Diplomatic Immunity…is what you get when you are inoculated by being injected with a small quantity of diplomacy, so that you can develop a resistance to it. Or is that an allergy? Welcome…to
Night Vale the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein I cover the works of Lois McMaster Bujold as they pertain to the life and career of Miles Vorkosigan (and friends and family). This week we continue into the afore-alluded-to Diplomatic Immunity, as Miles fights for the life of his friend Bel Thorne…and a growing number of others, in Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen.
The first step in dealing with biocontamination, Miles knows, is to seal the area. Miles contacts Venn.
“We’ve found Portmaster Thorne. Trapped in a bod pod in the engineering section. The herm appears dazed and very ill. I believe we have an urgent biocontamination emergency here, at least Class Three and possibly as bad as Class Five.” The most extreme level, biowarfare plague.
Miles ascertains from Venn that they haven’t left the ship, and nobody has been through the airlock; Venn agrees that he doesn’t want to risk any plagues getting back onto his station. Next, Miles knows, is to contact medical authorities, as Venn is also going to do, but first he advises Venn that at the first opportunity he plans to undock the ship and make sure there’s vacuum between it and the station. He also urges them to seal themselves off from the rest of the ship as much as possible.
Miles contemplates the bod-pod, which he decides is probably a half-decent seal, and wonders if Solian’s body was hidden in one too. If so, then that means that a carrier of this disease in a bod-pod probably isn’t too contagious. Bel’s case seems to coming along more quickly than Gupta and his shipmates, six hours rather than six days; Miles wonders if there’s anything he can do to stop it.
He contacts Admiral Vorpatril, who reports that the medtechs that he’s sent to examine Miles’s prisoner should have arrived by now. Miles updates Vorpatril on the situation aboard the Idris; Vorpatril offers to send a ship to pick him up, but Miles refuses to risk spreading the contamination. Vorpatril insists on sending the medtechs, at least, and Miles agrees to a few of them, but volunteers only, equipped to be as bio-impervious as possible, and warns that nobody will be able to leave the ship until this is all settled.
Trying to figure out what he can do to help Bel, Miles tries to think about Gupta and why he might have survived. He recalls Gupta saying his body temperature was lower, especially immersed in water, and wonders if cooling Bel off might have a salutary effect; in particular, he recalls Ivan throwing him into an ice-bath once upon a time… He tells Roic to go and get ice from the galley, and bring it to the infirmary. Miles heads to the infirmary himself, where he confirms they have a treatment tub, and two biotainer suits, both too big for him and too small for Roic.
Roic returns to report an ample supply of ice, to find Miles already putting on one of the suits. He tells Roic they’re going to bring Bel up here, and put him in an ice bath, and sends Roic off to find himself a pressure suit. Roic does so, while Miles begins filling the tub with ice; he reports in a little while later to note that they’ll have to communicate over public, rather than secured, channels while he’s in it. Miles seals up his suit, stunner outside but wristcom inside, and hauls a float pallet down to where Bel’s bodpod is, meeting Roic there.
Miles’s plan is to deflate Bel’s pod slightly, so they can flop it onto the pallet; of course they can’t vent it into the general atmosphere, so they rig up a plastic tube and tape it between Bel’s pod and one of the others. The transfer of air proceeds smoothly, and Miles separates the pods again, wishing for a large quantity of disinfectant to clean up. They get Bel onto the pallet and up to the infirmary, where Miles orders Roic to wait outside, overriding his protests; he turns on the molecular biocontainment barriers and then extricates Bel’s scorching hot body from the pod. He manages to awkward slide the herm into the ice water, trying to keep Bel’s head out of it; Bel responds by trying to curl up its limbs, but Miles keeps them under the ice water, which starts noticeably melting.
It had been some years since Miles had last glimpsed Bel nude, in a field shower or donning or divesting space armor in a mercenary warship locker room. Fifty-something wasn’t old, for a Betan, but still, gravity was clearly gaining on Bel. On all of us. In their Dendarii days Bel had taken out its unrequited lust for Miles in a series of half-joking passes, half-regretfully declined. Miles repented his younger sexual reticence altogether, now. Profoundly. We should have taken our chances back then, when we were young and beautiful and didn’t even know it. And Bel had been beautiful, in its own ironic way, living and moving at ease in a body athletic, healthy, and trim.
Bel’s skin was blotched, mottled red and pale; the herm’s flesh, sliding and turning in the ice bath under Miles’s anxious hands, had an odd texture, by turns swollen tight or bruised like crushed fruit. Miles called Bel’s name, tried his best old Admiral Naismith Commands You voice, told a bad joke, all without penetrating the herm’s glazed stupor. It was a bad idea to cry in a biotainer suit, almost as bad as throwing up in a pressure suit. You couldn’t blot your eyes, or wipe your snot.
He is extremely startled to feel a hand on his shoulder, which proves to be Captain Clogston from the Prince Xav. Miles briefs the surgeon, particularly on the Cetagandan weapon and Gupta’s survival, and his theory that low temperatures were what saved him. Miles tries to impress on him–without blowing Bel’s cover–how important it is to save the herm’s life, and surgeon agrees that he and his squad will try, but asks Miles to leave and get decontaminated. Miles agrees, and leaves as they start taking samples from the herm.
Miles leaves the infirmary and lets Roic decontaminate him very thoroughly, wishing he hadn’t promised to call Nicol; he decides that can wait until he has more infirmation from the doctor. They switch from shouting through helmets to a public ship channel, then head for Nav/Com to detach from the station. Roic says he’s never piloted a ship before, and Miles assures him airily that it’s not that hard, though even he is secretly daunted by the Idris‘s complicated controls. After some careful searching, he finds the appropriate controls, notifies the quaddies, and manages to detach, move a short distance away from the station, and stop. After he’s done he realizes that re-docking again will probably be a lot harder, but decides that by that time it’ll be safe to bring a real pilot on board.
The quaddies arrive in Nav/Com in their own biotainer suits–brought over by a drone pod, apparently. Miles tries to consider what to do next; Roic points out that they still don’t know how the ba got off the ship, but all the hatches should have video automatically recording any time one of the airlocks opens. Miles finds the engineer’s station, and he and Roic determine how to bring up the videos there. They search back in time, finding the quaddies’ pod arrival, then the Barrayaran medical staff…and then, before that, an EVA suit leaving from one of the Necklin drive nacelles. The last before that is Miles and the others arriving on the ship; the ba must have still been on board when they arrived.
Venn asks Miles about the range of those suits, and Miles says that they might be the equivalent of a personnel pod if fully supplied. Venn says that the ba can’t possibly have gotten back aboard Graf Station, and Greenlaw says the station is in full quarantine, but if there’s a chance it’s gotten away from the station, they’ll have to extend it to all of Quaddiespace. Miles tries to figure out what the ba’s next move is; looking at the image of the pressure suit gives him an idea. He asks Roic if there’s a control station for the suits, and Roic leads him down to one near where he found his own suit.
At the control station, Miles turns on the helmet camera displays. There are six suits, five of them seeming to be still in their lockers, and other somewhere against a curving wall, apparently unmoving. The suit is powered up, and doesn’t seem very far away, given the lack of time lag.
The powered suit had to have an exterior control override somewhere; it was a common safety feature on these civilian models, in case its occupant should suddenly become injured, ill, or incapacitated . . . ah. There.
“What are you doing, m’lord?” asked Roic uneasily.
“I believe I can take control of the suit via the emergency overrides, and bring it back aboard.”
“Wit’ t’ ba inside? Is that a good idea?”
“We’ll know in a moment.”
He gripped the joysticks, slippery under his gloves, gained control of the suit’s jets, and tried a gentle puff. The suit slowly began to move, scraping along the wall and then turning away. The puzzling view resolved itself—he was looking at the outside of the Idris itself. The suit had been hidden, tucked in the angle between two nacelles. No one inside the suit fought back at this hijacking. A new and extremely disturbing thought crept up on Miles.
He beings the suit around to the nearest airlock and brings it inside. Venn and Roic propose to go with their stunners and take care of whoever’s inside; Miles points out that if it was inhabited, they’d have been able to override his commands, and suggests that it might just contain Solian’s body. Miles, Roic and Venn go to investigate the suit, and drag it inside the airlock, but when they take a look inside the faceplate, the suit proves to be empty.
A nice little touch is when Miles is signing off from talking to Venn, he almost says “Naismith out” before correcting himself. I guess he’s not used to being in this kind of situation as Lord Auditor Vorkosigan yet. Or maybe it’s the presence of Bel Thorne. Would there be major consequences if he slipped up and it became generally known that he was Admiral Naismith? The Cetagandans know, unofficially, at least, about it; would they be forced to take official notice of it at any point, and ask for a formal apology about the whole Marilac debacle, or would they just let it slide? Would it boost Miles’s street cred, and make it seem less like nepotism that he gets to be an Imperial Auditor? There’s still the whole Komarr wormhole secret for him to keep, at least.
The word “biocontamination”, or a form of it, is used six times in the chapter. While normally I’m not fond of the English habit of just clipping off the first syllable or two of a word as an abbreviation (which usually discards the root and leaves the prefixes), that word is a little unwieldy…and yet it’s hard to think of a shorter replacement for it. “Biocon”? No, that’s a convention for biologists. Or maybe biographers, or just living things. (See what I mean about discarding the root?)
The whole remote suit-piloting thing reminds me of the battle in The Warrior’s Apprentice, when Miles comes up with the plan to override the enemy’s battle suits. Somehow that memory never comes up for him, but then I guess maybe it wasn’t a significant event in his life or anything. Or maybe it’s just dissimilar enough, or he’s just too busy thinking of other things to flash back to happier times. I guess the author can’t always follow all the chains of reminiscence, especially by this point in the series. So I suppose it’s up to me.
Venn warns Miles, needlessly, not to open the suit, then orders Security to search any ships that may have moved in the last three hours. Miles tries to figure out how the ba may have made its escape, maybe with a personnel pod, but the quaddies have been watching the Idris, and probably would have noticed it.
Miles, palms itching, asks Roic if the suit had anything in its hand when it left the airlock; Roic said it had nothing. Miles figured that the ba had come back on board to deal with its cargo–killing all the fetuses by poisoning their nutrients wouldn’t take that long, but collecting samples would…and if it had taken the time for that, it wouldn’t have left the samples behind on the ship. That leaves his growing conviction that the ba is still on board… He considers doing a check of pressure suits and airlock cameras, but he doesn’t have enough minions to do that quickly. Instead, he suggests that they go back to Nav/Com, shut down the ship in sections, and do an armed search.
“M’lord,” said Roic in an uncharacteristically sharp voice, “what t’matter with your gloves?”
Miles stared down, turning up his hands. His breath congealed in his chest. The thin, tough fabric of his biotainer gloves was shredding away, hanging loose in strings; beneath the lattice, his palms showed red. Their itching seemed to redouble. His breath let loose again in a snarl of “Shit!“
He tells Venn to take the quaddies to Nav and Com and secure themselves and the infirmary, and runs off to the infirmary, Roic in front of him to open doors. He realizes that the contamination must have been on the remote control joysticks, which must have been coated with something, left as a trap for anyone who tried to bring the pressure suit back on–which convinces him even more that the ba never left the ship.
Miles rushes into the infirmary and begins to ask to wash his hands, but wonders if they’d be able to dispose of it safely. He tells Captain Clogston about the trap on the joysticks, and asks him to send a tech to collect a sample. Clogston uses a sonic scrubber to clean Miles’s hands, sucking up the debris with a vacuum, but the skin already seems to have been broken. Clogston gets rid of his shredded gloves and replaces them, with some kind of ointment underneath, which at least stops Miles’s hands feeling worse.
Clogston says they’ve figured out what Bel’s suffering from–bioengineered parasites implanted in his body, to spread in their dormant phase, and then start releasing chemicals to burst the cell membranes open as the body heats up. The ice bath has thankfully slowed down the process in Thorne, short of criticality, but they don’t have any ideas for treatment short of actually filtering and cooling all of it blood, and even that won’t deal with the ones that aren’t in the blood any more. The silver lining is that the parasites don’t spread easily outside their host, so it’s not very transmissible. Miles tells them that the Cetagandan is, unfortunately, likely still on board and armed with an unknown variety of bioweapons.
Captain Clogston cursed. “Hear that, boys?” he called to his techs over his suit com.
“Oh, great,” came a disgusted reply. “Just what we need right now.”
“Hey, at least it’s something we can shoot,” another voice remarked wistfully.
Ah, Barrayarans. Miles’s heart warmed. “On sight,” he confirmed. These were military medicos; they all bore sidearms, bless them.
Miles considers the defensiveness of the infirmary; Roic is guarding the entry point to the main ward, but Miles isn’t sure that’s enough. It’s got its own air and power supply, and Clogston and his techs are in advanced suits that are functionally pressure suits, though Miles’s just filters external air. He considers just ditching the rest of his suit, but he’s not sure if he’s been exposed yet, or if his gloves were only hit with a corrosive. He sends Roic to fetch him the smallest pressure suit he can find, fumbling out his own stunner to take over the guard post.
There’s something he can’t figure out yet, and he hopes for a lull between crises to puzzle at it. Why did the ba abandon the replicators filled with haut fetuses? And why take samples, when it could get the original DNA from the Star Crèche files? His anxiety over the parasites potentially breeding in his body makes it hard to concentrate, and leads him to wonder if he has the same thing as Bel, or something different, and how many different weapons the ba has in all.
Am I going to live long enough to say good-bye to Ekaterin? A good-bye kiss was right out, unless they pressed their lips to opposite sides of some really thick window of glass. He had so much to say to her; it seemed impossible to find where to start. Even more impossible by voice alone, over an open, unsecured public com link. Take care of the kids. Kiss them for me every night at bedtime, and tell them I loved them even if I never saw them. You won’t be alone—my parents will help you. Tell my parents . . . tell them . . .
Was this damned thing starting up already, or were the hot panic and choking tears in his throat entirely self-induced? An enemy that attacked you from the inside out—you could try to turn yourself inside out to fight it, but you wouldn’t succeed—filthy weapon! Open channel or not, I’m calling her now. . . .
Instead, Venn passes on a message from Admiral Vorpatril, who is annoyed at Miles not answering his wristcom; Miles sketches an explanation, though emphasizes that they’re on an open channel, and asks him to talk to Clogston instead, as long as he doesn’t distract the surgeon too much for his very important work.
Miles begins to hear the sound of seals activating, separating the ship into airtight sections, but Venn notifies him, a second later, that it’s not their doing–they’d doubled back to pick up their equipment. Roic confirms that it’s not him either; Greenlaw castigates them all, and herself, for not thinking to lock Nav/Com behind them when they left. Miles says the public channels he and Roic have been using will be accessible from there, and shortly thereafter they’re shut off entirely. Miles activates the manual overrides for the infirmary’s environment, so the ba won’t be able to affect it,
Miles heads back into the ward to ask Clogston, through suit helmets, if he’s making progress. Clogston says he’s working on a blood filter, but isn’t done quite yet. One of the techs shows them the analysis of the stuff that ate Miles’s gloves, and sure enough, there are microencapsulated parasites in it. Miles strips off a glove and lets them take a blood sample, which swiftly confirms that he is definitely infested too.
Since there’s no point in trying to keep from getting infected any more, he removes helmet his helmet and calls Vorpatril on his wristcom. He summarizes the situation for the admiral, who says that the ba is definitely in Nav/Com, presenting its demands to Boss Watts on the station. He patches it in for Miles, who hears the ba demand a jump pilot and free passage out of the system, or else it’ll blow up the ship or ram the station. Greenlaw says that they can’t risk letting a plague-carrier like the ba out of the system, and the ba says it’s left a “small gift” on the station to ensure their cooperation.
Vorpatril cut in privately on the wrist com, in an unnecessarily lowered, tense tone, overriding the exchange between the ba and Watts. “Do you think the bastard’s bluffing, m’lord?”
“Doesn’t matter if it’s bluffing or not. I want it alive. Oh, God do I ever want it alive. Take that as a top priority and an order in the Emperor’s Voice, Admiral.”
After a small and, Miles hoped, thoughtful pause, Vorpatril returned, “Understood, my Lord Auditor.”
Vorpatril’s best strike team is still in detention on the station, but hopefully his second best will do. He tells Vorpatril to keep it ready but wait for his order. The ba’s final instruction is that the jump pilot be shipped out alone, in a personnel pod, and naked, for obvious reasons, and then it cuts the com.
I know by this point that Miles gets contaminated at some point, though I suppose I didn’t know that first time through, but so far I always forget exactly how it happens. Even this time I missed the slippery control joysticks, and even the itchy palms, until Miles’s gloves began to disintegrate… Sneaky, sneaky author. Sort of like the way she hid Miles’s bleeding ulcer for so many chapters in The Warrior’s Apprentice, although not for nearly as long. (See? Reminiscences on demand. Though I guess I’m not quite motivated enough to provide backlinks to old posts or anything…)
A lot of these chapters is concerned with little details of technology and setting–finding radio channels, environmental controls in the infirmary, pressure and biocontainment suits–and sometimes it diffuses the tension a bit. Trying to remember who’s in what kind of suit, and having to waste conversation clarifying the radio channels…it takes me out of the story somewhat. Miles is still several steps behind the ba, and while he may be catching up a little bit, he’s still in the reactive role.
Now the jeopardy is personal, but…now, it seems, to survive he’ll have to get into the ice bath and sit having his blood filtered by medical equipment, his freedom to actually act strongly curtailed. So if he _does_ keep active, then it’ll affect his odds of survival. Not that I seriously thought that he was going to die, but given what she’s done to him in the past, Bujold had a lot of leeway for reducing his quality of life from here on out.
Why is Miles so intent on bringing in the ba alive? Just to get answers to all his nagging questions about its behaviour? Not well expressed, alas, but at least he makes it clear to Vorpatril. Not that I remember the ultimate fate of the ba at this point.
Two chapters without even a whisper of Ekaterin’s voice, and Miles is prevented from calling her at the last. Does he get to talk to her at all before the denouement? Guess this is why she doesn’t get viewpoint chapters, because the action is taking place nowhere near her. Unless Bujold had wanted the contagion to be spreading all over the Prince Xav too, I suppose. (That is where she is, right, or is she still on the Kestrel? I’ve lost track.) Still, this is definitely turning into Worst Honeymoon Ever.
Four chapters left, is it? Well, it does seem like things are coming to a head, stakes continuing to rise and all that, so the next two, or possibly three, chapters should see things mostly wrapped up. And then, my goodness, it’ll be time for Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, which should be interesting, as we get into the books I’ve only read once…