The rest of the trip was uneventful, much to Kevin's surprise at the time, and even more so with the benefits of hindsight, when he finally got around to thinking about it later. He and Tanji arrived at what she assured him was a perfectly ordinary and everyday portal junction.
The junction building consisted of a large and rather bland roofed space at the conjunction of several corridors, with both terminus and corridors built from the light grey construction stone Kevin had seen deployed elsewhere in Lyndesfarne. Blocked-off archways lined the corridors at regular intervals. The functional starkness gave the place, Kevin thought, a passing resemblance to the poured-concrete and steel architecture of a Swiss railway terminus.
The walls and ceiling were stuck all over with illuminated signs and arrows, marked with numerous symbols that Kevin was even now only just beginning to be able to decipher. He could make out the marks for "North" and "South", and a few numerals. Arrowheads for directions seemed universally comprehensible, though.
Tanji quickly scanned the signs, and then guided Kevin by the arm down one of the long high-ceilinged corridors. The corridor was fairly busy, although not particularly crowded. Dozens of travellers were visible, all with the slightly elfin appearance that indicated a person of Lyndesfarne origin.
Few people paid any attention to either of them. Kevin was worried that his appearance would stand out, but he was so bundled up against the cold and wet that it was probably difficult to tell even what gender of person was inside the bulky clothing.
Numerous travellers were moving purposefully in various directions, generally carrying bags and rucksacks, or pulling containers that moved on wheels or, in some cases, floated on nothing at all. Kevin was fascinated with the floating luggage, and his head turned this way and that as he tried to watch the bags drifting past.
"Kevin!" whispered Tanji urgently, "Stop gaggling at everything."
"I think you mean goggling," muttered Kevin, but he stopped staring at people, and kept his eyes on the ground.
Tanji dragged Kevin though the crowd, avoiding the inevitable confused traveller who had stopped dead in the middle of the throng, and was intently and alternatively studying the signs and a guidebook. It seems that tourists are the same everywhere, thought Kevin wryly.
"We will go to my Aunt's house," Tanji announced suddenly, "I've not seen her for a while, but she's always been very fond of me. I'm sure she'd be able to offer us help and advice."
"OK," agreed Kevin, who was in a confused state himself, and allowed himself to be directed without much coherent thought on his part.
"Besides," continued Tanji, "She's a really good cook. Right now, I could eat a mountain."
After a few minutes walking, Kevin began to wonder about the portals. It was becoming clear to him that there was a vast network of the things; it was not something where Professor Alan's briefings had been particularly explicit. The Professor's briefings had barely mentioned portals, and had given him the impression (without actually saying so) that they were rare and difficult to use. Kevin was now fairly certain that knowledge of the sophisticated nature of both the society and the magic (or technology, as he was beginning to think of it) had been suppressed deliberately at NISSA.
"Who pays for the portals?" he asked Tanji. He had not noticed anything that looked like ticket booths, or any obvious way of paying for passage.
"Well, basically, taxes. Portal travel is available to everyone, whenever they want it."
Tanji caught sight of Kevin's sceptical expression.
"There's less importance attached to personal wealth here than in your homeland, I think, and almost everyone pays taxes - they are famously difficult to avoid. Most necessities and a great many amenities are provided by, well, I guess you would say, by various agencies of the government, but I think they are more, umm, separate..."
"Autonomous?" suggested Kevin.
"Yes, that's right. There's great status to be gained by achieving senior positions in the Boards and Guilds. My Uncle is a Senior Convenor in the Guild of Transportation, and that earns him much respect."
"Ah. And it is your Uncle we are going to visit. Perhaps he will be able to help?"
"Oh, yes, and my Aunt too, of course. And I am hoping that my old friend Kithyn will be able to meet us there as well."
The walls of the corridor were lined with archways that formed the portals themselves. Every now and then, someone would walk into the arch and disappear, with a minimum of fuss, or appear from the blank greyness, with equal lack of excitement. Just an everyday magical instantaneous journey, mused Kevin, ironically.
Between the arches, there were stalls and cafes, as well as other emporia that Kevin could not easily identify. Some of the stalls floated in the air, in just the same way as the luggage which had distracted Kevin so much earlier.
The terminus corridors were relatively noisy, with footsteps and voices echoing from the ceiling. Nevertheless, Kevin noticed, just at the edge of hearing, a gentling ticking emanating from each of the portals, all at slightly different rates.
"Tanji, there's something I don't understand here," Kevin said, "Portals provide rapid transport between two points, yes?"
"That's right," she replied, looking slightly puzzled.
"So, why are there cafes and stalls here? Surely no-one wants to wait in a place like this when they can travel to their destination immediately?"
Tanji laughed out loud, attracting the attention of a couple of passers-by. Kevin shushed her urgently.
"It's really quite simple," she answered, more quietly, "Portals connect two points, but not all the time. Each archway is connected to many different exits. It can be up to ten, but is more usually five or six. Every three minutes, the destination changes - so you have to check carefully on the signs above the arches."
"Ah," said Kevin, light dawning, "So you might have to wait ten or even twenty minutes before the correct destination can be reached?"
"Yes, although with luck and skill it can be much less. With practice, it's possible to select a route where you do not have to wait very long for the destination."
Both Kevin and Tanji were attempting to keep a lookout for anyone watching them, or trying to follow them. They walked up and down at least one section of corridor twice, trying to see if there was any reaction from the passers-by.
They ducked into a small cafe, where Tanji ordered hot chocolate and savoury pastries for them both. Kevin tried to offer to pay, but Tanji had already got the correct coins ready before he could work out the bill. They took the comestibles to a table at the back of the cafe, in a dark corner where they felt it would be difficult for them to be seen. If there was anyone watching them, they could not be identified in the crowd.
While they were vigorously attacking their hot food and drink, Kevin shrugged out of his jacket. He felt himself warming up rapidly, both from the heat of the cafe, and the warmth of the chocolate. His sweater seemed to be drying out at last, and the dampness in his coat had receded to the cuffs and hem. He stretched out, letting himself relax for the first time in hours.
Once again, Tanji had got out her slate, and was writing in quick jerky movements. She gestured vigorously and, as Kevin watched, the words of a note written in the incomprehensible language of Lyndesfarne faded from the surface.
"I've sent a message to my family. They'll be expecting us," she explained. "I would just like to write a note to my friend Kithyn now."
She started writing again, this time in English. Kevin was amused by the chatty nature of the note, although struck by the overtones of desperation. She completed and dispatched the message in the usual way, and then returned her slate to her bag.
"OK," she said, finishing off the last piece of the hot pastry, "Let's get going."
Tanji lead Kevin to a particular portal, which he was sure they had walked past twice earlier. They joined the stream of people and traffic, and stepped through. They reappeared in another very similar terminus, and walked swiftly to a second portal very close to the one from which they had just emerged. They entered once again without incident, and arrived at a third portal junction, again almost identical in character to the previous two. Just like airports, thought Kevin, they could be anywhere in the world.
The last portal junction seemed particularly quiet, at least by comparison. Kevin looked around. There were a couple of stalls, all with wheels rather than floating, and a cafe exuding quiet music in a style he had never heard before. No one seemed to be paying them the slightest bit of attention.
Tanji pointed at a portal archway in a corner.
"That's the last one. Less than a minute to wait."
There was a short pause and then she said, "Let's go home."
They arrived in front of a stone archway in a building which could have been a particularly well-kept continental provincial railway station. There were a couple of other portal arches visible, decorated with signs and directions, and a few Islanders were moving about purposefully.
"Where are we?" breathed Kevin. He felt disoriented by the rapid-fire transition through the portals, and imagined himself staring at the surroundings like a hick from the sticks.
Tanji took his arm.
"This is Rhythlen," she said. Kevin repeated the word carefully.
"It's the village where my Aunt and Uncle live."
She led the way out of the building into a prosperous-looking village square, with shops and civic buildings on all sides.
"How far have we travelled?" Kevin asked her.
"I'm not sure how far the portal in the castle was from the first terminus," she replied, "But the rest of the journey was..."
She paused, a look of concentration on her face. Kevin guessed she was converting the distance units in her head.
"Well, about sixty miles," she concluded.
Sixty miles in a few minutes, and on foot, too, thought Kevin. No wonder I feel confused. Three big steps of about twenty miles each, so it really is like having seven-league boots.
Guided by Tanji, they made their way across the square and along a road that led up a slight hill. The solid buildings of the village centre soon gave way to more open habitation. On either side of the road, which was lit by lamps on poles at regular intervals, there were large houses, mostly painted white and with what looked like brightly-coloured doors and window frames. Each house was set in spacious gardens, often well-lit, and was surrounded by rustic stone walls and well-trimmed hedges with gates made of wood or what looked to Kevin like wrought iron. It was clear to him that people here enjoyed their privacy, although many of the gates were open and, even at this late hour, children could be heard playing beyond the hedges.
"It's about ten minutes walking from here," said Tanji, smiling at Kevin, "Do you think you can make it?"
Kevin smiled in return and took her hand. "Of course. A short evening stroll and it's not even raining!"
My Dearest Kithyn,
I am on my way now to visit my Aunt and Uncle right now. You will remember them, I feel sure. They were my guests at the Guild graduation ceremony. They pushed me forward when my name was called, otherwise I feel sure that I would never have got up onto that stage.
I should arrive at my family place this evening. Please, please meet me there as soon as you can. I should so like to talk.
I think I do need your help after all.
Your old friend, Tanji.
|© 2006-2008 Trevor Hopkins. All rights reserved.||Webmaster||Last updated 15 March 2008|