1.2 This Darkest Sea (I)

Katja had the dream again, but it was far more intense and vivid than usual. There was a sound like a distant gong or bell. It sounded seven times. Then she was standing in an open field and heard a man's laughter. Turning, she saw, for the first time she could remember, the person who had laughed. He was tall, with merry eyes, dressed in a panther skin, crowned with grapevines like some ancient vine god. He laughed again and the whole field caught fire. All around her there was flame, but she was not burning; nor was she herself. She had become some kind of vine with brilliant red flowers that themselves glowed with fire but were not consumed. Then the fire went out and she was Katja again, now standing beside the misty pool, with its overhanging trees, dripping as they would in rain. There was a weeping woman beside her. The woman looked up at her and at that moment the whole world turned upside down. The edge of the pool was still the edge of the pool, but she was in the water looking up at it rather than outside the water looking down on it. Through the surface of the pool she could still see, distorted and vague, the face of the weeping woman. She could not breath, she could not speak, and she could not swim up to the surface. A great metallic hand broke through the surface and reached for her. She began to struggle, and struggled so fiercely that she woke herself up, sitting straight up in bed. She was sweating and breathing heavily. She did not recognize immediately where she was, and it took her a couple of minutes to clear her mind on that score.

She dressed and got ready as she usually did. When she pressed kitchen calendar it said, "Good morning. The snow on the ground is melting. It is Kesti, the sixteenth of Marashu. The suvo for the day is:

Right roads may lead through the gates of death;
Just paths shine more as dawning day nears

She felt a little cold at that.

She had finished breakfast and was preparing to leave when the door-tone sounded, indicating that someone was standing on the doorstep. The one-way transparency showed a young man in a trim gray suit. She opened the door.

"Katja Ilkaiomenen?" he asked politely.

"I am she."

"I am from the Island Commissioner's office. We must ask you to come with us. It is a matter of the Oracle."

"The Oracle?" she asked, completely baffled.

He stared at her a moment."Didn't you hear it earlier this morning? The whole building rang out, waking practically everyone in the area. The Oracle has spoken. And the Commissioner urgently needs you. Immediately. I don't know anything else."

Katja grabbed her coat and followed the young man to the vehicle parked on the street outside. Such automotive vehicles are rare on the Island; they are only used for special occasions or hauling large loads. Whatever it was, it certainly must be important.

As the car traveled westward on the Pahad, toward Belerve Point, Katja tried to think of reasons she could possibly be needed after a pronouncement by the Oracle. Some report she had filed, no doubt; but when it came to thinking of one that could possibly require urgent consultation she could not imagine what it would be. Most of her work was collating data on various aspects of ice age glaciation, which was a slow-moving field if any was, not subject to sudden large-scale crises; and even if there were some crisis, there would be people who dealt with more fundamental aspects than she did. She spent most of her days identifying anomalous measurements that might indicate equipment failure, collating large amounts of data, and making sure that reports that went out did so in the scientific languages. The former two were tedious detail-work, and while Katja enjoyed the last, and it did reach a wide audience, she could think of nothing about it that would require something so momentous as an Oracle pronouncement, an event that had not occurred in her whole lifetime.

They soon arrived at the Island Commission, just off Belerve Point. She was rushed into the lobby, then into the waiting room, and then into the Commissioner's office, all without any of the usual ceremony. And so she found herself in the Commissioner's office. It was a bare office, with nothing but a desk and a few chairs and a little plaque with a quotation from the Sylevid:

Minne was first, swiftest with her hands,
keen with her sight and sharp with her mind,
stout in her heart, a soul to endure.
She looked at the world with learning eyes,
clear-eyed maiden.

Across the desk from Katja sat the Commissioner herself, Minne Koskenemen, who regarded her shrewdly.

"I understand that you translate reports into Ylfae and Simplified Samar," she finally said.

"Yes," Katja replied.

"How fluent are you in Ylfae?"

"I probably wouldn't be able to speak it, but I have reading and writing fluency, and my aural comprehension is reasonably good."

"And Simplified Samar?"

"I had high honors for it on my certificate, and I use it almost daily in reading and writing, and at least once a week in oral reports. It is not possible to do anything in my line of work without it."

"Have you ever at any point been in contact with any Ylfae?"

"No," Katja replied, baffled. "When would I have ever had the opportunity?"

"Or any Samar?"

"No," Katja replied, even more baffled. Being asked a question like that was like being asked if she had ever chatted with Ohu or Tepi, or had lunch with Vanavoen, or had conversations with elves and gnomes in the garden. That the Samar existed she had no doubt; but that did not make them any less creatures of myth and legend, and as distant from her mundane life as any other creature of myth and legend, like dragons or lions.

"You would, however, be able to converse with a Samar?"

"Yes," she said. Then she suddenly gripped her chair in excitement and leaned forward. "Are you suggesting that we are receiving a Samar delegation and that you need a translator?"

Commissioner Minne looked at her for a minute, looking utterly inscrutable. She was a much older woman than Katja, which probably contributed to the unfathomability of her expression, which would have eluded the abilities of youth. She had gold eyeshadow and a trace of gold at her lips; it was all done with skill and subtlety, but perhaps these things too allowed her to retreat behind them. Whatever the reason, Katja could not read her at all.

Finally the silence ended. "This morning, as you probably know, the Oracle spoke. The pronouncement was short and simple and I can repeat it to you word for word." She picked up a slip of paper. "'Station 3311534 is hereby removed from Winbaric jurisdiction; wardship is committed to the Syylven. Katja Ilkaiomenen is designated administrator. A Consultant has been designated by the Samar and is already in route.'" The paper dropped back on the desk. "Do you know anything about this?"

Katja was speechless and simply shook her head.

"Do you know anything about Station 3311534?"


"Neither do I, nor does anyone else I can find. We seem to have no record of it anywhere. The Winbaric are an Ylfae clan, but we have no dealings with them, and we have preciously little information about them, as well. Regardless, you leave today to take over this unknown station of uncertain location from these little-known people. Or more exactly, you are leaving now."

"I can't...I...."

The Commissioner cut her short with a wave of her hand. "In absolute strictness I cannot force you. But this was a pronouncement of the Tanaver themselves, and what would it look like if we ignored them? They named you in particular, and no one else. Moreover, it is the feeling of some of the other Commissioners that this might possibly be of some use in the current trade negotiations with the Ylfae, which are not going well. And if that were not enough, they are sending a Samar representative for you, you in particular, you alone, and I need not tell you that that is nearly as momentous as being named by the Oracle. I do not understand it any more than you do, but for better or worse you are now our single most important representative, because whatever Station 3311534 may be, you will be directly representing the Syylven in any matters related to it, and to none other than the Samar themselves."

Katja rose. "I must go and pack, then."

"No time," the Commissioner replied. "You head out now."

"But I have nothing...."

"No time," the Commissioner said again. "When the Oracle said the Samar representative was in route, it was not lying. A chartered Ylfae-registered ship docked just ten minutes ago at Highpoint Station, with one passenger, and that passenger has Samar credentials. A high-speed railcar is waiting for you at Belerve with reserve track for Southern Launchport; you have highest priority to launch. If there is anything I will not have on my record as Commissioner it is a complaint from the Samar themselves that their representative was kept waiting longer than absolutely necessary."