Good evening, or morning, or afternoon, or stroke of noon, and welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein I recount and discuss the sundry events chronicled by Lois McMaster Bujold concerning the life and times of Miles Vorkosigan & his esteemed colleagues, family, friends, and foes. This week we are concluding the tripartite (as subdivided by me, in any case) story of “The Borders of Infinity”, a short novel of Mr. Vorkosigan’s exploits (as his alter ego Admiral Miles Naismith, and with the occasional assistance of his loyal troops, the Dendarii Mercenaries).
The Borders of Infinity (Concl.)
After the chow calls were regulated, things quieted down for a while, but the amount of violence, including that from the Enforcers themselves, is on the rise. Miles takes to walking the perimeter of the dome after every call, as much to burn off energy as to inspect things. Suegar joins him sometimes, and on one walk Miles asks him if his sermons are getting any better response. Suegar says he doesn’t have as much time as he used to, but at least he doesn’t get beaten up anymore. He tells Miles about a mining camp he was once at, which had gotten subdivided into hundreds of tiny claims. Like the Dagoola camp, lots of people going hungry, suffering from accidents and disease, fighting a lot, but they also worked hard because there was hope for the future. On Dagoola IV, though, he has to keep going or else the inertia of the place will suck him down.
They reach the point on the edge farthest from the women’s camp, and Miles suddenly notices a group of four men ahead of them, and more visible beside and behind. Miles recognizes one of them as a former friend of Pitt’s, and thinks one of the others is actually one of his own Enforcers. He berates himself for having fallen into a predictable routine. Pitt’s lieutenant pulls out a rag rope braided into a strangling cord.
“You,” said Pitt’s lieutenant hoarsely. “I couldn’t figure you out at first. You’re not one of us. You could never have been one of us. Mutant . . . You gave me the clue yourself. Pitt wasn’t a Cetagandan spy. You are!” And lunged forward.
Miles dodged, overwhelmed by onslaught and insight. Damn, he’d known there must be a good reason scragging Pitt that way had felt so much like a mistake despite its efficiency. The false accusation was two-edged, as dangerous to its wielder as its victim—Pitt’s lieutenant might even believe his accusation true—Miles had started a witch-hunt.
Miles and Suegar try to fight, but to little avail. One of the men removes the rope bracelet holding Suegar’s scripture to his wrist and taunts him with it; he starts to tear it up, then decides to eat it. Enraged, Miles punches the nearest attacker, breaking his hand and wrist, as Suegar chases the paper-chewer. The cord goes over Miles’s neck, and he manages to get one hand, the broken one, underneath it. His vision is closing in when rescue arrives, in the form of Beatrice and some Enforcers and commandos. When he recovers a bit, he sees Suegar lying on the ground, curling up around his stomach.
They carry Suegar back to the camp, and Beatrice finds a doctor, but all she can say is he has a “busted belly” and lament about how few medical skills she seems to have without the technology she was trained with. She says all they can do is keep him warm and see if he lives or dies; personally, she doesn’t think much for his chances, and Miles agrees. Beatrice asks Miles what they should do with their attackers, and Miles says they should let them go; they’re not the enemy. He pleads with Beatrice until she agrees, with ill grace.
Miles sits next to Suegar, giving him water from time to time, and nursing his own injured hand. A chow call passes and Beatrice brings their rat bars by. Miles contemplates the pain of losing friends, and wonders if Suegar will be as bad as Bothari, or worse.
He lay back and stared at the dome, the white, unblinking eye of a dead god. And had more friends than he knew already been killed by this megalomanic escapade? It would be just like the Cetagandans, to leave him in here all unknowing, and let the growing doubt and fear gradually drive him crazy.
Swiftly drive him crazy—the god’s eye blinked.
Miles opens his eyes wide, wondering if he’d blinked, or hallucinated, but he sees the dome flicker again, then blinks out, leaving them in the unaccustomed darkness of real planetary night.
“CHOW CALL!” Miles screamed at the top of his lungs.
Bombs start to land on the buildings encircling the former dome, lighting up the night again. Miles grabs Tris as she goes by, and yells to her to get the group leaders organized, to get their groups of 200 set up around the perimeter, and keep the chow call discipline so they won’t mob the shuttles. Tris is flabbergasted, and Miles repeats that they just need to follow the drills they’ve practiced. As more explosions and flares light up the camp, causing Miles to wonder why his people had decided to pick them up at night instead of in daylight, he grabs Beatrice and tells her the same as Tris, telling her to try to calm people down by explaining they get a shuttle seat instead of a rat bar. Then he asks her to come back and guard Suegar once she’s spread the word. Beatrice doesn’t know what he’s talking about until he indicates the fourteen shuttles (including one he’d only been hoping would be repaired in time) already dropping down from the sky around the perimeter of the camp.
Beatrice stood with her mouth open, staring upward. “My God. They’re beautiful.” He could almost see her mind start to ratchet forward. “But they’re not ours. Not Cetagandan either. Who the hell . . . ?”
Miles bowed. “This is a paid political rescue.”
“We’re not something wriggling with too many legs that you found in your sleeping bag. The proper tone of voice is Mercenaries!—with a glad cry.”
Miles continues accosting people and spreading the news himself, commandeering a tall commando at one point to help him see what’s going on. The fourteen groups do seem to be assembling at about the right positions as the shuttles land. He walks over to the nearest shuttle, hoping that his plan will keep the shuttles from being overrun with prisoners. The shuttle disgorges armed troopers, a small group pointing their weapons at the prisoners and a larger one heading to the Cetagandan buildings outside the circle.
He spots Lieutenant Murka and calls him over; Murka immediately notifies Ky Tung of Miles’s presence through his headset. Miles grabs Murka’s headset to talk to Tung directly, asking whether Elli and Elena have been retrieved yet. Tung says they don’t have the two women yet, and informs Miles they have about two hours for the lift.
The first group of 200 is assembled ready for the shuttle, and the second group is being organized to sit down and wait calmly. Miles notes an odd procedure as the prisoners are boarded onto the shuttle–cutting open the back of the uniform, using a medical stunner, then ripping out the serial numbers the Cetagandans had tagged them all with. Bel Thorne appears, with a doctor and some clothes. Before Miles can change, the doctor does the same operation to him, and he yelps in pain before the stun kicks in. The doctor explains that Elli and Elena discovered that the barcodes were done in a special ink with embedded chemicals that would begin to dissolve an hour after being removed from the dome, leading to a very messy death. Miles shudders at the news and tells Thorne to authorize a commendation for the two women, promising to take their (Barrayaran) employers to task for missing the vital bit of information. He also asks for a quick stun for his broken hand.
Thorne expresses concern about the increased size of the operation, which was supposed to just be a pickup for Colonel Tremont, and turned into a full jailbreak, using the full resources of the entire Dendarii fleet. He points out that there’s twice as many prisoners as Dendarii. Miles promises that their employers will pay for the operation, but he’ll have to deliver the bill in person.
Ky Tung appears just as the first wave of shuttles is launching, each as it fills up rather than waiting for the others, so Miles judges timing is extremely tight. He tells Miles that they’re loading the prisoners into some used freighters, which can hold 5000 prisoners each, though not particularly comfortably, but they’ll be okay if they lie down and don’t breathe too much. The local Cetagandan military are on practice maneuvers on the other side of the solar system, so all they have to deal with is some local police shuttles for now. They’d had to wait for the maneuvers, which had been the holdup, after the revised and expanded plan was put into effect. Tung says that the defense forces on the planet have been reduced substantially since Miles went in, stripped off to other hot spots, but they only have two hours. Getting the fourth and last load into the air will be cutting it rather fine, depending on how fast they can load them in the first place.
“Have you found Elli and Elena yet?”
“I have three patrols out searching.”
He hadn’t found them yet. Miles’s guts tightened. “I wouldn’t have even attempted to expand this operation in midstream if I hadn’t known they were monitoring me, and could translate all those oblique hints back into orders.”
“Did they get ’em all right?” asked Tung. “We argued over some of their interpretations of your double-talk on the vids.”
Miles confirms they were right, but is surprised they have actual vids. Tung says that they got a burst transmission daily, and some people found Miles’s efforts entertaining. He says Elli and Elena were in contact as of yesterday, and assures Miles that his three patrols wouldn’t do any better with Miles himself helping. Miles can’t help but worry about them, though, especially knowing that Cetagandans killed spies, after interrogating them thoroughly first. He tries to reassure himself that there would be more resistance here if the Cetagandans had captured them…unless they were killed by friendly fire, of course.
He tells the soldier with his clothes to go and fetch Beatrice and Suegar; he enjoys the experience of being able once more to give orders without having to give a sermon for each one. He feels exhausted, and has trouble dressing himself one-handed until Thorne comes to help him out. Miles asks where his headset is, and Thorne says he was scheduled for immediate evacuation. Miles swallows his annoyance and admits he’s not yet enough in the loop on the details of the operation to be giving orders, but he’s available to bring up the rear.
The soldier returns with Beatrice and Suegar. Miles’s personal surgeon takes a look at Suegar, gives him synergine for the shock, and pronounces him in bad shape. Miles tells him he’ll see Suegar personally brought for surgery on the command ship. Tung receives a message on his comm set; Elli and Elena have been found and are being brought to the drop site, and haven’t asked for a medtech so are probably okay.
Miles asks Beatrice to get Tris and Oliver so he can talk to them before they go up. When they arrive, he congratulates them on having “achieved an army”. Tris is pessimistic, wondering what will happen if anything goes wrong, or if anyone starts to panic. Miles says they can ride with him if that makes them feel better, though he will be going up in the last load; Tung receives this announcement with consternation. He also tells Tris and Oliver that his original mission had been only to rescue Colonel Tremont, so he could raise an army to fight off the Cetagandans, but when that didn’t work out, he decided to just raise an army himself. Tris and Oliver are now the new Marilac resistance, Miles tells them, overriding their protests of inexperience. Oliver says his time in the military actually ended while he was at Fallow Core, and wonders when he’ll be able to retire now.
“The odds were worse for Barrayar, in its day, and they ran the Cetagandans right off. It took twenty years, and more blood than either of you have seen in your lives combined, but they did it,” asserted Miles.
Oliver seemed more struck by this historical precedent than Tris, who said skeptically, “Barrayar had those crazy Vor warriors. Nuts who rushed into battle, who liked to die. Marilac just doesn’t have that sort of cultural tradition. We’re civilized—or we were, once. . . .”
“Let me tell you about the Barrayaran Vor,” cut in Miles. “The loonies who sought a glorious death in battle found it very early on. This rapidly cleared the chain of command of the accumulated fools. The survivors were those who learned to fight dirty, and live, and fight another day, and win, and win, and win, and for whom nothing, not comfort, or security, not family or friends or their immortal souls, was more important than winning. Dead men are losers by definition. Survival and victory. They weren’t supermen, or immune to pain. They sweated in confusion and darkness. And with not one-half the physical resources Marilac possesses even now, they won. When you’re Vor,” Miles ran down a little, “there is no mustering out.”
Tris says they will still need supplies, and Miles says there will be covert support of the Resistance as long as there’s a Resistance to deliver it to. Tris asks Oliver if he’ll be joining her, and he says he will. Miles asks Tung how they’re doing, and he says they’re a few minutes behind, unloading. Miles tells Tris and Oliver to go up in the next wave, on separate shuttles, and help speed up the unloading.
Beatrice lingered. “I’m inclined to panic,” she informed Miles in a distant tone. Her bare toe smudged whorls in the dampening dirt.
“I don’t need a bodyguard anymore,” Miles said. He grinned. “A keeper, maybe . . .”
A smile lighted her eyes that did not yet reach her mouth. Later, Miles promised himself. Later, he would make that mouth laugh.
The second wave begins to lift, even as more first wave shuttles are still landing; the fog has turned to rain. Tung swears suddenly and then tells Miles that two shuttles have been destroyed by a Cetagandan fighter–one full, one empty. Miles is relieved that Tris and Oliver weren’t on them, but is saddened by the loss of the 200 prisoners, and the six Dendarii crewmembers. Beatrice asks for a task, to keep her mind busy, and Miles sends her to tell the leaders of the two groups now without a shuttle to divide up among the others; the last wave will have to go up overloaded. Tung says they were already overloaded, this will make it worse. Miles asks him to calculate how far behind they’ll be when the rest of the Cetagandans return. Tung works it out and says that five shuttles will still be waiting to unload.
Tung makes a few suggestions–don’t send those five shuttles down, and leave a thousand prisoners on the behind. Miles isn’t keen on the idea, and points out that the last groups of prisoners have been watching Miles carefully, and any sign they’ll be left behind will likely lead them to riot. Tung says they won’t notice, with the shuttle timing so skewed.
“So we just leave them standing there, waiting for us?” The sheep look up, but are not fed . . .
“You like that option, Ky?”
“Makes me want to puke, but—consider the 9,000 others. And the Dendarii fleet. The idea of dropping them all down the rat hole in a pre-doomed effort to pack up all these—miserable sinners of yours, makes me want to puke a lot more. Nine-tenths of a loaf is much better than none.”
Miles proposes an alternate option. The freighters are the slowest ships, but the Triumph is faster. If they can take the last five shuttles and have them dock to the Triumph instead, jettisoning five fighters to make room, then the Triumph‘s shields can protect them while they cram the prisoners into the corridors. The added mass of people may slow it down, but they can jettison some of the drop shuttles to offset it. They should have enough oxygen to make it to the jump point, after which they can redistribute people. Tung begins to protest the cost, and Miles stops him and says he’ll tack it onto the bill to their employers. Tung runs the calculations and says it’ll buy them 15 very expensive minutes.
The second wave of shuttles begins to return, and, after giving Murka strict orders to not bother returning to the ship without Miles, Tung boards his shuttle with the third wave, leaving less then two thousand prisoners still on the ground, waiting. The last wave of shuttles begins to return just after the last of the third wave leave, but the Marilacans’ discipline seems to be holding. Miles sees Suegar onto the shuttle first, noting that he’ll actually reach Triumph faster this way than he would if he’d been loaded onto a freighter first.
The last of the armored troops that had been occupying the Cetagandan ground installations reaches the shuttle, reporting to Murka. Plasma fire bursts out of the darkness, some Cetagandan holdout who’d found a weapon. One immobilizes a Dendarii trooper’s armour, another flies off harmlessly into the air; rear-guard soldiers pick up weapons and head off after it, but Miles calls them back, saying there’s no time. Miles helps the trooper out of his armour and they dash for the shuttle. As Murka is waiting for the last few to board, he gets decapitated by a plasma beam across his neck. Miles grabs Murka’s headset and runs up the ramp, partly melted by the plasma beam, and tells the pilot to lift now.
The shuttle begins to lift off as the ramp retracts…and jams on the melted section. They can’t pull it in further, or seal the hatch, so Miles tells them to jettison it. Now it’s stuck, though, and can’t slide back out, either.
Hands reached out to thump on it urgently. “You’ll never get it that way!” Beatrice, across the hatch from Miles, yelled fiercely, and twisted around to kick at it with her bare feet. The wind of their flight screamed over the open hatchway, buffeting and vibrating the shuttle like a giant blowing across the top of a bottle.
To a chorus of shouting, thumping, and swearing, the shuttle lurched abruptly onto its side. Men, women, and loose equipment tangled across the tilting deck. Beatrice kicked bloodily at a final buggered bolt. The ramp tore loose at last. Beatrice, sliding, fell with it.
Miles dove at her, lunging across the hatchway. If he connected, he never knew, for his right hand was a senseless blob. He saw her face only as a white blur as she whipped away into the blackness.
The white blur loops over and over in Miles’s head, as he finds himself crouched on the deck, pinned by the shuttle’s acceleration, the hatch finally closed. He sees Pitt’s lieutenant, who had grabbed a weapon near the end, standing over him, and tells him he’d better kill a lot of Cetagandans, because otherwise the price they’d paid was too high.
He crawls forward to talk to Suegar, who’s barely conscious with the drugs and the pain, telling him how it worked out according to the scripture, “up through the regions of air” with “agility and speed”. Suegar tells him he knew it wasn’t scripture, they both knew it, but Miles make him laugh weakly anyway. Miles himself manages not to weep until they’re through the wormhole.
Whew, that’s intense, that ending. Even though they’d taken out a lot of the Cetagandan defense, the whole operation was, in some ways, so precarious that it didn’t take much to jeopardize it. The one fighter who managed to take out two shuttles, the single sniper killing Murka (poor Murka, you were so brilliant on Jackson’s Whole) and, indirectly, Beatrice… Those two deaths haunt Miles for a long time, as I recall, particularly Beatrice’s. The whole scene with the ramp, though, I always found confusing and hard to picture. Maybe now I have it down, but I guess I always had a problem with the relationship between the ramp and the hatch, and wasn’t sure why you couldn’t close the watch without retracting the ramp. I suppose the ramp must retract to inside the hatch, but, evidently, it’s a bad design if all it takes is a little bit of plasma melting to make it unworkable.
She was set up for most of the story as a potential romantic interest for Miles, at least once he broke through the defenses that she had put up against the dangers of the camp. How precisely their relationship would have worked, I don’t know, since I imagine she would be following Tris into the Marilacan Resistance. I suppose Miles could have tried to make her join the Dendarii instead, but that would have been a really bad idea, since she’d have been torn between the two and probably ended up bitter and resentful. Probably wouldn’t have made a good Lady Vorkosigan either, though I guess it’s hard to say; we don’t really know much about her beyond the hardened exterior.
The first time through the story, for sure, I had no idea what was coming, what Miles was waiting for, and when the dome shut off and the shuttles came down I had a sudden flash of recognition of how brilliant this plan actually was. Especially when Miles was concocting it on the fly after the failure of the original plan and only able to communicate it to the Dendarii officers through indirect means, spouting sermons and hoping that Elli and Elena would be able to pass them along. To think, the best thing the Cetagandans could have done to stop the plan would have been to just stop recording everything. But I guess Elli and Elena (who are some kind of inseparable bicorporate Cetagandan-infiltration machine in this story) were probably prepared to make sure things got recorded anyway.
All those extra costs that Miles incurs just to try to save a few more lives–well, losing the two shuttles isn’t really his fault, but preparing to sacrifice five brand-new fighters, and maybe two or more of the freighters, can’t be cheap. Even just mobilizing the entire mercenary fleet to save all the prisoners rather than just trying to sneak one out must have been a costly decision. And that ramp will probably need to be replaced, too. The original Borders of Infinity anthology had a scene with Miles trying to explain his cost overruns to Simon Illyan (set after Brothers In Arms), which leads into the story itself. You ever wonder about those poor Barrayaran peasants whose taxes are used to subsidize Miles’s little adventures? Well, I’m sure they tax the nobility as well…or, at least, get them to give the Emperor gifts on his birthday every year, but I’m not sure who the main tax burder really falls on. I guess that somebody, at least, thinks they’re worth it, even if all they’re doing is secretly giving a black eye to the Cetagandans.
Still wonder whether the Cetagandans recognizes Miles, and if they did, if they recognized him as Miles Naismith or Miles Vorkosigan. I guess, after the fact, unless the records got wiped by Elli-and-Elena, they’d be able to figure out who was behind it all, but in the context of Miles Naismith, for sure. There’s no evidence that they ever connected the two, and if they did, maybe they just decided that Miles Vorkosigan had a clone or something. Which would be ridiculous, of course, since clones don’t really work that way, do they?
On that note…we’re done “The Borders of Infinity” and ready to start on Brothers In Arms, wherein we ask the question, “What if Miles had a clone?” I’ll start week after next, because I get another week off now before leaping into another full-sized novel. Not quite into my favourite stretch, but without this one Mirror Dance doesn’t stand up, and without Mirror Dance, Memory doesn’t stand up, so it’s a necessary step, and in some ways encompasses a major transition in Miles’s life which begins to throw everything else out of balance. So there’s that. In two weeks, then…