Lois Bujold - "Diplomatic Immunity"

Chapter Nine

From Baen Books

<< Previous    Next >>

The quaddie pilot of Bel's selecting arrived and whisked Ekaterin off, together with a couple of stern-looking Union Militia guards. Miles watched her go in mild anguish. As she turned to look over her shoulder, walking out the hostel door, he tapped his wrist com meaningfully; she silently raised her left arm, com bracelet glinting, in return.

Since they were all on their way to the Idris anyway, Bel used the delay to call Dubauer down to the lobby again. Dubauer, smooth cheek now neatly sealed with a discreet dab of surgical glue, arrived promptly, and stared in some alarm at their new quaddie military escort. But the shy, graceful herm appeared to have regained most of its self-possession, and murmured sincere gratitude to Bel for recollecting its creatures' needs despite all the tumult.

The little party walked or floated, variously, trailing Portmaster Thorne via a notably un-public back way through the customs and security zone to the array of loading bays devoted to galactic shipping. The bay serving the Idris, clamped into its outboard docking cradle, was quiet and dim, unpeopled except for the two Graf Station security patrollers guarding the hatches.

Bel presented its authorization, and the two patrollers floated aside to allow Bel access to the hatch controls. The door to the big freight lock slid upward, and, leaving their Union Militia escort to help guard the entry, Miles, Roic, and Dubauer followed Bel aboard the freighter.

The Idris, like its sister ship the Rudra, was of a utilitarian design that dispensed with elegance. It was essentially a bundle of seven huge parallel cylinders: the central-most devoted to personnel, four of the outer six given to freight. The other two nacelles, opposite each other in the outer ring, housed the ship's Necklin rods that generated the field to fold it through jump points. Normal-space engines behind, mass shield generators in front. The ship rotated around its central axis to bring each outer cylinder to alignment with the stationside freight lock for automated loading or unloading of containers, or hand loading of more delicate goods. The design was not without added safety value, for in the event of a pressurization loss in one or more cylinders, any of the others could serve as a refuge while repairs were made or evacuation effected.

As they walked now through one freight nacelle, Miles glanced up and down its central access corridor, which receded into darkness. They passed through another lock into a small foyer in the forward section of the ship. In one direction lay passenger staterooms; in the other, personnel cabins and offices. Lift tubes and a pair of stairs led up to the level devoted to ship's mess, infirmary, and recreation facilities, and downward to life support, engineering, and other utility areas.

Roic glanced at his notes, and nodded down the corridor. "This way to Solian's security office, m'lord."

"I'll escort Citizen Dubauer here to its flock," said Bel, "and catch up with you." Dubauer made an abortive little bow, and the two herms passed onward into the lock leading to one of the outboard freight sections.

Roic counted doorways past a second connecting foyer, and tapped a code into a lock pad near the stern. The door slid aside and the light came up revealing a tiny, spare chamber housing scarcely more than a computer interface and two chairs, and some lockable wall cabinets. Miles fired up the interface while Roic ran a quick inventory of the cabinets' contents. All security-issue weapons and their power cartridges were present and accounted for, all safety equipment neatly packed in its places. The office was void of personal effects, no vid displays of the girl back home, no sly—- or political—jokes or encouraging slogans pasted inside the cabinet doors. But Brun's investigators had been through here once already, after Solian had disappeared but before the ship had been evacuated by the quaddies following the clash with the Barrayarans; Miles made a note to inquire if Brun—or Venn, for that matter—had removed anything.

Roic's override codes promptly brought up all of Solian's records and logs. Miles started from Solian's final shift. The lieutenant's daily reports were laconic, repetitive, and disappointingly free of comments on potential assassins. Miles wondered if he was listening to a dead man's voice. By rights, there ought to be some psychic frisson. The eerie silence of the ship encouraged the imagination.

While the ship was in port, its security system did keep continuous vid records of everyone and everything that boarded or departed through the stationside or other activated locks, as a routine antitheft, antisabotage precaution. Slogging through the whole ten days' worth of comings and goings before the ship had been impounded, even on fast forward, was going to be a time-consuming chore. The daunting possibility of records having been altered or deleted, as Brun suspected Solian had done to cover his desertion, would also have to be explored.

Miles made copies of everything that seemed even vaguely pertinent, for further examination, then he and Roic paid a visit to Solian's cabin, just a few meters down the same corridor. It too was small and spare and unrevealing. No telling what personal items Solian might have packed in the missing valise, but there certainly weren't many left. The ship had left Komarr, what, six weeks ago? With half a dozen ports of call between. When the ship was in-port was the busiest time for its security; perhaps Solian hadn't had much time to shop for souvenirs.

Miles tried to make sense of what was left. Half a dozen uniforms, a few civvies, a bulky jacket, some shoes and boots . . . Solian's personally fitted pressure suit. That seemed an expensive item one might want for a long sojourn in Quaddiespace. Not very anonymous, though, with its Barrayaran military markings.

Finding nothing in the cabin to relieve them of the chore of examining vid records, Miles and Roic returned to Solian's office and began. If nothing else, Miles encouraged himself, reviewing the security vids would give him a mental picture of the potential dramatis personae . . . buried somewhere in the mob of persons who had nothing to do with anything, to be sure. Looking at everything was a sure sign that he didn't know what the hell he was doing yet, but it was the only way he'd ever found to smoke out the nonobvious clue that everyone else had overlooked. . . .

He glanced up, after a time, at a movement in the office door. Bel had returned, and leaned against the jamb.

"Finding anything yet?" the herm asked.

"Not so far." Miles paused the vid display. "Did your Betan friend get its problems taken care of?"

"Still working. Feeding the critters and shoveling manure, or at least, adding nutrient concentrate to the replicator reservoirs and removing the waste bags from the filtration units. I can see why Dubauer was upset at the delay. There must be a thousand animal fetuses in that hold. Major financial loss, if it becomes a loss."

"Huh. Most animal husbandry people ship frozen embryos," said Miles. "That's the way my grandfather used to import his fancy horse bloodstock from Earth. Implanted 'em in a grade mare upon arrival, to finish cooking. Cheaper, lighter, less maintenance—shipping delays not an issue, if it comes to that. Although I suppose this way uses the travel time for gestation."

"Dubauer did say time was of the essence." Bel hitched its shoulders, frowning uncomfortably. "What do the Idris's logs have to say about Dubauer and its cargo, anyway?"

Miles called up the records. "Boarded when the fleet first assembled in Komarr orbit. Bound for Xerxes—the next stop after Graf Station, which must make this mess especially frustrating. Reservation made about . . . six weeks before the fleet departed, via a Komarran shipping agent." A legitimate company; Miles recognized the name. This record did not indicate where Dubauer-and-cargo had originated, nor if the herm had intended to connect with another commercial—or private—carrier at Xerxes for some further ultimate destination. He eyed Bel shrewdly. "Something got your hackles up?"

"I ... don't know. There's something funny about Dubauer."

"In what way? Would I get the joke?"

"If I could say, it wouldn't bother me so much."

"It seems a fussy old herm . . . maybe something on the academic side?" University, or former university, bioengineering research and development would fit the oddly precise and polite style. So would personal shyness.

"That might account for it," said Bel, in an unconvinced tone.

"Funny. Right." Miles made a note to especially observe the herm's movements on and off the Idris, in his records search.

Bel, watching him, remarked, "Greenlaw was secretly impressed with you, by the way."

"Oh, yeah? She's certainly managed to keep it a secret from me."

Bel's grin sparked. "She told me you appeared very task oriented. That's a compliment, in Quaddiespace. I didn't explain to her that you considered getting shot at to be a normal part of your daily routine."

"Well, not daily. By preference." Miles grimaced. "Nor normally, in the new job. I'm supposed to be rear echelon, now. I'm getting old, Bel."

The grin twisted half-up in sardonic amusement. "Speaking from the vantage of one not quite twice your age, and in your fine old Barrayaran phrase of yore, horseshit, Miles."

Miles shrugged. "Maybe it's the impending fatherhood."

"Got you spooked, does it?" Bel's brows rose.

"No, of course not. Or—well, yes, but not in that way. My father was . . . I have a lot to live up to. And perhaps even a few things to do differently."

Bel tilted its head, but before it could speak again, footsteps sounded down the corridor. Dubauer's light, cultured voice inquired, "Portmaster Thorne? Ah, there you are."

Bel moved within as the tall herm appeared in the doorway. Miles noted Roic's appraising eye flick, before the bodyguard pretended to return his attention to the vid display.

Dubauer pulled on its fingers anxiously, and asked Bel, "Are you returning to the hostel soon?"

"No. That is, I'm not returning to the hostel at all.

"Oh. Ah." The herm hesitated. "You see, with strange quaddies flying around out there shooting at people, I didn't really want to go out on the station alone. Has anyone heard—he hasn't been apprehended yet, has he? No? I was hoping . . . can anyone go with me?"

Bel smiled sympathetically at this display of frazzled nerves. "I'll send one of the security guards with you. That all right?"

"I should be extremely grateful, yes."

"Are you all finished, now?"

Dubauer bit its lip. "Well, yes and no. That is, I have finished servicing my replicators, and done what little I can to slow the growth and metabolism of their contents. But if my cargo is to be held here very much longer, there'll not be time to get to my final destination before my creatures outgrow their containers. If I indeed have to destroy them, it will be a disastrous event."

"The Komarran fleet's insurance ought to make good on that, I'd think," said Bel.

"Or you could sue Graf Station," Miles suggested. "Better yet, do both, and collect twice." Bel spared him an exasperated glance.

Dubauer managed a pained smile. "That only addresses the immediate financial loss." After a longer pause, the herm continued, "To salvage the more important part, the proprietary bioengineering, I wish to take tissue samples and freeze them before disposal. I shall also require some equipment for complete biomatter breakdown. Or access to the ship's converters, if they won't become overloaded with the mass I must destroy. It's going to be a time-consuming and, I fear, extremely messy task. I was wondering, Portmaster Thorne—if you cannot obtain my cargo's release from quaddie impoundment, can you at least get me permission to stay aboard the Idris while I undertake its dispatch?"

Bel's brow wrinkled at the horrific picture the herm's soft words conjured. "Let's hope you're not forced to such extreme measures. How much time do you have, really?"

The herm hesitated. "Not very much more. And if I must dispose of my creatures—the sooner, the better. I'd prefer to get it over with."

"Understandable." Bel blew out its breath.

"There might be some alternate possibilities to stretch your time window," said Miles. "Hiring a smaller, faster ship to take you directly to your destination, for example."

The herm shook its head sadly. "And who would pay for this ship, my Lord Vorkosigan? The Barrayaran Imperium?"

Miles bit his tongue on either Yeah, sure! or alternate suggestions involving Greenlaw and the Union. He was supposed to be handling the big picture, not getting bogged down in all the human—or inhumane—details. He made a neutral gesture, and let Bel shepherd the Betan out.

Miles spent a few more minutes failing to find anything exciting on the vid logs, then Bel returned.

Miles shut down the vid. "I think I'd like a look at that funny Betan's cargo."

"Can't help you there," said Bel. "I don't have the codes to the freight lockers. Only the passengers are supposed to have the access to the space they rent, by contract, and the quaddies haven't bothered to get a court order to make them disgorge 'em. Decreases Graf Station's liability for theft while the passengers aren't aboard, y'see. You'll have to get Dubauer to let you in."

"Dear Bel, I am an Imperial Auditor, and this is not only a Barrayaran-registered ship, it belongs to Empress Laisa's own family. I go where I will. Solian has to have a security override for every cranny of this ship. Roic?"

"Right here, m'lord." The armsman tapped his notation device.

"Very well, then, let's take a walk."

Bel and Roic followed him down the corridor and through the central lock to the adjoining freight section. The double-door to the second chamber down yielded to Roic's careful tapping on its lock pad. Miles poked his head through, and brought up the lights.

It was an impressive sight. Gleaming replicator racks stood packed in tight rows, filling the space and leaving only narrow aisles between. Each rack sat bolted on its own float pallet, in four layers of five units—twenty to a rack, as high as Roic was tall. Beneath darkened display readouts on each, control panels twinkled with reassuringly green lights. For now.

Miles walked down the aisle formed by five pallets, around the end, and up the next, counting. More pallets lined the walls. Bel's estimate of a thousand seemed exactly right. "You'd think the placental chambers would be a larger size. These seem nearly identical to the ones at home." With which he'd grown intimately familiar, of late. These arrays were clearly meant for mass production. All twenty units stacked on a pallet economically shared reservoirs, pumps, filtration devices, and the control panel. He leaned closer. "I don't see a maker's mark." Or serial numbers or anything else that would reveal the planet of origin for what were clearly very finely made machines. He tapped a control to bring the monitor screen to life.

The glowing screen didn't contain manufacturing data or serial numbers either. Just a stylized scarlet screaming-bird pattern on a silver background. . . . His heart began to lump. What the hell was this doing here . . . ?

"Miles," said Bel's voice, seeming to come from a long way off, "if you're going to pass out, put your head down."

"Between my knees," choked Miles, "and kiss my ass good-bye. Bel, do you know what that sigil is?"

"No," said Bel, in a leery now-what? tone.

"Cetagandan Star Crèche. Not the military ghem-lords, not their cultivated—and I mean that in both senses—masters, the haut lords—not even the Imperial Celestial Garden. Higher still. The Star Crèche is the innermost core of the innermost ring of the whole damned giant genetic engineering project that is the Cetagandan Empire. The haut ladies' own gene bank. They design their emperors, there. Hell, they design the whole haut race, there. The haut ladies don't work in animal genes. They think it would be beneath them. They leave that to the ghem-ladies. Not, note, to the ghem-lords . . ."

Hand shaking slightly, he reached out to touch the monitor and bring up the next control level. General power and reservoir readouts, all in the green. The next level allowed individual monitoring of each fetus contained within one of the twenty separate placental chambers. Human blood temperature, baby mass, and if that weren't enough, tiny individual vid spy cameras built in, with lights, to view the replicators' inhabitants in real time, floating peacefully in their amniotic sacs. The one in the monitor twitched tiny fingers at the soft red glow, and seemed to scrunch up its big dark eyes. If not quite grown to term, it—no, she—was damned close to it, Miles guessed. He thought of Helen Natalia, and Aral Alexander.

Roic swung on his booted heel, lips parting in dismay, staring up the aisle of glittering devices. "D'you mean, m'lord, that all these things are full of human babies?"

"Well, now, that's a question. Actually, that's two questions. Are they full, and are they human? If they are haut infants, that latter is a most debatable point. For the first, we can at least look . . ." A dozen more pallet monitors, checked at random intervals around the room, revealed similar results. Miles was breathing rapidly by the time he gave it up for proven.

Roic said in a puzzled tone, "So what's a Betan herm doing with a bunch of Cetagandan replicators? And just because they're Cetagandan make, how d'you know it's Cetagandans inside 'em? Maybe the Betan bought the replicators used?"

Miles, lips drawn back on a grin, swung to Bel. "Betan? What do you think, Bel? How much did you two talk about the old sandbox while you were supervising this visit?"

"We didn't talk much at all." Bel shook its head. "But that doesn't prove anything. I'm not much for bringing up the subject of home myself, and even if I had, I'm too out of touch with Beta to spot inaccuracies in current events anyway. It wasn't Dubauer's conversation that was the trouble. There was just something . . . off, in its body language."

"Body language. Just so." Miles stepped to Bel, reached up, and turned the herm's face to the light. Bel did not flinch at his nearness, but merely smiled. Fine hairs gleamed on cheek and chin. Miles's eyes narrowed as he carefully revisualized the cut on Dubauer's cheek.

"You have facial down, like women. All herms do, right?"

"Sure. Unless they're using a really thorough depilitory, I suppose. Some even cultivate beards."

"Dubauer doesn't." Miles made to pace down the aisle, stopped himself, turned back, and held still with an effort. "Nary a sprout in sight, except for the pretty silver eyebrows and hair, which I'd wager Betan dollars to sand are recent implants. Body language, hah. Dubauer's not double-sexed at all—what were your ancestors thinking?"

Bel smirked cheerily.

"But altogether sexless. Truly 'it.' "

"It, in Betan parlance," Bel began in the weary tone of one who has had to explain this far too often, "does not carry the connotation of an inanimate object that it does in other planetary cultures. I say this despite a certain ex-boss of my very distant past, who did a pretty fair imitation of the sort of large and awkward piece of furniture that one can neither get rid of nor decorate around—"

Miles waved this aside. "Don't tell me—I got that lecture at my mother's knee. But Dubauer's not a herm. Dubauer's a ba."

"A who what?"

"To the casual outside eye, the ba appear to be the bred servitors of the Celestial Garden, where the Cetagandan emperor dwells in serenity in surroundings of aesthetic perfection, or so the haut lords would have you believe. The ba seem the ultimate loyal servant race, human dogs. Beautiful, of course, because everything inside the Celestial Garden must be. I first ran into the ba about ten years back, when I was sent to Cetaganda—not as Admiral Naismith, but as Lieutenant Lord Vorkosigan—on a diplomatic errand. To attend the funeral of Emperor Fletchir Giaja's mother, as it happened, the old Dowager Empress Lisbet. I got to see a lot of ba up close. Those of a certain age—relicts of Lisbet's youth a century ago, mainly—had all been made hairless. It was a fashion, which has since passed.<

"But the ba aren't servants, or anyway, aren't just servants, of the Imperial haut. Remember what I said about the haut ladies of the Star Crèche only working in human genes? The ba are where the haut ladies test out prospective new gene complexes, improvements to the haut race, before they decide if they're good enough to add to this year's new model haut cohort. In a sense, the ba are the haut's siblings. Elder siblings, almost. Children, even, from a certain angle of view. The haut and the ba are two sides of one coin.

"A ba is every bit as smart and dangerous as a haut lord. But not as autonomous. The ba are as loyal as they are sexless, because they're made so, and for some of the same reasons of control. At least it explains why I kept thinking I'd met Dubauer someplace before. If that ba doesn't share most of its genes with Fletchir Giaja himself, I'll eat my, my, my—"

"Fingernails?" Bel suggested.

Miles hastily removed his hand from his mouth. He continued, "If Dubauer's a ba, and I'll swear it is, these replicators have to be full of Cetagandan . . . somethings. But why here? Why transport them covertly, and on a ship of a once-and-future enemy empire, at that? Well, I hope not future—the last three rounds of open warfare we had with our Cetagandan neighbors were surely enough. If this was something open and aboveboard, why not travel on a Cetagandan ship, with all the trimmings? I guarantee it's not for economy's sake. Deathly secret, this, but from who, and why? What the hell is the Star Crèche up to, anyway?" He swung in a circle, unable to keep still. "And what is so hellish secret that this ba would bring these live growing fetuses all this way, but then plan to kill them all to keep the secret rather than ask for help?"

"Oh," said Bel. "Yeah, that. That's . . . a bit unnerving, when you think about it."<

Roic said indignantly, "That's horrible, m'lord!"

"Maybe Dubauer doesn't really intend to flush them," said Bel in an uncertain tone. "Maybe it just said that to get us to put more pressure on the quaddies to give it a break, let it take its cargo off the Idris."

"Ah . . ." said Miles. There was an attractive idea—wash his hands of this whole unholy mess . . . "Crap. No. Not yet, anyway. In fact, I want you to lock the Idris back down. Don't let Dubauer—don't let anyone back on board. For once in my life, I actually want to check with HQ before I jump. And as quickly as possible."

What was it that Gregor had said—had talked around, rather? Something has stirred up the Cetagandans around Rho Ceta. Something peculiar. Oh, Sire, do we ever have peculiar here now. Connections?

"Miles," said Bel in aggravation, "I just jumped through hoops persuading Watts and Greenlaw to let Dubauer back on the Idris. How am I going to explain the sudden reversal?" Bel hesitated. "If this cargo and its owner are dangerous to Quaddiespace, I should report it. D'you think that quaddie in the hostel might have been shooting at Dubauer, instead of at you or me?"

"The thought has crossed my mind, yes."

"Then it's . . . wrong, to blindside the station on what may be a safety issue."

Miles took a breath. "You are Graf Station's representative here; you know, therefore the station knows. That's enough. For now."

Bel frowned. "That argument's too disingenuous even for me."

"I'm only asking you to wait. Depending on what information I get back from home, I could damn well end up buying Dubauer a fast ship to take its cargo away on. One not of Barrayaran registry, preferably. Just stall. I know you can."

"Well . . . all right. For a little while."

"I want the secured comconsole in the Kestrel. We'll seal this hold and continue later. Wait. I want to have a look at Dubauer's cabin, first."

"Miles, have you ever heard of the concept of a search warrant?"

"Dear Bel, how fussy you have grown in your old age. This is a Barrayaran ship, and I am Gregor's Voice. I don't ask for search warrants, I issue them."

Miles took one last turn completely around the cargo hold before having Roic lock it back up. He didn't spot anything different, just, dauntingly, more of the same. Fifty pallets added up to a lot of uterine replicators. There were no decomposing dead bodies tucked in behind any of the replicator racks, anyway, worse luck.

Dubauer's accommodation, back in the personnel module, proved unenlightening. It was a small economy cabin, and whatever personal effects the . . . individual of unknown gender had possessed, it had evidently packed and taken them all along when the quaddies had transferred the passengers to the hostels. No bodies under the bed or in the cabinets here, either. Brun's people had surely searched it at least cursorily once, the day after Solian vanished. Miles made a mental note to try to arrange a more microscopically thorough forensics examination of both the cabin, and the hold with the replicators. Although—by what organization? He didn't want to turn this over to Venn yet, but the Barrayaran fleet's medical people were mainly devoted to trauma. I'll figure something out. Never had he missed ImpSec more keenly.

"Do the Cetagandans have any agents here in Quaddiespace?" he asked Bel as they exited the cabin and locked up again. "Have you ever encountered your opposite numbers?"

Bel shook its head. "People from your region are pretty thinly spread out in this arm of the Nexus. Barrayar doesn't even keep a full-time consul's office on Union Station, and neither does Cetaganda. All they have is some quaddie lawyer on retainer over there who keeps the paperwork for about a dozen minor planetary polities, if anyone should want it. Visas and entry permissions and such. Actually, as I recall, she handles both Barrayar and Cetaganda. If there are any Cetagandan agents on Graf, I haven't spotted them. I can only hope the reverse is also true. Though if the Cetagandans do keep any spies or agents or informers in Quaddiespace, they're most likely to be on Union. I'm only here on Graf for, um, personal reasons."

Before they exited the Idris, Roic insisted Bel call Venn for an update on the search for the murderous quaddie from the hostel lobby. Venn, clearly discommoded, rattled off reports of vigorous activity on the part of his patrollers—and no results. Roic was jumpy on the short walk from the Idris's docking bay to the one where the Kestrel was locked on, eyeing their armed quaddie escort with almost as much suspicion as he eyed shadows and cross corridors. But they arrived without further incident.

"How hard would it be to get Greenlaw's permission to fast-penta Dubauer?" Miles asked Bel, as they made their way through the Kestrel's airlock.

"Well, you'd need a court order. And an explanation that would convince a quaddie judge."

"Hm. Ambushing Dubauer with a hypospray aboard the Idris suggests itself to my mind as a simpler alternate possibility."

"It would." Bel sighed. "And it would cost me my job if Watts found out I'd helped you. If Dubauer's innocent of wrongdoing, it would certainly complain to the quaddie authorities, afterward."

"Dubauer's not innocent. At the very least, it's lied about its cargo."

"Not necessarily. Its manifest just reads, Mammals, genetically altered, assorted. You can't say they aren't mammals."

"Transporting minors for immoral purposes, then. Slave trading. Hell, I'll think of something." Miles waved Roic and Bel off to wait, and took over the Kestrel's wardroom again.

He seated himself, adjusted the security cone, and took a long breath, trying to round up his galloping thoughts. There was no faster way to get a tightbeam message, however coded, from Quaddiespace to Barrayar than via the commercial system of links. Message beams were squirted at the speed of light across local space systems between wormhole jump point stations. An hour's, or a day's, messages were collected at the stations and loaded on either scheduled dedicated communications ships, jumping back and forth on a regular schedule to squirt them across the next local space region, or, on less traveled routes, on whatever ship next jumped through. The round trip for a beamed message between Quaddiespace and the Imperium would take several days, at best.

He addressed the message triply, to Emperor Gregor, to ImpSec Chief Allegre, and to ImpSec galactic operations headquarters on Komarr. After a sketchy outline of the situation so far, including assurances of his assailant's bad aim, he described Dubauer, in as much detail as possible, and the startling cargo he'd found aboard the Idris. He requested full details on the new tensions with the Cetagandans that Gregor had alluded to so obliquely, and appended an urgent plea for information, if any, on known Cetagandan operatives and operations in Quaddiespace. He ran the results through the Kestrel's ImpSec encoder, and squirted it on its way.

Now what? Wait for an answer that might be entirely inconclusive? Hardly ...

He jumped in his chair when his wrist com buzzed. He gulped and slapped it. "Vorkosigan."

"Hello, Miles." It was Ekaterin's voice; his heart rate slowed. "Do you have a moment?"

"Not only that, I have the Kestrel's comconsole. A moment of privacy, if you can believe it."

"Oh! Just a second, then . . ." The wrist com channel closed. Shortly, Ekaterin's face and torso appeared over the vid plate. She was wearing that flattering slate-blue thing again. "Ah," she said happily. "There you are. That's better."

"Well, not quite." He touched his fingers to his lips, and transferred the kiss in pantomime to the image of hers. Cool ghost, alas, not warm flesh. Belatedly, he asked, "Where are you?" Alone, he trusted.

"In my cabin on the Prince Xav. Admiral Vorpatril gave me a nice one. I think he evicted some poor senior officer. Are you all right? Have you had your dinner?"


"Oh, dear, I know that look. Make Lieutenant Smolyani at least open you a meal tray before you go off again."

"Yes, love." He grinned at her. "Practicing that maternal drill?"

"I was thinking of it more as a public service. Have you found something interesting and useful?"

"Interesting is an understatement. Useful—well—I'm not sure." He described his find on the Idris, in only slightly more colorful terms than the ones he'd just sent off to Gregor.

Ekaterin's eyes grew wide. "Goodness! And here I was all excited because I thought I'd found a fat clue for you! I'm afraid mine's just gossip, by comparison."

"Gossip away, do."

"Just something I picked up over dinner with Vorpatril's officers. They seemed a pleasant group, I must say."

I'll bet they made themselves pleasant. Their guest was beautiful, cultured, a breath of home, and the first female most of them had spoken to in weeks. And married to the Imperial Auditor, heh. Eat your hearts out, boys."I tried to get them to talk about Lieutenant Solian, but hardly anyone knew the man. Except that one fellow remembered that Solian had had to step out of a weekly fleet security officers' meeting because he'd sprung a nosebleed. I gather that Solian was more embarrassed and annoyed than alarmed. But it occurred to me that it might be a chronic thing with him. Nikki had them for a while, and I had them occasionally for a couple of years when I was a girl, though mine went away on their own. But if Solian hadn't taken himself to his ship's medtech to get fixed yet, well, it might be another way someone could have obtained a tissue sample from him for that manufactured blood." She paused. "Actually, now I think on it, I'm not so sure that is a help to you. Anyone might have grabbed his used nose rag out of the trash, wherever he'd been. Although I supposed that if his nose was bleeding, at least he had to have been alive at the time. It seemed a little hopeful, anyway." Her thoughtful frown deepened. "Or maybe not."

"Thank you," said Miles sincerely. "I don't know if it's hopeful or not either, but it gives me another reason to see the medtechs next. Good!" He was rewarded with a smile. He added, "And if you come up with any thoughts on Dubauer's cargo, feel free to share. Although only with me, for the moment."

"I understand." Her brows drew down. "It is stunningly strange. Not strange that the cargo exists—I mean, if all the haut children are conceived and genetically engineered centrally, the way your friend the haut Pel described it to me when she came as an envoy to Gregor's wedding, the haut women geneticists have to be exporting thousands of embryos from the Star Crèche all the time."

"Not all the time," Miles corrected. "Once a year. The annual haut child ships to the outlying satrapies are all dispatched at the same time. It gives all the top haut-lady planetary consorts like Pel, who are charged with conducting them, a chance to meet and consult with each other. Among other things."

She nodded. "But to bring this cargo all the way here—and with only one handler to look after them . . . If your Dubauer, or whoever it is, really does have a thousand babies in tow, I don't care if they're normal human or ghem or haut or what, it had better have several hundred nursemaids waiting for them somewhere."

"Truly." Miles rubbed his forehead, which was aching again, and not just from the exploding possibilities. Ekaterin was right about that meal tray, as usual. If Solian could have tossed away a blood sample anywhere, any time ...

"Oh, ha!" He rummaged in his trouser pocket and pulled out his handkerchief, forgotten there since this morning, and opened it on the heavy brown stain. Blood sample, indeed. He didn't have to wait for ImpSec HQ to get back to him on this identification. He would have undoubtedly remembered this accidental specimen eventually without the prompting. Whether before or after the efficient Roic had cleaned his clothes and returned them ready to don again, now, that was another question, wasn't it? "Ekaterin, I love you dearly. And I need to talk to the Prince Xav's surgeon right now." He made frantic kissing motions at her, which elicited that entrancing enigmatic smile of hers, and cut the com.