctor’s report had focused on paternity, not maternal heritage. One look at Mademoiselle Vorkalloner’s willowy figure, luminous complexion, celestial blue eyes and long silver blonde hair that reached to the floor and he knew her for a Cetagandan princess. He rather thought he might even be able to identify her constellation….

* * * * *

Miles came back to himself with a smile on his face and a tent in his shorts which would have been deeply embarrassing had he not been alone. The ships’ bells chimed and he turned off the console. It was definitely time to take a break. The next morning, Miles ventured from his quarters to sample the eggs in the mess hall, using the foray to estimate just how many crew were now stricken with his cold. The wide range of coughs and sniffles, and decidedly hostile glances, decided him: best stay in his cabin and finish the damned report.

Once seated back in front of the comconsole, he felt stymied. Quite how to explain when and why the original remit of his mission had altered posed a knotty problem. ImpSec field agent’s reports were supposed to be concise. However, it was not easy to reduce the reasons that had led to the Triumph’s change of flight plan down to a few simple sentences, especially when one had to be particularly cautious when dealing with Barryaran fears about mutation. He played a few hands of Solitaire while pondering….

“This virus of yours is playing havoc with my duty roster,” Quinn remarked when they climbed into bed the night after the reception.

“Mmmm,” Miles was more interested in nuzzling the back of Elli’s neck, but felt her remark deserved some kind of response. He reached his hands round and cupped her breasts (beautiful breasts...mmmm…).

“Stop that Miles! I’m serious.” Elli turned to face Miles, capturing his hands in hers and avoiding his mouth. “You might be getting over it (though actually I think you're still pretty full of it and just think you're getting better), but over half the senior staff are down with that cold and nearly a third of the crew. I’m having trouble filling the duty roster.”

“Well, for once this seems to be a peaceful mission, so it won’t be a disaster for officers to double-up on duties,” Miles replied calmly, “they all need to be reminded once in a while of the importance of versatility.”

“Doesn’t this epidemic of colds seem just a little odd to you?” demanded Quinn, avoiding Miles’ searching mouth.

It didn’t. Well, it hadn’t but now that Elli had raised the question, Miles found himself questioning it too.

“I wondered when you’d wake up to the problem,” the ship’s doctor said darkly the next morning when he asked. Sick bay was full of moaning, coughing and sputtering crew, many of them hooked up to oxygen.

“No, it’s not usual to need breathing support; but approximately one-third of those infected with this ‘cold’ of yours would have died without it,” added the doctor when she noticed the direction of Miles’ gaze.”

Died from a common cold?!

“Quite an uncommon cold,” explained the doctor in her briefing to the senior staff (those of them well enough to attend) later that morning. “And not the same virus which infected Admiral Naismith,” she projected a couple of slides onto the large viewing screen, “although, at least part of this more potent mutated virus originated from the Admiral’s cold, there are distinct differences - carefully bio-engineered differences.” Her cursor pointed out visible changes in the organism’s structure. “It seems the new and deadly organism includes a retrovirus which bonds with the original simple cold virus to form a much more potent infection, which, if my calculations are correct, kills in 25 to 35 percent of cases.” She sounded grim.

Miles had never known her calculations to be in error.

“Those not killed suffer recurring bouts – rather like malaria – which debilitate for potentially weeks, if not longer.”

Miles shuddered at the thought of having a dripping nose for weeks. He hated being ill.

You, Admiral, however, are immune, by virtue of having caught yourself a cold which meant your body manufactured sufficient antibodies to the original infection to render you resistant to the mutant strain,” reassured the doctor. “As for how it was administered: I traced the vector back to the water served at that welcome reception for our visitors. It also has certain very distinctive markers which identify its designers.”

“Cetagandan?” asked Miles, immediately suspicious of the Vorkalloner heiress.

“No, Jacksonian – your old friends from House Bharaputra to be precise. Actually,” the doctor seemed amused at this, “the worst infected of your guests appears to be Mademoiselle Vorkalloner, although she has refused any treatment from me.” There was a pause before the doctor added, “she says she has her own resources, and given her doctorate in biochemistry and genetics I expect she does.”

“Any chance she’ll share her insights with us?” asked Quinn.

“You’ll have to ask her.”

* * * * *

Miles’ bladder reminded him of the need to take a break; and his stiff joints warned him of the dangers of sitting too long. He changed into his knitted practice suit and headed for the gym. It was almost deserted. One of the communications techs was swinging on parallel bars. A weapon specialist was working out to the latest dance tune from Beta. Miles found a quiet corner to go through his calisthenics routine. The purely physical came as a surprisingly welcome relief after his mental wrestling to find the right words. All too soon his sense of duty pricked him: they were going to be late home from this mission and Illyan would be wondering what was happening. He grabbed a couple of energy bars and a milkshake on his way back to his cabin, where he started a new paragraph:

"To procure funds for the next stage of the project, we sold Lake Michigan to the Cetagandans."

The problem, Miles decided, was he had developed a liking for all four of his passengers.

Aristella Vorkalloner was more than just beautiful – she had the cure. An expensive cure, to be sure, but one that not only saved the lives of his infected crew but reduced the length of recuperation time from months to mere days. "And if you administer it prophylacticly to infants before they reach six months, it vaccinates against the common cold," she explained. Miles had been at the stage of blowing his increasingly sore, red nose every five minutes when she explained that. No doubt about it: she was going to be a major asset to Barryaran medicine.

Aidan Allenby was a highly talented and innovative environmental engineer who modified the ship’s systems to enable said cure to be administered swiftly and surely to the full ship’s complement. Miles foresaw the next generation of Imperial warships would be so super-efficient in their use of resources they would be able to patrol for years without needing to touch base.

Jonathan Thomson modestly described himself as a book-keeper. In reality he understood the ins and outs of entrepreneurial investments in a way that was nothing short of miraculous. Which was good because the only source of the rare chemicals needed for Aristella’s cure was on Rho Ceta and the Cetagandan fees were extortionate.

“Explain to me again how selling some obscure Earth lake to Eta Ceta will settle our debt to Rho Ceta for the inallarium,” Miles asked plaintively in one of the planning sessions.

“Not an obscure lake,” explained Jonathan Thomson, “one of the biggest on the planet – and the very lake the Cetagandans have been trying to get their hands on for more than century.”

“Yes, but why?

Miles listened intently for several minutes before, out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Elli Quinn suppressing the giggles.

“No, never mind!” He held up his hand stopping Jonathan’s investment speech mid-flow. “I’ll take your word for it. You just set up the Deal; I’ll organise getting the ship to Earth.” Privately, he resolved never to let Jonathan and his brother Mark meet or Gregor might find out too late they owned Barrayar and not him. Meanwhile he introduced his guest to Lieutenant Bone.

Miles even liked Richard Winter, despite finding out it was he who had contaminated the drinking water with the bio-engineered infection. Richard turned out to be hopelessly in debt-bondage to the Jacksonians. Once he realised the havoc his actions had caused, he was horrified to the depths of his soul – his poet’s soul. He was intensely (embarassingly) grateful to Miles when he realised Miles was not only not going to throw him into the brig but had a plan for paying off (paying back) the Jacksonians.

“I will compose an ode in your honour,” Richard said. “No! An epic! With the Lady of Lake Michigan (he kissed a hand toward Aristella Vorkalloner) as your inspiring muse...and sword fights...horses...and fabulous feasts to your victory over those villains from Jackson's Whole. And I will commission its performance in the largest concert hall in all Vorbarr Sultana and invite the Emperor to come! You will be the greatest hero Barrayar has ever known – your name famous!”

“Infamous, more like,” Quinn muttered sotto voce beside Miles, “for inflicting his bad poetry on them.”

An odder quartet it would have been hard to find. Miles wondered if Gregor and Illyan knew what they were doing in offering them homes on Barrayar.

* * * * *

Miles didn’t like to remember the next part so he closed his comconsole and wandered up to the bridge in search of distraction. There was a calm and congenial atmosphere when he entered. Miles took the seat next to the communications tech, appropriating the second set of earbuds and listened to the white noise of deep space for a minute wondering just what it was he was so intent on until he noticed the man was actually talking chess with his colleague down in engineering. The chances of encountering another ship at this stage of their voyage were very slim; he could forgive the man for finding something else to occupy himself during those dull days of deep space. Next, Miles hovered behind the astro-navigator’s chair for a few minutes observing while she calculated the route from the next jump-point. She was quite young in this role – newly appointed after the last navigator left to start a family. That she was fully aware of him watching was evident in the slight tremor in her hands and the nervous twitch of her head a couple of times as she glanced over her shoulder. Why had she…he was about to correct when he realised her roundabout course avoided the spatial anomaly one light year out from Pol. Tactics was occupied in a virtual practice battle with the computer. As Miles watched he realised it wasn’t a game; it was the first stage examination to move up in grade from level II to level III. He carefully did not interrupt. When the tech sat back and sighed relief at the end of the test he congratulated him before engaging him in gentle debate about alternative strategies. He had won his battle; he just could have won it more elegantly. Miles thought he left the man with a determination to do better next time as he moved on. He would have checked how the officer manning the environmental station was doing but he happened to catch Commander Quinn watching him, eyebrows raised and a look of irony in her eye. Ah…yes…. What was it she had said the other day about senior officers stifling initiative amongst their juniors if they tried to micro-manage everything simply because they had an overabundance of energy to burn off…. Miles decided not to push his luck and retired back to his cabin and the hated report….

The difficulty had been that by the time they reached Earth his little head cold, which he could have sworn he was getting over just a few days before, seemed to have hit back with a vengeance. His nose had dried up. That was about the only positive thing as the outflow seemed to have morphed from water into glue which stuck his nostrils together so he could not breath properly. Despite repeated attempts, the nose spray did not work. Nonetheless, Miles protested when the doctor removed it from his grasp, with a lecture about the dangers of misusing medication. He would have protested more loudly but his larynx seemed to have seized up and he could only whisper.

“You must do something, doctor,” Miles complained. “How am I supposed to lead this expedition when I cannot talk properly.”

“I fully intend to,” she said reassuringly. “Now lie down on the examination bed.”

And when he did, she fastened the restraints and sedated him!

When he woke several hours later, Miles was allowed earbuds so he could listen in; but the communication was strictly one-way. He’d thought his laryngitis bad enough; being under doctor’s orders, however, was much worse.

North America had once been a richly resourced territory of Old Earth. But that had been centuries ago. A series of nationalistic wars between bordering nations had devastated the continent, leaving it a war-scarred backwater. Those wars had provided impetus for the remaining world powers – based far enough distant in Europe, Africa and Australia to have avoided the worst of the conflagrations which engulfed the Americas – to unite, signing binding agreements which finally put an end to armed struggle, just in time for human expansion into space. However, it had not been achieved before the ecology of North America was hideously damaged. Miles remembered how Tung had retired to run a river-boat touring company in South America. Fortunately for the viability of life on Old Earth, only the fringes of that continent had suffered in the Fourth World War. The interior – most importantly the Amazon River and its rainforest – had been largely left intact; and the reduced human population post-apocalypse had meant the pre-war pressures on land had disappeared. Almost the whole of South America had been turned into a nature reserve. The same had not been true for North America which was mostly abandoned; the vast central radioactive area covering almost the entire south-western half of the continent tended to discourage anyone from visiting except those scientists running various reclamation projects.

Lake Michigan was north and east of the contaminated zone. Most importantly: it was privately owned, unlike the rest of the Great Lakes. Jonathan Thomson had explained at length about how the rampant commercialism and unrestricted private enterprise prized within the nation surrounding the lake had allowed one family gradually to buy all the land around it.

“Unlike the others, see–” during mission planning, Jonathan had shown Miles a holo-image of an old 2-D map. “The southern half of the other Great Lakes were in the same country as Lake Michigan but the old national borders went through them, so half were in the next country to the north which seems to have had a different series of laws and regulations so no one individual could buy the land in the same way.”

“And that makes Michigan more attractive to the Ceta’s, how?”

“They cannot buy the others; they’re ‘protected’ by the peace treaty as land to be held in common. But they can buy Michigan.”

If we can convince the owner to sell.” Elli had sounded sceptical.

I’ll convince her.” Jonathan was nothing if not confident.

And so they had gone: one half-Barrayaran/half-Cetagandan princess, one budding business Moghul, and one Dendarii Commander, decamped to North America while Miles was unconscious. Negotiations were almost completed before he woke. A considerable sum had changed hands, to be sure; but Madame Stauber’s real price was Aristella’s promise: the Deal with the Cetagandans would be to the detriment of House Bharaputra. Her son’s clone had been killed and his private bid for longevity destroyed and she would have her revenge.

Elli might be officially in charge of this project; and Jonathan might have been the master negotiator with an ex-Baronne; but, as he listened, Miles realised there was nothing to match two scientists talking to one another. It turned out the Cetagandans did not really want the lake. They wanted exclusive access to the cirsium pitcher. In exquisitely polite language, Aristella and Lady d’Har understood one another fully. One deed of ownership was exchanged for two credit chits: the larger destined for a different Cetagandan constellation as payment for the inallarium; the smaller, seemingly an innocent interest payment on Richard Winter’s debt to House Bharaputra, but actually impregnated with a disfiguring bacteria that would quickly infect any who touched it.

What is this ‘circus pitcher’ that’s so important to the Ceta’s,” asked Miles when Quinn debriefed to him in sick bay.

“A plant,” Quinn explained. “Apparently, quite a rare thistle that has been wiped out everywhere else. Aristella said it is their current focus for some kind of strength and tenacity experiments.”

Miles had a flashback to the kitten tree and shuddered. Best not to ask further.

“And the other negotiations?”

“I was able to interest Dr Tennyson in studying the effects of radiation on Barrayaran flora and fauna; he just asked for a couple of hours to pack his belongings before joining us.”

* * * * *

The doctor interrupted as Miles was putting the final flourishes on his report, briskly using her medical override to gain entry to Miles’ quarters when her chime went unanswered.

“You did not come to the mess hall to eat, so I wondered if you were all right,” she explained as she lifted his wrist to check his pulse.

“There’s no need for that,” Miles protested as she put her stethoscope to his chest and commanded him to cough. “I just lost track of the time. I’m all right I tell you.”

“Mm-hmm,” she sounded thoughtful as she commanded him to turn around and lift his shirt while she tapped on his back.

“This isn’t really necessary.” Miles sounded exasperated. “You said it yourself: I am immune to the virulent infection. All I had was a little head cold last week; it’s only the cough lingering now.”

“Quite a number of my patients have thought the same, gone back to work too soon, and landed themselves back in the infirmary running a high temperature.” She sounded stern. “You should not skip meals and you must take regular breaks.”

“Yes, Doctor.”

“And get some rest.” It was her parting shot as she whisked out the door.

It was good advice, Miles realised. He was stiff again from sitting too long trying to finish the damned report. He reviewed the last few paragraphs he had written and grimaced. Maybe…he highlighted and deleted three-quarters of the last section. Less is more.