High Wizardry New Millennium Edition (18 page)

“Light,” Peach was screaming at her, “light,
light!”

Nita told the shield to be opaque—and then wondered why it wasn’t, as the brightest light she had ever imagined came in through it anyway. When she was very little and the family had been on vacation she’d been taken to a Space Shuttle launch, and remembered how she’d come to understand that sound could be a force, a thing that grabbed you from inside your chest and shook you effortlessly back and forth. Now Nita wondered how it had never occurred to her that light might be able to do the same, under some circumstances. The blast of it struck her deaf and dumb and blind, and she went sprawling. Heat scorched her everywhere; she smelled the rotten-egg stink of burning hair. She clutched the gimbal: with her nerves seemingly struck useless by the unbearable brilliance, she couldn’t have dropped it if she’d tried.

Much later, it seemed, it finally began to get dark. Nita opened her eyes and couldn’t be sure, for a few minutes, that they
were
open, the world was so full or afterimages. But the glaring purple curtain between her and everything else eventually went away. She and Kit and Peach were hanging suspended, weightless in empty space… or at least it was empty
now
. There was no sign left of any moonlet: only, off to one side, a blinding star that slowly grew and grew and grew and grew, toward them. They were out of its range now. They had not been before.

“Didn’t know the gimbal could handle both those spells,” Kit said, rubbing his eyes. “Nice going.”

“It won’t do it twice,” Nita said. There was just so much power one could milk out of a physical aid, and she had been pushing her odds even trying it once. “Where are we?”

“Haven’t the faintest. Somewhere a light-month out from our original position. And those Satrachi were bait,” he said. “For
us.
Look at it, Neets.”

She looked. “I could have sworn I opaqued this shield.”

“It
is
opaqued,” Kit said. “But a shield doesn’t usually have to put up with a nova at close range. H-bombs are about the most one can block out without leakage, if I remember.”

Nita stared at the raging star, all boiling with huge twisted prominences. For all its brilliance, there was a darkness about its heart, something wrong with the light. In a short time this terrible glory would collapse into a pallid dwarf star, eventually cooling down to a coal.Nita shivered: one of the oldest epithets for the Lone Power was “Starsnuffer.”
It blew a whole star, just to kill us, because we were going to help Dairine…

“Did this system have other planets?” Nita said.

“I don’t know. I doubt It cared.”

And
this
is what’s going after my little sister.

The anger in Nita got very, very cold. “Let’s go find her,” she said.

Together she and Kit began to read.

Fatal Error

Dairine woke up stiff and aching all over.
What’s wrong with the bed?
was her first thought: it felt like the floor. Then she opened her eyes, and found that she was on the floor… or a surface enough like one to make no difference. The cool, steady stars of space burned above her. She sat up and rubbed her sticky eyes.

I feel awful,
she thought.
I want a bath, I want breakfast, I want to brush my teeth!
But baths and toothbrushes and any food but bologna sandwiches with mustard were all a long way away.

Dairine dropped her hands into her lap, feeling slow and helpless, and looked about her. A sense of shock grew in her. All around, dotting what had been the absolutely smooth surface of the planet, there now lay a scattering of great cracked holes, as if the place had had a sudden meteor shower while she was asleep. But the debris lying around wasn’t the sort left by meteor strikes. The cracked places weren’t depressions, but upward bursts.

“Wow,” Dairine said under her breath.
“Somebody’s
been busy…”

Which was when something poked her from behind.

Dairine let out a short scream of shock and flung herself around… only to find herself staring at the small, turtlelike glassy creature that had been the last straw for her the night before. It had walked into her, and was continuing to do so, its short jointed legs working busily though it was getting nowhere: like a windup toy mindlessly walking against a wall. “With,” it said.

“Oh God,” Dairine muttered, and sagged with embarrassment and relief. Two days ago she’ wouldn’t have thought she’d ever scream at anything, up to and including Darth Vader himself… but the world looked a little different today

She reached down and grabbed the steadily pedaling little creature, holding it away to look at it. It was made of the same silicon as the surface. The inside of its turtlish body was a complex of horizontal layers, the thickest of them maybe half an inch across, the thinnest visible only as tiny colored lines no thicker than a hair. In places there seemed to be thousands of them packed together in delicate bandings that blended into one subtle color. Dairine knew she was looking at a chip or board more complex than anything dreamed of on Earth. She could see nothing identifiable as a sensor, but the creature had certainly found her right away last night: so it could see. She wondered if it could hear.

“How about it, small stuff?” she said. It was rather cute, after all. “Say hi.”

“Hi,” it said.

She put her eyebrows up, and looked over her shoulder at the dark glossy shape of the laptop, which was sitting where she had left it the night before. “Did you teach this guy to talk?”

“There is very little I did not teach the mind that made them,” said the computer calmly.

Dairine looked around at the many, many jagged holes in the surface. “I bet. Where are they all?”

“Indeterminate. Each one began walking around the surface in a random fashion as soon as it was produced.”

“Except for this one,” Dairine said, and lifted the creature into her lap. It was surprisingly light. Once there, the creature stopped trying to walk, and just rested across her knees like a teatray with a domed cover on it. “Good baby,” Dairine said, and touched one of its legs carefully, taking hold of the top joint and maneuvering it gently to see how it worked. There were three joints: one ball-and-socket-like joint where it met the body, and two more spaced evenly down the leg, which was about six inches long. The legs were of the same stuff as the outer shell of the body-dome: translucent, like cloudy glass, with delicate hints of color here and there.

“Why didn’t you go walking off with everybody else, huh?” she said as she picked the creaure up to flip it over and examine its underside.

Its legs kicked vigorously in the air. “With,” it said.

Dairine put the creature down, where it immediately walked into her again and kept walking, its legs slipping on the smooth surface.

“‘With,’ huh? Okay, okay, ‘with’ already.” She picked it up again and put it in her lap. It stopped kicking.

Dairine sighed and glanced up at the sky, where the galaxy was rising again. For a few seconds she just held still, watching the curving fire of it. “How long is the day here?” she said.

“Seventeen hours,” said the laptop.

Dairine thought about that. “Fast for such a big planet,” she said finally. “Mostly light elements, though. I guess it works. How long was I asleep?”

“Fourteen hours.”

Dairine made an annoyed face. There went that much of her research time. She felt fairly certain that if the BEMs didn’t catch up with her shortly, someone else would. She didn’t like the thought. “I’ve got to get some work done,” she said, and glanced down at the turtly, glassy creature in her lap. “What about you? You can’t sit here all day. Neither can I.”

“Hi,” said the glass turtle.

She had to laugh. “Are you still talking to”—she didn’t know what to call it: she patted the glassy ground—”our friend here?”

“Yes,” the computer said. “Response is slow. It is still assimilating and coordinating the data.”

“Still?” Dairine let out a breath. If there was so much information in the manual functions that a computer with this much memory was still sorting it, what hope did
she
have of finding the information she needed in time to be able to do anything useful to the Lone One with it? She was going to have to help it along somehow. “Can you ask it to call back this little guy’s friends?” Dairine said. “I want to look at them.”

“Working.”

Dairine stretched and considered that the next time she went out to space, she was going to plan things a little more carefully.
Or stay at a hotel!
Where, for example, was she going to find something to drink? She hadn’t squirreled anything away in her claudication: she was going to have to find water. More to the point, there were no bathrooms here. Dairine wished heartily that she had taken time in the Crossings, or even back at Natural History, to use the facilities for something other than programming interstellar jumps. The memory of what sometimes seemed to be her mother’s favorite line, “You should have gone before we left!” now made her grin ruefully.

Dairine got up to improvise what she could. Her turtle started to go with her. “No,” she said, as she might have to Ponch. “Stay!” The turtle’s response to this was the same as Ponch’s would have been: it went after her anyway.

Dairine sighed and headed off to a little outcropping of rock about half a mile away. When she’d finished and was starting back to where the computer lay, she could already see small shapes moving on the horizon. She sat down with her bread and bologna, started making a sandwich, and waited for them.

Pretty soon Dairine was knee-deep in turtles, or would have been had she been standing up. After the first few walked into her as her initial lapturtle had, she asked the computer to get them to hold still when they reached her. Something like two hundred of them were shortly gathered around her. They were all exact copies of her friend, even to the striations and banding inside them.

Dairine sighed a little as she looked at them. “This isn’t gonna work, you guys,” she said. “There’s more to life than just walking around. And none of you have anything like hands….”

“Hi!”
said all the turtles, simultaneously. She couldn’t hear the ones that were outside her bubble of air, but the ones that were inside made enough of a racket.

Dairine had to laugh at them. “Look,” she said to the laptop, pushing her first turtle out of her lap and putting the computer there instead, “where’d the mind behind these critters get the design for them?”

“Probably from one of the design templates in the Make/Construct utility,” said the computer.

“Okay, let’s get into that. If these guys are going to be the arms and legs for the mind that’s running them, they need arms!”

The computer’s screen flicked obediently to the opening screen for the Make utility, with its stylized cogs-and-wheels background. Dairine frowned at its menu for a while. The computer had a machine-assisted drafting utility: she brought that up, while her turtle tried to climb back into her lap.

“No,” she said. “No, honey!”

It was no use: the little thing tried to push the laptop out of her lap, so that Dairine had to pick up the computer and hold it out of harm’s way while the turtle-creature climbed into her lap instead. “With!” said the turtle. “With, with, with,
with—”

Dairine laughed helplessly. “Boy, are you ever GIGO…”

“Yes,”
the turtle said, fell down out of her lap again, and sat down next to her abruptly, folding all its legs under it like a contented mechanical cat.

Dairine put her eyebrows up at that.
Was that all it wanted? A name?
“Gigo,” she said, experimentally.

“Yes!”

It sounds happy,
she thought.
Can it have emotions?

“Good baby,” she said, and petted it. “Good Gigo.”

“Good
, yes!”
said Gigo, and “Yes!” said several of the other turtles around, and it began to spread through the crowd to the limits of her air: “Yes, good, yes,
good,
yes—”

“Okay,” Dairine said, still laughing, “I got it, he’s good, you’re all good, now
put a cork in it!”

They fell silent. But there had been no mistaking the sound of joy.

“I can see I’m gonna have to find names for all of you,” Dairine said after a moment. “Can’t have the whole bunch of you answering to that.”

She turned her attention to the laptop and the presently-blank assisted graphics window. “Bring up the design that…” She paused. “I can’t just keep smacking the ground. Does what you were talking to have a name for itself?”

“No.”

Dairine sighed. “Okay, just let’s call it a motherboard for the moment. Bring up the design the motherboard was using for Gigo and his buddies.”

The window blanked and then showed Dairine a three-dimensional diagram, which then rotated to show all the turtle’s surfaces. “Good,” Dairine said. “How do I make changes?”

“Touch sensitivity on the screen surface is enabled. Touch a line and drag and drop, or state what you want done with it.”

Dairine spent a cheerful hour or so in the utility, pausing for bites of sandwich, as she started to redesign the turtles. She wasn’t shy about it. The original design had its points, but as the mobile units of an intelligence, the turtles were sadly lacking in necessary equipment. She built several of their legs into arms, with six claws apiece at the end of them, four “fingers” and two opposable “thumbs”. This hand she attached to the arm by a ball-and-socket joint, so it could rotate completely without having to stop. As an afterthought, she put another pair of arms on the new turtle’s back end, so it wouldn’t have to turn around to pick something up if it didn’t want to.

Dairine then took the turtle’s rather simplistic visual sensor, barely more than a photosensitive spot, and turned it into something of a cross between the human retina and a bee’s faceted eye—a multiple-lensed optic equally good for close work and distant vision. She placed several of these around the turtle’s perimeter, and a couple on top, and then for good measure added a special-purpose lens that was actually something like a small Cassegrain telescope, focusing on a mirror-polished bit of silicon buried a short distance inside the turtle’s “brain.” Then she added infrared and ultraviolet sensing as well.

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