High Wizardry New Millennium Edition (9 page)

That brought up the question of food, which needed to be handled. Dairine considered briefly, then used the software to open a storage pocket in otherspace. By means of the transit utility she then removed a loaf of bread, a bottle of mustard, and half a pound of bologna from the refrigerator back home, stuffing them into local otherspace where she could get at them.
Mom ‘n’ Dad won’t notice,
she thought,
and even if they do, what’re they going to do about it? Ground my copy?

But there were a lot of more interesting things to consider today. Dairine stood up, got the computer ready, and headed out again, more cautiously this time. She stopped on Io, another one of Jupiter’s moons, and spent a while (at a safe distance) watching the volcanoes spit white-hot molten sulfur ten miles out from the surface; sulfur that eventually came drifting back down, as a leisurely dusty golden snow, in the delicate gravity. Then she braced herself as best she could and jumped for Saturn’s orbit, four hundred three million miles farther out, and handled it a little better, suffering nothing worse than a cold sweat and a few dry heaves, for the two planets were similar in mass and vectors.

Here there were twenty moons—too many for Dairine at the moment—but she did stop at Titan, the biggest satellite in the Solar System, and spent a while perched precariously on a peak slick with hydrogen snow, looking down thoughtfully at the iceberg-laden methane ocean washing the mountain’s feet. Several times she thought she saw something move down there—something that was not one of the peculiar, long, high methane waves that the light gravity made possible. But the light was bad under the thick blue clouds, and it was hard to tell. She went on.

The jump to Uranus’s orbit was a touch harder—six hundred sixty million miles to a world much smaller and lighter than the greater gas giants. Dairine had to sit down on a rock of Uranus’s oddly grooved moon Miranda and have the heaves again. But she recovered more quickly than the last time, and sat there looking down on the planet’s blurry green-banded surface for a long time. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 had both long since been gravity-slung off toward alpha Centauri and were plunging close to the radiopause, the border of the Solar System, whistling bravely in the endless dark. Sitting here she could hear them both, far away, as she could hear a lot that the Sun’s radio noise made impossible to hear closer in. That silent roar, too—the old ruinous echo of the Big Bang—was more audible here.
How can I even hear it?
she wondered briefly. But Dairine quickly decided it was just another useful side effect of the wizardry, and she got up and headed out as soon as she was better.

From Uranus to Neptune was one billion, one million miles. To her own surprise Dairine took it in stride, arriving standing up on Triton, one of Neptune’s two largest moons, and with no desire to sit.
Better!
she thought, and looked around. There was very little to see: the planet was practically a twin of Uranus, except for its kinky partial rings, and the moons were barren. Dairine rubbed her arms. It was getting cold, even in the protective shell she’d made for herself; her forcefields couldn’t long stand this kind of chill. Out here the Sun was just one more star, bright, but not like a sun at all. The jump to Pluto was brief. She stood only for a minute or so in the barren dimness and could hardly find the Sun at all, even by radio noise. Its roar was muted to a chilly whisper, and the wind on Pluto—it was summer, so there was enough atmosphere thawed to make a kind of wind—drank the heat away from her forcefields till in seconds she was shivering. She pulled the computer out. “Extrasystemic jump,” she said hurriedly.

“Coordinates?”

“Read out flagged planets.”

“Andorgha/beta Delphini; Ahaija/R Leporis; Gond/kappa Orionis; Irmrihad/Ross 614; special indicator, Rirhath B/20688 Canes Venatici—”

“What’s special about that one?”

“Cultural/societal/scientific value. Rirhath B is the coreworld of the Alterf Interconnect project and its — “

“Okay, fine, if it’s special let’s just go and you can brief me when I get there. Atmosphere status?”

“Earthlike within acceptable parameters.”

“Then let’s go.”

“Syntax error 24,” said the computer sweetly, “rephrase for precision.”

“Run!”

A galaxy’s worth of white fire pinned her to the rolling planet; then the forces she had unleashed tore Dairine loose and flung her out into darkness that did not break. For what seemed like ages, the old, old echoes of the Big Bang breaking over her like waves were all Dairine had to tell her she was still alive. The darkness grew intolerable. Eventually she became aware that she was trying to scream, but no sound came out, nothing but that roar, and the terrible laughter behind it.

—Laughter?

—and light pierced her, and the universe roared at her, and she hit the planet with a feeling like dreaming of falling out of bed—

*

Then, silence. True silence this time. Dairine sat up slowly and carefully, taking a moment to move everything experimentally, making sure nothing was broken. She ached in every bone, and she was angry. She hated being laughed at under the best of circumstances, even when it was family doing it. Whatever had been laughing at her was definitely not family, and she wanted to get her hands on it and teach it a lesson….

She looked around her and tried to make sense of things. It wasn’t easy. She was sitting on a surface that was as slick white as glare ice in some places, and scratched dull in other spots, in irregularly shaped patches. Ranked all around her in racks forty or fifty feet high were huge irregular objects made of blue metal, each seeming made of smaller blocks stuck randomly together. The block things, and the odd racks that held them, were all lit garishly by a high, glowing green-white ceiling.
What is this, some kind of warehouse?
Dairine thought, getting to her feet.

Something screamed right behind her, an appalling electronic-mechanical roar that scared her into losing her balance. Dairine went sprawling, the computer under her. It was lucky she did, for the screaming something shot by right over her head, missing her by inches though she was flat on her face. The huge wind of its passing whipped her hair till it stung her face, and made her shiver all over. Dairine dared to lift her head a little, her heart pounding like mad, and stared after the thing that had almost killed her. It was another of the bizarre cube-piles, which came to a sudden stop in midair in front of one of the racks. A metal arm came out of the Tinkertoy works of the rack, snagged the cube-pile and dropped it clanging onto an empty shelf in the rack’s guts.

Dairine pulled the computer out from under her and crawled carefully sideways out of the middle of the long white corridorlike open space, close to one of the metal racks. There she simply lay still for a moment, trying to get her wits back.

There was another scream. She held still, and saw another of the cubes shoot by a foot and a half above the white floor, stop and hover, and get snagged and shelved.
Definitely a warehouse,
she thought.

And then part of the cube seemed to go away, popped open, and people came out.

They have to be people,
she thought, even though they didn’t
look
much like people. The four of them came in four different burnished-metal colors and didn’t resemble any earthly insect, bird or beast.
Well,
Dairine said to herself,
why should they?
Nonetheless she found it hard to breathe as she looked at them, climbing down from their—vehicle?—was that their version of a car, and this a parking lot? The creatures—
people,
she reminded herself—were each different from all the others. They had bodies that came in four parts, or five, or six; they had limbs of every shape and kind, claws and tentacles and jointed legs. If they had heads, or needed them, she couldn’t tell where they were. They didn’t even look much like the same species. They walked away under the fluorescent sky, bleating at one another.

Dairine got up. She was still having trouble breathing.
What’ve I been thinking of?
She began to realize that all her ideas about meeting her first alien creatures had involved her being known, even expected. “Dairine’s here finally,” they were supposed to say, “now we can get something done!” — and then she and they would set out to save the universe together. Because of her own blindness she’d gotten so excited that she’d jumped into a totally alien environment without orientation or preparation, and as a result she’d nearly been run over in a parking lot.
My own fault,
she thought, disgusted with herself.
Won’t happen again.

But in the meantime people were still getting out of that car. These were shorter and blockier than the first group, with more delicate legs and brighter colors. Dairine picked up the computer, first carefully looking both ways up and down the “road,” and went after them. “You still working?” she said to the computer.

“Syntax error 24—”

“Sorry I asked. Just keep translating.”

As she came up behind the second group of people, Dairine’s throat tightened. Everything she could think of to say to aliens suddenly sounded silly. Finally she wound up clearing her throat, which certainly needed it, as she walked behind them.
Don’t want to startle them,
she thought.

They did absolutely nothing.
Maybe they can’t hear it. Or maybe I said something awful in their language! Oh, no—
“Excuse me!” she said.

They kept walking along and said nothing.

“Uh, look,” Dairine said, panting a little as she kept up with them—they were walking pretty fast—”I’m sorry to interrupt you, I’m a stranger here—”

The computer translated what Dairine said into a brief spasm of bleating, but the spidery people made no response. They came to the end of the line of racks and turned the corner. Ahead of them was what looked like a big building, made in the same way as the cars, an odd aggregate of cubes and other geometrical shapes stuck together with no apparent symmetry or plan. The scale of the thing was astonishing. Dairine suddenly realized that the glowing green-white ceiling was in fact the sky—the lower layer of a thick cloudy atmosphere, actually fluorescing under the light of a hidden, hyperactive sun—and her stomach did an unhappy flip as her sense of scale violently reoriented itself.
I wanted strange,
Dairine thought,
but not this strange!

“Look,” she said to the person she was walking beside as they crossed another pathway toward the huge building, “sorry if I said something to offend you, but please, I need some help getting my bearings—”

Dairine was so preoccupied that she bumped right into something on the other side of the street—and then yipped in terror. Towering over her was one of the first things to get out of the car, a creature seven feet high at least, and four feet wide, a great pile of glittering, waving metallic claws and tentacles, with an odd smell. Dairine backed away fast and started stammering apologies.

The tall creature bleated at her, a shocking sound up so close. “Excuse me,” said the computer, translating the bleat into a dry and cultured voice like a BBC announcer’s, “but why are you talking to our luggage?”

“Llp, I, uh,” said Dairine, and shut her mouth. There they were, her first words to a member of another intelligent species. Blushing and furious, she finally managed to say, “I thought they were people.”

“Why?” said the alien.

“Well, they were walking!”

“It’d be pretty poor luggage that didn’t do that much, at least,” said the alien, eyeing the baggage as it spidered by. “The better grade of luggage levitates, and the high-end models pack and unpack themselves. You must have come here from a fair way out.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“My gate is about to become patent,” the alien said. “Come along, I’ll show you the way to the departures hall. Or are you meeting someone?”

They started to walk. Dairine began to relax a little: this was more like it. “No,” she, said, “I’m just traveling. But please, what planet is this?”

“Earth,” said the alien.

Dairine was surprised for a second, and then remembered having read somewhere that almost every sentient species calls its own planet “Earth” or “the world” or something similar. “I mean, what do other people call it?”

“All kinds of things, as usual. Silly names, some of them. There’ll be a master list in the terminal; you can check that.”

“Thanks,” Dairine said, and then was shocked and horrified to see a large triangular piece of the terminal fall off the main mass of the building. Except that it didn’t fall more than a short distance, and then regained its height and soared away, a gracefully tumbling pyramid. “Does it do that often?” she said, when she could breathe again.

“Once every few beats,” said the alien; “it’s the physical-transport shuttle. Are you on holiday? Mind the slide, now.”

“Yes,” Dairine started to say, until the alien stepped onto a stationary piece of pavement in front of them, and instantly began slipping away from her toward the bizarre mass of the terminal building at high speed. The surprise was too sudden to react to: her foot hit the same piece of paving and slipped from under her as if she had stepped on ice. Dairine clutched the computer to her and threw her free arm out to break her fall, except that there wasn’t one. She was proceeding straight forward, too, while tilted somewhat backward, at about fifty miles an hour. Her heart hammered. It hammered worse when something touched her from behind; she whipped around, or tried to. It was only the alien’s luggage, reaching out to tilt her forward so she stood straight. “What is this!” she said.

“Slidefield,” the alien said, proceeding next to her, without moving, at the same quick pace. “Inertia-abeyant selectively frictionless environment. Here we go. Which gating facility are you making for?”

“Uh—”

It was all happening too fast. The terminal building swept forward swift as a leaping beast, rearing up a thousand stories high, miles across, blotting out the sky. The slidefield poured itself at what looked like a blank silvery wall a hundred feet sheer. Dairine threw her arms up to protect herself, and succeeded only in bashing her face with the computer; the wall burst like a thin flat cloud against her face, harmless, and they were through.

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