IN THE BRIGHT LIGHT of an early spring morning, a teenage girl in faded blue jeans and a cropped white T-shirt stood in her downstairs bathroom, brushing her teeth and examining herself with a critical eye. Have I lost weight? she thought, pulling the T-shirt a little away from her as she looked down. This doesn't fit like it did two weeks ago...
The view in the mirror was more or less the usual one: light brunette hair cut just above her shoulders, a face neither unusually plain nor unusually beautiful, a nothing-special figure for a fourteen-year-old. But there were changes besides the fit of her T-shirt. Nita Callahan racked the toothbrush and then leaned close to the mirror over the sink, pulling down the skin above her right cheekbone with one finger. My tan looks pretty good, but are those circles under my eyes? she thought. I look wrecked. You'd think I hadn't just had ten days off on a planet that was almost all beach. "I think I need a vacation from my vacation," Nita muttered.
She started to turn away from the sink...then stopped, noticing something in the mirror. Nita leaned close to it again, pushing her bangs up with one hand and eyeing her forehead. Oh no, is that a pimple coming up? She poked it, felt that telltale sting. Great. I really need this right now!
She sighed. "Okay," she said. Normally she wouldn't have been enthusiastic about spending any significant part of her morning talking to a zit, but if she talked the pimple out of happening right now, it'd take her less effort than if she waited until later.
"Uh, excuse me," she said in the wizardly Speech-and then stopped. Wait a minute. I don't know the word for "pimple."
Nita frowned. For a moment she considered the tube of facial scrub on the shelf by the sink, then shook her head and reached out toward what otherwise looked like empty air beside her. Into that "empty air," the pocket of otherspace where she normally kept her wizard's manual, Nita's arm disappeared up to the shoulder. She felt around for a moment-I really have to clean this thing out; there's too much stuff in here-and then pulled out what to most people would have looked like a small hardbound library book an inch or so thick.
Nita started paging through it. Let's see. Pimple, pimple...see "aposteme." She shook her head, turning more pages. What's an aposteme? Sometimes I really wonder about the indexing in this thing.
"Nita?" came a shout, faintly, from the other end of the house.
"What, Daddy?" she shouted back.
Nita raised her eyebrows. At this hour of the morning? It's not Kit; he wouldn't bother with the phone. "Thanks!"
The word for "phone," at least, she knew perfectly well. Nita held out her hand. "If you would?" she said in the Speech to the handset in question.
The portable phone from the kitchen appeared in her hand, its hold button blinking. She hit the button, meanwhile balancing her manual on the edge of the sink while she kept paging through it. "Hello?"
"Nita," Tom Swale's voice said. "Good morning."
"Hey, how are you?" Nita said.
"A little pressed for time at the moment," said her local Senior Wizard. "How was your holiday?"
"Not bad," she said. "Listen, what's the Speech word for 'pimple'?"
There was a pause at the other end. "I used to know that," Tom said.
"But you don't anymore?"
"I'll look it up. You should do that, too. How are your houseguests doing?"
"They're fine as far as I know," Nita said. "Probably having breakfast. I was just going to get some myself."
"You should definitely do that," Tom said. "But can you and Kit and the visiting contingent spare me and Carl a little time afterward?"
"Uh, sure," Nita said. "I was going to call you anyway, because I heard some really strange things from Dairine about what went on here while we were away...and the manual wouldn't say anything about the details. Where did you guys vanish to? Assuming I'm allowed to ask."
"Oh, you're allowed. That's what I'm calling about. I have a lot of people to get in touch with today, but since you two and your guests are just around the corner, we thought we might drop by and brief you in person."
"Sure," Nita said. "I'll let everybody know you're coming."
"Fine. An hour or so be all right?"
"Great. See you then."
Tom hung up, leaving Nita staring at the phone in her hand. She pushed the hang-up button and just stood there.
"Wow," she said. She looked down at the manual, which now lay open to one of its many glossaries, and was showing her fourteen different variations on the "aposteme" word. "Kit?" Nita said.
A slightly muffled reply came seemingly from the back of the manual, along with the sound of barking somewhere in the Rodriguez household. "I can't believe we're out of dog food," Kit said. "I leave for a week and a half, and this place goes to pieces."
"We were doing just fine without you," said another voice from two blocks away: Kit's sister Carmela. "It's not our fault you forgot to put dog food on the shopping list before you left. Neets, is it true he destroyed a whole alien culture in just ten days?"
Nita snorted. "It wouldn't have been just him, 'Mela," she said. "And we didn't destroy it. We just happened to be there when they were going on to the next thing."
'Just happened'?" Carmela said. Her tone was one of kindly disbelief. "You're so nice to try to share the blame! See you later on..."
After a moment Kit said, "Am I allowed to think about teleporting her to Titan and dumping her in a lake of liquid methane?"
"No," Nita said, feeling around under her bed for her sneakers. "It'd upset those microbes there...the ones Dairine's been coaching in situational ethics."
"The thought of Dairine coaching anybody in ethics...," Kit said. "No offense, but sometimes I wonder if someday our solar system is going to be famous for having entire species made up of criminal masterminds."
"Well, if the Powers That Be have slipped up, it's too late to do anything now. And speaking of the Powers, you should get over here in about an hour. Tom and Carl want to talk to everybody."
"We're not in trouble, are we?"
"I don't think so," Nita said. "In fact, I think maybe they are."
"And here I thought we were going to have a few quiet days before spring break was over," Kit said.
Nita shook her head. "Guess not. But now we get to find out why nobody could find them anywhere."
From down the hall, toward the front of the house, she could hear voices in the dining room. "Sounds like they're having breakfast out there," Nita said.
"Should I wait to come over?"Nita shrugged and turned away from the mirror. "What for?" she said. "You might as well come have some breakfast, too, if you haven't had anything."
"I have," Kit said, "but another breakfast wouldn't kill me. Give me ten minutes, though. I have to talk to Ponch."
"Why? Are all the neighbors' dogs sitting around outside the house again?" This had been a problem recently, apparently due to some kind of wizardly leakage. Diagnosing its source had been difficult with so much wizardry happening around their two households lately...and with the present houseguests in residence, the diagnosis promised to get no easier.
"Nope," Kit said. "Everything's perfectly quiet. He just has some more questions about life."
Nita smiled. "Yeah, who doesn't, lately," she said. "Take your time."
Nita paged briefly through the manual, looking at the pimple words. There are too many ways to have this conversation, she thought. And I'm still pooped. If Tom hadn't called, I'd just go back to bed. She yawned-
In the moment when her eyes closed during the yawn, the darkness reminded Nita of some...