“You’re not to talk about anything you see,” the Chief of Domestic Affairs admonished. Simon registered this statement as unusual; redundant, really, since this was ImpSec.
“And you’re not to ask any questions.”
“Yes, sir.” This, too, was unusual, since it only rarely occurred to his superiors that he might have questions.
“We are going to show you some vids. There will be people in them, both male and female. We need to know who these people are. You will cross-match their faces to the databases of images from government-issued identification that you have been requested to memorize. If it is not possible for you to make a positive identification, you are to tell us so, and not to hazard a guess. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir,” said Simon again, thinking idly that the Chief of Domestic Affairs was talking almost as if he were the robot he evidently thought Simon was. I do remember how to speak human, sir.
“You are to work in here,” said the Chief of Domestic Affairs, showing him to a secured, palm-lockable cubicle with a single comconsole. “If you need to leave the cubicle for any reason, you will lock the door behind you. When you are finished, you will report your findings directly to me.”
The first vid started to play as soon as Simon sat down. “That’s Vice-Admiral Lord Ges Vorrutyer,” he said at once, his organic memory sufficient for this identification. The chip supplied, helpfully, Younger brother to Count Charles Vorrutyer, next heir after the Count’s son Pierre.
“Yes, I know that,” said the Chief of Domestic Affairs, looking at Simon as if he were an idiot. “Never mind about him. The ones you need to identify are the others.”
* * *
The vids were pornographic. Very. They might be euphemistically described as catering to specialized tastes. Simon did not, personally, find that sort of thing arousing.
They were also very amateur, as far as the camera work and production values were concerned. The acting, however, seemed surprisingly good...
Oh, holy hell, Simon realized after watching two or three scenes and dutifully identifying the people in them. None of these people have been acting.
He paused the vid, locked the cubicle, went to the men’s room, and splashed some water on his face, clinging to the edges of the sink until he was sure he could manage not to be sick. Once he had gained control of himself, he returned to his task, letting the chip work automatically while his human brain seethed with questions. Who ordered this? Count Vorrutyer? The Counts aren’t supposed to be able to use ImpSec as a private detective service, but some of them have enough pull. All right. Why? Restitution for his brother’s victims? None of them are District people, though – from the address data, it looks as though the Admiral went hunting in the Caravanserai, picking up anyone too down-and-out or drugged-up to put up a fight – why bother compensating them? Immediately, his mind suggested an answer to the question. Afraid they might be looking for retribution, that’s why.
He wondered, then, why protecting Lord Ges was important enough for the Chief of Domestic Affairs to handle the matter personally. There were other heirs – two younger brothers, both married, one already a father – and Simon was rapidly coming to the conclusion that Lord Ges really needed to be removed from the succession, if not the gene pool. Maybe it wasn’t brotherly affection after all, but the military seeking to protect one of its own. Admiral Vorrutyer was said to be brilliant, but –
It occurred to him, suddenly, to wonder about the other person in the room. The one shooting the vid. The one who wasn’t a professional.
He’d been told not to ask questions. He realized, belatedly, that this prohibition probably ought to have included asking questions of himself.
Simon resolutely blotted them all out and went back to cross-matching faces and making a list of people to be ... compensated? Watched? Obliterated?
“Are you sure that this is the best possible use for Illyan’s ... peculiar talent, sir? I can spare you a trained cryptographer. Several, even. Wouldn’t that be better ...?”
“Pattern recognition, Vorpowys. Illyan’s better at that than anyone. I want him on it so he can point the cryptographers in the right direction.”
Simon hunched down, trying to concentrate on the complicated task Vorpowys had given him and ignore his superior officers’ squabbling. They argued a lot about who got to use him, as if he were an expensive, one-of-a-kind piece of equipment. Vorpowys was going to lose, since Major Vorwaters outranked him; but if he put up enough of a fight, Simon might have time to finish this next bit before he got pulled off.
“But it’s a huge task, sir, monitoring all this new data coming in via tightbeam transmission. It’s only manageable right now because very few people can afford it. As soon as the prices start to drop, it’ll be too big for any one man.”
“It’s only temporary. Until the tech fellows develop an algorithm to spot potentially subversive content.”
“I don’t trust algorithms,” grumbled Vorpowys. “They ought to shut the whole thing down, it’s a massive risk, all this galactic data coming in from who-knows-where. What ever happened to writing letters?”
“Oh, I agree, but they didn’t consult us. Of course, we ought to have access to the tightbeam network, but I’ve no idea what they were thinking, making it available to private citizens ... Vid data is the worst, too many ways to conceal secret messages.”
“It looks like a birthday greeting from Aunt Martya on Earth, but really she’s blinking ‘KILL ALL VOR’.”
Vorwaters and Vorpowys both laughed. Simon thought that he might start blinking ‘KILL ALL VOR’ if they didn’t shut up and let him concentrate.
“So you do appreciate why we need you to lend us Illyan,” said Vorwaters, rather smugly. “I thought you would.”
Simon sighed, tidied his desk, and prepared to follow Vorwaters.
* * *
One week later, Vorwaters asked him what patterns he had recognized so far.
“Well, sir,” said Simon, “first of all, by far the most popular use of the tightbeam system is access to galactic pornography...”
“Of course,” said Lady Vorkosigan, shuffling through the plans for the new Reproductive Center, “there are also some obvious benefits for homosexuals.”
“Dear Captain,” said the Regent gently, “I’m not sure that advertising the benefits for homosexuals is exactly the most effective way to sway public opinion on the topic. Rather the reverse.”
“Of course it isn’t in public. I’m not completely ignorant about Barrayarans.” Lady Vorkosigan always managed to make this sound like a curse word. “But, it seems to me that a hint dropped here and there, in the right person’s ears...”
“Count Vorlakial,” remarked Lady Alys, “is exceedingly concerned that his heir does not seem likely to marry.”
“Well, there you are,” said Lady Vorkosigan triumphantly. “I'm sure you'll know how to approach him. There are also a few families who will be interested in it because of the gene-cleaning angle – or if they aren’t, they really should be –”
Simon cleared his throat. “If I may ask a question – how does it all work, exactly?” It was astonishingly awkward, he thought, having to ask how babies were made at the age of thirty-one, but he was not at all sure he understood this new method. “If it’s going normally, I mean, and there aren’t any ... emergency situations involved.”
“In vitro fertilization is the norm,” said Lady Vorkosigan, “The mother’s contraceptive implant is removed. Most women elect to take hormones at that point, so that multiple eggs can ripen and be extracted at once, since that’s the most invasive part of the procedure. The eggs are normally gene-scanned after harvesting, and any defects can be fixed. The extras are frozen, so they can be used later in life.”
“And on the, er, male side ...?”
“I am sure,” said the Regent, deadpan, “that you are already familiar with the procedure for the extraction of sperm.”
Simon found himself blushing furiously, and suddenly acutely conscious of Lady Alys’s presence. “I meant, more – well, yes, I suppose that would be the point when they’d do sex selection and genetic screening and all that – Never mind, I’m not sure exactly what I’m asking.”
“It’s quite pleasant for the men, I understand,” said Lady Vorkosigan. “They are usually given a private cubicle, and an extensive selection of erotic viewing materials, designed to cater to all possible tastes.”
“Would these materials be produced off-planet?” Simon asked, flashing back to the months he’d spent in the basement of ImpSec, reviewing tightbeam transmissions for Major Vorwaters.
“Having seen the Barrayaran version,” said Lady Vorkosigan, “I think that would be highly advisable.”
“Ah. There might be some security concerns in that case. As is routine for printed and video material from off-planet, they would need to be reviewed for subversive content.”
“Subversive pornography?” Lady Vorkosigan seemed much struck by this. “That has potential, now that I think of it. Would ImpSec have any objection to a few subtle messages about egalitarianism and consent, I wonder?”
“Not in the least,” said Simon. The sooner the better. “All that we would be concerned about are political messages and imagery.”
The two women exchanged a look. “Sometimes,” suggested Lady Alys, “the personal is political.”
“Well,” said Simon, “we might ... not know that.”
Lady Vorkosigan nodded. “We will, of course, submit all of the materials to be used in the Rep Center to you. For your personal review.”
Simon nodded, well capable of appreciating the subtext: You need an outlet, Simon. He did pull up the vids he’d reviewed for Vorwaters on a regular basis – it was all there on his memory chip, after all, and could not be erased – and it would be rather nice to have some fresh material to add to his collection.
The Imperial Art Museum’s catalogue called the temporary exhibition “The Art of the Human Form: Masterpieces from Old Earth.” This was an elegant way of saying it was an exhibition of naked people, most of them in erotic poses.
On the opening night of the exhibition, Cordelia made a point of taking the boys for a brief visit to the tamer and more classical galleries, by way of demonstrating that The Art of the Human Form was perfectly acceptable viewing matter for audiences of all ages and nothing to make a fuss about. (She had really wanted to bring a little girl, but had been thwarted in her efforts to borrow one; Bothari had positively refused to allow Elena to attend, and the Koudelkas had thanked them politely for the invitation but said that Delia and Martya had homework that night.)
The enculturation of the boys was not a spectacular success, except, perhaps, from Cordelia’s point of view. Gregor looked quietly mortified, as any other sixteen-year-old would be if he were forced to attend an exhibition of nudes with his foster-mother and kid brother. Miles was running gleefully through a forest of ancient Greek herms (which were not at all like Betan herms), shouting “Look, I found another penis” in a piercing, prepubescent voice at regular intervals.
“You can see a penis any old time,” said Ivan in equally piercing tones. “I want to look at this.”
This was a statue of the goddess Artemis at her bath. “No you don’t,” said Miles, “it says on the wall that she’ll turn you into a stag if you look at her.”
“Does too. Read it for yourself.”
Ivan glanced at the plaque, and then put his hands behind his ears, spread his fingers out in a fair imitation of antlers, and started prancing around stag-wise. Bothari collared him before he could set off the security alarms.
“Cordelia,” said Alys, in tones that did not bode well for Ivan, “I think it’s time that I took Ivan home.”
“I’ll take them all,” said Cordelia. Ivan grinned at this unexpected reprieve. “I’ve already seen the rest of the exhibition, Aral and I had a private tour while they were setting it up. Why don’t you stay and keep Simon company?”
Simon nodded and tried not to look dismayed. It was not, after all, Cordelia’s fault that he had been in love with Alys these ten years, in the old high way of love. (His chip supplied the quotation; also the fact that the poet who wrote it had eventually married someone other than the woman for whom he’d written those words, at the age of fifty-two.) It was entirely possible that Cordelia didn’t know, because she could be astonishingly oblivious about people at times; it was equally possible that she did know, and thought that viewing an erotic-art exhibition together was somehow a good idea under the circumstances.
They went to view an eighteenth-century illustrated edition of Aretino, and then wandered through a small, darkened alcove off of the late-twentieth-century room, where the surviving fragments of a film called Debbie Does Dallas were playing in an endless loop. As far as Simon could tell, the film had been deemed worthy of inclusion in the exhibition merely for its antiquity, rather than for any particular artistic merits of its own. (His chip further informed him that “Dallas” was not the name of Debbie’s male partner but an ancient city in North America, of interest chiefly for having been the site of a famous assassination.)
“I don’t really care for any of these,” said Alys, the wave of her hand taking in Debbie Does Dallas and also several more pieces from the same period, more artistic in pedigree but transparently aiming primarily to shock. “No subtlety.”
Simon agreed, and they moved on to the twenty-third century gallery in the other wing. The museum’s central courtyard was crowded with donors and their guests. Waiters had begun to circulate with trays of drinks and canapés. Simon could not, of course, eat or drink anything without advertising the fact that the waiters were plainclothes ImpSec men, but Alys accepted a glass of red wine. She wouldn’t take more than a sip or two, he knew; she was as alert as he was to the fact that this was work. The others would do the real guarding, and would continue to do it until the exhibition closed, but Simon was there to send a clear signal that all of the art was to be returned to Earth in exactly the same condition as when it arrived, and that any vandalism would be regarded as treason against the Imperium. Which it was, really. He could think of few things more damaging to Barrayar’s long-term interests than confirming to the rest of the galaxy that it was a planet of reactionary barbarians. Unfortunately, the reactionary barbarians couldn’t be trusted to see it that way.
He considered the piece in the center of this new gallery, and found that he liked it: an abstract sculpture in white plascrete, with folds and curves that were all the more suggestive for not representing anything in particular. He was suddenly aware of the folds and curves of Alys’s dress, and the ones underneath it. He looked at her to see what she thought of it, awkwardly conscious that she knew about art and he didn’t, and was pleased to see that she seemed to like it too; also that the wine had stained her lips and made her seem a bit less untouchable.
Simon had never really thought much about art before, but he understood that this subtle shift in his perceptions had something to do with the sculpture, and he found himself hungry to see more and know more.
It was at that moment when one of the waiters appeared at his elbow. “Excuse me, sir, but we’ve stopped a man from trying to sneak in the back entrance with a hatchet. His account of himself was ... not particularly coherent, but he seems to have had some idea of smashing up what he called galactic obscenities. Preliminary questioning doesn’t reveal any intention to harm individuals attending the opening, but given the, er, nature of the visitors’ list this evening, we thought you had better be informed at once.”
Simon silently thanked whatever powers might be that Cordelia had already taken the Emperor home. While dealing with a hatchet-wielding lunatic was never very high on his list of preferred ways to spend the evening, it was far more pleasant to be able to treat him as a hatchet-wielding lunatic than as a potential assassin.
“I’ll be right there,” he told the waiter, and then turned to Alys. “I’m afraid I may be some time. You’d better take a groundcab.”
She nodded and said, “See you later, then.” He watched her go out of the gallery in a swirl of skirts, with the odd feeling that a door somewhere had just opened momentarily and then slid shut again.
Simon rarely ordered the full psychological workup for a new recruit, especially the sexual response test. It wasn’t a pleasant business – having electrodes wired to the most intimate parts of one’s body, and being shown a variety of pornographic images that ranged from the mainstream to the graphically violent. Still, there were particular cases in which he found it an advisable precaution.
He’d requested a copy of the vid from the test, so that he could watch the new recruit watching pornography – and not enjoying himself too much, from the look of it. It was a violation, no question; and perhaps Simon’s choice to watch the vid was an even greater violation, but looking away and letting it all happen somewhere else where it couldn’t disturb him seemed equally wrong. Besides, he was curious, for various reasons, and wanted to make at least a preliminary evaluation for himself, which he had done by the time Dr. Aristide entered with the results.
“Ah,” said Simon. “I asked you, particularly, to assess his response to scenes of violence and coercion.”
“Strongly negative, sir. More or less the opposite of what you were worried about.”
Simon looked up sharply. “High enough to suggest prior sexual trauma?”
“None of the usual signs of it, but ... high end of normal, for sure. Bothered by some things that male subjects don’t usually mind. Everything else seems quite typical. Well, he’s bisexual.”
“He disclosed that in his interview.”
“Kind of tilted toward one end of the scale, though.”
“No surprises there.”
“Oh, yes, there are.” Aristide smirked a little. “I didn’t say which end.”
“Are you telling me,” said Simon, “that one of these days, Vorrutyer is going to abandon us for a nice girl and a white picket fence?”
“Well,” said Aristide rather dubiously, “more likely a girl than a boy, anyway.”
Right; nice and picket fence almost certainly weren’t part of the Vorrutyer style. “Well, we’ll just have to get as much use out of him while we can, won’t we? I’d like to speak to him. Show him in.”
* * *
Ges Vorrutyer’s nephew looked less like his uncle in person than he did on the screen. Younger, slimmer; also more vulnerable, try as he might to disguise it.
“Well, well. I had no idea that ImpSec possessed such a remarkable collection of vids. What an interesting life your archivist must lead. Or is it produced in-house, I wonder?”
“Sit down,” said Simon curtly. He didn’t order Vorrutyer to drop the lounging, insolent manner; he didn’t need to. After all these years, he could do it with a look. Vorrutyer sat. “It is not produced in-house. It is primarily Betan in origin. Acting in adult vids is a very well-respected and well-paid profession on Beta.”
“I see. Ethically sourced pornography. What a relief.” The voice was perfectly flat, detached; but Simon noticed an almost imperceptible slackening of posture that suggested it actually was a relief.
“It is considered standard protocol to address your chief as sir. Also, not to engage in gratuitous irony.”
“Do you have any other questions for me?” (It was not going to be Vorrutyer’s job to ask questions. A civilian informant was supposed to be, for all practical purposes, an observing and reporting machine. But, of course, they never were.)
“Actually, sir, I do,” said Vorrutyer. “Was all of that ... standard for screening new agents?”
“No,” said Simon, “it was not. Nor is the meeting that we are having right now precisely standard. Anything else?”
“No,” said Vorrutyer, and then, suddenly, as if the words had burst out by force, “On second thought, yes. Is my word good enough now, or are you going to question my sister under fast-penta too?”
“We are not going to question your sister under fast-penta,” said Simon, in his driest, most factually precise tones. “Nor have we ever considered such a thing. Your testimony about the incident was always sufficient.”
“What was the point of that, then?” Vorrutyer had forgotten to be cool; the balled-up hands and strained voice were conveying a considerable amount of anger, which Simon didn’t find blameworthy under the circumstances.
“You appear to be under a misapprehension, Vorrutyer. Our decision, in this case, had nothing to do with you or your personal history.” Simon gave him the sort of look that was intended to convey not everything is about you to the young and melodramatic; Vorrutyer colored a little. “I will not answer any further questions on this point. I do, however, apologize for putting you through all of that.”
Vorrutyer was visibly thinking this through, an odd, closed expression coming over his face. Simon wondered what sort of sense he was making of this intelligence, and how much he knew about the Vice-Admiral’s vices, if anything. He checked his chip’s record of Vorrutyer’s birthdate; he would have been four years old when his uncle died. A new generation. Simon felt very old indeed.
“Right,” said Vorrutyer. “I see your point, sir.”
Simon wondered precisely what point he thought he saw, but decided that it wasn’t fair play to ask questions of his own when he’d already said he wouldn’t answer any. So he said only, “Good luck out there.”
“Thank you, sir.”