In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, he says that inspiration is like neutrinos. There are vast numbers of inspiration particles streaming through the cosmos all the time, and only occasionally do they actually interact with solid matter. In even rarer circumstances is that solid matter living, or sentient. Which is to say, inspiration can be highly unpredictable. And, as you may have gathered by now, I was not, in fact, struck with one of these particles while preparing this blog post tonight. I mean, I’m quoting Terry Pratchett while introducing the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, which was not written by Terry Pratchett, but in fact by Lois McMaster Bujold.
This week we carry on through the novel Diplomatic Immunity, and I’m struck by one fact in particular about this book: it has an odd number of chapters. Or, to put it another way: I only managed to do one chapter this week, I’m afraid. Sorry about that. So, without further ado (and there has, as William Shakespeare might have said, been much ado about nothing already), here it is…
Miles and Ekaterin enjoy the view out the ports at Graf Station proper as _Kestrel_ manoeuvres to dock there. The station’s hidden heart is a small metallic asteroid, and parts of the original jumpship that brought the first quaddies here. They’ve been expanding throughout the asteroids of the system for over two centuries now; most of their habitats remain zero-gee, except for the few that deal with “legged humans”, such as Graf Station, or their “capital”, Union Station. Their government is highly democratic, and Miles hopes that he won’t have to deal with a committee.
Roic hasn’t been offplanet before, and Ekaterin hasn’t been outside the Empire, and Miles is glad he sent them for zero-gee and space training before they left Barrayar; his own experiences in bod pods encouraged him to give them better choices than that. They make sure they’ve all had their antinausea pills, Miles missing the biochip on his vagus nerve that he lost when he got killed on Jackson’s Whole.
“So, Roic. If some quaddies visiting Hassadar made themselves obnoxious enough to win a visit to the Municipal Guard’s gaol, and then a bunch more quaddies popped up and tried to bust them out with military-grade weapons, and shot up the place and torched it and burned some of your comrades, just how would you feel about quaddies at that point?”
“Um . . . not too friendly, m’lord.” Roic paused. “Pretty pissed, actually.”
“That’s what I figured.” Miles sighed. “Ah. Here we go.”
They dock at the station and emerge into the zero-gee environment; Miles knows that that is intended to put them off balance, since a true welcome would doubtless have been in a section with gravity. The large docking bay is cylindrical, and half a dozen quaddies with shouldered weapons are visible at various angles, most of them in Union Militia uniforms. The actual dignitaries are three quaddies and one downsider, who Miles instantly recognizes, to his shock, as Bel Thorne, who he immediately surmises must be ImpSec’s local informant.
The quaddie dignitaries introduce themselves as Senior Sealer Greenlaw, Security Crew Chief Venn, Boss Watts of Graf Station Downsider Relations, and Assistant Portmaster Bel Thorne. Miles ignores Greenlaw’s pointed reference to the “victims” on the station and introduces Ekaterin and Roic; he notes Bel’s own shock at discovering Ekaterin is Miles’s wife, and wonders if this will be awkward, given Bel’s own longtime crush on Miles.
“Portmaster Thorne, ah . . .” Miles felt himself scrambling for firm footing in more ways than one. His voice went brightly inquiring. “Have we met?”
“I don’t believe we’ve ever met, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, no,” returned Bel; Miles hoped his was the only ear that detected the slight emphasis on his Barrayaran name and title in that familiar alto drawl.
“Ah.” Miles hesitated. Throw out a lure, a line, something . . . “My mother was Betan, you know.”
“What a coincidence,” Bel said blandly. “So was mine.”
Bel admits he hasn’t been back to Beta Colony in some time, and Miles says cordially that he’d be happy to share more recent news sometime.
Sealer Greenlaw ushers them towards a conference chamber, and they proceed, Roic a little awkwardly in the zero-gee, but, Miles notes with satisfaction neither he nor Ekaterin requires assistance from their quaddie escort. The conference room itself has a large glass wall facing outside the station, probably intended to daunt downsiders; Miles pointedly goes right up to the window and admires the view. Most of the honour guard has been left outside, though Roic uncomfortably shares a handhold with one of the pair that remain; Ekaterin is inspecting some hydroponic flowers. The room features several arched posts, like flower stems, which seem to provide comlink controls and the like, as well as anchors in the room’s centre.
After refreshments are served, Miles asks about the significance of Greenlaw’s title, and how much authority goes with it; she says she’s like a “minister plenipotentiary for the state department”, and notes that she’s travelled to neighbouring systems, and has been working for her department for forty years. Her “work gang” is the Board of Directors of the union, who are the ones who will approve her decisions; Miles allows himself guarded optimism that she might be flexible.
She asks in turn about what Imperial Auditor, and “Emperor’s Voice” means; he explains that the Voice part is figurative, though it does mean that the Emperor is the only one has to answer to, but as an Auditor his role is mostly to listen. Venn asks if that means he’s in charge of the Barrayaran troops in the area, and Miles allows that it does.
“So are you saying that if you ordered it, those thugs out there would shoot?” said Venn sourly.
Miles managed a slight bow in his direction, not easy in free fall. “Sir, if an Emperor’s Voice so ordered it, they’d shoot themselves.”
This was pure swagger—well, part swagger—but Venn didn’t need to know it. Bel remained straight-faced, somehow, thank whatever gods hovered here, though Miles could almost see the laugh getting choked back. Don’t pop your eardrums, Bel. The Sealer’s white eyebrows took a moment to climb back down to horizontal again.
Miles adds that it’s more important to keep them from shooting, which is what discipline is really for. As such, he plans to listen carefully, and asks what the events looked like from their point of view. Venn says it started when they were called to arrest a couple of Barrayarans who had broken into a quaddie woman’s living quarter and roughed her up, in the course, apparently, of trying to retrieve Ensign Corbeau. Venn says that Corbeau had become “friends” with Garnet Five, a zero-gee ballet dancer, and he was in her quarters at her invitation.
Greenlaw adds that Corbeau had, as soon as he heard of the imminent arrival of an Imperial Auditor, requested political asylum in the Union, which is news to Miles. Miles asks if they’re thinking of granting the request; Watts says that they haven’t ruled it out yet, though Venn doesn’t think it’s a good idea. Miles asks to speak to Corbeau as soon as possible, and Venn says obviously he doesn’t want to talk to Miles. Miles insists that he needs to get as much firsthand information as possible, and asks to speak to the rest of the Barrayaran detainees for the same reason.
“It’s not that complex,” said Venn. “A bunch of armed thugs came charging onto my station, violated customs, stunned dozens of innocent bystanders and a number of Station Security officers attempting to carry out their duties, tried to effect what can only be called a jailbreak, and vandalized property. Charges against them for their crimes—documented on vid!—range from the discharge of illegal weapons to resisting arrest to arson in an inhabited area. It’s a miracle that no one was killed.”
“That, unfortunately, has yet to be demonstrated,” Miles countered instantly. “The trouble is that from our point of view, the arrest of Ensign Corbeau was not the beginning of the sequence of events. Admiral Vorpatril had reported a man missing well before that—Lieutenant Solian. According to both your witnesses and ours, a quantity of his blood tantamount to a body part was found on the floor of a Graf Station loading bay. Military loyalty runs two ways—Barrayarans do not abandon our own. Dead or alive, where is the rest of him?”
Venn says that they’ve looked for Solian, but he’s not on Graf Station, and his body isn’t anywhere nearby. Miles asks how easily a downsider could disappear, and Bel speaks up; it says that ship travel is fully controlled, and it would difficult, if not impossible, to pass through customs and immigration without being recorded somehow–and Lieutenant Solian has not shown up anywhere. Bel admits that travel within the system is less regulated, but in most of the area downsiders tend to stick out, and Solian hasn’t been seen there either.
Miles asks about the blood, and Bel says that whoever created that scene most likely came through an external airlock, and left the same way. Venn says that means it was probably their own people who did it, then, bringing their own trouble with them. Miles asks if they could see if; Watts says it’s on the other side of the station, and Miles asks if Bel could show him around, offering him a ride in his own ship, which Bel accepts.
After that, Miles has to wait, somewhat impatiently, while the rest of the formalities play out, including the official presentation of the charges and fines being levied upon Vorpatril and his forces. Miles notes that while he is physically accepting the information, he is holding judgement on actually acceding to the charges, etc., though he promises to review them as soon as he can; the quaddies are not best pleased about this, but Miles is happy not to have committed himself to anything yet. He needed some better handle on these events, and he hopes that Bel can give him one. The meeting over, the guards escort the Barrayarans and Bel back to the Kestrel.
Bel Thorne showing up was a bit of a surprise, first time I read it, but then I suppose it makes sense, especially since Nicol was his only real attachment that we saw outside of the Dendarii. And as our only quaddie character before this, it would be highly disappointing for her to not actually show up in this book, and so Bel’s appearance is not unexpected. For him to be in a position of authority, as opposed to just some kind of local resident, is a bit more surprising, but I guess he’s got skillz. It’s nice to have at least one more familiar character, since, being off Barrayar and all, there’s going to be a shortage of the folks who turned up in Memory and A Civil Campaign.
I wonder at what point it occurred to the author that Miles’s handy vagus nerve chip would not have survived the needle grenade attack of the rest of Miles’s internal organs… I guess he was just taking antinausea meds during any of his zero-gee excursions in the meantime. It almost seemed a bit of a handwave to say that by the way, Ekaterin and Roic both had zero-gravity training…but I suppose I’ll allow it this time, since it is the kind of thing that Miles might want to do, and enough supporting details are added. And I don’t believe it’s too convenient to the plot. And it’s not being introduced during a moment of crisis, if it is, and by this point I’m becoming almost hypersensitive to foreshadowing in these books…
Maybe I’ve blown my single-chapter week a little early, but these chapters are much shorter than A Civil Campaign ones, so with any luck I’ll be able to keep up. Hoping for not many repeats of today, anyway. I’ll try hard to get you guys two chapters next week, in any case.