Once upon a time, there was a young Vor lord named Miles Vorkosigan, who was born without a decent skeleton. Thirty years later, he found himself back on his home planet of Barrayar, in the book Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold. Will he live happily ever after? Not quite yet, unless Ms. Bujold decides to stop writing books about him… In any event, this week I’ll be covering chapters Seventeen and Eighteen of Memory, where temporary Lord Auditor Miles Vorkosigan finally gets to figure out what to do about Simon Illyan’s decaying memory chip.
Ruibal brings Miles to a conference room with three other men–apart from Miles, nobody under the rank of colonel. Miles reminds himself that he’s an Imperial Auditor, outside of the military hierarchy, and most of them haven’t dealt with an Imperial Auditor since ImpSec’s finances were audited a few years ago (while he was in the hospital, after the Dagoola rescue). The next most important man in the room, Admiral Dr. Avakli, is a biocyberneticist, part of the group who install neural implants for jump pilots, which are vaguely close to Illyan’s chip in nature.
Ruibal begins listing the tests they performed, until Miles tells them to skip the negative results. Ruibal summarizes them by saying that the problem definitely seems to be with the chip, rather than with anything in Illyan’s brain. Avakli shows him the information they have on the chip itself and its complex array of connections to the brain, but points out that the chip was largely self-wiring once it was installed in the brain, so their information on that is limited. It’s a mix of organic and inorganic, and it’s the organic portions which are deteriorating. Avakli says there’s no provision for being able to download the chip’s contents, which doesn’t surprise Miles, considering that Emperor Ezar wouldn’t have wanted that information easily retrievable.
Avakli confirms Miles’s understanding that the chip supplemented, rather than replaced, Illyan’s natural memory, pointing out that that was a major reason why many of the test subjects developed schizophrenia, because of the doubling of memories. Avakli describes some complicated and jerry-rigged possibilities for extracting the data; Miles interrupts to ask what happens if they take the chip out, and Avakli says that in that circumstance the chip is designed to “die”. If it’s not taken out, the proteins will continue to degenerate–“turning to snot”, as Illyan had quoted one of Avakli’s techs.
Miles asks Avakli for his theories on why this happened; Avakli says it could be natural senescence, which he considers more likely than deliberate sabotage, but he’d have to examine it to rule out the latter theory. Miles summarizes by saying that they can’t remove the chip, fix it, and put it back, they can’t find out why it’s breaking down without removing it, and they can’t try to repair it in place without finding out why it’s breaking down. Avakli says he’s been focusing on data extraction rather than repairing the chip.
Miles asks what happens to Illyan if the chip is removed. Avakli defers to Ruibal, who says it’s difficult to tell. He won’t instantly revert to what he was like before the chip, but much of his brain will have adapted to the chip’s capabilities, and will be thrown out of balance by its loss. Ruibal says they haven’t managed to find any galactic experts in this technology, which is considered obsolete, and it might take months to do so; Miles says that Illyan isn’t likely to have months. Miles asks why they haven’t just removed the chip, and Avakli says they were ordered to save the chip, or as much of its data as possible, presumably because the data on the chip is vital.
“Is it?” Miles leaned forward, staring into the brightly colored, biocybernetic nightmare chip-map hanging before his eyes above the table’s central vid plate. “The chip was never installed to make Illyan into a superman. It was just a toy for Emperor Ezar, who fancied owning a vid recorder with legs. I admit, it’s been handy for Illyan. Gives him a nice aura of infallibility that scares hell out of people, but that’s a crock and he knows it even if they don’t.
“The chip has nothing to do with running ImpSec, really. He was promoted to the job because he was standing at my father’s right hand the day Vordarian’s forces murdered his predecessor, and my father liked and trusted him. There was no time for a talent search, in the middle of a raging civil war. Of all the qualities that made Illyan the best chief in ImpSec s history . . . the chip is surely the most trivial.” His voice had fallen to nearly a whisper. Avakli and Ruibal were leaning forward to hear him. He cleared his throat, and sat up.
Miles says that information on the chip is either obsolete, personal, current and thus known elsewhere, and maybe only a dozen or so real secrets, some of which probably shouldn’t even be preserved. Miles tells them to prepare for removing the chip, with the best surgical personnel available, while he talks to one more person–Gregor. Miles brings Gregor up to speed, that the chip is flooding Illyan’s mind with memories every few minutes, and the only practical thing they can do with the chip is remove it. He notes that Illyan is in little condition to actually consent to the operation, and they don’t know what effect losing the chip will have on him. He asks if Gregor knows of any old secrets that should be preserved, but Gregor says that only Count Vorkosigan would know for sure. Gregor asks if Miles advises pulling the chip, and at his assent gives him the authorization.
Miles goes to see Haroche, who asks ironically if his subordinates’ cooperation was satisfactory. He’s been reading up on Miles’s record, and now has a better picture of why Illyan thought so much of him, and has revised his earlier estimation. Miles informs him that the chip has to be removed.
Haroche sighed. “I’d hoped that could be avoided. It seems so permanent. And so crippling.”
“Not nearly as crippling as what’s going on right now. Incidentally, Illyan definitely should have had someone familiar by him from the start, for his comfort. It seems to make a tremendous difference in his level of combativeness. He could possibly have avoided most of the sedation. And the humiliating restraints. Not to mention the wear and tear on the corpsmen.”
Haroche says he didn’t know what they were dealing with, and admits he couldn’t face Illyan after the first day. Miles says that he and Ivan have done a lot with their mere presence, and argues for bringing in Lady Alys Vorpatril as well. Haroche protests that she’s a civilian, and unable, as a woman, to swear the appropriate oaths in any case. Miles says he can order Haroche to admit her, but he gives Haroche the chance to make amends on his own. He will need to deal with her until the wedding, at least, and while the military tries to pretend that Vor doesn’t matter, Lady Alys represents a large class to whom it does, and Haroche will have to deal with both of them too.
“So how did Illyan get along so well with you all? He was no more Vor than I.”
“Actually, I think he rather enjoyed the spectacle. I don’t know what he thought when he was younger, but by the time I really came to know him, in the last ten years or so . . . I think he’d come to feel that the Imperium was a creation he helped to maintain. He seemed to have a vested interest in it. An almost Cetagandan attitude, in a weird way; more of an artist to his medium than a servant to his master. Illyan played Gregor’s servant with great panache, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a less servile human being.”
Haroche thinks it over for a minute, which Miles considers a promising sign, then calls Lady Alys, formally apologizes, and grants her request for admittance to the clinic. Alys merely accepts it as her due, promising to be at the clinic in fifteen minutes–a major concession, for a Vor lady–and thanks Haroche and Miles, whose hand she obviously perceived in Haroche’s change of heart. Miles praises Haroche’s apology, and Haroche says that, no matter what Miles may think, he wants to do a good job, even if he lacks Illyan’s suavity.
Miles returns to the clinic, where Ivan is relieved to be relieved, calling Illyan’s situation a nightmare. Miles says he’s called Ivan’s mother, and Ivan is pleased to hear it; he says she’ll do better at this duty than he does. Ivan leaves as soon as Miles lets him, and Miles sits through another grueling succession of Simon Illyans from various time periods, telling each one about the problem with the chip, until finally the present-day Illyan manifests again. Miles tells Illyan he won’t kill him, but that they’re going to remove his chip, as soon as possible. Illyan is dubious, not sure what will happen to his memories, but before long is swept away again.
When Lady Alys enters, Illyan offers his condolences on the death of her husband (which happened around the time Ivan was born, of course). Miles briefs Illyan, Lady Alys watching carefully, then leaves her holding Illyan’s hand and briefing him herself. Ruibal notes that Illyan’s blood pressure has dropped in her presence. Miles gets Ruibal and Avakli and they discuss the surgeon–one of Avakli’s best neural implant surgeons, who’s done most of the fast courier pilots in recent years, including the Emperor’s personal pilot. Avakli prefers to give him one more good night’s sleep, and let him have a day to study up on the problem, pushing the surgery itself a day longer than Miles would have preferred, but he acquiesces. He also tells Avakli that his team will be the chip’s “coroners”, doing an autopsy on it to determine what happened to it. He suggests that they bring in Dr. Vaughn Weddell (formerly known as Dr. Hugh Canaba of Jackson’s Whole, Taura’s creator) as an outside source, and Avakli takes the Auditor’s suggestion as a command.
Miles stays at the clinic that night, he and Alys trading off shifts, as Illyan’s transition periods get closer and closer together.
So, of course, the previous Imperial Audit that Miles refers to was the one in the Borders of Infinity framing story, though I don’t recall actual “Imperial Auditors” being mentioned at the time, at least not capitalized ones. Another nice piece of retconning, though. I can’t help but think that among those secrets which are going to disappear with the chip (except for Miles’s parents, of course) would be Ezar and Aral’s plan to dispose of Prince Serg, from back in Shards of Honour, though of course Miles doesn’t know that. Finally, of course, the reference to Dr. Canaba, from back in “Labyrinth”, who of course has been on Barrayar this whole time. Not really a retconning so much as a “conservation of characters” situation.
Haroche does seem, in some ways, to be willing to learn from Miles, now that he has no choice but to listen to him, mending fences with Lady Alys. It’s possible he still doesn’t truly “get” how a woman can be of any importance to ImpSec, and I’m sure Cordelia would love to slap him silly over it. It’s tempting to think of Haroche as stupid, with such willfully wrong-headed sexist ideas, but it’s a common Barrayaran failing, as Elena would attest.
It takes three days, not two, to prepare for the surgery, by which point Simon Illyan’s memory flashes are coming too swiftly for him to even have time to speak in between. Alys’s stamina flags, leaving Miles to pick up the slack. Illyan’s motions aren’t hostile, but they are unpredictable, so they give up on the possibility of leaving him conscious for the surgery, which would enable them to monitor his higher brain functions as they operate, and just anesthetize him.
Nobody tries to keep Miles out of the operating room, where he feels duty-bound to watch, as Gregor’s observer.
Where does the forty kilo Imperial Auditor sit? Anywhere he wants to.
They put him into sterile clothing and give him a good view of the monitors, which Miles prefers to watching the actual surgery. They cut a tiny slot in Illyan’s skull, then they send in the microwaldoes to cut the chip’s connections, and finally they delicately pull it out and deliver it to Dr. Avakli, who hustles it off to be autopsied. Miles elects not to follow Avakli, but to wait as Illyan’s skull is closed back up, and the surgeon relinquishes him back into Dr. Ruibal’s care. Miles comments that the surgery seems to have been less complicated than he expected; the surgeon agrees, saying that he just left the severed ends of the neural connections in place, where they will be harmless, rather than trying to dig them all out individually. Ruibal authorizes them to wake Illyan back up.
Illyan’s first words seem like a replay of the questions he’s asked over the last several days, but he’s tracking better, and seems to absorb Miles’s response this time. Illyan doesn’t remember much about the last few days except vague nightmare images. Miles tells him that he and Gregor decided on the surgery, and that Haroche is in charge of ImpSec, which seems to reassure him. Illyan seems, a few times, to be trying to call up memories from his chip, which of course fails. Ruibal administers a few tests, which don’t show any immediate effects, and they put Illyan back to bed.
Ruibal says that they’ll need to do some tests on him, but they might release Illyan to go home in as little as two days, though with daily followups. Miles tells Alys the surgery is over, and she goes back in to sit at Illyan’s bedside, while Miles goes to see how Avakli is doing with the chip. Dr. Weddell/Canaba is in attendance, and Miles takes him aside to speak to. Canaba/Weddell quickly realizes that it’s Lord Auditor Vorkosigan’s fault that he’s been pulled away from his research, but Miles reminds him that it’s a condition of his rescue from Jackson’s Whole.
“At least,” sighed Weddell, “your climate is an improvement.”
Over Jackson’s Whole, indeed. And Weddell was not referring only to the weather. “I’m very pleased things have worked out satisfactorily for you,” said Miles. “If I had realized I was going to be seeing you, I’d have brought greetings from Sergeant Taura.”
“My word, is she still alive?”
“Oh, yes.” No thanks to you.
Miles tells Weddell that he hopes he’ll be able to spot any galactic connections in the chip’s deterioration; Weddell says he’ll start presuming sabotage, and only settle for “natural causes” when he’s ruled out everything else. Miles tells Weddell that he should not report to ImpSec, but to Miles directly. Miles calls Gregor to report on the surgery, then goes back to check on Illyan one more time. Illyan is awake and dressed, and even mildly cheerful.
Illyan too studied his House uniform and its assorted ornaments. He reached out to lightly tick the gold Auditor’s chain across Miles’s shoulders. It rang with a faint, pure note. “Now that’s . . . rather unexpected.”
“General Haroche didn’t want to let me in. Gregor decided this would save argument.”
“How creative of Gregor.” Illyan vented a brief surprised laugh, which Miles was not quite sure how to interpret. “I would never have thought of it. But waste not, want not.”
Alys volunteers to stay for a while, so Miles can take a break and go home. She tells Miles he did well, and he says he didn’t do much more than get the techs to work on the problem.
At home, Miles puts away his decorations and his House uniform, then considers the Auditor’s chain; that was fun, he thought, but it’s almost time to put it away again. Still, he needs to write the reports, and get the rest of the actual data from the chip, so he supposes he’ll need to hold on it until then.
The actual surgery is a bit of an anticlimax, I guess. I’m not quite as sanguine as the (nameless) surgeon about leaving loose nerve cells just lying around loose in the brain, but perhaps Bujold did her research here and this is actually right. I’m just picturing some kind of weird short circuit happening if two of the loose ends that used to meet at the chip happen to get connected to each other. But I guess nerve cells probably don’t actually work like electrical wires, so it’s probably more like leaving two electrical cords sitting next to each other after unplugging them.
Ivan isn’t mentioned here, so I guess he didn’t get dragged in for more Illyan-soothing, despite what must be very wearing shifts split between Alys and Miles. Or maybe he was, and it’s just not mentioned. It sounds like near the end he may not have even had time to register who was with him anyway, so it might not have made much of a difference. It still squicks me out a little, to think of brain surgery with a conscious patient–it’s just…wrong. I know there’s no pain nerves in the brain, but still…ugh.
Miles seems a little too ready to get rid of his Auditor’s chain. I guess he’d love to hold onto it, but he knows that it’s just temporary, for the duration of the Illyan issue, and that seems to be almost wrapped up. Except for the pesky question of who might have sabotaged the chip, if someone actually did. But who could have done it, and how? Illyan’s “Waste not, want not” comment makes me wonder if he thinks that Miles’s appointment as Auditor is permanent, since it might seem like a good way to make use of Miles’s skills, now that he’s prevented actually using them for ImpSec any more… I’m sure somebody will disabuse Illyan of that silly notion soon enough.
Looks like we’ve wrapped up the Simon Illyan plotline, then! Or have we? I guess there’s still the question of what happened to the chip in the first place–was it natural causes, or sabotage? After all this, which do you think would be more likely? Well, anyway, now that we’ve dealt with Simon Illyan’s brain, Miles is now finally ready to start looking at what’s up with his own brain…next week, on the Vorkosigan Saga Reread!
(Almost forgot to mention, but, as WordPress reminded me, this is my 100th post in this blog! I’ve already passed the two-year mark, what with the weeks off between books, and those I skipped during the move earlier in the year, but it’s still a milestone. I wonder if there’s enough left in the series for me to reach 200?)