“You can’t do this to me!” Ivan wailed. “When I made that joke about becoming a male prostitute, I meant with women clients!”
“It’s a diplomatic mission,” Gregor said drily, “you don’t have to sleep with the locals.”
Ivan looked at the briefing documents again: “Little babies?”
“There is a doubt,” Gregor said. “And my Imperial Security doesn’t like doubts; they give it indigestion.”
So here Ivan was, on a six month round trip to the most backwater hole in a wormhole nexus specialising in backwaters. He thought grimly of his ‘farewell’ at the shuttle port, his... acquaintance Byerly far too solicitous and bright eyed with a care package of pornography to keep him going on “his long lonely journey,” a package which had transpired to contain such titles as Lance Lays Loxford and Love Among The Mangroves, prized examples of the specialty Athosian export vid market. He hadn’t been amused. Less so when he remembered how chatty By and the new Lady Vorkosigan had been getting at tea parties. Even less at the thought of By’s next intelligence report to Ivan’s mother. Some indignities were just too much to ask in the service of the Barrayaran Imperium.
Still, he thought, as the shuttle settled to the ground and began to taxi, touching down on Athos today meant that he was officially almost halfway done. If you were halfway done at anything, then it was practically almost over. He grabbed his luggage and made for the exit.
“Excuse me,” the fellow passenger on the census ship, a young man with a natty moustache, touched Ivan’s shoulder to get his attention, two heavy looking bags slung over his shoulder.
“Oh hey,” Ivan spluttered, “but I don’t swing that way. Not that I’m not flattered. And you look very nice. And good looking. But I’m not-“
“Dude. I have a partner. With kids. You want to hook up with someone, go hang out in the blue light district down by Strigoi with the undesignated set. I just wanted to let you know you were going out the wrong door.”
“Oh. Um, right. Sure. Uh. Thank you very much.” Ivan felt his face heat with an uncharacteristic blush and hustled out the indicated exit. Not quite halfway done yet.
Dr Urquhart’s house was a pleasant two story affair with a large hedged in garden. He followed the doctor in – he’d been in luck and the invitation to dinner had come without him having to cadge for it. Another man with golden hair and heartbreakingly beautiful eyes came to the door to meet them – this must be the Terrence Cee the report mentioned. Elli Quinn had thought that they might try to make a go of it, and it turned out she’d been right.
A small dark haired child barrelled into him, knocking the wind out with an Oof. “Hah! Take that you dirty space pirate!” the child cried. Ivan pulled himself up and tried to get his breath back.
“Now, Jason,” Dr Urquhart said severely, “that’s no way to treat strangers.” And with that, Ivan was in.
It was a nice family, Ivan thought, if a little on the violent side, with two older children cannoning around the house playing pirates and alien invaders – probably a disturbing preview of what Miles’ and Ekaterin’s children would be like after they started spawning them. Yeah, that was a good way to think of this mission, practice dealing with other people’s offspring, to ready him for the upcoming wave of sprogs about to hit Vorbarra Sultana. A question brought him out of his reverie, and he looked up and asked for a repeat.
“If you don’t mind my saying so,” Terrence said, “you seem an odd choice for a tour of our Rep Centres. Not a doctor, I mean.”
“Oh right. That. I’m not a doctor, I’m a hapless relative. My-cousin-the-Emperor has a vile sense of humour and a habit of saying “Oh, Ivan will do it” any time a job with six months of travel time turns up. Or they need a secretary for forty Vor dragons. Or crawling through drains with my cousin. It’s just a thing. Plus they gave me a mountain of reading and surveys to fill out for the trip here.”
Urquhart nodded. “Well, we can certainly give you a tour of the Rep Centre we have here in Sevarin, and I’ll write you a letter of introduction to some of our other centres. I’m not sure how much information we can give you that’s different from galactic technology.”
Ivan spread his hands in ambivalence. “Gregor wants to know the best way to set up large banks of uterine replicators for a growing population. Says that it’s an emerging technology on Barrayar and he wants to do it right. Personally, I think it’s mostly that his heir’s cooking in one and he’s getting interested in all the knobs and dials.” He stopped. There was a particular odour rising from the small child he was holding in his lap. “Ah,” he said, and handed the baby back to his father. “Perhaps I’d better go clean up.”
This was going so easily, Ivan couldn’t believe his luck! Once in the bathroom, he carefully pulled out his test kit, disguised as a packet of cotton buds and carefully ran them one at a time over the suspicious soggy bits on his clothing: that patch of snot was from the murderous older boy, the blood stain was from a grazed knee on the suspiciously demure middle one, and, of course, the... material on his lap was from the baby, already looking to be as fair as his father, Terrence. Then wait a minute while he washed the stains out of his clothes, and the protein thingummies would bind to the RNA whatsits in the swabs, and anyone with the gene for telepathy would show up as green.
Phew. Two negatives and a positive, which he’d expected because the young Mr Cee had gotten a parentage licence. Everything was hunky dory, and no one on Barrayar would have to worry about anything because if anyone was going to have sons with the (putative) dodgy ovarian cultures, then it would be Urquhart the man who had (supposedly) retrieved them from Klein Station where they’d (presumptively) been lost not destroyed, and those paranoid freaks at ImpSec could cross one more conspiracy theory off their list. He’d had a lot of time to think about why they wanted to check out this theory, and what they might do about it, and none of them made him happy at all.
But it hadn’t happened, so Ivan wasn’t going to have to feel guilty about it, and Everything Was Alright.
When he’d escaped from the ‘quiet family dinner’ (hah!), Ivan sat down in the bar in his hotel and looked dubiously at the menu. Artichoke beer? Parsnip wine? He smiled uneasily at the man sitting next to him.
“Oh hey,” the stranger said, “you’re that offworlder who was on the census ship, right?”
“Yeah, I am. And you’re...” Damn, he’d said hello to the fellow when they’d passed in the corridor, but they hadn’t talked much on the trip. “Bernard?”
The man nodded. “I’m just waiting for my partner to go offshift before we go home. Don’t want to give the kids too much of a surprise in one go, right? I’d hoped they’d be able to meet me at the shuttle port, but it didn’t work out that way, and I had some time critical business to take care of, anyhow, so it worked out OK.”
The bartender came back and Ivan gave up and pointed randomly at something vegetable based and alcoholic.
“So what do you do that you have to go travelling around offworld? I thought you Athosians were all about staying away from the ‘corruption of the wormhole nexus’ or something.”
“Oh, me, I’m a distributor. I’ve been out and about arranging sales deals for our specialty vids.”
Ivan took a swig of his beer. “Specialty vids, huh? I’m not sure what you could get as a specialty from way out here.” A thought struck – he remembered the contents of his care package from By.
"Wait, do you sell Striding Down Strigoi Street?"
"And Lance in a Labcoat: Birthlab Blues?"
"Lance Goes Logging II: Heat Among the Hardwoods?" Ivan added, incredulous.
“Hey,” the man said, “I'll have you know that that last one has some very good detail on forestry firefighting and an intriguing plot. Characters die. We're planning a less naked remake for general circulation, OK? And it brings in foreign currency, damn it. I’m proud of what I do!”
“OK, I’m sorry,” Ivan said. “I was just surprised, that’s all.” He gestured at the bartender for a couple more vegetable beers as an apology. The vid distributor took one, mollified.
“So, do you star in the vids yourself?” Ivan asked, curious.
“Nah. I used to back in the day, but then I met Reg and, you know, True Love and all that. Plus Reggie’s really the monogamous type."
He perked up. “Hey,” he said, “do you want to see my partner’s baby pictures?”
So this was the infamous Strigoi Street, Ivan thought, peering out the window as the taxi gently puttered to Bernard's offices the next evening. It wasn't nearly as lurid as he'd expected, only a few lamp posts sporting blue light bulbs and some faded shop windows hinting at its function. Maybe it got busier later at night, he thought. Anyway, Bernie’s invitation had just been for dinner, and a relatively tame view of the Athosian night life, so it wasn’t going to matter anyway.
He headed on up the stairs to the company offices. Something, he realised, was not right - shouting and muffled thumps coming from the inner office, and a well built, clean shaven young man hovering uncomfortably in the anteroom. Ivan checked out the chiselled jawline, and the distinctive mole on the back of the young man's neck. Ah. "Lance, right?"
"It's my stage name," the young man said modestly, "my real name is Ron."
Ivan nodded, wisely.
From inside the office, he could make out more of the argument: "I saw you kissing him! I can't believe you'd do that to me!" versus the counterpoint of "I was really lonely. You left me behind for a year!" Relationship spat. Same old, same old.
"So," Ivan said, making small talk. "Do you like your job?"
"Oh yeah," Lance - Ron replied. "It's pretty good. The money's not bad, either. Course, it's more than just dropping your pants - you have to use some craft."
"I went away for you! For us!"
Ivan was about to wax knowledgeably on the strategic use of aphrodisiacs, when Ron went on: "Our Bern sent me off on some acting classes back when I was getting into the trade. I learned a lot about mood, and stillness and that. And I loved the end of course workshop." He brightened. "I was Goneril the ungrateful son, in King Lear. I had the best time."
"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child, right?" Ivan struggled to remember some more lines.
"That's not something I could explain to the boys when you weren't there to read to them at night!"
Ron looked uneasy. "Well, yes," he said. "I owe a lot to Bernard; he’s mentored me through my whole career." He hesitated. "Look, that thing between me and Reggie - there wasn't any intent or anything. It's just, Reg missed Bernard so much, and so did the kids, and I hardly ever get to see my brothers any more now I live in the big city..."
"And for all I know, you've been off seducing some foreign floozy while you were out there partying! For all I know, you've been making time with a... a..." Reg's voice dropped. "A woman."
"I'd go round every now and then for a family dinner. That was all, it just kind of..." Ron twisted his hands uneasily "grew from there. It was just a kiss, alright?"
"Oh!" The door slammed open and Bernard stalked out, pausing only to fling over his shoulder - "and how you could think such degeneracy of me!" He turned to Ivan. "So are you coming? I owe you that drink."
"And who's this little... sweetheart." Reginald (Ivan presumed) had come into the main room as well, a great big bear of a man, glaring daggers, all at him.
"Hey!" Ivan cried, offended.
"Oh come on, Reg," Bernard said in withering tones. "Look at him. He's not even my type!"
"Hey!" Ivan cried, even more offended. "I'm a very attractive man - ask anyone!"
Ron looked him up and down with a professional eye. "You could definitely work in the industry," he said helpfully.
"See what I mean!" Reginald stormed out the front door. Then turned, rage on his face. "Well? I thought we were going to dinner. So let's go!"
Seating at dinner was a complicated affair, given that two of the parties didn't want to be seated next to each other, or across from each other, or let the other one sit next to a different designated party, and Ivan didn't want to have an aisle seat and be an available target for the colourful young men with the peacock eye makeup and tight trousers who kept wandering up to him and smiling, or brushing against his shoulder, or gently touching his face. It took some shuffling, but they got it done.
The four of them got through the entrees and the main course with strained chatter about the menu, and Ivan managed a stilted conversation with Ron about camera angles, lighting technique, and the appropriate degree of bouffiness in the actors’ wigs, but eventually, as dessert, a fragrant confection of fruit and unusual smelling spices was set before them, they'd all run out of chitchat.
"Look," Bernard said. "I went home with you last night to see the children, and they didn't even know me. Andrew cried, and Gary hid behind your leg and called for 'Unca Ron.' Do you have any idea how bad that made me feel?"
As Reginald opened his mouth to speak, Ron cocked his head meaningfully at Ivan: "Want to dance?"
And so, Ivan braved the dance floor of the club, a heaving den of moving body parts and throbbing percussive music with an unfamiliar time signature. "The thing is," he said, as Ron gently placed his hands on Ivan's shoulders, "I'm really not... I mean, you know I'm an offworlder, right? It's different there, well, different for me and-"
"Hey, hey, don't worry. You seem nice, but I only want to dance, you know? Your virtue will remain safe with me." Ron grinned. They spun and turned as Ivan slowly got the hang of the music. "Besides," the porn star said, "I've seen a lot of different kinks on the bootleg market. The Fathers may censor some kinds of love, but the heart wants what the heart wants, you know?"
"Yeah, I know. Thanks." Ivan looked at Ron, his eyes wistfully resting on the two quarrellers, who were apparently in a rapprochement and holding hands. "You like both of them, don't you?" Ron gave him a wry smile and spun him away into the music.
The truce was short lived. Ivan turned to a peremptory tap on his shoulder, and found Reggie standing there demanding to cut in with his partner. He was left to dance, awkwardly, with Bernard, and gazed impersonally around the room while he tried not to step on anyone. A sharp intake of breath got his attention back – Bernie was watching with anguish in his eyes as Reg draped himself over his somewhat embarrassed dance partner.
Ivan swallowed down the bad taste in his mouth. He might not be ‘up’ on Athosian culture, but he’d seen enough bitchy girls trying to make their boyfriends jealous to know exactly what was going on. And damn it, he liked young Bernard, with his enthusiasm and romantic soppiness – no one deserved that kind of treatment. Another line from an Old Earth novel drifted into his memory: Tis a far better thing I do, than anything I have done before. Oh, to hell with it. Captain Ivan Vorpatril of the Imperial Service inwardly girded his loins, steeled his soul, and boogied.
“God the Father,” Dr Urquhart said as Ivan walked into his office the next day. “That must have been some door you walked into last night.”
“Uh, yeah,” Ivan said, gingerly fingering the pulsing shiner that was his left eye. “I was doing a favour for a friend – it’s a bit of a long story, but I think things will work out. But it was in the service of True Love, so I guess that makes it alright.”
Urquhart nodded. “I’ll get you some cream for it. You can tell me all about it while I give you that tour.”
And so Ivan did, telling him about Bern and Reggie, and the mile wide sentimental streak in the films that they produced. And Ron, who was turning all his acting parts into a love letter, hoping to be noticed. “I didn’t expect Reg to hit me so hard when he got jealous of me dancing with his partner, though.”
“Never mess with a man in love,” Urquhart said wisely, “for they are hormonal and quick to anger. I’m not looking forward to my sons reaching puberty – they’re already causing havoc in their school. They take after their... egg donor, I guess – my brothers and I were all much more mild mannered. Ah well, Terrence seems to have a calming effect on the boys, and there’s always the army when they finish the school.” He pondered for a moment. “If it survives them,” he added darkly.
“You look like you have a happy family,” Ivan said, stuck for something polite to say about the boys – he had bruises from more than Reginald, after all.
“Actually,” Urquhart said, looking suddenly embarrassed in his clean doctor’s whites. “I was wondering if you could do me a favour.”
“Sure, Dr Urquhart. What do you need?”
“Call me Ethan,” he said. The doctor – Ethan handed him a wrapped parcel. “Would you mail this for me, when you get offworld? It isn’t anything immoral, just someone I met when I was travelling and... the censors wouldn’t understand,” he added weakly.
“No problem.” Ivan glanced at the address and shoved the package in his pocket – he guessed that the doctor had stayed friends with the lethal Elli Quinn after all. More fool him, he figured.
“Now,” Ethan clapped his hands briskly. “About that tour of the Rep Centre...”
The rest of Ivan’s trip was uneventful, thank (as they said here) God the Father, although disturbingly educational about the mechanics of supporting foetuses through gestation. He did see Bernie, Reg and Ronnie one more time – they came to the shuttle port to see him off, the two lovers having apparently resolved their differences, and Ron hanging diffidently at the edge of the group, holding the hand of the older boy. But they looked happy, and as if the seeds for more happiness had been planted for the future, and Ivan was pleased to wish them well and kiss the baby goodbye. He didn’t mind about the drool on his collar, and was even extremely gracious about the black eye he’d gotten from Reg. Bernard gave him a wrapped package, which he opened in the shuttle to find an autographed copy of their latest vid: Lance Goes Logging III: The Gleaming Shafts, and a card thanking him for his help.
It was a good feeling being able to leave a planet with a job well done and happy endings all around. Now he knew why his cousin Miles seemed so addicted to rescuing people. It was only the sense of wanting to dot the last i, cross the last t, have every detail nailed down in his perfect report that made him pull out his test kit and swab the drool on his jacket before dumping it in the washer. Then he could throw the whole thing away and get on with his life.
He glanced at the swab briefly before he flicked it in the trash. The test fluid was shining a bright, brilliant green. Oh shit.
Well, and so, the shuttle trip down to Barrayar was definitely, as well as officially, almost all the way done. Ivan scratched his nose and thought about his report. ImpSec would want to know the true result, that the telepathy gene was live and spreading in the Athosian population. What Gregor was going to do with that information wasn’t his business, was it? As an officer of the Imperium, it was his job to shut up and hand over accurate information to his commanding officer.
Byerly was at the shuttle port to meet him. Of course, he was. His mother, he expected, would be summoning him To Tea, all too soon, but at least she wasn’t there quite yet. He looked at By, who was gazing at him with a brilliant ironic grin and thought to hell with it: he grabbed By around the shoulders and gave him a big smooshy kiss. “Thanks for the tips, By, I learnt a lot while I was away.” And strolled off whistling, keeping a surreptitious eye on By’s reflection in the mirrored glass of the groundcar ahead of him. Yep. Flummoxed the guy. Oh yeah, oh baby.
Let the bastard wonder.
That was the high point of his day. When he got to the Imperial Palace, he was sent straight up to Gregor and Laisa’s personal suite. Their closely guarded uterine replicator had finally been decanted a week earlier, and when he got in the new, nervous, and terribly proud parents were arguing with each other over the correct procedure to bathe their red squishy offspring. Gregor nodded briefly at the hovering nanny, and wiped suds off his face while she vacated the room for Ivan’s report.
“Well,” Ivan said. “I went out there and spent time with peoples’ children like you asked, and used the test kits from the lab and all...” It was his duty, right?
“And?” Gregor asked, carefully wrapping his son and cradling him to his shoulder, his face more tender than Ivan had ever seen it.
“Negative,” Captain Ivan Vorpatril of the Imperial Service said crisply. “Except for the son of that Terrence Cee chap, and that’s just one parent with a recessive gene. You have nothing to worry about.”
It was about little babies. Screw duty.