Aw, you know how this goes by now, right? Another chapter of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, in the Vorkosigan Saga, author Lois McMaster Bujold. Too tired to attempt wit right now, so let’s get right to it.
Ivan woke the next morning to an empty bed, again, a depopulated flat, and a note on the coffeemaker: Gone driving. T. Which was better than no reassurance at all, but wouldn’t Love, T. have been a better closing salutation? Not that he had ever ended any note to Tej with Love, I., so far, but then he hadn’t ever gone out and left her just some laconic, uninformative scrawl.
He has instant groats for breakfast, which makes him think of the impromptu wedding on Komarr, which makes him wonder if it’s too early to start drinking. He calls Tej’s wristcom and leaves her a message, and when she doesn’t call back he walks down to the Arquas’ hotel. There he is met by Shiv Arqua, who announces him as “Tej’s Barrayaran”, and invites him in for coffee with himself and the Baronne. He asks after Tej, and Udine tells him that she’s gone out driving with her grandmother and brother Amiri; Ivan is slightly reassured at the less Jacksonian nature of his wife’s companions, but asks why they couldn’t have hired another driver. Shiv says that Tej wanted to catch up with her favourite brother.
Ivan asks how long they’ll be staying on Barrayar; Udine says it will depend on whether their visas will be getting extended. Ivan offers his mother’s help in finding a lawyer, only to be informed that Lady Alys has already offered. He asks if they’d be planning to settle permanently on Barrayar, which is generally taken as a serious commitment; the Arquas are noncommittal, but Shiv says he likes to keep his options open, and has been pleasantly surprised by his experience of Barrayar.
Wondering how close the Arquas are to the end of their resources, Ivan considers who he could ask about it, then decides to try just asking Shiv about it; rather than considering this rude, the Jacksonians seem to consider it a canny question. Shiv doesn’t really answer the question, though, merely talking about how much easier it is to get things done with a larger stake, and the dangers of consuming too much of one’s venture capital; Udine says their real goal is enough to make a credible attempt to retake their House.
Shiv says he’s not going to willingly go back down to the gutter he pulled himself up from before. His determination reminds Ivan of Miles, and of General Count Piotr’s influence in shaping him that way; he wonders who wound Shiv and Udine up that way, but decides he’d rather not know. He asks at what point they’ll just cut their losses and retire somewhere; Shiv reminds him that they do have two of his children hostage. Ivan concludes that they must think that whatever’s hidden under that park is valuable enough to fund a retaking of House Cordonah.
He asks about Tej, whether she’d necessarily be going back with them; it’d be safer on Barrayar, and he’s grown rather fond of her. Udine asks if he likes her well enough to leave his family and come with her, rather than asking her to do that for him; Shiv speculates on whether his Barrayaran military training and experience would be enough to make him useful. Ivan says that he might be willing to go somewhere else with Tej…but probably not Jackson’s Whole.
Ivan said, “Look, I can support a wife here on Barrayar. And I know my home ground. On Jackson’s Whole, I’d be, what…destitute and disarmed. Not to mention out of my depth.”
“As Tej has been, here?” Udine inquired sweetly.
Shiv gave him the eyebrow thing. “A man should know himself, I suppose,” he said. “Me, I’ve been face flat, sucking gutter slime, three times in my life, and had to start again each time from scratch. I’m getting too old to enjoy shoveling that shit anymore, but I can’t say I don’t know how.”
This was not, Ivan sensed, a remark in Ivan’s favour, oblique though it sounded.
Ivan reminds Udine that she left her own home planet to be with Shiv; she points out that the Barrayarans were conquering it at the time, so she had little choice, but Shiv adds that it did turn out well in the end. Ivan wonders if he dares to ask straight out whether they’re going to take Tej away with them, but doesn’t quite. He wonders if he can offer them something, in a Jacksonian Deal; his monetary resources are probably insufficient, his blood is only really good on Barrayar, and his personal skills he’s already declined to lend them.
Udine bids him farewell, and he takes the hint, reiterating his desire for Tej to get in touch with him. Shiv adds, confidentially, that they do have a certain scheme in mind which may give them the wherewithal to depart, obviously implying that they’ll be out of his hair sooner if Ivan doesn’t obstruct them.
Ivan wonders if the right thing might not be to hope–or work–for their deportation, which should get them off the planet soon enough. Tej, as his wife, would of course have the right to stay. All he has to do now is convince her that she wants to stay…which would be easier, of course, if he ever got to see her…
Tej pulls the rented groundcar into an underground garage. Pearl had found it, underneath an innocuous office building across the street from ImpSec HQ, mostly vacant on evenings and weekends; unfortunately it’s on the opposite side from the park, where they’re convinced they’ve found the underground Cetagandan laboratory. In fact, the ImpSec sub-basements themselves are only a couple of dozen meters from intersecting them, and Tej finds it incomprehensible that nobody noticed the lab when they were digging them.
Pearl leads Tej, Amiri and Moira to a storage room, which seems to be infrequently used; its contents do seem to be encouragingly dusty. They shift a couple of shelves over to expose a bare patch of concrete floor, then they put on breath masks (apparently stolen from the jumpship they’d taken to Barrayar) while Amiri pours a ring of solvent on the floor to cut through it. Once it’s done, they lift up the ring of concrete, revealing stones underneath, which Tej, Amiri and Pearl begin prying up, not without grumbling about having to do it by hand. Amiri comments that he wishes they could have rented or bought a place, rather than using something public, but Pearl insists that it’s better to not have a data trail.
Amiri brings a box over to the hole, which he handles carefully; his grandmother insists that they’re harmless, only eating dirt, and as a trained doctor he should be careful enough to not get dirt on himself. Tej reads the label on the box which describes them as experimental Mycoborers, patent pending, with stern warnings against removing them from GalacTech Company property; inside are a series of thin, 50-cm long sticks. Moira decides they should start about eight meters down, since they’re already in a sub-basement, to get to the top level of the laboratory, but be prepared to go down underneath any obstacles they may find in the way; Amiri asks if they should do more than a one-meter diameter, since that might be too narrow to bring much out through, but Moira says that they can always modify it later.
Amiri gingerly trims and prepares one of the mycoborers and starts drilling a hole in the dirt. Tej complains about the plan that has her spending time looking at engineering and plumbing supplies, but her grandmother insists it’s an essential cover to keep ImpSec from knowing how fast they’re actually progressing. Pearl asks how they got these Mycoborers anyway; Moira denies having stolen it, but says that she’d renewed her acquaintance with a friend named Carlo who worked at GalacTech and bought them from him. Amiri finishes his hole, puts the stick of mycoborer down it, then pours some ammonia on it to activate it.
“Nothing’s happening,” said Tej after a minute.
“I thought you said this would work fast,” said Pearl.
“It’s not instantaneous,” chided Grandmama. “Macrobiological processes seldom are.” She added after a while, as anything visible continued to not happen, “The Mycoborer was developed as a method of laying pipe without having to dig trenches; the genetic developer hopes it can be trained to build its own custom pipe as it goes, but that seems to lie in the future. For the moment, they’re happy to have it proceed in a straight route with uniform diameter.”
Tej asks why it doesn’t just keep growing forever, and her grandmother says it’s designed to be choked off by the waste products as the ring grows, and failing that it has a suicide gene triggered by telomere loss, as well as ordinary senescence, and heat sterilization if all else fails. She mentions offhandedly that it hasn’t technically been tested outside the laboratory yet, which fails to reassure her grandchildren; this was, apparently, part of the deal with Carlo, to give him reports on how it works. She notes that if it runs into harder substances, like synthetics or igneous rocks, it will run into trouble, so they may have to reroute it then.
They finally begin to see something, which is nothing more than black goo bubbling up from the hole, but it seems to indicate that it’s actually working. Moira says that it should be completely undetectable, since it won’t generate the kind of vibrations that other digging processes would; they will have to be careful and quiet when they go into the tunnels themselves, of course. She says they should go for lunch, insisting that it’s safe enough to leave the Mycoborer to work; they move the concrete and shelves back to cover it up.
Ivan prepares a splendid meal waiting for Tej’s return, but unfortunately she’s over two hours late, and Byerly and Rish return with her; Rish and By are arguing about his repeated attempts to plant bugs on her. Tej apologizes for being late, but evades his questions about what she was doing, and Ivan’s invitation to dinner is countered by Rish telling her to come back to the hotel so she doesn’t have to be interrogated. Ivan asks Tej when she’ll be back, and she says she doesn’t know; Rish says that she, at least, is going to stay at the hotel.
Ivan is left with By, not impressed at his apparent loss of suavity; By says that he may have overplayed his hand, trying to question her subtly during sex, and now she’s cut him off. He’s getting increasingly maddened by the Arquas’ efforts to keep him out of the way all the time, and ImpSec apparently has no spare resources; they’re all busy preparing for Gregor and Laisa’s trip to Komarr, plus other conferences and conventions around town, but promise vaguely to give him something in a week or two. So it’s just him, against a bunch of Arquas who know what he is already, and all of his ploys are failing.
Ivan suggests he maybe talk to Simon, and fills By in on what he’s seen betwen Illyan and Shiv Arqua, and the other bits he’s pieced together. He concludes that Simon and Shiv might be colluding on something, and it may have something to do with something valuable hidden underneath ImpSec.
“If Simon Illyan is up to something, we shouldn’t bump his elbow,” By declared firmly.
“I’m…not so sure.”
By’s eyes narrowed. “I thought he was just playing befuddled.”
So, By had spotted that. Good on By. “He does do that. He’s got half of Vorbarr Sultana believing he’s as addled as an egg, and my mother his caretaker. And the people they report to…. But sometimes he…shorts out, just a little. You can tell when it’s real, because it’s the only time he tries to hide it.”
He eventually convinces By to go talk to Illyan, but only if Ivan comes with him; Ivan makes him help eat the desiccated supper first, though.
Ivan must be getting desperate. He’s beginning to be afraid of losing Tej–whether he’s actually admitted he’s in love with her or not–and so he’s driven to things like talking to her parents, and, by the end of the chapter, actually trying to talk to Illyan about what’s going on. Drifting along with the flow is apparently not being enough, and he’s having trouble winning Tej over because he can’t get a moment alone to talk to her. Byerly is having similar problems with Rish, which are a little more professional and a little less romantic, but still a little bit.
Meanwhile, the Arquas are actually starting to do something. I don’t know if their plan is to accomplish the entire heist (if you can call it that, since it’s not clear they’re technically stealing from anyone) before their visas expire, but they’re certainly putting things in motion now. Plus, they have this time window, apparently, where everyone at ImpSec is busy doing other things. They can’t have planned that, but I’m sure that they’re aware of it and taking advantage. I wonder how they did find it out, though–through Simon Illyan, or some other channel? Surely ImpSec won’t advertise its undermannedness too strongly, but if these are all public events, it might be possible to work it out.
The Mycoborers…untested, autonomous digging organisms (some kind of fungus, I gather, from the name), let loose underneath Vorbarr Sultana? Yeah, there’s no way that could go wrong. Especially digging tunnels beneath a big building. I’m like, Oh, right, that’s how that happens…
Next chapter, next week, Ivan talks to Simon Illyan, and it looks like he even gets to talk to Tej. Plus, the Arquas may find something unexpected underground.