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.
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.
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.