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Join me please in welcome back the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, my loving tribute to the exquisite science fiction series crafted by Lois McMaster Bujold.  This week I finish the last two chapters of Ethan of Athos, the book which doesn’t really feature our usual protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, but does well enough for all of that.  It’s really all denouement, but a satisfactory one, at least.

Chapter Fourteen

Ethan goes to visit Quinn in the Minimum Security detention blocks, passing through security checks without incident but feeling vaguely guilty anyway.  He encounters Captain Arata outside the infirmary, who tells him that Quinn’s managed to settle her fines, and is just waiting for her medical release.  Ethan says he just wants to ask her a question.

“As did I,” sighed Arata. “Several. I trust you will have better luck getting answers. These past few weeks, when I wanted a date, all she wanted to do was trade information under the counter. Now I want information, and what do I get? A date.” He brightened slightly. “We will doubtless talk shop. If I worm any more out of her, maybe I’ll be able to charge our night out to the department.” He nodded at Ethan; an inviting silence fell.

Ethan wishes him luck.  Quinn had concocted a story which managed to fit all the available evidence while omitting any mention of Terrance Cee, or even Okita, claiming the Cetagandans had been trying to capture Quinn to program as a spy against the Dendarii.  The Bharaputrans were in their embassy negotatiating their deportation.  Arata laments pointedly that he can’t use fast-penta without a court order and leaves.  Ethan looks around Quinn’s room and wistfully notes the lack of openable windows.

“How do you feel about windows that open?” he asked Quinn. “Downside, I mean.”

“Paranoid,” she answered promptly. “I keep looking around for things to seal them up with. Aren’t you going to ask how I am?”

Quinn is mostly fine, a little bruised and her dislocated arm in a sling, back in her Dendarii uniform and only a little stiff.  She asks how he feels about women now, and he says about the same as she feels about windows.  She admits she did get used to windows, but she was always a thrill-seeker.  Her first downside experience, though, after a lifetime of dreaming about warm ocean breezes, brought her down into a blizzard.  Ethan sympathizes, and Quinn points out that his ability to empathize with others is a rare and unexpected quality for an Athosian.

Ethan nervously asks Quinn if he may make an unusual, and possibly offensive, request.  He tells her that he’s going to continue his quest for ovarian cultures, probably on Beta Colony, but, in the circumstances, he asks her if she’d like to donate an ovary to Athos herself.  Quinn is quite surprised by the request; Ethan assures her that it’s painless, and Kline Station has all the facilities he needs.  Quinn assures him that she has one to spare, and confesses that she’d been expecting a much different proposition from him.  Quinn asks who could make use of her donation, and Ethan says anyone could; she could have a hundred sons in a year, though of course no daughters.  Quinn muses that her line of work isn’t conducive to parenthood, but that she’d never get to see her sons.  Ethan said he could probably push his influence to sending her a holocube if she wanted, or half-seriously suggests she could impersonate a man and sneak down to the planet herself.

Quinn notes that Ethan is even cheekier than Arata was, especially since he doesn’t over her anything in return.  She wonders if the planet can handle a hundred little Quinns, and Ethan assures her that potential fathers are screened very carefully.  She agrees to the donation.

After the operation Ethan and Quinn meet in a small cafe.  Quinn says the operation was, as promised, quite painless, and there’s not even a scar; Ethan says the culture is taking quite nicely, so in 48 hours or so he’ll be leaving for Beta Colony.  Quinn says she’ll be leaving that night, before any more trouble with the Stationers, or the Cetagandans.  She does reassure Ethan that Millisor had informed his superiors about Helda’s destruction of the cultures before his death, though they will still be looking for Terrence Cee.  She had ample reports for Admiral Naismith, and all that remains is Cee himself, who appears at the cafe himself.

Cee delivers a refrigerated box, containing a tissue sample, and three data discs to Quinn, who laments that Cee isn’t joining the Dendarii after all.  Cee says his choices have opened up, thanks to her, and Quinn reminds her that the offer will remain open.  Quinn says she’s managed to find another recruit, a migrant worker who oddly enough manages to look a lot like Terrence Cee, which should help throw off the Cetagandans’ trail.  Cee isn’t sure where he’s going himself, except away from Cetaganda.  He suggests that Quinn conceal the box, and she says she has a good idea on how to do that.

Quinn arrives at the Cold Storage station with a freezer transport box and asks for her newts, and they needn’t bother thawing them since she’s shipping them frozen.  While they’re waiting, Teki comes in with an urgent disposal, and is a little put out with Quinn for his experienced at the Cetagandans’ hands, though he admits that his girlfriend, at least, was sympathetic about his sufferings.  He pleads with her to tell him what was really going on, and Quinn promises, as soon as it’s declassified; she says goodbye, since she’ll be leaving in a few hours.

Teki notices Ethan and apologizes for what Helda did.  He says he’s been promoted to her post, at least until she returns from medical leave, but Quinn assures him that the “leave” is permanent.  Teki heads off to throw out his canisters; Ethan and Cee follow, curious, while Quinn waits for her newts.  Ethan confirms for Teki what Helda had done with the shipment.  Ethan asks about Teki’s canisters, and Teki tells him that they’re samples of contaminants that have been disposed of, which they’re storing outside the station in case they need them for legal or medical reasons.  Teki bags up the canisters, labels the bag, then passes it to a robot who takes it out through an airlock.  Teki opens up a wall panel so they can watch it take the bag to tether to one of the many projections on the station’s surface.

“It’s like the universe’s biggest closet,” mused Teki. “Our own private storage locker. We really ought to clean house and destroy all the really old stuff that was thrown out there in Year One, but it’s not like we’re running out of room. Still, if I’m going to be an Assimiliation Station head, I could organize something . . . responsibility . . . no more playing around . . .”

The ecotech’s words became a buzzing drone in his ears as Ethan’s attention was riveted on a collection of transparent plastic bags tethered a short way down the grid. Each bag seemed to contain a jumble of little white boxes of a familiar type. He had seen just such a little box readied for Quinn’s donation at a Station biolab that morning. How many boxes? Hard to see, hard to count. More than twenty, surely. More than thirty. He could count the bags that contained them, though; there were nine.

“Thrown out,” he whispered. “Thrown—out?”

Ethan silently points out the bags to Cee, who after a moment begins to swear under his breath.  He tells Ethan that he recognizes the boxes, and can even make out the House Bharaputra labels on them.  Ethan says that Helda must have put them outside without leaving any computer records, “throwing them out” where they’d never be found.  Frozen in the vacuum, Ethan thinks that they should still be good.

“We’ve got to tell Quinn,” Ethan began.

Cee’s hands clamped down over Ethan’s wrists. “No!” he hissed. “She has hers. Janine—those are mine.”

“Or Athos’s.”

“No.” Cee was trembling white, his eyes blazing like blue pinwheels. “Mine.”

“The two,” said Ethan carefully, “need not be mutually exclusive.”

In the loaded silence that followed, Cee’s face flared in an exaltation of hope.

Comments

See, I told you they weren’t gone…  Just a matter of semantics, a minor dialectical difference, which was enough to convince the Cetagandans that they were.  I wouldn’t have been quite so confident that Helda wouldn’t have screwed them up in some other way just to strike a final blow against Athos, but if she was trying to be surreptitious about it she might not have had the opportunity.  Or she might not have thought it necessary, since they were being left unlabelled in a gigantic space storage locker.  It was, admittedly, sheerest chance that Ethan happened to spy them and recognize them for what they were.  If he’d decided to hang around with Quinn, for instance, he wouldn’t have seen a thing.  So while a lot of the other seemingly bizarre plot twists have reasonable explanations once you know everything that’s going on, this one is truly random.  But I’ll forgive the author for it, because it’s such a nice twist that helps out that nice Ethan boy.

We’ve only seen a few glimpses of Arata, and I don’t even really remember him from previous reads, but this time through I’m slightly intrigued about him.  I think that Miles Vorkosigan would have enjoyed meeting him, sort of like Dag Benin, depending of course on the circumstances.  If it had been a Miles adventure, I’m sure Arata would have turned up earlier, but Elli and Ethan spend more time trying to evade the attention of Station Security, or at least Elli does, so we have to wait until most of the way through the book.  Pity.

Chapter Fifteen

As Ethan and Cee approach the surface of Athos in a shuttle, Ethan points out landmarks to his companion.  Cee asks what kind of welcome Ethan is likely to get, and Ethan says his mission was fairly secret, to keep from alarming people, but at least some of the Population Council should be there, as well as Ethan’s father, and possibly Janos as well.  Ethan wonders how Janos will react to meeting Cee, if he’ll be jealous enough to start doing the work to fight to be Ethan’s designated alternate.

Cee regarded his hands meditatively, and glanced up at Ethan. “And will they view you as a hero, or a traitor, in the end?”

Ethan admits that he’s been praying for guidance on the subject.  Ethan’s cargo is strapped to seats near them, rather than being left to the vagaries of the cargo hold; the other passengers, crew members heading for downside leave and the census takers, are keeping their distance.  He did buy some cultures on Beta Colony as well, to keep the Cetagandans off the scent, but they swapped those for the Bharaputran ones and hid the Betan samples in Ethan’s luggage.  He says that somebody had to make the decision, and the Population Council would probably have been unable to make up their minds, but it needs to be all or nothing, or else it would tear the planet apart.  Except, of course, for the “EQ-1” culture he took from Quinn, but he figures it’ll average out in the long run.  Cee points out that he’s hedging his bets with the Betan cultures, but Ethan says that while he couldn’t bring himself to throw them out entirely, he hopes to splice the telepathy gene into them over time as well, once he’s risen to head up a Reproduction Centre, or even farther.

The welcome committee turns out to consist largely of Rep Centre representatives eager for their new cultures, but Dr. Desroche, the Chairman, and Ethan’s father are all there.  Ethan downplays the problems he encountered.  His father comments on his paleness, and Ethan explains that on Kline Station he couldn’t go outside, on Beta Colony everyone lives underground, and they only spent a week on Escobar.

Ethan suddenly notes Janos’s absence and asks his father about it.  Ethan initially fears the worst, a lightflyer crash, but his father explains that Janos went a little wild after Ethan left, and ended up running off to the Outlands to live on the frontier with fewer restrictions.  Ethan is somewhat relieved, and says that it’s probably for the best that Janos find out what he wants before committing himself to parenthood.

He turned to Terrence Cee, his grin escaping control at last. “Here, Dad, I want you to meet someone—I brought us an immigrant. Only one, but altogether a remarkable person. He’s endured much, to make it to refuge here. He’s been a good traveling companion for the last eight months, and a good friend.”

Ethan introduced Cee; they shook hands, the slight galactic, the tall waterman. “Welcome, Terrence,” said Ethan’s father. “A good friend of my son’s is a son to me. Welcome to Athos.”

Emotion broke through Cee’s habitual closed coolness; wonder, and something like awe. “You really mean that . . . Thank you. Thank you, sir.”

That night, on the verandah of Ethan’s father’s house, Ethan tells Cee that the best way to earn the rights to Janine’s children is earn his parental duty credits through public works, done over and above regular employment.  Ethan takes the plunge and says that he makes enough for two himself, especially with the prospect of promotion ahead of him, and once Ethan has his own sons, then he’d love to have Cee has Primary Nurturer, which is a great job for accumulating duty credits.  He admits it’s not an adventurous life compared to Cee’s experiences up to then, but it would be good experience for Cee’s own children, and Ethan would be happy to be Cee’s Designated Alternate as well.

Cee says that after what his adventures have put him through, something quiet sounds just right.  He mentions to Ethan that he was under the impression that the Designated Alternate relationship was kind of like a marriage, and wonders if he would expect sex to be part of it.

“Well . . .” said Ethan. “No, not necessarily. D.A. arrangements can be, and are, entered into by brothers, cousins, fathers, grandfathers—anyone qualified and willing to act as a parent. Parenthood shared between lovers is just the most common variety. But here you are on Athos, after all, for the rest of your life. I thought, perhaps, in time, you might grow accustomed to our ways. Not to rush you or anything, but if you find yourself getting used to the idea, you might, uh, let me know . . .” Ethan trailed off.

“By God the Father,” Cee’s voice was amused, assured. And had Ethan really feared he would surprise the telepath? “I just might.”

Before going to sleep, Ethan takes a moment to think of Elli Quinn and EQ-1, and then of Dr. Cynthia Jane Baruch, his own “mother”, who had been hired to provide her genes to start out Athos.  He whispers her a quiet salute and prepares to face the future.

Comments

So did Cee take himself some tyramine on the shuttle?  Because he seems to be fairly telepathic in this chapter.  I guess it would no longer be that dangerous a substance to buy on Kline Station, although if someone from Cetaganda followed up and found traces of it before Ethan’s ship left…  I guess if Cee were smart, he’d buy it before Elli left with his lookalike so it still wouldn’t be traced back to him.  Or was it just an author goof to toss in some telepathic incidents so Cee could find out that the Athosians were really on the level?  Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt for now.

The way Dr. Cynthia Baruch’s name is revealed at the end, I almost expect it to be a reference to something else in the series, the way Miles’s grandmother’s name appears, or “Admiral Naismith” himself.  Of course, it would have to be something long predating the series proper, like a short story farther back in the timeline, or maybe Falling Free or something, but according to the Vorkosigan Companion it isn’t.  The significance of the name is not so much of the name itself, as it is the shift in his attitude toward being able to appreciate women as people, and to think of Baruch as being his mother.  Of course, it’s unlikely that his own attitudes are likely to change much, because even a planet of telepaths won’t be able to find out too much about people they never actually meet…

How is Ethan going to explain all these extra cultures, by the way?  The Betan ones, that is?  Is he just going to insinuate them in quietly, or pretend to receive them as another shipment later on?  How will he explain how he paid for them?  Or maybe he could just explain the matter once the crisis has died down a little, and maybe the Population Council will be grateful that, if they had to pay for two batches of cultures, they actually ended up with two of them in the end.

One hopes that Ethan and Terrence will still be around when the first telepaths begin to come of age, and I suppose they’re young enough that it might happen.  Athos does have some access to galactic medicine, even if it is a bit of frontier world, so lifespans should be in line with at least Barrayar, if not Beta Colony.  And, if you think about, Terrence’s kids will be telepaths as well, since he already carries the gene, so they’ll have two recessives and it’ll be fully expressed.  Their story could be interesting…

Overall Comments

I’m still not sure how I feel about this book.  It has its gripping segments, and a fast-moving plot, once it gets started, but it has a slow beginning, and Ethan isn’t the most capable or resourceful of characters.  Also, the telepathy idea, while intriguing, never feels quite fully formed.  Terrence Cee never makes full use of it, because of the limitations the author put on it, but its impact, even on a remote planet, is likely to be shattering.  And let’s not forget the likelihood that the Cetagandans will, in fact, rediscover it.  As a standalone book, that’s not bad, though it does seem to require a sequel to see where it comes out in the end, but as an adjunct book to a series, it feels like it should eventually come to dominate the plotline unless the author just decides to cop out and ignore it.

Kline Station is a good and well-realized setting, in a way that is usually reserved for planets, space stations being some kind of fragile, utilitarian appendage never gone into in such detail, and seeing Elli Quinn in her native element is a helpful delineator of her character for later books.  She isn’t really a major character in the Miles books for too long, but this book more than hints at how she rose from faceless mercenary.


And that’s it for Ethan of Athos!  When I return in two weeks, it’ll be time to return to Miles in “Labyrinth”.  It looks like I’m going to do that novella in three parts, since it divides fairly well, if not perfectly, into chunks of approximately the right size.  But I will take a week off in between, so see you at the end of July…

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Welcome back, every so slightly belatedly, to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein I go through the books of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga a chapter or two at a time, summarize them, share some of the best quotes, and come up with a few insights to share with you.

On some planet, somewhere in the galaxy, this is probably Tuesday, but on this planet it looks like I just got a day behind due to personal reasons that I’m not really going to go into because this isn’t a personal blog.  How will this affect the future of the Reread?  More on that below, but for now, here’s the next two chapters of Ethan of Athos, as we see what hijinks Elli Quinn, Terrence Cee, and Dr. Ethan Urquhart get up to when they’re all working together against Ghem-Colonel Millisor.

Chapter Ten

Ethan shares some of the wine with Terrence, but stops before getting more than a little buzzed.  Cee asks if he’s sure that none of the shipment that arrived on Athos could have been part of the original contents, and Ethan confirms that it was nothing more than trash, and there’s no way that Janine’s cultures could have been in there.  Cee says he saw the original shipment onto the shuttle on Jackson’s Whole; Quinn says that means the switch must have happened on Kline Station, during the two months they were waiting for Ethan’s ship, and hundreds of ships could have left with the crates in that time.  Quinn admits that if she was going to track it down, she’d rather let Millisor do the work and just follow him.  She’d also rather just take a genetic sample directly from Terrence.  Cee says that eventually Millisor’s team will discover his arrival on Kline Station, so he can’t wait that long.  Quinn reminds him that they’ll be wasting time following Teki around.

Cee asks Ethan if they want to recover the shipment, and Ethan says they’ve pretty much written it off as a dead loss.  He’d rather buy a new one than recover the old one but attract a Cetagandan attack on their planet, and would almost feel safer if Millisor just recovered it.  Cee says that he cannot accept the results of the Cetagandans regain the telepath gene, with the possibility to breed new telepaths without so much inconvenient free will.  Quinn points out that Millisor’s mostly interested in keeping the gene out of everyone else’s hands, since the Cetagandans will eventually be able to reconstruct it now that they know it’s possible.  She adds that it might be better if, by that time, there were a race of free telepaths available to oppose them.

Cee asks if Admiral Naismith would be any better, and Ethan suddenly realizes that Cee’s questioning indicates that his telepathic abilities have been activated.  Quinn suggests just giving the gene to all of the governments, giving Millisor apoplexy and keeping Athos from being singled out, but Cee says he doesn’t want to risk creating that many persecuted slave telepath minorities.  Ethan realizes that he’s present at the cusp of a major historical change, and finds the sensation dizzying.

Cee says that he’d rather just kill himself and be done with it, except for his promise to Janine.  He tells Quinn that if she can find Janine’s samples for him, he’ll go along with her.  Quinn points out that her mission is essentially over, and she could satisfy her commander simply by stunning Cee and taking a tissue sample, just for their information.

“What do you want of me?” Cee demanded. Anger edged his voice. “To trust you?”

Her lips thinned. “You don’t trust anybody. You never had to. Yet you demand that others trust you.”

“Oh,” said Cee, looking suddenly enlightened. “That.”

“You breathe one word of that,” she smiled through clenched teeth, “and I’ll arrange an accident for you like Okita never dreamed of.”

“Your Admiral’s personal secrets are of no interest to me,” said Cee stiffly. “They’re hardly relevant to this situation anyway.”

Cee then turns his attention to Ethan, which involuntarily causes Ethan to immediately think of all the sins and secrets that he’d want to keep hidden, including his physical attraction to Terrence.  He wishes he had the chance to really try to sell Cee on the beauty of his world of Athos, to take him sailing on their oceans.  Cee comments that he never saw any oceans during his life on Cetaganda, and Ethan realizes how transparent he’s being.  Cee asks if Ethan can shelter Janine’s genes as well as Cee himself, and Ethan admits that he doesn’t know he’s even going to save himself yet.

Quinn points out that they haven’t found the ovarian samples yet, and none of the parties involved seem to know where they are.  Cee says that anyone who knew what it was would probably covet it, including governments and criminals.  Ethan suggests House Bharaputra, but Quinn points out that any Bharaputrans who knew about them were killed by Millisor’s group, or else Quinn would have been tasked with recovering Millisor and the samples rather than just killing the Cetagandans.  Ethan suggests some random entrepreneur, but Quinn says that’s all they need, to widen the circle of suspects.  She asks Cee if he’s done with his scanning, and Cee says he is, obviously suffering from a major headache.  Quinn goes out to gather more information; Ethan gives Cee some painkillers, and they both try to get some sleep.

Quinn returns a while later, waking Ethan and Cee.  Nothing new from Millisor and Rau, and no information from attempting to pump the warehouse supervisor.  Cee notes the time and says he has to get to work, to maintain his cover identity and continue working toward a ticket off the station.  Quinn says she can take care of the ticket, but Cee says she’ll only offer it in the direction she chooses.  Cee goes off to get ready, and Quinn asks Ethan if he said anything more.  Ethan says they just slept, but he’s been trying to think of a new angle for the shipment, like pursuing where the trash that arrived on Athos might have come from.

They are interrupted by a signal on Quinn’s beeper, on Teki’s emergency code.  Quinn calls back and discovers that it’s Teki’s girlfriend Sara.  She says that Teki never met her for their date last night, and starts to leave an annoyed message with Quinn, but Quinn, alarmed, says she hasn’t heard from Teki either.  She tells Sara that she saw Teki just before his work shift; Sara said she’d been calling around to Teki’s friends, and got Quinn’s number from her father.  Quinn becomes very serious and tells Sara to file a missing persons report for Teki, to use Quinn’s name and talk to Captain Arata directly.

Quinn hangs up and says that Millisor has probably decided to pick up Teki for questioning, which would be bad because he doesn’t know about much except for Elli’s involvement, and this will blow her cover.  Cee says that Millisor must be getting desperate.

“I meant to push Millisor off-balance.” Quinn bit through a fingernail with an audible snap. “But not that far off. I gave them no reason to take Teki. Or I wouldn’t have, if he’d done what I told him and turned around immediately—I knew better than to involve a non-professional. Why didn’t I listen to myself? Poor Teki won’t know what hit him.”

“You didn’t have any such scruples about involving me,” remarked Ethan, miffed.

“You were involved already. And besides, I didn’t use to baby-sit you when you were a toddler. And besides . . .” she paused, shooting him a look strangely akin to the one Cee had just given him, “you underestimate yourself,” she finished.

Quinn starts to leave the room, then stays behind and paces instead.  She wonders why they’ve had him so long; Teki didn’t have a tracer on him, like Ethan did, and his past is well-documented on the station, unlike Ethan’s.  Cee points out that they couldn’t find anything out about Ethan, but if they think he’s involved anyway, then they’ll be less likely to give up on Teki.  Quinn says they’re likely in Millisor’s room, the one she hasn’t been able to bug, and she tries to puzzle out a way to get into it.  She says that Millisor is likely trying to provoke her into acting hastily, and tries to think of what Admiral Naismith would do.

“Never do yourself,” muttered Quinn, “what you can con an expert into doing for you. That’s what he’d say. Tactical judo from the space magician himself.” Her straight back held the dynamism of zen meditation. When she turned her face was radiant with jubilation. “Yes, that’s exactly what he’d do! Sneaky little dwarf, I love you!” She saluted an invisible presence and dove for the comconsole.

Cee and Ethan stand by in puzzlement as Quinn places a call to the Ecobranch Epidemiology Hotline.  She reports a potential disease vector for a particularly nasty new strain of “Varusan Crotch-rot”, which she blushingly confesses to have caught from him herself.  She gives Millisor’s cover identity and provides her real name before signing off, telling Cee and Ethan that she’s just committed a major crime by her false report.  She says that Ecobranch may need some backup against the Cetagandans, so they head off to help.

Comments

See, I told you Teki was the Ivan!  He’s even been taken hostage to fulfill the “dude in distress” role.  Tough luck for him, of course, especially if he’s getting the interrogation that Ethan got, except with less reason…  Except being related to that dangerous provocateuse Elli Quinn, that is.

More of Elli’s crush on Admiral Naismith, with one of those “I love you” outbursts that would have been incredibly awkward if Miles had actually been in the room.  To be offset by “sneaky little dwarf”, to be sure.  Her willingness to implement her plan by not only perjuring herself (sort of) but admitting to sex with a disease-carrier is heroic, to be sure.

I’m going to assume that the secret about Admiral Naismith that Elli is so concerned about Terrence spilling is Naismith’s dual identity as Lord Miles Vorkosigan.  I actually wasn’t sure that Elli was in the loop on that one, but I guess she might have figured it out during the trip back to Beta Colony in The Warrior’s Apprentice, if nothing else.

Both Terrence and Elli seem to be convinced that Ethan is totally underestimating his competence here, and I have to admit, I’m not sure why.  The list of Ethan’s actual achievements so far amount to keeping his head above water, and that with a lot of help from other people.  Maybe he should be getting a medal just for being brave enough to leave his planet when he thought the rest of the galaxy was like Land of the Succubi, but somehow I don’t think Elli, at least, would give him any credit for that one.  Sure, he is a skilled doctor, and he shows a certain amount of determination, but I’m sure he’s convinced that he’s the last hope for his planet’s future; does that make him heroic?  I’m not sure I buy it.

Chapter Eleven

Ethan, Quinn and Cee go down to the corridor outside Millisor’s room; Cee stays by the lift tubes with one stunner, while Ethan and Quinn position themselves where they can keep a watch on Millisor’s door.  Quinn has the other stunner, leaving Ethan armed with nothing more than a medkit.  She tells Ethan that Teki will doubtless be needing a fast-penta antagonist as soon as they can get to him.

They duck into a door niche when two Ecobranch personnel and a Security guard come down the hallway with a sealed passenger pallet.  Ethan is dismayed to see that one of them is Helda; Quinn encourages him to act inconspicuous, drawing him close to cuddle, which of course makes him intensely uncomfortable, but he tries to play along.  Quinn’s beeper goes off, and she checks it to see that it’s Millisor calling, probably having squeezed her number out of Teki to try to pressure her.

Helda buzzes the room and calls “Harman Dal”‘s name, but nobody responds.  She points out to the Security guard that it’s definitely occupied, and with company.  After the third buzz with no response, she tries an override, but it still doesn’t open, which the Security guard notes happily is a fire-safety violation.  Helda, incensed, accesses the fire-control panel and taps in a code which is followed by a muffled roar and cries from within the room.  Quinn explains to Ethan that this is the station version of a sprinkler system–a system to pump all the air out of a room.  They hear pounding on the door from inside, but Quinn whispers that they can’t open it from the inside because of the pressure differential.

Helda reverses the controls and pumps the air back; the door pops open and Millisor and Rau stumble out.  Millisor begins protesting about his diplomatic immunity protecting him against anything short of a major felony, but Helda says that a biocontrol emergency overrides any of the laws that might protect transients.  Rau spots Ethan and Quinn, and points them out to Millisor, who subsides.

The Security man spots the Cetagandans’ hostage inside, tied to a chair, and bleeding.  Quinn steps forward to offer Ethan’s medical assistance, and they enter the room, followed by Helda.  Teki is tied up with wires that have cut into his wrists and ankles, and has a bloody nose and a couple of minor head wounds, but his eyes are bright with fast-penta intoxication.  Helda recognizes Teki and begins to berate him, but Teki says muzzily that he’s off-shift and doesn’t have to put up with her.  The security guard asks if this was a “private act” or not, and Ethan tells him curtly that he was kidnapped, drugged and tortured as he cuts Teki loose.

Helda, closing in, turned her head at the sound of Ethan’s voice and stared at him. “You’re no doctor,” she gasped. “You’re that moron from Docks and Locks again. My department wants a word with you!”

Teki yelped with laughter, causing Ethan to drop the sterile sponge he’d been applying to his ankle. “Joke’s on you, Helda! He really is a doctor.” He leaned toward Ethan, nearly tipping the chair, and confided conspiratorially, “Don’t let on you’re an Athosian, or she’ll pop an artery. She hates Athos.” He nodded happily, then, exhausted, let his head loll sideways again.

Ethan tells her that he is, indeed, a doctor from Athos, and an Ambassador, on a special mission.  Teki warns Ethan not to tell her that, because she’s been irrational about Athos ever since her son snuck off there–at age 32.  Helda asks him if he has an antidote for the truth serum, so they can sort this all out down in quarantine.  Ethan begins to think about how Helda has near-dictatorial powers down there, and shouts for Quinn, who enters, hearing Millisor and Rau with her stunner.

He tells her that the one thing they hadn’t figured out was where whoever-it-was had gotten the material to replace the ovarian cultures destined for Athos.  Very few people would have had access to human, or bovine, ovaries on Kline Station, except maybe someone like Helda who had access to a lot of cadavers, and even they must have run out of time before the shipment was due to leave, hence the frantic cow-part substitutions to try to cover it up.  Helda tells him he’s crazy and repeats that they need to get to Quarantine; Ethan asks about the shrink-wrap that they found as well, and Teki chimes in that they use the shrink-wrapper all the time.

Ethan asks Helda why, and she tells him that she wants to cut those “motherless unnatural bastards” off, until her son came home and found a real woman, and gave her some grandchildren that she’d be allowed to visit…  The Security man is agog at the prospect of arresting an eco-cop.  Millisor is more interested in what she did with the ovarian cultures that had been in the shipment.  Helda says she threw them out, and Millisor becomes livid with rage, lunging at her to be felled by two stunner beams.  Quinn points out Rau as the escaped fugitive from the other day, and suggests they search the room for contraband military equipment.

The Security man and Helda’s fellow eco-cop insist they all go down to Quarantine, which Rau will find much harder to break out of than mere detention cells, and more Security guards show up to back him up.

“Yes, sir?” said one of the new officers.

“Took you long enough,” said the Security man. “Search that one,” he pointed to Rau, “and then you can help us run ’em all to Quarantine. These three are accused of vectoring communicable disease. That one’s been fingered as the jailbreak from C-9. This one’s accused of theft by that one, who appears to be wearing a Station code-uniform to which he is not entitled, and who also claims that one over there was kidnapped. I’ll have a printout as long as I am tall of charges for the one out cold on the floor when he wakes up. Those three are all gonna need first aid—”

Ethan, reminded, slipped up to Teki and pressed the hypospray of fast-penta antagonist into his arm. He felt almost sorry for the young man as his foolish grin was rapidly replaced by the expression of a man with a terminal hangover. The Security team in the meanwhile were shaking all sorts of glittering mysterious objects out of the unresisting Rau.

“—and the pretty lady in the gray outfit who seems to know so much about everybody else’s business I’m holding as a material witness,” the Security man concluded. “Ah—where is she?”

Comments

Final confrontation!  The good guys have defeated the bad guys, and the puzzle of the missing ovarian cultures has finally been solves, so we must be close to the end!  Or so it seems…but there’s still four chapters left, and surely there can’t be that much denouement left, can there?  There must be a few loose plot threads around…like House Bharaputra, or the other Cetagandan guy, Setti.  And I’m not convinced that the ovarian cultures are actually lost forever, but I can’t remember if I have grounds for that optimism or not.  I know that Ethan doesn’t go home empty-handed…  Oh, and Terrence Cee was standing around down by the lift tubes being conveniently absent for this chapter.  I guess if Millisor had come out to find him in the hallway, he’d really have been unable to restrain himself, so it’s probably for the best.

Anyway, it’s a great scene, showing that the station authorities are not entirely powerless after all, if you can get them mobilized in the right direction.  Only Ecobranch seems to have the authority to go in without warrants, though, whereas Security can’t do much unless they find actual evidence, hence the necessity for Elli’s prevarication.  And the reason why making those false claims is a serious crime, of course, because of the monster they unleash.  Looks like she skipped out before she could get charged, but good luck to her getting off the station, since she used her real name and everything.

I barely remembered about Helda from before, but the author took care to have her show up several times, so she became a believable antagonist.  Her motivations have nothing to do with the whole Cetaganda-Terrence Cee plotline at all, except for the coincidental involvement of Athos and the effect her actions had on the various factions.  We don’t really like her, and unlike Ethan I don’t even have that much sympathy for her after we discover the reason she hates Athos.  I mean, her son left, and reading between the lines it was probably because nothing he did, and no woman he dated, was ever good enough for her, and he’s been sufficiently traumatized by it to go to a planet that will keep him from ever having to see her again.  So in return she tries to wreck the future of an entire planet?  I’m not sure she even fully understand the damage she was doing, but on the other hand, she admitted she was willing to keep doing it as long as she had to…to get her son to come back.  I can’t even accuse her of having good intentions, and I can’t even believe that she’d forgive her son if he came back, or stop picking on his girlfriends, or be nicer to him.  She’s not a borderline psychopath like Millisor (or, you know, Bothari), but…well, maybe she is.  She’s definitely lacking in a lot of human empathy, which is probably why she likes being able to lord it over people down in Ecobranch and punish people for whatever minor infractions she could find.  With luck she won’t get to do that anymore…


Also with any luck I’ll be back next week for the next two chapters, and I wouldn’t even rule out getting back to my Tuesday schedule, but I’ll have to see.  This week was a clear sign that I shouldn’t always do it on the last two days, because things happen, and my life is in a bit of flux right now, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to get myself to work too far ahead.  If I can’t handle it, I may drop back to one chapter a week for a while.  I’ve been trying to emulate Leigh Butler’s tremendous Wheel of Time rereads, and while she’s kept up a fairly good schedule, even she had to take a week off every once in a while, so be prepared for the occasional gap.  If I’m planning to skip an entire week, I’ll try to post a note to that effect; otherwise I’ll just try to come out with it a day or two late.  I’ll have to play it by ear, but all in all, I’m still enjoying this enough that I’m not likely to just up and quit without a more major personal upheaval than I’ve encountered thus far.

So–hopefully you’ll see two more chapters next week, so we’ll see which, if any, of those loose plot threads, show up to plague our heroes.  As always, if you can’t wait that long, you can always read ahead on your own.

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Fasten your seat belts, set your phasers on stun, and lock up your hermaphrodites, because it’s time for another installment of the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, wherein I revisit various books from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, a couple of chapters at a time.  This week we continue through the novel Ethan of Athos, slightly off the main line of the series, lacking the main character, but still related enough for me to include.

Chapter Three

Kline Station is in a system with a dark star and no planets, but half a dozen jump routes are available, so the station accreted over three hundred years.  It was also the point from where Athos’s Founding Fathers had launched their “noble experiment”.  It is currently politically independent, though it has changed hands several times over the years, and has about 100,000 inhabitants.
The crew of the ship that brought Ethan there from Athos had been all male, mostly because it’s a four-month round trip and women aren’t allowed shore leave there.  Ethan was mostly left to himself to acclimate to galactic culture gradually.  He started by reading all of the _Betan Journal_ entries written by women, not wanting to risk the unapproved-by-censors contents of the ship’s library, but even then he could rarely tell the difference from the male authors, or even the occasional hermaphrodite.  He can’t figure out exactly how it is the women, as “uterine replicators with legs”, are supposed to cause sin among men.

Once at Kline Station, he spends a long time in Customs, mostly being checked for microbes, before being admitted into the station proper.  It is unprepossessing at first, a dingy cargo bay with a dozen exits.  The ship’s crew and the custom’s inspectors have vanished, but there is one person in a gray-and-white uniform whom Ethan approaches for help.

“Pardon me, sir,” Ethan began, and halted uncertainly. Hips too wide for the wiry figure, eyes too large and far apart above a small chiseled nose, jaw thin-boned and small, beardless skin fine as an infant’s—it might have been a particularly elegant boy, but . . .

Her laughter pealed like a bell, entirely too loud for the reddening Ethan. “You must be the Athosian,” she chuckled.

Ethan asks for directions, and the woman expresses surprise that nobody’s given him a map, an absolute necessity for a visitor to Kline Station.  She hails a crewman who has appeared from the courier ship as “Dom”, and he comes over, not recognizing her but eager to make her acquaintance.  She (re)introduces herself as Elli Quinn, an old classmate, and explains how she had a facial regeneration done on Beta Colony, purchased for her by Admiral Naismith after she got hit in the head with a plasma beam.  She tells Dom how the Oserans were absorbed by the Dendarii, but says she’s on home leave now.

She adds that he’s let his passenger loose without a map, a remark which makes Dom suspicious of double-entendre, since apparently doing the Athos run makes one the butt of many jokes.  Elli says that explains his neglect, and she offers to take Ethan in hand herself.  Dom leaves, and Ethan almost calls him back, rather than be left alone with a woman.  Elli is amused at his obvious trepidation, saying she’s not going to bite, but Ethan still refuses her offer.  She hands him a holovid project with a map on it, showing him where the Transients’ Lounge is, and wishes him luck.

He does find the Transients’ Lounge with only a few wrong turns.  He tries to ignore the women he sees all around, even the one with a baby.  He stifles his impulse to rescue it from her, and later realizes it may very well have been a female baby anyway.  At the Lounge, it takes half a dozen people and the station computer to figure out an exchange rate for his Athosian pounds to the more readily acceptable Betan dollars, at what seems like an exorbitant rate, so he chooses the cheapest room available, the tiny Economy Cabin.

His instructions from the Population Council had been to give up on trying to recoup the Jackson’s Whole shipment, but instead to look for another supplier, starting from Kline Station, and trying to keep it under budget, while recruiting more colonists, if possible, and not getting into too much trouble.  Later the Chairman had clarified–his mission was to get the cultures and get back, period.  He heads out for a walk, taking a bubble car to the high-end passenger dock and begins walking back to get a look at the brighter side of the station.

Within the soaring transparent walls of Transients’ Lounge rioted a green fecundity of vines, trees in tubs, air ferns, orchids, muted tinkling chimes, bizarre fountains running backward, upside down, spiraling around the dizzy catwalks, lively intricate trickery with the artificial gravity. Ethan paused to stare in fascination for fifteen minutes at one fountain, sheeting water suspended in air, running endlessly in the form of a moebius strip. A breath away, across the transparent barrier, a cold that could turn all to stone in an instant lurked in deathly silence. The artistic contrast was overwhelming, and Ethan was not the only downsider transient who stood transfixed in open wonder.

Ethan also passes theatres, expensive restaurants and hostels, feelie booths, religious arcades (though Athos’s is not represented), and a wedding and a funeral.  Finally he reaches an area consulates and embassies, as well as shipping agents; he quails at the female representative at the Betan embassy, and resolves to avoid Jackson’s Whole’s entirely.  He continues past the cheap rooms and crosses into the stationers’ section.

The smells coming from a cafeteria reminds him that he’s hungry, but once again he can’t face the many women inside, so he keeps walking until he finds a doorway smelling of frying grease and alcohol, and a room inhabited entirely by off-duty male workers.  Remembering his instructions to recruit, he suppresses his shyness and walks up to some of the workers.

“How do you do,” Ethan began politely. “I represent the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization of the Planet Athos. If I may, I’d like to tell you about the pioneering opportunities for settlement still available there—”

The sudden dead silence of his audience was interrupted by a large worker in green coveralls. “Athos? The Planet of the Fags? You on the level?”

Ethan insists that he is, that he’s a doctor looking for reproductive help; this amuses the workers, who make several helpful off-colour suggestions, including going to Beta Colony for a sex-change.  Ethan tells them that not all Athosians are homosexual, that many choose chastity instead, which doesn’t impress them any.  After more coarse comments, Ethan loses him temper and punches one especially crude man, and things turn ugly.  The workers begin beating him up, until a sardonic voice announces the reappearance of Elli Quinn commenting snidely on the six-to-one odds.  Some of the workers get uneasy, noticing Quinn’s uniform, but the crude one goes after her anyway, until she casually zaps him with her stunner.  The workers let Ethan go, and Elli helps him to his feet, telling him she’ll take him back where he belongs.

As Elli leads Ethan away, he keeps thinking of better ways he could have handled the situation, before being distracted by a pair of men in blue-and-green uniforms.  Elli reassures him that they aren’t constables, just Biocontrol, entrusted with the necessary powers to preserve the ecosystem of the station.  She tells him that a station is in a delicate balance, and stations are serious about their safety drills; for instance, frost on a window anywhere outside of a cargo hold should be reported at once.

They return to the Transients’ Lounge, and Ethan notes that Elli seems to be edgier than her conversation indicates.  She offers to take him to supper, but, nervous, he pleads indigestion and flees for a lift tube.  After checking that she hasn’t followed, he recovers on a bench for a few minutes before heading back to his room.

On the promenade, he is approached by a man in a nondescript grey outfit, who addresses him by name before accosting him with a hypospray to the arm.  It takes effect before Ethan can even protest, and he is swiftly bundled away into a bubble car.

Comments

Another Naismith reference, and, of course, the appearance of Elli Quinn to tie things back to the Vorkosigan world.  Elli was a minor character in The Warrior’s Apprentice, though she did gradually acquire more importance in that book, first with her plasma scarring, which necessitated her coming back to Beta Colony, and then her help against the stalking creditor.  Whether Bujold intended her to become a more major character from her introduction, or if it was just chance, it didn’t take long for her to decide, because this is her third book, published right after The Warrior’s Apprentice.  (She doesn’t appear in The Vor Game that I recall, for some reason…)  Her conversation with Dom gives just enough backstory to be relevant for now, without being too infodumpy.

Maybe it’s just the era this was written in, but the homophobia shown by the stationer workers is almost a little extreme.  Not every planet is Beta Colony, I realize, but I wouldn’t have thought that Kline Station would be as backward as, say, Barrayar.  One would think that stationers, conscious of their fragile ecosystem as Elli claims, would be respectful of those who didn’t want to upset the population balance…  But that’s probably just the liberal in me talking, with little or no comprehension of the visceral disgust and hatred that seems to overtake some people with the prospect of homosexuality in others.  Maybe the workers there just felt that live-and-let-live was good enough, but to have some “faggot” intrude on their off-hours and try to recruit them was crossing the line.  I guess I just feel that we have “progressed” socially in the last century or two into a culture of more tolerance and less violence, and that if we’re far enough in the future that a space station orbiting another sun has been around for three hundred years, things should have progressed further.  But I suppose nothing is linear, is it?  Anyway, the forces of fairness would also likely point out that a woman crashing a similar bar on Athos wouldn’t get a much better reception…

Elli’s warning about frost on the windows is almost a little too specific–is that foreshadowing?  I guess we’ll have to wait and see…  I guess I’m not sure off the top of my head why the ecosystem is so important–plants are necessary to keep oxygen cycling going, I guess, and they are in a barren system without a lot of external resources to draw on, but as a major transfer point, one would think that they could get enough supplies through eventually.  But I guess they’re independent right now, and they don’t want to give, say, Jackson’s Whole a hold on them by needing some resource that the Jacksonians could supply.  We do see a lot more of this throughout the book, so I’ll give her a chance to convince me.

Also, to be a little indelicate, let me just mention that, for Ethan to have any chance of mistaking Elli Quinn for a man or boy, I’d have to hazard that either she is not that well-endowed or her uniform is particularly loose in that respect.  Yes, I know, breast size is one of those things that can be hard to describe, at least without making your character sound like a sex maniac for even noticing it in the first place (unless it’s the woman’s most salient feature), and Ethan assuredly doesn’t even know what to look for, but I think he’d notice such a “physical deformity”, at least from some angles, and he’d try to come up with other explanations for it before arriving at the truth.  Since I don’t recall any other descriptions from Miles’s point of view, I’m going to stick with this theory until disproven…if it matters to anyone except me, that is.

Chapter Four

Ethan awakens in a luxurious hotel room, mind moving slowly and euphorically; he notes absently that he’s tied to a chair.  The man who kidnapped him is sitting nearby, and another man emerges from the bathroom, drying his face with a towel.  The man on the chair (Captain Rau) assures the other, Colonel Millisor, that Ethan has been given a full dose.  Ethan sees his clothes and possessions on the bed and realizes that he’s naked.  Rau tells Millisor that Ethan’s map module had a tiny tracer on it, which destroyed itself as soon as he scanned it.  They weren’t able to follow the signal, though, and they think it’s possible he is involved with Terrence Cee.

The leader, the one Ethan’s kidnapper had named Colonel Millisor, grunted again, and approached Ethan to stare into his eyes. “What’s your name?”

“Ethan,” said Ethan sunnily. “What’s yours?”

Millisor ignored this open invitation to sociability. “Your full name. And your rank.”

This struck an old chord, and Ethan barked smartly, “Master Sergeant Ethan CJB-8 Urquhart, Blue Regiment Medical Corps, U-221-767, sir!” He blinked at his interrogator, who had drawn back in startlement. “Retired,” he added after a moment.

Millisor mutters about hating fast-penta.  He asks about Terrence Cee, but Ethan only knows one Terrence, a tech at the Reproduction Centre on Athos, and proceeds to tell his captors about him before they realize it’s a different man and cut him off.  They ask about the cultures from Bharaputra, and Ethan fills them in on the garbage that was in the crate; this confuses them, and they wonder if he’s resisting the fast-penta.  Millisor suggests increasing the dose, in case he’s resisting.  If the samples they’re looking for are on Athos, he says, they will have to try to destroy them before they can be brought to gestation, or else they’ll have to sterilize the entire planet.  They do give him more fast-penta, and he babbles furiously under the interrogation until he becomes ill and passes out.

When he regains consciousness, they try another drug that brings terror instead of euphoria, and continue questioning him about Terrence Cee and the samples.  After that, they move on to pain, and Ethan wishes he knew what they wanted to hear so he could tell them; they desist when he starts to convulse.  Millisor concludes that Cee managed to switch the samples somehow before being sent to Athos, but Rau insists that the clues still point to Athos.

“It may still be Athos. A plan within a plan—within a plan. . . .” Millisor rubbed his neck wearily, looking suddenly much older than Ethan’s first estimate. “The late Dr. Jahar did too good a job. Terrence Cee is everything Jahar promised—except loyal. . . . Well, we’ll get no more out of this one. You sure that wasn’t just a speck of dirt in that circuit board?”

Rau says he’s sure, but admits that Ethan probably isn’t a real agent.  They debate using him as a stalking-horse, but decide he’s useless.  It’s been seven hours, so Millisor says to get Okita to dispose of him.

Okita takes Ethan to a docking bay and up on a catwalk.  He forces Ethan to drink a bulb full of alcohol, not the first such, and says that Ethan may even survive the fall, especially in Kline Station’s light gravity, so he’ll have to break his neck first.  Ethan tries to cling to the mesh floor of the catwalk.  His belongings were all returned to him, even his Betan credit chit, but he doesn’t think bribery will work, or seduction.  He hopes that he’ll survive, to help stave off the horrible fate these men seem to have planned for Athos.

Okita decides that Ethan’s biochemistry is mixed up enough now to hide the traces of the other drugs, so he lifts Ethan up to the railing, placing his neck over it for the break.  The catwalk shakes as a figure (Quinn, of course) appears and shoots Okita with a stunner; Okita falls forward over the railing, to her dismay.  She drops her stunner and tries to grab Okita before he falls, but to no avail.  Ethan asks if he should try to help, but Elli said Okita is definitely dead, and if it’s any consolation, he killed a dozen people on Jackson’s Whole five months earlier as part of a coverup.

She tells Ethan that she’s interested in him because Millisor is interested in him, though she’s not sure why.  She admits that she’s not home on leave, but on assignment from the Dendarii.  Ethan says they thought he was a spy, and Elli apologizes, but reminds him that she did save his life just now, at least until Millisor finds out he’s still alive.  Ethan suggests going to the authorities, but Quinn says they won’t be sufficient protection, and Elli doesn’t want to reveal herself just yet.  Ethan accuses her of trying to use him as a stalking-goat too.

She helps him down to the floor of the bay, where she checks over Okita’s body.  She decides that they need to dispose of Okita’s body, which she tells Ethan is not an easy task on a space station.  The airlocks are all monitored, and anything out in space would be perfectly preserved if it were found later.  Trying to put such a large amount of “protein” down the disposal in pieces would register too much of a blip, plus it’s been tried before.  The ecology police check over the whole station too often for it to be easily hidden anywhere unless they kept moving it.

“I think I have a better idea. Yes. Why not? As long as I’m going to commit a crime, let it be a perfect one. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, as Admiral Naismith would say . . .”

She starts picking up bits of equipment around the bay, while Ethan lies on the floor feeling sorry for himself, a full day on the station, beaten up, interrogated, tortured, and implicated in a murder, without even having had a meal yet.  Elli reassures him that she is, at least, making some progress in her investigation at last, and tells him he just needs a good meal and a week in the hospital; she can, at least get him to a place to rest.  She stuffs Okita’s body into a shipping canister, cleans up the area with a sonic scrubber, gathers up the pieces of her stunner, and puts the canister onto a float pallet.  They will need to get the canister and pallet back to the docking area within eight hours, when the next ship docks there, or they’ll be missed.

Ethan asks her who these men are, anyway, and tells her of their plans for bombing Athos, which is news to Quinn.  She says she hasn’t been able to bug Millisor’s quarters, and asks Ethan about the interrogation.  He tells her consisted of a lot of him screaming, and she apologizes, having thought they’d stick to fast-penta.  She tells Ethan that Millisor works for Cetagandan counter-intelligence, and Rau, Okita, and his other goon, Setti, are his team.

“Cetagandan! Isn’t that planet pretty far from here to be interested in, um,” he glanced at the Stationer woman, “us? This nexus, I mean.”

“Not far enough, evidently.”

“But why, in God the Father’s name, should they want to destroy Athos? Is Cetaganda—controlled by women or something?”

A laugh escaped her. “Hardly. I’d call it a typical male-dominated totalitarian state, only slightly mitigated by their rather artistic cultural peculiarities. No. Millisor is not, per se, interested in either Athos or the Kline Station nexus. He’s chasing—something else. The big secret. The one I was hired to find out.”

She says Millisor was the security chief for a long-range genetic experiment, which was kept secret for twenty-five years.  Dr. Faz Jahar was the scientist in charge, until the lab exploded, killing him, and Millisor and his men had been chasing something around the galaxy for three years, leaving a trail of bodies behind them.

Elli takes them through a door marked “RENOVATION” and into a large chamber full of pillars, which she says is a half-finished reproduction of some Earth monument called “the Elhamburger or something”.  The man who started it currently has his assets tied up in litigation, so the construction is in limbo.  She tells Ethan he can stay with the canister until she gets back.  There are no blankets, but plenty of cushions, which she piles up into a nest for him.  She gives Ethan a candy bar to eat, and tells him to use the canister if he needs a bathroom, since they can’t risk using the plumbing.  She tells him she’ll back in somewhere between one and four hours.

“And now,” she rubbed her hands together briskly, “phase two of the search for the L-X-1O Terran-C.”

“The what?”

“That was the code name of Millisor’s research project. Terran-C for short. Maybe some part of whatever they were working on originated on Earth.”

“But Terrence Cee is a man,” said Ethan. “They kept asking me if I was here to meet him.”

She was utterly still for a moment. “Oh . . . ? How strange. How very strange. I never knew that.” Her eyes were bright as mirrors. Then she was gone.

Comments

Interesting…in the code name there, it’s listed in the book as “L-X-1O” where that’s one-O, not ten.  I always read that as ten.  I suppose it doesn’t make any difference, but now I wonder if that’s canonical, or just a mistake in the ebook conversion…

I’m presuming that it’s the “Alhambra”, not the “Elhamburger”.  It’s a weird thing to turn up on a space station, but I guess if you’re rich, you can waste as much space as you want.  And if this guy turns out to lose his money, then I’m sure they’ll reclaim the space fast enough.  Wonder why Bujold thought to put it in?  Had she just been on vacation in Spain?

I can’t decide if I should be referring to Elli Quinn as “Elli” or “Quinn”; I seem to be doing both, which I hope isn’t too confusing.  I’ve heard several times that authors should try to avoid having characters whose names begin with the same later, which of course “Ethan” and “Elli” do, which may explain why she is usually called “Commander Quinn” in this chapter.  (Was Ethan so attached to his name that she couldn’t change it?  Obviously she couldn’t change Elli’s, but Ethan, as a new character, should have had more freedom…  According to my wife, though, characters get attached to their names and resist having them changed.)

At least we know a little more about the samples that caused Ethan to leave Athos in the first place–they were supposed to contain something mysterious from Terrence Cee, but he must have switched them out to leave a false trail.  Except that the Cetagandans still think that Athos is important to Cee’s plan.

In a little bit of inconsistency, “Cetaganda” is definitely talked about as “a planet” rather than a group of planets united in a common empire.  Maybe that’s just Ethan’s ignorance about the galaxy, but it’s not like Quinn corrects him, so I’m going to guess that Bujold’s vision of Cetaganda wasn’t settled yet.  I don’t know if the description of Cetaganda consisting of multiple planets appeared (in publication) before The Vor Game.  Elli’s description of it being a “male-dominated totalitarian state” doesn’t sound quite accurate either, but I suppose it may look that way from a distance, with a male emperor and the usual outer face of the ghem-lords; Ethan would probably be less reassured if he knew about the haut ladies.

Ethan seems to have overcome his reservations about partnering up with a woman, but admittedly, he’s in trouble, and she seems to be the only one interested in, or capable of, helping him.  Assuming she’s being completely honest with him, and I suspect she’s still holding a few things back, but we, at least, have confidence that she’s on the side of the angels, even if Ethan doesn’t have that much trust yet.  But Millisor and the Cetagandans definitely seem the greater of two evils right now, I’d expect.


So, yay, we have left Athos, met a character we knew from before, acquired some villains and a plot, had some action scenes…  Definitely picked up a lot in this installment.  I don’t know if I can promise non-stop action from here on, but at least we have a team now, and Elli makes a good foil for Ethan, or perhaps vice versa.  Ethan is still more acted upon than acting, but perhaps he’ll become more than a dude-in-distress as the book progresses…  So tune in next week for the next couple of chapters, where we might, conceivably, find out.

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Welcome back, named and anonymous readers on the Internet, to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread.  This week we start a new book, Ethan of Athos, chronologically after Cetaganda though written long before it.  The books in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series generally involves Miles Vorkosigan, or at least his mother Cordelia.  Generally.

Ethan of Athos is the second book in the omnibus volume Miles, Mystery & Mayhem, and it includes at most two of the three elements in that title, because there is no Miles in it.  That’s probably one reason why I haven’t reread it nearly as much as I have the rest of the series, because it isn’t technically a Vorkosigan book at all.  There’s no Vorkosigans in it; the closest we get is one of the Dendarii, and a mention of a Naismith.  Last time I reread it, it was better than I remembered it, so I decided to include it in this reread (as opposed to Falling Free, for example).  It’s one of Bujold’s first novels, and yet hardly anything in her later books springs from it; without that reference in Cetaganda years later, it could lift out of the series without a trace.  And it does, unfortunately, have a really slow start, so I’m hoping that I’m recall correctly that it does get better…

Chapter One

Dr. Ethan Urquhart deftly delivers a baby boy from a uterine replicator at Sevarin District Reproduction Centre, where he works, on the planet of Athos; he pronounces the baby perfectly healthy, to the delight of the baby’s waiting father.

On his way to check on one of his more worrisome embryos, he chats with Georos from the night shift.  When he checks on the embryo, CJB-9, he finds that it’s non-viable, not having formed properly.  Georos says that the father is scheduled to come talk to Ethan so they can get permission to terminate, which Ethan is less than thrilled about.

On his morning inspection, Ethan first reprimands one tech for playing raucous modern music instead of more sedate classical works (“the classic hymn ‘God of Our Fathers, Light The Way’ rendered by the United Brethren String Chamber Orchestra”), then another for letting the levels of waste toxins get dangerously close to the maximum allowed before changing the filter.  As such, he almost misses the CJB-9 father when he arrives, and has to dash back up to his office.  The father, Brother Haas, is surprised at Ethan’s youth.

Ethan touched his shaved chin, then became self-conscious of the gesture and put his hand down hastily. If only he had a beard, or even a mustache, people would not be constantly mistaking him for a 20-year-old despite his six-foot frame. Brother Haas was sporting a beard, about a two-week growth, scrubby by comparison to the luxuriant mustache that proclaimed him a long-standing designated alternate parent. Solid citizen. Ethan sighed. “Sit, sit,” he gestured again.

Haas asks what the problem is, for him to come all the way in person; Ethan notes that he came from Crystal Springs, even though there is a closer Reproduction Centre, and Haas said that Sevarin had a CJB stock, which he particularly wanted.  A recent farming accident made him realize that they needed a doctor, and CJB’s tend to make good doctors.  Ethan says that it’s far from a certain correlation, but admits that he himself is a CJB-8.

Ethan tells him that the embryo was non-viable; Haas asks if there’s genetic damage they can repair, but Ethan says that only a few common problems can be fixed that way, if they’re spotted early.  He tells Haas that since the problem was with the ovum, they won’t charge him extra, but they can’t offer CJB anymore.  In fact, nobody can, because this was the last viable CJB culture on the whole planet.  Haas asks why they’ve stopped working, if there was some kind of offworlder sabotage.

“No, no!” Ethan said. Ye gods, what a riot that fabulous rumor could start. “It’s perfectly natural. The first CJB culture was brought by the Founding Fathers when Athos was first settled—it’s almost two hundred years old. Two hundred years of excellent service. It’s just—senescent. Old. Worn out. Used up. Reached the end of its life-cycle, already dozens of times longer than it would have lived in a, ah,” it wasn’t an obscenity, he was a doctor and it was correct medical terminology, “woman.”

He talks Haas into trying a JJY-8 instead, since one of his best medtechs is a JJY-7.  He hopes Haas doesn’t follow his statement to its logical conclusion, since all of the ovarian cultures they have on Athos are descended from those brought by the Founding Fathers, and so they’re all in danger of senescence, and CJB is not the first to disappear.  A distressingly large number of embryos are coming from the shrinking pool of cultures that haven’t begun to have problems yet, and things are only getting worse.  They need a long-term solution for the issue.

Over the next three months, another culture dies, and another one’s egg production is on a severe decline.  One day, the Chief of Staff, Desroches, calls Ethan to inform him that a mail ship has docked at the space station.  Ethan has received some copies of ­The Betan Journal of Reproductive Medicine, but that’s not all.  When he arrives in Desroches’s office, he sees the large refrigerated container from House Bharaputra on Jackson’s Whole, with a new selection of fifty ovarian samples.  Ethan is vastly relieved that they have finally arrived, with nobody having to venture off the planet to try to obtain them.  Desroches assigns him to get the new cultures settled in.

Ethan starts thawing the cultures, though he only planets to do twelve of them at first, enough to fill the support units left vacant by the deterioration of the original cultures; a whole new bank of machines is in the works to contain the rest of them.  While he waits, he takes a look at the Betan journals; his censorship level has risen high enough now that he can, for the first time, read offworld journals uncensored.  Most of the articles have to do with in vivo births, involving actual “women”, and he makes sure to avoid those, but the ones involving uterine replicators or male reproducing apparatus he finds interesting.  One new technique for the replicators he finds intriguing enough to look up at the authors, Kara Burton and Elizabeth Naismith; he is taken aback by their pictures, beardless like young, childless men but showing clear signs of age.  He half-expects insanity to strike him just from seeing the images, as it is supposed to do when you see women in the flesh, but apparently the pictures don’t have the same effect.

He opens up one of the new cultures which has reached the correct temperature.  He is taken aback to find it shrink-wrapped, and raw material rather than an actual culture.  Many of them look odd; when he counts them, there’s only thirty-eight; and some of them are too large, and familiar from his time spent butchering meat in K.P. as cow ovaries.  Once he’s satisfied himself of his conclusions, he bursts into Desroches’s office and gives him the bad news.

Desroches was just donning his coat, the light of home in his eye; he never turned off the holocube until he was done for the day. He stared at Ethan’s wild, disheveled face. “My God, Ethan, what is it?”

“Trash from hysterectomies. Leavings from autopsies, for all I know. A quarter of them are clearly cancerous, half are atrophied, five aren’t even human for God’s sake! And every single one of them is dead.

Comments

Bujold takes a bit of a risk in this book, making our main viewpoint character (the only one for the book, as I recall) someone from a distinctly different culture.  It takes a little while to notice, perhaps, the complete lack of female characters, but discovering that “woman” is a somewhat distasteful term that can only be used clinically is the first sign.  Ethan’s reaction to the pictures, and the stories of the madness that women strike in the hearts of men, reveals just how neurotic the culture is about them.  The author isn’t actively judgemental against the inhabitants of Athos, since everyone is actually fairly well-adjusted as long as women don’t come up, and not too caricatured.  Everyone is perforce gay, or possibly just asexual by Athos standards.  Though sex is evidently not required to produce babies, so it may be optional.  Haas lives in a commune, so pair-bonding for parenting may not be required, as long as somebody will be available to raise the children…

I seem to recall that it becomes clear at some point that the ovarian culture letters are the initials of the original donors (and it makes me wonder if LMB used the initials of friends or fans or just made them up).  The numbers I’m not quite as sure about, but I guess they must do some cloning or copying of the original cultures or something…  Okay, I don’t know, and maybe they go into it more later, but I don’t recall that particularly.

I guess there are a few references to things that turn up again in the series–House Bharaputra on Jackson’s Whole, for instance, as the suppliers of the cultures.  Athos is doubtless standoffish about dealing with offworld women, so maybe they ended up with Jackson’s Whole because the Jacksonians are less picky and willing to meet the Athosians’ doubtless bizarre conditions.  Except that they apparently screwed them up this time…  Oh, and I’m pretty sure that Elizabeth Naismith is Miles’s Betan grandmother, of course.

Chapter Two

Ethan is brought along to an emergency Population Council meeting where they try to decide what to do about the outrageous shipment.  It emerges that they bought from the lowest bidder, but they had promised fifty cultures for each Centre, and the next would only have sent thirty.  They have only four days until the ship leaves again, and there won’t be another for a year.  Some of the representatives grumble that they should have their own ships, and others ask them how many Reproduction Centres they want to trade for them.  One councilor makes the suggestion that they could grow their own ovaries, using female fetuses, not bringing them completely to term…the other councilors, revolted, say they’re not that desperate yet.

The councilors are also worried about the problem of genetic diversity, especially given that they only had three immigrants this year and two the year before…and those tend to be a little “strange”.  They agree that they need to get some new cultures, but this time they will have to send an agent actually offplanet to supervise it.  Desroches says that they need a man with technical know-how and proven integrity, given that he’ll be handling all of their available foreign currency, moral fibre to resist the temptations of the greater galaxy, as well as energy and conviction; he adds that this man should also be unattached, not to leave an overburdened partner behind him.  Belatedly, Ethan realizes that Desroches has been thinking of him the whole time.

After the meeting, Ethan complains that Desroches had set him up, and Desroches admits it, but said he would never have volunteered on his own.  He asks Ethan if he can think of someone better they could have picked, like the fellow with his talk of female fetuses…  Desroches also points out the social credits that this trip will earn Ethan, ten years’ worth, if he returns.  Ethan says it’s his foster-brother and partner who really needs them, but they’re not transferrable.  Desroches says that Ethan’s partner is likeable enough, but totally irresponsible; Ethan tells him to stay out of his private life.  Desroches said at least they didn’t draft him and send him out on military pay.

Desroches drops Ethan back at his house, with four days to prepare for the trip.  Ethan thinks about his foster brother Janos, son of his father’s Designated Alternate, one of five children the two had had.  Ethan had been happy when Janos came to Sevarin to live with him, and hopes to find comfort in his arms, but instead finds the apartment deserted.  Checking the garage, he finds his new lightflyer gone, but according to the locator it’s only a few blocks away.  He decides to walk over and surprise Janos at whatever party he’s doubtless attending.

Instead, he finds emergency tow vehicles trying to extricate his lightflyer out of the upper branches of a tree.  A bystander tells him that one of the two men who’d been inside it when it crashed had been taken to the hospital, and the other, obviously completely intoxicated, had been taken to the police station.  A parks official starts tallying up Ethan’s fine for damage to the tree, and then the lightflyer slides out of the branches.

Five meters per second, thought Ethan with hysterical irrelevancy. Times 25 meters times how many kilograms?

The nose-down impact on the granite cobblestones starred the gleaming red outer shell of the flyer with fracture lines from front to rear. In the sudden silence after the great crunch Ethan could quite clearly hear an elfin tinkle of expensive electronic instrumentation within, coming to rest a little out of phase with the main mass.

Ethan finds Janos at the police station to bail him out.  He asks Janos how they crashed, and Janos tells him how he and his friend Nick were divebombing some birds (on Athos, that meant feral mutant chickens) and hit the tree by accident.  Finding out it was before dark, Ethan asks why Janos wasn’t at work, and it emerged that Janos had failed to get up (Ethan’s fault, for leaving him with only the alarm to wake him), had gotten a talking-to at work which ended up with Janos losing his temper, picking a fight with his boss, and getting fired.  The police let Ethan take Janos home, since the charges have all been settled.

When they get home, Janos admits that the fine came out of his already depleted social duty credits.  Ethan is incensed that Janos can’t manage even the minimal accumulation that would have allowed any regular person to get one parenting credit by now, and Janos’s irresponsibility isn’t a good sign for parenthood anyway.  Janos says he doesn’t care about babies that much anyway, and Ethan is disgusted at his foster-brother’s self-centeredness.  He tells Janos he’s leaving, and explains about the assignment he’s been given to go to Jackson’s Whole.

“Now who doesn’t care?” said Janos angrily. “Off for a year without so much as a by-your-leave. What about me? What am I supposed to do while you’re . . .” Janos’s voice plowed into silence. “Ethan—isn’t Jackson’s Whole a planet? Out there? With—with—them on it?”

Ethan nodded. “I leave in four—no, three days, on the galactic census ship. You can have all my things. I don’t know—what’s going to happen out there.”

Janos’s chiseled face was drained sober. In a small voice he said, “I’ll go clean up.”

Comments

Five metres per second–that’s about half a gee (assuming they mean “metres per second squared”, that is).  I guess most of the Athosians are used to the low gravity, not having known anything else, but I really had forgotten there was anything odd about the gravity…  I guess we’ll see how Ethan reacts to the different gravities when he goes offworld.  (Spoiler alert:  He doesn’t make it to Jackson’s Whole, that I recall.)

There does seem to be an explicitly sexual relationship between Ethan and Janos, which is…well, maybe a little squicky, since they’re foster brothers, but I guess they’re not likely to be “inbreeding”, are they?  One presumes that they keep track of everyone’s “mothers” so that they can keep that from happening, though there’s little reference to it in these first two chapters.  Though it does mention how Ethan and Janos’s parents had a pair of children where each had used the other’s maternal ovarian culture, which makes my head spin a little bit.  Sort of like two men each having a child with the other man’s mother, or sister, or cousin…without any “women” actually being involved, of course.

Janos is a piece of work, isn’t he?  One might hope that being forcibly deprived of his partner like this might shock him to reality somehow, so I guess we’ll have to see if he shows up in the denouement or anything.  I’m not holding my breath, though.

I’m not sure what I think of the female-fetus thing.  Where did the original ovaries come from?  Donated by the original women, somehow?  Given that the founders of Athos may have been just a teensy bit crazy, it’s not impossible that the “donation” was involuntary, but I don’t remember any such skeletons coming out later, so I may just be overdramatizing.  Anyway, the Athosians find the idea distasteful because of the idea of raising female fetuses, I imagine; modern-day North Americans are probably more concerned about the “raising disposable fetuses” issue, which is still considered a bit beyond the pale morally.  Considering that there is demonstrably cloning technology available in later books, it’s likely that somewhere else, probably on Jackson’s Whole, there is somebody with the knowhow to create embryos from two men’s genetic material, but I suppose it’s probably out of Athos’s price range, plus it wouldn’t do much to help their genetic diversity…


Next week things should pick up a bit, as Ethan actually arrives at Kline Station, the setting for most of the rest of the book, and the plot really starts.  It’s possible that we may even see a familiar face–well, not that familiar, since the last time we saw her she didn’t really have a face at all…

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