Spring is springing, the grass is probably going to rise any day now, and maybe next month we’ll even get some leaves on the trees… In the meantime, I lurk down in the basement (as I do in spring and summer too, I do confess) churning out another installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread for you, distilling–or is that diluting?–the works of Lois McMaster Bujold into a more readibly assimilable form. So let’s keep going through Diplomatic Immunity, as Lord Auditor Miles Vorkosigan hopes for a break in the investigation of the disappearance of Lieutenant Solian on Graf Station…
Miles and Bel make arrangements for a message capsule containing Dubauer’s blood sample to be sent to the Prince Xav without being shot down by quaddie patrol ships, and it manages to reach the Barrayaran ship without incident. After that’s accomplished, he actually takes time for a quick meal of military rations, still watching video records of the Idris‘s airlocks. Dubauer had never left the ship until evicted with the rest, but Lieutenant Solian had left five times–the last one while he was off-shift. Miles examines the last video record of him closely, but doesn’t spot evidence of a nosebleed; Solian looks intent on something, but they’re not sure what. He’s not recorded on having left again, but his body was not found on the Idris.
Miles wonders where Solian went for forty minutes; Bel said he never crossed through customs, unless he was carried through rolled up in a carpet, and they’d have spotted that too. He could have gone to any of the other Barrayaran ships, or any of six loading bays, but Brun has already said that Solian didn’t enter any of the other ships either. Bel admits the loading bays aren’t closely monitored, and often used for games or exercise; Miles wonders if Solian talked to someone else from one of the ships.
After their meal, Bel escorts Miles to where the Komarran ships’ crews are being housed. After fending off their initial clamouring to be released, Miles gathers the ships’ four medtechs. He asks about their procedures, and how easy it would be to gain access to the infirmary; all of them state that while they’re in space the infirmary is left accessible all the time, in case of emergency, though some drugs are kept locked up. In dock, they mostly rely on ship’s security to regulate who comes on board the ship, and two of the medtechs secure it entirely when they’re not there.
He asks about their blood synthesis equipment–they all have some–and the Idris medtech says that he’d certainly have noticed if several liters of blood had been synthesized, from the depleted stores. Miles explains about how the blood that was found, that matched Solian’s, had been synthesized, and says they’ll have to check their supplies. The tech from the Rudra recalls an odd-looking passenger who’d asked her about the blood synthesizer.
Miles smiled carefully. “Tell me more about your funny passenger.”
“He’d just signed on to the Rudra here at Graf Station. He said he was worried, if he had any accidents en route, because he couldn’t take standard blood substitutes on account of being so heavily gengineered. Which he was. I mean, I believed him about the blood compatibility problems. That’s why we carry the synthesizers, after all. He had the longest fingers—with webs. He told me he was an amphibian, which I didn’t quite believe, till he showed me his gill slits. His ribs opened out in the most astonishing fashion. He said he has to keep spraying his gills with moisturizer, when he travels, because the air on ships and stations is too dry for him.” She stopped, and swallowed.
Miles, excited but trying to hide it, asks when this was, and is told that it was two days before they were evacuated from the ships, and hence three days after Solian’s disappearance. She says his name was Firka, and she would definitely recognize him if she saw him; when Miles asks, she says she’d be willing, if not eager, to testify under fast-penta. Miles and Bel negotiate for the release of the medtechs as expert witnesses, and head over to the Rudra to inspect their synthesizer. They do indeed find its stores down by four liters, and there’s still some residue that wasn’t cleaned up properly, which Miles eagerly takes a sample of for Prince Xav‘s surgeon.
Miles sends Roic to check the Rudra‘s records of Firka, and Bel off with the medtechs to crosscheck the other ships, while he returns to the Kestrel to send his new sample off to Prince Xav. He checks on Firka’s current location–he’s staying at one of the hostels provided for the passengers, but has apparently gone out for the evening; Miles asks to be notified when he returns. He then calls to check on Dubauer, who has also gone out, alone, which Miles finds odd for someone who was so adamant about getting an escort back from the Idris; Miles asks to be notified when it returns, too.
He scans through more vids from the Idris, not spotting anyone who seems to match Firka’s description. Bel and Roic return, Bel saying that they didn’t find anything on the other ships’ synthesizers, and he’d sent the medtechs back. Miles muses that now they have to wait–for the analysis of the blood samples, and for the return of Firka and Dubauer. Bel says it sounds like a good time to sleep, and heads off to his and Nicol’s apartment. Miles lies down for a nap, not wanting to update Venn until the blood tests are back. Smolyani has disengaged the Kestrel from the airlock, for safety from the riveter, still at large; Graf Station is not a particularly hard place to hide, apparently. Though Dubauer as a ba, with Star Crèche cargo, is a much more likely assassination target than the Betan Ker Dubauer; Miles hopes to be able to fast-penta Firka soon, though Dubauer is likely to be immune.
Roic awakens Miles when the surgeon calls him, after a four-hour nap that Miles deems sufficient; Roic has apparently not gone to sleep, and says he has something interesting from the Rudra‘s vids to show Miles. Miles talks to the surgeon–a Captain Clogston–first; Clogston says the blood from the handkerchief is definitely Cetagandan haut, with some oddnesses that Miles identifies as ba. Miles tells him to store that sample to send back to ImpSec for storage; the Cetagandans will doubtless be unhappy that a ba genetic sample has escaped, though admittedly it’s almost a century old by this point. Clogston confirms that the other sample was definitely Solian’s synthesized blood, even the same batch.
After dismissing the surgeon’s call, Miles asks Roic what he found. Roic found Firka on the Rudra‘s vids, having boarded the ship originally after the first delay for repairs. He’d stayed in the cabin on the ship, but two of the times he’d left the ship exactly matched up with Solian’s, including Solian’s final forty-minute sojourn. Roic finds an image of Firka to show him.
The man was tall, with pale unhealthy-looking skin and dark hair shaved close to his skull in a patchy, unflattering fuzz, like lichen on a boulder. Big nose, small ears, a lugubrious expression on his rubbery face—he looked strung out, actually, eyes dark and ringed. Long, skinny arms and legs; a loose tunic or poncho concealed the details of his big upper torso. His hands and feet were especially distinctive, and Miles zoomed in for close-ups. One hand was half-concealed in a cloth glove with the fingertips cut out, which hid the webs from a casual glance, but the other was ungloved and half-raised, and the webs showed distinctly, a dark rose color between the over-long fingers. The feet were concealed in soft boots or buskins, tied at the ankles, but they too were about double the length of a normal foot, though no wider. Could the fellow spread his webbed toes, when in the water, as he spread his webbed fingers, to make a broad flipper?
He recalled Ekaterin’s description of the passenger who had accosted her and Bel on their outing, that first day—he had the longest, narrowest hands and feet. Bel should get a look at this shortly. Miles let the vid run. The fellow had a somewhat shambling gait when he walked, lifting and setting down those almost clownish feet.
Roic says his documentation claims he’s from Aslund, though he’d arrived on a ship from Tau Ceti. Aslund isn’t exactly a water-world, though, so Miles makes a note to double-check his origin with ImpSec. Firka had apparently first tried to get a berth on Idris, and settled for Rudra because Idris was full. Miles tries to determine why Firka might have generated a batch of Solian’s blood like that. If he’d killed Solian, and used the blood to cover it up, it was a waste of effort, since nobody had come close to solving Solian’s murder/disappearance yet. Had he been trying to frame someone else?
To cover up a desertion? Might Firka and Solian be collaborating on Solian’s defection? Or . . . when might a desertion not be a desertion? When it was an ImpSec covert ops scam, that’s when. Except that Solian was Service Security, not ImpSec: a guard, not a spy or trained agent. Still . . . a sufficiently bright, loyal, highly motivated, and ambitious officer, finding himself in some complex imbroglio, might not wait for orders from on high to pursue a fast-moving long shot. As Miles had reason to know.
Of course, taking risky chances like that could get such an officer killed. As Miles also had reason to know.
If it hadn’t been for the incident with Corbeau, what would have come of the blood dumping? It would certainly have reawakened interest in Solian’s disappearance, and delayed the fleet’s departure, much as the Corbeau incident had. Miles considers briefly whether Garnet Five might not have engineered that incident somehow…
Roic says there’s no clear footage of Firka taking containers of blood off the ship, but he did take various boxes back and forth, so he could have smuggled it out. Miles double-checks with the hostels, and neither Firka or Dubauer have returned. Miles calls the security office, and speaks to Teris Three, night-shift supervisor, Chief Venn having also gone to snatch some sleep. Miles asks for them to detain Firka, for the purposes of fast-penta interrogation, as a material witness. Teris Three says that they can’t do that without a formal charge, and an adjudicator to authorize the fast-penta. Miles offers a charge of littering, and illegal disposal of organic matter, which Teris Three agrees is a misdemeanor, at least. She says they’re undermanned, but she’ll put out a bulletin for him; Miles promises to send her pictures of him.
Miles and Roic inspect Firka’s image, and speculate that his toes might be prehensile enough for him to operate floater controls almost like a quaddie; emptying jugs of blood would be easier than toting a body, too. If that were so, the initial identification of the riveter as a quaddie is suspect. He fiddles with Firka’s image, tacking on a blond wig, and tries to decide if it’s a close enough match.
He calls up Bel to try to get a second opinion, and gets a sleepy Nicol. When Miles asks to talk to Bel, though, Nicol says that he never came home…despite having left six hours earlier.
Some progress here, finally, as the source of the Solian blood is found, and a possible culprit found. Firka–as he’s calling himself at this point–appears, and looks to be not only the one who planted the blood, but also the mad riveter. What’s unknown, as yet, is his connection to Solian and/or Dubauer, both of whom were on the Idris. And Ekaterin had probably met him already, in that earlier scene that we only got to hear about second-hand.
And now Bel gets to be the damsel in distress, disappearing mysteriously despite a security escort (a story to be told in the next chapter). All the pieces are still not there, but once we get “Firka”‘s story all will fall into place…
It’s almost not worth mentioning at this point how the medtechs don’t get names. Though the surgeon on Prince Xav does, at this point. I suppose not everyone needs to be dealt with as an individual, but sometimes we learn their names anyway. Well, I suppose Bujold isn’t Robert Jordan, you don’t need to learn everybody’s name.
Miles and Roic arrive at Graf Station Security Post One, in the zero-gee zone, a little after Nicol; the quaddies become noticeably warier at the arrival of the downsiders, but Chief Venn arrives eventually and ushers them inside. Bel apparently dismissed its quaddie guard at a bubble-car stop near its home, and hasn’t been seen since; Venn says he’s sure there’s a simple explanation. He offers Miles another liaison officer, and Miles says he’d rather have Bel Thorne, and calls it careless of them to have lost another downsider; he points out that Bel is another possible target of the rogue riveter. Teris Three says that they have traced the riveter machine, purchased from a supply store near the free fall docks and carried out, but the clerk can’t remember for sure who bought it.
Teris Three also brings up Miles’s request to detain Firka, and Miles explains about tracking down the source of the synthesized blood, and describes Firka’s unusual appearance. Venn authorizes Teris Three to disseminate Firka’s description–and, at Nicol’s insistence, adds a request to look out for Bel Thorne. Miles adds a request to take Dubauer into custody–“protective” custory, at least–because of its suspicious current absence, and also its presence at the rivet-gun attack; Venn acquiesces to that as well. Teris Three leaves, going off shift, and Venn offers to send Nicol home as well, but she says she’d prefer to stay and wait for news, and Miles declares his intention to stay with her. Venn shifts them out of his office into a private waiting room.
Miles wonders to himself whether Bel had any other ImpSec cases that might relate to his disappearance, but can’t ask Nicol about it since she doesn’t seem to be in the know about Bel’s second job. Nicol and Roic make small talk while Miles tries to decide what to do next; he’d hoped to have Firka and Dubauer in hand to fast-penta this morning, but they all seem to have disappeared.
Teris Three comes to fetch Miles back to talk to Venn, who is just imploring Sealer Greenlaw to come deal with Miles; Teris Three says that Bel dismissed it escort at the Joint, a main hub in the station, because it had bumped into Garnet Five and went to talk to her. Venn intimates that perhaps Bel might have been having an affair with her, and Miles refrains from commenting apart from suggesting they call her. Venn obliges, but gets a recording; Miles suggests they send a trooper to check on her.
Miles returns to update Nicol, who can suggest several innocent reasons Garnet Five might have wanted to talk to Bel, such as trying to get some information about or affecting Corbeau, or just wanting someone to discuss her currently-unpopular paramour with. Miles points out that wouldn’t account for Bel’s continued absence, and wishes heartily that he had more information. He decides it’s late enough to call Ekaterin, who claims to have been already awake, updating her on Bel’s disappearance. She seeks assurance that he’s keeping protection, and Miles offers to send her home on ahead of him, which she refuses to commit to.
Miles is just considering heading out to wander the station in hope of finding something helpful when Garnet Five arrives, demanding to talk to Lord Vorkosigan. She finds their room and greets Nicol with a hug; she says Bel was gone when she came to, and Miles urges her to tell the story a little more coherently. Garnet Five says she’d bumped into Bel and asked him about Corbeau, so they went to get some peppermint tea. Bel became distracted when it saw a quaddie that it suspected of fencing stolen cargo talking to an odd-looking downsider.
“Tall, lanky fellow with webbed hands and long feet, and a big barrel chest? Looks sort of like his mother might have married the Frog Prince, but the kiss didn’t quite work out?” Miles asked.
Garnet Five stared. “Why, yes. Well, I’m not sure about the chest—he was wearing this loose, flippy cape-thing. How did you know?”
“This is about the third time he’s turned up in this case. You might say he’s riveted my attention. But go on, then what?”
Bel sat with its back to them and had Garnet Five report on them; the quaddie spotted Bel and left, and Bel insisted on following Firka when he left too. Garnet Five stayed with it; Firka doubled back onto the grav side of the station, and then apparently lay in wait for them, spraying some chemical in their faces that knocked them out. When she woke up, Bel was gone, and she was left inside a recycle bin; she extricated herself, located a patroller, and came straight to the station, so Miles estimates she was out for at least six hours. He recommends she get a blood sample taken right away in case there’s still traces of the drug in her system, which she agrees to.
When Miles had assured himself that Garnet Five had been taken into competent medical hands, and plenty of them, he turned back to Teris Three.
“It isn’t just my airy theories any more,” he told her. “You have a valid assault charge on this Firka fellow. Can’t you step up the search?”
“Oh, yes,” she answered grimly. “This one’s going out on all the com channels, now. He attacked a quaddie. And he released toxic volatiles into the public air.”
Miles makes a nuisance of himself until Chief Venn agrees to send him, with an escort, back to the scene of Firka’s attack, where there are already CSI quaddies at work, scanning for fingerprints and gathering samples. Enjoined from poking around while they’re gathering evidence, Miles wanders around, looking for clues or hidden messages or something. The CSI techs note a suspicious deficiency of evidence, as if it’s already been swept once; Miles manages to convince the patroller to scan the corridor that Bel and Garnet Five came down, checking for more evidence, or unlocked doors, but they don’t find anything too interesting. Miles tries to picture what Firka would have done with Bel’s unconscious form, which would have to taken out through one of the never-quite-deserted adjoining corridors.
Attracted by the smell of nearby baking, Miles decides it’s a good time for breakfast, so they head into a café. Miles is enjoying their fresh fruit when the holovid in the corner pipes up with a safety bulletin, complete with pictures of Firka and Bel; the server tells them that it’s been running every fifteen minutes, and summarizes the bits that Miles didn’t catch. Miles wonders if this will drive Firka to panic, or to turn himself in… He tries to remind himself of his real mission, to free the fleet, but right now he’s more worried about finding Bel, and he can’t figure out how to parlay this series of events to his advantage.
They return to the security post, with not much news for Nicol, though he’s unable to reassure her about what Firka have wanted Bel for. They are interrupted by new arrivals.
A pair of husky male quaddies in the orange work shirts and shorts of Docks and Locks managed the two ends of a three-meter length of pipe. Firka occupied the middle.
The unhappy downsider’s wrists and ankles were lashed to the pipe with swathes of electrical tape, bending him in a U, with another rectangle of tape plastered across his mouth, muffling his moans. His eyes were wide, and rolled in panic. Three more quaddies in orange, panting and rumpled, one with a red bruise starting around his eye, bobbed along beside as outriders.
The work crew took aim and floated with their squirming burden through free fall to fetch up with a thump at the reception desk. A quartet of uniformed security quaddies appeared from another portal to gather and stare at this unwilling prize; the desk sergeant hit his intercom, and lowered his voice to speak into it in a rapid undertone.
The spokes-quaddie for the posse bustled forward, a smile of grim satisfaction on his bruised face. “We caught him for you.”
Lots of investigating in this chapter, and evidence gathered, but not the kind that is immediately obvious–fibers, skin cells, dust samples, whatever. Understandably frustrating for Miles, and not all that exciting for the reader either, perhaps. But the assault on Bel and Garnet Five does at last motivate the quaddies to look for Firka, and successfully, as it turns out. Which is to say, good for them–traditionally these kinds of civilians aren’t too useful in these situations, but looks like this time they managed to pull it off.
I also sympathize with Miles feeling like he’s losing track of his initial goal, because his investigation seems to be leading him in odd directions. On one level, to free the fleet he needs to bail out the captive Barrayarans, but to convince Admiral Vorpatril to leave he also needs to find Solian, or at least find out what happened to him. Stumbling on the ba Dubauer wasn’t really related directly to Solian, it was more something that happened because of the lockdown of the ships, but you bet your ass that Dubauer was related to Solian’s disappearance, even if Miles hasn’t found the connection yet.
Like I said, it reminds me of Cetaganda, where Miles was there to investigate the soletta destruction, and ended up drawn into mysterious goings-on in the terraforming department, which led right back to the soletta accident, by way of the Komarran conspirators and their need to finance their scheme. Stumbling on that was really just luck on Miles’s part, but on Graf Station there are comparatively fewer things going on, so it’s less remarkable that the oddities he finds there are directly connected to his case. Though I don’t recall right now exactly how, or if, this helps get his ships out of dock…
It’s amusing how they take Firka more seriously now. After all, they can get him now for contaminating the public air. Well, Graf Station is like Kline Station–they take their closed system very seriously.
At some point recently, while in bed, I’d come up with some amusing alternate titles for Vorkosigan books, in the form of Miles Vorkosigan and the… or Cordelia Naismith and the… And she told me to write them down, and I said I’d remember, and…well, they’re gone. I’ll try to remember some of them and share them next time. Or feel free to put some in the comments (he said hopefully).
As for Diplomatic Immunity, we’re going to be getting a lot more backstory in the next chapter or two, and find out more about “Firka” and Dubauer and what’s really going on. So that’ll be fun. Until next week, then…if I’m not busy with a last-minute push on my taxes.