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"All right," said the whey-faced tech, "start over with branch seven thousand, three-hundred and six. Only seven hundred more to go, and we'll have it, I swear."
Pel gasped, and pointed. Piled in a disorderly heap on the table beyond the console was not one but eight copies of the Great Key. Or one Great Key and seven copies...
Could Kety be attempting to carry out the late Empress Lisbet's vision after all? All the rest of the chaos of the past two weeks some confused misunderstanding? No... no. This had to be some other scam. Maybe he planned to send his fellow governors home with bad copies, or give Cetagandan Imperial Security seven more decoys to chase, or... a mult.i.tude of possibilities, as long as they advanced Kety's own personal agenda and no one else's.
Firing his stunner would set off every alarm in the place, making it a weapon of last resort. h.e.l.l, his victims, if clever-and Miles suspected he faced three very clever men-might jump him just to make him fire it.
"What else do you have up your sleeve?" Miles whispered to Pel.
"Nadina," Pel gestured to the table, "which one is the Great Key?"
"I'm not sure," said Nadina, peering anxiously at the clutter.
"Grab them all. Check later" urged Miles.
"But they could all be false," dithered Pel. "We must know, or it could all be for nothing." She fished in her bodice, and pulled out a familiar ring on a chain, with a raised screaming-bird pattern....
Miles choked. "For G.o.d's sake, you didn't bring that here? Keep it out of sight! After two weeks of trying to do what that ring does in a second, I guarantee those men wouldn't hesitate to kill you for it!"
Ghem-General Naru wheeled from his tech to face the pale glowing bubble. "Yes, Vio, what is it now?" His voice was bored, and dripping with open contempt.
Pel looked a little panicked; Miles could see her throat move, as she sub-vocalized some practice reply, then rejected it.
"We're not going to be able to keep this up for much longer," said Miles. "How about we attack, grab, and run?"
"How?" asked Nadina.
Pel held up her hand for silence from the on-board debating team, and essayed a temporizing reply to the general. "Your tone of voice is most improper, sir."
Naru grimaced. "Being back in your bubble makes you proud again, I see. Enjoy it while it lasts. We'll have all of those d.a.m.ned b.i.t.c.hes pried out of their little fortresses after this. Their days of being cloaked by the Emperor's blindness and stupidity are numbered, I a.s.sure you, haut Vio."
Well... Naru wasn't in on this plot for the sake of the late Empress's vision of genetic destiny, that was certain. Miles could see how the haut-women's traditional privacies could come to be a deep, itching offense, to a dedicated, properly paranoid security man. Was that the bribe Kety had offered Naru for his cooperation, the promise that the new regime would open the closed doors of the Star Creche, and shine light into every secret place held by the haut-women? That he would destroy the haut-women's strange and fragile power-base, and put it all into the hands of the ghem-generals, where it obviously (to Naru) belonged? So was Kety stringing Naru along, or were they near-equal co-plotters? Equals, Miles decided. This is the most dangerous man in the room, maybe even on the ship. He set the stunner for low beam, in a forlorn hope of not setting off alarms on discharge.
"Pel," Miles said urgently, "get ghem-General Naru with your last dose of sleepy-juice. I'll try to threaten the others, get the drop on them, without actually firing. Tie them up, grab the Keys, and get out of here. It may not be elegant, but it's fast, and we're out of time."
Pel nodded reluctantly, twitched her sleeves back, and readied the little aerosol bulb. Nadina gripped the chair-back: Miles prepared to spring away and take up a firing stance.
Pel dropped her bubble and squirted the aerosol toward Naru's startled face. Naru held his breath and ducked away, barely grazed by the iridescent cloud of drug. His breath puffed back out on a yell of warning.
Miles cursed, leapt, stumbled, and fired three times in rapid succession. He dropped the two scrambling techs; Naru nearly succeeded in rolling away again, but at least the beam nimbus brought the ghem-general to a twitching halt. Temporarily. Naru lumbered around on the deck like a warthog mired in a bog, his voice reduced to a garbled groan.
Nadina hurried to the table full of Keys, swept them into her outermost robe, and brought them back to Pel. Pel began trying the ring-key on each one. "Not that one... not that..."
Miles glanced at the door, which remained closed, would remain closed until an authorized hand pressed its palm-lock. Who would be so authorized? Kety... Naru, who was already in here... any others? We're about to find out.
"Not..." Pel continued. "Oh, what if they're all false? No..."
"Of course they are," Miles realized. "The real one must be, must be-" He began tracing cables from the cipher tech's comconsole. They led to a box, stuffed in behind some other equipment, and in the box was-another Great Key. But this one was braced in a comm light-beam, carrying the signals that probed its codes. "-here." Miles yanked it from its place, and sprinted back to Pel. "We've got the Key, we've got Nadina, we've got the goods on Naru, we've got it all. Let's go."
The door hissed open. Miles whirled and fired.
A stunner-armed man in Kety's livery stumbled backward. Thumps and shouts echoed from the corridor, as what seemed a dozen more men stood quickly out of the line of fire. "Yes," cried Pel happily, as the cap of the real Great Key came off in her hand, demonstrating its provenance.
"Not now!" screeched Miles. "Put it back, Pel, put your force-screen up, now!"
Miles ducked aboard the float-chair; its force-screen snapped into place. A blast of ma.s.sed stunner fire roiled through the doorway. The stunner fire crackled harmlessly around the sparkling sphere, only making it glitter a bit more. But the haut Nadina had been left outside. She cried out and stumbled backward, painfully grazed by the stun-nimbus. Men charged through the door.
"You have the Key, Pel!" cried the haut Nadina. "Flee!"
An impractical suggestion, alas; as his men secured the room and the haut Nadina, Governor Kety strolled through the door and closed it behind him, palm-locking it.
"Well," he drawled, eyes alight with curiosity at the carnage before him. "Well." He might at least have had the courtesy to curse and stamp, Miles thought sourly. Instead he looked... quite thoroughly in control. "What have we here?"
A Kety-liveried trooper knelt by ghem-General Naru, and helped straighten him and hold him up by his shoulders. Naru, struggling to sit, rubbed a shaking hand over his doubtless numb and tingling face-Miles had experienced the full unpleasantness of being stunned himself, more than once in his past-and essayed a mumbling answer. On the second try he managed slurred but intelligible speech. "'S the Consorts Pel and Nadina. An' the Barray'arn. Tol' you those d.a.m.ned bubbles were a secur'ty menace!" He slumped back into the trooper's arms. "S' all right, though. We have 'em all now."
"When that voyeur is tried for his treasons," said the haut Pel poisonously, "I shall ask the Emperor to have his eyes put out, before he is executed."
Miles wondered anew at the sequence of events here last night; how had they extracted Nadina from her bubble? "I think you're getting a little ahead of us, milady," he sighed.
Kety walked around the haut Pel's bubble, studying it. Cracking this egg was a pretty puzzle for him. Or was it? He'd done it once before.
Escape was impossible; the bubbles movements were physically blocked. Kety might besiege them, starve them out, if he didn't mind waiting-no. Kety couldn't wait. Miles grinned blackly, and said to Pel, "This float-chair has communication link capacity, doesn't it? I'm afraid it's time to call for help."
They had, by G.o.d, almost brought it off, almost made the entire affair disappear without a trace. But now that they'd identified and targeted Naru, the threat of secret aid for Kety from inside Cetagandan Imperial Security was neutralized. The Cetagandans should be able to unravel the rest of it for themselves. If I can get the word out.
Governor Kety motioned the two men holding the haut Nadina to drag her forward to what he apparently guessed was in front of the bubble, except that he was actually about forty degrees offsides. He relieved one guardsman of his vibra-knife, stepped behind Nadina, and lifted her thick silver hair. She squeaked in terror, but relaxed again when he only laid the knife very lightly against her throat.
"Drop your force-screen, Pel, and surrender. Immediately. I don't think I need to go into crude, tedious threats, do I?"
"No," whispered Pel in agreement. That Kety would slit the haut Nadina's throat now, and arrange the body later, was unquestionable. He'd gone beyond the point of no return some time ago.
"Dammit," grated Miles in anguish. "Now he's got it all. Us, the Great Key..." The Great Key. Chock full it was of... coded information. Information the value of which lay entirely in its secrecy and uniqueness. Everywhere else people waded through floods of information, information to their eyebrows, a clogging ma.s.s of data, signal and noise... all information was transmittable and reproducible. Left to itself, it multiplied like bacteria as long as there was money or power to be had in it, till it choked on its own reduplication and the boredom of its human receivers.
"The float-chair, your comm link-it's all Star Creche equipment. Can you download the Great Key from it?"
"Do what? Why..." said Pel, struggling with astonishment, "I suppose so, but the chair's comm link is not powerful enough to transmit all the way back to the Celestial Garden."
"Don't worry about that. Patch it through to the commercial navigation's emergency communication net. There'll be a booster right outside this ship on the orbital transfer station. I have the standard codes for it in my head, they're made simple on purpose. Maximum emergency overrides-the booster'll split the signal and dump it into the on-board computers of every ship, commercial or military, navigating right now through the Eta Ceta star system, and every station. Supposed to be a cry-for-help system for ships in deep trouble, you see. So Kety'll have the Great Key. So will a couple thousand other people, and where is his sly little plot then? We may not be able to win, but we can take his victory from him!"
The look on Pel's face, as she digested this outrageous suggestion, transformed from horror to a fey delight, but then to dismay. "That will take-many minutes. Kety will never let-no! I have the solution for that." Pels eyes lit with understanding and rage. "What are those codes?"
Miles rattled them off; Pel's fingers flashed over her control panel. A dicey moment followed while Pel arranged the opened Great Key in the light-beam reader. Kety cried from outside the bubble, "Now, Pel!" His hand tightened on the knife. Nadina closed her eyes and stood in dignified stillness.
Pel tapped the comm link start code, dropped the bubble's force-screen, and sprang out of her seat, dragging Miles with her. "All right!" she cried, stepping away from the bubble. "We're out."
Kety's hand relaxed. The bubble's screen snapped back up. The force of it almost pushed Miles off his feet; he stumbled into the unwelcoming arms of the haut-governor's guards.
"That," said Kety coldly, eyeing the bubble with the Great Key inside, "is annoying. But a temporary inconvenience. Take them." He jerked his head at his guards, and stepped away from Nadina. "You!" he said in surprise, finding Miles in their grip.
"Me." Miles's lips peeled back on a white flash of teeth that had nothing to do with a smile. "Me all along, in fact. From start to finish." And you are finished. Of course, I may be too dead to enjoy the spectacle.... Kety dared not let any of the three interlopers live. But it would take a little time yet to arrange their deaths with civilized artistry. How much time, how many chances to- Kety caught himself just before his fist delivered a jaw-cracking blow to Miles's face. "No. You're the breakable one, isn't that right," he muttered half to himself. He stepped back, nodded to a guard. "A little shock-stick on him. On them all."
The guard unshipped his standard military issue shock-stick, glanced at the white-robed haut consorts, and hesitated. He shot a covertly beseeching look at Kety.
Miles could almost see Kety grind his teeth. "All right, just the Barrayaran!"
Looking very relieved, the guard swung his stick with a will and belted Miles three times, starting with his face and skittering down his body to belly and groin. The first touch made him yell, the second took his breath away, and the third dropped him to the floor, blazing agony radiating outward and drawing his arms and legs in. Calculation stopped, temporarily. Ghem-General Naru, just being helped to his feet, chuckled in a tone of one happy to see justice done.
"General," Kety nodded to Naru, then to the bubble, "how long to get that open?"
"Let me see." Naru knelt to the unconscious whey-faced tech, and relieved him of a small device, which he pointed at the bubble. "They've changed the codes. Half an hour, once you get my men waked up."
Kety grimaced. His wrist comm chimed. Kety's brows rose, and he spoke into it. "Yes, Captain?"
"Haut-governor," came the formal, uneasy voice of some subordinate. "We are experiencing a peculiar communication over emergency channels. An enormous data dump is being speed-loaded into our systems. Some kind of coded gibberish, but it has exceeded the memory capacity of the receiver and is spilling over into other systems like a virus. It's marked with an Imperial override. The initial signal appears to be originating from our ship. Is this... something you intend?"
Kety's brows drew down in puzzlement. Then his gaze rose to the white bubble, glowing in the center of the room. He swore, one sharp, heartfelt sibilant. "No. Ghem-General Naru! We have to get this force-screen down now!"
Kety spared a venomous glare for Pel and Miles that promised infinite retribution later, then he and Naru fell to frantic consultation. Heavy doses of synergine from the guards' med-kit failed to return the techs to immediate consciousness, though they stirred and groaned in a promising fashion. Kety and Naru were left to do it themselves. Judging by the wicked light in Pel's eyes, as she and the haut Nadina clung together, they were going to be way too late. The pain of the shock-stick blows were fading to pins and needles, but Miles remained curled up on the floor, the better not to draw further such attentions to himself.
Kety and Naru were so absorbed in their task and their irate arguments over the swiftest way to proceed, only Miles noticed when a spot on the door began to glow. Despite his pain, he smiled. A beat later, the whole door burst inward in a spray of melted plastic and metal. Another beat, to wait out anyone's hair-trigger reflexes.
Ghem-Colonel Benin, impeccably turned out in his bloodred dress uniform and freshly applied face paint, stepped firmly across the threshold. He was unarmed, but the red-clad squad behind him carried an a.r.s.enal sufficient to destroy any impediment in their path up to the size of a pocket dreadnought. Kety and Naru froze in mid-lurch; Kety's liveried retainers suddenly seemed to think better of drawing weapons, opening their hands palm-outward and standing very still. Colonel Vorreedi, equally impeccable in his House blacks, if not quite so cool in expression, stepped in behind. Benin. In the corridor beyond, Miles could just glimpse Ivan looming behind the armed men, and shifting anxiously from foot to foot.
"Good evening, haut Kety, ghem-General Naru." Benin bowed with exquisite courtesy. "By the personal order of Emperor Fletchir Giaja, it is my duty to arrest you both upon the serious charge of treason to the Empire. And," contemplating Naru especially, Benin's smile went razor-sharp, "complicity in the murder of the Imperial Servitor the Ba Lura."
From Miles's eye-level, the deck sprouted a forest of red boots, as Benin's squad clumped in to disarm and arrest Kety's retainers, and march them out with their hands atop their heads. Kety and Naru were taken along with them, sandwiched silently between some hard-eyed men who didn't look as though they were interested in listening to explanations.
At a growl from Kety, the procession paused in front of the entering Barrayarans. Miles heard Kety's voice, icy-cold: "Congratulations, Lord Vorpatril. I hope you may be fortunate enough to survive your victory."
"Huh?" said Ivan.
Oh, let him go. It would be too exhausting to try and sort out Kety about his confused inversion of Miles's little chain-of-command. Maybe Benin would have it straight. At a sharp word from their sergeant the security squad prodded their prisoners back into motion and clattered on down the corridor.
Four shiny black boots made their way through the mob and halted before Miles's nose. Speaking of explanations... Miles twisted his head and looked up the odd foreshortened perspective at Colonel Vorreedi and Ivan. The deck was cool beneath his stinging cheek, and he didn't really want to move, even supposing he could.
Ivan bent over him, giving an upside-down view up his nostrils, and said in a strained tone, "Are you all right?"
"Sh-sh-shock-stick. Nothing b-broken."
"Right," said Ivan, and hauled him to his feet by his collar. Miles hung a moment, shivering and twitching like a fish on a hook, till he found his unsteady balance. By necessity, he leaned on Ivan, who supported him with an un-commenting hand under his elbow.
Colonel Vorreedi looked him up and down. "I'll let the amba.s.sador do the protesting about that." Vorreedi's distant expression suggested he thought privately that the fellow with the shock-stick had stopped too soon. "Vorob'yev is going to need all the ammunition he can get. You have created the most extraordinary public incident of his career, I suspect."
"Oh, Colonel," sighed Miles. "I predict there's going to b-be nothing p-public 'bout this incident. Wait 'n see."
Ghem-Colonel Benin, across the room, was bowing and sc.r.a.ping to the hauts Pel and Nadina, and supplying them with float-chairs, albeit lacking force-screens, extra robes, and ghem-lady attendants. Arresting them in the style to which they were accustomed?
Miles glanced up at Vorreedi. "Has Ivan, um, explained everything, sir?"
"I trust so," said Vorreedi, in a voice drenched with menace.
Ivan nodded vigorously, but then hedged, "Um... all I could. Under the circ.u.mstances."
Meaning, lack of privacy from Cetagandan eavesdroppers, Miles presumed. All, Ivan? Is my cover still intact?
"I admit," Vorreedi went on, "I am still.... a.s.similating it."
"What h-happened after I left the Star Creche?" Miles asked Ivan.
"I woke up and you were gone. I think that was the worst moment of my life, knowing you'd gone haring off on some crazy self-appointed mission with no backup."
"Oh, but you were my backup, Ivan," Miles murmured, earning himself a glare. "And a good one too, as you have just demonstrated, yes?"
"Yeah, your favorite kind-unconscious on the floor where I couldn't inject any kind of sense into the proceedings. You took off to get yourself killed, or worse, and everybody would have blamed me. The last thing Aunt Cordelia said to me before we left was, 'And try to keep him out of trouble, Ivan.'"
Miles could hear Countess Vorkosigan's weary, exasperated cadences quite precisely in Ivan's parody.
"Anyway, as soon as I figured out what the h.e.l.l was going on, I got away from the haut- ladies-"
"G.o.d, Miles, they're just like my mother, only eight times over. Ugh! Anyway, the haut Rian insisted I go through ghem-Colonel Benin, which I was willing to do-he at least seemed like he had his head screwed on straight-"
Perhaps attracted by the sound of his name, Benin strolled over to listen in on this.
"-and G.o.d be praised he paid attention to me. Seemed to make more sense out of my gabble than I did at the time."
Benin nodded. "I was of course following the very unusual activities around the Star Creche today-"
Around, not in. Quite.
"My own investigations had already led me to suspect something was going on involving one or more of the haut-governors, so I had orbital squads on alert."
"Squads, ha," said Ivan. "There's three Imperial battle cruisers surrounding this ship right now."
Benin smiled slightly, and shrugged.
"Ghem-General Chilian is a dupe, I believe," Miles put in. "Though you will p-probably wish to question him about the activities of his wife, the haut Vio."
"He has already been detained," Benin a.s.sured him.