It is a new year, at least by some calendars, and my holidays are coming to an end, and it’s also time for another installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread. This week we continue through Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Mirror Dance, covering chapters Nine and Ten, wherein a body is not found, and someone does something reprehensible.
Bel Thorne, Elli Quinn, and Elena Bothari-Jesek are trying to prepare Mark for his impending talk with Baron Fell. Quinn dressed Mark in Admiral Naismith’s uniform, and all three of them have been giving him advice on how to pretend to be mark, sometimes contradictory; Mark thinks he knows how to play his clone-brother well enough, thank you. Thorne tells him specifically not to mention the non-existent Betan rejuvenation treatment, but doesn’t explain why. They’ll be sitting out of camera view in the conference room during the video call, ready to prompt him via ear-bud.
Quinn hasn’t stopped to change out of her blood-spattered uniform, and Thorne hasn’t slept yet either; Mark himself is suffering under the side effects of a stimulant that Quinn gave him. She warns him through the earpiece that the call is about to come through.
The image of Baron Fell materialized, and frowned at him too. Georish Stauber, Baron Fell of House Fell, was unusual for the leader of a Jacksonian Great House in that he still wore his original body. An old man’s body. The Baron was stout, pink of face, with a shiny liver-spotted scalp fringed by white hair trimmed short. The silk tunic he wore in his House’s particular shade of green made him look like a hypothyroid elf. But there was nothing elfin about his cold and penetrating eyes. Miles was not intimidated by a Jacksonian Baron’s power, Mark reminded himself. Miles was not intimidated by any power backed by less than three entire planets. His father the Butcher of Komarr could eat Jacksonian Great Houses for breakfast.
He, of course, was not Miles.
Mark starts off with monosyllabic responses to Fell’s jabs until Quinn tells him to start talking. Mark tells Baron Fell he hadn’t planned on using Fell Station in this raid, and requests the Baron’s help to expedite their departure by assisting in negotiations with House Bharaputra. Fell says that while his house and Bharaputra have been in vendetta, they’d been on the verge of bringing it to an end, and now Fell’s suspected of taking part. Mark says Baron Bharaputra is alive and well, and encourages Fell to show good faith by helping to get him back. All they want, he says, is to retrieve the body of his clone (“brother”, correct all three of his advisors–Thorne says that’s Miles always insists on it, which was his first clue to Mark’s identity when he didn’t), unfortunately left behind in the raid.
Baron Fell he has no such warm feelings about his own brother (Baron Ryoval, as Mark’s advisors unnecessarily inform him). Ryoval’s resources are somewhat reduced by Miles’s last venture to Jackson’s Whole, but he’s still dangerous. Mark asks slyly if Ryoval’s agents work so freely on Fell Station.
Thorne whispered, (“Yes, remind him you helped him with his brother.”)
What the hell had Miles done here, four years ago? “Baron. I helped you with your brother. You help me with mine, and we can call it square.”
“Hardly that. The apples of discord you threw among us on your last departure took far too much time to sort out. Still . . . it’s true you dealt Ry a better blow that I could have.” Was there a tiny glint of approval in Fell’s eye? He rubbed his round chin. “Therefore, I will give you one day to complete your business and depart.”
Mark gives Fell their best information on the cryo-chamber and its last known location, to pass on to the Bharaputrans, and that it may have been disguised or hidden. He says they want it returned in good condition, so that their Baron will be, too. Baron Fell tells Mark to be aware that he’s not on Mark’s side, though Mark detects a certain level of respect. Fell asks about the other clones, and Mark says that they are not on the table, just Vasa Luigi.
“Yes, the trade seems uneven. What is so valuable about your late clone?”
Three voices chorused in his ear, (“Brother!”) Mark yanked the ear-bug out and slapped it to the counter beside the vid plate. Quinn nearly choked.
“I cannot trade back fractions of Baron Bharaputra,” snapped Mark. “Tempted as I am to start doing so.”
Baron Fell raised a placating plump palm. “Calm, Admiral. I doubt it will be necessary to go so far.”
“I hope not.” Mark trembled. “It’d be a shame if I had to send him back without his brain. Like the clones.”
The Baron promises to see what he can do and ends the call; Elena admits, with some surprise that Mark did that well. Quinn muses that they can’t exactly trust Baron Fell, and tells Thorne to see if anything else has changed about the Jacksonian political situation that will jeopardize their negotations and departure. After it leaves, Quinn and Elena talk about how and when to report back to Barrayar. Quinn says there may be some deep-cover ImpSec agents in the fleet, but she doesn’t know how to contact them, and she’d rather have Miles’s body back first; they can’t risk sending anything by the standard jump-couriers anyway.
Mark asks how long he’ll have to keep playing Miles; Quinn says she’d prefer to wait until they can deliver Mark and Miles’s body to ImpSec HQ on Komarr. Mark protests that a lot of people know what really happened; Quinn says the Dendarii will maintain discipline, and they’ll keep the clones under wraps. Mark insists on seeing the clones, and Elena volunteers to take him down; Quinn agrees, reluctantly, as long as they put Mark back in his quarters under guard afterwards.
The clones are quartered on the Peregrine in some hastily-converted storage chambers with field-latrines and showers. The boys glare at him like he’s their jailer; they all seem subdued, not like they’re happy to be freed. He tries talking to them, but doesn’t make much progress. Elena takes him to the girls’ chamber, where Sergeant Taura is taking them in hand, and seems to be winning them over.
Of all the Dendarii Taura had never, even in the most frantic moments, addressed the clones with anything but politely-worded requests. She now had all the air of a fairy-tale heroine trying to make pets of wild animals.
And succeeding. As Mark came up, two of the clone girls actually skittered around behind the seated sergeant, to peek at him over the protection of her broad shoulders. Taura frowned at him and looked at Bothari-Jesek, who returned a short nod, It’s all right. He’s with me.
Mark finds the platinum-blonde clone sleeping peacefully, and pulls her covers up. He sees the Eurasian girl watching him, and warns Taura and Elena about her and her special conditioning. Elena tells the guard outside to use wide-dispersal stun if necessary, and endorses Mark’s warning about the Eurasian girl. As they leave Elena asks Mark if their treatment meets with his approval. Mark says it does, but then bursts out that it’s not fair that they’re treating their rescuers like kidnappers.
“They’ve been rather traumatized. I wouldn’t expect too much if I were you, till they get a chance to see more evidence.” She paused, in speech and stride, and swung to face him. “But if you ever figure it out—figure out how to make an ignorant, traumatized, paranoid stupid kid trust you—tell Miles. He urgently wants to know.”
Mark stood, nonplused. “Was that . . . directed to me?” he demanded, dry-mouthed.
Elena escorts him to his quarters, where he sleeps heavily. Quinn comes to wake him, changed finally out of her bloodstained fatigues; she says she needs him to talk to Fell, since either he or Bharaputra is giving them the runaround. Quinn stands behind Mark, on-camera this time; Baron Fell is not best pleased to be contacted by them, but Mark says they’re merely concerned, and want to know any information about the search for the cryo-chamber, however flimsy. Fell says point-blank that the Bharaputrans claim that they can’t find the cryo-chamber. Mark quiets Quinn’s insistent outburst and asks Fell if he thinks the Bharaputrans are lying. Fell says that they do seem to be really scrambling, and trying to marshall all their resources in the search. He adds that the value of Baron Bharaputra will decrease over time, as some ambitious subordinate will eventually decide they don’t need to get their old Baron back after all–or, more likely, several, and House Bharaputra’s position will be affected severely by the turmoil; Jacksonians aren’t fond these kinds of changes to the balance of power. Fell says that they will have about another day before Fell Station will no longer be able to harbour them, nor will he allow them to take Vasa Luigi out of Jacksonian space.
Quinn protests that they won’t give up Baron Bharaputra, their only card to retrieve the cryo-chamber, and threatens them with other allies, who’ll be perfectly happy to raze the entire planet until they find what they want.
Fell grimaced angrily. “Don’t be absurd, Captain Quinn. You speak of a planetary force.”
Quinn leaned into the vid pick-up and snarled, “Baron, I speak of a multi-planetary force!”
Bothari-Jesek, startled, made an urgent throat-slicing gesture across her neck, Cut it, Quinn!
Fell, unsettled, says she’s bluffing, that nobody would do that for a single dead body, and Quinn gets herself under control, only saying that he’d better hope she is. After Fell signs off, Mark tells Quinn that she just about let slip Miles’s real identity, and upped the price for the cryo-chamber by letting him know how valuable it is. They discuss whether Fell and Bharaputra are telling the truth or not; they are interrupted by Thorne saying that he has an informant for them to question. Quinn tells Elena to make sure Mark is back in his quarters, and Elena tells Quinn to make sure she gets some sleep before she loses it completely.
While Elena is otherwise occupied, Mark tries the palm-lock on the briefing chamber door, and to his surprise, it opens, since it matches Miles’s palmprint. Elena glances over, but doesn’t stop him, so he goes inside. Mark wonders if there’s something he can find in the helmet recordings that the Dendarii would have missed, with his greater familiarity with the Bharaputran facility. He checks for helmet recordings and discovers that Tonkin, Norwood’s escort, had a real-time audiovisual recording of their time together. He loads it up and begins to watch it.
It’s jittery and disorienting to watch, but he sees his own separation from the two of them, Norwood’s departure and return without the chamber, and then his death by grenade. Mark watches it through another time, slower, then slower again. Finally he catches a glimpse of a sign on the wall, “Shipping And Receiving”. He looks up to find Elena there, and tells her that he knows those corridors, he used to play hide-and-seek in them. Norwood must have taken the cryo-chamber there and had the automated systems pack it up and ship it out to somewhere–some address he was familiar enough to come up with at short notice. It must have gone out already, because otherwise the Bharaputrans would surely have run across it.
Elena notes with some surprise that Mark seems to do well enough when left alone in a quiet room by himself. Mark says he’s not an adrenaline junkie like his brother–he can’t think when he’s scared or people are shouting at him.
“Then why do you . . .” she hesitated, as if choosing her words very cautiously, “why do you keep trying to be Miles?”
“I’m not, you’re making me play him!”
“I didn’t mean now. I mean generally.”
“I don’t know what the hell you mean.”
So Mark does a pretty good job playing Miles in this chapter, and I love the part where he pulls out his earpiece. That could have been a preparation for confessing to the whole thing, but instead it gives him one of the most convincing Miles moments in the entire scene. And then, at the end of the chapter, Elena calls him on how deeply he’s assimilated that trying to be Miles is the best thing to do. That was drilled into him by Ser Galen for years, and while he’s consciously trying to avoid being Miles, he’s internalized it enough that his subconscious still seems to push him that way. But he does make a crucial discovery, when left to himself, so he’s not a total loser, at least. And that’s a good thing to discover about yourself.
Quinn really loses it in this chapter, coming close to outright threatening Jackson’s Whole with the wrath of Barrayar. Would it really come to that, I wonder, if it came out that the Jacksonians were holding Miles hostage? Would Aral, Cordelia or Gregor be prepared to actually invade? It’s a bit of a stretch for them, though they did send troops just as far when they sent their fleet to Vervain back in The Vor Game. This would be much less justified, and they’d have more trouble convincing Pol and other Hegen Hub folks about it. Cetaganda would be watching eagerly for an opportunity out of the whole thing, and may even win Vervain back if they get scared enough about the Barrayaran threat. If it did come out that it was the actual Miles Vorkosigan being held on Jackson’s Whole, they’d probably try diplomacy first, with the threat of a big fleet behind them. So…it would probably be best if that doesn’t actually happen.
Peregrine and Ariel undock from Fell Station and head for Jumppoint Five, escorted by House Fell security ships, with no jump capacity but extra weapons and shields. A Bharaputran ship trails them, ready to receive Baron Bharaputra when they reach the jump point. Miles’s cryo-chamber is still missing; Quinn was on the verge of spacing Baron Bharaputra rather than leave without him, but Elena talks her down, convincing her that by this point they need the resources of ImpSec to have any chance of finding Miles.
“I will be back,” Quinn swore.
“That’ll be between you and Simon Illyan. I promise you, he’ll be just as interested as we are in retrieving that cryo-chamber.”
“Illyan’s just a Barrayaran,” Quinn sputtered for a word, “bureaucrat. He can’t care the way we do.”
“Don’t bet on that,” whispered Bothari-Jesek.
Mark is once again, he hopes for the last time, in his Admiral Naismith costume, at Elena’s insistence, to help convince the Bharaputrans that it isn’t the real Naismith in the cryo-chamber. It doesn’t fit as well as it used to, as his weight continues to creep up. They meet up with Quinn, Vasa Luigi and his Dendarii guards at the airlock, where they wait in silence until the shuttle docks. A Captain from House Fell enters and says he’s returning something they “accidentally left behind”; it’s not the cryo-chamber, though, but the Dendarii spies Quinn had tried to leave behind on the station.
As Baron Bharaputra is beginning to walk toward the shuttle hatch, the Eurasian clone-girl rushes out of a corridor with the blonde clone, calling out for the Baron to wait. Mark tackles the blonde girl to the ground, visions of her brain-removal surgery in his head, while the other girl makes it past the Baron and through the shuttle hatch. She pleads to be united with her lady, and while Quinn protests, the Baron says she is clearly coming of her own free will, and if they try to remove her from House Fell’s shuttle, they will be jeopardizing their departure. Mark passes the blonde girl to a Dendarii guard and lunges forward.
“Admiral?” The Baron raised a faintly ironic brow.
“You’re wearing a corpse,” Mark snarled. “Don’t talk to me.” He staggered forward, hands out, to face the dark-haired girl across that little, dreadful, politically significant gap. “Girl . . .” He did not know her name. He did not know what to say. “Don’t go. You don’t have to go. They’ll kill you.”
Growing more certain of her security, though still positioned behind the Fell captain and well out of reach of any Dendarii lunge, she smiled triumphantly at Mark and tossed back her hair. Her eyes were alight. “I’ve saved my honor. All by myself. My honor is my lady. You have no honor. Pig! My life is an offering . . . greater than you can imagine being. I am a flower on her altar.”
She extends a hand to the Baron, who shrugs and steps forward. Mark implores Quinn to do something, but she says they need to jump away. Baron Bharaputra turns back at the hatch and says the girl is his wife’s clone, and announces their tally at 49 to 1; he promises to even the score if they ever return to Jackson’s Whole, before stepping through the hatch.
Taura appears a minute later, and tells them that the Eurasian girl spread rumours that the clones were being sold into slavery, and organized a mass breakout. Seven of them got away, and Taura kept them from heading for the escape pods, but Quinn tells her that the one girl actually managed to escape; at Taura’s objection, Quinn says that they chose not to start a firefight over her. Taura says that only leaves one, and Quinn sends the former prisoner guards to help her track that one down. Quinn says she has to go debrief the returned spies, and Mark volunteers to return the blonde clone to her quarters. Elli frowns at him, and then says that, back on the planet, Mark’s plasma mirror would only have been able to absorb one more shot; her own was completely overloaded, so Mark did save her life when he jumped in front of her. Mark doesn’t know what to say to that, and Quinn tells him he can take the clone back.
Mark asks her her name, and she says it’s Maree. Even though he knows how engineered her beauty is, he is still captivated by it, and thinks that if he were the hero, she might be his heroine and reward. He takes her arm and leads her back toward her quarters, reassuring her that although Taura may seem scary, she’s really there to keep the clones safe. He says they’re not a slave ship, but thinks that as a near-prisoner himself, he can’t promise her freedom. She coughs and says she needs a drink of water; they’re near Mark’s quarters, so he takes her there and they sit down on the bed.
He tells her that he’s not the real Admiral, just a clone, then gets her a glass of water from the bathroom. He asks about her life, and she says she never got much schooling, though she did a lot of exercise…until her breast augmentation, after which she only swam. She asks if it was really a lie about her mother coming, and Mark says it probably was. She asks why he’s not good-looking like the other clones, and Mark, approving of her using her brain, tells her that he was made as a part of a plot against his progenitor. He explains that since he couldn’t rescue his own clone-friends, he wanted to rescue another group of clones. They feel an odd sensation, which Mark explains to Maree means they just went through hyperspace; he’s relieved that the Jacksonians hadn’t double-crossed them.
Mark thinks that he hasn’t gotten any reward for his rescue, or attempted rescue, of the clones, and wonders if he can at least get some recognition from one of them, from Maree. He asks her for a kiss, for “pretend”, and she obliges. Mark begins to lose control of himself, wanting more, kissing her again and wondering if he dared do more. He begins to loosen her clothes, and his, and rolls her back onto the bed, and then his throat closes up, as he begins flashing back.
He rolled off her, icy sweat breaking out all over his body. He fought his locked throat. He managed one asthmatic, shuddering, indrawn breath. The flashbacks of memory were almost hallucinatory in their clarity.
Galen’s angry shouting. Lars and Mok, pinning him at Galen’s command, pulling off his clothes, as if the beating he’d just taken at their hands was not punishment enough. They’d sent the girl away before they’d started; she’d run like a rabbit. He spat salt-and-iron blood. The shock-stick pointing, touching, there, there, pop and crackle. Galen going even more red-faced, accusing him of treason, worse, raving on about Aral Vorkosigan’s alleged sexual proclivities, turning up the power far too high. “Flip him.” Knotting terror deep in his gut, the visceral memory of pain, humiliation, burning and cramps, a weird short-circuited arousal and horribly shameful release despite it all, the stink of searing flesh. . . .
Maree asks him, puzzled, what the matter is, if he’s dying…Mark is unable to speak. He thinks how unfair it is that this incident, barely four years ago, seems to have crippled his sex life, as he tries to regain control of his breathing. Taura and Elena open the cabin door and stop short at the scene inside. Maree tells them that she only wanted a glass of water, and than Mark made her kiss him. Elena asks Mark if he was trying to rape her, and his denial is ambivalent; Taura picks him up and shoves him against the wall and tells him to answer the question.
Mark remembers the second half of the Galen incident, how, when Galen had been forced to take him to the doctor, they’d claimed that the shock-stick wounds to his genitals were self-inflicted, and made Mark go along with it. He tries to explain himself as clearly as he could, ugly as it sounds, though he leaves out the panic attack and the reason for it. What he sees in Elena’s eyes tells him he’s probably lost the one ally he had among the Dendarii. Elena confines him to quarters and they escort Maree away.
This is a difficult chapter to read, because of the scene with Mark and Maree. It’s not quite a rape scene, but it’s very close to one, so it’s prone to make the reader lose their sympathy for Mark. He’s a bit of an underdog, a screwup but with good intentions, trying to redeem himself and just digging himself in deeper…and now it turns out he’s got sex issues as well. The shock-stick flashback, alluded to briefly earlier, explains some of his hangups, but it doesn’t really excuse his making a pass at Maree, who he knows is emotionally and chronologically underage.
It occurs to me that there are some parallels between the other clone-girl, the unnamed “Eurasian” who escapes with Baron Bharaputra, and Mark, if only because they were both clones that were screwed up by their upbringing. Mark is still struggling to separate his identity from his imitation of Miles, whereas the girl has completely subsumed herself to her destiny. Is there a reason why her brainwashing took to deeply while the others seemed able to overcome it a bit better? Maybe we’ll find out more later, because we’re not done with her.
Is it just me who hates the term “Eurasian”? These days you’re more likely to hear just “Asian”, which I confess I’m not at peace with either, though I’ve mostly come to terms with it. But “Eurasian” literally means someone from Eurasia…which means Europe and Asia. So everyone who looks like they come from anywhere in Europe or Asia should be able to be “Eurasian”…and yet somehow it always means people who look like they come from countries in eastern Asia–China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, maybe Mongolia…what used to be called “Oriental”, but apparently that’s not considered politically correct these days. “Asian” excludes Europeans, at least, but still…what about people from Arabia, or India, or Kazakhstan? Is Indonesia included in Asia, or the Philippines? Of course, “Caucasian” isn’t much better, since as I understand it it relies on some deprecated historical theory that the great Indo-European conquest sprang from the horselords of the Caucasus, who swept away the hapless former inhabitants in glorious battle. Considering that they don’t even speak Indo-European languages in the Caucasus these days, it seems nonsensical to me.
And that’s it for another week, and I suspect that will take us back to Barrayar at last, for what I recall are some of my favourite scenes in the book…but then, I’m a sucker for scenes involving Cordelia. Until then, keep looking for that cryo-chamber…