Authors: Diane Duane
Kit and Ponch made their way past the stucco koi pond toward the sliding porch doors, Ponch shaking his head emphatically. “Are your ears bothering you?” Kit said, as the sound of barking came from further inside the house.
“Sorry. I’ll have a look at the spell later.” Kit pushed the patio door to one side and went into Tom’s dining room. That space flowed into the living room area, where Tom’s desk sat in a corner, past the sofas and the entertainment center. But at the moment all the action was in the kitchen, off to the left, where big, dark-haired Carl, Tom’s fellow Advisory wizard, was doing something to the strip lighting that ran below the upper kitchen cupboards. Tom was leaning against the refrigerator, holding a cup of coffee, with the expression of a man who wants nothing to do with whatever’s happening.
“Hi, Kit,” he said, as Ponch ran through the kitchen and out the other side, heading toward the bedrooms, where the sheepdogs Annie and Monty were barking at something. “Something to drink? Just got some orange smoothies in…”
“Yeah, thanks.” Kit sat down at the table and watched Carl, who was bent over sideways under the upper cupboards and making faces.
“I told him to call an expert,” Tom said as he fished a carton of pre-mixed smoothie out of the fridge and a glass out of a cupboard by the sink, and having poured it full sat down with Kit at the dining room table, where a number of volumes of the Senior version of the wizard’s manual were piled up.
“We’re expert enough to change the laws of physics temporarily,” Carl muttered. “How hard can wiring be?”
all the lights in the house went out.
Carl moaned. Kit could just see Tom make a flicking motion with one finger at the circuit-breaker box near the kitchen door, and the lights came back on again. “You should stick to physics,” Tom said.
“Just one more time,” Carl said, and went down the stairs to the basement.
“This will be the sixth ‘one more time’ in the past two hours,” Tom said. “I’m hoping he’ll see sense before he blows up the transformer at the end of the street. Or maybe the local power station.”
that!” said the voice from the basement.
Kit snickered, but not too loudly.
“Anyway,” Tom said, “thanks for coming over. Briefly, one of our wizards is missing, and I’d like you to look into it.”
This was a new one on Kit. “Missing? Anybody I know?”
“Hard for me to tell. Here’s the listing.” Tom pulled down the topmost manual and opened it; the pages riffled themselves to a spot he had bookmarked. It was a page in the master wizards’ address listing for the New York area, and one block of information glowed a soft rose. Kit leaned over to look at it. In the Speech, it said:
18355 Hempstead Turnpike
Baldwin, NY 11568
power rating: 5.6 +/- .3
status: on Ordeal
duration to present date: 90.3
Kit stared at the duration figure for a moment: there was something wrong with it. “That doesn’t look right,” he said at last. “Did a decimal point get misplaced or something? That looks like months.”
months,” Tom said. “Just a whisker over three, which is why it came up for attention today. The manual normally flags such extended Ordeals to be audited by a Senior.”
“I thought nobody was allowed to interfere with a wizard’s Ordeal,” Kit said. “It’s what determines whether you ought to be a wizard in the first place. Whether you can run into the Lone Power and survive…”
“Normally that’s true,” Tom said. “But Ordeals aren’t always so clear-cut; they do sometimes go wrong. A resolution can get delayed somehow, or there can be local interference that keeps the resolution from happening. An area’s Seniors are allowed a certain amount of information about Ordeals among probationary wizards who’d be in their catchment area if things went right, especially if something goes wrong in a specific sort of way—a stuck Ordeal, or a contaminated one. We have some latitude to step in and try to kick that Ordeal back into operation again. While interfering as little as possible.”
Kit nodded, glancing to one side as Carl came up from the basement with a very large roll of duct tape. “Ah,” Tom said. “The substance that binds the universe together.”
“We’ll see,” Carl said, and bent himself over sideways again.
“It’s a brute force solution,” Tom said. “Inelegant. The phone’s right there!”
Carl ignored him and started doing something with the duct tape.
“So now we come to this kid,” Tom said, indicating the highlighted listing again.
went the circuit breaker, and the house went dark again; only the text on the page in front of them continued to glow, while in the back bedroom the dogs paused, then went on barking. Tom gestured once more at the breaker box, and the lights came on. “It’s not like he’s been physically absent from the area for all this time, as far as I can tell,” Tom said. “If he were, certainly there’d have been something about it in the news; there’s been nothing. But at the same time, this isn’t a normal duration for a human Ordeal. We need to find out what’s going on, but quietly. Do you or Nita know him well enough to look in on him and see what’s happening? Or do you know anyone who does?”
Kit shook his head. “I can check with Neets, but she’s sure never mentioned him to me,” Kit said. “Why bring me in on this, though? You’re a Senior; you’d probably be able to tell a lot better than I can what’s going on with him.”
“Well,” Tom said, “let’s put it this way. How come you chose to do a direct transit here rather than just walk over and knock on the front door?”
Kit was briefly surprised that Tom would bother asking so obvious a question. “It’s not exactly like you’ve got any kids of your own,” he said. “And if the neighbors keep seeing kids wandering in and out of here every five minutes—”
“Say no more,” Tom said. “We’re on the same wavelength. It’s just another facet of the way wizards have to behave in our culture. Attracting attention to yourself is usually unwise. In this particular situation, if people start noticing
in the neighborhood around the object of our mutual interest, they won’t think too much about it—it’s not far enough from your own stamping grounds to provoke suspicion. Whereas if Carl or I went to investigate personally, notice might be taken. This kind of initial fact-finding is better suited to a wizard of your age.”
“Besides,” Carl said, peering up at the bottom of the cupboard, “lately you’ve been evincing a certain talent for finding things.”
“Well, Ponch has,” Kit said.
“I’m not sure he’d be producing these results without you as part of the team,” Carl said, as he applied duct tape liberally to the cupboard’s underside. “Let’s not get overly tangled up in details at the moment.”
“From a man in your position, that has a hollow ring,” Tom said.
“Sure, go ahead, mock me in my torment.”
“Anyway, are you willing?” Tom said. “To go over there during the next couple of days? See what the kid’s doing, physically, talk to him if you can, try to get a sense of what his state of mind is.”
“Sure,” Kit said. “Am I allowed to tell him I’m a wizard, if he asks?”
“I’ll leave that up to you,” Tom said. “Normally I would suggest you try to avoid it if possible. You don’t want to take the chance of altering his perception of his Ordeal, maybe even making him think you’re supposed to be involved in it somehow. But if you can come by any sense of why his Ordeal’s taking him so long, I’d be glad to hear it.”
Carl straightened up. “Okay,” he said. The strip lights under the cupboards were now actually on. He looked at the light they cast on the counter with some satisfaction. “At least now I’m going to be able to see what I’m cooking without getting blinded.” He went over to the wall, turned the dimmer switch.
“I could stop by the supermarket on the way home and get you some candles,” Kit said as he got up. “Fire still works.”
“Very funny,” Carl said. “I hope that someday, when duct tape is sticking to
“Kit,” Tom said, “ignore the whimpering from the sidelines for the moment… You just be careful not to get sucked in, all right? This youngster may seem very, very stuck when you meet him, and you’ve got to resist the temptation to give him help he doesn’t need. You could end up endangering yourself, not to mention altering the focus of his Ordeal… which could make him fail it. Or worse.”
“I’ll watch out.”
“Okay. Go see what you can find out. You may want to leave your manual on record when you’re talking to him; it may pick up some nuance that you miss at first.” He paused. “Listen to that,” he said.
Kit listened, puzzled. “I don’t hear anything.”
“What the master of sarcasm over there means is that the dogs have stopped barking,” Carl said. “They’ve been having some kind of metaphysical discussion for days now. And they’re loud about it.”
“Have they been asking you about the meaning of life?” Kit said.
Both Tom and Carl gave Kit a look. “Uh, yes,” Tom said.
Kit covered his face. “It’s my fault,” he said. “A new kind of blackmail, and I know where they got it. They probably want dog biscuits.”
“New tactic,” Tom said wearily, getting up. “Old problem. I’ll bear it in mind.”
Ponch came lolloping back into the dining room. Kit got up, too. “I’ll get in touch as soon as I find anything out,” Kit said, opening the patio door to let Ponch out.
“Thanks, fella,” Tom said. “
“Yeah, you go well, too. Well enough not to electrocute somebody, anyway!”
Kit and Ponch headed back the way they’d come, Kit pausing briefly in Tom’s backyard with the spell-chain in his hands to adjust the variable that determined how much and how fast the air displaced around their transiting mass when they “came out of nowhere.” Ponch was bouncing up and down around him, making it difficult for Kit to remember where in the structure of the spell the variable actually was. “Would you sit
” he said under his breath to Ponch, while passing the softly glowing chain of words through his hands until the little barbed bit sticking out from the variable scratched his skin. Kit held the word up in front of his eyes, squinting at it like someone threading a needle, and managed to catch the delicate outward-hooked tail of the spell character between finger and thumb.
Ponch was shouting in his head.
Hurry up! It’s chicken!
“And philosophy goes right out the window, huh?” Kit said as he twiddled the mass-displacement variable; it shaded down from a bright blue to a darker one. “You’re a bad influence on those guys, you know that?”
Me? Never. Chicken!
“Right,” Kit said, folding the variable’s tail back in and shaking the spell through a quick sine wave to unkink it. It fell smoothly to the ground and knotted itself. “Now sit down or you’re gonna wind up in two different places, and not in one piece!”
Ponch sat down but still managed to bounce a little. The spell flared up, its blue a little darker this time. A second later they were standing in Kit’s backyard again, without the ear-popping effect this time, and the light faded out of the spell.
“Better?” Kit said, winding the spell-chain up and sticking it back in his “pocket.”
It’s fine. I’m hungry!
Ponch shouted, and ran for the house.
Kit breathed out, feeling hungry, too, and tired. This, at least, had nothing to do with the emotional climate. No wizardry is without its price, and this was the normal reaction to a transit wizardry: a small but significant deduction from Kit’s personal energy supply. It was one of the reasons why, as they got older, a lot of wizards spent as much time as they could making sure they were in decent physical shape.
Kit went after Ponch and was surprised not to see his mama and pop eating in the kitchen, as they usually did. He wandered into the living room and found them there on the sofa. Kit’s pop was finishing the last of what must have been a second helping of
arroz con pollo,
watching the TV screen, while Kit’s mama sat next to him, cross-legged, punching the scan button on the remote and looking at the TV with an expression of extreme bemusement.
His father looked up. “Five billion channels and nothing on,” he said in a kind of horrified astonishment.
“Life in the real world,” Kit said, resigned, and headed to the kitchen to get himself a plate. “Believe me, just because a species is more scientifically advanced than us doesn’t mean its TV’s any better.”
His father absorbed this assessment with a thoughtful look. “Maybe I should find that reassuring. I’ll let you know. What did Tom have to say?”
“It’s complicated,” Kit said. “A missing persons case.”
likely to go missing?” his pop said.
“Not right away,” Kit said. “I have to do some detective work here first.”
“Oh, my god,” Kit’s mama said, “what are they
Anything that could so seriously gross out Kit’s mama, the nurse, was worth a look. Kit grabbed a plate and ducked back into the living room, looked at the writhing, thrashing, stridently colored image for a moment, then took the remote away from his mama and punched it for subtitles. “Oh, okay, thought so,” he said, reading them. “It’s a soap.”
“Not of any brand
recognize,” his mother said. She looked scandalized.
“It’s real basic, Mama,” Kit said. “Boy meets girl meets thing meets other thing. Boy loses girl loses other thing finds thing. Boy loses thing gets girl loses thing. Then thing gets thing. Happily ever after…” He tossed the remote back to his mother.
She fielded it badly as she studied the screen for any signs of boys or girls, and looked like she was having trouble finding any, though there were plenty of “things.” “Basic, you said?”
“Old, old story, Mama. You should see some of these guys’ literature. Shakespeare’d have loved it.” Kit considered that briefly: his lit class had been doing the late Shakespeare comedies, and suddenly a whole set of opportunities opened out before him. “Just imagine
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
with ten or twelve extra genders…”