Vor! What are they good for? That’s what we find out as we continue on through the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, Lois McMaster Bujold’s primary hero in her Vorkosigan Saga. We are now into The Vor Game, the fourth novel chronologically in the series, and this week we will cover the third and fourth chapters, the middle of the section of the book published separately as “The Weatherman”, as Miles serves his first post as a weather officer on remote Kyril Island. Last time, Miles narrowly escaped being buried in the mud after a couple of pranksters gave him bad advice…
Miles’s initial impulse is for violent revenge against the two men from the motor pool who got him stranded, but by the time he’s released from the infirmary, he’s cooled off. It was meant as a prank, not an assassination attempt, so no need to call ImpSec into it. And it was partly his own fault for chaining his tent to the scat-cat. The medical corpsman tells Miles that he sees worse frostbite once the infantry “grubs” arrive. He pronounces Miles free to go, but warns him that he will have to immediately attend upon General Metzov.
Miles goes to change into some proper clothing for his interview, but having lost his undress greens, and with no replacements yet, he has a choice between the casual black fatigues and the ultra-formal dress greens. He opts for the dress greens with their tall riding boots, then heads to Metzov’s office, beginning to wish he’d gotten to know more of the base personnel.
Metzov is dressed in black fatigues, with only his most noteworthy combat medals, and Miles silently curses himself for guessing wrong with his own uniform. Metzov reproves Miles for losing a scat-cat by parking it in a clearly marked Permafrost Inversion Zone. This was only noted as P.I.Z. on Miles’s map, but apparently he should have read the Lazkowski Base Regulations, one of many items of reading material Ahn had dumped on him. Metzov is only getting started on his dressing-down, though, and with his clerk present to make it a public one. He rails against the “Vor drones” filling up the ranks, adding that he fought in Vordarian’s Pretendership and the Komarr Revolt, and deplores how the peacetime means the troops are getting soft.
Metzov was still expanding, self-stimulated. “In a real combat situation, a soldier’s equipment is vital. It can be the difference between victory and defeat. A man who loses his equipment loses his effectiveness as a soldier. A man disarmed in a technological war might as well be a woman, useless! And you disarmed yourself!”
Miles wondered sourly if the general would then agree that a woman armed in a technological war might as well be a man . . . no, probably not. Not a Barrayaran of his generation.
Metzov assigns Miles to help Lt. Bonn retrieve the scat-cat, since he sank it too deep for it to be feasible to dig it out himself by hand. He assignes Miles an additional week of basic-labour detail for the damage he did to the weather station, despite Miles’s protests that he did it to keep himself alive.
Miles spoke through his teeth, words jerked out as though by pliers. “Would you have preferred the interview you’d be having right now if I’d permitted myself to freeze, sir?”
Silence fell, very dead. Swelling, like a road-killed animal in the summer sun.
Metzov dismisses him, and Miles curses himself for losing his temper, trying to make use of his father’s position, and once again failing to treat the General as a true superior officer. He saw too many of them at Vorkosigan House, he supposes, to be too overawed by them. He decides to see if he can manage to avoid Metzov as successfully as Ahn does for the next six months.
He heads out with Lt. Bonn’s detail to retrieve the scat-cat, pointing out the exact location where he sank it. As Bonn probes for it, he finds a layer of ice; he tells Miles that this stuff can go from frozen to liquid and back again quite easily and quickly under the right conditions, as he discovered. Finally they get it through the ice and find it on the probe’s sonar. Then they get a hovercab and use its tractor beam to dig a crater down to the level of the scat-cat, then reverse the beam to pull it out, bubble-shelter still attached.
Miles goes looking for his boots among the debris dug out by the tractor beam, but only finds one. Bonn asks Miles if he was in the bubble shelter, and Miles confirms that he was, and tells how he had to escape after it sank into the mud. Bonn realizes that Miles could have died, and then mentions that he heard Pattas at the motor pool bragging about how he had played a trick on Miles. Bonn asks Miles why he’s on Kyril Island, and Miles tells him about his desire to earn the right to ship duty, and calling in ImpSec for revenge wouldn’t help him any.
“The motor pool is in Engineering’s chain of command. If Imperial Security fell on it, they’d also fall on me.” Bonn’s brown eyes glinted.
“You’re welcome to fall on anyone you please, sir. But if you have unofficial ways of receiving information, it follows you must have unofficial ways of sending it, too. And after all, you’ve only my word for what happened.” Miles hefted his useless single boot, and heaved it back into the bog.
Thoughtfully, Bonn watched it arc and splash down in a pool of brown meltwater. “A Vor lord’s word?”
“Means nothing, in these degenerate days.” Miles bared his teeth in a smile of sorts. “Ask anyone.”
The next day, Miles starts cleaning off the retrieved scat-cat, and Bonn brings him two helpers–Pattas and Corporal Olney from the motor pool. Miles treats them neutrally, letting them stew. After that, he and his two assistants are sent out to inspect plumbing and drains around the base. In spite of himself, Miles finds it fascinating, with the intricate systems, some of them dangerous, with high-pressure hot water and chemical solvents.
On the sixth day of his punishment detail, they are investigating a blocked culvert near the grubs’ practice fields. Not finding anything blocking the flooded end, Miles crawls in the other end in search of the plug. After finding it, he backs out of the pipe.
He stood up in the bottom of the ditch, straightening his spine vertebra by creaking vertebra. Corporal Olney stuck his head over the road’s railing, above. “What’s in there, Ensign?”
Miles grinned up at him, still catching his breath. “Pair of boots.”
“That’s all?” said Olney.
“Their owner is still wearing ’em.”
One of the reasons I suspect I would make a bad soldier is that I suspect my reaction to unfair orders from an inferior officer would be kind of like Miles’s. (Or maybe not–I’ve had a bad boss or two in my time, and I wasn’t especially noted for my insubordination.) Best way to make a character unsympathetic–put them in a position of authority and have them make an unfair judgement against someone. It was possible that Miles and Metzov just got off on the wrong foot, that he was really okay on some level, but now it seems much less likely. Especially compared to the entirely reasonable Lt. Bonn. (Yes, I prefer to abbreviate Lieutenant whenever possible, just like I prefer Drou to Droushnakovi.)
Miles’s interest in plumbing, introduced here, is one of those things that pops up from time to time in the series, and can probably be used to tell serious readers of the series from more casual ones. I know it turns up later on in The Vor Game, and definitely in A Civil Campaign, and probably one or two other places…
Miles summons the base surgeon by commlink, and by the time he arrives, they’ve blocked the upper end of the drain and tied a rope around the corpse’s feet. With some effort, they pull him out; Pattas and Olney hang back while Miles watches interestedly over the doctor’s shoulder. The doctor finds nothing but bruises on his shoulders, and says he probably died by drowning or hypothermia, within the last twelve hours. He tells Miles that there’s always a few idiots who get themselves killed every year, but this is a new one on him. Miles checks the culvert more thoroughly, but finds nothing except a flashlight. They unblock the culvert and drain the lake; no other body turns up, and the surgeon says this was the only man listed as missing that morning. Pattas expresses grudging admiration for Miles’s evident experience with corpses and willingness to get his hands dirty, and they head back to the base.
Before Miles can wash up, he discovers that he had received a vid call from Vorbarr Sultana. Fearing bad news, he returns it right away, and finds only Ivan, wanting to show off his new apartment. Miles experiences severe disconnection from Ivan’s life of warm weather and more than one sex, and when Ivan comments on his appearance, merely says he was engaged in “forensic plumbing”, and is actually still on duty. After they disconnect, Miles finds himself obscurely comforted at the reminder of life outside of Kyril Island.
Miles goes to check on the autopsy after he goes off-duty, and the surgeon tells him that it was definitely drowning, within half an hour of his getting stuck. Miles asks if there’s any clue as to why he would have gotten stuck in the first place, and the surgeon isn’t particularly interested, saying his diagnosis is still “stupidity”. Miles goes out for a jog, and finds himself back out by the culverts. He tries to figure out what the dead man would have been doing or thinking, and wonders if he was looking in the wrong culvert. The next one over is slightly wider, and Miles finds a waterproof package hidden in it, obviously the dead man’s real goal. Miles examines it curiously, wondering if there’s drugs or sensitive information inside, worthy of a commendation from Simon Illyan for his finding it…but opening it, all he finds are pastries, obviously sent from home and cached to avoid having to share them. He takes them back and shows them to the surgeon, who confirms his earlier diagnosis–“stupidity”.
After his week of maintenance details ends, Ahn’s office corporal comes back from his leave, and Miles finds him a fount of the knowledge he’d been trying painstakingly to learn from Ahn. Ahn leaves happily shortly thereafter, expressing his desire to retire to the equator–anywhere on the equator. He gives Miles a final warning to look out for Metzov, but is unable to get into more specifics, just mentioning an incident during the Komarr revolt. He says that Metzov is “a funny kind of dangerous”, though. Miles says he can’t be that bad if he’s in charge of trainees, but Ahn says that the trainees come with their own officers–Metzov is only in charge of the base itself.
Next time he’s alone in the weather office, Miles hunts up Metzov’s public record. He’s been in the Service for 35 years, rose quickly during the conquest of Komarr, and ended up on the right side in Vordarian’s Pretendership, which had been Miles’s first guess as to why he’d been effectively exiled here. That seemed to have been caused by something in the Komarr Revolt, but it’s hidden underneath an ImpSec seal. He calls Ivan’s office to see if he can get help there. He asks Ivan if he’s alone.
“Yeah, the old man’s stuck in committee. Nice little flap—a Barrayaran-registered freighter got itself impounded in the Hegen Hub—at Vervain Station—for suspicion of espionage.”
“Can we get at it? Threaten rescue?”
“Not past Pol. No Barrayaran military vessels may jump through their wormholes, period.”
“I thought we were sort of friends with Pol.”
“Sort of. But the Vervani have been threatening to break off diplomatic relations with Pol, so the Polians are being extra cautious. Funny thing about it, the freighter in question isn’t even one of our real agents. Seems to be a completely manufactured accusation.”
Ivan asks what Miles wants, and Miles tells him about the file he wants Ivan to call up. Ivan is reluctant to take the risk with an ImpSec file, and says that he can’t transfer it to Miles’s station anyway, without a special cable he’d have to sign for. He can only bring it up on the internal system. Miles tells him to put it on that screen and then turn his desk around so Miles can read it. Ivan does so, and Miles finds out more about Metzov’s career on Komarr.
The file was a collection of secret reports from an ImpSec investigation into the mysterious death of a prisoner in Metzov’s charge, a Komarran rebel who had killed his guard and himself been killed while attempting to escape. When ImpSec had demanded the Komarran’s body for an autopsy, Metzov had turned over cremated ashes and an apology; if only he had been told a few hours earlier the body was wanted, etc. The investigating officer hinted at charges of illegal torture—perhaps in revenge for the death of the guard?—but was unable to amass enough evidence to obtain authorization to fast-penta the Barrayaran witnesses, including a certain Tech-ensign Ahn.
“Miles,” Ivan interrupted for the fourth time, “I really don’t think we should be doing this. This is slit-your-throat-before-reading stuff, here.”
“If we shouldn’t do it, we shouldn’t be able to do it. You’d still have to have the cable for flash-downloading. No real spy would be dumb enough to sit there inside Imperial HQ by the hour and scroll stuff through by hand, waiting to be caught and shot.”
This is the last straw for Ivan, who turns his desk back around and tries to conceal the evidence. Miles says that Ivan knows he’s not a spy, at least, and he should try to gain some brownie points by pointing out, in a purely theoretical way, the vulnerability in the system.
Miles resolves to try to wait out the rest of his term on Kyril Island, and let the problem of General Metzov resolve itself, since he has only five years left to retirement.
In the next weeks Miles settled into a tolerable routine. For one thing, the grubs arrived. All five thousand of them. Miles’s status rose on their shoulders, to that of almost-human. Lazkowski Base suffered its first real snow of the season, as the days shortened, plus a mild wah-wah lasting half a day, both of which Miles managed to predict accurately in advance.
Even more happily, Miles was completely displaced as the most famous idiot on the island (an unwelcome notoriety earned by the scat-cat sinking) by a group of grubs who managed one night to set their barracks on fire while lighting fart-flares. Miles’s strategic suggestion at the officers’ fire-safety meeting next day that they tackle the problem with a logistical assault on the enemy’s fuel supply, i.e., eliminate red-bean stew from the menu, was shot down with one icy glower from General Metzov. Though in the hallway later, an earnest captain from Ordnance stopped Miles to thank him for trying.
In some ways it’s a big wasted opportunity when the body in the culvert turns out to be utterly insignificant to the plot. That’s another problem of “The Weatherman” having come into existence as a short story first. But even if it could have turned out to be some other evidence against Metzov… As it is, it seems like a chapter or so of much ado about nothing. The initial promise of the body revealed at the end of one chapter has failed to pan out into a real mystery. I think this is the first time through that I’ve noticed that the body has only been there for less than a day; other times I’ve concluded that it was from months earlier, apparently missing the statements to the contrary. (This is not a new thing for me. I’m sure I’ll find more as the series goes on.)
The actual plot-relevant material comes up in the Ivan scene, the bits about Vervain and Pol that I quoted above. (When I think of Vervain I always think of Captain Vervain, one of the rabbits from Efrafa in Watership Down. I expect it’s some kind of British plant I don’t know much about, though.) There may have been a partial wormhole map in the actual book, showing Vervain and Pol in reference to Komarr, Barrayar, the Cetagandan Empire, etc., but it doesn’t seem to be in the electronic version from my Cryoburn CD. Still, it was nice to see–I like maps, at least when they’re readable.
Also, this chapter gives us more ammunition against Metzov. Not only is he an unfair commander, but he’s also gotten into trouble in the past. As, perhaps, did Ahn? So what do you think the odds are that Miles won’t run into any more trouble with him? Not that good, eh?
Finally, did you notice? The head doctor on Lazkowksi Base? Has no name. Seriously, what is it with Bujold and naming doctors?
It’s seeming to me that The Vor Game has shorter chapters than some of the other books I’ve done in the series, but maybe I’m just getting faster at this. Also, whole pages (screens) can go by without my feeling the urge to quote some pithy dialogue, and I’m often more likely to quote something that’s already so good a summary that I’d just end up having to paraphrase it sentence-by-sentence anyway. Anyway, next week should see the end of “The Weatherman” and the Kyril Island plotline, and maybe get us a little closer to the real plot of the novel. Until then…