The Ordinary

Jim Grimsley

Tor Books

THE ORDINARY (Chapter 1)

Jedda arrived at the Twil Gate by hoverboat and waited in a private lounge for the rest of the delegation to join her. She had received a mentext message to meet the party only a few hours before, an assignment from the ministerial offices in Béyoton; she was to set her stat for an unheard-of level of security and was to speak to no one at all about her trip. At Arnos Platform, which rose over the waves like a cluster of mushrooms on stilts, she met officials of the Planetary Ministry who conducted her to a lounge where she sipped purified water, alone. She looked at the vast, open ocean, a sight that always confounded her, especially after the months she'd spent underground in her apartment in the second tier of Nadi.

On a wall near her, a flatscreen filled with pictures from the distant war, the colors washed out by the bright sunlight streaming in from the windows. The footage came from a battle with a pod armada from several light-years away, the latest news to reach Home Star; she had limned the report in her morning abstract. Near Tret, the interstellar navy had intercepted the pod, on a heading toward the Hormling core systems at near the speed of light. The footage had a wonderful freshness to it, though it was at least fifteen years old, the distance from Tret to Home Star. Here was proof the war was still alive.

The rest of the delegates arrived by helijet, having set out by air from Béyoton early that morning, crossing the Inokit continent to Davidon in an hour, refueling in Davidon for the trip to the staging platform at the Twil Gate. The journey across the gate would be made by hoverboat, though for the actual crossing the boat must run on water and not on air. Ironic, she thought. The closer we come to the world on the other side, the slower we must go, and the nearer to the surface. That country pulls you to itself.

She examined the part of the gate she could see, a simple, high, elongated arch of stone, the graceful narrow end of a parabola soaring into the air, impossible to believe but present, nevertheless, for twenty years now. Rising out of the waves and soaring into the clouds. From this distance the stone appeared smooth as glass, but in fact every part of the arch was covered with a kind of lettering, words in a language that had never been identified.

Once the delegation arrived on the platform, there was no time for any sort of ceremony in the rush from one craft to the next. Jedda was shocked when she saw there were only six in the party. She had expected a hundred at least; it was rare for the government to be so restrained. One of the six was Orminy; Jedda had been warned about that by her agent. She was the first of the ruling caste to cross the gate. Tarma Jurartelate was her name, direct-daughter of the mother of her house. The presence of an Orminy gave everybody extra pep in the step, as it were. When she finally appeared, she was without any visible personal defenses, since these were not allowed beyond the gate under the treaty, and so she didn't look much like Jedda expected. Tarma, a thin woman dressed in severe black coveralls, several shades of silver-to-black hair, and an oddly shaped stat at her belt, watched the ministrations of the crew and the efforts of everybody to please her with a cool that could only be envied. She was accompanied by one of the high-ranking officers of the Enforcement Division, though everyone affected to ignore his presence altogether. Along the platform stood the research huts, and in the water around the platform sailed the fleet of boats from the Planetary Ministry stationed here to study the gate, all sizes and makes, bristling with antennae and satellite dishes, and the fleet of military boats assigned to watch it, vaguer shapes near the horizon.

Right away she could tell her colleagues were going to have a hard trip. Two of the women pulled on dark glasses and wrapped their heads in long scarves, looking uncomfortably up at the sky and gripping their seats as soon as they boarded the boat, speaking nervously to each other. A large man with a handsome, friendly face was mopping his face with a handkerchief and smiled in a strained way at Jedda. "I haven't been near this much open air in a long time," he said. Another fellow was reaching for his stat. These were Hormling, after all, used to the cramped spaces of Béyoton.

As soon as Tarma, Jedda, and the delegates were aboard the hovercraft, it set out across the water, dropping into the waves close to the gate, an unpleasant rocking, and the science fleet began to track it, same as every ship, every crossing, to try to learn what happened when a ship passed under the arch. One of the essential mysteries of our time, it was called, since in twenty years of study the scientists had learned essentially nothing.

Jedda was prepared for the lurch in the stomach that accompanied the crossing, but some of the others appeared to be fighting nausea. Tarma appeared placid and unaffected during the ride. The sight of her made Jedda apprehensive; was it a good omen to be in such a small group of people with one of the Orminy, or was it a bad one; what could be the purpose of this journey? Many other translators were available for the southern language of Irion, but Jedda was one of the few Hormling who had learned any of the northern language. Which meant that the delegation must be intending to treat with the northerners.

The crossing: a moment in which her stomach twisted, a wash of cold over her skin, followed by nothing, blue water exactly as before, only the platform had disappeared. Instead, surrounding them and soaring high above them, the Twil arch, so thin and light it was almost gossamer, reaching nearly five-tenths into the sky, though it was made of ordinary stone, according to all evidence, including the testimony of the Anin, who claimed a wizard built it. A stone arch as high as the highest building in Béyoton, rising out of the ocean and sweeping up into the air, a delicate curve. Stone fitted on stone so exactly not a seam could be seen in the whole height. Not a sign of an energy source, no matter where or how the Hormling looked. Through it rushing wind and ocean.

The hoverboat signaled the standard greeting to the ships of the Ironian navy that patrolled the ocean near the gate, steamships with hulls of wood and iron, a few wind-driven vessels, crewed by members of whatever these people called their marine forces, but more important, by members of the Prin. On the Irion side the wind was in a lull, and the ships clung to the heaving surface of the water in a way that appeared forlorn. The lead ship raised a flag that indicated permission for safe passage into the Bay of Anin, and the hovercraft acknowledged and carried the delegates past the huge rock island that commanded the center of the bay, the one with the huge fortress dug into the rock on the ocean side, which Jedda saw every time she came here and every time she left. The hoverboat skimmed across the waves to Evess, to the capital of Irion, a city unlike anything the Hormling knew, with dwelling places for families in separate structures and access to the buildings through the open air, along streets that were no more than layers of pavement over the ground, or, in Evess, along natural waterways or trenches dug in the earth called canals, though these were nothing like the canals of the Hormling, which all had roofs and mostly ran underground. The delegates, green from travel across the raw surface of the water, were dumbstruck at the nature of the city. Their stats were, no doubt, adjusting the level of sedative chemicals in their bodies to help them cope with the open space, and Jedda could feel the change in herself, the mild haze of disinterest and detachment. She fingered the input handle of her own stat. Many of the first Hormling to visit Irion had required mental adjustments, due to the shock of seeing so much air, sky, earth, all around, so many people out in the open, with only an occasional roof over their heads.

In Evess, the delegation was received at the Hormling consulate, a large stone complex on a busy canal, the buildings built mostly in the Anin fashion, including some roundhouses with conical roofs and walls covered in some kind of white plasterish substance. There were a few Hormling-style buildings in the complex, too. The consulate was surrounded by a high stone wall that had been built for defense and not for show, crenellated, with squat towers spaced along the walls. Inside was a green, tree-strewn estate that had belonged to a family of the Anin who had a distant kinship to King Kirith; Jedda had heard the story on a visit here. She had visited the administrative center and wondered about the other buildings; now she would see some of them. Most of the people who worked here had grown accustomed to the open space, to the sky above their heads, so that the group of delegates looked even more conspicuous, moving hurriedly from the canal across the long expanse of lawn and plaza. Melda's face pinched into a frown and she stared fixedly at the ground as she walked; Himmer was struggling to keep up with her, talking to her, while Vitter, short and bony, glided along the ground, looking rather drugged. They were surrounded by an escort of staff, twenty or thirty dressed in coveralls, a few of the upper-level staff in frock coats, who brought them into a formal reception hall, high ceilinged, elaborately paneled and decorated, with heavy curtains drawn over the windows that lined two long walls. The sight of the closed curtains relaxed the delegates visibly, enclosing them in a comfortable interior while they waited for Tarma to receive her private briefing from the Consul.

Jedda was expecting to be settled into a room or a hotel in the city but instead, a few minutes later, the party was bustled into the courtyard where a large, van-style putter stood with its trunk compartment open and their luggage vanishing into it.

"Where are we going?" she asked the large man, who had introduced himself as Himmer.

"Montajhena," Himmer said. He gave her a look meant to measure her in some way. She liked the golden-brown color of his eyes. "To meet with Malin."

That was when Jedda began to understand the importance of this group she was accompanying, beyond its having a member of Orminy rank, and a prickle of fear ran through her in the courtyard, as she and the others stood waiting for the putter. Tarma had come here to speak to Malin, who was the ruler of all these people. In Jedda's previous journeys to Irion, she had taken part in holidays to celebrate Malin's birthday, her coming to the throne, her naming day, all events of great importance in this strange, backward country. She was said to have ruled Irion for centuries, since the King departed.

The putter had to be ferried to a part of the city where the new roads could accommodate it, which caused another flurry of discomfort among the travelers. On the ride, Jedda stood near Himmer, maybe due to the comfort of having spoken to him; aside from the introductions, no one paid much attention to Jedda. The ferry drifted through the dark canals, under arched stone bridges, the houses lining the streets tall and narrow, roofs of tile or slate or newer materials imported from across the gate, shingle or composite. Some of the buildings looked ages old, others looked ramshackle and new. Except for the distant call of a news-teller, there were only bird sounds and the lapping of the water against the ferry, unsettling sounds for the Hormling, who were used to the noises of the interiors of buildings and not of the outside world. Even Jedda felt it, after her months in Nadi.

Farther from the bay the canals narrowed and the houses grew poor, and some looked abandoned. The two women, whose names Jedda could not remember, were pointing at one of the tumble-down houses, and one of them said, "It's wood. Look at that."

"That's a fortune's worth of it."

"Look," the woman was turning to the older man, Vitter, who sat alone, a bit sullen, on the bench along the side of the ferry. "That house is made completely of wood, every bit of it. You can see right into it, the way it's fallen down."

"We used to build with wood ourselves, back in the long ago," Vitter said. He had a melodious voice, more musical than deep. A face that could only be his real genetic heritage; no one would have chosen it, thin-lipped and gaunt.

"And the whole pile of it is just lying there," the other woman said, full-faced and moonish.

"This part of the city reminds me of the third tier," said the first woman, who was tall and thin, her age hard to guess, meaning she had likely been regressed, maybe more than once. "I didn't think these people had a problem with poverty."

Vitter said, "The third tier looks a lot worse than this, Melda."

When the canals widened again, the ferry docked and the putter glided off the deck. Melda and her friend ducked into the interior with relief, and the men followed close behind. Tarma took the long seat in the back of the putter, alone, and the man from Enforcement sat in front of her.

There were two Hormling drivers and the seven delegates in the passenger cabin. The putter made good time on the roads, which were mostly machine traffic this close to Evess. No one had much to say. Jedda learned that the moon-faced woman's name was Kurn and that she was in the Ministry of Science. She learned that Himmer had a high ranking, since someone said his krys name, ten letters, or that was the way it sounded out. Otherwise there was a quiet in the putter, maybe because of the man from Enforcement, or maybe because of Tarma, who was listening to still-glasses, in a world of her own. Kurn and Melda talked quietly for a while and then pulled stats and flats out of their briefcases and settled down to what looked like work. Himmer napped, head bobbing loosely on the headrest. Vitter was reading something. Now and then each of them would steal a glance at the countryside moving past the window and quickly focus on their work again.

The party stopped for the first night in another of the open-air cities called Arsk, much smaller than Evess, a huddle of stone and wooden buildings where a river crossed a road. There was no assembly of delegates and everyone was tired from the crossing and the putter trip, and so they all went to their separate rooms in the Hormling trade center, comfortable rooms of the snug size and convenience to which they were accustomed. But the consul's representative warned them that there were no such accommodations in Karsk, and the party would have to travel as the Anin do, boarding in one of their hostels or inns.

The next day passed in much the same way, with quiet in the putter, everyone engaged in some kind of work. The look of the land changed from flat plain to rolling hills and forest, farms that looked prosperous and well tended, set back from the road in groves of trees, fields neat and well kept. Jedda had largely traveled in the west near Charnos, occasionally traveling into the countryside to visit local textile centers; the look of this country was different, less settled, the forest looming over the road at times, dark and deep. Most of these people were Anin, short and stocky, brown-skinned and brown-eyed, with eyes of a slightly almond shape, dressed in local cuts of clothing, tunics belted with leather or braided cord, trousers, heavy boots of leather, the men and women hardly differentiated. A few were of the northern race, the Erejhen, which had appeared to be several different races to Jedda when she first met them; taller and with a greater variety of appearance, often very good-looking, with eyes of a rounder shape and many colors. Both races were clearly kin to one another in design but were unable to breed with one another.

In the afternoon the older man, Vitter, offered her a stick of dream-gum. "I notice you don't pretend to work, like everyone else does," he said. "This is very nice. Keyed to pleasant memories."

She shook her head. "I had a problem with the stuff once, I don't do it anymore."

He cocked a brow, which caused a torrent of movement in his facial wrinkles. When he spoke, his full voice made her feel as if it were surrounding her. "A problem? Those are rare, these days, I'd think."

"Some people can't tolerate hallucinogens."

"I'd hardly call this a hallucinogen," Vitter said, mildly. He smiled and slid the gum into the pocket of his coverall. "Your stat can give you a bigger kick than this."

Karsk lay near one of the old forests, a preserve of land that belonged to the government. Riding along the forest toward the city, the lights glimmering in the dusk, Jedda felt peace return to her, deeper than the tonic of the stat, to be here again, in this country.

"We're almost to the city, whatever the name is," said Melda. "Oh goodness, I hope there's a place at the trade center for the putter to pull indoors. I don't want to get out under that again." She gestured to the sky, too sullen to name it. "Honestly, these people have too much open land for their own good."

"We're not in a travel center tonight, we're in a local hotel," Kurn said. She had a breezy voice, a languorous way of speaking. "We'll be among the natives."

"Oh, my."

"So we'll definitely be walking outside again, at least to get into the hotel. And I've heard your room may even have a window to the outside."

"A window?"

"You open it, and there's the sky right outside your room," Kurn said.

Melda shivered and went back to her flat, which was dancing with patterns of color that changed the color of Melda's pasty wrists as she held it. She worked for the Health Ministry, and Kurn was with the Ministry of Science. Jedda had learned that much from eavesdropping.

At dinner with the delegates in Karsk, Tarma took out her stat and briefed them on what the delegation had come to do. Jedda was there and went online with her stat, too, which was functioning properly even so far away from the link server. She uploaded her version of the meeting as one of the listeners even though she was not needed to translate; everybody else did the same, with a certain air of weariness. Certain functions of the stat passed through the gate, like access to the data mass; others, like mentext-messaging, did not. Odd to have her head clear of mentext, to have none of that traffic to contend with.

Tarma began with an apology for the small size of the working group; seven visitors were all that the Ironian government would allow. Tarma noted that in the normal course of Hormling business, such a high-level delegation, to one of the colonies, for instance, would have included several hundred people, or even thousands, in order to assure that the delegation would be taken seriously.

Tarma had heard of Malin only recently, she said, when the Orminy finally learned that there was a ruler of Irion, that the ruler was a woman who was called the Thaan, and the woman's name was Malin. The Orminy had been proceeding quietly in the matter of our relations with Irion, ever since the shock of discovering the Twil Gate two decades ago, a new world beyond, peopled with humans and rich with resources. In those days the ministries advised a cautious approach to relations with Irion, and, given the fact of the ongoing interstellar war being fought along the Hormling trade line, there was little choice in the matter.

Tarma relaxed against the high back of her wooden chair and gestured languorously with her hands as she spoke, her face, in the flush of the good beer she was drinking, relaxing into a pixielike prettiness that Jedda found attractive. Tarma's lecture was carefully rehearsed. She noted that the southerners, the Anin, had been grateful for our cooperation since the beginning and were eager for trade. Her voice was pleasant, husky. "But we've explored as much of Irion as the Anin control, apparently, and for access to any more of the country and its resources, we need the permission of this woman, the ruler. We have been asking to meet with her since we learned of her existence, and she's finally agreed to talk with us, though it appears she wants us to chase her to the edge of the world."

This was the whole of the briefing, and there was no talk afterward, since everyone had stats set to pick up anything that was spoken. Everybody was aware of Tarma's status and nobody wanted to be put in the position of asking questions. No one knew what she was thinking, exactly, and no one wanted to stick a neck out in such a small group, except Kurn, the scientist, who remarked placidly that this was a wonderful opportunity to see a city that only a handful of the Hormling had seen. If she could get used to looking up and seeing all that open space overhead. Everyone laughed at that, even Tarma.

The rooms in the inn were a shock to the guests; not in size, for people of this rank were accustomed to large spaces; but each room did indeed have a window and all were open to the air. Jedda closed her windows after a few moments of standing at one. The inn had good plumbing and hot water, at least, and she only shared her bathroom with Melda, whose last name turned out to be Natocan, the same rank as Jedda.

THE ORDINARY Copyright © 2004 by Jim Grimsley.