Every eleven years, Earth’s senior wizards hold the Invitational: an intensive three-week event where the planet’s newest, sharpest young wizards show off their best and hottest spells. Wizardly partners Kit Rodriguez and Nita Callahan, and Nita’s sister, former wizard-prodigy Dairine Callahan, are drafted in to mentor two brilliant and difficult cases: for Nita and Kit, there’s Penn Shao-Feng, a would-be sun technician with a dangerous new take on managing solar weather; and for Dairine, there’s shy young Mehrnaz Farrahi, an Iranian wizard-girl trying to specialize in defusing earthquakes while struggling with a toxic extended wizardly family that demands she perform to their expectations.
Together they’re plunged into a whirlwind of cutthroat competition and ruthless judging. Penn’s egotistical attitude toward his mentors complicates matters as the pair tries to negotiate their burgeoning romance. Meanwhile, Dairine struggles to stabilize her hero-worshipping, insecure protégée against the interference of powerful relatives using her to further their own tangled agendas. When both candidates make it through to the finals stage on the dark side of the Moon, they and their mentors are flung into a final conflict that could change the solar system for the better . . . or damage Earth beyond even wizardly repair.
“Apprentices become teachers, friendships turn to romance, and long-simmering subplots achieve resolution in the 10th entry of this well-loved fantasy series . . . A delightful treat.”—Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
DIANE DUANE is the author of nearly fifty science fiction and fantasy novels, including ten books in the Young Wizards series. Four of her Star Trek novels have been New York Times bestsellers, including Spock's World. She lives with her husband in rural Ireland. Visit her online at www.DianeDuane.com and www.youngwizards.com.
Read an Excerpt
Kit Rodriguez lay sprawled in the gray dirt, staring in shock at the fire-blackened book that had just landed open side down in front of him. His stomach flip-flopped as he realized that very close by, another wizard lay dead.
Still smoking gently at its charred edges, the other wizard’s manual, a thick, beat-up paperback with a cracked spine, slowly started to vanish. Sheer horrified fascination made it hard for Kit to look away. Only when the manual had finished dissolving did he manage to swallow. His mouth was bone dry, not just because of all the dust flying around, and his heartbeat was hammering in his ears. It was amazing how loud your own heart sounded in these conditions, especially when it might shortly stop without warning.
Kit, you still with us? said a voice that sounded like it was speaking from inside his head.
“Uh, yeah,” Kit said under his breath. “Don’t think it’d be real smart to move right this minute. I’m pinned down.”
Lissa is too, said another voice. You’re below effective numbers now, Kit. We can pull you guys out of there—
“No chance,” Kit said. “Job’s not done yet! You think I’m leaving before we finish what Ritchie gave it all up for?”
The moment’s silence that followed was broken only by the shudder of the impacts hitting the ground around them. How many have we got moving now? said a voice from across the battlefield.
Nine of them, said another voice with a distinct twang to it. They’re right over the rim from you right now, so whatever you do, don’t—
A few hundred meters in front of him, an inward-arrowing glint of ferociously unfiltered sunlight flashed off the narrow shape of yet another of the nasty projectiles that had been making Kit’s life so interesting for the last ten minutes or so. Hurriedly Kit shoved his face down into the dirt again, and the incoming missile shot by right over his head, literally within a yard or so of his scalp. Under the circumstances he couldn’t feel it by air pressure, but its passage pushed his personal shield down harder onto his skull. This wasn’t the kind of sensation any wizard in his right mind took lightly, no matter how confident he was about his shielding—and Kit was a lot less confident about it than he’d been half an hour ago.
He held still, waiting for the explosion from behind him. For several long moments nothing happened. Then everything rocked. The ground beneath Kit rippled, shaking apart in chunks along spiderweb cracks as the blast wave from the missile’s explosion burst through it. In the wave’s wake, the air inside the larger bubble of Kit’s secondary shield instantly filled with kicked-up gray-white dust that obscured everything, as if he’d suddenly been teleported into the center of a frosted lightbulb. He concentrated on not breathing until the shaking stopped and the dust started to settle.
He didn’t answer right away, because he didn’t trust himself to breathe the air around him yet. After a few moments the dust had settled low enough for him to carefully put his head above the dust level. “I’m still here, it’s okay!” he said. “And no way am I moving! Not ready for Timeheart right this minute.” He gulped air and levered himself up on his elbows to look over the edge of rocks in front of him. There was little to see except more dust, kicked up low across the plain by dimly seen mechanical shapes. “What about Lissa? She was right behind me—”
I moved, said that lighter voice. Good thing, or I’d be where Ritchie is now. As usual, she sounded way too calm for what was going on around her.
Kit sighed in unnerved relief. His only other team member, Walt, had been taken out moments before Ritchie had. But Lissa’s survival alone wasn’t likely to be enough to make the difference here: mere numbers weren’t going to help. “You get the reading you were after on this new stuff they’re lobbing at us?”
The shells’ve got some kind of hyperblooey in them, Lissa said. Boosted composite chemical and micronuke explosive surrounded by a tamping field. But the explosive’s not the problem. The squeeze-field’s where the real action is. It’s a double-tasked starcore compression spell that’s also holding the components of the fusion triggers apart. That’s how they’re getting so much oomph out of these things.
“Hybrid tech,” Kit muttered. “I really, really hate it when people hook wizardry up to explosives. The results cannot be anything but ugly . . .”
Wouldn’t argue, Lissa said. Since we don’t have time.
From his position across the crater came a familiar voice: Ronan. Five minutes, he said.
Sweat started popping out all over Kit. The other team was dead quiet, which suggested that they had some sort of solution to what was going on and were about to implement it. You think they know what you know? he said privately to Lissa.
I’m not sure, Lissa said. Couldn’t get a clear reading until that last one came real close.
And you’re sure of your results?
Pretty sure. If you want me to make absolutely certain, why not stand up and see if you can attract another?
Pass! Kit said.
Four minutes thirty . . . said Ronan.
The hair stood up on the back of Kit’s neck at the thought of what would start breaking loose in four minutes, that being the best-case estimate for when the alien force would push past their defensive perimeter and get at the base on the far side of the crater. The place was full of civilians, none of whom were going to be terribly prepared to be overrun by aliens. And Kit wasn’t sure whether whatever the other team was working on was going to make a difference—So we have to do something. Change the equation somehow. If not ours, then theirs—
The idea hit him completely without warning, and there was no time to waste mulling it over to see if it was too stupid to suggest. How about this? Kit said to Lissa. Those tamping fields on the missiles they haven’t launched yet . . . what do you think would happen if they went off prematurely?
What, you mean if we tried to make them complete their squeeze cycle early and blow? No way, that’d take more power than we’ve both got—
No. I mean, what if the squeeze-fields shut off. Went away—
There was a long pause. Then, Ooooo, Lissa said, with the appreciative and anticipatory sound of someone about to open a particularly nice present.
Kit grinned. Can you build the spell in about a minute?
A much shorter pause this time. Got an off-the-rack solution that’ll work if I tweak it right.
Great! Set it up. I’ll feed you power.
Lissa went quiet. Kit pushed himself farther up and peered over the rim of the crater again—the bottom of a landscape overarched by the hard black sky of Moon-based day, the stars washed out by sunglare and the shifting, situational glitter of still-suspended moondust that had been kicked up too high and hard to come down yet. The alien war machines that had been shooting at his group were now stalking and rolling far closer to Kit’s position across the rubble-strewn basin at the nameless crater’s bottom—a stretch of lunar terrain that had been fairly smooth and uncratered until the machines’ arrival via rogue worldgate a few hours ago and their meeting with the two wizardly teams that had been sent out to stop them. Problem is, two teams were never going to be enough, Kit thought. Guess I should be grateful Neets couldn’t get free for this—
Three minutes, Ronan said, sounding grim.
You guys got anything? said Matt, from his team’s site on the other side of the crater. He sounded freaked, but not so much so that Kit couldn’t hear the beginnings of a note of triumph in his voice. They do have something, Kit thought. Only question is how fatal it’s going to be, and who to—
For the moment Kit didn’t answer. Liss—?!
Just a few seconds more!
Kit swallowed. Matt, he said, this might be a good time to store some last words . . .
The silence on the other side had an unnerved quality to it; a wizard could do a lot with his or her last words. But then Lissa whispered, Ready for you.
The crack-shattered dirt under Kit’s nose came alive with a small, remote segment of the spell diagram she’d just constructed—a two-foot-wide circle packed full of closely written lines of light, hovering just above the moondust. Kit hurriedly checked the curves and curls of his name in the Speech to make sure that Lissa had transcribed it correctly, then took a deep breath and slapped his right hand down into the middle of the spell diagram, in the receptor/connector area she’d left open for him, and spoke the agreed confirmation word in the Speech. In the next instant he felt the power leap out of him and flow into Lissa’s spell as she said its final word and turned it loose. Then Kit flopped down on his chest again, limp as a wrung-out rag.
Last words? Matt said.
After letting all that power go, Kit was too weak to do much but grin in anticipation. Don’t count your chickens . . . ! he said.
And a second later the crater came alive with a scatter of explosions that made the previous missile impacts look small and stingy by comparison. Kit peered over the crater rim again, being very careful—because suddenly the neighboring vacuum wasn’t just full of dust, but also of rocks and twisted pieces of shiny metal rocketing away from multiple explosion centers in the crater.
Kit took a couple more breaths and started to feel a little recovered from the stress of doing a heavy powerfeed without much prep. Or maybe it’s just seeing the results . . . ! he thought. Can I stand up without falling down? He pushed himself up onto hands and knees and then stood, staggering only a bit. Since his personal force shield was hardened against radiation as well as mere physical impacts, he wasn’t worried about standing up to see how those nuclear explosions were playing out in vacuum and one-sixth g. Even without air to carry what would have been the deafening multiple roars of their detonation, the effect was still impressive. Nine giant dust-streaked glow-inside balloons were now scattered around the crater in various stages of expansion and glaring brightness, each one growing and roiling like something alive, burning and angry. As Kit watched them, something shiny hit him about chest-high. His shield flared, dissipating the impact’s energy, and the thing that had hit him bounced down into the moondust at his feet. He peered down and saw that it was the pointy end of some kind of mechanical claw, twisted out of shape and molten at the edges, the metal still bubbling and exhaling vapor into the vacuum.
Behind him, standing up in her own crater, Lissa was fist-punching the air, or where the air would normally have been, and hooting with delight. From the team on the other side, the silence held for only a few more moments: then the groaning started. “What the heck was that?” “What did they do??”
And possibly most satisfying, the complaints were followed by a low chuckle from the scenario designer. Okay, Ronan said, intervention’s complete at fourteen oh five local, and that’s a clear win for Kit and Lissa. Let’s get everyone together over at Mid-Hipparchus for the debrief, and let the dust here settle . . .
Kit said the four or five words in the Speech that reclaimed the air inside his outer shield into compressed storage, then the half-sentence that killed his outer force field. Off across the big crater he’d been peering into, the simulated nuclear explosions were being decommissioned—the dust that had been the only physically real thing about them now snowing gently back down onto the lunar surface. Shortly, even if any other people besides wizards had been up on the Moon right now, there would be no sign that anything unusual had happened here.
Kit carefully bounced up the slope behind him to where Lissa had just killed her own outer force bubble, this making it a lot easier to jump around in triumph without interference. Lissa might look somewhat tall and gangly under normal circumstances, but up here in the low gravity her bouncing acquired an unusual grace that made it seem like second nature—an effect assisted by the orange jumpsuit she always wore to these sessions, which made her resemble an escaped astronaut. Her short fair hair crackled and stood up a little with static as she bounced and waved her arms in the air.
It was hard not to get caught up in such sheer evil glee. As Kit came up with her, Lissa put up one hand for a high-five: both their shields flared with the impact, so that though there couldn’t be any sound, there was at least a brief flash. “They were useless,” Lissa said, and spun around about a meter off the ground in a one-sixth gee dance of triumph. “Useless beyond words! They had nothing and we saved their butts. Or if they did have anything, they left it way too late. Oh, are they going to hate us!”
“Not if we don’t gloat too much,” Kit said, hoping earnestly that she’d take the point just this once. But even as he said it, the moondust on the ground around Lissa flared blue-white with the wizardry of the personal transit circle she’d dropped around her as she came down, and she vanished.
He sighed and glanced around, watching the way the dust thrown up by the explosions out in the middle of the crater continued sifting silverly toward the lunar surface. The effect was like watching delicately fluffy snow come down, since the bright-side static tended to make the falling dust clump when there’d been a lot of local activity. Ronan had scheduled this session for relatively late in the two-week lunar “day,” both in an attempt to keep the dust from being a problem and to make sure there were plenty of shadows, which made it a lot easier to see surface details when you were running around shooting at things. The dust, as usual, had its own ideas, but the view couldn’t be otherwise faulted, now that the action was over and there was time to appreciate it. Above the far crater wall, Earth hung gibbous, a cloud-streaked, wet blue jewel three-quarters full, and its dazzling brilliance was ever so slightly fuzzed around the edges by the faint, faint haze of high static-propelled dust that the first astronauts had been so surprised to see—
Is it possible that you’re still hanging around there sightseeing, crater boy? said the ironic voice inside his head. Can we please get on with this? Matt’s pitching such a fit, and I’d hate for you to miss it.
Kit grinned. Meaning, he thought, that he’s giving Ronan a lot of grief, and Ro doesn’t want to have to soak it all up himself . . . “On my way,” Kit said.
His own “beam-me-up-Scotty” spell had long since had the coordinates for the assembly point in the middle of the sprawling Hipparchus crater complex plugged into it. Now Kit said the words that brought the spell to life in a circle on the ground around him, turned once to scan the white-glowing symbols and make sure the Wizard’s Knot that completed the circle was tight, and then said the activator clause out loud.
In the airless environment, the normal silence that fell around a working spell—the sound of the universe listening to what you wanted—was much harder to detect. It became more something you felt on your skin, the protecting force field having no power to shield you from the basic forces that powered both it and everything else in existence. Kit could feel the universe pushing in around him as he spoke: paying attention, bearing down on him the way the overshooting missile had pushed down on his force field before. At its greatest pressure, everything went dark—
Then everything flashed bright again as Kit came out in the middle of another patch of pale dusty terrain. Here a gravel-strewn plain stretched away to the foreshortened horizon in every direction, with only the occasional hump or low rille to break the bright-streaked flatness. This was normal for Hipparchus, which was a very old crater and very beat-up because of its age. Its rim was mostly flattened down to low hills by meteor strikes; its main basin had long ago been flooded by black basalt lava, then cracked into gravel over many millennia by countless micrometeorite impacts and the extremes of heat and cold. The only feature of interest anywhere nearby was a low cloud of dust a few hundred yards away and to Kit’s right. In it half-seen human shapes were moving around fast, while hard bright lines of colored light zapped up out of the cloud. Theoretically this group had come up here as spectators, but with some of the people involved—particularly Darryl—Kit had always suspected it wouldn’t take long before a session of laser tag broke out.
Much closer, off to Kit’s left and near a cluster of big grainy gray boulders, a small crowd was gathered. Most of them were talking hard, though there was no way to be sure what they were saying outside the bubble-thin skin of the communal force field dome that was holding in their shared air. Kit had his suspicions, though.
He bounced over to them in the shallow jumpwalk that astronauts and wizards passing through learned in a hurry on the Moon. Leaning against the biggest boulder, in the middle of the group, was Ronan Nolan, tall and dark and angular in his usual black leather jacket and black shirt and faded black jeans. Lissa was there, laughing and shaking her head at Matt Kingston, who was wearing one of his trademark loud Hawaiian shirts and long baggy khaki shorts. He was holding his open wizard’s manual under Lissa’s nose and pointing at something on the page with an aggrieved expression, but Lissa wasn’t looking at it, just waving Matt away and laughing. Ritchie was there, too, leaning against Lissa’s boulder and looking short and dark and a lot less dead than he had ten minutes before. Also gathered around were some of the rest of Matt’s team—tall, thin, dark Ahmed, and those two blond girls who always turned up together, one tall and broad, the other short and skinny. Which one is Heléne and which one’s Jeannine? I can never remember—Kit lifted a hand in greeting and glanced around. “Where’s Walt?”
Ronan gestured toward the nearby dustcloud. “He got bored with being dead,” he said in that south-Dublin drawl of his, “so he’s off getting that way again with the laser tag crowd.”
“Glutton for punishment,” Ritchie said, pulling off his jacket and shaking it in what looked like the most recent of many attempts to get rid of the moondust that had buried him when the next-to-last missile strike took him out.
Ronan waved away the dust. “So listen, Kit: Matt’s having some trouble with your solution—”
“Not with the solution, that worked okay, more than okay, who could miss the way everything in sight blew up? But you ran over the time limit!” Matt was a little abrasive at the best of times, but in situations like this the Aussie in his voice sometimes got so sharp and shrill that when he talked fast it was tough to follow him. “Ronan said that once the scenario hit the T-minus-five point, everybody had to either enact their solution or hand over to the next team—”
Kit shook his head and reached out sideways, and his hand vanished up to the wrist in the empty space off to his right as he felt around in his otherspace pocket for his own manual. “Wasn’t what he said at all,” Kit said as he pulled his manual out and flipped it open, paging through to the section where the scenario details and guidelines were stored. “And if you’d read this stuff more than once before you get here, it could be useful, because your memory’s not exactly perfect—”
The usual argument promptly got under way. Matt was what Ronan liked to call a “rules lawyer”: not a bad loser as such, but if things didn’t go the way he thought they should have during a war game, he had a gift for finding all kinds of things wrong with the setup—failed communications, some part of the rules that you hadn’t spelled out, as if you were talking to a kindergartner, a tiny point of logic that was blatantly obvious to everyone else but which suddenly made no sense to Matt. “You should have started your wizardry going before the five-minute limit, and if you weren’t ready you had to clear the next team to go, because—”
“That way you’d have had the next three whole minutes to grandstand over the big complex spell structure you’d built and you were powering up on,” Lissa said from on top of the boulder where she sat, arching her neck so that she gazed down at Matt as if from a great ironic height. “All the drama, all the tension! Like watching the bomb in a spy movie count down until you pull the big save out of the bag just as the bad guys are gonna break through into the base.”
“We’d have been so impressed,” Kit said. “And you’d have made a big deal over it for days! Except you know what? You were still building the spell.”
Matt scowled. “And you were rushing your construction, too, so when you finally finished it, it wasn’t fast enough on the execution end,” Lissa said. “And so we had time to execute ours first, and beat you, and that’s the size of that!” She started fist-pumping again, with both fists this time, doing a little sitting-down victory dance on the rock and briefly losing contact with it in the light gravity.
Both the blond wizards gave Matt a wry, amused told-you-so look that suggested Lissa’s analysis was on the money. Matt rolled his eyes and turned to Ronan. “That shouldn’t matter! And if you weren’t leaving enough wiggle room in the rules so that your buddies’d pick up the hint and figure out how to squeeze through them—”
Kit gave Matt an annoyed look. “Just because Ronan and I hang out,” Kit said, “doesn’t mean we spend any of that time plotting sleazy ways to win. What’d be the point?”
Matt had the grace to look embarrassed. “Okay, sorry, I meant that if our thing had executed—”
“If the Lone Power had wheels, it’d be an SUV,” Hélene said. “Matt, let it go!”
Matt said a few words in the Speech which when delivered in his present tone weren’t designed to slow down entropy. “But it never had a chance,” he said to Kit, “because you started your own little drama. The whole ‘last words’ thing—you played me!”
Lissa spluttered with laughter again, drumming the side of the boulder with her heels. “Yes we did!”
Matt glared at Ronan. “And you let them!”
Ronan looked angelically unconcerned. “Hey, I just designed the setup. How you moved through it was your business.”
Matt kept on protesting. But Kit doubted this was going to go on much longer, as Jeannine and Heléne were already laughing and poking Matt in good-natured mockery, and the rest of his team were giving him looks plainly suggesting that he give it up. Ronan just stood there in patient-umpire mode and let Matt run down, while Kit stood there scuffing at the regolith underfoot and pretending to pay attention.
Finally Matt simply waved his hands in the air in a “Whatever . . .” gesture and shook his head. “Fine, let it stand.”
Ronan glanced around. “Anything else need discussion?”
Heads shook no around the two teams. “Then if we can please get our schedules sorted out for next time?” Ronan said. “As some of us have other things to do besides get our pants full of moondust . . .”
Those who used physical versions of the wizard’s manual got them out, and heads were lowered over various books and codices and electronic devices as people started synchronizing their calendars and looking for matching gaps in their busy lives. As this process went forward Kit glanced from one wizard to another of the two teams, privately appreciating them . . . a process he wouldn’t have admitted to unless pushed. They were a diverse and motley crew—some of them, like Matt, Kit had met in the heat of the Pullulus crisis that had threatened so much of known space, leaving younger wizards alone to deal with the deadly darkness that was eating away the stars. Others, like Lissa, had become involved months back on the fringes of the project to discover what had happened to the long-lost Martian species, and had met up with Kit after he’d found himself stuck right in the center of it. In every case they were people Kit liked a lot, though they could be irritating in ways that were still taking him a while to get used to. Fortunately most of them were also enough fun to be around that Kit was finding it easy to get past the annoyances. Lissa in particular was the kind of person you’d like a lot even if she weren’t also a wizard—
“Ahem,” Ronan said rather loudly, right in Kit’s ear. Kit jumped. “It helps if you’re looking at something besides the weather report for Aldebaran IVa. Not real great this time of year anyway, till the red giant comes out of that pesky expansion phase. JD2455702.10: Can you do that? Everybody else can.”
“Uh—” Kit flipped hastily through his manual to the calendar page.
“Say you can,” Matt said, “because you’re running it.” His grin was entirely amused.
For the moment Kit was too thrown off the beat to give Ronan the look he wanted to. It was Ronan who’d started organizing this get-together-and-run-a-nightmare-scenario group. As a result he was in charge not only of coordinating everyone’s schedules—since the long-distance teleporting meant that the group had to pool enough energy to power the transit spells—but also of assigning whose turn it was to design and stage the next nightmare. You, he said privately to Ronan, are cruel.
But effective. Since now Matt, who thought maybe I was giving you an easy time, is changing his mind . . .
Kit made a face. “Morning or afternoon?”
Jeannine giggled that low, throaty giggle of hers. “There’s sort of no way point ten can be anything but afternoon . . .”
“Yeah, right,” Kit said. He looked at his manual half in resignation, as the schedule grid for that day was empty; though a number of days after it were grayed out and the word “Provisional” was branded across them. What is that? Kit thought, peering at it. Must have set something up with Neets when neither of us was sure whether we were going to go ahead with it. Pity this date couldn’t have fallen in there. He made a face. But if it did, Matt’d probably take it as proof that we’ve got some evil plot against him . . . “Okay,” Kit said. “Let’s do it.”
Everyone started putting their stuff away. “Right,” Ronan said. “Ten minutes for you to get yourselves sorted and then we’ll do the jump down to Tower Hill . . .”
“Thought we were routing through Grand Central this time,” Lissa said.
Ronan shook his head. “Had to change it. The GCT gating team’s scheduled some kind of emergency maintenance for this afternoon. The North American crowd gets a free transfer back to Penn from London, so if anybody wants to do a little sightseeing. . . .”
People started jumping down from boulders and getting ready to head out. Matt sidled over to Kit. “Look, just so you know—it was just procedural stuff I was complaining about. It was still pretty hot, what you did.”
“Thanks,” Kit said.
“But don’t think I’m gonna let you have any slack next session when it comes around to critiquing time!”
Kit laughed at him. “Why should you? That’s not what this is about.”
“And as for you,” Matt said to Ronan, who was still trying to get the moondust off his usually impeccable black clothing, “we still need to talk about why you’re never on my side when this stuff happens.”
“What,” Ronan said, “just because you pulled a magic spear out of my chest and saved my life, I should cut you a special break? Dream on, ya gob.”
Matt made a face and threw his hands up in the air. “Later,” he said, and bounced off after Lissa.
“It’s amazing you keep on doing this,” Kit said under his breath.
“I love the aggro,” Ronan said, and kept on brushing.
They looked over at the remaining dustcloud off to the side, from which beams and chunks of lunar surface were still flying out more or less constantly. “What are they doing in there?”
“Beyond some kind of laser tag, not sure I want to find out,” Ronan said. “Looks like mindless violence to me.”
“Wizardry’s biggest hurling fan considers that mindless violence?” Kit said, and laughed. “Right.”
“Not my fault if you’ve not got the chops to come out and try it sometime.”
Kit shook his head, putting his manual away. “Thanks, I like my head where it is. Any sport with legends about nine-year-olds killing each other and getting bumped up in the leagues for it? Not for me!”
Ronan merely smiled sardonically, stretching and gazing around him at the slowly deepening lunar afternoon. “And I only get two weeks to put a scenario together?” Kit said.
“I did warn you,” Ronan said. Kit made a face. Ronan snickered. “You’ll be fine. . . .You know, though, you gave me a bad moment there . . .”
“I gave you a bad moment??”
“Your ‘last words’ thing,” Ronan said. “The scenario wasn’t set up for that.”
Kit gave him a thoughtful look. “Oh? Seems like an omission, especially when a wizard could get so much power out of that move.”
“Never occurred to me that anyone on these teams would use it,” Ronan muttered. “You never-say-die types, after all, it wouldn’t normally occur—”
Kit burst out laughing. “Oh, come on, what were you all about six months back? Make sure you put it in next time, ’cause I want to see what happens when someone does use it.” Ronan gave him a grim look. “But while we’re handing out compliments—that was nice, that bit with the burnt manual. In an ugly way.”
“Yeah. Heard of that once.”
“But you’ve never seen it.”
“Never want to, either.”
“We came close once . . .”
Ronan looked away. “Yeah. Not the kind of memory you dwell on, you know?”
Off to their left, something down close to ground level flashed bright in the afternoon light: another dustcloud, gently expanding from a single focus point. “Now what,” Ronan said under his breath—then paused as the sphere of moondust kicked out from around a half-seen figure and started to settle in a circle around it. Kit and Ronan both stared, for the figure was that of a human adult.
The guy, a tall, thin shape, waved at them and started bouncing over. “Anybody you know?” Ronan said.
“Nope,” Kit said as the adult wizard paused just outside the main air bubble to size up the force field spell and match it with his own. A faint line of fieldglow sprang up around the edges of his silhouette as the two spells synched up and he passed through. “Hey, dai stihó,” he said, as he got close enough to be heard without shouting. “Didn’t interrupt anything, did I?”
They shook their heads as the newcomer bounced to a stop near them, peering around. He was in his late thirties or thereabouts, in jeans and short-sleeved shirt with a neat goatee; he looked at Ronan for a moment as if he was trying to place him, then glanced back at Kit. “No, it’s fine, cousin, you’re well met,” Kit said, mystified. “We were just finishing up here.”
“Alien invasion,” Ronan said.
The wizard looked around, taking in the settling dust as well as the dustcloud off to one side, which, far from settling, was kicking up worse than ever. “I take it we won?”
Kit snickered. “Might still be some discussion going on about that.”
The wizard chuckled, then looked around again, his attention more on the empty landscape this time. “How’s the surface around here?”
“Level,” Ronan said. “For this neighborhood. And pretty firm. That’s why I picked it. You’re welcome to my survey logs.”
“Is there some kind of problem?” Kit said, for the wizard’s eyes were darting between the two of them and the surrounding landscape.
“Problem? No, sorry, no way! Just having a look at the area.”
“What for?” Ronan said.
“Well, considering how much use the place has been getting lately,” he said, “it might be getting some more shortly. Pre-event prep work. They sent me up to do a suitability check.”
The guy looked at them quizzically. “You seriously haven’t heard? . . . No, guess you were busy. Checked your manual lately?”
Kit and Ronan swapped bemused looks. “For updates? Uh, no,” Kit said.
The older wizard suddenly acquired a grin that spread straight across his face. “You might want to take a moment,” he said. “Don’t mind me, I’ll just get on with this.”
He bounced away across the landscape. Kit and Ronan stared at each other for a second more. Then Ronan shut his eyes to access the Knowledge in his own style, and Kit grabbed for his manual.
It might have been nerves that made Kit fumble the manual and drop it. It bounced, and he managed to grab it again on the way back up, at about knee level, and flipped it open. Sure enough, the edges of the section on general-event notification were flashing softly. His mouth started to go dry; the flashing reminded him too much of the way his manual had looked when the Pullulus overran Earth’s solar system not long ago. But the flashing had been red that time. This was a much cooler and more informational-looking blue.
He tipped the pages open to that central section, and the blue flashing dimmed down immediately. The page he was looking at withdrew what it had been displaying—some general weather notification to wizards working in the central Pacific—and a new page’s worth of words rose to the surface and settled themselves in place.
To: Rodriguez, Christopher K.
From: Planetary event coordination (Sol/Sol III/IIIa)
Re: 1241st Interventional Development, Assessment and Adjudication Sessions
On behalf of the Powers That Be and Their local representatives: cordial greetings!
This is to inform you that you have been nominated by a regional supervisory steering subcommittee as an assessor- and enabler-candidate for the initial assessment and joint evaluation phase of the upcoming IDAA main session, beginning on JD 2455692.7 and terminating on or about JD 2455713.00.
This nomination is entirely elective, and you are under no compulsion to participate. However, your errantry history is such that your participation would be extremely welcome, both in terms of the value of your past contributions and the experience which you will be invited to share with the session’s intake of qualifying participants.
If you do elect to participate, we would ask at this point that you check your schedule to make sure there are no personal event conflicts or other attendance issues during the dates we have blocked for you, and confirm back the open status of your schedule to the appointments and development-assignment committees before JD 2455689.00. Please note that you will not be called to active errantry during your blocked-out dates should you choose to attend and participate. This dispensation will be extended to you through the finals stages should a candidate with whom you are associated be elected into the semis or finals.
Attendance at the IDAA sessions implies subsidized coverage for all associated necessary intersystem transits, and this subsidy will also be extended to you through the finals stages if necessary due to advisory duties or if you simply wish to attend.
We look forward to your response to this invitation at your earliest convenience.
for Irina Mladen, Planetary Wizard for Sol III/IIIa
cc: Swale, Thomas B., Romeo, Carl, Callahan,
Bewildered, Kit scanned on down the note at a very long list of cc’s and attached documents. Looking over Kit’s shoulder, Ronan started to swear, and not in the Speech either; it was something extremely venomous in Irish. At least most of it was Irish, but there were many heartfelt insertions of the F word in between. “What the fecking feck!” Ronan shouted, and stalked away waving his arms, then bounced back, kicking rocks. “How do you even rate? Why do I even bother keeping on breathing! What’s the point of this whole sodding existence? I ask you!”
Kit looked at Ronan with some concern. “What? What’s your problem?”
Ronan clutched his head and then waved his arms around some more. “You benighted muppet, has your reading comprehension taken the day off? Is it possible you don’t understand what you’ve got there? It’s only an opt-in for the Invitational, you total twitmuffin!”
Twitmuffin? Kit got a feeling asking for definitions wouldn’t be a smart move right now, as Ronan was genuinely worked up. “Is this good?” he said, and started reading down the page again, trying to make sense of what he was seeing.
Ronan laughed again, but this time it was a helpless sound, like someone being kind to the intellectually challenged. “Let me explain it to you . . .”