Ai, writing from later in his life, remarks that he is sometimes taken back to his time in the tent with Estraven, the two of them in “the center of all things,” insulated against the lonely darkness of death. Ai identifies these moments as the center of his life.
In the introduction to this chapter, the reader is reminded that these events are from a story in the past, reflected on from the future. However, Ai engages with the events as though they are his present, similar to the way the Yomeshta believe that even as time passes they remain in the center of their lives (their calendar, for example, is perpetually in year zero).
Ai’s months on Gobrin are difficult, but in hindsight he sees them as joyful. He and Estraven enter into an easy rhythm of walking, eating, sleeping, setting up the tent and taking it down. They rarely converse while marching because of the painful cold, but talk in the evenings. Ai finds setting up camp exhausting, and often resents Estraven’s methodical insistence on maintaining order. However, Ai recognizes that this order keeps him alive.
Ai and Estraven are able to overcome their differences in order to survive. They understand the loyalty they owe each other, and know that collaboration is key if both men want to outlast the harsh winter.
The two march for over fifty days. Estraven keeps a journal, recording short thoughts and notes about the weather, but nothing about his deeper conversations with Ai or the subject of mindspeech. Ai has promised to teach this skill to Estraven, but has asked him to keep it a secret from other Gethenians until he can check in with his Ekuminical comrades. Ai feels that mindspeech is the only gift of civilization he can give to Estraven, and possibly the only gift the Ekumen can give Gethen.
Mindspeech is one of the most alien offerings Ai has brought to Gethen. Ironically, although it is essentially an alien technology, it will allow him to be closer than ever to Gethenians who engage with him. Teaching others mindspeech goes against the Ekumen, but at this point Ai cares more about his personal relationship with Estraven than the details of his obligation to the Ekumen.
Ai suspects Gethenians and “one-sexed” humans can have sex with each other, but he and Estraven do not test his theory, even though Estraven enters kemmer one night early in their journey.
Ai and Estraven have become increasingly intimate, but neither man is interested in making their relationship sexually intimate.
In this moment, in kemmer, Ai sees Estraven as both a man and a woman. Up until now, Ai sees that he has been rejecting and “refus[ing] [Estraven] his own reality.” Ai finally understands Estraven’s frustration at Ai’s lack of trust, when Estraven had fully trusted him. Estraven had seen Ai as a human being, but Ai had been unable, until now, to see Estraven as the same, instead distrusting him because he seemed false, neither fully man nor fully woman.
Estraven has trusted Ai and believed in his mission for most of their relationship, and was frustrated by Ai’s lack of reciprocal trust. This came from Ai’s more general distrust of Gethenians, which flowed from a misunderstanding of their gender. Now, finally, he is able to see Estraven as he sees himself, not as a man “pretending” to be a woman or a woman “pretending” to be a man.
Estraven tells Ai that while he is in kemmer they cannot touch, and so they do not. Ai thinks this sexual tension leads to great friendship, and eventually to love. It is the differences between them, not their similarities, which draw them to each other. Ai believes that “to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens.” However, Ai admits he and Estraven may have been wrong not to experiment with each other sexually.
In line with Gethenian—and specifically Karhidish—tradition, Ai and Estraven overcome their differences through love for one another. Their bond is not formed through sexual kemmering, as it is in much Gethenian lore (such as in “Estraven the Traitor”); instead Ai and Estraven divert any potential sexual tension into deep, unifying friendship.
A few nights after Estraven has gone through kemmer, Ai offers to teach him mindspeech. They try for many days, but although Ai reaches out, Estraven cannot hear him. One night, after an unsuccessful session, the men go to bed. Ai feels an empathetic bond between them, and as they fall asleep he reaches out to Estraven a final time, calling him by his first name, “Therem.” This time the mindspeech works, but Estraven is alarmed because, in mindspeech, Ai’s voice sounds like that of Estraven’s dead brother, Arek.
Mindspeech is a way for Ai and Estraven to connect even more deeply with each other. In mindspeech one cannot lie, and so it would once and for all eradicate the mistrust between them. When it finally works, however, Ai speaks in the voice of Estraven’s dead brother. This is never fully explained, but perhaps Ai and Arek are the only two people Estraven has ever been fully open and honest with, and therefore they are unified by his subconscious.
Ai calms him and explains what has happened. Estraven relaxes, but is surprised that Ai used his first name, Therem, instead of Harth. The use of this name is part of the reason Estraven thought his brother was addressing him. Ai apologizes, but Estraven tells Ai he can call him Therem from now on. Estraven doesn’t understand why the voice he hears is Arek’s. Ai doesn’t know, but asks more about his brother. Estraven tells Ai that Arek was a year older than he was, but has been dead for fourteen years.
The use of familiar versus formal names indicates the relationships of characters. Although earlier on in their journey Estraven and Ai decided to use slightly less formal versions of their names, the switch to first names signifies a newfound intimacy. As Estraven explained earlier, first names are used only for friends, family, and lovers.
Ai encourages Estraven to call him by his first name, Genly. Estraven reaches out, and he is able to mindspeak to Ai. However, mindspeech remains difficult for Estraven, as it disturbs him. Ai wonders if Gethenians are ill-suited for it, or if Estraven is a special case. He understands that something happened between Estraven and his brother, and the mindspeech, which sounds like Arek’s voice, is painful to him.
Using their first names with each other introduces a new kind of intimacy into the lives of the two. However, some questions remain unanswered — Ai never finds out more about Estraven’s past life or his relationship with his brother, and they continue communicating verbally because the mindspeech is painful to Estrevan.
On the fortieth day of their journey, Estraven remarks that they might have to cut rations. He begins to fast, but insists Ai continue to eat half-rations. This offends Ai, but Estraven explains that he has practiced fasting for much of his life, whereas Ai has not, and will die if he tries.
As with Ai’s food-poisoning earlier in their journey, he is resentful of what he sees as Estraven’s patronizing behavior. However, Estraven doesn’t doubt Ai’s manliness. Instead, he is merely taking practical steps to ensure they both survive.
As they consider the future and their eventual arrival in Karhide, Estraven predicts what will happen to Ai. He suspects the Orgota will claim he has died, and will be embarrassed when he resurfaces. Argaven will briefly be happy to have him back, during which time Ai must send for his spaceship. Estraven knows that Karhide has been humbled by Orgoreyn and will appreciate a status boost of welcoming an alien ship.
Estraven predicts that Ai’s mission will succeed because Karhide will see collaborating with him as a way to increase its own power and embarrass Orgoreyn. Although not explicitly stated, this foresight is likely linked to Estraven’s special brand of luck, which allows him to sense the future.
Estraven wonders again why Ai was sent alone. Ai explains it is the Ekumen’s custom, though he doesn’t fully understand the reasons, knowing only that it values beginnings, and proceeding slowly and subtly. Alone as Envoy, he’s more vulnerable and less threatening, but also more open to the world, able to be changed by it. All of his relationships are as personal as they are political. He is forced to think not in terms of “We and They…I and It; but I and Thou.”
Ai frequently felt like a freak and an outsider on Gethen, but he also felt the hospitality of its people and the richness of its culture. Although often seen as alien, he was forced to engage with Gethenians as potential friends and allies, which is what has led to his close friendship with Estraven. His solitary status has made him more open to religion, and the Handdara principle of “I and Thou” which has helped bring him and Estraven together.