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.)
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.
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?