1.2 This Darkest Sea (II)

Thus it was that Katja found herself on a train racing south at top speed through the sea-tunnel to the Southern Launchpointt, her mind in a complete uproar at the suddenness of the change thrust upon her. There was also little to help; she was alone in a railcar that would take several hours to reach the Launchpoint, with nothing, absolutely nothing, but the clothes she wore. And from there she would be launched into space, and then connect with Highpoint, and then to the Sylvenian Portal, and then off she would go to who knows where.

Katja had been off the planet once in her entire life. An older friend of hers had been an invited speaker for a conference on vulcanology, and had invited her along. Linne Molmostoven, her name had been; a spry old woman with a laugh like a crystal bell. They had started far earlier in the morning than Katja had, and after the hours to Launchpoint, then the hours to the Portal, then the hours to Metsenia's counterpart to Highpoint station and then to the surface, she had already felt like she had been gone from home too long. They had slept twice on the trip there alone, and once on the trip back (but that had felt long, very long indeed). But at least then she had been fully packed and prepared to go, not thrust on the trip.

Farewell, alas, my noble island;
farewell, my richly rain-blessed grassland....

She had not liked the launch; it was like a train-ride off a cliff. They boarded the shuttle at Launchpoint. It was in a vacuum tube tunneled through leagues upon leagues of the Southern Ice Fields, lined with rails of aluminum, or something like them. Superconducting magnets on the shuttle accelerated them slowly through the tube, pushing faster and faster and faster until the tunnel ended and they were moving through the air with extraordinary speed. They had been strapped into seats with a sort of padded bar that locked down around them, and there was a great feeling of weight and pressure, and some turbulence, and then suddenly calm and a release of all the weight. The shuttle then began to spin and the weight came back, but more normally this time. She did not like it at all, and the next dream she had, as she slept on the way to the Sylvenian Portal, had been a nightmare about being shot out of a cannon and crashing down into the ice.

She got out of her seat and started pacing the car. Thinking about this was merely making matters worse. She needed to get her mind off it all. She thought of the plaque in the Commissioner's office, and started thinking about that. It was from the opening poem of the Sylevid, the one with the heading, "The poem makes itself to begin," but which was usually called the Amenetaar. And it started -- here she was stubbornly insisting on thinking of it and not about her situation or destination -- it started with the words:

The new light is breaking on my thought,
sunrise-like upon a living sky
the words of song are forming swiftly
to speak of kith and kin with bright voice.
Shall poet speak,
shall song be sung without the sun's flame?

She continued it, reciting it all silently to herself, to the end:

...they roamed on sea, on land, through forests,
beneath strange skies and on strange stones,
to find a homeland and a people,
to star-lands bright of which singers sing
and poets speak.

The ending of it reminded her too much of her situation, so she forced herself to the next poem, the Siimet, with the heading, "The poem makes itself to send forth shoots":

Sylve in star-lands made her dwelling,
Linne was with her; they plowed the fields,
they planted grain and tended cattle,
they sang their songs beside the hearthfire
and lived in peace.

And then on she went, through the story of how Sylve rejected the suit of the Sun and the Moon but accepted that of the Star of the North, and how Linne married the shy but joyful Helvi, and the adventures that they had thereafter. And, although her memory started giving out on her (it had, after all been years since she had recited the whole thing), she recited what she could remember of the tale of the kidnapping of Linne, and how the Helivid and the Sylevid, their children, had rescued her, and how they were rivals for the hand of the Maiden of Snows, and how the Sylevid won her hand. And then -- at this point her memory was very sketchy, and most of what she could do was merely tell the basic story in prose abstract -- their wedding. And then how Minne, the eldest of the three sisters, had conceived the idea for a mill of wondrous ability,

its bright lid made from the serpent's quill,
from the noise the cat makes with its feet,
from the tufts of the summer ewe's full down

which could grind out prosperity, gold, salt, or anything else one could wish. And then how it was stolen and broken. The story of the wondrous mill she could again mostly recite; she had always found it more interesting than the wedding parts, which were, frankly, somewhat boring, consisting of pointless tasks, since none of the ancient heroes could ever marry, it seems, without having done endlessly many pointless tasks, and long speeches consisting of somewhat dubious and sometimes utterly fantastic advice from relatives, not all of which were entirely free of double entendre. And she recited as much as she could of the tragic story of how the Sylevid's wife had died and how he, with Sylve's advice, journeyed to the realms of Death to bring her back, and how he nearly succeeded but lost her again at the last moment. And then how, despite his grief, he restored the sun and moon to their rightful places.

It all made the time go faster, and steadied her wonderfully; she might leave the earth but home she took with her.

They reached Launchpoint, and she was bustled into the shuttle. It seemed less bad than last time. There was much to think about, but somehow the only thing she could think about as she was shot into space was that she had promised Darre that she would take a box of vegetables next week and now there was nobody to receive them.

When she arrived at Highpoint Station she felt like she had already traveled much too far, and she was not looking forward to the even longer trip to the Sylvenian Portal. But all such thoughts vanished away when she reached the viewing port and gasped. Down below, beautiful as a gem, was Sylvenia, white at the top and bottom (but 'white' did not quite describe the brilliantly glowing purity she saw) with a wide band of blue, brown, and green around its middle. As a diamond is put on black velvet, so the gem of Sylvenia had been laid on a black velvet sky, which it shared with the diamond-dust of the stars. It was remarkable.

"Pardon me," said a beautiful voice behind her. "But are you Katja Ilkaiomenen?"

She turned and gasped again, because the speaker was undoubtedly a Samar, although he had spoken to her in flawless Sylvenian. He was about a head shorter than Katja, and wore a brightly colored caftan. He had a hat on his head that looked remarkably like a fedora, tipped at an angle toward his right. Some sort of stick was attached to his wrist with a cord. And he looked exactly like a gray-furred monkey, although he stood more straight-backed and square-shouldered than you would expect a monkey to stand, although his large eyes, brown with gold flecks, showed not just the cleverness a monkey's eyes would have, but something more that Katja could not quite define. Incongruously, something about their expression reminded her again of old Linne Molmostoven.

"I am sorry to bother you," he said again. "But I am waiting for Katja Ilkaiomenen, and I was told you might be her." Again, the voice was beautiful, soft and gentle with subtle tones to it that made it sound somehow more real than a Sylven voice. And again the Sylvenian was perfect, the pronunciation more rigorously correct than Katja's own, perhaps, each word precisely enunciated, but fluently rather than stiffly as you would expect from someone who was not a native speaker. Katja knew someone who did audio voiceovers for documentaries; he spoke the language like that, clearly and smoothly.

"I am Katja Ilkaiomenen," she said at last.

"Excellent," he said cheerfully. Katja had no reason to think that Samar voice-tones conveyed the same information as Sylven voice-tones, but it was simply impossible not to interpret the tone of his voice as cheerful. "I am --" and then followed a noise, beginning with something that sounded like Enkubiranandajamvi and after that involving so many unpronounceable sounds that went on for so long that she had difficulty believing that it could possibly be a name. But apparently it was, for he ended, "-- but you can call me Kubiri. The Tanaver requested a Consultant for you, and I was assigned by the Samar High Council. I apologize for not meeting you at once, but I had not expected you so soon and, most embarrassingly, was in the middle of a Private Consultation that could not be stopped immediately. I hope you will not take my lapse to reflect on either the Tanaver or the Samar High Council; it was entirely my own fault. You may be assured that as a Tanaver Consultation, you take absolute precedence over any other Consultation, and if you feel that I am failing in this regard, you may at any point make a complaint to the Samar High Council and get a replacement."

"There is no need to apologize," she said. "I did not know I would be arriving so quickly, either. They sent me off almost immediately, with no time even to pack, as soon as they heard you were here."

Something Katja could not quite interpret passed over his face. "On the contrary," he said, "it seems I must apologize twice, since it is due to me that you have been so unceremoniously rushed here. That was most inappropriate; I am at your disposal, not you at mine. If you wish, I can request that the High Council send a formal rebuke."

"No, no," said Katja hastily, suddenly worried that she might have gotten her entire nation into some kind of trouble with the Samar. "That will not be necessary. I think they were simply caught by surprise."

Kubiri pursed his lips. "These events have indeed happened swiftly." He looked at her a moment. "I apologize," he said, "but I am not familiar with Sylven eating cycles. Would you like something to eat?"

"Yes," said Katja, with something like relief. "I would very much like something to eat."

"I will make sure that we have a meal, then, as soon as we leave this station." He grabbed the handle of something that looked like a wheeled metal suitcase, with beautiful vine tracery over it, on top of which was strapped a box, and directed toward the door at the other end of the room.

"I understand you speak Simplified Samar fluently?" he said after a moment. "Would it be acceptable if we spoke in that language? I am not very comfortable with Sylvenian."

"Of course," Katja said. Then in Simplified Samar: "You speak Sylvenian very well."

"I thank you," he said in the same language. "I only had a few hours to learn it. Under such circumstances one always worries about causing an interstellar incident by saying something in just the wrong way at just the wrong time. There is an old Samariska proverb -- Samariska is the Samar dialect that has the least in common with Simplified Samar, so it is difficult to translate into Simplified form -- that says, more or less, 'When the thing can explode, it probably will.'" His lips thrust out into something like a four-cornered grin. "I can be far more sure of what is explosive and what is not in Simplified Samar." The grin suddenly vanished. "You said that you had had no time to pack. Am I to understand that you have no necessities, no further change of clothes, nothing but what you are currently wearing."

When Katja said this was true, he muttered something under his breath. It was not in Simplified Samar, but in some other version of Samar, with a much wider range of phonemes; but she recognized some of the roots, and guessed that he was repeating that it was most inappropriate.

They boarded the ship, which detached from Highpoint and set out toward the Portal. The verse from the Venahana came back to Katja as she settled into her new seat:

...for I am far away and sailing
on this darkest sea.