Authors: Diane Duane
“Go on, Pirate,” Kit said. “Suffer a little. I’ll see you later.”
He made his way back to his locker, chucked his backpack into it, locked it up again, and headed out the school’s back door, jogging across the parking lot, through the gate, and around the corner onto Conlon Road.
Ponch was bouncing around in the backyard, jumping almost to the top of the chain-link fence, as Kit came down the driveway. “Okay, okay, give me a minute,” Kit said. He pulled the screen door open and poked the lock with one finger. “Hey, Chubbo…”
The lock obligingly threw its bolt back for him. Kit patted the lock, opened the door, loped into the kitchen, very hastily threw together a ham sandwich on rye with some mustard, and ate it. For his mother, who was still asleep because she had been working night shifts at the hospital over the past week, he left a note scribbled on the pad on the refrigerator: “I had lunch. See you later.” He thought of adding the code phrase “Out on business now” to let his mama know that there was wizardry work afoot, but then he changed his mind. He’d have no more than his lunch period minus the time to eat the sandwich before he would have to be back at school again, anyway.
Kit cleaned up the crumbs from his sandwich and went out, pulling the door softly closed behind him so as not to wake his mama. “See you, big guy,” Kit said to the lock. “Keep her safe.”
I’m on it!
He went around the back, opened the gate softly, and closed it again, grabbing Ponch by the collar and roughing him up a little by way of saying hello. “And you weren’t even barking,” Kit said. “Good for you.”
I don’t want her to yell at me.
“Neither do I. Good for you for thinking of it.”
Are we going out?!
Ponch began chasing his tail in delight.
“Just for a quick look at our guy. I want to see if he’s okay before I come barging in on him. We’re going to have to be stealthy, though.”
Ponch finished his running around and sat down, his tail sweeping the sparse grass while Kit reached into his “pocket” and came out with the long chain of his transit spell, and another spell, more complex, that he had prepared earlier. There were several different ways for wizards to be invisible, and this one was probably the most comprehensive of them: even if someone bumped up against Kit, the person would feel nothing, and the spell would incline him to think he’d just stumbled somehow. Building this spell had required half an hour’s careful reading from the manual at a time of morning when Kit would rather still have been in bed, followed by fifteen or twenty minutes on his back, as exhausted as if he’d run around the school track about ten times. But now, as he shook the cloaking spell out onto the air in a cloudy web of woven Speech, he had to admire his handiwork. The basic spellweb would last a good while, as long as he remembered to recharge it at intervals.
“Okay,” he said to Ponch. “You ready?”
“Good. Stay close to me. This thing’s only got about a six-foot radius.” He draped the invisibility spell over his shoulder for a moment, stuck the chain of the transit spell into the belt of his parka, and reached down into the “pocket” for his wizard’s manual.
“Now then,” Kit said. He flipped the manual open, and pages riffled to the spot he’d bookmarked. He ran a finger down the listing of functions on that page. “Location and detection… cross-reference to personnel listings… Right.” The locator spell blocked out on the page rearranged itself to include Darryl’s listing, and the listing itself pulsed to indicate that it was “in circuit” with the rest of the spell and ready to go.
“This is a temporal-spatial locator routine with sync to an existing transit nexus now balanced for two,” Kit said in the Speech. “Purpose: Locate and identify the wizard in the listing. Additional info: Linkage to stealth routine referenced on page…” He stopped and had to check his other bookmark, on the cloaking spell’s page, because the manual’s pagination was constantly changing, depending on Kit’s needs (and sometimes its own). “Three-eighty-nine. Ready?”
The whole spell pulsed bright on the page as he turned back to it. Slowly Kit started reading, making sure of his pronunciation, and that his and Ponch’s names were correctly entered. The usual waiting silence—of the universe leaning in around them to hear the Speech spoken, and implement it—now started to build. Ponch sat there with his big eyes glinting and his tail thumping as the power of the spell built all around them. Kit felt a brief pang because of the absence of the other voice that usually would have been there, reading her half of the work, but there was no time for the feeling right now. Kit finished the spell, snapped the manual shut, and in the moment before the spell worked, flipped the cloaking routine over himself and Ponch.
The power washed up over and around them, blotting out the backyard. A moment later, Kit and Ponch were standing in a parking lot two towns away, looking at another school building.
It was considerably smaller than Kit’s junior high, though this place shared the same kind of late-seventies institutional architecture: a lot of plate glass, a lot of brick. Kit looked around them through the slight heat-haze shimmer of the invisibility spell, keeping Ponch with him for the moment simply by holding on to his collar. The school was surrounded by suburban housing and, off to one side, what looked like the back of a strip mall; maybe about fifty cars were parked around the school. It had a small playing field, but nobody was out there.
Kit wasn’t overly concerned—even if anyone had been there, they wouldn’t have been able to see him and Ponch. Now the point was to find Darryl. The structure of the locator spell mandated that Darryl was somewhere within a two-hundred-meter radius: All Kit had to do was look around.
Two hundred meters,
could definitely include at least part of the school building.
He walked toward it, looking for any sign of the characteristic aura that would surround the object of his search once he got within visual range. Beside him, Ponch paced along, looking at everything, his nose working.
From around the side of the school, a white van drove toward the front entrance and pulled up. Kit gave the van a wide berth, having no desire to be run over by something that couldn’t see him. A moment later, the driver got out and went in through the front doors. Kit looked through the front windows of the school, found himself looking at office space, not classrooms. “Okay,” he said, “so we’ll go in. Don’t start barking at anything, whatever you do!”
Ponch said in a somewhat offended tone. Kit smiled in slight amusement as they headed for the doors. Once upon a time, his dog wouldn’t have been quite so focused during a wizardry, but lately, since Ponch had started actively finding things—like other universes—this had changed.
They went up to the doors together. These were all closed—no surprise, in this weather—and Kit was unwilling just to pull one of them open: someone might be watching.
Never mind. We can just walk through the
he thought. But then, through the glass of the door, Kit saw the van driver coming back toward them. “Okay,” Kit said softly to Ponch, “he can let us in. Just step back and don’t let him bump into you. We’ll slip past before the door closes behind him.”
The van driver, a small, slender man in a big parka, pushed the door open right in front of Kit’s nose, and then reached up to the closing mechanism to pull down the little toggle that would hold the door open.
Kit thought, and slipped through the door with Ponch close behind him.
In the main tile-and-terrazzo corridor of the school, a number of people were moving around; some of them were coming toward the doors—some students, Kit thought, heading for the van with a few teachers.
he wondered. Then Kit paused, for the locator spell said in his head,
Proximity alert—subject of search within fifty meters. Forty meters—
Kit thought. “Ponch, come on,” Kit whispered. “Over here—” Together they moved off to one side of the hallway as the group approached. Kit started examining them for signs of that faint, glowing halo.
There were five kids in the group. Three of them were girls of different ages, one quite short and round, the other two taller and thinner; they went by Kit in silence, not speaking to each other, though one of them was smiling a placid smile. Two teachers followed close behind, then came the two boys and a third teacher.
One was a thin, small, blond guy, who went past with a very uneven gait. But Kit’s attention was on the boy behind him. Visible only to Kit and Ponch, the locator halo clung to him. He was perhaps eleven years old, an African American kid with a handsome, sharp little face. He was slender, and was dressed in jeans and a bright T-shirt and beat-up sneakers. Handsome his face was, but also very still, almost immobile right now, and somehow tight, as if held under harsh control. His eyes seemed to be fixed on the van, and he went past Kit fast with his body leaned forward, breaking almost into a run as he headed through the doors out into the cold, gray day.
Kit turned and followed him back outside. The teachers helped the other kids into the van: Darryl was the last one in. One of the teachers was helping him with his seat belt. This took some moments. And while the teachers were sitting down, while the van driver came back to let the school door close again, Darryl began, very slowly and steadily, to bang his head against the window of the van.
Kit’s heart seized. Next to him, Ponch stood looking. The driver started up the van, and slowly drove away.
That was him,
“That was him,” Kit said softly.
But what’s the matter with him?
Though he thought perhaps he had a clue. The manual would be able to confirm it … now that Kit knew what kinds of questions he needed to ask.
“Did you get a scent on him?” Kit said.
Yes. I can find him again, wherever he goes. Even when he’s not here, like a few moments ago,
Kit gave his dog a look. “What? He was right in front of us.”
Some of him. Not all.
Ponch wasn’t given to making cryptic statements without reason: he was still developing the language skills to tell Kit what he was perceiving, and there were sometimes misunderstandings as a result. “Okay,” Kit said. “We’ll figure out what that means later. For the moment, at least we know what he looks like … and we can start making a plan to find a way to talk to him.”
If he can talk at all
He glanced at the timekeeper inside the front cover of the manual. “Come on,” Kit said. “I have to get back to school.”
And you have to feed me.
Normally Kit would have laughed at this, yet another of Ponch’s stratagems to get an extra meal. But the laughter had been knocked out of him by the unexpectedness of what he’d just seen.
Since when do the Powers That Be dump an autistic kid into an Ordeal?
“Come on,” Kit said to Ponch. They went home.
After school Kit went straight to Tom and Carl’s, the discreet way, to tell him what he’d found.
“Physically, he’s present all right… mostly,” Kit said, sitting at the table with Tom again. “Or so Ponch says. I’m still working on what he meant by that conditional description he gave me. But why didn’t the manual say anything about what else is going on with him?”
“Any number of reasons. Need-to-know restrictions, possibly,” Tom said. “Or it may not have been germane—wizardry’s hardly limited to the neurotypical. Or it may simply be the manual’s preference for letting you find some things out for yourself, rather than just telling you about it. That approach can keep you from prejudging a situation.” He paged through his own manual to Darryl’s entry. “Certainly it confirms that he definitely is an autistic: diagnosed after he was four, the manual says. But his ability to cope with his environment really seems to have gone downhill over the last six months or so, as if something in his life’s gotten a lot harder to deal with.”
“And his Ordeal hasn’t had anything to do with that? It’s been going on for three months…”
“I don’t think there’s any way for us to know for sure. For all I know, it could be the other way around.” Kit wasn’t sure what to make of that. “But because the manual doesn’t say anything further, it suggests that the Powers That Be don’t think we need any more detail on that particular facet of the situation. Or else They think that what you discover during investigation may be more valuable than what They already know.”
“It doesn’t seem fair somehow,” Kit said after a moment, trying to find words for what was making him so uncomfortable. “Why’s he been stuck in the middle of an Ordeal, on top of everything else that’s going on with him?”
Tom shook his head. “If he’s been offered wizardry, that means that there’s some problem to which
is the solution… so fairness doesn’t come into it. In whatever form was right for him, the Wizard’s Oath found its way to him, and he understood and accepted it. Our only business now is to find out how we can assist… without interfering with the basic challenge.”
Kit nodded. “It makes you wonder, though,” he said. “Is he going to be able to get through this all right?”
Tom sighed. “Kit, not all Ordeals are world-shaking events; at least, as seen from outside. Whatever struggle he’s caught up in, by definition he’ll have at least a fighting chance at winning through it; and it’ll be proportionate to his gifts… which may not seem obvious at first glance.
Kit made a face. “And if he seems unlikely as a candidate, well… think how often, because of our own preconceptions, we miss the obvious and it takes the people we assumed were unlikely to be of any help to get us back on the rails, or show us something we completely missed. ‘The stone rejected by the builder becomes the cornerstone.’” Tom got a wry look then. “Which happens way too often to be accidental. Is the universe trying to tell us something important about the way it works, I wonder? That sometimes even what we call fate has an element of unpredictability?”