The business of transition went quite smoothly. Katja sent the survey reports to the Taladac ship and they took their leave. She sent the same information via Portal to Sylvenia (with Kubiri's help), to help with trade negotiations. She and Kubiri catalogued faults, failures, malfunctions, ruptures, leaks, computer errors and glitches, parts in need of replacement. It was a long list. It was also tedious work, but after recent events that was almost a relief.
It was not until the new ship from Sylvenia had actually docked and she was standing waiting to greet her successor that she realized with something of a shock that it had slipped her mind entirely to send a message asking them to bring a few changes of clothes and other supplies for herself. At that point she decided she would decline the offer and would just return home. It was one thing to be stuck in the same clothes for a few days, and another thing entirely to continue as she had been for an indefinite period of time. If she left the station, off to who-knows-where, who could say when she would next have a chance to get a fresh set of clothes?
It was set, then. When her successor came out with his team, however, and he turned out to be none other than Helvi Hokomenen, she knew, with a sinking feeling, that she would accept Kubiri's offer, after all. If she went home, to Sola and Darre and all the others, she would always be restless. She had been getting restless before she came; if she went home now, it would feel like she had stopped her story arbitrarily instead of letting it close itself out, in a natural way. She hoped the natural end of the story would be the Island again, but everything seemed to point her out and out, away from home. She had already gone halfway across the galaxy; why not go a bit further? Why not follow the thread where it led?
She showed Helvi and his team around the station. She managed to beg a few supplies from them -- a bag, a small box of tooth-powder and a tooth-powder applicator, and a bath-whisk -- and, while it was not much, it made her feel far more cheerful than she had been. When you have almost nothing, tooth-powder is a splendid thing to gain. There is a passage in the Sylevid in which the son of Sylve sets off for a journey with various strange odds and ends from home, like a broom and some string. She felt very much like the Sylevid.
"All I need is a broom, a feather, and a bit of string, and I would be set for any adventure," she said to herself, and laughed.
And thus it was that she found herself again on the ship she had come in, chatting with Kubiri.
"So," she said, "when will I learn what this special mission is supposed to be?"
"As soon as I learn myself, you will know," he replied. "All I know at present is that we have to go to Universe One. Once we are there I should be given additional information for briefing you."
"Leaving the entire universe? Another novelty for me. What is involved in that?"
"Nothing very different from what you already know. The local Portal is not an inter-universal Portal; we will have to go from there to the Primary Galactic Portal, and then from there to the Cluster Hub, and then that one will allow us to transfer to a Cluster Hub in Universe One, from which we will then certainly have to transfer again. In the Portal system travel within a galaxy, travel between galaxies within the local supercluster, travel between superclusters within or outside the universe are all kept separate, for a number of reasons. Local Portals are almost usually in inhabited systems, while inter-universal Portals like the Cluster Hubs are best placed in uninhabited systems. The whole trip will certainly take about five or six days, at minimum."
"That seems rather involved."
"Boredom is the primary hazard of space travel," said Kubiri. "Everything is vast distances from everything else, and linear travel is limited by the relation between energy and momentum; Portals cannot be placed just anywhere; and even Portal-independent ships generally have significant limits. Spending hours and hours aboard a ship is unavoidable."
They talked for a long time. Kubiri spoke of many of the major Protectorates of the Alliance, names of which Katja had only just heard. The four Core Protectorates: Chaktai, Zezai, Limmer, and Samar; the Samar knew only fragments about the first three. Other significant Protectorates: the Ops, a civilization of three distinct samaroid species, spread throughout Universe Two and some of Universe Three; Involescence, a strange union of thousands of species, whose borders were unknown even to the Samar but who had vast monastery complexes taking up entire solar systems in Universes Two, Three, and Four; the Shagghia of Universe Four; other names she could not even have pronounced. He spoke, too, of the Myrian, not a Protectorate in the strict sense but recognized by the Alliance Charter; it was a vast system of machines that constructed Portals throughout the Universes. One grew up knowing in an abstract way the vastness of the Alliance, endless numbers of worlds bound together by Charter, by Oracle, by Portal. But the infinite detail was more difficult to appreciate if you had never experienced small portions of it, or talked with someone like Kubiri who had.
Katja in turn talked about various aspects of Sylven culture. She was somewhat embarrassed about it, since it all seemed so mundane to her; but Kubiri seemed interested in it all. And, perhaps, her culture was as strange to him as talk of the Ops was to her.
At one point, Katja asked Kubiri if he knew any games, and he tried to teach her a board game with an unpronounceable name -- something like Satyanankakrambachitali, except there were syllables in it that her voicebox could probably not have managed. It took several hours and by the end she had no better sense of the game than when she began. But she had known that she probably would not ever understand it when, trying to explain something that had happened five moves in, Kubiri had suggested that she not think of it as a game on a two-dimensional board, but as a game in four-dimensional space represented two-dimensionally by a projection onto the board. But it was not too bad; the conversation, at least, was interesting. They played a few Sylven games. Katja was embarrassed at the simplicity of some of them, and, indeed, Kubiri had only to play a game once, if even that, in order to win consistently from then on out. But he seemed to be intrigued by each one. The game he enjoyed most was a Sylven rummy game Katja put together with makeshift tiles.
"It is a competitive negotiation game with partially veiled resources!" he said delightedly, and went on not only to win, but to win so resoundingly that Katja had never lost so badly. She usually thought of herself as a fairly decent player, but she had nothing on Kubiri.
"I believe I will have to work up a discussion of this game for the Logic Society. It could easily be adapted for training."
"I have heard you talk about Logic Societies before. What are they?"
He considered the question a moment. "What is your most advanced form of educational institution?"
"You mean things like universities? I work -- worked -- for the Ecological Institute at the University of Sylvenia."
He opened his tablet and ran some kind of search. "Yes," he said after a moment, almost to himself. "Universities. I am aware of this kind of institution. Rigidly structured institution, modular curriculum, resource-intensive; effective, but due to its resource-dependence subject to cycles of development and collapse. Very good for species that have difficulty with sustained abstract thought." He closed the tablet. "A university is a good institution, but it would be utterly impracticable for the Samar. The resource drain we could easily absorb, but large portions of our most brilliant lights are scattered over the Universes of the Alliance. We need much more flexible institutions for education and research, which means we need highly developed correspondence networks. We are also more intensively eusocial than species like the Sylven; the rigidity of interaction in your universities would not suit us at all. So we have our Logic Societies. I am a member of two, one devoted primarily to economics and one primarily to diplomatic theory. We exchange memoirs and treatises, engage in extensive conversations and debates, design tutorials and primers for each other, cooperate on research projects. Swap stories." He pushed forward his lips in a Samar smile. "It is, in any case, the sort of thing we would have to rely upon, anyway. Performing our work for the Alliance, we are a civilization scattered through the heavens; the strain that puts on a people, the pressure towards deterioration and degeneration, is extraordinary. If we had only to consider ourselves, we would simply stay in our handful of systems in Universe Two and live quiet lives in pursuit of beauty. As it is, we need things like Logic Societies to counter the 'wear and tear', as you Syylven say, of Samar responsibilities under the Alliance Charter."
So they talked and played games to while away the time. Katja slept and sleepless Kubiri did his Private Consultations when she slept. Out from the Lin Ohuen Portal, to the Primary Galactic Portal, then to the Cluster Hub. The Cluster Hub consisted of two Portals, one connecting to the local galactic network, the other connecting to other Cluster Hubs; it also had a large space station. All three revolved at considerable distance around a lone star, small and pale in the distance. They docked at the space station.
"There is a market here," he said, checking his tablet. "We can get provisions, and now that I have an idea what kinds of things you prefer, meals should improve. Inter-universal transits are widely spaced, and our timing has not been excellent. However, it does give us plenty of time for something else, if you are interested. There are two other Samar currently waiting for their transit windows. It is Samar custom, when we upon come other Samar in the field, always to meet for a meal and conversation, if time permits. When you are scattered across universes, it is not a luxury but a necessity to seize any opportunity of interacting one can. Since you are a Tanaver Consultation, you are certainly invited."
"Thank you," said Katja. "I would relish the opportunity to get off this ship, even for a short time."
By this point she meant it very much.