High Wizardry New Millennium Edition (6 page)

“That mountain. What is it? Identify.”

“Earth/IAU nomenclature Olympus Mons.”

Dairine took in a sharp breath. There it stood, an ancient volcano long extinct, and (as a side issue) the highest mountain in the Solar System. “How do I get up there?”

“Reference short-transit utilities.”

She did. Five minutes later she stood in a place where the wind no longer sang, for it was too thin to do so; where carbon dioxide lay frozen on the beige-and-rust stones, and the fringes of her protective shell of air shed a constant snow of dry ice and water vapor as she moved; a place from which she could see the curvature of the world. Dairine stood twelve miles high atop Olympus Mons, on the ridge of that great crater into which Central Park could have been dropped entire, and looked out over the curve of the dusky world at what no nonwizardly child of Earth had beheld with her or his own eyes before—the asteroid belt rising like an almost unseen chain of scattered stars, the occasional spark struck off from sunlight hitting them as the myriad bodies tumbled in their orbit; and beyond them, the tiniest possible disk, remote but clear.

“Jupiter,” Dairine whispered, and. But then she turned around to look for Earth. From here she knew it would look like a morning or evening star, a bit blue in color probably, less bright than Venus. But in mid-movement she was distracted. There was something down there in the volcano’s mile-deep crater: a little light that blinked.

“What
is
that?” she said, holding up the Apple.

“Syntax error twenty-four—”

“Yeah, yeah, right. That light! Identify.”

“A marker beacon. Provenance uncertain at this range.”

“Get us down there!”

With Dairine’s help, the computer did. Shortly she was standing on the crater floor, staring at a pole with a light on it — astreamlined and modern-looking thing, made of some dark blue metal she couldn’t identify. Set in the ground beside the pole, half covered by dust, was a plate of dull red metal with strange markings on it. Dairine knelt down to brush the dust away. “What’s it say?”

“Error trap eighteen. Does this query regard the semantic value of the engraving on the artifact?”

“Yeah.”

“First (untranslatable) climbing expedition. Ascent of (untranslatable proper name, referring to Olympus Mons): from (date uncertain) to (date uncertain). We were here. Signed, (untranslatable proper name), (untranslatable proper name), (un-translatable proper name).”

“People,”
Dairine whispered.

“Affirmative.”

She looked up at the stars in the hard violet sky. “I want to go where they came from!”

“Reference transit utility.”

She did, and spent some minutes working her way through the search functions associated with the transit utility, tapping at the laptop’s keys. In the middle of it all — selecting coordinates, delightedly reading through planet names—Dairine stopped and bit her lip. “This is going to take longer than an hour,” she said to herself.

…Come to think of it, she might want to be away for quite some time. And seeing all the problems Nita had started having with their folks when she told them she was a wizard, it wouldn’t do for Dairine to let them know that she was one too. Not just yet.

She thought about this for a while. Then Dairine backed out of the transit utility and brought up the main manual window again—taking more time with it, examining the menu trees with great care. In particular she spent a great deal of time with the Copy and Cloaking utilities, getting to know their ins and outs, and doing one particularly finicky piece of copying as a test. The test worked: she sent the copy home.

“That should do it,” Dairine said at last. She got back into the Transport utility, and with the program’s prompting started to lay in coordinates. “Darth Vader,” muttered under her breath, “look out. Here I come.”

Shortly thereafter there was nothing on Olympus Mons but rocks, and dry- ice snow, and far down in the crater, the single blinking light.

Search and Retrieval

“We’re dead,” Nita mourned, sitting on the planetarium steps with her head in her hands.
“Deader
than dead. Mom is going to
kill
me.”

Kit, sitting beside her, looked more bemused than upset. “Do you know how much power it takes to open a gateway like that and leave it open? Usually it’s all we can do to keep one open long enough to jump through it.”

“Big deal! The Grand Central and Penn gates are open all the time.” Nita groaned again.
“Mars!”

“Each of those gates took a hundred or so wizards working together to open, though.” Kit leaned back on the steps. “She may be a brat, but boy, has she got firepower!”

“The youngest wizards always do,” Nita said, sitting up again and picking up Kit’s manual from beside her. “God, what a horrible thought.”

“What? The gate she made? We can close it, but—”

“No. This. Look.” She held out his manual. It was turned to one of the directory pages. The page said:

CALLAHAN, JUANITA L. Rating: Journeyman

243 E. Clinton Avenue (RL +4.5 +/- 0.15)

Hempstead NY 11575 Available/limited

(516) 555-6786 (summer vacation)

That was Nita’s usual directory listing, and normal enough. But above it, between her and CAHANE, JAK, whose listing was usually right above hers, there was something new.

CALLAHAN, DAIRINE R. Rating: Novice

243 E. Clinton Avenue (RL +9.8 +/- 0.2)

Hempstead NY 11575 On Ordeal: no calls

(516) 555-6786

“Oh God, no,” Kit said. “And look at that rating level!”

Nita dropped the book beside her. “I don’t get it. She didn’t find a manual, how could she have—”

“She was in yours,” Kit said.

“Yeah, but the most she could have done was take the Oath! She’s smart but not smart enough to pull off a forty-million-mile transit without having the reference diagrams and the words for the spell in front of her! And you know the manuals can’t be stolen. If someone tries, they just vanish.” Nita put her head down in her hands again. “My folks are gonna pitch every kind of fit! We’ve got to find her!”

Kit breathed out, then stood up. “Come on,” he said. “We have to get moving fast or we’ll lose her. Call home and tell , I don’t know, that we’re running behind schedule. The planetarium’s all locked up by now, so no one’ll be around to notice if I walk through a couple of walls and close that gate down.”

“But what if she tries to come back and finds it closed behind her?”

“Somehow I can’t see that slowing her down much,” Kit said. “Besides, maybe she’s supposed to find it closed. She
is
on Ordeal.”

Nita stood up too. “I’ll call Tom and Carl too. They’ll want the details.”

“Right. Go ahead; I’ll take care of the gate.”

Kit turned around, looked at the bricks of the planetarium’s outer wall. He stepped around the corner of the doorway wall, out of sight of the street, and laid one hand on the bricks, muttering under his breath. His hand sank into the wall as if into water. “There we go,” he said, and the bricks rippled as he stepped through them and vanished.

Nita pulled out her mobile and started dialing, finding it hard because her hands were shaking. The thought of her sister running around the universe on Ordeal made her hair stand up on end. No one became a wizard without there being some one problem that their acquisition of power would solve. Nita understood from her studies that normally a wizard was allowed to get as old as possible before being offered the Oath: the Powers, her manual said, wanted every wizard who could to acquire the security and experience that a normal childhood provides. But sometimes, when problems of an unusual nature came up, the Powers would offer the Oath early—because the younger children, not knowing (or caring) what was impossible, had more wizardry available to them.

That
kind of problem was likely to be a killer. Nita’s Ordeal and Kit’s had thrown them out of their universe into another one, a place implacably hostile to human beings, and run by the Power that, according to the manual, had invented death before time began—and therefore had been cast out of the other Powers’ society. Every world had stories of that Lone Power, under many names. Nita didn’t need the stories; she had met It face-to-face, twice now, and both times only luck—or the intervention of others—had saved her life. And Nita and Kit had been offered their wizardry at thirteen. The thought of what problem the Powers must need solved if They were willing to offer the Oath to someone two years younger—and the thought of her little sister in the middle of it—

Nita stared at the number she was dialing, realized that she’d fumbled it, started over. What was she going to tell her mother? She couldn’t lie to her: that decision, made at the beginning of the summer, had caused her to tell her folks that she was a wizard, and had produced one of the great family arguments of her life. Her mother and father still weren’t pleased that their daughter might run off anywhere at a moment’s notice, to places where they couldn’t keep an eye on her and protect her. Nor did it matter that those places tended to be the sort where anyone but an experienced wizard would quickly get killed. That made it even worse….

At the other end, the phone rang. Nita’s throat seized up. She began clearing it frantically.

Someone answered. “Hello?”

It was Dairine.

Nita’s throat unseized itself. “Are you all right? Where are you?” she blurted, and then started swearing inwardly at how stupid she sounded.

“I’m fine,” Dairine said. “And I’m right here.”

“How did you get back? Never mind that, how did you get
out?
And you left the gate open! Do you think what could have happened if some poor janitor went in that door without looking? It’s sixty below this time of year on Mars—”

“Nita,” Dairine said, “you’re babbling. Just go home. I’ll see you later.” And she hung up.

“That rotten little—” Nita said, staring at the phone and then shoving it back into her pocket in fury as she spotted Kit sliding out of the wall of the museum again, unseen by anyone else. She headed over toward him as he leaned back against the wall. “Babbling,” she muttered. “That thoughtless little brat, I’m gonna—”

She shut her mouth.
Babbling?
That didn’t sound like Dairine. It was too simple an insult.
And why “just go home” instead of “just come home”? There’s something wrong—

She stopped to lean on the wall next to Kit, who looked over at her and didn’t move for the moment: he was sweating and looked pale. “That gate was fastened to Mars real tight,” he said after a moment, sounding as if he was having trouble breathing. “I thought half of Mariner Plain was going to come with it when I uprooted the forcefields. But you look awful. What happened?”

“Something’s wrong,” Nita said. “Dairine’s home.”

“What’s awful about that? Good riddance.” Then Kit looked at her sharply. “Wait a minute.
Home?
When she’s on Ordeal?”

That hadn’t even occurred to Nita. “She sounded weird,” Nita said. “It didn’t sound like her. And though we were at home for our Ordeal—at least, at the beginning…” Nita shook her head. “Something’s wrong. We need to go see Tom and Carl.”

Kit nodded and pushed away from the wall, wobbling a little. “Sounds good. Grand Central?”

“Rockefeller Center gate’s closer.”

“Let’s go.”

*

A Senior wizard usually reaches that position through the most strenuous kind of training and field experience. All wizards, as they lose the raw power of their childhood and early adolescence, tend to specialize in one field of wizardry or another; but the kind of wizard who’s Senior material refuses to specialize too far. They are the Renaissance people of wizardry, every one of them tried repeatedly against the Lone Power in both open combat and the subtler strife of one Power-influenced human mind against another. Seniors are hardly ever the white-bearded wizards of archetype… mostly because their constant combats with the Lone One tend to kill them young. They advise other wizards on assignment, do research for them, lend them assistance in the losing battle to slow down the heat-death of the universe.

Few worlds have more than thirty or forty Seniors. At this point in Kit’s and Nita’s practice, Earth had twenty-four: six scattered through Asia, one in Australia and one (for the whales) in the Atlantic Ocean; three in Europe, four in Africa, and eleven in the Americas—five in Central and South America (one of whom handled the Antarctic) and six in the north. Of these, one lived in Phoenix, one in the Seattle area, the third and fourth in Los Angeles and Des Moines, and the other two lived together in Nassau County.

Their house in Nita’s town was very like their neighbors’ houses… perhaps a little bigger, but that wasn’t odd, since Carl worked as chief of sales for the big CBS flagship TV station in New York, and Tom was a moderately well-known freelance writer of stories and movie scripts. They looked like perfectly average people—two tall, good-looking men, one with a mustache, one without; Carl a native New Yorker, Tom an unrepentant Californian. They had all the things their neighbors had—mortgages and phone bills and pets and occasional fights: they mowed the lawn and went to work like everybody else (at least Carl did: Tom worked at home). But their lawn had as few weeds as Nita’s did these days, their pets understood and sometimes spoke English and numerous other languages, their phone didn’t always have a human being on the other end when it rang, and as for their fights, the reasons for some of them would have made their neighbors’ mouths drop open.

Their backyard, being surrounded by a high hedge and a wall all hung with plants, was a safe place to appear out of nothing: though as usual there was nothing to be done about the small thundercrack of air suddenly displaced by two human bodies. When Nita’s and Kit’s ears stopped ringing, the first thing they heard was someone shouting, “All right, whatcha drop this time?” and an answering shout of “It wasn’t me, are the dogs into something?” But they weren’t: the two sheepdogs, Annie and Monty, came bounding out from around the corner of the house and leapt delightedly onto Kit and Nita, slurping any part of them not covered with clothes. A little behind them came Dudley the terrier, who contented himself with bouncing around them as if he were spring-loaded and barking at the top of his little lungs.

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