Greetings and welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein I devote my attentions to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series of novels and stories. This week I cover Chapter Fifteen of The Vor Game. There are seventeen chapters in the novel in total, you see, and while normally I’d leave the odd chapter until the end, this week I decided to do the single chapter and hope that I have more energy next week to do two chapters. (Otherwise I suppose I could forego the normal week off I give myself after the end of a novel and do three one-week chapters instead…) We are well and truly into the climax of the novel now, at any rate.
Miles checks over the files on Oser’s comconsole, trying to get up to speed on the changes in the Dendarii Mercenaries, and their view of the situation and events in the Hegen Hub. He is close to crashing from fatigue, but promises himself some rest during the 36-hour transit of the system. He will need more rest to try to outwit Cavilo, he’s sure.
He contemplates the changes of weapon and defense technology. Projectile weapons, first, were made obsolete by basic defenses intended to take care of asteroids and space debris. Then came lasers, until the development of the “Sword-swallower”, which absorbed the lasers’ energy to power itself, and, similarly, plasma weapons, which were foiled by the plasma mirrors that turned the tide of the Barrayaran invasion of Escobar. The latest development seems to be the gravitic imploder lance, against which there wasn’t yet a reliable defence, but which consumed energy exorbitantly and was still only usable at extremely close range. Closely-packed ships, though, were vulnerable to “sun wall” attacks of bunched nuclear weapons, and boarding tactics became more practicable.
Baz Jesek arrives, and apologizes for “squandering Elena’s dowry” by letting the Dendarii slip out of their control. He offers his resignation, which Miles promptly refuses, pointing out that Tung was suckered by Oser’s shenanigans too, adding that Baz can’t resign as Armsman, and that Miles can’t find a replacement for him on his current schedule. He then brings Baz into the loop on the problem with Gregor.
“If the Emperor is killed—if he doesn’t return—the mess at home could go on for years,” Baz said. “Maybe you should let Cavilo rescue him, rather than risk—”
“Up to a point, that’s just what I intend to do,” said Miles. “If only I knew Gregor’s mind.” He paused. “If we lose both Gregor and the wormhole battle, the Cetagandans will arrive on our doorstep just at the point we will be in maximum internal disarray. What a temptation to them—what a lure—they’ve always wanted Komarr—we could be looking down the throat of the second Cetagandan invasion, almost as much a surprise to them as to us. They may prefer deep-laid plans, but they’re not above a little opportunism—not an opportunity this overwhelming—”
As Miles and Baz are going over information, Miles is notified that man who identifies himself as “Ungari” wants to see him. Miles checks through a security camera and indeed sees Ungari and Overholt, and gladly authorizes their entry. He tells Baz that he may want to avoid the attention of ImpSec right now, and Baz takes the hint and leaves. Miles is relieved that Ungari is there to take over, and let him know at last what ImpSec has been doing. Chodak and two guards escort Ungari and Overholt into the office, and Miles dismisses them and asks them to fetch Elena.
Ungari waited impatiently till the door had hissed closed behind Chodak to stride forward. Miles stood up and saluted him smartly. “Glad to see y—”
To Miles’s surprise, Ungari did not return the salute; instead his hands clenched on Miles’s uniform jacket and lifted. Miles sensed that it was only with the greatest restraint that Ungari’s grip had closed on his lapels and not his neck. “Vorkosigan, you idiot! What the hell kind of game have you been up to?”
Ungari says they lost track of Miles and Gregor at the Consortium Detention centre, and Miles says he thought they might try to make contact with Elena. Miles desperately asks Ungari what recent events looked like from their point of view. Ungari says that Overholt and the Jacksonians both thought the other had done away with Miles until they were able to question the prisoner Miles had swapped places with. However, Overholt hadn’t known about Gregor’s disappearance, until he met back up with Ungari and tried to retrace Miles’s path again, days later. Miles is relieved that ImpSec at least knows that the Emperor is in the Hub, and not in Komarr or Escobar or something.
Ungari’s fingers clenched again. “Vorkosigan, what did you do with the Emperor?“
Ungari clarifies that they know Gregor is with Randall’s Rangers, and rescue forces are being mobilized. Miles is concerned about the situation with Pol, since Ungari doesn’t think the Barrayaran fleet will bother to ask permission to cross Polian space, since Gregor is in Vervani hands.
“Vervain doesn’t hold Gregor, Commander Cavilo does,” Miles interrupted urgently. “It’s strictly non-political, a plot for her personal gain. I think—in fact, I’m dead certain—the Vervani government doesn’t know the first thing about her ‘guest.’ Our rescue forces must be warned to commit no hostile act until the Cetagandan invasion shows up.”
Miles is surprised that they don’t know about it, but reasons that even in the current situation, someone at ImpSec will have looked at Cetagandan ship movements and realizes that’s going on. He updates Ungari on the plan for Cetaganda to take the Vervain wormhole and cross into the Hub, and says that he plans to take the Dendarii across the Hub to stop them. Ungari tells him in no uncertain terms that Miles is being sent to their Aslund safehouse until someone comes to take him off Ungari’s hands. Miles asks if he has any good information, but it turns out that Ungari’s information is mostly from Aslund, which Miles has on Oser’s comconsole.
Ungari, losing patience with Miles, says that he will come with the two of them, or else. Miles tries to convince them that it’s a bad idea, but Overholt moves to grab him, so Miles is forced to press his alarm button. Chodak, Elena, and the two guards rush in, stunning Overholt and holding Ungari at bay. He tells Chodak to take them to the brig and put them with Metzov and Oser. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to fast-penta Ungari as he had Oser, because of the ImpSec agent’s induced allergy. When Miles explains to Elena who that was, she points out that Miles now has his last three commanders locked up in the brig.
When the Dendarii fleet leaves Aslund Station, it plunges the Aslunders into confusion. Miles forbids contact with them, hoping to keep Cavilo from learning that he’s doing anything but what she ordered. The Aslunders, panicking, go to full alert status as they try to fill the gaps that the departing mercenaries are leaving. Miles breathes a sigh of relief as they pass the point where any Aslunder pursuit could catch up to them short of the Vervain wormhole–where, with luck, the arrival of the Cetagandans would convince any Aslunders to join the Dendarii’s side.
Miles wonders if he might even be able to arrive before Cavilo summoned the Cetagandans, in which case he might spook her into not calling them at all, and he could head off the invasion without a shot being fired. Then he’d just need to rescue Gregor. He tries to puzzle his strategies out, then gives up and goes to sleep.
He is awakened twelve hours later to be notified of a message from Vervain, still over half a light-hour away in time-lag. A high-ranking Vervani officer is asking an explanation of the Dendarii fleet’s movements; Miles tells his communications officer to claim the message was garbled and ask for it to be retransmitted. When the response comes, Miles has dressed and breakfasted, and the Vervani officer has been joined by Cavilo, who asks for an explanation or else they will be treated as hostiles. Miles sends the following response:
“Admiral Miles Naismith, Commanding, Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, speaking. To Commander Cavilo, Randall’s Rangers, eyes only. Ma’am. I have accomplished my mission precisely as you ordered. I remind you of the reward you promised me for my success. What are your next instructions? Naismith out.”
The comm officer points out that the message isn’t being sent privately, but Miles confirms that’s what he wants. He then tells her to play up any communication problems caused by their passing behind the twin suns’ corona, and create as many other problems as she can until he’s close enough for a tight-beam conversation with Cavilo. Miles goes to check with Tung, who points out four large Vervani warships who have just jumped back through the wormhole to their home system, as evidence that the Cetagandan attack has probably begun.
Miles moves over to the Ariel, command ship of his “Little Fleet” which also includes two other fast, maneuverable ships. His crew consists of Elena on comm and Arde Mayhew for everything else, with Bel Thorne on Nav and Com, out of range of any private conversations Miles may need to have. They scan the Vervain station, which is abuzz with activity; Elena says they are still demanding a response, but Miles notes they aren’t being fired on yet. He tells her to ask for communication with Cavilo alone. When a tight-beam response comes, Miles asks Elena to trace it, and she finds the source on a small courier ship heading away from the Vervain wormhole.
Miles sits himself down for his conversation with Cavilo. She asks him why he’s brought the Dendarii across the Hub, and Miles says he was merely following her orders, and he though it was obvious where she’d want him to bring the fleet. She asks if he received Metzov’s message, and he plays dumb and says he hasn’t seen Metzov, but he’s probably drowning his sorrows in some spaceport bar. Cavilo gets angry and says she knows Miles has Metzov captive, and Miles wonders why she didn’t take precautions against Metzov trying to kill him. He offers her his services as a more reliable subordinate, pointing out that he knows more about the hazards of Barrayaran culture than she does. She orders him out of his Emperor’s flight path, and he insists on hearing those orders from Gregor himself. She threatens Gregor’s life, and Miles tells her that if Gregor dies, he could become Emperor himself, so Gregor’s life is much more important to her than to him.
Cavilo’s face froze. “He said . . . he had no heir. You said so too.”
“None named. Because my father refuses to be named, not because he lacks the bloodlines. But ignoring the bloodlines doesn’t erase them. And I am my father’s only child. And he can’t live forever. Ergo . . . So, resist my boarding parties, by all means. Threaten away. Carry out your threats. Give me the Imperium. I shall thank you prettily, before I have you summarily executed. Emperor Miles the First. How does it sound? As good as Empress Cavilo?” Miles gave it an intense beat. “Or, we could work together. The Vorkosigans have traditionally felt that the substance was better than the name. The power behind the throne, as my father before me—who has held just that power, as Gregor has doubtless told you, for far too long—you’re not going to dislodge him by batting your eyelashes. He’s immune to women. But I know his every weakness. I’ve thought it through. This could be my big chance, one way or another. By the way—milady—do you care which emperor you wed?”
Cavilo admits she underestimates Miles, and asks him to escort her. Miles insists that he must transport her and Gregor aboard the Ariel. When she balks, he says that he will obey Gregor’s orders only, which is something she’ll have to get used to on Barrayar. Cavilo signs off to get Gregor, leaving Miles to catch his breath.
“Damn,” said Elena in a hushed voice. “If I didn’t know you, I’d think you were Mad Yuri’s understudy. The look on your face . . . am I reading too much into all that innuendo, or did you in fact just connive to assassinate Gregor in one breath, offer to cuckold him in the next, accuse your father of homosexuality, suggest a patricidal plot against him, and league yourself with Cavilo—what are you going to do for an encore?”
Miles tells Elena that he needs to keep Cavilo off balance, confuse her with too many possibilities and calculations, and keep her mind off of what’s actually happening. Cavilo reopens contact then, with Gregor at her side now; Miles presents him with the Dendarii Mercenaries as his own fleet, and invites him onto the Ariel to take personal command. Cavilo breaks in to tell Gregor about Miles’s plotting, and replays the earlier dialogue. Gregor is unfazed, telling Cavilo that everyone knows that Miles’s mutations have driven him mad, but he could be a valuable ally if they make it worth his while. He adds that Miles is the end of his bloodline, and as a “mutant”, his odds of becoming Emperor are slim. (Elena has slid off her chair and is struggling to contain her helpless laughter.)
“Then, Cavie, let’s join my would-be Grand Vizier. At that point, I will control his ships. And your wish,” he turned his head to kiss her hand, still resting in his grasp on his shoulder, “will be my command.”
“Do you really think it’s safe? If he’s as psycho as you say.”
“Brilliant—nervous—skittish—but he’s all right as long as his medications are adjusted properly, I promise you. I expect his dose is a little off at the moment, due to our irregular travels.”
Cavilo insists that they come over on their own shuttle, and they break contact.
The infodump on the space weaponry is probably necessary, but it does stick out a little. One wonders if it could have been integrated a little better elsewhere in the book, but perhaps not. I find it interesting to think of the different weapon types, particularly with the different tactics they require. I used to spend a lot of time playing a space combat/exploration game called Space Empires III, which has a number of similarities. SE3 had a short-range-only weapon they called a “Ripper Beam” which is similar, tactically, to the gravitic imploder lance, though admittedly it didn’t have the kind of matched weapon-defense pairs that Bujold explains. It also uses wormholes for interstellar travel. I wonder how direct of an influence Bujold was on the game, or if they both borrowed from common sources.
One doesn’t emerge from the Ungari takedown scene with much sympathy for the ImpSec officer. He miscalculates badly, though admittedly his biggest problem is assuming that Miles will obey his orders. The thought of Miles’s three commanders sitting in the cell block is amusing, especially if one were to picture them exchanging Miles stories and commiserating, or even plotting. I find that one of the best ways for me to lose sympathy for a character is for them to refuse to listen to someone else. It’s even worse when it’s a main character who’s the one refusing to listen, but it doesn’t do Ungari any good here, either. At least he didn’t try to have Miles spaced…
Miles does get to unleash that deadliest of weapons, his tongue, against Cavilo, and his speech is truly a tour de force, as Elena so ably summarizes. I don’t know if it’s really true, the cliche that a habitual liar is the quickest to believe other are lying, and a habitual plotter believes everyone else is plotting too, but I can believe it of Cavilo. I mentioned before that I don’t believe trying to plan your actions so that every possible option leads to success is an efficient way to operate on the fly, when situations change too fast to keep up with all the calculation and multiply-forking decision trees, so Miles’s strategy of keeping her off balance is a sound one.
I would hope that Miles feels a little better about Gregor when he plays along with Miles’s claims. If he were really on Cavilo’s side, he could call Miles’s bluff and tell her what Miles is really like, so his picking up on Miles’s cue is a good sign. Between the two of them, and with Miles having some actual force on his side this time, they should be more than a match for Cavilo, who has discarded her own mercenary fleet…
With luck, next week I will reach the end of The Vor Game, and the Young Miles omnibus I’ve been reading it in. After that it will be time for Miles, Mystery & Mayhem, starting with the novel Cetaganda, which, like The Vor Game, is a little out of publication order. Until next week, then…