Last week, Cordelia and Aral ended their mutinies and went home This week, an unspecified but significant amount of time later, they’re at war. Once again, I have failed in my intention to review more than one chapter.
If you’d like to catch up on previous posts in the re-read, the index is here. At this time, the spoiler policy permits discussion of all books EXCEPT Gentlemen Jole and the Red Queen. Discussion of any and all revelations from or about that book should be whited out.
(Trigger warnings for threats, torture, and sexual violence.)
Captain Cordelia Naismith leads her crew through the wormhole to Escobar to run the Barryaran blockade. They use a projector to create a decoy ship that draws the Barryaran defenders away from their posts guarding the wormhole so that a supply convoy can slip through. Naismith’s crew piles into their life boat which is painted to look like an asteroid, slags their ship and are taken prisoner by the Barryarans.
Cordelia, the only woman in the crew, is separated from the rest. The guards show her to Admiral Vorrutyer, who orders her stripped, declares her “old” and tells the guards to bring her to his quarters later. Vorrutyer likes to talk. A lot. He has a lot of talking to do about his master plan to break Cordelia down and make her wish he was just torturing her for information—which she doesn’t really have and which he could have his medical staff get out of her with much less trouble. He’s just a sadist. He announces that he’s going to have Cordelia raped by his diseased servant. STIs being a thing of the past, he has to settle for a servant who is only mentally ill. He calls Bothari into the room. Bothari announces that he won’t rape Cordelia because she’s Vorkosigan’s prisoner. Vorrutyer has a lot to say about Vorkosigan, some of which implies a shared sexual history. He’s now excited to speed up the program and rape Cordelia himself, and is working on that project when Bothari slits his throat. Bothari unbuckles Cordelia from her restraints. She finds some clothes that aren’t sliced up, and then Vorkosigan appears, with Simon Illyan in tow.
I really thought that was two chapters instead of one.
Wow, that was a cool projector, huh? It went by real fast. Betan military technology (and Escobaran military technology) will be very important in the upcoming chapters. Not so much here. Cordelia notes that she and her crew were selected for this mission precisely because they don’t know the technological details. They aren’t really military—they have a new name, but they’re still wearing their Survey uniforms. Last time she met Aral, Cordelia pointed out that they were non-combatants. Circumstances have forced her to give that up.
The last time she was in combat, Cordelia picked up a nerve disruptor scar on her left thigh. We revisit it here when Vorrutyer slices her prison uniform off. It’s kind of a gift, this nerve disruptor scar. Just this once. I theorize that nerve disruptor technology could have non-military, medical applications—maybe for peripheral nerve disorders or chronic pain—if applied in a highly controlled, precise manner. We have yet to see any experiments with this.
In general, I feel that sexual peril is a terrible plot device. It works here because it tells us something about Vorrutyer; He’s a perv who abuses power. He’s trying to do to Cordelia what he already did to Aral to get Aral back in his control. And it tells us something about Cordelia; This is not what she signed on for, either as an astrogator and Betan Survey Commander or as a Captain in the Betan Expeditionary Force. She’s adapted to the changing situation without altering her commitment to seeing the humanity in others. Eventually, it will also tell us something about Aral.
When she first sees him, Cordelia recognizes Vorrutyer’s rank insignia, and deduces his name, I presume from news coverage and military briefings. She also recognizes him by category—he is one of the men Aral described as “the scum of the service.” Vorrutyer tries to scare Cordelia, but her reactions to him are mainly diagnostic and defensive. She’s nervous, and tied to a bed with her clothes cut off, but this is like a bad date. Her reaction to Bothari is central to what makes Cordelia who she is. When we last saw Bothari, he was on point and squared away. Now, he’s a man in crisis—hearing voices, out of control, the pawn of the thing he most hates. Vorrutyer asks Cordelia if she has any last words before Bothari rapes her. Those words are, “I believe the tormented are very close to God. I’m sorry, Sergeant.”
Only Cordelia can say this, and only to Bothari. In the wrong context, this statement would be cruel—Cordelia could never say it to Aral or Miles. It’s an expression of her theism, but it’s a more important expression of her belief in Bothari and her belief that she understands Bothari in a way that both of them find meaningful. It works a miracle. Bothari is the lost soul of this series. His home is not a place—it’s a job. Cordelia creates the moment that lets Bothari find his way back to being Aral’s man, and find the path towards being hers.
Vorrutyer doesn’t appear to care about Bothari’s defiance. He’s fixated on Aral. In the over-excited babbling that follows, Vorrutyer accuses Aral of being a puritan and a prude, suggests that Aral is gay, alludes to a period of promiscuous sexual indiscretion after Aral’s wife died, and implies that he played a role in the situation that led to Aral’s wife’s death. He plans a series of psychological tortures for Aral, before trying to rape Cordelia and getting his throat cut. If you’re truly serious about self-defense, you shouldn’t forget that Bothari is behind you.
Cordelia emerges from this situation bloodied, but mostly unscathed. Bothari is in much worse shape—he appears to be hallucinating. I’m not sure that Vorrutyer needed to torture Aral at all; He appears to be pretty tormented when he enters the room. Thus far, we know that Simon Illyan has a puppy face. What is it with the Barryarans and their puppy faces?
Next week, Cordelia and Aral (and Simon and Bothari) deal with the personal and political consequences of Vorrutyer’s death.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.