Sing hey, my fine fellow, let’s go deeper into the labyrinth! That’s “Labyrinth”, to be precise, the latest story in the Vorkosigan Saga Reread: one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s novellas that form part of the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, originally collected as part of Borders of Infinity, but more recently part of the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus. This week I’ll cover the third and final segment of the novella, where I arbitrarily divided it since Bujold didn’t provide any convenient internal chapters or anything.
Miles and Taura climb back down the inside of the pillar; not finding any other exits, they perforce return to the basement. Taura drinks from the water pipe, while Miles tries to determine if the flood is doing any good. It’s accumulating slowly at the lower edge, but it would take days to do them any good strategically.
Taura boosted him back into the duct. “Wish me luck,” he murmured over his shoulder, muffled by the close confines.
“Goodbye,” she said. He could not see the expression on her face; there was none in her voice.
“See you later,” he corrected firmly.
He returns to the grille, this time armed with cutters, and snips his way through, wincing at the noise but nonetheless apparently unheard by anything other than another large rat. He emerges into a storage room, then into a corridor, with an access hatch at one end. Miles opens it and calls quietly for Taura. Hearing no response, he descends to search for her, and finds her sitting despondently at the base of a pillar. She is genuinely surprised at his return, but glad. Miles is just telling her his plan to climb out and steal a vehicle when the outside entrance begins to slide open, revealing daylight.
Six Ryoval troopers, two of them armed with nerve disruptors, soon enter, led by Security Chief Moglia, leaving Miles and Taura no chance to climb up and away. Moglia comments that “Nine” must have decided to start cooperating; Miles squeezed Taura’s hand to try to keep her from reacting. Moglia tells Miles his friends have made his ransom, which surprises him. Outside, they finds Bel Thorne and another Dendarii, another half-dozen men from House Fell, a float-truck, and Nicol the quaddie, who is being held at stunnerpoint.
“Is that the man you want?” the green-uniformed guard captain asked Bel Thorne.
“That’s him.” Thorne’s face was white with an odd mixture of relief and distress. “Admiral, are you all right?” Thorne called urgently. Its eyes widened, taking in Miles’s tall companion. “What the hell’s that?”
“She is Recruit-trainee Taura,” Miles said firmly, hoping 1) Bel would unravel the several meanings packed in that sentence and 2) Ryoval’s guards wouldn’t. Bel looked stunned, so evidently Miles had got at least partly through; Security Chief Moglia looked suspicious, but baffled.
Miles gets as close to Bel as the Ryoval guards allow him, asking him what’s going on, while Fell’s and Ryoval’s guards complete the paperwork. Bel says he’d gone to Baron Fell for help, and the upshot was that Fell agreed to exchange Nicol for Miles, which Bel only found out an hour earlier. Miles asks if they’re going to refund her dollar, and Bel says he had no idea what kind of torture Miles was undergoing. He quotes Ky Tung quoting Sun Tzu: “On hemmed-in ground, use subterfuge.” Miles recalls another Sun Tzu quote: “On desperate ground, fight”; judging the odds (thirteen to five, if they can count Nicol), and wondering if it could get any more desperate. Miles asks what Baron Fell stands to get out of it, and Bel says he promised Miles would tell him the real truth about the Betan rejuvenation treatment. Miles asks if “Medtech Vaughn” is on the Ariel yet, and Bel tells him he will be within the hour. Miles tells him that they’re bringing the whole package, indicating Taura and promising to explain later.
“Meantime, you made a slight miscalculation. This isn’t hemmed-in ground. This is desperate ground. Nicol, I want you to know, the Dendarii don’t give refunds.”
Nicol frowned in bewilderment. Bel’s eyes widened, as it checked out the odds—calculating them thirteen to three, Miles could tell.
“Truly?” Bel choked. A subtle hand signal, down by its trouser seam, brought the trooper to full alert.
“Truly desperate,” Miles reiterated. He inhaled deeply. “Now! Taura, attack!”
Miles heads for Moglia, hoping to use him as shelter from the nerve disruptors. The Dendarii trooper stuns one of the disruptor-armed guards and Bel drops the other. Two more Ryoval guards head for him, but Taura picks them up and smashes their heads together. The Fell guards hesitate, but Nicol launches herself upward in her float chair and knocks one out from above. Taura throws a Ryoval guard at a Fell guard. The Dendarii trooper closes with a Fell guard, but the Fell captain stuns both of them. Moglia presses his truncheon against Miles’s windpipe, calling for reinforcements. Taura takes out another couple of guards while Bel stuns any of the enemy smart enough to try focusing on her. Nicol takes out the last green guard, and Bel heads for the truck. Moglia pulls a knife out of his boot and presses it to Miles’s neck. He is just instructing everyone to hold still when Taura grabs his throat in her claws.
“I can kill him, before you do,” croaked Moglia.
“The little man is mine,” Taura crooned. “You gave him to me yourself. He came back for me. Hurt him one little bit, and I’ll tear your head off and then I’ll drink your blood.”
Taura lifts Moglia off his feet, and he drops the knife. She says she still wants to rip his head off, but Miles says that Ryoval will do worse than that to him soon enough. They stun Moglia, grab their stunned trooper, and pile into the truck. Miles grabs the trooper’s wrist-com and asks about the drop shuttle. Bel says it’s parked at a shuttleport about forty km away, with Anderson and Nout manning it. Miles calls them and orders an emergency pickup; Bel gives them directions and their speed, and Miles encourages them to flout Ryoval’s traffic control. They patch him through to the Ariel, where Murka expresses relief that Miles is okay, and tells him that Medtech Vaughn is aboard. Miles says not to let him leave, and says he’s got the tissue sample with him. He tells Murka to get everyone aboard, pick up the shuttle and break for the wormhole to Escobar as soon as possible, abandoning cargo if necessary.
Bel asks if they weren’t supposed to keep a low profile, and Miles says they struck a blow for justice against Baron Ryoval that he might end up regretting, so they’ve already burned their bridges. He doesn’t particularly want to tell Baron Fell the truth about the rejuvenation treatment either. All the pieces were in place there, so he had to seize the opportunity.
Miles goes back to check on Nicol and Taura. He compliments the quaddie on her fighting ability, and she says she was concerned they might break her dulcimer, or Bel. Taura’s colour isn’t good, and she tells Miles she’s hungry, so he rounds up a ration bar and gives it to her, promising himself to give her steak and chocolate cake when they’re back on the Ariel.
Two aircars come up behind them, and Bel is forced to dodge back and forth as they begin shooting plasma bolts at the truck. The truck proves to be unarmored and practically unarmed, and one of the blasts takes off a top rear corner and leaves one of the doors swinging; Taura and Nicol cling together to keep from flying out the back. Miles calls Anderson back and urges her to push her engine to the limits, which she accepts gleefully. He then searches the truck for weapons, their stunners being useless, but is unable to find anything. A blast takes off part of the roof, and Bel is forced down to the ground in a forested valley. They abandon the truck, and as the Ryoval aircars close in, the drop shuttle arrives and smashes one of them with a tractor beam. The shuttle lands and the fugitives pile in.
They dock with the Ariel and Miles immediately notices the noises of stressed engines and consequent irregularities in the artificial gravity. Bel Thorne heads to Nav/Com, Nicole and the stunned trooper are taken to sickbay, and Miles confronts Dr. Canaba. He accused Canaba of having sent him to kill a 16-year-old girl; Canaba protests, just as Taura emerges from the shuttle, surprised to see the doctor there. Miles tells Canaba to stay still and tells Laureen Anderson to take Taura for a meal, all she can eat, then a bath, proper uniform, and orientation. Anderson takes an uncertain Taura in tow, and Miles turns back to Canaba.
Canaba says that he couldn’t leave Taura in Ryoval’s hands, and apparently it didn’t occur to him that the mercenaries would rescue her without it being in their contract. He adds that he couldn’t take her with him to Barrayar, where it’s well known that they kill mutants. Miles says Canaba’s not a fit guardian for her anyway, and says she’ll be better off in the Dendarii. Canaba says that she’s going to die soon, though, because of issues with her metabolism. He doesn’t know if she’ll live another ten years, or fifteen, or only one, especially since the final deterioration was rapid and painful, judging by what happened to the other prototypes. Miles says he’s not sure any of them will live longer than fifteen minutes, so she has a right to her destiny as a free woman.
“How free can she ever be, in that body, driven by that metabolism, that face—a freak’s life—better to die painlessly, than to have all that suffering inflicted on her—”
Miles spoke through his teeth. With emphasis. “No. It’s. Not.”
Canaba stared at him, shaken out of the rutted circle of his unhappy reasoning at last.
That’s right, doctor, Miles’s thought glittered. Get your head out of your ass and look at me. Finally.
Miles tells Canaba he likes Taura rather better than he likes Canaba himself. He regrets that he will still have to retrieve the tissue samples, and debates various subterfuges before resolving that he will have to be honest with Taura about it. He wonders if he’d have gone in to retrieve her if it hadn’t been for the tissue samples, and is glad he’ll never know. Canaba reluctantly grants Taura’s freedom.
Miles heads to Nav/Com, where Thorne tells him that Baron Ryoval wants to talk to him. Miles decides to let him wait a few minutes; he’s surprised when Murka tells him that there’s no pursuit launched yet. Miles wishes he’d had a chance to clean up, but does the best he can and braces himself for the call.
Miles folded his hands and smiled innocently. “Good morning, Baron. What can I do for you?”
“Die, you little mutant!” Ryoval spat. “You! There isn’t going to be a bunker deep enough for you to burrow in. I’ll put a price on your head that will have every bounty hunter in the galaxy all over you like a second skin—you’ll not eat or sleep—I’ll have you—”
Yes, the baron had seen his freezers all right.
Miles is a little puzzled that Ryoval seems to take it as a given that they’ll escape. He asks Ryoval how he’ll be able to afford bounty hunters with his reduced assets. Ryoval asks if his little brother’s involved, which puzzles Miles further; Ryoval’s brother turns out to be Baron Fell, and Ryoval refuses to believe that Fell is not involved, unless it’s House Bharaputra instead, reneging on letting him in on their genetics monopoly… Miles realizes that Bharaputra may well have been involved in the death of Baron Fell’s clone, but at least they won’t be getting together to compare notes about Miles’s real mission. Miles playes along with Ryoval’s idée-fixe and tells him Taura was a Bharaputran plant in the first place, to help him steal samples from Ryoval’s collection before they destroyed the rest. Ryoval cuts the connection and Miles heads off to shower.
He is much cleaner and somewhat more caffeinated when Baron Fell calls in. He is less upset than his brother, though he does point out that Miles seems to be absconding with stolen property, which Miles takes to mean Nicol. Miles says they were in somewhat of a hurry; Fell says he doesn’t care as long as he gets his agreed price, the truth about the rejuvenation treatment. Miles says he can’t tell him that, and Fell immediately turns to command the launch of pursuit ships. Miles asks him to wait, claiming that the truth would do him no good whatsoever, but having another piece of information to exchange. He tells Fell that it wasn’t Ryoval who killed Fell’s clone, but that he paid the Bharaputrans to do it. They were probably planning to take over House Fell while they combined their operations. He also points out that they gave the Baron their credit chit but only loaded half their cargo.
Fell considers and eventually calls off the pursuit, though he warns Miles not to return to Jackson’s Whole. Miles agrees, and just before Fell breaks the link, he tells him the truth about the Betan rejuvenation treatment–that it doesn’t exist.
After that, he stays in Nav/Com until they make it to the jump point, and awakens later back in his cabin. They are crossing an empty system on the route to Escobar. Miles has some food, then goes to check on Thorne and Nicol. In Engineering, a tech is repairing Nicol’s float chair while she lies on the floor watching. Miles assures Nicol that she should be safe from Baron Fell. Nicol says it’s time she begins to head home; from Escobar she can get home via Earth and Orient IV. Bel tries to persuade her to sign on with the Dendarii, but she’s determined. Nicol notes that there are some areas in quaddiespace with gravity for a growing colony of downsiders.
Miles was faintly alarmed—to lose a ship commander of proven loyalty—
“Ah,” said Thorne in a pensive tone to match Nicol’s. “A long way from my home, your asteroid belt.”
“Will you return to Beta Colony, then, someday?” she asked. “Or are the Dendarii Mercenaries your home and family?”
“Not quite that passionate, for me,” said Thorne. “I mainly stick around due to an overwhelming curiosity to see what happens next.” Thorne favored Miles with a peculiar smile.
Thorne takes Nicol on a tour of the ship, both of them seeming determined to make the most of the three days remaining before they reach Escobar.
Anderson brings Taura to see Miles in sickbay, and Miles is highly impressed to see her in a well-fitting uniform, cleaned up and hair done up in an exotic braid. She is looking somewhat better nourished, and her claws have been sharpened and polished. Miles sends Anderson away and asks her how her first day among the Dendarii has been. He tells her that she does have a choice, to leave them at Escobar if she wants, but Taura is alarmed by this, wondering if they’re trying to get rid of her because she eats so much. Miles says she eats like her weight in fighting men, that’s not a problem, but there is one further issue.
He asks her if she remembers Canaba injecting her back when she was with the Bharaputrans, which she does. He tells her it was a repository for dormant genetic material; he says that his original mission had been to pick up Dr. Canaba, and only later did Canaba insist that his gene complexes be brought as well. Taura is pleased that Canaba wanted to take her with him, but Miles says that wasn’t exactly what he meant.
“It was your good luck,” Miles plunged on, “that I’d lost my men and was disarmed when we finally met. Canaba lied to me, too. In his defense, he seems to have had some dim idea of saving you from a brutal life as Ryoval’s slave. He sent me to kill you, Taura. He sent me to slay a monster, when he should have been begging me to rescue a princess in disguise. I’m not too pleased with Dr. Canaba. Nor with myself. I lied through my teeth to you down in Ryoval’s basement, because I thought I had to, to survive and win.”
Her face was confused, congealing, the light in her eyes fading. “Then you didn’t . . . really think I was human—”
“On the contrary. Your choice of test was an excellent one. It’s much harder to lie with your body than with your mouth. When I, er, demonstrated my belief, it had to be real.”
He offers to demonstrate again, then swiftly adds it would be a bad idea, as her superior officer, against Dendarii regulations. He says that Canaba still wants to retrieve his sample, and has asked Miles to sedate Taura while he does. Miles says he’s not going to do that, that a simple medical stunner will be good enough, and Canaba can damn well do his work with his patient awake and watching. Then she’ll be done with Canaba and Jackson’s Whole. She agrees, wanting to get it over with. Canaba is not pleased, but, seeing the look on Miles’s face, he doesn’t protest.
After he leaves, Taura tells Miles that his arrival seemed like a miracle, everything she’d wanted. She says she wishes she were normal, and Miles says he can’t give her that since he doesn’t have it himself. He tells her instead to wish to be herself, to the greatest degree possible, giving her Nicol and Bel Thorne for examples. Taura asks him how long she has, telling him she saw what happened to her crechemates. Miles tells her that just makes it more important that she learn what she is, and what she’s good at, and become the best she can.
Taura says she wishes she could be beautiful like Sgt. Anderson, and Miles says instead she should try to be beautiful like herself, which Sgt. Anderson can doubtless help with. She asks how long it will take before she really becomes a full Dendarii, and Miles says it won’t really happen until they rendezvous with the rest of the fleet. Taura says that means he isn’t her commander yet, so technically there’s no fraternizing… Miles is a little daunted, but she persuades him, and they retreat to his cabin for the remainder of the journey.
So after all that they don’t actually get to escape on their own, but I guess it’s okay to bring Bel and Nicol in on it. The upshot of their explorations is simply the destruction of Ryoval’s frozen samples after all, which of course was highly satisfying, but it will have repercussions. That is one nice thing about the series–thing do come back to bite you if you’re not careful. (Which is why, as I said, I would love to see the telepaths come up again…)
I think that Taura might have given up on Miles’s return a little too quickly, but I guess she hadn’t had that much experience with people who actually told her the truth. Her existence up to that point has doubtless been quite stunted, between the hired fosterers, the lab technicians, the deaths of her siblings, and then the sale to House Ryoval and the abuse she received there. Ironically, the best treatment she probably got in her life was probably from Dr. Canaba, who felt responsible for her, but didn’t have a clue about her real feelings. Canaba isn’t really a villain–I’m sure we can agree that Baron Ryoval fulfills that description the best–but he’s rather short-sighted.
Overall, this isn’t one of my favourite stories. Taura isn’t my favourite character, either, though she’s all right; maybe it’s her insecurities that get to me. Though I guess with all those extra battle skills she needed some psychological limitations to balance things out. It does inject plot elements for later books like Mirror Dance, Memory, and Diplomatic Immunity, so there’s that, but somehow the story doesn’t stand out for me.
Next week we move on to the next work chronologically, the novella “Borders of Infinity”, which will probably also take three installments, though I’ll take a look at the word count and figure out how precisely to subdivide it. And no week off for me until I’m finished that novella, and the series really starts to pick up…