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In the image above the vid plate, the sperm writhed in elegant, sinuous curves. Its wriggling grew more energetic as the invisible grip of the medical micro-tractor grasped it and guided it to its target, the pearl-like egg: round, lustrous, rich with promise.
"Once more, dear boy, into the breachfor England, Harry, and Saint George!" Miles murmured encouragingly. "Or at least, for Barrayar, me, and maybe Grandfather Piotr. Ha!" With a last twitch, the sperm vanished within its destined paradise.
"Miles, are you looking at those baby pictures again?" came Ekaterin's voice, amused, as she emerged from their cabin's sybaritic bathroom. She finished winding up her dark hair on the back of her head, secured it, and leaned over his shoulder as he sat in the station chair. "Is that Aral Alexander, or Helen Natalia?"
"Well, Aral Alexander in the making."
"Ah, admiring your sperm again. I see."
"And your excellent egg, my lady." He glanced up at his wife, glorious in a heavy red silk tunic that he'd bought her on Earth, and grinned. The warm clean scent of her skin tickled his nostrils, and he inhaled happily. "Were they not a handsome set of gametes? While they lasted, anyway."
"Yes, and they made beautiful blastocysts. You know, it's a good thing we took this trip. I swear you'd be in there trying to lift the replicator lids to peek, or shaking the poor little things up like Winterfair presents to see how they rattled."
"Well, it's all new to me."
"Your mother told me last Winterfair that as soon as the embryos were safely implanted you'd be acting like you'd invented reproduction. And to think I imagined she was exaggerating!"
He captured her hand and breathed a kiss into its palm. "This, from the lady who sat in the nursery next to the replicator rack all spring to study? Whose assignments all suddenly seemed to take twice as long to complete?"
"Which, of course, had nothing to do with her lord popping in twice an hour to ask how she was going on?" The hand, released, traced his chin in a very flattering fashion. Miles considered proposing that they forgo the rather dull luncheon company in the ship's passenger lounge, order in room service, get undressed again, and go back to bed for the rest of the watch. Ekaterin didn't seem to regard anything about their journey as boring, though.
This galactic honeymoon was belated, but perhaps better so, Miles thought. Their marriage had had an awkward enough commencement; it was as well that their settling-in had included a quiet period of domestic routine. But in retrospect, the first anniversary of that memorable, difficult, mid-winter wedding had seemed to arrive in about fifteen subjective minutes.
They had long agreed they would celebrate the date by starting the children in their uterine replicators. The debate had never been about when, just how many. He still thought his suggestion of doing them all at once had an admirable efficiency. He'd never been serious about twelve; he'd just figured to start with that proposition, and fall back to six. His mother, his aunt, and what seemed every other female of his acquaintance had all mobilized to explain to him that he was insane, but Ekaterin had merely smiled. They'd settled on two, to begin with, Aral Alexander and Helen Natalia. A double portion of wonder, terror, and delight.
At the edge of the vid recording, Baby's First Cell Division was interrupted by a red blinking message light. Miles frowned faintly. They were three jumps out from Solar space, in the deep interstellar on a sub-light-speed run between wormholes expected to take four full days. En route to Tau Ceti, where they would make orbital transfer to a ship bound for Escobar, and there to yet another that would thread the jump route past Sergyar and Komarr to home. He wasn't exactly expecting any vid calls here. "Receive," he intoned.
Aral Alexander in potentia vanished, to be replaced by the head and shoulders of the Tau Cetan passenger liner's captain. Miles and Ekaterin had dined at his table some two or three times on this leg of their tour. The man favored Miles with a tense smile and nod. "Lord Vorkosigan."
"Yes, Captain? What can I do for you?"
"A ship identifying itself as a Barrayaran Imperial courier has hailed us and is requesting permission to match velocities and lock on. Apparently, they have an urgent message for you."
Miles's brows rose, and his stomach sank. This was not, in his experience, the way the Imperium delivered good news. On his shoulder, Ekaterin's hand tightened. "Certainly, Captain. Put them through."
The captain's dark Tau Cetan features vanished, to be replaced after a moment by a man in Barrayaran Imperial undress greens with lieutenant's tabs and Sector IV pins on his collar. Visions surged through Miles's mind of the Emperor assassinated, Vorkosigan House burned to the ground with the replicators inside, or, even more hideously likely, his father suffering a fatal strokehe dreaded the day some stiff-faced messenger would begin by addressing him, Count Vorkosigan, sir?
The lieutenant saluted him. "Lord Auditor Vorkosigan? I'm Lieutenant Smolyani of the courier ship Kestrel. I have a message to hand-deliver to you, recorded under the Emperor's personal seal, after which I am ordered to take you aboard."
"We're not at war, are we? Nobody's died?"
Lieutenant Smolyani ducked his head. "Not so far as I've heard, sir." Miles's heart rate eased; behind him, Ekaterin let out her breath. The lieutenant went on, "But, apparently, a Komarran trade fleet has been impounded at some place called Graf Station, Union of Free Habitats. It's listed as an independent system, out near the edge of Sector V. My clear-code flight orders are to take you there with all safe speed, and to wait on your convenience thereafter." He smiled a bit grimly. "I hope it's not a war, sir, because they only seem to be sending us."
"Impounded? Not quarantined?"
"I gather it's some sort of legal entanglement, sir."
I smell diplomacy. Miles grimaced. "Well, no doubt the sealed message will make it more plain. Bring it to me, and I'll take a look while we get packed up."
"Yes, sir. The Kestrel will be locking on in just a few minutes."
"Very good, Lieutenant." Miles cut the com.
"We?" said Ekaterin in a quiet tone.
Miles hesitated. Not a quarantine, the lieutenant had said. Not, apparently, a shooting war either. Or not yet, anyway. On the other hand, he couldn't imagine Emperor Gregor interrupting his long-delayed honeymoon for something trivial. "I'd better see what Gregor has to say, first."
She dropped a kiss on the top of his head, and said simply, "Right."
Miles raised his personal wrist com to his lips and murmured, "Armsman Roicon duty, to my cabin, now."
The data disk with the Imperial Seal upon it that the lieutenant handed to Miles a short time later was marked Personal, not Secret. Miles sent Roic, his bodyguard-cum-batman, and Smolyani off to sort and stow luggage, but motioned Ekaterin to stay. He slipped the disk into the secured player that the lieutenant had also brought, set it on the cabin's bedside table, and keyed it to life. He sat back on the edge of the bed beside her, conscious of the warmth and solidity of her body. For the sake of her worried eyes, he took her hand in a reassuring grip.
Emperor Gregor Vorbarra's familiar features appeared, lean, dark, reserved. Miles read profound irritation in the subtle tightening of his lips.
"I'm sorry to interrupt your honeymoon, Miles," Gregor began. "But if this has caught up with you, you haven't changed your itinerary. So you're on your way home now in any case."
Not too sorry, then.
"It's my good luck and your bad that you happen to be the man physically closest to this mess. Briefly, one of our Komarr-based trade fleets put in at a deep-space facility out near Sector V, for resupply and cargo transfer. Oneor more, the reports are unclearof the officers from its Barrayaran military escort either deserted, or was kidnapped. Or was murderedthe reports are unclear about that, too. The patrol the fleet commander sent to retrieve him ran into trouble with the locals. ShotsI phrase this advisedlyshots were fired, equipment and structures were damaged, people on both sides were apparently seriously injured. No other deaths reported yet, but that may have changed by the time you get this, God help us.
"The problemor one of them, anywayis that we're getting a significantly different version of the chain of events from the local ImpSec observer on the Graf Station side of the conflict than we're getting from our fleet commander. Yet more Barrayaran personnel are now reported either held hostage, or arrested, depending on which version one is to believe. Charges filed, fines and expenses mounting, and the local response has been to lock down all ships currently in dock until the muddle is resolved to their satisfaction. The Komarran cargomasters are now screaming back to us over the heads of their Barrayaran escort, with yet a third spin on events. For your, ah, delectation, all the original reports we've received so far from all the viewpoints are appended to this message. Enjoy." Gregor grimaced in a way that made Miles twitch.
"Just to add to the delicacy of the problem, the fleet in question is about fifty percent Toscane-owned." Gregor's new wife, Empress Laisa, was a Toscane heiress and a Komarran by birth, a political marriage of enormous importance to the peace of the fragile union of planets that was the Imperium. "The problem of how to satisfy my in-laws while simultaneously presenting the appearance of Imperial evenhandedness to all their Komarran commercial rivalsI leave to your ingenuity." Gregor's thin smile said it all.
"You know the drill. I request and require you, as my Voice, to get yourself to Graf Station with all safe speed and sort out the situation before it deteriorates further. Pry all my subjects out of the hands of the locals, and get the fleet back on its way. Without starting a war, if you please, or breaking my Imperial budget.
"And, critically, find out who's lying. If it's the ImpSec observer, that's a problem to bounce to their chain of command. If it's the fleet commanderwho is Admiral Eugin Vorpatril, by the wayit becomes . . . very much my problem."
Or rather, very much the problem of Gregor's proxy, his Emperor's Voice, his Imperial Auditor. Namely Miles. Miles considered the interesting pitfalls inherent in attempting, without backup, far from home, to arrest the ranking military officer out of the middle of his long-standing and possibly personally loyal command. A Vorpatril, too, scion of a Barrayaran aristocratic clan of far-flung and important political connections within the Council of Counts. Miles's own aunt and cousin were Vorpatrils. Oh, thank you, Gregor.
The Emperor continued, "In matters rather closer to Barrayar, something has stirred up the Cetagandans around Rho Ceta. No need to go into the peculiar details here, but I would appreciate it if you would settle this impoundment crisis as swiftly and efficiently as you can. If the Rho Cetan business becomes any more peculiar, I'll want you safely home. The communications lag between Barrayar and Sector V is going to be too long to for me to breathe over your shoulder, but some occasional status or progress reports from you would be a nice touch, if you don't mind." Gregor's voice did not change to convey irony. It didn't need to. Miles snorted. "Good luck," Gregor concluded. The image on the viewer returned to a mute display of the Imperial Seal. Miles reached forward and keyed it off. The detailed reports, he could study once he was en route.
He? Or we?
He glanced up at Ekaterin's pale profile; she turned her serious blue eyes toward him. He asked, "Do you want to go with me, or continue on home?"
"Can I go with you?" she asked doubtfully.
"Of course you can! The only question is, would you like to?"
Her dark brows rose. "Not the only question, surely. Do you think I'd be of any use, or would I just be a distraction from your work?"
"There's official use, and there's unofficial use. Don't bet that the first is more important than the second. You know the way people talk to you to try to get oblique messages to me?"
"Oh, yes." Her lips twisted in distaste.
"Well, yes, I realize it's tedious, but you're very good at sorting them out, you know. Not to mention the information to be obtained just from studying the kinds of lies people tell. And, ahnot-lies. There may well be people who will talk to you who won't talk to me, for one reason or another."
She conceded the truth of this with a little wave of her free hand.
"And . . . it would be an real relief for me to have someone along I can talk to freely."
Her smile tilted a little at this. "Talk, or vent?"
"Ihem!suspect this one is going to entail quite a lot of venting, yes. D'you think you can stand it? It could get pretty thick. Not to mention boring."
"You know, you keep claiming your job is boring, Miles, but your eyes have gone all bright."
He cleared his throat, and shrugged unrepentantly.
Her amusement faded, and her brows drew down. "How long do you think this sorting out will take?"
He considered the calculation she had doubtless just made. It would be six more weeks, give or take a few days, to the scheduled births. Their original travel plan would have put them back at Vorkosigan House a comfortable month early. Sector V was in the opposite direction from their present location to Barrayar, insofar as the network of jump points people navigated to get from here to there could be said to have a direction. Several days to get from here to Graf Station, plus an extra two weeks of travel at least to get home from there, even in the fastest of fast couriers. "If I can settle things in less than two weeks, we can both get home on time."
She breathed a short laugh. "For all that I try to be all modern and galactic, that feels so strange. All sorts of men don't make it home for the births of their children. But My mother was out of town on the day I was born, so she missed it, just seems . . . seems like a more profound complaint, somehow."
"If it runs over, I suppose I could send you home on your own, with a suitable escort. But I want to be there, too." He hesitated. It's my first time, dammit, of course it's making me crazy, was a statement of the obvious that he managed to stop on his lips. Her first marriage had left her riddled with sensitive scars, none of them physical, and this topic trod near several of them. Rephrase, O Diplomat. "Does it . . . make it any easier, that it's the second time, for you?"
Her expression grew introspective. "Nikki was a body birth; of course everything was harder. The replicators take away so many risksour children could get all their genetic mistakes corrected, they won't be subject to damage from a bad birthI know replicator gestation is better, more responsible, in every way. It's not as though they are being shortchanged. And yet . . ."
He raised her hand, and touched her knuckles to his lips. "You're not shortchanging me, I promise you."
Miles's own mother was adamantly in favor of the use of replicators, with cause. He was reconciled now, at age thirty-odd, with the physical damage he had taken in her womb from the soltoxin attack. Only his emergency transfer to a replicator had saved his life. The teratogenic military poison had left him stunted and brittle-boned, but a childhood's agony of medical treatments had brought him to nearly full function, if not, alas, full height. Most of his bones had been replaced piecemeal with synthetics thereafter, emphasis on the pieces. The rest of the damage, he conceded, was all his own doing. That he was still alive seemed less a miracle than that he had won Ekaterin's heart. Their children would not suffer such traumas.
He added, "And if you think you're having it too luxuriously easy now to feel properly virtuous, why, just wait till they get out of those replicators."
She laughed. "Very good point!"
"Well." He sighed. "I'd intended this trip to show you the glories of the galaxy, in the most elegant and refined society. It appears I'm heading instead to what I suspect is the armpit of Sector V, and the company of a bunch of squabbling, frantic merchants, irate bureaucrats, and paranoid militarists. Life is full of surprises. Come with me, my love? For my sanity's sake?"
Her eyes narrowed in amusement. "How can I resist such an invitation? Of course I will." She sobered. "Would it violate security for me to send a message to Nikki telling him we'll be late?"
"Not at all. Send it from the Kestrel, though. It'll get through faster."
She nodded. "I've never been away from him so long before. I wonder if he's been lonely?"
Nikki had been left, on Ekaterin's side of the family, with four uncles and a great-uncle plus matching aunts, a herd of cousins, a small army of friends, and his Grandmother Vorsoisson. On Miles's side were Vorkosigan House's extensive staff and their extensive families, with Uncle Ivan and Uncle Mark and the whole Koudelka clan for backup. Impending were his doting Vorkosigan step-grandparents, who had planned to arrive after Miles and Ekaterin for the birthday bash, but who now might beat them home. Ekaterin might have to travel ahead to Barrayar, if he couldn't cut through this mess in a timely fashion, but by no rational definition of the word, alone.
"I don't see how," said Miles honestly. "I expect you miss him more than he misses us. Or he'd have managed more than that one monosyllabic note that didn't catch up with us till Earth. Eleven-year-old boys can be pretty self-centered. I'm sure I was."
Her brows rose. "Oh? And how many notes have you sent to your mother in the past two months?"
"It's a honeymoon trip. Nobody expects you to . . . Anyway, she's always gotten to see the reports from my security."
The brows stayed up. He added prudently, "I'll drop her a message from the Kestrel too."
He was rewarded with a League of Mothers smile. Come to think of it, perhaps he would include his father in the address as well, not that his parents didn't share his missives. And complain coequally about their rarity.
An hour of mild chaos completed their transfer to the Barrayaran Imperial courier ship. Fast couriers gained most of their speed by trading off carrying capacity. Miles was forced to divest all but their most essential luggage. The considerable remainder, along with a startling volume of souvenirs, would continue the journey back to Barrayar with most of their little entourage: Ekaterin's personal maid, Miss Pym, and, to Miles's greater regret, both of Roic's relief armsmen. It occurred to him belatedly, as he and Ekaterin fitted themselves into their new shared cabin, that he ought to have mentioned how cramped their quarters would be. He'd traveled on similar vessels so often during his own years in ImpSec, he took their limitations for grantedone of the few aspects of his former career where his undersized body had worked to his advantage.
So while he did spend the remainder of the day in bed with his wife after all, it was primarily due to the absence of other seating. They folded back the upper bunk for head space, and sat up on opposite ends, Ekaterin to read quietly from a hand viewer, Miles to plunge into Gregor's promised Pandora's box of reports from the diplomatic front.
He wasn't five minutes into this study before he uttered a Ha!
Ekaterin indicated her willingness to be interrupted by looking up at him with a reciprocal Hm?
"I just figured out why Graf Station sounded familiar. We're headed for Quaddiespace, by God."
"Quaddiespace? Is that someplace you've been before?"
"Not personally, no." This was going to take more politic preparation than he'd anticipated. "Although I actually met a quaddie once. The quaddies are a race of bioengineered humans developed, oh, two or three hundred years ago. Before Barrayar was rediscovered. They were supposed to be permanent free fall dwellers. Whatever their creators' original plan for them was, it fell through when the new grav technologies came in, and they ended up as sort of economic refugees. After assorted travels and adventures, they finally settled as a group in what was at the time the far end of the wormhole Nexus. They were wary of other people by then, so they deliberately picked a system with no habitable planets, but with considerable asteroid and cometary resources. Planning to keep themselves to themselves, I guess. Of course, the explored Nexus has grown around them since then, so now they get some foreign exchange by servicing ships and providing transfer facilities. Which explains why our fleet came to be docked there, although not what happened afterwards. The, ah . . ." He hesitated. "The bioengineering included a lot of metabolic changes, but the most spectacular alteration was, they have a second set of arms where their legs should be. Which is really, um, handy in free fall. So to speak. I've often wished I'd had a couple of extra hands, when I was operating in vacuum."
He passed the viewer across and displayed the shot of a quaddie, dressed in bright yellow shorts and a singlet, handing himself along a gravity-less corridor with the speed and agility of a monkey navigating through treetops.
"Oh," gulped Ekaterin, then quickly regained control of her features. "How, uh . . . interesting." After a moment she added, "It does look quite practical, for their environment."
Miles relaxed a trifle. Whatever her buried Barrayaran reflexes were regarding visible mutations, they would be trumped by her iron grip on good manners.
The same, unfortunately, did not appear to be true of their fellow members of the Imperium now stranded in the quaddies' system. The difference between deleterious mutation and benign or advantageous modification was not readily grasped by Barrayarans from the backcountry. Given that one officer referred to them as horrible spider mutants right in his report, it was clear that Miles could add racial tensions to the mix of complications they were now racing toward.
"You get used to them pretty quickly," he reassured her.
"Where did you meet one, if they keep to themselves?"
"Um . . ." Some quick internal editing, here . . . "It was on an ImpSec mission. I can't talk about it. But she was a musician, of all things. Played the hammer dulcimer with all four arms." His attempt to mime this remarkable sight resulted in his banging his elbow painfully on the cabin wall. "Her name was Nicol. You would have liked her. We got her out of a tight spot. I wonder if she ever made it home?" He rubbed his elbow and added hopefully, "I'll bet the quaddies' free fall gardening techniques would interest you."
Ekaterin brightened. "Yes, indeed."
Miles returned to his reports with the uncomfortable certainty that this was not going to be a good task to plunge into underprepared. He mentally added a review of quaddie history to his list of studies for the next few days.
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