Mika only visited Aino Korhonen ahead of time because he was in an upward swing. He had awoken with a longing to see people, talk to them, to be surrounded by life. All the interesting markets and people were up the spokes, so that’s where he went.
Aino’s workshop lay in an artisan quarter on the third spoke, close to the hub. The little space was almost entirely occupied by a large table covered in patterns and scraps of cloth. Fat rolls of fabric jostled each other on shelves on the walls. Aino stood at the table, a lanky woman with skin and hair the color of pale sand. She looked up at Mika with grey eyes, straight at him, not gently sideways like normal people. Mika fastened his own gaze somewhere by her right shoulder.
“Mika Johannisson,” he said in Swedish. “I’ll be interpreting at the meeting with the ambassador.”
Aino was still looking at him. “What do you want?”
Wha’ doo’o wan? Her consonants were partly smoothed away, the vowels rounded in a musical arch.
Mika smiled at her. “I was in the neighborhood. Just curious, is all.”
“Well. Watch, then,” Aino said.
She pushed herself off the table and over to the wall to fetch a roll of fabric, and her thin arms and legs folded in the wrong direction. In the low gravity it resembled a strange dance move. Mika watched as she plucked the roll from the wall, put it on the table, measured out a length of fabric, cut it off. He took a step forward.
“Can I touch the fabric?”
“If your hands are clean.”
Mika rubbed the material between his fingers. It felt uneven and alive. People paid good money for Aino’s clothes. Wearing hand-made clothes by an exotic woman who spoke a minority language was authentic and refined. Light trousers and tunics in muted shades, long shawls and plaids, clothes made to wear in layers for protection against hot days and icy cold nights in a place that wasn’t the controlled climate of Amitié.
“Where do you get your fabrics?”, he asked. “It’s not printed?”
“I have contacts.”
“This is exciting,” Mika said, not quite sure what to say next. “You’re exciting.”
“Am I?” Aino asked dryly.
The words flew out. “Were you born that way?” Mika bit his cheek.
“No,” Aino replied. “Were you?”
“What do you mean?”
Aino pointed at Mika’s left hand, which was drumming a nervous triple beat on the tabletop.
Mika laughed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
Aino smiled crookedly. After a long silence that felt awkward to Mika, but looked natural to Aino, she said:
“What are they going to ask me?”
“I don’t know exactly,” Mika said. “I’m just the interpreter.”
“They can’t just be looking for information about Kiruna. They could find that out for themselves.”
“The most current information comes from the Kozlov reports,” Mika replied, “and they’re very incomplete. Also, they can’t land without a permit. Not before the paperwork is done. That’s why they’re starting with you. You’re the first one to leave the place in a generation.”
“Hm,” Aino said. “I suppose that’s how it is, then.”
Mika left with a triangular shawl over his shoulders. The fabric was unfamiliarly raspy on his neck.
The next day was worse than the one before. Mika had only gotten four hours of sleep but still felt energized. He had been building music in the evening, then turned to the game he was currently playing. He spent half the night on the steppe as the explorer Gunnhild, the part where she meets the warrior Bård. It ought to have tired him out, but not this time. Eventually he forced himself to unplug and took a sedative to relax. In Mika’s dreams, Gunnhild defended her caravan over and over again. Each time, the caravan perished because Bård never came. Gunnhild’s companions gave her replies that were pure nonsense, and when Bård finally showed up their love story was interrupted by song-and-dance sequences.
When Mika got up to have breakfast, he still had an imaginary dialogue with Bård going in his head. The food had no taste. He shouldn’t have gotten himself overstimulated. Interpreting would be hard work today. If Mika didn’t take better care of himself, work would be even harder tomorrow, and the day after, all the way up until the crash came and he wouldn’t be able to do much at all. He could have chosen medication, but he wasn’t qualified for any other type of work. His choice was between interpreting or unemployment, and unemployed people weren’t allowed to stay on Amitié. So here he was, unmedicated, employed. And it was still worth it. Every word from the ambassador’s mouth made it worth it.
The thirty ambassadors claimed to come from an early colony. They were looking for a new home, they said, one that fit them better. No one could really contradict their story; at the start of this era, everyone who could had launched themselves into a galaxy that was absolutely lousy with habitable worlds. No one really knew how many ships had left and where. People showing up from distant places with strange modifications wasn’t unheard of.
These ambassadors had named themselves for celestial bodies and phenomena. They looked more or less like baseline humans: neither short nor tall, neither slight nor heavyset, most of them with olive-colored to brown skin and dark eyes and hair. The abnormal thing about them was their speech.
The general consensus was that they spoke an archaic form of English. In the moment they spoke, they were completely understandable. But as soon as they fell silent, any memory of what they had said disappeared. The listener had a feeling of having heard something wise and profound, but exactly what, they didn’t know. Communicating by text didn’t help, as the ambassadors’ written language resembled that of children. It was very obvious that sound was a vital element of their communication.
A very small number of people could understand them and relay their words. Something about the way their brains were wired gave them a sensitivity to the language that others didn’t have. It had its drawbacks, however. The same sensitivity that made Mika an interpreter also made him sick. But it was only without the medication that he could listen.
It was typical of the interpreting company to make Aino come down to the main office, instead of booking a conference room in the spokes or visiting her workshop. Down here, she was clumsy and seemed to be in pain. She sat hunched in her chair, tightly wrapped in her muted shawls. Ambassador Oort arrived dapper as usual, in a nondescript teal suit and short hair slicked flat against her skull.
“You’re here,” she said to Mika.
Those words held the fact that Oort was glad Mika was there, that she had looked forward to their meeting, and that she would remember their encounter with warmth. The message went through him like a warm whisper, and he stopped drumming his fingers against the tabletop. He was here and only here, now.
Aino reacted like everyone else at first. She looked awed as the ambassador spoke to her, then confused when the words disappeared from her mind. Mika repeated Oort’s words, a formal greeting. Aino kept her composure better than most and replied to the questions Mika relayed to her. Was she typical of her kind? What was her village like? What did she do all day? What did the others think of her? Why did she look that way? How did they get their voices? Aino replied.
That the villagers used their children as incubators for large insects. That their throats were then modified during this process so that they could communicate when the moons that bathed Kiruna in soundwaves drowned out the frequency of human speech. That Aino looked like she did because the incubation sometimes had terrible side effects. That she was cast out because she reminded the others of what they did to their children. That she had taken the biologist Petr Kozlov’s place on the shuttle to Amitié. When the ambassador asked Aino to demonstrate her voice, she let out a series of trills, like a little bird.
Aino asked why Oort’s people wanted to settle on Kiruna specifically. Oort replied that the moon’s sound environment seemed to fit them.
“That sound environment doesn’t fit anyone,” Aino replied.
Sleeping was even more difficult that night. Mika’s thoughts ran in circles, a long cavalcade of conversations and snatches of music and ideas and all of a sudden Mika was sitting up in bed composing a new piece; the foundation was a sequence that had been going through his head, adorned with a filigree of frail triplets that he gently dropped over it, an abstract choir that welled in from the sides and enveloped the little cupola he had built, and suddenly the alarm went off and it was time to get up and go to work and he wasn’t tired in the least despite sitting with the music piece for four hours but he made himself take a shower and eat something because that’s what healthy people did.
Émile had left him because of this. Mika couldn’t blame him. It could hardly be easy to put up with someone who one month would stay up all night, talk incessantly and always want sex, and the next month couldn’t get out of bed or even respond. Émile couldn’t.
“Oort is more important than I am,” were his parting words.
Maybe it was true. But Mika’s skin ached to be touched.
“We would like you to come along as an informant when we reconnoiter,” Mika translated to Aino the next day. “You have knowledge of the community that we don’t.”
“What do you need me for?” Aino said.
“We need help interpreting and negotiating on site,” Oort replied.
“What’s in it for me?” Aino asked. “I left for a reason. I don’t want to go back there. They treated me like dirt. I was heavy and in pain. I can be light here.”
“We can cure you.”
“I don’t need curing,” Aino said. “It’s just the wrong place.”
“What do you want then?”
Aino shook her head. “I don’t want anything. I’m content.”
“Petr Kozlov,” the ambassador said, “isn’t doing very well.”
Aino squinted at her.
“He wrote about you in one of his reports. I got the impression that the two of you were close.”
Aino averted her eyes. “Maybe,” she said. “It’s none of your business.”
“He was badly hurt trying to incubate,” Oort said. “He wants to go back to Gliese, but no one will fund the trip. We could ship him home.”
Aino was quiet for a long moment. Then she said: “I thought he would be alright.”
Oort shook her head. “He wasn’t.”
Aino’s mouth twisted. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Well,” she said, and her voice trembled slightly. “I suppose I’ll go with you.”
Mika kept stable on the trip. Maybe it was because he spent most of the trip in stasis. Maybe because during his waking hours he was linked up to the ship only, and not to an entire station. Maybe it was because Oort stayed in her cabin and didn’t need him. Maybe it was because staring at the projection of the approaching gas giant and its three moons gave him a kind of calm. When they eventually landed on Kiruna, he felt almost normal. The sensation evaporated in the terrain vehicle they took from the little spaceport.
Everyone was so slow. The grim local with his slow and clumsy driving, the phlegmatic ambassador, Aino who seemed dumb as a post and who thought for ages before replying. Oort told him to breathe. Breathe how? He breathed as well as he could. Why did Oort speak so slowly?
They drove through a burnt mountain landscape where little succulents hung on to the slopes. As they gained altitude, the world grew a little greener, although the flora mostly consisted of brush and grasses. The angry little sun was stalked by a bright yellow satellite, the moon that drowned out birdsong. In not too long it would be replaced by the other moon, the one that canceled out human speech. Kiruna was almost in tidal lock with the gas giant but had a very slight wobble; sometimes the planet peeked over the horizon to drown out all sound completely. The result was a world where sound was almost never whole. Why people had chosen to live here was a mystery. Mika supposed they couldn’t afford to leave.
The village was nestled in a highland valley next to a thin river, a gathering of about thirty whitewashed houses with roof terraces. The sound of flat goat bells echoed between the mountains. As the car drew closer, people came out of the houses to look. They mostly had the same coloring as Aino, ashy blonde and tanned pale gold, with long faces. The car came to a stop in a little square in the middle of the village, and Mika and the ambassador got out. The crowd that quickly filled the square looked at them in silence. They stared directly into Mika’s and Oort’s eyes, just like Aino did. It felt like being caught in searchlights. Oort spoke.
Oort’s voice rang out deep and round in this atmosphere. It sent shivers along Mika’s ribs. The villagers understood the scope of what the ambassador said: that they truly were honored, revered, that she came to them like a supplicant, and their faces softened. Then her words disappeared, and they raised their eyebrows as Mika repeated the ambassador’s words.
“Honored townsfolk. I am here to determine whether I and my people can be your neighbors. We might settle in these mountains.”
Not a request, an assertion.
They spent the afternoon in the village elder’s house. They spoke of Kiruna, how things worked, how sound worked, what the villagers subsisted on. Oort didn’t ask about the voices or the incubation process.
Aino sat in a corner with her crutches across her lap. The villagers had refused to look at her or speak to her. Aino had made no attempt to communicate with them. Everyone pretended she wasn’t there, at least until Oort insisted on mentioning her.
“Aino Korhonen has been very useful to us as a source of information,” she said.
“I don’t know anything about her anymore,” the village elder said to Mika, twining a leather string between her fingers.
She had been fiddling with that string ever since they arrived. Mika wanted to tear it from her hands and throw it at the wall.
“You bloody well do,” Mika said.
The village elder raised an eyebrow. Oort lay a hand on Mika’s arm. Mika clenched his teeth.
“I apologize,” he said. “Those weren’t the ambassador’s words, they were mine.”
The ambassador regarded him in chilly silence.
“She has been very useful to us,” Oort said, “and you should be proud of her.”
The elder nodded slowly. “Well. That is indeed good.”
“We would like to see Petr Kozlov,” Oort said. “He has provided us with valuable information.”
“Kozlov,” said the elder. “I haven’t seen him in a long time.”
“That means he’s here, but she hasn’t looked at him,” Aino said from her corner. “Ask her where his house is.”
“Where is Petr Kozlov’s house?” Oort asked.
“It’s the house that used to belong to Aino Korhonen,” the elder replied.
The man stood in the opening of the little whitewashed house, looking at Mika and Oort with a frown. He must have been beautiful once, in a squareish sort of way. Now he was thin and pallid, his thick red hair faded; his tawny eyes were sunk deep in their sockets.
“Petr Kozlov?”, Oort said.
Petr blinked. Mika translated. Petr stared at Oort and nodded.
“We can help you leave,” Oort said. ”Thanks to Aino. You remember Aino, don’t you?”
Oort stepped aside. Aino stood a few paces behind them, leaning heavily on her crutches, almost turned away from them. She looked sideways at Petr. Petr put a hand over his eyes and gasped for breath. Aino slowly walked over to him where he stood in the door. He abruptly wrapped his arms around her and leaned his head against her chest. Aino dropped one of her crutches and put a hand on his head. Her sleeve hid his face.
Oort led Mika away.
The driver moved the car to the edge of the square, folded the seats down into cots and left for the night. Mika didn’t notice the change until a sudden cry pierced the air. The villagers were singing.
It sounded like birdsong, sequences and trills so high that a human throat couldn’t produce them. Mika opened his mouth and tried to speak. He could feel his throat vibrating against his fingers, and hear a very, very faint sound of his own voice, but that was all. Oort smiled at him when she saw him try. For a moment it sounded as if she was chuckling, but he must have misheard.
The high-frequency noises began to prick his ears. Every noise put him more on edge. They came shooting at him like bright yellow flashes, they burrowed behind his eyes. He found earplugs in his toiletry bag, but they didn’t help in the least. The cries began to fall silent a couple of hours after sunset, but by then it was too late. Sleeping would be impossible. Mika started the Gunnhild game locally and left for the steppe and Bård. He gripped Bård like Petr had gripped Aino and imagined that they met again after a long time apart, that everything was forgiven, that they started over.
Aino came back to the car while Mika was having breakfast. Oort had left to reconnoiter on her own. Voices were audible again. Aino sat down in the door opening. She didn’t look like she had had much sleep. She accepted the cup of tea Mika handed her.
“He can’t talk anymore,” she said. “He tried to incubate and get the voice. He failed. And now he’s a pariah.”
“So is he coming with us to Amitié?” Mika asked.
“He wants to,” Aino said. “But he wants to be with me.” She squeezed her lips together.
“And you don’t want to.”
Aino shook her head. “He didn’t love me, he loved the intriguing outcast. It’s not me he loves now, either. Now he loves the savior. The one who doesn’t look away.” She sipped her tea.
“But didn’t you love him back?” Mika asked.
“I did,” Aino said, “but that’s not enough.”
She looked out across the valley. “Sometimes I think I should feel guilty for leaving him here. But then I remember that he didn’t really want me. It was the song and the village and this world.”
Mika refilled Aino’s cup.
“Is that what the ambassador wants?” Aino asked suddenly. “To have a voice? Is she here to do the same thing?”
“I don’t know,” Mika said. “It’s something about this moon. Something about the way sound works here. Exactly what, I don’t know.”
“You’re talking very fast,” Aino said.
“Sorry.” Mika cleared his throat. “I’m like that right now.”
“I can tell. It’s getting worse, isn’t it.”
Mika nodded. “I can’t take meds. If I do I can’t hear Oort anymore.”
“What is it costing you not to take them?”
“And why?” Aino tilted her head. “If it costs you everything, what do you get in exchange?”
Mika made himself breathe more deeply, to construct longer sentences.
“You’ve heard Oort,” he began. “You’ve heard her speak, but as soon as she stops you can’t remember what she said, right? All you know is that she said something, and in that moment you understood exactly what she meant, it was so perfect, so precise. Right?”
“Imagine hearing that and then remembering it.” Mika shook his head. “Badly put. I mean, when Oort speaks, every sentence is perfectly constructed. The sound and the intent are coupled. Do you have an ear for music?”
“Eh,” Aino said. “Good enough for singing.”
“So imagine then,” Mika said, “imagine the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard, with a hundred under- and overtones in harmony, a music that contains everything, so complex that it never bores you, and listening to it almost makes you cry. And you understand why music exists. And when it’s over, you just want more.”
“That’s what it’s like every time Oort opens her mouth,” Mika finished.
“But is it worth it?” Aino asked.
“Right now it feels like it.”
Aino looked at him with sadness. “You’re like Petr.”
Mika laughed a little too loudly and shrugged.
When they ran out of tea, Aino took Mika to the river. Being under such a wide sky again felt unreal. It almost swallowed him. All sharp noises were muted; it was just them and the mountain and the goats who came to see if they had anything edible. They recognized Aino. Mika sang one song after the other, and Aino listened, and there was a sad cast to her features but that was probably for Petr’s sake.
When dusk fell, Oort still wasn’t back. The mountainside on the other side of the valley caught the last of the sunlight. In the village, the meager outdoor lighting came on. Doors and windows closed to the dry cold.
“We should go looking for her,” Mika said.
“Go talk to people,” Aino said. “They might have seen her.”
“Aren’t you coming?”
Aino gave him a crooked smile. “They won’t talk to me, and you don’t want to walk at my pace.”
“No, that’s really not,” Mika started, but Aino interrupted him:
“Yes, it is.” Then she pointed. “There. There she is.”
There she was indeed: the ambassador was standing on a rock shelf above the village.
Aino frowned. “What is she doing up there?”
“Is there something special about that place?”
“We don’t go there. Other than when it’s time to… ” She touched her throat. “Don’t go up there, Mika.”
Mika went up there.
Ambassador Oort stood on the edge of the shelf, looking out across the valley. A small flock of birds circled overhead. Occasionally one of them dove towards the ambassador, but veered away at the last second, as if not finding what it expected.
“It’ll happen soon,” she said when Mika walked up to her.
Mika caught his breath with his hands on his knees. “What’ll happen soon?”
“Soon we’ll see if this is the right place,” Oort replied.
She turned and looked at Mika, and her face was tense with nervous joy.
An eerie light swelled on the horizon.
“There,” the ambassador said. “Now.”
A second horizon overtook the first as a glowing sliver of the gas giant rose and absolute silence fell. Far away, Mika could hear the faint rush of blood in his ears. Ambassador Oort opened her mouth and sang.
She sang, and the song made Mika’s eyes tear up, it dug a hole in his belly. He opened his mouth to join her, but his voice left no trace in the air. The ambassador’s deep voice filled the world. She turned to Mika, and her eyes shone in the light of the gas giant. Suddenly Mika understood everything, more than everything. Creation spread out in front of him like a map.
The ambassador sang a low note and swept her hands sideways, as if opening a curtain. And the world slipped sideways. An untouched, verdant landscape, another sky where strange stars were coming out, another gas giant glowing a fiery orange. The ambassador’s tinkling laugh.
When Mika came to outside the village, and they took him to the spaceport and sedated him, and he crashed on the shuttle and the darkness took over and everything slowed down to a crawl.
Hands, brain, tongue. The sluggish pointlessness, the sleep, the dreams about the shelf. As they helped him to his room on the station. Visited him and made him swallow pills. Long cool hands on his forehead. As he floated to the surface, and had a sudden moment of clarity: that was Aino sitting on a chair next to his bed.
“Are you awake now,” she said.
Mika nodded mutely.
“Oort?” he asked.
Aino shrugged. “Somewhere on Kiruna. They all went there.”
“I saw something there,” Mika said. “On the shelf.”
“What did you see?”
“I don’t remember,” Mika replied. “But I understood everything.”
“They said you had a psychotic break.”
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
“Maybe so,” Aino said. “But you were crazy nonetheless.”
“He’s on his way to Gliese now,” Aino said. “Where he belongs.”
The treatment supposedly healed the damage the repeated episodes had made. Still, Mika was left a little more stupid, a little slower, a little duller. Aino let him help out in the workshop every now and then. Working with his hands was calming.
They never spoke about what had happened or not happened. They cut, basted and hemmed in silence. Sometimes someone came in, and Mika caught himself listening tensely, but the customer always spoke in a normal voice.
Neither the music nor being Gunnhild with Bård did anything for him. A different longing clawed at him, one that couldn’t be satisfied. A longing to be back on the rock shelf, to see what ambassador Oort was showing him, to remember what it was. To see the world swept aside.
© 2016 by Karin Tidbeck. Originally published by Tor.com. Reprinted by permission of author.