CHAPTER ONE: BEHOLD, WELL MET! AND A FEW GOOD JOKES
My first trip through the Plane Shifter was originally intended to last fifteen seconds. It lasted nine hours, and I went back far sooner than anyone had expected.
John had instructed me to hop over, see if the coordinates were for a safe location, and use the remote immediately to beam myself back. I was fully aware that something might go wrong, and had stashed a total of three remotes on myself and in my pack. Linda had been detailed to watch the Viewer and see if I made it through and whether I had encountered any life forms. (Later, it transpired that they had begun to watch in shifts.)
I remember stepping onto the absorption site, feeling the tingling of the force field as it was beginning to energize. The pack felt light on my back. John signaled to Ernie to bring the equipment to full power. A bright flash of light, a brief but intense millisecond of pain--it felt like every molecule in my body was simultaneously being wrenched sideways--and I was through, passed over into what I would come to know as Tadafri Katon.
The first thing I noticed was that my backpack had not come through with me--it was lying on the floor of the room I had just left. The machine had had a hiccup. I was stuck without most of the stuff I needed for comfort, but if it came down to plain old survival, I was set; my first aid kit was still clipped to my belt, my fire tools were in my back pocket, my notebooks and pens were in the inner pocket of my coat, and my sturdy walking staff was still in my hands.
The second thing I noticed, a split second later, was that I had materialized about two feet off the ground. My boots thumped into the gravel and I dropped involuntarily into a sitting position. As I tried to get up and steady myself, I realized I was hearing the last dying echoes of some reverberant noise, and concluded that they must be echoes of whatever sound my arrival must have made in this place.
The place was a wide, rocky riverbank. On each side of this river (more like a stream), a wide shingle of smooth-worn stones followed its curves. About fifty feet back from the river, the shingle ended and vegetation began, with tall evergreens springing up at the very edge. Up the river some way (to the North, my compass told me, although what magnetic north was in this place I couldn't guess) stood a sheer mountain cliff, rising in the distance over the canopy of the forest.
Over the rushing of the river, I began to hear voices--two of them. They seemed to be coming from up the river a short way, and on my side of the bank. Before I could make out any real words, the voices were distinct enough that I could tell that one was a male and the other a female. The male's voice was husky, but not deep, and without any snarl in it; it was a voice with the texture of a very fine sandpaper. The female voice was high and clear, chiming like a bell, although it too had a slightly sandpapery quality to it.
"Ago verári!" said the female. "Mai otlari iwe yeawa verori!"
"Do ayashmatet?" replied the male. "Malha rom kohein, kavuri ishmatido?"
"Náret do utlar?" The voices were closer now, and I was even able to detect something in her voice that sounded like sarcasm.
"Teb rodatae we! Mai ashmatet a--WA!!" This last was a girlish shriek of astonishment. They had come out of the trees and seen me.
I imagine our mutual shock was based on the same first impression--we looked so like and yet so unlike each other. They were taller than me (not an impossible task, I grant you), and thinner too, thinner in fact than most human beings; their bodies were long, lithe and muscular--"wiry" would probably be the best word to describe them, although "elongated" and "spindly" would work too. They both had unruly mops of unlikely-colored hair (hers bright green, his a flaming dark red of a kind I had never seen on a human), and out of each a pair of antennae poked. Their ears were long and pointed--so long, in fact, as to look like a cat's ears, or a caricature of an Elf out of Tolkien. Their clothing resembled something from Robert Howard's "Conan" stories. Their skin must have been naturally pale, but they had flawless light-brown tans as though they had spent every second of their waking lives out-of-doors. And to top it all off, they had wings--great gossamer mothlike wings, his a uniform olive-drab green and hers a mottled pinkish-red.
My own appearance, they would later explain, baffled them about as equally. If you saw me, you would see a normally proportioned human being (perhaps tall, but not extremely tall), wearing a black pork-pie hat, a long navy blue trenchcoat, black denim pants and black hiking boots; what they saw, on the other hand, was a short, thick-necked, wide-chinned, stubby-armed, barrel-chested, bandy-legged creature with abnormally small eyes, ears, hands and feet, and a strangely rounded, bulbous nose. His hair was so short, and most of it seemed to be on his face, of all places; and his clothes were dull and gray and seemed to drape over his entire body--as though he were afraid of exposure to the elements! No wonder he was so pale... And where were his antennae and his wings? Did he lose them in some horrible accident, and was that why he was wearing that huge cap and that ridiculous long cloak?
We remained frozen for the longest time; it might have been a few seconds, it might have been a full minute, but time had temporarily stopped for all three of us. Then I saw that they were carrying weapons, and were raising them to a ready position. The male shouted something that sounded like "Kadrido??" and brandished his sword at me (it appeared to be made of some black stone like obsidian); the female's grip on her granite-headed spear tightened visibly. Neither of them made eye contact, but looked down toward my hands; I looked down myself and notice that I had reflexively taken hold of my walking stick with both hands, and was holding it in readiness like a sword or a bludgeon. I looked back up; the two of them, who had taken a few menacing steps toward me, leapt back and pointed their weapons at me again. I cast my stick down on the ground to one side of me, and held my empty hands up before me, praying that they would see I meant no harm.
It worked. Their menacing scowls were replaced by quizzical frowns--and then the green-haired female flashed a smile of obvious relief, flipped her spear point-down, and thrust it into the gravelly soil of the riverbank. The redheaded male lowered his sword and stared aghast at her: "Do taranti?! Sa zulo zulkul we!"
She looked away from me to answer him. "Nan mal-ayashmatet. Sa utlaris'set zulyo ve mai." (Inwardly, I shuddered at the prospect of learning this language; it sounded beautiful tripping off their tongues, but I knew it would be a jawbreaker for me.) She took a few tentative steps toward me, her empty hands likewise held out; I noticed that their hands--and presumably feet too, judging by the outlandish size of their boots--were shapely but not humanly proportioned. A closed fist would be about the size of my head, which only served to make the rest of their bodies look even more spindly in comparison. "Wa utlarehae!" she said in her chiming voice. "Yoelo dinisi!" And crossing her hands upon her chest, she closed her eyes and genuflected briefly.
Mimicking her, I placed my own hands roughly over the area of my heart and went down on one knee. I was trying to remember the words she used, but I garbled them anyway: "Yolo... d-denissi?"
The male chuckled, sheathing his sword. "Nan nan, zakadri. Yo-AY-lo de-NEE-see," he enunciated. I tried it again, and this time I got it right. Presumably, wa utlarehae--yoelo dinisi meant something like "pleased to meet you." (I would later learn, in fact, that it translated literally to "hail and well met!")
He nodded, grinned, and bowed briefly. "Kahado kilisetet?" Oh God, I couldn't guess what that meant; he saw my bewilderment: "Kuh-HAH-doe kill-EE-se-tet?" he said, again trying it slowly.
The girl--by now I had somehow begun to think of them as a girl and a boy--turned to him and spoke. "Nan, dokkimai. Sa nanzulet ishmat. Mai seto, yo?" She looked back at me, smiling. "Mai," she said, placing one hand on her chest, "kilisetet Mirali Miera Gaiare Ridíla."
The boy stepped forward, making the same gesture. "Al mai kilis'set Ravani Eváron Galan Ridíla."
Hesitantly, I pointed at myself: "Mai... kil-ee-sa-tet... Martin..."
I got no further--at my name, they burst into peals of laughter and collapsed. The hills echoed with it, just as they had apparently echoed with the sound that had portended my arrival. "Márdín?!" the girl gasped. "Sudi chevamot!"
"Sa nan utlaris'set moy márdín!" the boy replied between guffaws. They went on yowling with laughter for a good full minute, rolling on the gravelly ground, kicking their legs like little kids.
"K...kaha... mahr-deen?" I asked tentatively as their mirth died down.
"Márdín," the boy responded, making an effort to get his wind back. "Sa ha márdín." He flung his arm in the general direction of the distant mountain.
Was THAT what he meant? I made a gesture taking in the entire mountainside. "Nan," the girl said, shaking her head. "Már--" she made the same gesture--"dín!"-- and pointed carefully toward the highest peak.
I laughed a little myself as I made the connection: it would seem odd to meet a person a full head shorter than you who called himself Mountaintop. "And you, again?" I asked, pointing to them.
"Mirali Miera Gaiare Ridíla."
"Ravani Eváron Galan Ridíla," the male repeated, flapping his fingers against his chest again, and flashing an even white set of teeth as he smiled (I noticed that their canine teeth were slightly larger than a human's).
I groaned at these fifty-dollar names, and tried to make myself clearer. "Martin," I said, holding my hands close together; "Mirali Mi...ra...ga... um..." I trailed off, throwing my hands wide and giving a look I hoped they could read as utter helplessness.
Fortunately, they were perceptive; I might as well have spoken in their language for the speed with which they got the hint. The boy (or man or however old he was; I genuinely couldn't tell--his face seemed both young and ageless) snapped his fingers, a startlingly human action. "Á! Ma'ishmatet! Sa náret malawa!" He flapped his hand to his chest yet again. "Mai Ravani Galan!" said Ravani Galan.
"Al mai Mirali Gaiare..." The girl paused. "Evesh mamal awa: mai Gai!"
"Yo, al mai Gal," the boy interjected.
It was at this point that I began laughing. Oh, good grief--a girl called Gai and a guy called Gal! The ironies of language! I thought.
"Kaha we??" Ravani Galan asked, one eyebrow raised.
"Well, I--" I pointed a finger at him, then at myself. "Heh--you and I, we--ah heheheh, oh jeezis..." I controlled myself long enough to try it in their language. "Ahem: Sa ha 'guy,'" I choked, pointing to Gal and myself again, "and she--no--al sa ha 'gal!'"--and I pointed toward Mirali Gaiare.
They stared for a few seconds. Then the full comprehension suddenly hit them, and they collapsed to the ground again, laughing fit to burst, just like little kids--which caused me to double over again, laughing harder than before... And so it was in mirth that I made my first and best friends among the Esprit.