Fasten your seat belts, set your phasers on stun, and lock up your hermaphrodites, because it’s time for another installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein I revisit various books from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, a couple of chapters at a time. This week we continue through the novel Ethan of Athos, slightly off the main line of the series, lacking the main character, but still related enough for me to include.
Kline Station is in a system with a dark star and no planets, but half a dozen jump routes are available, so the station accreted over three hundred years. It was also the point from where Athos’s Founding Fathers had launched their “noble experiment”. It is currently politically independent, though it has changed hands several times over the years, and has about 100,000 inhabitants.
The crew of the ship that brought Ethan there from Athos had been all male, mostly because it’s a four-month round trip and women aren’t allowed shore leave there. Ethan was mostly left to himself to acclimate to galactic culture gradually. He started by reading all of the _Betan Journal_ entries written by women, not wanting to risk the unapproved-by-censors contents of the ship’s library, but even then he could rarely tell the difference from the male authors, or even the occasional hermaphrodite. He can’t figure out exactly how it is the women, as “uterine replicators with legs”, are supposed to cause sin among men.
Once at Kline Station, he spends a long time in Customs, mostly being checked for microbes, before being admitted into the station proper. It is unprepossessing at first, a dingy cargo bay with a dozen exits. The ship’s crew and the custom’s inspectors have vanished, but there is one person in a gray-and-white uniform whom Ethan approaches for help.
“Pardon me, sir,” Ethan began, and halted uncertainly. Hips too wide for the wiry figure, eyes too large and far apart above a small chiseled nose, jaw thin-boned and small, beardless skin fine as an infant’s—it might have been a particularly elegant boy, but . . .
Her laughter pealed like a bell, entirely too loud for the reddening Ethan. “You must be the Athosian,” she chuckled.
Ethan asks for directions, and the woman expresses surprise that nobody’s given him a map, an absolute necessity for a visitor to Kline Station. She hails a crewman who has appeared from the courier ship as “Dom”, and he comes over, not recognizing her but eager to make her acquaintance. She (re)introduces herself as Elli Quinn, an old classmate, and explains how she had a facial regeneration done on Beta Colony, purchased for her by Admiral Naismith after she got hit in the head with a plasma beam. She tells Dom how the Oserans were absorbed by the Dendarii, but says she’s on home leave now.
She adds that he’s let his passenger loose without a map, a remark which makes Dom suspicious of double-entendre, since apparently doing the Athos run makes one the butt of many jokes. Elli says that explains his neglect, and she offers to take Ethan in hand herself. Dom leaves, and Ethan almost calls him back, rather than be left alone with a woman. Elli is amused at his obvious trepidation, saying she’s not going to bite, but Ethan still refuses her offer. She hands him a holovid project with a map on it, showing him where the Transients’ Lounge is, and wishes him luck.
He does find the Transients’ Lounge with only a few wrong turns. He tries to ignore the women he sees all around, even the one with a baby. He stifles his impulse to rescue it from her, and later realizes it may very well have been a female baby anyway. At the Lounge, it takes half a dozen people and the station computer to figure out an exchange rate for his Athosian pounds to the more readily acceptable Betan dollars, at what seems like an exorbitant rate, so he chooses the cheapest room available, the tiny Economy Cabin.
His instructions from the Population Council had been to give up on trying to recoup the Jackson’s Whole shipment, but instead to look for another supplier, starting from Kline Station, and trying to keep it under budget, while recruiting more colonists, if possible, and not getting into too much trouble. Later the Chairman had clarified–his mission was to get the cultures and get back, period. He heads out for a walk, taking a bubble car to the high-end passenger dock and begins walking back to get a look at the brighter side of the station.
Within the soaring transparent walls of Transients’ Lounge rioted a green fecundity of vines, trees in tubs, air ferns, orchids, muted tinkling chimes, bizarre fountains running backward, upside down, spiraling around the dizzy catwalks, lively intricate trickery with the artificial gravity. Ethan paused to stare in fascination for fifteen minutes at one fountain, sheeting water suspended in air, running endlessly in the form of a moebius strip. A breath away, across the transparent barrier, a cold that could turn all to stone in an instant lurked in deathly silence. The artistic contrast was overwhelming, and Ethan was not the only downsider transient who stood transfixed in open wonder.
Ethan also passes theatres, expensive restaurants and hostels, feelie booths, religious arcades (though Athos’s is not represented), and a wedding and a funeral. Finally he reaches an area consulates and embassies, as well as shipping agents; he quails at the female representative at the Betan embassy, and resolves to avoid Jackson’s Whole’s entirely. He continues past the cheap rooms and crosses into the stationers’ section.
The smells coming from a cafeteria reminds him that he’s hungry, but once again he can’t face the many women inside, so he keeps walking until he finds a doorway smelling of frying grease and alcohol, and a room inhabited entirely by off-duty male workers. Remembering his instructions to recruit, he suppresses his shyness and walks up to some of the workers.
“How do you do,” Ethan began politely. “I represent the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization of the Planet Athos. If I may, I’d like to tell you about the pioneering opportunities for settlement still available there—”
The sudden dead silence of his audience was interrupted by a large worker in green coveralls. “Athos? The Planet of the Fags? You on the level?”
Ethan insists that he is, that he’s a doctor looking for reproductive help; this amuses the workers, who make several helpful off-colour suggestions, including going to Beta Colony for a sex-change. Ethan tells them that not all Athosians are homosexual, that many choose chastity instead, which doesn’t impress them any. After more coarse comments, Ethan loses him temper and punches one especially crude man, and things turn ugly. The workers begin beating him up, until a sardonic voice announces the reappearance of Elli Quinn commenting snidely on the six-to-one odds. Some of the workers get uneasy, noticing Quinn’s uniform, but the crude one goes after her anyway, until she casually zaps him with her stunner. The workers let Ethan go, and Elli helps him to his feet, telling him she’ll take him back where he belongs.
As Elli leads Ethan away, he keeps thinking of better ways he could have handled the situation, before being distracted by a pair of men in blue-and-green uniforms. Elli reassures him that they aren’t constables, just Biocontrol, entrusted with the necessary powers to preserve the ecosystem of the station. She tells him that a station is in a delicate balance, and stations are serious about their safety drills; for instance, frost on a window anywhere outside of a cargo hold should be reported at once.
They return to the Transients’ Lounge, and Ethan notes that Elli seems to be edgier than her conversation indicates. She offers to take him to supper, but, nervous, he pleads indigestion and flees for a lift tube. After checking that she hasn’t followed, he recovers on a bench for a few minutes before heading back to his room.
On the promenade, he is approached by a man in a nondescript grey outfit, who addresses him by name before accosting him with a hypospray to the arm. It takes effect before Ethan can even protest, and he is swiftly bundled away into a bubble car.
Another Naismith reference, and, of course, the appearance of Elli Quinn to tie things back to the Vorkosigan world. Elli was a minor character in The Warrior’s Apprentice, though she did gradually acquire more importance in that book, first with her plasma scarring, which necessitated her coming back to Beta Colony, and then her help against the stalking creditor. Whether Bujold intended her to become a more major character from her introduction, or if it was just chance, it didn’t take long for her to decide, because this is her third book, published right after The Warrior’s Apprentice. (She doesn’t appear in The Vor Game that I recall, for some reason…) Her conversation with Dom gives just enough backstory to be relevant for now, without being too infodumpy.
Maybe it’s just the era this was written in, but the homophobia shown by the stationer workers is almost a little extreme. Not every planet is Beta Colony, I realize, but I wouldn’t have thought that Kline Station would be as backward as, say, Barrayar. One would think that stationers, conscious of their fragile ecosystem as Elli claims, would be respectful of those who didn’t want to upset the population balance… But that’s probably just the liberal in me talking, with little or no comprehension of the visceral disgust and hatred that seems to overtake some people with the prospect of homosexuality in others. Maybe the workers there just felt that live-and-let-live was good enough, but to have some “faggot” intrude on their off-hours and try to recruit them was crossing the line. I guess I just feel that we have “progressed” socially in the last century or two into a culture of more tolerance and less violence, and that if we’re far enough in the future that a space station orbiting another sun has been around for three hundred years, things should have progressed further. But I suppose nothing is linear, is it? Anyway, the forces of fairness would also likely point out that a woman crashing a similar bar on Athos wouldn’t get a much better reception…
Elli’s warning about frost on the windows is almost a little too specific–is that foreshadowing? I guess we’ll have to wait and see… I guess I’m not sure off the top of my head why the ecosystem is so important–plants are necessary to keep oxygen cycling going, I guess, and they are in a barren system without a lot of external resources to draw on, but as a major transfer point, one would think that they could get enough supplies through eventually. But I guess they’re independent right now, and they don’t want to give, say, Jackson’s Whole a hold on them by needing some resource that the Jacksonians could supply. We do see a lot more of this throughout the book, so I’ll give her a chance to convince me.
Also, to be a little indelicate, let me just mention that, for Ethan to have any chance of mistaking Elli Quinn for a man or boy, I’d have to hazard that either she is not that well-endowed or her uniform is particularly loose in that respect. Yes, I know, breast size is one of those things that can be hard to describe, at least without making your character sound like a sex maniac for even noticing it in the first place (unless it’s the woman’s most salient feature), and Ethan assuredly doesn’t even know what to look for, but I think he’d notice such a “physical deformity”, at least from some angles, and he’d try to come up with other explanations for it before arriving at the truth. Since I don’t recall any other descriptions from Miles’s point of view, I’m going to stick with this theory until disproven…if it matters to anyone except me, that is.
Ethan awakens in a luxurious hotel room, mind moving slowly and euphorically; he notes absently that he’s tied to a chair. The man who kidnapped him is sitting nearby, and another man emerges from the bathroom, drying his face with a towel. The man on the chair (Captain Rau) assures the other, Colonel Millisor, that Ethan has been given a full dose. Ethan sees his clothes and possessions on the bed and realizes that he’s naked. Rau tells Millisor that Ethan’s map module had a tiny tracer on it, which destroyed itself as soon as he scanned it. They weren’t able to follow the signal, though, and they think it’s possible he is involved with Terrence Cee.
The leader, the one Ethan’s kidnapper had named Colonel Millisor, grunted again, and approached Ethan to stare into his eyes. “What’s your name?”
“Ethan,” said Ethan sunnily. “What’s yours?”
Millisor ignored this open invitation to sociability. “Your full name. And your rank.”
This struck an old chord, and Ethan barked smartly, “Master Sergeant Ethan CJB-8 Urquhart, Blue Regiment Medical Corps, U-221-767, sir!” He blinked at his interrogator, who had drawn back in startlement. “Retired,” he added after a moment.
Millisor mutters about hating fast-penta. He asks about Terrence Cee, but Ethan only knows one Terrence, a tech at the Reproduction Centre on Athos, and proceeds to tell his captors about him before they realize it’s a different man and cut him off. They ask about the cultures from Bharaputra, and Ethan fills them in on the garbage that was in the crate; this confuses them, and they wonder if he’s resisting the fast-penta. Millisor suggests increasing the dose, in case he’s resisting. If the samples they’re looking for are on Athos, he says, they will have to try to destroy them before they can be brought to gestation, or else they’ll have to sterilize the entire planet. They do give him more fast-penta, and he babbles furiously under the interrogation until he becomes ill and passes out.
When he regains consciousness, they try another drug that brings terror instead of euphoria, and continue questioning him about Terrence Cee and the samples. After that, they move on to pain, and Ethan wishes he knew what they wanted to hear so he could tell them; they desist when he starts to convulse. Millisor concludes that Cee managed to switch the samples somehow before being sent to Athos, but Rau insists that the clues still point to Athos.
“It may still be Athos. A plan within a plan—within a plan. . . .” Millisor rubbed his neck wearily, looking suddenly much older than Ethan’s first estimate. “The late Dr. Jahar did too good a job. Terrence Cee is everything Jahar promised—except loyal. . . . Well, we’ll get no more out of this one. You sure that wasn’t just a speck of dirt in that circuit board?”
Rau says he’s sure, but admits that Ethan probably isn’t a real agent. They debate using him as a stalking-horse, but decide he’s useless. It’s been seven hours, so Millisor says to get Okita to dispose of him.
Okita takes Ethan to a docking bay and up on a catwalk. He forces Ethan to drink a bulb full of alcohol, not the first such, and says that Ethan may even survive the fall, especially in Kline Station’s light gravity, so he’ll have to break his neck first. Ethan tries to cling to the mesh floor of the catwalk. His belongings were all returned to him, even his Betan credit chit, but he doesn’t think bribery will work, or seduction. He hopes that he’ll survive, to help stave off the horrible fate these men seem to have planned for Athos.
Okita decides that Ethan’s biochemistry is mixed up enough now to hide the traces of the other drugs, so he lifts Ethan up to the railing, placing his neck over it for the break. The catwalk shakes as a figure (Quinn, of course) appears and shoots Okita with a stunner; Okita falls forward over the railing, to her dismay. She drops her stunner and tries to grab Okita before he falls, but to no avail. Ethan asks if he should try to help, but Elli said Okita is definitely dead, and if it’s any consolation, he killed a dozen people on Jackson’s Whole five months earlier as part of a coverup.
She tells Ethan that she’s interested in him because Millisor is interested in him, though she’s not sure why. She admits that she’s not home on leave, but on assignment from the Dendarii. Ethan says they thought he was a spy, and Elli apologizes, but reminds him that she did save his life just now, at least until Millisor finds out he’s still alive. Ethan suggests going to the authorities, but Quinn says they won’t be sufficient protection, and Elli doesn’t want to reveal herself just yet. Ethan accuses her of trying to use him as a stalking-goat too.
She helps him down to the floor of the bay, where she checks over Okita’s body. She decides that they need to dispose of Okita’s body, which she tells Ethan is not an easy task on a space station. The airlocks are all monitored, and anything out in space would be perfectly preserved if it were found later. Trying to put such a large amount of “protein” down the disposal in pieces would register too much of a blip, plus it’s been tried before. The ecology police check over the whole station too often for it to be easily hidden anywhere unless they kept moving it.
“I think I have a better idea. Yes. Why not? As long as I’m going to commit a crime, let it be a perfect one. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, as Admiral Naismith would say . . .”
She starts picking up bits of equipment around the bay, while Ethan lies on the floor feeling sorry for himself, a full day on the station, beaten up, interrogated, tortured, and implicated in a murder, without even having had a meal yet. Elli reassures him that she is, at least, making some progress in her investigation at last, and tells him he just needs a good meal and a week in the hospital; she can, at least get him to a place to rest. She stuffs Okita’s body into a shipping canister, cleans up the area with a sonic scrubber, gathers up the pieces of her stunner, and puts the canister onto a float pallet. They will need to get the canister and pallet back to the docking area within eight hours, when the next ship docks there, or they’ll be missed.
Ethan asks her who these men are, anyway, and tells her of their plans for bombing Athos, which is news to Quinn. She says she hasn’t been able to bug Millisor’s quarters, and asks Ethan about the interrogation. He tells her consisted of a lot of him screaming, and she apologizes, having thought they’d stick to fast-penta. She tells Ethan that Millisor works for Cetagandan counter-intelligence, and Rau, Okita, and his other goon, Setti, are his team.
“Cetagandan! Isn’t that planet pretty far from here to be interested in, um,” he glanced at the Stationer woman, “us? This nexus, I mean.”
“Not far enough, evidently.”
“But why, in God the Father’s name, should they want to destroy Athos? Is Cetaganda—controlled by women or something?”
A laugh escaped her. “Hardly. I’d call it a typical male-dominated totalitarian state, only slightly mitigated by their rather artistic cultural peculiarities. No. Millisor is not, per se, interested in either Athos or the Kline Station nexus. He’s chasing—something else. The big secret. The one I was hired to find out.”
She says Millisor was the security chief for a long-range genetic experiment, which was kept secret for twenty-five years. Dr. Faz Jahar was the scientist in charge, until the lab exploded, killing him, and Millisor and his men had been chasing something around the galaxy for three years, leaving a trail of bodies behind them.
Elli takes them through a door marked “RENOVATION” and into a large chamber full of pillars, which she says is a half-finished reproduction of some Earth monument called “the Elhamburger or something”. The man who started it currently has his assets tied up in litigation, so the construction is in limbo. She tells Ethan he can stay with the canister until she gets back. There are no blankets, but plenty of cushions, which she piles up into a nest for him. She gives Ethan a candy bar to eat, and tells him to use the canister if he needs a bathroom, since they can’t risk using the plumbing. She tells him she’ll back in somewhere between one and four hours.
“And now,” she rubbed her hands together briskly, “phase two of the search for the L-X-1O Terran-C.”
“That was the code name of Millisor’s research project. Terran-C for short. Maybe some part of whatever they were working on originated on Earth.”
“But Terrence Cee is a man,” said Ethan. “They kept asking me if I was here to meet him.”
She was utterly still for a moment. “Oh . . . ? How strange. How very strange. I never knew that.” Her eyes were bright as mirrors. Then she was gone.
Interesting…in the code name there, it’s listed in the book as “L-X-1O” where that’s one-O, not ten. I always read that as ten. I suppose it doesn’t make any difference, but now I wonder if that’s canonical, or just a mistake in the ebook conversion…
I’m presuming that it’s the “Alhambra”, not the “Elhamburger”. It’s a weird thing to turn up on a space station, but I guess if you’re rich, you can waste as much space as you want. And if this guy turns out to lose his money, then I’m sure they’ll reclaim the space fast enough. Wonder why Bujold thought to put it in? Had she just been on vacation in Spain?
I can’t decide if I should be referring to Elli Quinn as “Elli” or “Quinn”; I seem to be doing both, which I hope isn’t too confusing. I’ve heard several times that authors should try to avoid having characters whose names begin with the same later, which of course “Ethan” and “Elli” do, which may explain why she is usually called “Commander Quinn” in this chapter. (Was Ethan so attached to his name that she couldn’t change it? Obviously she couldn’t change Elli’s, but Ethan, as a new character, should have had more freedom… According to my wife, though, characters get attached to their names and resist having them changed.)
At least we know a little more about the samples that caused Ethan to leave Athos in the first place–they were supposed to contain something mysterious from Terrence Cee, but he must have switched them out to leave a false trail. Except that the Cetagandans still think that Athos is important to Cee’s plan.
In a little bit of inconsistency, “Cetaganda” is definitely talked about as “a planet” rather than a group of planets united in a common empire. Maybe that’s just Ethan’s ignorance about the galaxy, but it’s not like Quinn corrects him, so I’m going to guess that Bujold’s vision of Cetaganda wasn’t settled yet. I don’t know if the description of Cetaganda consisting of multiple planets appeared (in publication) before The Vor Game. Elli’s description of it being a “male-dominated totalitarian state” doesn’t sound quite accurate either, but I suppose it may look that way from a distance, with a male emperor and the usual outer face of the ghem-lords; Ethan would probably be less reassured if he knew about the haut ladies.
Ethan seems to have overcome his reservations about partnering up with a woman, but admittedly, he’s in trouble, and she seems to be the only one interested in, or capable of, helping him. Assuming she’s being completely honest with him, and I suspect she’s still holding a few things back, but we, at least, have confidence that she’s on the side of the angels, even if Ethan doesn’t have that much trust yet. But Millisor and the Cetagandans definitely seem the greater of two evils right now, I’d expect.
So, yay, we have left Athos, met a character we knew from before, acquired some villains and a plot, had some action scenes… Definitely picked up a lot in this installment. I don’t know if I can promise non-stop action from here on, but at least we have a team now, and Elli makes a good foil for Ethan, or perhaps vice versa. Ethan is still more acted upon than acting, but perhaps he’ll become more than a dude-in-distress as the book progresses… So tune in next week for the next couple of chapters, where we might, conceivably, find out.