Good evening, or morning, or midday, or twilight, or whatever day-segment designation it may be when you read this, and welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread. What is the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, you say? Or do you just click on the “About” link in the right column? If that’s not your thing, then let’s just say that it’s a “reread” wherein I “reread” the various “books” in the “Vorkosigan” “Saga” by Lois “McMaster” Bujold and then “summarize” and “comment” on “them”.
After the single-chapter installment last week, I’m now going to cover chapters Six and Seven of Ethan of Athos, which does not actually feature any Vorkosigans directly, but some of the characters know of them, so that’ll have to do.
After returning the float pallet, Quinn brings Ethan by a roundabout route back to the Transients’ Lounge, to a different hostel. Quinn relaxes once they’re in their room, and offers him some beer, spiced with vitamins. Ethan worries about what people will think of them sharing the room, but he risks the bathroom to shave, not wanting to seem to be pretending to be a parent. He cleans up himself and his clothes and emerges looking and feeling less scruffy. Quinn is relaxing in a float chair, leaving the bed to Ethan.
She asks him about the biological shipment to Athos, but Ethan insists that she share her information as well. She tells him that Bharaputra Laboratories spent a lot of time on the shipment, under strict security, before shipping it off in nine freezer containers to Kline Station. Millisor and his compatriots arrived on Jackson’s Whole about the time the shipment was leaving for Athos and raided the Bharaputra laboratory, vaporizing it behind them, and then killing the wife of one of the geneticists and burning down his house. They then disappeared until turning up on Kline Station three weeks too late.
Quinn herself then arrived on Jackson’s Whole, asking about Athos, and eventually managed to persuade the Bharaputrans she wasn’t in league with Millisor. They even ended up hiring her to kill Millisor, which she accepted to keep from having to outrace another assassin. She asks Ethan about the containers, and he explains about the ovarian cultures. Quinn says someone obviously intercepted the shipment at some point and replaced it with garbage. Ethan tells her that Millisor suspects Terrence Cee of being responsible, and Quinn says that whoever it was, they had plenty of opportunity, and the shipment could be almost anywhere by now.
Ethan used the pause to ask, “What is a wife?”
She choked on her beer. For all that she waved it about, Ethan noticed that its level was dropping very slowly. “I keep forgetting about you. . . . Ah, wife. A marriage partner—a man’s female mate. The male partner is called a husband. Marriage takes many forms, but is most commonly a legal, economic, and genetic alliance to produce and raise children. Do you copy?”
“I think so,” he said slowly. “It sounds a little like a designated alternate parent.” He tasted the words. “Husband. On Athos, to husband is a verb meaning to conserve resources. Like stewardship.” Did this imply the male maintained the female during gestation? So, this supposedly organic method had hidden costs that might make a real Rep Center seem cheap, Ethan thought with satisfaction.
Ethan asks if the wife who was killed had any children, and Quinn says she was pregnant, but the geneticist’s other child was left alone. Quinn turns the conversation to the question of why Athos, and what makes the planet special. Ethan says all they have is “nothing”, and Quinn wonders if the planet’s isolation is its allure. Ethan explains to her about the Reproduction Centres and Quinn wonders if there’s some kind of “cuckoo’s egg” scheme, trying to seed some kind of genetic experiments onto the planet. But they can’t figure out why the Jacksonians would do it, or why the Cetagandans are so interested if it’s not their shipment originally. Quinn tells him that the Jacksonians will do whatever they’re paid for, so if someone had paid them to slip something into the shipment to Athos, they’d have done it cheerfully.
Quinn admits to Ethan that she’s gotten more involved than she was supposed to, in rescuing him and killing Okita when her orders to merely to observe.
“Will he, ah, be annoyed with you?” Ethan inquired nervously, with a skewed paranoid flash of her admiral sternly ordering her to restore the original balance by sending him to join Okita.
“Naw. He has unprofessional moments himself. Terribly impractical, it’s going to kill him one of these days. Though so far he seems able to make things come out all right by sheer force of will.”
She says she should go back to watching Millisor, and tells him to stay out of sight in the room. Ethan protests that he needs to be about his mission, and needs his supplies from his original room. Quinn tells him it’s not safe, and promises to help him with his mission once hers is done.
“Always assuming,” said Ethan, chapped, “that ghem-Colonel Millisor doesn’t outbid House Bharaputra or Admiral Naismith for your services.”
She shrugged on her jacket, a lumpy thing with lots of pockets that seemed to have a deal more swing than accounted for by the weight of the fabric. “You can get one thing straight right now, Athosian. There are some things money can’t buy.”
She paused at the door, her lips curving up despite her sparking eyes. “Unprofessional moments.”
Ethan spends most of the next day sleeping; on the second day he experiments with leaving the room but doesn’t get further than the hallway, deciding he could use Quinn’s protection for a little longer. By the next day he’s bored enough to experiment with the comconsole library.
By the end of the next day he was becoming painfully aware of the inadequacy of a cultural education that consisted of two very general galactic histories, a history of Cetaganda, and a fiction holovid titled “Love’s Savage Star” that he had stumbled onto and been too stunned to switch off. Life with women did not just induce strange behavior, it appeared; it induced very strange behavior. How long before the emanations or whatever it was from Commander Quinn would make him start acting like that? Would ripping open her jacket to expose her mammary hypertrophy really cause her to fixate upon him like a newly hatched chick on its mother hen? Or would she carve him to ribbons with her vibra-knife before the hormones or whatever they were cut in?
By the sixth day his patience is running out, and he quizzes Quinn on what Millisor is doing. Quinn says he’s not doing much–he hasn’t contacted the authorities, and he seems to be settling in to his cover identity. She’s not sure what he’s waiting for. The Cetagandans do keep coming back to one corridor near where they disposed of Okita’s remains, as if he had some sort of inorganic tracer. Millisor is still eating meat, though, unlike Quinn and Ethan, so he probably hasn’t figure out Okita’s fate yet.
Ethan begins to lose his temper, questioning Quinn’s assertion that the station authorities won’t help him. He suggests just telling Millisor that the shipment he’s chasing didn’t arrive on Athos. He asks when she’ll let him go, and she tells him he’s free to go at any point; he’s skeptical, because of all she’s told him. She reminds him that their biggest crime on Kline Station wasn’t killing Okita, but secretly disposing of his body, which he’s as guilty of as she is. He tells her that the worst they can do is deport him, which would almost qualify as a reward at this point. She tells him not to come crying back to him for help, and Ethan grabs his few meagre possessions and storms out.
He decides to try to find Millisor and settle things. He can’t find anyone of that name registered in the Transients’ Lounge, or Rau, or Setti, and realizes that they’re probably using false identities. He considers buying a ticket off the station, perhaps to Beta Colony, and hoping that the spies will take care of each other in his absence. Or he could go back to his original room, but Millisor might not give him the chance to talk before killing him.
Wandering in the mall, he spots a couple of men with colourfully-painted faces, deep in conversation. He’s nearly upon them he recognizes them, and remembers reading about the ghem-lords’ face paint. Rau recognizes him then, and fires a nerve disruptor bolt at Ethan as he runs away. He glances back to see that Millisor spoiled the shot, and the two Cetagandans are now arguing. Ethan heads down a lift tube and tries hard to lose his pursuers. He succeeds, in an equipment closet back on the stationer side, and soon realizes he is now horribly lost himself.
The death of the geneticist’s pregnant wife is not a random accident, as you might suspect by this point. Whatever the Cetagandans are afraid of/worried about, it probably has something to do with those ovaries, and casts the shadow of a fetus…if fetuses cast shadows, that is. Doesn’t make it any less heinous, but they can justify it to themselves, at least, as a way to keep the horrific genetic monsters from escaping out into the world…
Not sure if Elli actually tried to goad Ethan into goint out as a stalking horse or not. Could be that she was just actually tired of him and had convinced herself he wasn’t her responsibility any more. I guess later chapters will probably tell us.
I guess that Ethan had noticed Elli’s “mammary hypertrophy”, or at least realized in theory that it probably existed. Maybe he was just expecting hers to be like that in “Love’s Savage Star”, which I’m sure would have been a real experience for sheltered Dr. Ethan. From which he draws most of the wrong conclusions, according to the indoctrination of his Athosian religion or whatever it is. (I’d also like to say here that “Mammary Hypertrophy” would be a great name for a band.)
Ethan huddles in the closet until he’s calmed down, and already regrets walking out on Quinn, ruefully reflecting on his earlier convictions that led him to leave the safety of her hostel room. But he knows he can’t go crawling back to her, so he has to go to the Kline Station authorities. Suddenly wondering if Quinn had planted another bug in his clothes, he strips them off and puts on a set of red coveralls and slightly-large boots from the closet. He promises he’ll return them as soon as he’s cleared everything up with Station Security.
He passes two women in blue coveralls pushing a loaded pallet, afraid to blow his cover by asking them for directions. Up ahead, two pallets crashes at a cross-corridor, and some birds have escaped from one of the crates. A woman he recognizes as Helda yells at him to do something with the gravity, before she gives up, runs over to him, and turns a dial behind a wall panel. The gravity increases as she does so, pulling the birds down to the deck, as well as Ethan, Helda, and the others. Helda tells Ethan to help her collect the birds before they spread their disease all over the station, and he obliges; only then does she turn the gravity back down and show any concern for the others.
One man, identified by Helda as Teki, has a superficial head wound, bleeding just enough to scare the two teenagers on the other pallet. Ethan tells the boy to put pressure on the wound and stop the bleeding, since his own hands are contaminated and he shouldn’t do it himself. Helda calls for decontamination, Station Security, and a medic in that order, and Ethan is relieved that he won’t have to try to find Security for himself. The decon team arrives, and Helda pulls Ethan off to go through quarantine, though he’s assured that he’ll just need a thorough scrub down and a shot; she takes him away on one of the pallets, with a sealed clear plastic canopy.
“Don’t touch your face,” Helda reminded him absently, glancing back for one last look at the disaster scene. It seemed to be under control now, the decon team having taken charge of her float pallet of birds and reopened the airseal doors.
Ethan displayed his closed fists in token of his understanding.
“You do seem to have grasped sterile technique,” Helda admitted grudgingly, settling back and glowering at him. “For a while there I thought Docks and Locks was now hiring the mentally handicapped.”
Ethan asks what was happening (in monosyllables), and Helda tells him the teenagers were likely joyriding on the pallet, and she’ll have a stern word with their parents. The birds are impounded cargo from a freighter, but better than cows; she tells the story of a shipment of cattle that all had to be cut up and disposed. Sometimes they try to sue the station, she says, but they lose.
She becomes suspicious at Ethan’s taciturnity, wondering if he’s sick, but he claims to just have strained his voice. She then turns the conversation to discussing the disgusting obesity (barely perceptible to Ethan) of some passing stationers, and Ethan is relieved when they finally reach quarantine.
Ethan’s coveralls are taken away, with his ID and credit chit, but returned to him, eventually, after his decontamination shower, with instructions to report to Records on his way out. He eventually finds it, at the same time as a now-bandaged Teki; Helda and another man are inside. Helda reprimands Teki for his delay on the phone; Teki protests that he was talking to a relative about a business matter. The man at the console asks Ethan for his ID card, and Ethan claims he left it at home, in his duty coveralls. Helda is having none of it, but Teki, grateful for his help with the birds, tells him to just go get it and come back, and spirits him out the door. He leaves Ethan in another corridor, disappearing back inside before Ethan can ask him for help.
Two hours later he’s still wandering through the stationer areas, wondering why there are so few Security stations to be found on that side as opposed to the Transients’ Lounge. Finally he manages to find a public area with actual maps and signs, and locates himself, not too far away from his own hostel room or Quinn’s. Watching cautiously for Cetagandans or Dendarii, he soon finds a security booth with a stationer woman inside. He asks if she’s on duty, and if she knows about the nerve disrupter attack earlier, but she seems to misinterpret his questions as flirting, though she does tell him they are looking for more witnesses to the shooting.
“It’s the charge. Of course the fellow claims he fired by accident, showing off the weapon to his friend. But the tipster who called in the incident claimed he shot at a man, who ran away. Well, the tipster vanished, and the rest of the so-called witnesses were the usual lot—full of contagious drama, but when you pin ’em down they always turn out to have been facing the other way or zipping their boot or something at the actual moment the disruptor went off.” She sighed. “Now, if it’s proved the fellow with the disruptor was firing at someone, he gets deported, but if it was an accident all we can do is confiscate the illegal weapon, fine him, and let him go. Which we’ll have to do in another twelve hours if this intent-to-harm business can’t be substantiated.”
While Ethan is cheered by the thought of Rau in jail, that would still leave Millisor and Setti on the loose, so he doesn’t feel much safer.
Ethan took a breath. “My name is Urquhart.”
“Mine’s Lara,” said the Security woman.
“That’s nice,” said Ethan automatically. “But—”
“It was my grandmother’s name,” the Security woman confided. “I think family names give such a nice sense of continuity, don’t you? Unless you happen to get stuck with something like Sterilla, which happened to an unfortunate friend of mine. She shortens it to Illa.”
“Uh—that wasn’t exactly what I meant.”
Before he can untangle the thread of conversation, an older woman comes in and tells Lara to stop socializing on duty, they have a call. Ethan overhears that Rau has escaped–or, rather, “vanished”–from detention. Lara tells Ethan to look her up when she’s off duty, and the older woman shoos him out of the office so they can lock it up.
Ethan tries then to return to Quinn’s room, but finds it vacant except for a cleaning robot, which says the previous occupant left no forwarding address. Back to the security booth, which is still locked; he sits down to wait, resolving to turn himself in as soon as possible. He jumps when a hand falls on his shoulder, belonging to a young blond man, not one of the Cetagandans; the man addresses him by name and says he’s very interested in Athos, introducing himself as Terrence Cee.
I had to read over the pallet crash scene a few times before I was sure that the two women with the pallet were not involved in the collision ahead of him. First of all, of course, Ethan passed them, which implied they were going the other way, whereas the collision happened ahead of him. Not sure why they had to have a pallet too, because that just made their presence confusing. But then, apparently, I’m easily confused by such things–like when I thought that Aral shot Cordelia back in the first chapter of Shards of Honour…
I kept expecting Ethan to clue in about Teki, mentioned by Elli twice back in Chapter Five, where she tells Helda that she’s Teki’s cousin. So Ethan misses the reference to Teki’s business phone call with family. Was there anything about Ethan in that call? Was Elli trying to get Teki to keep track of him, for instance? After all, Ethan had ditched his clothes, so if she had placed another tracker in them, she’d have lost his trail… Of course, Ethan was dressed as a stationer, so Teki might not have thought to look for him, but then again, if he and Elli knew where he’d changed his clothes, they might have been able to figure out what he was wearing. Another thing to see if it comes up later in the book.
Ethan is so hapless most of the time that it’s almost a shock when he’s in a situation where he gets a chance to demonstrate that he’s an actual trained doctor. So I guess he’s got one skill, at least…
The scene with Lara is hilarious, as Ethan’s attempts to confess or turn himself in or even get some help are derailed by her chatty flirtations and blithe cluelessness. He does at least get information on what happened with Rau, but it’s not particularly cheering. Poor guy.
But hey, at the end at least we get to meet the mysterious Terrence Cee! For some reason I had him in my mind as a tall black guy. And I’m pretty sure I know why–for reasons that may become clear later I’m mixing him up in my head with the rogue telepath from a first-season Babylon 5 episode (Jason Ironheart in “Mind War”). I probably just missed the “blond” description last time through, and so my mind had to find some other way to picture him…
So Elli’s explained her side of what happened, and hopefully we’ll get some more information from Terrence Cee in the next chapter, unless the Cetagandans start chasing them again or something… Not quite halfway through the book, and I don’t remember yet how everything turns out, but the plot has definitely thickened.