1.4 City in Heaven (I)

After lunch, Katja made use of the washroom; fortunately, Ylfae physiology is similar enough to Sylven physiology that there was no perplexity. Afterward she stared at herself in the mirror and was surprised at how tired she looked. Weary. She looked like someone who had been traveling forever; or, rather, she looked like what she was: someone whisked away on a journey without any preparation. She looked down at herself with something like humor and something like sorrow: her clothes were not what she would have worn for a journey among the stars. She doubted it would be snowing on Station 33115, but here she was with long sleeves and boots for walking in the snow; a fur-lined black coat for which there was no foreseeable use was in the next room. Nor was it a color to be chosen if you had only one set of clothes to choose: except for the coat and her belt, it was all a matching cream color. As she brushed off a hair, she thought, "This will look awful even by tomorrow."

Tomorrow. Were there tomorrows in space? Obviously time went on in some way, but space itself was a tomorrowless realm, ungoverned by the cycles that mind and body felt as time. Out among the stars she might as well have been traveling forever. She sighed and splashed some water on her face.

"I think I need a nap," she said when she had rejoined Kubiri. "Today seems like it has gone on forever."

"Of course," said Kubiri. "I should have considered that possibility earlier; I apologize. By all means. I have plenty to occupy my time with various Private Consultations; and if you require anything at all, please let me know."

She stretched out on a padded bench. It was not the most comfortable thing, by any means, and she worried that she would not be able to get to sleep. But her worries came to nothing; she really was as tired as she had looked, and it was not long before she was deeply asleep and dreaming.

She was in a closed room with white walls and nothing else. There was some voice whispering, although she could not understand it well. She thought she caught a fragment, though: Right roads may lead through gates of death. Then the whole room seemed to fall away and she was standing in a sort of vineyard. The sun was shining brightly on her face, warming it; the breeze at the same time was lightly blowing against her face, cooling it. There was a scent in the air like fine wine, a scent like fruit but sharper and more clear, and there was beneath this the scent of dry earth newly wetted, like the soil giving out a shout of relief after long drought. It was very vivid; it was very real.

She turned and saw the Vine God standing there, unclothed except for panther skin around his waste and a crown of vine leaves in his hear. He seemed Sylven, and yet more than Sylven, too real to be merely Sylven. There was an enigmatic smile on his dark face, a strange mockery in his dark black eyes.

"Who are you?" she asked.

He laughed and then seemed to speak, but what came out of his mouth was not words. Or, rather, they were words, but words too powerful for her mind to comprehend. They did not merely move through the air; they beat into her brain, they hovered in the air like something tangible. They did not merely resound. They burned, and set the entire vineyard on fire.

All around her the fire raged, leaping up vines, crackling and popping, sending up smoke. The scent of the air, wine-thick, became smoke-thick; it clung to her as only smoke can cling, to her clothing, to her hair, to her skin. But the fire did not burn her. Everything else burned, but she did not burn. And the fire rose up and up until it began to burn the sky, turning cerulean blue to midnight black. Like flame across paper the fire swept across the blue sky, and when it touched the sun, it seemed to break through some spherical wall that held the fire of the sun in. The liquid gold of solar fire was spilled out, mingling with the dark, in comparison almost opaque, red-orange of the vineyard flame. Then it all was over. With nothing left to burn, the flame died out; the light of the sun was gone, the blue of the sky was gone, the earth and vines were gone, leaving nothing but darkness and the breeze. The breeze, once merely cool, was now cold.

It seemed silent a moment. She could hear nothing but her heart beating in her chest and her ears. Gradually, however, she began to hear something. At first she thought it was some kind of windchime, but as it grew, it became unmistakeable: water. A diffuse silver light began to surround her. She was in the middle of a white mist. As the light grew brighter the mist seemed to recede and she could see where she was. She was beside a great pool of water with mist rising from it. There was a very light rain, scarcely more than a mist itself. She stood beneath a great tree with sweeping, drooping branches, full of little leaves dripping water into the pool and on the earth. A large moon, far larger than the small moon of Sylvenia, was high in the sky, and its light made a rippling pathway on the surface of the pool. Everything was colored in shades of black, and blue-black, and silver-white.

She stood a while, feeling the mist and rain on her skin and listening to the dripping and rippling of water. She soon began to realize, however, that there was another sound mixed in with the water-sounds. It, too, was a water-sound, but of a different kind. It was the sound of weeping. She looked around for the source and saw, a short distance away, a woman at the edge of the pool. She was lit in an unearthly way by the light of the moon. She was looking into the pool.

As Katja approached, she looked up. Tears were pouring down her face in little streams.

"Who are you?" Katja asked.

The Weeping Woman opened her mouth to speak, but, as with the Vine God, the words she spoke could not be understood, and were not sounds but actions. They beat into Katja's brain, wreathed around her like mist, and made everything seem as unstable and rippling as water. Then, suddenly, the whole world tipped over and she was not above the surface of the water but below it, staring up at the massive moon. When she tried to swim to the surface, the surface became even farther away. Her breath slowly ran out; as it did she began to struggle. The pain in her chest had become unbearable when a great hand, of chrome or highly polished steel, broke the surface of the water and reached down toward her.

She was suddenly awake, sitting straight up, breathing as heavily as if she had just come up from the pool. A little way away sat Kubiri, a tablet in one hand and a stylus in another, watching her closely.

"Do you need any assistance?" he asked.

"No," said Katja as soon as she had caught her breath. "It was just a dream."

"Of course," Kubiri said. "I keep forgetting." Before she could ask him what he kept forgetting, he had attached the stylus to the tablet and then pushed the two ends together. Katja suddenly realized that the 'sticks' that Kubiri kept attached to his wrist with a cord were actually a stylus and some kind of collapsible tablet.

"You slept quite some time," he said. "We are not quite to the Portal, but when we reach it, do you want to see it?"

"I would like that," Katja said. "I've been through it once, but didn't see it then."

"Then we will certainly remedy that. We still have some time to go, however."

Katja sighed. "One of the things I hated about space last time was how long it took to get anywhere. I was born and raised on a little island; even trips to the field would be only a few hours. But these trips in space go on and on."

"A necessary limitation of acceleration and deceleration, I am afraid."

"It is amazing. Seven Universes and not one civilization can manage to shorten trips through space."

"Well," said Kubiri, "that is not precisely true. There are the Portals themselves, of course; they just require prohibitive amounts of energy if they are too far down a gravity well. And Samar ships, for instance, can go anywhere in a universe instantaneously. The limitations are only if you have to accelerate to get somewhere."

"How is that even possible?"

He waved with both hands at her -- this waving of palms seemed to be the Samar equivalent of a shrug. "I am no engineer. I probably could not even follow the mathematics, since I was never any good beyond dynamic mereotopology." Katja did not recognize the phrase but could guess from the roots that it had something to do with changes and parts. "And I am also always in the field in civilized territory, and it is custom in such cases to use the local transportation, as we are doing. Some species like to move around as swiftly as possible, but we Samar tend to be more restrained. There is an old Samariska saying that in Simplified Samar might be translated as 'Rushing things is breaking things.'"

They chatted about different things until a tone sounded.

"Ah!" said Kubiri. "The Portal should be visible from the cockpit. Shall we go see?"