High Wizardry New Millennium Edition (12 page)

Dairine put her head down on the computer, which was on her knees, and took what she suspected might be her last breath.

The lock of the booth melted loose and the door fell in molten globs to the floor. Dairine sat up straight, determined to look dirty at the BEMs, if she could do nothing else.

The door swung open.

And “Multiple transit,” said the computer, “executing now—” And the jump-sickness grabbed Dairine and twisted her outside in.

Perhaps not understanding, the BEMs fluted in rage and triumph and reached into the booth. Dairine’s insides went cold as dimly she felt one of them swing a huge soft hand
through
where her middle was: or rather, where it no longer was completely, for the transit had begun. A fraction of a second later, heat not wholly felt stitched through her arms and legs as shots meant to cripple her tore through where they almost were, and fried the back of the stall like an egg. But then starlight and the ancient black silence pierced through her brain as the spell tore Dairine free of the planet and flung her off Rirhath B into the long night.

She never found out anything about the man who helped her. Nor did he ever find out anything more about her. Pausing by the door of the pay toilet, after being released from station security some hours later, and being telepathically sensitive (as so many hominids are), he could sense only that some considerable power had been successfully exercised there. Satisfied with that, he smiled to himself and went on about his travels, just one more of the billions of hominids moving about the worlds.

But many millions of light-years later, in some baking wilderness under a barren, brilliant sky, a bitterly weary Dairine sat down on a stone and cried for a while in shock at the utter strangeness of the universe, where unexpected evil lives side by side with unexpected kindness, and neither ever seems quite overcome by the other….

Variables

It took Nita a few minutes to pull her supplies together and get ready for the trip. Every wizard has favorite spells, so familiar and well-used that diagrams and physical ingredients like eye of newt aren’t needed for them. Some of these spells, and particularly the most powerful ones, need help in bending space— some specific kind of matter placed in specific relationship to the wizard, the words being used, and the diagram or formula asserting the wizard’s intent. Some of the kinds of matter used for these purposes can be odder even than eye of newt (which used to be used for teleportation spells until polyethylene was invented). And this being the case, most wizards have a cache, a place where they keep the exotica necessary in their work.

Nita’s cache was buried in a vacant lot next door to her house, everything carefully wrapped in a plastic garbage bag. Being a wizard, she had no need to dig the bag up: a variant of the spell Kit had used on the bricks let her feel around under the ground for the moment it took her to find what she wanted. The objects didn’t look like much—half a (seemingly) broken printed-circuit board; a plastic packet containing about two teaspoonsful of dirt; and a gimbal from a 1956 Philco Pilot television set.

That last piece she juggled appreciatively from hand to hand for a moment. It was certainly unlikely looking, a busted bit of junk that any normal person would trash without a second thought. But the configuration into which the space-time continuum bent itself around this gimbal was unique, and invested with a power that the informed wizard could exploit. Everything bent spacetime, of course: anything consisting of either matter or energy had no choice. But some things bent it in ways that produced specific physical effects… and no one, not even the wizards specializing in theoretical research, had any idea yet as to why this should be. The atoms and mass and inherent spatiotemporal configuration of, say, water, bent existence around them to produce an effect of wetness. The electrons and plasma and matter and gravity of a star produced effects of heat and light. And a busted-off piece of gimbal from an ancient TV set…

Well, that would have to wait. Nita smiled, put the gimbal carefully in her pocket, and said three more words.

Her room was dark. She flipped the light on and went digging in the mess off to one side for her knapsack. Into it she stuffed her manual, the gimbal and packet and circuit board.

“Nita?”

“Uh-huh,” she said.

The stairs creaked. Then her mother was standing in the doorway, looking upset.

“You said you were going to clean your room today,” her mother said in a tired voice.

Nita looked up… then went hurriedly to her mother and grabbed her and hugged her hard. “Oh, thanks,” she said, “thanks, thanks for saying something
normal!”

Her mother laughed, a sound that had no happiness about it at all, and hugged her back. After a moment she said, “Dairine won’t be normal when she gets back, will she?”

Nita took a moment to answer. “She won’t be like she was, not completely. She can’t. She’s on Ordeal, Mums: it changes you. That’s what it’s about.” Nita tried to smile, but it felt broken. “She might be better.”

“Better?
Dairine?”
her mother said, sounding dry. Nita’s smile began to feel less broken, for that sounded more like her mother.

“Oh, c’mon, Mom, she’s not that bad—” Then Nita stopped herself.
What am I saying?
“Mom… look. She’s really smart. Sometimes that makes me want to stuff her in the toilet head first, but it’s going to come in handy for her now. She’s nobody’s dummy. And if the wizards’ software in the computer is anything like our manuals, she’ll have some help if she can keep her head and figure out what to ask for. If we get a move on, we’ll catch up with her pretty quick.”

“If
you can find her.” Nita’s father loomed up in the doorway in the darkness, a big silver-haired shadow.

Nita swallowed. “Daddy, she’ll leave a trail. Using wizardry changes the shape of the space-time continuum: it can’t help it. It’s like cutting through a room full of smoke with a knife: you can see where the knife’s been. Knowing Dairine, she won’t be making any effort to cover her trail… at least not just yet. We can follow her. If she’s in trouble, we’ll get her out of it. But I can’t stay to talk about it. Kit needs me quick, and I can’t do a lot for Dari without him. Some… but not as much. We work best as a team.”

Her mother gave her father a look that Nita could make nothing of. “When do you think you three will be back?” said her father.

“I don’t know,” Nita said, and paused. There was something she felt needed to be said, even though she wasn’t wild about being the one who got to say it. But they had a right to know. “Mums, Dad, look. We might not be able to bring her back right away. It’s her Ordeal. Until she solves the problem she’s supposed to be the answer to, if we pull her back, awful things could happen. If we’d copped out of ours, this whole world would be different. And believe me, you wouldn’t have liked the difference.” Nita swallowed at the thought of something like that leaning, threatening darkness waiting for Dairine to confront it… something like that, but much worse.

They stood and looked at her.

“I’ve gotta go,” she said, and slung her knapsack on, and hugged them hard, first her dad and then her mom again. Her father took a long time to let her go. Her mother’s eyes were still troubled, and there was nothing Nita could do about it, nothing at all.

“I’ll clean up in here as soon as I get home,” Nita said, “I promise.”

The trouble didn’t go out of her mother’s face, but half her mouth made a smile.

Nita said three words, and was gone.

*

Our home Galaxy is a hundred thousand light-years across, five thousand light-years thick at the core. The billion stars that make it up are scattered through some four quadrillion cubic miles of space. It is so vast that a thought can take as long as two seconds to cross it.

But Dairine was finding the entirety of the Milky Way much too small to get lost in. She got out of it as soon as she could.

The program the computer was still writing to take her to safety was a multiple-jump program, and that suited her fine: her pursuers seemed to have trouble following her. But not enough trouble. She came out, after that first jump from Rirhath B, on some cold world whose sky she never saw, only a roiling ceiling of gray. She was standing in a bleak place, full of what at first sight looked like old twisted, wind-warped trees, barren of any leaves, all leaning into a screaming wind that smelled of salt water. Dairine clutched the com-uter to her and stared around her, still gasping from her terror in a rest room twelve trillion miles away.

With a slow creaking sound, one of the trees pulled several of its roots out of the ground and began to walk toward her.

“No way!” Dairine shrieked.
“Run another subroutine!”

“Running,” said the computer, but it took its sweet time about it—and just as the world blinked out and the spell tore her loose from the hillside, Dairine felt wind on her skin—a wind that smelled of coffee grounds. The BEMs had popped right in behind her.

She popped out again, this time in the middle of a plain covered with sky-blue grass under a grass-green sky. She shook the computer in frustration.

“Program running,” the computer insisted.

“Sure, but they’re following us! How are they doing it? Are we leaving a trail somehow?”

“Affirmative,” said the computer calmly, as if Dairine should have known this all along.

“Well, do something about it!”

“Advisory available,” said the computer. “Stealth procedures will decrease running speed. Stealth procedures are not one hundred percent effective due to inherent core-level stability of string functions—”

“I’ll settle! And if we don’t have to keep wasting time running subroutines,” Dairine said, exasperated, “you’ll have more time to run the main program, won’t you!”

“Affirmative. Execute stealth?”

“Before someone executes
me,
yeah!”

Once again the spell took hold of Dairine and ripped her free of gravity and light. At least this time the BEMs hadn’t appeared before she vanished herself.
Maybe we can gain a little ground. We’d better….

Another reality flicked into being around her. Dairine was in the middle of a city: she got a brief impression of glassy towers that looked more grown than built, and people rushing around her and avoiding her in the typical dance of city dwellers. This might almost have been New York, except that New Yorkers had only a small percentage of the legs these people had. “Don’t stop,” she said. “How much range have you got?”

“Infinite,” said the computer, quite calmly.

“While still running the main program?”

“Affirmative.”

She thought for a second. “The edge of the Local Group might be far enough. Go.”

The spell seized her out of the crowd and flung her into the dark again. Over and over Dairine jumped, becoming less and less willing to stop, until finally strange vistas were flickering past her with the speed of some unutterably strange slide show being run in fast-forward by a bored lecturer. She passed right through the coronation parade of one of the Anarchs of Deleian IV and never noticed it: she stood for only a second on a chilly little planetoid being fought over by two desperate interstellar empires (and also missed the nova bomb that turned the planetoid into plasma several minutes later); she stood on the metallic upper floors of a planet that was one great library full of three galaxies’ knowledge, and she never knew what it was, and probably at that point wouldn’t have cared. Only once Dairine paused for more than a few seconds, on a red sandstone promontory with a pinkish sea crashing at its foot, and no signs of life anywhere under the bloated red sun that dyed the water. “Are they still following?” she said.

“Probability high, but at a greatly increased distance.”

“You have enough time to finish the main program?”

“Affirmative.”

“Do it, then.”

She sat down on a rock and looked out at the water, while the computer’s hard drive ticked softly to itself. The fat red sun slipped horizonward as she watched, and Dairine looked at it and noticed through the sunset haze that it had a companion, a little blue-white dwarf star that was slowly sucking the red giant’s matter out of it in an accretion spiral of tarnished gold.

Dairine shook her head. Once she would have given anything to sit here and watch this. Now, though, the hair was rising on the back of her neck, and her back prickled, and all she wanted in the world—the worlds—was to get out of here and end up where she could hide.

She shivered.
I never want to smell coffee again,
she thought. Those creatures had unquestionably been sent after her by what had laughed at her in the dark.
The Lone Power,
the manual utility had called It. Well, at least she didn’t hear It laughing anymore while she was in transit.
Then again, that might not be good. I’m running pretty fair rings around Its people. It’s probably real annoyed at me.

And then she tossed her head and grinned a nasty grin.
Let It be, then. I’m not going to be running for long. I’m going to turn around and give It something to think about.

If I can just figure out what to do, and find a weapon…!

“Done,” said the computer.

“Is this going to be a bad jump?” Dairine said.

“Transit may have significant physiological effects,” said the computer.

“Okay,” Dairine said. “Go for it.” And she clenched her jaw.

The computer was understating. The jump was a hundred times worse than the first long one, an eternity of being torn, squeezed out of shape, pulled, hammered on, sliced by lines of force thinner than any hair and sharp as swords. Dairine hung on, unable even to scream. The transit broke for an instant on the surface of some planet as the program finished one jump subroutine, in a frozen flash of light and time too sudden to let any of the scream out, then pushed Dairine outside the universe and crushed her under its weight again. Then flash, and again; flash, and again: flash, flash, flash, flash, through a voiceless darkness a trillion years heavy and empty as entropy’s end. This was the worst after all, the aloneness, total, no one to hear the scream she could not utter, not even the One who laughed—
flash, flash, flash—

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