Actions

Work Header

Goshawk

Work Text:

If enjoying the act of watching people has questionable implications, Simon Illyan mused while taking surreptitious glances across the crowded restaurant, what does it mean that I like watching people watch? It wasn't just that he felt, politically or morally, that it ought to be done – quis custodiet and all that – but that he got an actual tingle of pleasure out of seeing someone do the job well. The chip in his brain didn't record pleasurable tingles, as it did visual and aural inputs and organized chunks of thought, so he could doubly enjoy his enjoyment, knowing it was something he'd never have to revisit. Therefore he could watch the same person watch more than once, he supposed, and have it not be boring; not that this was a particularly good line of thought to explore, considering the other activities productive of pleasure and tingling that he wasn't engaging in repeatedly these days, or at all.

But he did like watching John Reese watch. He liked observing how despite the man's eye-catching good looks he managed to blend into his surroundings; how he seemed reserved, unapproachable, and yet comfortably plausible all at once; how at times his attentiveness led one to expect twin holes bored into a subject's back while at others he stole glimpses of his quarry so subtly that even Simon couldn't tell who it was; and how despite being almost invariably alone he never in fact was. Though today... something was a bit off, today.

There it was: the object of Reese's concern was on the move, and so, all senses heightened, was Reese; and there was no touch of the hand to the ear, no quiet vocalization, just Reese dropping marks on the table and slipping out of his seat, flowing out the door like flotsam drawn by the tide. He clocked Simon on the way out; an eyebrow went up minutely but neither his expression nor his pace faltered. Simon waited a few more seconds and then followed him out into the crisp midday autumn air.

He caught up to Reese as he tucked himself into the shadow of a street wagon selling keftedakia and spanakorizo. "No Mr. Finch today?" he murmured, an exact reproduction of the tone Reese customarily used to contact his colleague through comm-pin and earbug.

"He's a little under the weather," Reese muttered back, and then, perhaps recognizing that if Simon didn't already know whether Finch was out sick today he could find out in seconds, or perhaps just because they were mostly honest with each other, he amended this to, "He doesn't like the suicides."

"Ah," said Simon. He didn't ask why, just nodded his head across the street at the row of shops and remarked, "That's what's up, then? Suicide in what sense? Criminally reckless?"

Reese's mouth tightened. "Planning to kill herself. Victim and perpetrator in one."

"Hm. I didn't know you--"

"We usually don't." And, in fact – Simon's chip immediately accessed for him data on dozens of self-murders in Vorbarr Sultana over the last year, and many more attempts – only a scant few had brushed up against Finch and Reese's little initiative in any way. Which wasn't to say they hadn't stopped plenty of people from offing themselves – preventing deaths was, after all, their goal – but if so Simon wasn't aware of any of those cases either. Not that he would be, necessarily. It still irked him, on occasion, that he (and the other decidedly unofficial operatives he and Cordelia had collected in the last half year) had agreed to report to Finch in these matters rather than the other way around, but he understood the need for independence, especially since Finch's official job as an ImpSec analyst put him well under Simon in the chain of command.

Reese, now: Simon had no authority over Reese whatsoever. Reese was a ghost. Only five people knew where he'd appeared from (Finch, Simon, Cordelia, Aral, and, half-accidentally, Sergeant Bothari), and if any of them decided to share the information more widely, Simon was sure that in minutes there'd be nothing left inside that nice suit but ectoplasm. For a phantom, though, Reese was pretty damn solid, both literally – Simon had felt the effect of his fists – and figuratively; once Reese set up a wall it was useless trying to push it down.

This didn't feel quite like a wall, though. "Usually?"

"The Machine isn't likely to give us a potential suicide unless it's... connected." Connected to what? Simon had time to wonder before Reese went on, not taking his eyes off the shops across the way, "Speaking of which, to what do I owe the honor of the Chief of Imperial Security's presence today?"

"It's classified, John. Sorry."

That made Reese look at him. "No apology necessary... Simon. But you're waiting to see what I do next. So, as I said. Connected."

"Perhaps."

"She was one of Serg's victims," Reese said, eyes shifting back to the shops. He didn't say Prince Serg. The chip reported that he'd only used the name once before in Simon's hearing, and hadn't given it the proper honorific then either. At the time, Simon had noted it as a habit common to those formerly loyal to Count Vordarian; Reese had been one of his Armsmen until the day he'd deserted his master with the intent of denouncing him to ImpSec. There was no doubt of Vordarian's treachery, and far too many people had died as a result of his rebellion – nearly all of them more finally than Reese – but the one point in the Count's favor, to Simon's mind, was that he had loved Princess Kareen, in his way, and done his best to protect her against her husband until Serg's fortunate obliteration in the Escobar War. And then he'd used Kareen for all she was worth, and caused her death, and incidentally propelled Simon into his current job, for whatever that was worth.

Vordarian's name was now a hissing and an abomination, while to most Barrayarans Serg's was still that of a hero. But clearly not to the man next to him. "She was brought in for questioning on a trumped-up charge," Reese went on, "and raped, repeatedly, until she showed clear signs of pregnancy. And then he set her up in a little cell at the Ministry and--" Reese broke off, swallowing hard. "She miscarried in the fifth month, and then she was beaten and put out on the street. Her parents were fed false information, and disowned her. Her brother stood by her, helped her put her life back together. She works with him. It was enough, for a while. But you get so lonely, so... haunted."

For a moment, he was silent, and Simon wondered yet again about the carefully-guarded black hole in Reese's existence, the year between his betrayal of Vordarian and the day Finch found him in a Vorbarr Sultana slum. It had been one of his bargains with Finch, that he would not investigate what Reese had done in that year. He'd made no similar promise about Finch himself, nor had he been asked to.

"So," Reese said finally, "it seems she's reached her limit now. At the edge and ready to push herself over. And it's my job to stop her." He straightened his shoulders, ran a hand across his dark hair, checked the evenness of his cuffs: a soldier readying his weapons before the battle. "Wish me luck, Captain Illyan," he said. "I'm going shopping."

Simon watched him cross the street, looking like a town clown with no concerns in life but adding to the trappings of an already rich existence. For a second, he held his breath: the haberdashery? The chocolate shop? But no, it was the store selling luxury electronic goods: fancy comconsole housings, decorative handheld devices, commlink pins with diamonds in them. The target of Simon's surveillance: and thanks to Reese's interference, they'd likely now need to move up the raid and the arrest of the owner.

There were times Simon really hated his job.

*

Finch had been expecting the summons; he should have expected the trap within it, as well. As soon as Margarita's number had dropped into his waiting hand, he'd sensed the sudden alignment of gears deep inside the grand, floundering construct, the long-planned, madly-improvised brainchild that was Imperial Security. Simon Illyan's duty, the vainglorious compassion of the Machine, and his own fractured selfhood: they'd been bound to collide soon enough. And he was afraid he knew which of the three fragile structures was the strongest.

He'd been invited to Illyan's office before; there was nothing unusual in that. The Imperial Service, nestling as it did at the now somewhat thrombotic heart of Barrayar's feudal system, ran largely on a combination of merit promotion and favoritism, and Finch, though still merely a lieutenant, was known to be a favorite of Illyan's, even if few people had any idea why.

Illyan's secretary welcomed him, eased him into the inner sanctum, provided him with a glass of the excellent whisky that his supposed upbringing in Vorsmythe's District had allegedly given him a taste for, and retreated. Illyan waved him into a comfortable chair on the opposite side of his desk.

So, Harold, the conversation usually began at this point; they were, in some sense, on a first-name basis, although Finch rationed his Simons carefully. So, Harold, there may be a little problem with your latest venture, Finch anticipated, raising the glass to his lips for a fortifying sip.

"So, Mr. Wren," Illyan said.

The glass lowered abruptly, without conscious motion. It was, in fact, as if Harold's brainstem had been severed from the rest of his damaged body; for a moment he literally couldn't feel himself, didn't know whether he was still in the chair or out the door and running. Well, limping. And it was Finch who limped, not Wren. He was still in the present moment; still seated; still showing nothing on his face, though that in itself no doubt revealed a lot to Illyan. He lifted the glass again and drank.

"You appear, sir," he said, "to have confused me with someone who no longer exists."

Two beats of silence, and then, very quietly, Illyan said, "Do you really believe, you of all people, that the dead cease to exist? Even those who are... more thoroughly dead than Harold Wren?"

A gut-punch. Not as low a blow as Illyan might have dealt, but hard enough to inform Finch how serious this was. Illyan knew, because Finch had told him, about the list of names and vital statistics still tucked away in a triple-locked off-network file: the list of people Finch had failed to save, despite knowing of the threats against them, because he hadn't yet had access to John Reese's fists and ingenuity, or Simon Illyan's vast resources, or Cordelia Vorkosigan's pragmatic charity. He hadn't thought Illyan knew how long the list was, or how much it haunted him. Now he wasn't so sure.

"The dead," he corrected, "do not cease to cast a shadow on the living. They do lack... autonomy."

"So Harold Wren no longer governs himself. Does he govern you?"

Finch sighed. "How much do you know?"

It wasn't that he expected the tactic to work; Illyan was far too clever to give up an advantage that easily. But the questioning had to start somewhere, and the pause while Illyan decided where allowed him a moment to breathe. Unless a hypospray of fast-penta was hidden in Illyan's desk, it wasn't going to be a drug-enhanced interrogation, not yet. This was preliminary conversation only.

Illyan picked up a flimsy and read from it: mere theatre, since every detail he needed was already on his memory chip. "Harold Peter Wren, eldest child of the late Andreas Wren, founder of Wren Industries, and his wife, Sylvia Vorkalloner Wren..." Details of Harold's birth and upbringing followed: early schooling turning to private tutoring as the boy's precocious talents were recognized; the wealth that allowed for the nurturing of talent into genius; the use of these skills in support of Wren Industries' development of weapons systems.

"Whereupon," Illyan went on, "I believe you came to the attention of my predecessor. Much earlier than formally acknowledged in Harold Finch's record."

Finch – Wren – Harold blinked. "Ah," he said. "Not that I should be surprised, but I hadn't expected you to uncover Captain Negri's interest in me at that stage of my career. After all, it made no apparent difference to what I was doing, day to day, for quite some time."

"Actually, I think you're wrong. I think you did expect me to find it."

"How so?"

Illyan waved another flimsy. "You gave Harold Finch a job at Wren Industries. At the same time that Harold Wren was working there. Finch wasn't so precocious, of course, or so well-connected. He had to graduate from technical college first, and he was set to work learning computer specs for refrigeration systems, a specialty he later pursued at various mundane firms that, alas, only existed in someone's fantasies, although the employment record is superficially persuasive." He set the flimsy down and pointed at it. "They're all named after birds, the companies Finch worked for. It was the sort of whimsical detail Negri found amusing, but far too obvious to have been more than a temporary expedient; you're the one who left it in your records. Which means you were nudging me toward Wren Industries, and once I was there, I was hardly going to miss your real identity. There aren't enough layers for even minimal obfuscation."

He sounded disappointed: the professor chastising the star pupil's failure to please. "And how can you be sure Captain Negri figures in the deception," Harold said, "aside from it being whimsical?" Which was not a word Harold had ever associated with Negri.

"Well, for one thing, your father had money and influence, and you have a devious way with data, but neither of you had any reason to create an entire false resumé for an entirely false person, at least not at that point in your life. Negri did that kind of thing reflexively, if he thought it might possibly be useful later on. I've got several well-substantiated identities still kicking around myself, should I ever require them."

"How interesting," Harold said, and then, the needed breath having been respired, "You will of course recall that my official recruitment by ImpSec occurred during Negri's time as Chief. Don't you think he might have left the trail of... bird-crumbs in place for his continued amusement, and then been caught short, so to speak, before he could replace it with something more plausible?" Caught short was ImpSec for shot by Vordarian's guards while escaping with young Emperor Gregor, dying soon afterwards in great pain and uncertain triumph.

"You'd have replaced it yourself, if you didn't want me to find out. And Negri had a pretty good inkling, at the time he put you in that cubicle downstairs, that he might not be long for this world. In fact, I should guess that's why he made your job official. He also knew that" – Illyan patted himself on the head – "Aral Vorkosigan's loyal dog was his most likely successor. Assuming we stopped Vordarian, that is. And he knew what sort of dog I am."

Nose like a bloodhound, grip like a pit bull, and as tenacious as a terrier after a rat. Harold knew that he'd already been grabbed by the scruff of the neck and shaken; maybe his spine had already snapped and he hadn't noticed. No sense being stubborn.

"Well, we all have our guilt complexes," he said. "Perhaps I did want you to find out about the attention Captain Negri paid me as a very young man. Perhaps I was proud of it."

Illyan's mouth quirked; he'd been singled out by Negri too, though for rather different qualities. He was still young – a decade or so junior to Harold – and, consciously or not, prone to pointing out the incongruity between his level of experience and his position. "So you've had your twenty years with ImpSec already, more or less." he said. "Rather than the two you pretend to. What were you doing all that time? And don't say working on weapons systems; that wasn't Negri's job, and you already had a high level of clearance for civilian contract work and didn't need a higher one. ImpSec, of course, does not use civilian contractors. Or at least we don't call them that."

"I was not an informant."

"No?" Illyan's voice grew softer, always a dangerous sign. "Were you a spy?"

"Do I look like one?" Harold said. Calling attention to his damaged body was a last-ditch and of course futile move, but he somehow couldn't help himself.

"Not all spies look like John Reese. You know that, Harold. They don't even all look like me. I cultivate harmlessness; you could reap its benefits in sheaves. But of course, at the time we're speaking of, you did look more like me; never exactly Adonis and certainly not Hercules, but a man who could run and jump and perhaps fight if things got out of hand, and maybe there'd been a woman or two who--"

"Stop." That was a low blow, though possibly one dealt at random, or out of Illyan's own repressed anxieties. "Just... please don't."

"Mm?" Eyes like lasers caressed Harold for a moment, and then Illyan went on, "Well, things have changed for you, at any rate."

"Clearly."

"Though I believe the change began a good deal earlier than" – Illyan tapped another flimsy – "shrapnel destructive to the left hip, burns over sixty percent of the torso, damage to the cervical spine."

Finch hadn't been able to avoid undergoing a medical examination at the time of his installation in the bowels of ImpSec. "I believe I had a hangnail that day, too. And a dry cough."

"And a guilt complex?" Harold gestured a respectfully sardonic touché across the desk; his psych profile had been perfect, but then the psychologist had been no Simon Illyan. "What have you got to feel guilty about, Harold? If you're denying being a spy."

Harold shrugged; it made his stiff neck ache. He hadn't denied it, but of course Illyan knew that. "And if you had been Negri's spy," Illyan went on, "it would have been to the greater glory of Barrayar, no doubt." That was sarcasm, roiling under a clamped-down lid. "But you weren't. Ever. Negri's spy. Mm?"

Harold just looked back at him, waiting, breathing. Not that he'd been present at, let alone the subject of, very many interrogations, but he'd witnessed as many as he could stomach nonetheless, and most had a certain rhythm to them, to which a good interrogator could dance. Simon was dancing now, leading Harold across the floor. And... he hadn't been danced with in many years. It was a seduction he had little power to resist.

"Perhaps, then," the relentless voice went on, "you'd care to explain your employment by the Ministry of Political Education."

So he'd found Burdick as well. Of course he had. Alas, poor Burdick: incinerated at his comconsole, dying on the job like the dutiful stooge he was, his corpse discovered in the wreckage. Simon's own personally-arranged wreckage, in fact; destroying the Ministry had been his first major command, and he'd done his job thoroughly, down to the ground and under it, the tenacious terrier shaking the life out of an entire lair of rats and weasels. And a lot of innocent mice and snails and earthworms who'd been in the way.

Suddenly Harold was furious. "What do you think, Simon?" he snapped. "If you think I was working for Grishnov against Negri, against Emperor Ezar even, then arrest me now. You can work out the charges later. And if you think that after all the time he held me under his thumb Negri didn't know I was working for his dearest most hated rival, then you can take that vidcube of him you have in your desk drawer, that ikon or whatever it is to you, and toss it in the river, because he's not the saint or model of perfection you clearly consider him to have been. So make up your mind and do something about it."

What Simon did, after a few seconds of frozen, perfect stillness, was laugh, although the laughter didn't reach his eyes. "That's better," he said, and then he opened the desk drawer and tossed Harold the vidcube, "but your surveillance is somewhat out of date."

Harold made an awkward grab at the device, his muscles stiff with tension, and activated it. Young Emperor Gregor looked up at him, in casual play clothes rather than the uniform he wore to official functions, still preternaturally serious, but trusting of whomever held the recorder. Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan, equally informal, clinking glasses with each other, looking like they'd already had a few drinks. Little crippled Miles Vorkosigan, with a manic grin on his face. Lady Alys Vorpatril, holding her son: this one a formal portrait, though it was doubtful she ever let her hair down anywhere it might be recorded. And...

Harold Finch and John Reese. John leaning in toward Harold, murmuring something that was making Harold almost smile. Green in the background: an outdoor scene, summer. He could feel the warm breeze in his hair. They'd just finished a case, prevented a murder in the interval of a play. Julius Caesar, it had been: a drama made for Barrayar.

He glanced up at Simon, wondering what was showing on his face: astonishment, satisfaction, alarm. The last, apparently: Simon's first words were, "Don't worry. Fingerprint access only. Mine and yours."

Harold let out the breath he was holding. "All right, then; so I am a spy."

"Well, you're a snoop, at least." There was no accusation in Simon's voice, but no warmth either. "Not sure how you got a camera in here. It's swept daily."

Harold gestured toward Simon's comconsole. "Your file security is intact. But as for visuals... it's just another viewpoint, really."

"Ah," said Simon, with an admirable lack of panic. "More watching of watchers. I sympathize with the impulse. And yes, I did have Negri in my drawer, until recently. To remind me of... who I wasn't, for the most part. Who I shouldn't be. I thought, in the end, that I'd rather look at..." He paused, and then went on, "The reasons I'm here, doing this job. There's a sixth side, by the way."

Harold glanced down. The sixth side showed a static image: Princess Kareen, lovely and fragile and blank-faced, with no hint of the iron will she must have possessed to survive as long as she had. He looked up at Simon again, questioning.

"That's an ikon, if you will," Simon said. "Not because she was a saint but because she... makes intercession, perhaps. Or provides representation. I don't want to think about how long my list is, even if I'm not allowed to forget. It took courage to enumerate yours; and yours are only those you failed to save. I have a great deal more on my conscience than that."

"You can't possibly blame yourself for--"

"What I choose to take the blame for is my business. We're here to talk about yours. The Ministry? Or no. Let's talk about the Machine, Harold."

He allowed the name a little twisted smile, as always, and for the first time Harold realized why. It wasn't that he thought Harold's vocal capitalization presumptuous or arrogant; it was that Simon had his own Machine, the one that sat in his head and took in data, the one that wouldn't let him forget anything, ever. Harold could, possibly, with a supreme act of will, walk away from his Machine and never use it again; Simon didn't have that option.

A fascinating insight but a distraction; he took a sip of whisky, grimaced at the taste, put the vidcube on the desk, and chose words to speak. "Captain Negri hired me to build a computer system to monitor and collate the surveillance data coming in from sources all over Barrayar, in order to predict acts of treason and terror. I've continued that work under your leadership. And my own work, as well." The system predicted other crimes, of less interest to ImpSec, but of considerable personal impact to the victims, and Finch had secretly recruited John Reese to assist in preventing some of the resulting death, injury and mayhem. When Simon found out, he'd nearly put a stop to the enterprise, but Lady Vorkosigan had stepped in before that could happen, and now they worked in concert, more or less.

Simon made an impatient gesture. "Yes, yes. This much I know, Harold. What haven't you told me?" Something sparked behind the intent gaze, and he answered his own question. "Negri hired you twenty years ago, not two. How long have you been building this thing?"

Harold allowed himself a touch of irony in the response, the vocal equivalent of the vague hand-toward-forehead analyst's salute he'd perfected in his first week on the premises. "It's a highly complex system, Simon. I am a genius, but pulling something like that together in under two years is beyond me. You never seemed very curious as to the details, however."

"I cared that it worked. Computer systems are not my area of expertise."

"I had to teach the Machine how to... understand the world, really; how to turn all that data into a semblance of sense. Like" – a child? No; neither of them knew what it was like to introduce a child to the world, no matter how closely Harold had wished his Machine to resemble a human brain. He remembered Simon patting himself on the head, and went on – "like teaching tricks to a dog, sit, stay, heel, so that someday it will instinctively herd sheep, barely requiring your command." There'd been sheep pasturing in the hills not far from Simon's home town. The dogs Harold had grown up with had been pampered beasts or snarling guards. "It took a year just to get it to the point of identifying individuals, and then I had to nudge it along gradually into recognizing what their actions meant. I started on a very small scale, and built up from there."

"Wren Industries? The factory?"

"Yes. And then broadening to Petersburg as a whole. And then Negri began to send me data from Vorbarr Sultana. I'd been on visits to the capital as a child, sightseeing, but... that was my first view of the city as a city, through the Machine's eyes. Because by then that's what Negri's surveillance cameras were."

Simon blinked a few times; Harold could almost see the wheels whirring in his head. "You were what age at this time?"

"Twenty-nine, I believe."

"By that year ImpSec had installed one hundred and thirty-six cameras in Vorbarr Sultana. Covering approximately five percent of the city, concentrating on the Residence and other Imperial zones. Not an achievement to be lightly dismissed, and we've more than tripled that since, but even now most of our eyes reside in human heads."

Simon knew how he'd made up the difference; he was going to make Harold specify. "Therefore, I ventured out into private security cameras installed by property owners, the traffic regulation system managed by the municipal guard, interior surveillance used by the different Ministries--"

"Without their permission, I assume." Harold merely bowed. "But Negri knew of your various... invasions?"

"What he asked for, I gave him."

Simon made a face; it was the sort of purposefully vague answer he was expert at himself and hated getting from others. "So by the time I began gently requesting access to this information as part of the New and More Openly Oppressive ImpSec policy, we actually... already had it?"

"For the most part, yes. There were a few useful databases I hadn't bothered with as yet. And it was sometimes tricky to explain how the Machine had acquired certain bits of intelligence. Especially from secured comconsoles."

"Well," said Simon, sighing, "it's not as if privacy violations are something I can afford to worry about. Though let's avoid getting Lady Vorkosigan started on the subject again, if you would. So, there was a point when Negri said something like, 'Harold, old chap, how about breaking into the Ministry of Political Education's secure data centers?' and you said...?"

"I can only do it from the inside."

It had been a day in the deep of winter, in retrospect an appropriate season, though at the time Harold had been warmed by the desire to wrap his fingers around a new set of secrets and offer them, open-palmed, for the Machine to gulp down. The Machine, not Negri: he'd already known where his loyalties lay, despite Negri's sure and iron grip on him.

"And so you invented Burdick?" Simon prompted.

"Yes. He was a good man, Harry Burdick. A hard worker, a... a pure soul. A great flood of horrible information passed through his hands; I felt he shouldn't be defiled by it."

Simon was giving him a curious, assessing look. "That's... an interesting instinct. You made an excellent undercover agent, I expect."

"Well," said Harold, "a decent snoop, anyway. If 'decent' is the right word. The Ministry's surveillance, including its internal monitoring, was soon open to the Machine, though at this point its programming had not been developed sufficiently for unassisted identification of threats against the Emperor or his officials and partisans. So Negri set a few trusted subordinates to sifting through it."

"Including you?"

"Including... what was left of Harold Wren, yes. In the spare hours when I wasn't Burdick at his Ministry desk, or the Machine's patient tutor."

"Sleep never was one of Negri's priorities," Simon said with a sympathetic smile. "So you were Burdick for how long?"

"Something over four years."

"That's a lot of surveillance data. Including, I assume, the interrogation of Margarita Blazek."

Harold went cold. Though of course he'd known from the beginning they'd end up here: it shouldn't have been a shock. Cold with fury, perhaps. Still; after all this time. "She wasn't interrogated. She was assaulted. It would have been no less brutal had there been a reason for her imprisonment, but the meaninglessness made it... nearly unbearable to watch."

"But you did. And you didn't do anything to stop it."

He'd nearly forgotten the drink in his hand; he gulped the rest of it, and set the glass down hard on Simon's desk before looking him in the face again. Simon's expression was no longer sympathetic, but... pain, guilt, yes; that was all there. At least his torturer was equally tortured, he thought, and then felt ashamed to use the word, with Margarita still writhing and screaming in his head.

"What could I have done?" Harold said.

"Perhaps nothing." Simon shrugged. "There was an official rationale for her arrest; she'd attended meetings of a radical branch of the People's Defense League, though mostly as the companion of another young woman with more decided political leanings. Sofia Wren. Any relation?"

"My sister," Harold bit off. And this, too: you spare me nothing. He couldn't really hate Simon for being good at ferreting out information; for a few seconds, he indulged the feeling nonetheless. "I thought I'd destroyed that file," he added.

"Nothing's ever really gone, Harold. You should know that. Your sister," Simon went on, "as soon as she heard of the threat to her liberty, called on the protection of your father, his clients at the Ministry of War, even the Vorkalloner side of your family, pretty much anyone who might help, whether their politics opposed hers or not. Leaving Margarita to the wolves." He paused. "I've met your sister. In fact, she may have saved my life, hiding me from Vordarian's forces during the Pretendership. She's a formidable woman in her way; it wasn't easy, taking over Wren Industries when your father died. And you, of course. Or does she know you're alive?"

"No." He swallowed. "And you're right, she saved herself at Margarita's expense. I can't excuse it, though I can try to understand it. We're... very alike. Not brave, just intellectually nimble. Clever, good at seeing patterns and taking advantage of errors. And neither of us is what you'd call physically prepossessing."

"No," agreed Simon. "Not a pretty girl; not the sort to attract Serg Vorbarra's notice. She would have been raped in custody, I imagine; it was the Ministry's standard technique. But she'd likely have avoided the sequel. Well, I can see why you tried to wipe that particular file, and you did a good job; I just managed to piece together the remains today. I thought I'd find something rather different, in fact. Reese said you didn't like the suicides."

It took Harold a moment to struggle out of the past and try to make sense of this comment. "Reese said? When?"

"Earlier today. As a reason you weren't..." Simon touched his ear. "Guiding his footsteps as he approached Margarita."

As he approached... John, you fool. "I thought," Harold said carefully, "that we'd agreed we had to leave this one to you. Because of Tomas. Her brother. He's--"

"I know what he's doing. And I really can't have you interfering in ImpSec operations."

"If that's what this is about, you've taken a needlessly roundabout route to saying so," Harold snapped out, losing patience. "I've told you. I never get in the way of your investigations. Especially regarding what could be a charge of treason. Or whatever crime an ineffectual attempt to murder ImpSec officers works out as. And if you think holding back was easy, Simon--"

"No," he said. "I'm sure it wasn't." He paused. "Margarita knows what her brother's up to, and may well be involved in the conspiracy. However, if the Machine gave you her number, she's either in danger – and it might be suicide or it might not – or she's planning to hurt someone else, um, non-politically. But ImpSec's needs have priority here. I do appreciate your circumspection. I only wish Mr. Reese shared it." He gave Harold a quizzical stare. "What did you think this was about, if you didn't know he was following up your lead?"

"That you thought I was ignorant of the connection between Margarita and the illicit activities of her brother."

"Ah. And perhaps you also thought, when we'd cleared that up, that I'd congratulate you on your restraint, and tell you to go ahead and extricate Margarita from her predicament?" Simon added, very dryly, "How could I know what data the Machine was handing out? I don't spy on you, Finch."

The twitch of Harold's fist surprised him; the part of him that mattered was suppressing the desire to punch Simon in the face, but his ineffectual body hadn't quite got the message. It made him want to laugh, and thus to think more rationally. Unfortunately, rationality included reason to worry. "How kind of you. So. What's our mutual friend doing, then?"

"Last I saw, he was about to make contact with her at the shop. That was hours ago, of course. By now he could have... married her and run off to the South Continent."

It was a deliberately benign suggestion. Simon knew, nearly as well as Harold, what John was capable of. His blend of deeply compassionate instinct and ingrained violent fury, both masked by calculating reserve, readily boxed him into corners. Which he could usually fight his way out of, but not always.

Harold glanced toward the vidcube, still glowing on Simon's desk; he'd placed it, consciously or not, with the picture of himself and John visible. A stranger, looking at the image, might have read John's whispering in Harold's ear as the casual banter of friendship, as seduction, as conspiracy, as threat: certainly could not have told which from their faces. That outside viewer would consider John the dominant partner in their relationship, not as dependent on Harold as Harold was on him. And would be entirely wrong.

"May I use your comconsole?" Harold asked. Simon made a silent gesture of assent and rose from his chair.

Harold limped around the desk – he hadn't realized quite how creaky the tension had made him – and settled down onto the leather, warm from Simon's body. For a moment, he clutched the chair arms, letting himself absorb the residue of power, until Simon cleared his throat, a sardonic and wordless it's not all it's cracked up to be, and Harold leaned forward, stiff-shouldered, to his work.

Locate asset John Reese, he requested, and the Machine complied.

Behind him, Simon hissed out, "Shit!" It was the first time in the interview that his iron control had cracked; in Harold's experience, the fissures once opened were not quickly repaired. That would come with age and conditioning; though admittedly Harold might have let go with a curse himself if he hadn't bitten his lip closed when the live vid appeared. There was John, echoing the image on Simon's desk as though linked to it psychically, murmuring to Tomas Blazek with that same intimacy, provoking that same little almost-smile. It would have made Harold jealous if he'd still been capable of such an emotion. Anger and fear, he could feel, witnessing this sudden comradeship. If it was sudden; they looked like they'd been friends for years. Spread out on the table before them were printouts of building plans, the image too poor to tell of which building. Tomas reached across to point at something; John shook his head, indicated another location on the drawing, and... hm. Made a small but uncharacteristically demonstrative "boom" gesture with his hands. To Harold, it read as a call for help.

There was no location tag on the image, and it was dark, but after a moment he recognized the setting from the shape of the lamps and a print on the wall: a little Greek cafe not too far from Tomas's shop, where he and Reese had eaten breakfast on numerous occasions (they did a lovely strapatsada), though sitting at a different table not in full view of the very subtle security camera. Thank you, Mr. Reese, Harold murmured to himself. You know the Machine is watching. You know I'm watching. Even if you're in over your head.

"Your friend's gone a little off-script," Simon said, echoing Harold's thought. "Assuming there was a script." He lifted an eyebrow as Harold turned to him. Which John Reese is playing a part?

"I know what this looks like--" Harold began.

"It looks very much as if Reese has thrown his lot in with Blazek's gang. Why might he do that, Harold? A sudden sympathy for their cause? Reasons of his own to dislike ImpSec? And where's Margarita? I thought she was the one he wasn't supposed to let out of his sight. The one who needed him. He was nearly choked up, earlier, describing her sufferings. While telling me you didn't like the suicides."

He paused, waiting for comment. "All the women I've loved," Harold said carefully, "are still alive. Let's hope that Margarita remains among the living as well."

"You may sit here and hope if that's your preference," Simon said. "I need to be about my duty." Whatever it is, in this circumstance, he didn't add. But he was clearly undecided.

Harold tried not to sound pleading. "Moving in now will do you no good. Tomas may think he's the brains behind this undertaking; you know he's not, and you know he can't give you the names of the people you really want. Neither can Reese. And neither can I," he added before Simon did more than open his mouth. "I only know what you know. Which in itself gives you cause to arrest me, if you so choose." He stood, offering his hands, his eyes, his veins, whatever Simon chose to take of him. Offering himself. And rediscovering, with the gesture, that whatever his physical, painful self was worth, he'd already given its loyalty elsewhere; that he needed to do more than watch as John either destroyed or saved the world they'd built together.

This time he let the plea leak into his voice. "Or you can let me try to find Mr. Reese. I think he might need a friendly face or two about him just now."

Simon held still for a long moment, and then nodded abruptly. "But if he's actually involved..."

"If he's actually planning to blow people up, you can... try to catch him. My word on it, Simon."

That provoked a little humorless smile. Harold had almost stopped thinking of the Vorkalloners as kin, but he still knew how to swear by his name without saying so, and Simon's ears were oath-tuned. "A friendly face or two?" was all he said, though.

"You can't go with me. You know that."

"So you're going in alone?"

"I didn't say that." Finch was already limping out the door when he turned back and added, gesturing at the comconsole, "If you'd like to watch, you may."

*

Aral Vorkosigan took a sip of sweet tea, listened to the footsteps pacing in the hall, and glanced over at Alys Vorpatril, sitting stiff-backed in her gray silk widow's weeds, reluctantly sharing his amusement at the incipient invasion of her office. The steps hesitated at the door, sidled away once more, and then reapproached with brisk decision. With perfect timing, she called out, "Come in, Captain Illyan," half a second before the knock.

Simon entered, looking determined. "Lady Alys," he began, "I must protest your reckless... oh. My lord Regent. Pardon the intrusion. I'll return--"

Aral cleared his throat. "Good evening, Captain. I think you'd better say what's on your mind."

In other words, don't funk this and run away. They were "Simon" and "Aral" under all but formal circumstances or when making their liege relationship clear to each other. Simon, having asked to be given an order, could hardly refuse to follow it. "Sir," he said, and looked to Alys for permission to sit. She graciously indicated a chair.

Simon perched on its edge, looking ready to leap up again any moment, and had just opened his mouth to finish his admonition when Alys broke in with, "He's very difficult to say no to, you realize."

"Damn it--" Simon took a breath and started again. "You've said no to all sorts of people in your life, my lady. You could manage to turn down an invitation from Harold Finch for supper at a middle-class Greek restaurant."

"You've forgotten to add 'full of terrorists,'" she noted. "Unless your objection is to the nature of the establishment or to Lieutenant Finch as my escort."

"It's a broad-based objection," Simon snapped. "But yes, I am more concerned for your safety than your social reputation. Since the first is part of my job and the second..." Isn't? Aral prompted silently. "You shouldn't risk yourself like that," Simon went on, floundering a bit, and then rallied to add, "I hope the Regent has told you the same. Since you've evidently already informed him of the bomb plot." Or I would be blowing up now, rather than a few minutes ago. Nice deduction, Captain.

"Oh, he's been quite eloquent on the subject," Alys said, with a sideways glare. "And I have expressed that had there been an apparent threat, which there was not, unless I have misunderstood the disinclination of conspirators to carry explosives into the place where they get their coffee, it would still have been my life to hazard and my choice to make. The coffee was rather good, too. Though the baklava was substandard."

"We can always hope that Simon will need to arrest the pastry chef," Aral said. "Alys did try to find you," he added to Simon, "before coming here to wait for" – the blustering hurricane – "your arrival. She'd just begun to give me a sketch of the evening. Anti-ImpSec conspirators, with Finch and Reese square in the middle despite the hands-off pledge regarding intelligence operations. Doesn't surprise me. Alys did surprise me: not her valor, of course, but her prompt response, since accepting a dinner invitation on a whim doesn't allow for three hours or more of preparation."

"For some occasions," Alys said sweetly, "I can dress in twenty minutes. Or simply go out in my day attire. Lieutenant Finch did emphasize the importance of celerity. And of a relatively unobtrusive appearance."

"You didn't try to go undercover, did you?" Simon said. He didn't finish the thought, but they all knew what he meant: Alys was high Vor to the bone, and it showed in every gesture, every word, in the set of her shoulders and the turn of her head.

"No." She touched her dull-colored bolero: exquisitely expensive, for all Aral knew, but not ostentatious. "What I am was clear enough, and in fact essential to the masquerade, but there was no point in advertising who I am. The Regent's cousin-by-marriage being out of bounds for such... flirtations." Before Simon could speak, she added, "Captain Illyan, I neglected to offer you any tea. It's probably cold and bitter by now, but I can call for a fresh pot. Unless you'd prefer something stronger?"

"No thank you. What masquerade and what flirtation?"

"Well," said Alys, smiling and opening a drawer in the tea table, "it seems that Mr. Reese is attempting to jump class barriers not only by means of personal charm, but by expensive gifts." She produced a small, glittering object and handed it to Aral.

He examined it: a memory stick for computer data, gold-plated, sparkling with blue. "Sapphires?" he said.

"Artificial," Alys reported. "Perfectly formed and just as expensive as the natural stone, but lacking something as a pledge of devotion. Gaudy, too. I'm nevertheless tempted to keep it, but..." She took the bauble back, let it catch the lamplight in a second's azure explosion, and then passed it to Simon.

"My lady, I can't accept--"

"I'm not giving it to you as jewelry, Captain Illyan. Content, not form."

"It has data on it?"

"I should expect so. When or how he managed to access the conspirators' comconsole, I have no idea, but Mr. Reese is clever that way."

Simon nodded, then spoke into his wristcomm. "Illyan here. Please have someone cleared for Operation Goshawk step up to Lady Alys's office." He looked down at the thing in his hand, and then up again at Alys. "So Reese is definitely on our side?"

"He's on his own side, as usual," she said, "but I should say his goals are compatible with yours. I thought you were watching us? Harold implied as much."

"You call him Harold?" Alys's mouth set dangerously, and Simon hurried on, "I saw you enter the cafe and take your seats, and then the camera cut out and I couldn't get it back online. In my own office, by the way, on my own comconsole, in my own damn HQ. Er, pardon the language. And then, by the time I located the place and arrived there, all of you were gone."

"And what exactly would you have done, had we still been there?"

"Watched and protected," Aral interjected. "It's what he does, Alys. And it's painful to him not to be allowed to do so." She acknowledged this with a nod toward Simon, and then Aral went on. "So, Mr. Reese is giving you gifts?"

"The conspirator in question runs a fancy electronic goods shop," Simon said. "I expect the device was purchased there earlier in the day?" He examined it, pointing out the decorative monogrammed "A." "He had it engraved."

"So he had an excuse to go back, I assume," Alys said. "He seemed quite chummy with Tomas Blazek, and--"

"You know his name?"

"Oh, yes. Not that we were introduced. May I continue my story without interruption?"

"Of course not, my lady," Simon said, winning a smile. "But please do continue."

She smoothed her skirts and straightened her spine into an elegant pose that Aral suspected had meant once upon a time to Alys's mother, and grandmother, and all the ancestors telling tales of valiant Vor maidens (or matrons) who'd sacrificed themselves for the good of the Imperium or whichever lord held their ironclad loyalty. He thought it meant something a little different here, and was glad. But she looks so damned young. Well, she is, and so is Simon, for that matter, not that he's ever had a chance to act like it. While I feel like the ancient hills, worn down and full of rocks and crevices.

And sounding suspiciously like the Count my father. Shut up and listen.

"Harold chose a table where Mr. Reese could see us," Alys reported, "and where he would have an excuse to pass us if... well, when answering a call of nature. He took the opportunity while we were enjoying the aforementioned coffee. I had been uncertain till this point as to Harold's role in the drama we were staging--"

"What was he wearing?" Simon interrupted. "Harold, I mean. He was in uniform last I saw him."

"Civilian suit, not bespoke. Of the sort that screams off-duty ImpSec officer." She didn't add "prole," but Aral could see Simon hearing it anyway. It was the sort of suit Simon wore on the rare occasions when he wasn't in uniform.

Alys continued, "Mr. Reese approached us, bowed, and asked Harold to vacate the table. Harold responded as should the inadvertent protector of... oh, perhaps a work associate, certainly not a paramour. He refused to leave, but made no challenge."

"Good," Aral put in. "All we needed to cap this was another outbreak of dueling."

It was a tactless joke, and they were all glad of the subsequent knock on the door that brought Simon to his feet. Aral swallowed the last of a cold cup of tea, watching his friend and servant mutter instructions and hand over the memory stick to the lieutenant sent to mine it for data. Operation Goshawk. The names Simon chose were always intriguing. In the library at Vorkosigan House was a volume, antique though a centuries-later reproduction of the original, full of useless and irrelevant information on the habits of gentlemen of medieval Earth, including falconry. No falcons on Barrayar, of course; no Earth birds of any kind but pets and livestock. But the goshawk had been a fierce, forceful bird of prey, designated as the rightful instrument of the yeoman: the king's bodyguard. The Chief of Imperial Security.

Goshawks ate finches for lunch, pretty much. Aral wasn't sure if Simon had thought of that. But he probably had.

"So," he said to Alys as Simon slid back into his seat with a murmured excuse, "Mr. Reese presented you with his gift. Why, though?" he went on, the thought suggested by the lieutenant's interruption. "He might have just sent it to you via messenger. He might have sent it to Simon, for that matter. Why give it to you in person? Unless it reinforced some tale he'd told Blazek."

"But how did Harold know that?" Simon said. "Well, guessing what Harold knows is a fool's game. Reese must have had a story, though... hm. He goes into the shop... flirts with Margarita a little, but not too much, because she's leery of... well, everything. He told me she was getting ready to kill herself. Demons. Of the Political Education sort." Aral sat up straighter: a whole new dimension to the tale, now, and one he'd have to quiz Simon on later. "Even if he was lying to me, her imprisonment and torture are facts. So he'd be cautious. He'd want to look as harmless as possible. Sympathetic. And not... he was playing a man with his pockets stuffed full of marks, but if he's got a Vor alias I'm unaware of it. Not that they'd ever let me know, since I'd have to arrest him. But likely a wealthy prole."

"With a grudge against ImpSec," Aral put in. "And a passion for a lady of the Vor. Hopeless if" – he nodded to Alys – "somewhat requited. You did accept the gift."

"But damn it," Simon said, "he was supposed to be keeping his eye on Margarita. Where's she in all this?"

"If the two of you would perhaps let the eyewitness get a word in edgewise..." Alys said. Simon gestured an apology, and she went on. "I suspected that Mr. Reese's offering was meant for Captain Illyan, so I had no choice but to take it, though of course under normal circumstances... well, we were all acting, and I made it clear I was both charmed and a bit afraid of him. And then I dismissed him, and... Miss Blazek was there, suddenly, berating me. I hadn't seen her come in. Nor did I know who she was, at that time; Harold explained later. She was furious. I believe she might have struck me, had Mr. Reese not held her back, and then dragged her out the door. Harold and I beat a quick retreat after that; there was really nothing else to do."

"Arrest the lot of them?" Simon muttered.

"Perhaps that's why Harold and I were there, instead of you," Alys snapped. "Because we can restrain the impulse to exacerbate an already embarrassing public scene. Or to get into fistfights."

Simon flushed. "I don't go into situations like that unarmed. Neither, apparently, does Tomas Blazek. I could see that on the vid; he had a nerve disruptor under his coat."

Damn it, Simon; that's not something you drop into conversation... Aral saw Simon noticing the twitch of his fingers, and tried to keep his voice level. "Chivalry dashed once more, alas. Simon, you're not that invisible. Don't you think a man plotting against ImpSec can recognize its chief when he spots him in a restaurant? He'd either have run away in seconds, or shot you dead, and you don't know him well enough to guess which. And as for you," he went on, turning to Alys. "It's one thing to make a few innocent inquiries among your acquaintance and then to pass the information to Lieutenant Finch, but you are the Emperor's social secretary, not an anonymous face in a crowd, and to be venturing into--" He stopped himself. "I'm sorry," he said. "I said that before. It is your choice. But think about Ivan, Alys. Think about Gregor. Think what they'd lose."

"I do think about them," Alys shot back: pellets of ice, scoring his skin like fire. "All the time. But should I not do what I can to protect the institutions that serve the Emperor and his subjects, when given the opportunity? Especially when Simon can't take on the job, as his presence would put others in danger."

"Simon has an entire security agency at his disposal," Aral countered. "Hundreds of men to send in his place."

"None of whom, in fact," Simon said, "know what Finch and Reese are up to. Do you have any idea what a hell of a balancing act this has been, slapping the blinders on my own agents each time the every-sparrow-counted gang turns up in the corner of someone's eye? And now they're right in the crosshairs. I knew this would happen, right from the moment that Cordelia--"

He stopped, reddening. Aral sighed. "We can discuss the physics of irresistible forces later, Simon," he said. "I understand that it's been difficult to do your job."

"I don't mind difficult. I don't even mind bloody close to impossible. What I mind is... look, Aral. ImpSec can arrest Tomas Blazek, and fast-penta him only to find he can't lead us to the men we really want, who are Grishnov's former lieutenants. We can infiltrate the conspiracy, though perhaps not with Mr. Reese's inspiring speed and confidence. We can even isolate Margarita, if she's innocent, and try to keep her safe." His voice grew quiet, a knife-strike-in-the-darkness quiet. "What we can't do is care more about her than about the safety of the Imperium. Even Finch can't do that, entirely; he made his oath too. Reese is beholden to nothing but his own conscience. I think we need him. And I..."

"Trust him?" Aral said, and then as Simon opened his mouth again, "To a point, at least."

"It's not my job to trust absolutely, is it? Barring present company. And Lady Vorkosigan."

"If only as far as you could throw her," Aral said, not trying to suppress his smile. "Which isn't easy. I think you do trust Finch and Reese, actually, and from the look on your face it's a rather painful realization."

"Trust and liking are not the same thing. And they both... omit truths, in their interactions with me. But insofar as I can, yes, I trust them." Simon kept his eyes on Aral's for a moment – again, the clash of blades in the night – and then turned to Alys. "My lady. What did Margarita Blazek say to you?"

Alys's chin went up. "Cold bitch," she said – it was like Simon, repeating a tense encounter off his chip, emotion smothered by machine-like precision – "how dare you turn him away when he loves you that much? Everything, we give everything, until we're empty and nothing's left, and all we get is 'This is your final warning; stay away.'"

"But you hadn't said that?"

"Of course not. 'How very generous, Mr. Reese; I'm grateful you thought of me.' It's all in the tone."

"Did she say anything more?"

"As Mr. Reese was pulling her away. 'We can all die and it's the same to you.' Something about her baby brother, I think, but Mr. Reese had muffled her by then. Is Tomas the younger sibling?"

"No, the elder." Simon sighed. "Well, I'm glad the two of you were there to give Reese some moral support, but aside from illustrating that Margarita is indeed fragile and high-strung, we haven't learned much. We're going to have to hope the building plans they were studying were on the data stick." His mouth twisted. "If they're trying for ImpSec HQ, I wish them every success."

"Mm," said Alys. "Architectural critique aside, why ImpSec?"

"Hm?"

"Why is Mr. Blazek's gang fixated on destroying ImpSec? It was the Ministry of Political Education who tortured his sister. Negri and Grishnov were bitter rivals. And you say he's allied with Grishnov's men? It makes no sense. You'd think he'd be trying to kill them."

"I doubt he knows of their former allegiance," Aral told her. He saw Simon making ready to speak, and rode over him; this was not going to fall on Simon's shoulders. "And it's true that ImpSec, and Emperor Ezar for that matter, knew of Ministry torture and did nothing to stop it. Not merely in a broad general sense. There were specific instances in which they were particularly culpable. Do you see what I'm saying, Alys?" She nodded, her face paling. "The resentment – the justified resentment – requires some outlet. For Tomas Blazek it's turned into a murderous rage against anyone wearing silver Horus eyes. And he has friends who believe they can use that rage for their own ends. The question," he added, turning to Simon, "is whether Margarita shares his anger. And also to what degree John Reese is sympathetic to it."

"No," said Simon, voice still quiet and strained. "That's not the question. I can't concern myself with motives; that's Finch's department. The question is, where are they all now and what are they up to? Damn it" – he checked his chrono – "why don't I have new information yet? I need data. I need..."

He activated his wristcomm again. "Get me Lieutenant Finch. Not within the hour, not in five minutes. Now." He cut the comm and added to Aral and Alys, "They won't find him. I looked before I came here. Having restrained myself from picking up a blunt instrument or a horsewhip along the way."

Simon settled into grim silence; it was, in fact, two and a half minutes by Aral's count before he put a hand to his earbud, listened, and hissed out, "Shit. I knew it, but... damn the man!" His eyes shifted to Alys. "Pardon my language, my lady, and" – not giving her time to finish the perfectly understandable hand-wave – "may I use your comconsole?"

"Of course. It's secured."

"Not that that matters," Simon said under his breath, and possessed Alys's chair. A few keystrokes, a few more, a growl and a muttered oath, and then, seemingly addressing the machine itself, he gritted out, "All right, then. I didn't think so. But I can't help, if you don't show me... just a picture. Or a word, or a cryptic jumble of letters. Anything. I don't want him hurt any more than you do. Either of them. Just... give me something."

He waited, apparently got no response, and then, his tone subtly different, went on, "Harold, if you're there... I feel like an idiot looking into a damned mirror, but if you're there, tell me where you are." He paused. "Listen, I'm sorry I said what I did, about you helping Margarita. You couldn't have. And you couldn't have anticipated... you couldn't have stopped her arrest. It wasn't your fault. It was... oh."

Simon's gaze drifted in a way that Aral knew: he was accessing his chip. "Not baby brother," he breathed. "Baby, and brother. Oh, Margarita. Victim and perpetrator both, but not in the way John thought. And he's going to follow you, isn't he? Right to the end." He stabbed at his wristcomm. "Haven't you got anything off that stick yet... ah. Give it to me. Yes," he snapped in response. "Yes. Security up on all of them. But nothing else? Just her, then, not Tomas," he added to himself, and then, "How many men do we have in Petersburg? Never mind why, just tell me... shit. Well, call up the municipal guard, then; and get me a squad and a flyer and we take off in five."

He stood. "The gang has no plan to hit the Residence or HQ, but they had five other targets on the data stick. Petrov will keep you informed, but I don't think anything will happen tonight. Margarita's got something else in mind, though. And I'm going to stop her. Thank you, my lady, my lord Regent..."

"Simon. Wait." He turned at the door, poised for flight, waiting on Aral's word of release. "Where are you... Petersburg? Is that where... what's Margarita doing?"

"Hunting wrens," said Simon, and then he was gone.

After a moment Alys broke the silence. "Wrens?"

It was impossible to tell from her tone whether the association – Petersburg, Wren Industries, weapons-grade material, explosives – had come to her as immediately as it had to Aral. He knew better than to count Alys out of any knowledge loop; on the other hand, he wasn't required to confirm her guesses.

"Simon's following up a lead," he said. "Trying to keep your friends out of trouble."

"Trying to keep Mr. Reese from... whatever he thinks he's doing. Probably getting in over his head while attempting to save someone."

"So you trust him too?"

"I don't think he'd mean for anyone to get hurt. It's not in his nature."

It was very much in Reese's nature and training to hurt people, but... "I see what you mean. We just can't know..." She lifted her chin, a defiant, defensive, familiar response. "Alys," Aral went on carefully, "you and Reese... you aren't actually...?"

"I couldn't, even if I wished to. You know that. And I don't wish to." She paused, then added, "He is very attractive."

Cordelia, saying the same, would have let Betan insinuation color her tone; Alys's flat statement declared that she was aware of Aral's tastes but that they were as irrelevant to the current conversation as her own. "Yes," he agreed, "but there's much more to him than... well, what meets the eye. And some of it is flat-out dangerous."

"You could say that of a lot of people. Captain Illyan, for example."

"Simon, yes, certainly. Harold Finch, too." She raised her brows. "You said it yourself," Aral told her. "He's hard to say no to. It's one of the most dangerous traits someone can possess."

Alys laughed. "So says the man whole armies will lay down their lives for."

"If a majority of the Counts would lay down their votes, I'd be more inclined to accept the compliment. If that's what it is. I've met Finch only once, and I came out of that meeting suspecting that I'd given him license to... run an entirely separate Barrayaran government, for all I know. And that he knew my shoe size and my tastes in literature, and would find a way to use the information to manipulate me. And that I liked him a great deal."

"And you believe you're not the only one who's been similarly affected."

It was like putting on armor, Aral mused, the way Alys veiled herself with dignity; again, he could see that long line of Vor ancestors, her mother's hands drawing back her shoulders and her grandmother's cool breath frosting her voice. Cold bitch was not an entirely inaccurate description. He recognized and cherished Alys's warmth as well, but... it was a cold planet, and temperature regulation a necessary skill. "You'll need to make up your mind," she went on, "whether it's Mr. Reese or Lieutenant Finch who has stolen my heart. Unless you're suggesting an even more unorthodox liaison."

"Don't be a fool, Alys. I didn't mean you," Aral said, and glanced pointedly at the door.

*

The sun of a chill autumn morning angled through the cafe's windows, reflecting off polished glass and metal and yellowing the white table covers; waitresses bustled to and fro, calling out in Greek to the short-order cooks behind the rack of shining copper pots and pans. Simon heard and saw all of it, and none. The chip missed nothing; his conscious mind was occupied in playing a vid on repeat.

He'd seen the images on a comconsole screen first, but now they were burned into memory and he could watch them over and over. Mostly from the perspective of the Wren Industries security camera, though by now the chip had done enough analysis to provide other viewpoints. Not that there was much nuance to the story. Margarita Blazek, slamming John Reese in the head with a metal bar and watching him hit the floor, then tossing the weapon aside and replacing it with a nerve disruptor. The standoff, love against firepower, as Sofia Wren begged (silently, in the vid image) for her life. The sudden rush and leap of Tomas Blazek attempting to disarm his sister; the flash and the convulsive jerk as he took the disruptor's blast in his legs and collapsed. And then Simon's own men crowding the room, taking everyone into custody.

He'd missed seeing it live himself; he'd been just outside, forcing Harold Wren up against a wall, wrists in an unmerciful grip behind his back, and then marching him back to the lightflyer he'd come in and threatening him until he flew away, back to Vorbarr Sultana. Hot air, the threats had been, though they'd done the trick: wind beneath the wings. He could see that vid in his head, too, as many times as he cared to jab at himself by playing it. There'd be more footage of the painful sort soon, as soon as he got to work. But first he was going to have breakfast. They did a lovely strapatsada here.

For form's sake, he glanced at the menu before he ordered, then he looked up at the door, called the waitress back to pour an additional cup of coffee, added one more item to the order, and beckoned Harold Finch over.

"Good morning, Lieutenant," he said as Finch lowered himself onto the seat; he looked stiffer and more sore than usual. "I thought I might see you here. The busboy?"

"He got too good a look at those building plans last night," Finch said. "I suspect he'll need your protection against Blazek's associates. Your protection, not mine. And Blazek himself?"

Simon shook his head. "He survived the journey home. He didn't survive Grishnov's man disguised as a hospital orderly. Just as well," he added, meeting Finch's eyes. "He would have been crippled for life. But poor Margarita's lost a brother now, too." Two body-blows: no reaction on the other side of the table. He'd given Finch plenty of bruises already. "Have some coffee; you look a wreck."

"No, thank you, sir."

"I've served you coffee a dozen times in my office. When I don't serve you whisky. You drink coffee in your cubicle; you drank it here last night. If only I'd known... ah, thank you," he said to the waitress, and passed Finch the cup of hot green tea. "They didn't have sencha in stock here, I'm afraid, but I'll have my secretary order some, in anticipation of your next visit."

Finch stared at the cup. "How did you...?"

"While I had your sister under fast-penta, I thought I'd slip in a few extraneous questions. Don't worry; I was discreet."

"Thank you." He took a cautious sip. "Finch drinks coffee," he said. "Wren prefers tea. I wouldn't want to put your staff to any trouble. Since you've gone to so much already, personally, to keep Finch alive. But this is very pleasant."

"I'll stick to coffee myself. I had no sleep last night, and I'll need my wits about me today. For interrogating John Reese, among other tasks."

"Jean Garenne, I think you mean."

"That is in fact the name on his identity card. I assume it checks out thoroughly."

"I don't believe you'll find any holes in his story." Harold drank some more tea before asking cautiously, "How is he?"

"You tell me."

A dry laugh, then, "No holes. Conscious. Pacing his cell, in fact. He has a hard head. And yes, the Machine does have a view into ImpSec's detention area."

"Plan to watch me questioning him?" Harold shrugged, and Simon went on, "It'll have to be convincing. There'll be witnesses; I can't be alone with him. I won't use fast-penta unless I have to. But I may have to."

"He knows how to hold... certain realities in his head, and bury others. Jean Garenne is solid flesh, bone and gray matter. He possesses memories and goals; he will bleed if you cut him, and perhaps most importantly in this circumstance, he is guilty of something. Industrial espionage," Harold added to Simon's raised eyebrow. "How very surprised he must have been, during his midnight incursion, to have encountered not only Wren Industries' owner but another pair of invaders intent on murder."

"That's not what Margarita's going to tell me. And there will be fast-penta involved in that interrogation."

"Well, you'll think of something." Harold's eyes narrowed and glinted. "You could always have her conveniently silenced."

"It was Grishnov's men who killed Tomas. And I've now lost track of them until they choose to surface again. I think you forget sometimes what my job is. I'd far rather have kept Tomas alive."

They were interrupted by the waitress arriving with a tray. She placed Simon's plate in front of him, gave an identical one to Harold, refilled Simon's coffee, nodded in response to their thanks, and left.

"I didn't mean to order for you," Simon said. "I suppose she thought--"

"No, this is my usual." Harold, apparently less disconcerted by the coincidence than Simon, took a forkful of egg and tomato. "I've had it many, many times; it's always very good," he added after swallowing, and washed the food down with another sip of tea. The cup seemed to mesmerize him as he placed it back on the table. "Not just curiosity," he said after a moment.

"Mm?"

"Questioning my sister about me. Not just for..." Tricks like this, his gesture at the cup meant.

"I like information."

"Of course. But information is layered; there's elaboration, and then there's basic form and shape." Harold smiled suddenly: an echo of the morning's sunshine, an illumination that stripped away pain and years. "You weren't sure of Harold Wren. You thought I might have an underlying layer of identity. I'm quite flattered, Simon. I hope you're certain now?"

"I suppose Sofia, like Mr. Reese, might be trained to resist fast-penta. But it's unlikely, and her memories of you go back to childhood. And she's still sure you're dead."

"Yes. Thank you for that. I shouldn't have chanced her seeing me. The whole journey was a foolish impulse, and I wish I'd kept Tomas out of it. I thought, between us, we might be able to stop Margarita from committing murder."

"And stop your sister from becoming her victim."

"Yes. An interesting way to put it. One starts out thinking that homicide is a one-way process, the active killer and the passive corpse, but it's not always so. The hurt is often mutual; it's just that the unforgivable and final act trumps all the others. Though Sofia kept her hands clean. Kept her hands to herself, in fact."

"I think," Simon said, separating his eggs into evenly measured sections with his fork, "that Margarita may have reached out to your sister, recently, and been rebuffed. Probably because Tomas stirred up her memories with his crusade. Likely she meant to be forgiving."

"And Sofia wouldn't allow it. To be forgiven, you need to be able to forgive. We blame those who weigh on our consciences. How much do you know about wrens?"

Taken aback by the non sequitur, Simon took a few seconds to answer. "The birds, you mean? Not much. They still exist on Earth, I believe."

"Oh, yes. They're survivors, present in many habitats and regions. Small, unobtrusive, persistent. The Eurasian wren is the species of legend, the king of birds who flew higher than any other, by hiding in the eagle's plumage. In certain cultures, the wren became the tiny and relatively helpless manifestation of treachery and other human sins, and was hunted and sacrificed at Winterfair. What?" Harold asked in response to Simon's inadvertent grunt of surprise.

"I said that, last night. That Margarita was hunting wrens."

"Ah, the collective unconscious at work. Your ancestors were in on the kill, no doubt. Or keeping the wren alive, tied to a stick, in exchange for money." Harold made a little bow to Simon. "I hope Sofia and I will continue to be lucrative. Or at least useful."

Or we will sacrifice you. For our sins, I suppose. "You know the one bit of data I failed to track down in all this? Harold Wren's official cause of death."

"Mm. Tied to the stick too long, perhaps? The heart gives out, eventually." He gave Simon a wry little smile, and added, "I suspect my family was told it was classified. They knew I was doing undercover work; they didn't know where or under what name, of course."

"You'd think they'd want a death certificate. To justify handing the factory over to your sister, if nothing else."

"Her sex aside, she was always a better choice for that job. A broader focus. Our father thought so, anyway; he used to say I had my head stuck up a computer. And he would not have accepted a heir so broken and helpless."

You are neither of those things, Harold. At least no more than the rest of us. "I agree it's for the best I didn't let your sister see you. Or Margarita, for that matter…?"

"She wouldn't have remembered me. Our acquaintance was mostly one-sided. But yes" -- he lifted his cup -- "let us hope that my nonexistence may continue to come in handy."

"We live to serve," Simon replied, saluting him back. "I can wish you'd kept Mr. Reese on a shorter leash. That would have been useful to me."

"Well, he's not the one who compares himself to a dog. But I will attempt, in future... if there is to be a future...?"

"I'll be consulting the Regent. But... we seem to agree that you're necessary. A counterbalance, perhaps, if one that sometimes wavers and falls. Chaos against efficiency; warmth against cold."

Harold looked affronted, in fact rather like a bird ruffling its feathers. Of course he thought of himself as the epitome of cool efficiency. "A conscience, then, Harold," Simon added. "How about that? Just don't tell Lady Vorkosigan; I suspect she feels she has a lock on the title." He ate a few forkfuls of egg and then added, "I don't suppose your sister will wish to pursue the spying charge against M. Garenne, considering the circumstances. And I can obscure the lightflyer theft. You'd think a man who could afford a sapphire-crusted data stick would have his own transport."

"He pretended it was his, to Margarita."

"Ah, so you were in contact with him after dinner."

"Not until much later in the evening. His plan was to spend the night in Petersburg and then make an appointment with Sofia the next day, posing as a potential investor, to give Margarita a chance to speak with her. He didn't realize at first that Margarita had hidden explosives and a weapon in her bag, that she had called Sofia posing as an employee and pretending an emergency at the factory, or that she intended to steal away and crash the lightflyer into the factory building. When he did, he finally called me. And then he managed to overpower her, but still agreed to break in and force a meeting."

Did he now. And does he ever lie to you, I wonder? "He never knew Sofia was your sister?"

"I doubt it would have made a difference; he's not in the least sentimental. But no, I don't believe he knows about Harold Wren. He has, of course, made diligent attempts to uncover my history. However" – another little bow – "he's no Simon Illyan."

"Mm." They consumed food in silence for a minute, and then Simon said abruptly, "I have been there. Where you were, knowing that Margarita's torture was continuing and you couldn't stop it. Exactly in that position."

"Except without the involvement of relatives."

"Not my relatives, no."

Harold quirked an eyebrow, took another sip of tea, and said with deliberate casualness, "Aral Vorkosigan and I are third cousins once removed. I suspect we both prefer to ignore the Vorrutyer connection. In fact, I've been happy to ignore the existence of that burdensome little syllable in my family tree. There are plenty of other burdens in life, including the possession of sufficient funds to buy lightflyers and sapphires and" – he gestured at their surroundings – "restaurants. I don't find that having a conscience weighs me down, except when I act in opposition to it. When I do that, it's seldom for political reasons; more likely because I'm too frightened to move." He picked up a piece of toast, and before biting into it added, "Your interrogation of Margarita Blazek will be part of the record of this investigation, unless you choose to suppress it. As the evidence of her previous imprisonment was suppressed and destroyed."

"In other words," Simon said very quietly, "how long do we protect Serg Vorbarra's reputation?" He shook his head. "It's not up to me to decide."

"You have influence. And you have a regard for the truth."

"I like to know the truth. Sharing it is another matter. ImpSec is where sins go to be buried, not to be avenged. I preside over a building full of lies and treacheries hidden in the shadows. Who I am to say that's not for the best? Why shouldn't I prefer darkness to light? You do. Harold Finch, man of shadows. Broken bones, scarred flesh, and a brain that's tied into every security camera on the planet. If I cut you, do you bleed? Does the Machine?"

Harold stared back at him for a moment, and then laughed. "It ought to bleed data. Truth, perhaps. Not the same thing, of course. How about your Machine; does it bleed memory?"

"Like slicing through an artery," Simon gritted out; he hadn't meant to say it aloud, but with the words came the flood, the weight of sight and sound and sensation slamming into him at the whim of the chip and his traitorous brain. The associate emotions were all his own, but until the data went stale he couldn't help feeling them over again. His heart pounding from running; a familiar surge of fear and confidence and the fierce desire to throw himself in front of a threat; the surreal confusion of lines spoken from a stage etching themselves into his mind as inevitable reality. The trees had been clothed in green and the actors in white and red, like a parody of Winterfair in the midst of a glorious never-ending summer. A grand day to hunt wrens: or, in this case, a human being guilty of attempted murder. He closed his eyes, seeing the hunters: Alys, smiling, proud of her work. John, whispering in Harold's ear. Harold, glimmering quietly. They are all fire, and every one doth shine.

"But I am constant as the northern star," Simon murmured, and then at Harold's look of surprise, "At least the inside of my head is one place you can't see into. Yet."

"Give me time, Simon. Another twenty years, maybe. If no one banishes me, or takes down Caesar. Which is unlikely, with you standing in the way. Now," he added, spearing a slice of potato on his plate, "we should finish our breakfast and get back to work. I to prop up Jean Garenne and you to break him down, and Mr. Reese to stand strong and stalwart in the middle. It would be much appreciated if I might have him back by tomorrow. There'll be another number soon; the Machine takes very few days off. And I'll need his help."

Simon felt a brief, unworthy urge to pull rank and order Harold to sit at home for a week with no comconsole access, to bluster and threaten, to claim the right of forcing Reese to drool out every moment of his guilty history in public. And make Negri look like a saint by comparison. He taught me better than that.

"I'll get the job done, Harold," he said. "Just watch me."