Welcome back again, somewhat belatedly, to this week’s installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread. We continue on through Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Mirror Dance, one of the highlights in the saga of Miles Vorkosigan, though in this book he’s sharing fairly equal time with his clone-brother Mark. Today’s post covers chapters Five and Six, which portend a potential change in the proportion of chapters allotted to the two viewpoint characters.
Sorry for not having this up yesterday, but I wasn’t feeling well on Monday, and as usual I was relying on doing one chapter each on Monday and Tuesday, so I fell behind. I contemplated putting up just one chapter on Tuesday instead, but Chapter Six is fairly crucial to our story, and I wanted to get it out there this week, so instead you just get two chapters a day late. And here they are, with no further ado…
Mark dons his “half-armour”–though he thinks of it as more like “triple armour”. It includes protection from nerve disrupters and stunners, torso armour that resists needlers and small missiles, and a plasma arc mirror field. It’s a little tight on him, though, his weight rising after only a week of inactivity, since he’s not a hyperactive anorexic like Miles. His biggest weapon, though, is the command helmet, which he can use to command greater forces than he could ever carry on his person.
Thorne buzzes and Mark lets him in; it inspects his armour carefully, and Mark wonders if this is usual treatment for Miles. It asks Mark if he thinks he can handle the command helmet, and Mark says he has before…
“These things,” Thorne lifted his own, “can be pretty overwhelming at first. It’s not a data flow, it’s a damned data flood. You have to learn to ignore everything you don’t need, otherwise it can be almost better to switch the thing off. You, now . . .” Thorne hesitated, “have that same uncanny ability as old Tung did, of appearing to ignore everything as it goes by, and yet being able to remember and yank it out instantly if it’s needed. Of somehow always being on the right channel at the right time. It’s like your mind works on two levels. Your command-response time is incredibly fast, when your adrenaline is up. It’s kind of addictive. People who work with you a lot come to expect—and rely—on it.” Thorne stopped, waited.
What was it expecting him to say? He shrugged again. “I do my best.”
Thorne offers to take over the raid, if Mark is still not feeling well, and Mark tells it to back off. Thorne tells him that everything’s ready; at midnight they’ll drop from parking orbit directly down to Bharaputra’s facility, before people start wondering what they’re doing, and if everything goes according to plan they should be done in an hour. They do a helmet communication check, going through all the channels, including those for eavesdropping on their enemies’ transmissions and for local entertainment.
Mark notices that Thorne seems apprehensive, and wonders again if he’s been found out, but reminds himself that Thorne would have pulled the plug if it knew who Mark really was. He kids Thorne about it, and it snaps out of its reverie; they agree that it’s time to get moving. They meet the commandos in the corridor to the shuttle, getting ready to board. He considers Taura, thinking that they must have been at House Bharaputra at the same time, though their paths would never have crossed. He also reminds himself that nobody he knew at the creche eight years ago would still be alive.
He stepped up to her. “Sergeant Taura—” She turned, and his brows climbed in startlement. “What is that around your neck?” Actually, he could see what it was, a large fluffy pink bow. He supposed his real question was, why was it around her neck?
She—smiled, he guessed that repellent grimace was, at him, and fluffed it out a bit more with a huge clawed hand. Her claw-polish was bright pink, tonight. “D’you think it’ll work? I wanted something to not scare the kids.”
He looked up at eight feet of half-armor, camouflage cloth, boots, bandoliers, muscle and fang. Somehow, I don’t think it’ll be enough, Sergeant. “It’s . . . certainly worth a try,” he choked.
He asks her if she knows much about this part of the complex, but she tells him she mostly lived in the genetics facility, except during a couple of years of fostering. He asks her if she hates them; she says when she was growing up, they did a lot of tests, but she thought it was just science, not malicious. Then they sold her to Ryoval–Ryoval mistreated her, but Bharaputra’s indifference hurt her more. Then she was rescued by her knight in shining armour… Mark is annoyed by this glowing reference to Miles, always the hero–well, now it’s his turn to be the hero. But she admits that without House Bharaputra she wouldn’t even exist, and wonders if she should return there to kill. Mark reminds her that they’re there to rescue clones, not to kill unless they have to. She tells him she’s glad he feels better, and he promises they’ll have a chance to talk after the mission, only realizing after he’s said it that she’s misinterpreted as a completely different kind of invitation.
They enter the shuttle, and Mark examines the space, figuring out where the rescued clones can be put on the return flight. There’s room for two squads, plus lots of medical equipment or vehicles, so it shouldn’t be a problem. The medic is organizing his supplies, which include a portable cryo-chamber. Thorne sits next to the shuttle pilot, and Mark sits right behind them. Taura confirms that they’re all ready for drop, and as soon as Ariel reaches its orbit, the shuttle drops.
Literally drops, as Mark learns, nose-down into the atmosphere. The pilot cheerfully hopes that they don’t happen to run into anybody, since nobody’s cleared any airspace for them. They plunge across the terminator into night, through the clouds, and then all too suddenly over a city, and the Bharaputra facility, to land in a playing field. Thorne barks an order and they debark, as silently as possible. One of the commandos goes into the air on a float-bike, two stay in the shuttle, and two more as perimeter guards–fewer than Thorne had wanted, but Mark wants as many troopers as he can in the creche, to get the clones out before the Bharaputrans’ response stiffens up. He wishes he’d ordered another commando squad back on Escobar, but he’d been concerned about life support for the clones on the return trip.
He watches his helmet displays for a little while, but finds it hard to focus on them, so he dims them down, as Thorne had recommended to him earlier. He follows Thorne, Taura, and the rest of her squad as they trot through the complex, listening in on the Bharaputran guards’ channels as they begin to react to the noise of the shuttle’s arrival. They reach the house–smaller than Mark remembered–and Taura blasts the doors open with a plasma arc. The commandos rush inside, taking out alarms as they pass. They stun the first guard they encounter and head up the lift tubes. Taura takes two female troopers to the third floor, another trooper heads up to the roof, and Mark leads the rest to the second floor. They stun two unarmed adults before reaching the doors behind which the male clones are locked, though they can hear pounding from the other side. Thorne yells that they’re going to open the door, and the pounding stops; they cut the bolt and kick the doors open.
The clone nearest the door expresses surprise that they’re not firemen. Thorne pushes Mark forward to address them; Mark asks him for a headcount.
He’d practiced the speech for this supreme moment in his mind ten thousand times, every possible variation. The only thing he knew for certain that he was not going to start with was, I’m Miles Naismith. His heart was racing. He inhaled a huge gulp of air. “We’re the Dendarii Mercenaries, and we’re here to save you.”
The boy’s expression was repelled, scared, and scornful all mixed. “You look like a mushroom,” he said blankly.
It was so . . . so off-script. Of his thousand rehearsed second lines, not one followed this. Actually, with the command helmet and all, he probably did look a bit like a big gray—not the heroic image he’d hoped to—
He tore off his helmet, ripped back his hood, and bared his teeth. The boy recoiled.
Mark yells at them that the rumours they’ve heard are true, that they’re going to be used for brain transplants, killed so someone can steal their body. The boys starts to babble and scatter; one of them tries to escape past the troopers, but a trooper grabs him in an armlock. Mark tells them to follow him, but Thorne doesn’t think they’re buying it. It suggests stunning them all, which might be quicker, but Mark refuses. Then Taura calls him to ask for help on the next floor, followed by the float-bike commando, who tells him several people are climbing down the balconies, and a Bharaputran patrol is getting close. Frantically, he tells her to stop them, stun them if necessary, but not while they’re climbing down. Then he responds to Taura, who says she needs him to talk to a “crazy girl”. Mark tells her that everything’s not under control down here either; Thorne rolls its eyes and applies a light stun to the boy struggling in the trooper’s armlock.
Mark tells Thorne to round up the male clones and flees up to help Taura. It’s less crowded up there, since male clones continue to predominate over female. The girls are seated on the floor, a stunner trained on them, but at least are sitting still and quiet. Taura is in a side room with a Eurasian girl sitting in front of a smoking comconsole; the girl expresses contempt for the whole affair. Mark tries to explain the clone situation to her, and the girl says she knows perfectly well what’s going to happen, and accepts it as her destiny, to serve “her lady”. Taura says the girl has already called House Security and told them a lot about the commando team; the girl says she’s “very important” and the guards will save her. Mark tells Taura to stun her.
Mark asks if they have all of the girls; Taura says two of them fled down the back stairs, and she’s worried they’ll hide in the basement or something, and says they don’t have time to hunt them down. Mark finds Thorne’s channel and asks if he has a head count; Thorne says they found it on a comconsole, and they’re missing four boys, three of whom have been seen going down the balconies. Mark checks the girls’ count, and says they’re still missing one; Taura sends a trooper out to check, even as Thorne is complaining that they don’t have time to round up strays.
In the third room the trooper checked, she bent to look under a bed and said, “Ha! Got her, Sergeant!” She swooped, grabbed a couple of kicking ankles, and yanked. Her prize slid into the light, a short girl-woman in the pink crossover tunic and shorts. She emitted little helpless muted noises, distress with no hope of her cries bringing help. She had a cascade of platinum curls, but her most notable feature was a stunning bustline, huge fat globes that the strained pink silk of her tunic failed to contain. She rolled to her knees, buttocks on heels, her upraised hands vaguely pushing and cradling the heavy flesh as if still shocked and unaccustomed to finding it there.
Ten years old. Shit. She looked twenty. And such monstrous hypertrophy couldn’t be natural. The progenitor-customer must have ordered body-sculpture, prior to taking possession. That made sense, let the clone do the surgical and metabolic suffering. Tiny waist, flare of hip . . . from her exaggerated, physically mature femininity, he wondered if she might be one of the change-of-sex transfers. Almost certainly. She must have been slated for surgery very soon.
The girl whimpers that she can’t leave, her mother’s coming tomorrow; Mark tells them to stun her too, and a trooper does, gently. Another trooper calls him on the helmet and says they just stunned a bunch of firefighters, but security people with anti-stun suits and heavier weapons are on their way; the commando in the air confirms that a heavy weapons team is coming from the south. Taura picks up the two stunned girls and they herd the rest down the stairs. Thorne has six boys stunned and the rest against the wall; Taura suggests having some of the boys carry the others, to keep them busy.
“Good,” said Thorne, jerking its gaze, with difficulty, from fascinated fixation on the doll-woman. “Worley, Kesterton, let’s—” its voice stopped, as the same static-laden emergency message over-rode channels in both their command helmets.
It was the bike-trooper, screaming, “Sonofabitch, the shuttle—watch out guys, on your left—” a hot wash of static, and “—oh holy fuckin’ shit—” Then a silence, filled only with the hum of an empty channel.
Mark realizes she must have lost her helmet, and who knew what else, and neither he nor Thorne can make contact with her, the shuttle pilot or the rear guards. Thorne takes charge, telling Mark and one trooper to come with him to check things out, while Taura organizes the clones. Outside, they reach the shuttle, apparently undamaged, though there is a body beneath one wing. Thorne remotely opens the hatch and says it’s going in, overriding the trooper who insists he should go instead. Mark and the trooper follow after Thorne gives the okay; the shuttle seems empty, but the pilot’s compartment is sealed. Thorne opens it, and flames burst out until the trooper extinguishes it; the pilot and controls are burnt and slagged. Thorne says that somebody must have taken a couple of the shuttle’s own thermal mines and tossed them in, after luring away or killing the shuttle’s few guards.
Thorne says all they can do now is pull back to the creche building and try to negotiate surrender terms. The trooper says that Admiral Naismith will be able to come up with something, but Thorne reveals that they don’t have the Admiral with them, just his clone-brother. Thorne’s known since before they reached Jacksonian space, but though it could bring the plan off anyway.
“We can’t—we can’t betray those children back into Bharaputra’s hands,” Mark grated. Begged.
Thorne dug its bare hand into the carbonized blob glued to what used to be the pilot’s station chair. “Who is betrayed?” It lifted its hand, rubbed a black crumbling smear across his face from cheek to chin. “Who is betrayed?” Thorne whispered. “Do you have. A better. Idea.”
Miles was pretending to sell the nerve disrupter shields back in The Vor Game, and the plasma mirror shields were ship-sized back in Shards of Honour, and now his armour’s got that and more. Except, of course, that Mark’s got his armour. Still, apparently if you have the budget for it, all of the standard hand weapons are useless against you, which means the stage is set for another round of escalation…gravitic hand lances?
I’m not sure if this scheme would have gone better if Miles had been in charge, but it probably would have. He would have brought the extra commando squad, probably, or at least half of one, he’d have protected the shuttle better, he’d have had some better contingency plans for unruly clones. And I can’t help but think that while there may not be any faster way to get into the complex than by brute shuttle drop, there might have been quieter ones… Of course, this isn’t any worse trouble, really, than Miles got himself into in “Labyrinth”, but he had a little more…charisma, I guess, working for him.
And Thorne did indeed know at least part of the time, as we see by its increasingly bold attempts to help out someone who’s obviously not Miles, with the command helmet and the half-armour. So Mark’s failure is in the assumption that Thorne would immediately expose him once it cottoned on to the deception. Instead, Thorne decided to take over the plan anyway. Maybe it thought that Mark was more competent than he actually was, or just that the plan was actually more foolproof. A bad miscalculation, which will cost it…
Miles and the Peregrine arrived at Jackson’s Whole about nine hours too late to prevent Mark and Bel Thorne’s debacle. Now he waits as Elli works her way up to the chain of authority for House Bharaputra, hoping to reach the Baron. He’s wearing ill-fitting clothing from a five-foot-tall female engineer. The Ariel has fled to Fell Station, which several Bharaputran ships are blockading, and more are escorting the Peregrine in orbit. He hopes to convince the Baron that they don’t need to send more.
Bel, Mark, and the rest of Taura’s squad are trapped in the clone’s dormitory, with the clones as de facto hostages; the rest of the civilians have been evacuated from the complex, and heavier troops are moving in. Miles doesn’t have enough information to risk a frontal assault to free them, so he’s going to try negotiation and bribery. Quinn signals him that he’s about to be on with the Baron, and he tries to make himself look as presentable as he can manage in his borrowed uniform.
Miles introduces himself to Vasa Luigi, Baron Bharaputra, and they begin by sparring about whether the raid was unauthorized, or if Miles is just trying to distance himself from the failure of his subordinates.
He’s baiting you. Cool. “We need to have our facts straight. I have not yet established if Captain Thorne was actually suborned, or merely taken in by my fellow-clone. In any case, it is your own product, for whatever sentimental reasons, who has returned to attempt to extract some personal revenge upon you. I’m just an innocent bystander, trying to straighten things out.”
“You,” Baron Bharaputra blinked, like a lizard, “are a curiosity. We did not manufacture you. Where did you come from?”
“Does it matter?”
The Baron doesn’t pursue the matter, and asks Miles what he wants. Miles offers his aid in cleaning up the mess his people have made, and of course paying reasonable damages. Bharaputra says he doesn’t need Miles’s help, and Miles says it’ll help keep his costs low. The Baron puts Miles on hold; Elli asks if they’ll be able to rescue the clones, and Miles says they’ll be lucky to get the commandos out. He adds that more children than this batch of clones are killed on suspicion of mutation on Barrayar every year. Elli says saving the clones will help him win Mark’s trust; Miles says at the moment he’s planning to strangle Mark and Bel, but his mind insists on offering him visions of total victory, Mark won over and gratefully coming back to Barrayar with him.
The Baron returns, and he tells Miles he will allow the Dendarii to surrender to him, though their “fines” are still to be determined. Miles insists the prices be nailed down, and Bharaputra gives the prices–ten thousand Betan dollars per trooper, twenty-five per officer, and fifty for Bel Thorne. No charge for the property damage, and Bharaputra also tells Miles he’ll save him the trouble of getting rid of his clone. Cringing at the price, Miles asks what the clone’s price would be.
“What possible interest?” Vasa Luigi inquired, surprised.
Miles shrugged. “I’d think it was obvious. My profession is full of hazards. I am the only survivor of my clone-clutch. The one I call Mark was as much a surprise to me as I was to him, I think; neither of us knew there was a second cloning project. Where else would I find such a perfect, ah, organ-donor, and on such short notice?”
Vasa Luigi opened his hands. “We might arrange to keep him safe for you.”
“If I needed him at all, I’d need him urgently. In the circumstances, I’d fear a sudden rise in the market price. Besides, accidents happen. Look at the accident that happened to poor Baron Fell’s clone, in your keeping.”
Bharaputra’s demeanour chills noticeably, and Miles immediately regrets mentioning Fell. Bharaputra says he can grow Miles a new clone if he desires, but Mark is not for sale. Miles tries to persuade Bharaputra that he doesn’t want to wait ten years for the clone to be ready, but Bharaputra won’t budge, claiming to want to punish Mark, and use him as a warning. Miles warns him that Barrayar is already aware of “both” clones, and Bharaputra asks him what relationship Admiral Naismith has with Barrayar. Miles says he’s tolerated, and does them a favour now and again. Bharaputra ruminates on the possibilities of three identical copies; Miles says they’re not identical–Lord Vorkosigan is a “dull stick”, and Mark’s already demonstrated his limitations, leaving Naismith himself as the “improved” copy. Bharaputra tells Miles that the clone is not negotiable, but the rest of the fines will double every half hour until Miles accepts the deal. Miles says he has to talk to the accountant, and ends the call.
Miles is sick and angry after the conversation. Quinn points out that the accountant isn’t with them, and Miles says he doesn’t like the deal, and as an ImpSec representative it’s his job to rescue Mark. Heartily missing the armour that Mark took with him, he tells Quinn to get him a squad leader’s helmet, at least, so he can cut himself a better deal.
He manages to borrow Elena’s helmet instead, as well as a variety of ill-fitting borrowed equipment, and within the half hour launches his attack–in one combat drop shuttle, with another one on a different trajectory as a decoy. The shuttle’s fighter escort destroys one of the Peregrine‘s Bharaputran escorts, and the other retreats. Their best possible drop zone–Thorne’s shuttle still blocking the only better choice–is still a bit of a hike away from the dormitory, but he hopes the commando squad in the other shuttle will give the Bharaputrans something else to think about. They round the planet, but can’t contact Thorne’s group, since the Bharaputrans are blocking most of the channels, and they can’t contact Thorne on the others.
Once they’re on the ground, Quinn manages to contact Thorne on audio. Thorne asks them to bring the portable cryo-chamber for Trooper Phillipi, who died fifteen minutes ago but was packed in ice. They debark with two commando squads, two troopers in hovercars heading up to clear the roofs of snipers. Once they clear it, Miles and Quinn head out with one squad, leaving half of the other one to guard the shuttle against the fate of Thorne’s, while the other half holds the perimeter. They pass several buildings without incident, but Miles wonders if getting out will be as easy. The Bharaputrans are already engaging them on the perimeter, and hearing a sonic grenade makes him wish he’d managed to find chest armour that fit.
They reach the clone-creche and join its defenders. The medic heads off for Phillipi with the cryo-chamber, and Miles is greeted by a defeated-looking Bel Thorne with Mark at his side. Mark defiantly tells Miles they have to take the clones with them, and Miles agrees, angrily telling Mark that having the clones as hostages is their only chance of getting off the ground alive.
Mark’s face lit, torn between hope and hatred. “And then what?” he demanded suspiciously.
“Oh,” Miles caroled sarcastically, “we’re just going to waltz right over to Bharaputra Station and drop them off, and thank Vasa Luigi kindly for the loan. Idiot! What d’you think? We load up and run like hell. The only place to put them would be out the airlock, and I guarantee you’d go first!”
Mark flinched, but took a deep breath and nodded. “All right, then.”
“It is not. All. Right,” Miles bit out. “It is merely . . . merely . . .” he could not come up with a word to describe what it merely was, aside from the most screwed-up mess he’d ever encountered. “If you were going to try and pull a stupid stunt like this, you might at least have consulted the expert in the family!”
One of the boys exclaims in surprise that Mark and Miles are really clones, and Miles confirms it; Mark complains that they didn’t believe _him_ when he told them. Quinn interrupts that Medic Norwood has Phillipi and the wounded ready to go, and Miles tells them it’s time to head out. The commandos are not happy to be herding the clones in front of them as human shields, but go along with it as defense against Bharaputran snipers. As the first batch heads out, Miles greets Taura, both happy to see each other, thinking he might not have been able to forgive Mark for getting her killed.
Miles, Mark, Taura, Thorne and the last of the commandos and clones head out; the first group has already reached the shuttle. The squad leader from the other shuttle tells him that the Bharaputrans aren’t taking them seriously, and Miles tells her to try. Just then, a sonic grenade hits nearby, and Bharaputran fire picks up, intentionally passing on either side of them to try to panic the clones into running, and it’s very close to working. Miles calls for air cover, and Taura blows open the nearest building and tells them to go inside. Miles approves, if it keeps them from scattering in different directions, but adds that they need to continue out the other side, thinking to himself that it looks more like a trap than safety.
Thorne volunteers for rear guard, obviously hoping for a heroic sacrifice, but Miles tells it to take charge of its own mission and get the rest of the clones to the shuttle. They emerge into a big concrete-floored room that occupies most of the building, dimly lit with catwalks near the ceiling. Quinn and Mark are waiting for him, though Miles yells at them to keep going.
“Look out!” someone yelled. Quinn spun, raising her plasma arc, seeking aim. Mark’s mouth opened, the “o” foolishly echoing the circle of his gray hood around his face.
Miles saw the Bharaputran because they were looking square at each other, in that frozen moment. A team of brown-clad Bharaputran snipers, probably come up through the tunnels. They were scrambling along the girders, barely more prepared than the Dendarii they pursued. The Bharaputran had a hand-sized projectile weapon launcher of some kind pointed straight at him, its muzzle bright with flare.
Miles could not, of course, see the projectile, not even as it entered his chest. Only his chest, bursting outward like a flower, and a sound not heard but only felt, a hammer-blow launching him backward. Dark flowers bloomed too in his eyes, covering everyone.
He was astonished, not by how much he thought, for there was no time for thought, but by how much he felt, in the time it took for his last heartburst of blood to finish flowing through his brain. The chamber careening around him . . . pain beyond measure . . . rage, and outrage . . . and a vast regret, infinitesimal in duration, infinite in depth. Wait, I haven’t—
“Wait, I haven’t–” seem like they should be the last thoughts of everyone who dies suddenly. But especially Miles. I can’t imagine the shock of reading this when the book first came out, and nobody knew if there were going to be any more…
So here we are, six chapters into the book, and Miles Vorkosigan is dead. What, are you surprised? Did you think he was going to survive to carry on the series? Well, I call it the Vorkosigan Saga, not the Miles Vorkosigan Saga… After all, it’s not like you can take someone who’s been killed in combat and just, like, freeze their body or something to resurrect them later, can you? Okay, sure, it’s theoretically possible, but it’s not like they’re going to be able to manage it under these kind of conditions. It’s not anybody cares about the little weasel that much anyway, do they? What, really? I mean, yes, in other words, it’s possible that some of that foreshadowing with the cryo-chambers, like the previous mention in this chapter, and the people we met back in Chapter Two, and even the bizarre brief mention back in Brothers In Arms, is going to pay off here. “Chekhov’s Cryo-Chamber”?
On a lighter note, I’m always amused that the Baron of a House with such an Indian-sounding name as Bharaputra has such an Italian-sounding name as “Luigi”. But, of course, a fair amount of mongrelization of names and cultures has doubtless taken place on any planet which is not a xenophobic monoculture, and I’d lay you odds that Jackson’s Whole is not one of those. Hell, lots of names that, a hundred years ago, would have had distinct ethnic connections, like, say, “Sean”, are now considered fairly innocuous in English-speaking culture, and I’m sure more of them will get integrated over time. And, of course, one must assume that the title of Baron of a Jacksonian House is not always passed down in a strictly hereditary fashion…there might be the occasional coup, here and there. How would Baron Fell and Baron Ryoval be brothers, otherwise?
Quite a punch at the end of the chapter there, and now Mark and the others have to try to bounce back from this. Everybody’s really happy with Mark, you can bet. Next week, on time, with any luck, we’ll see what we shall see. Until then…