They waited for their time, and then moved into position, and then were in a different universe. One might think that it would be momentous thing, moving from universe to universe; one might think that there would be some grand experience, or, failing that, at least some little jerk or twitch to mark the moment. But there was nothing like that. The sky did grow momentarily dark, the stars fading out to be replaced by new ones; but it was swift and subtle. When you do not look at them from some familiar place, when you watch only the stars in the distance, one universe looks almost exactly like another.
More time passed. From the new Cluster Hub they had to transfer again to get to the right galaxy, and then transfer again to get to the right system. Katja was tired of the same walls, the same benches; she slept more and, when awake she often paced. Conversation lulled. Kubiri was always ready to talk if she wanted to, but she was increasingly disinclined. She enjoyed the conversations when she did, but she was just restless. She felt caged. She thought at times of the sea. Of her routine walk from home to university. Of Darre's farm. Of the Shrine of the Tepi. She thought of festivals she had attended. She thought of festivals she was missing. She became frustrated when she realized that she was losing track of time. For that matter, when you travel that many Portals, does time really mean much. Once when she slept she dreamed that she had come back from her long adventure and discovered that no time had passed. Once she dreamed that she returned and a thousand years had passed.
When she had awakened the second time, Kubiri sat beside her and said, "I have been briefed on your mission. What do you know of the Tanaver?"
Katja thought. "Nothing much, I suppose. They founded the Alliance, they speak through the Oracles, they make the Portal system possible. Beyond that, they are a big mystery."
He grinned a big, four-cornered Samar grin. "You are closer than you know. 'Tanaver' is a very simplified form of a a word in Samartana dialect that means 'Vast Mystery'. Here in Universe One there is a system called the Tanaver system. The Chaktai capital is on the second planet in the system, and the third planet is the planet Tanaver, and it is technically the capital of the entire Alliacne. But it is not the Tanaver homeworld. There is no Tanaver homeworld. The Tanaver were not born in any universe but, for lack of a better way of saying it, in the spaces between the universes. They are collectors of civilizations; they like gathering distinctive ones together into harmonious patterns. They are caretakers and curators for universes."
"Tenders of the apple tree."
"The apple tree?" asked Kubiri, somewhat startled.
"We Syylven have a story about a great apple tree:
From seed came fruit.
The blooms grew full, each fruit a great world,
rich with every soul's habitation.
The tree of worlds. Sorry, it's just a metaphor, but it came to mind when you talked about caretakers for universes."
"Who has no metaphors has few thoughts," said Kubiri. "One needs metaphors in order to speak of things like the Tanaver, and it is a good one. Yes, they are gardeners tending the apple tree, perhaps better an entire orchard full of apple trees, loaded down with worlds, in order to make the most beautiful apples. Sometimes they splice boughs from elsewhere onto their favorite trees. Among all the civilizations in the universes, some, like the Samar, are home-grown. Others, like the Ylfae, if they are right, or like the Chaktai seem to be, are spliced in from elsewhere.
"Recently the Tanaver have been worrying about something they have been finding in other universes. A blight, so to speak, in which the variety of the universes is being stripped away and replaced with ugly repetition. Complex universal harmonies are being replaced by simplistic and monotonous noise. Were it just an occasional thing, they would no doubt regard it just as part of the universal wilderness, but it is systematic, it is thorough, and it is spreading. It is, in short, a deliberate and artificial imposition on the universes. The Tanaver had discovered people like themselves, not directly but manifested clearly enough in their effects. What they had discovered disturbed them -- and it should go without saying that they are not easily disturbed. They notified the governing bodies of the Four Core Protectorates, who have been pursuing their own investigation; and they began to set up defenses to protect the Alliance from the blight. And they have searched for anything else they could find about these others.
"Like the Tanaver, they usually involve themselves only indirectly, working primarily through protectorates, thousands and perhaps millions of them. Unlike the Tanaver, however, they aid their associates in attacking and conquering other societies, on a massive scale. These transplanted civilizations spread rapidly, choking out and subverting native civilizations. They have done this to dozens of universes, and are continually reaching out for more. At present they pose no direct threat to the Alliance itself, but if they continue to spread we will soon be surrounded, so to speak. All accessible universes will be dominated by them. Further, despite our tendency to talk of the Seven Universes, the Alliance strictly speaking extends past the boundaries of the Seven, just as the territory of a Protectorate extends beyond its habitable planets to its uninhabited systems and isolated outposts. There are a great many universes involved, and a great many outpost Protectorates that are more vulnerable than any Protectorates within the Seven.
"The Tanaver insist that something must be done before their direct intervention is required, before the blight reaches the orchard, so to speak. It is unclear whether these others are as powerful as the Tanaver -- the Tanaver think not, but they have no evidence for that beyond the monotony of what these others are producing -- but they are broadly of the same kind, and war between beings like the Tanaver would be unimaginably destructive. Entire universes would be in danger. While the Tanaver would likely survive it, they could not guarantee at present that the rest of the Alliance would. To this end they have proposed to the governing bodies of the Core Protectorates that a buffer system be put into place. One part of this buffer system consists of assistance to certain societies in fending off the invaders and, where appropriate, offers of Alliance membership. Watchtowers on the outlying hills, so to speak. The Core Protectorates have agreed. We therefore need ambassadors to represent the Alliance to these societies."
"And this is where I come in."
"Truly. You are being asked to be Envoy of the Tanaver to a society that the Tanaver judge would be a great loss to the universes if it should fall."
"But I have no experience as an ambassador."
"You had no experience as an Administrator of a space station, either. The Tanaver take few chances; you were thrown into a new and unfamiliar situation to see what you would do, and the Tanaver found nothing in your behavior to worry them. You have received the confirmation of both the Samar and the Chaka representatives on the scene. And, what seems to have impressed the Tanaver just as much, you have been willing to journey to an entirely different universe simply in order to hear the offer. The Tanaver think you will make a fine Envoy. I agree." He pursed his lips and the edges of his eyes crinkled. "The only thing left for your eligibility is acceptance of the position."
Katja sighed and shook her head. "It seems like the world keeps getting bigger and bigger."
"It always does," said Kubiri. Then: "We have some time, if you need to think about it. We will be making a stop at a Zezai world in order to prepare you for your mission: vaccinations and the like. Up to that point you are free to turn down the offer and return home with the thanks of the Tanaver and the Samar High Council."
"What would happen if I turned it down? In terms of the Alliance and the plan, that is?"
He spread his hands. "The Tanaver do not make fragile plans. Another would have to be found, and could be found, even if there were none as good. I do not know the process for doing that. I do not even know how you were chosen, except that it was deemed that a Sylven would be the optimal choice, since the Syylven are physiologically similar to the species in question, and that the Tanaver chose you as the most acceptable Sylven."
"What would you advise?"
Kubiri looked grave and adjusted his fedora. "On a matter such as this, advice will always fall short. There is no precedent for this, nothing suitable for casuistic analysis, an insufficient amount of information for reliable simulation. Decisions like this can only be made by good sense and good taste, in pursuit of truth and of beauty. You've shown yourself to have some of both. But I would point two things out. The first is that you would not have been asked if there were not excellent reason for it. And the second is that you should not accept unless you are genuinely willing. This is a dangerous thing that is being asked of you."
He was thoughtful for a moment, then said, "There is a third thing to be said. No matter what roads we walk, the beautiful life cannot be taken from us, only given up. Hard as the choice may be, in a sense it does not differ from any other. If you go home, that is a good choice, if only you go home to live a beautiful life. If you take on this mission, that is a good choice, if you take on this mission and live a beautiful life."
It was not long afterward that they docked at a space station. They then took an elevator down, which Katja found most remarkable. Her best guess was that it was something like a laser ablation system, which allowed the compartment to detach from the station and then descend at a controlled speed into the atmosphere. There was no window to a compartment, but when Katja asked if there was any way to see out, Kubiri was able to bring up some kind of holographic display, which showed an ugly red-yellow planet and a little dot showing where the compartment was. It hardly seemed to be moving, but numbers showed current speed of descent, which was then plotted on a graph.
It took quite some time to descend, although less than she would have expected. The ride was quite smooth. As the elevator settled into ground position, Kubiri said, "One important thing. This is not a samaroid world. The atmosphere of this planet is poisonous to almost any samaroids; a Samar would die in a matter of minutes and a Sylven almost instantly. The Pavilion itself is safe, but you must stay within Pavilion bounds at all times."
The door opened and they stepped out.