Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Komarr, Chapters 16-18

I reread The Warrior’s Apprentice for the hyperactive wish fulfillment. I reread Memory to remember how to go on. And I reread Komarr for the iconic moment when Ekaterin Nile Vorvane Vorsoisson smashes a novel device into a cargo bay floor.

Chapter 16 opens on the jump station in Komarran space. Ekaterin has gone up to meet her aunt coming in from Barrayar for a visit. (Nikki is spending a few nights with Lady Vortorren’s brood so he doesn’t miss school, and so his mum can have a grown-up chat with her aunt.) Aunt Vorthys is a martyr to jump sickness, so Ekaterin has booked a room on the station for overnight to allow her to recover. They are on their way to it when they accidentally run into some of the Waste Heat Embezzlement Team and are taken hostage. The first duty of a hostage is to survive. After that, she’s supposed to try to escape and sabotage the enemies’ plans. Ekaterin will prove to be exceptionally skilled. It’s like she’s been a hostage for eight years and can’t take any more of it. Aunt Vorthys does her best to contribute to the general effort but is hampered by a combination of jump sickness and a heart condition.

The Komarran Conspiracy is planning to close the wormhole route connecting Komarr to Barrayar. This is the only wormhole route connecting Barrayar to the rest of the Galactic Nexus—I’m surprised to learn that geographically, Barrayar is almost as isolated as Athos. Ekaterin can see that this would be a terrible thing; it would mean a return to the Age of Isolation. The Komarrans don’t care, and they don’t see why Ekaterin should, either. If their device works, Ekaterin will be stranded on the good side of the wormhole. So will most of the Barrayaran Imperial Fleet. That wasn’t the original plan—the conspirators had hoped to unleash their weapon during the Emperor’s wedding when most of the Fleet and the Viceroy of Sergyar would be in Barrayaran local space. The Auditorial investigation and its tracking of their purchases has forced them to speed up their timeline. I would love to know more about Colonel Gibbs’s investigation—he is truly one of the unsung heroes of this story.

In captivity, Ekaterin and her aunt talk about the Maiden of the Lake, a Barrayaran folk tale about a woman who asked her brother to kill her rather than be defiled in an invasion that was expected but, it turned out, never came. The Maiden of the Lake seems to reflect Barrayaran nationalist cultural ideals; it’s all about virtue and it’s really depressing. There is something particularly depressing about stories in which someone gives up their life and it makes no practical difference to the outcome. That story very nearly was Ekaterin’s—she sacrificed a great deal in her marriage and it very nearly made no practical difference with regard to her effort to get medical treatment for Nikki. That was going nowhere until she left Tien. Even then, she was going to have to somehow get a judge or a count somewhere to give her the power to make medical decisions for Nikki. Auditors sure do come in handy. Ekaterin is a free agent now, and she can do as she likes. She likes a galactic Barrayar, and she wants to preserve its connections to the Galactic Nexus.

Back on Komarr, Miles and Professor Vorthys are trying to figure out what the device is for and where it might be. It might close wormholes. Alternately, it might not! It might be a perpetual motion machine. It might just be very destructive to objects near it in space. The uncertainty justifies Miles’s decision to conduct an involuntary fast penta interrogation of Professor Riva, Vorthys’s consultant on five-space math. Miles chose not to fast penta Madame Radovas, and chose not to demand that Tien land the lightflyer at the Waste Heat Experiment Station on their first tour. He’s been a smidge restrained—one might even say oversocialized—about his vast Auditorial powers. He finally gives in to his impulsive nature not to accuse Riva of a crime but to keep her from hiding what she’s thinking. Miles discovers what the device might do and where it is likely to be far too late to stop Soudha’s group from using it. He has to settle for an urgent call to Security on the jump station, and another one to Ekaterin telling her to get on any available transit out. And then he has to cross his fingers. Travel through wormholes doesn’t seem to take that long, but sub-lightspeed travel through local space is very tedious.

Miles is a little late to the party. While he’s working things out and sending incredibly slow urgent messages across the Komarran solar system, Ekaterin steals the remote control for the lift pallet the device is on, dodges her captors, locks herself in a control booth, and drops the novel device on the floor. It is very fragile. She only has to drop it once. It explodes when it hits the floor like her bonsai’d skellytum did when it hit the pavement. When we started Komarr, I said that Ekaterin had many reasons to flee Barrayar screaming. She still does, but it’s home. She loves it and wants to repair it. That’s why she makes gardens out of Barrayaran plants—a native flora that runs the gamut from toxic to useless—on her comconsole. The smashing of Ekaterin’s skellytum was like losing the parts of Barrayar that meant the most to her. The breaking of this thing is like sorting through the damaged bits of the plant to find some that might possibly grow.

And also it is a thrilling moment of destruction. Ekaterin’s enemies—in this case, the Waste Heat Embezzlement Team—are engulfed in chaos. They tried to stun her through the protective glass of the control booth (it didn’t work). All their work, the possibility that they would finally win the Komarran Revolt twenty years later, the destruction that Miles was so desperate to save Ekaterin and Professora Vorthys from, the looming threat of Barrayar’s return to isolation, is all shattered in no more time than it took to work out to controls on the remote for the lift pallet. Ekaterin leaves a garbled message for Station Security before the Komarrans break down the control booth door.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.


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