It’s time now, once again, for another installment of The Vorkosigan Saga Reread, which gives me the opportunity to reread, albeit very slowly (two chapters a week), through Lois McMaster Bujold’s saga of Miles Vorkosigan and, well, his friends and family… This week I cover chapters Thirteen and Fourteen of The Vor Game, the second novel chronologically to feature Miles himself as main character, wherein Miles’s immediate prospects increase more than somewhat.
Miles is granted an exercise period, in a gymnasium aboard the ship, empty but for himself and the guards, where he sees no opportunities for escape for him and his brittle bones. On his way back to his cell, he passes a blond man he recognizes as Oser’s lieutenant, but much the worse for wear–shirtless, covered with shock-stick and needle marks, and mumbling with the aftereffects of fast-penta interrogation. After he’s in his cell, Miles wonders how the lieutenant got there, if he had tracked down Miles and Gregor, or if Vervain was just another stop on their sweep of the system. What’s certain is that Cavilo now knows what Oser knew, which explains his identification as Admiral Naismith.
That night he is taken from his cell, for what he expects to be the fast-penta interrogation at last, though he’s now sure what secrets he still has remaining. They take him to G Deck, where Gregor’s cabin is supposed to be, but Miles is taken instead to Cavilo’s personal office. She has a stunner to hand, but no hypodermic, though her perfume is irritating Miles’s nose. She tells him that, to safeguard the life of his Emperor, Miles has been given the task of retaking the Oseran Mercenaries. As such, she will be sending him back to Aslund Station, but won’t actually be providing any aid.
“I’m told you could do it with your wits alone. This I wish to see.”
“Oser will kill me. He’s already tried once.”
“That’s a chance I must take.”
I really like that “I,” lady. “You mean me to be killed,” Miles deduced. “What if I succeed instead?” His eyes were starting to water; he sniffed. He would have to rub his madly itching nose soon.
“The key of strategy, little Vor,” she explained kindly, “is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory. Ideally. Your death has one use; your success, another. I will emphasize that any premature attempt to contact Barrayar could be very counterproductive. Very.”
Miles asks, his eyes watering, if he can talk to Gregor himself, but Cavilo says that will be his reward for success. She comments on his unexpected tears, and Miles, sneezing, shouts that he’s allergic to her perfume. Cavilo is genuinely amused by this, wondering if she can turn this into a gas grenade. Miles asks if he can at least have some boots instead of his current slippers.
“In this uniform, on Aslund, I’ll be like a cat in a dog suit,” he protested. “Shot on sight by mistake.”
“By mistake . . . on purpose . . . goodness, you’re going to have an exciting time.” She keyed the door lock open.
By the time he’s recovered from her perfume, he’s been loaded onto a ship bound for Aslund Station. His cabin is not much better than his cell, and he reflects on the supposed glory of ship duty, and his monumental screwup in losing Gregor. When the ship gets within Aslund’s defence perimeter, they take him from his cabin, where they are arguing about whether to let them board and takes Miles, and risk getting arrested themselves.
A voice from the comm; “This is the picket ship Ariel, Aslund Navy Contract Auxiliary, calling the C6-WG out of Vervain Hubside Station. Cease accelerating, and clear your portside lock for boarding for pre-docking inspection. Aslund Station reserves the right to deny you docking privileges if you fail to cooperate in pre-docking inspection.” The voice took on a cheery tone, “I reserve the right to open fire if you don’t stand and deliver in one minute. That’s enough stalling, boys.” The voice, once gone ironic, was suddenly intensely familiar. Bel?
The crew addresses him as “Rotha” again, which gives Miles an idea. He pleads with them not to turn him over to the Oserans, because of an unfortunate incident involving faulty plasma arcs. The captain decides to send Miles to them in a “bod-pod”, a personal inflatable escape pod, over Miles’s theatrical protests. Miles flashes back briefly to the bubble tent on Kyril Island as they eject him into space and pitch darkness, though he soon finds a cold-light tube to illuminate his claustrophobic enclosure. Eventually, he finds himself snagged by a tractor beam, brought into an airlock, and rolled into a cargo bay. His rescuers free him from the pod, and Bel Thorne is surprised and elated to see Miles.
In Bel’s cabin, Miles gives him a slightly edited version of the truth, leaving out the Barrayaran connections, mentioning the lieutenant captured by Randall’s Rangers, identified as Lake by Bel. Bel tells him that the Aslunders have become jumpy about sabotage, hence the searching all ships coming in range, and there are many garbled versions of Miles’s return making their way through the fleet. Tung has been arrested, but nobody else, which puzzles Miles. Bel explains that if Oser had moved against Baz & Elena, it might have sparked open conflict, so he’s just kept them all separated. Miles says that a fight among the Oserans is just what Cavilo wants, so he needs to do something unexpected, like get Oser to cooperate with him. Once Miles gets himself a borrowed, overlarge uniform, he contacts Oser.
A buzz, a glitter, and Admiral Oser’s hawk face materialized over the vid plate. “Yes, what is it—you!” His teeth shut with a beak’s snap; his hand, a vague unfocused blur to the side, tapped on intercom keys and vid controls.
He can’t throw me out the air lock this time, but he can cut me off. Time to talk fast.
Miles leaned forward and smiled. “Hello, Admiral Oser. I’ve completed my evaluation of Vervani forces in the Hegan Hub. And my conclusion is, you are in deep trouble.”
Miles offers Oser information about Cavilo, just as Oser discovers Miles is on the Ariel, and threatens Bel with charges of mutiny. Bel insists that Oser needs to listen to him. Miles says that he and Oser can’t afford to fight, and if Oser forces him to, Miles probably can’t win, but any damage they do to each other will be to Cavilo’s benefit. Oser is skeptical of any information that came from Cavilo, but Miles says he’s beginning to understand her, and her passion for utility, which is why Oser needs to hire him as Tung’s replacement. Miles insists that he doesn’t have the luxury of time to take revenge on Oser. He admits he doesn’t know exactly where Cavilo wants to offer battle, but he also offers his anonymous employer to pay the Oserans for the fight as well as the Aslunders. Oser asks for assurances, and Miles points out that he himself wants the assurance of not being spaced again, but he promises not to foment mutiny. Oser finally agrees, reluctantly.
As they dock at Aslund Station, Miles musters Bel and his crew as his troops, insisting that they “march as if they had an empire at their backs”. They emerge to find Oser with a squad of escorts, and an unarmed Elena. Oser is eager to get to work, but Miles insists on a tour of the station first, where he makes an effort to be seen being friendly with Oser as much as he can, and greets as many Dendarii as he can as well. Once he judges that Oser’s reached the limit of his tolerance, the two Admirals head over to Triumph.
In the docking bay, Thorne’s sergeant swears and shoves Miles to the ground before being hit in the chest by a nerve disrupter bolt. Miles ducks and rolls, eventually hiding behind the sergeant’s body, wishing for a thicker shield as more bolts pepper the body and the deck around him, and shouting soldiers and workers try to bring down the sniper. Miles urges them to stun him for questioning, and eventually the firing dies down. Bel Thorne helps him up and tells Miles that he was the sniper’s only target.
“I noticed,” Miles stuttered. “I’m only lightly fried.” Thorne helped him sit up. He was shaking as badly as after the shock-stick beating. He regarded his spasming hands, lowered one to touch the corpse beside him in morbid wonder. Every day of the rest of my life will be your gift. And I don’t even know your name. “Your sergeant—what was his name?”
Oser tells Miles that the attack wasn’t his doing, which Miles accepts. Elena and another woman are dragging a man across the deck, stunned, and when they get closer Miles recognizes him as General Metzov. Miles tells Oser who he is, and says this is Cavilo’s second in command, a fine source of information on her plans, pretending that his parade around the station had been nothing more than a ploy to draw him out. He tells them to take Metzov to sickbay and prepare him for fast-penta interrogation.
Miles stared down at Metzov’s unconscious form, trying to think. Had Metzov been sent by Cavilo, or was this murder attempt entirely on his own time? If sent by Cavilo—had she planned him to fall alive into her enemies’ hands? If not, was there a back-up assassin around here somewhere, and if so was his target Metzov, if Metzov succeeded, or Miles, if Metzov failed? Or both? I need to sit down and draw a flow-chart.
Here is where, finally, Miles begins to turn the tables on people. Once he ends up on Bel’s ship, and can finally begin to accumulate a bit of a power base, he can work on upsetting Cavilo’s plans to create chaos by attempting to assert some order. He manages to convince Oser to work with him, against Oser’s better judgement, drawing on Oser’s concerns about Cavilo. Maybe Cavilo isn’t quite as smart as she could be, to let Miles go like that, but then, meeting Gregor has caused her to change her plans somewhat. Oser, who earlier was smart enough to have nothing to do with Miles and would rather space him than listen to him, doesn’t quite manage it the second time. Do we buy it? Well, quite frankly, I wasn’t quite sure that I bought the earlier, ruthless Oser, and now Miles does have his small power base, so it gives his words a bit more clout.
However impressive Cavilo’s proverb about ensuring all paths lead to victory may sound, one would think that it would lead to a lot of paralysis in practice. It sounds suspiciously like “minimax regret”, where you try to minimize your maximum regret, which leads to refusing to take any chances. Since that’s not really Cavilo’s problem, I suspect that she really works by different principles as well. After all (spoiler alert!) she doesn’t win…
At least a couple more minor characters get names, Lt. Lake and Sgt. Collins, though a little too late to do either of them any good.
Miles manages to convince Oser to limit Metzov’s interrogation to just the two of them and Elena, with two of Oser’s guards outside a soundproofed glass door, by claiming that Metzov’s information, while probably not current if he was sent out as an assassin, may still be too hot for general consumption. Metzov is just recovering from stun as Elena administers the fast-penta, and Miles himself is still shaky from the attack.
Oser begins by confirming Metzov’s identity, and why he was supposed to kill Miles. Metzov says that Cavilo had told him Miles had escaped and Metzov was the only one she could trust to kill him. Miles takes a turn, asking who they were supposed to be using Metzov’s ground-combat experience against. Metzov tells him “Vervain”, and thinks finally start making sense to Miles. Metzov says they’re supposed to raid the planet for valuables, retreat before the Cetagandan invasion hits, and then fence the stuff on Jackson’s Whole.
“God, it fits, it fits.” Miles began to pace the cubicle with uneven steps. “What’s the only way to take a wormhole jump? From both sides at once. The Vervani aren’t Cavilo’s employers—the Cetagandans are.”
Metzov’s role in this is to be a “stalking goat”, for the Cetagandans to claim that they’re just rescuing Vervain from their Barrayaran attackers. Cavilo gets paid by Vervani and Cetagandans before fencing the stolen goods, and the Cetagandans probably punch through into the Hegen Hub. The Vervani they’d probably leave as an “allied satrapy” until they can absorb it. Miles can’t decide whether the Cetagandans would try to take Pol or leave it, or maybe lure Barrayaran into attacking them to push Pol onto Cetaganda’s side. Oser, unwilling to face an enemy the size of Cetaganda, says they should just get away from Aslund before they get trapped in the Hub, but Miles points out that if Metzov’s been sent out to be captured, this must be Cavilo’s old plan.
Though he doesn’t tell Oser about Gregor, Miles realizes that her new plan must be to flee to Barrayar with the love-smitten Gregor, and count on him and Barrayar’s military to protect her from the Cetagandans she double-crossed. If Miles and Metzov kill each other, there are two fewer inconvenient Barrayaran character witnesses against her, and she can present herself as Gregor’s rescuer and become Empress just like Cordelia became Countess Vorkosigan. As for the Cetagandans, she’d prefer them to bog down on Vervain so she didn’t have to run from them too hard.
Oser and Miles try to figure out when the invasion was planned for, if it was supposed to coincide with their planned infighting over the mercenary fleet. Miles urges Oser to move closer to the Vervain wormhole, to try to blockade it against the Cetagandans. The Vervani will doubtless mobilize, but unfortunately against the Oserans rather than the Cetagandans. Miles says they will have to try to hold the wormhole and hope for reinforcements, Polians, Aslunders or even Barrayarans; he points out to Oser how Barrayaran intelligence activity has increased recently.
Oser thinks it over, and decides he can’t risk it, that he wants to pull out, though he will spare Miles’s life in exchange for the information. His fleet wouldn’t be able to stand up to Cetagandan forces, and he doesn’t want to sacrifice himself like that. Miles can’t get him to reconsider, and neither can Elena, so she jabs the fast-penta hypospray into his neck. The guards outside the door are momentarily alarmed, but Elena kisses Oser’s hand affectionately and they relax.
Elena puts an arm around Oser and they follow the guards as they take Metzov down to the brig, until Miles decides they can’t keep the charade up that long, and they veer off to Oser’s cabin instead.
Elena’s inspired mutinous gesture had given him the best break of the day. He had the momentum now. He wouldn’t stop till he was brought down bodily. His head spun with the unutterable relief of at last getting the shifting, writhing, cluttering might-be-might-be-might-be nailed to a fixed is. The time is now. The word is go.
They reach Oser’s quarters and Elena asks Miles what he’s going to do now. Miles says that Cavilo still has Gregor, and explains her marriage plan. He says that Gregor was probably the one who planted the idea in her head in the first place, but he’s not sure what Gregor intended by it. Elena judges Gregor as unlikely to be genuinely love-struck, having always seemed slightly undersexed.
Elena licked her lips in thought. “Is she pretty?”
“Yeah, if you happen to like blond power-mad homicidal maniacs, I suppose she could be quite overwhelming.” His hand closed, the texture of Cavilo’s pelted hair remembered like an itch on his palm. He rubbed it on his trouser seam.
Elena brightened slightly. “Ah. You don’t like her.”
Miles gazed up at Elena’s Valkyrie face. “She’s too short for my taste.”
Elena grinned. “That, I believe.”
Corporal Meddis from the brig calls up to Oser’s cabin, telling them that Metzov’s in a cell. Miles tells him that they have some spare fast-penta, so they should bring up Captain Tung. When they ask for reinforcements, Miles suggests Sergeant Chodak. After keying off the comm, Miles asks Elena why Oser only arrested Tung and not the rest of them; Elena says that Tung got arrested for losing his temper and beating Oser up, though he might have done it on purpose to draw attention away from the others.
Tung arrives with an escort of six men, including Chodak; Oser is smiling benignly in his fast-penta haze, and Miles asks the squad to remain behind outside, and leave Chodak and one of his men inside to help out if Tung gets violent. Once the door closes, they inform Tung that Oser’s been fast-penta’ed, and Chodak restrains the Private he picked to accompany him from doing more than watching. Tung exults in how the tables have been turned, but Miles has to bring him back down. He tells Tung how the freighter captain gave him up to Cavilo, and speculates on whether Tung planned it that way.
“I came to the Hegen Hub on a contract,” continued Miles, “which is now in disarray almost beyond repair. I haven’t come back here to put you in operational combat command of the Dendarii—” a beat, as Tung’s worried features attempted to settle on an expression, “unless you are prepared to serve my ends. Priorities and targets are to be my choice. Only the how is yours.” And just who was going to put whom in command of the Dendarii? As long as that question didn’t occur to Tung.
Miles says the offer is conditional on Tung recognizing Miles as his superior officer, and Tung accepts. He then gives them another version of the rest of the information, how he’s been “hired” by Barrayaran Imperial Security to rescue the hostage, Gregor Vorbarra, and hopes to stop the Cetagandan invasion and block the wormhole in the process, until reinforcements arrive. Tung is puzzled at Miles’s explanation of Cavilo’s plan, so Miles assures him that he will take care of the hostage, leaving Tung to secure the wormhole. He orders Tung to bring the fleet up to readiness, and to make up with Captain Auson.
They order Auson to Oser’s cabin, then hold him at stunnerpoint; he is dismayed to see Miles. He asks Auson if he’ll cooperate in commanding the Triumph, or if he’ll have to turn it over to Bel Thorne instead. Miles offers clear captaincy of the Triumph for Auson, Tung’s share bought out, and both that and the Ariel owned by the fleet, with Tung as Tactical Chief of Staff. Auson accepts, conditional on Tung apologizing, but when the conversation turns to verbal sniping against Bel Thorne, Elena trains her nerve disrupter on Auson to shut him up. Eventually Tung accedes to an apology, of sorts:
Tung took a breath. “Auson, you can be a real shithead sometimes, but dammit, you can fight when you have to. I’ve seen you. In the tight and the bad and the crazy, I’ll take you at my back before any other captain in the fleet.”
One by one, they deal with the other captain-owners, most of whom end up on board, though the Peregrine‘s has to be stunned and replaced with his reluctant first officer. Tung briefs them on their tasks, eventually convincing them that it’ll be easier to hole the wormhole than retake it from the Cetagandans, and dismisses them to their duties. Miles sends Elena to squeeze as much information out of Metzov as she can, in hopes that some of it will still be accurate, after seeking her reassurance that he’s doing the right thing.
And in a whirlwind, once again seizing the forward momentum, Miles retakes the Dendarii Mercenaries (as I imagine the Oserans will be swiftly re-renamed, if they haven’t been already). Oser’s refusal to risk himself to try to save somebody else’s lives is entirely in character, but we still don’t really like him for it, do we? Elena’s move with the fast-penta is inspired, and leaves Miles free to try to build up his power base again, with Sgt. Chodak reprising his role as Most Promising New Dendarii Character. So Miles doesn’t have to talk his way through Oser…just everybody else.
Cavilo’s plan, at least her original one, was audacious–did she come up with it herself, and offer it to the Cetagandans, or did they come up with it and then find someone willing to execute it? I could see it either way, but Cavilo instigating it makes a little more sense because otherwise the Cetagandans would have to be careful not to let word of their plan get out, probably by killing anyone who wasn’t willing to go along with it.
At this point the Cetagandans are still fairly faceless, though I suppose we did see a few of them as Dendarii recruits back in The Warrior’s Apprentice, didn’t we? Of course Cetaganda is the most detailed examination of their culture, but they must also show up in Ethan of Athos, one of the earliest books. In the series so far, though, we’ve only seen them as invaders and aggressors, but we saw a lot of Barrayaran invaders and aggressors in Shards of Honour too, so we must have confidence that there’s more to Cetaganda than that.
Three more chapters left in The Vor Game, so next week will likely see the climax, since there must be at least a chapter of denouement in there too…(reads ahead)…well, maybe half a chapter. Until then…