Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, the Internet phenomenon which devotes itself, through me, to a stunningly entertaining, well, reread, I guess, of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. You’ve known it was coming, and here it is: the single-chapter installment of the Komarr reread. Three chapters left, and on Monday I decided I felt like saddling Next Week’s Me with more work and taking it easy this week. Next Week’s Me may have something to say about that, but This Week’s Me will be days away by then. A few other times I’ve been tempted, of course, but the two chapters seemed to go together well enough that I decided it would be worth it to do them back to back. This time, I thought I could pull this one off solo, so I guess we’ll see how well that works.
Ekaterin tries sabotaging the sonic toilet by flushing her shoes down it, but to no avail; she complains to Professora Vorthys that it’s too well designed, and says that Nikki had managed to do it on the jumpship out from Barrayar. She’s glad that Nikki isn’t there, but she can’t help but think that somebody, perhaps Miles, must know how to sabotage a sonic toilet effectively, or even turn it into a weapon, and grumpily wishes he were there. She checks the room over for the tenth time; she’s considered trying to start a fire, but their hair is the only thing in the room that would burn, and in any case a fire in a locked room is a last resort.
The Professora says she did have her Vorfemme knife, but it was sheathed in the boot she threw earlier. Ekaterin admits she’d stopped wearing hers on Komarr, and she’d always wondered why Vor men let their wives have such tiny weapons. The Professora says that given some of their female ancestors, they were probably right to be cautious.
Ekaterin’s aunt asks if she can sit down on again–on the toilet, their only seat–and Ekaterin lets her, since she’s not looking that well. Madame Vorthys tells Ekaterin that if she sees a chance for escape, she should take it, and not worry about her; it’s more important that they let people know what the Komarran conspirators are trying to do. Ekaterin confirms that, the last she knew, the Auditors hadn’t figured out what the device was.
“I hope they won’t think we ought to sacrifice ourselves, like in the Tragedy of the Maiden of the Lake.”
“She was actually sacrificed by her brother, as the tradition would have it,” said the Professora. “I do wonder if it was quite so voluntary as he later claimed.”
Ekaterin reflected dryly on the old Barrayaran legend. As the tale went, the town of Vorkosigan Surleau, on the Long Lake, had been besieged by the forces of Hazelbright. Loyal vassals of the absent Count, a Vor officer and his sister, had held out till the last. On the verge of the final assault, the Maiden of the Lake had offered up her pale throat to her brother’s sword rather than fall to the ravages of the enemy troops. The very next morning, the siege was unexpectedly lifted by the subterfuge of her betrothed—one of their Auditor Vorkosigan’s distant ancestors, come to think of it, the latterly famous General Count Selig of that name—who sent the enemy hurriedly marching away to meet the false rumor of another attack. But it was, of course, too late for the Maiden of the Lake. Much Barrayaran historical sympathy, in the form of plays and poems and songs, had been expended upon the subsequent grief of the two men; Ekaterin had memorized one of the shorter poems for a school recitation, in her childhood. “I’ve always wondered,” said Ekaterin, “if the attack really had taken place the next day, and all the pillage and rape had proceeded on schedule, would they have said, `Oh, that’s all right, then’?”
“Probably,” said Aunt Vorthys, her lips twitching.
Ekaterin says she wants to go home, but to modern Barrayar, not the ancient version that some girls she knows romanticize. Madame Vorthys says she tries to disabuse her history students of any such notions. After some silence, Ekaterin asks her aunt if she could feign illness, and her aunt says that it wouldn’t really be pretending; Ekaterin wonders if it’s still jump-sickness, or there’s some aftereffect of the stunner. She asks about her aunt’s heart, and Madame Vorthys says that she’s on the waiting list for an operation to implant a new one. She agrees to act dangerously sick, so that maybe the Komarrans will let them out of the room and give them another opportunity.
Ekaterin pounds on the door and calls out until Madame Radovas and a stunner-wielding Arozzi open it. Ekaterin asks for a doctor for her aunt, or at least a place to lie down for a while. They agree cautiously to the latter; Arozzi says it’ll be nice to have the bathroom back, and suggests putting them in the middle of the room where they can be easily watched, and anyway Ekaterin will be busy looking after her aunt.
A few minutes later, Madame Radovas escorts them to where a cot has been set up on one side of the room, far from the alarms. Arozzi and Madame Radovas take turns holding the stunner on them while they get the Professora settled and get her a hot drink; Ekaterin acts as solicitous as she can while covertly taking in her surroundings. The device is hooked up to more power, and Soudha, Cappell, and another man she doesn’t know are absorbed with preparing that. Cappell makes markings on the floor, and Soudha uses a remote control to move the device’s float cradle to line up with them. Ekaterin takes out her map cube and tries to figure out if it’s being aimed at the wormhole, and her best guess is that it might be. She looks for exits; in addition to the bathroom and the entrance, there’s an external airlock, a door that might lead back to offices, and the glass-walled control booth.
She turns to questioning Madame Radovas about their plans; Madame Radovas says that they had planned to collapse the wormhole and sacrifice themselves, and it’s almost annoying that their hostages might give them a way out. Though she did leave three children behind on the planet, and hopefully her death would keep them from becoming ImpSec hostages in their turn. She says they voted on it, Komarran-style–she was considered to have inherited her husband’s voting shares–and only Soudha, who has no children, voted to wait and try again later. Ekaterin asks about all the Barrayarans that could be cut off from their families, and Madame Radovas merely tells her to be glad she’s on the right side of the wormhole; she also claims that Barrayar’s industrial base is better than it was at the first Time of Isolation, so the planet should do better.
“How . . . do you expect to die?” asked Ekaterin. “Take poison together? Walk out an airlock?” And will you kill us first?
“I expect you Barrayarans will take care of those details, when you figure out what happened,” said Madame Radovas. “Foscol and Cappell think we will escape, afterwards, or that we might be permitted to surrender. I think it will be the Solstice Massacre all over again. We even have our very own Vorkosigan for it. I’m not afraid.” She hesitated, as if contemplating her own brave words. “Or at any rate, I’m too tired to care anymore.”
Ekaterin realizes that she’s less afraid of the Komarrans than she was of Tien at his worst–once he’d admitted to getting rid of a nerve disrupter she hadn’t known he had. Maybe it’s because Nikki is safe, like the fairy tale of the mutant who kept his heart hidden in a box. Soudha adjusts the device’s position again; he, Cappell, and the other engineer get into a discussion which results in Soudha leaving the remote control on the float-cradle while they all discuss a power connection over by the wall.
If I think about this, the chance will be gone. If I think about this, even my mutant’s heart will fail me.
Had she the right to take this much risk upon herself? That was the real fear, yes, and it shook her to her core. This wasn’t a task for her. This was a task for ImpSec, the police, the army, a Vor hero, anyone but her. Who are not here. But oh, if she tried and failed, she failed for all Barrayar, for all time. And who would take care of Nikki, if he lost both parents in the space of barely a week? The safe thing to do was to wait for competent grownup male people to rescue her.
Like Tien, yeah?
She turns back to her aunt, and pretends to be tucking in the blanket, while actually loosening it; she turns smoothly and wraps the blanket around Madame Radovas, pinning her arms to her side so the stunner fire goes harmlessly to the deck, then shaking her so she drops it. She kicks the stunner to her aunt, shoves Madame Radovas away, then sprints for the float-cradle. She grabs the remote and runs for the glass control booth, the men beginning to chase after her. She reaches the control booth in time, just barely, to shut and lock the door before Cappell and the others reach it.
Not sparing a thought for her aunt, she points the remote control at the float cradle, trying to figure out how the controls work. Finally she figures out how to raise it up, though it takes a few more tries before she can make it rotate. It careens around, scraping off the catwalks and tearing loose power cables. Soudha tries to break through the glass wall, designed to stand up to vacuum, and resistant even to stunner fire. She manages to override the cradle’s preset function, which was keeping it level; she flips it over, then cancels the antigravity, and it drops to the deck. She’s prepared to try again, but on the first try it bursts like a clay flowerpot, sending shrapnel throughout the loading bay. The glass wall even stops that, and in vicious glee she smashes the cradle up and down a few more times anyway.
She looks around the room, and sees her aunt sitting bent over against a wall, and the Komarrans beginning to get organized. Madame Radovas has her stunner back, and Arozzi and Soudha are working on the door with a box of electronic tools. In the booth are controls to evacuate the bay, but she can’t do that with her aunt in there; there’s also a comconsole, though.
“Hello, Emergency?” Ekaterin panted as the vid-plate activated. “My name is Ekaterin Vorsoisson—” She had to stop, as the automated system tried to route her to her choice of traveler’s aids. She rejected Lost & Found, selected Security, and started over, not certain she’d reached a human yet, and praying it would all be recorded. “My name is Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Lord Auditor Vorthys is my uncle. I’m being held prisoner, along with my aunt, by Komarran terrorists at the Southport Transport docks and locks. I’m in a loading bay control booth right now, but they’re getting the door open.” She glanced over her shoulder. Soudha had defeated the lock; the airseal door, bent from Cappell’s efforts with the wrench, whined and refused to retreat into its slot. Soudha and Arozzi put their shoulders to it, grunting, and it inched open. “Tell Lord Auditor Vorkosigan—tell ImpSec—”
Then the swearing Soudha slipped sideways through the door, followed by Cappell still clutching his wrench. Laughing hysterically, tears running down her cheeks, Ekaterin turned to face her fate.
If Ekaterin had been nothing more than a potential love interest for Miles, then maybe that might have excused giving her viewpoint chapters when she was introduced, so we could get to know her and approve. Of course, she also gets to fight her way out of a disintegrating marriage and impress us all with her strength and dignity, which is also good. But what is she to the “main” plot, the mystery, conspiracy, and conflict that Miles has been trying to deal with, the “public stakes” as my wife would call it? For most of the book she’s mostly an observer, someone affected by it but not really able to help too much in solving it. But at the end, apparently, she becomes the person who manages to be in the right place at the right time, and with enough guts and resourcefulness to save the day.
I get a little tired of referring to Ekaterin’s aunt, Vorthys’s wife, as “the Professora”, even though that’s what tends to be used. Doesn’t she have a first name? Probably, but nobody ever uses it. And somehow I can’t just call her “Vorthys”, because that’s what I’ve been using for her husband, a more major character in this book. I can get away with “Madame Vorthys”, I suppose, though that’s still two words, and I get tired of “Madame Radovas” over and over, too. I try to switch it out a little bit, but of course then I run the risk of the “burly detective syndrome”, resorting to outlandish descriptors to avoid repetition–or the opposite, pronoun confusion, like “She told her not to worry about her if she had any problems.”
Bujold has been quoted as saying “The challenge for a writer is to have everyone, including the villains, acting with the maximum intelligence, and still find some way to make it dramatic.” I guess that include the proviso that the villains should be just as intelligent and competent as you’d expect them to be, and in particular they can goof up when they’re out of the depth. Soudha and the others were ahead of ImpSec and the Auditors from the beginning, but Ekaterin is able to overmaster them because of their inexperience with dealing directly with their adversaries. We can’t all be expert kidnappers, I guess.
See, there’s kind of a cliff-hanger on this chapter; Ekaterin is in jeopardy, her aunt’s health is in doubt, and the Komarrans have just lost their last hope; will their rage drive them to extremity, with nothing left to lose? Will Miles be able to save Ekaterin and her aunt, and maybe wrest some happiness for himself out of the affair? Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion of–Komarr!