by Khasidi

The characters here are under copyright (c) by Lois MacMasters Bujold and are taken from her many Vorkosigan novels.
The story is my own invention. It and all other elements not borrowed from Ms. Bujold are copyright (c) 2005 by Khasidi Katugraha

No sex yet -- just the forces of attraction/repulsion. Ivan and Byerly get a tingle, but Ivan is still too stupid and By is too scared to do anything about it yet, But what about the herm?

This is the first story I have written and I would love to get some feedback, especially if you are already a fan of the Vorkosigan series. If you have criticisms, I would also like to read those; but I am sensitive (goes with the territory) and cry easily, so please be nice, or at least funny. Mostly, I just want to know if anyone is reading this.

- or - (I am gradually switching away from this one)




This is a "Winter Story." These stories are told only during the first new moon after winter solstace on Athos. They are told  at night, in the sweat house, in the dark with no lights or any fire burning. They are not written down or recorded on any electronic device that we have been able to discover. This re-telling was done from memory by Artu Semling.

All good things come from the Father. From his semen were the stars of the heavens created. When the dark mother created her first children she created them from the semen of the Father's Child of Light, but she saw that the children would die for she had not that which would nourish them. So she stole aretŽ from the light of the stars that were the Father's seed and placed it into the breasts of women as food for the children. But the nipples of men she cursed, causing them to be barren. Yet the Fathers of men, through sacrifice and fasting, were able to turn away her curse and feed their children.

Blessed be the name of the Father.


Newborn children on Athos are chiefly fed a formula based on the milk of goats. Breastfeeding, however, is a very widespread practice. It is well known that men as well as women have mammary glands. What is less well known is that the mammary glands of men are capable of producing milk, though in lesser quantities than those of women. The men of Athos have a rite that is commonly practiced by expectant fathers. It involves, among other things, severe fasting from food and daily stimulation of the nipples. This stimulation can be done through mechanical means with a device similar to the common breast pump; but more often it is performed by other men and even boys. The most common helper will be the partner of the man undergoing the rite, but others in the man's commune will alo spend time sucking on the man's nipples. Scientific study shows that this stimulation of the nipples encourages the production of prolactin which, along with other hormones such as estrogen, signals the mammary glands to begin to produce milk. Other studies [Viucies and Donnelly, 2503 and Beriandos 2509] have verified the fact that, after a period of starvation, eating can result in an increase in hormone production that can cause men to begin to lactate.

About 65% of children on Athos are breast fed during infancy; however, except in rare cases, the father's* milk is insufficient in quantity so it is supplemented by goat's milk formula.

It is interesting to note that the word commonly used on Athos for milk is the same as that used for semen, "aretŽ." This word is used in other contexts to signify spiritual energy that promotes virility coming from God. Athosians believe that one can receive aretŽ in the form of milk or semen, but also as a result fasting or meditating under starlight. The radiant energy from the sun which grows plants can also at times be referred to as aretŽ. (See Sex and Religion on Athos).**

*Note: The milk that comes from women's breasts, while not mentioned very often, is never referred to as "aretŽ," but as "foreshchyeh" or "false semen from a woman (witch)." Woman's milk is, of course, not found on Athos; however it is an element in popular folktales where it is frequently used as a poison or an element of black magic. "'Resche!" is also used as a swear word and is considered to be extremely vulgar and profane and is never used in front of children.

**Sex and Religion on Athos will be published with a later chapter.



Ivan and Byerly passed through the scanners of the Komarr space terminal and retrieved their hand luggage. Ivan took a lungful of the delightful recycled space station air. "Smell that?" He asked his companion, "Non-Barrayaran air. Isn't it great? That's the smell of freedom! Let's go get something to eat. They have a couple of famous restaurants here!"

His companion looked less than convinced. This had been his first wormhole jump; and the jump between Barrayar and Komarr was a particularly rough one. Byerly was still feeling a little ill. "Perhaps we should find our Dendarii contacts first? And then maybe rooms in one of the hostels?" He thought longingly of a nice comfortable bed.

"They'll find us, don't worry about that. No sweat! You can't get lost on a space station. Come on. Let's go eat. And you should see the shops they've got here! You'll love `em!"

Now that Ivan was over his depression, his enthusiasm was hard to withstand. Byerly was thinking that it might be easiest to just take the path of least resistance and follow along, when a striking person of medium height with platinum blond hair that stood up in spikes and skin as dark and lustrous as burgundy wine strode up. In spite of himself, Byerly stared, lost in pure aesthetic wonder. This extraordinary person was decorated with metallic tattoos that contrasted with the dark skin. They swirled down the face and neck accenting the chiseled features of the youngÉman? The decorations made it a little difficult to be certain. Whichever sex, there was a piratical air about the person, something to do with the fact that it only wore one earring and had a short cape on over the grey military uniform.

 "Are you coming, By?" Ivan called back over his shoulder. His body swivled to follow his widening eyes as he caught sight of the sparkling apparition.

The young person approached them and asked, "Are you Byerly Vorrutyer?"

"Well, yes, I am." Byerly murmured, still lost in admiration.

"I'm Lieutenant Vol˜kŽ Vegnam, jump pilot of the fast courier Ariel, Dendarii Free Mercenaries. I was sent to find you and get you on board as quickly as possible. We are due to jump to in just under 26 hours and we have to cross quite a bit of Komarr space to get into position before then. I am sorry to have to rush you, but Admiral Quinn is in a hurry for some reason."

"You're a herm, right? From Beta Colony?" Ivan asked, hoping the question was not rude. Several hundred years earlier when the science of genetic engineering had been in its infancy, scientists on Beta Colony had developed a strain of humans who were true hermaphrodites. These had both male and female sexual organs and were sexually functional. Extremely functional from everything Ivan had ever heard. This jump pilot was apparently one of them.

"Yes," it said, "I am. Now, do you have your luggage?" It looked around as if expecting to see their trunks lying about in the middle of the concourse.

"They were checked through from Barrayar," said Byerly, rousing himself from his reverie.

"Oh, good!" Vegnam exclaimed. "Then we can just slide out of here. Come with me, we're docked over with the freighters on the other side of the station."

Lieutenant Vegnam lead the way, striding like a comet towards one of the smaller archways leading out. It seemed to have no trouble wending its way through the crowded concourse, people just melted away before it and Ivan and Byerly trailed like plasma in its wake. They soon left the passenger areas and found themselves wending their way through a maze of corridors, hangers, and warehouse spaces. The gravity in this area was limited to walkways that curved around the floor, the walls and across what appeared to be the ceilings in a meaningless way that Byerly found faintly disturbing. "Can't get lost in a space station did you say, Ivan? I confess, I would have no idea how to get back the way we came."

A huge cylindrical agglomeration of trunks and suitcases all strapped together into a roughly cylindrical shape floated out from around a bend ahead. It was controlled by a little pod in front and another tied on behind. They came to a fork in the walkway and Vegnam lead them to the left. Their path apparently went up one of the walls and then upside down across the ceiling; however, when they got to the wall and then the ceiling, they seemed to turn into the floor, while the part of the walkway they had just left appeared to be upside down. "Oh dear," Byerly muttered to himself. Even Ivan, who had some experience in null G looked a little green.

"Almost there, folks," Leutenant Vegnam announced cheerfully. Just step through here. If you're feeling queasy, don't look up."

Byerly and Ivan immediately looked up. They were in a long corridor whose sides and ceiling were completely transparent. Above them, etched against the black deep of space, were the stars. Not the friendly, twinkling lights of Barrayar's night sky, but billions of tiny, completely distinct points of lights showing with the crystal clarity against the pitch black of absolute vacuum. Floating directly over their heads with impossible buoyancy was an Illyrican fast cruiser, the Ariel. It was actually quite a small vessel, only about the size of a large house, but to Byerly, the Ariel appeared vast and dangerous. Intellectually, he knew that the ship was floating, weightless, in space; but, perhaps because he was himself still standing within the artificial gravity field of the walkway, his body was convinced that he was about to be crushed by the vast object above him. The walkway curved upward, though it appeared, when they reached the next section, that they were still on a flat surface. But looking back, the path they had just traversed looked like it was going straight down. At this point Byerly became completely disoriented. He lost all sense of where up was or down or left or right and, along with his sense of direction he lost the remains of his lunch eaten several hours earlier. Apparently Leutenant Vegnam had been expecting  something of the sort for at the sound of poor Byerly's first retch it whipped around with a sack it had been holding ready.

"Don't worry about it, it happens to everybody. Personally, I think the old system where you just floated out to the ship through an opaque tube was much easier to deal with for most people. In weightlessness the body doesn't have expectations. There! Better now?"

Ivan listened with some amusement to the almost motherly tone of voice coming out of the glittering herm. He was a little queasy himself, but he had experienced null-G quite often and was more hardened.

"Okay, sweetie," the herm went on, with his arm around Byerly's shoulders, "You see where the tube goes totally transparent just ahead? That's where there the artificial gravity ends. You just grab those handles and give yourself a tiny little push and you'll float right through. On the other end, you can see from here that there are a couple more handles just like these. You want to grab those and stop yourself. You'll just float across stick out your foot and put it down on the mat. Then you ease the rest of your body over and there you are. Once you are on the mat, you will be in the ship's gravity field and you can stand up. It's a piece of cake. That fellow on the other end is Telcha. He'll catch you.

Byerly looked anything but convinced that it would be a piece of cake. In fact he was frozen in place, his barf bag in one hand and his other wrapped in a stranglehold around Leutenant Vegnam's wrist.

"I... I'm not sure I can do this," he muttered, clutching the herm even more tightly.

"Sure you can. Ready? One, two, three, go!"

Byerly stood rigidly where he was, holding the herm with a painful grip. Vegnam looked back at Ivan beseechingly. Byerly's eyes were taking on a glassy sheen. Through the transparent walls of the tube, an crescent of fire appeared. Dawn on Komarr.

Byerly was going to go totally catatonic in a minute. Something would have to be done.. "Look, Lieutenant Vegnam," Ivan said, "Why don't you go through and show Byerly how?" Vegnam perked up with relief.

It took both of them to disengage By. Leutenant Vegnam flitted off through the ten meters of tube separating them from the ship, stopped himself and slipped through into the ship's field of gravity. "There," he called back, "Not so hard!" Byerly's breath was coming in short, quick gasps.

Gently taking Byerly's hand, Ivan placed it on the handle just inside the null-G area. "Come on, By, you can do this. Just step through, give yourself a push, and before you know it, you'll be onboard."

"But I'm afraid of heights, " Byerly ground out. "I've always been afraid of heights." Byerly's hands were trembling but, clinging to the handle for dear life he edged his body into the weightlessness. And froze.

"We aren't up high, By. We are in space. There's no where to fall to. You can't fall. You know this."

"I can't do it, Ivan!" Byerly's voice was unnaturally high, his knuckles were white, and a vein pulsed alarmingly on his forehead.

"Yes you can, By" Ivan said. "Look, I am right here. Let go of the handle and just grab onto me. I'll get you to the other side."

By clutched feverishly at Ivan's jacket with one hand but seemed to be unable to release the handle with the other.

"Come on now, By, let go the handle. That's it. I'm not going to let you go."

With a convulsive movement, Byerly released the handle and grabbed Ivan around the neck, burying his face against Ivan''s chest. Ivan wrapped one arm around his shivering friend and kicked off with his feet. Too fast and the trajectory wasn't good. But the tube's structure was maintained by air pressure from within like a balloon and the transparent walls were soft and resilient. Holding Byerly tight, Ivan ricocheted twice off the walls which added spin to their forward momentum. At the end of the tube Lieutenant Vegnam made a valiant attempt to stop them but Ivan and Byerly's spin had started precessing like a spinning top winding down. Leutenant Vegnam missed his hold and his knee made violent contact with Ivan's right eye.

"Shit!" cried Ivan as he and Byerly entered the ship's gravitational field at speed and crashed to the floor.

Leutenant Vegnam was hopping around on one foot and holding his other knee while tears streamed down his face. "Are youÉCripes this hurts! Are you all right?"

Ivan, half stunned, lay on the floor with his arms still cast about Byerly. Vegnam stopped hopping and The two Barrayans lay still for a moment. In the end, it was Byerly who returned first to normalcy. "Delightful though this is, Ivan, I think that you might unfasten your arms. I can't help but feel that the time and place are inauspicious for dalliance. Don't you agree?" He looked vaguely at the vomit bag that he still clutched in one hand.

"Uhnng..." remarked Ivan.

Byerly unfastened Ivan's arms from about him and sat up rather dazedly. "Are you going to be all right, Lieutenant Vegnam?" he asked from his position on the floor. "I fear that my recent indisposition has seriously discomfitted you."

Vegnam sat down on the floor next to Byerly and, still rubbing his knee, began to laugh. "No, not at all. This is the way we always board the ship!" Then he added, "Since we have been through what might be called combat together, you might as well call me Vol˜kŽ. I never did get introduced to your handsome companion."

"Oh, I beg your pardon. Call me Byerly. And this is Ivan Vorpatril. He's a cousin of your late admiral. " They both looked down at Ivan who was now lying on his back with one hand over his eye. "Good Lord, Ivan! What happened to you? You seem to have a blackened your other eye! I had no idea you went to such lengths to achieve that symmetry so admired by the ladies of Barrayar!"

Ivan made a noise that might have been a moan. A moment later he roused himself and grunted, "Fuck you, By. I'm in pain and all I get is your fucking ironic quips. God, I can't wait to get to Beta Colony."

Sergeant Telcha, who had been hovering ineffectually in the background stepped forward at this point. "V, the admiral said to tell you that she wants to get underway as soon as the guests were onboard. I am supposed to take them to the conference saloon."

"I see" said Vol˜kŽ. "Very well. Byerly, this is Sergeant Telcha. He will guide you around and make sure you have what you need. I am needed at the moment so I will catch up with you later. It's been a pleasÉ well, it's been interesting. And I do look forward to seeing more of you and Ivan under less stressful circumstances. Now, I've got to run."

Vol˜kŽ limped rather than ran, down the corridor.

"Up you get, hero." said Byerly, reaching down to give Ivan a hand up.

Ivan looked up at him, a little dazed still. "I can get up myself, thank you," he said, with as much dignity as he could muster. What was with By anyway? One minute he was paralyzed with fear and had to be carried across the gravity break, the next moment he was as sprightly as a sparrow and making his usual cutting remarks. Better not let it get under my skin, Ivan thought. No waves. Just keep everyone happy, that's the best policy. So he stood up, gave Byerly a cheerful smile, or anyway an attempt at one, and steadied himself briefly against the bulkhead. "Well, lead on, Sergeant Telcha," he said. "We're right behind you."

"Um," said Sergeant Telcha, "Did you have any luggage with you?"

Byerly suddenly looked pale again and Ivan glanced back at the tube. There it sat at the other end, their two cases, right where they had left them. "I'll fetch them. Telcha said. "Don't worry about a thing."

Byerly let out a shuddering sigh.


 "I think we're done here." Drawled the admiral from her swivel chair, her elegant booted feet propped on the edge of the meeting table. "Does anybody have any other business?"

Admiral Elli Quinn had held her position for about a year now. For the first few months, whenever anyone had said "yes, Admiral!" she had looked around for Miles. She was finally becoming accustomed to the fact that she was the Admiral. But she missed Miles -- both as a lover and as a mentor -- but he had been right, she was ready to take command. She was enjoying the view from the top. And she was beginning to realize that she was good at her job. "Taura, would you please remain, I need to fill you in on our mission. The rest of you I'll catch up with at Escobar. Dismissed."

The various captains and lieutenants trouped out. One remained seated, hunkered down with a good natured expression in a chair designed for a much smaller person. Lieutenant Taura slid her chair back from the committee table, unfolding her legs, stretching out her seven foot frame with obvious relief. She grinned alarmingly. Taura's long jaw extended forward so that her wide mouth appeared almost to be the muzzle of some predatory animal. Her upper teeth extended over her lower lip slightly. They weren't particularly noticeable until she smiled, at which point they were revealed to definitely be fangs rather than eyeteeth. "So what's the job, doll face?" she rumbled in her silky baritone.

Taura and Elli Quinn were friends, but there was a subtle rivalry under the surface. Their relationship had been more difficult when Admiral Naismith -- Miles -- had been running the show and they had had to share his attentions. Now he had "retired" and the two women had each made her peace with the fact that he had permanently abandoned the role of "the little admiral" and gone back to his identity as Lord Vorkosigan. For Elli the change was sweetened by the fact that she had stepped into his shoes. She was now Admiral Quinn and had charge of the entire Dendarii outfit. She had had the opportunity to become Miles's wife, but she couldn't imagine living her life out in some gravity well. No, she had made her choice and she couldn't say she was sorry. Taura, on the other hand, hadn't made many choices; she had taken what life offered, with both hands. Life was too short for regrets. And besides, Taura was a cheerful sort of person and didn't believe in repining. Still, she did enjoy needling the fabulously beautiful Elli Quinn from time to time. It wasn't that she was envious -- well, yes it was -- she had to admit it, she envied Elli her lithe form and lovely face. She didn't envy Elli her abundant energy because she had that same energy herself.

Elli, relaxing out her role as Admiral Quinn, responded with a grin and a rude gesture, but went on in a perfectly cordial tone, "Hang on, we've got two more coming, at least I hope they are on board, we need to get this show on the rode if we are going to keep on schedule." The door blatted at them. "Ah! And, unless I miss my guess, here they are. Enter."

Byerly Vorutyer entered followed by Ivan. Byerly looked quite presentable. He had managed to dispose of his barf bag, straighten his clothes and run a comb through his hair, but Ivan's right eye had had time to swell shut and darken to a rich purple while his left eye, still blackened from the fight the week before in the bar, was fading to a rather revolting shade of green. He stopped still and stared at Elli with his left eye. "You! Oh my God! Aren't you supposed to be on your flagship? I thought you were the admiral now."

"Why Ivan! When agent Vorrutyer said that he would be bringing a friend, I never imagined it would be you." purred Elli with a private little grin. "What happened to your eye? I mean eyes? And you must be agent Vorrutyer." She went on, turning to Byerly. "I'm Admiral Quinn. You can call me Elli. Excuse me for being abrupt, but are all your things aboard? We have to get underway ASAP if we are going to make it to keep to schedule." While she was speaking she jumped up and strode over to the comconsole. She touched a control and spoke into the air, "Captain Raum, if Leutenant Vegnam has returned, would you please clear us for departure. We need to be underway."

"Aye aye, admiral," came the response.

She turned back to the others, saying with a rueful grin, "There. We'll be underway for Sergyar in just a few minutes. It's four days to the wormhole jump point, so it's the usual drill. You know. Hurry up and wait. In the meantime," Elli continued, "I think it would be good to go over the mission. I am sure everyone understands this, but I'll mention anyway that some of the information we will be discussing is highly sensitive so don't discuss it with people other than those in this cabin."

"In that case," said Ivan, "I should leave. I am not actually part of this mission."

Elli leveled her gaze at him, "You're not? Then why are you here, Ivan?"

Ivan looked a little flustered, "I'm just sort of hitching a ride to Escobar. A little vacation. I'll be going on from there to, um, Beta Colony."

"I see. So how's the vacation going so far?" asked Elli with a hint of a grin. "Have you noticed, Ivan, that you have embarked on Fast Courier Ariel, not a cruise vessel?"

"I must cry mea culpa," Byerly interrupted smoothly. "Ivan's presence here is really my fault. I, ah, invited him, you see."

"You did," Elli looked at Byerly, then at Ivan. "Okay. We'll straighten this out later. In any case it's too late to do anything about it now, we are already in the process of getting underway and I don't want to waste anymore time. Ivan, I am afraid you are operating under a misconception. We are not stopping off at Escobar. Our mission requires us to go straight to Kline station by the fastest route possible."

"What?" squawked Ivan. "ButÉWait a minute. The fastest way to Kline station? That's by way of Esocobar. What do you mean you aren't going there?"

"I'm sorry Ivan. I really am." Elli added, seeing Ivan's look of skepicism. "It is true that we will have to go through both Sergyar's and Escobar's local space, but to get from one wormhole to the next by the fastest route, we will have to take a straight line. To stop off at one of those planets would require us to travel weeks out of our way. I know it is inconvenient; but you can easily catch a passenger vessel back from Kline station that is headed for Escobar or even Beta Colony. Are you on official business or were you on a trip for pleasure?"

"I am on leave," said Ivan sourly. "The only leave I have had in the last two years."

"Oh, good! Then that's all right. At the moment, I hate to kick you out, but we have a briefing and, unfortunately, some of the matters we have to discuss are classified. why don't you go find Telcha and he will show you to your quarters. Fortunately, we are down to a skeleton crew, so there is lots of space."

Ivan was damned if, after what he had been through, he was going to be summarily dismissed like this, besides his curiosity was piqued. "If it is about the Terran-C and Ceta-G gene complexes, I already know about them."

All the eyes in the room turned to him in surprise. Ivan was really tired, his eye hurt and he was damned if he was going to explain himself. "Look, I didn't ask to get dragged off to Kline station, or on to Athos, which I know is where you are going, but I am here. My security clearance covers this. I'll be damned if I am going to get dragged into yet another hair-brained scheme that reeks of my cousin Miles, without having some idea of what I'm getting myself into." Ivan sat down in one of the staff chairs with an audible sigh. "I'm staying."

Elli looked over at Byerly. "It's your mission. You decide."

"Oh by all means," Byerly said with an elegant wave of his hand, "I think Ivan should stay."

"Much obliged" Ivan growled.

Elli turned back to the rest, "Good! First let's get a little background. Some of you know some of this, I don't think any of us know all of it. But let's start at the beginning. Taura, you remember when we took you off of Jackson's Whole along with Dr. Vaughn? There were some genetic samples that he had injected into your leg muscle."

Taura flicked an elegantly polished claw and rolled her eyes. "Yeah. I had to let that skunk take a biopsy from my leg later to recover them. Miles stood over him and looked like the vengeance of God the whole time. I kept wondering if it might not have been better to have him leave the room during the operation because he was making Dr. Vaughn very nervous. Those genetic samples had something to do with a big showdown that had happened about a year earlier. One of house Bharaputra's labs had been completely torched and all personnel with it. I never did find out what that was all about."

"We didn't realize it at the time," Elli explained "But we already had all of those samples. I know this because it was me that recovered them. They originated in Cetaganda -- an offshoot of the haut genetic research. They were different strains of a human gene complex that creates a new organ in the brain that enables telepathic communication. There were several living people created in the Cetagandan genetic labs that actually had this capability; but they were all murdered except for two, a man and a woman who escaped. His name was Terrence Cee and his wife was Janine-- their names were taken from the codes identifying the genetic strain that they carried, Terran-C  and J 9 X Ceta-G. She and Terrence were related in some way. When I met him he described her at various times as his sister or his wife."

"Wait a minute," Ivan interrupted, "You met him?

"Yeah, as I was saying, about a year before we picked up Dr. Vaughn and Taura from Jackson's Whole, I was on a special assignment on Kline Station. I met Terrence Cee there along with a Doctor from Athos, one Ethan Urquhart. This was roughly ten years ago. Ethan was terrified. He was the first man to leave Athos in over 200 years. He had never seen a woman before in his life. A good guy, though. Really smart. I kind of had the hots for him in a way. But Athos you knowÉ" Elli lifted up both her hands palm up as if to say, it's hopeless. "They don't have women there. Raise all their kids in replicators using gametes from ovarian cultures. Ethan was terrified of women, though I think, if things had been differentÉWell, anyway, he was totally hot for Terrence. And who could blame him? That guy just sort of rivets your attention! Anyhow, I was sort of interested in Ethan, Ethan had it bad for Terrence, but Terrence was still in serious mourning for his wife Janine and their two children. They had been murdered by the ghem lord, Millisor. And Millisor was still after Terrence."

"That's horrible!" Taura interjected. "So, the Cetagandans were so set on recovering their genes that they just killed a mother and her children? For heaven's sake, they could have just asked for a sample! Genes are nothing but biological information storage; and `supply of information is intrinsically limitless'" Taura chanted the latter part of her harangue in a sing-song voice like a school-girl reciting a multiplication table.

"Well, that's true." Responded Elli, "But that's exactly why so much energy, not to mention money, is spent putting artificial barriers to prevent information from leaking out. The Cetagandans weren't just trying to recover the genetic samples; they were trying to make sure that all the stray copies were eliminated. However, the Cetagandans' effort to destroy all the samples was pretty futile. There are, to my certain knowledge, copies of several versions of the telepathy gene complex on Barrayar, and on Athos. And, actually, there may be copies of them here on this ship, in this cabin, in fact; but I am not enough of a biologist to know for sure."

Byerly raised one eyebrow in inquiry, "This cabin?"

"AhÉ yes," said Elli, "Possibly. They were smuggled off of Jackson's Whole twice, the first time by Terrence Cee, spliced into 250 ovarian cultures that were bound for Athos -- those are the ones Millisor was trying to chase down on Kline Station, along with Terrence Cee himself who carries one of the gene groups in his own genetic structure -- but the other set of samples, as you just heard, was injected into Taura's leg and smuggled out when we rescued here from the cellar of House Ryovel's brothel. It is possible that she is still carrying this genetic information in her leg. The Cetagandans believe that all of these genetic samples were destroyed, or so we hope. As far as we know, they are ignorant of the fact that samples exist on Barrayar; but we think that they may have already learned that copies were sent to Athos.

"And this brings me to the point." Elli continued. "Athos. What do you two know about the planet?"

"Not much." Said Byerly. "It's way out at the end of a cul-de-sac past Kline station, they only allow men there and they are terrified of women."

"Well, yeah, that about sums it up. Geographically, I guess it is a pleasant enough place if you like planets." Elli Quinn could be scathing about `gravity wells' and `dirt suckers' as she referred to planets and their inhabitants. She had been born and raised on the Kline space station and had never lived for more that a couple of months at a time `dirt-side.' "There is a lot of water and not much land. There are two continents, one large and one quite small, hardly more than a big island. Then there are a lot -- I mean a lot -- of small islands scattered about everywhere.  The economy is industrialized to some extent, but the population is low and they hardly trade with the rest of the wormhole nexus at all: so the general technological level is pretty low. I mean, they don't even have universal access to computers or information.

"Ethan told me, though, that most communes do have at least one comconsole; but, because there aren't many available, their use is pretty strictly limited to those uses that are considered vital. I guess there are outlying islands where things get even more primitive. He said something once about the miners; but then he clammed up. I got the feeling that the subject embarrassed him; though why mining should be embarrassing, I have no idea. Ethan found a lot of things embarrassing that seem normal to us. Almost all of them had to do with women.

"On Athos even the word `woman' is taboo. It took Ethan several weeks before he would even look at me. I don't know what he thought I might do to him; but, whatever it was, I obviously terrified him. He was a doctor of reproductive medicine, an obstetrician, yet he had a great deal of trouble talking about pregnancy or any of the normal female aspects of childbirth or reproduction. The subject of menstruation came up once and I thought he might have a seizure or something. He actually lost his ability to speak. But he was avidly curious. Finally, he asked me if we could turn out the lights. When it was so dark that we literally couldn't see our hands in front of our faces, he was able to talk and we had quite an interesting conversation. He said, `These are Winter Stories. I can't speak about these things in the light.' I have no idea what he was talking about.

"So brings us around to your mission. Ethan had come to Kline Station to purchase a batch of ovarian cultures. The original ones that had been brought to Athos by the first settlers were getting senescing: they were dying of old age and this was beginning to seriously impact the ability of the Athosians to create new children. Eventually, Ethan went to Beta Colony to pick up young cultures; but, before that, he and I unexpectedly found the original ones that were supposed to have been shipped from Jackson's Whole. It seems they had been stored frozen and were floating in deep space, tethered just outside Kline station. In all, five hundred and one ovarian cultures returned to Athos with Ethan. Two hundred and fifty of those had the telepathy gene spliced in. Now, the telepathy gene is recessive. I think you can imagine what the consequences will be."

"Oh my God!" Taura exclaimed. "In the next generation half the kids on Athos will be carrying the telepathy gene and in the following generation, let's see, I think it will turn out that a quarter of the kids born will be telepathic! And then it just gets to be more and more!"

"That's about it, except that, as I understand the situation, Ethan was only supposed to get 250 cultures. This gets complicated because, by the time he went back to Athos, he had fallen in love with Terrence. Terrence's original plan had been to send the ovarian tissue cultures to Athos without telling anyone. I think what happened was that the two of them replaced the Betan cultures with the ones Terrence had had prepared on Jackson's Whole. It was all complicated by the fact that the genes that were spliced in had come from his wife, Janine, and their two children, who Millisor had assassinated. Anyway, Terrence went back to Athos with Ethan and the two of them replaced all the Betan samples with the telepathy ones. So Taura's numbers aren't actually correct. In the second generation almost half of the children born on Athos will be telepathic."

"So, what did they do with the other samples?" asked Taura.

"I don't really know, but I think Ethan has them all in storage, frozen still -- or at least most of them."

Ivan looked up with interest. "Most of them? There seems to be something else going on here, Admiral. Why was the total number of ovarian cultures five hundred and one? Why would Dr. Urquhart order two hundred and fifty-one samples from the Beta Colony lab?"

Elli turned a little red. "Yes. Well, uh, the thing is, one of them was, uh, mine. I donated one. Ethan asked me to. And IÉwell I figured, what the hell? I am a soldier, a mercenary. That's my life. I ain't gonna be able to raise a kid, that's for sure! So it was, like, my only chance, y'seeÉ and Ethan, he'd make a great dadÉ" Elli stammered to a halt.

"So, you have a whole pack of sons on Athos?" Taura jumped out of her chair and started pacing in the limited space of the cabin. "Wow! Elli, that'sÉ I don't know, that's incredible! Would they want one of mine? I mean, I'm not going to have kids, that's for sure. I'd never find a guy, for one thing; and besides, I wouldn't be around to raise them. I'd want them to be raised right. ButÉoh shit. No. They'd look like me, wouldn't they? And they'd be scared of them, the Athosians would." Taura wound down. "I guess it wouldn't really work. But still, I love the idea that there are a bunch of little Quinns running around down there. Woh! I bet they cause some trouble!"

"Yeah. Byerly, I'm hoping you can get some vids of them for me."

"This is all very interesting," murmured Byerly, laconically, "But, according to the somewhat vague instructions I received from General Allegre, I am supposed to be rescuing three little girls. How do they come into the picture?"

"Well, I was getting to them."

"Yes," remarked Byerly, "Very slowly."

"Well, I felt that some background was needed." Elli snapped back, "If you think you can do this better, I would be happy to cede the meeting to you."

Byerly opened his hand. "No, no. I understand that the trip to Kline station takes several weeks. I am sure that we can find a way to come to the point in that amount of time. Please, continue. I am fascinated."

Elli rolled her eyes, but continued. "I told you that Ethan took Terrence Cee back with him when he returned to Athos. Well, I guess they settled down together. I don't really know the details. I have had sporadic letters from Ethan, but he has had disguise them. It would be extremely bad for his career if it were discovered that he was communicating with a woman for any reason, but particularly if it was a woman from whom one of their ovarian cultures originated. But I got a message three years ago saying that Terrence had up and absconded with three uterine replicators. I gleaned from what he didn't say that Ethan thought that Terrence might have decided he wanted some girl children. He asked me if I might be able to arrange transport away from Athos in the event things got dangerous for Terrence and the children. Then I didn't hear anything from him for a couple of years. But a month ago, I received another message. I am not sure how Ethan managed to send it. He said that, after a long investigation, the authorities on Athos had determined that three little girls had indeed been born and that Terrence was responsible. It was a major scandal, and worse, it violated the very serious Athosian religious taboo on women. Ethan was implicated.

"The situation at present is that Ethan and Terrence are in hiding somewhere on Athos. There are gazillions of little islands scattered all over the planet and the population is fairly small; so it probably wasn't too hard to find a place to hide out. Finding them, should prove quite a bit more difficult. I imagine that they have their two boys with them, and the three little four-year-old girls. The girls are, if I understand the situation correctly, Terrence's children and they carry the full set of telepathy genes."

"And we are supposed to just land on this planet where the police are hunting high and low for this crew already, and just locate them and waft them away. Do I have that correct?"

"That's right, Ivan." Said Elli, smiling sweetly at him.

"And what happens if we, that is you, fail?"

"Well, I guess that depends on whether the Athosian authorities locate them or not. If they do, I imagine the girls will be killed out of hand."

"What?" Ivan asked incredulously, "They would kill three four-year-olds? I thought you said they liked children?"

"They like boy children, Ivan." Byerly interjected, "I think Elli has made it clear that their religion makes it pretty much impossible for them to see females of any age as human."

"But that's ridiculous! I mean nobody kills children just because a bunch of priests say so. Who would do that?"

Byerly leveled his gaze at him. "Ivan, you and I live on a planet where children born with mutations or birth defects are still routinely slaughtered by their own mothers. Knowing that, why do you doubt that the men of Athos would hesitate to kill three little girls?"

"But that's different!"

"Why is it different?" Byerly inquired.

"Well, it just is. I don't know. I mean, they're just little girls." Ivan stuttered. "I mean, well, that's just wrong!"

"So, Ivan," Taura put in, "Are you in or are you out?"

"Me?" Ivan's jaw dropped. "Hey, I'm just a tourist. I just wanted to go to the Orb and get my rocks off."

This was met with silence. Elli raised her eyebrows in an expression of suspended judgement while Byerly examined his fingernails. Taura only looked intersted to hear what he would answer.

"Damn it!" Ivan muttered to himself. And then said aloud, "In, damn it. In I guess."

"Well, but Ivan, you did say that you wanted to experience new things," Byerly purred.

"I must have hit my head harder than I thought"

In, I guess."

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