2.1 A Dangerous Meeting (II)

The flight was uneventful. The soldiers remained helmeted; she saw no faces. Strapped into the small space of the shuttle there was very little to see at all.

Katja had never been in a ship of this sort. On her homeworld, of course, planet-to-orbit ships were launched by long, high-speed rail; on Metsenia, the only other world she had visited before her recent adventures, they launched like planes. Neither of these methods, however, were designed to maximize the speed of launch. This ship, however, was clearly designed to land and launch as swiftly as possible. There was the turbulent pressure of intense acceleration, liking sliding down a rocky hill in a barrel, then, suddenly it was like the barrel slid off the hill into the air, and suddenly all was weightless.

Katja had never been weightless, either; Sylven ships, adapted from basic Ylfae technology, reduced the feel of transition into space. The difference could be felt; one often had a sense of lightness. But you never stopped feeling down and up, and the transition from the natural vertical to the artificial was smooth. To start feeling weightlessness and drift was a new sensation, almost like a change of bodies. It was not a sensation she liked, and it make her nauseous. Later she was glad it did not go beyond the feeling of nausea; but at the time, the nausea was bad enough. Fortunately, some machine hummed and the sanity of the world was slowly restored.

Under her breath she said part of the sanalassa of Sickness:

 Sickness I know, a malevolent wind, 
daughter of death and seeping ill. 
Death itself was splashed upon a stone, 
re-formed like quicksilver, whole again, 
but drops remained, like mist on cold steel...

The sick feeling in the stomach remained, but it was no longer at the front of her mind. The greatest part of her discomfort consisted in nothing more than being crammed into a small box with a significant number of tightly packed armored men, one on each side of her and men directly across the way.

There were several jolts as the ship either changed its course or pushed itself up into a higher orbit, and by this point Katja was singularly unimpressed by the quality of Samthyrian technology; she felt like she was strapped to a leaf in gusting winds. Then there was a long period that seemed like nothing happened, and she was beginning to feel like her legs would atrophy if she did not stand up and walk around when there was a voice from an intercom: "Prepare for quarantine docking," it said in Samthyrian.

After the bumpy flight, Katja expected the docking to be equally crude, but it went quite smoothly; there was  no sensation at all before an announcement indicated that it had finished.

She was unceremoniously raised to her feet and pushed through the ship, through a hatchway, and then down a short corridor snugly fitting the hatchway. Down the short corridor, white-walled and blank, she went, through another hatchway, into a small decontamination room.

"Stand still," said the soldier who was doing all the guiding. So she stood still, at gunpoint, while the machines in the room did unspecified things.

A small box came out of a wall near her; it had a slot in it. "Put your hand in the slot," the soldier said.

Katja did not feel like putting her hand in a mystery slot, but she did not feel like being shot, either. She put her hand in the slot. Something grabbed her hand, and while she struggled against, she felt a sharp, quick prick in her finger; it continued to hold her hand, and then there was another pain, not quite like a prick, and it let it go. Katja stared at her hand for a moment; there was no blood, but by the slowly ebbing heartbeat-rhythmed pain she knew a blood sample had been taken.

A green light flashed, and she was moved down another short corridor into a room, dimly lit but as white-walled and blank as the corridors had been. A door was closed behind her. She was alone.

The trip from ship to cell had raised her heartrate and left her breathless. It took a moment for her nerves to settle down, and when she did, she leaned back against one of the blank, white walls, and with a very large sigh, sank down the wall to the floor.

She sat there, she knew not how long, until a slight cramping in the legs motivated her to stand and look around. At first glance, with nothing but white meeting the eye, the room had seemed just a smooth white box, but now that her wits were more about her, she found it to have much more texture. There were handholds in various places on the wall, no doubt for low-gravity situations, as with any properly designed spaceship. There were also small recesses that could be pressed. Pressing one led to a bed slowly folding outward from the wall; pressing another did the same with a vacuum toilet; pressing a third revealed what she at first thought was a drawer but which in fact turned out to be a shallow sink with a transparent top and an optional vacuum function, also for low-gravity situations. The sink sprayed a fine mist, pure water if one button was pressed and something water-like but soapy-smelling if another button was pressed.

On one side of the room, opposite that through which she had entered, she found a door, almost but not quite seamlessly flush with the wall, nearly invisible. There was, of course, no way to open it from this side. A small square on the door turned out to have the texture of glass. It was white and opaque, but Katja suspected electrically so; pressing a button or flipping a switch somewhere would likely make it transparent.

After all the exploration of the small space, Katja knew no more about the intentions of her captors, about the fate in store for her, about how she might fulfill her missions given that her first step in doing so had resulted her being locked in a room. Perhaps she had already failed. Perhaps she would be locked in this room for the rest of her life. Perhaps the rest of her life would be quite short. There was no way at that point to know for sure. But all the time exploring had been time that she had spent not worrying about such things, and as such she regarded it as time well spent. With nothing else to do, she lay down on the bed and tried, not altogether successfully, to take up some more time with sleep.

She lay there, staring at the ceiling, for a very long time.

At some point, while she was half-dozing, not quite asleep and yet without a waking presence of mind, she heard a noise. It took some time for it to register, but when she opened her eyes and looked for the source, she found a slot had opened in the door, like a drawer, and in the little drawer was a tray of food. More exploration: a nasty-tasting meaty bar that was also unfortunately spicy-hot, a stick of string cheese, and a cylinder that turned out to be a sort of spray for water, once she had spent several minutes figuring out how it worked and squirting herself in the face in the process. It was the worst meal she had had in a very long time.

She hummed a song from the Venahana. She recited to herself long sections of Sylevid. She ran through all the suuvo she could remember. She had not had her daily suvo since she had left the Island, and decided that this needed to change. So she settled on one:

Wise answers only patience can give;
for true answers one must first learn all.

 It seemed as good a fit for her situation as any.

She slept and was fed again, then slept again. In all this time she had seen no one, spoken to no one. Somehow it seemed almost worse than having a gun pointed at her, and she wondered for a while if the Tanaver and Samar had somehow made a mistake. The doubt and worry were perhaps more dangerous than anything else she had experienced in this universe.


2.1 A Dangerous Meeting (I)

There was no transit, no travel, no delay. Katja stepped through the Gates of Death and found herself in a long room that seemed to be a laboratory. A centrifuge steadily whirred in the corner. A faucet on the side of the room was dripping into a metal sink. Those were the only sounds, beside the sound of her own breathing and her heartbeat in her eyes.

"Hello?" she said uncertainly in Samthyrian, looking around. No one answered.

She had never really considered what she would find on the other side, but now that she was there, she realized that she had also never expected just to find herself in an empty room. There are few times in our lives in which we are truly without any idea what should, or even could, be done next. Katja had once met someone with serious and consistent problems with his short-term memory. If you set such a person in a familiar, information-rich environment, he can usually think of what to do; he will do the usually expected thing, or look around to see his options. But if you put him in a room with nothing but blank walls and close the door, he will stand in bafflement, perhaps frustration, in a room he cannot remember entering for a purpose he cannot discern and in which he has no discernible options. She began to have some notion how he might have felt. While Katja remembered everything that had happened recently, all of that was literally in another universe. She did not know where she was. She did not know why she was here, of all places. She could say nothing about the planet. She did not know whom she should contact, or how to contact them. It might as well have been blank walls in an unfamiliar room with no discernible future.

She sighed. Should she stay here and wait for someone? Should she go and try to find someone? Why did the Tanaver keep throwing her into unfamiliar situations? For that matter, why did she keep letting them do so?--As if she could stop them.--But that was hardly an excuse here, since they had asked her permission to throw her into a new universe for a mission for which she was woefully unqualified, and she had accepted.--But there was nothing to do, in any case. "A dangerous meeting," Kubiri had said, and now she had no options but to go and try to find it.

All this puzzlement about what to do next, however, was wasted, for the matter was decided for her. Before Katja had even finished arguing with herself, before she had been able to take more than a step from the point where she had been standing, the doors at both ends of the room burst open and men poured through them. They were dressed in black from head to toe, with helmets on their heads and objects in their hands that were very clearly some kind of terrible weapon. Katja put her hands in the air, with one hand still holding her bag, and tried to collect her thoughts -- so difficult to think clearly in a foreign language when there are men with guns suddenly surrounding you!

She tried to say something, but was beaten to it. "Who are you?" someone shouted at her. She tried to say something again, but the response was apparently not swift enough. "Who are you? What did you do to the rest?"

"I am Katja Ilkaiomenen," she said in a rush, trying to get it out before they shouted at her again. "I am with the Tanaver, I...."

"Who are you?" someone shouted again. But this time it was a boon, because all of a sudden Katja remembered that Kubiri had said she must make something clear from the beginning.

"I come with the cure! For the plague you are facing!"

They did not shout at her again, but one of the soldiers -- for such she supposed they were -- said, "What do you mean, the cure?"

"I am Katja Ilkaiomenen, I am the ambassador for the Tanaver Alliance. We want to provide assistance in your struggle with Symbiosis. I have the cure."

The soldier who had spoken last, snapped an order to one of the others -- not, it was not an order, he was saying the man's name, Samuel -- and that soldier stepped up and waved at her something that was, to her relief, not gun-like.

"None of the external signs," he said. Then, to Katja, sharply. "Put your bag on the table. Remove your belt, put it on the table. Slowly!" When her hand moved down, he snapped even more sharply, "Slowly!"

She complied, and he waved his device over both, and then opened the bag and waved his device over the contents.

"Samuel!" the authoritative soldier said.

"Nothing explosive that I can find, but for the rest, I have no idea, sir. It needs to be analyzed."

"Yohan, keep an eye on her." One of the soldiers with an especially nasty-looking weapon stepped up and pointed it at her. "Bachir, alef-one quarantine, high alert. Let's get off this insane planet." Then, raising his voice, he said to the whole room, "Moving out!"

And they moved out, Katja at Yohan's gunpoint. A dangerous meeting, she thought to herself. Do not enter except with courage, she thought to herself. Right roads, she thought to herself. But if it happens that there was an acidic edge to these thoughts, perhaps no one will blame her.

They pushed her steadily, and not quite gently, through empty halls and past empty rooms, across an empty courtyard and down an empty stairway and through more empty halls with empty rooms. The emptiness was not silent, however, and that made it all the more uncanny. It was as if the entire complex had been busy just minutes before everyone had vanished into thin air. Machines dinged and whirred off in the side rooms. In many of the rooms and in some of the halls screens hung on the wall, flashing pictures and murmuring conversations to no one at all. Somewhere in the distance a bell was ringing, and ringing, and ringing. All of the hustle and bustle and hurry and flurry of civilized life went on, noisier and more active, in fact, than any Sylven building ever would be, but here there was no one living any of it.

Once, and only once, was there more, and that was outside. They had come out into bright, sweltering sunlight, sticky and humid, and Katja, who was wearing her original snowgear, found it disorienting. She stumbled down the steps and slipped to the grown. As one of the men helped her to her feet, she saw it off to the side.

It was a man, or what was left of a man. He had dark brown skin with jet black hair and was wearing a uniform of some kind whose original color had been light blue. But his face and arm were covered, and his uniform soaked, with blood that was drying but not yet dried. He had been ripped open, and one of his arms were missing.

Katja gagged and put her hand over her mouth as the soldiers pushed her forward. It was several minutes afterward, away down the road, when she was finally able to choke out, "What did you do to him?"

One of the soldiers, she thought the one that had been giving the orders before, turned to give her a long look, but no one answered her question.

Down the road they went, then left across a field. The grass was thick and green. It was dotted liberally with a daisy-like flower, white ray florets in a halo around yellowish disc florets, which for some reason would particularly stick in Katja's mind for days to come. It was an idyllic scene, contrasting with the sick feeling she had inside, and everything seemed to stand out too much, crowding the attention. They soon came to a ship in the middle of the field, with a few soldiers managing what looked like some kind of mounted gun. Up the ramp they went, with the mounted guns being stowed away with surprising speed behind them. The door closed. The ship lifted off.

Katja hoped that they would not kill her. How sad and absurd it would be to fail my mission entirely within an hour of having stepped through the gate, she thought.--Kubiri had said that she had been chosen for it because she could do it. He had warned her it would not be immediately easy, but she could do it.--That was comforting.

But she still hoped that they would not kill her.


1.12 The Gates of Death (II)

They soon docked at another space station.

"Here we are at the Tanaver system," said Kubiri. "We're in orbit above the third planet, the planet Tanaver. The second planet is the Chaktai planet."

"Does this station have an elevator like the last one did?"

"Not exactly," said Kubiri. He opened a door and gestured for Katja to go through it. She did.

And found herself suddenly standing on a platform, which in turn was on a tall cliff overlooking a sea full of waves. She froze, uncertain what had happened.

"Not much like an elevator, is it?" asked Kubiri, who was now standing beside her.

After a second or two of trying to speak, she finally managed to say, "How is this even possible?"

"The Tanaver have a somewhat great discretion about which laws of space and time they will obey than the rest of us do," said Kubiri. "Or, to put it in other words, even the Samar do not know. These things happen on occasion. Telepathy should be impossible, and yet the Chaktai have it. Who knows what else they have; there are times when they seem capable of ten impossible things at a time. We do not know how Zezai consciousness maintains itself. And as for the Tanaver, they know all the loopholes in all the laws of nature, it seems. We know that there is something they do with the Portals to make them more temporally coherent than they should theoretically be. We do not know what it is. We Samar can build Portals ourselves, but we cannot, and perhaps could never, make them work on the scale the Tanaver do. And this place...," he turned and gestured at the building behind them, a great building of domes and spires. "The name of this place in Simplified Samar is the Palace of Wonders, and it lives up to its name. Come along; we need to finish getting you set.

They practiced more of the Samthyrian language as they walked. Their footsteps and their discussion made echoing sounds as they went along. The whole place seemed deserted. They passed many rooms that were completely empty and many others that were empty except a table or a cabinet. They walked a very long time, until Kubiri finally stopped before yet one more room, this one empty except for a table with a large box on it.

"I believe this is the one," he said. He went in and opened the box. "Yes, this is very definitely the one." He pulled out a sheet of paper and read it.

"These are final instructions," he said. "First of all, you must understand that the Samthyrians are facing a severe and demoralizing plague. Therefore your xenium to them, your ambassadorial gift to show them that you come in good faith, is medicine for it. It is simultaneously vaccine and cure." He pulled out a belt with little vials in it and a little leather box, also filled with vials. "You should put the belt on, and you should put the box in your bag. It is important that you do not lose them before you can give them to the Samthyrians. Also, you must make very clear from the beginning that you come with the cure, and you should expect them to be suspicious of you until they are able to prove for themselves that you are right.

"Second, part of what you will be negotiating is military assistance. You will receive more information about this later, but the initial assistance will consist simply in intelligence." He pulled out a little stick. "This is the information, adapted for their computer systems. It is important that you not lose it and that it only come into the hands of the Samthyrians, and no one else.

"Third, the ideal goal will be for them to sign on to the Alliance Charter; information on that treaty is also found with the intelligence. Look for any honest means you can to persuade them not merely to be allies but members of the Alliance.

"Fourth, as other strands come together, further representatives and assistance will come to you, but you will largely be on your own at first, and your primary goal should be simply to establish good will. The Tanaver will also contact you when they deem it possible to do so without risking the danger of conflict between the Tanaver and their counterparts before the Tanaver are capable of assessing the situation fully.

"And Fifth." Kubiri looked very grave. "This is, again, a dangerous meeting. If you can win their trust the Samthyrians will treat you well. But there is a danger that you will be captured by Symbiosis, who are the agents used by the Tanaver's counterparts. If they do so, you may be tortured, and you may die. The Tanaver do not consider either of these a likely possibility, but their assessments of probabilities are not as accurate as they usually are, because they do not usually have to account for the interference of someone like themselves. You are not to make any concessions to or deals with Symbiosis; they will not honor any deals you make, because they must ultimately answer to a coercive force greater than they can resist, who will not care about treaties and agreements. You must hold the line, and you must represent the Alliance to the full extent of your ability. You are to resist to the full extent you can. One reason a Sylven was chosen is that you are used to resisting the kinds of temptations that Symbiosis will extend; you were chosen because you could, if you choose to do so. That is precisely what you must do, for while the plans of the Tanaver will not fall apart if you fail, your failure would force others into positions of great sacrifice."

He set the paper down. "As for the rest, you have full discretion as plenipotentiary envoy of the Alliance. You are the direct representative of the Tanaver and speak for them in all things. You have also been designated a representative by the Chaka Council of Threefold Mothers and by the Samar High Council; you may make any decisions on their behalf that you deem fit, always subject to the understanding that any agreements you make are provisional and subject to review. And that is all the information I have." He regarded her carefully. "Are you ready?"

Katja sighed. "I am wondering what I have gotten myself into," she said. "But yes, I believe I am."

"Then follow me."

He led her down the hall again, past many empty rooms. They went down stairs, then down more stairs, then through another long corridor, then down more stairs, until they came to a very large room that had nothing in it but an archway. It was solid and black and shiny, as if basalt had suddenly somersaulted out of the ground. You could not look through the archway. It was pitch black, like a starless midnight, differentiated from the basalt of the arch only by its lack of shine. Katja grew cold looking at it.

On the archway something was written in letters like runes, and Katja asked Kubiri what they meant.

He looked up at them a moment and said, "They are Chaka, a very old dialect." He pulled out his tablet, and tapped it for a while, then said, "The translation is something like, Here Our Mother has set Her doors. Do not enter except with courage.  These are the Gates of Death."

At that phrase Katja stopped, frozen in place, chills at th base of her spine and her heart beating in her ears. She had to force herself to breathe.

"I do not know if I can do this, Kubiri."

"You have been chosen because you can."

She took a deep breath. "Well," she said to herself in Sylven, "I suppose it is too late now to run away." She looked down at Kubiri. "What do I do?" she asked in Simplifed Samar.

He smiled slightly, lips pushed out in the Samar way, and adjusted his fedora. "You just walk through," he said. "The Tanaver will take care of the rest."

Then he put his hands out in a way that she knew too well, and she felt a sharp pang in her heart, and a slight sting in her eyes. "Katja Ilkaiomenen," he said, "the Universes are vast, and it is likely that we will never meet again. But if you should ever be in the Samar system of Nibiru, visit if you can the dome of Harsan-Narsidya on the sixteenth moon of the second gas-giant. If you ask for me, the people there will know who I am, and send you my way, if I am there. And if you can find me, we will look at all the sights of the domes, which were built by my father and mother, and visit the tomb of my grandparents, where flowers always grow in splendor on that moon where no flowers naturally grow. We will sit beside it and look at the stars, and there on the edge of infinity, we will speak of beautiful things."

By the last phrase a single tear had escaped Katja's attempt to hold them back, and she bent down and hugged him. "Thank you for everything, Kubiri."

"It was a pleasure and an honor."

"What will you be doing now?"

"I am supposed to go work out a resource distribution system for a satellite system for the Ops. Then I should have a vacation period to go home, assuming no emergencies arise."

"That should be nice."

Kubiri pursed his lips and his eyes twinkled. "There is another old Samarisk proverb that translates roughly as 'There is always an emergency'. I will be lucky to have a few hours of it. But the thought is what counts."

Katja felt herself smiling, and it was a relief to smile. "Do you have any last-minute advice?"

"Only the advice I always give. You may represent the Tanaver, but it is not your task to do their work for them. Your task is to find the beautiful action and do it, find the beautiful word and say it, find the beautiful life and live it. If you fail at that, no other success will be enough. But if you succeed at that, you have succeeded indeed, no matter what the universes throw at you."

She nodded and walked slowly toward the archway. Before she was quite there, she looked back at Kubiri, who waved. Then Katja took a deep breath again. "Right roads," she said, and, steeling herself, she walked through the Gates of Death into another universe.


1.12 The Gates of Death (I)

After a long bath (she indulged, and figured that she had a right to indulge at this point), Katja met with Kubiri and Sunaram for a quick lunch. Then, as Katja and Kubiri prepared to leave, Kubiri and Sunaram said their farewells.

Sunaram: "Kubiri and Katja! The Universes are vast, and it is likely that we will never meet again. But if you are ever on the Samar world of Samtana, and can visit the Island of Orva, which has beaches of pink shell and clear waters with just the faintest hint of blue, then find the little village on the northeastern shore, where the great rocks rise out of the sea, casting up their seaspray. Then ask for me, Sunaram, and if I am there, we will spend a day on the beach, watching the children play in the waves. We will listen to their songs weaving with the rush of the tide and we will speak of beautiful things."

Kubiri: "Sunaram, the Universes are vast, and it is likely that we will never meet again. But if you should ever be in the Samar system of Nibiru, take a shuttle to the sixteenth moon of the second gas-giant, and visit the domes there, which are sometimes called Harsan-Narsidya. Ask for Kubiri, and if you can find me, we will go out to the Tower of the Crystal Flats, and from there look out upon the sparkling and crystalline fields as the planet, with its great rings, rises in the sky; and as we watch, we will speak of beautiful things."

And then they were off. Not staying in one place was starting to be second nature.

Katja and Kubiri practiced more of the language. It was slowly becoming more clear, but it was not easy. It was like having learned a language long ago, so long ago that it had been forgotten, and then being exposed to it once more. What seemed like gibberish at first slowly began to make sense, as first one phrase then another sounded familiar, and the phrases slowly came together to make some sense, although sometimes they did not. It took effort. She had to concentrate to follow the sounds. But it was like have a natural talent for the language. She also found that she could speak it, although it was in short, fragmentary phrases at first, and the sounds of the language were very difficult to make. Some of the consonants had to be coughed more than spoken.

When she tired of that, they talked of various other things. At one point, she asked, "Kubiri, do all Samar always wear hats?"

To which Kubiri replied, "Let me put it this way. There is an old Samariska proverb about the importance of always remembering the essentials that translates roughly as, 'The world may be falling down, but don't forget your hat.'"

They also talked about the mission.

"I have been looking at the data for the particular society in question," said Kubiri, opening his tablet. "We have received information from the Limmer, who have been monitoring it. It is very partial and often approximate, but some things can be said about it." He turned the tablet toward her and showed her a screen consisting entirely of a series of numbers in various colors.

"This," he said, "is the Samthyrian Empire. This first number here indicates that it, like the Syylven, approaches being a single-species civilization -- 'approaches' because there are often incidental species, pets and domestic work animals and so forth, who are partially integrated into the civilization. This next string of numbers has the biological defaults for the civilization. As I mentioned before, they are very similar to the Syylven; we do not have precise information, but on all points where we do have information, they are indistinguishable from your species, and so can be classed as secondary ylfoids. The next series of numbers are basic information about their economic system -- as with the Syylven it is primarily a money economy, but it has a much smaller credit component and much greater gift and barter components, making it a bit more like the Samar economy than the Sylven economy is. The next series indicates political structures, which, despite being an Empire, are mostly decentralized and weak; a large amount of self-governance and government by consensus is expected, and where more is needed, one would expect it usually to be provided by the local government rather than the central government. It is a federal commonwealth system with personal union in an Emperor, a supreme governing body, superior even to the Emperor, and a complex system of contractual and hereditary allegiances. Then this whole long series of numbers gives general information about its custom and culture. The thing that stands out most is that its customs and cultures tend primarily to be timarchical, honor-based. Part of what makes it stand out is the next series of numbers, which give us estimated population and a rough picture of the distribution. I can see why the Tanaver would find it an interesting and distinctive society; it is a galaxy-wide empire of secondary ylfoids with a highly unified timarchical culture."

"Is that unusual?" said Katja, who hadn't recognized some of the words Kubiri had used, and had to guess about several others based on roots.

"'Unusual' is not the right word. It's theoretically impossible. Ylfae and other primary ylfoids are capable of coherent societies on a massive scale, but while you secondary ylfoids have many virtues, large-scale coherence is not generally one of them. They tend to have difficulty even getting out among the stars, much less spreading across a galaxy. Secondary ylfoids would not ever be expected to achieve a civilization that large without active assistance, which seems to be lacking here. And if they did achieve it, one would expect it to begin disintegrating within a generation or two, but this has been long-term, with only minor scuffles. And even if they did achieve a civilization this extensive, and even if they did manage to keep it for generations, it should not have a culture this coherent. Relative isolation of one part from another would on its own lead to significant deviations; while honor-based segments would survive, one would expect that the bulk of the culture would break down into something based more on a mix of profit or pleasure. I cannot even imagine the mechanisms that would result in an honor-based culture this sophisticated. The sheer energy and effort that would have to go into maintaining it even against ordinary random drift boggles the mind. Mystery upon mystery; it is a society that should not exist. I suspect we are missing some crucial information. But, if this information is even roughly accurate, it bodes well; they are suspicious of strangers, but are unusually xenodochial, almost at Samar levels. If you can win their trust at first, things should go quite well."

Katja did not understand all of that, either, but she had been struck by a thought. "Tell me," she said, "do you have a dossier like this on the Syylven?"

Kubiri drew back a bit and looked at her carefully. Then he said, "Yes, we do. We have dossiers on all Protectorates and all Wards that fall under Samar jurisdiction throughout the Seven Universes."

"What does ours say about us?"

"It is usually not considered wise," Kubiri said slowly, "to speak with the members of the civilization in question about their civilization's file. Most civilizations cultivate illusions about themselves that become painful to uncover. And the information is often at only a very general typological level; what is typical can freely admit of significant deviations, and thus is not usually of much personal use for anyone within the civilization itself."

He considered. Finally he said, "But in this case I think we can make an exception." Without turning the tablet around, he navigated to another screen, also full of numbers in an array of colors. "This is the Syylven. You know, of course, your basic biological defaults, but two things are particularly noticeable, that distinguish the Sylven from other species of this general type. The first is manual and somatic dexterity; you are very good on the latter and excel even the Samar at the former. You are tool-users in an eminent degree. This combines with your neurophysiology in a very effective way: you are tool-makers as well as tool-users. With this kind of profile, it would be almost impossible for you not to have an extensive tool culture; so much so that you probably don't even notice the full extent to which you make and use tools. While there would be a great deal of variation, you will, under almost any circumstances, be a society of technicians. The second feature is that your neurophysiology is such that you are almost incapable of separating abstract thought from imagination."

"That sounds bad," said Katja.

"It is not. You are perfectly capable of abstract thought, it's just that it would be constrained by a very strong association with thought about sensory information, and not highly detachable, as it is with, say, the Samar. The typical Sylven would be better at working through tangible problems than very abstract problems; and probably would find intensive abstract thought very tiring and unpleasant. However, a certain sort of semi-abstract thought would fit your neurophysiology very well: you are born storytellers, and would have a very high degree of narrative comprehension, at least in general. Combined with your tool use, we can already form a rough sketch of your scientific progress: the typical Sylven would have a strong preference for mechanical explanations over other kinds of explanation -- mechanical explanations, of course, are at base stories that treat the universe like a set of tools, and what is more, they are stories, you can use to make more tools. You would have a strong tendency to rely on experimental conjecture and trial-and-error testing. A more abstract-minded culture would proceed more deliberately, working out the abstract theory on a much greater scale at a much faster speed, and would tend to be far more selective about their experimental work. But the Syylven would probably require extensive experimentation even to work out the implications of many of their theories. This makes scientific progress extremely resource-intensive, and thus subject in a high degree to economic constraints. You would tend to jump to implications by analogy rather than by any sort of rigorous path. You would do fairly well, but there are things completely out of reach of such an approach. The Syylven are capable of a wide range of social structures, but in all of them one would expect a large number of Syylven to have difficulty distinguishing  their private interest from the common good, and a yet larger number to have difficulty preferring the common good to their private interest even when capable of distinguishing them. Your societies would be highly vulnerable to usurious pathologies -- what is the Sylven phrase? 'Trying to get something from nothing.' It would appeal to your story-telling natures and to your weakness in abstraction, and would create an extraordinary tendency to self-destruction."

Katja felt deflated after this, particularly since she was certain that diplomatic Kubiri was avoiding some of the harsher things he could have said.

Kubiri must have noticed, because he smiled his Samar smile and said, "You see, you should not encourage me so much on these matters; once I get started it turns into a lecture, and who wants to be lectured? You must keep in mind that we can only track general tendencies and typical profiles: there would be considerable statistical spread on most of these things. The background profile would lead one to expect that you were completely bound to one system, but we see that this is not the case; you are a space-faring civilization. And these things are more sources of puzzles than answers. For instance, drawing."


"Yes. From what I've been able to see of your civilization, drawing is not an extensive part of your culture or your education. That is strange. It should be almost natural to you; you have the right hands, the right brains, for it. And it is a very useful skill, suitable for everything from art to scientific study to drafting. It should be an extensive part of your lives, like singing is for the Samar. But although I looked explicitly for it when I was researching your culture before I had met you, I saw no evidence of it. Do the Sylven draw much?"

"No," said Katja slowly. "I don't think we do. I certainly don't."

"You see? It is a puzzle. There must be some impeding cause that is not showing up in our data. That is the way of things. No Samar would dare rely on this sort of information to give more than a general idea of the kinds of solutions that might be most suitable to your society in general, and the kinds of problems that one would probably have to take care to avoid in those solutions. This can be useful information. But in the end the only way to get things done is to take things as they are rather than as you expect them to be; no matter how excellent one's data, no matter how rigorous one's simulations, there are always things that slip through the net."


1.11 Pavilion (II)

They ascended the stairs and Sunaram led Katja around the Pavilion to a place where the base jutted out so as to be surrounded by sand on three sides. Sunaram opened her tablet and tapped it a few times with her finger. Then she said, "It should be ready now. You will have to be at the end of the platform. I recommend that you sit rather than stand; it might be disconcerting, and you wouldn't want to fall off."

Katja did as she was told. The horizon was a ruddy, hazy smudge of color. As she was wondering what would happen next, she suddenly realized that the smudge was becoming bigger. It was not just the color of the atmosphere, but a very different thing entirely: a sandstorm. A low buzz began to permeate the air.

"What is that?" Katja shouted, pointed to the oncoming storm.

"That is the Zezai!" shouted Sunaram. "It will not harm you! Try to stay calm!"

The buzzing grew louder, then even louder. Katja's heart was pounding in her ears. The sandstorm was delineated more sharply now; its edges did not taper off but were continually curling back into it. It drew closer, and the buzzing intensified. There was a feeling of electricity in the air.

It was only a few seconds more when Katja realized that hte sandstorm was not a sandstorm, or at least was not only a sandstorm. There was a reason for the buzzing, because the storm was a storm of insects as much as one of sand. The buzz was the endless serrated rasp of little flying creatures swarming like locusts. A breeze blew some of the storm in her face, stinging her eyes; she closed them and felt the wind pick up around her, gritty and rough. The insects did not, as she had feared they were, swarm all over her, but they did occasionally bump into her during flight. It was like being in the middle of a cloud of gnats. She closed her eyes tighter. She was squeamish about insects and the gnat-like swarm was giving her creepy-crawly chills. It is possible that she would have screamed, if she hadn't been so afraid of getting a mouthful of them.

The wind picked up; she felt coated with dust, and the buzzing was very loud, but the insects seemed to touch her less and less frequently. It was hard to breath without coughing, and she would only cough with her mouth clenched closed, so she occasionally felt like she was choking. Then the wind picked up more, but felt less gritty. The buzzing grew quieter and quieter, until finally it sounded faint and far away. She cautiously opened one eye a tiny slit and, when it seemed safe, she opened them entirely. Everything seemed as it had been except that she was covered head to toe with a fine coating of dust.

She felt a touch on her shoulder and started, but it was only Kubiri. They had brought a mobile cot down the platform. Katja tried to stand, but found herself suddenly very wobbly. With Kubiri's help she climbed into the cot.

"Don't ever make me do that again," she told Kubiri woozily. As they moved her back inside, she drifted off to sleep.

As she slept, she had another version of the dream. A great metallic reached out and pulled her from her surroundings into a bright sunny field. She looked around and saw the Vine God.

"Hello," she said.

"Katja Ilkaiomenen," he said. "Your mind is more clear, but you are not quite ready for me." As he spoke he became a burning fire, then the whole scene shifted, and where the Vine God had been, the Weeping Woman stood.

"Who are you?"

"You are almost ready," the Weeping Woman said. "But you are not ready." She became a fountain of water, which then flooded everything. But almost as soon as it had, it receded, and she was back in the sunny field with the Vine God.

Katja looked around her, deep in thought. Then she said, "You are a Tanaver."

The Vine God smiled. "I am being what I am," he said. "But 'Tanaver' is a name that some call it." Fire, then Weeping Woman.

"And you are a Tanaver, as well?" asked Katja.

"Katja Ilkaiomenen," she said, "I have already told you." Water, then Vine God.

"You are all the same Tanaver?"

"You are not ready to understand. But you may say that I am one Tanaver, if you wish to say it, and you would not be wholly wrong." Fire, then Weeping Woman.

"What would be the right way to say it?"

"It is not saying but being that is knowing," said the Weeping Woman. "Yet sometimes words are not wholly wrong." Water, then Vine God.

Katja felt tired, but she said, "I have a great many questions."

"One good question puts to flight every answer," said the Vine God. "Thus one may grow more wise, by undoing all answers. But even so, who will be so foolish as to cast aside answers if they are not yet wise enough to understand the lack of them? You are not yet ready." Fire, then Weeping Woman.

"When will I be ready?" asked Katja.

"When your speech is not so confined by words, and when your mind is both waking and dreaming whether you are awake or dreaming," said the Weeping Woman. Then the water flooded everything. Instead of feeling like she was drowning, however, it felt calm and quiet, like being suspended in darkness. She could breathe in and out easily. Her mind drifted on to other things.

When she woke, she felt a bit groggy; her sinuses were not acting quite right. She sat up and looked around. Sunaram and Kubiri were on the other end of the room, sitting cross-legged and facing each other on something like a divan, talking animatedly about simulation variance in unstable societies, or something that sounded like that. Katja went to the sideboard for a few crackers and joined them.

"How are you feeling?" Sunaram asked as she walked up.

"A little sick," she said, "but not very bad. How long was I asleep?"

"A very long time," said Kubiri; "much longer than you usually do."

Sunaram pulled open her tablet and tapped it a few times. She then took the stylus and waved it in Katja's direction, watching her tablet the whole time. "It looks like it might be taking," she said. "I am not deeply familiar with this kind of technology, or Sylven physiology, but your body seems to be accommodating it." She nodded at Katja then looked at Kubiri, who opened his tablet.

"Tell me if you understand the following sentence," he said. And then a whole stream of unfamiliar sounds came out of his mouth. They were not Samar words, and they were not very much like Sylven words.

"I have no idea," said Katja. "Did it not work?"

"It doesn't work like that; full languages cannot be inserted into your brain, because that would require completely restructuring it, and, as each brain is self-developing, it would have to be in a way consistent with the particular structure of your particular brain. What the Zezai have done is to give your brain something to interact with. But the two systems have to learn to communicate with each other, or, in other words, your brain has the integrate the Zezai system in its own way."

"She probably needs some longer passages at first," said Sunaram.

Kubiri looked at Katja. "If you feel that you could stand to be gibbered at in another language for a while, we could certainly do that."

"Why not," said Katja. Kubiri gestured at a chair nearby, and she sat in it. The back was too short, but otherwise it was very comfortable.

Kubiri tapped his tablet a few times and then began. It was a vigorous language, less soft than Sylven, with more and harsher consonants, and yet at the same time it was less crisp, seeming to drawl a bit. It would not be as good as Sylven for singing, but it would make for forceful oratory. The syllables went past like a rolling river, full of currents and alliterative rapids that occasionally became crashing cataracts of consonants. She closed her eyes and began drowsing off. The colors behind her eyes shifted and swirled, becoming not-quite-images that shifted too quickly to grasp. Suddenly she started awake.

"Wait," she said, 'did you just say that the snake was kneaded into the dough?"

Kubiri regarded her with surprise and then began tapping his tablet. "I only have the phonetics here, but I should be able to call up at least an approximate translation." He read for a moment and then said, "Yes, that is exactly what I said."

"Then something is working," she said.

"Then we are finished here," said Sunaram.

"Tell me," said Katja, "is there anywhere here where I can shower?"

"No," said Sunaram. "But we do have a pool for bathing."

"That would be amazing."

Kubiri thrust out his lips in the Samar smile. "Then I suppose we are not quite finished here."


1.11 Pavilion (I)

It was a jarring experience. The first two features of the experience, heat and light, came as shock. It was extraordinarily warm, like standing in front of an oven. And the light was all wrong. The color of the world was orange-red, somewhat burned in tone, heavy and thick and dull; it was an active orange-red, not merely laying on the surface things but leaping out everywhere into the air. Red fierceness. It tired the eyes.

They stood in what seemed like a large circular temple with large pillars, standing upon a vast expanse of sand. It looked like it was open air, but every so often a cloud of dust stirred up by the wind would blow inward and be stopped by what seemed like a shimmer in the air. The Pavilion itself seemed to be made of massive blocks of sandstone, with swirling patterns of red, yellow, and orange, although perhaps some of the color was due to the harsh light. But it was perhaps not sandstone at all, for as Kubiri and Katja walked across the platform, the wall of the central portion of the Pavilion rippled. The rippling was not quite like water; but if you imagine a much more viscous substance into which a stone has been dropped, leading to small waves moving slowly outward, it was like that. It made the whole building seem to be a living thing.

They walked around. The Pavilion seemed to be deserted, and there was nothing there to indicate that anyone had ever been there at all.

"Didn't you say there was supposed to be someone to meet us?" Katja asked.

"Yes," said Kubiri. "Perhaps they are out for the moment."

Almost as if in answer, the wall immediately behind him began to ripple, first gently, then violently, and then to pull apart completely, like wet paper. But the tear was more regular than you would get with wet paper, and it soon formed a pointed arch. Out of the opening stepped a Samar.

This Samar, green-eyed, was slightly tawny in color with a saffron-colored caftan, and a three-peaked hat. Unlike every other Samar Katja had seen, this one's hat was tilted straight back on the head, rather than to the side. Like all Samar, she had a closed tablet strapped to her wrist.

"Greetings," the Samar said, then gave the typical unpronounceable Samar name, followed by, "but I am called Sunaram. I am Samar Ambassador to the Zezai." The voice was not as resonant and rich as the voices of the Samar Katja had met before. It was thinner, but still had a melodious quality to it.

"Greetings, Sunaram," said Kubiri. Then he introduced himself with his name and his short-name, and then gestured at Katja. "This is Katja Ilkaiomenen, who is called Katja." He turned to Katja. "Sunaram is one of our greatest diplomatic minds. She is perhaps the foremost expert in practical xenosociology in all the universes."

"You are too kind," said Sunaram.

"Not at all," said Kubiri. "I have closely studied your work on social negotiation among the species of Involescence. It is some of the greatest work of our day. And your modal decision algebra for incommensurable utilities has saved me from many a potential mistake in complicated negotiations."

Sunaram bowed, clearly delighted. "It is heartening to know that someone has found it useful," she said. "One often wonders...." she stopped a moment, looking thoughtful and began to hum a moment. Then she said, with barely suppressed excitement. "You are the Kubiri who presented on the use of generalized error statistics in simulation epistemology for the Diplomatic Logic Society!"

Now it was Kubiri's turn to bow. "A youthful work, I am afraid," he said, "and insignificant compared to some of the advances that have been made recently by Nakiri of the High Council and others."

"Do not understate the significance of that presentation!" Sunaram protested. "Without it I could not have done much of my work with Involescence!"

Kubiri opened his mouth to say something, but then suddenly checked himself and gestured at Katja. "I fear we will be boring our colleague here with shop-talk."

"Of course," said Sunaram. "Many apologies! The two of you should come inside."

This they did, and the wall closed almost like a zipper behind them. The light inside was much less harsh, and much more like the sunlight of Sylvenia, and while it was not what Katja would have ordinarily considered cool, it was much less warm than outside.

"What is this building made of?" asked Katja.

"I believe it is made of nanites in some kind of colloidal solution. They are capable of forming dense sheets in the walls, but are also capable of concerted movement if given the proper commands. If you ever want to take a walk outside, just press that button there. But," she said, waving a finger at Katja and Kubiri, "do not ever leave the Pavilion itself. The atmosphere on this planet will begin liquefying your lungs within minutes."

They descended some stairs to a very large room with furniture and equipment scattered throughout. There was a sideboard with what looked like crackers and fruits. There was also a pitcher of water.

Sunaram gestured at it. "I am afraid I had only general information about Sylven physiology to help me in picking out what might be good, but I hope something of this is acceptable. I preferred to err on the safe side, so I fear it might be a little bland."

Katja poured herself a cup of water and spread a red paste on a cracker. It was indeed bland, but there was a slight salty-sweetness that went well with the water. "So," she said, "since I will be going across the universes into unknown territory, what will I have to do to prepare?"

"You are truly willing to commit?" Kubiri asked seriously.

"I have thought about it," said Katja. "And I would be lying if I were to say that I had not seriously considered going home. But then I always think about what that might say about the Syylven. We are a quiet people, but we are not afraid of hard tasks. And I do not think I could be a proper Sylven if I were to run away from this. Regardless of what happens, I must represent my people as best I can, and show that we can show ourselves worthy of a place in the Alliance."

"If you are certain," said Sunaram, "the procedure is quite simple. You will be inoculated against certain illnesses. The Zezai, who are preparing the inoculation, will need a blood sample for that. Also, we do not have time to teach you the langauge you will need to know, so the Zezai are also preparing translation nanites, which will directly interact with your brain to translate the language."

"Is that safe?"

"Oh, yes," said Sunaram. "It is far inferior to the real thing, however, because it only provides a general background in the language. When you actually get there, it will be important to keep reminding yourself that the translation does not take into account subtle dialectal differences and often has to be approximate. The translation nanites will also defend your brain against direct tampering; the Zezai will need a brain scan to give them a reference point."

Katja did not like the sound of that, but she agreed to both. The blood sample and brain scan were both taken quite easily, with far less fuss than they would have taken in a Sylven medical clinic, and Sunaram went to deliver them to the Zezai.

"Will the procedure be difficult?" Katja asked while she was gone.

"I have never seen it done," said Kubiri. "I wish I could guarantee that it would be pleasant, but the Zezai are a swarm species rather than samaroids; one never knows what to expect. We would do it all with Samar technology, but for this you really need the best and highest quality, and with nanotechnology that means the Zezai. I don't think it will be difficult; but there might be some disorientation and adjustment required."

This, of course, only made Katja feel nervous.

Sunaram returned. "I have given the Zezai the sample and the scan. It will probably be a few hours before we get any response. One of the difficulties with being ambassador to a civilization like the Zezai is that even simple conversations can take hours." She turned to Katja. "As for the rest, there is not much else. After the inoculation there will be some briefing on the people you are being sent to, and the kinds of things you will need to negotiate, but you will have considerable discretion, as long as you conform to Samar diplomatic policy."

"What is Samar diplomatic policy?"

"It is very simple," said Kubiri. "All people have some inkling of beauty, but it is difficult to get a firm grasp on it. Thus we are struck by it in this or that form while beauty itself eludes our comprehension. Progress in civilized life consists of that social and mental discipline by which one comes to discern the beautiful in everything, and thence to discern its underlying pattern. From knowledge of the beautiful in virutous life and in just exchanges within society, a people may proceed from knowledge of the beautiful in skill, in virtue, and in knowledge itself. Then the coherent and integral harmony of these things may become manifest by being brought under one principle, which is beauty itself. All peoples without exception are to be encouraged in this ascent to beauty; none are to be discouraged from it. All actions and negotiations should tend to this, and should themselves be consistent with one's own ascent, regardless of what they may be. Everything else is just minor details."

"The perpetual Samar pursuit of beauty," said Katja.

"Always and ever," said Sunaram. "Shall we go up?"


1.10 Samar in the Field (II)

They waited for their time, and then moved into position, and then were in a different universe. One might think that it would be momentous thing, moving from universe to universe; one might think that there would be some grand experience, or, failing that, at least some little jerk or twitch to mark the moment. But there was nothing like that. The sky did grow momentarily dark, the stars fading out to be replaced by new ones; but it was swift and subtle. When you do not look at them from some familiar place, when you watch only the stars in the distance, one universe looks almost exactly like another.

More time passed. From the new Cluster Hub they had to transfer again to get to the right galaxy, and then transfer again to get to the right system. Katja was tired of the same walls, the same benches; she slept more and, when awake she often paced. Conversation lulled. Kubiri was always ready to talk if she wanted to, but she was increasingly disinclined. She enjoyed the conversations when she did, but she was just restless. She felt caged. She thought at times of the sea. Of her routine walk from home to university. Of Darre's farm. Of the Shrine of the Tepi. She thought of festivals she had attended. She thought of festivals she was missing. She became frustrated when she realized that she was losing track of time. For that matter, when you travel that many Portals, does time really mean much. Once when she slept she dreamed that she had come back from her long adventure and discovered that no time had passed. Once she dreamed that she returned and a thousand years had passed.

When she had awakened the second time, Kubiri sat beside her and said, "I have been briefed on your mission. What do you know of the Tanaver?"

Katja thought. "Nothing much, I suppose. They founded the Alliance, they speak through the Oracles, they make the Portal system possible. Beyond that, they are a big mystery."

He grinned a big, four-cornered Samar grin. "You are closer than you know. 'Tanaver' is a very simplified form of a a word in Samartana dialect that means 'Vast Mystery'. Here in Universe One there is a system called the Tanaver system. The Chaktai capital is on the second planet in the system, and the third planet is the planet Tanaver, and it is technically the capital of the entire Alliacne. But it is not the Tanaver homeworld. There is no Tanaver homeworld. The Tanaver were not born in any universe but, for lack of a better way of saying it, in the spaces between the universes. They are collectors of civilizations; they like gathering distinctive ones together into harmonious patterns. They are caretakers and curators for universes."

"Tenders of the apple tree."

"The apple tree?" asked Kubiri, somewhat startled.

"We Syylven have a story about a great apple tree:

From seed came fruit.
The blooms grew full, each fruit a great world,
rich with every soul's habitation.

The tree of worlds. Sorry, it's just a metaphor, but it came to mind when you talked about caretakers for universes."

"Who has no metaphors has few thoughts," said Kubiri. "One needs metaphors in order to speak of things like the Tanaver, and it is a good one. Yes, they are gardeners tending the apple tree, perhaps better an entire orchard full of apple trees, loaded down with worlds, in order to make the most beautiful apples. Sometimes they splice boughs from elsewhere onto their favorite trees. Among all the civilizations in the universes, some, like the Samar, are home-grown. Others, like the Ylfae, if they are right, or like the Chaktai seem to be, are spliced in from elsewhere.

"Recently the Tanaver have been worrying about something they have been finding in other universes. A blight, so to speak, in which the variety of the universes is being stripped away and replaced with ugly repetition. Complex universal harmonies are being replaced by simplistic and monotonous noise. Were it just an occasional thing, they would no doubt regard it just as part of the universal wilderness, but it is systematic, it is thorough, and it is spreading. It is, in short, a deliberate and artificial imposition on the universes. The Tanaver had discovered people like themselves, not directly but manifested clearly enough in their effects. What they had discovered disturbed them -- and it should go without saying that they are not easily disturbed. They notified the governing bodies of the Four Core Protectorates, who have been pursuing their own investigation; and they began to set up defenses to protect the Alliance from the blight. And they have searched for anything else they could find about these others.

"Like the Tanaver, they usually involve themselves only indirectly, working primarily through protectorates, thousands and perhaps millions of them. Unlike the Tanaver, however, they aid their associates in attacking and conquering other societies, on a massive scale. These transplanted civilizations spread rapidly, choking out and subverting native civilizations. They have done this to dozens of universes, and are continually reaching out for more. At present they pose no direct threat to the Alliance itself, but if they continue to spread we will soon be surrounded, so to speak. All accessible universes will be dominated by them. Further, despite our tendency to talk of the Seven Universes, the Alliance strictly speaking extends past the boundaries of the Seven, just as the territory of a Protectorate extends beyond its habitable planets to its uninhabited systems and isolated outposts. There are a great many universes involved, and a great many outpost Protectorates that are more vulnerable than any Protectorates within the Seven.

"The Tanaver insist that something must be done before their direct intervention is required, before the blight reaches the orchard, so to speak. It is unclear whether these others are as powerful as the Tanaver -- the Tanaver think not, but they have no evidence for that beyond the monotony of what these others are producing -- but they are broadly of the same kind, and war between beings like the Tanaver would be unimaginably destructive. Entire universes would be in danger. While the Tanaver would likely survive it, they could not guarantee at present that the rest of the Alliance would. To this end they have proposed to the governing bodies of the Core Protectorates that a buffer system be put into place. One part of this buffer system consists of assistance to certain societies in fending off the invaders and, where appropriate, offers of Alliance membership. Watchtowers on the outlying hills, so to speak. The Core Protectorates have agreed. We therefore need ambassadors to represent the Alliance to these societies."

"And this is where I come in."

"Truly. You are being asked to be Envoy of the Tanaver to a society that the Tanaver judge would be a great loss to the universes if it should fall."

"But I have no experience as an ambassador."

"You had no experience as an Administrator of a space station, either. The Tanaver take few chances; you were thrown into a new and unfamiliar situation to see what you would do, and the Tanaver found nothing in your behavior to worry them. You have received the confirmation of both the Samar and the Chaka representatives on the scene. And, what seems to have impressed the Tanaver just as much, you have been willing to journey to an entirely different universe simply in order to hear the offer. The Tanaver think you will make a fine Envoy. I agree." He pursed his lips and the edges of his eyes crinkled. "The only thing left for your eligibility is acceptance of the position."

Katja sighed and shook her head. "It seems like the world keeps getting bigger and bigger."

"It always does," said Kubiri. Then: "We have some time, if you need to think about it. We will be making a stop at a Zezai world in order to prepare you for your mission: vaccinations and the like. Up to that point you are free to turn down the offer and return home with the thanks of the Tanaver and the Samar High Council."

"What would happen if I turned it down? In terms of the Alliance and the plan, that is?"

He spread his hands. "The Tanaver do not make fragile plans. Another would have to be found, and could be found, even if there were none as good. I do not know the process for doing that. I do not even know how you were chosen, except that it was deemed that a Sylven would be the optimal choice, since the Syylven are physiologically similar to the species in question, and that the Tanaver chose you as the most acceptable Sylven."

"What would you advise?"

Kubiri looked grave and adjusted his fedora. "On a matter such as this, advice will always fall short. There is no precedent for this, nothing suitable for casuistic analysis, an insufficient amount of information for reliable simulation. Decisions like this can only be made by good sense and good taste, in pursuit of truth and of beauty. You've shown yourself to have some of both. But I would point two things out. The first is that you would not have been asked if there were not excellent reason for it. And the second is that you should not accept unless you are genuinely willing. This is a dangerous thing that is being asked of you."

He was thoughtful for a moment, then said, "There is a third thing to be said. No matter what roads we walk, the beautiful life cannot be taken from us, only given up. Hard as the choice may be, in a sense it does not differ from any other. If you go home, that is a good choice, if only you go home to live a beautiful life. If you take on this mission, that is a good choice, if you take on this mission and live a beautiful life."

It was not long afterward that they docked at a space station. They then took an elevator down, which Katja found most remarkable. Her best guess was that it was something like a laser ablation system, which allowed the compartment to detach from the station and then descend at a controlled speed into the atmosphere. There was no window to a compartment, but when Katja asked if there was any way to see out, Kubiri was able to bring up some kind of holographic display, which showed an ugly red-yellow planet and a little dot showing where the compartment was. It hardly seemed to be moving, but numbers showed current speed of descent, which was then plotted on a graph.

It took quite some time to descend, although less than she would have expected. The ride was quite smooth. As the elevator settled into ground position, Kubiri said, "One important thing. This is not a samaroid world. The atmosphere of this planet is poisonous to almost any samaroids; a Samar would die in a matter of minutes and a Sylven almost instantly. The Pavilion itself is safe, but you must stay within Pavilion bounds at all times."

The door opened and they stepped out.