It was a seven-day trip from Komarr to Sergyar, and Dr. Riva never suffered jump-sickness, so she got quite a lot of work done. Poor Yuell spent the whole week wan and sweaty, practically gray-green about the gills by the end of it; but Riva managed to wrangle the draft of her current paper into much better order, sort through her prospective graduate students for the coming year, edit syllabi for the ones she already had, and settle on Winterfair gifts for her youngest daughter’s children. Since emigrating to Barrayar, they had adopted the holiday, and even at one planet’s remove Riva found herself obligated to participate.
She also got a great deal of reading done.
Upon arrival, she handed a grateful Yuell off to the gentlest-looking nurse at the transfer station’s little infirmary; they had a few hours’ flight yet left to Sergyar proper, and the shuttle wasn’t due for some time. Unlike the sprawling, pieced-together Komarran transfer stations she knew best, Sergyar’s station was fairly uniform in build, and much more utilitarian-- no flower farms or tucked-away shopping arcades, here. This was a place where people waited for a few hours before they went on to the next great stage of their lives, and rarely ever returned to.
The people she saw were mostly new colonists: whole families with all their old-worldly possessions piled up on hitched-together chains of float pallets, often with squabbling flocks of children in tow. Some were in tow on the float pallets. She watched a small boy of no more than three run in wobbling elliptical loops around his patient older sister, who had tied a length of ribbon to his overall strap as a preventative measure, and considered orbital mechanics.
If the girl let go her end of the ribbon, in all likelihood the boy would find himself at the mercy of centripetal motion. His trajectory would carry him into the nearest pillar: smack! And then a flood of tears, no doubt, followed by soothing for the smaller one and scolding for the elder. Perhaps he would learn not to pull at his tether; perhaps she would learn to be a more securely-fixed point. Perhaps neither one would take a lesson from it at all. That seemed likeliest, in truth.
The shuttle, when it came, turned out to be reserved entirely for short-term visitors like Riva herself; the colonists, presumably, would be reaching their new homes by some other conveyance. Yuell, looking much more lively, sat across the aisle from her, and struck up a conversation with the Escobaran mathematician sitting beside him.
“Have you looked at the full guest list?” Riva heard her ask him. “I have to say, it shows real dedication to attracting top-notch talent.”
Yuell agreed. “I’m really looking forward to some of these presentations,” he said. “It’s clear that they’re not shy about showcasing cutting-edge work.”
Riva’s perusal of the guest listed had yielded the same conclusions, but what had drawn her notice more was the strict gender parity-- one hundred and forty-seven men, one hundred and forty-eight women, and five Betan hermaphrodites. And when she’d thought to check for planetary origins, she’d found no more than one in twenty native Barrayarans. The Vicereine of Sergyar was, clearly, a woman capable of making several statements at once.
Upon arrival, they found a great deal of activity: for a university that had not, technically, opened its doors yet, there still seemed to be a huge number of things going on at all times. Their accommodations were so newly-built that the hallways still smelled like fresh paint, and only about a third of the campus had even the skeletons of buildings standing yet. But there were still flocks of too-keen young people everywhere you looked, and a constant hum of construction noise that seemed to come from everywhere at once.
The latest version of the schedule was waiting, as well-- Sergyar, it seemed, was a place that didn’t like to lock itself into any one plan for too long without revision.
“There’s a mixer for prospective students on here,” said Yuell, in tones of horror. “They can’t expect us to spend a whole evening eating bad hors d’oeuvres with undergrads, can they?”
“Worse than that, I think,” said Riva. “They won’t even be undergrads yet, if they’re only prospective.”
Yuell shuddered visibly. He could be an awful snob, sometimes, when he didn’t have math to distract him.
The first morning of the symposium was blessedly undergrad-free, fortunately for Yuell. Instead Riva and the other the attendees heard a short speech from the Vicereine about how she intended to build up a galactic-class university here on Sergyar “--and one ought to start as one means to go on. So I’ve invited all the best minds that could be convinced to make the trip to the back of beyond--” this was met with a little polite laughter-- “and I intend to make it clear to the rest of the Nexus that this school will be a place where the scope of human knowledge is expanded. So please, don’t let me keep you: you’ve got expanding to do.”
There weren’t, actually, a huge number of five-space papers being presented. Most of the schedule was taken up with three-space engineering, agricultural science, new developments in terraforming-- even, daringly, a couple of Cetagandan geneticists, presenting their suggestions for cleaning up the much-abused Barrayaran genome. Riva and Yuell had a paper on the schedule, but she was letting him handle the presentation; she had other work to do.
The half-built campus was startlingly pretty, despite its unfinished state. There seemed to have been a concerted effort to keep mature trees in place, and non-native saplings filled the spaces where the previous residents could not have been spared. Sergyar had fairly mild seasons on this part of the planet, apparently-- or maybe it was springtime, because a great many things were blooming. It put Riva in mind of some of the nicer public gardens, back in Solstice. Only this was so much wilder and more sprawling, and there was a constant disconcerting breeze that made Riva, used to domes, expect to see a fan somewhere.
The five-space physics department would apparently be sharing an elegant, airy building with the engineers, surprisingly delicate-looking for something constructed of stone. It would be convenient, Riva supposed: one could theorize a technological refinement, then take it down the hall and see if it could be built. Currently, though, most of the building was an empty shell, waiting for walls and lights and ceilings. Someone would have to theorize its final form, and build it.
There were a few finished offices and conference rooms on the first floor-- or, at least, finished enough to use. The ImpSec man on duty just outside had an unfinished look to him, too, nearly as gangling as the future undergraduates milling about outside. He checked Riva’s credentials, took her thumbprint, and nodded stiffly when they met with his approval. “This way, Doctor,” he said, and ushered her in.
The conference room was just complete enough to use: walls still sheetrock, and plastic sheeting still taped to the windowpanes. But there was a comconsole, a long table with half-a-dozen chairs pulled up around it, a tray of small pastries and another of coffee things. And, seated in one of the chairs with her head bent over a stack of flimsies, the Vicereine of Sergyar.
She looked up when Riva entered, and smiled brightly. “This is excitingly cloak-and-dagger, isn’t it?” she asked. “Clandestine meetings are usually Miles’ line. I’m quite enjoying it.”
“If there’s a secret pass-phrase, I wasn’t told,” said Riva, smiling back. She knew it was meant to put her at ease, but it worked nonetheless.
“Hm,” said the Vicereine, putting on a considering expression as Riva sat down. “You’re right, we’ll need one. I think ‘the hexaped chimes at midnight’ has the correct air of mystery, don’t you?”
“Just about,” Riva agreed. “Though impossible wormhole energy’s enough mystery for me, usually.”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘impossible,’” said the Vicereine. She slid the stack of flimsies across the table to Riva. “Granted, my Survey days are far behind me, and I’m nowhere near caught up on the latest five-space research, but I’d only venture as far as ‘extremely improbable.’”
“Mm-hmm. That’s usually your safest best, in physics,” Riva said, but most of her attention was already on the flimsies, and if the Vicereine made any other remarks for the next little while, Riva missed them entirely.
After she’d read the stack through, and gone back to double-check a few of the most pertinent bits, she surfaced.
“I have to admit, I’m a little surprised,” she told the Vicereine. “I was expecting… well, a more martial focus. But I suppose I’m not cleared for that part of it.”
“There’s nothing to be cleared for,” the Vicereine said. “This may be the one instance where the oldest and most hidebound of our military minds are most-opposed to military applications of a new technology. But I think you’ll find that just about any Barrayaran would have the same instinctive horror at the thought of a wormhole collapser.”
“Then I’m surprised the research was continued at all,” said Riva. “Pleased, certainly. But surprised.”
“Too many other tempting possibilities, I suppose. Energy generation, of course. All sorts of potential for better understanding the deep structure of wormholes.” The Vicereine tugged a flimsy out of the stack-- ah, that had been one of the interesting ones. “And if you know how to take a wormhole apart, you might be able to build one.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Riva, already absorbed again.
“I’ll leave you to it,” said the Vicereine, but Riva only vaguely noticed her leave.
Yuell turned up at some point, after Riva’d sent for a couple of whiteboards and filled them and sent for a couple more. The pastries vanished, and the coffee, and more arrived from somewhere while Riva was walking furious laps around the unfinished part of the building. And then the Impsec man came in, interrupting a terribly interesting line of inquiry, and told them that the Vicereine had invited them to dinner.
With his jump-sickness only just abating, Yuell begged off, claiming the pastries and coffee had been more than enough. But Riva-- well, she was always curious, just in general, but when it came to the Vicereine she found she was curious in particular.
The Vicereine’s residence was only a short groundcar ride away, another stone building aiming for gravitas despite its relatively recent construction. A handful of the other conference attendees were there already. The food was good, the conversation fascinating-- or it would have been, had Riva’s head not been in five-space all the while.
After, most of the academics formed up into small knots of discussion. More than anything, Riva wanted an hour alone with a stack of flimsies and a rendering computer-- but a man in brown-and-silver livery appeared at her elbow, and murmured that the Vicereine would like a moment in the small parlor.
In the small parlor-- which made Riva wonder how big the large parlor must be-- the Vicereine was sitting with a younger woman. “My daughter-in-law, Ekaterin,” the Vicereine told her. “She’s here to look in on the landscaping, over at the university-- all her design, you know.”
From her overheard dinner conversation, Riva had assumed the woman was a botanist, or something in that line, on-planet for the conference. She didn’t think there was a polite way to say “Your husband fast-penta’d me once, but no hard feelings; he seemed very interesting socially,” so she settled for a polite handshake and exchange of hellos. The Count wasn't on Sergyar anyway, it seemed-- kept at home by District business, according to his wife.
“So what do you think?” the Vicereine asked, once they were settled again and sipping coffee. “Are we headed in the right direction?”
Riva glanced at Ekaterin, a little nervous-- ought she assume that all Vorkosigans held the same level of clearance? She’d never got the hang of Barrayaran feudal hierarchies, really-- but Ekaterin must have picked up on it. She smiled and said “Don’t worry. I was on Komarr for all that mess-- it was how I met Miles, in fact-- and while the math’s beyond me, I have some fairly close-at-hand experience with the subject matter.”
“Ekaterin’s being modest,” said the Vicereine, which elicited a fond eye-roll.
“It doesn’t take deep understanding of five-space physics to up-end a float cradle,” said Ekaterin. “Although it does make a very satisfying mess.”
Riva tried to recall what bits of information she’d been able to glean about the attempted wormhole collapser. She didn’t think float cradles had come into it, and she certainly didn’t remember Miles Vorkosigan’s future wife. But neither woman seemed inclined to provide the rest of that story, and after a moment they went on to the math.
“I think there’s some promise, especially in energy generation,” Riva said. “The trouble is fine-tuning. In theory it should be possible to build something that will send energy into a wormhole and only get slightly more energy back-- and not enough to destroy the whole apparatus. But in practice, the delicacy required-- well, it’ll be a challenge, certainly.”
The Vicereine nodded. “That was our conclusion, too. Theory’s one thing, but everyone’s very skittish, and any trials need to be done using wormholes that no one actually needs for anything important.”
“And then there’s the need for secrecy,” said Riva. “Which I do understand, to a point.”
“But only to a point, I think,” said Ekaterin. Riva recalled the Vicereine’s earlier words: any Barrayaran would have the same instinctive horror at the thought of a wormhole collapser. And there was certainly more trust between Barrayar and Komarr-- and even vice versa-- than there had been in years past. But there were limits to everything, it seemed.
“If I have my way, Sergyar’s going to be a major research center for wormhole physics,” said the Vicereine. “I know we’re a ways from that, but when the time comes, would you consider taking a position here? I know you’ve accomplished a great deal at Solstice, and I understand if you’d rather not give all that up, but you’d have whatever resources I can give you.”
“You should mention the other thing, though,” said Ekaterin. The Vicereine made an oh-if-you-must sort of face.
“It’s not official yet,” said the Vicereine, “but the school’s going to be named after my late husband. I know for some Komarrans, that would make it… difficult, at best, to accept a job offer here, or for students to consider applying.”
“For some, yes,” said Riva. “Not as many as there used to be.”
“And for you?” asked Ekaterin. She had lived on Komarr, Riva recalled. And her brief acquaintance with Ekaterin’s husband had given Riva the impression that the Butcher’s story had some key details left out, facts that had not mattered to the Komarr of Riva’s youth-- or to the Riva of Riva’s youth, for that matter.
Komarrans knew how to think in geologic timescales, when they had to: they could look at their planet and see it as it would be in a hundred thousand years. Ekaterin was a botanist, or something like it; someone, at any rate, who could look at the saplings planted on the university campus and see the shade they’d cast on students not yet born. Riva knew how rarely new physics came along, how unlikely it was that her lifetime would encompass such a chance.
“I’m going to have to think about it,” Riva said.
“Of course,” said the Vicereine.
Riva refused the offer of a groundcar back to her room, and walked instead. Everywhere she looked, something was blooming. There was too much sky overhead, and too many Barrayarans walking past, and too much history to forgive. But she was Komarran: she could see a hundred thousand years from now. She was a physicist: she could think in five-space, too. And both those things could be taught-- even to Barrayarans.
That might be what mattered most, in the end.