"Sir, you cannot be serious!" said Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan. He was standing in Simon Illyan's windowless office with his newest assignment in hand.
The man on the other end of the desk frowned. "I believe my orders were perfectly clear Lieutenant."
"But sir!" Miles protested, "Being a courier officer's just a cover! What about the Dendarii?"
"I have no need for a team of mercenaries right now. The nexus is rather quiet, and I have no doubt they can survive without you for a few months. What I do have need of is a courier officer."
"Don't you already have plenty of those?" asked Miles in desperation, "What about what's-his-name, Vorberg, or that blond one I met last year at Winterfair."
"As much trouble as you might have believing it, considering your usual expense reports, my resources are not infinite. Vorberg is currently on assignment in Sector Three, and Cresserton is on his well-deserved annual leave."
Miles opened his mouth to speak, but Illyan got there first. "Before you ask," he said, stalling Miles' next question, "All my other courier officers are also similarly occupied. Thus, the assignment has fallen to you."
Miles opened his mouth to protest again, but under Simon Illyan's unnerving stare, closed it again. "Yes sir," he said, accepting defeat.
"Very good Lieutenant. Your fast courier will leave tomorrow at 9:00." He passed Miles a plastic flimsy with the flight information on it. "Dismissed." Miles gave him the vague wave of the analyst's salute, and step smartly out of the room.
The next day, Miles went out to the shuttleport, most assuredly not sulking. I live to serve, I live to serve, he repeated over and over in his head, as he collected the case he was to transport from the waiting stony faced ImpSec man and then climbed aboard the courier.
I know that, another part of his mind seemed to say in response, but surely Illyan could have found a better way, the Dendarii would be so much more efficient. After all, none of the other ImpSec officers had a mercenary fleet at their beck and call.
Oh God, the Dendarii. Miles was suddenly struck with a horrible though. What if this arrangement ended up being permanent, and this was just the first step in Illyan's plan to wean him from the fleet? No, he dismissed the panicked ravings of his mind, the Dendarii had proven their worth more than once, especially with that mess on Dagoola IV, or their rescue of Vorvayne's wife and children. Once he completed this mission, Illyan would surely have a new one for his mercenaries, leaving Miles free to slip back into Admiral Naismith.
If he ever completed this mission. It felt like they were taking forever, and they hadn't even left Vorbarr Sultana yet.
Miles went and knocked on the cockpit door. "Excuse me Pilot Officer, but is there a problem? We were scheduled to leave over half an hour ago."
"Just a small mechanical difficult sir," assured the pilot, "We should be underway before too long."
"Thanks," said Miles, and he wandered back to his seat. He examined the case he was supposed to be courring, idly wondering what was inside. Secret orders? New monitoring technology?
Why hadn't they left yet? Was there some conspiracy, to keep the courier grounded, and stop whatever was in the box from reaching its destination? Miles grinned. Perhaps this mission wouldn't be so boring after all. Perhaps Illyan had known about the plot, and had thus chosen Miles for the assignment, trusting in his abilities to sort it out.
"Sir," came the pilot's voice from the cabin, "We're ready to leave now. Please strap yourself in."
Miles did so, choosing the seat closest to the cockpit door. "So, what was the mechanical problem?" he asked, doing his best to keep his voice casual.
"Oh, that," said the pilot, "Just a loose screw in one of our wheels, preventing us from taxing. Nothing major. The mechanic fixed it in less than a minute."
Miles leaned back in his seat, disappointed. No conspiracy would have chosen something so easily fixable. It looked like this was going to be a long mission after all.
"So Pilot Officer Cedric, what would you do if you were suddenly surrounded by...let's see… three light cruisers and a scout ship?"
"What? I didn't see…is this some sort of test?"
"No, no purely hypothetical situation. Mostly."
"That's not important. I just want to know what your first reactions would be. Theoretically. Also, if you could tell me the general movement patterns of Marilacian fast cruisers, it would be quite helpful."
"Oh yes, and in the first scenario, could you please pretend to be a Cetaganda fighter pilot under the command of a rouge ghem general?"
A week later, Miles was sure he had never before been as jealous of Ivan as he was now. Sure, Ivan didn't have his own mercenary fleet or an overabundance of tactical skills, but Ivan was not currently trapped on this fast courier with nothing to do.
Miles had brought several book disks, anticipating the length of the journey, but he had finished them all within a couple of days. It was surprising how much quicker it was to read a book when he was not trying to supply and run an entire mercenary fleet at the same time.
He had created two new Dendarii battle plans, and had even been desperate enough for something to do that he rewritten a number of reports he had submitted to Illyan, keeping in mind his supervisors rather acerb edits.
Never again, Miles swore, am I going to let Illyan send me on another courier mission. If there wasn't a crisis suited to the Dendarii, perhaps he could invent suggest one. After all, hadn't Illyan mentioned wanting to know the latest Illyrican cruiser advances? Surely that was a job for the Dendarii. Or there were rumors of something happening on Orient, where a mercenary fleet would make the perfect cover to enter the system. And if Illyan hadn't heard those rumors yet, Miles would make damn sure he did when he got back.
If he ever got back. This entire trip was taking forever, including this refueling stop. They had been docked at Escobar Station I for two hours now, and were still waiting to be filled up. Worst of all, Miles wasn't allowed to leave the courier, since "speed was of the essence" and they would be leaving as soon as they were fueled.
It was only with a great deal of effort that Miles was able to resist pointing out the fact that he could have made it to the shops by now, and picked up some new book discs.
Instead he asked the Pilot Officer "Do you know how much longer it's going to be?"
"I don't know sir," was the response. "We've received no word from inside the station." He sounded almost regretful. He probably would have appreciated Miles buying some new book discs much as himself, Miles reflected.
"Try contacting them again," Miles ordered.
"Yes sir." The pilot punched some buttons on the communications display. "Escobar station, this is the Barrayaran Courier Alpha-One-Five awaiting refueling, over." Static was the only reply.
"And it's been like that every time you've tried it?" Miles asked.
"That seems somewhat odd," reflected Miles "I wonder if there's a problem on the station. Perhaps I should go and investigate."
"I don't think that would be a very good idea," said Pilot Officer Cedric, somewhat stiffly, "Sir." He pointedly looked at Miles and his assigned case.
Miles sighed with reluctant acceptance. "No, I suppose you're right. Keep trying to contact them."
The pilot officer nodded and pressed some more buttons to try a new frequency, while Miles drifted back to where he had been sitting earlier. He logged on to the comconsul there, and just stared blankly at the screen, trying to think of something to do. After a while, he pulled up the Escobaran InfoNet. While it was nothing compared to Beta's, he could at least check the weather on the planet's surface, or something equally as thrilling.
He pulled up a reputable news site, intending to check the front runners in for the upcoming parliamentary election, when a headline caught his eye. "Breaking News! Crisis at Escobar Station I!" He immediately clicked on it and started reading.
According to Escobaran Space Travel Authorities, there is currently a hostage crisis taking place on Station One, where a radical group known as the Coalition for Freedom from Tyranny has taken over the main terminal of the station, Miles read, growing more excited by the minute, There aims at this time are unknown, but they have blocked all incoming traffic, and taken around 150 people hostage…
Miles read on, devouring the article as his mind started to catalog his resources. Himself, Pilot Officer Cedric, Engineer Muirer, two nerve disruptors, three stunners, one plasma arc… He was so absorbed in his planning that he nearly missed the crackle of an incoming communication, and the pilot officer's response of "Yes, thank you."
"What was that?" asked Miles, returning to the cockpit.
"Station Communication Center," said the pilot, "They've apologized for the delay, and have said that we'll be refueled shortly."
"Did they say why?" asked Miles, his hopes for excitement rapidly shrinking.
"There was some sort of minor security breach in the terminal," said the pilot officer, "But now that they've sorted that out, we should be on our way within the hour."
"Right," said Miles. He drifted back to his comconsul, where he looked at Escobar election analysis until they finally left, 45 minutes later.
"Ah, Engineer Muirer! There you are! I have just a few questions for you if you're not busy."
"If a pocket dreadnaught were to theoretically appear and start attacking us, what would be their best target if they just wanted to cripple our movement, and not kill us all? I've been looking at the schematics, and it appears the fuel stores are too close to the engines to try and take them out without possible blowing up the ship as well. "
"Are you expecting that to happen? This is a rather routine mission."
"Yes, I realize."
"Ah. Finished all your book disks then sir?"
"Several days back."
"And you don't have any more on you?"
"No, I'm afraid not."
"Yes, me too."
"A blockade?" asked Miles, his eyebrows lifting in interest. Maybe there would finally be a chance for something exciting to happen on this mission.
"Yes sir," replied Pilot Officer Cedric. "It appears that the local space authorities have engaged a mercenary fleet to stop unauthorized vessels from passing through."
"I see," said Miles, doing his best to contain his excitement, "Is there any indication of which mercenary fleet it is?" Last he had heard form Quinn, the Dendarii had been in this area, looking for work in between jobs from Illyan.
"It appears to be the Thursday Company."
"Ah," said Miles. Not the Dendarii then. Still, the situation still had the potential to be interesting. Perhaps he would have a chance to test one of his new blockade running plans. "Do you think they'll stop us from passing?" he asked, trying not to sound too eager.
"I don't know," said Cedric, "Their message was ambiguous, at best."
"Contact them," ordered Miles, already preparing what he was going to say. He had some new bluffs that he had been wanting to try for a while, especially now that he had an actual Barrayaran vessel to work with.
"This is Barrayaran Courier Alpha One Five, requesting permission to cross local space," Cedric transmitted.
The com crackled. "Barrayaran Courier Alpha One Five, what is the purpose of your voyage?" asked a bored sounding voice.
"We are making our way to-" began Cedric, but he stopped at the sound of a commotion at the other end of the line.
"You idiot! What are you doing?" demanded another voice. "That's an ImpSec ship!"
The first voice swore. "Those guys are nuts, absolutely psychotic! If they hear we stopped one of their ships…"
"Barrayaran Courier Alpha One Five, you are free to proceed across local space," said the second voice, sounding somewhat strained. "Thank you, and have a nice day."
"Cedric, we have problem."
"What is Murier? I thought I told you not to bother me unless it was an emergency, and I haven't heard anything blow up or seen any Cetagandan fighter pilots drop out of the sky"
"Lieutenant Vorkosigan's comconsul is broken."
"Can't you fix it?"
"I've been trained to repair jump ship engineers, not electronics."
"Where is the Lieutenant now?"
"I believe he's reenacting the Conquest of Komarr using our ration packs and dishes."
Eventually, the courier ship finally made it to Beta Colony, where Miles was to deliver his case. The crew seemed almost as relived as Miles felt when he finally stepped off the ship, and into the Betan shuttleport. He passed customs with ease, which was almost a disappointment considering how uneventful the rest of his trip had been.
A stony faced security man from the Barrayarn Embassy met him with an armed ground car as soon as he had exited the terminal. Miles tried to engage him in conversation, but all he got for his efforts was a few grunts.
The drive dragged on for much longer than Miles thought possible. The Embassy was only a few miles from the shuttleport, but half an hour later, they were still in the car. Miles tried looking out the window, but there was nothing to see but sand, and a few low buildings indicating the tops of apartment shafts.
"I don't think this is the way the Embassy," said Miles. He hadn't been here in a few years, but unless there had been major changes to the city's infrastructure, they were going the wrong way.
"Diversion sir," grunted the man in the front seat, "We have been ordered to avoid a Betan protest against the selling of classified technologies in the middle of town. We should be there before too much longer."
"I doubt that," said Miles, "since the Embassy is in the north-east of the city, and we have been going south for the past," he paused to think, "twenty minutes. I think you took the wrong exit off the main interchange."
The sergeant didn't reply, but instead pulled the ground car over. He opened the glove compartment, and began rooting around to find a map. When he turned around to face Miles again, Miles saw that he was not actually holding a map, but instead a standard issue military nerve disrupter. Miles ducked instinctively, before he even had time to comprehend what was going on. The nerve disrupter bolt cackled a few inches above his head.
Before the man could take aim again, Miles opened the door and rolled out on to the road, dragging his case with him. It thumped loudly onto the pavement, but stayed sealed. Doing his best to ignore a pain in his chest that was probably a cracked rib, Miles dove for cover behind a large rock on the side of the road. Another nerve disrupter bolt flew by, hitting where Miles had been only a few seconds before.
Miles grabbed the stunner he had managed to bring through Betan security, and started firing back at towards the driver's seat of the ground car. Unfortunately, the sergeant had rolled the canopy most of the way down, leaving only a small gap that he could fire through. There was no way Miles would be able to stun the man through that. He ducked back behind the rock.
"What do you want?" called Miles, trying to buy himself a few seconds to think.
"The money in that case. There's over eight million marks in there, on untraceable credit chits." Miles' eyes bulged at the amount of money he had unknowingly been carrying around for the past three weeks.
"This is nothing personal Vorkosigan. You just happened to be the unlucky courier officer. Me and some of my friends, we've been doing some things, well that were not 'in accordance of the higher ideals of the service'. It's not too long before Service Security catches on, so I figured we'd take the money and split."
Miles had never quite understood the tendency to monologuing, but he was grateful for it now. It had given him enough time to come up with a plan. It was risky, and he'd only have one shot, but he figured it was better than waiting until the sergeant got out a plasma arc or something similar.
He slipped out the power pack from his stunner, made a few quick adjustments that were known to every ImpSec agent, and then threw it over to the ground car. It hit the dome, then bounced off harmlessly.
"What?" said the Sergeant, turning his head to look. "A rock? You'll have to do better than that Vorkosigan."
The problem with improvised grenades made with buggered power pack, Miles noted, was that you never knew how long until they went off.
No sooner than had he finished that though, than the grenade went off. He braced himself, the rock sheltering him from the worst of the blast. The sergeant was not so lucky.
Carefully, Miles came out from behind the rock, and examined the car. The sergeant looked unconscious, and his nerve disrupter had fallen out of his hand, so Miles felt safe to open the canopy. He took the other man's nerve disrupter from a holster on his side, and shot him for good measure.
Then he took out his comlink, and called the fast courier. "Pilot Officer Cedric? I think I'm going to need a pick up."
"Sir?" a nervous looking officer knocked on Illyan's door. "I have the latest reports from the Betan Embassy." At Illyan's single, he stepped inside and put a stack of flimsies on the desk. He stepped back, and swallowed loudly.
Illyan paged through the flimsies growing more and more incredulous the more he read. "On what was meant to be a regular courier mission, Lieutenant Vorkosigan, uncovered a conspiracy of corruption within the Security Division at the embassy on Beta Colony, blew up an embassy ground car, landed himself in the hospital, and did not actually deliver his case. Is that correct?"
The question was rhetorical, considering Illyan's impeccable memory, but the officer answered it anyway. "Yes sir."
Illyan sighed. "Add a commendation to his file then. More excellent work from Lieutenant Vorkosigan."