Good evening, genties and ladlemen. I know you’ve been on eleventerhooks waiting for the next installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, but wait no longer, for here it is, following hereunder! Thrill to the exposition of the events of the next two chapters, Chapter Three and Chapter Four, of Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Komarr, as Miles Vorkosigan joins the investigation of a disaster above the titular planet, and meets a fascinating, and married, woman named Ekaterin Vorsoisson! Here it is!
Ekaterin and her uncle’s visit to Nikolai’s school is brief, since the Auditor’s presence flusters the staff, so she takes him on a tour of the prettiest spots and best lookouts in Serifosa Dome. Only later does it occur to her that she should have looked for something more engineering-oriented, but by then it’s lunchtime. She asks her uncle for reassurance that they won’t abandon the soletta entirely. Vorthys says that he hopes not, it was a great achievement of the Komarrans, and any sabotage of it would be sheer vandalism. Ekaterin recalls Komarrans telling her about the psychological blow caused by Admiral Vorkosigan’s forces took over the soletta early in the invasion of Komarr. There’d been talk of reopening the soletta to tourism again, but luckily it hadn’t happened yet; Vorthys says he thinks it would be a good idea.
They discuss some of the wild creatures that have been brought to the domes–rats and roaches, but also gerbils and hamsters, and even wild cockatoos. Ekaterin takes advantage of the arrival to lunch to change the subject to Miles, asking if he was really in ImpSec. Vorthys can’t give her full details on Miles’s classified career, but he does confirm that Miles spent a decade in ImpSec, and tells her about the Dagoola rescue, since it’s foolish to consider if classified when the Marilacans are making movies about it. She asks why he quit, and her uncle tells her about the cryo-revival and that it occasioned a medical discharge, but doesn’t share most of the details.
He tells her the Emperor found Imperial Auditor to be a good use for Miles’s skills, and admits that he’s been glad to send someone younger and more vigorous to do the more physical tasks, like long pressure-suit excursions. He denies that Miles is his assistant though, insisting that they’re equals, working together mostly to learn each other’s methods.
“Our Imperial charge doesn’t come with a manual, you see. It was once proposed the Auditors create one for themselves, but they—wisely, I think—concluded it would do more harm than good. Instead, we just have our archives of Imperial reports; precedents, without rules. Lately, several of us more recent appointees have been trying to read a few old reports each week, and then meet for dinner to discuss the cases and analyze how they were handled. Fascinating. And delicious. Vorkosigan has the most extraordinary cook.”
“But this is his first assignment, isn’t it? And . . . he was designated just like that, on the Emperor’s whim.”
“He had a temporary appointment as a Ninth Auditor first. A very difficult assignment, inside ImpSec itself. Not my kind of thing at all.”
She was not totally oblivious to the news. “Oh, dear. Did he have anything to do with why ImpSec changed chiefs twice last winter?”
She tries to decide why Vorkosigan disturbs her so much–in the Time of Isolation, he would have doubtless been killed as a mutant, though Nikki would have escaped detection, but she doesn’t think anti-mutant prejudice is the reason. Her uncle says that he and his wife both like Miles, that he’s quiet at first but can get quite witty once he gets going. He reminds her of finding a gifted, or even genius, among his students, which was a genuine privilege. Ekaterin is surprised to hear him consider Miles a genius; Vorthys insists he is, though, at least part of the time–and nobody is ever a genius all the time, but all it takes is once, at the right time.
Her uncle isn’t telling her anything about Miles that she really wants to know, so she asks outright if he’s married, and is mildly surprised to find that he isn’t, wondering to herself what’s wrong with him, and if he’s a danger to Nikki. She wishes Vorthys’s wife was there, who would have been more forthcoming. Vorthys does say he’s been out of the Empire a lot. Ekaterin asks about siblings, and Vorthys says he doesn’t have any, except for his clone-brother, though they don’t look alike, which confuses her. Vorthys then asks if they’re planning any siblings for Nikki, which puts her back on the defensive. She’s gotten a contraceptive implant, and she can’t get a straight answer from Tien about how they might be able to have more children, since his sperm will still carry the mutation even if it’s fixed in him. She claims to be waiting for Tien’s career to settle down, and Vorthys points out that it seems to be taking a while.
“I . . . won’t pretend that hasn’t been difficult.” That was true enough. Thirteen different jobs in a decade. Was this normal for a rising bureaucrat? Tien said it was a necessity, no bosses ever promoted from within or raised a former subordinate above them; you had to go around to move up. “We’ve moved eight times. I’ve abandoned six gardens, so far. The last two relocations, I just didn’t plant anything except in pots. And then I had to leave most of the pots, when we came here.”
She admits to herself that his first few postings were mediocre, but now she’s beginning to wonder how he’s ever going to expect promotion if he never stays long enough to gain much useful experience. Each new job, Tien starts with a burst of enthusiasm and long hours, before the charm wears off and he begins to complain of overwork and bad coworkers, which Ekaterin has learned means they’ll be moving soon. This posting has been going well for surprisingly long, almost a year, and maybe this will finally be it, if they stick it out long enough. With Tien’s hidden Vorzohn’s Dystrophy clock ticking down, she supposes that he has some grounds for impatience.
Vorthys says his wife has been wondering if they’re happy on Komarr. Ekaterin says she’s a little homesick, but insists she likes it fine. Her aunt was surprised that she didn’t put Nikki into a Komarran school, but Vorthys says the Barrayaran school he’s in is just fine. Ekaterin says Tien wanted to give Nikki the chance to make social connections with other Vor children in the sector. Ekaterin is silent, since she didn’t agree with Tien’s choice in the first place.
As they finish up their desserts, a Komarran man comes over to their table, greeting her by name and introducing himself as Andro Farr, from the Winterfair reception at Tien’s workplace. He was there with Marie Trogir, who worked at Waste Heat Management, and wonders if Ekaterin knows her. Ekaterin says she doesn’t, really, and Farr slumps in disappointment. He says he’s talked to all of Marie’s friends that he can find, but none of them know where she is. Six weeks ago, she was going out of town on work, but she should have been back a week ago. He’d talked to Administrator Soudha, her department head, and eventually, when he pinned Soudha down in person, he was told that she and her boss, Radovas, had run off together six weeks ago, and hadn’t been seen since.
Ekaterin can think of reasons why either one of them may have wanted to leave their current relationship, but keeps them to herself. She asks if he’s talked to Radovas’s wife, and he says she refused to talk with him. Vorthys asks if he’s filed a Missing Persons report, and Farr says he hasn’t, but maybe he will. He mentions that she left her clothes and her cats, which doesn’t make any sense.
After Farr leaves, Ekaterin asks if she should bring lunch for Miles as well, and Vorthys says it may be a good idea, since Miles doesn’t always seem to notice when he misses meals, when he’s wrapped up in a problem. She hopes that she’ll be able to find out something about how Miles Vorkosigan seems to cope so well with his mutations, and get some tips that might be helpful for Nikolai some day.
Not the most stirring chapter, being fairly talky. Most of what it reveals about Miles, long-time readers like us will, of course, already know, but it’s interesting to see what impressions Ekaterin gets from the revelations. She’s still labouring under the misapprehension that he’s a mutant, though of course from a Barrayaran social standpoint, it makes little difference if you are as long as you look like one. What we get from Ekaterin’s thoughts is mostly a reinforcement of how unhappy she is in her life with Tien, though she’s still trying to stay loyal to him, and hopes that it will get better someday. She hasn’t–quite–given up on him yet.
Andro Farr’s appearance, and the mysterious disappearance of Marie Trogir and Radovas, is the only thing in the chapter of much relevance to the main plot, though of course right now it mostly seems just a little odd, and probably quite unrelated to the soletta disaster. But this is a mystery plot again, mostly, so it is, at least, a clue.
Etienne Vorsoisson’s group occupies two floors in an ordinary office building, near the edge of the dome and not entirely contained within it. Miles is a little uncomfortable with the glass windows being all that separates them from the planet’s atmosphere, but Vorthys points out that the pressure differential is not that high, not like a space station. Air inside the domes is made from air outside, by concentrating the sparse oxygen and filtering out a few unpleasant substances like carbon dioxide. They do have emergency breath masks, but Miles doesn’t think they’ve been checked recently, and almost calls an emergency inspection right then, but decides to restrain himself.
Vorsoisson escorts them into a conference room where he introduces the Auditors to the department heads of the Serifosa Dome branch of the terraforming project. They’re all Komarrans, saving only Vorsoisson himself; Tien’s assistant Venier is to give them a general presentation followed by Q&A. The presentation starts with a historical overview of Komarran colonization; Miles notes that these days a marginal world like Komarr would be less likely to be actually colonized, despite its rich wormhole nexus. They had begun by bombarding the planet with comets for their ice, before the icecaps were found to contain all the water necessary; after that they concentrated on the mirrors to increase solar radiation, leading to the current seven-mirror soletta. This allowed liquid water and plant life at the equator, to begin converting the CO2 in the atmosphere, and extra greenhouse gases were added to help trap more heat. And then, of course, the soletta accident.
“There was mention of a cooling projection? With figures?” Vorthys prodded gently.
“Yes, my Lord Auditor.” Venier slid a disk across the polished surface toward the Professor. “Administrator Vorsoisson said you were an engineer, so I left in all the calculations.”
The Waste Heat Management fellow, Soudha, also an engineer, winced and bit his thumb at this innocent ignorance of Vorthys’s stature in his field. Vorthys merely said, “Thank you. I appreciate that.”
So where’s my copy? Miles did not ask aloud.
He asks for the layman’s summary, and Venier says that it’ll only take a season for effects to be felt at the most extreme latitudes, and by five years it’ll be difficult to recover the lost ground. Soudha says they’re hoping for other sources of heat to help with the shortfall; they’ve been trying to use waste heat from the domes to help with the planetary warming, but it’s only a drop in the bucket, just good to keep the domes’ immediate area warm enough for some of the plant life to survive in their immediate vicinity. Vorthys muses on the strangeness of wanting to produce more waste heat, rather than less; he asks about devoting fusion reactors to nothing but producing heat. Soudha says it’s possible, but not economical, certainly more expensive than repairing the orbital mirrors, and using reactors to power domes produces the same amount of heat in the end.
Next up is the head of “Microbial Reclassification”, who discusses the bacterial life which is thriving on the planet, but adapting so furiously as to be hard to keep track of, and not adding anything much to drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. “Carbon Draw-Down” is having some success with higher forms of plant life, particularly peat bogs, though they require water and heat, and ideally they’ll end up buried under lakes for long term carbon sequestration. All the departments have the same needs, for funding, as well as a restoration, or even expansion, of heat and light; few of them bothered to bring copies of their reports for Miles, though he’s not sure how much of them he wanted to read in the first place. He is stiff and sore by the time the meeting ends.
Vorthys buttonholes Soudha and asks about Marie Trogir; Soudha claims not to know anything more, mostly finding it annoying that she left without notice, leaving a gap in his staff. Vorthys comments on the oddity of her leaving her cats behind, but Soudha know nothing more. As they continue on the tour, Miles asks Vorthys what that was about, and Tien tells them about the scandal of Marie Trogir and Radovas running off together. Vorthys explains how they ran into Andro Farr in the restaurant. Miles thinks that running off like that doesn’t sound very Komarran, more like a Barrayaran backcountry elopement.
They reach the garage, where their promised vehicle is missing; Vorsoisson and Vorthys go to see about it, and Miles decides to take the opportunity to take Venier’s measure. Venier asks if he’s ever visited the Massacre Shrine in Solstice, a pointed reference to the Solstice Massacre, supposedly engineered by Miles’s father, earning him the name “The Butcher of Komarr”. Miles comments that he went there with a relative of a Martyr, which surprises Venier.
Venier’s brows tweaked up. “Well . . . there is a theory that the massacre was ordered by Emperor Ezar without the knowledge of Admiral Vorkosigan. Ezar was certainly ruthless enough.”
“Ruthless enough, yes. Stupid enough, never. It was the Barrayaran expedition’s chief Political Officer’s own bright idea, for which my father made him pay with his life, not that that did much good for anyone after the fact. Leaving aside every moral consideration, the massacre was a supremely stupid act. My father has been accused of many things, but stupidity has never, I believe, been one of them.” His voice was growing dangerously clipped.
“We’ll never know the whole truth, I suppose,” said Venier.
Was that supposed to be a concession? “You can be told the whole truth all day long, but if you won’t believe it, then no, I don’t suppose you ever will know it.”
Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Ekaterin and Nikki, who are apparently going to join them on the excursion, which should be educational. She brought jackets for them, in case they venture out on foot. The aircar arrives then, and they discuss who will sit where; Nikki wants to sit with his father and Uncle Vorthys, and Ekaterin suggests diffidently that Venier fly, but Tien nixes this, insisting he’s utterly capable. Miles wonders whether a Komarran with strong opinions is any safer a driver than somebody potentially coming down with Vorzohn’s Dystrophy.
Vorsoisson distributes breath masks, and Ekaterin checks hers and Nikki’s carefully, despite her husband’s insistence that it’s unnecessary. Miles ends up sitting in the back of the aircar with Venier and Ekaterin; he wishes he could chat with either of them without the other present, but no luck. Venier reverts to lecture mode, and Ekaterin provides enough intelligent questions to cover Miles’s tiredness. Miles asks why she hasn’t tried to use her interest in botany by working for her husband’s department, and Ekaterin seems to find the idea new and unsettling. She says it smacks of nepotism, but Miles points out that the Vor system runs on nepotism, as long as people do their jobs well. She could start off as an assistant, and take courses to bring her up to a more interesting position. Unless, he thinks to himself, she’s the one with Vorzohn’s, which might explain her lack of ambition. He wishes he knew which of them it was, but admonishes himself to not abuse his Auditor’s powers to find out. Venier speaks up unexpectedly to support Miles’s suggestion; Ekaterin says she’ll have to see if Tien plans to stay at this job, first.
Vorsoisson’s voice, over the intercom from the front compartment, interrupted to point out the upcoming peat bog, lining a long narrow valley below. It was a more impressive sight than Miles had expected. For one thing, it was a true and bright Earth-green; for another, it ran on for kilometers.
“This strain produces six times the oxygen of its Earth ancestor,” Venier noted with pride.
“So . . . if you were trapped outside without a breath mask, could you crawl around in it and survive till you were rescued?” Miles asked practically.
“Mm . . . if you could hold your breath for about a hundred more years.”
Tien brings the aircar down to a landing on blessedly solid rock, avoiding the frozen bog that Miles was afraid of, based on past experience.
The canopy rose to admit a blast of chill unbreatheable outside air, and they exited for a clamber over the rocks and down to personally examine the squishy green plants. They were squishy green plants, all right. There were lots of them. Stretching to the horizon. Lots. Squishy. Green. With an effort, Miles stopped his back-brain from composing a lengthy Report to the Emperor in this style, and tried instead to appreciate Venier’s highly technical disquisition on potential deep-freeze damage to the something-chemical cycle.
They don’t spend long there before heading back into the air, to fly over a couple more valleys, then turn back towards Serifosa. Miles spots an installation with a fusion reactor, surrounded by greenery, and asks about it; Venier says it’s Waste Heat’s experimental station. Miles asks Tien if they could stop there, and Tien says he’d rather not it, since he wants to be back before dark. Miles considers insisting on it, since he always enjoys surprise inspections, and Venier thinks it might be interesting, but Tien suggests another day instead. Miles reminds himself that they’re looking into the soletta affair, not inspecting random facilities. They return to the dome, sparkling in the fading light, and back to the office garage.
Venier went off with the aircar, and Vorsoisson collected the spare breath masks. Madame Vorsoisson’s face was bright and glowing, exhilarated by her field trip. “Don’t forget to put your mask back on the recharger,” she chirped to her husband as she handed him hers.
Vorsoisson’s face darkened. “Don’t. Nag. Me,” he breathed through set teeth.
She recoiled slightly, her expression closing as abruptly as a shutter. Miles stared off through the pillars, politely pretending not to have heard or noticed this interplay. He was hardly an expert on marital miscommunication, but even he could see how that one had gone awry. Her perhaps unfortunately-chosen expression of love and interest had been received by the obviously tense and tired Vorsoisson as a slur on his competence. Madame Vorsoisson deserved a better hearing, but Miles had no advice to offer. He had never even come near to capturing a wife to miscommunicate with. Not for lack of trying . . . .
Vorthys diverts the conversation to discussion of a supper destination, and Miles promises himself that this will be the last dinner he spends with the Vorsoisson family. He drinks a little more than he planned, but before going to bed, he checks his neurotransmitter levels, and judges them not yet ready to be discharged by induced seizure. A few days more and they will be, though; he’ll have to enlist himself a spotter, since he left his Armsman behind. He doesn’t have a wife to spot for him yet either; perhaps the Professor? He goes to bed and hopes not to dream of frozen corpses.
Wasn’t there something in the last chapter of The Warrior’s Apprentice, in the training exercise, where the supposed safety equipment had empty oxygen reservoirs? And then there’s those uninspected breath masks, with the thought that they might be in poor condition brought up not only by Miles’s brain, but also by Ekaterin. It seems that Tien might have a history of being careless about checking them, you know. But he’s oversensitive about anything that might cast him in a poor light with…well, with anyone else, really, so he lashes out when Ekaterin makes a harmless reminder.
All the talk of carbon sequestration and the like seems very timely these days, with so many people concerned about greenhouse gases. Though Komarr really has the opposite problem–they need to take the CO2 out of the air (or the carbon out of the CO2) to free up breathable oxygen, not to cut down on planetary heat retention; they actually need more greenhouse gases to help with that. It makes me think of all the time I spent playing SimEarth, where I kept draining out too much CO2 and triggering an ice age. So heating up the planet and “carbon draw-down” are goals at odds with each other.
Venier is practically the first Komarran we see for any length of time (apart from Andro Farr, I suppose), and I suppose it’s not that unlikely that he should happen to be one of those who’s sensitive about the Solstice Massacre, and how the name of Vorkosigan is associated with it. One wonders whether sending Miles to Komarr is also a bit of calculation on Gregor’s part, though I guess I’m not sure what it would accomplish. One wouldn’t think he’d want to do anything too provocative with his wedding to Laisa coming up. But I also can’t think that the ramifications wouldn’t occur to him at all…
And that’s it for another week; the plot hasn’t yet thickened much , but perhaps the characters have. (Can characters thicken? Well, Tien and Vorthys both seem thick, if in different ways.) Who knows how much deeper we’ll get into the thick of things in the next two chapters? You will, if you come back next week, that’s who.