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.
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.