Title: Tides of Stars

Rating: PG-13
Warnings: post-apocalyptic angst, warped five-space physics, offscreen character death, and truly excessive amounts of Miles Vorkosigan.
Summary: To say it hasn't all been happily ever after for Miles Vorkosigan these last few years would be a severe understatement. After an astonishing series of personal cataclysms, he is once more on the run - with no authority, no friends, and no back-up. In a universe not of his own making he must survive by his wits alone.

The stakes are hellishly high, and he's playing against historical inevitability, the laws of physics, his own increasing infirmity, and himself. However, he's playing to win...

[An AU of sorts - post-Diplomatic Immunity, pre-Mirror Dance]


Hell swallowed them after the jump.

The jump pilot was one of the most experienced cross-netters in the fleet, which didn't say much. He'd been doing it for two years, perhaps. Unexpected byproduct of the abortive Komarr plot, the crossnetter ships were few, quiet, and utterly stealthy, able to slip from tuned wormhole to tuned wormhole in defiance of both centuries of established wormhole physics and common sense.

It had been perhaps five seconds since they had entered the wormhole. Far too long. The hallucinations were getting sharper, crowding around his thoughts in a stream of gold-white ghosts. He turned, slow as maple molasses, to glance at the man in the room's only seat.

The pilot's lips were moving. Some prayer, Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan thought. No sound emerged. Miles made to speak, and then stopped. Every second now was hours to a pilot, and Lieutenant Mitsotakis was still jump-tranced, still trying to hurl them through.

Miles had been holding himself together since Jumppoint Station 0 had exploded in gravitational backwash, since Gregor's last urgent message, now cut off. Sitting on the floor of the tiny chamber, he drew his knees to his chest, and his fingernails bit into his shins. It was strange how those simple points of light on the crossnetter's navigation board had been so much more shattering than even that desperate ride out of Dagoola. He felt like he should have been detached from events, somehow. Not destroyed by them.

His body shuddered, but Miles was too shattered to weep. He clenched a fist by his side and closed his eyes, waiting. For once, he felt too tired to fight inevitability.

After a timeless moment, the ship became very silent. Cautiously, Miles cracked one eye open. Had they made it? It defied logic. He felt his leg twitch, and admitted to himself that he didn't feel like a random emission of quarks. The silence was so deafening that the barest hint of movement behind him made him jump in his seat.

"M'lord?" Roic asked warily, poking his head through the hatch. "What happened?"

It was still too quiet, Miles thought blankly. "We nearly jumped to hell, I think," he began, gathering his thoughts. "When the station went, the resonance equivalence must have gotten jangled. I don't know if we're where we're supposed to be - nobody is hailing us, but that doesn't mean anything. We're somewhere, that's all that matters." He stumbled to his feet and glanced at the navigation board. "Somewhere with ships. Excellent work, Lieutenant." He smiled at Mitsotakis and finally realized the officer wasn't breathing. "Shit!"

With exquisite care, Miles climbed onto the pilot's chair and swung the headset off the lieutenant's head, disconnecting Mitsotakis's oxygen-deprived brain from the ship. "Get me a medkit." he ordered. The lieutenant's eyes were fixed, staring into space. He waved his hand in front of them pointlessly, and felt... heat?

"Goddamn paranoids!" He closed his eyes and cursed Research and Development thoroughly as the faint smell of scorched flesh wafted through the room. Had Mitsotakis died first, or had his very classified implant's suicidal self-destruct falsely sensed tampering? It was impossible to say, but either way his brain was surely cooked. Even if it had been intact, the Imperial Service hadn't bothered to put an emergency cryo-chamber aboard. Pointless on a one-person ship.

He waved off Roic glumly. "No use now. He's dead. I wonder where the hell we are, though. This definitely isn't Sergyar." Miles saw young Alys peek through the hatch, and regretted his lapses into barracks language. He peered at the navigation board again tiredly. They were somewhere with a lot of trade, but not Komarr. The green dots of Barrayaran military craft were nowhere in sight. Nuovos would have been red - none of those, either. There were high numbers of other military craft, but total numbers were low for the volume of commercial traffic.

This wasn't a tactics room, sadly, and Miles hadn't had to work with displays this primitive in many years. The crossnetter was incredibly crammed for space, and its sensors weren't anything to call home about. He finally managed to call up IFF information on what looked like jumppoint guards, and nodded slowly at what he saw. "Escobar. Wasn't much else it could be."

Escobar was...not ideal. Even though there was only a single jump between Escobar and an Imperially-controlled buffer system, they'd need to get clearance, and Escobaran security would ask...questions. Without a jump pilot, of course, they couldn't jump at all, and even if they had one, Miles wasn't sure if the crossnetter's Riva coils would handle a normal wormhole jump, so to speak. Admittedly, there were much worse places to end up than Escobar. Eta Ceta, for instance. Or Nuovo Brasil...

Miles sighed and considered his situation. What did he have to work with?

Item, one Armsman. Roic was, God help them all, past thirty now, and far less of a callow youth than he once had been. He was deadly in his own fashion, but at the same time he was still no Bothari.

Item, one very dead jump-pilot. Corpses, Miles thought gloomily, were rarely convenient to have on hand. He supposed they could stick him in the bod pod and shoot him into a gas giant.

Item, one Imperial princess, three years old. More or less toilet-trained, but not much of a talker. Critical to the future security of the Imperium, needless to say. Miles smiled bitterly. He was not particularly optimistic about the future security of the Imperium right now.

Item, one highly classified crossnetter that could not be permitted to fall into the hands of, well, anyone. The ship had a self-destruct system, Miles knew, but no real means of escape except one bod-pod. Dock it with some innocent vessel and then trigger it as soon as they were safely onboard? There were obvious negatives to that approach. Which was more important? The secret of the Riva coils or the safety of the Princess? Miles pinched his nose. It was one of those hellish security choices and Roic, damnit, was not immune to fast-penta.

His companions enmeshed him in a web of obligations that he had pledged his name's word on - his duty to his Emperor, his duty to his liegeman, his duty to the Imperium to protect the deadly military secrets it had killed a man to keep. He was held to one last terrible duty as well, one his mind shied away from even now.

He pulled his attention back to the Nav board. What else was out there? There were two packs of small warships hanging out in Escobar orbit, likely disarmed mercs doing refits, but civilian traffic and Escobaran military deployments looked normal. That meant there should be plenty of Barrayaran civilian craft. Escobar was the largest single trade route out of the Empire. While normally the vast Komarran trade fleets would have military escorts, ships in the Imperial Service rarely entered Escobar space because of the supervised weapon lockdowns the Escobarans still imposed.

Miles fussed with the IFF settings to tag the ships of various stellar powers and frowned. Something was itching at him. Komarr must be sitting on the news, but surely Escobar should be more stirred up than this. The other crossnetters had jumped for the relays near Sergyar, Komarr. and Marilac seven hours ago, after all. Every warship Barrayar had in the Nexus had to be streaking for home. He glanced over what was guarding the Sergyaran jumppoint. They were old ship types, not Escobar's newest and fastest. To Miles's expert eye, they looked pretty bored. Huh.

Since nothing was heading towards or leaving from their location, and there was no jump station nearby, Miles felt safe to assume they were sitting on a dead-end wormhole. There were plenty of those in Escobaran space, since it was even more rich in five-space nodes than Komarr. Nearby wormhole termini resonated with each other, which was likely why the crossnetter had come out here instead of some lonely Nexus waypoint halfway to Andromeda. Amazing that it had come out of jump at all, but Miles's luck had always been like that. As ever, it was a mixed blessing.

He was fairly sure nobody had spotted them yet, since by Fleet crossnetter policy they did not have a location beacon. Right now he was thankful for that. If they were careful when and at what vector they lit off their drives, they could stay invisible even in-system. R & D may have stinted on sensors, but not stealth.

His train of thought was interrupted by a loud but unintelligible complaint from the pilot's tiny sleeping chamber. Miles sighed. "Roic?"

"Yes, m'lord?" his Armsman said instantly.

"Inventory our emergency supplies and keep the Princess occupied back there."

His emergency ImpSec contacts were all many years out of date for this side of the Nexus. He could just call the local Embassy, but Miles was reluctant to betray himself so obviously. There had to be a better solution, but Miles suspected that their supplies wouldn't stretch more than a week and they were at least fifteen hours from Escobar orbit.

He went back to sorting through all of the Barrayaran-registered vessels. Most were Komarran-owned, and thus not trustworthy under the circumstances. A Toscane craft just might take the risk for the Empress's daughter, but none of the big craft were fully owned by any of the various Toscane subsidiaries. So much for simple solutions.

Miles sighed, and flipped through the other ships in Escobar orbit to see if he found anything interesting. Skykiss was the only ship in the first dozen he looked through that he recognized; it was the private yacht of elderly Komarran political activist-in-exile Ser Obis. No help to be found there. He kept looking. San Yeltar was a Jacksonian-registered freighter, perhaps a smuggler. Millenis was a Tau Cetan passenger liner. D-16 was a Jacksonian-registered heavy cruiser. Scieszka was a Kshatryan Imperial fast courier...wait a minute.

He cautiously paged back, stared at the abbreviated record, and then selected another ship keeping station nearby. This one was Briseis, fast courier, registered out of Jackson's Whole. He knew that ship well. He knew the next ship even more intimately. The name on her beacon was Peregrine, and she was dead, two years gone. Her spaceframe had been fatally raked by Cetagandan imploder lances. None of her crew had escaped, not even her fiercely brave Admiral.

Miles had made himself watch the tactics plot dump from a surviving Dendarii ship - out of masochism, perhaps. He supposed he'd been trying to see what he could have done better if he had been there, pondering what-ifs instead of the bitter reality. He'd led a hell of a lot of people- many of whom he knew, liked, and trusted - to their deaths over the years, something that still gnawed at him.

Though he'd finally been forced to let the past go, but it seemed it hadn't returned the favor. This, he thought maniacally, was insane. The five-space physicists would freak. The military would freak even further. Miles had read enough speculative fiction to be uncomfortably aware how much of a Pandora's box the ability to travel through time was. Glumly, he mentally bumped the safety of the crossnetter above the safety of the princess in his planning.

Congratulations, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. You've just destroyed the universe. Now what will you do for an encore? Everything he'd built in the last nine-ish years was gone in a shatter of quarks. As far as he knew, he'd just killed everyone he'd ever known.

But what now? Make sure you don't do it again, idiot, a voice in his head said.

One option, he supposed, was to sit back, not intervene, and starve to death waiting for events to sort themselves out on their own. Perhaps he would be more gentle on the fabric of the universe that way. That idea didn't appeal to him, not least because it seemed to invite an infinite loop in which most of his friends and family died horrible deaths.

So what was the alternative? Pursuing his vengeance across space and time? No, not just vengeance. Vengeance was destructive. He was phrasing the question the wrong way. It shouldn't be about who he could kill, but who he could save.

Objective identified. Save his whole damn planet. Well, that shouldn't be too hard. He'd have to play this very carefully, of course, and start small.

Miles stared at the navigation board and thought very hard. Eleven warships, two fast couriers, and five other support vessels, all loyal to him. Well, loyal to one of him, anyway. He could use them somehow. All paths to victory led through the Dendarii Free Mercenaries.

The first person he had to save, of course, was himself.

*

The timing of his arrival in the Escobar system, while very fortuitous, was not perfectly ideal. He was arguably a week early and so his journey into Escobar orbit had stretched out interminably just kill time. Miles reluctantly disabled the bod-pod's emergency beacon and jettisoned the pilot's corpse; there just wasn't room for four in the tiny ship.

By necessity the princess was settled in the pilot's tiny cabin, since the other two rooms were not childproof in the slightest. Roic could barely lie down in the engine room, while Miles slept in the pilot's chair on the bridge. They were cooped up together like that for five interminable days as they drifted in system. Alys was not very happy about the situation, and neither was Roic, although the armsman was much quieter about it. Miles was longingly eying the military sedatives in the first aid kit by the time they slid silently into orbit.

The first stage of his plan went fairly flawlessly, all in all. He knew men in the Dendarii, and women, and more critically he knew who the key men and women were, the ones who knew how everything worked and could be trusted to carry out his commands with extreme discretion.

Bride of Suleim was the most massive of the Dendarii warships, larger and slower than the pocket dreadnaught Triumph that Miles usually used as his flag. She was based off an elderly Kshatryan war cruiser hull that the Dendarii had salvaged after it had suffered an artificial gravity failure during high acceleration. Fleet engineer Baz Jesek had done miracles reconditioning the vessel and arming it with modern weaponry. While it looked ancient, battered, and well-used, close in it packed the largest punch of the fleet. It was a fully fleet-owned craft, and even better, one of its combat-drop shuttles had recently been transferred to the Triumph to cover the loss of A-4 over Marilac. That meant there was space to dock their ship.

He arranged the docking quietly. Roic was the only individual to interact directly with the Bride's few on-duty officers, using the weight of Miles's name and a few audio messages Miles had specially recorded in the five days they had spent invisibly sauntering in to orbit. The Bride was merely expecting a new recruit and a ship to be stored for use on a future mission.

Rigging a remote self-destruct for the crossnetter had taken some time, but Miles successfully knocked together something he thought would work, although testing it was out of the question. He'd part ways with Roic here, putting his armsman in charge of making sure the Barrayaran ship did not fall into enemy hands. With a recommendation from Admiral Naismith, Roic's admittance to the Dendarii was assured, and if something horrible happened to Miles he would be as safe as any mercenary could hope to be. Meanwhile, Miles and Alys would try to sneak aboard Elena Bothari-Jesek's Peregrine without being noticed. He was unfortunately likely to need the sedatives for that.

Tractored by the Bride, the crossnetter slid into its external cradle and was clamped in. Roic, dubious about abandoning his liege lord at this juncture, gave him one last glance before swinging out of the vessel. The airlock closed and Miles settled down for a long wait in the stifling, toddler-puke-scented pilot's cabin with Alys. If all went according to plan, Sergeant Vyas would show up at the crossnetter in a couple of hours. If he could convince Vyas he was Naismith, the tech sergeant could get him off the Bride unobserved, and set him up with someone on the Peregrine to take him onboard just as quietly.

It was all going too well. He was getting itchy about that.

*

Seven hours later he and Alys were ensconced in an empty cabin aboard the Peregrine. Miles finished carefully erasing all records of his entry from the vessel's internal networks. They'd have to live on the emergency rations stored under the beds for the next few weeks, but he could live with that. He reassigned the crewman who had helped him aboard to the Bride, fed the Peregrine's tactics room plot to his own console, leaned back, and considered his situation.

If his memory of the incident on Jackson's Whole was right, his brother Mark should be making his way through the Escobar transfer station right about now, getting ready to run off with Bel Thorne's Ariel to Jackson's Whole. Miles had given serious thought to intercepting Mark before he could hijack the Dendarii vessel, but reluctantly had been forced to reject the idea.

When Sergeant Vyas has inquired, Miles had blamed his current haggard look on side-effects from a Cetagandan bioweapon. The explanation was true to a point, but the question had driven the point home that he couldn't effortlessly pass as Naismith any longer. He was too old and too battered and too feeble. While soldiers not expecting a double might give him the benefit of the doubt, in the inquisitorial environment denouncing Mark as a clone would create he himself would fall under suspicion.

Miles couldn't afford that. He needed, above all, to stay in control of his environment, and he could do that better from the Peregrine than a cell on the Triumph.

From the tactics plot he saw the Ariel was already moving off-station. Damn. He'd misremembered, or misestimated, or something. It'd take another two hours to reach the jumppoint, but that was less time to think than he wanted.

What he knew he wanted was to get a message off to Bel about his brother. While Bel already knew its so-called commander was Mark, or would know soon, Miles had other things he wanted to say. He estimated it would take him about a half an hour even with his Admiral's codes to compromise the communication system enough to send a message without alerting Nav and Com, so he started immediately.

Unfortunately he soon learned his estimate was grossly optimistic. Miles was rusty in the particulars, since his Auditor's seal had made them superfluous in his day to day life. An hour and a half later, he finally declared victory. Entering the Captain's-eyes-only code for Bel, he switched the console to record audio only and leaned into the pick-up.

"Bel," he said, "this is Miles. As you may or may not have noticed, my brother has stolen your ship and one of my commando squads and is planning to cause havoc. If you want to lock him up, a good time to do so would be now."

Miles took a deep breath. "However, I leave such matters to your captainly judgement. Should for whatever reason he evade capture, please remember he does not know how to run a drop mission, and he may be overly ambitious in the number of kids he can herd. Adjust your contingency planning accordingly as you are responsible for all outcomes. I did not send this message. You did not receive this message." Miles paused. "Good hunting, Bel."

He stared at the comconsole, then stabbed at the buttons that would tight-beam his message to the Ariel. Done. With another swipe across the keypad he undid the past ninety minutes' careful work and returned the console to the tactics room feed. Turning around, he found Alys watching him warily with her large brown eyes.

The past week had been harder on the princess than either of her companions. Miles wondered uneasily if the girl thought she'd been kidnapped - she'd stopped bawling loudly about four days out and had instead spent most of her time huddled listlessly in bed looking traumatized. Miles hadn't really talked to her much, leaving her care mostly to Roic. She reminded him too much of his Helen, and that was still a wound too raw to deal with.

"I'm going to try to get you home, Alys," he said quietly. "Give me another few weeks. I know you don't like spaceships, but we needed to get you away from the bad people."

He wasn't sure how much of that she understood. Sighing, he got her a cup of water and held it to her lips as she drank. What the hell, he had time to kill. Temporarily dismissing the tactics room feed, he called up the Peregrine's library.

"Would you like me to read you a story?"

*

Four days passed and the Ariel did not return. Miles watched the shuttles on the display and bit his fingernails absently.

There was so much that could go wrong. He had hoped his other brother - himself? odd thought - would be a little more hasty, but the famous Admiral Naismith was being just as cautious in his response as Miles had been the first time around. Damnit.

The ship had gone on twenty-four hour alert a day back. The commando squads and non-critical officers had trickled back from Escobar leave, and comm tech Travis Gray had begun waking first shift up with ancient music from the 1980s again. The hallways were packed, and so Miles was trapped in his room.

He was glad he'd gotten some laundry done earlier. In addition, he'd acquired some Dendarii fatigues from Vyas to wear instead of his House uniform, as well as a new dress uniform he'd had delivered to the flag cabin. He remembered too well the humiliation of trying to deal with Bharaputra in someone else's ill-fitting clothes.

The Admiral himself was on the ship now, and had certainly walked past less than ten feet from Miles's door. Irrationally, the very thought made the back of Miles's neck prickle. He tried to force himself to relax. It wasn't like they'd explode on contact in some kind of Naismith/anti-Naismith annihilation, after all - at least, he thought they wouldn't.

Miles's main concern was that he wasn't confident in his ability to manipulate himself into doing what he wanted. As he had grown older, Miles had begun to view his insane military adventurism in his twenties in the same way Illyan must have viewed it at the time. In retrospect, it was hard to reconstruct what the hell he had been thinking. You had to be a particular flavor of mad to pull off the sorts of missions he once had, and he wasn't sure he could predict what Naismith would do. Death had changed Miles a lot. Children had changed him more.

The engines on the Peregrine hummed to life. They were moving.

*

Miles tracked the Peregrine's progress on his comconsole until he determined they weren't going to catch Bel, and then just counted the jumps. Alys took up much of his attention, as he endeavored to coax her out of her shell by explaining various bits of starship tech to her.

Ship's evening before the last jump, he decided he had to get into position. Communications would be handled from the tactics room, and there was a room off tactics for officers to sleep in during a prolonged engagement. If he could get in there, he'd be in a much better position to intervene in the numerous delicate negotiations he was sure was forthcoming. He had a couple of aces up his sleeve his brother didn't.

Of course, all of this overplanning would be useless if Mark got the kids out this time. Or alternately, got everybody killed. He wasn't sure how closely events would follow their past course when a firefight was involved, and his vague instructions to Bel might hurt as much as help.

After opening up a ration pack for Alys, he dressed once more in his House uniform. He had taken a risk and had it laundered, since a week in the crossnetter had not been kind to it. Checking his appearance in the tiny cabin, he decided he looked about as presentable as he could hope under the circumstances.

Miles made one last check of the ship's internal surveillance, and then strode out of the room like he owned the ship. He passed a few people in the hall, and waved off their instinctive salutes.

The duty officer in the tactics room paid a little more attention than his early-shift comrades. His eyebrows rose at the the sharp Vorkosigan uniform.

Miles carefully didn't meet his gaze. The man had probably seen Naismith in the last few days, and he could pass for his brother-self better when viewed from above. At least their haircuts matched. "I'm short on civvies," he said gruffly in his best Betan accent, by way of explanation. With a jerk of a thumb towards the door, he ordered the duty officer out. "Get some coffee or something. I'll be done in about half an hour."

"Yes, sir." the man said. With a last curious glance he cleared out.

Miles programmed the communications console to feed all communications to the console in the adjoining room, covered his tracks adequately, and decamped to the sleep chamber, locking the door. Belatedly, he worried about leaving Alys alone in their previous cabin.

Well, if she got in trouble he couldn't do anything about it now. Miles napped for the four hours remaining before first shift, but was woken with the rest of the ship by Freddie Mercury. One of these days somebody with a hangover was going to strangle Travis, he reflected ruefully.

Communications activity peaked as they made the last jump into Jackson's Whole. Miles listened to Captain Quinn as she dealt with various underfunctionaries involved with the jump point consortium and House Bharaputra. His mood brightened a little as he realized that Mark and Bel had done slightly better for themselves this time in their attempt to rescue the Jacksonian clones. They were now holed up in the Dendarii shuttle with all of the clone creche's girls. Some injuries, no Dendarii deaths - yes! Miles counted that as a win.

The Bharaputrans were crowding the airspace above the shuttle with float-trucks and their own shuttles, making it impossible for Bel to safely lift. The Ariel had been chased away from the planet, so even if the shuttle by some miracle made orbit there was nowhere for it to go.

Miles sat up and paid attention as Elli finally connected Baron Bharaputra with Naismith. With luck, Naismith could handle this all himself, but he wasn't willing to trust to luck. The conversation seemed to be drifting significantly from what he recalled it as having been, yet they still hit his cue - the question Vasa Luigi had clearly been dying to ask about Barrayar. He slipped through the door noiselessly as Naismith began his well-practiced response.

"...tolerate me, I do them a favor now and then. For a price. Other than that, we practice mutual avoidance. Barrayaran Imperial Security has a longer arm than even House Bharaputra. You don't want to attract their negative attention."

"Baron Bharaputra," Miles said crisply from behind his brother-self. "Perhaps I should make the position of my government more clear."

The Baron's eyes widened and his younger self spun in his chair, stopped stone cold. Miles saw Elli draw her stunner out of the corner of his eye. He gave her a slight smile and waved her off, stepping forward into the vid-plate pickup. She automatically relaxed, before focusing on him again with sudden terrified tension.

"The disposition of Naismith's mutinous crew is not Barrayar's concern," he continued, addressing the Baron. "However, this particular clone of mine is wanted for...various crimes against the Imperium." His expression hardened. "In a sense, his very existence and early nurture was a crime against the Imperium. His transfer to any other individual, consortium, or foreign power is unacceptable." He opened his hand. "We are, however, willing to pay a suitable bounty - equal to what you suggested for that hermaphrodite captain."

The Admiral settled back into his seat. Bharaputra glanced between them.

"Things become somewhat more clear," the Baron said. "Might I ask under what authority your offer is made?"

Miles smiled. "As my father's son. The original, as it were. This is a matter that impugns the honor of our name. Suffice it to say that the money is real."

"You work in Imperial Security, is that correct, Lord Vorkosigan?"

A slight bow, a bland look. "Indeed. I have also served as a diplomatic envoy on occasion."

"Can we return to the matter of my subordinates?" the Admiral asked, finally composed enough to speak. "Provided my clone is remanded to the Barrayarans alive, I am willing to provisionally accept your terms."

Bharaputra raised his youthful eyebrows. "You are working together?"

"Unfortunately," they chorused. Naismith glanced uneasily at him.

"We generally try to avoid each other," the Admiral started, while Miles muttered "A temporary arrangement."

"I see," Vasa Luigi said. "I do believe we can make a deal then, Admiral."

"There is, of course, an auxiliary consideration," Miles added. "My more junior clone is likely to be uncooperative. When forced to surrender his captives, he may become extremely unpredictable and dangerous. I would find it useful to acquire a few additional hostages to ensure his good behavior."

Bharaputra frowned at him, uncomprehending. Naismith gave him a narrow sideways glance.

"I have become aware that you are currently nurturing clones of at least two other Barrayaran nationals. I assure you that Lord James Vorlambert and Minister Reedi will not have the opportunity to use their commissioned offspring in the usual fashion. Since they are of no other use to you..." Miles trailed off with a tight smile. Reedi's clone had been in the group rescued by Mark once upon a time, but the Barrayarans had only caught Vorlambert after his brain had been transplanted.

"I do not run a charity, Lord Vorkosigan." Bharaputra said mildly. "If you wish to make a purchase, you can make an offer."

"Baron, I only seek to save you the significant cost of their further pointless upkeep, which of course has now been made even more expensive by your product's unwise attempt at vengeance." He spread his hands. "Some token payment may be appropriate - perhaps a thousand credits each?"

Bharaputra considered Miles thoughtfully. "Fifteen hundred," he said, "with your sworn assurance that their...repatriation will remain quiet and involve no public scandal."

Oh, clever. Vasa Luigi was perfectly willing to sell out his customers, but not willing to be seen to do so. It was probably the best deal Miles was going to get, so he nodded. "Provided the deal is closed to my satisfaction, you may have my word as Vorkosigan on the matter."

Naismith took over from there, and after another five minutes successfully hammered out the specifics with Bharaputra. Bharaputra would tow the shuttle to Fell's Jumppoint Five station, and the kidnapped clones would be released there into Bharaputra custody. The two clones Miles had bought would then be handed over to Captain Thorne. After that the Dendarii would pay and Bel would be allowed to leave with the shuttle and rendezvous with a friendly vessel.

"Pleasure doing business with you, Baron." Naismith said with as little sarcasm as he could muster after the Deal was closed. "I'll see you at Fel station."

"So you will," Bharaputra said. "Do bring your...brother."

Naismith cut the comm and twisted in his chair again to look at Miles. "You're not Mark," he said eventually.

"No."

Naismith's gaze slid down to focus on Miles's House uniform. "Excellent work on the costume," he observed. "I commend your tailor."

"My man in Hassadar is very good." Miles said blandly.

Naismith searched his face for sarcasm and found it. His lips thinned and he turned to Elli. "How the fuck did he get in here?"

"He was in there," Elli said, nodding at the adjoining room. She still held a stunner on Miles. God, Elli was still gorgeous. It nearly broke his heart with gratitude to see her alive and well.

"How the hell did he get in there then?"

"One of these days," Miles observed, "we'll have to have a chat about the inadvisability of running your fleet as a personality cult when you have two identical twin brothers."

Naismith growled under his breath and rose to his feet, swinging around the edge of the station chair to face Miles. His eyes widened as he looked up, and Miles bit back a delighted smile. Usually nobody ever noticed the extra few centimeters of height he'd gained after his death.

"Who are you?" Naismith asked bluntly.

"For the next few days, I am necessarily Lord Vorkosigan," Miles said with a quiet grin. "Who else would I be, after all?"

"We're going to need him to pick up Bel, at least," Elli said. "Whoever the hell he is."

"Mark's Cetagandan counterpart would be my best guess," said Naismith. "I can't think of any other power that would bother." His eyebrows crinkled in bemusement. "Though he might be older than Mark, which would technically make him Mark instead of Mark."

"What?" Elli asked.

"If this guy's the second son, he's by definition Mark. The name's inherited, you know." Naismith clarified.

This was a complication Miles had not actually anticipated. "My given name is Miles," he said carefully. "Mark's self-image is fragile enough that I don't think stealing his name on a technicality would be a good idea."

Naismith gave him a sharp look. "You've met Mark?"

"No. I've kept an eye out for him, though. Thus this...intervention. I consider the probability Bharaputra would have sold Mark to our, er, good friend Baron Ryoval...high."

Naismith nodded slowly. "That was a...relatively well handled negotiation."

"Thank you." Miles said with a smile. "If you'll excuse me, Admiral, I left my ward locked in one of your cabins and I need to check in."

"You're not going anywhere except the brig," Elli said shortly.

Naismith pursed his lips. "I suppose you are going to have to be Lord Vorkosigan for the moment. I'll alert Elena to tell the crew we have a guest. Elli, please escort him wherever he wants to go and give me a full report later. Try and find out where our security breaches were too. Twin, clone, construct or whatever, it's completely unacceptable that he was able to get into the tactics room."

*

"This is a warship, not a daycare." Elli Quinn said in a chill voice as she surveyed Miles's disastrously messy cabin. Alys was curled up in the bed again, looking terrified.

"She's my cousin's daughter and she doesn't have anyone else to look after her right now," Miles said stiffly. "I'm doing the best I can."

Elli shook her head. With a last suspicious look at Miles, she called Naismith on her comlink.

"Miles, I need to talk to you securely."

A long pause. "Done. What is it?"

"Miles," Elli's voice was almost plaintive. "There's this little kid down here in cabin 44 that's jumpsick. She puked all over everything. Your brother says she's a relative. Can you please deal with this?"

There was another pause, this one deeply baffled.

"The hell...? Never mind. I'll be right down."

In less than two minutes, Naismith and a commando bodyguard appeared at the door. The Admiral dismissed the bodyguard when he saw Elli. Stepping through the door, he looked around.

"Explain this," he said to Miles shortly.

Miles had gotten Alys's clothes washed when he'd washed his House uniform, but they had quickly attracted just as much filth as before. He was almost ashamed to pry her out of the corner and present her to his brother self. Roic had done a much better job of keeping her vaguely presentable.

"She does sort of look like your idiot cousin," Elli observed to Naismith, "but I think he might just be messing with me."

"Her name's Alys," Miles said. "She's sort of become my ward by default. I was hoping I could convince your people to take her off my hands."

"Hm." Naismith said vaguely. He stared at the girl, who stared back with wide eyes. "Is she really Ivan's?"

"No, of course not," Miles said. His brother self looked slightly relieved. "She's Gregor's."

Naismith's face took on a closed expression. "That's not the sort of joke you should make in front of me." he said menacingly.

Miles quirked an eyebrow. "A good Imperial Security officer would not assume it was a joke," he said. He fished under his bed for his Auditor's case and flipped it open. "You'll probably want this too,"

Naismith's's eyes widened as he spotted the gold gleam in the case and stepped carefully across the hazardous floor. Without the seal, an Auditor's chain was just a reworked ministerial chain of office. With the seal, it was something else entirely. The Admiral reached into the case to touch the heavy seal, and then drew his hand back before making contact with it. He turned to Miles, lips set together.

"Does this work?" Naismith asked neutrally. It was a subtle way of asking 'have you committed high treason by impersonating an Imperial Auditor', of course. He wondered if his brother-self would turn him in if he admitted to using it. Lieutenant Vorkosigan well might.

"Why don't you test it and see?" he asked with the barest hint of a smirk.

"Simon's going to have kittens," Naismith muttered agitatedly under his breath.

"Why the hell are you doing all this?" Elli asked suddenly. "What's in it for you? I swear, if you're trying to kill Miles I'll strangle you myself."

Miles shrugged. "I don't want to be anyone's pawn and I'm bound to run afoul of ImpSec eventually no matter how careful I am. Or Ryoval. Or nastier foes. I'd rather do it on my own terms."

*

Baron Fell was a bald man of medium height who looked cheerful in the green colors of his house. Miles suspected he had agreed to host the transfer on his station just for the chance to observe all three supposed Vorkosigan brothers. Miles and his brother self, aware of their audience stood about ten feet apart. They both had Dendarii bodyguards, but Miles's wore civilian clothes, had been given Barrayaran regulation haircuts, and were under strict orders not to open their mouths.

Naismith had told him to avoid the two Barons, but Miles carried on a polite conversation with Fell as Bharaputra's party secured the clones. This was mostly so he didn't have to watch. The cost of those few saved Dendarii lives was forty-nine clones. The way Lilly Durona Junior looked glowingly at Bharaputra and his wife broke his heart. He was bitterly glad when the twenty-odd girls were quickly ushered away.

Miles only spoke to Vasa Luigi Bharaputra to collect the two Barrayaran clones he had agreed to purchase. The older one was one of the eldest group and looked adult, while the other looked about ten and was much younger than that.

The Dendarii emerged from the shuttle after that: Thorne, Taura, other men and women he knew, still in battle armor. Taura carried Mark, who was limp and armorless - they must have had to stun him. The Dendarii all looked between Naismith and Miles in complete confusion.

"Stay with the shuttle, you'll be taking it back to the Ariel," Admiral Naismith told them. "except for Captain Thorne and Sergeant Taura, who are coming with me, and my brother's clone, who is going with my brother."

"You," Miles said softly and maliciously, "are not my brother, Naismith. Do remember that."

Naismith handled the last formalities with Bharaputra with chill displeasure, and the crowd made their way onto the Peregrine's shuttle. Taura reluctantly surrendered Mark to Miles's two bodyguards, who lugged him in as well. After the hatch closed, Elli Quinn scanned for bugs and pronounced it clear.

"Let's get out of here," Naismith said tiredly. "Bel, damnit, that...we'll talk later."

"Yes, sir," the hermaphrodite captain of the Ariel said quietly.

"Do you have any synergine here?" Miles asked.

"I...wouldn't wake him up." Bel said. It sounded glum. "What's going to happen to him now?"

"I'm turning him over to my brother and Barrayaran Imperial Security," Naismith said slowly. "Had to, to get him out."

Bel hissed in displeasure. "They'll shoot him."

"Unlikely, actually" Miles said.

"Your brother looking for a new body, there?" Bel snapped at Naismith. "Miles, you can't turn him over to the Barrayarans!"

"Calm down, Bel." Naismith said, irritated. They were all on edge. "I have some strings I can pull if I have to. They'll put him through the wringer a bit but I'm sure he'll be fine."

*

About two weeks later, they reached Komarr orbit, and five days after that, Barrayar. Miles had been given his own cabin to stew in away from the crew. It had library access, as his brother self wasn't completely cruel. Meals were delivered to his room, and Naismith visited once or twice, fishing for information. Otherwise he had been pretty much left alone.

He hadn't seen Mark that whole time, though he'd asked to. Naismith's face had gone a little blank when he did. "Mark's not happy with any of us," his brother self had finally said with a gloomy look. "He liked one of the clone girls, or that's what Taura thinks. God, what a mess."

While a politely held prisoner, he was still basically a prisoner. He tried to relax and not let it get to him, but the lack of information about what was going on was maddening. He considered hacking the comconsole, but it was obvious he was being monitored and he was somehow sure Naismith had changed all of the ship's codes.

When they reached Barrayar, Naismith spent several hours closeted with the Chief of Imperial Security aboard one of Barrayar's orbital military stations. Probably over Alys, as Simon only spared Miles a curious and searching glance. He kept waiting to be more formally interrogated about the whole mess, but apparently nobody thought he was worth the trouble.

He had one last dinner with Naismith aboard the military station.

"What happens to me now?" he asked."Is this the point where you lock me up and throw away the key?" He'd meant for that to come out flippant, but it came across as nervous. Captivity didn't suit him. He could feel himself losing forward momentum, and he knew that once he finally hit the downswing he'd be a complete wreck.

"ImpSec wishes. Countess Vorkosigan would like to see you, so you've been given a reprieve. You and Mark will be going downside soon to meet your parents."

"Not you?"

"No. I have other business."

"As Naismith? With us two on Barrayar? Your adversaries aren't idiots. They'll connect the dots."

"I know," Naismith said with a hint of agitation. "My cover is already fraying, and while I can surely confuse them a little longer...I don't know how much longer"

"I can be you on Barrayar if you want," Miles offered. "It's not hard. I don't really have anyone else to be, either."

Naismith pursed his lips. "That's...tempting. I think Illyan would object. If he knew you were an assassin he'd be happy, like he is with Mark. Since he doesn't know, he's being just a bit paranoid right now. It would help if you told him where the hell you came from."

"I died, you know," Miles said abruptly. "I don't remember...a lot of that." He traced one of the scars under his high collar. "There are some things I just can't help you with."

"What, cryo-freeze?" Naismith asked, startled.

"Someone was shooting at me," Miles said. "Might have thought I was someone else, but they hit me." With a slightly sour grin, he folded his hands behind his head. "So, how does this scenario strike you? Miles Vorkosigan, valiant courier officer, is accosted by pirates and sold to a foreign power. Tortured, broken, returned to his own side looking like hell. Except his own superiors think he might have been programmed to be a double agent, so while he's on medical leave they ask his father's armsmen to keep a look out for any unusual behavior..."

"Hmm." Naismith started grinning. "That might work. Let me talk to Simon..."

*

Miles met Mark again on a military shuttle heading for the Vorbarr Sultana shuttleport. They had two guards, who Miles recognized as Vorkosigan armsmen in civilian attire and greeted politely by name. The guards conveyed them in the armored groundcar to Vorkosigan House.

Count Vorkosigan was tied up in Council business for the day, so they were greeted by Miles's mother. She gave Miles a concerned look, but mostly focused on Mark. Miles pleaded exhaustion, and retreated as soon as he could, ruthlessly abandoning his younger brother. Mark looked like he wished he had thought to do that first.

Unexpectedly, Miles's cousin Ivan Vorpatril arrived at the door just before dinner to summon Miles somewhere. From the look Ivan gave him, he at least had been briefed on the whole fiasco. Ivan confined his remarks in front of the Vorkosigan armsmen to trivialities, but once Miles was trapped in Ivan's car the discussion became much more intense.

Trapped was the right word. Ivan's driving was insane. Despite his seizure disorder, Miles was tempted to try to talk Ivan into letting him take the wheel.

"I can't believe somebody cloned Miles twice," Ivan said for the second time. "That's just insane."

"It could be worse," Miles noted. "At least I'm not your clone. That would be a dismal fate indeed. Where are we going?"

"That is not to be discussed."

"Ah," Miles said. "Gregor wants me? I'm not surprised." They must have finally finished the blood tests on Alys, then.

Ivan frowned. "Here's some advice. Free advice even. You're crazy like Miles, but don't try be too clever here. He won't appreciate it."

"I'll keep that in mind," Miles said blandly.

Ivan didn't say anything further as he weaved his way through Vorbarr Sultana's traffic, and soon Miles was deposited at Vorhartung Castle. He glanced around for Count Vorkosigan's aircar, but his father had apparently already decamped. That made things a little simpler.

Ivan acquired Gregor's man Kevi as an additional escort for their party almost immediately. Miles chatted with them as the three worked their way through the interminable corridors of the seat of the Council of Counts. As expected, no clues were provided other than the very interesting fact that it seemed nobody had told Kevi he wasn't Lord Vorkosigan. Indeed, he was announced as such, although Ivan quietly grimaced.

Gregor's private office, of course. The Emperor, wearing civilian dress, sat on a stool gazing out the window, dismissing Kevi with a wave of his hand. Simon Illyan played invisible behind the comconsole desk that dominated the room. A medium-height chair was set in front of the desk, facing the Emperor. He'd have Illyan at his back, though.

Miles calculated the lines of fire automatically and pursed his lips. Nodding amiably to Gregor, he focused on Simon. Illyan's lower body was concealed by the comconsole, especially from his vantage point, but from the man's body language he was lethally armed and twitchy as anything. Well then. He knew where he stood now.

Gregor cleared his throat and motioned to the chair. Miles hopped up on the seat, which was, yep, just tall enough that Illyan could instantly peg him over the desk.

The Emperor turned to fully face him, but said nothing. Miles folded his hands in his lap demurely and managed a slight smile.

"You are an interesting case, Vorkosigan," Gregor said. "Somewhat of an enigma."

No honorifics. Right. Miles spread his hands, palms out. "I really have no answer to that, sire."

Gregor's eyes narrowed. "And do you consider yourself my subject?"

No hesitation. "Yes. Do you consider yourself my liege-lord?"

A thoughtful pause. Gregor's face stayed unreadable. "You have sworn no oaths to me, Vorkosigan."

Miles didn't look at Illyan. "I am sure the Captain has told you something of my past."

"Something of it, yes." Gregor studied him further. "You made representations on behalf of Our government to Jackson's Whole. Including non-trivial financial commitments."

"I would submit it was cheaper both economically and politically than a drop mission, sire, which was what Naismith would have done. His loyalty to his brothers is absolute. He would have no more left Mark behind in the hands of Jacksonians than he would have left you." And I didn't, Gregor. As you well remember.

Gregor raised both eyebrows. "Why do you call him Naismith?" he asked curiously.

"That was how I was introduced to him during my cryo-revival, sir. They were under some confusion as to who I was and rather hoped I was him." He hesitated. "Sire, while...intellectually, I understand we are, I mean myself and Lieutenant Vorkosigan, uh, not equivalent...uh." Tripping unexpectedly on his own tongue, Miles fell silent.

The Imperial eyebrows quirked.

"I do tend to view him as my Betan kid brother," Miles admitted.

"You are," Gregor said slowly, after a brief sideways glance at Illyan Miles couldn't read, "the younger son, Vorkosigan."

Miles chuckled without humor. "Well, sort of. Live fast die young. I'm biologically approaching forty and am so a little mellower than my kin. If none of us gets ourselves killed first, my brothers should outlive me by many decades. I've had to live my life at speed."

The Emperor looked thoughtful. "So I see. Do you find it difficult to play Miles?"

"Lord Vorkosigan is much more natural to me than the alternatives. I'm in no physical condition to be Naismith. And I could never play Mark." He smiled weakly.

"But who are you when you're not any of them?" Gregor was giving him a familiar exasperated look now.

"I lost...much of who I was...in the cryorevival, Sire. I don't want to be that person anymore, if you understand me. Afterwards..." Miles trailed off.

A piercing look. "Have you considered therapy?"

"I cope well enough, thank you. Besides," a small smile, "one would be hard-pressed to explain four of us."

"One is hard-pressed to explain three," Gregor noted.

"Just so. As you know, I have offered to double for Lord Vorkosigan as security considerations may require."

"Double for?" Gregor asked, "or usurp?" He leaned forward. "It seems to me, Vorkosigan, that though you may scruple at killing your brother, you would be perfectly happy to steal his birthright while he's not paying attention."

"Uh." Miles said.

The Emperor sighed.

"My brother thought it was a great plan," Miles offered.

Gregor's voice went very flat. "That is not reassuring."

Miles leaned back, uneasy. "My own dilemma is that due to the spectacular lack of documentation detailing my life, I have no assurances you two would ever accept except my bare word."

The Emperor's expression became, if anything, more neutral than before. Miles reminded himself uncomfortably that if he encouraged his hosts' already rampant paranoia further, he was liable to be hung on the walls at ImpSec indefinitely. He wished he could see Illyan's face right now, though it was probably just as well that Simon couldn't see and remember his in turn.

Gregor glanced sideways and made an ironic gesture. "I'm afraid he's all yours, Simon."

Shit! Miles craned his neck back so that he could see Illyan out of the corner of his eye. Illyan held a needler casually trained on him - how long had he had that out?! - while his other hand sorted through an interrogation kit with practiced ease.

"Are you allergic to fast-penta, Vorkosigan?" Illyan asked mildly.

"It won't kill me outright," Miles replied with care, shifting in his seat to face his old boss over the back of the chair. "It does spike my blood pressure to unsafe levels. Given my circulatory system's a mess, a dose appropriate to my body weight might reduce possible complications." He stared at the needler, enormously disturbed. For Illyan to fear him enough to draw a lethal weapon in the Emperor's presence meant - he didn't know what it meant. Never mind that Simon was authorized to do so, one just didn't do that. With an effort, Miles pulled his features to neutrality and unbuttoned his sleeve, presenting his left forearm wordlessly for the patch test.

He felt the prick of the test dot's application, but didn't look down. His gaze drifted to the needler's aperture before sliding back to rest on Simon. Something just didn't add up in this equation.

"What ship did you and the young girl you were travelling with take to Escobar?" Simon asked, after noting the time.

He hasn't learned about Roic, Miles thought. "We hitched a ride in a crossnetter out of the Nuovon Reach. The pilot knew a hazardous unplotted route."

Illyan's lip curled. "A dubious story."

Miles gave him a small smile. "I stashed the ship on the Dendarii warship Bride of Suleim. It should still be there."

"And the pilot and crew?"

"Pilot only. He died getting us through the last jump. The body is not retrievable."

Illyan's stare hardened. He probably read that as a confession of murder, Miles thought glumly.

"It must be a small vessel, then. Smaller than a fast-courier. A...crossnetter, you say?" Illyan, of course, did not recognize the term.

"Yes."

"Short-range at that size."

"I understand it usually operated from a station or larger vessel as a wormhole explorer, jumpscout, or communications relay."

"Usually?"

"When people aren't fleeing for their lives from large explosions," Miles said. He tried to smile affably, but a bleak tone had crept into his voice. He looked sideways at the needler again. There was still something very wrong about how this situation was playing out, but he shifted consideration of that to his back-brain. There was of course some good-cop/bad-cop going on, but since Miles knew exactly how much of a bad cop Illyan could be if he wanted to, that wasn't in the least reassuring.

Simon glanced at Miles' outstretched wrist. The weal hadn't presented itself yet, but Illyan seemed content to wait out the statutory five minutes. Time to bring Gregor back into the conversation, Miles thought. "How is Alys, anyway?" he asked.

Simon's mouth twisted. "Was that name your doing, Vorkosigan?"

Miles shook his head. "No. She, ah, came with it." He looked back at Gregor.

"Yes," the Emperor said coldly. "About my daughter."

Ulp. Miles tried to look attentive as opposed to wary. Gregor studied him. "Why Alys?"

"I really don't know the reasoning behind the name..." Miles temporized.

A flash of utter fury. "Miles," Gregor said ominously. "In all justice I should have you exposed in the square for an usurper. Do not play games with me."

Miles' eyebrows flew up. He wondered if Gregor had meant to use his first name, and suspected Gregor was wondering the same thing. How to play this? Submissive, he thought. They wouldn't expect that. "Very well. What do you want to know, Sire?"

"Who is her mother?" Gregor asked.

Well, they'd find out eventually. He supposed it was his duty to the Empress his father had given oath to to defuse the inevitable paranoid descent on her family as much as possible. "Laisa Toscane."

Gregor frowned. "As in the Komarran Toscanes?"

"Yes, Sire."

"Simon?" Gregor asked, a hint of bafflement in his voice.

"Laisa is the daughter and principal heir of the head of the Toscane Corporation." Illyan said. "She is twenty-seven."

"Have I ever met her?"

An introspective silence from Simon, as the man accessed his memory chip. "No."

"Her genetic material was similarly appropriated by a third party," Miles added helpfully. "If she knows anything about Alys, I'd be shocked."

"The plan was for you to be Regent." Gregor said suddenly. No fool he.

Miles's lip twisted. "All the responsibility with only a quarter the pageantry. You can get so much more done that way." Sensing Illyan's outraged glower burning on the back of his neck, he subsided.

"I don't see how you could expect to get an unrecognized female bastard past the Counts or the Ministers," the Emperor said with a completely humorless smile.

"It would have been much easier if you'd bothered to marry and produce an actual heir," Miles agreed facetiously, "but they eventually despaired of that." At Gregor's chill stare he schooled his expression into seriousness. "I think you underestimate my ingenuity, Sire. I could have made it happen if I wanted to. I decided not to go that route."

"Why not?" Gregor was back to being bemused by him, Miles thought.

"I'm not stupid enough to want your job."

"What do you want?" Illyan asked.

Miles hesitated. Go for it. "There's a faint rumor or two out there that a jump internal to your Empire has been discovered. Some kind of erratic. In five, ten years it may come in-system enough to be a threat. The other end of the jump is in the Nuovon Reach. This rumor is true and the wormhole exists, in this system, right now."

Gregor's face was utterly neutral.

He took a breath. "I had...friends in the Reach, and I was living there for a long time. Not very long ago at all our small settlement was smashed by the Nuovo Brasilian Outland Fleet. My creators had plans to ask for the protection of your Imperium against the Nuovos. But - they'd heard about Komarr, and the Solstice Massacre, and all that, and they'd heard about how crazy certain of your Imperial ancestors were. So they made a plan. That plan is...not possible anymore the way it was designed." There was a fair bit of total bullshit in all that, of course, but the whole truth was too crazy for anyone, even him. This, he thought, they would buy.

Miles stood and started pacing with agitation. "You have two options, of course, Sire. You can find the wormhole and take the war to them, or you can wait for the wars of the Reach to come to you. I assure you, they will."

"Sit down, Vorkosigan," Illyan said coldly. His thumb moved on one of the needler's controls.

Miles stopped and turned back. "Oh, come on," he said, irritated despite himself. "You wouldn't be waving that around if you planned on actually using it." He took another step, and then blinked as his view wavered into sudden terrible sharpness.

"Oh shit," he hissed through his teeth.

As the world dissolved into colored confetti, Illyan shot him.

*

"You're awake," Illyan said, before Miles realized it himself. He lay with his eyes closed, nursing a serious post-stun headache combined with the usual post-seizure nastiness.

"How long was I out?" he asked, without opening his eyes. He could tell without looking that he was on a hospital bed, loosely restrained. They'd almost certainly done a medical scan of him, then. His eyes slitted open, but he couldn't focus yet.

"It has been an hour and fourteen minutes," Illyan said. "Your mother is on her way."

"On her way - here. And here is?" He pulled his head to the side, glancing around. "No, don't tell me. Imperial Security Headquarters. Sixth floor." Hell, this was the room they'd put Illyan in during his breakdown.

"Well done. What interests me, Vorkosigan," Illyan said, "is that you started to collapse well before I stunned you. And even after I stunned you, you kept twitching every so often, which made me suspect you were having some sort of fatal drug reaction to even the allergy test. I am... relieved to see I was wrong."

No shit you are, Miles thought, my mother would have killed you. "I'm pretty sure I mentioned my seizure disorder to someone," he said vaguely. On the other hand, that someone had been Mark. He grimaced. And he thought he'd been avoiding old mistakes. "That's what the chip in my head's for, by the way. In case you were wondering."

Illyan glanced at some scan readouts. "I was, in fact."

"I usually have this seizure stimulator, you see, that triggers my chip to produce a seizure so I don't have to worry about uncontrolled ones. But I had to leave it behind, and the activation signal's encrypted."

"You said that you were biologically older than Lord Vorkosigan, and my physicians confirm it." Illyan tapped his fingers on a cabinet. "Is this disorder something he will have to worry about as he ages?"

"God, I hope not," Miles muttered. "No. It's cryotrauma."

Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan swept into the room then, grim and in a hurry. Her eyes lit up with relief as she saw Miles awake. "You look like hell. What did they do to you?"

"What?" Miles asked, confused. He wriggled an arm out of one of his restraints and undid it absentmindedly. "Oh. Captain Illyan shot me with a needler, but I'm fine now. Is this a visit, or a rescue?"

"I did not -" Illyan began. The Countess looked coldly at him.

"Rescue. C'mon kid, we're heading home."

"It was a stunner," Illyan said defensively.

"Looked like a needler to me," Miles observed. "You were handling it like a lethal weapon."

"It is - sometimes. My department confiscated it from Count Vordrohza some years back...do you know who Count Vordrohza was?"

"Tried to shoot me on the floor of the Counts when I was eighteen," Miles said before his brain caught up with his mouth. Though really, that worked as well as any more calculated reply.

Simon was silent.

"Always wondered how he got the needler past the security screening," he added cheerfully. A needler pretending to be a stunner pretending to be a needler, hah! It must switch off between needler and stun settings. Good design.

"Hmm," Illyan said neutrally.

"So...which setting did you have it on during the meeting?" Miles asked curiously, cocking his head.

Illyan smiled. It was not a nice smile. "Have a good day, milady," he said to Miles's mother. "I'll have two of my men see you both out."

*

Ivan Vorpatril was cooling his heels outside Imperial Security Headquarters when Miles and the Countess exited. He looked a little worried.

"You're not dying, huh?" he said to Miles.

"I don't plan to," Miles replied. "I have too much left to do."