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Chapter 14 - Can't Trace Time by A.J. Hall

“Tell me again. How it started.”

Hasek’s head lolled, his face caught in an inane grin; the workings of the truth drug, presumably. His voice sounded slurred.

“It was when Vorgeraint’s grand-daughter got sick. Some sort of leukaemia. Most of them are easy enough to deal with; this one wasn’t. Rare strain. Off-planet. I owed Vorgeraint. He’d trained me; covered up for me a couple of times. Told me over a beer once we were the same, him and me. Not the sort to be tied down by petty bureaucracy.”

Owen gulped. “I’m sure he was right. What happened then?”

“When they shunted him into hospital administration he sought me out; asked me to join him. Told me to stick with him; he was going places and I’d be going there too. And we did. Up and up and up. Together.”

Hasek moved a hand in a languid gesture which suggested clambering up a long ladder.

But what about the snakes?

“Tell us about the little girl.” Petrova leaned forward into Hasek’s line of vision, making her presence felt for the first time. “What treatment did you find for her?”

Hasek looked surprised, as if he’d not expected to find that topic of interest to his interrogators. “Vorgeraint swore there was a cure just round the corner, just held up in red tape. They needed so many volunteers to test the drug on. But there was said to be a tiny risk of long-term genetic damage. This big.”

He held up his thumb and forefinger, perhaps a millimetre apart.

“But no Barrayaran is going to take the risk of scrambling all the DNA in his balls, just on the theoretical chance it might save some kid’s life. After all, would you?”

Owen suppressed an instinctive urge to snarl I’m asking the questions round here, moron! Bel, catching his eye, made a quick sshing gesture with its hand. Hasek continued to rattle on without their intervention; unprompted, poisonous, unstoppable.

“And the Council of Counts - the old fossils - weren’t going to allow some drug to be used on Barrayar just because the whole of the Nexus had approved it. They needed local results. And I undertook to get them. It was easy, in the end. Everyone in the hospital had bypassed the system for years. They had to. This was just more of the same. I took my volunteers from the patients no-one cared about. Altered the records. And they forgot, afterwards, it had ever happened. I made sure of that. Patient confidentiality meant no-one dug into the identity of the test subjects. No-one was harmed. And we got the cure approved in time. Just.”

He swallowed, tense even under the superficial calm bestowed by the drug.

“Vorgeriant’s granddaughter was nearly blind and screaming in agony from the swelling in her lymph glands - the painkillers weren’t having much effect by then - but we brought her back. It was the proudest moment of my medical career.”

Owen felt a cold hand touch the back of his neck. And would you have done anything else? In those circumstances?

His voice was harsh. “And after that?”

Hasek wasn’t looking at him; wasn’t looking especially interested. “After that - Vorgeraint realised what the commercial possibilities might be. All the galactic drug companies wanted to get a foothold here. All of them were being held up by our antiquated rules. Now, you couldn’t do that out of this hospital. Not forever. Not given our dear Patroness and her habit of surprise inspections. We had a near miss on one of those.” His face, for a moment, looked like a cartoon - a mask of evil drawn by someone who regarded the world in general with a charitable and apathetic good humour.

Bel’s face glowed with an expression of savage triumph. “So what did you think of then?” it enquired.

Hasek shrugged. “He realised he had to die. Vorgeraint. We did a lovely job on that. I took his ‘long-standing heart weakness’ back into fifteen years of archives. Faked up a couple of minor episodes. Meanwhile, there was a whole separate identity being built up for him to step straight into as soon as we decided it was time. We set up a company, all properly registered and everything, all right and tight over in Vorfolse’s District. He - that is, his new identity - took on contracts with the galactic drug companies who wanted us to get them the Barrayaran clearances they needed. And we saved lives. Lots and lots of lives. And while we were getting the drug companies the results they wanted, do you think they cared how we did it? “

Owen watched Bel’s hand steal out to caress the device lying on the bench besides it. It was taking every syllable of this down, storing it indelibly besides all the other evidence they’d recorded that morning over the course of Operation Stalking Goat. Sooner rather than later, that gesture promised, those companies were going to find themselves forced to care. Very, very deeply indeed.

“And me? What kind of laboratory rat did you think you were getting with me?” Bel had modulated its voice down into the lower registers again; Owen was starting to get the hang of the sheer scale of its flexibility both in voice and body language. It was forcibly suppressing the feminine in its nature: forcing Hasek to face up to the wrong he had tried to perpetrate - man to man.

Except - human nature didn’t work that way. Hasek opened his eyes wide, an expression of sunny good humour suffusing his face.

“Oh, Vorgeraint would never have considered you as a suitable - test subject. He always told us - me - to avoid galactics like the plague. ‘My dear boy,’ he said once, ‘Barrayaran files are comprehensive. If you once can establish that a citizen of the Imperium has fallen through that net, then indeed they are rightfully ours. Whereas a galactic may have links none of us can dream of. And there danger lies.’ “

Hasek turned towards Bel. “But - well, even with that rule in mind - there are some opportunities which are just too good to resist.”

His smile widened. “You weren’t going to be a laboratory rat - sweetheart. There’s an old Vor lord living in retirement deep in one of the hick districts. Let’s say he was a - ah - friend of the late Crown Prince. He’d have been a great man, no doubt, if it hadn’t been for the Escobar Intervention. Since then - he’s been thrown back on his own resources. He’s not changed, much, sitting there down on his estates in the country. Just turned more inwards, shall we say? Allowed his more specialised tastes free rein. When you appeared - well, you looked like the answer to a prayer.”

Bel’s face became taut and white. Owen turned, slowly, so he was looking Hasek straight in the eyes.

“And what, exactly, do you mean by that?” His voice sounded too thin in his ears. It lacked authority. He was, after all, a fraud here; a pretender. Bel and Petrova, turning to face him, must realise it too. Hasek, himself, even under the influence of the drug, shrugged and turned aside.

Momentarily Owen closed his eyes. In that welcome darkness a fugitive, long-buried memory awoke. Not to sight; to hearing. The sound of a voice completely suffused by contempt and raw fury. A voice tinged with the edge of a visceral betrayal. A voice of authority. A voice from the other side of the desk. A voice that left one shaking, naked, flayed.

A voice that made one realise that there were mistakes which were utterly and forever irrevocable.

He put all of that memory into his next words. “Dr Hasek: when you forged the transfer of this patient, what - precisely, in detail, and in your own inimitable way of expressing it, did you expect would be the result? When you delivered the patient to this - Vor lord? The old friend of the late Crown Prince? What did you expect?”

Hasek turned his head to face him. He was smiling.

“I expected the mutie pervert to die,” he said. His smile became broader. “I expected it to die soon. And - ah - I expected it to die happy. Well. Satisfied, at least. More than satisfied.”

A red mist rose before his eyes. Owen plunged forward, driving punch after punch into that hatefully familiar face. And then it wavered before him, and all went dark.