1.4 City in Heaven (II)

They went through a door at the end of the room, which turned out not to be solid, as Katja had expected it would be: it was actually a fine mesh, very stiff and sturdy, but very thin. It made sense, Katja thought; should something happen to the power you would not want a heavy sliding door.

Beyond the door was a cockpit, quite small. There were benches with backs. The main controls were simply a touchscreen across the entire front, although to the sides there were various controls with switches, buttons, and dials. Auxiliaries or backups, perhaps. Above the main controls was a viewing screen of some kind; Katja did not know whether it was an actual window or merely a video screen, but it showed a deep black sky with endless stars. The viewing conditions on Sylvenia were exceptionally good. There was little light pollution, and the air was quite clean and clear, but it was nothing like this view. The stars were bright and clear and overwhelmingly many. We speak facilely of jewels in the sky, but jewels do not shine so beautifully; the stars are not diamonds, but something far more pure in light. And although Katja knew that there stars beyond anything she could see, it was impossible to shake the feeling that they were all there, every single one.

Kubiri went over to the controls and touched a few. "We are not oriented quite right to see it, but we can easily fix that." He pressed other parts of the touchscreen, then sat down on one of the benches and crossed his legs under him. It made him look a bit like a large child's doll, with a caftan like a blanket flowing down and a fedora over his furry face, cocked carefully to the side. Katja sat on the other end of the bench, at a diagonal where she could face both Kubiri and the front screen.

"How many times have you been through a Portal?" she asked.

He considered this a moment, then waved his palms at her. "I am not sure I could ever say. On this tour alone I must have passed through several dozen. They blur together after a while, like scenery that passes by too quickly." Then he pointed. "There it is; I sent a request that it be illuminated, so that you could see it clearly."

The Portal was, strangely enough, both extremely impressive and extraordinarily disappointing. On the one hand, it was vast. The lights traced out a massive pair of brackets against the sky, parentheses of light written on a star-studded page, growing slowly larger. It was like the skeleton of a massive tunnel, with great, glittering coils serving on each side as the spine of a large ribcage. As a feat of engineering, it was undeniably impressive.

Nonetheless, it was also undeniably disappointing. Katja had not really thought of what a Portal must look like, but now that she thought of it, she had probably expected a great circle of light. Or, perhaps, even something more crude: a Portal was a doorway in space, and perhaps somewhere deep inside one expected the ultimately absurdity of something recognizable as literally a doorway, in space. Whoever knows what underlies everything in their expectations? Whatever the explanation, she felt let down.

The ship took a position between the two brackets. The star field strangely blurred; already crowded with stars, it seemed suddenly to have even more, all crowding each other out. Then it was just a star field again, but something about it seemed not quite right. Then the ship moved out of the brackets.

Katja felt let down once again. What do you expect from something that sends you across the galaxy all at once? Certainly not just a second-long shift of the sky as you stand still.

"Is that it?" she said.

"That is it. It is a small thing, isn't it? But if the only time you have been out of the Sylvenian system was a trip to Metsenia, that small thing has taken you on a trip two thousand times farther."

Katja did not know how she felt about that. She decided not to think about it. "So we have a long trip to the station?"

"Yes, but it is much shorter than the trip from Sylvenia to the Sylvenian Portal -- less mass in the system in a less complicated configuration, and the station is much farther out in the system. If you would like some more sleep, however, there is time enough for it."

She looked out at the stars a long moment. "What else do you know about the station?"

"Almost nothing. I was given very little more than you were. I know that the station orbits a gas giant; my guess, very much a guess, would be that it is about two thousand to three thousand light-seconds from the star. But beyond that I know very little."

"Well," said Katja. "I suppose there are other things I need to know, about the Ylfae and how to negotiate with them."

"Ah,"said Kubiri, thrusting out his lips. "On that score I can give you much more."

They talked for some time about Ylfae physiology and various negotiations involving the Ylfae in which Kubiri had been a consultant.

"Unfortunately," he said, "most of my experience is with matters of production and distribution. While one cannot ignore culture on such matters, it tends to be relatively straightforward. This is particularly true with the Ylfae, in which you are really negotiating only with a family and therefore generally need only attend to the family's internal dynamics. With this, however, we get into the very tangled region of relations among different families, clans, and tribes."

At one point they had a very small meal in the other room. But as they approached the station, they went forward to see it.

At first they saw only the great gas giant, massive and swirling with red and orange. But then the station came in view.

It was a tree-like thin with wings, flying in a void. An axis soared upward and downward through the middle. Three pairs of panels, like solar panels, branched off like wings from this trunk; two were on top, one on the bottom. Around the central axis or trunk grew two great rings, like wheels with spokes. The top ring was larger and thicker than the other. Various minor protuberances decorated the trunk.

"It is immense,"said Katja. "A city in heaven." Her heart sank somewhat at the very size of the station; administering it would be an endlessly complicated problem.

"An abandoned city in heaven," replied Kubiri. "The automatic systems are working, but there is no one here."

"Can we get aboard safely?"

"Yes," he replied, tapping the main controls several different places in succession. "The docking and living sysems are all operational and, according to these readings, are working perfectly. The station itself is our welcoming party."