Hello, and welcome to the first proper entry in my Vorkosigan Saga Reread, in which I cover the first two chapters of Shards of Honour. (Yes, I intend to use Canadian spellings throughout, but I promise, you’ll hardly notice, unless that sort of thing bothers you.)
These days, Shards is part of an omnibus called Cordelia’s Honour, but Shards of Honour was Lois McMaster Bujold’s first published novel. I originally read The Warrior’s Apprentice, the first Miles novel, which was published the same year, but it took me three years to get around to trying Shards. She started off with a bang.
Cordelia Naismith is a Commander from Beta Colony, exploring an idyllic new world with her team botanist, Ensign Dubauer. There follows a whole page of beautiful nature description before bad-smelling smoke rising from the campground below makes Cordelia wonder what’s going on, just as their shuttle takes off precipitously. Cordelia pages the camp, but doesn’t get any response. When they return to the camp, they find tents slagged, equipment smashed, and Lieutenant Rosemont, who had been left in charge of the camp, killed by a weapon called a “nerve disruptor”.
Most of the communications equipment is slagged, but Cordelia and Dubauer manage to pry open a cabinet and find an intact comm link. They contact their ship, and are informed by Lieutenant Stuben that a Barrayaran patrol appeared, claiming they found the planet first, and one of them began shooting. They all escaped except for Rosemont, and are now trying to evade the Barrayaran ship. Cordelia instructs them to try to evade and outrun the Barrayaran ship, since they can’t outgun it, and if necessary go back to Beta Colony and work through political channels. The Barrayarans are professional soldiers, and the Betans are outclassed, so Cordelia wants to spare her crew.
After Cordelia signs off, a “hatchet-faced” Barrayaran soldier appears and levels a nerve disruptor at them; Dubauer pushes Cordelia out of the way, and she tumbles down a ravine and hits her head.
When she awakens, she finds the Barrayaran standing over her, training her own stunner on her. After she throws up, he introduced himself as Captain Aral Vorkosigan, commander of the ship General Vorkraft. Cordelia introduces herself, and asks about Dubauer; Aral says there is nothing she can do for him now, and Cordelia calls him a murderer. She asks why the Betans were attacked, and Aral says that they were only supposed to taken prisoner, but he himself was hit with a stun beam, though he doubts it was from one of the hapless Betans. Cordelia lets it slip that the rest of the crew escaped.
Aral asks if she has another comm link, and when she does not, insists on taking her with him to the nearest base, despite her concussion. He says that it’s 200 kilometres, two days for him but doutless longer with her along. Cordelia insists on burying her officers before they leave, and Aral eventually acquiesces. When they reach the spot where she thinks Dubauer’s body should be, it is missing, and Aral tells her that he is still walking around, but is surely brain-dead after the nerve disrupter hit. She finds Dubauer in the vegetation, having a seizure, and insists they need to get him to medical help.
“You are being unrealistic, Commander Naismith. One does not recover from disruptor injuries.”
“So? You can’t tell the extent of the damage your filthy weapon has done from the outside. He can still see and hear and feel—you can’t demote him to the status of a corpse for your convenience!”
His face seemed a mask. “If you wish,” he said carefully. “I can put him out of his suffering. My combat knife is quite sharp. Used quickly, it would cut his throat almost painlessly. Or should you feel it is your duty as his commander, I’ll lend you the knife and you may use it.”
“Is that what you’d do for one of your men?”
“Certainly. And they’d do the same for me. No man could wish to live on like that.”
She stood and looked at him very steadily. “It must be like living among cannibals, to be a Barrayaran.”
Cordelia asks where he plans to go, and he says there is a supply cache, with medical supplies and communications equipment. Cordelia pledges her parole and aid, short of endangering her ship, if he will help her get Dubauer there, or else he will have to leave them behind or kill them. Aral eventually agrees, and Cordelia helps Dubauer to walk.
Cordelia washes Dubauer while Aral searches the camp for any salvageable rations. He finds two cases of ration packs with labels burned off. One is instant oatmeal, and one turns out to be blue cheese dressing. Aral surprises Cordelia by producing a spoon from a Swiss Army Knife. He finds a small shovel, and sets up a cold light while she starts digging a grave for Rosemont. After a while, he takes a shift digging, asking Cordelia what they know about the fauna on the planet to gauge how deep the grave needs to be. Cordelia recalls someone mentioning predators called “fuzzy crabs”.
As Cordelia is mounting a cold light on a pole, they hear noise in the bracken.
The three creatures made a concerted rush into the ring of light. Cordelia caught a glimpse of fast low bodies, entirely too many hairy black legs, four beady black eyes set in neckless faces, and razor-sharp yellow beaks that clacked and hissed. They were the size of pigs.
Between the shovel, the pole, and Aral’s knife, they drive off the “fuzzy crabs” before they can make off with Rosemont’s body, though Aral is wounded in the leg. He binds the wound and resumes digging, finishing the grave close to midnight. He suggests they take Rosemont’s clothes for Dubauer, and they finish burying him, Cordelia making a silent prayer at Aral’s urging. Cordelia beds down next to Dubauer while Aral keeps watch, though he promises to wake her for a shift later.
As you may have guessed, even if you haven’t read this before, Aral Vorkosigan is going to be somewhat important to the series to come, despite his initially unpromising introduction. Betans and Barrayarans apparently tend to get along like Democrats and Republicans, which makes me think of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver for some reason.
We never get Aral’s point of view, so his motives for taking Cordelia, and perforce Dubauer, along are a little obscure. He probably feels an odd mixture of responsibility for Cordelia, since she’s the last survivor of his crew (if he doesn’t count Dubauer), mostly due to what his own subordinates have done, and a little bit of contempt for a captive specimen of an incompetent (by Barrayaran standards) enemy. Not that Betans and Barrayarans are long-standing enemies, but Barrayarans have a bad reputation as violent militarists, and hence savages, by Betan standards, in the wormhole nexus. Which makes me think of how apparently Lois McMaster Bujold’s first iteration of this story was as Star Trek fanfic, where Aral Vorkosigan would have been a Klingon. This may have predated Worf and Star Trek: TNG, too, though perhaps not John M. Ford’s The Final Reflection, I’m not sure.
I skimmed over the mention of the wormholes, by the way. The Betan team have reached this previously unknown planet through a wormhole, which is the only method, in Bujold’s universe, of getting around the speed of light. The whole of Bujold’s interstellar civilization is joined together by wormholes, and the importance of a star system tends to be directly related to how many wormholes it contains, and where they lead. Though the wormholes are mostly a convenient plot device, Bujold does not neglect to investigate their implications in the series. For now, it’s a little while before we even see one. They do get off the planet in this book, in case you’re wondering. (I can’t remember if they name the planet this book, or not until later, though.)
Not one but two comments, one from my wife, pointing out that the hatchet-faced man who shot Dubauer is probably Bothari, not Aral Vorkosigan. Which makes perfect sense, and I probably knew that. So now I’m going to go back and see if I can figure out how obvious that is, that I missed it. First, the soldier who shot Dubauer:
A movement in the mottled shade caught her eye. She started to her feet, hand moving toward her stunner. The tall, hatchet-faced Barrayaran soldier in the green and grey splotched camouflage fatigues moved even faster. Dubauer moved faster still, shoving her blindly behind him.
(In case you were wondering, I’m reading this from the CD bundled with the CryoBurn hardcover, so I can just copy and paste directly…which makes this whole thing much easier.)
And then, in the next scene, here’s Aral:
Heavy black boots, sunk in the mud and topped by green and grey splotched camouflage trousers, encased legs spread apart in a patient parade rest. She suppressed a weary whimper. Very gently she laid her head back in the black ooze, and rolled cautiously onto her side for a better view of the Barrayaran officer.
Her stunner! She stared into the little rectangle of its business end, held steadily in a broad and heavy hand. Her eyes searched anxiously for his nerve disruptor. The officer’s belt hung heavy with equipment, but the disruptor holster on his right hip was empty, as was the plasma arc holster on his left.
He was barely taller than herself, but stocky and powerful. Untidy dark hair touched with grey, cold intent grey eyes—in fact, his whole appearance was untidy by the strict Barrayaran military standards. His fatigues were almost as rumpled and muddy and stained with plant juices as her own, and he had a raw contusion across his right cheekbone. Looks like he’s had a rotten day too, she thought muzzily. Then the sparkly black whirlpools expanded and drowned her again.
The first guy has three characteristics: tall, hatchet-faced, and wearing green and grey splotched camouflaged fatigues. Aral is wearing green and grey splotched camouflaged trousers, and presumably the rest. He is not described as not having a hatchet face. So I guess what I needed to pick up on was the phrase “barely taller than herself”, as opposed to “tall”. Though if Cordelia is herself tall (as I vaguely recall that she is), then someone “barely taller than her” is still “tall”.
Add to this the reference in the first paragraph in the second excerpt to “the Barrayaran officer”, italics mine, and I feel that I could be forgiven for concluding that they are the same person. She sees “a Barrayaran soldier”, and later wakes up to find “the Barrayaran officer”. Unless an officer can never be the same as a soldier; I tend to take “soldier” as being a more inclusive category, but I suppose I could be wrong.
The other clue, which I suppose I missed was this:
“What happened to your party?”
Cordelia’s eyes narrowed. “Weren’t you there? I was up on the mountain, assisting my team botanist.” And more urgently, “Have you seen my botanist—my ensign? He pushed me into the ravine when we were ambushed—”
She says “we were ambushed”, not “you ambushed us”. Which may mean that she can tell, from physical details not vouchsafed directly to us readers, that Aral is not the same person as Hatchet-face. On the other hand, I’m sure that if Hatchet-face isn’t Aral, she would still conclude that Aral, as a Barrayaran Captain, would likely be Hatchet-face’s superior officer, and so would still be responsible for the ambush, so either way, it should be “you ambushed us”, differing only in whether “you” means Aral himself or “you” means Aral and the soldiers under his command. And yet she uses the passive voice, perhaps out of some Betan habit of circumlocution and the avoidance of direct blame-assignment…who knows.
Aral also says that he was stunned and found the camp “as she did” when he came to. I took that to mean that he was stunned during the initial attack that slagged the camp, and then came to around the time Cordelia and Dubauer returned. But then, Aral’s holsters are empty of plasma arcs and nerve disruptors, and all he has is Cordelia’s stunner, so I suppose that he doesn’t have the nerve disrupter that killed Dubauer. But perhaps his disruptor merely ran out of charge? He is shown to have plasma arc power packs in the next chapter, but that doesn’t mean he has some for his nerve disrupter…
Anyway, the point here is that while I am perfectly willing to believe, based on later evidence, that Hatchet-face and Aral are not the same person, I really would have liked Ms. Bujold to have presented us right away with the fact that they are two different people–something that, if this were a movie, we would have been able to figure out in nanoseconds, thanks to the embedded facial recognition software in our brain. Instead, she provides a selection of maddeningly indirect clues, leaving it ambiguous and confusing until matters are clarified, possibly chapters later when we actually meet Bothari. *wags finger admonishingly at author* Oh, well, it was her first novel, I suppose I can cut her some slack. Eventually.
Aral, Cordelia and Dubauer make their way down from the mountainside campsite and walk along a stream rather than hack through the dense undergrowth. Cordelia notes some floating radial native lifeforms, like transparent balloons, floating above the stream. During a rest break, Cordelia suddenly remembers where she’s heard of Aral Vorkosigan before, and blurts out that he’s the Butcher of Komarr.
“What do you know about Komarr?” His tone added, An ignorant Betan.
“Just what everyone knows. It was a worthless ball of rock your people annexed by military force for command of its wormhole clusters. The ruling senate surrendered on terms, and were murdered immediately after. You commanded the expedition, or . . .” Surely the Vorkosigan of Komarr had been an admiral. “Was it you? I thought you said you didn’t kill prisoners.”
“Did they demote you for it?” she asked, surprised. She had thought that sort of conduct to be Barrayaran standard.
“Not for that. For the sequel.” He seemed reluctant to say more, but he surprised her again by going on. “The sequel was more effectively suppressed. I had given my word—my word, as Vorkosigan—they were to be spared. My Political Officer countermanded my order, and had them killed behind my back. I executed him for it.”
“I broke his neck with my own hands, on the bridge of my ship. It was a personal matter, you see, touching my honor. I couldn’t order a firing squad—they were all afraid of the Ministry of Political Education.”
Cordelia wonders that he wasn’t hanged, but Aral tells her that a Vorkosigan cannot be just executed, though he did make some enemies. She asks if one of those enemies shot him, and Aral says that it’s possible, but he doubts it because he’s alive. Cordelia reflects that Barrayaran politics sound more dangerous than the Betan variety, but Aral says that at least his subordinates don’t argue over his orders.
They make the way down toward the plains, stopping for the night a little above the flatland after Dubauer has a seizure that leaves him weak. They eat some more oatmeal and blue cheese dressing, than Aral takes the first watch again. He wakes her in the middle of the night and gives her the stunner, reporting nothing but some loud beast out in the bushes, then goes to sleep. She contemplates Aral Vorkosigan, one of the old guard of aristocrats on Barrayar, trying to fight off the rising ride of bureaucrats. Only the aging Emperor Vorbarra seems to keep them from each other’s throats, according to what little she knows of the planet. She also contemplates the trust that lets him sleep while she has the stunner, but admits that she needs his help with Dubauer.
The next day they reach a river. While trying to find a ford, they spot some hexapeds basking on a sandbar in the river, and some larger specimens of the transparent balloons. Some of the balloons alight on the hexapeds’ backs, where they appear to suck blood until the hexapeds dislodge them and slide into the river. Finally crossing the river just above a small waterfall, Dubauer slips and goes under, pulling Cordelia with him; Aral rescues them before they can be swept too far downstream.
Later, Cordelia disturbs a smaller hexaped, which she suddenly remembers is edible; Aral calls for the stunner and takes the creature down in one shot.
“Oh, good shot!” cried Cordelia ecstatically.
Vorkosigan grinned like a boy over his shoulder at her, and jogged after his prize.
“Oh,” she murmured, stunned herself by the effect of the grin. It had lit his face like the sun for that brief instant. Oh, do that again, she thought; then shook off the thought. Duty. Stick to duty.
Cordelia advises Aral on how to kill it, and they decide to stop for the day early so they can eat it. Aral notices Dubauer’s absence, and Cordelia backtracks quickly to find Dubauer staring up entranced at a descending vampire bubble. It settles on his face, but Aral pulls it off before it has sunk more than few tendrils into Dubauer. Cordelia helps pluck the remnants of the tendrils loose, noticing the creature has left behind a burning acidic coating, and Dubauer is weeping. Aral washes his hand off in the stream, then gives Dubauer one of his few remaining painkillers.
When it comes to starting the fire, Aral notes that he was supposed to have learned to start a fire with sticks in childhood military camps, but he usually resorted to hotwiring a power pack. He finds a plasma arc power pack, takes it down to a bend in the river, and then runs back quickly before it explodes. It leaves behind a hot, glassy crater, which Aral uses to light a torch, but the river quickly fills it in. They cook the hexaped meat over the fire–well done, as Cordelia tells Aral they hadn’t completed the parasite survey yet–even Dubauer managing to eat some small pieces.
Cordelia is amused to note how primitive Aral looks after only a few days in the bush, unshaven and covered with blood and grease, smelling of sweat, though she feels a wave of physical attraction which she sternly suppresses. Aral asks about her dedication to Dubauer, if they were in love, but Cordelia says he’s too younger for her, and she just feels responsible. They talk about their families–Cordelia’s mother and brother are on Beta Colony, but her father died in an accident years earlier; Aral’s father is Count Vorkosigan, and his mother was half Betan. Cordelia asks for more details, and he tells her that his maternal grandfather was Prince Xav Vorbarra, a diplomat who was posted to Beta Colony as an ambassador. Xav was a progressive, but the Count is aligned with the military aristocrats; Aral himself claims that he tries to avoid politics, because they tend to be hard on his family.
She wakes up in the middle of the night as Aral puts more wood on the fire, and tells her the carcass of the hexaped is attracting scavengers, the “fuzzy” crabs they saw earlier. They face them off with torches, and Aral drops a couple with the stunner, but it’s running low on charge. As the scavengers draw closer, Aral is dismayed to notice some of the balloons hovering overhead, but Cordelia reasons that they must use hydrogen gas to float. Aral knocks one of the sky, then Cordelia hits it with her torch and it explodes; she continues until the scavengers are fleeing, and then realizes that Aral is patting out bits of her burning hair. He captures one more of the balloons and wraps it in his shirt, just in case they need it later. They decide that eating the wildlife is too risky.
In the morning, the balloon creature has died, staining Aral’s shirt badly. Later, he gets some tiny stinging insect-like creatures in his pants, and Cordelia notices that the wound Aral received from the “fuzzy crab” earlier is looking infected, but there is little they can do about it. She notices him favouring the leg while walking, but he refuses to take any painkillers until they are closer to their destination. His leg is swollen the next day, and he cuts himself a walking stick, but insists they can still make in another day or two. He insists he is one of the fittest men over forty in his command (out of four, he admits), and he has a powerful stimulant he can use later, too.
He tells Cordelia that he suspects his Political Officer, Radnov, of trying a spur-of-the-moment assassination attempt which they could blame on Betans, but whoever was supposed to kill him stunned him and hid him under a bush instead. And yet whoever it was hasn’t informed Aral’s first officer, Gottyan, that Aral is alive, so he’s not sure what side this person is on.
Aral asks about Cordelia’s ship, and she decides it’s safe to tell him that they’re probably back at Beta Colony by now. Aral says that Gottyan would probably be back at the planet by now, then, but refuses to tell Cordelia any more, though he says he will try to see that she doesn’t end up in a Barrayaran prison cell. Cordelia doesn’t know how to deal with this kindness.
The first signs of attraction on Cordelia’s part, and a hint that relationships between Betans and Barrayarans are not foredoomed or anything. And the first mention that Aral’s descended from a Vorbarra Prince, albeit through the female line, which, as you may imagine, doesn’t count for as much on Barrayar as it might elsewhere. (Vor is a prefix indicating nobility, so Vorbarra = Vor + Barra, and Barrayar = Barra + -yar.) This chapter is really as much as we get in this book about the alien fauna, though what there is is interesting enough. I’ll be happy enough for them to get back to dealing with other people, because trekking-through-the-wilderness stories can get old really fast.
It’s interesting how Aral almost doesn’t dispute Cordelia’s horribly biased account of the Komarr story, not mentioning at first the fact that he didn’t order the deaths himself. And no mention of the reason that Barrayar attacked Komarr (which was provoked, if perhaps not quite justified, so I suppose it probably cuts no ice in Betan eyes).
Betans and Barrayarans do start out with such dissimilar worldviews, but it seems that it’s easier for a Betan to understand a Barrayaran than the other way around, because part of the Betan way of thinking includes the possibility that others think differently. (Reminds me of David Brin’s essay “Otherness”, where he says that Americans–or is it First Worlders as a whole?–try to force their worldview on others, even though part of that worldview is “all worldviews are equally valid”.) On the other hand, some things that Betans regard as basic human rights–such as equality of the sexes, and the sanctity of life–just make Barrayarans look at them funny.
And that’s all for this week. With luck, I’ll manage another two chapters for next week, and we’ll see how long I can keep up the pace. Thanks for reading.