With this novella about one of Miles’ adventures as “Admiral Naismith” of the Dendarii mercenaries, Lois McMaster Bujold takes us to another planet in the Galactic Nexus, Jackson’s Whole, where everything is for sale, literally everything as long as the price is right. Think of a pirate den of old, but imbued with any kind of evil imaginable, and you will have a pale idea of what this place is: weapon sales, money laundering, genetic manipulation and creation of slaves “tailored” to one’s needs, no matter how base.
Miles’s mission consists in meeting with a geneticist who wants to leave his current employment and has been secretly recruited by Barrayar: under the cover of an arms sale, the Dendarii will spirit the scientist away and no one the wiser. Would it be surprising to learn that the operation does not work exactly to plan? After following a few of Miles’ capers, surprise need not apply any more…
First, the captain of Miles’ ship, the Betan hermaphrodite Bel Thorne, discovers that a Quaddie musician is being sold from one of the ruling Houses to another as if she were a piece of furniture: Quaddies are creatures engineered to live in microgravity environments and possess two sets of arms instead of arms and legs, and Nicol, the musician, strikes some deep chord in the Betan captain who wants to rescue her. Then Dr. Canaba, the fleeing geneticist, informs Miles that some of his precious research – stored for safety in the flesh of one of his creatures – must be recovered, and the subject, a failed experiment in the creation of super-soldiers, has been sold by Canaba’s former employers so that he refuses to leave without first retrieving what has been hidden in the “monster”.
Faced with a double rescue operation, and having to deal with the cut-throat barons of Jackson’s Whole, Miles end up as a prisoner of House Ryoval and thrown in the cellar where the super-soldier, werewolf-like creature turns out to be a young girl – two and a half meters tall, granted, and sporting vicious talons and fangs – but still a girl, lonely, hungry and forlorn. Quickly reassessing his plans, and feeling a great deal of kinship for the girl, Miles enlists her help for an escape plan and offers her a place with the Dendarii. Something else happens, but I will leave you to discover it on your own: suffice it to say that Taura – this is the name Miles gives her, instead of the old designation “Nine” used by the lab where she was created – and Miles make for an interesting team, and the juxtaposition between his craftiness and her bruised innocence is a delight to see.
Once again Ms. Bujold presents us with the dilemma of the consequences of genetic manipulation and here they are pushed to the limits when we are faced with literal trafficking of sentient beings: the decadent and corrupted mindset of Jackson’s Whole makes the Cetagandans’ biological tinkering look like child’s play, and their concept that everything can be sold, everything can be turned into profit, is beyond chilling. The request from Baron Ryoval for tissue samples from Bel Thorne, the Quaddie Nicol and even Miles shows how they are always looking to improve their sordid offer to a jaded public – and on this subject I must point out that the interest for Miles’ genetic material stood out for me in consideration of some future developments in the series.
Another angle is that of the extreme loneliness of these beings that were created for a necessity (the Quaddies, so they could operate in free fall), for a misplaced sense of freedom (the Betan hermaphrodites), or for warlike purposes (Taura and her now-deceased mates): no one could understand them better than Miles, whose disabilities have always kept him apart from others, so that his reaction to Nicol’s plea for help or Taura’s tale of woe is so strong and brings him to an act of retaliation that might be highly satisfying now but might come to bite him in the behind in the near future…
Labyrinth brings us a Miles Vorkosigan in splendid form and it’s a story where he has the opportunity to show not only his keen mind, but the depths of his heart, which is a great combination indeed.