Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for August, 2012

Back again you are welcomed, to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread.  Herein the Vorkosigan Saga I am synopsizing and commenting on, by chapters one or two.  At the moment, the novella “The Borders of Infinity” I am in the middle of; divided it I have into three parts, of which the second one this is.  (Annoying this is probably getting, yes?  When 63 posts into a reread blog you get, perhaps your jokes so good will be not.)  No further ado there is being, as Miles with the prison camp on Dagoola IV is dealing.

The Borders of Infinity (cont.)

Suegar asks Miles where he thinks he’ll get 500 troops; Miles indicates the women’s group, but Suegar is dubious.  They never ever let him in to preach, and he gave up, though he assures Miles it’s not because of any residual guilt for past transgressions.  Miles wonders if the pressure is really high enough to keep the group together, and Suegar says that it comes and goes, like phases of the moon.  Miles makes the connection to menstrual cycles and is thankful that “time-release anti-ovulant” is required for female prisoners under the IJC rules, though he wonders whether having actual children to care for would be a stabilizing or destabilizing force.

“Well . . .” Miles took a deep breath, and pulled an imaginary hat down over his eyes at an aggressive angle. “I’m new here, and so temporarily unembarrassed. Let he who is without sin cast the first lure. Besides, I have an advantage for this sort of negotiation. I’m clearly not a threat.” He marched forward.

“I’ll wait for you here,” called Suegar helpfully, and hunkered down where he was.

Miles timed his forward march to intersect a patrol of six women strolling down their perimeter. He arranged himself in front of them and swept off his imaginary hat to hold strategically over his crotch. “Good afternoon, ladies. Allow me to apologize for m’beh—”

Before he can finish, he’s dumped on his face, then picked up, swung around, and flung away to land near Suegar.  Miles asks Suegar if he’d calculated the trajectory that precisely, and Suegar admitted he hadn’t been quite sure, because of Miles’s size.  Miles gets up, his ribs aching, dusts himself off, and picks up his invisible hat, gathering himself for a moment before heading back.  Suegar tries to stop him, but Miles tells him that he’s pathological persistent, so Suegar sits down to wait for him.  He is thrown back two more times, the second time much less far.

After that he follows along beside them, out of reach but parallel, telling them about his bone disorder (where he must clarify he is not a mutant), telling them he’s not a threat, and exhorting them to slow down so he can talk to them.  He plants himself in front of them and says that if they’re going to break every bone in his body, they might as well go ahead, because that’s what it’ll take to get him to stop.

A tall redhead suggests they take him at his word; she and another woman take his arms, offering to break them, and Miles says that it’ll be worth it if they listen to him for five minutes.  He braces himself as the pressure increases, before the women let up.  The redhead, Beatrice, asks him if he gets off on being beaten up, and Miles suggests they stop beating him up, to serve him right.  The leader calls her off and tells him he’s got five minutes.

Miles first apologizes for his nudity, his clothes having been stolen, which Beatrice confirms.  He says he’s approaching them because they’re the largest pocket of civilization, and he wants to help them expand and “improve the tone” of the prison camp.  The patrol leader isn’t receptive, saying they have all they can do just to hold their borders, and Beatrice adds that he’s not getting “any” from them either.

Miles sighed, and turned his hat around in his hands by its wide brim. He spun it for a moment on one finger, and locked eyes with the redhead. “Note my hat. It was the one garment I managed to keep from the ravages of the burly surly brothers—Pitt’s bunch, you say.”

She snorted at the turn of phrase. “Those jerks . . . why just a hat? Why not pants? Why not a full-dress uniform while you’re at it?” she added sarcastically.

“A hat is a more useful object for communicating. You can make broad gestures,” he did so, “denote sincerity,” he held it over his heart, “or indicate embarrassment,” over his genitals, with a hang-dog crouch, “or rage—” he flung it to earth as if he might drive it into the ground, then picked it up and brushed it off carefully, “or determination—” he jammed it on his head and yanked the brim down over his eyes, “or make courtesies.” He swept it off again in salute to her. “Do you see the hat?”

Amused, Beatrice says she does.  Miles asks her about the feathers on the hat, and she plays along, describing two of them, close together, but she draws back when Miles asks her about their colour.

“When you can see the color of the feathers,” said Miles softly, “you’ll also understand how you can expand your borders to infinity.”

She was silent, her face closed and locked. But the patrol leader muttered, “Maybe this little runt better talk to Tris. Just this once.”

Tris turns out to be an actual female trooper, not a tech, muscular and angry.  Miles knows that how he deals with Tris could make or break his whole scheme.  He takes a deep breath and offers her command of the camp; she is not impressed.  She says it doesn’t exist, so he can’t give it to her, and tells Beatrice to get rid of him.  Miles says that he can create command of the camp–power, not revenge.

Tris uncoiled from her sleeping mat to her full height, then had to bend her knees to bring her face level to his, hissing, “Too bad, little turd. You almost interest me. Because I want revenge. On every man in this camp.”

“Then the Cetagandans have succeeded; you’ve forgotten who your real enemy is.”

“Say, rather, that I’ve discovered who my real enemy is. Do you want to know the things they’ve done to us—our own guys—”

“The Cetagandans want you to believe this,” a wave of his hand embraced the camp, “is something you’re doing to each other. So fighting each other, you become their puppets. They watch you all the time, you know, voyeurs of your humiliation.”

He tells her that power is grasping the future, while revenge is being held back by the past.  She holds out a muscular arm and tells him this is power, and she can tell he wants some to protect him, but he isn’t getting any there.  Miles taps his head and says that that’s where true power is.  The Cetagandans are trapping their bodies, which affects their minds, but the mind is more powerful if they turn it around.  When the prisoners forget that, when they reduce themselves to their brawn and their bodies, then the Cetagandans win.

Tris says that the Cetagandans have won anyway–they’re prisoners, nothing they do will matter, because the Cetagandans control their environment.  Nobody’s come to rescue them, so they need to think about the long haul.  Miles says that they’re not there forever, or else the Cetagandans would have saved time and killed them all.  They’re there so the Cetagandans can break the best Marilacan freedom fighters and send them back to preach their gospel of surrender to the rest of their people.  He says the Cetagandans are really still waiting for the surrender of Fallow Core.

Tris says that if he’s right, then keeping up the fight just pushes their freedom farther away.  Miles, dismayed that she’s also got a keen, logical mind, says that there’s being a prisoner, and then there’s being a slave, which is what the Cetagandans want.  Tris notes that Miles doesn’t seem to include himself among the prisoners, and Miles, thinking fast, says that he’s not really a Marilacan soldier, but an outsider–a pilgrim passing through, according to Suegar.  Tris dismisses Suegar, having missed Miles’s hint.

Tris asks what Miles wants out of this–command of the camp himself?  Miles says he just wants to be an advisor, a spiritual advisor.  Tris reacts to the word ‘advisor’, and runs her hands over Miles’s face, noticing the distinctive indentations caused by frequent wearing of a space helmet, like the ones on her own face.  She asks again where he served before; Miles insists he was a clerk in the recruiting office, hoping that she’ll see the absurdity of that assertion.  She tells him to keep talking.

Suegar is asleep when Miles returns to him, so Miles wakes him and asks if they still have to remain naked, or if they’re allowed to get dressed.  Suegar is confused until he sees Beatrice standing there impatiently with two bundles of clothes.  She tosses them to Miles and stalks off.  Miles assesses them as he puts them on, only a little too long, stained, probably taken from a corpse.  Suegar is amazed that Miles got the women to give him clothes, and Miles said they’re giving him more than that.  He says they have to find Oliver, and wonders if the chow calls are on a predictable schedule or not.

They see a man running around the camp, weeping to himself; Suegar says it just happens to people like that sometimes.  Miles notes he’s coming towards them, and says they should catch him.  They hit him high and low and sit on him, and Miles notices how young he seems.  After he quiets down, Miles invites him to a “major party” and tells him to take the message to Sgt. Oliver, and bring his friends, and to say that Brother Miles sent him.  Then they set out to find Oliver themselves.

Oliver has 46 men, 18 more come back with the running man, and they induct anyone who happens to drift close to the edges of the group.  They pick up 75 more who see them being actually given access to the women’s area.  Miles cuts them off at 200, in deference to Tris’s nervousness.  He tries to convince her to use all of her personnel, not leaving half to guard their territory, because only this once will they have the advantage of surprise, so it’ll give them the best chance for success first try, before anyone else realizes what they’re trying to do.  Tris says that after too long at war, losing it seems better than prolonging it, but Miles asks if she wants to lose to _those_ bastards.  Oliver, when he sees the size of the group they have, suggests splitting up into twenty groups, to speed up distribution.  Miles says it has to be fourteen, a “theologically significant” number, for the fourteen apostles.

Once they get organized, they have to wait, and Miles hopes that the food arrives before he loses his tenuous control over the group.  When the dome begins to bulge, a third of way around the edge from them, Oliver points it out to Miles.  Miles thinks the timing is too perfect, since the Cetagandans are obviously watching them; if it’s not early or late, it must be a trick.  He orders them to wait, and they do, though reluctantly, as other prisoners begin to head for the bulge.  Miles hopes very strongly that he’s not wrong about this, as he gets Suegar to boost him on his shoulders.  Sure enough, the bulge disappears to reveal nothing…and another bulge starts on the opposite side of the camp.

Miles orders them to go toward the second bulge, and Tris sends her troops off.  Miles limps after them, hoping he can keep ahead of the redirected mass of the other prisoners.  He sees the troops beginning to break down the food pile, on guard and ready to distribute it, just as he is overtaken.  Suegar yanks him back to his feet and he makes his way through the lines, where he finds Beatrice, who is given ample personal space.

It was working, by God it was working. The fourteen command groups, still bunched rather too closely along the dome wall—but that could be improved next run—were admitting the hungry supplicants one at a time. The expediters kept the lines moving at top speed, and channeled the already-supplied along the perimeter behind the human shield wall in a steady stream, to flow back out into the larger camp at the edge of the mob. Oliver had put his toughest-looking bravos to work in pairs, patrolling the outflow and making sure no one’s rat bar was taken by force.

Not a few of the guards are taking out their frustration on attempted thieves, including some of the “burly surlies”, and Miles reluctantly sends Oliver to restore order.  The women are mostly in charge of the actual handing out of food, which seems to have a quelling effect on most of the men, some of whom are even polite.  Pitt is not one of them; Miles spots three of the women attempting to beat him up for his offensive behaviour to them.  He sends four men to grab Pitt and take him over to the wall; Tris and Beatrice arrive to reinforce them.

“I’m gonna rip the bastard’s balls off,” Tris was saying. “I command—”

“A military command,” Miles interrupted. “If this one is accused of disorderly conduct, you should court martial him.”

“He is a rapist and a murderer,” she replied icily. “Execution’s too good for him. He’s got to die slowly.”

Miles doesn’t feel right in handing him over to Tris, and Suegar points out that Pitt is far from the only guilty man there.  Pitt spots Miles and tells him that the women aren’t going to last long, they don’t have the muscle.  He says the women are the reason they lost in the first place, not like the Barrayarans, who fought off the Cetagandans; Miles wonders how much Pitt really knows about the First Cetagandan War.  Finally, tired of bandying words with him, Miles points out that Pitt is likely a Cetagandan spy and provocateur, sent to undermine them and help with their defeat.  Oliver whispers to Miles that Pitt is no spy, but Miles shushes him.  He tells them to take off Pitt’s shirt, as the whispers begin, and with the jagged edge of Suegar’s broken glass, he carves the words “CETA SPY” into Pitt’s back.  Then he tells them to give him his rat bar and throw him out.

Tris asks Miles if he was really a spy; Oliver denies it, and Miles says that they had to deal with him, but without condemning the many other men who may share his crimes to a greater or lesser degree, or else they’ll split the camp for sure.  This way, he’s dealt with, anyone tempted to follow his path is warned off, and Tris’s hands are clean.

When delivering rat bars to the sick and injured, Miles finds that Colonel Tremont has died.  Miles, Suegar, Tris, Beatrice and Oliver carry the body to the rubbish pile, where it is given the rare dignity of not being stripped.  Not long after they find Pitt, who has been beaten and strangled; Tris is sobered by finding the body, and Miles tells her that even Pitt’s death is a loss for their side.

After the distribution is finished, Miles commends Tris, her “general staff”, and the group leaders on an excellent job.  The food distribution will get easier as they practice it, people will get used to it, and they already forced the Cetagandans into action, which means they’re back at war.  He encourages them to wonder what the Cetagandans could do next, then yields the floor fo Tris, since he’s just the “chaplain” and she’s really the one in charge.

Tris suggests they might send in a short pile, so they’ll have to keep track of who gets food so they can make sure noboby gets short-changed too often.  Miles adds that they might send in too much, leaving to deal with extras.  Tris says that they could divide the pile.  One of the leaders asks if they aren’t doing the Cetagandans’ thinking for them, if they’re listening in, and Miles says that every response from their captors gives them more information about how they think.  Another leader asks if they won’t cut off the camp’s air, permanently; Miles says that would cancel out the hard-won PR coup of following all the IJC rules about their prisoners, which the Cetagandans are relying heavily on.  Even though the high death rate at the camp has already been noticed, the Cetagandans have managed to explain it away but 100% would be a bit much.  Later, Oliver asked quietly about the information, and Miles tells him he’s glad it sounded convincing.

They spend time planning out their responses to the various possibilities; by the time they’re done, Miles is flagging.  Tris asks about the possibility the Cetagandans will just do nothing, and Miles says it’s most likely, allowing them to blunt their momentum and eventually lose focus.  Tris asks what then, and Miles says they’ll have to pray for a miracle.  He wakes up only enough to let Beatrice roll him onto a sleeping mat.

Miles is, unfortunately, correct, and the rat bar schedule returns to normal.  He tries to keep them interested, using a prisoner with a steady pulse to time them, and getting them work on speeding things up.  At one point he starts issuing the bars 200 at a time, with half-hour breaks between, as a “spiritual exercise”, telling Tris that it’s a way to provide variety for themselves.  He gets them to carry the bars around the perimeter to distribute from evenly-spaced piles.  By the twentieth chow call, probably ten days in, the system is perfected, and he laments that he’s done too early.

By the thirty-second chow call, the system was still running smoothly, but Miles was getting frayed.

“Welcome to the long haul,” said Beatrice dryly. “You better start pacing yourself, Brother Miles. If what Tris says is true, we’re going to be in here even longer because of you. I must remember to thank you for that properly sometime.” She treated him to a threatening smirk, and Miles prudently remembered an errand on the opposite side of the camp.

Miles realizes that for people who’ve been in for years, sixteen days is nothing, but Miles is beginning to climb the walls, and wonders if he’s going to go crazy, or manic-depressive.  He thinks about leaders who have been wrong about their predictions of armageddon, and wants his miracle to happen now, now, now.

Comments

So does Marilac have a moon, for Suegar to be so familiar with their phases?  A moon large enough for everyone to see them?  Because I gather that, for Earthlike planets, that’s considered unlikely, unless you’re going with one of those “Rare Earth” hypotheses that they’re required for habitability.  (Or was it just required for the evolution of intelligent life?  I don’t remember.)  If they were more Phobos/Deimos-sized, seeing phases might be trickier.  And, for that matter, Miles makes a connection between the moon and menstruation, which it seems to me would require not only a moon but also one with an orbital period about the same as the menstrual cycle.  Maybe that’s not unreasonable–anything orbiting at the same radius as our moon would have the same orbital frequency–but then, if it’s smaller, it’d be less visible…  Especially considering that Miles is a Barrayaran; I don’t even know if it has a moon, or Beta Colony, or any planet we’ve been to.  Miles doesn’t get to go to Earth until the next book…

There are just over ten thousand prisoners in there, but I suppose that the Marilacan military is still far from sexual equality, because there’s no way that Miles got five thousand women to go with Oliver’s 200 men when they first take the food pile.  It’s not quite clear from the text, but probably not more than 1000 total, maybe closer to 700, so there’s about 500-800 women, 5-8%.

The sort-of-romance with Miles and Beatrice is interesting.  It starts with Miles being attracted to her because of her red hair (buzzcut as it is), and probably her height as well, and her disdain turning to respect, probably starting with the invisible hat scene.  One presumes Miles is between relationships right now (since Taura is likely an actual Dendarii and so not allowed to fraternize), and Beatrice is beginning to learn the attractive force that Miles can wield when he turns his interest on you…and at the moment he’s fairly distracted, too.  I’m not quite sure how Beatrice went from not-even-a-patrol-leader to Tris’s second-in-command, whether is entirely due to her bringing Miles to meet Tris, or if she’d been in a decent position beforehand and just wasn’t always a patrol leader.  Maybe ranks in the women’s group was just not formalized before.  I was surprised, on rereading, to discover that Beatrice wasn’t the patrol leader, because, in my mind, she was in charge there.  After all, the real leader didn’t even get a name, did she?

I wish I could have quoted the whole debate between Miles and Tris, or even the scene with Miles and Beatrice, but I think that would be crossing over the line.  Still, it is awesome dialogue, and convincing convincing, if you know what I mean.  Read it yourself, if you haven’t, or reread it if you have.


We’re now two-thirds of the way through the borders towards infinity, so next week will bring us to the end of it.  Then I’ll take a week off before starting Brothers In Arms, which may almost be the first time the break in the reread is longer than the actual time passed between books.  Keep with it; we’re in the good stuff, but we’re almost up to the really good stuff, which, to me, starts with Mirror Dance, but we have to get there this way first, because that will make the whole thing so much better…  Anyway, next week, “The Borders of Infinity” concluded, be here or be squere.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Good evening, and welcome again to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread.  This week I’ll be starting on the novella “The Borders of Infinity”, which originally featured prominently in a collection of (alm0st) the same name, together with “The Mountains of Mourning”, “Labyrinth”, and a framing story.  The more recent omnibuses have split these stories up, so that “The Mountains of Mourning” is in Young Miles, “Labyrinth” is in Miles, Mystery & Mayhem, and “The Borders of Infinity” leads off the omnibus Miles Errant.  I think that’s actually a sensible decision, since “Borders” is linked closely with Brothers In Arms, which follows immediately after it in the omnibus.  There’s not much to the framing story, so I doubt I’ll be covering it.  So, without further ado, let’s on to the beginning of…

The Borders of Infinity

Miles and three other prisoners enter a gigantic force dome through a temporary doorway, and Miles is taken aback by what he finds inside, half-wondering if he’s arrived in Hell rather than the Dagoola prison camp.

Dagoola IV Top Security Prison Camp #3. This was it? This naked . . . dinner plate? Miles had vaguely visioned barracks, marching guards, daily head counts, secret tunnels, escape committees.

It was the dome that made it all so simple, Miles realized. What need for barracks to shelter prisoners from the elements? The dome did it. What need for guards? The dome was generated from without. Nothing inside could breach it. No need for guards, or head counts. Tunnels were a futility, escape committees an absurdity. The dome did it all.

Miles’s fellow prisoners are also disturbed by what they’ve found; having known each other before, from the same unit, they instinctively band together.  All their possessions were taken away, and what they’re left with is tunic and trousers, sleeping mat and plastic cup, and a tattoo on the small of their backs.  A group of men approaches, and Miles wonders who they might be, out of the numerous prisoners in the camp.

The battered remnants of the 3rd and 4th Armored All-Terrain Rangers. The ingenious and tenacious civilian defenders of Garson Transfer Station. Winoweh’s 2nd Battalion had been captured almost intact. And the 14th Commandos, survivors of the high-tech fortress at Fallow Core. Particularly the survivors of Fallow Core. Ten thousand, two hundred fourteen exactly. The planet Marilac’s finest. Ten thousand, two hundred fifteen, counting himself. Ought he to count himself?

The welcoming committee stops a short distance away; Miles’s three companions sensible retreat, and Miles realizes he’s alone, and all too conspicuous.  Miles knows it’s not going to work, but he asks them anyways, about where he can find Colonel Guy Tremont of the 14th Commandos, as they move to surround him.  They tell him there’s no ranks or companies or soldiers any more.  They kick him to the ground and take all his possessions, planning on trying to trade his clothes to the women.  A smart response from Miles brings a second beating, which leaves him broken ribs and an injured left wrist, as well as many bruises.

After a timeless interval of pain, Miles is approached by another man, gaunt and bony, also naked, seeming older but hard to tell.  All the prisoners had their hair follicles stunned to prevent growth, but this man had a strip of beard where they must have been sloppy.  He offers Miles a drink in a broken plastic cup, which he gratefully accepts.

The man squatted in studied politeness until Miles finished drinking, then leaned forward on his knuckles in restrained urgency. “Are you the One?”

Miles blinked. “Am I the what?”

“The One. The other one, I should say. The scripture says there has to be two.”

Miles asks about the scripture, and the man quotes a line about two men leading pilgrims up a hill, leaving their garments behind.  Miles asks the man, whose name is Suegar, and Suegar confirms that he is sure he’s one of the two men.  He notes that Miles doesn’t look like a soldier, and Miles claims to have been a recruiting clerk.  He asks how Suegar came to know his true identity; Suegar said it came gradually, when nobody else seemed to believe in his scripture.  He tells Miles it’s only a few sentences, so it’s not very clear; he’d torn out of a piece of paper from a book to wedge into one boot heel, and kept it in his hand when he came into the camp, since the guards didn’t seem bothered by it.  Only later did he realize it must be scripture, as the only writing in the whole camp.

Miles asks Suegar about the water, and where they get food.  Suegar says the water comes from taps at the latrines, but they don’t always work, and they don’t always get the “rat” bars either, only sometimes.

“Sometimes?” said Miles angrily. He could count Suegar’s ribs. “Dammit, the Cetagandans are claiming loudly to be treating their POW’s by Interstellar Judiciary Commission rules. So many square meters of space per person, 3,000 calories a day, at least fifty grams of protein, two liters of drinking water—you should be getting at least two IJC standard ration bars a day. Are they starving you?”

“After a while,” Suegar sighed, “you don’t really care if you get yours or not.”

Suegar seems to slump as Miles’s novelty begins to wear off.  Miles says that he’s looking for a relative of his in the camp, Colonel Guy Tremont.  Suegar says the old groups don’t stay together too much, and officers weren’t too popular with some of the groups inside.  Miles asks Suegar if he can take Miles to someone who might know where Tremont or somebody from the 14th Commandos might be, and Suegar says he’ll try.  He’s taken aback by Miles’s sense of urgency, until Miles prods him into recognizing that part of his scripture mentions “agility and speed”.

They pass other groups, giving some of them a wide berth.  The “surly brothers” who beat up Miles earlier seem to be a group of about sixteen with a large collection of mats, but most groups are smaller, and there are other loners, most of them keeping their distance from the others.  Miles spots a large group of hundreds of women who have staked out a large area, including two latrines, and are actively patrolling it.  Miles asks about the women; Suegar says they don’t “put out”, and Miles expresses some surprise that some of them haven’t turned to sex to relieve the boredom.  Suegar says that everything in the dome is monitored, down to every word…unless, of course, their captors have just automated the food delivery and abandoned them entirely.  Miles assures that the Cetagandans are still out there.

Suegar says that the monitoring inhibited some people at first, until they discovered that the Cetagandans didn’t interfere, so things began to deteriorate, and after a few rapes the women began to band together.  The Cetagandans do interfere in extreme cases, as when there’s riots, by cutting off oxygen and letting everyone pass out, or compressing the dome to extreme discomfort.
Miles notices a bulge in the dome and asks Suegar if it’s more new prisoners.

Suegar glanced around. “Uh oh. We’re not in a real good position, here.” He hovered a moment, as if uncertain whether to go forward or back.

A wave of movement rippled through the camp from the bulge outward, of people getting to their feet. Faces turned magnetically toward the side of the dome. Little knots of men came together; a few sprinters began running. Some people didn’t get up at all. Miles glanced back towards the women’s group. About half of them were forming rapidly into a sort of phalanx.

“We’re so close—what the hell, maybe we’ve got a chance,” said Suegar. “Come on!”

Suegar jogs towards the bulge, and Miles follows, hampered by his broken ribs.  As the bulge disappears, Miles sees a big pile of rat bars, acceptable IJC rations, containing half the daily nutritional requirements and guaranteed to keep you alive as long as you kept eating them.  Miles realizes that there must be one rat bar for every prisoner in that one pile.  The Cetagandans have delivered the food, they leave it to the prisoners to distribute it, and there’s no way that all ten thousand-odd of them are going to each get their even share.

The first to arrive at the pile grab armfuls and try to sprint to safety.  Those who don’t make it get beaten up by the surly brothers and other kindred spirits.  After that it gets harder to get away because of the crush of new people arriving.  Miles and Suegar are caught in the press.  Suegar grabs a bar and hastily starts to eat it, but Miles can’t keep a grip on his, trying too hard to keep from getting trampled, which terrifies him.  He eventually extricates himself from the crowd as the pressure eases, and sits and shakes in the dirt for a while.  He made it out this time, with nothing more than a trampled foot, but he’s afraid now that he might die at the hands, or feet, of potential allies rather than friends.

Eventually Miles forces himself back to his feet, telling himself it’s time to find Colonel Tremont, the hero of the siege of Fallow Core, who held to the last.  General Xian had promised to return, but been killed himself, and HQ had fallen to the Cetagandans.  Fallow Core had held out a long time, but had eventually fallen–not surrendering, but taken.

Looking around, Miles locates Suegar, being driven away by an unappreciate audience; he walks closer and calls Suegar over.  Suegar says he has to keep trying, in case he missed the Other One the first time.  Miles asks Suegar to lead him to the guy who would know where Tremont is.  As they walk, Miles asks if that’s a typical chow call, and if so, why somebody hasn’t just taken that arc of the dome; Suegar says it moves around all the time, so it’s hard to tell where to wait for it.  Suegar asks the date, and Miles tells him; Suegar is surprised that it hasn’t even been three years yet.

They reach a group of men, who aren’t happy to see Suegar; Suegar point out a man named Oliver, introduces Miles to him, then backs away.  Miles appraises Oliver, noting he’s still got his original equipment, but no stolen extras.  He tells Oliver he’s looking for Colonel Tremont; Oliver says there’s no colonels in here anymore.  Miles says he’s a relative, and the only person he might know in the whole camp; Oliver allows as he might have a right to see Tremont, for all the good it’ll do.

Oliver leads them to another group of mats, on the edge of which a figure lies curled up on a mat.  Oliver says it’s not Tremont, just his remains, but Miles sees that Tremont is breathing.  However, Tremont seems entirely catatonic, surrounded by urine-soaked mud but obviously cared for.  Oliver pushes some food into his mouth but Tremont makes no move to eat it.

“Was—was he injured when Fallow Core was overrun?” asked Miles. “Head injury?”

Oliver shook his head. “Fallow Core wasn’t stormed, boy.”

“But it fell on October 6th, it was reported, and—”

“It fell on October 5th. Fallow Core was betrayed.” Oliver turned and walked away before his stiffened face could betray any emotion.

Miles wanders off, wondering if his mission is over.  He looks up at the dome, considering how the Cetagandans have twisted the IJC rules.  Ample allotted space per prisoner; no solitary confinement, no excessive periods of darkness (because there’s no darkness at all), no beatings or rapes–by the guards, at least, since there are no guards at all.  The rat bar distribution, leaving it to the prisoners to come up with their own unequal distribution.  No forced labour; access to medical personnel, because they still have their own medics, though no actual equipment…  No communication with the outside world, of course.

This lack of word from the outside world might drive even him crazy shortly. It was as bad as prayer, talking to a God who never talked back. No wonder they all seemed touched with a sort of solipsistic schizophrenia here. Their doubts infected him. Was anybody still out there? Could his voice be heard and understood?

Ah, blind faith. The leap of faith. His right hand clenched, as if crushing an eggshell. “This,” he enunciated clearly, “calls for a major change of plans.”

He finds Suegar again, telling him he’s found his “cousin”, but he’s dying.  He asks what they do with dead bodies, and Suegar says they get put on a rubbish pile near one side of the dome, which is periodically enveloped and taken outside–after being incinerated first, of course.

Miles tells Suegar that he’s realized he is the Other One, which Suegar takes with surprising equability.

“It came to me in a vision,” he declared dramatically, following his script anyway.

“Oh, yeah?” Suegar’s attention sharpened gratifyingly. “I’ve never gotten a vision,” he added with envy. “Had to figure it all out, y’know, from context. What’s it like? A trance?”

Shit, and here I thought this guy talked with elves and angels. . . .  Miles backed down slightly. “No, it’s like a thought, only more compelling. It storms your will—burns like lust, only not so easy to satisfy. Not like a trance, because it drives you outward, not inward.” He hesitated, unsettled, having spoken more truth than he’d intended.

Suegar looked vastly encouraged. “Oh, good. I was afraid for a second you might be one of those guys who start talking to people nobody else can see.”

Suegar says he recognizes the sensation, and is a little relieved.  He’d tried to evade it himself at first before giving in to God’s will.  Miles says that he should know that when he’s given a task, he’s also given the power to accomplish it.  Miles says that they’ll need more than two for the task, though, and tells Suegar they need to recruit his friends, and acquaintances, and anyone they can find, because they’ll need them all in the end.  Suegar says that Miles reminds him of an officer he used to have, and seems a little skeptical when Miles reminds him he’s still a clerk.

They visit Oliver first.  Miles tells him they need to change the way things are run around here, which doesn’t impress Oliver much, until he threatens to pound Miles unless he shuts up, and turns away.  Miles grabs Oliver and tells him that cynicism is a nice comfortable moral position which claims that it’s okay to do nothing.

“You listen up, mutant,” Oliver snarled. “We’ve done it all already. We’ve done drill, and games, and clean living, exercise, and cold showers, except there ain’t no cold showers. We’ve done group sings and floor shows. We’ve done it by the numbers, by the book, by candlelight. We’ve done it by force, and made real war on each other. After that we did sin and sex and sadism till we were ready to puke. We’ve done it all at least ten times. You think you’re the first reformer to come through here?”

“No, Oliver.” Miles leaned into his face, his eyes boring into Oliver’s burning eyes unscorched. His voice fell to a whisper. “I think I’m the last.”

Oliver laughs, saying that Suegar has found his soulmate at last.  Miles turns to Suegar and asks him to read the full text.

Suegar rustled around and cleared his throat nervously. ” ‘For those that shall be the heirs of salvation,’ ” he began. ” ‘Thus they went along toward the gate. Now you must note that the city stood upon a mighty hill, but the pilgrims went up that hill with ease, because they had these two men to lead them by the arms; also they had left their mortal garments behind them in the river, for though they went in with them, they came out without them. They therefore went up here with much agility and speed, through the foundation upon which the city was framed higher than the clouds. They therefore went up through the regions of the air . . .’ ” He added apologetically, “It breaks off there. That’s where I tore the page. Not sure what that signifies.”

Miles absorbs the raw material he has to work with, finding the last line aptness particularly creepy.  He tells Oliver that he’s working for all of their salvation, which Oliver says sounds very uplifting.  Miles tells him that ‘uplifting’ is exactly correct, and he takes his scripture very literally.  Oliver looks at Miles with a new sharpness, and says that will take a miracle.  Miles says it will be a miracle for all of the masses, not just the chosen few, but they need to be prepared for the miracle to come.

“Sh . . .” Oliver’s voice trailed off. He glanced for confirmation, oddly enough, at Suegar. “Is this guy for real?”

“He thinks he’s faking it,” said Suegar blandly, “but he’s not. He’s the One, all right and tight.”

The cold worms writhed again. Dealing with Suegar, Miles decided, was like fencing in a hall of mirrors. Your target, though real, was never quite where it looked as if it should be.

Oliver asks more about their salvation, and Miles says that they will need a “priesthood” to organize the rest.  Oliver points out that the absence of a miracle may well lead to a human sacrifice.  Oliver says he can bring in about twenty, and Miles tells them to make him the corporals of the…Reformation Army.  Miles says that for now they’ll just work with reforming the food.  He tells Oliver to bring the twenty before the next meal call, pointing out that despite appearances, they don’t have all the time in the world.  He wants them to take the food pile; Oliver is dubious, saying it’s been tried before, but Miles says they just want to distribute it equally.  That’ll give them leverage with those who’ve been shorted in the past.  Oliver says it’s impossible with twenty guys, and Miles says he never said about doing it with only twenty guys.  He promises five hundred, and walks off with Suegar.

Comments

What makes the dome all that impenetrable from the inside?  I suppose if you don’t have a big plasma cannon or something to overload it…  I suppose it’s just like the other force domes which we saw in Cetaganda.  It just feels like, if it can be made selectively permeable to oxygen and other gases, there should be some way to trick it, or use that somehow.  Like quantum tunneling, or port forwarding, but yeah, that would probably also require more tech than they have available in there.  And I guess they’re trying to be all about the subtle right now, and assuming extreme clairvoyance on the part of the enemy, but still.

There’s something about the initial supplies the prisoners receive that makes me think of Riverworld, somehow.  Basic garments, water cup, sleeping mat…  No “grails”, though.  The situation always makes me remember Larry Niven’s story “Cloak of Anarchy”, except lasting more than a few hours.  “Lord of The Flies” is a bit obvious, but I suppose you could mention that one too, though I confess I’ve only seen one of the movie versions of it, haven’t read the book or anything.

A quick Google shows that Suegar’s “scripture” is an excerpt from “Pilgrim’s Progress”, so I guess it is practically scripture after all.  I wonder if Bujold started with the scripture, or searched for something appropriate once she had the idea.  I kept wondering if it actually contained the phrase “borders of infinity”, but I guess not.  Miles does use the phrase, or a similar one, later, so I guess that can account for it.  It is a good title, one of her better ones.

This story is, as you can probably tell already, another one where you get to see Miles’s fast-talk ability in action.  Since he comes in with, literally, nothing but himself, and his body has never been a major asset, he’s left with just his mind, and, of course, his voice.  Except that, even more problematically, he knows that it’s likely every single word of his is being monitored.  Do they recognize him?  After all, Miles Vorkosigan did make a visit to Cetaganda (even if that wasn’t necessarily in the works yet when Bujold wrote this), and his body shape is fairly distinctive.  Admiral Naismith doubtless has a bit of a reputation by now, and surely a few people know what he looks like, though the description may have gotten distorted through transmission.  But it may just be that nobody cross-referenced, that the ghem-lords (one presumes, unless they’re just rank-and-file soldiers) who processed him never thought of doubting his story, where presumably he had to pretend to be a Marilacan to get picked up and sent to Dagoola IV.  That’s a part of the story that is never clearly drawn, though, Bujold deciding to start with Miles being thrown into prison, only slowly beginning to imply that he may have planned it that way…

When I first read it, of course, I had no idea what was going on, and why Miles was there, so I took him at face value, though I would hope that I began to be suspicious of his clerk story.  I certainly didn’t think at the time that there was someone, besides the Cetagandans, monitoring him, but there’s a few lines in this section (which I’ve quoted) that are very telling when you take that point of view.


I wasn’t quite sure whether to do this story in three parts or two, so I chose three, since that’s less work for me.  Still pretty long, if not necessarily two full-length chapters.  Two more weeks of “The Borders of Infinity”, then, so see you for the next one in a week’s time.

Read Full Post »

Sing hey, my fine fellow, let’s go deeper into the labyrinth!  That’s “Labyrinth”, to be precise, the latest story in the Vorkosigan Saga Reread: one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s novellas that form part of the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, originally collected as part of Borders of Infinity, but more recently part of the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus.  This week I’ll cover the third and final segment of the novella, where I arbitrarily divided it since Bujold didn’t provide any convenient internal chapters or anything.

Labyrinth (concl.)

Miles and Taura climb back down the inside of the pillar; not finding any other exits, they perforce return to the basement.  Taura drinks from the water pipe, while Miles tries to determine if the flood is doing any good.  It’s accumulating slowly at the lower edge, but it would take days to do them any good strategically.

Taura boosted him back into the duct. “Wish me luck,” he murmured over his shoulder, muffled by the close confines.

“Goodbye,” she said. He could not see the expression on her face; there was none in her voice.

“See you later,” he corrected firmly.

He returns to the grille, this time armed with cutters, and snips his way through, wincing at the noise but nonetheless apparently unheard by anything other than another large rat.  He emerges into a storage room, then into a corridor, with an access hatch at one end.  Miles opens it and calls quietly for Taura.  Hearing no response, he descends to search for her, and finds her sitting despondently at the base of a pillar.  She is genuinely surprised at his return, but glad.  Miles is just telling her his plan to climb out and steal a vehicle when the outside entrance begins to slide open, revealing daylight.

Six Ryoval troopers, two of them armed with nerve disruptors, soon enter, led by Security Chief Moglia, leaving Miles and Taura no chance to climb up and away.  Moglia comments that “Nine” must have decided to start cooperating; Miles squeezed Taura’s hand to try to keep her from reacting.  Moglia tells Miles his friends have made his ransom, which surprises him.  Outside, they finds Bel Thorne and another Dendarii, another half-dozen men from House Fell, a float-truck, and Nicol the quaddie, who is being held at stunnerpoint.

“Is that the man you want?” the green-uniformed guard captain asked Bel Thorne.

“That’s him.” Thorne’s face was white with an odd mixture of relief and distress. “Admiral, are you all right?” Thorne called urgently. Its eyes widened, taking in Miles’s tall companion. “What the hell’s that?”

“She is Recruit-trainee Taura,” Miles said firmly, hoping 1) Bel would unravel the several meanings packed in that sentence and 2) Ryoval’s guards wouldn’t. Bel looked stunned, so evidently Miles had got at least partly through; Security Chief Moglia looked suspicious, but baffled.

Miles gets as close to Bel as the Ryoval guards allow him, asking him what’s going on, while Fell’s and Ryoval’s guards complete the paperwork.  Bel says he’d gone to Baron Fell for help, and the upshot was that Fell agreed to exchange Nicol for Miles, which Bel only found out an hour earlier.  Miles asks if they’re going to refund her dollar, and Bel says he had no idea what kind of torture Miles was undergoing.  He quotes Ky Tung quoting Sun Tzu: “On hemmed-in ground, use subterfuge.”  Miles recalls another Sun Tzu quote: “On desperate ground, fight”; judging the odds (thirteen to five, if they can count Nicol), and wondering if it could get any more desperate.  Miles asks what Baron Fell stands to get out of it, and Bel says he promised Miles would tell him the real truth about the Betan rejuvenation treatment.  Miles asks if “Medtech Vaughn” is on the Ariel yet, and Bel tells him he will be within the hour.  Miles tells him that they’re bringing the whole package, indicating Taura and promising to explain later.

“Meantime, you made a slight miscalculation. This isn’t hemmed-in ground. This is desperate ground. Nicol, I want you to know, the Dendarii don’t give refunds.”

Nicol frowned in bewilderment. Bel’s eyes widened, as it checked out the odds—calculating them thirteen to three, Miles could tell.

“Truly?” Bel choked. A subtle hand signal, down by its trouser seam, brought the trooper to full alert.

“Truly desperate,” Miles reiterated. He inhaled deeply. “Now! Taura, attack!”

Miles heads for Moglia, hoping to use him as shelter from the nerve disruptors.  The Dendarii trooper stuns one of the disruptor-armed guards and Bel drops the other.  Two more Ryoval guards head for him, but Taura picks them up and smashes their heads together.  The Fell guards hesitate, but Nicol launches herself upward in her float chair and knocks one out from above.  Taura throws a Ryoval guard at a Fell guard.  The Dendarii trooper closes with a Fell guard, but the Fell captain stuns both of them.  Moglia presses his truncheon against Miles’s windpipe, calling for reinforcements.  Taura takes out another couple of guards while Bel stuns any of the enemy smart enough to try focusing on her.  Nicol takes out the last green guard, and Bel heads for the truck.  Moglia pulls a knife out of his boot and presses it to Miles’s neck.  He is just instructing everyone to hold still when Taura grabs his throat in her claws.

“I can kill him, before you do,” croaked Moglia.

“The little man is mine,” Taura crooned. “You gave him to me yourself. He came back for me. Hurt him one little bit, and I’ll tear your head off and then I’ll drink your blood.”

Taura lifts Moglia off his feet, and he drops the knife.  She says she still wants to rip his head off, but Miles says that Ryoval will do worse than that to him soon enough.  They stun Moglia, grab their stunned trooper, and pile into the truck.  Miles grabs the trooper’s wrist-com and asks about the drop shuttle.  Bel says it’s parked at a shuttleport about forty km away, with Anderson and Nout manning it.  Miles calls them and orders an emergency pickup; Bel gives them directions and their speed, and Miles encourages them to flout Ryoval’s traffic control.  They patch him through to the Ariel, where Murka expresses relief that Miles is okay, and tells him that Medtech Vaughn is aboard.  Miles says not to let him leave, and says he’s got the tissue sample with him.  He tells Murka to get everyone aboard, pick up the shuttle and break for the wormhole to Escobar as soon as possible, abandoning cargo if necessary.

Bel asks if they weren’t supposed to keep a low profile, and Miles says they struck a blow for justice against Baron Ryoval that he might end up regretting, so they’ve already burned their bridges.  He doesn’t particularly want to tell Baron Fell the truth about the rejuvenation treatment either.  All the pieces were in place there, so he had to seize the opportunity.

Miles goes back to check on Nicol and Taura.  He compliments the quaddie on her fighting ability, and she says she was concerned they might break her dulcimer, or Bel.  Taura’s colour isn’t good, and she tells Miles she’s hungry, so he rounds up a ration bar and gives it to her, promising himself to give her steak and chocolate cake when they’re back on the Ariel.

Two aircars come up behind them, and Bel is forced to dodge back and forth as they begin shooting plasma bolts at the truck.  The truck proves to be unarmored and practically unarmed, and one of the blasts takes off a top rear corner and leaves one of the doors swinging; Taura and Nicol cling together to keep from flying out the back.  Miles calls Anderson back and urges her to push her engine to the limits, which she accepts gleefully.  He then searches the truck for weapons, their stunners being useless, but is unable to find anything.  A blast takes off part of the roof, and Bel is forced down to the ground in a forested valley.  They abandon the truck, and as the Ryoval aircars close in, the drop shuttle arrives and smashes one of them with a tractor beam.  The shuttle lands and the fugitives pile in.

They dock with the Ariel and Miles immediately notices the noises of stressed engines and consequent irregularities in the artificial gravity.  Bel Thorne heads to Nav/Com, Nicole and the stunned trooper are taken to sickbay, and Miles confronts Dr. Canaba.  He accused Canaba of having sent him to kill a 16-year-old girl; Canaba protests, just as Taura emerges from the shuttle, surprised to see the doctor there.  Miles tells Canaba to stay still and tells Laureen Anderson to take Taura for a meal, all she can eat, then a bath, proper uniform, and orientation.  Anderson takes an uncertain Taura in tow, and Miles turns back to Canaba.

Canaba says that he couldn’t leave Taura in Ryoval’s hands, and apparently it didn’t occur to him that the mercenaries would rescue her without it being in their contract.  He adds that he couldn’t take her with him to Barrayar, where it’s well known that they kill mutants.  Miles says Canaba’s not a fit guardian for her anyway, and says she’ll be better off in the Dendarii.  Canaba says that she’s going to die soon, though, because of issues with her metabolism.  He doesn’t know if she’ll live another ten years, or fifteen, or only one, especially since the final deterioration was rapid and painful, judging by what happened to the other prototypes.  Miles says he’s not sure any of them will live longer than fifteen minutes, so she has a right to her destiny as a free woman.

“How free can she ever be, in that body, driven by that metabolism, that face—a freak’s life—better to die painlessly, than to have all that suffering inflicted on her—”

Miles spoke through his teeth. With emphasis. “No. It’s. Not.”

Canaba stared at him, shaken out of the rutted circle of his unhappy reasoning at last.

That’s right, doctor, Miles’s thought glittered. Get your head out of your ass and look at me. Finally.

Miles tells Canaba he likes Taura rather better than he likes Canaba himself.  He regrets that he will still have to retrieve the tissue samples, and debates various subterfuges before resolving that he will have to be honest with Taura about it.  He wonders if he’d have gone in to retrieve her if it hadn’t been for the tissue samples, and is glad he’ll never know.  Canaba reluctantly grants Taura’s freedom.

Miles heads to Nav/Com, where Thorne tells him that Baron Ryoval wants to talk to him.  Miles decides to let him wait a few minutes; he’s surprised when Murka tells him that there’s no pursuit launched yet.  Miles wishes he’d had a chance to clean up, but does the best he can and braces himself for the call.

Miles folded his hands and smiled innocently. “Good morning, Baron. What can I do for you?”

“Die, you little mutant!” Ryoval spat. “You! There isn’t going to be a bunker deep enough for you to burrow in. I’ll put a price on your head that will have every bounty hunter in the galaxy all over you like a second skin—you’ll not eat or sleep—I’ll have you—”

Yes, the baron had seen his freezers all right.

Miles is a little puzzled that Ryoval seems to take it as a given that they’ll escape.  He asks Ryoval how he’ll be able to afford bounty hunters with his reduced assets.  Ryoval asks if his little brother’s involved, which puzzles Miles further; Ryoval’s brother turns out to be Baron Fell, and Ryoval refuses to believe that Fell is not involved, unless it’s House Bharaputra instead, reneging on letting him in on their genetics monopoly…  Miles realizes that Bharaputra may well have been involved in the death of Baron Fell’s clone, but at least they won’t be getting together to compare notes about Miles’s real mission.  Miles playes along with Ryoval’s idée-fixe and tells him Taura was a Bharaputran plant in the first place, to help him steal samples from Ryoval’s collection before they destroyed the rest.  Ryoval cuts the connection and Miles heads off to shower.

He is much cleaner and somewhat more caffeinated when Baron Fell calls in.  He is less upset than his brother, though he does point out that Miles seems to be absconding with stolen property, which Miles takes to mean Nicol.  Miles says they were in somewhat of a hurry; Fell says he doesn’t care as long as he gets his agreed price, the truth about the rejuvenation treatment.  Miles says he can’t tell him that, and Fell immediately turns to command the launch of pursuit ships.  Miles asks him to wait, claiming that the truth would do him no good whatsoever, but having another piece of information to exchange.  He tells Fell that it wasn’t Ryoval who killed Fell’s clone, but that he paid the Bharaputrans to do it.  They were probably planning to take over House Fell while they combined their operations.  He also points out that they gave the Baron their credit chit but only loaded half their cargo.

Fell considers and eventually calls off the pursuit, though he warns Miles not to return to Jackson’s Whole.  Miles agrees, and just before Fell breaks the link, he tells him the truth about the Betan rejuvenation treatment–that it doesn’t exist.

After that, he stays in Nav/Com until they make it to the jump point, and awakens later back in his cabin.  They are crossing an empty system on the route to Escobar.  Miles has some food, then goes to check on Thorne and Nicol.  In Engineering, a tech is repairing Nicol’s float chair while she lies on the floor watching.  Miles assures Nicol that she should be safe from Baron Fell.  Nicol says it’s time she begins to head home; from Escobar she can get home via Earth and Orient IV.  Bel tries to persuade her to sign on with the Dendarii, but she’s determined.  Nicol notes that there are some areas in quaddiespace with gravity for a growing colony of downsiders.

Miles was faintly alarmed—to lose a ship commander of proven loyalty—

“Ah,” said Thorne in a pensive tone to match Nicol’s. “A long way from my home, your asteroid belt.”

“Will you return to Beta Colony, then, someday?” she asked. “Or are the Dendarii Mercenaries your home and family?”

“Not quite that passionate, for me,” said Thorne. “I mainly stick around due to an overwhelming curiosity to see what happens next.” Thorne favored Miles with a peculiar smile.

Thorne takes Nicol on a tour of the ship, both of them seeming determined to make the most of the three days remaining before they reach Escobar.

Anderson brings Taura to see Miles in sickbay, and Miles is highly impressed to see her in a well-fitting uniform, cleaned up and hair done up in an exotic braid.  She is looking somewhat better nourished, and her claws have been sharpened and polished.  Miles sends Anderson away and asks her how her first day among the Dendarii has been.  He tells her that she does have a choice, to leave them at Escobar if she wants, but Taura is alarmed by this, wondering if they’re trying to get rid of her because she eats so much.  Miles says she eats like her weight in fighting men, that’s not a problem, but there is one further issue.

He asks her if she remembers Canaba injecting her back when she was with the Bharaputrans, which she does.  He tells her it was a repository for dormant genetic material; he says that his original mission had been to pick up Dr. Canaba, and only later did Canaba insist that his gene complexes be brought as well.  Taura is pleased that Canaba wanted to take her with him, but Miles says that wasn’t exactly what he meant.

“It was your good luck,” Miles plunged on, “that I’d lost my men and was disarmed when we finally met. Canaba lied to me, too. In his defense, he seems to have had some dim idea of saving you from a brutal life as Ryoval’s slave. He sent me to kill you, Taura. He sent me to slay a monster, when he should have been begging me to rescue a princess in disguise. I’m not too pleased with Dr. Canaba. Nor with myself. I lied through my teeth to you down in Ryoval’s basement, because I thought I had to, to survive and win.”

Her face was confused, congealing, the light in her eyes fading. “Then you didn’t . . . really think I was human—”

“On the contrary. Your choice of test was an excellent one. It’s much harder to lie with your body than with your mouth. When I, er, demonstrated my belief, it had to be real.”

He offers to demonstrate again, then swiftly adds it would be a bad idea, as her superior officer, against Dendarii regulations.  He says that Canaba still wants to retrieve his sample, and has asked Miles to sedate Taura while he does.  Miles says he’s not going to do that, that a simple medical stunner will be good enough, and Canaba can damn well do his work with his patient awake and watching.  Then she’ll be done with Canaba and Jackson’s Whole.  She agrees, wanting to get it over with.  Canaba is not pleased, but, seeing the look on Miles’s face, he doesn’t protest.

After he leaves, Taura tells Miles that his arrival seemed like a miracle, everything she’d wanted.  She says she wishes she were normal, and Miles says he can’t give her that since he doesn’t have it himself.  He tells her instead to wish to be herself, to the greatest degree possible, giving her Nicol and Bel Thorne for examples.  Taura asks him how long she has, telling him she saw what happened to her crechemates.  Miles tells her that just makes it more important that she learn what she is, and what she’s good at, and become the best she can.

Taura says she wishes she could be beautiful like Sgt. Anderson, and Miles says instead she should try to be beautiful like herself, which Sgt. Anderson can doubtless help with.  She asks how long it will take before she really becomes a full Dendarii, and Miles says it won’t really happen until they rendezvous with the rest of the fleet.  Taura says that means he isn’t her commander yet, so technically there’s no fraternizing…  Miles is a little daunted, but she persuades him, and they retreat to his cabin for the remainder of the journey.

Comments

So after all that they don’t actually get to escape on their own, but I guess it’s okay to bring Bel and Nicol in on it.  The upshot of their explorations is simply the destruction of Ryoval’s frozen samples after all, which of course was highly satisfying, but it will have repercussions.  That is one nice thing about the series–thing do come back to bite you if you’re not careful.  (Which is why, as I said, I would love to see the telepaths come up again…)

I think that Taura might have given up on Miles’s return a little too quickly, but I guess she hadn’t had that much experience with people who actually told her the truth.  Her existence up to that point has doubtless been quite stunted, between the hired fosterers, the lab technicians, the deaths of her siblings, and then the sale to House Ryoval and the abuse she received there.  Ironically, the best treatment she probably got in her life was probably from Dr. Canaba, who felt responsible for her, but didn’t have a clue about her real feelings.  Canaba isn’t really a villain–I’m sure we can agree that Baron Ryoval fulfills that description the best–but he’s rather short-sighted.

Overall, this isn’t one of my favourite stories.  Taura isn’t my favourite character, either, though she’s all right; maybe it’s her insecurities that get to me.  Though I guess with all those extra battle skills she needed some psychological limitations to balance things out.  It does inject plot elements for later books like Mirror Dance, Memory, and Diplomatic Immunity, so there’s that, but somehow the story doesn’t stand out for me.


Next week we move on to the next work chronologically, the novella “Borders of Infinity”, which will probably also take three installments, though I’ll take a look at the word count and figure out how precisely to subdivide it.  And no week off for me until I’m finished that novella, and the series really starts to pick up…

Read Full Post »

By the holy claws of Klortho the Magnificent, I welcome you back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread!  It is my mission to make my way with all deliberateness through the works of Lois McMaster Bujold in the aforesaid Vorkosigan Saga, following the exploits of Miles Vorkosigan and his friends, family and comrades through the annals of future history.  This week I will continue through the novella “Labyrinth”, an adventure of Miles and at least a few of his Dendarii Mercenaries on the organized-crime planet of Jackson’s Whole.  I’ll be covering roughly the middle third, wherein we finally meet Taura, who is the real reason that everything is happening, though she doesn’t know it yet.  (Note: this post contains coarse language and adult situations, if you like that sort of thing.)

Labyrinth (cont.)

Miles and Bel make their way to the shuttleport and place a call to House Ryoval on a commercial comconsole.  Miles asks to speak to Manager Deem, hoping that they’ll be eager enough to get rid of it that he can just buy it from them.  When Miles asks about the super-soldier “prototype” he’d heard about, Deem, who is sporting a fresh bruise, has a hard time concealing his eagerness to be rid of it.  However, Baron Ryoval himself soon cuts into the transmission and takes over, asking Miles is Fell has left him any money to spend.

Miles spread his hands. “A good commander always has hidden reserves. However, the actual value of the item hasn’t yet been established. In fact, its existence hasn’t even been established.”

“Oh, it exists, all right. And it is . . . impressive. Adding it to my collection was a unique pleasure. I’d hate to give it up. But for you,” Ryoval smiled more broadly, “it may be possible to arrange a special cut rate.” He chuckled, as at some secret pun that escaped Miles.

A special cut throat is more like it. “Oh?”

Ryoval offers it in trade for three tissue samples–one from Bel, one from Miles, and one from Nicol.  Bel is unwilling as before, and Miles hedges by saying that Nicol’s may be difficult to obtain; Ryoval says it’ll be easier for Miles than for him, and gives them 24 hours.  After Miles signs off, Bel asks if he’s really considering the offer.  Miles points out that a commando raid could risk lives, while giving tissue samples is relatively painless, but Bel remains steadfast, so Miles says they’ll have to do the raid.

Miles organizes a team of Dendarii including Ensign Murka, Bel’s second and two troopers to join Miles, with Laureen Anderson, piloting a lift-van, Thorne, and another trooper as backup.  That night, outside Ryoval’s biological facility, Miles briefs them on the plan.  They don’t know where the creature is being held, though they do have a blueprint of the facility, so they have to break in and fast-penta an employee to find out, at which point they’ll be racing against time.  Miles says they shouldn’t try to kill anyone except their target, so they should use stunners on Ryoval employees, kill the creature, collect the samples, and then back to the Ariel.  If they get captured on their way in, they don’t fight, they just wait for Thorne to arrange a ransom.  However, once they have the sample, they will need to fight to get it out, because it will be irreplaceable.

Miles and his team get over the wall and sneak past the guards.  Miles cuts his way in through a ventilation grille, slithers in and opens the door to the receiving bay.  They sneak through a tunnel to a locked door that leads to the main building.  Murka lifts Miles up above the ceiling tiles, where he opens a panel with a view to shorting out the door lock.  Suddenly Murka shoves the weapons pack up next to Miles and replaces the tile, just as half a dozen House Ryoval troopers surround the rest of the team.

“Oh, shit!” cried Murka. “Please, mister, don’t tell my CO you caught us in here. He’d bust me back to private!”

“Huh?” said the guard sergeant. He prodded Murka with his weapon, a lethal nerve disruptor. “Hands up! Who are you?”

“M’name’s Murka. We came in on a mercenary ship to Fell Station, but the captain wouldn’t grant us downside passes. Think of it—we come all the way to Jackson’s Whole, and the sonofabitch wouldn’t let us go downside! Bloody pure-dick wouldn’t let us see Ryoval’s!”

Murka spins a story of wanting to sneak into Ryoval’s pleasure palace through the back way, even if they can’t afford to pay, and offers to bribe them to let him and his men go so he won’t get reported AWOL.  He also asks if they can have just a peek at the girls, and the guard informs him that this is the biologicals facility, not the whorehouse; one of the troopers, playing along, calls Murka an idiot, and Miles contemplates promoting them both.  The guards escort them out, obviously amused at these idiot hick mercenaries, taking all their loose cash and telling them their lucky to be leaving with all their limbs intact.

Once the hallway is quiet again, Miles calls Bel to inform him of the situation.  He says he’ll try to find out the location of the creature, to improve their chances on the next attempt, and then make his way back out, since Ryoval’s security will now be on the alert.  He gimmicks the door open and slips into the main building’s ducts.  Trying to match his path against the blueprints he has, he soon realizes that the map doesn’t match what he sees around him.

After half an hour, he finds a room filled with vid and comm equipment, marked as “Small Repairs” on his map, with a man sitting alone with his back to Miles.  Miles hits him with a dart loaded with a mix of paralyzer and fast-penta.  Miles climbs into the room and examines the man, who’s wearing civilian clothes, and catches him before he can tip off his chair.  Miles asks him about the creature and is told that it’s kept in the crawl space under the foundations, left to feed itself on rats.

Miles checked his map-cube. Yes. That looked good, in terms of the penetration team getting in and out, though it was still a large search area, broken up into a maze by structural elements running down into the bedrock, and specially-set low-vibration support columns running up into the laboratories. At the lower edge, where the mountainside sloped away, the space ran high-ceilinged and very near the surface, a possible break-out point. The space thinned to head-cracking narrowness and then to bedrock at the back where the building wedged into the slope. All right. Miles opened his dart case to find something that would lay his victim out cold and non-questionable for the rest of the night. The man pawed at him and his sleeve slipped back to reveal a wrist com almost as thick and complex as Miles’s own. A light blinked on it. Miles looked at the device, suddenly uneasy. This room . . . “By the way, who are you?”

“Moglia, Chief of Security, Ryoval Biologicals,” the man recited happily. “At your service, sir.”

Before Miles can knock Moglia out and escape, the door bursts open.  Moglia is between Miles and the door of what is now obviously the Security Operations Room, so Miles has time to self-destruct his own wrist-com before they capture and frisk him, relieving him of his possessions none too gently.  The security chief is not happy to hear about the three troopers let go with a warning earlier, correctly deducing that they’re related to Miles’s appearance; he puts the guards on full alert and sends them to try to recapture the troopers.  He then calls Baron Ryoval and tells him about the intruders.  Ryoval of course recognizes Miles instantly.

The security chief looked fractionally less nervous. “Do you know this little mutant, my lord?”

“Yes, indeed. He calls himself Miles Naismith. A mercenary—bills himself as an admiral. Self-promoted, no doubt. Excellent work, Moglia. Hold him, and I’ll be there in the morning and deal with him personally.”

“Hold him how, sir?”

Ryoval shrugged. “Amuse yourselves. Freely.”

After a desultory beating, they decide that if Miles is so interested in Bharaputra’s monster, he should become better acquainted with it.  They manhandle him down to the bottom level, open a hatch in the floor and force him down a ladder, telling him about how quickly “Nine” devoured the last rat they threw down there, because of its accelerated metabolism.  They call for Nine to come for dinner, then close the hatch on him.  Miles clings to the ladder, hands getting colder, taking stock of his possessions–T-shirt, pants, socks, ration bar, and handkerchief.  After his eyes adjust to the dim light, he manages to persuade him to go down the ladder to the solid rock underneath.

The sub-basement is filled with pillars supporting the building above; Miles limps around them, exploring, in case there’s another way out.  He is alarmed by movement in the shadows, but it’s only an escaped white rat, albeit a large one, and he starts to relax.

The huge rippling shadow struck out of nowhere, at incredible speed. It grabbed the rat by its tail and swung it squealing against a pillar, dashing out its brains with a crunch. A flash of a thick claw-like fingernail, and the white furry body was ripped open from sternum to tail. Frantic fingers peeled the skin away from the rat’s body as blood splattered. Miles first saw the fangs as they bit and tore and buried themselves in the rat’s tissues.

They were functional fangs, not just decorative, set in a protruding jaw, with long lips and a wide mouth; yet the total effect was lupine rather than simian. A flat nose, ridged, powerful brows, high cheekbones. Hair a dark matted mess. And yes, fully eight feet tall, a rangy, tense-muscled body.

Miles freezes, unable to move, and then notices that the creature is dressed, and that it is female.  She’s almost finished when the rat when she notices Miles and freezes herself.  Miles impulsively offers her the ration bar for dessert, and she snatches it from him and devours it.  Then she grabs him, lifts him up, and says “Water!”, which is when Miles discovers that she can also talk.  Miles says hurriedly that there should be water pipes in the ceiling, and asks her to put him down so he can try to find one.  He keeps talking, trying to calm her, as he heads over to where the floor rises closer to the ceiling, and tells her to look for a white pipe.  He asks her to pick him up again, and she holds him near the pipe while he tries to loosen one of its joints.  He manages it and water comes sluicing down from the ceiling.  She drinks for a long time before announcing that she’s cold.

Miles finds a hot-air pipe where the ceiling is low, but it doesn’t have a convenient joint to loosen.  She pulls and kicks at it, and Miles suggests that she score it with her claws first.  She does so, and this time manages to pull it open, and huddles around it as she warms up.  Miles contemplates his target, the flesh in her left calf muscle, as she sits down and starts to cry.  He hands her his handkerchief and tells her to keep it.  He asks what they call her, and she says “Nine”.  She asks him the same question, and he introduces himself as Admiral Miles Naismith, to a skeptical reaction.

She tells him she’s been down here for three days, with nothing to drink and no food except the rats.  Miles mentally tosses out his mission plan, now that “Nine” has proved much different than he expected.  He contemplates the pipes, none of which she’d be able to fit into.  She asks why he’s here, and he says he made a mistake.  She agrees; she said she was fostered until she was eight, when she started to grow big and break things, and she moved into the lab.  She said she was tested to 135 IQ, but she and her fellow experiments ended up failing the tests.  Miles finds this ridiculous, if they hadn’t even had any proper training, since soldiering is mostly mental.  “Nine” asks why they made her like this, then, and Miles has no answer.

He asks if she ever thought of breaking a water pipe, or trying to escape.  She says she’s punished for breaking things, and there’s no point in escaping if there’s nowhere for her to escape to.

He took a deep breath. No question what his next move must be. Duty, expediency, survival, all compelled it. “Your friends are closer than you think. Why do you think I came here?” Why, indeed?

She shot him a silent, puzzled frown.

“I came for you. I’d heard of you. I’m . . . recruiting. Or I was. Things went wrong, and now I’m escaping. But if you came with me, you could join the Dendarii Mercenaries. A top outfit—always looking for a few good men, or whatever. I have this master-sergeant who . . . who needs a recruit like you.” Too true. Sergeant Dyeb was infamous for his sour attitude about women soldiers, insisting that they were too soft. Any female recruit who survived his course came out with her aggression highly developed. Miles pictured Dyeb being dangled by his toes from a height of about eight feet. . . .

She says she’s not even human, but Miles says that animals don’t weep.  She retorts that humans lie, all the time; if he really thinks she’s human, then he needs to prove it with his body.  She grabs him, and tells him to take off her clothes and sleep with her.  Miles is caught off guard, and when he doesn’t respond she wails that he thinks she’s ugly, and starts to claw at her face.  Miles asks how old she is, and she says she’s sixteen; Miles sympathizes, since his teen years weren’t the best time to be in a twisted, abnormal body, and, as he physically tries to keep her from clawing herself, he is forcibly reminded of the time Sergeant Bothari kept him from killing himself.

He yells at her to calm down, and says that they just need to go a little more slowly.  He begins massaging her tense muscles, swearing revenge on Dr. Canaba for having left out some crucial information about his target.  She says she’s too tall for him, and Miles glibly says that he loves tall women, and it doesn’t matter when they’re horizontal anyway.  Miles realizes that she’s a virgin, and is worried about her involuntary responses, but she assures him she has a high pain threshold.  He throws caution to the wind and declares that they will experiment.  Kissing her, with the fangs, is very odd, and leads to the rest, as she gradually takes control.

Afterwards, cuddling, she tells him how handsome he is–his face is alive, and his eyes see what they’re looking at.  He thinks about it and says that “Nine” isn’t a proper name, especially if all the other numbers are dead.  Miles thinks about a good name for her, and comes up with “Taura”.

“Taura?” Her long mouth gave it a skewed and lilting accent. “. . . it’s too beautiful for me!”

“Taura,” he repeated firmly. “Beautiful but strong. Full of secret meaning. Perfect. Ah, speaking of secrets . . .” Was now the time to tell her about what Dr. Canaba had planted in her left calf? Or would she be hurt, as someone falsely courted for her money—or his title—Miles faltered. “I think, now that we know each other better, that it’s time for us to blow out of this place.”

They get dressed and search the sub-basement.  They find four ladders to locked hatches, and a locked vehicle exit.  Miles decides it would be better to explore the ducts than try to break out and walk in the Jacksonian cold to the nearest town, which would be owned by House Ryoval anyway.  He asks Taura to break open a duct, which she does easily, and lifts him into it.  The duct is the largest in the ceiling, but Miles can barely fit into it, and all too soon it forks into smaller branches; the other way it leads to a grille too firmly attached to remove with his bare hands.  Disappointed, Taura lifts Miles back down.

Miles spots something on one of the support pillars, designed to rest in a liquid base and dampen vibrations to the building above.  It proves to be hollow, and Miles finds that the side opens up.  It’s pitch-black inside, but there is a ladder, for maintenance, and the panel looks to be openable from the inside, so Miles and Taura start climbing up the ladder in the dark.  Near the top, Miles finds another panel, which he can’t open from inside, so Taura opens it for him while he squishes against the top.  Miles climbs out into a darkened lab while Taura climbs down to replace the lower panel.

The lab seems to be heavily monitored, and guarded on the outside, so Miles refrains from turning on a light.  When Taura returns, she is shaking from hunger already; Miles find a lunch in the back of a refrigerator, which Taura polishes off handily.  There’s nothing else edible in the fridge, so Miles turns to a trio of walk-in wall freezers.  Inside, Miles finds that there are a number of samples being kept at liquid-nitrogen temperature, and estimates that there may well be millions of them between the three freezers.  Miles tells Taura that they’re in Ryoval’s treasure chamber, where he keeps all of his precious samples.

An evil plan comes to Miles then.  He checks for monitors and alarms, and finds that the freezers do have alarms on the door.  He traces back the monitor wiring and finds an input box; in a drawer he finds a data recorder.  He records a loop of one of the freezers, then attaches it to all three of the control boxes.  Then he asks Taura if she’d like to strike a blow against Baron Ryoval; she agrees eagerly.

“Good!” He smiled cheerily. “I want to give you your first lesson in tactics.” He pointed. “See that control? The temperature in these freezers can be raised to almost 200 degrees centigrade, for heat sterilization during cleaning. Give me your finger. One finger. Gently. More gently than that.” He guided her hand. “The least possible pressure you can apply to the dial, and still move . . . Now the next,” he pulled her to the next panel, “and the last.” He exhaled, still not quite able to believe it.

“And the lesson is,” he breathed, “it’s not how much force you use. It’s where you apply it.”

Miles checks the time, and notes that the samples should be well and truly fried before the morning shift, but they need to get out of there.  Examining the security system on the lab’s door, he concludes that he can’t break it without his confiscated tools.  He decides the lab is a dead end, but he does find some cutters that should be effective on the grille that had stymied him before.  He convinces Taura to retreat back to the basement.

Comments

Why does Ryoval give them 24 hours?  Is Jackson’s Whole so earthlike that it has the exact same day length?  I can see that an Earth-standard day might be a useful thing to use on shipboard, or on stations, or the like, but on an actual planet, wouldn’t it be easier to use the actual day/night cycle length?

I remember when IQ was supposed to be an actual measure of intelligence, or intellectual development, or something.  Supposedly it was supposed to be related to the ratio of your mental age to your physical age; I was considered a “gifted child” at some point because of it.  Considering that nobody takes it all that seriously these days, at least as far as I’m aware, it’s a little anachronistic for Miles and Taura to be talking about it here.

Finally, why is there a vehicle door in the sub-basement?  The ground is obviously uneven, and there’s support pillars all over the place, which makes me wonder why anyone would want to park a vehicle there.  If they did, I’d expect them to isolate it from the rest of the sub-basement, pave the floor, insulate it, put in an elevator, etc.

Apart from the nitpicky stuff, there’s some great scenes in here–Murka’s inspired dissembling, only some of which I quoted here, is fun to read.  Miles and Taura’s awkward love scene, however elliptical, is heart-warming, and the scene with the freezers inspires one to sadistic glee.  But now I’ve got to nitpick again–how did they manage to miss the security vulnerability in the support pillar?  There are literally only two entrances to that pillar, and I somehow can’t imagine that nobody knew about the top one.  Maybe it’s related to Miles’s bad blueprints–if they were just inaccurate, not purposely sabotaged, maybe it just meant that people were doing renovations without consulting the original builders, and the extra access got overlooked.  I imagine that somebody’s losing their job, if not more, for leaving that backdoor.

The origin of the name “Taura” always bothered me.  Miles came up with it fairly quickly, and decided it fit her…but why?  The name itself only seems to be a feminine version of “Taurus”, as in “female bull” or, well…”cow”?  I’m pretty sure the Latin word for “cow” is different, so “taura” makes as much sense as the word “boyess” would.  This time through it occurred to me that it might be a reference to the Minotaur, but if so, it never makes it into Miles’s stream of consciousness.  For that matter, I’ve never really been fond of the title here, since there’s no real maze, apart from Miles clambering around in ducts.  In a sense, Taura is “the Minotaur”, the beast at the centre of the maze that sacrifices are offered to, but I never really buy it.  Besides, the “-taur” part of “Minotaur” still just means bull.  If Taura had had fangs, then maybe…  By the way, I just learned that the real name of the Minotaur was “Asterion”.  Not that I think “Asteria” would have been a good name for her, but maybe something a little more lupine, somehow…?  Or even “Minoa”?


Next week will bring the senses-shattering conclusion to “Labyrinth”, followed swiftly and without pause by “Borders of Infinity”, before we get back into novels.  Until then, you can join me in wondering: who the heck is Klortho the Magnificent anyway?

Read Full Post »

Welcome back, somewhat belatedly, to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread.  I had, of course, planned a week off after finishing Ethan of Athos, but the extra day was due to a deadline that I didn’t plan ahead for quite well enough.  That’s out of the way now, so without further ado, let’s return to the reread of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga with the novella “Labyrinth”.

Written, with two other novellas (“The Mountains of Mourning”, already covered, and “Borders of Infinity”, still to come), between the novels Brothers In Arms and The Vor Game, “Labyrinth” was first collected with those two stories into Borders of Infinity, but the more recent omnibuses have split them up; this one comes after Cetaganda and Ethan of Athos in Miles, Mystery and Mayhem.  (Apparently it’s also collected in Miles, Mutants and Microbes for some benighted reason.)  It does come chronologically after Ethan of Athos, and before “Borders of Infinity”, as part of what I think of as the Dendarii Adventures era of Miles’s life.  Since it doesn’t have chapters, I divided it, somewhat arbitrarily, into three parts, approximately the same length as two chapters, so let’s get started with the first bit.

Labyrinth

Miles looks at a globe of Jackson’s Whole, the planet they are approaching–a cold planet, only temperate at the equator–and wishes he didn’t have to go there.  He admits to himself that if it wasn’t Jackson’s Whole, it would be somewhere else; they wouldn’t have been so successful if there hadn’t been a demand for what they sold.  The crime families are getting sufficiently established, though, that Miles thinks that it can’t be long until they start becoming actively staid.

House Dyne, detergent banking—launder your money on Jackson’s Whole. House Fell, weapons deals with no questions asked. House Bharaputra, illegal genetics. Worse, House Ryoval, whose motto was “Dreams Made Flesh,” surely the damndest—Miles used the adjective precisely—procurer in history. House Hargraves, the galactic fence, prim-faced middlemen for ransom deals—you had to give them credit, hostages exchanged through their good offices came back alive, mostly. And a dozen smaller syndicates, variously and shiftingly allied.

Even he, unfortunately, has to deal with them; he has a list of weaponry to buy.  Bel Thorne comes into the cabin to tell him that Ariel is close to docking at Fell Station.  Miles has been noticing that the hermaphrodite has been emphasizing its female side in his presence on this trip, which disturbs him slightly.  He asks Bel if it had ever been to Jackson’s Whole; Bel says it was there once, with Oser to buy from a different Baron Fell.  Bel asks Miles if he’s giving planet leave for the crew, and offers to book a room for two near the docks…  Miles says day passes only, and tries to reject Bel’s offer politely.  They’ve been around this subject more than once already, and Miles wishes he could bring himself to be firm enough to settle it once and for all.  He isn’t even sure what Bel sees in him, for that matter.  Miles asks Bel why it doesn’t go back to Beta Colony and settle down with another hermaphrodite.  Bel says Beta Colony is too boring, that’s why it left.

“Mind you, a great place to raise kids.” One corner of Miles’s mouth twisted up.

Thorne grinned. “You got it. You’re an almost perfect Betan, y’know? Almost. You have the accent, the in-jokes . . .”

Miles went a little still. “Where do I fail?”

Thorne touched Miles’s cheek; Miles flinched.

“Reflexes,” said Thorne.

Bel says it won’t give him away, and offers to help him.  Miles says they have a mission, and tells Bel that buying weapons is only the cover for it.  Bel isn’t surprised; the Ariel is the fastest ship in the fleet, not the biggest cargo carrier, and Miles is overseeing it himself rather than leaving it to the quartermaster.  Miles says he does want to make contact with the new Baron Fell, but adds that at some point a certain middle-aged man is going to appear and sign up as a Dendarii medtech, at which point they’ll be leaving the planet at all speed.  The man is a defector from Bharaputra Laboratories, their top geneticist, and their secret employer (Barrayar, of course) will grant him asylum after that; all the Dendarii need to do is play dumb about his identity and feign outrage when he disappears on Escobar.  Should be pretty straightforward…

After they dock at Fell Station, they go to purchase their arms, but soon receive an invitation from the Baron himself.  After going back to change into more formal uniforms, they arrive at Baron Fell’s private quarters.  Miles notes that the private sector of the station seems to run completely independently from the rest of the station, able to separate if necessary, and probably has its own engine and weapons too.  The reception chamber inside is large, open and yet with numerous private nooks.  The exits are all guarded, and one wall is a large viewport overlooking the docks and the planet below.  The various groups of people inside are dressed in a variety of fashions, but Baron Fell’s customers don’t mingle with each other.  When a serving woman offers them drinks, Miles allows Bel to take some, though Miles, with poor alcohol tolerance, doesn’t drink much of his.

They hear music from nearby, and move towards it, but are caught off-guard by the musician, who Miles takes for one of House Ryoval’s wilder experiments.  A woman floats in a null-gee bubble, playing a double-sided stringed instrument with hammers held in all four of her hands, her lower arms emerging from where her legs would have been.  Thorne identifies her as a quaddie, from a genetic experiment dating back two hundred years, to about the time of the first hermaphrodites.  They’d been planned as ideal zero-gravity dwellers, until the advent of artificial gravity made them obsolete, but they fled and set up their own null-gee world far away from Earth.  Thorne is surprised to see one so far from home.  They listen to the piece until its end, and Miles encourages Bel to go talk to her.

Bel is momentarily tongue-tied, then asks her about her instrument, which she calls a double-sided hammer dulcimer.  Bel asks her how she got there, and she said she was working her way back home from Earth and took employment with Baron Fell on the way.  She is pleased to be recognizes as a quaddie, not a genetic freak, and Bel commiserates, as a hermaphrodite himself.  She introduces herself as Nicol, no last name, and Bel asks her what she’s doing later.

At that point they are interrupted by Georish Stauber, a.k.a. Baron Fell, a jovial-looking man, older than Miles had pictured.  Miles bows expertly, then castigates himself for not bowing awkwardly like Bel, to help preserve his Betan cover.  The Baron tells Miles he’s glad to meet Admiral Naismith at last, after his rapid rise and mysterious origins; Miles finds his gaze almost too avid, and wonders if Fell knows about his dual identity.  The Baron compliments him for his success at Vervain, and his disposal of the fleet’s previous commander.

“You interest me exceedingly,” continued the baron. “For example, there’s the puzzle of your apparent age. And your prior military career.”

If Miles had kept his drink, he’d have knocked it back in one gulp right then. He clasped his hands convulsively behind his back instead. Dammit, the pain lines just didn’t age his face enough. If the baron was indeed seeing right through the pseudo-mercenary to the twenty-three-year-old Security lieutenant—and yet, he usually carried it off—

The baron lowered his voice. “Do the rumors run equally true about your Betan rejuvenation treatment?”

Miles is relieved to know the reason for the Baron’s interest, and asks him why he doesn’t just do the usual Jacksonian thing and have himself transplanted into a clone-body.  Baron Fell says that he’s had some trouble in that area, with the body donors dying inconveniently, and he doesn’t want to risk having his own brain die in the process.  Miles “admits” that he did partake in an experimental procedure, but claims it wasn’t successful, leaving his bones overly brittle, and his expected life-span not good.  Baron Fell is disappointed, while Bel conceals his amusement at Miles’s fabrication, the rejuvenation treatment being 100% mythical.

A newcomer approaches them, with a bodyguard–heightened metabolism and callus-ridged hand marking him as a strong fighter even unarmed; the man himself appeared young, but there was likely an older brain inside the body.  Baron Fell introduces him as Baron Ryoval; Miles makes sure to bow awkwardly this time.  The quaddie, Nicol, recoiled when Ryoval approached, and is now pretending to tune her dulcimer, keeping it between her and Ryoval, who appraises her openly.  Ryoval is about to request a song when he receives a page on his wrist com.

“This is Manager Deem in Sales and Demonstrations. We have a problem. That creature House Bharaputra sold us has savaged a customer.”

Ryoval’s greek-statue lips rippled in a silent snarl. “I told you to chain it with duralloy.”

“We did, my lord. The chains held, but it tore the bolts right out of the wall.”

Ryoval tells them to stun it, which they already have, then tells them to starve it into submission.  The “client” is injured, so Ryoval assigns his personal physician to look at him, but is annoyed at their incompetence.  He returns to his song request, but doesn’t let Nicol play very long before interrupting her and saying she’s just what he’s looking for.  Nicol and Bel are both annoyed at the song’s interruption.  Fell says that she’s still not for sale, but Ryoval says Fell hasn’t heard his offer yet.  Fell and Ryoval debate whether she can be duplicated, particularly her musical skills and creativity; Miles realizes that Fell is really just lording his possession of Nicol over his rival.

Ryoval offers to buy a tissue sample instead; Fell says it will disrupt her uniqueness, but Ryoval points out that it takes ten years to grow a mature clone, as Fell well knows.  Bel interjects that Fell can’t sell any part of her, because she’s a free citizen; the barons are unimpressed with his interruption.  Ryoval tells Bel condescendingly that Fell owns her contract, and on Jackson’s Whole that’s sufficient, not like the laws from Beta Colony, which don’t apply here.  Bel asks if that means he could kill Ryoval with impunity, and Ryoval says that the practical matter of being killed by his bodyguard will make that unlikely.

Miles tells Bel it’s time to move on.  Ryoval invites Miles to visit his establishment downside, where he might find something to his taste, but Miles says Fell already has his credit chit.  Bel won’t drop the subject of Nicol, though; Ryoval responds by saying that, as a hermaphrodite, Bel could get a job with him for a substantially higher pay than a mercenary, with “group rates”.  Miles restrains Bel from taking too much offense, and Ryoval says he’d buy a tissue sample from him as well.

Bel’s breath exploded. “My clone-siblings, to be—be—some sort of sex-slaves into the next century! Over my dead body—or yours—you—”

Bel was so mad it was stuttering, a phenomenon Miles had never seen in seven years’ acquaintance including combat.

“So Betan,” smirked Ryoval.

“Stop it, Ry,” growled Fell.

Ryoval sighed. “Oh, very well. But it’s so easy.”

Miles bids them farewell.  Ryoval reiterates his invitation, as a more cosmopolitan sort than his friend.  Miles declines again, and Ryoval says it’s a shame to miss their fascinating dog-and-dwarf act…  Miles and Bel retreat, and one of Fell’s guards escorts them out.

Back on the Ariel, Bel apologizes for losing his temper; Miles says that Ryoval, who’s much older than that body, was just toying with them.  Bel goes on to castigate himself for his poor showing with Nicol.  Miles commiserates, but thinks that they don’t have the manpower to really do anything to help the quaddie, if Fell is really that committed to keeping her.  He then begins to wonder where the scientist they’re supposed to pick up has gotten to.

The intercom bleeps, and Bel answers is; Nicol is at the docking hatch asking to see it.  She is escorted inside, traveling in a float chair, which seems to have been customized just for her.  Bel greets her affably, but Nicol is all business, asking Bel to confirm that he is a mercenary, and sympathetic to her plight.  Miles points out she got herself into the situation, and Nicol says she intends to get herself out.  She says that while Baron Fell is formidable protector, he’s dying, or convinced that he is.  He had a clone-body prepared, but it was assassinated two months ago by parties unknown, though his half-brother Baron Ryoval, is a prime suspect.

Nicol says she wants to buy passage out with them.  She can’t leave openly, because of the contract she signed with Baron Fell back on Earth; she can’t buy it out without the Baron’s consent, and it won’t expire for five more years.  Her living expenses seem to be going up, so she’d rather try to buy her way out now than wait while her bankroll decreases.  She’d been promised help with her music career which has never materialized, and she doesn’t want to end up down on the planet.

She paused. “Are you afraid of Baron Fell?”

“No!” said Thorne, as Miles said, “Yes.” They exchanged a sardonic look.

“We are inclined to be careful of Baron Fell,” Miles suggested. Thorne shrugged agreement.

Nicol offers them a wad of money, probably a couple of thousand Betan dollars.  Miles remember all that he owes to Bel, and gives Bel permission to do the negotations.  Bel says that the price isn’t quite right, and picks only a single Betan dollar off the stack.  Miles says that he demands a veto if they can’t do this in secret.

Miles is awakened from sleep a few hours later to be notified of an urgent call from a man on the planet who says his name is Vaughn.  This is a code name which means he’s the man they’re supposed to pick up, a Dr. Canaba.  Miles finds out that he’s still on the surface, instead of on the space station, and says there’s a problem.  He’s reluctant to talk about it over an insecure channel, but he says he’s lost something which he needs to bring with him, some samples which he’s sure Miles’s employers will want.  Miles, who knows more about what his employers at ImpSec want than Canaba imagines, is skeptical, but Canaba insists, refusing to leave without them.  Miles agrees to meet him on the planet, though he objects to the extra risk.

Miles and Bel meet Canaba down on the planet in a cold, snowy little park, with two Dendarii guards; he leads them into an abandoned building which he thinks is unmonitored, which Bel confirms.  Miles asks Canaba about his motivations in leaving his comfortable job for House Bharaputra, insisting that he needs to know about what Canaba wants before he can commit to protecting Canaba with any confidence.

Canaba says that what appealed to him about Jackson’s Whole was the ability to work unfettered of inconvenient legalities, but he began to resent the work that the Bharaputrans kept requiring him to do, interrupting his own research.  No other first-rate scientists, just hacks, and many of Canaba’s discoveries languish in obscurity because House Bharaputra doesn’t think them profitable enough, and he can’t publish his work.

He stopped, lowered his head. “I doubtless sound like a megalomaniac to you.”

“Ah . . .” said Miles, “you sound quite frustrated.”

“The frustration,” said Canaba, “woke me from a long sleep. Wounded ego—it was only wounded ego. But in my pride, I rediscovered shame. And the weight of it stunned me, stunned me where I stood. Do you understand? Does it matter if you understand? Ah!” He paced away to the wall, and stood facing it, his back rigid.

“Uh,” Miles scratched the back of his head ruefully, “yeah. I’d be glad to spend many fascinating hours listening to you explain it to me—on my ship. Outbound.”

Canaba says he needs someone with Miles’s practical mind right now.  He had seven gene-complexes, for curing diseases, for improving oxygen generation in algae…and one that may be the only surviving sample, brought by a mysterious man to a Bharaputran lab which ended up destroyed by mysterious offworlders.  Miles realizes that this must be Terrence Cee’s telepathy gene complex, which of course Elli had already brought back a copy of, and so is already on Barrayar, but if the others are near the same potential, Miles’s boss Simon Illyan will not want Miles to let them slip through his fingers.

Canaba said he’d hidden the dormant samples inside a live organism where he didn’t think they’d be discovered.  Miles asks why he didn’t just put them in his own body, and Canaba realizes that would have been smarter, but too late now.  He says the organism was an attempt to create a super-soldier for a foreign government, given to House Bharaputra because House Ryoval tended to specialize in one-offs rather than armies.  They blended animal genes with humans to try to surpass human limitations, but what they ended up with were monsters.

“Tell me,” Miles choked, “were there any actual combat-experienced soldiers on the committee?”

“I assume the client had them. They supplied the parameters,” said Canaba.

Said Thorne in a suffused voice, “I see. They were trying to re-invent the enlisted man.”

They produced ten prototypes, then the clients lost their war.  Only one was still alive, which Ryoval meant to kill before he left, out of mercy, but a few days ago it was sold to House Ryoval, for its uniqueness.  He asks the mercenaries to kill it and retrieve the samples, before he’ll agree to go with them.  Miles agrees, and tells Canaba to report to his ship in 48 hours.  He asks how to recognize it, and Canaba says it’s eight feet tall with fangs (not _his_ idea).  The rest of the body should be destroyed as completely as possible.

“I . . . it might also be best if my future employer didn’t learn about this. They have intense military interests. It might excite them unduly.”

“Oh,” said Miles/Admiral Naismith/Lieutenant Lord Vorkosigan of the Barrayaran Imperial Service, “I don’t think you have to worry about that.”

Miles assures Canaba that they’ll be able to handle it, and shoos him out.  He tells Bel that he’ll try to get it without a raid, if at all possible.

Comments

How many Bujold books/stories start with Miles approaching a planet and looking down on it from space?  This one, Cetaganda, possibly Brothers In Arms…not that many, but it seems a bit of a cliche nonetheless.  I guess it’s just like an establishing shot, but for some reason I recalled this one starting at Baron Fell’s reception.

The quaddies were, of course, introduced in Falling Free, which I’m not covering in this Reread for various reasons–it’s too far outside of the timeline, and I don’t like it that much compared to the rest of the series.  Between this story and Diplomatic Immunity, we learn enough about them, as far as I’m concerned.  Interesting to place them and the hermaphrodites as being part of the same uterine-replicator-spawned wave of genetic experimentation.

I’d also forgotten that Terrence Cee’s telepathy genes scored a mention here as well.  Which reminds me that Barrayar does have possession of the telepathy genes right now; does that mean that there’s some little telepaths growing up on Barrayar?  You know, Bujold could seriously start a major plotline involving the telepaths growing up on Barrayar, Athos, and possibly Cetaganda, but I suppose it may not really be her style.  She may just be inclined to quietly forget it.  Besides, she may not want to move forward in the timeline that far…

Baron Ryoval is a nasty piece of work, but then I get the impression that one does not rise to the top of a Jacksonian house by being the nicest.  Baron Fell is affable enough, but has a petty streak to him, and can doubtless be ruthless as well.  Fell, Bharaputra and Ryoval are the Houses I remember encountering the most, at least here and in Mirror Dance, which are where most of the Jackson’s Whole references occur (apart from the Bharaputrans who show up in Kline Station in Ethan of Athos, and whatever random Jacksonians we see in the Hegen Hub in The Vor Game).  Do we ever find out why it’s called Jackson’s Whole, by the way?  Who’s Jackson?  Why “Whole”?  It’d be nice to see some kind of canonical explanation for it sometime.


Approximately one-third of the way through, now, but we’re still just setting up the central plot of the story.  Nicol is just a subplot, though an important one nonetheless.  Next week I should, hopefully, be back on schedule, unless my long weekend throws me off, but I’ll try not to let  it.

Read Full Post »