The Day of Gathering was finally here and for the first time I was old enough to attend! I'd been watching the events from afar while growing up in the outer quad, but it was my twentieth birthday last month and nothing was going to hold me back from going to the citadel this time.
My fathers didn't seem to understand what the fuss was about, as always. They said they'd each been to the first couple after they'd come of age, but I guess they'd gotten tired of it after that? Well, each to their own, I suppose. Their hobby of summoning garden spirits still seems to remain of interest to them after all this time and I just don't understand the draw of that myself.
That's not to say their skills weren't useful. I'd been picking tolegano buds from the garden to add to my ostro tea since Afterfall (don't tell anyone back home!) and four months on I was already well on my way to seven feet tall. Sure, I was getting some stares (and short was in fashion for femme folk this year too, to make it worse) but I could revert to Basic after getting an amazing view at the Gathering, so it didn't bother me too much.
You could always tell when the outworlders were due to arrive, because the new star would appear in the sky, slowly getting brighter over about a month or so. The Diviners Guild complained about it each year but they never seemed to turn down the goods that we got out of the event. I suppose science has always had an uncomfortable relationship with magic.
Anyway, the Gathering Star was now brighter than Capella which meant it was time for everyone to gather in the citadel. I'd had my accommodation booked for a year and, having checked the address, created a portal on the wooden wall in our front room, took a sip of tumbo root (I get so travelsick!), hugged my dads goodbye for the week, and hopped in.
I'd heard the folks in the citadel always considered us country people a little bit behind the times, and arriving in the hotel lobby it became apparent why. Admittedly it was mostly just my generation arriving so soon, since the older visitors tended to be a little more relaxed about everything, but even so the variation in shapes and sizes of people made my height change seem exceptionally inadequate. For a start I was roughly in proportion; long bodies and short limbs seemed to be in at the moment, and I suddenly felt like I had a tiny torso, even though I was still slightly above the average height here. At least heads were pretty normal; I'm not sure I would have coped with more variation there than I am used to.
I took a firejar from the queue and sat down on one of the lobby sofas to wait for it to message me that my room was ready. This seemed like a really nice place! You can never be quite sure how accurate the visitation spells are going to be. There was a warm fireplace (I'd forgotten it would be night here) and a well-trained lizard chorus providing ambience.
"Must be your first time here," said a confident-sounding deep voice in that gorgeous citadel accent.
I looked around to where the voice had come from, across the coffee table standing between our two sofas. The owner of it was sat awkwardly in the couch there (this body trend definitely wouldn't last long) but had a friendly smile. They had medium brown skin, short, dark blue hair, and eyes that shimmered in the glowlight.
"I'm—sorry?" I stuttered.
They grinned. "It wasn't an insult. I love seeing the mix of new faces every year. I don't think I'll ever get tired of Gathering."
"Oh, come on," I said, slightly put out. Judging from their aura, they were only a couple of years older than me. "This can't be more than your fifth Gathering at most."
"Hah, true." They ran a hand through their hair slightly embarrassed. They had a magic artefact on their wrist; I think it was one of those things that could summon the sun's location in the sky without using a sky portal?
"I'm Djaty," he said by way of introduction.
"Nebti," I replied, and reached out across the table to shake his hand. Despite the body proportions, which were not to my taste, he was kinda cute. His hand was warm.
I found myself embarrassingly tongue-tied. "So um, what is it on your wrist? I don't have any magic artefacts yet," I stammered awkwardly.
"There'll be an abundance of them after Gathering," Djaty said. "The outworlders always bring way more than we need. But I suppose it helps with their bartering if we become used to having access to their magic."
He showed me how his "wristwatch" worked; a lot of it seemed to be about interpreting the runes it presented on its front. I told him that, as the apprentice of a scientist, I hadn't had much direct access to magic yet. My research, along with that of an increasing number of scholars, was based around how to deal with the "rift", this odd incompatibility between our technology and the "magic" of the outworlders, which seemed to be fundamentally at odds. Djaty seemed genuinely interested. It turned out he was quite a magic artefact geek, so we had quite a lot to talk about.
He clearly had me quite enthralled, because I hadn't even noticed my firejar had lit up. Djaty pointed it out.
"Oh, blast," I swore. "Okay, I'll pick up my room key, then maybe we can grab a drink at the bar?"
I woke up sprawled in a bed of blankets and my own hair, and looked over to where Djaty was emerging from the shower, the white noise of which had coaxed me out of my sleep. He was more-or-less Basic body shape now—his body changes were magic-powered! He could change things nearly instantly! I was super envious that it was incompatible with my tech-based alterations, so we couldn't use it on me, but, um, we still put the magic to good use.
"Hey you," I smiled at him.
He grinned, the smile that had made me melt over a drink last night. "Hey. I hope you don't mind me getting up."
"No, you earned a shower," I laughed.
"I checked the messages before showering," he said, drying his hair with his towel—very distracting. "Landing is at two bells this afternoon."
I looked at the time candle on the far wall. It was mid morning, as the sun shining through the window should have tipped me off to. So I didn't need to be in a rush. "I should shower too," I said. "I want to get a good place at the arena."
"Me too," Djaty said. "If you still want to hang out…?"
"Oh, absolutely," I said, sitting up in bed, unable to keep a smile off my face. "If you hadn't noticed, I've been enjoying your company."
We were out the hotel in plenty of time to get a good position at the arena; a standing place near the front, from where the outworlders tended to address the audience. Djaty was impressed with my reservation and summoning spell. We tested it in on him quickly in case his magic augmentations caused trouble with it, but with him reverted to Basic form it didn't seem to be a problem. The test portal opened underneath him at the right time and he emerged from the floor in the right place, as if reverse-sinking out of tar.
His Basic form was a fair bit shorter than me but he didn't seem to mind for the sake of a couple of hours, and it wasn't as if he couldn't just change back to how he was after we'd taken our places in the crowd. I wondered how many people here had that magic augmentation; my height advantage might be very short-lived. Oh well.
We walked around the citadel's granite outer wall, which was fascinating. On our right, the city spread out below us, itself almost an arena in shape, with the larger buildings on the outside up against the wall (though never taller than it), gradually becoming shorter as if each row of stone houses was another step for giants to sit on. In the centre of course was the large, round expanse, nearly a mile across, that the outworlders would arrive in shortly. Their star was even visible in the midday sun now.
On our left was the vast green-brown expanse of the marshland the citadel had been build upon. The reason for the huge outer wall had been lost to time, and possibly the reason no longer existed, but nobody wanted to pronounce that.
Conversation flowed easily between us; both of us had love and fascination for the outworlders and their magic, Djaty from the perspective of wanting to try everything out and mostly having fun with it, and me from the scientific perspective. Djaty seemed to understand mostly what I was talking about, and seemed to enjoy my enthusiasm when he didn't. He sympathised with me when I mentioned that in my village my research was frowned upon and looked at with suspicion, as he'd grown up in quite a traditionalist family. His grandparents would often remind him about the Before Times, and how we didn't need outworlder magic to be happy.
Because of our discussions, I even had a revelation: our technologies may be incompatible because the outworlders use the magical "electricity" as their source of power, which is presumably different from our own lignicity, hence they will not interoperate. Djaty was lovely and patient as I pulled out a notebook and pencil from my satchel and, crouching on the floor of the walkway, scribbled some notes to remind me about it later.
We moved on to talking about life plans and it turns out we both felt the same about where we were in life. We both had the sense we wanted something more than we had. Maybe that's just the feeling everyone has in their early twenties! We both felt like we could continue learning and seeing new things forever.
The feeling of being summoned when you're not expecting it is quite disconcerting, not unlike the shock you get when you think you've reached the bottom of a staircase and there's another step you weren't expecting, but in rather slow motion. My gut tried to push its way up my chest and, having forgotten to take any medication for the travel, I had to really concentrate to avoid vomiting. Not what I want to happen in front of someone I was extremely into!
We rose out of the ground in the arena. I must have looked awful because Djaty had to ask if I was okay. Once I had assured him I was, he started adjusting his physical presence while I looked around. It was crowded, with people all around me. As I realised this, the noise hit me. I couldn't imagine so many people being gathered in my village, and the volume was deafening. People were talking mostly between themselves, with occasional glances at the sky and some pointing.
A horn sounded and the hubbub died down a little. People started looking more intently up at the sky. The "star" was now larger than either of our moons, and as it continued to grow we started being able to make out some of its features. It was very clearly artificial, with a bulbous central section surrounded by an attached belt, almost reminiscent of the planet Summanus as seen through a magnifying crystal. There weren't a lot of markings on it, but as it got nearer we could see it was spinning along the disc's axis, around once every one or two seconds to begin with, though it was slowing down with every rotation as it got nearer to us.
The size of the ship became apparent as the craft crossed the sky until it moved in front of the sun and the whole arena was cast into shadow. Some lights appeared on the underside, in particular a strong wide spotlight which cast a wide beam a couple of hundred feet across into the centre of the arena; a landing guide light at a guess. At this point a deafening noise started: the sound of a hundred hurricanes rushing through a tunnel, and everyone soon had their hands over their ears as the ship lowered itself down in front of us with a faint breeze accompanying it. It seemed to take up about half of the arena, with us all circled around it like a halo.
It was colossal, and a light silvery grey over most of it, with a few circular inlets or viewports or goodness knows what else dotted around the outer edge in particular. As it touched down barely a hundred yards from us, some relatively thin jointed support legs extended from the inlets and the ship touched down reasonably gently, showing some bounce in the legs. It almost looked like a very round centipede doing a squat. The bulbous part in the central was resting on the ground, while the ring around it was about the height of a two storey building above us.
The deafening noise finally subsided, feeling like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders; in fact I heard a few sighs of relief from around me. A walkway extended down to the ground from near the canopy on the bulb, and a doorway appeared at the top. A half dozen figures walked down the ramp.
"Oh, they really do look like us," I whispered to Djaty.
"Yeah, there are a lot of theories about that," he whispered back.
The person I assume was the leader or at least the spokesperson started addressing the crowd, but we couldn't hear them to begin with until they stopped and touched their ear. This incantation seemed to bring the magic lanterns around the arena to life, and the spokesperson started speaking through them. They introduced themselves as Doctor Karter.
The speech didn't start with anything particularly interesting, so I shan't try to reproduce it here (sorry Doctor Karter!) but covered what we already knew: the outworlders here were here to gift us some of their magic in exchange for some of our latest innovations; a list of all the new things they had brought us (still nothing like the portal, and I'm still not going to break my scientists' oath on that one, but Djaty was enthralled nonetheless). Our own leaders greeted them shortly afterwards, did the usual alien friendship customs, and then came the big announcement.
"This year we are looking for volunteers for an exchange programme between Wast and Earth as part of our mission to understand each other better and advance our technologies together. The selected six people will return to Earth with us for a year to help us study lignicity and its effects. We will leave our own volunteers here this year, then take your volunteers next year."
You can guess the rest. Djaty had the most adorable look of excitement and ambition. I wasn't as initially as dead-set on it as he was, but the idea grew on me over the next couple of weeks, especially as we became closer, and the idea of him going off somewhere without me was difficult to stomach.
My fathers were upset to find out they were going to be without me for so long; I hadn't even been away from home for more than a few days before that! They were happy for me too though, of course, and showed their love in the best way they could: making sure they grew and prepared enough ostro leaf that season, enough to maintain my preferred body shape for the whole year. I understand they had to trade quite a lot of their favourite vegetables for enough of the specific spell ingredients they needed for the soil, and I promised to bring them back some exotic seeds from Earth if I could. Both of them came to Gathering the next year to see me off too, bless them.
So that's how I ended up on this mission. We're coming up to Earth soon; our journey of nearly three months almost over. We'll be firing the retroengines and spinning down shortly, so I'm going to lose gravity for a bit and I want a chance to enjoy that rather than typing up this report. My next report will include the selection process and possibly this journey, depending on how much time I have. I hope it was useful for you.