Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread. If you don’t know what’s going on here, then go and click on that “About” link or something. It’s not that hard to figure out, but if you haven’t read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honour, or Cordelia’s Honour, which it’s the first half of, then maybe you should go and do that first. I’ll wait.
Today’s installment covers Chapters Nine and Ten of Shards of Honour, in which a plan comes together, some people die and some other people go back to a planet.
Cordelia wakes up to Illyan saying that Vorhalas and the Prince are coming. Aral and Illyan quickly stuff Bothari into the shower, and tell Cordelia to give him another dose of the sedative early in case he starts to wake up and make noise. They shut Cordelia into the room with Bothari, but leave the door partway open, with Illyan leaning against the frame, as a psychological barrier. Cordelia doses Bothari, then sits on the toilet, where she can see just a sliver of the room reflected in the mirror.
Vorhalas and Prince Serg arrive. Vorhalas has the latest updates on the battle on data discs, and he says the Escobarans are on the run. Aral says that they shouldn’t both leave the ship, that the Prince needs to stay behind to take Vorrutyer’s place. Serg insists that he will lead his troops on the planet, and nobody will be able to say he’s not a soldier.
“You will,” said Vorkosigan wearily, “sit in that fortified palace that half the engineers are going to be tied up constructing, and party in it, and let your men do your dying for you, until you’ve bought your ground by the sheer weight of the corpses piled on it, because that’s the kind of soldiering your mentor has taught you. And then send bulletins home about your great victory. Maybe you can have the casualty lists declared top secret.”
“Aral, careful,” warned Vorhalas, shocked.
“You go too far,” the Prince snarled. “Especially for a man who will get no closer to the fighting than clinging to the wormhole exit for home. If you want to talk of—undue caution.” His tone clearly made the phrase a euphemism for an uglier term.
Aral tells him that he can hardly be confined to quarters and still accused of cowardice for not being part of the fight. The Prince tells Aral that there’s no chance that he’ll grab any of the glory for himself. Aral makes a formal protest, and the Prince says that after his victory Aral and the progressives will be “up against the wall”. Just then, Bothari starts to snore, which Illyan covers with a coughing fit and a quick duck into the bathroom, where he helps Cordelia roll Bothari onto his side.
When Illyan emerges, the Prince has left, but Vorhalas is still talking to Aral. Aral urges them to take separate ships, but Vorhalas refuses. As he’s leaving, he asks Aral if he thinks the Escobarans will counterattack. Aral says of course they will, and at the worst possible time, just when the Barrayarans are in the middle of debarking their troops. Vorhalas leaves, not optimistic about the chances that the Prince will listen to reason.
Aral and Illyan are moving Bothari out of the bathroom when Aral notices that he’s not breathing. He and Cordelia apply CPR while Illyan dashes out for an antidote to the sedative. After Illyan returns, they manage to get him breathing again. Aral then goes to enter his protest, which he says will be no good unless it’s filed before Vorhalas leaves. Illyan asks if they should move the two fugitives elsewhere, but Aral reminds him that it’s quite safe, since Illyan himself removed all the bugs, and it’s got armed guards outside the cabin. He says he only needs 26 more hours, and Illyan concludes that Aral has something planned.
Aral contacts Commander Venne in the Tactics Room and asks for regular updates to be piped up once the Prince and Vorhalas leave. He says it’ll be twelve hours until they get to orbit and start landing, and it’ll be a one-hour communication lag each way by then. Illyan goes to fetch some food. Aral and Cordelia chat for a while.
“If the Emperor disliked Vorrutyer so, why did he put him in charge?”
“Because he was Grishnov’s man, and widely famous as such, and the Prince’s favorite. Putting all the bad eggs in one basket, so to speak.” He cut himself off with a fist-closing gesture.
“He made me feel like I’d met the ultimate in evil. I don’t think anything will really scare me, after him.”
“Ges Vorrutyer? He was just a little villain. An old-fashioned craftsman, making crimes one-off. The really unforgivable acts are committed by calm men in beautiful green silk rooms, who deal death wholesale, by the shipload, without lust, or anger, or desire, or any redeeming emotion to excuse them but cold fear of some pretended future. But the crimes they hope to prevent in that future are imaginary. The ones they commit in the present—they are real.” His voice fell, as he spoke, so that by the end he was almost whispering.
Cordelia observes how keyed up Aral is, and he says it’s just the waiting, and admires how calm she is. Illyan returns with the food, and Aral sleeps fitfully, checking the tactical situation every hour or so. Bothari returns to semi-consciousness, and they are afraid to sedate him more. Illyan leaves to sleep in his own cabin, and Cordelia takes a nap herself; by the time Illyan returns with more food, they are about to receive the first reports from the landing troops. As they do, Commander Venne contacts them and says they’re getting odd reports, and offers to pipe them directly to him. Aral agrees, and they begin to hear increasingly harrowing reports of the Escobarans returning their plasma fire, despite their tiny shuttles. They hear Gottyan’s voice, in charge of his own ship, as he prepares to drop his shields for a shot at maximum power. Aral wonders out loud how long it will take them to figure it out, as Gottyan’s transmission abruptly cuts out.
Venne asks him to come down to the Tactics Room; when Aral says he’d been specifically confined to quarters, Venne tells Aral that he’s the ranking officer on board now, and the Prince is dead, and Admiral Vorhalas with him. When Aral hears that, he commands that they immediately adopt his contingency plan for full retreat. He tells Venne that the Escobarans have “plasma mirror shields”, which they got from the Betans, that reflect plasma bursts back on the attacker, which render the Barrayaran ship’s weapons useless.
Cordelia asks him how he knew about the mirror shields, and Aral tells her that he drugged her while she was asleep and she told him everything.
Aral doesn’t seem to be acting at all suspicious in this chapter, does he? “Prince Serg, you can’t leave the ship!” “Shut up, I’ll leave if I want to!” Just like Cersei trying to get Robert Baratheon into the tourney by forbidding him to go. Reverse psychology, that’s what it’s called. Not that Serg seems to need it, he’s off in his own little world where nothing could possibly go wrong. Also, Aral’s little speech about the “calm men in beautiful green silk rooms” can be read two ways. It can refer to the men who planned the war…or it can refer to the men who planned on it going wrong. But that’s next chapter.
Not sure what the point is for Bothari’s cardiac arrest episode. It doesn’t really impact the plot, so I guess it must be a character thing–that no matter what Bothari is or what he’s done, Aral and Cordelia are still willing to give him mouth-to-mouth rather than have him die. “The parody of a kiss was horrible, but to shrink from it beneath contempt.” So I guess it’s really no hard feelings for the abortive rape, then. Cordelia knows that Bothari was as much a victim as she was. That’s Cordelia–she can’t help but see other people’s viewpoints. I expect that if she spent enough time with Vorrutyer or Serg she would have understood and pitied them. Until they killed her. (Or maybe not, considering what happens to Vordarian in the next book…)
Illyan comes back to move Bothari somewhere else (presumably he’s no longer at risk now that Aral is in full charge), leaving Cordelia alone for twelve hours. She puzzles at the question of what Aral used to drug her, and then begins to suspect that he didn’t drug her at all, which meant that he knew about the plasma mirrors all along. And didn’t tell anyone else. The invasion was, she realizes, intended to fail, to kill Prince Serg, Ges Vorrutyer, and the rest of the “bad eggs”, hiding the deaths among the rest of the casualties. And if Aral didn’t get the information from her, it must have been through the Emperor himself, which meant he was plotting to kill his own son. The enormity of the plan staggers her, and she almost hopes that she’s wrong, that Aral just drugged her after all.
Finally Illyan returns to escort her to the brig. She is placed in a cell with a beautiful, dark-haired Escobaran woman who seems to be almost catatonic, until the Barrayarans come to take the woman away, drugging her when she struggles. After they bind up Cordelia’s cracked ribs, she is left alone. After a period of time measured only in ration pack deliveries, the lights begin to flicker. Cordelia floats upwards as the artificial gravity cuts out, then smashes back down when it returns extra strength. She realizes the ship must be under attack, with the shields drawing energy from other systems. Then the lights and gravity go out entirely, and she is flung into the darkened cell to float in midair. Finally she manages to reach a corner, and braces herself in it, until finally the power comes back on, and she finds herself on the ceiling; she crashes to the floor and breaks her left arm.
For three hours she tries to attract anyone’s attention, but nobody comes for her until after they make it through a wormhole jump. The lieutenant in charge of brig brings a medical corpsman around, who puts her arm in a cast. Things return to normal, and after a while they go through another wormhole jump.
Illyan finally comes to fetch her, and she asks if Aral was all right after the attack; Illyan assures her he’s fine. He tells her she’s going to be shuttled to a POW camp onplanet, to be held there until exchanged home. The war is over; the Barrayarans have retreated, but they blocked the wormhole behind them.
“How the devil do you block a wormhole?”
“In a way, it’s a very old idea. Fireships.”
“Send a ship in, set up a major matter-antimatter explosion at a midpoint between nodes. It sets up a resonance—nothing else can get through for weeks, until it dies down.”
Cordelia whistled. “Clever—why didn’t we think of that? How do you get the pilot out?”
“Maybe that’s why you didn’t think of it. We don’t.”
“God—what a death.” Her vision of it was clear and instant.
“They were volunteers.”
Illyan says they have about a thousand prisoners, compared to over ten thousand Barrayarans left behind on Escobar, so she should be pretty valuable.
In the shuttle, she is accompanied by one of the techs from her own ship, and the dark-haired Escobaran woman. The tech has been in a cell the whole time and doesn’t know much about what’s going on, and the woman, who was captured two months ago, can’t remember much of what happened on the ship; Cordelia surmises she may have been another of Vorrutyer’s victims.
When the shuttle arrives, Cordelia is pleasantly surprised to find that they are once again on the nameless planet, right next to the underground depot. They are processed in, and Cordelia and the Escobaran sent to the women’s quarters, which are only sparsely occupied. The ranking officer, Lieutenant Marsha Alfredi, is relieved to find that Cordelia is higher rank and can take over. Alfredi says that the guards have been “pigs”, until the previous day, when the worst of the guards were suddenly relieved, and the camp commandant taken out and shot. Cordelia fills them in on the Barrayarans’ retreat, and the prisoners are surprised but jubilant. She tells them there’s a new commander, hence the changes, but when she mentions Vorkosigan’s name, the “Butcher of Komarr”‘s reputation has them all worried again.
The other prisoners come over to hear if the rumous of peace are true, and Parnell jumps up on a bunk and says that he heard from a Barrayaran guard that the invasion failed because Cordelia assassinated Vorrutyer. Cordelia protests that that’s not what happened, but the prisoners are too busy cheering her and carrying her on their shoulders to be interested in details and denials.
The truth was too complicated and ambiguous to appeal to them, and she herself, suppressing everything in it that had to do with Vorkosigan, was unable to make it sound convincing. Her duty seemed drained of meaning, dull and discolored. She longed for home, and her sensible mother and brother, and quiet, and one thought that would connect to another without making a chain of secret horror.
(Chain of Secret Horror would be a great name for a metal band. Just sayin’.)
So, Cordelia figures out what’s really going on. I’m not sure whether the whole plot was planned out in full before Aral was brought into it or not; I seem to recall that he became involved after the failed assassination attempt on him, but now I can’t recall for sure where that’s stated. Now Cordelia’s presented with what I might call “Rorschach’s Choice”. Basically, when a lot of people die, and you discover that they have been sacrificed against their will for what might nevertheless end up being a net gain, for instance when they, or a similar number of other people, would have died anyway–do you tell people about it, however heinous the loss of life might have been, and thus nullify the thing that might have been gained by their deaths?
Other random, non-plot-related events–Cordelia’s arm getting broken in the artificial gravity glitch. Unless it affects the plot in the next couple of chapters. Maybe people start saying, “Oh, that Butcher of Komarr, he even broke her arm, poor thing.” Seriously, one gets a little tired of the Butcher of Komarr thing. He’s gotten rid of the abusive guards and shot their commander…but oh, he’s going to be worse, because he’s the Butcher of Komarr! He could give all of the captives’ children puppies and cotton candy, and everyone would suspect him of secret, hidden cruelty, because he’s the Butcher of Komarr! Of course, sometimes evil, heartless, and/or amoral characters do thing which have good effects merely to satisfy their whims, or because they despise inefficiency (they’re Lawful Evil rather than Chaotic, you see), but we know Aral’s not like that… I hope he spent those extra character points he got from his Reputation (12-, Bad) wisely.
Also, we will see the beautiful amnesiac dark-haired Escobaran woman again. In fact, she was mentioned earlier–as the “other female prisoner” from a few weeks earlier who fell into Vorrutyer’s clutches. I’m pretty sure it’s the same one, anyway, and Cordelia may even have figured it out.
So we’re now two-thirds of the way through the book, if I recall correctly. We’re practically into the denouement, except that there’s one more plot twist before the end…well, not a plot twist, per se, but more consequences of the events of the book before we can start to settle down. Until next week, then…