Good evening, morning, night, or noon, and welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, that weekly feature wherein I devote myself to synopsizing and musing on chapters in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. This week we begin a new novel, Diplomatic Immunity, wherein the now-married Miles Vorkosigan encounters adventure on the way back from his honeymoon, as the Emperor orders to solve a problem one of their fleets has gotten into on Graf Station, home of the four-armed (and zero-legged) quaddies…
Miles watches video of his sperm fertilizing Ekaterin’s egg, cheering them on, much to Ekaterin’s amusement. She chides him for looking at “baby pictures”, and burbling on about them as if he’d invented reproduction, just as his mother had warned her he would, and says it’s a good thing they’re on honeymoon, or he’d be fussing around the uterine replicators just as badly. Miles notes she spent a lot of time studying next to the replicators herself…
They had celebrated their first anniversary by starting their first two children, Aral Alexander and Helen Natalia; Miles is still secretly holding out for twelve children, though he’ll only admit to six, which most women he knows still consider insane, but Ekaterin merely agreed to start with two.
A message light starts blinking, to Miles’s puzzlement; their ship is between wormholes, three jumps out from Earth en route to Tau Ceti, then Escobar, then home. He’s not expecting anyone to be contacting him right now. He accepts the message, which proves to be the ship’s captain, telling him that a Barrayaran Imperial courier, the Kestrel, is overtaking them and asking to lock on, with an urgent message for Miles. This doesn’t bode well, thinks Miles.
The captain’s dark Tau Cetan features vanished, to be replaced after a moment by a man in Barrayaran Imperial undress greens with lieutenant’s tabs and Sector IV pins on his collar. Visions surged through Miles’s mind of the Emperor assassinated, Vorkosigan House burned to the ground with the replicators inside, or, even more hideously likely, his father suffering a fatal stroke—he dreaded the day some stiff-faced messenger would begin by addressing him, Count Vorkosigan, sir?
The lieutenant addresses him merely as Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, and introduces himself as Lieutenant Smolyani; he quickly reassures Miles and Ekaterin that he’s not bringing news of war or death. There is an urgent request for Miles in an Auditorial capacity, though. A Komarran trade fleet has apparently been impounded at Graf Station, part of an independent system called the “Union of Free Habitats”, and they are to bring Miles there at all haste. It seems to be a legal entanglement, not a quarantine; they have a sealed message from Emperor Gregor which should explain further.
Smolyani brings Miles a disk later, and then goes to help Roic deal with the Vorkosigans’ luggage while Miles and Ekaterin watch the message. Gregor apologizes for interrupting their honeymoon, though he notes they should be on their way home anyway. Miles happens to physically closest to the mess at Graf Station. The Komarran fleet, and its Barrayaran escort, put in at Graf Station for a standard resupply stop, but one of the Barrayaran officers disappeared. The men sent to find and retrieve him encountered trouble with the locals, “shots were fired”, and people on both sides were injured.
Reports, unfortunately, differ as to what’s going on, between the fleet commander, the Komarran cargomasters, and the ImpSec observers. Barrayarans are being held hostage, or arrested, and the entire fleet is being locked down–with docking fees accruing–until the mess can be resolved. Gregor notes that the fleet is half owned by the Toscanes–his wife’s family–so he has to satisfy them while still managing to appear impartial. He requests and requires Miles to resolve the issue, without starting a war or bankrupting his budget, and also to find out who’s telling the truth about the situation; things could get dicey if the fleet commander, an Admiral Eugin Vorpatril, turns out to be lying to them. And, in the meantime, the Cetagandans seem to be stirred up around Rho Ceta, so he’d prefer Miles to be back home before that turns into anything.
After the message finishes, Miles asks Ekaterin if she wants to come with him; he says she certainly can, if she wants to, and she asks if she’d be anything more than a distraction. Miles says that she may recall that sometimes people try to obliquely pass him information through her, and he’d love to have her around to bounce ideas off of, or at least vent to.
“D’you think you can stand it? It could get pretty thick. Not to mention boring.”
“You know, you keep claiming your job is boring, Miles, but your eyes have gone all bright.”
He cleared his throat and shrugged unrepentantly.
Ekaterin reminds him that their children are scheduled to be born in about six weeks; their original schedule would have them home in two, but now they’ll be heading in the opposite direction. Miles does some calculations and says, with the speed of their fast courier, he should have a couple of weeks at Graf Station to clear things up and still make it home in time. Ekaterin says that however unnecessary she truly is to the replicator birth, she would feel bad missing the birth of her own children; Miles says that if necessary he can send her home on her own, but he would of course also like to be there.
He asks if it’s different for her, having gone through it already, sort of, with Nikki; Ekaterin says Nikki was a body-birth, and she can’t help feel like she’s shortchanging the others somehow by using a replicator. Miles’s mother is of course strongly in favour of them, and Miles himself owes his life to the replicator; he points out that they’ll have their hands full enough once they’re out of the replicators. She agrees to come along with Miles, for his sanity, and asks to send a message to Nikki warning him they’ll be late. He should be well taken care of by both sides of the family, in any case, even Miles’s parents, who were also planning to attend the birth. Miles notes that Nikki hasn’t sent them much, and Ekaterin asks him if he’s contacted his own mother recently…
They’re forced to leave most of their luggage behind, as well as two armsmen and a maid to accompany them back to Barrayar; they bring Armsman Roic with them, and the bare minimum of luggage. They sit in the cramped cabin on the fast courier and Miles starts reading through the reports that Gregor had sent him. He soon realizes that Graf Station is in Quaddiespace, and he explains the quaddies to Ekaterin, their origins and their physical peculiarities. Barrayarans, with their sensitivity to mutations, will of course be having some trouble adjusting. He skims over the details of how exactly he had run across them before, but mentions their rescue of Nicol the musician.
Aral Alexander, as Miles’s firstborn, must of course be following the usual naming rules, paternal and maternal grandfathers, so I guess Ekaterin’s father’s name is Alexander. Helen Natalia…well, Ekaterin’s Aunt Vorthys is a Helen, so it’s unlikely that her mother is as well, which means that firstborn daughters must have less stringent requirements. Which makes sense, since girls are so unimportant to the succession, after all. *rolls eyes*
When I first read this book, before having read “Winterfair Gifts”, I only really knew Roic as the guy from the bug-butter battle at the end of A Civil Campaign, but I guess he wasn’t a total stranger. I still liked Pym better, but I suppose he can’t go everywhere… I don’t remember if Roic has any big moments in this book, but it’s not impossible, I suppose…
Miles dresses in his Vorkosigan House uniform–including the riding boots–and, the cabin in the fast courier having no mirror, lets Ekaterin judge his appearance instead. He says he’ll come back and change into his civilian suit after he’s talked to the military officers. She asks what she should wear, and he suggests pants or leggings because of the occasional null-gee sections.
Roic knocks at the door and Miles squeezes out past his wife. Roic asks hopefully if they’ll be moving onto the flagship now, but Miles says he’d rather stay on the courier, to maintain their autonomy a little longer, though he is aware that Roic, with his greater height, is much less comfortable in the cramped quarters. Roic says he should have brought a real veteran, like Jankowski, and Miles gathers his civilian background is causing him some discomfort among the military occupants of the ship.
Miles, about to lead off down the short corridor, instead leaned against the wall and folded his arms. “Look, Roic—there’s scarcely a man in the Imperial Service your age or younger who’s faced as much live fire in the Emperor’s employ as you have in the Hassadar Municipal Guard. Don’t let the damned green uniforms spook you. It’s empty swagger. Half of ’em would fall over in a faint if they were asked to take down someone like that murderous lunatic who shot up Hassadar Square.”
“I was already halfway across the plaza, m’lord. It would’ve been like swimming halfway across a river, deciding you couldn’t make it, and turning around to swim back. It was safer to jump him than to turn and run. He’d ‘a had the same amount of time to take aim at me either way.”
“But not the time to take out another dozen or so bystanders. Auto-needler’s a filthy weapon.” Miles brooded briefly.
Miles notes that Roic habitually masks his social discomfort in dull stolidity; he assures Roic that they’ll be impressed by the Barrayaran Armsman’s outfit, with its redolence of the ghost of General Piotr.
Lieutenant Smolyani tells them that they’re ready to transfer to the Prince Xav, and Miles and Roic head to the personnel hatch. Roic heads through first into the zero-gee flex tube, Miles close behind, and they swing along into the flagship’s roomier bay. General Vorpatril waits with three other men, one of them a civilian, and all of them doubtless forewarned about Miles’s odd appearance. Admiral Vorpatril greets him and introduces him to Captain Brun, commander of Fleet Security and leader of the problematic patrol onto Graf Station; Komarran Senior Cargomaster Molino; and Ensign Deslaurier, the fleet legal officer. Miles expresses surprise at Deslaurier’s rank and youth, and Deslaurier says his chief left the fleet earlier on compassionate leave, and admits this is his first galactic voyage.
Vorpatril leads them to a briefing room, and, once they’re seated, asks how they may serve. Miles asks the admiral to explain the events from his point of view. Vorpatril says that they’d planned to dock at Graf Station for five days, and, believing the quaddies to be non-hostile, he granted station leaves. Miles nods, knowing part of the purpose of escorting the Komarran trade fleets is to give young Barrayaran soldiers experience with galactic cultures, as well as covert intelligence gathering, as well as attempting to lighten the tensions between the Barrayarans and Komarrans.
One of the Komarran ships, Idris, turned out to take longer than expected to repair because of problems with the replacement parts for the jump drive…and then its Barrayaran security liaison officer, Lieutenant Solian, disappeared. Captain Brun says Solian was in his department, but was fairly new; he didn’t know him well, but he was highly recommended. Molino adds that he got along well with everyone, and mentions that Solian was also Komarran, which Miles realizes gives his disappearance added wrinkles.
Brun says that Solian simply went off-shift one day and then disappeared, though with no record of leaving the ship; a search of his quarters showed a valise and some personal effects missing, so the working theory was desertion. Miles asks if he was unhappy, and Brun says he got the usual chaff from both sides, being a Komarran in Imperial service. Molino says he hadn’t noticed any particular mistreatment from the Komarrans. Vorpatril says Solian, as a Komarran in the service, was likely hand-picked, and so less likely to desert despite the increased pressures.
They’d contacted the Graf Station authorities, who Brun says were unhelpful, merely saying that they’d seen so sign of him anywhere, and no record of him leaving the station. Vorpatril says that the repairs on the Idris were finished, but he insisted on staying, not wanting to leave one of his men behind. Molino protests that it made no sense to tie up the fleet over one man, when they could have left a small team behind to look for Solian; Vorpatril says he had orders not to split the fleet.
“But we haven’t suffered a hijacking attempt in this sector for decades,” argued Molino. Miles felt he was witnessing round n-plus-one of an ongoing debate.
“Not since Barrayar began providing you with free military escorts,” said Vorpatril, with false cordiality. “Odd coincidence, that.” His voice grew firmer. “I don’t leave my men. I swore that at the Escobar debacle, back when I was a milk-faced ensign.” He glanced at Miles. “Under your father’s command, as it happened.”
Uh-oh. This could be trouble. . . . Miles let his brows climb in curiosity. “What was your experience there, sir?”
Vorpatril snorted reminiscently. “I was a junior pilot on a combat drop shuttle, orphaned when our mothership was blown to hell by the Escos in high orbit. I suppose if we’d made it back during the retreat, we’d have been blown up with her, but still. Nowhere to dock, nowhere to run, even the few surviving ships that had an open docking cradle not pausing for us, a couple of hundred men on board including wounded—it was a right nightmare, let me tell you.”
Miles says that he’s sure the Admiral did the best he could, once he was forced to assume command, and Vorpatril concedes that, but says that he spent a year in a prison camp on Escobar, which was not exactly fun. So he refuses to leave his own men behind without a good reason–better than mere profits. He thought he was right to stay for Solian…but then there was an odd incident on the station.
An airlock cycled in the cargo bay, next to where the Idris was docked, with no ship to account for it. When Station Security checked it out, they found a large pool of blood, and signs of something being dragged; the blood turned out to match Solian’s. There were no footprints, but Vorpatril notes that the quaddies often use personal floaters in areas with gravity. Brun admits that no body has been found, and they’ve checked any possible trajectory out of that airlock. Miles notes that a deserter may want to fake his death; Brun protests that there was too much blood for that to be plausible, but Miles points out that putting someone in a cryo-chamber involves withdrawing as much of the patient’s blood as possible. Brun says it’s a bit of a complicated scenario, and Miles concedes that, but he notes that cryo-revival also involves synthesizing large quantities of blood, which would superficially match the patient’s, but a good examination should be able to spot the difference. Brun says the quaddies did the check with their scanner, but he believes they have another sample that they could cross-check.
Vorpatril said he honestly believed that Solian had been killed, and Miles says it’s still possible he was. Vorpatril says that with that prospect, he put the fleet on alert status, cancelling leaves and detaching from the dock. Molino protests that there had been no explanation; Vorpatril says that as the commander he expected his orders to be obeyed nevertheless, but says there was a “communications breakdown”. Miles senses a smokescreen coming up… Vorpatril says that they had sent a two-man patrol to retrieve Ensign Corbeau, who was late reporting in, but the patrol was detained by the quaddies–by Station Security, he admits when Miles presses. Miles clarifies that Ensign Deslaurier was not consulted, and did not volunteer any advice, before Vorpatril told Brun to send in strike teams–armed with plasma arcs–to try to retrieve his “captive” men.
Miles asks if any of the men had any previous run-ins with Graf Station security, and Brun admits that three men had been arrested for drunk float-chair racing; Deslaurier had paid their fines, bailed them out, and gave his word they’d be confined to quarters. Miles asks what happened to Brun’s patrol, and he says that shots were exchanged, but the Barrayarans were overpowered and taken captive.
The “swarming” quaddies had included, not unnaturally in Miles’s view, most of the Graf Station professional and volunteer fire brigades. Plasma fire. In a civilian space station. Oh, my aching head.
“So,” said Miles gently, “after we shot up the police station and set the habitat on fire, what did we do for an encore?”
Vorpatril says that since the Komarrans didn’t obey orders to cast off, and were instead locked down by the quaddies, he’d lost the initiative, and the quaddies had gained too many hostages. After two days in a standoff, they were informed of the Auditor’s impending arrival and told to stand down. Brun said that they couldn’t have blown up the station anyway, with their ships in dock; Miles points out that that would have been a criminal order, and he and Emperor would flip a coin for which one got to shoot him first.
Miles thanks the Admiral for cooling down, at least; he can’t comment on any effects on their future careers, though he privately swears revenge if they make him miss his children’s birth. He says his job is to free as many Imperial subjects from the quaddies he can, and ideally leave it so that their trade fleets can ever dock there again in the future. Vorpatril asks about Lieutenant Solian, and Miles promises to look into his disappearance as well.
“But, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan!” Cargomaster Molino put in urgently. “Graf Station authorities are trying to fine our Komarran vessels for the damage done by Barrayaran troops. It must be made plain to them that the military stands alone in this . . . criminal activity.”
Miles hesitated a long moment. “How fortunate for you, Cargomaster,” he said at last, “that in the event of a genuine attack, the reverse would not be true.” He tapped the table and rose to his feet.
If we weren’t so tied to Miles’s point of view, it might almost have been more interesting to see these events, rather than just be told about them. Especially with some different viewpoints in there–Brun’s a little less than entirely free of anti-mutant prejudice, and of course quaddies set that off with alarm bells, despite the fact that they’re really a race to themselves these days… Not to mention some anti-Komarran prejudice lurking in there too, influence the conclusions that everybody jumps to. Of course, Molino isn’t much better, trying to disassociate himself from the Barrayarans’ behaviour, and obviously feeling like his fleet doesn’t really need them around…
The setup reminds me, in some ways, of Komarr…if only because the initial problem which draws Lord Auditor Vorkosigan into the affair is only the tip of the iceberg. The real plot of the book emerges a few chapters in, and the initial concerns take a bit of a back seat by that point. In this case, it’s mostly Lieutenant Solian’s disappearance that is the real mystery–everything else stems from that, exacerbating poor relations between the Barrayarans, Komarrans and quaddies.
Roic’s civilian background is covered here, and his heroism in Hassadar, though of course not in as much detail as “Winterfair Gifts”, which, apparently, was published a couple of years after the novel… This is far from the first timeline-jumping that Bujold has done, of course, though I’m not sure whether she had the full events of Miles’s wedding in mind; still, she did refer to it as “that memorable, difficult, mid-winter wedding” in the first chapter, so, if she hadn’t written the novella yet, she had something like that in mind.
Short, snappy chapters, that’s what I like. So, with any luck, two a week will not be a crippling pace to maintain. See you back next week…