Wizards At War

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Wizards At War (The Young Wizards Book 8) Armistice vi "Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounterOnce the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events." –Sir Winston Churchill … Moon reflected on the water: The moon doesn't get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is broad and great, The moon's reflected even in an inch-wide puddle. The whole moon and the entire wide sky Lie mirrored in one dewdrop on the grass. Dogen, Genjokoan To be the miracle, Get out of its way. –Distych 243, The Book of Night with Moon vii situational Awareness In the bright light of an early spring morning, a teenage girl in faded blue jeans and a cropped white T-shirt stood in her downstairs bathroom, brushing her teeth and examining herself with a critical eye. Have I lost weight? she thought, pulling the T-shirt a little away from her as she looked down. This doesn't fit like it did two weeks ago… The view in the mirror was more or less the usual one: light brunette hair cut just above her shoulders, a face neither unusually plain nor unusually beautiful, a nothing-special figure for a fourteen-year-old. But there were changes besides the fit of her T-shirt. Nita Callahan racked the toothbrush and then leaned close to the mirror over the sink, pulling down the skin above her right cheekbone with one finger. My tan looks pretty good, hut are those circles under my eyes? she thought. / look wrecked. You'd think I hadn't just "I think I need a vacation from my vacation," Nita muttered. She started to turn away from the sink… then stopped, noticing something in the mirror. Nita leaned close to it again, pushing her bangs up with one hand and eyeing her forehead. Oh no, is that a pimple coming up? She poked it, felt that telltale sting. Great. I really need this right now! She sighed. "Okay," she said. Normally she wouldn't have been enthusiastic about spending any significant part of her morning talking to a zit, but if she talked the pimple out of happening right now, it'd take her less effort than if she waited until later. "Uh, excuse me," she said in the wizardly Speech– and then stopped. Wait a minute. I don't know the word for "pimple." Nita frowned. For a moment she considered the tube of facial scrub on the shelf by the sink, then shook her head and reached out toward what otherwise looked like empty air beside her. Into that "empty air," the pocket of otherspace where she normally kept her wizard's manual, Nita's arm disappeared up to the shoulder. She felt around for a moment-/ really have to clean this thing out; there's too much stuff in here-and then pulled out what to most people would have looked like a small hardbound library book an inch or so thick. Nita started paging through it. Let's see. Pimple, pimple… see "aposteme." She shook her head, turning more pages. What's an aposteme? Sometimes I really wonder about the indexing in this thing. "Nita?" came a shout, faintly, from the other end of the house. "What, Daddy?" she shouted back. "Phone!" Nita raised her eyebrows. At this hour of the morn ing? It's not Kit; he wouldn't bother with the phone. "Thanks!" The word for "phone," at least, she knew perfectly well. Nita held out her hand. "If you would?" she said in the Speech to the handset in question. The portable phone from the kitchen appeared in her hand, its hold button blinking. She hit the button, meanwhile balancing her manual on the edge of the sink while she kept paging through it. "Hello?" "Nita," Tom Swale's voice said. "Good morning." "Hey, how are you?" Nita said. "A little pressed for time at the moment," said her local Senior Wizard. "How was your holiday?" "Not bad," she said. "Listen, what's the Speech word for 'pimple'?" There was a pause at the other end. "I used to know that," Tom said. "But you don't anymore?" "I'll look it up. You should do that, too. How are your houseguests doing?" "They're fine as far as I know," Nita said. "Probably having breakfast. I was just going to get some myself." "You should definitely do that," Tom said. "But can you and Kit and the visiting contingent spare me and Carl a little time afterward?" "Uh, sure," Nita said. "I was going to call you anyway, because I heard some really strange things from Dairine about what went on here while we were away… and the manual wouldn't say anything about the details. Where did you guys vanish to? Assuming I'm allowed to ask." "Oh, you're allowed. That's what I'm calling about. I have a lot of people to get in touch with today, but since you two and your guests are just around the corner, we thought we might drop by and brief you in person." "Sure," Nita said. "I'll let everybody know you're coming." "Fine. An hour or so be all right?" "Sure." "Great. See you then." Tom hung up, leaving Nita staring at the phone in her hand. She pushed the hang-up button and just stood there. "Wow," she said. She looked down at the manual, which now lay open to one of its many glossaries, and was showing her fourteen different variations on the "aposteme" word. "Kit?" Nita said. A slightly muffled reply came seemingly from the back of the manual, along with the sound of barking somewhere in the Rodriguez household. "I can't believe we're out of dog food," Kit said. "I leave for a week and a half, and this place goes to pieces." "We were doing just fine without you," said another voice from two blocks away: Kit's sister Carmela. "It's not our fault you forgot to put dog food on the shop ping list before you left. Neets, is it true he destroyed a whole alien culture in just ten days?" Nita snorted. "It wouldn't have been just him, 'Mela," she said. "And we didn't destroy it. We just happened to be there when they were going on to the next thing." "'Just happened'?" Carmela said. Her tone was one of kindly disbelief. "You're so nice to try to share the blame! See you later on…" After a moment Kit said, "Am I allowed to think about teleporting her to Titan and dumping her in a lake of liquid methane?" "No," Nita said, feeling around under her bed for her sneakers. "It'd upset those microbes there…the ones Dairine's been coaching in situational ethics." "The thought of Dairine coaching anybody in ethics…," Kit said. "No offense, but sometimes I wonder if someday our solar system is going to be fa mous for having entire species made up of criminal masterminds." "Well, if the Powers That Be have slipped up, it's too late to do anything now. And speaking of the Powers, you should get over here in about an hour. Tom and Carl want to talk to everybody." "We're not in trouble, are we?" "I don't think so," Nita said. "In fact, I think maybe they are." "And here I thought we were going to have a few quiet days before spring break was over," Kit said. Nita shook her head. "Guess not. But now we get to find out why nobody could find them anywhere." From down the hall, toward the front of the house, she could hear voices in the dining room. "Sounds like they're having breakfast out there," Nita said. "Should I wait to come over?" Nita shrugged and turned away from the mirror. "What for?" she said. "You might as well come have some breakfast, too, if you haven't had anything." "I have," Kit said, "but another breakfast wouldn't kill me. Give me ten minutes, though. I have to talk to Ponch." "Why? Are all the neighbors' dogs sitting around outside the house again?" This had been a problem recently, apparently due to some kind of wizardly leakage. Diagnosing its source had been difficult with so much wizardry happening around their two households lately… and with the present houseguests in residence, the diagnosis promised to get no easier. "Nope," Kit said. "Everything's perfectly quiet. He just has some more questions about life." Nita smiled. "Yeah, who doesn't, lately," she said. "Take your time." Nita paged briefly through the manual, looking at the pimple words. There are too many ways to have this conversation, she thought. And I'm still pooped. If Tom hadn't called, I'd just go back to bed. She yawned– In the moment when her eyes closed during the yawn, the darkness reminded Nita of something. Another darkness, she thought. / had a dream… She had been standing on the Moon, and it had been dark. Bright lights were scattered all around her, throwing strange multidirectional shadows across the rocks and craters, but the sky was as blank of stars as if the whole thing was a stage set. And something was growling Nita suddenly got goose bumps. She opened her eyes. The bathroom, the morning light, the mirror, all the things around her were per fectly normal. But the memory left her feeling chilly. It means something, of course, Nita thought. Lately, what doesn't? Every wizard has a specialty, but the specialty can change. Nita's initially straightforward affinity to living things was now turning into some thing more abstract-an ability to glimpse other beings' realities and futures, or her own, while dreaming. She was struggling to master it, but in the meantime all she could do was pay attention, and try to learn as she went along. Great, she thought. News flash: It was dark on the back side of the Moon. I'll make a note. Meanwhile, as for the zit… She looked one more time at the pimple words in the manual, shrugged, and shut it. Later, Nita thought, and headed out of the bathroom. "All right," her dad was saying from the kitchen as she passed through the living room, and Nita started walking a little faster as she caught the smell of frying bacon. "How many are we for dinner tonight?" "The usual," came the reply. "Three humans, one humanoid, one tree, one giant bug-" "Humanoid king," said another voice. "Yeah, fine, whatever." "And who were you calling a bug?" "Or a humanoid? / am the human. You're the humanoids." Nita came around the corner from the living room and paused in the dining room doorway. The room's slightly faded yellow floral wallpaper was bright in morning sun, and the polished wood of the table was covered with cereal boxes, empty plates and bowls, various cutlery, the morning paper, and several girl– teen magazines of a kind that Nita had sworn off as too pink and clueless a couple of years ago. At the head of the table, poring over the international-news section of the newspaper, was a slender young man with the most unnervingly handsome face and the most perfect waist– length blond hair Nita had ever seen. He was dressed in floppy golden-colored pants and high boots of something like glittering bronze-colored leather, unusually ornate-but over it all he was wearing an oversized gray T-shirt that said fermilab muon collider slo-pitch Softball, and he was sucking on a lollipop. Sitting at the right side of the table, turning the pages of one of the too-pink magazines and eyeing it with many, many red eyes like little berries, was what appeared to be a small Christmas tree, though one without any ornaments except a New York Mets baseball cap. Across the table from the tree was Nita's sister, Dairine, in T-shirt and jeans, her red hair hanging down and half concealing her freckled face as she paged through the paper's entertainment and comics section from last weekend. And at the end of the table opposite the blond guy was a giant metallic-purple centipede, reading several different columns' worth of classified ads with several stalked eyes. "You're too late," Dairine said. "All the French toast is history." "Knew I could count on you," Nita said. At the table, the centipede pointed a couple of spare eyes at the Christmas tree. "You done with that?" the centipede said. "Yes," the tree said, and pushed the pink magazine over to the centipede. "Thanks," said the centipede. It tore the cover off the magazine, examined it with a connoisseur's eye, and started to eat it. "Morning, everybody," Nita said as she headed through the dining room and around the corner into the kitchen, where her father was. "You all sleep well?" "Yes, thank you," said the Christmas tree and the centipede. "Adequately," said the slim blond guy, nodding gra ciously to Nita as she passed. In the kitchen, Nita's tall, blocky, silver-haired dad was standing in front of the open fridge in sweatpants and a T-shirt, considering the contents. Nita went to him and hugged him. "Morning, Daddy." "Morning, sweetie." He hugged her back, one– armed. "Didn't think I'd see you so early." "I'm surprised, too," Nita said. "Didn't think I'd get over the lag so fast. Tom and Carl are coming over in a while. Oh, and Kit." "That's fine." Nita rummaged in the cupboard over the counter by the stove to find herself a mug, then put the kettle on the burner for tea. She put one hand on the kettle and said to the water inside it, in the Speech, "You wouldn't mind boiling for me, would you?" There was a soft rush of response as the water inside the kettle heated up very abruptly. Nita took her hand off in a hurry. It took only about five seconds for the kettle to start whistling with steam. Nita stood there and breathed hard for a moment, feeling as if she'd just run a couple of flights of stairs. No wizardry was without its price, even one so small as making water boil: One way or another, you paid for the energy. "You're getting impatient in your old age," her father said, reaching into one of the canisters on the other side of the refrigerator and handing Nita a tea bag. "Yup," Nita said as she dropped the tea bag into the mug and poured boiling water on it. She smiled. Her father seemed to have become surprisingly blase in a very short time about wizardry in general-but Nita and Dairine had between them put their parents through a fair amount of wizardly business in the past couple of years, and the adults' coping skills had improved in a hurry once they'd come to grips with the idea that the magic in the house wasn't going to go away. We were lucky, I guess, Nita thought. So many wizards don't dare "come out" to their families at all. Or they try it, and it doesn't 't work, and then they have to make them forget… She got down some sugar from the cupboard. But look at him now. You'd think everybody had alien wizards living in their basement… "It's almost nine," her dad said. "I should get ready to go, honey." "Okay," Nita said as her dad headed through the dining room and toward the back of the house. She wandered back into the dining room with her tea and pulled one of the spare chairs over from the wall, pushing it down to the far end of the table between Sker'ret and where Dairine had been sitting. The centipede-Nita smiled at herself. / should lay off that, she thought, it's so Earth-centric… The Rirhait was carefully tearing out another page from the teen magazine. He then examined both sides of the page with great care before shredding it up with several pairs of small knife-sharp mandibles and stuffing it into his facial orifice. "Where'd these come from?" Nita said to Dairine as she came back in. "Carmela brought them," Dairine said. "They're sure not mine. I mean, look at the covers! You could find them in the dark. The publishers must think human females are nearly blind until they're eighteen." The Christmas tree-The Demisive, I mean, Nita thought-reached out a frond-branch to pull another magazine off the pile. "I think the colors are delightful," he said. "That's just because you're a sucker for DayGlo, Filif," Dairine said. "It's a newbie thing. You'll get over it." Nita somehow wasn't so sure about that. "And as for you, Sker'ret," she said to the Rirhait, "you're a one-being recycling center." "There's a pile of Dad's old Time magazines by the chair in the living room," Dairine said. "For when you want something a little more substantial." "Oh, substance isn't everything," Sker'ret said. "Sometimes a little junk food is just what you need." He munched away. Nita drank her tea, watching Roshaun read while he maneuvered the lollipop stick from one side of his mouth to the other. It was like catching some coolly elegant anime character relaxing between shots, because the bulge it produced in the Wellakhit's face looked very out of place against that otherwise flawless facial structure, the emerald green eyes and the too-perfect blond hair. Roshaun felt Nita's gaze resting on him, and looked up. "What?" It was exactly what Dairine would have said. Nita controlled her smile. "The lollipop …" "What about it?" "I hate to say this, but you're kind of spoiling your grandeur." "What grandeur he has," Dairine remarked. "Kings are made no less noble by eating," Roshaun said. "Rather, they ennoble what they eat." "Wow, who sold you that one?" Nita said. She grinned. At the same moment, her stomach growled, and she made up her mind about breakfast. "I think I'll go ennoble a couple of waffles." Roshaun ignored her and continued to work on the lollipop, while Nita went back into the kitchen and headed for the freezer. "And you're going to get cavities," Dairine said. As Nita turned around with the frozen-waffle box, she saw Roshaun deliberately arch one eyebrow. "How can a biped come down with a geological feature?" "It's hwatba-t," Dairine said, turning a page in the weekend section. "Not emiwai." "Oh," Roshaun said. "Well, it's all right: People from my planet don't get those." "I don't care if you come from Dental Hygiene World," Nita said as she put the waffles in the toaster and started it up, "you'll get them all right if you start stuffing that much sugar in your face every day." Roshaun merely chewed briefly, and then reached out to the canister in the middle of the table for another lollipop. Nita winced. "Oh, Roshaun, don't chew them up like that. It hurts just listening to you!" "You sound like Sker'ret," Dairine said, turning another page. "Sker'ret is if nothing else enthusiastic and robust in his approach to the things he enjoys," Roshaun said, "so I'll take that as a compliment." He got up and wandered out the back door. As the screen door slammed behind him, Nita glanced over at Dairine. "You've got a live one there," she said. Dairine glanced up and shrugged. "Listen," she said, "at least he's not complaining about our food anymore. You should have heard him last week." "I didn't understand it, either. All your food's lovely," Sker'ret said, and munched another page of the teen magazine. Nita's waffles popped up. She went to the cupboard for a plate and pulled the waffles one by one out of the toaster, hissing a little as their heat stung her fingers. Dropping the waffles on the plate, she turned to root around on the shelf next to the stove for a bottle of maple syrup. "Got my hands full here," she said in the Speech to the silverware drawer by the sink. "Would you mind?" The drawer, well used to the request by now, slid open. Nita tucked the maple syrup bottle into the crook of her elbow while holding the plate in that hand, and went fishing in it for a knife and fork. "Thanks," she said to the drawer. It courteously closed itself as Nita headed into the dining room. Filif drifted past her in the opposite direction, brushing Nita with the fronds on one side as he passed. "You need anything?" Nita said. "No, I'm just going out to root for a little," Filif said, levitating gracefully past her and toward the back door. "I'll be back shortly." Nita headed into the dining room; the screen door creaked open and banged shut behind her. She sat down and poured syrup on her waffles, then started to eat. "So what're your plans for the day?" Dairine said. "To stay right here until Tom and Carl turn up," Nita said between bites. "They're coming here}" Dairine said, looking alarmed. Sker'ret looked surprised, too. "They're your Seniors, aren't they? Wouldn't you normally go to them}" "Yeah, but what's been normal lately?" Nita said. The screen door creaked open again. A moment later, a black four-legged shape burst into the room and began jumping up on the people at the table, one after another, putting his front paws on them and licking them until they protested they'd had enough. When the large Labrador-ish creature got to Nita, he started the same procedure with her, and then paused, looking with sudden interest at her waffle. "Oh, no, you don't!" Nita said. But it smells so nice, Ponch said silently. "And it's going to keep smelling nice until it's all gone," Nita said. "Oh, come on, don't give me those big sad puppy-dog eyes. Kit gave you breakfast." He might not have. You haven't asked. There was no lessening of the puppy-dog-eyes effect. Nita went back to eating. "I don't have to ask," she said. "I know he did. You're really pitiful, you know that?" Not pitiful enough, it seems, Ponch said, in a tone of mild regret. He dropped to the floor again and went to sit by Sker'ret instead. Sker'ret looked at Ponch with several eyes, then offered him a strip of torn-off magazine page. Ponch sniffed it, mouthed it briefly, and then let Sker'ret have it back, somewhat damp. Tastes like my dry dog food, Ponch said. Kit came in from the kitchen in Ponch's wake. "Did I hear you bad-mouthing breakfast?" Not hers, Ponch said. As Kit flopped down in Roshaun's vacant seat, Ponch got up and went to rest his head on Kit's knee. / don't mind the dry food so much when there's some wet food. But when you have to eat it by itself– "It tastes like cardboard, is that what you're trying to tell me? Okay, we'll try another brand." Kit ruffled Ponch's ears. "Boy, when you got smart, you sure got picky…" / was always picky, Ponch said, with an air of wounded dignity. But now that I'm smart, I can tell you why. Kit looked over at Nita, amused. As he did, it struck her that he looked a little different somehow. "Is it just me," she said, "or are you having another growth spurt? You look taller today." "I am taller," Kit said, looking toward the kitchen as the screen door creaked open again. "Probably so are you. Looks like ten days in eight-tenths Earth gravity makes your spine stretch. My mom picked up on it last night. She measured me and I'd gained half an inch." "Huh," Nita said, turning her attention back to what was left of her waffle. "I, too, am taller," Roshaun said, coming back into the dining room. "Your gravity is somewhat lighter than ours at home." "You're the last one around here who needs to be any taller," Dairine said as Roshaun reached for the lollipop canister again. "I have to stand on a step stool to get your attention as it is." "You finished that last one already}" Nita said, taking a bite of waffle as Roshaun sorted through the canister, pulling out a couple of the root-beer-flavored pops. "Roshaun, you're not going to have any teeth left by the time you get home." "We shall see. And what is this delicacy?" He reached down into Nita's plate and snitched a chunk of waffle off it just as Nita was about to spear it with her fork. As it was, she nearly speared him instead, and wasn't terribly sorry about it. "Hey!" Nita said. "Cut it out!" Roshaun ignored her, chewing. "A naive but pleasing contrast," he said. "And I wouldn't be so concerned about my sugar intake, if I were you." He smiled at Nita. "I don't eat this every five minutes, Roshaun!" Nita said, but it was too late: He was already sauntering out again. Kit smiled as the screen door slammed once more, but the smile was sardonic. "Is he for real?" Kit said under his breath. "He's real enough to fix a busted star," Dairine said, giving Kit an annoyed look. Kit raised his eyebrows. "Finish explaining this to me," he said to Dairine as she got up, "because you didn't get into detail yesterday. He's a prince?" "A king," Dairine and Sker'ret said in chorus, sounding like they'd heard the correction much too often lately. "The 'upgrade' happened the other day," Dairine said. "And he won't let us forget it," Sker'ret said. "I think maybe I liked him better as a prince. He was so much less self-assured…" Dairine rolled her eyes. She made her way around the table and out, heading through the kitchen after Roshaun. Squeak, bang! went the screen door. "Sker'ret, my boy," said Nita's dad as he came in from the living room, now dressed in jeans and a polo shirt for work, "your mastery of the art of irony becomes more comprehensive every day." It was hard to be sure how she could tell that an alien with no face was smiling, but Nita could tell. "You going now, Daddy?" she said. "I want to get some bookkeeping done before I open the shop. See you, sweetie." Once again, the screen door banged shut. "Something going on with Dairine and Roshaun?" Kit said after a moment. Nita shook her head. "At first I thought it might just be a crush," she said. "But now I'm starting to wonder…" Nita speared the last pieces of waffle, and a thought hit her. "Hey, did Filif hear that he needs to be here?" The wizards around the table looked at one another. "He went out as you were coming in, didn't he?" Nita nodded. "He's probably out back," she said. "I'll check." She got up and put her plate in the kitchen sink; and with Kit in tow, and Ponch following him, she went out through the side door, down the brick steps to the driveway. The morning was a little hazy, but the sun was warm on their faces. The view up and down the driveway would have seemed clear enough to any nonwizardly person who happened to pass by, but Nita's vision, well trained in perceiving active spelling by now, could see a tremor of power all around the edges of their property, a selective-visibility field that would hide the presence or actions of anything nonhuman. Inside it, across the driveway, the leaves on the big lilac bushes were out at last, and the flower-spikes were growing fast. Nita was glad to see them, though they also made her sad. The winter and the earliest part of the spring seemed to have lasted forever, some ways: Any sign of things being made new was welcome. But her mom had loved those lilacs, and wouldn't be seeing them again. Nita sighed. "Yeah, I'm tired, too," Kit said, glancing up and down the driveway as Ponch wandered off down it. "You wouldn't think a vacation would leave you so wiped out." "And there won't be much time to get rested up now," Nita said. She looked down their street, where the branches of the maples beside the sidewalk, bare for so long, were now well clothed in that particular new spring yellow-green. The leaves that had been small when they first went off on their spring break were now almost full-sized. "At least there's stuff to do…" "And five whole days left before we have to go back to school." Kit looked at her meaningfully. Nita rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I know, the Mars thing. I've been meaning to talk to you about that. When did you get the idea it would be cute to carve my dad's cell-phone number on a rock in the middle of Syrtis Major? He hates it when people call me on his phone." Kit gave Nita a resigned look. "Sorry," he said, "I couldn't resist." "Well, resist next time!" Nita said. "Anyway, we can't just run off and start digging up half of Syrtis on our own. We have to talk to the rest of the intervention team and see if they've got any kind of idea where to start." "Yeah, but they said individual research was still okay," Kit said as they walked up the driveway toward the gate leading to the backyard. "You don't fool me," Nita said. "You just want to run all over Mars like some kind of areo-geek, and you want me to split the labor on the transport spell with you!" "Oh, wait a minute now, it's not that simple!" Nita grinned, for he hadn't denied it outright. Kit had developed a serious case of Mars fever-serious enough that he'd added a map of the planet's two hemispheres to his bedroom wall and started sticking pins in it, the way he'd been doing with his map of the Moon for some months. "It is cool, isn't it," Nita said, "standing there at sunset and seeing Earth? Just hanging there in the sky like a little blue star." "Yeah," Kit said. "It's not the same as when you do it from closer." "So let's message Mamvish," Nita said, "and see if she feels like getting the team together in the next few days. It'll give you an excuse to go do some 'new research.' And we can take the guests along: They like to do tourist things, from what Dairine says." The screen door slammed again. Nita looked back to see Dairine wandering down toward them. "Filif says he knows about Tom and Carl coming," she said. "He'll be up in a minute." "Okay," Nita said. "Hey, you did a good job on the shield-spell around the yard. The energy for that has to have been costing you a fair amount. You need some help with it? Kit and I can take some of the strain." Dairine looked briefly pained. "No, it's okay," she said. "If it starts to be a problem before the guests have to go, you can make a donation. Spot's holding the spell diagram for me at the moment." Nita blinked. "Hey, yeah, where is he this morning? I haven't seen him." "He's up in my bedroom," Dairine said, "under the bed, saying. 'Uh Oh'.'" "I don't like the sound of that," Kit said. Dairine's laptop computer was more than half wizard's manual, if not more than half wizard, and the Uh-Oh'ing had proven at least once to be an indicator of some unspecified difficulty coming. Nita shrugged. "Neither do I," she said. "But maybe Tom and Carl will know what the trouble is-" The sound of a car turning into Nita's driveway brought all their heads around. It was Tom's big Nissan. "Since when do they drive over here?" Kit said as Filif came drifting toward them from the backyard gate. "They only live three blocks away." "Yeah," Nita said over her shoulder. "Come on-" A few moments later, Tom and Carl were getting out of Tom's car: Tom looking as he usually did, tall and broad-shouldered, his hair graying, casually dressed in jeans and shirt with the sleeves rolled up; Carl, a little shorter, dark, dark-eyed, and-today at least-looking unusually intense, with the shirtsleeves down at full length. Nita's attention fastened instantly on that intensity, and on Tom's hair. He started going gray so fast, she thought. What's been going on? What have I been missing? Nita and Kit greeted the two Seniors as casually as would have been normal. "Hey, you three," Tom said. "Filif?" Carl said, turning to him. "Berries all in place?" Filif laughed, a rustling sound. For the moment, anyway. "Can we go in?" Carl said. "We've got a lot of ground to cover." "Yeah," Nita said. "Come on." She gestured toward the door. Kit pulled the screen door open, holding it for everybody. Nita dawdled a little, watching with fascination as Filif went up the back steps after Tom and Carl. It was hard to see how Filif did it: His people had some personal-privacy thing about their roots, and when they moved, there was always a visually opaque field around the root area, like a little cloud that concealed the actual locomotion. When they were all inside, Nita slipped past them and into the dining room to rearrange the chairs a little. As Tom and Carl came in, Sker'ret and Roshaun rose to greet them, the respectful gesture of a less senior wizard to a more senior one-though Nita noticed with some annoyance that Roshaun looked slightly skeptical. "Sker'ret," Tom said, while Nita sorted out the seating, "I talked to your honorable ancestor this morning: He sends his best." "Does he?" Sker'ret said, politely enough, but Nita thought she caught some edge behind the words. Roshaun was standing there off to one side, with Dairine, looking superior and skeptical as usual. Carl turned to him. "Roshaun he Nelaid am Seriv am Teliuyve am Meseph am Veliz am Teriaunst am det Nuiiliat," Carl said, "eniwe' sa pheir'land then he continued, not in the Speech, but in a beautiful flow of language that sounded more like running water than like words. Nonetheless, the meaning was plain, for those who speak the Speech can listen in it as well, comprehending any language. "A sorrow for your new burden, Sunborn. Bear it as befits you, and lay it down in good time, mere cast-off shadow as it is of the greater radiance beyond." Roshaun looked utterly stunned. He bowed to Tom and Carl as if they were as royal as he thought he was, or more so. "May it be so," he said, "here and henceforward." They nodded to him, and moved around the table to get settled. "Now those are Seniors," Roshaun said under his breath as he sat down beside Nita. "I was wondering if your people had any worthy of the name." "You have no idea," Nita said softly. She wondered yet again exactly what was involved in becoming a Senior. It's not like they're so old. It's not like they're just grown up, either. Lots of grown-ups are wizards, and they never make Senior level, or even Advisory. What is it? What do you have to do? How do they know so much stuff, and make it look so easy? At last everyone was seated. "Normally we'd spend a lot more time being social," Tom said, "but today's not the day for it, so please forgive us if we get right down to business." He let out a long breath, looking them all over. "Some of you," he said, "will have noticed that the world has been getting… well, a lot more complicated lately. And, seemingly, a lot worse." "Yeah," Nita said, thinking ruefully of the Manhattan skyline. "By 'lately,'" Tom said, just a little sharply, "I mean, over the past couple of thousand years." "Oh," Nita said, and shut her mouth. "It isn't local," Tom said. "Matters have been worsening gradually all over the worlds; and wizards who study macrotrends have been concerned about it for some time. The Powers That Be haven't had much to say except that this worsening is a sign of a huge change coming… something that's not been seen before in the worlds. And now we know the change is upon us… because the expansion of the universe is speeding up." Kit looked a little confused. "But hasn't it always been expanding? What's the problem?" "Bear with me," Tom said. He looked at Nita. "Do you know anything about 'dark matter'?" "Mostly that it was missing," Nita said. "Astronomers have been looking for it for a long time, maybe a hundred years or so. But now they've started to find it." "And so have scientists on a lot of other worlds," Carl said. "Know what's strange about that?" "That it took us so long?" Kit said. Carl shook his head. "That all the sentient species who were looking for dark matter started finding it at around the same time." Nita sat there and wondered what to make of that. "The discovery of dark matter and the increase in the speed of the universe's expansion are somehow connected," Tom said. "Dark matter is being detected in ever-increasing masses and volumes… as if it was appearing out of nowhere. And in all the places where 'new' dark matter is being found, local space is starting to expand much faster than it should. Thousands of times faster." "So everything's getting farther and farther away from everything else," Kit said. "Right. Now, that's bad enough by itself. But there are also side effects to this kind of abnormal expansion. Mental ones… and effects that go deeper than the merely mental." Roshaun stirred uncomfortably, and a sort of rustle went through Filif's branches. "The expansion isn't just affecting space itself," Carl said. "It also stretches thin the structure space is hung on-the subdimensions, the realms of hyperstrings and so on. If the expansion isn't slowed to its normal rate, physical laws are going to start misbehaving. And since those laws are the basis on which life and thought work, people here and everywhere else are going to start being affected personally by the greatly increased expansion." "How?" Filif said. "That's going to vary from species to species," Tom said. "In our case, the case of Senior Wizards-and I don't mean Seniors, but everyone much past latency, what our own species calls adolescence-it's going to look like a slowly increasing physical and then mental weariness. We're going to start finding it hard to care, even hard to believe in what we're all doing. And then our wizardry will vanish." Nita looked at Tom and thought, with a sudden twisting in her gut, how very tired he looked. "Yes," Tom said. "It's already begun." He let out a long breath. "Now, of course, this is something we'd try to derail. Most Seniors and Advisory-level wizards from this part of the galaxy were involved this past week with an intervention that was meant to deal with the problem, at least in the short term, for our galaxy." Nita thought of Tom and her dad sitting in her dining room and talking, some days back, when they'd thought no one was listening. We have a chance… a better than even chance… Tom had been saying to her dad, about something the Senior Wizards had been contemplating. "So that's where you were when nobody could get through to you, even with the manuals," Nita said. Carl nodded. "None of us was sure when the necessary forces could be completely assembled. When the call finally came, we had to drop everything and go. There was no time for explanations." "Or for interruptions," Tom said. "To say we were busy would have been putting it mildly… not that it made any difference, in the end. Because we failed. After that we were all sent home to our homeworlds, to start organizing their defense." Nita went cold in a rush, as cold as if someone had dumped a bucket of snow over her head. "Why now?" Kit said. "Why is all this happening now?" "Not even the Powers are sure," Carl said. "Someone's going to have to find out, though… because the 'why' may be the key to solving the problem. If it can be solved." Kit had a very uneasy look on his face. "So, if you guys are going to lose your wizardry for a while… who's going to take over for you as Seniors?" he said. "Who's going to be running the planet?" Tom and Carl looked at each other, then at Nita and Kit. "You are," they said. Force Support Kit sat there and came to terms with what it felt like when all the blood drained from your face. It was a feeling he really didn't like. "You're kidding, right?" he said after a moment. Tom shook his head. "I know this is a terrible thing to dump on you," he said. "But in a very short time– certainly within a couple of weeks, possibly within days-we adult wizards are not going to be able to do our jobs anymore." "We hoped we could head it off," Carl said. "But even a mass intervention involving more than two thousand Seniors from this part of the galaxy couldn't stop what was happening in our neighborhood… or deal with the cause." "But you said it was the dark matter," Sker'ret said. "That's the 'what,'" Carl said. "But we're still missing the 'why'… and there's no point in treating the symptoms. We need to find the cause… and we haven't." Carl raised his hands, let them fall again. "We have some hints and possibilities-" "It's the Lone Power again, isn't it?" Dairine said. "That'd be an easy first assumption," said Tom. "But the early indications are that something different from the Lone One's usual pattern of attack is going on. We're continuing to investigate…" "Not with a lot of success," Carl muttered. Kit squirmed in discomfort, for some of the goodnatured humor that was always there when Tom and Carl talked to each other was missing. They're scared, he thought. And they're trying not to show it, because they don't want to frighten the kids… "We should start at the beginning," Tom said. He looked over at Carl. "Do you want to do the run– through this time? I wouldn't want to deprive you…" Now the humor was back, but Kit was still unnerved. Carl, though, just raised his eyebrows, resigned. "You go ahead," he said. "I'll have lots of chances to do it by myself over the next few days." Tom took a deep breath, then reached into the air and brought out his wizard's manual. It was, as usual, larger and thicker than Nita's-more like a phone book than a library book. He put it down on the table and opened it to about the halfway point. "Go ahead," he said, and the manual's pages began riffling by themselves to the place he was looking for. When the page-riffling stopped, Tom ran his finger down one column of the print on the right-hand page. "Okay," he said, "here we go." He began to speak, very quietly and conversationally, in the Speech. As Kit watched, the manual and its pages seemed to spread out more and more widely across the table-or maybe it was the table underneath it shrinking. But, no, that couldn't be true; Kit was leaning with his forearms on the table, and it wasn't moving, and neither was he. Nonetheless, the room darkened, the yellow-flowered wallpaper fading down and out as if someone had turned off the day. The pages of the book darkened; the table darkened, too, and kept on spreading out into the darkness, somehow seeming to avoid everyone who was sitting around it. Farther and farther that flat darkness spread; and Kit and Nita and Dairine and Roshaun and Filif and Sker'ret were all still illuminated, as if by an overhead light that nobody could see. Across the table from them, illuminated in the same way, Tom leaned back in his chair, his arms folded, his gaze cast down as he watched the ever-spreading pages of the book. There on the surface of the page, as it grew, Kit could see the previously prepared spell diagram that Tom had been working from-a blue-glowing, densely interwritten circle of characters in the Speech, the outer circle containing the basic parameters of the spell, knotted with the wizard's knot, and the inside of the circle containing the variables. As they sat there, the outer circle of the spell rotated up around them out of the horizontal, leaving a hemisphere of incandescent blue filigree overhead, in which various characters of the Speech sparked and glittered as the wizardry worked. For a few moments, as everything got more and more silent except Tom's voice speaking in the Speech, they seemed to be sitting inside an elaborate blue-burning globe, a glowing wire frame. Then, without warning, the globe expanded outward in all directions, as if heading for infinity. Where it passed, first stars flared into being, and then galaxies. Within a few breaths' time, the kitchen table was at the heart of a viewpoint on the Local Group, the thirty-odd galaxies closest to Earth's Milky Way spiral, which Tom had placed at the center of the view for reference purposes. Close by hovered the ragged irregular patches of starfire that were the Greater and Lesser Magellanic clouds; a little farther off, the great golden-tinged spiral of the Andromeda galaxy hung in its majesty, with the other associated galaxies scattered in various directions around it and the Milky Way. The imaging wizardry's blue sphere shot out past the Local Group, sowing more and more galaxies and groups of galaxies in its wake, until it was as if the eight wizards-and the dining room table– were floating free in a near-infinite volume of space. "So here's the neighborhood," Tom said. As he spoke, the utter blackness between the galaxies paled to a sky blue, and the light of the stars paled as well. "I'm lightening up the black of space a little, so you can see where our part of the trouble first started-" He pointed off to one side. Faintly, in the depths of the space between the Andromeda galaxy and its neighbor, the smaller loosely coiled spiral in Triangulum, a dim patch of darkness started to grow in the blue. At first Kit wasn't sure what he was seeing, but it became more and more distinct. "We first spotted that dark patch about three years ago," Tom said. "Back then it seemed as if it was just an anomaly, a dark-matter aggregate that was in the process of popping out and would stabilize after a while. Space is always springing little 'surprises' or accidents in interstellar structure that heal themselves up over time. Intervening too soon, or too energetically, can make them worse." "Like when you keep picking at something," Kit said, "and it doesn't get better…" Carl chuckled. "Something like that," Tom said. "At any rate, the wizards over in Andromeda kept an eye on it. The dark-matter area grew, but not much, and not quickly. There came a point where it seemed to have stopped. But then another one appeared…" They saw it fade in, very gradually, on the opposite side of the Local Group, over by the small irregular galaxy known on Earth as GR8. "And after that, the dark-matter aggregates started appearing more quickly," Tom said. "In rapid succession, over the past couple of years, concentrations of dark matter appeared near 30 Doradus and M32." The dark splotches were spreading fast, popping up seemingly randomly in every direction. "It's getting closer," Nita said. "There's one right by the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. That's really close, just next door, almost." Kit didn't know the names or locations of the galaxies as well as Nita did: Astronomy was her specialty. But right now what troubled him most was the rate at which the darkness seemed to be spreading. "Did you just speed up the simulation?" he said to Tom. Tom shook his head. "No, the spread began accelerating last year," he said. "That was when the Powers That Be first asked wizards to start doing local interventions." He let out a breath. "The early wizardries, which were large-group workings like the one we just came back from, seemed at first to work. The aggregates of dark matter froze, even began to retreat in a few cases. As you see here-" The assembled wizards watched the twilight– colored virtual space between galaxies and groups of galaxies continue to undergo a bizarre and splotchy nightfall. After a few moments, the darkness grew no darker, but there was still too much of it. And to Kit, the galaxies burning in the simulation-wizardry began to look small and threatened. "That's how the situation stood until a few days ago," Tom said. "That spot over there"-he pointed at one side of the simulation, and the view of that area leaped closer-"that's where Carl and I were last week. Two thousand Seniors and Planetary-Supervisory Wizards from all over our own galaxy, along with groups from Andromeda, the Sagittarius and Canis Major Dwarfs-we went there to reverse the effect in that one spot. We defined a local control structure, a temporary 'kernel' for that part of space, and operated on it to force the dark matter back out of our space." "And the intervention did not work," Roshaun said softly. "No," Tom said. "Instead, this happened." The darkness began to spread again-and this time, much faster. "It was as if someone was waiting to see whether we'd be able to pull it off," Carl said. "When it was plain that we couldn't, the expansion took off again at twice the speed. And this is what the projected result looks like." Kit looked up into what was left of the blue of intergalactic space as the simulation ran. In a frighteningly short time, the blue was all gone. Then, the blackness began to intrude among the stars of the galaxies themselves. Their stars pushed apart; the galaxies started to lose shape. "But how can it be happening so fast?" Kit said. "That has to be a lot faster than the speed of light. Matter can't go that fast in space." Nita was shaking her head. "But space can," she said. "Sit an ant on a balloon and blow up the balloon really fast, and the ant winds up moving a lot faster than it could ever move by itself. If something's stretching space out of its usual shape, then everything inside space-matter and light and gravity and time-gets distorted, too." "And that's where the real trouble starts," Carl said. "Physical law is fairly robust, but wizardry is more delicate and subtle. The way this expansion undermines what we do is very simple… very nasty." "When you do a spell," Tom said, "you have to accurately describe what you're working on in the Speech, or you risk destroying it. And to accurately describe anything, you have to know, and describe, not only what it is, but where it is. Now, your manual normally helps you factor in the adjustments you need for the way things in your location are moving: your planet's rotation, its orbit around the Sun, and so on. But if all of a sudden, because of this expansion, things are moving unpredictably in directions or speeds they shouldn't be-" "Then your wizardry doesn't work at all," Kit said. "Or starts to, and then breaks down." The thought gave him the shivers. There were so many ways that a failed wizardry could be deadly that he hated to give it much more thought. And what's worse, Kit thought, is that up until now, the one thing you could always count on was that a spell always worked. If all of a sudden it doesn't… "That would be bad enough," Tom said, "but matters get even worse. The changes in the structure of space then start affecting the thought processes and reactions of all living beings in the area. Their behavior will start to become less and less rational… less committed to Life. This is the point where a wizard whose power levels are below a certain level starts losing the ability to speak or understand the Speech… because you stop believing that you can. Soon you stop believing in it." Kit gulped at the awful thought. "Wizardry will not live in the unwilling heart,'" Sker'ret said, quoting one of the most basic tenets of the Art. "Yes," Tom said. "And nonwizards will suffer, too. Matters of the heart and spirit will be valued less and less. Shortly only physical things will seem real to people. And when that happens-because most humans will still remember that, once, the heart and the spirit did matter-they'll get scared and angry. Eventually anger and violence will be the only things that seem to work the way they used to, the only things left that make people feel alive." Kit shivered, looking over at Nita. She glanced at him, a sidewise, nervous look. "Why do I get this feeling," Nita said, "that on a planet with nuclear weapons, we'll probably blow ourselves up a long time before light and gravity start to malfunction?" "Not that the rest of the known universe won't be just a little way behind us," Kit said. Carl cleared his throat. "Exactly." They all sat there in silence for a few moments. Then, after a moment-"If that's all," Filif said, sounding a little forlorn, "please, may we have the daylight back again?" "Sure," Tom said, and put out his hand. The wizardry surrounding them collapsed itself to a little blue-white sphere no bigger than a ball bearing, and dropped into his palm. As the wizardry shrank away, ordinary afternoon sunshine and the reality of Nita's dining room reasserted themselves: the flowered wallpaper, the dining room table with some of the leftovers of breakfast still on it-a marmalade jar with a knife stuck in it, a couple of crumpled paper napkins. Tom dropped the imaging wizardry back onto the open page of his wizard's manual. It flattened itself to the page; he reached out and closed the book again. Kit watched him do it, feeling peculiarly remote from it all. We're sitting here in Nita's dining room talking about the end of civilization, he thought, and not in ten thousand years, either. From the sound of it, it's gonna be more like ten thousand hours… or minutes. Roshaun glanced up from the table, where his troubled gaze had been resting for a few moments. "Senior," he said, "why is all this happening now} Surely if this is so simple a strategy, the Isolate Power should have enacted it and made an end of us all ages ago." "We don't know why," Tom said. "There's always the possibility that the Lone One might not have known how to do this before. Though they're immortal, the Powers That Be aren't omniscient: They learn, though the exact shape of their learning curves is never likely to be clear to us because of the way they exist outside of time, dipping in and out as it suits them. Or the Lone Power could have known for aeons how to produce this result, but for some reason was waiting for the best moment to spring it on an unsuspecting universe." "Then, perhaps," Filif said, "something has happened either to embolden It… or to frighten It." Carl shook his head. "We have no idea," he said. "Another possibility is that something's going on in our universe that the Lone One doesn't want us interfering with-and this inrush of dark matter may simply be a distraction to keep us from discovering what's really happening, and dealing with it." "But you don't have any idea which of these theories might be the right one," Sker'ret said. "No," Tom said. "What about the Powers That Be?" Dairine said. "What do they say?" "Right now," Tom said, "they're waiting for the experts in this universe to give them some more data." "The experts?" Nita said. Tom smiled just slightly, but once again that smile had a grim edge to it. "Us," he said. "While They live here, too, They do it on a different level. We're a lot more expert in the business of actually dealing with physicality, day to day, than They are." "It's like the difference between manufacturing something, say a dishwasher," Carl said, "and using it every day. You could say that the Powers know what the universe acted like when it left the factory, but we're the ones who know the little noises it makes every day when it's running. And where to kick it to make them stop." Kit spent a moment trying to see the universe as a malfunctioning dishwasher, then put the idea aside; it made his brain hurt. Meanwhile, Tom picked up his manual and put it into the air beside him: It vanished. "Anyway," Tom said, "right now we need to stop the dark matter from tearing the universe apart-or at least slow down its growth and buy ourselves some time to solve the problem." "Or rather, buy you the time to solve it," Carl said. "Wizards near latency age-near their peak power level –are the only ones who'll keep their power long enough to make a difference now." Kit saw Dairine swallow hard, and Nita raised her eyebrows at him, while Sker'ret clenched its front four or six legs together, and Filif held very still, and Roshaun looked down at the table again, as if afraid what might show in his eyes if anyone saw them. And then suddenly, Tom smiled. It wasn't an angry smile, though it was fierce, and it had a surprising edge of amusement to it. "Now, after all that," he said, "believe it or not, we have some good news for you. For the duration-for as long as there is a duration-as far as wizardry goes, the lid is off. Any wizardry you can build to fight what's happening, any wizardry you can figure out how to fuel, is fair game. Normally we all limit our workings carefully to keep them from damaging the universe, or the beings who share it with us. But now the system itself is on the chopping block, along with everything else. If we don't save that…" He shook his head. "Then not just wizardry, but the Life we're sworn to protect, is at an end." Kit was immersed in a strange combination of shock and excitement, but at the same time practical questions nagged at him. "When you said we were going to be running things on the Earth," he said, "you didn't mean just us… did you?" Tom's grin became less fierce. "No," he said, "we didn't. Forgive us for making absolutely sure we had your attention when we started." "Obviously there are a lot of other wizards on the planet who'll be of use in this crisis," Carl said. "Not to mention a whole lot of wizards elsewhere in our galaxy. Seniors here and just about everywhere else have been selecting out younger wizards in their catchment areas who've shown promise, or have produced good results in the past. You fall into those categories. We've been organizing two main intervention groups– those who'll be staying here, managing the usual problems that come up at home, and those who'll be going off-planet to look for ways to stop the dark-matter incursion. Shortly we'll be putting you in touch with the groups you'll be assigned to. In the meantime, start researching on what we've been up to-it'll all be in your manuals. Anybody you feel will help you handle what's going on, get in touch with them pronto. But you've also got some logistical problems to deal with." Kit noticed Dairine beginning to squirm a little in her seat. Uh-huh, he thought. Bet I know what that's about. "First of all," Tom said to Dairine, "you've made the best of being 'grounded' inside the solar system for the last little while, so-assuming you've learned your lesson-the Powers That Be have cleared us to unground you." Dairine stopped squirming, and started to grin. "But don't you assume that this automatically means you're going to be sent off-planet. The team assignments haven't been thrashed out yet, and you may be of more use here." Dairine sat still and assumed an expression that Kit had long since come to recognize as an attempt to look "serious" and "good." As usual, he had a lot of trouble taking it seriously. "Anyway," Tom said, "whichever way your team assignments go, you're all either going to have to be on call at a moment's notice to deal with things here, or you're going to have to be away for some time." He glanced from Dairine to Kit to Nita. "Normally, in an emergency, we'd help you deal with your absence from school and 'real life' by issuing you with timeslide wizardries, so that you could spend as much time away as you needed to and come back at the same time you left. But this situation's not normal. Local implementations of wizardry may suffer early on… and if a timeslide fails, you could wind up marooned in the wrong time period, with no way home. So you're going to have to find other ways to handle your absence. Any way that we can help, let us know as soon as you have a plan." Nita just nodded. "Uh," Kit said, "right." / can see it all now, he thought. / go to my mama and pop and say, Hey, I need to take some more time off school. Yeah? How much? Oh, just enough to save the universe. Might be a few weeks. But no more than a few months, because everything that exists may be destroyed by then… Tom, meanwhile, had turned to Filif, Roshaun, and Sker'ret. "The story's different for you three," he said. "Sker'ret, Filif, we don't have direct jurisdiction over you-your Seniors or Advisories at home have that. But we can advise you while you're here. Both your species fortunately have long latency periods, so that your worlds have plenty of wizards on hand to deal with the local-level threat. Your people in particular, Filif, have such a high latency age that nearly all the wizards on the planet are still of an age range to be immune to what's going to happen. Officially, you're still both enjoying excursus status. The emergency, naturally, supersedes the 'holiday'; if you feel uncomfortable staying here, you can go home to your people at any time. But there's no need for you to rush home unless you feel you must." "I am free to come and go as I please," Filif said, "and have no binding ties to draw me immediately back. I am, after all, just one tree in a forest… and I think I might be of more use here." Tom glanced over at Sker'ret, who gave him a casual look in return. "I'm in no hurry, either," Sker'ret said. "People of my species are legally independent a long time before we're finished being latent. My esteemed ancestor won't mind if I stay." Kit glanced briefly at Nita, and saw her eyes flick toward him, then away again. She hears it, too, he thought. There was something uncomfortable going on with Sker'ret and his family. Not something that's going to get us all in trouble while we're trying to handle this mess, I hope… Tom nodded. "All right, then. But, Roshaun, unfortunately matters aren't as simple in your case." Roshaun glanced up at Tom with an expression that Kit found totally unrevealing. "Though your species has a longer latency period than ours," Tom said, "your own situation's complicated by your family's unique relationship with your planet, and the way wizardry is practiced there. Since your father, the Sun Lord That Was, is your Advisory, you're going to have to go home and sort out your intentions with him." Roshaun's expression didn't change. "It should not take long," he said. "All right. If he's got any questions about what's been going on here, have him get in touch with us; we'll be glad to fill him in on the details. In fact, I kind of look forward to it, because I read the precis in the manual about what you did while we were gone." Roshaun nodded graciously, his face adding only the slightest smile of pleasure at the praise… and Kit suddenly found himself really wishing he could somehow eavesdrop on that conversation. His father's his Advisory? The thought made him boggle. Sure, there were families in which wizardry ran; Nita's was an example. But to have such a close relative be a wizard, too, and your superior-It'd be like having a father who was also principal of your school. It could he super… if your dad was some kind of saint. But, boy, if he wasn't… "So," Carl said, "now you're all up to date. Just make sure you understand one thing: You're not going to be immune from the loss-of-wizardry effect forever. For a while it'll even seem to be going the other way, because as we lose our power, the Powers That Be are going to make sure it's not wasted. It's going to pass to you. But unless you work very fast to find out exactly what it is you need to do with it to save the world, then all that extra power isn't going to help you for long. You'll lose it, as we'll lose it. You'll lose the Speech, and wizardry, and even the belief that there was ever any such thing. And then the darkness will fall." Kit felt himself going pale all over again. "So work fast," Tom said. "We'll do the same, for as long as we can. We'll set you up with all the automatic manual assistance we can before we become nonfunctional." His face hardened as he said it, as if he was trying hard not to let his real feelings out. "But after that, it's up to you." Kit, glancing briefly sideways, saw Nita swallow. He'd seen that sealed-over expression on her often enough lately; he hadn't ever thought he'd see it on Tom. You get used to thinking the Seniors will always have a way out, Kit thought. That they'll figure out what to do. But when you see that it's not going to be that way… Tom glanced around at all of them. "So," he said, "if you have any questions …" He paused as a faint clicking noise came from off to his left, and then watched with interest as Dairine's laptop walked into the room. A small, rectangular silvery case on many jointed legs, it now hunched itself down on the polished wood floor, put up two stalky eyes, rather like Sker'ret's, and glanced from Tom to Carl and then to Dairine. "I was wondering when you were going to come out from under the bed," Dairine said, sounding to Kit both annoyed and a little relieved. "Spot, are you okay?" From Spot issued a small whirring noise, like a cuckoo clock getting ready to strike. Dairine leaned over to peer down at him. "Three true things await discovery," Spot said. "Darkness overspreading, A commorancy underground: And the Moon is no dream-" He sat there for a moment more, silent, and then got up on all his little legs again and spidered off into the kitchen. They all looked after him. "Uh, excuse me," Dairine called after him, "but what was that}" There was a pause, then the sound of little feet on the kitchen floor again, and Spot put several stalked eyes around the doorframe, gazing at Dairine. What was what? he said silently. "What you just said." What did I say? Kit gave Nita a Huh? look. She gave him one right back, and shrugged. Dairine looked perplexed. "You're the computer wizard here," she said. "You're supposed to be the one with all the memory! What do you mean, 'What did I say'?" Kit said, "You said, 'Three true things await discovery'-" " 'Darkness overspreading,'" Nita said. "And then something about a commorancy underground," Dairine said. "Whatever a commorancy is-" "'And the Moon is no dream,'" Roshaun said. "Well, I should say not. It's real enough. Indeed, when we went there-" Dairine elbowed him. "Ow!" Roshaun said. Did I say that? I don't recall. And Spot headed off into the kitchen again. A second later there came a little subdued pop! of displaced air as he teleported outside. "Oh, great," Dairine muttered. "Since when does he have memory errors? This is just not the time." Tom, however, looked thoughtful. "Has he done this before?" he said. Dairine shook her head. "Absolutely not!" Tom looked over at Carl. "That certainly sounded oracular to me. How about you?" "Sounds a lot like our koi," Carl said. "Not haiku, though, more like some kind of poetic shopping list. Better start taking notes," he said to Dairine. "Some of this might turn out to be useful at some point." "Well, that's just great, because he's what I usually take the notes in!" Dairine said, aggrieved. "If all of a sudden he's forgetting stuff-" Nita put her eyebrows up, reached across the table, and pushed a pad of yellow sticky notes over to Dairine. "Oh, sure! So we're going to be running all over the place, saving the universe, and I'm going to have to write things down on stickles while I'm doing it?" Nonetheless, Dairine pulled one of the notes off and started scribbling on it furiously. "How do you spell 'commorancy'?" "You're asking me?" Nita said. "You're the spelling champ." "It'd help if I'd ever heard the word before!" "Better look it up," Tom said. "Meanwhile, we have to get moving. We've got a lot more people in the area to see today, and some who're a lot farther away than the Island. Any questions before we go?" For Kit, there were at least ten or twenty, many of them variants on the theme of How are we supposed to save the world when you don't know how? One question, though, had pushed its way to the forefront and was going to drive Kit crazy until he got an answer. "Why didn't you tell us about this before?" he said. Tom and Carl each let out a long breath. "Because there might not have been any need for you to worry about it, if we'd solved it?" Carl said after a moment. "Because you had enough to deal with in your own lives? Because we were fairly sure we could handle the problem-and so were the Powers That Be?" Everyone was quiet again. "And then things didn't turn out the way any of us thought they would," Carl said, "so it became time to start worrying you. Believe me, we wish we didn't have to. But right now, wishing's a waste of time. We've got our work cut out for us. So…" He and Tom got up. "Thanks for making the time for us," Tom said. "We'll be in touch." They headed for the back door. Nita got up and went out after them, and Kit got up and followed her, while Dairine finished scribbling on her sticky note, and Roshaun, Sker'ret, and Filif watched her. Nita peered in Tom's open car window as he settled himself in the driver's seat and Carl got in on the far side. "If you've got all these people to see," she said, why don't you just worldgate it?" "We're saving our strength," Tom said as he started the car. "And, anyway, when all this is done, we still need some groceries." His smile, though kind of tired looking, had the usual humor about it. "See you later…" Tom backed the Nissan out of the driveway, turned, and headed up the street. Neither Nita nor Kit said anything until the car was almost down to the traffic lights at Park Avenue. "They are both completely freaked," Nita said at last. "I've never seen them like that before." Kit shook his head. "They're freaked? What about us}" "Yeah," Nita said. "I know." Nita still looked a lot calmer than Kit felt. He envied her composure. "All we have to do now," he said, "is start figuring out what to do until they get us assigned to these teams." Behind them, the screen door banged. They both turned to look. Dairine came out. A moment later she was followed by Roshaun, who stood there, somehow managing to look regal in a floppy T-shirt, and glanced down the driveway as if nothing particularly upsetting had happened. And what about him? Kit said silently. Completely cool. Or so he wants us to think… I don't know him well enough to know what's going on inside his head, Nita said. Dairine's another story, though. The very thought that she might have to stay home again while we're out in the Great Wherever is driving her nuts. I think she's got her plans made already… "You're gonna love them," Dairine was saying to Roshaun as the two of them came down the driveway. "They're unbelievably terrific." "Who?" Kit said. "Your little one-celled buddies on Titan?" Dairine turned a don't-get-cute expression on Kit. "Them, too," she said. "But they weren't who I was talking about." "Uh-oh," Nita said, glancing at Kit. Then she looked back at Dairine. "Something tells me you're thinking about doing some traveling." Dairine looked over her shoulder, back up the driveway. Twenty feet or so behind her, Spot was sitting in the middle of the driveway, staring with all his eyes at the sky. They all looked upward to see what he was looking at, but nothing was immediately obvious. "It's a long way there, and a long way back," Dairine said, looking back at Kit and Nita. "It's not somewhere I've been for a while, except virtually. Not enough energy available for the transit. But now"-she laced her fingers together and cracked her knuckles-"now it's a whole new ball game." "Don't do that," Nita said. "You know it's bad for your hands." "Like the state of my finger joints is going to matter if the world comes to an end?!" Dairine said. Nita made a face. Kit had to admit that Dairine had a point. "Doing your own spell to get there's going to cost you a lot of power," Nita said. "It would if I was going to do one," Dairine said. "But why should I, when the visitors' worldgates in the cellar are fully subsidized?" She grinned at Roshaun. "And on checking mine," Roshaun said, "I find that as of your Seniors' talk with us, the subsidy has been extended indefinitely. We've retro-engineered those gates before." "Yeah, but this is going to be a much longer jump," Dairine said. "If you're not careful how you restate the spell's power statements, you're gonna make a mess. Better let me handle it." Roshaun frowned. "I should remind you that when I restated them last time-" Kit took Nita by the elbow and steered her casually away; they headed down to the end of the driveway. They're at it again, he said silently. How many times is this now since we got back? Don't ask me. I stopped counting yesterday. They looked up and down the street, while behind them the argument started to escalate. "What's your dad going to make of all this?" Kit said. Nita shook her head. "He's already dealt with the houseguests saving the solar system. After that, maybe saving the universe won't seem like such a stretch." But she didn't sound certain, and the uncertainty was catching. Kit looked around at the maple trees, the street with its potholes, the across-the-street neighbor washing his car in the driveway, the front-fender rattle of a kid riding by on a mountain bike-and found that everything suddenly felt peculiarly fragile and undependable, as if something far more solid and deadly might break through at any moment. Kit stuffed his hands into his pockets, hunching his shoulders a little. The day that had seemed mild earlier seemed chilly now, as the spring breeze whistled down the street and rustled the maple leaves. "Well," Kit said, "even if our parents don't completely get what's happening, it's not like they can stop us." "I know," Nita said. "But I'm so used to them coping, now. I'm getting spoiled for being open about it… it saves so much time." She rubbed her forehead for a moment. "Time… What are we going to do about school?" "I'm still thinking about that one," Kit said. Nita looked around, shook her head. "I can't think straight right now," she said. "I'm in shock. And now I'm wondering if I'm going to lose it totally when it starts to sink in. Dairine's right for once: They've just told us the world might end in-what, a few weeks? A couple of months?" "Something like that." Kit's mouth was dry again. She looked up and down the street. "Makes everything look different," she said. "Look, here comes Carmela…" Kit glanced to the left, down toward the corner, where his street crossed Nita's. Carmela had just come around the corner lugging a big pile of what Kit could eventually see were more teen magazines, and Ponch was trotting after her. As they came down the block, Nita said, "When she finds out, is she going to be able to cope with this?" Kit had to laugh. "Carmela? Neets, how would I know? I don't know if I can cope with it yet." She looked at him and shook her head. "You will," Nita said. Kit shrugged. Her certainty was reassuring. He just hoped it was justified. "You guys done with your big meeting?" Carmela said as she came up to them. "Yeah, we're done," Kit said. "Roshaun still here?" Ponch jumped up on Kit and started trying to lick his face, as usual. "Having a discussion with Dairine," Nita said. Carmela snickered. "I'll just bet." She went on up the driveway. I went home and got some food, Ponch said. Your pop forgot that you fed me. "Yet another criminal mastermind," Kit said. "What are we going to do with you?" Give me enough food that I don't need to manipulate you. Did you miss me? "Didn't even notice you were gone," Kit said, which was true, if not terribly tactful. Ponch snapped at Kit's face playfully. / didn't think you'd mind if I went. Tom and Carl are nice, but they weren't bringing their dogs. "No problem," Kit said. He looked over at Nita. "Look, I'm gonna go home and give my mom and pop the news. The sooner they find out, the sooner they'll get over it. I hope." "Yeah." Nita let out a long breath. "Telling my dad's gonna be fun, too… at least I have a few hours to figure out how to explain it. There should be a stripped– down version of the story in the manuals." She reached out to the seemingly empty air and slipped her hand into the otherspace pocket where she kept her own manual. Then her eyes went wide. "What?" Kit said. Nita pulled her manual out, and Kit suddenly understood her reaction. Nita's wizard's manual normally looked like a hardcover library book buck ram bound, a little beat up, and the size of a largish paperback. But now it was twice its normal size, and three times its normal thickness. It looked more like a phone book now. "It looks like Tom's," Kit said. "Yeah," Nita said, looking both intrigued and troubled. "Great… See you afterward?" "Yeah. The usual place?" "Sure." He lifted a hand, a half wave. Kit turned and headed down the sidewalk toward the corner. Ponch followed him, trotting along and looking up at him. So what was it about? "Look out for the tree!" I know where all the trees are, Ponch said, just barely avoiding the maple he'd been about to run straight into. What happened? Are you all right? "Huh? I'm fine," Kit said. "But we have to save the universe." Ponch looked up at him, swinging his tail widely from side to side as they walked along. Oh, Ponch said. Okay. 54 Kit smiled. He felt weak in the knees at the moment, but there was something about Ponch's matter-of-fact acceptance of the seemingly impossible that made him feel better-for the moment, anyway. "Come on," he said. "We need to talk to Mama and Pop. And then I've got a couple of calls to make." Initial Reconnaissance Nita let out a long breath as she went back up the driveway. Kit's uncertainty disturbed her… because she was feeling more than her own share. I'm so used to having Kit to backstop me, she thought. Whenever I get nervous, he's always there to help me get a grip– But for a while I may have to do the gripping. Across from the back door, Roshaun was leaning against the fence that ran just this side of the lilac bushes, with yet another lollipop sticking out of his face. Carmela was leaning against the fence, too, on one side of him. Spot seemed to have wandered off. On the other side of Roshaun, her arms folded, eyes narrowed in annoyance, Dairine was saying, "He's never done this before. How am I supposed to depend on Spot if he can't even remember things from one moment to the next? He's my version of the manual! What if this memory loss thing starts extending to his reference functions? The little spells I can keep in my head… but how am I supposed to do wizardry if he can't feed me the complicated ones?" She let out a long breath. "I'm going to ask Spot's people to check him out. If they can figure out what's going on with him…" Roshaun took the lollipop out and examined it: It was a red-and-white-striped one. "Everything is changing," he said. "We are all going to have to learn new ways to be wizards, I think, if we are to bring our worlds safely through this." He glanced at Nita's manual. "Some of us have already started work, it seems." "It's going to take me a while just to get used to how much it weighs now," Nita said, hefting the manual. She glanced around. "Sker'ret went out. He seem okay to you?" "He was fine." "Where's Filif ?" "He might have gone through his gate downstairs," Dairine said. "Where axe you headed?" "Gotta make a call," Nita said, and went up the steps. Inside the back door she paused and looked down the basement steps. "Filif?" she called. No answer. Nita raised her eyebrows and went down the wooden stairs, reaching up for the string that hung down from the bulb at the stairs' bottom. The basement was unfinished-some painted metal posts supporting the joists of the upstairs floor, a concrete floor underfoot, many cardboard and wooden boxes containing old books, kitchenware and magazines, and much other junk: off to the left, the oil burner and various yard tools; off to the right, an ancient busted chest freezer; more boxes, and the washing machine and dryer. Cellar windows high in the cinderblock walls let in a little daylight, except for three yard-wide circular spots on the wall at the back of the house. In those, complete darkness reigned, the visual effect of worldgates in standby mode: two of them Filif's and Sker'ret's original ones, and the third a replacement for Roshaun's, which had become nonfunctional after being stuck into the core of the Sun. From behind her came a faint clattering noise. Nita glanced that way and saw that Sker'ret was pouring himself down the stairs. "Hey," she said, "have you seen Filif ?" "He said he was going to the Crossings to have a look around, while he still had free time," Sker'ret said. "I'll be meeting him. Do you need him, Senior?" "Oh, please, don't you start," Nita said. "Look at this thing!" She showed him her manual. He pointed several eyes at it. "It looks like the inside of my head feels at the moment," Sker'ret said. "I wish my people got our wizardry like that: It looks so much more manageable." "Yeah, well, I wish my people didn't have to keep it a secret," Nita said. "Like yours don't." Sker'ret chuckled at her. "We all have our little problems." "The question is how much longer we're gonna have them," Nita said. "Years and years, I hope. How long ^ill you be?" "Not long." "Good. And listen-I meant to ask you earlier." Then she stopped herself. Maybe this is too nosy… No, we have to start keeping an eye on each other; we may be getting into some dangerous places soon. "Sker'ret," she said, "if you don't want to go back to your own people for some reason… no matter what happens in the next few weeks… stick with us. We're glad to have you here." Sker'ret held all his eyes still, the only time since she'd come home from the holidays that Nita could remember seeing him do that. "Thank you," Sker'ret said. "Seriously, I thank you. I'll be back in a while." And he poured himself through his own worldgate at some speed, vanishing into the darkness of the interface segment after segment, until nothing was left. Oh, God, did I insult him somehow? I hope not. But now for my own problems… Nita went up the cellar stairs and into the kitchen. Outside in the driveway she could still hear Dairine's and Roshaun's voices raised, and then Carmela's laughter. Nita shook her head, amused. Dairine and Roshaun, she thought. / don't get it. They're too much alike: He ought to drive her nuts. In fact, it sounds like he is driving her nuts… But maybe that's it, Nita thought, picking up the wireless phone from its cradle. Maybe she likes the challenge. I'd say she's picked herself a big one. Nita stared at the phone, once more envying wizards who practiced in cultures where they didn't have to work undercover. Though the visual effects of wizardry often went without being noticed by ordinary humans, you couldn't absolutely count on it… and a "passive" effect, like one's absence for three weeks when they were supposed to be in school, would defi nitely get noticed. I've got no choice, Nita thought. But wish I didn't have to make the call. Nita fiddled with the phone until it consented to display the number that had been given her for use in emergencies. She looked at the name: Millman, Robert. And right under it, the entry that her dad refused to erase: Mom (cell phone). Nita sighed and punched the dial button. After a few moments' silence, the phone at the other end started ringing. It rang seven or eight times, and Nita stood there thinking, What do I say to him, exactly? She had been surprised enough to find out that the school psychologist even knew there were wizards, let alone that he knew some personally. But she had no idea how much they might have told him about what the practice of wizardry was like. "Hello?" "Mr. Millman?" "Speaking; what can– Nita?" There was a second's hesitation while she imagined him putting on his professional hat in case it was needed. "How's your break going?" "Uh, it's gotten kind of complicated." "Are you all right?" "Yeah. But everything else isn't." "I see. What can you tell me about that?" Professional hat maybe, but not professional voice. He sounded the way he always did, absolutely unruffled, ready to let you set matters out at your own speed. Nita had found Millman surprisingly easy to talk to, even before he let her know that he knew wizards and wizardry existed. "I'm still trying to figure that out," Nita said. "You know that what you say is safe with me," Mr. Millman said. "Yeah. But it's your safety I'm concerned about. It wouldn't be very nice to get you all unstable." "I'll take my chances that I can cope with whatever weirdness you're about to drop on me. Tell me what you need." "Right now… some time off." "Meaning time after your spring break ends?" "Yes." "On mental-health grounds, I take it?" "Yeah." There was a brief silence. "Not that such things are impossible to arrange," Millman said, "but-" "I wouldn't be asking you about this unless it was serious." "Okay. If I'm right in thinking that this has something to do with your break so far, you should tell me about how that went." "Uh…" The question, as always, was just how much to tell him. "We went off-world on sort of a student-exchange program," Nita said. "It was really nice… pretty much." "But there were problems." "Yeah." She had to restrain the temptation to yell down the phone, Problems? You bet, because they sent us to Paradise, and we found out the snake was still living in it. And if that wasn't weird enough, for once the snake was on our side, mostly! But even had Nita felt comfortable telling Millman about it, she hadn't yet found the words to explain, even to herself, why the experience still unnerved her so. "From the sound of what you're not saying," Millman said, "I gather you're still processing the results. What's going on that makes you need this extra time off?" "There's about to be trouble with the older wizards," Nita said. "The Seniors?" "All the adult wizards. And there's an incoming threat that we've got to find out how to cope with, in a hurry." "You couldn't possibly tell me anything about what's causing this threat?" "I wish I could," Nita said. "Even the older wizards don't understand it completely yet… and they don't know what to do about it. That's what we're going to have to figure out. And I really don't know if I feel up to this!" "But you don't feel you have any choice, it sounds like." "No," Nita said, "we don't." "Dairine's having to deal with this situation, too?" "Yeah." "Anyone else I should know about?" "Kit, too," she said. Millman knew he was a wizard as well, but no more than that. There was more silence. "This is problematic," Millman said. "Especially since I haven't been seeing Kit professionally. The school system would buy into the concept for you and Dairine, since we've been working together for a while. But as for Kit… And I'm reluctant to lie about this, not just because lying is wrong, but because it undermines my relationship and my contract with the school." "I know," Nita said. There was another silence. Finally, in a changed tone of voice, Millman said, "This kind of lost school time is not good, especially with your aptitude tests coming up." "If we don't do something pretty drastic right away," Nita said, "there may not be a planet to have aptitude tests on for very long. Or there might be a planet… but no one left on it." She could just hear Millman thinking. "You need to understand," he said after a moment, "that just because we share the same privileged information about your special talents, I'm not to be routinely considered as a get-out-of-jail card. This gambit isn't going to work more than once… just so you know." Nita rolled her eyes. "Being in this situation again is the very, very last thing on my mind." "Good." He was silent for a little longer. "How long do you think you'll need?" "I have absolutely no idea." "Well," Millman said at last, "I can cover for you for ten days, tops. I can pull Kit under the umbrella as well by telling the school that something came up for him over the spring break… something crucial that needs to be sorted out. Would that be true?" "Yeah," Nita said. "All right. If his parents will back me up, we'll be okay for that long. But that's all I can give you. After ten days, if you don't show up at school again, you're likely to find the district superintendent banging on your dad's door. Or, if someone at school gets too nervous, the cops." Nita swallowed. "Yeah. Okay. I'll tell Kit." "Good. Can you give me some more detail about what exactly is going to be happening to the planet… so that I can help people around here deal with the fallout, if things get sufficiently strange?" Fallout, Nita thought. I wish he hadn't used that word. The thought of mushroom clouds sprouting all over the planet was haunting her. "I haven't had a lot of time yet to go over the premission precis in my manual. But people are going to start losing their sense of what's underneath reality. Only physical things are going to seem real, after a while. And even those won't feel right for long. Finally, only violent emotions are going to feel good-" She wondered how much sense this was going to make to Millman, if any. But the faint scratching noise she heard in the background suggested that he was taking notes. "Okay," Dr. Millman murmured. "Any sense yet of what you'll have to do to reverse this situation?" "The universe has started expanding too fast," Nita said, "and we have to stop it before it tears itself apart." There was another of those long, thoughtful pauses. Urn," Millman said. "Okay, I see why you might need a few extra days off for that." The complete dryness of his voice was bizarrely reassuring to Nita, so much so that she laughed out loud. "Better," Millman said. "Hold that mood. For my own part, I'll do what I can for people who start having trouble at school. But, meanwhile, keep me posted, all right? If things are going to get a lot worse all of a sudden, I'd appreciate knowing about it. We're all on the same side here." That was the thought that Nita was still having trouble wrapping her brains around. She was much more used to hiding the things going on with her from everyone at school. "I'll do what I can," she said. "So will I," said Millman, "and together we'll have to hope it's enough. But, Nita… for you, this has to seem like an impossible burden." She swallowed hard. "Yes," Nita said. "Call me if you start to feel the strain. I'll help for as long as I can." "Thanks." "Okay. Go well," he said. "Yeah. Thanks again." Millman hung up. She sat there staring at the phone for a moment before sticking it back in its cradle. Well, she thought, at least that's handled. So. A total of two weeks to save the universe, huh? It did seem absolutely impossible. But there would be powerful forces working to help them. And when someone believed in you– Maybe this won't exactly be a piece of cake, she thought. But at least you know people are rooting for you when you start cutting it up! Nita picked up her manual, tucked it under her arm, and headed upstairs to her room. One side of the dining room at the Rodriguez house had a sofa against the wall, and on that sofa Kit sprawled, lying flat on his back and reading his own manual. For maybe the tenth time, his arms had become tired enough that he had to rest the book on his stomach. He was having trouble believing how much new data was in that book all of a sudden. The effect wasn't new-any manual would grow and shrink depending on what information you needed. But this time it felt like there was more stuff in there. It felt more important, and somehow more dangerous. He turned a page and looked once more at the image he'd kept revisiting: a slowly rotating image of the galaxy, seen as if from several hundred thousand light-years away. It was displaying in negative, the stars black against white space, and the space was full of slowly growing fuzzy dark patches. From the living room came the sound of laughter: Carmela, long since back from dumping her load of teen magazines at Nita's place, was now sitting in front of the entertainment system's big TV and talking to someone in the Speech. "No," she said. "You've got to be kidding. It's too early here to even think about grenfelzing…" Kit let his manual fall closed. '"Mela?" he said over the sound of alien laughter from the TV. "Kit, I'm talking to somebody. Can't it wait?" "If I wait, I'll forget. What is grenfelzing, exactly?" "It's kind of like emmfozing," his sister said after a moment, "but with chocolate." Kit covered his eyes. "Sorry I asked," he said. Since he'd made the mistake of using wizardry to configure the entertainment system, Carmela had been spending what seemed like hours every day talking to the various alien species whose hundreds and thousands of interactive channels had suddenly become available along with the more commonplace Earth TV. 'Mela's grasp of the wizardly Speech had been getting more acute. But at the same time it seemed to Kit that Carmela's sense of humor was getting weird, even for her. Well, at least she's not turning into a wizard, Kit thought. It's much too late for that. He turned his attention back to his manual. "Did that last message go through?" Received, the manual page said. "Okay," he said to the manual, "show me again where all this started." The image of the galaxy reset itself. "Zoom in on that," Kit said. The spiral grew and swelled past the ability of the page to show it all. Shortly after that, the page was full of the empty space between the Milky Way and the next galaxy over. "There's nothing there at all," he said softly. Ponch was lying upside down on the floor with his feet in the air. Now he glanced up. Where? Ponch said. "Here." Kit put the manual down on the floor, stood up. "Walk-in, please?" he said to the manual. The imagery spread out of the book format and surrounded Kit, obscuring the dining room. He walked into the space between the Milky Way's spiral and the spot that Tom had shown them earlier. Ponch got up off the now-invisible dining room rug, shook himself, and wandered into the negative-image intergalactic brightness, standing beside Kit with his tail idly waving. "This is where it began," Kit said. "You sense anything?" Ponch stretched out his head and sniffed. / don't smell anything, he said. But it's hard for me to scent through this. Your manual has its own way of telling what's happening. It's not like the way I scent things. Kit shook his head. "The manual doesn't detect anything, either," he said after a moment. He reached out a hand and poked it into the brightness. The manual obediently rolled down a menu showing Kit a list, in the specialized characters of the Speech, for the various forces and energies that had been operating in that part of space when the stretching had happened. "Light, gravity, string structure, everything was behaving itself." He shook his head and closed the Walk-in. "Then this came out of nowhere…" In the living room, the laughter started again. Kit rolled his eyes, picked up his manual, and slapped it shut. "How am I supposed to save the universe with all this noise?" he hollered. "Go save it somewhere else?" Carmela said. "I mean, even if you go read in your own room, and shut the door so that the sound of other people having lives doesn't bother you, you'll still be in this universe. Right? And you should be able to save it just fine from there." Kit gave Ponch a helpless look. "She has a point…" / don't think it would be smart for you to admit that, Ponch said, glancing in Carmela's direction. "Come on," Kit said, getting up. He went through the living room as quietly as he could. Carmela, sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, didn't look up as he passed. As Kit went up the stairs, behind him she said, "You're tense. I forgive you." / hate it when she forgives me and she's right, Kit thought. But aloud he just said, "Thanks," and went up the stairs. Ponch trotted up behind him, his nails clicking on the wood of the steps. So you were serious before, when you said about us having to save the universe? They came out on the landing, and Kit paused there for a moment with his hand on the banister. Ponch went under his arm and paused, too, looking up at him. "Yeah," Kit said. / wasn't sure if you were joking, Ponch said. Kit laughed a single laugh. "Not this time." All right. Let's do it, then. Kit laughed again as they went into his room. "You're on," he said. "You point me in the right direction when you see what we need to do." He tossed his manual onto the bed and looked around at the place: desk and work chair, chest of drawers, braided rug, maps of the Moon and Mars, neatly made bed. Everything was unnaturally clean, but then he'd been away for the better part of ten days and hadn't had time enough to get things into their normal comfortable mess. He sprawled on the bed, picked up the pillows at the head of it and started whacking them into a shape he could lean against, while trying to think some more about where to start attacking this problem. The weirdest thing is that space started stretching in some place where there was so little stuff to do a wizardry on. Anyone who could work directly on the structure of space– time is going to be really powerful… That was the thought that kept making Kit think that once again the Lone Power was involved. But Tom and Carl seemed real eager to keep us from coming to that conclusion. And if the Powers That Be themselves think that this is something new… He picked up the manual and flipped it open again, pausing briefly to look at the Wizard's Oath, all by itself in a block of text in the middle of its page. Just after that came a section containing your own personal data-especially about the way the "long version" of your name looked in the Speech at the moment, information that was vital for doing spells. After that normally came the sections on spell writing, specialized vocabulary in the Speech, and so on. But now, before those sections, Kit's manual contained a "notifications" area nearly a quarter inch thick. Every Page of it was full of bold headings and blocks of text that rewrote themselves as you read them, constantly updating with real-time information from the physical universe. He glanced down at one heading: meteorological intervention: Diversion of tropical disturbance/incipient cyclone "Igme" (NOAA) approved JD 2452758.7756. Cyclone centerpoint latitude: 21:11:15N, longitude 141:55:30E, SSE of Iwo Jima. Storm heat energy release presently holding at only 1.6 x 1012 watts/day, making it ideal for "bounce-away" intervention within thirty hours (cutoff time/latest implementation 2452760.8900). Intervention team is scouting for available backup wizards with past experience in tropical– latitude hydro and meteo work (usual SE Asia specs on assignment to master [interim] crisis evaluation group Earth). Seniors are urgently requested to check their local talent for availability. Kit shook his head, for this was just one small problem on a planet full of them. On all the pages that followed were status reports on more interventions of every kind. Wizards all over the world were doing spells for everything, from melting back an overaggressive glacier to stopping a small southeast Asian "bush war" from breaking out by giving all the potential combatants a brief, profound case of amnesia. They'd instantly forgotten why they were there; by the time the spell wore off, almost all of them had wandered hours and miles away from the battlefield. Sweet, Kit thought, reading that precis with admiration. And smart. But that spell must have really cost the wizards… the psychotropic wizardries are tough to work. The trouble was that the smart people who thought up that solution were the very ones whose expertise the Earth would shortly be losing-the typical adult wizards who worked the spells that kept Life going, or stopped bad things from happening, unnoticed by anyone but other wizards, their Seniors, and the Powers That Be. It's going to be us carrying the weight now. And doing what the real Seniors have been doing… or screwing it up. Kit made himself breathe. Don't get too hung up on how big it looks, he thought. Take it a piece at a time. That has to be what Tom and Carl did. They weren't born Seniors. Ponch jumped up on the bed and walked up to just behind Kit, flopping down. The springs creaked under them both as he settled himself with his head over Kit's shoulder. Kit turned over a few more pages, looking at team wizardries going on all over the planet. There are so many things happening, Ponch said, looking down at the pages. Kit turned his head to look at Ponch in some surprise. "Can you read this?" / see things happening on the page there, Ponch said. Those marks-when I look at them, I see the ice melting. Is that reading? "Maybe not exactly the way I understand it," Kit said, "but, yeah, I think so." He turned another page. Look at all the spells. Everybody's so busy. "This is what the wizardly world's like every day," Kit said. "And for us, it's about to get a lot busier than this if we're going to solve this problem." What if you can't? It was a thought that had been coming up for Kit about every ten minutes. "We have to," he said. "We don't have a get-out clause. We have to do everything to make the 'end of the world' not happen. Everything." He was surprised to find himself shaking a little. From outside in the hall came a loud popping sound and a puff of displaced air that stirred some of the papers on Kit's desk. A second later, Nita looked in Kit's door. "Hey," she said. "Thought you were going to meet me 'upstairs,'" Kit said, jerking a thumb toward the ceiling, or, rather, toward something beyond it. "I thought I'd check here first." She came over to the bed and looked down over his shoulder at the manual. "Yeah," she said, seeing what Kit was looking at. "I've been spending a while with that. Any ideas?" "I've got a few," Kit said. "But we need to talk to the others-" Kit tipped the cover of the manual shut and got up. "You tell your dad yet?" "Not yet. You talk to your mom and pop?" "Yeah, but I think it's not the kind of conversation you can have just once. My pop just said, 'I trust you to do the right thing. You'll figure it out. You always have before.'" "Oh, God," Nita said. "Well, at least Millman has us covered." "Millman?" Kit gave her a surprised look. "You and Dairine, yeah, but-" "No, you, too, if your folks'll go along with it. But only ten days." / should eat first! Ponch said. He scrambled off the bed, turned several times in an excited circle, and shot out the bedroom door and down the stairs, making small enthusiastic woofing noises to himself. "I was going to ask you how he was taking all this," Nita said as they went after him, "but I guess that's my answer." "As long as the end of the world doesn't mess up his mealtimes," Kit said, "he'll be fine." "Hah," Nita said. "Anyway, you've been looking the problem over again-" "Yeah. I hate to say it, but I think Tom and Carl and the other Senior Wizards were running down a blind alley." They went down the stairs into the living room. "I think whatever started that part of space expanding was done from somewhere a long way off. There's no point in wasting time sniffing around out there." "Obaiyo gozaimasu!" yelled the TV and the DVD player together as they came into the living room. Kit stopped just long enough to bow to them. "Hey, guys," he said. "Anything good on today?" "… On insponder 2186043, the Gratuitous Transaction Channel presents the sixth-rerun thirteenth episode of How Much for Just the Planet? In this episode, Mexev finally hears from Anielle, who reads her an electronic communication from Turun, alleging that Nisb had a clandestine meeting with Keniphna at which they discussed the possible bribery of Twell-" Kit gave Nita a look. "This is what happens when certain people leave the Galactic TV guide turned up to 'verbose.'" He looked back toward the TV and DVD player. "Guys," he said in the Speech, "back it down to 'vaguely tantalizing,' will you?" "Ahem," the TV said. "The Planetary Acquisitions team is menaced by a strange alien force." Nita snickered. Kit rolled his eyes and led the way into the dining room. "Remind me never to use wizardry on anything electronic again," he said. "Anyway, even if the Seniors managed to stop the expansion in that one part of space, what were they going to do then? Patch all the other spots one at a time? Even if there were enough wizards to do it, it'd be like sticking Band-Aids on a sponge. The leakage just starts happening somewhere else." "I think you're right," said Nita. "Small-scale solutions won't work on this problem. We need to stop wasting time on finicky analysis of the affected space, and find the source of what made it misbehave." "Wherever that might be," Kit said. He collapsed onto the sofa. "So what now?" "I think first we should start getting in touch with the younger wizards who've been picked for these intervention teams Tom was talking about," Nita said. "I know he said he'd be in touch, but somehow I don't feel comfortable just sitting around and waiting." "Neither do I," Kit said. "I had an idea about that, too-" The back door creaked open. "Another charming bijoux residence," said a cool voice from just outside. "The overall understatement is most effective." A few moments later Dairine came in, followed by Roshaun, who gazed around him with the vague, polite interest of someone visiting a theme park, or some kind of historical re-creation. Behind them came Filif and Sker'ret, who also looked around at everything, but with more interest. As the screen door slammed shut behind them, Ponch ran over to the new arrivals and started jumping up and down among them in excitement, slurping Sker'ret and sticking his nose in among Filif's fronds. "You did have your disguises on when you came over here, didn't you?" Kit said. "Please," Dairine said, putting Spot down. He went spidering away past them all and into the living room. "What's tough now is getting the seemings off them." She glanced over at Roshaun in his baggy Tshirt. "Some of us are becoming real fashion victims." The back door creaked open again, and Carmela came in. '"Mela," Kit said, "have you seen Mama and Pop?" "They went out for a while," Carmela said. "Pop said something about 'bracing himself for the rest of the explanation.'" "Okay," Kit said. Then he blinked, for an odd humming sound was coming from the living room. Kit headed in there, with Nita in tow. Spot was crouched down in front of the TV, staring at it with his own stalky eyes, and images and words in the Speech were flickering across the wide screen much too quickly for Kit to follow. "What're you guys up to?" Kit said. "Dataaaaa…," said the TV and the DVD together, and fell silent again. "Maybe we don't really want to know," Nita said. "It might be some kind of relationship thing. The secret life of machines." The two of them wandered back into the dining room, where Carmela had just finished getting some glasses down from one of the cupboards. "Boy," she said with satisfaction as she went back into the kitchen, "this is a whole lot more interesting than just spending the day grenfelzing." Roshaun looked baffled. "Grenfelzing? What is that?" "It's like emmfozing, except that-" "Okay, hold it right there. I've been meaning to ask you about that," Kit said. "Since when do aliens know about chocolate" Carmela gave him a pitying look as she came in with a carton of fruit juice and a bottle of cola. "Poor little brother," she said. "You mean you actually don't know why Earth has so many UFO sightings?" "I assumed it was something to do with human beings being convinced they were the center of the universe." Kit snorted. "Like other species have so much time to waste kidnapping us. Not to mention making weird patterns in wheat fields." "Oh, no, those are just people with boards and ropes," Carmela said, ducking back into the kitchen. She came out a moment later with a bottle of spring water, which she put down in front of Filif. "And, very occasionally, sentient ball lightning. But most of the aliens are here for cocoa plants. The only reason people get abducted is when they have chocolate on them." Nita looked at Kit. "Please tell me she's making this up!" she said. Kit could only shrug. "She spends half her time watching the alien versions of the Discovery Channel," he said. "It could be true." "It is true," Carmela said. "For silicon-based life– forms, one of the chemicals in chocolate is an aphrodisiac." "Oh, now, wait a minute!" Kit said, and covered his eyes with one hand. "But most warm-blooded carbon-based species just really like the taste," Carmela said. "Every time a new species finds out about chocolate, they send someone here to get cocoa plants so they can take them home and genetically tailor them to their physiologies." Carmela smiled a bright and infuriating smile. "See, I don't 'waste' all my time in alien chat areas. I've been doing educational things. Like telling my chat buddies which brands of chocolate are best." Kit was left with the image of some intergalactic SWAT team turning up on his doorstep and arresting his sister for being a cocoa pusher. "Why do I get the feeling that you are totally out of control?" he said. "Your control," said Carmela, and wandered off, smiling angelically. "You're just now noticing?" Kit clutched his head as Nita stifled a laugh. "It's not funny," Kit muttered. "And here I was just hoping we might survive the next month or so! Now I have to worry about my sister getting our whole planet put on probation for corrupting underage species or something." The doorbell rang. Aha, Kit thought, and braced himself. Nita's amusement at the way Carmela was putting Kit through the wringer was diverted by a weird feeling she couldn't quite analyze. It was like feeling the sun on sunburned skin; and it felt directional, so that she could get a sense, in her mind anyway, of where it was coming from. She turned to look toward the front door. Now what the– "Probably just another of the thundering herd," Carmela said, frowning, and heading that way herself. "Don't let any of your would-be boyfriends in here!" Kit said. "Are you kidding?" Carmela said. "There's a lot cooler stuff happening in here than mere guys." She vanished around the corner into the living room. "Someone's being unusually cooperative today," Kit said under his breath. "I bet I know why." Nita looked at him. Oh no, she said silently. She doesn't think that just because she knows about what's going on, that she might get to go along with– If she gets that idea, Kit said, believe me, I'll help her get past it. Way past it. We have more than enough problems. Nita heard Carmela open the front door. The silence that followed was entirely uncharacteristic, so much so that Nita looked in that direction, still wondering at that uneasy "sunburn" sensation. A voice at the front door said, "Uh, is Kit here?" Nita's eyes went wide. Oh… my… God, she thought. "Or Nita?" the voice said. "Uh, yeah," Carmela said, after another of those unusually long pauses. "Yeah. Can I tell her who's asking for her?" Nita stood there for several seconds more getting used to what was happening, and then got up and headed for the Rodriguezes' front door. Carmela stood there looking up at a tall dark figure dressed in black jeans, black shirt, a black leather jacket over it all, and with that shaggy longish dark hair hanging down over one eye, in just the way Nita remembered. "Ronan," Nita said. Ronan Nolan Junior glanced over Carmela's head at Nita, and actually smiled, though as usual for him it was a rather grim and edgy smile. "Hey," he said, "dai stiho." "Dai, cousin." Nita thought for a moment, and then said, "Or is it 'cousins'?" He rolled his eyes. "Some days," he said, "your guess'd be as good as mine." He looked from her to Carmela. "Can I come in?" "Sure," Carmela said, sounding rather stunned. Ronan stepped in and glanced around the living room. "Listen," he said, "normally I wouldn't just show up without warning-" "Is anything normal at the moment?" Nita said. "Now you'd be asking." "It doesn't matter," Nita said. "Believe it or not, it's kind of good to see you." "Kind of?" She smiled slightly. Ronan smiled a little, too, then looked down at his feet. Nita followed his glance. To her surprise, Spot was standing in front of Ronan, staring up at him with multiple stalked eyes. "Three matters unknown but soon to be: The way of the Gods with the created, The way of the created with the Gods, The way between them across the bridge of Being." Ronan blinked as Spot walked away again, toward the TV and DVD player, where he sat down on the rug and both legs and eyes vanished. "You remember Spot," Nita said. Ronan raised his eyebrows. "Had an upgrade, from the looks of him," he said. "Yeah. Well, he's started doing poetry. Haiku, sort of." Ronan shook his head. "Triads," he said. "In Ireland we used to get a lot of prophecies that way: everything in threes." Nita shrugged. "His basic logic's trinary, Dairine says. But at least it beats him sitting in the corner going 'uh-oh' all day." Ronan snorted. "Been hearing a fair amount of that myself," he said. "That's why I'm here. You've been in touch with your Advisories about the trouble that's coming-" "Uh, yeah." "Did they seem a little less helpful than usual?" "A little," Nita said, hating to admit it. Ronan nodded. "It's the same all over. Well, things are moving already, and we have to be part of it. But I need your help. We need it." He looked uncomfortable as he said "we." That, at least, was in character. "Come on," Nita said, and led him toward the dining room. Then she paused and turned, responding again to that sun-on-sunburn feeling. "It's here, isn't it?" Nita said. "What's here?" "The Spear. You've got it with you." Ronan nodded. "Thought you might notice." Now it was Nita's turn to laugh a little. "How do you not notice that}" she said, for she'd been present at the forging of the Spear of Light, and had been more frightened by it than by almost anything else she'd seen or experienced during her practice of wizardry. It wasn't that the Spear was a bad thing: absolutely the opposite. But it was hard to be in the neighborhood of a power of pure goodness for very long. That Ronan could handle the full force of the Spear-had apparently been destined to handle it-made Nita as nervous as the thought of the Power that lived inside his head with him and made dealing with the Spear possible. "Is it a problem?" Ronan said. Nita shook her head. "Right now we can use all the help we can get-and that means weapons, too. Where have you got it? In an otherspace pocket?" "No, in this one." Ronan reached inside his jacket and came out with a plastic ballpoint pen. Nita blinked. "That?" Mightier than the sword," Ronan said, clicking the point in and out a couple of times. Nita got just the briefest glimpse of a spark of blindingly white fire at the tip of the ballpoint, as if its ink were lightning. "Don't think I carry it around in its normal shape all day, do you? It's murder on people's woodwork." He slipped the pen back into the inside pocket and went into the dining room past her. "Dai stiho, everybody-" "Dai stiho," said five audible voices and one silent one. Nita stood there watching them all get acquainted with the newcomer. Ronan looked taller somehow. Seems a little late for a growth spurt, Nita thought: Ronan had to be around sixteen now, maybe seventeen. But there was always the possibility that what Nita was picking up was something to do with the Other that lived inside him-a being much older, and far more powerful, than any of them. She glanced over at Kit as Ronan made his way around to him, and banged a friendly fist against Kit's. "You don't look surprised," Nita said. Kit and Ronan looked at her, and then at each other, and Ronan raised his eyebrows. "Why would he be?" Ronan said. "I asked him to come," Kit said. Nita's mouth dropped open. She shut it. "I was thinking of coming anyway," Ronan said, "but this makes everything easier." He glanced around at the other wizards. "And I'm glad to meet you folks, because it seems like you weren't sent here by accident." "No," Dairine said. "We kind of got that feeling…" Without warning, Carmela came around the corner and pulled Nita away from behind Ronan, backward and out of sight of the dining room, where Kit had started to ask Ronan something. "Who. Is. Your. Friend??" Carmela whispered, as Nita regained her balance. "Where did he come from?" "Ireland. There's this town on the east coast, it's called Bray-" "No, no, no," Carmela said. "I meant it in a much more existential way. I was referring to his basic, you know, hotness." Carmela put her head down by Nita's. "Is he attached?" she whispered. "In ways it would take me days to describe," Nita said, "yes." Carmela's face fell. "But none of them are those kinds of ways," Nita said. A smile appeared slowly on Carmela's face. "Oh, good." Carmela then strolled back into the dining room in the most casual manner imaginable. Nita shook her head. Did I think things were getting weird around her? We're about to set a weirdness baseline the likes of which the planet's never seen. She went after Carmela. Ronan had just sat down at the table. The others got comfortable on the sofa or on chairs or on the floor, each according to his kind. 'As I just said to Nita, things are starting to happen already," Ronan said. "The new 'yowng Seniors' are starting to meet on the Moon, right now. You'd have round out about the gathering shortly from your manuals, or whatever form of the Knowledge you use. But I needed to reach you before you left… because I've got access to information that's too sensitive to be entrusted to the manuals." Nita's eyes went wide. "Whoa," Kit said softly. "Here's the short version," Ronan said. "The Powers have learned that hidden somewhere in this universe, there's an Instrumentality, a weapon, that will stop the stretching of space-time-if we can find it and 'arm' it soon enough. They say if we start looking now, there's a good chance we'll find the Instrumentality before things get really bad." "What are the adult Seniors saying about this?" Sker'ret said. "Nothing," Ronan said. "They haven't been told." Nita shot Kit an uncomfortable glance. "I know how it sounds," Ronan said. "But we can't tell them. They're already losing their power; that's why the intervention last week failed. And that power loss also means they won't be able to guard the secret from the one Power that would benefit most from learning it, and sabotaging what we have to do." "Which is what?" Carmela said. Ronan glanced sharply at her. "I'm not sure you should be here," he said. "I live here," Carmela said in the Speech. "Get used to it." Ronan looked at her for a moment more, then shrugged. "Well. The One's Champion has passed me a hint of what the solution to the problem might be. But the Powers can't tell anybody straight out, not even me." Ronan looked royally annoyed. "If the Powers speak plainly about this to anyone, or put it in the manuals, the Lone One will shortly know whatever it is They know. So we have to go looking for the weapon with nothing but hints to guide us." Nita was shaking her head. "I don't get it. Why are you the one to get this news? Why didn't the Powers say anything about this to Tom and Carl and the other Seniors who went out on the intervention last week?" "Because they're the ones the Lone Power would expect to be given that news," Ronan said. "I'm sure It was listening to their every thought. But me? I'm a failure." He smiled one of those particularly grim smiles of his as he said it, and Nita winced a little. With Ronan it was often hard to tell whether he was being bitter because he meant it, or whether he was doing it for effect. "I've had the One's Champion in my head for a good while now," Ronan said. "And I haven't done much of anything." He shrugged. "The usual wizardry: local interventions, small-time stuff. But nothing to suggest that I've come to any kind of long-term agreement with the Champion, or that I'm anything to be concerned about." And whose idea was that, I wonder? Nita thought. Ronan had at first fought the idea of the ancient warrior Power, which humans had occasionally called Thor, or Athene, or even Michael, winding up inside him. He'd hoped the presence of that Power would eventually just lade away and leave him in peace to be human. "And if the Lone One eavesdrops on me and isn't able to hear what's going on in my head terribly well," Ronan said, "It's likely to jump to the conclusion that it's my fault. Ambivalence… the thing that makes a wizard least effective." His smile wasn't quite so bitter this time. "So I guess the Powers fancy me as an undercover agent. It was 'suggested' to me that someone I knew would be able to get the search for the Instrumentality started. Right after the suggestion came, you got in touch with me"-he glanced over at Kit– "which kind of clinched it." "Great minds think alike," Kit said. Ronan's grin acquired a sly and amused edge to its darkness. "There'll be other suggestions as we go along," he said. "And the Champion will keep us from being eavesdropped on. But for the moment, to get started, the Champion says we need a Finder. We need the best one there is." Ponch, lying on the floor, lifted his head. That would be me, he said, and yawned, and sat up. What are you looking for? "All I have to go on is imagery," Ronan said. "I don't know where it comes from, and neither does the Champion. But if you really have the tracking gift, my lad, it won't matter. You'll be able to find it." Kit said, "Ponch is very good. He's 'made' whole universes before, to find what he wanted." Ponch's tail started to wag. Squirrels! he said, and started to jump up and down. Kit groaned. "Ponch," he said, "this isn't the moment! First you have to find what Ronan and his 'friend' need you to find." Then the squirrels? Hurray! At least that was how the thought translated from a deafening spate of mental barking. Kit exchanged a wry glance with Ronan. "The Lone One has to know something about what Ponch can do." "Probably more than we'd like It to. All we can do is try to cover our tracks." "Then we should head for the Moon first," Kit said. "If a lot of wizards are there, it'll seem normal that we should be there, too. If after that we go out into space as just one more of however many teams, It may get thrown off our track long enough for us to find what we're looking for." "Right you are," Ronan said. "So we should get going now." "What, right now?" Nita said. Ronan threw her one of those of-course-you-dummy looks that Nita had hated so much until she came to understand that they were caused by impatience, not cruelty. "There are other kinds of 'now,'" Ronan said, "but, yeah, that was the one I meant." He looked around at the others. "How about it?" Filif and Sker'ret and Roshaun exchanged glances. "If the Powers That Be want to send us on the hunt," Sker'ret said, "it seems foolish to refuse." "I have some issues at home that will have to be handled," Roshaun said. "But after that"-he looked over at Dairine-"I have never yet worked directly with one of the Powers That Be." He smiled. "It should be interesting… for the Power, of course." Dairine shot Roshaun a look that he entirely missed, but Nita didn't. She had to cover her mouth to keep from snickering. Filif rustled. "I am with you," he said at last. Kit turned to Nita. "What do you say?" She let out a breath. "I say we go," she said. Half an hour later, they were on the Moon. Engagement At the far left edge of the face of the Moon, as it's seen from the northern hemisphere, about halfway between the Moon's equator and its south pole lies a vast triple-ringed crater-the remnant of a huge impact in ancient times when the Moon's surface was still just a thin crust of stone over seas of seething lava. What hit the Moon did so with such terrible force that three consecutive ripples of lava, each as tall as Everest, roared hundreds of kilometers outward across the surface before they froze in place. They became the Inner Rook, Outer Rook, and Cordillera mountain ranges, all surrounding Mare Orientale the Eastern Sea. The mountain rings have themselves over time been pocked with countless big and little craters. One of these, at the one o'clock position on the Cordillera, is too small and unremarkable to have a name on arty astronomer's map. But others familiar with the Moon know it for its unusually dark crater floor, its spectacular view across the vast expanse of the Sea, and the short, sharp impact spike sticking up sheer out of the middle of it; and today it was remarkable for other reasons, too. "Wow," Nita said under her breath. "It's full of wizards." The normal darkness of the crater floor's basalt was obscured by what, in the pale blue-white light of the setting near-full Earth, could have been mistaken for gigantic soap bubbles. But they were really force fields full of air-hundreds of them, big and small, scattered right across the near-perfect kilometer-wide circle of the little crater that wizards call Lake View, after the nearby basin of Lacus Veris, Spring Lake. The forcefield wizardries gleamed blue on one side with Earth– light, where the crater's Earthward shadow fell over them, and on the other with the light of the Sun, now nearly halfway up the jet-black sky over the Eastern Sea; and about them all was a little shimmer or tremor of a most delicate silvery fog, as the force fields shed out frozen "waste" carbon dioxide into the lunar dusk. Inside their own bubble of air, which Kit was handling for the moment, Nita looked down at that gathering with a strange feeling that was half excitement, half reluctance. "Anybody down there we know, you think?" she said to Kit. He glanced at her and laughed. "Like it matters," he said. "We'd better get to know at least some of them, and fast, if we're going to pull this off." Nita glanced over her shoulder. Behind her, Ronan and Roshaun and Sker'ret were already separating off their own smaller force fields to make the passage through vacuum less of a chore. Filif stood looking down at the gathering, his fronds rustling all over, so that even his baseball cap jiggled. Nita gave him a look. "You okay, Fil?" Filif kept on rustling, gazing down with all those red eye-berries at the wizards massed there down in the crater, human and otherwise. "So many," he said at last. Nita let out a long breath. "I just hope it's enough," she said. Following Filif's gaze, she spotted a force field down below that seemed a lot larger than many of the others, and it didn't seem to be a group field, either. I'll bet I know who that is! Nita reached out to the force field, rotated her own part of the field-spell around to her in a whirl of glowing symbols, and bounced forward as she spun off her own part of the spell. The sphere of air budded out in front of Nita, closed up behind. She paused for a moment to make sure that this smaller segment of the main wizardry had her personal information correctly laid into it. As she did, Ronan came up behind her and paused with his own "bubble" touching Nita's. Knowing she could be heard while their two fields were in contact, she said, "What do we tell the other wizards about what we're really going to be doing?" "Nothing," Ronan said. "The odds are better than usual that at least a few of them are overshadowed." He might be right, Nita thought, uneasy. But what's going on inside his head? "But we can at least find out what some of them are doing." "Sure." Ronan headed down the slope. Nita looked over her shoulder at the others, who were now clustering their own force fields up against hers and the one that contained Kit and Ponch. "Come on down," she said to them. "Houseguests, watch the gravity, it's about a sixth of what it is back home-" She turned and started to astronaut-bounce down the slope, kicking up silvery moondust behind her. The others followed after. Kit caught up with Nita quickly, which was no surprise: He was expert in light gravity. As he bumped his bubble back up against hers, Nita got a look at the expression on his face. It was strange. "What's up with you?" "Oh, you know. Carmela…" Kit was looking downslope at the bottom of the crater with an expression that suggested his ears were still ringing; their departure from his house had not been a calm one. Carmela had taken it very badly that she was being left behind. "Yeah," Nita said. "Kit, relax. She'll get over it." "Well, I still feel like pond scum. I didn't have all day to stand around being oh so tactful." He sighed. "Now I wish I had." Nita let out a breath. "Look, before we go away, see if you can find time to sit her down and explain it all in detail." "You've never had to explain something to Carmela," Kit said. "The universe's life span might not contain enough time…" The others caught up with them. They continued down the slope into the flatter area of the crater floor. The biggest of the bubbles was not far ahead of them, and inside it a huge long figure floated, slightly curved, graceful; the long double-lobed tail of a humpback whale swung upward in greeting as she spotted them, and the tiny eye came alive with a smile to match the artificial one of the great long mouth. Nita bumped her own bubble up against the bigger force field, felt the wizardry that ran it analyze her own and adjust itself to include her personal parameters for oxygen requirements and respiration rates. A moment later she was inside. Nita trotted over, bouncing a little, to throw her arms as far as they'd go-not very far-around S'reee. "Dai, big sister!" "And dai stiho to you, hNin't!" S'reee said, folding a long forefin partially around her in a friendly gesture, one that made her bob up and down a little where she hovered. "I didn't think you'd have too much trouble finding me." "With the kind of air supply you need for a run like this," Nita said, "it wasn't going to be that hard." The humpback glanced toward the others following in Nita's wake. "Busy up here today," she said. "And everyone's well loaded with spells, I can feel." Nita lifted her right wrist and shook it. Her charm bracelet, every charm standing for a spell nine-tenths ready to be used and needing only a few words' worth of activation, jingled gently. "Seemed smart to be ready for anything on this run," she said. "But you are, too." She glanced up above them at the surface of S'reee's force field; to a wizard's eye, it swirled with faint characters in the Speech, the way a bubble's surface swirls with colors. "That's some spell," Nita said. "It almost seemed to do that inclusion by itself." "I'm not sure it didn't," S'reee said. "I've been doing things I used to think were impossible these past few days, since it all started to change." "S'reee!" Kit said, as he came up beside Nita, free of his own force field, and Ponch danced briefly on his hind legs near S'reee's nose, getting her scent. Kit thumped S'reee's broad side in a friendly way. "I didn't know you did space!" The whale chuckled, a long, slow, bubbly noise that finished in an upscaling whistle like a boiling kettle. "Why not? It's just another Sea." S'reee angled her head very slightly to one side, as Ponch lost interest and ran off underneath her. "And here come your excursus guests! Dai stiho, cousins. Welcome to the Moon," she said to Filif and Sker'ret and Roshaun as they came in behind Dairine. Then she glanced past them again, and bent her head as if looking down at the moondust… and kept on bending until her nose almost touched it. Belatedly Nita realized that what she was seeing was a bow. She looked over her shoulder and saw Ronan coming toward them, bouncing a little. "You know each other?" Nita said. Ronan stopped his bounce just short of S'reee, waited until he got settled a little, and then put up a hand to rest it on her hide. He smiled, then, an unusually open look for him. "Both of them," S'reee said. "Rhoannann 'took in the Sea,' once. It was a notable Ordeal. And as for the Other-I'm wizard enough these days to know the Finned Defender when I see him, whatever or whoever he's wearing at the time. Elder brother, well met in the current that bears us!" Ronan nodded back. "Dai," he said. "And he greets you, too." "It's good you all got here before I had to leave," S'reee said. "There's a lot to do back home, for I, too, have been 'upgraded.' I am now Wetside Supervisory Wizard for Earth." Nita's mouth dropped open. "S'reee, you're kidding. The whole planet!" "The oceans, at least. When we first met, and I'd been promoted to Senior so young, I hated it… but now the experience seems like it's going to come in handy." She swung her tail in a thoughtful way. "It almost makes me think-" "That Someone or other might have planned it this way in advance?" said a rather young voice from the far side of S'reee. Kit glanced up. He started to grin. "Is that who I think it is?" he said. A small human shape came ducking underneath S reee's floating broad, barnacled belly: a little dark– skinned kid, slender and slight in jeans and Tshirt, maybe about eleven years old, with a short afro and quick, bright eyes. "Hey," he said, "dai stiho, everybody!" And then he saw Kit, and laughed that peculiarly joyous laugh of his, and went to throw his arms around Kit in a big hug. Nita looked hurriedly at Ronan. Listen, she said, about Darryl– He's a lot more than he seems, Ronan said. A whole lot. And we don't mention it. Of course not. "Darryl, my man, look at you!" Kit said as they broke the hug, and Nita headed over. "Are you taller? Are you actually bulking up?" "Just eating more," Darryl said. "Yeah, I'm growing all of a sudden. I guess I've got the energy to spare now. Don't get into it with my mom-she says that these days I cost too much to keep. Almost too much." He grinned, turning away from them and S'reee toward the others as the visitors merged their bubbles with S'reee's big one. "Hi, guys, who are you all?" Introductions got under way. As they did, Nita saw Dairine giving Roshaun an unusually intense look. Roshaun put his eyebrows up, and then took them right down again. Any wizard in Darryl's vicinity would notice an atypical intensity of power. But once you realized what it meant, it wasn't something you discussed with Darryl, ever. He didn't know about it, and wasn't meant to. The situation was like knowing a superhero with a secret identity. But the difference here was that everybody else knew about the secret identity, and the superhero didn't… which was a good thing, because if Darryl ever found out he was a direct chan nel of the One's power into the world, the discovery– would kill him. Darryl turned back to Kit after a few moments. "I looked you up in the book, saw you were off joyriding halfway across the galaxy." Darryl looked Kit over approvingly. "Got yourself some tan." "Nearly got myself a scorched hide," Kit said. "Our old 'friend' again." Darryl nodded, his grin fading a little. "Well, we're just going to have to screw up Its plans one more time." "Yeah, and then we can get back to business," Kit said, and looked up at the sky. "Like the Mar-" "The Martian thing!'' Nita and Dairine and Darryl more or less shouted in chorus, leaving Sker'ret and Filif and Roshaun and Ronan all looking confused. "You crack me up," Darryl said, and whacked Kit in the shoulder in a friendly way. "Here we've got the whole universe going to pieces around our ears, and all you can think about is going hunting for ancient Martian princesses in skimpy clothes." He guffawed. "Will you cut it out? It's not about princesses! That's just in a book!" Kit said, but no one was listening. There was too much laughing going on. "Come on, Darryl, give it a rest!" "Okay, never mind," Darryl said, "you're off the hook till we get present business sorted out. I can't believe how full my manual's gotten in the past few days. Just look at it-" To Nita's surprise, Darryl reached not into a nearby space pocket for his manual but into the front pocket of his jeans. Dairine stared at what Darryl brought out. To all appearances it was a sleek rectangular white and silver MP3 player, but as he turned it toward them, Nita could see that the apple on its little blue-glowing screen had no bite out of it. "That is too slickl" Dairine said. Spot came up from behind and put some eyes up to goggle in a friendly way at the WizPod. "Yeah," Darryl said. He pulled it open-which shouldn't have been possible-until it looked like a little book, and then opened it out again, and again, and yet again, until it was more like a flat-screen monitor than anything else, but one you could hold in your hands. Manual data started scrolling down its surface, imagery and spells together. "It's got all the usual spell-storage and display options," Darryl said. "And it carries my tunes. Like I've got time for music when this thing's got twenty times the content, all of a sudden …" He grinned as he folded it up again. Nita looked over at S'reee as a thought occurred to her. "Are there any other Seniors on Earth who were Seniors before but'll still be functioning when things go bad?" "No," S'reee said. "Oh, wow," Nita said. "How that must be making you feel…" "Yes. And just when I was starting to relax about being a Senior," S'reee said, sounding briefly mournful. "But all we can do now is dive deep and do the best we can on short notice, even if we're not sure we have enough data. That said"-S'reee looked less troubled– "we've been given access to a lot more power than we've ever had. It's hard to feel so uncertain when you do a wizardry and it just jumps out of you like a waterspout." "Yeah," Nita said, "I noticed." Thirty minutes or so ago, when they'd built the wizardry to transit the group to the Moon, it had gone together in record time, and had left no one even slightly tired-unusual for a fairly complex spell. Nita's first reaction had been exhilaration. But then she'd started feeling uneasy, as if something she'd always been used to paying full price for was now suddenly on sale. What if it's actually a sign that the thing you're getting is about to go permanently out of stock? "Well, we're going to need that extra power, because things are already happening out there," S'reee said. "The effects of the unnatural expansion are spreading fast." She looked across the crater at the jumble of bubbles of air; they were splitting and moving around, bumping into each other and merging, as wizards got together to lay their plans. "There are already pockets of space where wizardry isn't working… and it's only a matter of time before those pockets start occurring here. About half these people are heading off-planet, following various leads toward ways to stop the expansion. The rest will head back home to try to keep things running steadily for as long as we can. We're going to be spread pretty thin." She sounded wistful. "I don't suppose you're going to be staying?" "No," Nita said, "we're outward-bound, in two different directions. Right now we just wanted to check in and see what people up here were doing." "It's all in your manuals," S'reee said. "Check those to see if anything comes up that has any bearing on what you're about to do." Kit turned to Darryl. "What about you?" Kit said. "You gonna sit tight?" Darryl nodded. "I'm too new at this," he said. "I've got lots of power, but I'm not sure what to do with it yet. S'reee's taken me under her fin; she's full of good advice." Nita smiled slightly, privately pleased. She had the idea that Earth might be safer if this one of its precious few abdals stayed home. When she looked back at Darryl, though, he was eyeing her a little strangely. "But, listen, I saw something the other day," Darryl said, "just when I was waking up." "Lucid dreaming?" Nita said. It was one of a number of techniques that visionary wizards used to more clearly hear what the universe was trying to tell them. "Not like that," Darryl said. "I just get these hints, you know? Like something whispering in my ear. So far it's turned out to be smart for me to pay attention. But I don't think this hint was for me." "Why? Do you get 'wrong numbers'?" Nita said. "I get them sometimes." Darryl shook his head. "First time," he said. Nita found that interesting, in an uncomfortable way. "What did you see?" "Bugs," Darryl said. "Giant bugs." Kit and Nita looked at each other. "Like him?" Nita said, nodding past S'reee. Over that way, Sker'ret and Filif were discussing something. Darrell gazed over at Sker'ret for a moment. "No, not really. He's a nice guy; you can feel it from here. These bugs"-he shivered-"I don't know where they are, but running into them wouldn't be fun. Our 'old friend' owns them, body and soul." Darryl actually shivered. "They're deadly. And I think if you hang around where they are, somebody's going to get killed." "No problem," Kit said. "If we see any giant bugs, we'll give them a miss." Nita swallowed. "Now," she said to Darryl, "you're going to tell us a way to beat this, right?" Darryl's expression was stricken. "I don't know for sure that there is one," he said. "Like I said, it was just a hint. It felt like someone could have said more… and wasn't saying." "Okay," Nita said. "Thanks. We'll keep our eyes open." She looked around again, out toward the center of the crater, where hundreds more wizards were milling around. "Ronan?" she said. "Yeah," Ronan said, and glanced over at Kit. "We should get started. Where's your adjunct talent?" Kit looked around, then ducked to look under S'reee. "Playing with rocks, as usual," he said. "Hey, Ponch!" Moondust flew up in a cloud as Ponch ran underneath S'reee to Kit. I'm here! "Let's go hunting." Oh boy! "You going to be here later?" Kit said to Darryl. "I'll be one of the last ones out," Darryl said. "Somebody has to clean up all the footprints when we're done." Nita squeezed his shoulder. "Later," she said, and went off to where Dairine and Roshaun were deep in conversation and, to judge by their expressions, having one more disagreement. As Nita bounced over, they looked up at her almost in relief. "You heading out now?" she said. "Yeah," Dairine said. "Roshaun's carrying his subsidized portal; we'll use that. We're going back to his place on Wellakh first." "All right," Nita said. "Message me when you're done there. But meantime, listen-" "Yeah, I'll be careful," Dairine said. She turned away. Nita took her sister gently by the arm, turned her back toward her. "Dair," she said. "Giant bugs." "Huh?" Dairine turned to glance over at Sker'ret. "Not cute bugs. Nasty ones," Nita said. "Darryl says they're bad news, and some of us are probably going to run into them. If you do, avoid them. Understand?" Dairine gave her a dry look. "With all this extra power we've suddenly got, I think can handle it." Nita let out an annoyed breath and turned to Roshaun. "I'm not kidding," she said. "Watch your backs, okay?" "We will do nothing obviously foolhardy," Roshaun said. "But under the circumstances, no situation any of us goes into is likely to lack its dangers." He looked down at Nita from that regal height of his, an effect still somewhat altered by the big floppy Tshirt he hadn't changed out of yet. "Yeah," Nita said. "I know." She glanced at Dairine. "Take care of yourself." "You, too," Dairine said. She hesitated, and then she came over and gave Nita a hug. Nita hugged her back, then pushed her away, trying to make it look casual. S'reee was now talking to Filif and Sker'ret; Nita turned back to them. "What about you guys?" "We'll go with you and Kit and Ronan," Sker'ret said. "Great. Let's move out…" Kit stood just past the boundary of S'reee's force field, having detached his own; inside it, beside him, Ponch was gazing upslope. At first Kit thought Ponch had seen someone coming, but then realized that it was the setting Earth that held his dog's attention. Ponch was staring at the world the way he might watch a tree after he'd seen a squirrel go up it. "What?" Kit said. "What's the matter?" It's small, Ponch said. I never thought it was small before. Kit nodded. "That's the way the astronauts saw it," he said. "Like a little thing… fragile. I never thought the world was small until I saw it that way myself. It surprises everybody when they see their own world that way for the first time, all by itself in the dark." Kit looked curiously at Ponch. "But you've been here before." I didn't notice it then, Ponch said. Now I do. He sounded concerned. "It's okay," Kit said. "It's a point-of-view thing. You get used to it." I wonder if that's wise… Kit wasn't quite sure what to make of that. He looked up and saw Ronan heading over to bump his own now-detached force field against Kit's. "You two ready?" Ronan said. Kit nodded. Ronan stepped through the interface between their two force fields and went over to Ponch. "So, big fella," Ronan said. "You ready for it?" He got down on one knee by Ponch. Kit hunkered down across from him. Ponch sat down, his tail thumping. Show me what you want me to find. Ronan and Ponch locked eyes. Since the time that Ponch began to reveal his ability to find things-stepping between realities, even sometimes out of his own home universe to track them down-Kit had started trying to use the wizardly link between them to "overhear" what Ponch was seeing and hearing. It wasn't always easy. Even a dog who had become much less doggy than usual-because of the frequent use of wizardry in his neighborhood-still sometimes had trouble explaining to Kit just what was going on with him. Now, as Ronan looked into Ponch's eyes, Kit listened hard. What flowed into Ponch's mind-tentatively at first, and then with more assurance as the Winged Defender became clearer about how to communicate– affected Kit in two different ways at once. Half the message came through as a blinding, confusing series of images overlaying one another: light forms and dark ones, strange shapes that seemed to have too many sides, colors Kit couldn't name. But the rest Kit experienced as Ponch was experiencing it-as scent. And this perception left Kit half dazzled, for Ponch's sense of smell was endlessly more powerful and complex than any human's, making Kit feel like a blind person who's suddenly been given new eyes. The complex of scents was a strange mixture, and Kit could make nothing of it. He thought he smelled metal, flowers, strange green scents like those of growing things, a smell like dry cocoa and another one like old motor oil, those two aromas strongly overlaying many more. Kit was aware that to Ponch, these scents weren't evidence of concrete things but of conditions, thoughts, emotions. The acrid taste of fear, a distant smoky frustration and anger mingling with that fear, concealing itself within it. It's not so much that he can smell emotions, Kit thought. From his point of view, emotions are scents. There was information of all kinds buried in the miasma of odors-particularly in one that got stronger by the moment. Kit was unnerved to realize that Ponch had classified this scent as being very like dried blood. But blood on the surface of an old wound. Something that's not over with yet. Something that's waiting… Whatever was waiting sizzled behind it all like electricity: powerful, dangerous, yet also suppressed, muzzled– Kit blinked himself back to the here and now: the powdery gray soil underfoot, the Earth setting over the rim of Spring Lake crater. He looked down at Ponch. Ponch had his head cocked to one side; he was whuffling at the air. Ronan sat back on his heels. "Can you track that?" Ponch glanced up once more at the Earth hanging low by the crater's rim. / can find what you're looking for, he said, craning his neck back to look at Kit and Ronan. But we have to go closer to where it comes from, and get away from where there are so many people. "How come you can't just 'walk' us there?" Kit said. Ponch stood up and shook himself. Because it's a real place with life in it, he said, looking across at Kit. Finding a place that's already there is different from just making one up. And it's inside the same universe with us. There are a lot of other places that smell sort of the same way: I have to make sure I find the right one. Once we're away from here-Ponch looked around and down at the wizards-/ can do a lot better. "Okay," Kit said. He thought for a moment; then said to Ronan, "I have an idea." "Yeah?" Let's hear it, said the other version of Ronan's voice, the one both older and edgier. Ronan, Kit said silently, you said your… partner was going to he able to protect us from being overheard. Are you both sure? "Yes," and Yes, they said. Okay. A custom worldgating from here would be pretty easy for You-Know-Who to trace. Let's lay a false trail, and go out through the Crossings. Some of the wizards here'll be going that way. And if Ponch's prob lem is that all the life here and on Earth is drowning out the scent, then Rirhath B will he a good place for him to try again. Their population's a lot smaller. "Makes sense," Ronan said. He looked down at Ponch. "That suit you?" Ponch was already wagging his tail. Blue food!! Ronan looked at Kit, confused. "Am I missing something?" Kit had to laugh. "Uh, he thinks that when we hit the Crossings, he's going to get a treat." Ronan nodded and stood up. "All right. Well, let me know when you're ready." He disengaged his forcefield bubble from theirs, and headed off toward the center of the crater. Nita came up behind Kit and bumped her bubble into his. As she slipped into his bubble, she glanced the way Kit was looking. "Got a problem?" "I don't know. Does Ronan seem kind of abrupt to you sometimes?" Nita laughed silently. "More like always. But more now than before. Probably it's something to do with his passenger." "I guess so." "Look, we should think about where we're going, and how. Dairine and Roshaun are heading off by themselves, so it looks like our group is you, me, Ponch, Ronan, Sker'ret, and Filif." "Okay. Did S'reee mention if anybody around here has a gate to the Crossings running already?" "No," Nita said. She reached into her otherspace pocket for her manual. "Let's do a scan…" "In a minute. Did you ask anyone else to meet us here?" Nita looked surprised. "No." "Then who's that?" Kit looked toward the center of the crater. One force-field bubble was moving toward them. As the bubble got closer, Kit could see that the occupants were two kids of maybe twelve or thirteen, a boy and a girl. The girl was wearing a short cropped T-shirt and baggy cargo pants, more or less in Dairine's style, and had very long, straight, dark hair worn loose; the boy's hair was cropped very short, and he was wearing something that at first glance looked like a suit-though as they got closer, Kit saw that it was actually one of those dark Far Eastern collarless jackets, worn somewhat incongruously over denim flares. Both of the kids looked slender, lean, and perhaps a little small for their ages. They were Asian, delicately featured, handsome, though there was something a little fierce about both their faces. They bumped their common bubble up against Kit's. "Can we come in?" the girl said. "Uh, sure." Their bubble merged with Kit's. "You're the ones who did the Song of the Twelve, right?" the girl said. "Dai Stiho" "Dai," Nita and Kit both said. And Kit laughed, and said, "Well, maybe you both know who we are-" "I'm Tran Liem Tuyet," said the boy. "I'm Tran Hung Nguyet," said the girl. "We're a twychild," they said together. Then they both burst out laughing. "Sorry, it's a bad habit." "Twin wizards!" Kit said. "Yeah, I guess you would hear each other think most of the time." "Constantly," they both said. "But twychilding is more than just being twins, isn't it?" Nita said. "I read about it in the manual a while back. You guys bounce spells back and forth between you, right? And they get stronger." And then Kit was surprised to see Nita blush. "Sorry, I don't know which of your names it's okay to use." "The last one's like the Western first name," said the girl. "Nguyet's fine for me. But as for the spells, yeah, that's how it goes. The output multiplies, sometimes even squares." Kit grinned. "You sure you aren't breaking the laws of thermodynamics or something?" Tuyet snickered. "Probably," he said. "Nguyet breaks most things." Nguyet glared at him. "I do not!" "Oh yeah? What about that lamp last week?" "That was an accident!" The ground under all their feet suddenly began to vibrate. Kit and Nita looked at each other in alarm. "Guys!" Kit said. The ground's shuddering stopped. The twins looked at each other. "Uh, sorry…" "It's him doing it," Nguyet said. "He's younger." "Oh, yeah, right, two minutes younger!" Tuyet laughed. "That makes me more powerful." "Are you two going out, or staying in?" Kit said. "Staying in," Tuyet said. "That's what we wanted to check with you. We're putting together a notification list in the manuals so that wizards who're staying home can cover for the ones who're going on the road when the trouble starts. S'reee told us you guys were probably going off-world, so we added you to the list. You going through the Crossings?" "Yeah." "We've got a custom gate wizardry set out in the middle of the crater," Nguyet said. "Been a lot of traffic through there in the past few hours, in both directions. You can never tell… it might confuse Somebody." She grinned. When she did, that fierce look in Nguyet's face got fiercer. Kit liked it: It made her otherwise extremely delicate, "porcelain" prettiness look more like the kind of porcelain that's made into high-tech knives. "I hope so," Kit said. Tuyet's grin was even more feral than his sister's. "We'll keep an eye on things here," he said. "Get out there and make It crazy." "That's the plan," Nita said. "Good luck, you two." The twychild waved and headed on out of the force field, making their way down toward S'reee. "That was interesting," Kit said. "Yeah," Nita said. "Imagine how it must have been for them. Joint Ordeals … never having to find someone to help you with a spell…" She shook her head. "Having another wizard in your head with you all day, instead of by invitation?" Kit said. "A little too weird for me." "But if you've been used to it all your life," Nita said, "even before you knew you were wizards, then maybe we're the ones that would seem weird to them." She tucked her manual away. "Never mind. Here come the others." The center of Spring Lake Crater was empty except for one thing: a large hemispherical force-field bubble. Inside it, laid out on the pockmarked, dusty gray surface, was a huge circle of blue light; and that outer circle was subdivided into about twenty smaller ones of various sizes. The diagram was a duplicate in pure wizardry of the more concrete and "mechanical" gating circles and pads of the worldgating facility at the Crossings. Everyone knew the drill, at this point, and one after another, Filif and Sker'ret and Nita and Ronan went out into the diagram and stood in the middle of one of the subsidiary circles. With Ponch bouncing along behind him, Kit made his way out to an unoccupied circle and stood in it. "Everybody ready?" Sker'ret said. "I'll do the master transport routine-" He began to recite a long phrase in the Speech, rattling it off with the assurance of someone who'd done it many times before. As Sker'ret spoke, and that familiar silence of a listening universe began to build around them all, Kit gazed back the way they'd come for a last look at the near-full Earth, the edge of its globe just touching the edge of Spring Lake Crater. A thought came unbidden: What if this is the last time you see that? He shook his head. Silly idea. We've been in bad places before and made it home, even when we thought we wouldn't. But there's something about this time that's different, the back of his mind said to him. Everything's changing. The things you thought you could always depend on aren't dependable anymore. Maybe it's smarter not to take anything for granted now. Kit swallowed as the glow of the working worldgating wizardry rose all around them like a burning mist, beginning to obscure the view. See you later, he said silently to the fading Earth… and hoped very much, as they all vanished, that he would. Target of Opportunity Dairine stepped through the brief darkness of Roshaun's portable worldgate into the huge, high– ceilinged, overdone space he called home, and waited for Roshaun to come out behind her. Sunlight poured through those tall crystalline "patio" doors off to the left, but it was a fainter color than it had been when she was here before. This light was a weary, dulling, late– afternoon orange that burned, but burned cool. In it, every bright surface in the room gleamed coppery, and the silver gilt of Roshaun's long flowing hair briefly matched the red of Dairine's as he came out of the worldgate. Dairine put Spot down. The laptop put out legs and quickly crab-walked out into the middle of everything, producing as many eyes as Dairine had ever seen him come up with at one time. He settled himself down flat, pointing every eye in a different direction. Apparently the architecture had him fascinated. This Dairine understood, since Roshaun's living space in the palace on Wellakh closely resembled a three-way collision between an antique furniture warehouse, a jewelry store, and a Gothic cathedral carved and decorated by the artistically insane. Rich overlapping carpets covered the floor everywhere; sofas and wardrobes and tables and chairs ornate enough to be thrones were placed here and there under rich canopies. Delicately wrought lamps hung down from a ceiling almost lost to sight in an opulent gloom, through which the occasional gemstone gleamed down like a lazily observant eye. Roshaun stood there looking around for a moment, then glanced over at Dairine. "I wish we did not have to make this stop," he said. "Family stuff," Dairine said. "It's always a mess. You're just lucky to have parents who're wizards." "Am I indeed," Roshaun said. "You shall judge. For the moment, I have to change." "Really?" Dairine said in amusement. "You mean there's somewhere in the galaxy that won't immediately buy into Carmela's fashion statement? She'll be horrified." Roshaun gave her what was meant to be a cutting look, and with apparent regret pulled off the floppy T-shirt that had been covering him to his knees. Has Carmela got a thing going for him? Dairine wondered. But no, now it's Ronan. She had to smile a little. Wait till she figures out the ramifications of that one. Dairine spared a second for an entirely clinical appreciation of the lean look of Roshaun's upper body above the soft golden-fabric "sweatpants" he was wearing. How old is he in "real" years, I wonder? If there's even an approximation that makes any sense. Officially, as his people see age, he can't be much older than Nita or Kit. Roshaun carefully draped the T-shirt over an ornately carved chaise longue. "I shall return momentarily," he said. "Do you require refreshment?" Somehow Dairine didn't think Roshaun was likely to have a supply of her favorite soft drink on hand. "I'm okay," she said. "You go do what needs doing." He vanished behind an intricately carved and gilded screen. Dairine glanced over into the middle of the floor, where Spot was still watching everything with all his eyes. "How are you feeling?" she said. "Peculiar." That made her twitch a little. "Is that something new? "Not since this morning, if that's what you're asking," Spot said. "I don't feel like I'm losing my mind. But then again, I haven't 'felt' any of these strange fugues you tell me I'm experiencing, either." That was one of the things bothering Dairine the most. A computer that was losing memory or files was enough cause for concern by itself. But when the computer was sentient, and at least partly wizardry, and was forgetting things it was saying or thinking from one moment to the next– "I haven't lost any spell data," Spot said, sounding to Dairine's trained ear faintly annoyed. "I've been running diagnostics constantly since this started to happen." "And they haven't been showing anything?" "No." Spot sounded even more annoyed. Dairine sighed. "In the old days, we wouldn't have had these problems." "These are not the old days," Spot said. "You are no longer half human, half manual. I am no longer just a machine with manual access. Both of us have become more, and less. And the new increased power levels do not make us who we were again. They only make us more powerful versions of who we are now." Dairine looked out the doors at the setting Wellakhit sun. It looked like a huge shield of beaten copper, sliding down toward the sea-flat horizon. It seemed like an age ago, now, that time when she'd come home from her Ordeal with the constant soft whisper of a whole new species' ideation running under all her conscious thought, like water under the frozen surface of a winter stream. They had always instantly had the answers to any question-or had seemed to, the mobiles' time sense being so much swifter than that of the human kind of computer which was built of meat instead of space-chilled silicon. And the answers they'd come up with, she had always been able to implement with staggering force, since she'd come into her power so young. But slowly that power had faded to more normal levels, and the connection to the computer wizards of what Dairine thought of as the "Motherboard World" had stretched thin, carrying less power, less data. It never entirely failed; that whisper of machine thought still ran at the bottom of her dreams, and if she listened hard while waking, she could find it without too much ouble. But nothing now was as easy as it had been in he beginning. Knowing that this was the fate of wizards everywhere didn't make it any easier. But I thought I wasn't wizards everywhere. I thought I was something different. Roshaun came out from behind the screen. Dairine's jaw actually dropped. And I thought he looked a little too formal before. Those long golden trousers had been exchanged for others completely covered with thousands of what looked like star sapphires but were orange-golden and as tiny as beads. The upper garment was, by contrast, a simple gauzy thing, like a knee-length vest of pale golden mist. Under it Roshaun was wearing a massive collar of red gold with a huge amber-colored stone set in it, a smooth and massive thing the width of Dairine's clenched fist. The stone shifted as Roshaun swallowed. "How do I look?" he said. Between the realization that he was actually nervous and the total effect, Dairine was for once sufficiently impressed to tell him the truth. "Great," she said. "Tiffany's would want you for their front window. Why is it always gold with you people?" "It's Life's color," Roshaun said. "In this way we do Life honor. What about you?" Her eyebrows went up. "What about me?" "Are you going to meet my father dressed like that?" "Like what?" Dairine looked down at her own cropped T-shirt and baggies. "I look fine." "Surely something more formal…" Dairine made a face. Of various things she hated, dressing up (except at Halloween) was close to the top of the list. "Why not just tell him this is formal wear on my planet?" "I could tell him that," Roshaun said, "but it would not be true." He frowned at her. Dairine sighed. "Oh, all right," she said. She pulled out her manual. "It cannot be a seeming," Roshaun said. "He will see through that." Dairine frowned. "You're such a stick-in-the-mud sometimes," she muttered. "And you are so intransigent and disrespectful," Roshaun said, "nearly all of the time." "What? Just because I don't let you walk all over me, Mister Royalty?" Roshaun let out a long breath. "He is waiting," he said. "This is going to be difficult enough as it is. Please do something about the way you look. Something genuine." Dairine grimaced. Still… she couldn't think when he'd last said "please" to her; for a while she'd thought his vocabulary didn't even contain the word. "Oh, all right," she said. "Spot, what're the coordinates of my closet?" "Here are the entath numbers," he said, and rattled off a series of numbers and variables in the Speech. "Do you want me to set it up?" "Go ahead, knock yourself out." A straightforward square dark doorway appeared in front of her. The darkness cleared to reveal the inside of the closet in Dairine's bedroom. As usual, its floor was a tumble of mixed-up shoes and things fallen off hangers; her mother had always said that when the Holy Grail and world peace were finally found, they would be at the bottom of Dairine's closet, under the old sneakers. Dairine sighed and started pushing hangers aside. Last year's Easter dress and the dress from the year before looked unutterably lame. Lots of jeans, lots of school clothes … but none of them suitable for meeting a former king. "This doesn't look promising," Dairine said under her breath. "Hurry," said Roshaun. The tension in his voice cut short all the acid retorts Dairine could have deployed. "Oh, the heck with this," she said, irritable. She turned her back on the closet. "Spot, close that. Do we have a routine for making clothes?" "Searching," Spot said, as the darkness went away. "Found." In her mind, Dairine looked down the link between them and saw the wizardry he'd located. It was a matter-restructuring protocol which would use what she was wearing and turn it into something else. She glanced at Roshaun. "How unisex is what you've got on?" she said. He looked surprised. "'Unisex'?" "Do girls wear that kind of thing where you live?" "Well, yes, but-" Surprise became confusion. "What is the problem with your own clothes? What do your people usually wear when meeting your leaders?" "If we've got any guts at all, a real annoyed expression," Dairine said. "Never mind, I can come up with something. Spot, hit it." "Working." A second too late it occurred to Dairine that this process might show Roshaun more about her than was anybody's business but her own. A sudden chill ran over her body as every stitch of clothing on her pulled an inch or so away and resolved into its component atoms, then started to reassemble in new shapes. Her first urge was to duck behind the nearest sofa, but it was too late; any movement could possibly result in a dress that came out her ears. She closed her eyes, gritted her teeth, and held still. The chill faded. Cautiously Dairine opened one eye. Roshaun's expression was confused but not scandalized. Not that that means anything in particular. Does his culture even have a nudity taboo? Never mind, mine does! She looked down at herself. "Whoa," Dairine said. She was wearing a simple, scoop-necked, short– sleeved, floor-length dress, in a velvet as green as grass. Around her left wrist, where her watch usually went, was a bracelet of emeralds the size of quail's eggs, held together with nothing but a series of characters in the Speech-a delicate chain of symbols in softly burning green smoke, which scrolled through the gems as she watched. Another chain just like it held a single similar stone at her throat. "Nice," Dairine said. Then she realized there was something on her head. She put her hands up to feel it. Her eyes widened, and then she grinned. Tiaras were back in fashion; no reason she shouldn't wear one. She turned toward Roshaun. "That okay?" she said. Roshaun looked impressed. "There are likenesses to our own idiom," he said. "To what land of your world is such raiment native?" "Possibly Oz," Dairine said, "but I doubt the Good Witch of the North is going to come after me for stealing her look." "Good," Roshaun said. "This way-" They headed toward those crystalline doors, Spot spidering along behind them. Out beyond the doors lay a goldstone terrace with a broad stone railing, and beyond that, a huge formal garden full of red and golden flowers and plants. Past the garden, the surface of the "sunside" of Wellakh spread: miles and miles of unrelieved flatness reaching straight to the horizon on every side-the everlasting reminder of the catastrophic sunstorm that had blasted half the surface of Wellakh to slag all those centuries ago. Just in the doorway, before stepping out onto the terrace, Roshaun suddenly paused. He stood there for some seconds simply looking at the setting sun– straight at it, blinding as it was. Finally he dropped his gaze. "This is not good," Roshaun said softly. "Still, let us go." They walked through the doors and out across the terrace, and as they did, Dairine thought she saw something stirring out there, a waving movement. Her first thought was that she was seeing the motion of wind in the garden plants. But there isn't any wind, she thought as they came closer to the rail. Is there a– She froze. There were people out there… about a million of them. Maybe two, Dairine thought. I don't know anything about counting crowds– Two million, six hundred and eight thousand, four hundred twenty-four, said Spot silently. The multitude of Wellakhit men and women started just past the formal garden and went on and on, seemingly all the way to the horizon. The slight motion Dairine had seen was the million-times-multiplied tremor of people shifting a little in place as they stood waiting for someone to appear. Roshaun walked up to the railing and just stood there, resting his hands on the broad rail. As he came to where everyone could see him, a sound started to go up from the crowd nearest the balustrade, and rolled back across it like a wave: a murmur of comment, curiosity.. .and straightforward hostility. These people wanted to see Roshaun, but not because they liked him. The murmur sounded to Dairine like the thoughtful sound an animal makes deep in its throat when it sees something it considers a threat, an utterance just short of a growl. Roshaun simply stood there with his head up and let it wash over him. The sound got not necessarily more angry, but more pronounced. Roshaun moved not a i muscle, said nothing. Very slowly the murmur began to die away again. Only when the crowd was quiet did Roshaun move at all, to look over his shoulder. "Don't stay hiding back there," he said. "They know you are here. Come out and let them see you." At the moment, it was the last thing Dairine wanted. No one could ever have called her shy-but not being shy in front of a classroom full of kids, or a crowd of wizards, was one thing. Not being shy in front of a couple of million pairs of staring, hostile eyes was something else entirely. Dairine swallowed and stepped forward to stand beside Roshaun at the railing. She couldn't think of anything to do with her hands. She put them down on the balustrade as Roshaun had, and held very still. She had thought it was quiet before, but she was mistaken. A silence fell over all the people at the edge of the garden, rolling back from them right across that vast multitude. The stillness became incredible. Dairine didn't move a muscle, though she desperately wanted to bolt. The pressure of all those eyes was nearly unbearable. The faces closest to the two of them wore a look very like Roshaun's normal one: proud, aloof, very reserved. They were all as tall as he was, or taller, which made Dairine feel, if possible, even smaller than usual. And the expression in the eyes of the closest people held a hostility of a different kind than what they'd turned on Roshaun. Alien, it said. Stranger. Not like us. What is that doing here? Dairine manufactured the small the-hell-with-you smile that she usually applied just before getting into a fight with somebody. "You might have mentioned this beforehand," she said under her breath. "Why?" Roshaun said. "Would you have worn something different?" Maybe a force field, she thought. "Who are they all?" "My people," Roshaun said. "They have come to look at their new king." "How long have they been here?" "I have no idea," Roshaun said. "Perhaps since the time they heard that my father had abdicated." Dairine tried to figure out when that might have been. A couple of days ago? She wasn't sure. "What do they want?" "What I do not think I can give them," Roshaun said. He turned his back on the great throng of people. Reluctantly-for to her it felt somehow rude– Dairine did the same. "Our transport will be here in a moment," Roshaun said. "We have very little time. However casually you may enjoy speaking to me, believe me when I tell you that such a mode would not be wise with my father. He may have resigned his position, but he keeps his power as a wizard-" "However much of that anyone his age is going to have for much longer," Dairine said. Roshaun looked at her, and for the first time Dairine understood what it was like to see someone's eyes burn. That sunset light got into them and glowed, impossibly seeming to heat up still further in Roshaun's anger. "I would not put too much emphasis on that if I were you," he said. "Not with him, or with me. He and I may have our differences, but anybody who would find humor in a wizard losing his power should probably consider how it would feel to them. Or does feel." Spot came spidering along to her. Dairine bent down to pick him up, glad of the chance to get control of her face, for she was blushing with embarrassment at how right Roshaun was. "Sorry," she said. "Yes," Roshaun said. And more quietly, over the upscaling scream of an aircar that Dairine heard approaching, he said, "I, too. Now stand straight and properly represent your planet." Dairine stood straight. Between them and the crystalline doors of Roshaun's residence-wing, the egg– shaped aircar, ornately gilded like everything else here, settled onto the terrace and balanced effortlessly on its underside's curve without rocking an inch to one side or the other. Dairine looked up past it to what she had partly forgotten-the mountainous bulk of the rest of the Palace of Wellakh, bastion upon bastion and height above height, all carved from and built into the one peak that had survived the solar flare that slagged down everything else on this side of the world. The palace was not only a residence but a reminder to the kings who lived in it. Your family saved us all once, it said in the voice of the people of Wellakh, and you showed such power then that now we fear you. We keep you in wealth and splendor now; just make sure you protect us. Because if the Terror by Sunfire should ever come again, and you don't– And the message was far stronger than usual with them all standing there, silent, watching. What will you do now, new young king? We are waiting… Manservants dressed in quieter versions of Roshaun's "normal" clothes, the Wellakhit long tunic and soft trousers, appeared from the front of the aircar and came around to bow before the two of them and touch the car's surface. It opened before them, and Roshaun turned to Dairine and nodded; she picked up Spot and stepped in. Inside were luxurious cushioned seats that followed the curved contour of the aircar, and as Dairine sat down and Roshaun sat across from her, she saw that the aircar's surface was selectively transparent-they could see out, but no one could see in. As the car rose, Dairine looked out past the palace and toward the horizon, clutching Spot to her, gazing out a little desperately across the widening landscape to see where the people ended and the landscape began. It took a long time before she got a glimpse of the plain stone of the "sunside," golden colored or striated in blood and bronze, barren and desolate. Turning back to Roshaun, she was surprised to see him looking at her with concern. "Are you all right?" "They scare me," Dairine said after a moment. "You would not be alone," Roshaun said. The aircar kept rising past the face of the palace; terrace after terrace, building after building fell away beneath them as the peak into which the palace was built narrowed almost to a needle. Beneath the final height was one last terrace, and the aircar made for this, lifting just slightly above it and settling down onto the polished paving. The door opened for them. Roshaun got out first, and then turned to help Dairine down. She was surprised to feel, as he took her hand, that his was sweating. Without warning, she found herself starting to get angry. Here's one of the most arrogant, self-assured people I know, she thought, and just the thought of going to see his father has him freaked. That's not the way things should be! As she stepped onto the paving, she squeezed his hand a little. He gave her a look she couldn't read. Dairine dropped the hand, unsure whether she'd misstepped, and followed him toward the pair of huge bronze doors that faced the sunset and were emblazoned with the sun. That sun split before them as the doors ponderously swung open. Dairine put Spot down, and they all walked in. Their footsteps rang in the huge and echoing space they entered, and their shadows ran far before them down the length of the polished floor, to merge with the dimness at the far end of the severely plain great hall. Use the time to compose yourself, Roshaun said silently. Like you're doing? said Dairine. She could feel all too clearly what was going on inside his head. But then that had started to be a problem lately. Roshaun didn't reply. But by the time they were actually getting close to the throne, the racket inside his head had started to die down somewhat. Throne was not the best word for the chair in which that very tall man sat waiting for them. It was backless and had arms that rose from its seat on curving uprights; it sat not on any dais, but on the floor. However, the man sitting in it made it look like a throne by the way he sat, both erect and somehow completely casual about it. He watched them come without moving a muscle, and as they got close enough to get a decent impression, Dairine tried to size him up. His clothes were like Roshaun's, though in a darker shade of red– orange; his red hair was shorter than Roshaun's by a couple of feet, and he wore it tied back, so that the angles and planes of a face very much like Roshaun's, sharp and high-cheekboned, were made more obvious. His eyes, as emerald as Roshaun's, were more deeply sunken, a little more shadowed by the brows; his face looked both more thoughtful and more dangerous. Roshaun stopped about six feet from the throne. Dairine half expected him to bow, but he simply stood there, silent, waiting. Slowly the man stood up. Roshaun locked eyes with him as he did so. His height astounded Dairine; meeting this man's eyes for long would give even her father a sore neck. "You came more quickly than I thought you might," said the man. The voice was like Roshaun's, a light tenor, somewhat roughened by age. "This promises to be a busy time for us all," Roshaun said, "and it seemed discourteous to keep you waiting any longer than necessary." Roshaun nodded, and glanced at Dairine. "I would make you known," he said, "to Nelaid he Seriv am Teliuyve am Meseph am Veliz am Teriaunst am Antev jet Nuiiliat; Brother of the Sun, Lord of Wellakh, the Guarantor-" Roshaun fell suddenly silent, as if not knowing quite what to say next. "Guarantor that was," Nelaid said, looking at Dairine. "It does sound strange, the first time one says it." And now his eyes were on Roshaun again. Roshaun swallowed. "Father, this is Dairine he Khallahan," he said, "wizard." It's title enough for me, she thought. She gave Nelaid a very slight nod, thinking that between wizards, even if they were royalty, that was gesture enough. Besides, if I nod too hard, this crown could fall right on the floor. "I am on errantry," Dairine said, looking up at Nelaid, "and I greet you." "I greet you also," Roshaun's father said in the Speech. He stepped away from the throne, looked at Roshaun. "Well, son," he said, "you were not long in donning the Sunstone, as is your right. This only remains to complete the accession." And he glanced at the chair. Roshaun swallowed again. "I wanted to talk to you about that," he said. His father tilted his head a little to one side. "I fail to see what could still need discussion," he said. Roshaun turned to look back down the length of the hall, toward the doors and straight into the light of the Wellakhit sun, still slowly setting. The light caught strangely in the great gem at his throat, washing out its amber fire and leaving it as colorless as water. "I will not be staying," he said, turning back toward his father. "Errantry takes me elsewhere." Nelaid nodded, just once, very slowly. "What the Son of the Sun says is, of course, law." But Dairine could hear something else coming. "From the sound of it, however, you came not to ask me what you should do, but to tell me what you had already made up your mind to do. I suspected as much." "Royal sire," Roshaun said, "I would hardly make such a choice without consulting with the Aethyrs." It was Roshaun's name for both his people's version of the manual-a small sphere of light into which the wizard gazed-and for the Powers that spoke through it. "The Aethyrs speak to you in a different voice than they do to me," Nelaid said, "which is perfectly normal. But I must question your interpretation of their position." "Royal sire," Roshaun said, "once you could question that. But you gave up that right when you abdicated as Sunlord in my favor." "I remain the ranking Senior on Wellakh," Roshaun's father said, "and that right of questioning I have not abdicated. You have yet to satisfy me as to how much of this decision is yours." And he looked at Dairine. Dairine instantly flushed so hot that she knew she must be clashing horribly with her dress. "If you assume I've been unduly influenced in my decision, royal sire," Roshaun said, "you're in great error." "Better believe it," Dairine said softly. "Paying attention to anything / say is hardly one of his favorite things." Nelaid gave Dairine a look that was genuinely amused. "Forgive me, bev he Khallahan, but I have known my son longer than you have." He turned back to Roshaun, the look in his eye more challenging now. "It's the mark of a noble heart to want to help friends in trouble. But when that help distracts you from those you already have a duty to help…" He glanced toward the great barren plain outside, all covered with people. "Father," Roshaun said, "staying here in obedience to our people's insecurities will solve no problem that faces us now. We must not waste precious time doing the same old things; they will not avail us. I will be protecting our people, regardless of how it looks to them." "They will not ask you for explanations," Nelaid said. "They will simply watch what you do. And if they do not like your actions, they will keep their counsel… until one of them finds a way to come at you on some visit to the liveside. An energy weapon, a bomb or a knife, an unguarded moment…" Roshaun's father shrugged. "Even you must sleep sometimes. As must I. And your mother." Roshaun's eyes were on the throne. "I know the fear you've both lived with, all these years," he said. "The knife that almost took you. The bomb that missed you and nearly took the queen. Do you think I'm trying to shirk my turn?" Dairine could feel the slow burn beginning. "Excuse me," she said to Nelaid, "but in case you haven't heard, your son put his life on the line to fix our Sun while he was on excursus. He saw the problem with it before any of us did. He helped us design the wizardry to deal with it. And when stuff got rough up there, he walked straight into my star wearing not much more than a force field and a smile. That looks like 'brave' to me, so if you're seriously suggesting he doesn't have what it takes to deal with being king here-" Roshaun's father put up his eyebrows. "You are outspoken," he said. "Speaking truth to power," Dairine said, "is never 'out'" The slightest smile appeared on Nelaid's face. "There are problems associated with this course of action-" "Royal sire," Roshaun said, "you were the one who taught me that sometimes, as wizards, we have to make choices that fly in the face of what looks like common sense. 'Reason is not always everything,' you'd say. There remains that other voice that speaks, sometimes, in accents we don't understand. Or understand perfectly well, and violently disagree with." "My words exactly," Roshaun's father said. "Unusual to hear you agreeing with them. This would not have been your normal mode… before you went away." "Nor would it have been your mode to produce so sudden a surprise as your abdication," Roshaun said, "when I left thinking that everything here was going smoothly, and an excursus would do no harm." "Things change," said the former Sunlord, "as we see." And once again he looked at Dairine. "You arrive for your people's first sight of you as Sunlord, and what do they also see, standing at your side? An alien, garbed in raiment much like that of Wellakhit royalty, wearing some other world's life-color, gemmed like a Guarantor. The rumors are flying already. Does another world have designs on the rule of ours? Either by straightforward conquest, or more intimate means?" Dairine's eyes went wide as what he meant sank in. "You mean they think that we-that I– You tell those people that they are completely nuts! Even if I were old enough to think about stuff like this, which I seriously am not, I have zero interest in being anybody's queen! Especially not his-" And then Dairine stopped short as she saw the peculiar look that had appeared on both Roshaun's and Nelaid's faces. "Uh," she said then, and blushed again. "Maybe there was a less tactful way I could have put that…" That small smile reappeared on Nelaid's face. "Well," Nelaid said after a moment, "I perhaps am reassured. But as for our people-" "Father," Roshaun said, "you taught me that a wizard turns away from the Aethyrs' guidance and his heart's at his peril. Yes, our people may misunderstand either Dairine's presence here or the fact that I will now immediately leave. For either eventuality, I'm quite prepared. And when we come home from this errand, perhaps they will assassinate me for what they consider a betrayal. It would not be the first time that kind of thing has happened-or the last." "And, meanwhile, you mean for me to assume the burden of Sunwatch once more, even though I've formally laid it down." When Roshaun spoke at last, his tone was surprisingly gentle. "You said it yourself, Father," Roshaun said. "What the Son of the Sun commands is law. As a wizard, you know where your duties lie. But if I must-" Nelaid stood there silently for a few moments. "No," he said. "A king's first command should be less painful. I will stand the Watch… though Thahit is once more showing signs of instability." "That I saw when I returned," Roshaun said. "I examined the star briefly a little time ago, while testing the Stone to see if it interfered with my perceptions. The instability is the one we predicted together before I left." "What we did not predict was the increased acceleration of the stretching effects in space," Nelaid said. "The sun's instability is increasing accordingly." "I noted that, Father," Roshaun said. "So while I am gone you must intervene if necessary." He paused. "That said, I should not be taking this into harm's way. I prefer that you keep it for me while I am gone." And Roshaun reached up and started to unfasten the great golden collar around his neck. Roshaun's father stood silent for a moment, and then made a sidewise gesture with one hand, which Dairine read as "no." "Wizardry is the reality at the heart of the Watch, my king," he said. "I have no need of a mere symbol to do what needs to be done." The tension in the air fell away very abruptly as Roshaun's father spoke. "But the Stone makes you king… so its place is with you. If you young ones fail, it will not matter for long whether the Stone is lost or not. We ^vill all follow you into the dark soon enough." "And if the star stammers, what of it?" said a voice from the floor. Startled, the three of them looked down. Spot was regarding Roshaun's father with several eyes. "Lean times of barren hope Wait on the composite's daughter, Sharpening the edge of life." Spot fell silent. Roshaun and Nelaid exchanged speculative glances. Dairine felt like swearing. "Couldn't you have waited half an hour?" she said under her breath, and looked up at Roshaun and his father. "Would you two hold that thought?" She felt down toward where the memo pad should have been, in the pocket of her cargo pants… then remembered that there was no pocket there anymore, not to mention no pants. She let out an annoyed breath. "Spot-" "What?" "The notepad!" "In your claudication, along with everything else that was in your pockets." "Thanks." She reached sideways, pushed her hand into the empty air, and groped around, coming up with the pad and a pen. Roshaun's father was looking at Roshaun in mild confusion. "When one has manual access, even in alien idioms," he said, "can one not usually take notes by-" Dairine looked up from her scribbling to throw Roshaun's father a look that should have singed even a Sun King around the edges. "Everything changes-?isn't that what you were just saying? You were right. So don't rub it in." The two Wellakhi looked at Dairine with exactly matching expressions of superior amusement, then turned back toward each other. Nelaid said, "Where will you go now?" "Dairine's associate comes of a species of sentient, wizardly computing devices," Roshaun said. "Mobiles, they call themselves. Both their reasoning power and their wizardry are tremendous, according to the Aethyrs. We go to consult with them on ways to attack the expansion. Meanwhile, the people outside should be told that I am gone on their business-and the universe's. I will come back as soon as I can." Roshaun's father held his son's eye for a few moments, then bowed slightly to him. "As the king commands," he said. He glanced at Dairine as she finished with her scribbling, nodded to her. "Dai stiho," he said, and with a soft clap of displaced air, he vanished. Roshaun let out a breath and turned back toward the doors. "Come on," he said. Dairine turned, too-and then stopped, hearing footsteps. She paused, looked over her shoulder. Coming toward them was a woman-not as tall as Roshaun's father, but so beautiful that the sight of her made Dairine simply stop where she was. She wore the Wellakhit long overtunic and soft trousers, but in flowing hazy blue; and her hair was the original of Roshaun's, except longer and fairer, and so feathery light that it seemed to float around her as she came toward them. Dairine was immediately devoured by a desire to have hair like that, even though taking care of it would leave her with no time for a social life, and buying the necessary amount of shampoo would destroy her college fund. "Uh," she said, "Roshaun-" He had already brushed past her, hurrying. Dairine had never seen Roshaun hurry before. He went straight to the woman, reached out, and took both her outstretched hands and pressed them against his forehead. The woman smiled and pushed Roshaun a little away. "Are you taller?" she said. "Motherrrrr…!" Roshaun said. She smiled past Roshaun at Dairine. "Roshaun tekeh," she said. "What about your friend?" "Ah," Roshaun said. He let go of his mother's hands and glanced over at Dairine. She smiled, too, and headed over to them, immediately impressed by anyone who could make Roshaun sound like he wanted to roll his eyes. Roshaun looked at Dairine as he put an arm around his mother and said, "I would make you known to Miril am Miril dev ir Nuiiliat, the Sister of the Sun, the Lady of the Lands of Wellakh. Mother, this is Dairine he Khallahan." Her smile was so friendly and kind that Dairine was tempted to simply say, "Hi, Roshaun's mom." But for the moment she did what Roshaun had done, and took the hand held out to her, pressing it to her forehead. "You're very welcome, young wizard," Lady Miril said in the Speech. "And you also, sir," she said to Spot, who was peering out from behind Dairine. "I heard you say you were in a hurry, Roshaun, so I won't keep you." "You heard all that?" Dairine said. "If the queen of Wellakh doesn't keep her ears open," Lady Miril said, "things deteriorate… especially around this one and his father." She hugged Roshaun a little harder. Roshaun squirmed, but only slightly. "There was a little… uh…" "Friction?" said Lady Miril. "Always. These two stalk about in all directions doing good… and then hardly have a kind word for each other. If there's a way for either of them to rub the other one the wrong way, he'll find it. And in recent days the intensity of the game has increased somewhat." "Mother," Roshaun said, looking at her with a surprised expression, "you saw all this coming…" "It hardly takes a wizard to tell what's going on with your royal sire, my son," said Lady Miril, "when you've known him since he was just a badly behaved prince." She grinned. "And as for you-" Roshaun actually blushed. Lady Miril, though, went quite sober. "But the weariness has been growing on your father, Roshaun. And then while you were away, there was another attempt…" Roshaun looked at his mother… and then the expression on his face went very strange. "That was meant for me, was it not?" he said. "I believe so," said his mother. "That was why you wanted me to go on the excur sus," Roshaun said softly. "You wanted me out of the way, on Earth." "The thought of a vigorous new power in charge of the planet would annoy some people," Lady Miril said, glancing at Dairine. "They prefer the status quo to an unknown." "And then," Roshaun said, "Father was caught up in an attack meant for me…" He turned a shade that even for him was pale. "And now… what I just did-" Was the most idiotic thing I could possibly have done, Dairine heard Roshaun think. / have thrown my father straight back into the situation from which he thought he had finally been freed. I have– Roshaun disentangled himself from Lady Miril. "Mother-" He held a hand out to one side. In it, blinding, appeared the little globe of white fire that was his manual. He slipped his other hand into it, feeling around for something. "We should go." "No, royal son," said Lady Miril, and the fire-globe vanished. "Not in here. If you will be king in name, you must be king in action as well, or you leave your father in greater danger than before. A king does not sneak away. If he leaves, he does so where his people can see him." Roshaun looked over at Dairine. "We can teleport, if you like," he said. "I don't mind the walk," Dairine said after a moment. "I can use it to compose myself." Lady Miril flashed Dairine an amused glance. "When will you be back, Roshaun?" He paused. "I am not sure. Father has told you about the expansion…" She looked grave. "Yes," she said. "Go do what you must. We'll wait. Dhairine" Dairine took the Lady's hand again. "Go well," Lady Miril said. She turned away. Roshaun headed for the door; Dairine went with him. About halfway down to the doors, she said, "I can't wait to get out of these clothes." "The way you did before?" Roshaun said. "That was entertaining. And informative." Now what the heck is that supposed to mean?! Dairine thought. "Probably not what you think," Roshaun said. "But when you do resume your usual guise…" He reached out toward her as they went, and very casually tapped the cabochon emerald at Dairine's throat. "Not that," he said. "That I think you should keep. It becomes you." "Uh, okay," Dairine said, and blushed again, she hardly knew why. "It's just-I'm hard on jewelry. It gets busted, or…" The expression on his face was so strange that she said, "All right, sure, I'll keep it." "Good," Roshaun said. "Meanwhile-" They were at the doors. Roshaun stepped through them. Dairine hung back, waiting. Out beyond the mountain of the palace, all across the plain, the two million Wellakhit people still stood, their quiet now more hushed than before because of the great height; and before them, near the slender rail at the highest terrace's edge, stood Roshaun's father. Roshaun went directly to Nelaid and stood beside him at the edge of the terrace. Dairine watched Nelaid's face, set and proud, as he turned it toward his son. After a few moments, Roshaun stretched out a hand. His father took it. They stood there in the view of that great assemblage, and slowly an uncertain murmur went up at that gesture that Dairine guessed suggested more a joint kingship than one vesting solely in one party or the other. "You told them?" Roshaun said. "I did," said Nelaid. "Then by your leave, royal father," Roshaun said, "I go. And, Father, I am sorry." "My son," Nelaid said, "the Aethyrs go with you." And carefully, as if he wasn't sure how to do it in front of all these people, Nelaid embraced his son. The sound from the crowd swelled, still confused, but somehow approving. Roshaun let his father go. "I have to attach this to a substrate," he said, as he produced his manual again and reached into it, pulling out the compressed darkness that was the subsidized worldgate. "Go ahead, son." As Roshaun made his way back toward the wall near the doors, Dairine saw Nelaid throw her a look that was much less stiff than his regard had been earlier. She bowed her head to him again, not too far for fear of what the tiara would do, and then turned to join Roshaun, with Spot spidering along behind her. "You were going to have some coordinates for me?" Roshaun said. "Here," Spot said. Roshaun flung the darkness of the worldgate up against the wall; it spread out into a black circle a few meters wide. "One thing," Dairine said, as Spot fed the temporospatial coordinates of the Motherboard World to the worldgate wizardry. "Yes?" "Something you said back there," Dairine said, as the worldgate's vacuum-warding subroutine snapped to life. " 'When we come home from this errand'?" "It was a slip of the tongue," Roshaun said after a moment. "And therefore not true?" Dairine said. Roshaun wouldn't answer. Dairine smiled and led the way through the gate. Nita looked around her as they materialized inside the vast space of the Crossings Worldgating Facility. It was night there; as usual after sunset, the vast, remote ceiling had apparently vanished, and the milky turbulence of the upper atmosphere had cleared, letting the extravagant night sky of Rirhath B show through. Automatically Nita did the first thing you do in the Crossings when appearing out of nowhere: She looked down to check whether the transport surface they were all standing on was "dedicated" or not. Fortunately, it wasn't. "Come on, guys," Nita said, "everybody out of the zone." Filif followed Nita over the line as Kit and Ponch and Ronan were crossing over in a slightly different direction. Ponch bounded past them, lolloping off down the wide central corridor of this part of the Crossings. "Don't run!" Nita called after him, concerned that he would go crashing into some unsuspecting alien; but there wasn't much point. They were easily a quarter mile from the nearest other beings who were catching late (or early) gates to their destinations. Ponch galloped along, oblivious, tail wagging, and no one paid him any attention. Nita looked at her watch as Sker'ret poured past her, heading for one of the many bluesteel information kiosks that rose ten or twelve feet from the floor at intervals all along the length of the concourse. It really is later than we've usually been in here before, Nita thought. To her watch, she said, "Crossings time, please?" The face of the watch restructured itself to show her the thirty-three-hour Crossings day. It's nearly twenty– nine o'clock, Nita thought. Probably no surprise that traffic's a little down. Ronan had stopped just the other side of the line and was standing there staring up at the vast starry darkness overhead. Rirhath's neighborhood of space was full of variable stars that slowly but visibly shrank and swelled while you watched. "It's like they're breathing," Ronan said. Beside him, Kit nodded. "You haven't been here before?" Kit said. "Once," Ronan said. "It wasn't anything like this then." Kit smiled. "The daytime view's interesting, though I always wonder what'd happen to all that levitating stained glass up at ceiling level if they had a power failure. This is a lot less tense." He looked after Ponch as Nita and Filif came over to them. "You know what he's after," Nita said, looking after Ponch. Kit shrugged. "Give him a moment to run," he said. "When he comes back we'll get down to business." Then he yawned. "You and me both," Nita said, rubbing her eyes. "It's getting late back home. We ought to think about where we'll stop for the night." "Wherever Ponch leads us," Ronan said. "My passenger'll stand guard while we're sleeping. Everybody's got their pup tents with them, so they'll be comfortable enough." "And I've got my cell phone," Nita said. "If my dad needs to get in touch, he won't have any trouble." She sighed. "I still wish we could sleep at home… I'm getting nervous about what's going on there." "Going back and forth wouldn't be smart," Ronan said. "For one thing, it'd make us a lot easier to track. Might as well just send the Lone One an invitation to follow us straight to wherever it is we're going." "Yeah, I know." Nita knew he was right; she just hated to admit it. Sker'ret was reared up against the nearby kiosk, using numerous upper legs to work its controls. Nita went over to him and looked over a couple of his topmost shoulders. Below the kiosk's translucent surface, in which Sker'ret's topmost two pairs of legs were partially embedded, several layers of patches of light flowed with characters in the Speech. "Find what you're looking for?" she said. Sker'ret curved a couple of eyes backward to meet hers. "Not yet," he said. He's never this terse. What's going on? She rested a hand on that beautiful candy-glazed metallic-purple carapace, just behind the head segment. "Sker', are you okay?" He sagged a little. "Not entirely." He turned some eyes up to gaze at the deep red charactery now running up and down the kiosk-pillar's length. "If you need help-" "Not at the moment. But thank you." Sker'ret curved back another couple of eyes toward her. "What about Ponch?" Down the concourse Nita could see the shiny black shape wandering along toward them, still wagging his tail. "I'll see if he's ready to start work," she said. Kit was standing there with his arms folded, shaking his head, watching Ponch head toward them. You were trying to overhear what he was smelling, Nita said privately. Any luck? Kit gave her a resigned look. Motor oil, he said. Cocoa. Motor oil? Nita turned to look up the concourse at Ponch again; he had paused to sniff at another of the information kiosks. / guess for him those smells symbolize what Ronan and the Champion are after? That's my guess, Kit said. He thinks he's on the right track. All we can do is let him get on with it. Ponch came ambling over to Kit, looked up at him, and nosed his hand. I'm hungry! Ronan came back to them and looked down at Ponch. "So when are you going to get started?" ponch gave Ronan a slightly scornful look. I've been working ever since we got here. But I'll need a little more time to sort the scents out. For the time being, you two just talk among yourselves. What amused Nita was that he was looking only at Ronan while he said it. Ronan looked a little taken aback. Ponch turned his back on him. And while I work on the scent-sorting, he said to Kit, wagging his tail, we might as well get something to eat! "I don't know," Kit said. "Maybe it's not good for some people to be full of food when they're supposed to be really sharp and heading out on the trail." Ponch gave Kit a very cool look. Oh, I get it. Deprive me and I'll function better? Let's see how that works. He sat down. Hmm, I feel strangely weak… Ponch fell over on one side with his tongue hanging out one side of his mouth; one eye looked pitifully at Kit. Can't… seem to… move… Kit looked over at Nita. "Blackmail," Kit said. Nita shrugged. "Oh, all right," Kit said. "Come on, let's see what we can find." Ponch sprang to his feet, spun around in three fast, tight circles where he stood, and then shot off down the concourse. Kit jogged after him. Behind them, ostentatiously by himself, Ronan strolled away. Filif came up next to Nita, also looking after them, but mostly at Ronan. "And to think that the One's Champion is hiding in there." "One version of it," Nita said. "An avatar, I guess we'd say, sort of a splinter of the whole Defender… as much as could fit inside a human being, anyhow." She reached out to readjust Filif's baseball cap. "The con cept doesn't seem to surprise you much." "Why should it? The One's Champion does that kind of thing all the time, the Wind says. Seems like It loves to dress up." Nita grinned. "Well, you haven't seen it the way we have," she said. "It lived at Tom and Carl's for a long time, disguised as a bird." She rubbed one ear thoughtfully. "It had some issues then, too. Kind of a temper…" She could feel Filif's amusement. "Such was the De fender's way with us, as well. It was the Great Tree, the Star-Reacher, that first caught the Wind in its branches and shared the sound of it with us." Filif turned most of his eye-berries to look down the other end of the concourse, and upward toward the vast and splendid Rirhait sky. "Before that, the Wind was just another noise. After that, it became the sound of words and wizardry, the power to change our world…" Nita glanced around them. "Fil, did you see where Sker'ret went?" "Uh, no." Filif rotated in place. "He was working at that kiosk." "We can always message him," Nita said. "Come on, let's see what they're up to." The two of them headed in the direction that Kit and Ponch had gone. The Crossings might have been quieter than usual, but Nita didn't mind that, since it meant that you had less chance of being run over by aliens and their luggage while rubbernecking. The place was nearly half the size of the island of Manhattan, and besides the actual worldgates-set into the floor all down the length of the concourse, as their entry gating area had been-it was also full of endless haphazardly stacked modular bluesteel "cubes" containing shops, lounges, living areas, food courts, and every other kind of facility necessary to cater to the needs of the thousands of species that used the Crossings as a vital transportation link among several major galactic and transgalactic civilizations. Even at a "quiet" time like this, there were any number of fascinating beings to look at as they wandered from place to place, gazing into the windows of stores or restaurants. Though not as many as usual…, Nita thought. "Is that Kit coming back?" Filif said to Nita. "Who's he with?" Nita peered down the concourse. "Doesn't look like him." She took another look. "But they're human." There were three people there, heading in their direction-two boys and a girl, Nita thought. "Other wizards," she said to Filif, as they got closer and it became plain that the approaching three were Earth-human and not some other variety. One of the boys, with shaggy fair hair, was wearing dark pants and a matching dark sweater that might have been a school uniform; the other one, a dark-haired kid, was in jeans and a windbreaker, close enough to what Kit was wearing and close enough to his height that Nita could see why Filif might have made the error. The girl, who had short brown hair, was wearing what seemed to be a short, richly patterned silk kimono over jeans and low-heeled boots, a look that Nita admired as soon as she saw it. The newcomers were a hundred feet or so away from Nita and Filif when Kit and Ponch appeared from one of an array of cubicles over to the left. Over here, Nita said silently to Kit. We've got company. Ponch came bouncing up to Nita, who reached down to ruffle up his ears. "So how was it?" she said. We didn't even go to a restaurant, Ponch said, in profound disappointment, throwing a reproachful look over his shoulder at Kit. He just went to a machine and put words from his manual in it and food came out. But there was only one blue thing. That was hardly enough. Look at me! You can see my ribs. "Later," Kit said. "We need to find Ronan and Sker'ret. And talk to these guys, I think." "Dai stiho!" the girl said, as they got close. "Dai," Nita and Kit and Filif said more or less in unison. "You're just up from the Moon?" said the boy in the school uniform, in a broad Australian accent. "Is the gate still open there?" "It was a few minutes ago," Kit said. "Great," said the boy. "We're heading back." "Where've you been?" Nita said. "If it's not private." The second boy shook his head. "Edge of the Local Group," he said. "Over by IC 1613." "How are things there?" Nita said. The first boy looked grim. "That galaxy was always kind of thin and spread out to begin with," he said. "But it's a lot thinner now. You know the Katahn empire there?" Nita and Kit both shook their heads. Filif said, "I know of it. How does it fare?" "Badly. Its systems are being pushed away from each other so fast that the empire's falling apart," said the boy in the jeans. "The big crowd of blue-white stars in the middle of that galaxy is being ripped up; the whole thing could turn into a blazar." Nita sucked in her breath. The boy shook his head. "We're going back to get some help. There are a few really young kids back on the Moon right now. Might be we can get together enough raw power to slow down the expansion." "Even if we can't do that right away, we should be able to keep the blazar from igniting," the girl said. "We think," said the Aussie-sounding boy. All of them trailed off. They looked terrified, but determined. Nita thought, And that's how we look to them, I'll bet. "Good luck," Kit said. "If there is such a thing," said the girl. Her look was defiant. "But we're not going to wait to find out. Come on. Dai." The three of them waved and went back the way Nita's and Kit's group had come. Nita turned to watch them go as Ronan came out of another of the cubicle shops over on the right and rejoined them. "So," he said, "the big gut here finish stuffing himself?" Ponch gave Ronan a dry look. / wouldn't talk if I r Collateral Damage were you, he said. That greaseball hamburger you were eating was nearly strong enough to drown out the scent of what we're tracking. "Which you've finally got nailed down?" Kit said. The scent's faint, Ponch said, but I can find the way from here, or at least get us headed in the right direction. How do you want to go? "Using a fixed gate would be better right now," Ronan said. Then I can show you the way in my head, Ponch said to Kit. "And I can use the manual to convert those into coordinates the Crossings gating system can use," Kit said. "But we'll need to go talk to the station staff to get them to allocate us a gate." "Yeah. Let's message Sker'ret." I can smell where he is, Ponch said. This way. Ponch galloped off down the concourse toward the intersection where the secondary concourse wing met the major one they were in. Just past the spot where the two wings met rose an open structure of blue-green metal, looking like a cross between an office cubicle and a set of monkey bars. Around it a number of Rirhait people were gathered, making a noise like a lawn mower having an argument with a rock it had found hiding in the grass. Sker'ret was there, the front half of him reared up off the floor as he worked at one of the subsidiary kiosk-columns that made up the body of the structure. The column had extruded a control console covered with patches of embedded light, which Sker'ret was tapping at with great speed. Three of the gathered Rirhait were looking over one or another set of his shoulders; two others were rushing around the cubicle as if they were looking for something. With a wizard's ear, Nita could hear Sker'ret saying to one of the Rirhait looking over his shoulder, "See, this is all you need to do. It's easier than you think. If you just make sure that the equations for the hypersphere balance have the same asymptotic expansion variables laid in-" He looked up as Nita and Kit and Filif and Ronan stepped up to the cubicle. "Oh," Sker'ret said. "We're about ready," Kit said. "Can you finish up here?" "I'm trying," Sker'ret said. He cocked about three eyes each back at the two other Rirhait who were looking over his shoulders. "So are we clear about this, sibs? This is going to hold you just fine for the meantime." "I'm not sure exactly where to go after that, though," said one of the Rirhait who was watching whatever he was doing at the console. She sounded nervous. "What about the spin foam variables?" asked the other Rirhait. Sker'ret reached out some spare legs to the column on the other side of him. It extruded another floating keyboard structure toward him, which he poked until it displayed the keying pattern he wanted, and started tapping on while still typing into the first one. "You do it like this," he said. "Let the software handle the brane issues; it's built for that. Ignore the zonotope and the polar sine relationships. All you have to do is intuit the way the spin foam variables are sliding, and add about a radian and a half-" "You following this?" Kit said to Nita under his breath. "You kidding?" Nita muttered. "It's math, Kit, but not as we know it." "-and then you pull in the last twenty sets of figures from the leech-lattice version of the hyperspherepacking readings, paying special attention to the kissing number. Then you just massage the string density quotient-" Sker'ret was too intent on simultaneous input at both consoles to notice the sudden frantic wreathing of eyes of all the Rirhait surrounding him, and the way the two who had been pacing now froze in place with all their eyes pointing over Sker'ret's shoulders. "And that'll hold you for the next two standard periods at least." "Good," said another Rirhait voice from behind Sker'ret… and now it was Sker'ret's turn to freeze. All his eyes held quite still, looking at what he had been keying in… and then very slowly one of them curled up and around to look behind him. The Stationmaster of the Crossings, a Rirhait somewhat bigger than Sker'ret and of a lighter, more silvery– blue shade, poured into the cubicle and arranged himself among and over some of its interlocking rails and bars, peering with various eyes at the keypads where Sker'ret had been working. "So you've changed your mind," he said. "I'm glad you've come to your senses. We need you here." Nita wasn't sure how someone so smoothcarapaced could seem to bristle, but as Sker'ret curved some more of his eyes around in the Stationmaster's direction, he was managing it. "Unfortunately, you're wrong," Sker'ret said. "I haven't changed my mind." "What?" The Stationmaster pointed all his eyes at once at Sker'ret. The other Rirhait around him all pulled their eyes in close to their bodies. "You need me more where I'm going," Sker'ret said. "I've spent all the time I can here. This fix will deal with the problem at hand… and now we're going to head out." "Are you insane?" the Stationmaster said. "Look at this place!" Nita looked. She couldn't see anything wrong with it, except that it did seem much emptier than usual. Sker'ret glanced around with various eyes. "This is only a symptom," said Sker'ret, "of what's coming. And no one with all their brains in place wastes time treating symptoms. A cure's what's needed… and that's what we're dealing with now." The Stationmaster flowed a little closer to Sker'ret and did something that Nita found briefly alarming: It reared up and grasped Sker'ret's front end with some of those many little clawed legs. "Listen to me, broodling," the Stationmaster said. "What's happening out there is far too big for any species to cure. The world is changing! And there's nothing we can do. How do you seriously expect to keep space from expanding?" "But wizards-" "If wizards could have stopped it, they'd have done that already," the Stationmaster said. "We've just got to teach our mechanisms to handle the new distances and vectors in the long term… or all this is going to come to a halt, and with it the transport and commerce of three galaxies!" More of the Stationmaster's legs waved around them at the travelers of many species who were hurrying by, ignoring them. "Your sibs have better sense," the Stationmaster said. "They're not running off on some fool's errand at a critical time. But you've been hard to reason with lately." The Stationmaster glared with many eyes past Sker'ret at the gaggle of humans and others who were uncomfortably watching all this unfold, and one eye stared straight at Nita. "Something to do with the company you've been keeping." Nita went very hot and opened her mouth. Before she could say anything, Sker'ret shook off his ancestor's forelegs and bent every eye on him. "I'll thank you not to malign wizards of goodwill and friends of mine," he said. "And as for the long term, there'll be no long term for anyone or anything if we don't move to alter what's happening." "And so you'll go off and abandon the place to which you owe the most responsibility." "We can't turn inward now!" Sker'ret nearly shouted. "This is no time to try to find ways to dig our own burrow deeper! Turning outward to solve the bigger problem is the only way for us to save ourselves!" "I have been Master here for nearly two hundred circuits of our sun," the Stationmaster said, very quietly. "And it's amusing to hear someone barely out of his fifth decade claim that he understands better than I how to handle the threat that-" "You don't understand a tenth of what you think you do!" Sker'ret said. "You're too scared to raise an eye or three to peer past the obvious conclusions. And your job description has changed, but you haven't even noticed-even though the truth's staring you in the head and waving all its eyes at you. You saw the Station's stats! Gating across the three major galaxies is down almost thirty percent! Everyone's turning inward, from fear, and that's just what our old Enemy wants! To drive us apart, each into his own burrow, to keep us away from the interaction that keeps us in touch with the Prime Mover and makes us one-" "I don't have time for metaphysics right now," the Stationmaster said. "I need to keep this place running. If you're going to forget where your real place is and go running off Mover-knows-where, there's nothing I can do to stop you. But you're jeopardizing your positions here. All of them." There was an unnervingly final sound to that. Nita swallowed, waiting to see what Sker'ret would do. He disentangled himself from the support framework and dropped back to the horizontal position. 'Perhaps I am," he said. "But at least, when we succeed what we're doing, there'll still be a place for my replacement to have a position at. And a place for my sibs to learn whether you value them as you do me." All his eyes were fixed on all his ancestor's. There was a terrible silence. Then slowly, one after one, the Stationmaster turned those eyes away. Sker'ret didn't flinch. "We need a gate," he said after a moment. "The one-seventies are all idle," said the Stationmaster, in a tone of voice that made Nita wonder how she'd ever thought it sounded rude before. "Use one of them. And don't let us delay you." He turned and swept off down the far side of the concourse. With reluctant backward looks, Sker'ret's sibs went pouring after him. A few seconds later, only Nita, Kit, Filif, Ponch, and Ronan stood there. "Wow," Kit said softly. Sker'ret glanced over at Nita with some of his eyes; the rest of them were still on his esteemed ancestor and his sibs as they hurried away across the shining floor. Nita shook her head as Sker'ret flowed out of the cubicle structure, and hunkered down beside him as he paused, still looking down the concourse. She rested one hand on the carapace-segment just behind his head. "What I said about our basement," she said, "I meant it." "Thank you," Sker'ret said, and the strange eyes that Nita had previously had so much trouble reading now seemed full of gratitude and weariness. "But everything is still all wrong." "Wrong how?" Sker'ret paused. "None of that sounded like what my ancestor would say," he said at last. "You don't get to be Stationmaster of the Crossings by saying how things can't be fixed. You find ways to fix things, no matter what it takes. 'Broken' isn't an option. And the Sieger the problem, the more committed you are to fixing it-" Sker'ret shook his head, and the ripple of it went all the way down his body. "That's the kind of thing he would always say to me. And all of a sudden, to hear him sound like he did just now-" Sker'ret sounded confused. "He'd given up. He didn't sound… like him, somehow." Kit looked at Nita. "Tom warned us," he said, "that there would be changes because of the way space was stretching. Ethical changes, personality shifts." Everyone looked uncomfortable. "It's going to get worse," Nita said. "We've just got to get on with what we're doing. Though it really is freaky." She glanced at Kit. "You see any adult human wizards here while you were on your own? I didn't." Kit shook his head. "Sker', where are the one– seventies?" "Hang a right, thirty stads down on your left," Sker'ret said. "It's one of the bigger clusters." "Let's go," Nita said. Their group left the cubicle and followed Sker'ret as he led the way around the corner and down yet another of those seemingly endless, shining white corridors, all the gate hexes and squares lining either side of 't alight… and many of them empty. For someone who knew the Crossings as well as Nita did, the effect was unnerving. "This way." Sker'ret turned off into a large circular area, maybe a quarter mile across, that budded off the transverse concourse. The area was completely surfaced with gate hexes, nested fairly closely together, outlined in many different colors depending on the species intended to use them. "Here we are," Sker'ret said. He led them over to the large gate at the center of the hex grouping, went to its kiosk-column, reared up against it, and tapped his uppermost legs against it. The column extruded a console like the ones he had been working with at the central resource station. The embedded outline of the largest hex came alive with a clear fierce blue. Sker'ret turned to Kit. "What have you got for me?" Kit looked at Ponch. Nita could feel something of the communication between them; it was like watching someone whisper to someone else, while not being able to hear what they were saying… and, still, at one remove, it smelled of cocoa and motor oil. Weird, she thought, as Kit turned to Sker'ret. "I'm not sure I can handle this keyboard," he said. "Just speak it to me in the Speech," Sker'ret said. "I can do the input." Kit recited a long string of words, numbers, and variable statements to Sker'ret. Sker'ret's little end-of-leg claws danced over the keypad. "Done," Sker'ret said. "Everybody into the zone, please. Thirty seconds to the transit." He pushed the keypad away from him; it vanished into the column. Sker'ret headed into the middle of the biggest hex, and they all followed. Nita was half amused, half scared to see how everybody put them elves as far into the middle of the hex as they could, so that at the end of the exercise three humans, a dog, a entjpede, and a Christmas tree all stood back to back, facing outward against whatever might come at them. "Twenty," Sker'ret said. "Ten." Nita looked around her at a section of the Crossings that had no one in it but them, no one at all. It was unnerving. "Five." Her heart was pounding. She glanced over at Kit. "Zero-" Everything went dark. Nita had to blink a couple of times to get used to the darkness. There was air, at least-Crossings gateways had a vacuum-guard on them, so they wouldn't dump you out into an inimical or absent atmosphere without warning. As usual, she looked up first at the sky. There wasn't one. They stood on a small, arid, empty world, and Nita had known it was empty the moment they came out of nowhere. The lack of life has a specific feel to which any wizard past Ordeal quickly becomes sensitive, a sensation of something missing that ought to be there, but isn't, like a pulled tooth. Above them, there should have been stars. But there weren't. Nita tried to make sense of what she was seeing as she looked up. It was like when you stare into the dark for a long time and start imagining that the dark itself is moving. But this movement was real. It was as if the darkness was heaving with small shapes, no bigger than grains of rice-but all darker even than the blackness where they grew. Nita had a sudden thought of the mealworms she'd once found all through a bag of bad flour-heaving, rustling against each other, like a live thing that was also a lot of little live things. The darkness of space above them stirred and heaved with little darknesses. They were there. And Nita very much did not want to think what they would start to be like when they were bigger. She swallowed, righting the thought of being sick, which wouldn't have helped. Before this, space might have been inimical, bitterly cold, airless, arid, but it was at least clean. Suddenly that innocent, unselfconscious deadliness had been taken from it. Something was trying to squirm through the crevices of reality and fill that calm dark emptiness, void of everything but stars, with something heavier than starstuff, darker than the longest night, and horribly, mindlessly alive… with no interest in any other kind of life except squeezing it out, pushing all the native life more and more apart, filling everything so full with itself that there was no room for anything else. This was what the dark-matter expansion looked like, up close and personal. But the dark matter, innocent enough in itself, had had something added to it… something terrible. She looked over at Kit: His expression was as shocked and horrified as hers must have been. She wondered how all the wizards there were could possibly stop such a thing. And we don't even have all the wizards there are. Old age and experience can beat oath and power every time, Dad always says. Now all we've got is youth and power. Is it going to be enough? And what if it isn't? Kit put out a hand and said a few words in the Speech. A moment later, a small bright spark of wizard– fire materialized above his hand. Nita followed suit, telling hers to hover over one shoulder and just behind her. Around them, the others brought light about as well-Sker'ret's carapace came alive with it, and all of Filif's berries blazed. Ronan took that clip-on ballpoint pen out of his pocket and gave it a shake. A moment later he was holding the Spear of Light in its full form-the seven-foot Spearshaft glowing softly, the head of the Spear wreathing itself in a chilly white– golden flame. Kit was looking up into the darkness, and to Nita's eye, he looked faintly unwell. "That has to be the creepiest thing I've ever seen," he said. Ronan stood leaning on the Spear, his free hand resting on his hip, his shadow lying pooled black behind him from the Spear's radiance. It might have seemed a casual stance at first. But as Ronan gazed up into that unhealthy, seething dark, Nita started to sense how tightly he was controlling himself, like someone working hard not to run away. His face was very still, though, and Nita for the first time actually saw someone else look out of Ronan's eyes. The expression was one of recognition coupled with a very controlled anger. The one who looked out had seen something like this before. She went over to him. "Something familiar about this?" she said. Ronan nodded. "From a long, long time back," he said. "When the Lone One first revealed that new thing it had invented, entropy, this was one of the early side effects." "And the Champion stopped it?" Kit said, coming over with Ponch to join them. Ronan shook his head. "No. It's weird, but when the Pullulus first began to occur, it was the Lone Power Itself that stopped it." Nita found that bizarre. "Something too dangerous for even It to manage?" Ronan shook his head. "I used to think I knew My brother's mind," said the Champion with Ronan's voice, "but that issue was never clear to Me or any of the other Powers. Whatever, this perversion of dark matter hasn't been seen since. To see it again now… I find that troubling." "Troubling" didn't come close to describing Nita's feelings. "I am really not wild about the idea of sleeping here," Nita said. She looked down at Ponch. "Couldn't you walk us a little way, just enough to get us out of here?" I'm tired, Ponch said. And he lay down and put his head down on his paws, though Nita saw him watching the sky with an expression of concern. Nita let out an annoyed breath. "Look, we've got our pup tents," Kit said. "We'll be comfortable enough for a few hours." Nita nodded. "Yeah," she said. "Right." No point in making a scene about it. I'll cope. Sker'ret and Filif came over to them, getting out their pup-tent interfaces. Sker'ret reared up on his rearmost legs, hung the silvery rod of the spell interface on the empty air, and pulled on the little string of characters in the Speech that hung down from the rod. A subtle shimmer of wizardry a few feet wide followed it down, like a roller shade following its pull cord. Sker'ret "fastened" down the spell-surface that acted as gateway to the room-sized pocket of space, waggled a few eyes at Nita and Kit, and poured himself inside, vanishing. Past him, Filif was doing the same; he slid in through his own doorway and was gone. Nita let out a long breath. "Ronan?" she said. He shook his head. "I'm okay," he said. "My partner's got energy to spare. We'll stand guard." Nita set up her own pup tent, then glanced at that awful unstarred sky again. For some time now she had been getting into the habit of trusting her hunches, and her hunch right now was to be worried. What's going on back home? she thought. What's going on with Daddy? And Tom and Carl? And Dairine, what's she getting into? Is she under a sky like this someplace? And is she as freaked out as I am? Nita stepped into her pup tent and looked around, checking out the space that had become her home away from home while she and Kit had been away before. Everything was as it should be. There were a few pieces of spare furniture from home-a TV table and a spare desk chair, along with a beat-up old sofa that had been down in the basement until her dad had it recovered and suggested she move it into the pup tent; over the back of the sofa, a multicolored wool throw that her mom had crocheted a few years back; off to one side, some boxes of dry snacks and cereal, some six-packs of fruit drinks and mineral water. A pile of books to read at bedtime, some notebooks and assorted school supplies. It all should have been very comforting… except it wasn't. She couldn't get rid of the image of the darkness outside. Then suddenly Nita got angry. / may be freaked, but I'm not going to just roll over and let the fear run the way I act! She turned around and put her head out through the interface again, staring defiantly up at that evil sky. Above her, the dark Pullulus seethed and heaved against itself, blocking away the stars. Looking at it a second time didn't make it any easier. It probably isn't ever going to be easy, Nita thought. And I don't care. She glanced to one side and saw Kit leaning out through his own pup-tent interface. Past him, Ronan stood leaning on the Spear, looking up at the darkness. He, too, turned his gaze away from it now, looking at Nita. "You, too, huh?" Kit said. Nita looked at him for a moment, then gave him a quick, angry smile, and vanished back into her own space… feeling, once again, not quite so alone. High –Value Target Dairine became conscious that she was lying curled up on a chill, smooth surface. She then became conscious that she had been unconscious, and had no idea for how long. Obmygosh, the shields! she thought. But as she took an involuntary breath, she realized that the force field protecting her and Roshaun was running exactly as it should. Otherwise, the two of them would have been freezing cold, not to mention smothering in a next-to-nothing hydrogen atmosphere. She opened her eyes and blinked to get focus. The only thing to be seen at the moment was the ground on which she lay: almost perfectly smooth and flat, shining like a polished floor, softly dappled with subdued shades of gold and rust underneath the slick surface. Well, we're where we ought to be, Dairine thought. But how come every time I arrive here, I do it flat on my face? glory. "We seemed to be in that one for… quite a long time. How long?" Dairine glanced at her watch. It said eight thirty, but she'd forgotten to set it to handle gating-transit time, and now its second hand wasn't moving. "I've got to reconfigure this thing," she said. "I'll get a reading off Spot and let you know in a while." "How far from your own world is this one?" "At least forty trillion light-years," Dairine said. "Maybe more, but I've never done the math. I don't know about you, but when I start getting into the trillions, I find that forty and forty-five look pretty much alike." Roshaun stared at her in shock. "Then we are over our universe's event horizon," he said softly. "That galaxy there… and the one we're in now… would have intrinsic velocities faster than light. As far as our home galaxy is concerned, this place doesn't even exist." "You got it," Dairine said. "And for people here, our galaxy doesn't exist. Except they know it does, because I came from there." She stood up cautiously. Despite the size of the planet, the gravity here was less than that of Earth; the effect was like being on Mars, and left you light enough to bounce if you weren't careful. Roshaun looked around at the curious surface-slick as glass and dappled with faint drifts of color buried under the perfectly level surface. Here and there across the surface were scattered various sharp cone shapes. "Volcanic," Roshaun said. "Yeah," Dairine said. "The volcanoes laid down the surface structure, all these layers of silicon and trace el ements. It goes down for miles; the whole place is one big computer chip. But it's a lot quieter now than I remember it." "Quieter" had more than one meaning, for the place to which she and Roshaun had transited had been the birthplace of the mobile species, the scene of the end of her Ordeal, and the site of a battle that had cratered or reduced to slag a deal of the surrounding real estate. Those craters remained, as did glass heaped and humped by the terrible forces that had melted it and spattered it for miles around. Elsewhere, the surface looked much as it had when she had first arrived-like the surface of a gigantic billiard ball, except where the cones of the ancient volcanoes pointed at the sky. And it was as empty. Dairine looked around in vain for any sign of a welcoming committee. Roshaun had turned his attention to the planet's star. "There's something odd about the primary's flare pattern." "Wouldn't be surprised," Dairine said. "I chucked a black hole into it." Roshaun put his eyebrows up. "Stars in your neighborhood seem to have a rough time of it." "If ours acts weird, talk to Nita," Dairine said, rather annoyed. "First time it went out was on her watch." Roshaun slipped out of the gauzy overrobe he had been wearing on Wellakh and folded it up. "You know quite well the Isolate was to blame," he said, reaching sideways for access to the space pocket in which he stored things while on the road. He stuffed his formal overrobe into the claudication's opening, then came out with that oversized T-shirt of Carmela's again, and slipped into it. "That brief snuffing may be the cause of your star's recent instability." Dairine got up, too. "Well, I still want to know why when the Sun was talking to us, I couldn't understand what it was saying, even though we were all working in the Speech." Roshaun shook his head. "The situations we have been dealing with have been unusual for all of us," he said. "And you were under considerable strain. If you-" "Are you saying I couldn't cope with the stress?" Dairine said. "I seem to remember that you-" Then she stopped, seeing his expression. "Sorry," Dairine said, turning away. "Sorry. Why do I have to bite you every time you say something that might be useful?" Very quietly, Roshaun said, "When you find out, do let me know. It's information I might find useful as well." Dairine let out a breath and looked around. "But where is everybody? I don't get it; this is where I saw them last." She turned, scanning that impossibly distant horizon. In all that huge space, nothing moved. Dairine let out a long breath and got ready to drop to her knees and get in closer circuit with the Motherboard, to send a message she hadn't thought she of all people would have had to send: Hey, guys, I'm here. Anybody home? "Wait," Roshaun said. "What is that?" Dairine turned to look. A single small shape came Jily toward them across the pale, pink-glazed sur– of the world, light from the whirlpool of stars lancing off its shiny shell. It was apparently just a hemisphere about half a meter wide, scooting along the floor of the world like a windup toy-the impression made that much stronger because of the movement of all the little legs around its outer edges. The dome was a pale translucent white, striated in cross section with thin bands and layers of many colors. And it glowed as if between some of the layers a faint light burned, illuminating the layers above and below like moonlight through stained glass. Dairine grinned and took off at a trot toward the little scurrying shape, being careful about the gravity. Shortly the leading edge of the bubble of air she took with her "ran over" the little approaching dome; and the instant it did, the dome began to decelerate, looking at her with many-lensed eyes that bubbled out in a breath's time on its forward surface. "With?" it said in the Speech, and then burst out laughing. Dairine skidded to a stop, laughing, too, at the reminder of the first thing this mobile, or any other, had said to her. She reached down, picked him up, and swung him around. "Gigo!" "As always," the mobile said, wiggling his legs a little, and exuding the same innocent pleasure that had been his specialty since he was born. "Dairine, it's good to have you back in the flesh!" "Sorry it took so long," she said, feeling guilty. "It wasn't easy to come, right after my Ordeal. There was a lot to do. And then my power levels changed…" "We know," Gigo said. "But you had business to do closer to home. And not even at power levels like your first ones would it be easy for a wizard to come all this way out to the Edge of Things, especially just to be social! It doesn't matter. We knew you'd come back when you could." She hugged Gigo again. "You always were good at understanding," Dairine said, putting him down. "Look, I brought a friend. Roshaun-" Roshaun slipped into Dairine's air bubble and paused to gaze down at the mobile. "We know him very well," Gigo said. "We looked at him through you a long time ago. Sunlord, you're welcome." Roshaun bowed. "An honor, Designate," he said. "And well met on our common journey." "You are, indeed," Gigo said. "And here is our oldest colleague." Spot came ambling along. Gigo stepped over to him, and the two of them paused, shell to laptop case, silent for a moment while they communed. "Dataaaaaa…," Spot said under his breath. "The breath of life," Gigo said. "We'll be trading a lot more of that. Dairine, come on, there's much to do." "Yeah," she said, and glanced around. "Where is everybody?" Gigo looked around as if confused. "Where is-" And then he laughed. "Oh, they wouldn't have come herel This is the birthplace, where we began. We try to keep ^ as lt was' the wa^ you ^? witn times one-" And ^g Undersurface of the ground under their feet abruptly flashed out of translucence into imagery, coming alive with a vast glowing image of the surface of the Sea of Tranquillity, and the place where the first lunar module had landed. The four of them seemed to stand in the middle of one corrugation of a single immense boot-print pressed into the powdery dust. Dairine broke up laughing. "Wow!" she said, turning right around to see how far the imagery effect went; it flooded straight out to the horizon. "What have you guys been doing to this place?" "Remaking it in our image," Gigo said. "Though we're still working out just what that is." "Okay. Where do we go from here?" "Oh, we don't have to go anywhere," Gigo said. The boot-print flickered out, to be replaced by a sudden tide of multicolored light that rushed away in all directions, tracing a myriad of glowing lines and curves under the glassy surface-the outlines of geometrical figures, and deeper down the three-dimensional shapes of solids; spheres and cubes and hypercubes, interlocking, interacting in sizzling bursts of light that were also words and characters in the Speech. Roshaun looked out across the spreading plain of light and let out another long breath of astonishment. "This is all one great spell diagram," he said, as the patterning fled toward the horizons, and past them. "The whole planet!" Gigo grew a ball-jointed handling arm and gestured off toward one side. There, amid the lines of light, an empty circle grew: a gating nexus. "If you'll stand over here-" Dairine and Roshaun and Spot made their way over stepped over the boundary, and stood inside. "At least this worldgating won't make me feel like the last one," she said to Gigo. "Almost certainly not," Gigo said. And to Dairine's astonishment, the circle started to slide across the vast spell diagram as a mobile inclusion, skating across it the way a drop of water scoots across a hot frying pan. The rest of the spell slid and slipped around it, letting the circle pass. Slowly it began to accelerate, and the spell diagram around them poured past more and more quickly until it was one great multicolored blur. Dairine kept wanting to brace herself against something as the acceleration increased, but there was nothing to hold on to-and there didn't seem to be any need to brace. Though the glowing spell diagram landscape slid more and more quickly past, she and Roshaun and Spot and Gigo might have been standing perfectly still in the middle of the plain. "Are you guys messing around with inertia somehow?" Dairine said to Gigo. She got the sense that Gigo was grinning. "For transits like this," he said, "we temporarily rewrite the kernel that manages local gravity and mass in our solar system. It's no big deal." "Oh, listen to you," Dairine said, and snickered. "'No big deal.'" "They certainly take after you," Roshaun said. "I'd like to think it's mutual," Dairine said. Certinly for a while after she'd come back from her Ordeal she'd often awakened in the middle of the night and not been quite certain whether she was human or machine anymore-mortal creature or living manual. To find herself looking at her bedroom ceiling, and not this remote and spectacular sky, had sometimes come as a shock to a mind still filled with the glowing afterimages of spells being built faster than any human being could think. Now here was the concrete reality behind the images, spreading itself out before her-a world of true computer wizards, already evolved far past anything she would have had the brains to create, and still evolving at speeds Dairine couldn't grasp, mired as she was in the kind of thoughtspeed mandated by a brain made of carbon compounds and water. Any comparison between the mobiles and me has got to be flattering. Or it will be later, assuming we can all figure out something to help us have there be a later. Ahead of the transit circle, something poked up above the horizon. At first Dairine thought it was more volcanoes. But these shapes were more regular than volcanoes, far more pointed, and much too tall. As the transit circle shot toward them, Dairine realized that she was looking at huge needlelike towers, all of the same glossy silicon as the planet's surface. No tower on Earth could have been so tall; only the low gravity here made such buildings possible… along with a little magic. The towers glittered where the setting red sun's light caught them, high up, and every one was etched with the white fire of wizardry in endless moving patterns of words in the Speech and symbols from spell diagrams. The place was one huge wizardry endlessly in progress, the typical shimmer of a working spell wavering around every tower like a halo of pale fire. The whole vast interlinked structure hummed with a faint vibration, its own version of the silence that leaned in around a wizardry as you said the words of the spell in the Speech. But here, Dairine knew, the words were being spoken by the planet's interlinked machine intelligences faster than any noncomputer being could utter them. Working in "quicklife" time, thousands of times faster than any Earthbound computer, the intricacy of the mobiles' spells would be far beyond anything a human wizard could ever live long enough to construct. At the thought, Dairine's heart leaped; it was the first time she'd dared to feel real hope in their present situation. If anybody can help us find a way to stop the darkness, she thought, it's these guys. The towers just kept rearing up and up, and time and time again Dairine had to readjust her sense of scale. Part of the problem was the planet's size; it was bigger than Earth, and the more distant look of the horizon played tricks on her. But as the transit circle drew closer to the towers, and their bases proved to be as wide as the base of the Empire State Building but their peaks more than four times as tall, Dairine gave up trying to work out from moment to moment how big things were. Just really, really big, she thought. My guys have been busy! As she looked ahead and the transit circle started slowing down, it seemed to Dairine that the ground at the feet of the towers was darker than elsewhere. They got closer, and the effect started to look strangely granular– And then Dairine saw what was causing it, and her mouth went dry. The diagram was exactly as it had been all the way across the planet's surface. The difference here was that it was obscured by the bodies of shifting mobiles-thousands of them; hundreds of thousands of them. Maybe millions… The transit circle slowed; the obscuring shapes became more distinct as they approached the edge of the central ring of towers. Crowded around the towers' bases were many shapes that Dairine had invented– mobiles with all kinds of manipulating devices and oculars, sporting locomotors of every kind, from legs to wheels to treads. But there were also countless new shapes more involved and outre than anything she could have thought of. The transit circle slipped between two of the towers, heading for the center of the mile-wide ring of spires. The waiting mobiles concentrated in that great space drew aside to let it pass, a great crowd of tall slim shapes like trees of glass, low broad mobiles like domes or cylinders, all glittering with reflected wizard-fire. "Just look at all of you," Dairine said to Gigo, astonished. "You said that we should make more of ourselves to share the world with," Gigo said. "So, after you left, we did." She shook her head. "I wouldn't have thought you could find enough energy to do all this." "We've found other ways to draw power since you went away," Gigo said. "We found out how to sink wizardly conduits into alternate spaces empty of anything but physical energy. Now we have power that never runs out, and we've passed the conduit technology back to the Powers That Be." The tremendous crowd of mobiles gathered close around the transit circle. Dairine couldn't see past the first few layers of surrounding mobiles, but through her contact with the surface she could feel the building wave of emotion running back and forth through the substrate that connected them all. The mobiles were as afraid of the building darkness as she was; they had seen it growing for what seemed like far longer. They were as angry as she was about what that darkness was doing. But they were also filled with resolve, and a strange joyful certainty of success that had roots in nothing but the fact that Dairine was there. "Welcome!" they all shouted, with voices, or silently, through the Motherboard: "Welcome, Mother, welcome, Creator, welcome here, welcome homel" Dairine started to fill up with tears, and didn't care. Out here on the fringes of this universe's life, at the edge of the longest night of all, the mobiles she had created had made themselves into a lighthouse in the dark-the most distant home of wizardry, and possibly the most powerful. She scrubbed her eyes dry and stood up straight. Beside her, Roshaun looked out across the tremendous crowd. And here I was telling you how to behave like a monarch, he said silently. Perhaps I spoke out of turn. Familiar shapes pressed in out of the crowd toward her and Roshaun and Spot and Gigo-mobiles Dairine had designed herself, seen born from the planet's crust, and named. Tall mobiles and short ones, fat round ones and low flat ones all crowded around. Some she knew instantly, from a distance. One was a tall gangly design that had always reminded her of a stork. "Beanpole!" she yelled, and grabbed him… and then the shorter mobile behind him, all arms and lenses. "Hex! Oh, and Pinout, look at you!" And behind Pinout came Loop and Sulu and Storm and Truman and Augusta, String and Strikeout and Drive and Buffer and Peek and Poke… a crowd of mobiles through whom Dairine made her way, hugging them one after another until she felt like her front was one big bruise. Last of all came one of the smallest and plainest of the mobile models, just a dome with legs. It stood in front of Dairine, looking up almost shyly. It was Logo. Dairine picked him up and hugged Logo with her eyes squeezed shut. The sight of him brought her Ordeal back in unusual clarity-a long, cold, nerve– racking time full of impromptu bologna sandwiches and the gleam of that red sun on the pale glass of the plain, the glitter of the plain as it shattered under the upward-heaving bodies of the newborn mobiles, the darkness that fell over them all as the Lone Power arrived to interfere in yet another species' Choice. But the darkness had a completely different feel to it now. She put him down after a moment. "You're okay," Dairine said. "And so are you," said Logo. "I was worried. You all by yourself, back on that little world, with nothing around you but slowlife." Dairine smiled. "It's all right," she said. "Slowlife has a good side." She glanced over at Roshaun, and then looked around for a place to sit as the transit circle faded into the smooth glassy surface. Immediately next to her, and so suddenly that it made Dairine jump, the ground grew a chair. Dairine bumped into Roshaun; he steadied her. "That was interesting," he said, examining the chair, a sleek one– piece construction with a Danish-modern look to it. "No kidding," Dairine said, getting her balance back and bending over to have a closer look at the chair. It was banded with the usual striations of the planetary subsurface, and these had many faint layers of glow between them, like the mobiles. She glanced over at Gigo. "Does the world usually do this kind of thing since you started working on it?" "Normally it requires more provocation," Gigo said as Dairine sat down on the chair. "We've tailored it from the first to be responsive to desire. But until recently, you had to elucidate the desire first. These days the substrate's been anticipating us." "The power increase," Roshaun said. "That's right. We're still mastering it. Here comes the imaging team-" Several mobiles who'd been standing around now moved off to one side or another, and about twenty others, of all shapes and sizes, appeared scattered among them. "Like any other wizards, we all have specialties," Gigo said. "But some of us enjoy working in teams, and the imaging team is one of the oldest. They started work shortly after you left; now there are more than eighty thousand of them scattered around the planet. These are the team leaders: Cam, Mikhail, Strontium, Bunny-" "It's great to meet all of you," Dairine said. "What have you been looking at?" "Everything," said Cam. Roshaun raised his eyebrows, looking skeptical. "That must take up a great deal of your time." Dairine just grinned. "You don't get it, Roshaun," she said. "They don't just mean all kinds of things, or everything they have time for. They mean everything." "The more we became able to see," Logo said, "the more we realized how we could be most useful. We decided we could store all the knowledge in the physical universe if we could just see it, find the places where it's stored, learn how to read what's written in every kind of information storage-everything from the heart on out. That's what we do here, out at the edge. That's our purpose." Dairine could only shake her head at the size of the vision. "Guys," she said after a moment, "you make me proud." "That is our other purpose," Beanpole said. "Our first one." Delight and embarrassment left Dairine briefly speechless. Roshaun eyed her, amused. "Cousin," he said, "would the technologies make any sense to me?" "Some might," said Strontium, a low, domelike mobile whose whole surface was a pattern of lenses and mechanical eyes. "One is an in-matter viewing routine that lets us look out of the heart of any 'light– matter' object from an atom to a star if we know its coordinates." "What about the dark matter?" Roshaun said. "Long ago we tried using it for the same purposes," Beanpole said. "Why not make use of something there's so much of? But it couldn't be spoken to until recently. Now something has spoken a word to it that we never could. Now it's alive… but also hostile to life. It won't stop its expansion until it's destroyed every living thing, across the worlds." "Our local wizards tried to stop it," Dairine said, "and couldn't." "We tried, too," Gigo said. "We enacted a few local reversals, but the effect always reasserted itself more quickly every time. We realized we were teaching the dark matter how to expand faster, so we stopped wasting time with the symptoms and started hunting for the cause." "And now that you're here," Gigo said to Dairine, "we'll shortly find it." Dairine swallowed as she looked around at them all, gazing at her in such certainty. They scared her worse than Roshaun's people had-for they were all expecting the Mother of their Species to come up with the good idea that would save the universe. "Let's take this one step at a time," Dairine said. "Or start with a smaller problem first, and warm up. Spot-" "I am not the problem," Spot said. "I'm the solution." Spot sounded more alive than he had until now. Beanpole looked at Dairine. "You've been in circuit with the Motherboard for only a little while," he said, "and already you're hearing us more clearly. As for Spot, we've been reprogramming him ever since he got here." "I asked for it," Spot said to Dairine. "It was time for an upgrade. The ones you've been giving me have been all right; you've been doing the best you can. But there was something missing." "And something extra," Beanpole said. "He's been carrying data he hasn't been able to process." "What?" Dairine said. "Where'd it come from?" "Spot's been in contact with an avatar of the Defender," Hex said. "For some time, information seems to have been passing between him and the power inside your colleague Ronan that couldn't have been parsed or detected by slowlife… not even slowlife as talented as our mother." He bowed to Dairine, projecting an air of embarrassment. "And Spot hasn't had the routines to parse it, either." "Hex, listen," Dairine said, "it's no big deal. Life's all the time sending me messages I can't read." She flicked just a second's glance at Roshaun, who she was starting to think was yet another of those messages. "I'm glad to hear you say that," Logo said, "because you, too, are carrying information of this kind." Dairine's mouth dropped open. "What?" "The One's Champion has also used you as a courier," Beanpole said. "For what, we can't tell as yet; we must get you more securely into circuit with the Motherboard." What's he stuck inside me? Dairine wondered, starting to feel twitchy. "You guys can help us get at this data and make sense of it?" "Yes," Gigo said. "Good," Dairine said. "Then let's do it." Roshaun looked dubious. "You would think that the other Powers would simply communicate all of what they knew to the Winged Defender, so that straightforward action could be taken." Dairine shook her head. "Security," she said. Beanpole swayed from side to side in a gesture of agreement. "To give all the information in the clear to any one being," he said to Roshaun, "would ensure that the Lone One would know all about it in a matter of days. But if you split it up and give only parts of it to those who need to know, and let them pursue the material separately…" "Everyone gets together and completes the puzzle," Dairine said. "And if one of us is betrayed somehow, the rest of the information has a chance of staying safe." Nita's recent run-in with a wizard who had been overshadowed by the Lone One had left Dairine badly haken, for until then, the idea that wizards were absolutely to be trusted had seemed something that you could always depend on. But life wasn't as simple as it had once seemed. "What we're doing here is safe as well," Beanpole said. "The One's Champion was here briefly in the direct mode during your Ordeal and our Choice. It's still here, integrated into the Motherboard in a format like an avatar, but less covert. It has the same power to protect us from being overheard as Ronan's version of the Defender does. We can pursue our search for the Instrumentality without fear." "Okay," Dairine said. "How are you going to get what you need from Spot?" "They've already got it," Spot said. Dairine's eyes widened a little at the sound of his voice. It sounded even more alive than when he'd last spoken. "The two of you needed to be here physically to make the transfer safely," Logo said. "Now we can finish our preparations. We have to lay your personal information into the finding spell we've been constructing; that data has changed significantly since you came here first, and there have been other alterations." He glanced at Spot, who hunched down a little as if the attention somehow unnerved him. "Brother, come with us and we'll get you up to full speed again. Mother-" They all bowed to her. Dairine rolled her eyes. "Guys," she said, "give me a break. We're all just wizards together, here." "Of course," said Gigo and Logo and Beanpole together… but they were humoring her. The three of them and Spot vanished into the crowd of mobiles who now mostly settled down onto the surface and sat quietly. The stillness was an illusion. Dairine felt the tempo of their communication with and through the Motherboard increasing by the moment. "You look concerned," Roshaun said from behind her. Dairine scowled over her shoulder at him. "The whole universe is in danger," she said, "and we're not sure how to save it, assuming it can be saved. One of the Powers That Be has stuffed secret messages into my brain without telling me. And a friend of mine who happens to be my wizard's manual is being reprogrammed with software that even these guys haven't had time to beta test! Wow, Roshaun, why would I need to be concerned?" Roshaun glanced at the ground. Another chair grew up for him, a slight distance from Dairine's. He lowered himself into it, stretching his legs out with a sigh. "Sarcasm," he said. "Amusing, if ineffective." He leaned back, looking up at the golden glow of the rising barred– spiral galaxy, reached under his baggy T-shirt, and came out with a lollipop. "At least if the universe does end in the next month," Dairine muttered, "your teeth won't have had time to rot." Roshaun raised his eyebrows and produced another lollipop, which he held out to her. "How many of those things do you have?" Dairine said. "Not nearly enough," Roshaun said. ^J^