“Labyrinth,” the middle story of Borders of Infinity takes us to Jackson’s Whole, the Galactic Nexus’s official wretched hive of scum and villainy. We’re here to pick up Dr. Hugh Canaba, who Barrayar very much wants to involve in their genetics projects. Barrayar has genetics projects now. Which makes sense, because Barrayar has a tissue sample from Terrence Cee. We learned all about the potential multi-generational consequences of handing out your tissue samples in Ethan of Athos. Borders of Infinity was the sixth Vorkosigan book published, first appearing in 1989. This was thirteen years prior to the UN’s adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, banning the recruitment of children under the age of 18 by guerrilla and non-state forces.
This reread has an index, which you can consult if you feel like exploring previous books and chapters. Spoilers are welcome in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. Comments that question the value and dignity of individuals, or that deny anyone’s right to exist, are emphatically NOT welcome. Please take note.
Miles’s plan is simple—The Dendarii take their fastest ship to Jackson’s Whole to buy some weapons from House Fell. While they are there, a guy named Vaughn will enlist in the Dendarii fleet as a medtech. Then the Dendarii will get the heck out of Dodge and Vaughn will desert at Escobar, thus covering up Barrayar’s super-secret connection to the Dendarii Mercenaries.
And if I may just say, if you’re trying to cover up your government’s connections to a mercenary outfit, having it named after one of your major mountain ranges and commanded by the quite-distinctive-looking son of one of your most important political leaders is maybe not the most effective approach. The Dendarii’s cover relies on a lot of people basically ignoring everything that happens on other planets, which is completely plausible for unfortunate numbers of civilians, but defies credulity when proposed as the behavior of rival military intelligence outfits. Bel Thorne is pretty close to admitting to Miles that they have the secret worked out (still not comfortable using it for Betan hermaphrodites—sorry, Bel! If you weren’t a fictional character, I would work a lot harder at using your preferred forms of address). I assume Bel held back because Bel has romantic goals that would be ruined by Miles’s cover being blown. Bel is very lonely. Miles does not reciprocate Bel’s interest, possibly because of his as-yet-unrealized interest in Elli, who is also deeply infatuated with him. Is this a common problem for military commanders or are the Dendarii special? Does Tung have his own coterie of followers? I bet he and Oser were lovers once, and then they fell out over ship commands or financial issues or something and that’s the secret reason why things got so bitter between them, before Oser’s unfortunate end.
“Labyrinth” explores Jackson Whole’s role as a galactic hub for human trafficking. Bel and Miles’s straightforward geneticist-fetching mission is going to be complicated by their efforts to also rescue Nicol and Taura. Nicol is the first Quaddie we have seen in a few books. She is a hammer dulcimer player who didn’t realize what she was getting into when she signed a contract with House Fell. I was thrilled by the first moment we saw a Quaddie play an instrument and I’m pleased that instrumental music has grown into a significant part of Free Quaddie culture. Bel and Nicol are both marketable freaks to the Jacksonian barons, and their part of the story focuses on their value as individuals and their desire to protect their descendents by not sharing tissue samples with the Jacksonians. The Jacksonians also express interest in a tissue sample from Miles. He does not provide one, and they do not admit that they already have one. Miles’s cover is very much on his mind here, and I wonder if the request is part of Ryoval and Fell’s cover.
Taura is the last survivor of an effort to create a genetically engineered super-soldier, and Canaba has stowed samples of his current work in her leg. He refuses to leave without the leg. Canaba was willing to leave the rest of the sixteen-year-old super-soldier behind. I know Barrayar really needs scientists, but I don’t think Canaba deserves to be rescued. There’s probably another geneticist languishing in a post-doc fellowship somewhere who could get to Barrayar on a regularly-scheduled commercial flight.
Taura is the main focus of this story. Canaba’s refusal to leave without her leg requires Miles to rescue her from House Ryoval, where she is being prostituted following her sale by House Bharaputra. Nicol’s situation is difficult, but Taura’s is truly desperate. The Dendarii operation to retrieve Canaba’s samples was built around incomplete information, so Miles is shocked to discover that he is expected to sacrifice a person, not a lab animal. Having never been treated as a human before in her life, Taura is surprised to be seen as a person, not a lab animal. In fact, Miles gives her the name Taura—before meeting him, she went by her laboratory designation, Nine. The moment when Miles begins Taura’s military training by showing her how to use the least possible amount of force against her enemy is a beautiful example of Miles teaching the lesson he needs to learn, as well as a pivotal moment in Taura’s evolution as a character—she learns that she doesn’t need to be a monster to destroy her enemies.
I like stories where Miles insists on the essential humanity of everyone he encounters. Up to a point, I’m very happy with “Labyrinth.” Past that point, it’s the story where Miles has sex with a sixteen-year-old human trafficking victim. And I HATE the sexual aspects of Miles and Taura’s relationship. I hate them here, I hate them in Memory, and I think it’s more than a little odd when Miles encourages Roic to pursue Taura romantically in “Winterfair Gifts.” Roic and Taura make a great pair—my objection is that Miles gets much more graphic in his discussion with Roic than I think a gentleman should. Taura is in a dark, desperate, vulnerable place when Miles finds her in the basement under Ryoval’s genetics lab. She propositions Miles as a way of making him prove that he sees her as human. I can see how a sixteen-year-old with no experience of normal human interaction would arrive at this strategy. I cannot identify Miles’s excuse for going along with it in the basement, and I cannot imagine an excuse for continuing the sexual relationship once they return to the Ariel. The presented options include animal magnetism and a makeover.
Tune in next week when Miles redeems himself (at least a little) by rescuing almost an entire prison camp!
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.