Even in the darkest moments, there is always a light. Perhaps the light of a web browser window on a computer screen, beckoning you with bright white vertical strip surrounded by stars, emblazoned with the words of an entry in the Vorkosigan Saga Reread. Maybe, just maybe, kind of like this one. This week, we cover the last two chapters of Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Komarr, wherein rescues are effected and denouements are unknotted…and the groundwork laid for the next book’s plot.
Miles is on the courier ship up to the station when he finds out from ImpSec Captain Vorgier that the Komarrans have Ekaterin and Madame Vorthys hostage, which makes the rest of the trip an agony for him. When he finally arrives, Vorgier tells him that they’re ready to storm the Southport bay, and they believe they’ll be able to get an emergency seal in place to keep the women from asphyxiating. Miles says that the engineers are likely smart enough to rig an explosive in the airlock as a backup, and the hostages are not expendable.
Vorgier stiffened. “My Lord Auditor. I appreciate your concern, but I believe this will be most quickly and effectively concluded as a military operation. Civilian authority can help best by staying out of the way and letting the professionals do their job.”
The ImpSec deck had dealt him two men in a row of exceptional competence, Tuomonen and Gibbs; why, oh why, couldn’t good things come in threes? They were supposed to, dammit. “This is my operation, Captain, and I will answer personally to the Emperor for every detail of it. I spent the last ten years as an ImpSec galactic agent and I’ve dealt with more damned _situations_ than anyone else on Simon Illyan’s roster and I know just exactly how fucked-up a professional operation can get.” He tapped his chest. “So climb down off your Vor horse and brief me properly.”
Vorgier backs down and takes Miles to the local ImpSec HQ. At Miles’s request, they’ve cut most of the power lines into the bay, and Vorgier reports no unusual power draws, though he notes they do have a freighter docked there. Miles isn’t sure why they haven’t used their wormhole device yet, whether Soudha has figured out its flaw, or if they’re just not finished yet. Vorthys and Riva have said that, likely as not, turning the wormhole device off after it’s activated will destroy the station with gravitational backlash, but news of the hostage situation cut short their calculations as Vorthys headed up to the station as well.
Station Security officer Husavi is evacuating the station, citing a bomb scare, and notes that not only is there less than 100% cooperation, there’s also a shotage of ships to evacuate people. Miles says that if necessary they’ll take people to the military station, though the commander is less than enthused at the prospect of an influx of random civilians.
In Vorgier’s “operations centre”, he proceeds to pitch his assault plan to Miles; Miles has to admit it’s no worse than some of the ones he tried in his youth, and realizes this is like he’s been cursed (by Illyan, likely) with subordinates just like him. He keeps getting distracted by memories of Ekaterin’s interrupted comm message, and the image of the two women being bundled into the airlock before they cut the camera feed. Miles finally says that he’ll leave Vorgier’s plan as a backup, but first he wants to try negotiation.
“These are Komarran terrorists. Madmen—you can’t negotiate with them!”
The late Baron Ryoval had been a madman. The late Ser Galen had been a madman, without question. And the late General Metzov hadn’t exactly been rowing with both oars in the water, either, come to think of it. Miles had to admit, there had been a definite negative trend to all those negotiations. “I’m not without experience in the problem, Vorgier. But I don’t think Dr. Soudha is a madman. He’s not even a mad scientist. He’s merely a very upset engineer. These Komarrans may in fact be the most sensible revolutionaries I’ve ever met.”
He tries to clear his mind of images of Ekaterin suffering from claustrophobia in the airlock, and orders a call put through to Soudha. He takes the call in a featureless room, trying to obscure his location; Soudha, when he answers, is clearly in the control booth Ekaterin had made her call from. The other conspirators–Foscol, Cappell, and Madame Radovas–are visible as well, making a Komarran voting quorum. Soudha spots from the lack of lag that he’s not on-planet; Miles says that he managed to survive, unlike Tien Vorsoisson, which disquiets Lena Foscol.
Soudha says that all he wants to hear is that their demands for a jumpship to neutral territory have been met. Instead, Miles says that they found their device’s plans at Bollen Design, and between Vorthys, Dr. Riva, and Dr. Yuell, they’ve managed to work out its function. He tells them how it won’t collapse the wormhole as much as it will turn it into an gravity-pulse generator, which is what killed Radovas and Marie Trogir (whose body has latterly been found, and which news seems to distress Cappell). So if they try to use the pulse, they’ll destroy the station, and themselves, but Barrayar will still be there, so it will have been for nothing. Foscol accuses him of lying, but Soudha thinks it would explain what happened before.
Miles adds that their families, and the other Waste Heat personnel, have been picked up by ImpSec, and warns them not to try playing the hostage game. Foscol is still defiant, but Miles asks her what she thinks they still have to gain, apart from killing innocent people. Cappell says they don’t want to put their weapon into Barrayaran hands; Miles says that it’s already there, and mentions the tantalizing hints that they could also use it to draw power from the wormhole. However, Miles does not intend to let them get away, in case there is something to the wormhole collapsing theory after all. And the Vor women are, as Vor, prepared to sacrifice their lives if necessary. He’s not sure he believes it himself, unwilling to let Ekaterin slip out of his grasp, but he tries to keep this from showing on his face.
He says they will be headed for Barrayaran prison, but he adds, in an effort to sound encouraging, that prison is not death, and that pardons and amnesties happen. Foscol says it doesn’t sound like much of an offer, but Miles says that this would mean not charges pressed for the deaths of the soletta and oreship crew, or Tien.
Good. Go on. The more time he burned, the better, and they were tracking his arguments; as long as he could keep Soudha from cutting the com, he was making some twisty sort of progress. “You bitch endlessly about Barrayaran tyranny, but somehow I don’t think you folks took a vote of all Komarran planetary shareholders, before you attempted to seal—or steal—their future. And if you could have, I don’t think you would have dared. Twenty years ago, even fifteen years ago, maybe you could have counted on majority support. By ten years ago, it was already too late. Would your fellows really want to close off their nearest market now, and lose all that trade? Lose all their relatives who’ve moved to Barrayar, and their half-Barrayaran grandchildren? Your trade fleets have found their Barrayaran military escorts bloody useful often enough. Who are the true tyrants here—the blundering Barrayarans who seek, however awkwardly, to include Komarr in their future, or the Komarran intellectual elitists who seek to exclude all but themselves from it?” He took a deep breath to control the unexpected anger which had boiled up with his words, aware he was teetering on the edge with these people. Watch it, watch it. “So all that remains for us is to try and salvage as many lives as possible from the wreckage.”
Madame Radovas asks how he’l guarantee their lives, and Miles says it’ll be on his order as an Imperial Auditor, which can only be overruled by the Emperor himself, and Miles will risk his career on it, which doesn’t reassure Foscol that much. He offers his word on it; Cappell says he doesn’t think much of a Vorkosigan’s word.
Miles leaned forward into the vid pickup. “My word is all that stands between you and ImpSec’s aspiring heroes coming through your walls. They don’t need the corridors, you know. My word went down on my Auditor’s oath, which holds me at this moment unblinking to a duty I find more horrific than you can know. I only have one name’s oath. It cannot be true to Gregor if it is false to you. But if there’s one thing my father’s heartbreaking experience at Solstice taught, it’s that I’d better not put my word down on events I do not control. If you surrender quietly, I can control what happens. If ImpSec has to detain you by force, it will be up to chance, chaos, and the reflexes of some overexcited young men with guns and gallant visions of thwarting mad Komarran terrorists.”
Miles says that if he has to unleash ImpSec, the results won’t be his doing, but they’ll be his responsibility–he’ll be in charge, but not in control. Foscol asks after the jumpship, and Miles admits that there won’t be a jumpship. Foscol asks which of the hostages they should space, and Miles asks which one of them they want to watch the other one being killed, and if they really want to cross the line to murderer, no better than the Barrayaran murderers they claim to oppose.
Soudha and Foscol argue over whether to space Ekaterin or not, hinting that she may have done something to hurt them, and Soudha ends up calling a vote–surrender, or calling Miles’s bluff. Miles wishes he could keep them talking for longer, pushing them for surrender instead of suicide, and isn’t sure he’s done enough. Lena Foscol votes against surrender, as does Cappell, who doesn’t want Marie Trogir to have died for nothing. Soudha votes to give up, leaving only Madame Radovas, whose vote will be tie-breaking. She says that even if they escape somehow, they’ll always be looking over their shoulder for ImpSec, and she’s tired of being afraid. She asks Soudha if he believes the device wouldn’t work, and he says he does. Miles, encouraged, asks why her vote is the tie-breaker; she says that her husband had come up with the idea, and had the largest share, which she inherited. She tells him she remembers how Miles had stood up for her widows’ rights, and votes to surrender. Foscol and Cappell are unhappy, but they appear willing go along with the decision.
Soudha asks what’s next, and Miles outlines plans for gradually standing down, starting with him defusing Vorgier’s pending assault, and Soudha disarming any booby-traps, unlocking the doors, and preparing to be arrested. Soudha signs off, and Miles organizes a squad armed with medical gear and stunners only.
He restrains himself from marching in at the head of the squad, coming up behind; the Komarrans are sitting quietly waiting for them, as the techs spread out to check for any remaining booby-traps. Miles instantly spots the wreckage of the wormhole device, which cheers him considerably; Soudha tell him it was Ekaterin who wrecked it.
“Remarkable.” The source of several oddly tilted responses on the Komarrans’ part to his recent negotiations began at last to come clear to Miles. “Um . . . how?”
All three Komarrans tried to answer him at once, with a medley of blame-casting which included a lot of phrases like, If Madame Radovas hadn’t let her out, If you hadn’t let Radovas let her out, How was I supposed to know? The old lady looked sick to me. Still does, If you hadn’t put the remote down right in front of her, If you hadn’t left the damned control booth, If you had just moved faster, If you had run for the float cradle and cut the power, So why didn’t you think of that, huh? by which Miles slowly pieced together the most glorious mental picture he’d had all day. All year. For quite a long time, actually.
I’m in love. I’m in love. I just thought I was in love, before. Now I really am. I must, I must, I must have this woman! Mine, mine, mine. Lady Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorsoisson Vorkosigan, yes! She’d left nothing here for ImpSec and all the Emperor’s Auditors to do but sweep up the bits. He wanted to roll on the floor and howl with joy, which would be most undiplomatic of him, under the circumstances. He kept his face neutral, and very straight. Somehow, he didn’t think the Komarrans appreciated the exquisite delight of it all.
Soudha also mentions her earlier attempt to summon security, and how they’d welded her into the airlock rather than risk a third accident. Miles asks if there are booby-traps in the airlock, and Soudha says there’s a bomb on the outside, but opening from the inside will be safe. After they cut off the bar welded over the door, Miles hesitates to open it, wondering aloud if Soudha is playing a canny game to strike a last-minute revenge, maybe trying to incite another Solstice Massacre. In the end, though, he sends the Komarran prisoners away and then has the ImpSec techs open the door.
Miles extends his arms to Ekaterin, but she merely stalks past him muttering that it’s about time. Instead, he asks after Madame Vorthys’s health and tells her there’s a float pallet waiting for her; she’s quickly ensconced thereon with a short of synergine. Miles says that Professor Vorthys will be there soon, and will probably meet them at the infirmary. They head out in that direction; Ekaterin tells Miles she knew it must be “our side”, or else it would have been the outer doors that opened. Miles appreciates her continued steadiness, as gratifying as it would have been for her to be swooning with gratitude. He tells her about the defective device, and, when she’s discouraged that she went to all that work to destroy it, he tries to reassure her by saying that she saved thousands of lives anyway. He proposes that they give her a medal, except that this whole case will have to be ultra-top-secret classified; she asks what she’d do with such a useless thing.
He thought bemusedly of the contents a certain drawer at home in Vorkosigan House. “Frame it? Use it as a paperweight? Dust it?”
“Just what I always wanted. More clutter.”
He grinned at her; she smiled back at last, clearly beginning to come off her adrenaline jag, and without breaking down, either. She drew breath and started forward again, and he kept pace. She had met the enemy, mastered her moment, hung three hours on death’s doorstep, all that, and she’d emerged still on her feet and snarling. Oversocialized, hah. Oh, yeah, Da, I want this one.
As they arrive at the infirmary, she asks how he managed to get rid of the Komarrans. He said he used persuasion, mostly hinging on convincing them that he was willing to sacrifice the hostages. Ekaterin says that of course he would have sacrificed them, rather than let them throw Barrayar back into the Time of Isolation; he pronounces her true Vor.
So both Miles and Soudha were bluffing there, sort of. Soudha was bluffing about the device, though I suppose he didn’t actually threaten to try using it at any point; I’m not sure if he was bluffing about the airlock, though Foscol probably wasn’t. Though if they had welded a bar over the airlock, how would they space just one of the women, and not both? Surely they’d need to open the inner door to bring one of them out, or something, which sounds a little risky, given their wariness of Ekaterin. And Miles wasn’t really bluffing about sacrificing the women, except that he might have chickened out rather than risk Ekaterin. That would have given him another few books’ worth of emotional issues, if he’d had to kill her to stop the terrorists. But Bujold was finally softening on him, I guess. Or maybe just giving him enough rope to screw up his love life himself.
By the way, a quick text search shows that this is only the second time that Miles has used the word “fuck” in the books so far…and the first time was merely repeating someone else, back in “Borders of Infinity”. So he’s not quite as oversocialized as Ekaterin–“shit” turns up quite a few more times–but it still takes him a while to get to that level of profanity. Probably appropriate, for someone who thrives on the power of language, to use its strongest words judiciously.
According to the oft-quoted maxim–Aral’s, I think?–“a weapon is a device for making your enemy change his mind”. In that sense, Miles’s tongue–or, I suppose, tongue-brain-lungs-mouth combination–is his most effective weapon. This has been clear as far back as Warrior’s Apprentice, if not earlier; Oser, having fallen victim to it once, was the only one to become wary of it, in The Vor Game, and for good reason. In this chapter, he wields it mercilessly, and does, indeed, succeed in making his enemies change their minds. And that’s why he always should have been in charge.
Ekaterin is escorted to her hostel room to pick up her luggage, and view with bemusement the urgent message Miles had left her to flee the station. She contrasts that Miles with the genial Miles who had bowed her out of the airlock and wonders which one is real, or both. Back in the infirmary, she waits up with her aunt until Uncle Vorthys arrives, and gruffly admonishes his wife not to spoil his plans to die first. Madame Vorthys is beginning to look better, and Ekaterin lets her tell the story of their captivity. She thinks of her aunt and uncle, married forty years and still terrified of losing each other, and wishes she could ever have known such a thing, but she doubts she ever will.
After her uncle leaves to talk to Miles, she lies down herself; a medtech gives her a sedative, and against her expectations it puts her right to sleep. She sleeps late, and lolls around quietly chatting with her aunt until Miles arrives with a huge bouquet of flowers.
“Wherever did you find such gorgeous flowers on a space station?” Ekaterin asked, astonished.
“In a shop. It’s a Komarran space station. They’ll sell you anything. Well, not anything—that would be Jackson’s Whole. But it stands to reason, with all the people meeting and greeting and parting through here, that there would be a market niche for this sort of thing. They grow them right here on the station, you know, along with all their truck garden vegetables. Why do they call them truck gardens, I wonder? I don’t think they ever grew trucks in them, even back on Old Earth.” He dragged over a chair and sat down near her, at the foot of the Professora’s bed. “I believe that dark red fuzzy thing is a Barrayaran plant, by the way. It made me break out in hives when I touched it.”
Madame Vorthys asks how they’re going to get them home, and Miles suggests offhandedly that they give the flowers to the medtechs when they leave. When Ekaterin protests that they must be expensive, Miles says that they’re cheap–not like failed combat-drop missions or weapon-control systems. He suggests Ekaterin visit the station’s hydroponics; she wonders if she’ll have time, then realizes that she’s not even late to pick up Nikki yet. They missed their original return trip, but they’ll be going down with Vorthys in his fast courier, after he assesses the debris in the loading bay. Ekaterin apologizes for the mess, but Miles insists that it was a beautiful mess.
Vorthys will be staying on Komarr for a while to study the device in secret, since the whole affair is being kept top-secret; Miles gets to go back to Barrayar to report to the Emperor in person. Tuomonen sent up his luggage, including his seizure stimulator; Miles notes that, unfortunately, Tuomonen is going to get blamed for not spotting the conspiracy in Serifosa, while that idiot Vorgier gets a commendation. He says that if Tuomonen does lose his job or find it at a standstill, he’ll offer him a position as an Auditor’s assistant.
He tells Ekaterin that, because the case is going beyond classified, there will be limits on what she can tell Nikki about it, for the time being. For now Tien’s death will have to remain a breath mask accident. She will not, though, have to testify in court, because there will be no public prosecutions. He hopes that someday the restrictions can be eased. She asks if she’ll need to repay Tien’s debts; Miles says that it’s Foscol who really owes it.
“Something is owed,” she said gravely.
“Tien settled his debt with his life. He’s quits with the Imperium, I assure you. In the Emperor’s Voice, if necessary.”
She took this in. Death did wipe out debt. It just didn’t erase the memory of pain; time was still required for that healing. Your time is your own, now. That felt strange. She could take all the time she wanted, or needed. Riches beyond dreams. She nodded. “All right.”
Miles asks her to contact him when they get to Vorbarr Sultana, receiving reassurances from Maame Vorthys that Ekaterin and Nikki will be staying with them. He then proceeds to give her every possible means of contacting him, at any of his residences, through Master Tsipis, even a drop at the Imperial Residence. Madame Vorthys asks if he hasn’t forgotten a few, and he blushes, but he adds that he’d like to show Ekaterin some of the vegetation in his District sometime. She asks about the Komarran terraforming, and he says the money embezzled in Serifosa was just a drop in the bucket, compared to the soletta repairs.
He brightened. “I had this great idea about that. I’m going to pitch it to Gregor that we should declare the soletta repair—and enlargement—as a wedding present, from Gregor to Laisa and from Barrayar to Komarr. I’m going to recommend its size be nearly doubled, adding the six new panels the Komarrans have been begging for since forever. I think this mischance can be turned into an absolute propaganda coup, with the right timing. We’ll shove the appropriation through the Council of Counts and Ministers quickly, before Midsummer, while everyone in Vorbarr Sultana is still sentimentally wound up for the Imperial Wedding.”
She clapped her hands in enthusiasm, then paused in doubt. “Will that work? I didn’t think the crusty old Council of Counts was susceptible to what Tien used to call romantic drivel.”
“Oh,” he said airily, “I’m sure they are. I’m a cadet member of the Counts myself—we’re only human, after all. Besides, we can point out that every time a Komarran looks up—well, half the time— they’ll see this Barrayaran gift hanging overhead, and know what it’s doing to create their future. The power of suggestion and all that. It could save us the expense of putting down the next Komarran conspiracy.”
After a guarded look at Madame Vorthys, Miles takes out another package–the tiny model of Barrayar from the jeweler’s shop, on a gold chain–and presents it to Ekaterin, in lieu of a medal, as the “Lord Auditor Vorkosigan Award For Making His Job Easier”. If she hadn’t destroyed their device, he says, he’d never have been able to convince them to surrender, and the station would almost certainly have been destroyed. She’s not sure whether it’s proper to accept it or not, but she thanks him, though she reminds him about the drop into the pond from that day as well. She asks if he planned it, and he says it was just serendipity, but most people can’t tell the difference between that and careful planning. He says that she’s the first woman he’s been able to literally give Barrayar to.
Her eyes crinkled. “Have you had a great many girlfriends?” If he hadn’t, she’d have to dismiss her whole gender as congenital idiots. The man could charm snakes from their holes, nine-year-olds from locked bathrooms, and Komarran terrorists from their bunkers. Why weren’t females following him around in herds? Could no Barrayaran woman see past his surface, or their own cocked-up noses?
Under her interrogation, he lists them off–his “hopeless first love”, Elena; “this and that”–Elli Quinn, raised from trainee to Admiral, and Taura, freed from slavery on Jackson’s Whole and now Master Sergeant with Elli’s mercenary fleet; Rowan, also freed from Jackson’s Whole and now working at a clinic on Escobar. Ekaterin is impressed with how they all seem to have come out much the better after their relationships with Miles, most unlike hers with Tien. He notes glumly that none of them would come to live on Barrayar with him. She asks about an “unrequired mad crush” he mentioned, and he tells her about Rian…currently Empress of Cetaganda.
She rested her chin in her hand, and regarded him; her brows quirked in quizzical delight. “Lord Vorkosigan. Can I take a number and get in line?”
Whatever it was he’d been expecting her to say, it wasn’t that; he was so taken aback he nearly fell off his chair. Wait, she hadn’t meant it to come out sounding quite like— His smile stuck in the on position, but decidedly sideways.
“The next number up,” he breathed, “is `one.’ ”
It was her turn to be taken aback; her eyes fell, scorched by the blaze in his. He had lured her into levity. His fault, for being so . . . luring. She stared wildly around the room, groping for some suitably neutral remark with which to retrieve her reserve. It was a space station: there was no weather. My, the vacuum is hard out today . . . . Not that, either. She gazed beseechingly at Aunt Vorthys. Vorkosigan observed her involuntary recoil, and his smile acquired a sort of stuffed apologetic quality; he too looked cautiously to the Professora.
Madame Vorthys turns the conversation back to the more neutral topic of Miles’s trip home, which turns out to be on another ImpSec fast courier; he bids them a hasty farewell, after seeking assurance that he’d be seeing them again on Vorbarr Sultana. After he leaves, Madame Vorthys notes that Miles is “nice, but short”; Ekaterin replies that he’s just “concentrated”. Then she changes the subject and says they should ask about that hydroponics tour…
So Miles claims that he hadn’t planned to give that last Barrayar pendant to Ekaterin. I guess he may be telling the truth about just having gotten another one on impulse to give to somebody, whoever he wanted to “give the world” to, and he hadn’t actually fallen in love with Ekaterin yet, or at least hadn’t realized it if he had. I could see Ekaterin, with her limited resources, being a little embarrassed, and even offended, by Miles throwing his money around, buying flowers and expensive techno-jewelry, and then giving them to her, but she seems to accept it, at least.
This is really the most romantic chapter of the book, as Ekaterin drags out the details–well, at least the overview–of Miles’s love life. She’s mostly fascinated by how he seems to have left them better than he found them, which may be why she makes that provocative comment about getting in line; he can’t help but take that a little more seriously than she meant it, in his current smitten state of mind. Madame Vorthys seems thoroughly bemused by the whole thing, and it’s hard to figure out what exactly she’s thinking–does she approve of Miles? Disapprove? Ekaterin had already expressed how it would be a positive relief to be in mourning for a year, and thus off-limits; does her aunt disagree? In any case, Ekaterin doesn’t seem to take Miles’s invitation as seriously as he’s offering it…poor Miles. So, since nothing is actually resolved in the romantic plot here, Bujold was hopefully setting up that plot for the next book, which, luckily she delivered on.
Overall…I still can’t warm to Komarr as much as I did for the last couple of Miles books, or for A Civil Campaign. I’m not sure why, still. To some extent, the plot didn’t gel for me–the whole soletta investigation from the first few chapters seems to be just ignored when the whole embezzlement/Waste Heat thing comes up, and while they turn out to be related, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that they should be–it’s just luck on Miles’s part, frankly, that he happens to come to Serifosa because Vorthys wants to visit his niece. Ekaterin’s character growth is a powerful arc, but unfortunately it comes with a lot of Tien, who is probably a less appealing character than most of Bujold’s actual villains. Okay, maybe not, but, as my friend Ann Marston is fond of saying, “I never liked him and I’m glad he’s dead.” And yet, that death also seems a little pat–how convenient, that this appealing woman in a loveless marriage, on the verge of leaving, doesn’t have to actually get a divorce, because her husband dies of a combination of enemy action and his own stupidity. And a lucky break for Miles, too. So that’s two major plot points that don’t seem to ring true for me. Still a decent book, up there with Cetaganda, say, or maybe The Vor Game, but I don’t reread it as eagerly as some of the others in the series. I didn’t find myself reading ahead without meaning to, like I did with Memory, and expect to with A Civil Campaign. But…at least the chapters tended to be fairly short.
My traditional week off is coming up–fortunately, perhaps, as I have actual things on my calendar next week–but I suspect it won’t take me that long to read the first two (or more) chapters of A Civil Campaign. As I’ve been hinting heavily, this is one of my favourite books of the series, not least because we’re back on Barrayar, where all the best characters seem to live, not to mention that the plot is so delightful, and in some odd ways it makes a nice bookend to Memory. But two weeks…well, that’s enough time for you to (re)read the book yourself, if you so desire…