You know, it’s not easy coming up with creative openings for these posts all the time. Maybe if I devoted some time to it during the week instead of trying to think of it at 11:15 Wednesday night… Ah, well. Suffice it to say, then, that this is another entry in the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, in which I synopsize and free-associate about another couple of chapters in Lois McMaster Bujold’s saga of Miles Vorkosigan and his friends and family. This week I cover chapters Seventeen and Eighteen of the novel Komarr, wherein Miles and Ekaterin, separately, find out a lot more about just what the Komarran conspirators are really trying to accomplish.
The next morning Ekaterin sets out on a ferry to the Barrayar wormhole station to meet her aunt. Uncle Vorthys, whose unofficial motto is “No artificial shortages” (usually referring to desserts) has sprung for a private room for her; however tiny, it’s still better, on an eight-hour trip, than the economy seats she, Tien and Nikki had settled for on their original trip to Komarr, made worse by coming at the end of a week’s passage from Barrayar. That had been one point in Venier’s favour–accepting his proposal would have meant she wouldn’t be facing such a return trip. She’s not sure why he’d felt moved to make such an offer to her, since she’d gone to such lengths to avoid encouraging any male attentions.
Neither Venier’s nor Vorkosigan’s enthusiastic plans for her future education and employment were distasteful to her, indeed, they matched her own aspirations, and yet . . . both somehow implied, You can become a real person, but only if you play our game.
Why can’t I be real where I am?
Determined to keep from brooding, she pulls out her reader and prepares to enjoy the solitude of the cabin, wondering why solitary confinement was considered punishment. She’s briefly guilty over having left Nikki behind–Madame Vortorren, wife of an aide to Serifosa’s Seputy, had been kind enough to offer her assistance, but she seems to run her household in an old kind of benign neglect–but she looks forward to having her aunt to herself, to have a frank discussion about her marriage just ended.
Her first book is a disk on estate and financial management recommended by the lawyer she’d talked to–who had confirmed her lack of liability for Tien’s debt–which is somewhat dry, but she is determined to learn about it anyway, to regain some control of her life, and she has a gardening disk to read afterwards as a reward. She even manages to sneak in a two-hour nap before the ferry docks at the transfer station.
The station was built after the rediscovery of the route to Barrayar via Komarr, enhanced during the abortive Cetagandan invasion of same that the Komarrans had authorized, and then captured by the Barrayarans during their return invasion of Komarr. Under Barrayaran management it’s continued growing, with a separate military station on the other side of the jump point.
After the ferry docks, Ekaterin gets a map of the station and finds a hostel room for herself and her aunt, since Professora Vorthys, with her bad jump lag, will likely need time to recover before heading down to the planet. She gets a quick snack, since her aunt will also probably not feel like eating right away, and sits in the arrival lounge to wait. Not having brought her reader, she instead people-watches, though her mind drifts back to her own problems. She wonders if the Old Vor version of marriage is intrinsically soul-deadening for women, or if it was just hers? The Vorthyses do seem to be a counterexample, though Ekaterin wonders what secret compromises her aunt might have made. Maybe it depended on who you happened to pick for a spouse, which people tended to decide upon at an age of maximum idiocy–a good evolutionary strategy designed to maximize production of children, she supposes, though it didn’t work out that way for her.
Passengers from the shuttle begin to debark, though Aunt Vorthys comes near the end, being aided by a porter and looking distinctly ill. She said the ship had been a speedy one, which gave her less time to recover between jumps, and her feet swelled up so much she had to swap her boots for bedroom slippers. Ekaterin insists that her aunt ride on her luggage float pallet so she can tow her to the hostel. She apologizes to her aunt for bringing her out there when she’ll be going back to Barrayar in a few weeks anyway, and Madame Vorthys says she’d have come to join her husband anyway since the case didn’t seem to be progressing all that swiftly. Ekaterin promises to tell her all the details once they’re alone.
Her aunt had grandchildren, Ekaterin thought, yet still seemed late-middle-aged rather than old. In the Time of Isolation, a Barrayaran woman would have been old at forty-five, waiting for death—if she made it even that far. In the last century, women’s life expectancies had doubled, and might even be headed toward the triple-portion taken for granted by such galactics as the Betans. Had Ekaterin’s own mother’s early death given her a false sense of time, and of timing? I have two lives for my foremothers’ one. Two lives in which to accomplish her dual goals. If one could stretch them out, instead of piling them atop one another . . . And the arrival of the uterine replicator had changed everything, too, profoundly. Why had she wasted a decade trying to play the game by the old rules? Yet a decade at twenty did not seem quite a straight trade for a decade at ninety. She needed to think this through . . . .
Ekaterin takes them through a shortcut she’d discovered earlier which should take them past some food kiosks and to their hostel. The utility corridor is mostly deserted, except for one man coming toward them, wearing a Southport Transport uniform and carrying food boxes. To Ekaterin’s shock, she recognizes him as a man named Arozzi from Waste Heat Management, and he recognizes her too. He asks if Tien is with her, and before Ekaterin can react, he drops his burden and pulls out a stunner; he apologizes as he fires.
She isn’t unconscious for long, so the stun must be fairly light, but she’s essentially paralyzed as Arozzi loads her onto the float pallet, threatening her aunt with the same treatment unless she behaves. She must look jump-sick like her aunt, because nobody seems to take any notice as Arozzi tows them along. Eventually they reach a Southport Transport Ltd. door which leads to a loading bay.
Soudha comes to greet them, expecting his dinner, but is dismayed to see Arozzi’s two captives. Arozzi explains how they could have identified him, but Soudha says the last thing they need is hostages. He asks who the other woman is, and Professora Vorthys identifies herself as the Auditor’s wife. Ekaterin is well enough to sit up now, and Arozzi takes his stunner back out as Lena Foscol appears. Ekaterin loudly identifies them to her aunt as the people who stole money from Terraforming and murdered Tien; Foscol insists she didn’t kill him, but Ekaterin tells her about the empty oxygen canister. Soudha insists that they didn’t intend him to die, and they only grudgingly accept that even someone like Tien could have been so careless.
Ekaterin sits up to get a better look at the chamber. It’s a large, strongly-lit room with a control booth on the opposite side, mostly dominated by the large cone-like object sitting in the middle on a float cradle, twice Ekaterin’s height, hooked up to station power. She realizes it may have been brought up to the station weeks ago, before anyone was thinking to look for it; they may even own the company and the loading bay.
Foscol says she’s not a murderer, like Barrayarans; Ekaterin insists she never killed anyone, but Foscol apparently holds all Barrayarans responsible for the deaths in the Komarr Revolt. Ekaterin says she was five years old that time, and says that so far Foscol and her group seem to have killed not only Tien, but the soletta staff, the ore freighter’s crew, and probably Radovas and Marie Trogir.
“If you want to go back in history,” the Professora put in dryly, “you Komarrans were the people who let the Cetagandans in on us. Five million Barrayarans died before the first Komarran ever did. Crying for your past dead is a piece of one-downsmanship a Komarran cannot win.”
“That was longer ago,” said Foscol a little desperately.
“Ah. I see. So the difference between a criminal and a hero is the order in which their vile crimes are committed,” said the Professora, in a voice dripping false cordiality. “And justice comes with a sell-by date. In that case, you’d better hurry. You wouldn’t want your heroism to spoil.”
Ekaterin notes that they don’t deny being thieves, stealing from their own planet’s Terraforming project. Foscol says that their project will pay for itself many times over, in its benefit for future generations. Ekaterin has been trying to find something they can use to escape, or call for help, while keeping the Komarrans arguing; she spots an alarm panel maybe ten steps away, and tries to determine if she’d be able to make it that far without getting stunned, while trying to appear more impaired than she was.
Sarcastically, she asks if they think they’re going to shut down the wormhole jump to Barrayar; from their reaction, she suddenly realizes that that is their plan after all. She knows there are ways to temporarily disrupt a wormhole, by sacrificing a ship in mid-jump, and wormholes do open and close naturally, but she doesn’t know of a way to artificially close one permanently, and she asserts that it won’t work for long, though she supposes they might have an uprising timed for the wormhole’s closing. Foscol and Soudha insist that it will work, they’ll be able to rid themselves of Barrayar without firing a shot.
Ekaterin says that three-quarters of the Barrayaran fleet is on this side of the wormhole, not to mention Sergyar, so it seems like there’ll still be a few Barrayarans left over. Soudha admits that they’d intended to strike during Gregor’s wedding, when the fleet would be in orbit around Barrayar, but their hand has been forced.
Ekaterin squeezed the Professora’s ankle and climbed slowly to her feet. Upright, she swayed, wishing her unbalance really were artistic fakery to put the Komarrans off-guard. She spoke with deadly venom. “In the Time of Isolation, I would have been dead at forty. In the Time of Isolation, it would have been my job to cut my mutant infants’ throats, while my female relatives watched. I guarantee at least half the population of Barrayar does not agree with the Old Vor lords, including most of the Old Vor ladies. And you would condemn us all to go back to that, and you dare to call it bloodless!”
“Then count yourself lucky you’re on the Komarran side,” said Soudha dryly.
Soudha tells the others to get to work, and Ekaterin realizes that they’re no longer intended to wait to put their plan into operation. When Arozzi’s attention is momentarily distracted, Ekaterin leaps up and barrels past him towards the alarm; the Professora tosses one of her boots at Arozzi just when he’s trying to bring his stunner to bear. She manages to pull the alarm just as Arozzi stuns her, and she is gratified to hear klaxons start up around her.
When she wakes up again, though, they are stuffed into a lavatory, and the Professora tells her that they’d gagged her and dragged both of them out of sight by the time any authorities showed up. Soudha had admitted culpability and agreed readily to paying a fine for a false alarm, and then locked the women in the bathroom. She tells her niece that it was a good try, though; Ekaterin says it’ll make the next try harder, and they might not get another. She also adds that she’d already sent a message to her uncle from the station, so they might not be missed until they fail to return to Komarr on the next shuttle, and she’s not sure they have that much time.
More primitive futuristic book-reader technology, with Ekaterin’s e-reader needing to have actual disks inserted into it with books on them. It’s easy enough to just pretend that they’re not actually physical disks, I suppose–maybe they call them “disks” on Barrayar the same way that one may “dial” a touch-tone phone. (Though I never could picture “dialing” a keypad the way Larry Niven often used the term in his stories.) That still doesn’t explain Radovas’s physical library of book-disks, of course, but predicting future technology is a tricky business. A lot of if comes from underestimating just how small things will get in even the near future, but I can’t help but wonder if at any point we’ll have gone too far the other way…
Ekaterin’s unfortunate–what’s the opposite of serendipitous?–encounter with Arozzi brings us finally into the book’s climax. Up to this point Ekaterin hasn’t been able to do much about the conspirators themselves, but, oddly, now that they were forced to deal with her, she’s close enough to at least cause them some inconvenience, and maybe more. I don’t know if they have anything more lethal than Arozzi’s stunner, since by their lights they’re essentially pacifists, with their visions of a “bloodless engineer’s revolution”.
I wonder what the population of Barrayarans on Komarr is at this point? No doubt they’re in a minority, though in positions of authority. What would happen if the scheme were to succeed? Would the Barrayarans left outside the wormhole try to hold on to Komarr, or would they give it up and retreat to Sergyar, which they would have a clearer claim on? I imagine they’d try to find another unknown wormhole route to Barrayar, though of course I imagine that was done last time. If the Komarrans did kick them out, they probably wouldn’t allow a lot of experimentation on the closed wormhole trying to reopen it. Would the Cetagandans come after them again, hoping for an easier victory this time, trying to annex Sergyar? More importantly, perhaps, what would happen when the wormhole-closing technology got out? It would turn into a huge blackmail weapon–any other wormhole cul-de-sac (like Aslund, for example) could end up at the mercy of anyone who could get one of the weapons aimed at their wormhole. Though it might not end up actually being used that often, at least while it’s irrevocable, so bluffs might be called…it’d be like the Cold War, wormhole brinksmanship.
Miles gets to come along to the shuttleport to see Ekaterin off, because the experts Vorthys has ordered are due in shortly afterward, but he limits himself to wishing her a safe journey. They meet the experts, Dr. Riva and her younger companion Dr. Yuell, and whisk them off to the Waste Heat station. ImpSec Major D’Emorie records loyalty oaths from both of them, even though Miles is sure they’ve both already taken one, and secrecy oaths as well. Vorthys brings them up to speed on the situation, though much of the technical information goes over Miles’s head, and he begins to feel a little stupid.
Dr. Riva seems surprised that the Necklin rods seem to be receiving power in pulses, since normally they need their power without unwelcome fluctuations. As they try to figure out what this would mean, Miles asks what this would do to whatever it was aimed at; Dr. Riva says that most of the gravity effects would take place on the edge of the five-space pulse, rather than in the centre.
“Could it be, I don’t know . . . that we’re looking at half the weapon?”
Riva shrugged, but looked interested rather than scornful, so Miles hoped it wasn’t a stupid question. “Have you determined if it is meant to be a weapon at all?” she said.
“We’ve got some very dead people to account for,” Miles pointed out.
“That, alas, does not necessarily require a weapon.” Professor Vorthys sighed. “Carelessness, stupidity, haste, and ignorance are quite as powerfully destructive of forces as homicidal intent. Though I must confess a special distaste for intent. It seems so unnecessarily redundant. It’s . . . anti-engineering.”
Vorthys says he’s more interested in what effect it would have if it was aimed at a wormhole, or activated while traveling into one. The experts debate that for a while, then Dr. Riva asks if they can sleep on it overnight. Vorthys says that, unfortunately, they’ll need to stay there until they’ve solved the problem. Dr. Riva laments having to stay at the “ImpSec Budget Hostel” again–bedrolls and ready-meals–and goes out to pace in the corridor. Miles tries to figure out where the Komarrans may have hidden their giant device, but can’t come up with anything. Eventually he notices that Dr. Riva’s footsteps have stopped, so he goes to investigate.
She turns out to be sitting on a window ledge looking at the the landscape. Miles tentatively asks what she’s thinking, and she says she doesn’t believe in perpetual motion. Then she asks if he’s really the son of the Butcher of Komarr, and he agrees he’s Aral Vorkosigan’s son.
“The private life of men of power isn’t what we expect, sometimes.”
He jerked up his chin. “People have some very odd illusions about power. Mostly it consists of finding a parade and nipping over to place yourself at the head of the band. Just as eloquence consists of persuading people of things they desperately want to believe. Demagoguery, I suppose, is eloquence sliding to some least moral energy level.” He smiled bleakly at his boot. “Pushing people uphill is one hell of a lot harder. You can break your heart, trying that.” Literally, but he saw no point in discussing the Butcher’s medical history with her.
“I was given to understand that power politics had chewed you up.”
Surely she could not see scars through his gray suit. “Oh,” Miles shrugged, “the prenatal damage was just the prologue. The rest I did to myself.”
She asks if he’d like to change his past, if he could, and he admits that he probably doesn’t, since he doesn’t know what changes might end up making him a smaller person. She says that sounds like a working definition of satisfaction. They break for lunch, and exchange scurrilous anecdotes, including Miles’s story of sinking his vehicle on Kyril Island. Dr. Riva seems to get more subdued as time goes on, even after they return to work. Miles wonders if she’s waiting for inspiration to strike, or if there’s something else going on. She would have been in her twenties at the time of the Komarr revolt, but she’s cooperated since then, and has adult children, so she doesn’t seem the terrorist type. Still, her earlier question about changing the past seems indicative of something. He feels time ticking away, and Dr. Riva seems to have ground to a halt.
Miles takes Major D’Emorie aside and asks for a fast-penta interrogation kit; when he returns with it, Miles asks him to take Dr. Yuell for a walk. D’Emorie protests that he should be present if any fast-penta is being used; Miles promises to tell him anything he thinks ImpSec needs to know, thinking of turnabout for years of previous incomplete briefings. Once D’Emorie and Yuell are gone, Miles takes out the fast-penta kit and tells Dr. Riva he needs to have a frank conversation with her. As he applies the allergy patch, Vorthys protests that he can’t do that.
Miles took a deep breath. “My Lord Auditor. Dr. Riva. I have made two serious errors of judgment on this case so far. If I’d avoided either of them, your nephew-in-law would still be alive, we’d have nailed Soudha before he got away with all his equipment, and we would not now all be sitting at the bottom of a deep tactical hole playing with jigsaw puzzles. They were both at heart the same error. The first day we toured the Terraforming Project, I did not insist on Tien landing the aircar here, though I wanted to see the place. And on the second night, I did not insist on a fast-penta interrogation of Madame Radovas, though I wanted to. You’re the failure analyst, Professor; am I wrong?”
Vorthys protests that he couldn’t have known, and Miles says that he could have found out easily enough. He’s been too afraid of abusing his Auditorial powers, especially as Aral Vorkosigan’s son on Komarr, but he needs to stop fighting his instincts. Riva’s allergy test comes out clean, and Miles gets the hypospray. Riva protests, but Miles injects her before she can stop him, saying that he’s trying to spare her the necessity of submitting voluntarily. Vorthys, offended at what Miles has done to his guest, warns him that he’d better have a good justification for this.
Miles starts by asking about the five-space problem, talking about the acclaim that will likely come out of it once it’s solved. Miles asks if Soudha won’t get credit, and Riva says it was more likely Cappell or Radovas who came up with it. Miles asks her off-handedly to explain it, and she says it’s a kind of wormhole collapsing technique, which immediately seizes Vorthys’s attention. Miles asks if that wouldn’t take an awful lot of power, and Riva says that apparently they’ve found a way to use five-space resonance to reduce the power required, though it wouldn’t be reversible, of course. Under the fast-penta, she seems disturbed, and says that there’s something wrong somewhere. Miles and Vorthys decide they’ve probably gotten all they’re going to out of her, but before they give her the antagonist, she holds up her hand and asks for a little longer to chase down a fleeting insight. Eventually she tells Vorthys to remember the phrase “elastic recoil” and permits Miles to inject her.
Once she’s come back to herself, Vorthys repeats the phrase back to her, and she says that what it means is that the device won’t work properly. She says that fast-penta had odd effects on her internal visualizations, and it might be worth trying again someday. She regrets that she withheld that information for nothing, and asks if she’s under arrest, but Miles says that neither of them will mention anything about her violating her loyalty oath. They’ll have to tell Gregor, but that’s about it, and they can accurately claim that the fast-penta was used experimentally to “enhance scientific insight”.
Miles asks her to explain her reasoning, in layman’s terms. She says that it’s based on positive feedback loops, like a note that breaks a wineglass, or soldiers in step destroying the bridge they’re marching over. Riva says that the device is supposed to resonate with a wormhole’s natural five-space frequency, which Soudha’s group think would make it collapse, but she’s decided that instead it will likely snap back out of the wormhole in a gravitic pulse, like an imploder lance, but probably aimed back along the line of the original pulse. So if Radovas fired this at the wormhole himself, he may have killed himself when it recoiled. Oddly, the pulse that came out seemed more powerful than any reasonable amount of energy they could have pumped into the wormhole, so it may also be a way of extracting energy from the wormhole’s structure itself.
Miles calls D’Emorie and Yuell back, and the techs get back to work on the new information. Miles wonders whether Soudha knows what he has, or if he still thinks he has a wormhole collapser. The accident with Radovas and the soletta must have made them think, though it also brought down a lot of disruptions upon them, and without Radovas, they may not have had the resources to figure it out, unless they’d managed to snatch someone else of Riva or Yuell’s caliber. The conspirators would have three options–drop everything and flee, hide and rebuild in secret, or gamble everything on one rushed shot. Miles decides to concentrate on the third option, since it’s the most time-sensitive, not to mention most in line with what he knows of their characters.
Miles asks Riva and Vorthys what will happen if they shut off the device before it reaches the backlash point, and Riva says that it might trigger the backlash anyway, so it might be unsafe to turn off once it’s been activated. Miles considers the possibility that Soudha plans to use this to destroy military wormhole stations; if he managed all six at once, and a planetary uprising at the same time, they might be able to carry it off, but certainly ImpSec would have spotted those kind of preparations by now. Plus they only have one device. If they’re going to go for one wormhole, they would obviously go for the Barrayaran one. They’d want to close off the Barrayar wormhole, if they could, even if they had to martyr themselves to do it. So, logically, they’re heading for the civilian transfer station there…the same place that they just sent Ekaterin to.
Since this scenario could happen at any time, and would probably result in severe damage to the transfer station, he decides it needs to be investigated right away. He calls ImpSec General Rathjens and tells him to search the Barrayar transfer station and any in-bound ships nearby, and transport for himself up to the station as soon as possible. He tells Vorthys his conclusions, then send a tight-beam message to the number Vorthys has for Ekaterin on board the station, warning her to get off as soon as possible. He asks Vorthys to stay there and figure out what happens when they turn the beam off, and heads out to wait for his transport.
Fast-penta is one of those technologies that Bujold has been careful to explore the ramifications of. It’s easy to just wave your authorial hand and say that you have a perfect truth drug. But in her world that leads to spies with implanted fatal allergies against it, criminals who are cagey about telling their confederates too much, the occasional person with a weird idiosyncratic reaction, and now, apparently, beneficial side effects associated with relaxing the brain’s inhibitions. This book also explores the nature of wormholes to a greater degree than her other books, even if it’s still mostly handwaving about “five-space”.
Miles has been restraining his wilder impulses to take advantage of, and possibly abuse, his newfound Auditor powers, but apparently he’s been second-guessing himself too much. It’s a valuable lesson to learn, that sometimes being cautious is worse than indulging your impulses, if you miss opportunities and lose your initiative. Not that Miles has always been known for his caution, really–I’m thinking of Cetaganda here, mostly–but before he was always trying to evade his superiors’ oversight and hope to accomplish enough to justify it later. Somehow losing most of his superiors threw him off balance, but he’s finally starting to acquire a new balance.
This chapter overlaps with Ekaterin’s chapter more than some of the others–for one thing, the opening paragraph, with them seeing Ekaterin off, actually takes place before the beginning of Ekaterin’s chapter. Also, some of the revelations in this chapter, like the purpose of the peculiar Necklin device, aren’t surprises to the reader because we saw them in the previous chapter, although Dr. Riva’s additional information in this chapter puts last chapter’s information in a new perspective. I also couldn’t help thinking, as they spend time debating science and trying to force insight, that at this very moment time is ticking away. By the end of this chapter, Ekaterin must already be a captive, so I guess her eight-hour trip, and her wait for her aunt’s arrival, have already elapsed. Ekaterin’s shuttle left early in the morning, and they had lunch, so I suppose that eight hours or more could have passed already… I always picture this being more of a night-time chapter, but I guess it isn’t, yet, is it?
Three more chapters left, and we’re into the climax now for sure; two more weeks, and I may even be able to do the single chapter in the last week, which is, if I may say so, an impressive display of willpower on my part to have not had one week of slacking off yet. Another post in seven days, fates willing…