He paused before seating himself at her comconsole, to stare out the sealed window at the park, and the transparent dome arcing over it to let in the free solar energy. Komarr’s wan sun was not directly visible, risen to the east behind this apartment block, but the line of its morning light crept across the far edge of the park. The damaged insolation mirror, following it, had not yet risen over the horizon to double the shadows it cast.
   So does this mean seven thousand years bad luck?
   He sighed, darkened the window’s polarization-scarcely necessary-seated himself at the comconsole, and began feeding it data disks. A couple of dozen good-sized new pieces of wreckage had been retrieved overnight; he ran the vids of them turning in space as the salvage ships approached. Theory was, if you could find every fragment, take precise recordings of all their spins and trajectories, and then run them backward, you could end up with a computer-generated picture of the very moment of the disaster, and so diagnose its cause. Real life never worked out quite that neatly, alas, but every little bit helped. ImpSec Komarr was still canvassing the orbital transfer stations for any casual vid-carrying tourists who might have been panning that section of space at the time of the whatever-and-collision. Futilely by now, Miles feared; usually, such people came forward immediately, excited and wanting to be helpful.
   Vorthys and the probable-cause crew were now of the opinion that the ore tow had already been in more than one piece at the moment it had struck the mirror, a speculation which had not yet been released to the general public. So had the evidence-destroying explosion of the engines been cause or consequence of that catastrophe? And at what point had those tortured fragments of metal and plastic acquired some of their more interesting distortions?
   Miles reran, for the twentieth time that week, the computer’s track of the freighter’s course prior to the collision, and contemplated its anomalies. The ship had carried only its pilot, on a routine-indeed, dead boring-slow run in from the asteroid mining belt to an orbital refinery. The engines had not been supposed to be thrusting at the time of the accident; acceleration had been completed and deceleration was not yet due to begin. The tow ship had been running about five hours ahead of schedule, but only because it had departed early, not because it had boosted hotter than usual. It had been coasting off-course by about six percent, within normal parameters and not yet ready for course correction, though the pilot might have been amusing herself trying to achieve more precision with some unscheduled microboosting. Even with the minor course correction due, the tow ship’s route had been several hundred comfortable kilometers from the soletta array, in fact farther away than if it had been precisely on course.
   What the course variation had done was take the freighter’s track almost directly across one of Komarr’s unused worm-hole jump points. Komarr local space was unusually rich in active jump points, a fact of strategic and historic consequence; one of the jumps was Barrayar’s only gateway to the wormhole nexus. It was for control of the jump points, not for possession of the chilly planet, that Barrayar’s invasion fleet had poured through here thirty-five years ago. As long as the Imperium’s military held that high ground, its interest in Komarr’s downside population and their problems was, at best, mild.
   This jump point, however, supported neither traffic nor trade nor strategic threat. Explorations through it had dead-ended either in deep interstellar space, or close to stars that did not support either habitable planets or economically recoverable system resources. Nobody jumped out through there; nobody should have jumped in through there. The immediate vision of some unmotivated pirate-villain popping out of the worm-hole, potting the innocent ore freighter-by some weapon that left no traces, mind you-and popping back in again was currently unsupported by any evidence whatsoever, though the area had been scoured for it. It was the news media’s current favorite scenario. But none of the five-space trails generated by ships taking wormhole jumps had been detected, either.
   The five-space anomaly of the jump point was not even observable by ordinary means from three-space; it should not, just sitting there, have affected the freighter in any way even if the ship had passed directly across its central vortex. The freighter was a dedicated inner-system ship, and lacked Necklin rods and jump capacity. Still… the jump point was there. Nothing else was.
   Miles rubbed his neck and turned to the new autopsy report. Gruesome, as always. The pilot had been a Komarran woman in her mid-fifties. Call it Barrayaran sexism, but female corpses always bothered Miles more. Death was such a malicious destroyer of dignity. Had he looked that disordered and exposed when he’d gone down to the sniper’s fire? The pilot’s body showed the usual progression: smashed, decompressed, irradiated, and frozen, all quite typical of deep-space impact accidents. One arm torn off, somewhere in the initial crunch rather than later, judging from the close-up vids of the freezing-effects of liquids lost at the stump. It had been a quick death, anyway. Miles knew better than to add, Almost painless. No traces of illicit drugs or alcohol had been found in her frozen tissues.
   The Komarran medical examiner, along with his six final reports, included a message wanting to know if he had Miles’s permission to release the bodies of the six members of the mirror’s station-keeping crew back to their waiting families.
   Good God, hadn’t that been done yet? As an Imperial Auditor, he wasn’t supposed to be running this investigation, just observing and reporting on it. He did not desire his mere presence to freeze anyone’s initiative. He fired off the permission immediately, right from Madame Vorsoisson’s comconsole.
   He started working his way through the six reports. They were more detailed than the prelims he’d already seen, but contained no surprises. By this time, he wanted a surprise, something, anything beyond Spaceship blows up for no reason, kills seven. Not to mention the astronomical property damage bill. With three reports assimilated, and his bland breakfast becoming a regret in his stomach, he backed out for a short period of mental recovery.
   Idly, while waiting for the queasiness to pass, he sorted through Madame Vorsoisson’s data files. The one titled Virtual Gardens sounded pleasant. Perhaps she wouldn’t mind if he took a virtual stroll through them. The Water Garden enticed him. He called it up on the holovid plate before him.
   It was, as he had guessed, a landscape design program. One could view it from any distance or angle, from a miniature-looking total overview to a blown-up detailed inspection of a particular planting; one could program a stroll through its paths at any given eye level. He chose his own, at ahem-mumble-something under five feet. The individual plants grew according to realistic programs taking into account light, water, gravitation, trace nutrients, and even attacks by programmed pests. This garden was about a third filled, with tentative arrangements of grasses, violets, sedges, water lilies, and horsetails; it was currently suffering an outbreak of algae. The colors and shapes stopped abruptly at the unfinished edges, as if an invasion from some alien gray geometric universe were gobbling it all up.
   His curiosity piqued, in best approved ImpSec style he dropped to the program’s underlayer and checked for activity levels. The busiest recently, he discovered, was one labeled The Barrayaran Garden. He popped back up to the display level, selected his own eye-height again, and entered it.
   It was not a garden of pretty Earth-plants set on some suitably famous site on Barrayar; it was a garden made up entirely and exclusively of native species, something he would not have guessed possible, let alone lovely. He’d always considered their uniform red-brown hues and stubby forms boring at best. The only Barrayaran vegetation he could identify and name offhand was that to which he was violently allergic. But Madame Vorsoisson had somehow used shape and texture to create a sepia-toned serenity. Rocks and running water framed the various plants-there was a low carmine mass of love-lies-itching, forming a border for a billowing blond stand of razor-grass, which, he had once been assured, botanically was not a grass. Nobody argued about the razor part, he’d noticed. Judging from the common names, the lost Barrayaran colonists had not loved their new xenobotany: damnweed, henbloat, goatbane… It’s beautiful. How did she make it beautiful? He’d never seen anything like it. Maybe that kind of artist’s eye was something you just had to be born with, like perfect pitch, which he also lacked.
   In the Imperial capital of Vorbarr Sultana, there was a small and dull green park at the end of the block beside Vorkosigan House, on a site where another old mansion had been torn down. The little park had been leveled with more of an eye to security concerns for the neighboring Lord Regent than any aesthetic plan. Would it not be splendid, to replace it with a larger version of this glorious subtlety, and give the city-dwellers a taste of their own planetary heritage? Even if it would-he checked— take fifteen years to grow to this mature climax…
   The virtual garden program was supposed to help prevent time-consuming and costly design mistakes. But when all the garden you could have was what you could pack in your luggage, he supposed it could be a hobby in its own right. It was certainly neater, tidier, and easier than the real thing. So… why did he guess she found it approximately as satisfying as looking at a holovid of dinner instead of eating it?
   Or maybe she’s just homesick. Regretfully, he closed down the display.
   In pure trained habit, he next called up her financial program, for a little quick analysis. It turned out to be her household account. She ran her home on a quite tight budget, given what Administrator Vorsoisson’s salary ought to be, Miles thought; her biweekly allowance was rather stingy. She didn’t spend nearly as much on her botanical hobbies as the results suggested she must. Other hobbies, other vices? The money trail was always the most revealing of people’s true pursuits; ImpSec hired the Imperium’s best accountants to find ingenious ways to hide their own activities, for that very reason. She spent damn little on clothes, except for Nikolai’s. He’d heard parents of his acquaintance complain about the cost of dressing their children, but surely this was extraordinary… wait, that wasn’t a clothing expenditure. Funds squeezed here, here, and there were all being funneled into a dedicated little private account labeled “Nikolai’s Medical.”
   Why? As dependents of a Barrayaran bureaucrat on Komarr, weren’t the Vorsoissons’ medical expenses covered by the Imperium?
   He called up the account. A year’s worth of savings from her household budget did not make a very impressive pile, but the pattern of contributions was steady to the point of being compulsive. Puzzled, he backed out again and called up the whole program list. Clues?
   One file, down at the end of the list, had no name. He called it up immediately. It turned out to be the only thing on her comconsole which required a password for entry. Interesting.
   Her comconsole program was the simplest and cheapest commercial type. ImpSec cadets dissected files like this as a class warmup exercise. A touch of homesickness of his own twinged through him. He dropped to the underlayer and had its password choked out in about five minutes. Vorzohn’s Dystrophy? Well, that wasn’t a mnemonic he would have guessed offhand. His reflexes overtook his growing unease. He had the file open simultaneously with belated second thoughts, You’re not in ImpSec anymore, you know. Should you be doing this?
   The file proved to contain a medical course’s worth of articles, culled from every imaginable Barrayaran and galactic source, on the topic of one of Barrayar’s rarer and more obscure home-grown genetic disorders. Vorzohn’s Dystrophy had arisen during the Time of Isolation, principally, as its name suggested, among the Vor caste, but had not been medically identified as a mutation until the return of galactic medicine. For one thing, it lacked the sort of exterior markers that would have caused, well, him for example, to have had his throat cut at birth. It was an adult-onset disease, beginning with a bewildering variety of physical debilitations and ending with mental collapse and death. In the harsher world of Barrayar’s past, carriers frequently met their deaths from other causes after bearing or engendering children, but before the syndrome manifested itself. Enough madness ran in enough families— including some of my dear Vorrutyer ancestors-from other causes that late onset was frequently identified as something else anyway. Thoroughly nasty.
   But it’s treatable now, isn’t it?
   Yes, albeit expensively; that went with the rare part, no economies of scale. Miles scanned rapidly down the articles. Symptoms were manageable with a variety of costly biochemical concoctions to flush out and replace the distorted molecules; retrogenetic true cures were available at a higher price. Well, almost true cures: any progeny would still have to be screened for it, preferably at the time of fertilization and before being popped into the uterine replicator for gestation.
   Hadn’t young Nikolai been gestated in a uterine replicator? Good God, Vorsoisson surely hadn’t insisted his wife-and child-go through the dangers of old-fashioned body-gestation, had he? Only a few of the most conservative Old Vor families still held out for the old ways, a custom upon which Miles’s own mother had vented the most violently acerbic criticism he’d ever heard from her lips. And she should know.
   So what the hell is going on here? He sat back, mouth tight. If, as the files suggested, Nikolai was known or suspected to carry Vorzohn’s Dystrophy, one or both of his parents must also. How long had they known?
   He suddenly realized what he should have noticed before, in the initial illusion of smug marital bliss which Vorsoisson managed to project. That was always the hardest part, seeing the absent pieces. About three more children were missing, that was what. Some little sisters for Nikolai, please, folks? But no. So they’ve known at least since shortly after their son was born. What a personal nightmare. But is he the carrier, or is she? He hoped it wasn’t Madame Vorsoisson; horrible to think of that serene beauty crumbling under the onslaught of such internal disruption…
   I don’t want to know all this.
   His idle curiosity was justly punished. This idiot snooping was surely not proper behavior for an Imperial Auditor, however much it had been inculcated in an ImpSec covert ops agent. Former agent. Where was all that shiny new Auditor’s probity now? He might as well have been sniffing in her underwear drawer. I can’t leave you alone for a damn minute, can I, boy?
   He’d chafed for years under military regulations, till he’d come to a job with no written regs at all. His sense of having died and gone to heaven had lasted about five minutes. An Imperial Auditor was the Emperor’s Voice, his eyes and ears and sometimes hands, a lovely job description till you stopped to wonder just what the hell that poetic metaphor was supposed to mean.
   So was it a useful test to ask himself, Can I imagine Gregor doing this or that thing? Gregor’s apparent Imperial sternness hid an almost painful personal shyness. The mind boggled. All right, should the question instead be, Could I imagine Gregor in his office as Emperor doing this? Just what acts, wrong for a private individual, were yet lawful for an Imperial Auditor carrying out his duties? Lots, according to the precedents he’d been reading. So was the real rule, “Ad lib till you make a mistake, and then we’ll destroy you”? Miles wasn’t sure he liked that one at all.
   And even in his ImpSec days, slicing through someone’s private files had been a treatment reserved for enemies, or at least suspects. Well, and prospective recruits. And neutrals in whose territory you expected to be operating. And… and… he snorted self-derision. Gregor at least had better manners than ImpSec.
   Thoroughly embarrassed, he closed the files, erased all tracks of his entry, and called up the next autopsy report. He studied what telltales he could glean from the bodily fragmentation. Death had a temperature, and it was damned cold. He paused to turn up the workroom’s thermostat a few degrees before continuing.


   Ekaterin hadn’t realized how much a visit from an Imperial Auditor would fluster the staff of Nikolai’s school. But the Professor, a long-time educator himself, quickly made them understand this wasn’t an official inspection, and produced all the right phrases to put them at their ease. Still, she and Uncle Vorthys didn’t linger as long as Tien had suggested to her.
   To burn a bit more time, she took him on a short tour of Serifosa Dome’s best spots: the prettiest gardens, the highest observation platforms, looking out across the sere Komarran landscape beyond the sealed urban sprawl. Serifosa was the capital of this planetary Sector-she still had to make an effort not to think of it as a Barrayaran-style District. Barrayaran District boundaries were more organic, higgly-piggly territories following rivers, mountain ranges, and ragged lines where Counts’ armies had lost historic battles. Komarran Sectors were neat geometric slices equitably dividing the globe. Though the so-called domes, really thousands of interconnected structures of all shapes, had lost their early geometries centuries ago, as they were built outward in random and unmatching spurts of architectural improvement.
   Somewhat belatedly, she realized she ought to be dragging the engineer emeritus through the deepest utility tunnels, and the power and atmosphere cycling plants. But by then it was time for lunch. Her guided tour fetched up near her favorite restaurant, pseudo-outdoors with tables spilling out into a landscaped park under the glassed-in sky. The damaged soletta-array was now visible, creeping along the ecliptic, veiled today by thin high clouds as if ashamedly hiding its deformations.
   The enormous power of the Emperor’s Voice conferred upon an Auditor hadn’t changed her uncle much, Ekaterin was pleased to note; he still retained his enthusiasm for splendid desserts, and, under her guidance, constructed his menu choices from the sweets course backwards. She couldn’t quite say “hadn’t changed him at all”; he seemed to have acquired more social caution, pausing for more than just technical calculations before he spoke. But it wasn’t as if he could entirely ignore other people’s new and exaggerated reactions to him.
   They put in their orders, and she followed her uncle’s gaze upward as he briefly studied the soletta from this angle. She said, “There’s not really a danger of the Imperium abandoning the soletta project, is there? We’ll have to at least repair it. I mean… it looks so unbalanced like that.”
   “In fact, it is unbalanced at present. Solar wind. They’ll have to do something about that shortly,” he replied. “I should certainly not like to see it abandoned. It was the greatest engineering achievement of the Komarrans’ colonial ancestors, apart from the domes themselves. People at their best. If it was sabotage… well, that was certainly people at their worst. Vandalism, just senseless vandalism.”
   An artist describing the defacement of some great historic painting could hardly have been more vehement. Ekaterin said, “I’ve heard older Komarrans talk about how they felt when Admiral Vorkosigan’s invasion forces took over the mirror, practically the first thing. I can’t think that it had much tactical value, at the high speed at which the space battles went, but it certainly had a huge psychological impact. It was almost as if we had captured their sun itself. I think returning it to Komarran civilian control in the last few years was a very good political move. I hope this doesn’t mess that up.”
   “It’s hard to say.” That new caution, again.
   “There was talk of opening its observation platform to tourism again. Though now I imagine they’re relieved they hadn’t yet.”
   “They still have plenty of VIP tours. I took one myself, when I was here several years ago teaching a short course at Solstice University. Fortunately, there were no visitors aboard on the day of the collision. But it should be open to the public, to be seen and to educate. Do it up right, with maybe a museum on-site explaining how it was first built. It’s a great work. Odd to think that its principal practical use is to make swamps.”
   “Swamps make breathable air. Eventually.” She smiled. In her uncle’s mind the pure engineering aesthetic clearly overshadowed the messy biological end view.
   “Next you’ll be defending the rats. There really are rats here, I understand?”
   “Oh, yes, the dome tunnels have rats. And hamsters, and gerbils. All the children capture them for pets, which is likely where they came from in the first place, come to think of it. I do think the black-and-white rats are cute. The animal-control exterminators have to work in dead secret from their younger relatives. And we have roaches, of course, who doesn’t? And-over in Equinox-wild cockatoos. A couple of pairs of them escaped, or were let loose, several decades ago. They now have these big rainbow-colored birds all over the place, and people will feed them. The sanitation crews wanted to get rid of them, but the Dome shareholders voted them down.”
   The waitress delivered their salads and iced tea, and there was a short break in the conversation while her uncle appreciated the fresh spinach, mangoes and onions, and candied pecans. She’d guessed the candied pecans would please him. The market-garden hydroponics production in Serifosa was among Komarr’s best.
   She used the break to redirect the conversation toward her greatest current curiosity. “Your colleague Lord Vorkosigan— did he really have a thirteen-year career in Imperial Security?” Or were you just irritated by Tien?
   “Three years in the Imperial Military Academy, a decade in ImpSec, to be precise.”
   “How did he ever get in, past the physicals?”
   “Nepotism, I believe. Of a sort. To give him credit, it seems to have been an advantage he used sparingly thereafter. I had the fascinating experience of reading his entire classified military record, when Gregor asked me and my fellow Auditors to review Vorkosigan’s candidacy, before he made the appointment.”
   She subsided in slight disappointment. “Classified. In that case, I suppose you can’t tell me anything about it.”
   “Well,” he grinned around a mouthful of salad, “there was the Dagoola IV episode. You must have heard of it, that giant breakout from the Cetagandan prisoner-of-war camp that the Marilacans made a few years ago?”
   She recalled it only dimly. She’d been heads-down in motherhood, about that time, and scarcely paid attention to news, especially any so remote as galactic news. But she nodded encouragement for him to go on.
   “It’s all old history now. I understand from Vorkosigan that the Marilacans are engaged in producing a holovid drama on the subject. The Greatest Escape, or something like that, they’re calling it. They tried to hire him-or actually, his cover identity-to be a technical consultant on the script, an opportunity he has regretfully declined. But for ImpSec to retain security classification upon a series of events that the Marilacans are simultaneously dramatizing planetwide strikes me as a bit rigid, even for ImpSec. In any case, Vorkosigan was the Barrayaran agent behind that breakout.”
   “I didn’t even know we had an agent behind that.”
   “He was our man on-site.”
   So that odd joke about snoring Marilacans… hadn’t been. Quite. “If he was so good, why did he quit?”
   “Hm.” Her uncle applied himself to mopping up the last of his salad dressing with his multigrain roll, before replying. “I can only give you an edited version of that. He didn’t quit voluntarily. He was very badly injured-to the point of requiring cryo-freezing-a couple of years ago. Both the original injury and the cryo-freeze did him a lot of damage, some of it permanent. He was forced to take a medical discharge, which he-hm!-did not handle well. It’s not my place to discuss those details.”
   “If he was injured badly enough to need cryo-freeze, he was dead!” she said, startled.
   “Technically, I suppose so. ‘Alive’ and ‘dead’ are not such neat categories as they used to be in the Time of Isolation.”
   So, her uncle was in possession of just the sort of medical information about Vorkosigan’s mutations she most wanted to know, if he had paid any attention to it. Military physicals were thorough.
   “So rather than let all that training and experience go to waste,” Uncle Vorthys went on, “Gregor found a job for Vorkosigan on the civilian side. Most Auditorial duties are not too physically onerous… though I confess, it’s been useful to have someone younger and thinner than myself to send out-station for those long inspections in a pressure suit. I’m afraid I’ve abused his endurance a bit, but he’s proved very observant.”
   “So he really is your assistant?”
   “By no means. What fool said that? All Auditors are coequal. Seniority is only good for getting one stuck with certain administrative chores, on the rare occasions when we act as a group. Vorkosigan, being a well-brought-up young man, is polite to my white hairs, but he’s an independent Auditor in his own right, and goes just where he pleases. At present it pleases him to study my methods. I shall certainly take the opportunity to study his.
   “Our Imperial charge doesn’t come with a manual, you see. It was once proposed the Auditors create one for themselves, but they-wisely, I think-concluded it would do more harm than good. Instead, we just have our archives of Imperial reports; precedents, without rules. Lately, several of us more recent appointees have been trying to read a few old reports each week, and then meet for dinner to discuss the cases and analyze how they were handled. Fascinating. And delicious. Vorkosigan has the most extraordinary cook.”
   “But this is his first assignment, isn’t it? And… he was designated just like that, on the Emperor’s whim.”
   “He had a temporary appointment as a Ninth Auditor first. A very difficult assignment, inside ImpSec itself. Not my kind of thing at all.”
   She was not totally oblivious to the news. “Oh, dear. Did he have anything to do with why ImpSec changed chiefs twice last winter?”
   “I so much prefer engineering investigations,” her uncle observed mildly.
   Their vat-chicken salad sandwiches arrived, while Ekaterin absorbed this deflection. What kind of reassurance was she seeking, after all? Vorkosigan disturbed her, she had to admit, with his cool smile and warm eyes, and she couldn’t say why. He did tend to the sardonic. Surely she was not subconsciously prejudiced against mutants, when Nikolai himself… In the Time of Isolation, if such a one as Vorkosigan had been born to me, it would have been my maternal duty to the genome to cut his infant throat.
   Nikki, happily, would have escaped my cleansing. For a while.
   The Time of Isolation is over forever. Thank God.
   “I gather you like Vorkosigan,” she began once again to angle for the kind of information she sought.
   “So does your aunt. The Professora and I had him to dinner a few times, last winter, which is where Vorkosigan came up with the notion of the discussion meetings, come to think of it. I know he’s rather quiet at first-cautious, I think-but he can be very witty, once you get him going.”
   “Does he amuse you?” Amusing had certainly not been her first impression.
   He swallowed another bite of sandwich, and glanced up again at the white irregular blur in the clouds now marking the position of the soletta. “I taught engineering for thirty years. It had its drudgeries. But each year, I had the pleasure of finding in my classes a few of the best and brightest, who made it all worthwhile.” He sipped spiced tea and spoke more slowly. “But much less often-every five or ten years at most-a true genius would turn up among my students, and the pleasure became a privilege, to be treasured for life.”
   “You think he’s a genius?” she said, raising her eyebrows. The high Vor twit?
   “I don’t know him quite well enough, yet. But I suspect so, a part of the time.”
   “Can you be a genius part of the time?”
   “All the geniuses I ever met were so just part of the time. To qualify, you only have to be great once, you know. Once when it matters. Ah, dessert. My, this is splendid!” He applied himself happily to a large chocolate confection with whipped cream and more pecans.
   She wanted personal data, but she kept getting career synopses. She would have to take a more embarrassingly direct path. While arranging her first spoonful of her spiced apple tart and ice cream, she finally worked up her nerve to ask, “Is he married?”
   “That surprises me.” Or did it? “He’s high Vor, heavens, the highest-he’ll be a District Count someday, won’t he? He’s wealthy, or so I would assume, he has an important position…” She trailed off. What did she want to say? What’s wrong with him that he hasn’t acquired his own lady by now? What kind of genetic damage made him like that, and was it from his mother or his father? Is he impotent, is he sterile, what does he really look like under those expensive clothes? Is he hiding more serious deformities? Is he homosexual? Would it be safe to leave Nikolai alone with him? She couldn’t say any of that, and her oblique hints weren’t eliciting anything even close to the answers she sought. Drat it, she wouldn’t have had this kind of trouble getting the pertinent information if she’d been talking to the Professora.
   “He’s been out of the Empire most of the past decade,” he said, as if that explained something.
   “Does he have siblings?” Normal brothers or sisters?
   That’s a bad sign.
   “Oh, I take that back,” Uncle Vorthys added. “Not in the usual sense, I should say. He has a clone. Doesn’t look like him, though.”
   “That-if he’s a-I don’t understand.”
   “You’ll have to get Vorkosigan to explain it to you, if you’re curious. It’s complicated even by his standards. I haven’t met the fellow myself yet.” Around a mouthful of chocolate and cream, he added, “Speaking of siblings, were you planning any more for Nikolai? Your family is going to be very stretched out, if you wait much longer.”
   She smiled in panic. Dare she tell him? Tien’s accusation of betrayal seared her memory, but she was so tired, exhausted, sick to death of the stupid secrecy. If only her aunt were here…
   She was dully conscious of her contraceptive implant, the one bit of galactic techno-culture Tien had embraced without question. It gave her a galactic’s sterility without a galactic’s freedom. Modern women gladly traded the deadly lottery of fertility for the certainties of health and result that came with the use of the uterine replicator, but Tien’s obsession with concealment had barred her from that reward too. Even if he was somatically cured, his germ-cells would not be, and any progeny would still have to be genetically screened. Did he mean to cut off all future children? When she’d tried to discuss the issue, he’d put her off with an airy, First things first; when she’d persisted, he’d become angry, accusing her of nagging and selfishness. That was always effective at shutting her up.
   She skittered sideways to her uncle’s question. “We’ve moved around so much. I kept waiting for things to get settled with Tien’s career.”
   “He does seem to have been rather, ah, restless.” He raised his eyebrows at her, inviting… what?
   “I… won’t pretend that hasn’t been difficult.” That was true enough. Thirteen different jobs in a decade. Was this normal for a rising bureaucrat? Tien said it was a necessity, no bosses ever promoted from within or raised a former subordinate above them; you had to go around to move up. “We’ve moved eight times. I’ve abandoned six gardens, so far. The last two relocations, I just didn’t plant anything except in pots. And then I had to leave most of the pots, when we came here.”
   Maybe Tien would stay with this Komarran post. How could he ever garner the rewards of promotion and seniority, the status he hungered for, if he never stuck with one thing long enough to earn any? His first few postings, she’d had to agree with him, had been mediocre; she’d had no problem understanding why he wanted to move on quickly. A young couple’s early life was supposed to be unsettled, as they stretched into their new lives as adults. Well, as she’d stretched into hers; she’d been only twenty, after all. Tien had been thirty when they’d married…
   He’d started every new job with a burst of enthusiasm, working hard, or at least, very long hours. Surely no one could work harder. Then the enthusiasm dwindled, and the complaints began, of too much work, too little reward, offered too slowly. Lazy coworkers, smarmy bosses. At least, so he said. That had become her secret danger signal, when Tien began offering sly sexual slander of his superiors; it meant the job was about to end, again. A new one would be found… though it seemed to take longer and longer to find a new one, these days. And his enthusiasm would flame up again, and the cycle would begin anew. But her hypersensitized ear had picked up no bad signs so far in this job, and they’d been here nearly a year already. Maybe Tien had finally found his— what had Vorkosigan called it? His passion. This was the best posting he’d ever achieved; perhaps things were finally starting to break into good fortune, for a change. If she just stuck it out long enough, it would get better, virtue would be rewarded. And… with this Vorzohn’s Dystrophy thing hanging over them, Tien had good reason for impatience. His time was not unlimited.
   And yours is? She blinked that thought away.
   “Your aunt was not sure if things were working out happily for you. Do you dislike Komarr?”
   “Oh, I like Komarr just fine,” she said quickly. “I admit, I’ve been a little homesick, but that’s not the same thing as not liking being here.”
   “She did think you would seize the opportunity to place Nikki in a Komarran school, for the, as she would say, cultural experience. Not that his school we saw this morning isn’t very nice, of course, which I shall report back for her reassurance, I promise.”
   “I was tempted. But being a Barrayaran, an off-worlder, in a Komarran classroom might have been difficult for Nikki. You know how kids can gang up on anyone who’s different, at that age. Tien thought this private school would be much better. A lot of the high Vor families in the Sector send their children there. He thought Nikki could make good connections.”
   “I did not have the impression that Nikki was socially ambitious.” His dryness was mitigated by a slight twinkle.
   How was she to respond to that? Defend a choice she did not herself agree with? Admit she thought Tien wrong? If she once began complaining about Tien, she wasn’t sure she could stop before her most fearful worries began to pour out. And people complaining about their spouses always looked and sounded so ugly. “Well, connections for me, at least.” Not that she had been able to muster the energy to pursue them as assiduously as Tien thought she ought.
   “Ah. It’s good you’re making friends.”
   “Yes, well… yes.” She scraped at the last of the apple syrup on her plate.
   When she looked up, she noticed a good-looking young Komarran man who had stopped by the outer gate to the restaurant’s patio and was staring at her. After a moment, he entered and approached their table. “Madame Vorsoisson?” he said uncertainly.
   “Yes?” she said warily.
   “Oh, good, I thought I recognized you. My name is Andro Farr. We met at the Winterfair reception for the Serifosa terraforming employees a few months ago, do you remember?”
   Dimly. “Oh, yes. You were somebody’s guest…?”
   “Yes. Marie Trogir. She’s an engineering tech in the Waste Heat Management department. Or she was… Do you know her? I mean, has she ever talked with you?”
   “No, not really.” Ekaterin had met the young Komarran woman perhaps three times, at carefully choreographed Project events. She had usually been too conscious of herself as a representative of Tien, of the need to cordially meet and greet everyone, to get into any very intimate conversations. “Had she intended to talk to me?”
   The young man slumped in disappointment. “I don’t know. I thought you might have been friends, or at least acquaintances. I’ve talked to all her friends I can find.”
   “Urn… oh?” Ekaterin was not at all sure she wished to encourage this conversation.
   Farr seemed to sense her wariness; he flushed slightly. “Excuse me. I seem to have found myself in a rather painful domestic situation, and I don’t know why. It took me by surprise. But… but you see… about six weeks ago, Marie told me she was going out of town on a field project for her department, and would be back in about five weeks, but she wasn’t sure exactly. She didn’t give me any comconsole codes to reach her, she said she’d probably not be able to call, and not to worry.”
   “Do you, um, live with her?”
   “Yes. Anyway, time went by, and time went by, and I didn’t hear… I finally called her department head, Administrator Soudha. He was vague. In fact, I think he gave me a run-around. So I went down there in person and asked around.
   When I finally pinned him, he said,” Farr swallowed, “she’d resigned abruptly six weeks ago and left. So had her engineering boss, Radovas, the one she’d said she was going on the field project with. Soudha seemed to think they’d… left together. It makes no sense.”
   The idea of running away from a relationship and leaving no forwarding address made perfect sense to Ekaterin, but it was hardly her place to say so. Who knew what profound dissatisfactions Farr had failed to detect in his lady? “I’m sorry. I know nothing about this. Tien never mentioned it.”
   “I’m sorry to bother you, Madame.” He hesitated, balanced upon turning away.
   “Have you talked to Madame Radovas?” Ekaterin asked tentatively.
   “I tried. She refused to talk with me.”
   That, too, was understandable, if her middle-aged husband had run off with a younger and prettier woman.
   “Have you filed a missing person report with Dome Security?” Uncle Vorthys inquired. Ekaterin realized she hadn’t introduced him and, on reflection, decided to leave it that way.
   “I wasn’t sure. I think I’m about to.”
   “Mm,” said Ekaterin. Did she really want to encourage the fellow to persecute this girl? She had apparently got away clean. Had she chosen this cruel method of ending their relationship because she was a twit, or because he was a monster? There was no way to tell from the outside. You could never tell what secret burdens anyone carried, concealed by their bright smiles.
   “She left all her things. She left her cats. I don’t know what to do with them,” he said rather piteously.
   Ekaterin had heard of desperate women leaving everything up to and including their children, but Uncle Vorthys put in, “That does seem odd. I’d go to Security if I were you, if only to put your mind at ease. You can always apologize later, if necessary.”
   “I… I think I might. Good day, Madame Vorsoisson. Sir.” He ran his hands through his hair, and let himself back out the little fake wrought-iron gate to the park.
   “Perhaps we ought to be getting back,” Ekaterin suggested as the young man turned out of sight. “Should we take Lord Vorkosigan some lunch? They’ll make up a carry-out.”
   “I’m not sure he notices missing meals, when he’s wound up in a problem, but it does seem only fair.”
   “Do you know what he likes?”
   “Anything, I would imagine.”
   “Does he have any food allergies?”
   “Not as far as I know.”
   She made a hasty selection of a suitably balanced and nutritious meal, hoping that the prettily-arranged vegetables wouldn’t end up in the waste disposer. With males, you never knew. When the order was delivered, they took their leave, and Ekaterin led the way to the nearest bubble-car station to get back to her own dome section. She still had no clear idea how Vorkosigan had so successfully handled his mutant-status on their mutagen-scarred homeworld, except, perhaps, by pursuing most of his career off it. Was that likely to be any help to Nikolai?


   Etienne Vorsoisson’s bureaucratic domain occupied two floors partway up a sealed tower otherwise devoted to local Serifosa Dome government offices. The tower, on the edge of the dome-sprawl, was not housed inside any other atmosphere-containing structure. Miles eyed the glass-roofed atrium with disfavor as they ascended a curving escalator within it. He swore his ear detected a faint, far off whistle of air escaping some less-than-tight seal. “So what happens if somebody lobs a rock through a window?” he murmured to the Professor, a step behind him.
   “Not much,” Vorthys murmured back. “It would vent a pretty noticeable draft, but the pressure differential just isn’t that great.”
   “True.” Serifosa Dome was not really like a space installation, despite occasional misleading similarities of architecture. They made the air in here from the air out there, for the most part. Vent shafts spotted all over the dome complex sucked in Komarr’s free volatiles, filtered out the excess carbon dioxide and some trace nasties, passed the nitrogen through unaltered, and concentrated the oxygen to a humanly-bearable mix. The percentage of oxygen in Komarr’s raw atmosphere was still too low to support a large mammal without the technological aid of a breath mask, but the absolute amount remained a vast reservoir compared to the volume of even the most extensive dome complexes. “As long as their power system keeps running.”
   They stepped from the escalator and followed Vorsoisson into a corridor branching off the central atrium. The sight of a case of emergency breath masks affixed to a wall next to a fire extinguisher reassured Miles slightly, in passing, that the Komarrans here were not completely oblivious to their routine hazards. Though the case looked suspiciously dusty; had it ever been used since it had been installed, however many years ago? Or checked? If this were a military inspection, Miles could amuse himself by stopping the party right now, and tearing the case apart to determine if the masks’ power and reservoir levels still fell within spec. As an Imperial Auditor, he could also do so, of course, or take any other action which struck his fancy. When a younger man, his besetting sin had been his impulsiveness. In the dark doubts of night, Miles sometimes wondered if Emperor Gregor had quite thought through his most recent Auditorial appointment. Power was supposed to corrupt, but this felt more like being a kid turned loose in a candy store. Control yourself, boy.
   The mask case fell behind without incident. Vorsoisson, as tour guide, continued to point out the offices of his various subordinate departments, without, however, inviting his visitors inside. Not that there was that much to see in these administrative headquarters. The real interest, and the real work, lay outside the domes altogether, in experimental stations and plots and pockets of biota all over Serifosa Sector. All Miles would find in these bland rooms were… com-consoles. And Komarrans, of course, lots of Komarrans.