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3. THE BIG MEOW
Four-thirty on a Sunday morning is about the closest the City that Never Sleeps ever gets to dozing off. Midtown Manhattan, in particular, is quieter then than at almost any other time except when it’s snowed. But there was little chance of that happening today. It was the third of June, and though New York’s wizards can do unusual things with their weather when the need arises, right now the busiest group of them had far more important business on their minds.
The light at the corner of Eighth Avenue and West Thirty-first Street changed from red to green, without any other visible result: no cars were waiting to move on either side of the intersection. In fact, nothing at all could be seen between Eighth and the River but various parked cars– not a single pedestrian, not even a stray dog. The only thing moving down that way, down at the far end of Thirty-first, was the Hudson River – seeming to slide slowly with the inward tide from the Great South Bay just now swinging, and the surface of the water gone the color and texture of tarnished beaten pewter in the predawn twilight.
Sitting at the corner of Eighth and Thirty-first, watching the river, watching the paling sky, was a small black cat. To human observers, city cats often look furtive or nervous: but this one sat there like she owned the street. This morning, she did. The most senior worldgating technician on the East Coast of North America let out a long breath and turned her attention away from the placid slow roll of the river, looking uptown along Eighth.
The brash blue-white glare of the spots and the sheets of matte-mirror Mylar up there made Rhiow blink once again. Up at the Thirty-fourth end of the block, the intersection of the two big multi-lane streets was cordoned off with metal parade railings and pre-incident tape. Inside the cordon, and outside, many ehhif (or humans, as they called themselves) ran about doing inexplicable things with cables and props and big chunky pieces of equipment…or seeming to. Outside the cordon, endless more thick black cables ran into the cordoned area from many high-sided plain white trucks parked all around the “shooting” area, up and down Eighth Avenue and into side streets made shadowy by contrast with the fierce lights at the intersection. Off to one side, leaning against one of the corner buildings, was the lone, stay-up-all-night, club-buzzed rep from the Mayor’s-office Film Board people, half asleep…which was all to the best, as it decreased to near-zero the chance that she might possibly recognize for what it was the quite extensive wizardry taking place right under her nose.
They had spent the better part of an hour, now, setting up the“shot.” The poor Film Board lady leaned in her dark blue autumn-season car coat – for the mornings had been cool – against the corner of the office building at the corner of Eighth and Thirty-second, blinking and bleary, without the slightest idea of what the “director” and the “producer” and all the “crew” were agitating about: the thing that was apparently not quite right, not quite ready. Ehhif ran back and forth with clipboards, consulted with one another, or seemed to consult; dragged cables around, repositioned cameras and wheeled carts full of computer equipment…or what looked like cameras and carts and equipment.
Rhiow, watching this performance from down the road, put her whiskers forward in amusement. Well? she said to Urruah. When?
About two minutes. You know how unpredictable these things are when you cut them loose.
We both know. You’re just disappointed there are no oh’ra singers in the area.
An annoyed hiss came down the connection to her. Urruah spent a lot of time hanging around with the backstage toms over at the Met, and had recently been torn between anguish and a sort of perverse delight when a great and seriously overweight Italian tenor had become involved in an incident involving a malfunctioning worldgate and a large number of giant saurians. His protests at having to patch that portion of reality so that an oversized terror lizard had not eaten the tenor in question were specious…but not as much so as they might have been, as from a Person-tom’s point of view, the tenor in question was in himself a whole vast sheaf of wasted opportunities. No tom could really understand how you could do anything to yourself (like get fat) that made you potentially less of a singer, andpotentially less popular with the shes.
Later for that, was all Urruah said: and Rhiow put her whiskers even further forward at his tone, for he was a professional, that one, through and through. When there was a wizardry in hand, nothing could put him off the hunt until what he wanted was in his claws. After that, it would be all food, song and queens: but not a moment sooner.
One minute now. Is he in place? she heard Urruah say to someone else in the connection.
Ready to go, said an excited younger voice. He wants to know, isn’t he supposed to eat something?
Oh, come on, he read the script breakdown with the rest of us! Rhiow said. He knows what he’s supposed to do.
But he says dawn makes him hungry…!
Oh sweet Iau in a trashcan, Rhiow thought. Arhu, she said“aloud”, tell your buddy — excuse me; tell my honored Elder Brother the most excellent World-Senior for the Downside Ophidians — that he should have eaten before he left. And tell him not to get confused! It’s only wizards here, right now, and the cops and the Film Board lady. But if somestreet person or clubber coming home wanders in and he gets into his part too much, he could have to disgorge suddenly.
There was a moment’s silence. Seconded to her through Arhu’s mind came the voice: If that happens, you shall take me to the deli afterwards to compensate, and there shall be a great deal of pastrami bestowed upon me.
And a great deal of hot sauce, Arhu said.
Rhiow let out a long, long breath. If there had been corruption going on among the wizards under her supervision, these last few weeks, it’d have been Urruah’s fault. Ethnic food, popular culture, ffhilm– that strange twenty-four-frames-per-second artform so beloved of human beings – all these things had been dragged into the present project by Rhiow’s senior project engineer; and Rhiow had been torn between disciplining him, which could have been problematic, and letting him get the job done without destroying half of Manhattan.
Discipline later, she thought. Urruah, she thought, tell your prot?g?s to shut up and concentrate. They can both have a whole cow’s worth of pastrami later if this goes according to plan. Time check…
Rhiow sat there on the corner, breathed in, breathed out. From behind her, away across the island and across the East River, the light of a clear New York dawn grew slowly; ice-blue and haze-blurred up high, soft as cold water on the eyes, the peach of the eastern side of the sky starting only slowly to show across the Hudson’s sliding sheen. Few other eyes were turned that way. Indeed, humans were almost entirely absent from this scenario…this being why she and her team had chosen it.
“Her team”, of course, being a relative term. The arguments about the logistics alone of the worldgate move had seemed to go on for ages. “Why bother moving the thing at all?” the most senior of the Penn techs had demanded. That was Jath, always contentious, never happy to say “yes” at any moment when he could find an excuse to say “no”. Spending time around him always made Rhiow think that, on the off chance it might improve his mood, maybe there was something to the ehhif drive to get all stray toms neutered. Terrible thought, shame on me… “Rhiow, seriously, why should we bother? The ehhif have just spent umpty billion dollars on improving the miserable poor Penn they’ve got: Amtrak won’t move its stock over there after this. Nobody’s going to be running any significant rail stock over into that building except New Jersey Transit. Why are we being so traditionalist about this? The gates belong in the major railhead on this side of the Island. That means the Penn we’ve got now. Not this Moynihan thing, it’s a nice idea, they mean well, but the gates are rooted on this side, you know how gates are when they get used to the way things have been for a long time…”
It’s not just gates, Rhiow had thought, and then put her ears back just a little: for she’d heard this argument once every three days since the present project had started to become a reality. Jath’s father had been a gate tech, as he would tell you endlessly, and so had his father and his father and his father before him: and when they’d been running things and the old Penn station had been here…. And off he would go, singing the same old song — and Urruah, dear staid Urruah, had finally lost his temper two weeks ago and sat down and actually started washing his sth’uw at Ffrihh during one of these perorations. There had been the inevitable reaction – a lot of hissing and tom-posturing, and very nearly some ears shredded, for Urruah was getting tired of having it thrown into his whiskers that he somehow had been allowed to work with the premier worldgates in New York, thecomplex that had the most senior area primacy, and nonetheless lived in a Dumpster – as if the two states of existence were somehow mutually exclusive.
Rhiow had finally managed to calm the wrangle down, for even Jath had had to admit that there was no point in trying to derail the project at this late date. The Powers that Be had approved it, the most senior wizards working in North America had already put their pawprints on Rhiow’s master timetable, and the concrete parts of the plan now had to be allowed to go forward before the ehhif builders and architects put any more of the new Penn Station in place. There was already too much infrastructure underground that could interfere with the hyperstring structure of the gate-sheaf when it was being moved; that had been the thinking behind Urruah’s solution from the start…
Jath, she said silently, how is it down there? Are you ready?
I don’t know, the answer came back, sounding dubious as always. It looks kind of frayed around the edges: I’m not sure the string structure is going to wind in tightly enough for what we’re planning. I’m thinking we shouldn’t let it up until we have a little more time to assess the power superstructure –
The superstructure is fine, came another voice, younger and sounding extremely impatient. Rhiow let out another breath, as the speaker had good reason. It’s just as fine as it was yesterday when you pronounced it fine, and the day before that. Just get on with it, Jath!
Siff’hah, Rhiow said. She tried not to sound too stern, because she agreed with what the youngster was saying: but at the same time, she needed her to be a little less forthright just now with a wizard who was very much her senior, and whose nerves were in worse shreds than anyone else’s. Hw’aa, she said to Jath’s most senior colleague, how’s it seem to you?
Stable enough, Hw’aa said. Even though he was older than Jath, Hw’aa had for some time now been the counterbalance in the Penn team to Jath’s conservatism; there were few new things that Hw’aa wasn’t willing to try. We’re ready to pull the gate’s roots up. Twenty seconds…
Good. Hunt’s luck to you, cousin –
Luck to you too, Rhiow.
She looked down the street to where the ehhif had mostly stopped running around, and where crowds of people were standing off to the sides of the street now, as if getting ready to see a shot start. Rhiow watched this almost absently, just being glad for the moment that Hw’aa was on site to keep Jath focused and reassured, and that she was herself dealing well enough with the tension not to get caught up in another team’s infighting. My own team’s infighting is bad enough… And there was always the temptation to simply win any given fight by throwing her weight around in her position as the most senior technician working this particular part of the world. But Rhiow knew better. I will meet idiots today, went one version of her after-waking meditation, and one of them will probably be me. Iau Hau’hai, Queen of Life and of Making Things Work, grant me of Your courtesy the courage to shred that idiot’s ears when I meet her, and then get on with work…for being right is nothing next to having things be right…
Fifteen seconds. Want oversight? said Urruah’s more voice in her ear.
“Just a quick look,” Rhiow said. “As long as you’re sure you can spare me the concentration – ”
No problem. Everyone knows what to do. I’m just making sure the timetable goes off by the numbers, now…
And overlaid on the slowly brightening morning around her, she got a glimpse of the darkness under the streets– the track-cavern at the “old Penn” end, the west portal of the old North River tracks, and the bright stringing of the structure of the “ganged” Penn Station worldgate – two gates combined for the moment into one – shining in the darkness where it hung over the steel of the rails. These would be the gate complex’s last few moments in its old position, parked at the end of northern platform of Penn’s Track Twenty. Now the worldgate blazed unnaturally bright in that dark air, an irregularly-shaped, rippling warp and weft of blue and green and golden threads of light, pulled for the moment into full real-world visibility, its diagnostic mode. On one side of it, Jath, and Hw’aa on the other, were reared up with claws and teeth sunk into the gateweave, pulling the gate into the right configuration for the dangerous work that was going to follow. At least there were no trains due down those tracks for another forty minutes: the ehhifs’ Sunday schedule had left the joint worldgating teams some time to troubleshoot anything that might go wrong with the separation of the gate from its power sources, rooted down into the ancient Manhattan of the Downside. But it wasn’t the separation itself that was most of the problem. It was keeping the gate live while it was cut away from its roots, and then moving it without damaging anything else, or itself –
Five. Four. Hw’aa, let it go. Jath, claws out – !
Hw’aa threw his brown tabby-striped self backwards, letting go the strings he’d been holding apart. As he did, gray Jath swept his claws through the near-invisible catenary strings that were all that now remained of the worldgate’s connection to the main power structures in the Downside, severing them. The gate-weft collapsed in on itself in midair, burning in a bright and alarmed-looking jumble of colors – wavering and wobbling in even Urruah’s view as the structure of space bent and twisted slightly around the deranging gate. Off to one side, a small Person-shape began to glow bright where she sat, white patches blazing, even the dark ones seeming to acquire extra depth, a darkness with power moving underneath it: and a shell of the same dark-and-light-patched fire appeared out of the air and clamped itself down around the collapsing, contracting ball of burning hyperstrings –
Busy now, Urruah said, and the imagery vanished. Rhiow looked down the street and saw a tall dark-haired ehhif in a parka and baseball cap and headphones nodding as he picked up the cue. He looked into his“camera” and gestured at another ehhif. “Lights!”
All the film lights surrounding the cordoned-off intersection burst into full ferocious fire, painting the buildings all around with long black equipment-shadows.
“Speed!” the ehhif in the parka shouted.
“Got speed!” the answer came back from somewhere among the crew.
A young ehhif boy held up an electronic clapper-board, snapped it shut for the sync: the red numbers on it started racing, and someone else yelled,“Blue Harvest, take one, scene sixty-five – action!”
A hubbub of thought broke out underground among the members of the amalgamated gate-tech teams. It was difficult for even Rhiow, well used to this chatter from their numerous rehearsals, to make sense of more than a scrap of thought here or there. Is it cohering? Watch out for the secondary root– no, not like that – over here, over here! – okay, there we go, here comes the backlash. Too much expansion? No, wait — !
And up on the street, something unusual began to occur. A fizzle and stutter of a new light, like lightning, painted the buildings further up Eighth Avenue with a sudden multicolored glare. A great rumble, like an incoming subway train, but much, much bigger, shook the whole area.
There were not many people who actually lived in this neighborhood, which was probably as well. Rhiow looked up around her and was clear that any of the residents, if they were even conscious right now, would simply think that the one of the many subway lines under Penn was making an unusual amount of noise this morning…probably something to do with the construction in the new Penn building, which had been going on for months and was famously noisy. It was a mistake that Rhiow would have been happy to encourage. But after the rumble came something that even on quite a bad day could not have been attributed to subway trouble.
Down Eighth Avenue, several storeys above the sidewalk, a huge head peered around the corner of Thirty-fourth Street. Only a very alert observer would have been able to see that the terrible face– fanged, scaled, dramatically striped in blood-crimson and gold, the wicked eye glinting with a burning gold of its own — somehow looked a little uncertain. But then the face recovered its composure. Down in the street, several of the waiting cameras pushed in on it.
The huge jaws opened, revealing fangs like mighty knives. A roar issued forth from that gigantic maw, belling an awful challenge. Windows rattled for blocks up and down Eighth. The cops standing around the“director” goggled, impressed against their will, as the dinosaur – bigger than any Godzilla or Gorgo, impossibly large – came striding out into the intersection of Eighth and Thirty-fourth, its clawed forelegs working, its long tail swept out behind it for balance.
Behind the“dinosaur” came a herd of his people – all smaller far than he: but then the Father of his People could afford the power to manifest himself in a variation of the form that had once destroyed the Lone Power that was gnawing at the roots of the feline world. Now that outrageous and gigantic form, and about fifty smaller “dinosaurs”, came rampaging down Eighth. The ground shook as they came. The cops stood there shaking their heads, impressed: the Film Board lady, in the middle of texting somebody on her mobile, stopped to stare, her mouth hanging open. The greatest dinosaur stopped about halfway down the block, directly between the Felt Forum and Madison Square Garden and the Post Office building, then put his tail briefly down and let out one magnificent roar that once again rattled all the plateglass for hundreds of meters around like a Space Shuttle landing – a histrionic and ferocious ophidian shout of defiance.
And slowly, up through the street, the Sun rose.
Or at least it seemed to. One of the many wizards managing secondary support for this operation had spoken the Mason’s Word to the street, adding one of the Word’s subroutines that affected metals as well as stone and stone derivatives. So, untroubled by the tangle of cable and piping that underlay every New York street, through the concrete and the much-patched asphalt, the sheen and burn of tightly wrappedhyperstrings rode up into the still predawn air. The biggest dinosaur, reacting to the growing light and the new shadow cast from his tremendous bulk, looked over his shoulder at the rising, burning fury, turned, roared his own defiance, and made toward the ball of fire.
He reached out claws to it, sank them in deep, grappled with the great burning shape, and staggered back, striving and wrestling with the burden of it…lurching and stumbling with it backwards, down Eighth, toward Rhiow…and toward exactly the spot where they wanted it to go. Rhiow’s tail began to lash, for this was not a moment for Ith, or Urruah, or Arhu or Siff’hah, to lose their grip on the worldgates. Yet for the moment everything seemed to be working, and things could have gone so much worse if they’d tried to conduct this business underground. The complications of pushing this great deadly ball of energy along an entirely underground route, through meter after meter of ehhif high-tension power conduits and cable guides and pipes and tubes and steam ducts, would have been huge. But it had all become completely unnecessary, one afternoon, when in the midst of yet another too-contentious meeting down underneath Penn, Urruah’s voice spoke up and said, entirely reasonably, “Why should we drive ourselves insane? Why bother hiding the move from the ehhif at all? Hide it in plain sight.”
It had seemed like such an insane concept at first. But even Jath, hard though he’d resisted it, had been won around to the quirky logic of it. And then the other wizards with whom the plan had had to be cleared had accepted it enthusiastically. Is it just that it’s so odd? Rhiow had thought at the time. Whatever the reason, here they all were, ehhif-wizards and People-wizards all together: and here was the whole Penn worldgate complex wrapped into one tightly-wound package. It was trying to unravel itself, but being prevented from doing so by Siff’hah as the spell’s power source, floating along invisibly beside it so as not to have to be distracted by the need towaste concentration on walking. The whole ball of yarn, as it were, was now apparently rolling down toward Rhiow, dominating the street and getting bigger by the moment, bearing down on the dinosaurs clustered around their gigantic chief, who looked to be losing his wrestling match. And right down at the bottom of it all, invisible to all eyes except feline ones, there was a single tiny, tabby-striped figure with his back to Rhiow, pulling the worldgate complex down Eighth Avenue….with his teeth.
The fur stood up all over Rhiow as she watched him, hearing Urruah babbling at her again, late one morning two months ago, as he walked home with her.“I would never have thought of it! I saw it on this ehhif thing on cable late one night, and the image just wouldn’t let me be, and I – ”
“Cable?” Rhiow had shaken her head as if all the fleas apparently living inside Urruah’s head were now trying to roost in her ears. “Your Dumpster has cable, all of a sudden?”
He gave her a look that said most eloquently how he was ignoring her attempts to derail his train of thought.“It was one of those big bull ehhif, all teeth and no brains, and he was pulling along one of those big trucks, they call them semih’s, and he was doing it with his teeth – ”
He was all teeth and no brains? Rhiow wanted to shout. She restrained herself for the moment, and paused in front of a dry-cleaners’ shop to wash an ear that didn’t need it. “Urruah,” Rhiow said, “if you saw an ehhif jump off a bridge, would you do that too? You and your ‘popular culture,’ whatever that is, I swear, because it changes every time you try to define it – ”
“It’s something you don’t get enough of, that’s for sure. Otherwise you would have had this great idea first. Anyway, the cable’s backstage at the Met; the scene guys have to have something to watch while the oh’ra singers are actually singing. So here he is, this ehhif, in one of thesestrong-ehhif contests they have, where they lift rocks and throw trees around and Iau knows what all else, it’s hysterical to watch them.”
Hysterical, that’s going to be me in a minute, Rhiow thought, as Urruah went on to describe the strange pulling device which had been built for this ehhif to use – something to sink his teeth into and pull this semih’ the necessary distance. Yet all against her will she’d begun to see how similar his idea was to some of the handling constructions that a gate tech might build to deal with the most recalcitrant gating structures, old ones that were getting likely to shred themselves to bits if you moved them. All right, this was a brute-force kind of solution, completely unlike the more elegant and finicky kind of strategy that her old colleague Saash would have come up with. But Saash was somewhere else at the moment, helping Iau steer the stars in their courses, no doubt; and who knew whether, if you handed her a whole star or a whole gating complex to manhandle around, even she mightn’t havesaid “the hell with the claws” and used her teeth instead? Maybe it’s time I got past my preconceptions about Urruah’s potential as a gate tech, Rhiow thought. All right, it’s just such a tom-sounding way to deal with something, but if it works…
And now here she was watching this terrible rolled-up ball of fire come trundling down Eighth Avenue, while a huge and magnificent dinosaur struggled futilely with it. Rhiow sat there commanding her fur to lie down, and prayed, prayed to Iau the Queen of Everything that Urruah had not misjudged how much energy was required in his own version of the pulling device to keep that terrible thing under control. For that was part of a typical tom’s solution, too: bluff. But you did not bluff a worldgate…or at least you didn’t try bluffing it more than once. And as for a gate that you’d purposely cut loose of its moorings –
The huge glowing ball rolled on. That was not a special effect or an illusion. Urruah’s “puller” was not fastened to the gate sheaf itself, but to the massive shielding construct that had been erected around it and which Siff’hah was powering. And atop the worldgate-bundle proper, the team’s other tom – not to be in any way outdone by his more senior colleague – was riding the top of that ball of force, walking backwards on it as it rolled forwards. That was one piece of popular culture Rhiow had come in contact with one night at her own ehhif’s place: the image of some poor tiger in a forced performance of some kind, walking backwards on a big ball, while a strangely dressed ehhif flicked a whip at it, and music played and crowds cheered. And there was Arhu up there, as nearly invisible against the blaze of energies under him as Urruah was below, at least two paws in contact with that shield all the time, ready to sink his own teeth into it if he neededto. Siff’hah, though, seemed to need very little in the way of help. Power simply streamed off her into the wizardry. That was her business, and she was good at it: sometimes a little too good for Rhiow’s nerves. But as so young a wizard, she was always going to have more power available to herthan the more senior practitioners.
Here we go, said Arhu, as Ith, wrestling with the ball, came up even with the corner of Thirty-first. Down that street, half a block behind the Post Office, was the place where the tracks running under the building and into Penn were exposed to the open air, a great wide pit half a block wide. Sif?
Ready, Siff’hah said.
Ready, said Ith.
Lightning crackled fiercely away from the moving ball of gate-strings, lashing out at the dinosaur who struggled with it. He squealed in rage and staggered back, the earth shaking under him. Then once more he rushed at the globe of strung fire, and once more was repulsed. The dinosaur shrieked renewed fury, attacked one last time: but this time the lightning that burst from the globe of fire was so violent that the king-dinosaur staggered back again, turned, and began an enraged flight down Thirty-first Street, off to Rhiow’s left. The other dinosaurs, which had been milling around their leader, now broke away and began to flee down the side streets, vanishing from the shot and from sight.
Rhiow watched the lightning with admiration. This was probably the only real“special effect” in the whole production: it was the result of purposeful overfeeding of the worldgates’ shield layer on Siff’hah’s part, and was done merely for show, to support the backstory in the script which the New York Film Board had approved. Jath was acting as supervisor for thiseffect, making sure that it didn’t get out of hand. But that was mostly what Jath was good for: at keeping things from happening. It was not anything Rhiow would ever have admitted to him, of course, but it was true. The real master of this whole business was down there at the far end of the street, behind the dinosaurs, with his teeth sunk in the “puller,” still advancing toward her, backwards, steady and slow. Urruah, Rhiow said, what’s the word?
Ready for the turn, Urruah said silently.
Is the socket ready! Rhiow said.
All set, said a new voice: Fh’iss. He was the third of Jath’s team, and had been set completely aside from the “moving” part of the project to concentrate on the business of stopping it from moving at the end of the run. An elaborately constructed socket lay waiting off to one side of the New Jersey Transit tracks, near a freight platform. It was a temporary home for the gate, only shallowly rooted into the subterranean master catenary: there would be time for short-distance repositioning later. Drop it on me, Fh’iss said.
All right, Rhiow said. Here comes the drama. Arhu? Siff’hah? You ready?
Ready to go, Arhu said; but how would it not be, when I’ve been handling things? From the sound of him, you’d think that nothing particularly interesting had been happening. Rhiow put her whiskers forward in amusement. For a kitten barely a year old, who’d been pulled out of a garbage bag floating down the East River, where he and his sibs had been thrown to drown, coolness had become his middle name.
Oh really, said his sister, endlessly unimpressed. But then, Rhiow thought, she had been in that bag too. She had come from a tremendous distance in miles, and had spent the beginning of a new life, in order to hunt her brother down and shred his ears– that being the best way she had of telling him she loved him. Where would you be without me to remind you of what needs doing? And look out, you’re steering it crooked.
I am not.
Am not– !
I’m going to turn now, Urruah said, so it would be really smart if you two went with me, and didn’t fall off and let this thing blow up and eat half the island! Ith –
Slowly, the lightnings crackling around it again, the huge ball of worldgate-fire negotiated the turn into West Thirty-first. Ith,“enraged”, rushed at the worldgate-core one last time, apparently trying to grapple with it, but flailed away again by the crackling violence of the fire. Then the ball of fire seemed to speed up slightly, bumping into Ith, making him stagger, off balance, toward the edge of the great track-pit. Fh’iss?
Ready. Not on top of me, cousin!
Not? Ith said, sounding surprised. But I thought in the script it said– Theatrically he leaned backward over, clawed forelegs flailing, tail lashing for balance, finding it, losing it again. He toppled.
Ith, really, not!
Ith fell backwards, grasping at the ball of fire, sinking his claws into it in one last desperate“attempt” to keep himself from falling. The attempt failed. Giant rear legs kicking, he went over the edge in a tremendous fall. A disastrous roar went up, a bleat of terror and rage, as he clutched the worldgate-ball to him and plunged into the pit. Like a star falling, like the Sun setting, he and the worldgate vanished from view.
There was a huge moment of silence, followed by an almighty crash.
And then the light went out.
The echoes faded. Everybody, Rhiow included, looked intently at the“director”, who was staring at one of the video displays. Then he lifted his hand.
“Cut it!” he yelled. “That’s it, that’s a wrap! Thank you, everybody! Nice work, cousins!”
Applause broke out all around, from the film crew and even from the cops, who until now had probably thought they’d seen just about everything that could happen in the way of a shooting. The special effects would be the talk of the NYPD for days, Rhiow thought: two or three days, anyway. As people started picking things up and carrying them around, Rhiow went padding over to the “director”, who was drinking what was probably his tenth paper cup of a coffee locally famous for its strength and foulness.
“Har’lh,” Rhiow said to Carl Romeo, one of the ehhif Area Seniors, “that stuff will ruin your health.”
“Only if I overdo it,” Carl said. He glanced around him, where the large team of wizards were already beginning to pack up the shot. Equipment was seeming to go into those white high-side trucks, where the cops – having recovered their original bored and jaded attitudes – and the dozy Film Board lady, were completely failing to notice that the equipment, once out of sight behind some genuine boxes and coverings, simply vanished. In the Holland and Midtown tunnels, out of sight of the security cameras – those that had not been spoofed with pre-laid wizardries already – the trucks would soon do the same. “We’ll be out of here in about twenty minutes. Nice work, Rhi.”
She shook her head.“I never touched a string,” she said. “I just coordinate.”
“Not as easy as it sounds,” Carl said, finishing the coffee and then tossing the cup into a nearby recycling bin, which another wizard picked up and carried off a second later. “My people have a saying about herding cats…”
She put her whiskers forward, knowing a compliment when she heard one. From behind the two of them, a huge-toothed head, zebra-striped in vivid red and yellow, but now reduced to its more normal three-foot length, pushed in to peer at the video display.“Did I look good?” Ith said. “I think I looked good.”
Carl chuckled.“Tim,” he said, elbowing the young ehhif wizard standing beside him, “roll the ‘video’, will you, and satisfy our Elder Brother’s vast bloated ego….?”
Rhiow put one ear back, sarcastic, as from behind Har’lh, Urruah came walking up Eighth. “And as for you,” she said to Ith, as the imagery which had just transpired started to repeat itself on the screen while he peered at it, “shouldn’t you be sidled? If enough people here see you for very much longer, we’re going to have a lot more explaining to do.”
“This is New York,” said Ith, turning one of those wise little eyes on Rhiow: it glittered with humor. “If anyone does see a red and yellow Tyrannosaur walk down the street without a film crew, they will either ignore me – being New Yorkers – or assume I am some kind of advertisement.” He shrugged his long tail, looking back at the screen. “What should I advertise, do you think?”
Arhu walked up Ith’s back and sat on his shoulder, looking over it at the video. “Pastrami,” he said.
Rhiow gave Ith a clout in the leg with her claws in; though frankly he was unlikely to have felt every claw she had, through that thick hide.“See now, you’re teaching these kits bad habits,” she said.
“I’d say it’s going both ways,” Carl said, as Siff’hah walked up Ith’s tail to join her twin on Ith’s other shoulder. “Nice work, you two.” He unzipped his parka a little: the air was warming a little as the breeze started to run down Thirty-first from the East River side, the first touch of Sun on the river pushing the air their way. “And you, Urruah: you should be pleased. An elegant solution to a thorny problem. You go ahead, Rhi, ’Ruah: your folks did all the hard work here. Leave the cleanup to us.” He turned his back on her, clapping his hands. “Come on, people, let’s go, pack out the trash…”
Rhiow waved her tail in satisfaction, turning to Urruah.“Is it down and secure? Is it rooted?”
It’s down, Fh’iss said, from down in the track pit. Our overacting cousin delivered it right on target: it fell straight into the socket, and he fell clear. Not that I won’t shred his puny ears later. ‘Not!’
“It’s not rooted in tight yet, though,” Urruah said, sitting down with his tail now weaving slowly from side to side, the thing he always did when he was ticking off items on his internal to-do list. “I want to check out the catenary junctures. If there are any frayed hyperstrings in there left over from moving the sheaf, they’ll play merry hell with the restart synch when we initiate the sequence.”
“Oh, come on,” Arhu said, “you know it’s okay, let’s just blow this thing and go home!”
Urruah turned toward Rhiow, out of Arhu’s view, before rolling his eyes. The look in them, though tired, said plainly to Rhiow, Please shut him down so I don’t have to. I can’t cope with any more right now.
“Something’s making my whiskers twinge a little,” Rhiow said, looking down toward the track-pit where the gate-sheaf was presently resting. The “what” of it, of course, was Arhu, but she didn’t have to tell anyone that. “I’ll wait and have a look myself.”
“Aww, Rhi, come on, you know it’s fine!”
She got up, stretched fore and aft, and gave him a sidewise look. Arhu wasn’t yet nearly well-enough worked in with his team and his team leader to do the smart thing and avert his eyes immediately: he actually spent a second’s worth of staring at Rhiow before having the sense to look away.
“I’m not convinced,” she said. “But for your sins, you get to come down and convince me yourself. Line by line of the spell, and string by string of the gate. No, ‘Ruah, you stay up here and have a wash. A long night’s work you’ve had, and a long month’s work before that: you deserve a moment’s rest. And it’s your team leader’s pleasure, when she’s done with this wet-eared wiseass, to walk you home and see you eat pastrami before day’s Eye comes up. As for you,” she said to Arhu, “come on down here, O endlessly knowledgeable one, and enlighten me as to the statusof my gate.”
Urruah turned away without comment, sat down and started washing, in silent hilarity: composure-washing at one remove, not for himself but for the kit. Arhu had the sense to put his ears back out of the way. I’ll be along in a little while, Urruah said. You go sort him out.
She flicked her tail in agreement.“Come on,” she said.
Access for them to the gate’s new lockdown site was the same as it had been for the gate itself, though far less spectacular. As they walked around the corner, Rhiow spoke the numerous syllables of the Mason’s Word, hearing the universe go still around them and leaning in to hear, then feeling the asphalt of Eighth Avenue go summer-soft underneath her. Along with Arhu, who had implemented his own incidence of the Word, Rhiow sank down through the street, into the substrate ofthe road, past the pipes and conduits, the bricks and stones of earlier layers of the street, the cold clayey earth under the stonework, the i-beamed iron ceilings of the track tunnel.
The New Jersey Transit North River tunnel was a bleak, plain, filthy place as yet: it would be months before the ehhif construction crews turned their attention to rebuilding it. The rails ran down toward Penn, off to Rhiow’s and Arhu’s right, as they sank down through the ceiling and airwalked toward the platform; to the left, under the occasional naked bulb jutting out of the stanchions of the walls, the tunnels ran off at a downward slope, heading for their dive under the Hudson. Off to their right, ahead of the two of them, the worldgate could be seen hanging over the left-hand set of tracks, shimmering, its colors slowly calming after all the excitement.
Arhu walked over to the gate, reared up on his hind legs, and sank a single careful claw into the outer edge of the gate, catching one of the control strings and pulling it out. The diagnostic colors and status strings immediately leapt into brilliance, indicating where the gate’s catenary structure – its main power conduit – had been provisionally rerooted into the master catenary that ran under Manhattan, and from there into the more ancient world that was the source of the worldgates’ power. “So the power levels are back up now,” he said. “Ninety percent already, though the last ten won’t come up for a while yet because of the reaction trauma. The unwrap went all right: see, the extra strings have lost their flail and are rewebbing themselves with the main structure – “
His debrief to Rhiow took surprisingly little time. Arhu appeared to have been actually listening quite closely to Urruah, though Arhu normally would have done anything to avoid having anyone get that idea. But the thing that left Rhiow wondering, as Arhu talked her through the rest of the details surrounding the reattachment of the severed gate, was how like Saash he sounded as he talked string tech. It was strange. Yet maybe not so strange: for it was Saash who had perhaps been kindest to him when he first came into the team, Saash who had overwatched him, made sure he ate well and slept clean and dry, and had a proper place to do his business. Attachments, Rhiow thought. So odd. She never taught him a purr’s worth of theory. Yet, style: style communicates itself. And linkages happen where you expect them the least…
Finally she interrupted him in the middle of a long string of gate-tech jargon that would have impressed even Saash.“Enough,” she said. “You did good.”
Arhu flicked an ear at her, looking down toward where Jath and Fh’iss were now sitting together, looking with weary satisfaction at the unwrapped gate, watching its colors die back down from the excited state caused by moving it. “Wouldn’t say that in front of them,” he said.
“Maybe not,” Rhiow said, quite softly. “But I’m not sure it’s all that important to say it to them. To you, that’s another story.”
“They don’t respect you, Rhiow,” he said, and there was a touch of growl in his young voice.
“It’s not about respect, finally,” Rhiow said. “Getting the job done: that’s the issue. Let them be. It’s no fun for them to have someone come tailwaving her way onto their territory and start telling them how things are going to have to be. Soon enough they’ll settle in, when their gate does.”
“So can I go get my pastrami?”
She sighed. Urruah was to blame for this deli fixation on both the kits’ side, and for Ith’s as well: but at least they came by it honestly, asking ehhif for it rather than just stealing it from them. And watching Ith go through the wizardly gymnastics necessary to displace enough of his mass to disguise himself as a Person was always worth an evening’s amusement. “Go on,” Rhiow said. “Take a look around before you go: make sure Harl’h’s people didn’t miss anything.”
“Did that already,” Arhu said, flirting his tail at Rhiow’s slowness.
“Oh really? How, when you’ve been down here with me?”
“Sif’s doing it right now,” Arhu said, sounding smug, and vanished.
She twitched her whiskers forward in a Person’s smile, gave the settling worldgate one last look, and made her way back up the platform to Jath and Fh’iss. They turned on her a look of weary complaisance. There would probably be some minor recriminations from them tomorrow, during the debrief, but right now they just looked too tired.
That made this the perfect time to praise them: when they wouldn’t be able to summon up the energy to reject it. “Are we done?” Jath said as Rhiow came over. “Fh’iss was wrecked: I sent him off for some sleep.”
“We’re done enough for dawn,” Rhiow said. “The full debrief will keep: the gates need time to steady down, anyway. A long night, we’ve had. Jath, Hw’aa, you did a tremendous job. Please tell Fh’iss that too.” She wasn’t beyond leaving out, for the moment, how long it had taken them to commit themselves to make it a success. None of that mattered, now: they were done.
“Yes, well,” Jath said. “I’m still not sure whether we’ve really needed to do this. But the Powers wanted it done…”
“And you can restructure the gates into a better configuration for all the wizards who use the facility,” Rhiow said. “You’ve got so much more room to work down here now.”
“Yes, there is that…”
She waved her tail.“So we’re done. Keep me posted if anything needs my attention. I’m for my bed. Good morning, my cousins, and the Powers send that you sleep sound. No point in wishing you the luck of the hunt: you’ve had it…”
Jath actually purred. As Rhiow was walking away, behind her the first train of the morning came in, rolling towards Penn. A second before the train would have plowed through the airspace where the gate hung, the warp and weft of the worldgate shimmered away out of physicality, hanging hidden where it would remain until Jath and his team finished tweaking it.
Done, she thought. Finally, really done. What a relief… She made her way back up to street level, the same way she’d come.
When she came out onto Eighth Avenue again, the last of the police cordons were being taken down: the cops were heading off around the corner for coffee and donuts: and all the trucks and people, and the Film Board lady, were gone. There was no one left but a grey tabby, looking up Eighth Avenue to where the lights had changed, and a car or two were crossing the intersection from the side streets.
“Done?” he said.
Rhiow just purred. They sidled themselves, shifting out between the hyperstrings into the commonest kind of feline invisibility, and headed crosstown on Thirty-third.“Did you see those power levels settle?” Urruah said, in the same tone of voice as an ehhif saying, “How about those Mets?”
She put her whiskers forward, realizing she was going to get another half hour’s worth of tech talk. Rhiow just kept purring, letting him have a monosyllable’s worth of agreement here and there, until they were right back on the East Side again. Finally, well uptown and about halfway between Lexington and Park, Urruah just sighed. “A good night’s work,” he said.
“You have no idea,” Rhiow said. “Urruah, I think someone should talk to the Powers about you.”
He gave her a look.“I didn’t think I did that badly – ”
She paused long enough to cuff him upside one ear.“You thick-skulled idiot,” she said. “’Ruah, it’s time you thought about doing your team-leader training. Someone has to handle this job after I move on…”
He gave her a shocked look.“Rhiow,” he said. “What are you planning? Don’t you feel well?”
“I feel fine,” she said.
“Then what’s the matter?”
They paused at the corner of Park and looked down the length of it toward Grand Central, watching the lights change in sequence, to no effect: not a car moved anywhere. The gold of the rising Sun caught the top of the Helmsley-Spears building as Rhiow looked at it.“’Ruah, every now and then we all get tired…”
“Tired? You?” He jerked his tail a couple of times, dismissive, as they started across the street. “Come on. Your problem is that you don’t get out enough.”
“You’re going to tell me I need to be watching more oh’ra,” Rhiow said.
Urruah rolled his eyes at her.“You do. But that’s not the problem. You know what I mean.”
She waved her tail in a gesture of feigned non-understanding.“Maybe,” she said. “Let’s discuss it later. But either way, I think Harl’h needs to look into a change of status for you. An upgrade, anyway: and you need to start doing consulting work of your own.”
His own purr was surprisingly restrained.“Not sure I’m in such a hurry for that,” he said. “I like sleeping in my own Dumpster at night.”
She flirted her tail at him as they came to the corner where her ehhif’s apartment building lay. “Think about it, cousin,” she said. “And go get yourself that pastrami. I don’t think I have to watch you eat it.”
“We’ll save you a bit.”
She butted heads with him.“Don’t fret if you forget to,” she said. “Go on.”
For a moment she watched him walk down First Avenue, then turned to walk down her own block, past the brownstones and the parked cars. At the usual spot in the block, she stepped up into the air and activated the spell she kept ready for easy access to the building. The air, reminded that it had once been stone, or trapped in stone, now went solid under her feet, deconstructing itself as her pads left each“step”. Up to the terrace of her ehhif’s apartment she went, leaping up between the railings –
– and froze, blinking with shock. Her litter box was out on the terrace, under the overhang of the next terrace up. And there was another Person in it. Their eyes met.
Shocked, Rhiow held still, starting to fluff up in outraged reflex at the invasion of her territory. A tom: instantly she could see that. Black, though not as black as she was: you could still see the tabby markings through the darkness. Golden-eyed, a broad face, ears a little beat up, a shocked expression. He opened his mouth to speak–
Rhiow blinked. There was nothing there, no one in her box.
She stared: she shook herself. Slowly, her fur still halfway fluffed, she stalked toward the litterbox. She stared into it. No footprints. She sniffed. There was no scent there but the slight odor of the last time she’d made siss: no matter how her ehhif, Iaehh, tried to clean the box perfectly, and no matter what the clumping-litter people claimed about their product’s deodorizing powers, that scent was where she’d left it.
No, she thought, and shook her head until her ears rattled. Just a tired mind playing tricks. Very quietly Rhiow went into the apartment through the cat-door her ehhif had installed for her in the glass of the sliding door. Meditation can wait, she thought, her tail wreathing in bemusement. How much good would I get out of it when I’m so tired, I’m hallucinating?
She wandered through the darkened apartment, back into the bedroom. Quietly Rhiow jumped up onto the bottom corner of the king-sized bed, careful not to wake Iaehh up. He slept lightly, too lightly sometimes, since Rhiow’s own ehhif, his mate Hhuha, had died in an accident.
She stood there in the dark for a moment, missing Hhuha one more time, and once again feeling sorry for Iaehh. It’s not good for you to be alone, she thought. How does one do matchmaking for ehhif, I wonder? How do you engineer it so they get out a little more, and meet somebody nice? It wasn’t a question of replacing Hhuha, of course: no one could do that. But at the same time, it seemed important to ehhif life to be paired. Almost as important as it was for People: though ehhif always seemed to keep their emotional lives so compartmentalized…
She sighed, and then yawned. The long night’s work had caught up with her. Let’s get some sleep, she thought. Time enough in the morning to reorganize Iaehh’s social life.
She sat down and had a perfunctory wash; then her head jerked up as she started dozing right in the middle of it. Enough, she thought, and curled up nose to tail. A moment later she was dozing.
And out of the dream, golden eyes looked at her, thoughtful…
The Big Meow: Chapter Two
Afternoon seemed to come only a breath or two later. Rhiow rolled over and stretched out long, blinking at the bronzy light coming in through the bedroom’s Venetian blinds. From outside, she could hear faint clinking sounds; Iaehh was moving around out there. She heard one of the drawers in the little kitchen open, and then the clatter of ehhif eating utensils being taken out.
Rhiow sat up, gazing around the bedroom. As always, it was hard to avoid a pang of sadness; there was still a faint scent of Hhuha hanging about all the furnishings in the place. She was sure that Iaehh was oblivious to this— the ehhif sense of smell was hardly capable of such delicate detection — but every morning, before she was fully awake, Rhiow had to disentangle that faint scent of her own ehhif from the reality of the present physical world, in which her Hhuha was no longer present.
She let out a long breath, wishing that even once more she might hear that small, strange purr-like sound that Hhuha had used to make when she picked Rhiow up and held her, upside down, in the crook of one arm. But there were some things that not even wizardry could do. Hhuha was in her own place now, the right place for an ehhif to be after physical life was done, wherever that might be. And Rhiow, for her own part, knew that the sorrowful moments were the price she paid for keeping the memory of that relationship green. If she tried to reject them, soon she would have no true memory of Hhuha left, but merely a simulacrum, colored by wishful thinking and the desire to avoid pain, not by truth or life. As a wizard, it was with truth and life that her loyalties lay; so she suffered the pain gladly enough, the way you suffered the pain of biting a thorn out of your paw, though in this case the thorn grew back every day. All you can hope, she thought, is that each day the thorn grows back a little shorter…
Rhiow stood up, stretched fore and aft, and jumped down from the bed. She padded across the carpet, paused by the bedroom door to pull it a little further open with her paw, and wandered out into the living room-dining room area. Iaehh was standing in the tiny kitchen, bending over the stove and stirring something in a small pot. Rhiow stood there under the dining room table, sniffing. Noodles again, she thought. Iaehh, my kit, there’s more to life than ramen! Or there should be. But there had not been much heart in him for cooking since Hhuha died. That had become another of life’s little sorrows for Rhiow. The good smells that had once been part of life in this little den now hardly ever happened anymore; Iaehh’s life had become an endless round of takeout food in sad cardboard cartons. Rhiow found herself worrying about Iaehh’s heart in more than the strictly emotional sense, for half the time the dreadful stuff the delivery men brought smelled more of chemicals and fat that of any honest meat. Here’s an intervention it’s time I started working on in earnest, Rhiow thought. A poor sort of thing it is if you can save the city, save the world, but can’t even save your own ehhif.
She came up behind him to where her water dish sat in front of the oven next to the refrigerator. The name-charm on her collar tinkled against it as Rhiow put her head down into it for a good, long drink. Iaehh turned, looked down at her.“So there you are,” he said. “I thought you were going to sleep all day. Where were you all last night, huh?”
For the moment, she merely waved her tail and kept on drinking. Iaehh had slowly come to terms with the concept that Rhiow was able to jump down onto the roof of the building next door. He’d gradually become less troubled by that, as he couldn’t see how she could possibly get anywhere else from there. Had she been a cat like any of the other cats in the neighborhood, of course he would’ve been right. But that was a misconception of which Rhiow was not going to be able to disabuse him, as the protocols of wizardry forbade her to speak to ehhif in any way that could be understood unless she was actually on errantry concerning them at the time. There had been times, and would probably be again, when she would desperately wish that she had even ten seconds of time to make herself understood; only enough time to say, I have to be out for a few days on an intervention, don’t worry about me, I won’t miss any more meals than I have to… But there was no way. She simply had to try to keep her interventions as short as possible: yet another inconvenience in a life that was already busy enough. And now she had to wear the name-charm he’d bought her as well, in case she got lost somehow…and the jingling of the thing drove her crazy.
Rhiow sighed, and finished her drink, and went over to give Iaehh a friendly rub around the ankles.“Oh,” he said. “And now you’re my friend, because I’ve got food, huh?” He reached up toward the cupboard where the People food was kept.
“I’m always your friend,” she said. It did no harm to answer him in Ailurin, as he couldn’t hear it — very few ehhif could; the subvocalized purrs and trills of the language were usually out of their hearing range — and it kept her from feeling as if she was stuck in a monologue. “Catfood has nothing to do with it.” Then she caught the scent of what he was opening. “Except sometimes. Is that salmon? Oh, you really are observant sometimes! You saw I liked that brand last week — “
“Haven’t heard you shout like that for awhile,” he said. “Come on, let’s see you do your little dance, like you used to do for Sue — “
Rhiow reared up against his bare leg, patting it above the knee, with her claws barely in.“I’ll pull your kneecap right off,” she said, “if you don’t stop waving that dish around over my head. Like I can’t reach it if I really want to! Oh, put that down —”
She took a couple more swipes at the dish with her free paw, letting him play the you-can’t-have-it-game for a little longer. Finally he put the dish down, and Rhiow buried her face in it. After last night’s work, she was starving; and she was relieved to see the way Iaehh was dressed, in his shorts and singlet and running shoes, for it meant that he would be out for at least an hour or two — plenty of time for her to head over to Penn and check with Jath and Fh’iss to see how the gate had bedded in. Probably, she thought, I’m worrying for nothing. Probably the gate’s fine. Otherwise I would’ve heard from them by now.
All the same… if there was anything she’d learned in the years since she had ascended to the rank of senior technician for the North American worldgates, it was that it was rarely wise to assume that things were going to go correctly. Gates were one of the most finicky and complex kind of spell structures that a wizard dealt with on a regular basis. Anything that could be imagined going wrong with them usually did, on a regular if not daily basis. This meant that Rhiow and her teams were some of the busiest wizards in the Metropolitan area. But it was interesting work, mentally stimulating — especially since a worldgate rarely failed in the same way twice — and due to its very nature, a wizard involved in it routinely met some of the most interesting people on the planet, or off it.
“Now where did I put those keys,” Iaehh was muttering under his breath as he rummaged around among the paperwork piled up all over the kitchen table. It was routinely a clutter up there, these days; Iaehh rarely sat down to eat there, as if afraid to be reminded of who in the old days had always sat opposite him at the table, poking him with her chopsticks over the take away cartons.
“They’re up on the counter,” Rhiow said, straightening up from polishing the cat food dish clean. “You remember. You were going to try to make a new place for them, where you would always remember where you left them. Except you can never remember. Oh, come on, Iaehh, strain your brain a little!”
“I’ve really got to get this table cleaned up,” Iaehh said. He kept on turning over papers, stacking them up, shoving them around.
Rhiow sat down in the middle of the kitchen floor and started to wash her face.“Yes, you should,” she said softly,” but you say that every day. And it never gets done. Iaehh, do hurry up, I have things to do, and I’d rather not leave while you’re here watching…”
But he kept right on hunting for the keys in the same place, again and again, even while Rhiow finished washing both paws, and under her chin, and started in again on the left ear, even though it didn’t need it. Finally she lost her patience. She glanced over her shoulder, up on the counter, where the coffee machine sat. There were the keys, right on top of it. And of course, Rhiow thought, he could have left them a little too close to the edge of the coffee machine. He could have… and that’s all he needs to think.
Would you do me a favor? she said to the apartment keys in the wizardly Speech, and to gravity in that very small area. It was only a minuscule change of position that was needed, and as a result Rhiow had to pause for a moment to consult in her mind with the Whisperer to get the exact coordinates.
They came through. In her mind, using the Speech, Rhiow described a little circle around the coffeemaker to limit the locus of gravitational change, and indicated the spot where she wanted the keys to go. Right there, if you would—
Everything in a gravitational field likes to fall, and even more so if you ask it nicely. The keys dropped down onto the counter with an obligingly noisy clash of metal. Iaehh jumped, looked over his shoulder, and then laughed at himself.“I keep forgetting,” he said. “I have a brain like a sieve, these days…”
That was a thought that had occurred to Rhiow, as well. Probably stress, she thought. Iaehh had unexpectedly been promoted at his job, and was now managing a whole department. This had made it easier to keep the apartment he had shared with Hhuha, but he was now twice as busy as he had been before his loss. One more thing to worry about… Rhiow thought.
Rhiow changed position slightly and pushed out a hind leg to wash it. Iaehh had pocketed his keys, and was unlocking the apartment door. You’re up earlier than I expected, she said to Urruah.
I couldn’t stay asleep, Urruah said. Wanted to go over to Penn and check things out.
See, isn’t that what I said? What a professional you are. Especially since I’m the one who should be doing that.
“Okay,” Iaehh said, coming back over the Rhiow and bending down to stroke her head. “You have a nice day, plumptious puss. I’ll be back around dinnertime.”
“Yes, but your dinnertime or mine?” Rhiow said, resigned but affectionate, as Iaehh went out the door, shut it behind him, and started locking all the locks. Sorry, ‘Ruah. He’s running behind today, and so am I.
There’s no big rush, Urruah said. I haven’t been there either, yet. But I didn’t want to call you to make you feel guilty. Jath was asking for you.
Oh, sweet Iau, said Rhiow, standing up in a hurry, what can it be now? Tell me nothing’s gone wrong with the gate –
If it has, he didn’t mention it, Urruah said. It was something about L.A.
L.A? Rhiow said. The Los Angeles gate? Now what on earth— Immediately her mind began to fill with all kinds of terrible visions of something they had done wrong with the Penn gate that had affected the Downside connections of the L.A. microcomplex.
It’s nothing to do with our intervention last night, Urruah said, or at least not as far as I can tell. Anyway, Aufwi is on his way over. He and Jath are going to come up here; Jath wanted to sit tight and watch Aufwi’s transfer, to make sure the Penn gate is behaving itself.
All right, Rhiow said.‘Up here’ where? Are you at home? She had to pause for a moment to think where that was this week: Urruah intended to change dumpsters without warning, but normally he could be found somewhere in the west Seventies, near the better uptown food markets.
No, he said. The Met.
Fine, Rhiow said. Give me half an hour to make a swing through Grand Central— I’ll check our own gates to make sure there are no untoward side effects, and be right along. How did Jath seem you this morning?
Pleased, Urruah said. You’d swear this whole thing had been his idea.
Rhiow stood up and shook herself, putting her whiskers right forward in an expression of rueful amusement. That was how things usually went with Jath. He would protest and obstruct and dig in his claws, and in every way make getting a job done as hard as it could be— and then one sleep and one meal later, it was his own personal success, and could never happened without him. Well, the latter may be true, Rhiow thought. But, Powers that Be, I pray You, don’t make me have to admit to it out loud. I suppose I could bear it, but he’d swiftly become unbearable, and both our teams would suffer.
On the other side of the apartment door, the last locks snicked closed, and Rhiow could hear Iaehh’s footsteps heading off down the hall. ‘Ruah, Rhiow said as she went over to the door, give Jath my best, and let him know that I’ll be along shortly.
By the door, Rhiow sat up on her haunches, putting her front paws against the painted metal. There had been a rash of burglaries in this building a couple of years ago, and she had seen how, no matter how many locks and bolts other ehhif in the building put on their doors, the burglars were in no wise deterred. She had therefore become a bit proactive. The wizardry she had laced into the structure of the front of her ehhif’s den was a variant of that old favorite, the Mason’s Word; it took the very minimal stone content of the plaster on the outside of the wall, and the metallic content of the door, and convinced them both that, as they once had been in the ancient day, they now weighed about a ton and were still part of the insides of a mountain. The burglars whom the police had caught trying to break into the apartment most recently — a few months ago — had been found practically weeping with frustration, their sledgehammers shattered, and the wall and door looking innocently unconcerned by the wholeoperation. There had been no breakins since; the word seemed to have been going around among the local criminal fraternity that the building was haunted. But there was no telling how long this salutary state of affairs would last.
Now, pads against the door, Rhiow spoke the necessary words in the Speech and gave up the necessary energy to refuel the spell. Her workload of late had left her no time to consider how she might expand the spell to the other apartments on this floor. Something else that needs to be handled, she thought, watching the way the subtle fire of the recharged wizardry fled away from her paws and sank deep into the structure of the wall and door. She eyed the underlying structure of the wizardry critically, looking for any weak spots or places where the spell was fraying. But there were none: Rhiow prided herself on doing thorough work that was meant to last. It was a habit you got into when you worked routinely with worldgates. The Grand Central gates had been there for hundreds of years, a wizardry rooted in the depths of time, and placed there, so the Whispering said, by one of the daughters of Queen Iau herself. No wizard in his or her right mind would want to hang substandard workmanship on such a construction.
She looked the wizardry over one last time, then turned and made her way back to the sliding door that let out onto the terrace. Out the little clear plastic flap she slipped, onto the painted concrete of the terrace, and stood there for a moment looking around at the golden afternoon. The terrace was near the corner of the building, on the 70th Street side; off to Rhiow’s left, it was an easy jump down to the concrete parapet and flat, graveled roof of the building diagonally behind theirs. Maybe I’ll go down 69th today, she thought.
And then the litter box caught her eye.
Rhiow stared at it. There were still no footprints in it but hers. So weird, she thought. I really need to get some more rest… And then she laughed a cat’s silent laughter at herself. Like that’s going to happen.
She used the litter box, scratching perhaps a little more enthusiastically than usual to kick away the memory of those strange eyes looking at her. It would’ve been a rather challenging look in reality; people meeting for the first time didn’t stare so. There were proprieties of gaze to be observed, degrees of intrusiveness that were permitted later in a relationship but forbidden early on, and emphatically discouraged at a first meeting. Stress, she thought, externalizing itself at the end of a long day…. Rhiow hopped out of the box, shook the inevitable sticking kitty litter off her feet, slipped between the bars of the terrace, and jumped down onto the roof of the building to the left.
The concrete was warm under her pads; it had been sunny all afternoon, to judge by the residual heat. Did Iaehh bring his water bottle with him? Rhiow wondered, as she walked down the parapet, making for the garden-courtyard tree that grew near the far corner of that building. He’s going to need it, running on a day like this… At the far corner of the building, she paused at the edge of the parapet and looked down into the branches of the tree, a tall, handsome maple. The branches up here were very thin, much too much so to bear her weight. She could always have airwalked it, but she’d had little enough exercise in the last few days, and her muscles were itching for a good stretch. Rhiow crouched, her tail lashing, and then leaped down into the branches.
She saw the branch she was heading for, flung her forelegs around it and sank her claws in. Rhiow merely hung on there for a moment, breathing hard, digging her hind claws in as well and getting her bearings. She glanced over her shoulder, then down along the big branch toward the tree trunk. Some of the people in this building had houiff, mostly little dogs that were all yap and no guts; but there was no kindness in making some poor houff crazy by letting it see her when it couldn’t get at her. Like they’d be able to do that either… she thought, putting her whiskers forward.
As Rhiow shinnied down the trunk, she sidled, insinuating herself between the hyperspatial strings whose effect on matter determined whether it was visible or not. By the time she paused a few feet above the ground, reversed head for tail, and jumped down, only a wizard or another cat could have seen her. There, at the shade-starved corner of the little scrap of lawn behind the building, she stopped once more to glance around and see if there were any People around. Her block had about fifty, most of them held captive inside buildings by ehhif too afraid of the city’s dangers to let them out; the rest were more fortunate “pets”, or People unaligned with ehhif…some of them even nonaligned with other People, “out of pride”. But on a day like this, probably most of them are holed up somewhere cool. In the evening, some of them may come out for a boutof hauissh… when things cool down. But not right now.
She strolled away from the tree, around the corner of the building, and down the narrow little alley that led to a locked and barred wire covered gate giving onto 69th Street. Garbage cans were lined up there against the blind brick wall of the building. They were not as tightly closed as they could have been. Rhiow’s nose wrinkled as she went past; there had been rats here — she could smell their siss trail running up and down the wall and near the base of it, a nasty, thin, acrid reek. Something else to deal with when there’s time, Rhiow thought. Her work in errantry had not taken her so far from her feline roots that she would forget that most basic of enmities between her kind and the things that had gnawed at the roots of the world since time began. But who wants to get all messed up with rat-smell on a pretty day like this? And indeed it was a nice day, despite the heat; there was a steady, soft breeze coming in off the river, taking away the worst of the city stink.
Rhiow crouched at the bottom of the wired-up gate, leapt up onto it, pulled herself up claw over claw to the top of it, teetered for a moment on the topmost iron bar, and jumped down onto the sidewalk. There Rhiow stood for a moment, staying close to the gate so that no ehhif, unable to see her, would come wandering into her before she saw them. But the street was quiet enough for the moment. Down toward Third Avenue, she could see a couple of ehhif dams pushing their kits in strollers; nearer to her, a tall dark tom-ehhif with that strange twisted head-fur they seemed to be going in for these days came wandering down toward her with his arm around a shorter ehhif, a queen. Rhiow let them go by before she headed down the sidewalk herself, and put her whiskers forward a little at the look on their faces. She was sure she was reading it right; she had seen it often enough on Iaehh and Hhuha before, usually a few minutes before they went into the bedroom, closed the door, and began to do what Hhuha had routinely referred to as“the cat-scaring thing.” A nice sort of day for it, Rhiow thought, as she ambled down the north side of 69th Street, past the stairs of the mid-street brownstones; assuming you’re interested, of course. It had been quite awhile since she had been — her ehhif had had her spayed before she was old enough to understand what was happening. But she had never particularly regretted it. Freedom from that particular physical imperative had left her with that much more time to concentrate on the business of being a wizard. Possibly a good thing, Rhiow thought, sidestepping into the stairwell of the basement apartment to let a couple more ehhif-dams with strollers go by. Since, over the last couple of years, if I hadn’t had that spare time to concentrate, for all I know, I’d’ve been dead a couple times over…
Rhiow came to the corner of Third Avenue and 69th and tucked herself as flat as she could against the corner wall of the apartment building there. Ehhif walked to and fro before her while she sat there waiting for the light to change, and wondering what in the world could be wrong with the L.A. gate. It wasn’t a heavily used portal; no interplanetary traffic went through there at all, and mostly short jump traffic off the North American continent toward Asia. As the light changed, she wondered once again why the L.A. gate had never budded off any associated microgates in response to the city’s population’s growth over the last century. Normally, worldgates were a direct response of the fabric of local space time to the fraying pressure of millions of sentient minds concentrated into a small space. Rather than rip right open under the desires of all the beings living crammed together there,spacetime usually tried to conserve itself by producing a sort of semipermeable membrane through which beings who knew the portal’s location could pass. And normally, Rhiow thought as the light changed and she got up and trotted across Third Avenue in company with all of the other pedestrians, but well to one side, a given gate complex isn’t shy about budding if the local population’s large enough. Look at Tokyo: how many gates are there in that complex now? Fourteen? Fifteen? I lose track; this last decade, it’s like the thing’s in heat all the time. It no sooner has one gate that it hauls off and has another…
Rhiow patted the problem around with the paw of the mind for a while as she made her way down 69th toward Park Avenue. But the air was too soft and pleasant, and for once, nice-smelling, for her to find it easy to concentrate. Rhiow crossed Park Avenue, pausing once another crowd of ehhif had gone by to take a moment to smell the flowers there, yellow delphiniums and yellow and purple pansies. The lights went red and green together, and Rhiow scampered across again, heading for Lexington Avenue.
She had a standard covert entrance to the Grand Central complex down at 50th and Lex, but there was no particular need to go straight underground and quickly blot out the scent of that summer air. For a change, Rhiow simply trotted down the west side of Lexington Avenue like any other sightseer or Sunday shopper, until she came to the brass-and-glass doors of Grand Central Market. Urruah’s beginning to contaminate me too, Rhiow thought, amused, as she walked invisibly down between the stalls of beautiful meat and hot breads and shining fruit, sniffing appreciatively, and then out into the food hall full of coffee smells and frying smells. On the far side of the food hall, she paused long enough to gaze over toward the glass-paned arch of the Oyster Bar restaurants, closed this early on a Sunday. But to a cat’s nose, such closure was a relative thing. Behind those doors, Rhiow could smell oysters being shucked, and her mouth began to water. I’m going to get him for getting me hooked on those things, she thought, and ran up the stairs to the Main Concourse.
Sunday in Grand Central merely meant that there were fewer commuters among the crowds walking that wide shining floor, and many more people out for a pleasant day in the city— ehhif parents towing along kits who in turn towed along bunches of bright balloons; shoppers with fat carrybags full of tasty-smelling loot; tourists gawking at the beautiful, newly cleaned sky-ceiling and the great downhanging striped flag. There was no escaping the scent of food here, either;the station’s recent renovation had placed a restaurant at each end of the great Concourse, and from one of them the smell of grilling meat floated most appetizingly. But for the moment, Rhiow had other business. She headed across the floor toward the north-side archway labeled Track 32.
There were a couple of ehhif walking down the long, fluorescent-lit platform ahead of her. Rhiow put her whiskers forward at the sight of them, for though there was no train at the platform, and there wasn’t scheduled to be one there for at least another twenty minutes, they didn’t move like ehhif who were waiting for something that wasn’t there. Rhiow wandered along behind them, saw the two ehhif stop at the end of the platform and look into the dark, down where the overhead lighting stopped and the great broad spread of tracks began to draw together. One of them, a tall young tom with long blond hair and a shockingly loud Hawaiian shirt, pulled out a book and began to page through it. His companion, a she-ehhif even taller than he, though much darker and much more quietly dressed, looked over his shoulder at what he was reading.
They must have had their access spell pre-prepared, for barely a tail-flick later, the gate manifested itself. In the darkness, hanging in midair about a foot from the left edge of the platform, the portal matrix that Rhiow kept anchored by Track 32 shivered into visibility— at least for Rhiow and the wizards. Theoretically, a nonwizardly ehhif could have seen it. But the gate was edge-on to any other ehhif who might have approached up the platform; and it would have been unlikely that a nonwizardly ehhif could have seen a wizardry even if they were looking straight at it. Nonetheless, these two were being careful. The tom-ehhif glanced back down the platform, saw Rhiow, and hesitated— then said, “Cousin, we’re on errantry, and we greet you —”
“I can see you’re in a hurry,” Rhiow said in the Speech. “Don’t let me keep you, cousins.” She strolled over to them, peering through the gate. Past the rainbow shimmer of its edges, Rhiow caught a glimpse of a reddish landscape, rocky and stark, under an indigo sky. “Mars?” she said.
“Morocco,” the queen-ehhif said. “That earthquake.”
“That attempted earthquake,” her companion said. “We’re going to go talk it out of it.”
“Go well, cousins,” Rhiow said. “And Iau on your side!” – for the many variables associated with quakes made working with them a chancy business at best. The young woman waved at her; they stepped through.
A second later they were gone, and the worldgate snapped back into its normal configuration, the familiar interwoven structure of tightly laced hyperstrings, glowing and rippling in the darkness of the tunnel like a silken tapestry of light. This gate, at least, was behaving correctly— serving its proper purpose of helping wizards get around without having to waste the universe’s precious energy on individually-constructed transport spells. Rhiow sat up on her haunches and beckoned the gate a little closer. Obediently it drifted right to the edge of the platform, and Rhiow reached out, hooked her claws into the control-weave at the edge of the gate, and pulled it out taut.
The gate-strands caught in her claws glittered with light and symbology in the Speech, the worldgate’s realtime diagnostics. It was working fine; the relocation of the Penn gates seemed to have had no effect on it all. …At the moment, Rhiow thought. Worldgates were full of little surprises… but then, when you were dealing with a wizardry so complex, and one that got so much use by wizards other than the ones who maintained it, this was only to be expected.
She took a moment to query the other two Grand Central gates via this one’s control structure, but found nothing to concern her: all three were behaving as well as they ever did. All right, Rhiow thought. She let most of the hyperstrings snap back into the body of the gate structure, but kept a claw in one of them. This one she pulled toward her, twisting it to bring up one of the configurations she had long since laid into the gate for casual use.
The surface of the gate shivered again, paling away except at the bright-burning edges. The view was uninspiring— a pocked, pale-beige travertine wall, shadowy even on such a bright day. Rhiow let that last string snap back into the gateweave, gathered herself, and leapt through in the second and a half before the gate would revert to its standby state.
She came down at the foot of that wall and huddled against it for a moment, looking quickly to right and left. Distracted ehhif sometimes came tearing along here in a desperate hurry, running up from the nearest of Lincoln Center’s many ticket windows and plunging around the corner ahead and to her left, making singlemindedly for the front doors of that high-arched and beautiful building where ehhif gathered to hear and sing astonishingly long and involved songs that were usually mostly about sex. And then after five or six hours of it, they sit there and applaud even though there hasn’t actually been any, Rhiow thought, heading up around the corner herself. Ehhif are so odd sometimes…
At the moment, though, there was little traffic in the area. Rhiow got up and made her way down toward that corner herself, standing there for a few moments to enjoy both the breeze that came down through the ticket-window overpass, and the view. Before her the big circular fountain in front of the Metropolitan Opera danced in the westering sun in an ever-changing liquid-gold glitter, and many ehhif of both sexes sat on the broad rim of the fountain’s basin, trying to get themselves as wet as possible. Rhiow looked right and left again, and couldn’t see Urruah in any of his favorite places – at the top of the steps in front of the Met’s doors, out in the fountain plaza, or over by the plaza-side caf? on the ground floor of Avery Fisher Hall, where he liked to cadge goodies from the more cat-friendly tourists at the outdoor tables. He’s inside, then.
Rhiow retraced her steps past the ticket window and under the overpass connecting the Met to the New York Public Library’s music annex. Once out on the Amsterdam Avenue side she hung a left. There she found the big steel backstage doors predictably open, in this weather, regardless of security precautions, and the usual crowd of stagehands hanging around outside it with lit smokesticks in their hands, working hardto breathe in more foul fumes than the City already thoughtfully provided. She flirted her tail in annoyance at one more example of human peculiarity as she stalked past them into the cool airy shadows of the backstage area. If they had more than one life to waste, I could understand it, I suppose.But they don’t. Ehhif…!
The big backstage“fly” area, nearly four storeys high, was as usual full of scenery containers being pulled out of huge trucks and pushed back into them. Even an unsidled Person could have found it easy enough to hide back here – and indeed, there were a number of People wandering here and there, either beingchased or studiously ignored by the workers — but Rhiow had neither need nor desire to unsidle in this stir and bustle of ehhif pulling the contents out of huge crates and stuffing them back into others. She glanced around.
“Up here, Rhi,” Urruah shouted. Rhiow looked around and up, as did numerous of the ehhif, who then shrugged when they couldn’t see anything where the meowing noise seemed to be coming from, about thirty feet up against one of the backstage area’s sheer concrete-block walls. But Rhiow could see where Urruah and Jath were waiting for her up on an outward-jutting structural I-beam. Rhiow spoke her “skywalking” variant of the Mason’s Word spell and went up a stair of air to where they waited, meanwhile ignoring the shocked or annoyed glances of some of the other People in the area. It had taken her a while, early in her career, to get used to the idea that some People didn’t approve of wizardry, or see the point in it, and some didn’t even believe in it. She’d learned eventually not to allow this to affect her work, but sometimes she still found the weight of other People’s regard on her fur an unwelcome addition to the day’s burdens. Even now there were eyes looking at Rhiow from the shadows, behind crates or under tarpaulins, thoughtful, or angry, or filled with other more complex, more unwelcome emotions…
She flirted her tail carelessly and jumped up onto the beam, dismissing the wizardry. Jath was crouched down into a compact bundle of silvery gray, looking relaxed, and as self-satisfied as Urruah had warned her. She bent down to bump noses with him.“Are you rested, cousin? That was some work you did…”
“Rested enough,” he said. “Thanks, Rhiow. But business takes precedence, as usual…” He glanced behind him.
Aufwi was sitting there in front of Urruah, his tail curled up neatly around his toes, and maintaining a posture probably more formal than he strictly needed to use with a wizard who was simply acting in a supervisory capacity in his specialty, and not as an actual Advisory or Senior. It was a courtesy in someone his age, only one life on and a few years into that, but there was really no need for it. To defuse it she went straight over and breathed breaths with him.“Aufwi,” she said, “long time no smell, cousin!” Her lips wrinkled back at the agreeable scent of fresh tuna. “Can that be sushi?”
“I had time for a snack before I came,” Aufwi said.
“Some snack,” Rhiow said. “The Eye can’t have been up more than an hour or two in LA, cousin! I wish more of my breakfasts were like that – “
“I moved into a hHaha’hnese restaurant,” Aufwi said. “They had a vermin problem…I solved it.” He looked smug. “And apparently my coloring’s lucky for them.”
That interested Rhiow. Aufwi was shorthaired and mostly white-furred, but also sported the occasional patch of red-brown or gray.“You need to tell me more about that when you have time,” Rhiow said. “But first tell me what brings you out all this way.”
“Well,” Aufwi said, “at first sniff, anyway, I’d say that the L.A. gate is finally trying to spawn.”
Rhiow blinked at that.“Iau’s name, I thought Great Rhoua would wink before that happened! Though I can’t say I mind being wrong. When did this start?”
“A few weeks ago,” Aufwi said. “At first I thought it was another ‘false labor:’ you know how many of those we’ve had over the years. All these little shudders and discontinuities in the main gate’s function, they build up, they build up some more, and then…nothing!” His tail thumped in mild frustration, and some embarrassment: he’d reported quite a number of these “fleabites” to Rhiow over the past year and a half.
“But this has been different, I take it,” Rhiow said.
“A lot,” said Aufwi. “There hasn’t been anything small about these discontinuities. The gate’s connection to its power sources in the Downside starts wavering, as if something’s pulling power off it – “
“Which is impossible,” Urruah said, “under normal circumstances.” He gave Rhiow a look over Aufwi’s shoulder. Together they had lately been through some very non-normal circumstances involving their own gates, and power-loss or diversion had routinely been a symptom.
“But it always comes right back again,” Aufwi said, tilting one ear back at Urruah. “Then, right after that, you get a spacetime tremor somewhere in the neighborhood, never outside a thousand-meter radius. And never very big, a little shallow gravitational dimple — exactly the kind of thingyou get when a new gate’s about to manifest. It even displays the right kind of offset.” That was a peculiarity of new gates when they opened: they often pushed themselves a little off to one side of the largest local population concentration, rather than appearing right in the middle of it. “And then – “ His tail started to thrash.
“Nothing?” Rhiow said.
“Repeatedly,” said Aufwi. His green eyes narrowed with his annoyance: it was as if he thought this was all his fault somehow. “I can’t get rid of the idea that I’ve been doing something wrong at the management end.”
Over Aufwi’s shoulder, Urruah gave Rhiow a look that was half irony, half sympathy: once upon a time, he’d been full of such complaints himself, before Saash whacked him into some kind of confidence in his own abilities. “So far,” Urruah said, “it all sounds like it came right from the Whisperer toyour ear. You can’t hurry a gate; especially not this one. We all know it’s had a peculiar developmental history. I can’t see any way you’ve misstepped.”
“You’re kind to say that,” Aufwi said. “But this last time – the day before yesterday – the pattern changed a little, and I started to get concerned. It took the main gate something like an hour to get back to normal – in terms of the power conduit to the Downside re-establishing itself – and that could have been big trouble, if I hadn’t been able to shut it down before anyone started a transit through it. Also, the gate jumped out of its normal position.”
“But it’s always doing that,” Urruah said.
Rhiow waved her tail in agreement: the LA gate was famously peripatetic for any worldgate associated with such a large population center.“It’s just that Los Angeles has never had enough people concentrated tightly enough together to convince the gate to put down a permanent spatial root,” she said. “The city’s so spread out…”
“Believe me, I know,” Aufwi said. “It’s the story of my life. Is the gate in Union Station today, or has it rolled over to Olvera Street again, or jumped over to Wilshire? I get a lot of exercise.” This time Aufwi at least looked amused as well as annoyed. “But this time it jumped a lotfurther than usual, right into Chavez Ravine. And it was active when it jumped.”
Jath abruptly glanced up, looking interested.“Were they playing?” he said.
Urruah blinked.“Playing what?”
“Vh’aisss’vhall,” Jath said.
Rhiow knew about the game, but only vaguely: it was something Iaehh often watched on the imagebox in the apartment. For the moment, though, her eyes widened as she thought of a live worldgate falling into a stadium full of unsuspecting ehhif.“You caught it and brought it back, of course….”
“Sure. The gate’d gone quiescent again by then. But they could never find out what happened to the ball that the ehhif at bat hit into it–”
“How did they score that?” Jath said, actually sitting up as if the proceedings were now of some interest to him.
“A strike,” Aufwi said. “Foul tip.”
“Oh, now that doesn’t make any sense,” Jath said. “Was the gate in the ss’hahium when he hit the ball into it? Then it’s an ihhn-hhark hhome-rrhun – “ ...
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