Still new to her duties as Lady Vorkosigan, Ekaterin is working together with expatriate scientist Enrique Borgos on a radical scheme to recover the lands of the Vashnoi exclusion zone, lingering radioactive legacy of the Cetagandan invasion of the planet Barrayar. When Enrique’s experimental bioengineered creatures go missing, the pair discover that the zone still conceals deadly old secrets.
After Enrique Borgos came up with a radiation-consuming form of butterbug (radbug), Ekaterin and Miles Vorkosigan arranged for him to try his ideas within a test plot inside the Vashnoi exclusion zone. They set it up, putting 200 radbugs into it. Upon visiting the site, however, they found the bug count was only around 100 - many were missing, with no hint as to where they'd gone.
To investigate what was happening, they put up cameras. This resulted in the discovery that an albino boy with pointed ears was stealing the bugs. Miles was busy and the ranger, Vadim Sammi, was off for the day, so Ekaterin and Enrique took a flyer by themselves to the site to try to find the boy. Soon after, they spotted a group of hobbled ponies; guessing them to be connected, they moved lower and spotted a dilapidated hut, supported about three meters from the ground by chopped tree trunks.
The house turned out to be empty of people, but Ekaterin and Enrique explored the area around it, discovering a kitchen garden, a small graveyard for mutie infants, some enclosures for animals, and a shed. This shed in turn contained the missing radbugs and a teen-aged girl, who promptly fled in terror. After allowing her time to calm down, Ekaterin walked over to her hiding place and began talking with her. In a short while, her foster-brother Ingi arrived, then Ma Roga and her natural son Boris did as well. The ranger Vadim Sammi eventually showed up as well.
Ekaterin learned that about thirty years ago, Ma Roga had been a member of the Vashnoi marauders, a bandit gang that was broken up and executed, leaving only herself. She'd returned to the Vashnoi exclusion zone to live there with her son Boris, and discovered a location where locals had been leaving their unwanted infants. She took to trying to raise them. Most died, but two who survived were Ingisi and Jadwiga; Jadwiga was a much-younger sister to Vadim, who had been keeping her under his eye the whole time.
Ma Roga did not take well to discovery and likely return to civilized areas; instead she tried to kill Boris, the children, and herself and burn down her hut. Ekaterin stunned her before she could carry out the deed.
Boris, Ingi, Jadwiga, and their ponies and goats ended up living at the Butterbug Ranch under the care of Martya and Enrique; Vadim was expected to be given a job there as well. Enrique made plans for a new generation of radbugs: sturdy, particularly nasty-tasting, and probably less attractive, that would burrow into the ground to bring up buried radioactive material.
Behind the scenesEdit
- The tale is strongly influenced by Russian fairy tales about the Baba Yaga.