It’s time once again for that old favourite, the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, which is what I call this thing I do where I read a couple of chapters of one of the books in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, then summarize them for the assembled masses of the Internet and add a few modest comments of my own. This week I cover Chapters Five and Six of The Vor Game, fourth book chronologically and I’m not even such which one in publication order, since they often don’t match up for this series. There may be spoilers, though I try to be a little coy about them, and if you don’t start at the beginning, you may be a little bit lost, because I may not stop to summarize things that the author recaps for the benefit of new readers–be warned.
Miles is awakened by a klaxon, but soon realizes that it’s not the wah-wah warning, or any attack. The klaxon stops, and Miles checks the time; it’s only evening. He decides to get up and find out what’s going on. He finds Lt. Bonn walking purposefully, and asks him what’s going on. Bonn says it’s an accident in a toxic stores bunker, and possibly a very bad one.
At the bunker, they find the surgeon loading two injured soldiers for transport, and giving them instructions to decontaminate themselves and everything they’re wearing. He tells Miles and Bonn that the two men were moving things around in the bunker to make room for a new shipment, when they flipped their loader (probably through horsing around), breaking one man’s leg and also breaking open at least two barrels of fetaine. Miles recognizes it as a mutagenic terror weapon never actually used in combat, but apparently still stored on Kyril Island. Bonn comments that if those barrels, supposedly indestructible, have broken open, the rest are likely also dangerous.
Miles suggests torching the whole bunker, since heat will dissociate the fetaine, and he, Miles, and the fire marshall come up with a plan to do so safely using plasma mines and some sealant. Since it will depend on the wind direction, Miles heads back to his office to refine his forecast, with Bonn and Lt. Yaski, the fire marshal, coming back to the admin building as well to work out the details. While he’s working, though, he sees Bonn and Yaski leaving the building. Since his new forecast is not much different from what he’d already told them, he stays put, wanting to avoid the risk of fetaine contamination, but he finds himself unable to contemplate going back to sleep.
When Bonn and Yaski return again, Miles goes to give them the new forecast, and finds them in General Metzov’s office. It emerges that Metzov wants to order techs into the bunker to clean it up, which Bonn recommends against, even with environmental gear, since fetaine can likely penetrate it. Metzov is angry that Bonn didn’t order the techs, as Metzov had ordered him, and refuses to consider destroying the fetaine, since they are charged with storing it. Miles asks if they can’t just mix up some more, and Metzov threatens him with charges if he cracks one more joke.
“Have you never heard of the fine old battlefield practice of shooting the man who disobeys your order, Lieutenant?” Metzov went on to Bonn.
“I . . . don’t think I can make that threat, sir,” said Bonn stiffly.
And besides, thought Miles, we’re not on a battlefield. Are we?
“Techs!” said Metzov in a tone of disgust. “I didn’t say threaten, I said shoot. Make one example, the rest will fall in line.”
Bonn persists that the techs could easily refuse to be that reasonable, and he feels unreasonable on the matter himself. Metzov decides to give Bonn and the techs a lesson in obedience, since Bonn is “pretending” to be an officer. He tells Bonn and Yaski to assemble their men outside so they can have an “old-fashioned discipline parade”.
Bonn and Yaski and their men stand in their weather gear outside the building.
Metzov smiled, a gloss over rage, and turned his head at a movement down the road. In a horribly cordial voice he confided to Miles, “You know, Ensign, there was a secret behind that carefully cultivated interservice rivalry they had back on Old Earth. In the event of a mutiny you could always persuade the army to shoot the navy, or vice versa, when they could no longer discipline themselves. A hidden disadvantage to a combined Service like ours.”
“Mutiny!” said Miles, startled out of his resolve to speak only when spoken to. “I thought the issue was poison exposure.”
Metzov says that with Bonn’s incompetence, it turned into mutiny when his techs refused his orders. The infantry grubs appear in their winter gear, led by their sergeant, an old crony of Metzov’s, and armed with nerve disrupters. The sergeant lines up the grubs, excited to have real weapons, and orders them to point their weapons at the techs. Metzov orders the techs to strip, and that when they’re ready to obey their orders, they can get dressed again. The techs, including Olney, Pattas, and several other Barrayaran Greeks, stand shivering, but showing no willingness to clean the fetaine. While Yaski steps back, Bonn moves forward to join his techs, taking off his own clothes. Metzov willingly condemns him along with his men.
Metzov tells Miles to make himself useful and grab a weapon, or leave. Miles takes a nerve disruptor, though he leaves the safety on. He wonders if the infantry grubs know about criminal orders, a seminar his own father used to teach to officer cadets at the Academy. With the techs being notionally military, but in peacetime, the situation is highly ambiguous. Miles watches as Bonn freezes with his men, entertaining brief fantasies of killing Metzov, and then probably being fried by the grubs. He could just follow his orders, but he doesn’t relish the thought of these frozen ghosts following him the rest of his career. Instead, Miles sneaks behind the grubs, drops his weapon, takes off his own clothes and goes forward to join the techs.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Ensign?” Metzov snarled as Miles limped past him.
“Breaking this up, sir,” Miles replied steadily. Even now some of the shivering techs flinched away from him, as if his deformities might be contagious. Pattas didn’t draw away, though. Nor Bonn.
“Bonn tried that bluff. He’s now regretting it. It won’t work for you either, Vorkosigan.” Metzov’s voice shook too, though not from the cold.
You should have said “Ensign.” What’s in a name? Miles could see the ripple of dismay run through the grubs, that time. No, this hadn’t worked for Bonn. Miles might be the only man here for whom this sort of individual intervention could work. Depending on how far gone Mad Metzov was by now.
Miles tells Metzov that while he might be able to cover up the deaths of Bonn and the tech’s, there’s no way he could cover up Miles’s death. Metzov asks what happens if there’s no witnesses, but Miles reminds him that the grubs themselves are witnesses, and that living or dead, his story will prevail. Metzov continues to wait, and Miles continues to freeze, swiftly catching up to the techs because of his lower body mass. Miles sees that Metzov can’t back down from his discipline exercise now, so he tries a different tack, tempting him with the benefits of stopping, arresting the techs, Bonn and Miles as mutineers. Their careers would all be in ruins, including Miles’s own. Metzov likes the idea if bringing down the holier-than-thou Count Vorkosigan, and tells them they’re all under arrest, and to get dressed.
The others looked stunned with relief then. After a last uncertain glance at the nerve disrupters they dove for their clothes, donning them with frantic cold-clumsy hands. But Miles had seen it complete in Metzov’s eyes sixty seconds earlier. It reminded him of that definition of his father’s. A weapon is a device for making your enemy change his mind. The mind was the first and final battleground, the stuff in between was just noise.
Lt. Yaski had disappeared into the admin building with Miles’s distraction, and the surgeon, Metzov’s second, and the infantry commander all appeared in quick succession. As they are led to the stockade, Bonn asks Miles if he’s supposed to thank him; Miles points out that they’re still alive, and now Metzov has no choice but to destroy the fetaine before the wind shifts.
Miles awakens in his cell later, where Bonn is being brought back in; he tells Miles that Service Security has arrived to investigate the matter, and that he’s just verified the destruction of the fetaine. The guard summons Miles next, and soon he realizes that it’s not Service Security, but ImpSec, who has taken charge. Miles gives a handprint, with difficulty since his hands and feet are swaddled in plastic and frostbite-healing gel, for travel orders, but is unable to get any more information from the ImpSec officers about what is going on.
General Metzov ducked through the door from the inner office, a sheaf of plastic flimsies in one hand and a Service Security captain at his elbow, who nodded warily to his counterpart on the Imperial side.
The general was almost smiling. “Good morning, Ensign Vorkosigan.” His glance took in Imperial Security without dismay. Dammit, ImpSec should be making that near-murderer shake in his combat boots. “It seems there’s a wrinkle in this case even I hadn’t realized. When a Vor lord involves himself in a military mutiny, a charge of high treason follows automatically.”
“What?” Miles swallowed, to bring his voice back down. “Lieutenant, I’m not under arrest by Imperial Security, am I?”
The lieutenant produced a set of handcuffs and proceeded to attach Miles to the big sergeant. Overholt, read the name on the man’s badge, which Miles mentally redubbed Overkill. He had only to lift his arm to dangle Miles like a kitten.
Overholt informes Miles he’s being detained indefinitely, pending further investigation, and will be taken back to ImpSec HQ in Vorbarr Sultana. As Miles is led out to the courier shuttle, he notes from the feeling in his sinuses that the temperature will be stabilizing soon, and realizes that it’s time to get off of Kyril Island.
I suppose that a remote arctic island may be the best place to store those kind of toxic chemicals, if you must store them and not destroy them in the first place–and how often does the military throw away a potential weapon? I’m reminded of the weapons used against Aral Vorkosigan back in Barrayar, the soltoxin and the sonic grenade, also from weapon stores… Wonder how the author really feels about that?
Here, of course, is where Metzov really melts down, getting to play out his vision of what it would really be like if they were at war again. One is not meant to have a lot of sympathy for him, though I expect that Miles may be able to squeeze out a tiny teaspoonful, at least for the military men who are lost without the clear-cut black-and-white morality of war. Metzov may verge into sadism, or sociopathy, and outside of the military he might very well have turned into a murderer, or he may just have turned into a grumpy old man as Miles concludes early on. But in the military there’s at least a chance he can be “useful”, I suppose.
What is it that really motivates Miles to join in the mutiny and turn the tide? It’s probably a combination of all the things he says–how he can’t stand by and watch the techs die, even if it’s the career-smart thing to do, and how he reasons out that he can bring some of his weight to bear and stop the killing, even if he has to do so as a Vor lord and not an Ensign, poisoning his own career. It shows that he can’t separate his Vor self from the rest of him, that his sense of Vor duties, his noblesse oblige, informs his every decision. Even as Admiral Naismith, he feels the obligation to his subordinates, and of course let’s not forget his explicit ties to Arde Mayhew and Baz and Elena Jesek…
The autumn weather in Vorbarr Sultana is a welcome change after Kyril Island, though Miles doesn’t get to see much of it before he is ushered from the shuttle into ImpSec Headquarters. Overholt takes Miles to an upward tube, not down to the holding cells as Miles half expected, but up to the more fearsome confrontation with Simon Illyan. Illyan dismisses Overholt, dryly telling the concerned lieutenant that he should be safe. Miles is acutely conscious of his grubbiness and the medical mittens on his frostbitten hands and feet.
Practically everyone on Barrayar feared this man’s name, though few knew his face. This effect was carefully cultivated by Illyan, building in part—but only in part—on the legacy of his formidable predecessor, the legendary Security Chief Negri. Illyan and his department, in turn, had provided security for Miles’s father for the twenty years of his political career, and had slipped up only once, during the night of the infamous soltoxin attack. Offhand, Miles knew of no one Illyan feared except Miles’s mother. He’d once asked his father if this was guilt, about the soltoxin, but Count Vorkosigan had replied, No, it was only the lasting effect of vivid first impressions. Miles had called Illyan “Uncle Simon” all his life until he’d entered the Service, “Sir” after that.
Miles asks if he’s under arrest, and Illyan says that’s what they will be determining. Rumours are spreading all over the Service, and mutating; Illyan wonders why Miles couldn’t have just tried to kill the Emperor or something instead. He asks how Miles could have betrayed his father’s hopes, and Miles says that he doesn’t think he did.
Aral himself enters just then, and tells Illyan that he’s not officially there, so Illyan turns off his recorder. Illyan asks Miles what really happened on Kyril Island, and Miles sums up the previous night’s events for them. Aral is outraged at Metzov using trainees for his firing squad, jumping the chain of command and perhaps ruining the boys forever, and he assures Miles that Metzov will not escape his wrath. Miles and mutineers will have to be dealt with separately, though. Miles tells them that the mutineers were techs, and mostly Greeks, which of course would have inflamed the cultural minority if they had been killed, and might still; he said that one reason he interposed himself was that thereby he would prove it couldn’t all be blamed on the high Vor.
Miles asks if he’ll be arrest for high treason again, and Illyan says no, they’ll just have to hide him somewhere, other than Kyril Island, of course. Miles says that he can’t ask for better treatment than the mutineers get, and Aral agrees to have their charges quashed, but with a price. Miles would have to resign his commission, since this incident would poison any relationship he’d ever have with a commanding officer, not to mention any trust people might have that he was a regular officer and not someone untouchable with special privileges. Miles, though sick at heart, agrees to pay the price, since the techs were, in some weird way, his men.
Illyan suddenly asks about an earlier comment of Miles about Metzov’s behaviour in the Komarr Revolt, which of course was sealed to ImpSec. Miles tells him, with some embarrassment, about how he was able to get access to the files using Ivan and the facing screens.
“Perfect security,” said Count Vorkosigan in a choked voice. Chortling, Miles realized in startlement.
Illyan looked like a man sucking on a lemon. “How did you,” Illyan began, stopped to glare at the Count, started again, “how did you figure this out?”
“It was obvious.”
“Airtight security, you said,” murmured Count Vorkosigan, unsuccessfully suppressing a wheezing laugh. “The most expensive yet devised. Proof against the cleverest viruses, the most sophisticated eavesdropping equipment. And two ensigns waft right through it?”
Goaded, Illyan snapped, “I didn’t promise it was idiot-proof!”
Illyan tells Miles that, with this, house arrest is no longer enough–he won’t feel safe until Miles is “locked in a cell with hands tied behind his back”. Aral notes that since ImpSec will need to keep an eye on Miles, for his own safety–and everyone else’s, Illyan adds–he should just be assigned there. Miles says it wasn’t on his list of assignment choices, and Aral tells him that Major Cecil thought he showed major aptitude nonetheless. Illyan reminds Aral that no commander in the Service will want Miles as an underling, and that Illyan himself is no exception. Aral reminds Illyan that Illyan has one difference–Aral can lean on him to make him take Miles anyway. It will look right, the transfer, a kind of internal exile, without the disgrace of actual resignation. And Security does need Miles’s talents, to help preserve the Emperor’s honour as well as his life. Illyan acquiesces with bad grace, and Aral tells Miles he needs an infirmary and leads him off to find one.
“Other than that, how was Kyril Island, Ensign Vorkosigan?” inquired the Count. “You didn’t vid home much, your mother noticed.”
“I was busy. Lessee. The climate was ferocious, the terrain was lethal, a third of the population including my immediate superior was dead drunk most of the time. The average IQ equalled the mean temperature in degrees cee, there wasn’t a woman for five hundred kilometers in any direction, and the base commander was a homicidal psychotic. Other than that, it was lovely.”
Aral says it doesn’t sound like it’s changed in twenty-five years; he tells Miles that he spent his own period of disgrace and exile there when his career was in eclipse, before becoming Captain of the General Vorkraft. He admits that he coped with it mostly by drinking. Miles asks his father if he did the right thing; Aral says he did a right thing, possibly not the best, but he makes it a practice never to second-guess the decisions of the man on the spot.
Aral takes Miles to an infirmary in ImpSec itself, small but adequate, where they are soon attended upon by a Security surgeon. The doctor seems daunted by Aral, and Miles wonders why he isn’t affected that way; he must be acclimatized.
The former Lord Regent was the man who used to take a two-hour lunch every day, regardless of any crisis short of war, and disappear into his Residence. Only Miles knew the interior view of those hours, how the big man in the green uniform would bolt a sandwich in five minutes and then spend the next hour and a half down on the floor with his son who could not walk, playing, talking, reading aloud. Sometimes, when Miles was locked in hysterical resistance to some painful new physical therapy, daunting his mother and even Sergeant Bothari, his father had been the only one with the firmness to insist on those ten extra agonizing leg stretches, the polite submission to the hypospray, to another round of surgery, to the icy chemicals searing his veins. “You are Vor. You must not frighten your liege people with this show of uncontrol, Lord Miles.” The pungent smell of this infirmary, the tense doctor, brought back a flood of memories. No wonder, Miles reflected, he had failed to be afraid enough of Metzov. When Count Vorkosigan left, the infirmary seemed altogether empty.
Miles stays in the infirmary for a week, healing not only his frostbitten extremities but an incipient case of pneumonia requiring six days of antibiotics. He’s the only patient for that period. Miles complains to his mother, when she visits, about how he’s not quite under arrest but not quite free to leave either, just in limbo. He wonders to himself why he never wants to be a ship captain like his mother, the daring Betan wormhole explorer. She tells him that the other mutineers are being discharged, not dishonourably but without benefits, and so is Metzov. Miles himself is listed as under indefinite detention by ImpSec. Cordelia tells him he will stay in limbo long enough to convince the hardliners that he’s been sufficiently punished; Count Vorkosigan will be publicly angry with him and thus won’t be visiting again anytime soon. She asks Miles if he’s ready yet to consider another career, another way of serving.
That evening Miles tries to call Ivan, but Ivan doesn’t want any “limbo” to rub off on him and hangs up.
So now we know how Miles got sidelined into ImpSec instead of keeping his nose clean and ending up with ship duty. In chapters like this one I remember how The Vor Game was written after several chronologically-later books–by Brothers In Arms, for instance, we know he’s working for ImpSec. How much of this did Bujold know by that point? That’s always the question. Did she only know that he got himself in trouble somehow and ended up in ImpSec as a penance? Or did she try to get him in there willingly and end up realizing it just didn’t work? Or was Kyril Island her plan the whole time?
It’s a nice footnote that Aral spent time there too, and it makes perfect sense although it never came up in, say, Shards of Honour. It’s nice to leave enough gaps in your timelines, whether for characters or nations or planets, that you can insert things like that, unconsidered when you first conceived the timeline, without contradicting anything else you’ve already said. As long as it doesn’t turn into leaving enough gaps for anything that may happen to be useful in your current book, like adding a skill they never needed before… That makes me wonder if any of those plumbing scenes were in books written before this one.
Miles’s relationship to Simon Illyan is a little odd; he still seems daunted by him, if not scared, despite the fact that he’s more resistant to the influence of so many of his father’s other colleagues. Illyan’s reputation must be very effective, despite the fact that neither of Miles’s parents are affected by it. This is a theme that we’ll revisit, to powerful effect, in Memory. (I am so looking forward to that, it’s not even funny. Seriously, it’s possibly her best novel. You’re gonna love it, but we have to get through the others first, or it won’t have the same effect…)
Lt. Bonn’s fate kind of sucks, and I suspect we don’t know whatever happened to him. He probably never joined the Dendarii Mercenaries or the Vorkosigan household, so. He deserves better than Metzov, and we never know if he got it or not…
Also: Security surgeon at ImpSec, no name.
And that’s all for this week. Next week we move past “The Weatherman” and into The Vor Game proper, which as I recall is one of the slower parts of the book. So there’s that to look forward to, at least. And I could be wrong–things may have picked up already by the end of Chapter Eight. I guess you’ll have to wait until next week to find out, unless, of course, you have your own copy of the book or something…