Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 30
Stories
Sojourn for Ephah
by Marina Lostetter
Dragonslayer
by Nathaniel Lee
Write What You Want
by Eric James Stone
Constance's Mask
by Nick T. Chan
The Last God-Killer
by Grá Linnaea & Dave Raines
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Shaken to the Bone
by David Lubar
Orson Scott Card - Sneak Preview
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Flying Children
    by Orson Scott Card
(Excerpted from The Gate Thief)


1

On a certain day in November, in the early afternoon, if you had just parked your car at Kenney's burger place in Buena Vista, Virginia, or maybe you were walking into Nick's Italian Kitchen or Todd's Barbecue, you might have cast your gaze up the hill toward Perry McCluer High School. It could happen. You have to look somewhere, right?

You might have noticed something shooting straight up out of the school. Something the size and shape of, say, a high school student. Arms waving, maybe. Legs kicking -- count on that. Definitely a human being.

Like a rocket, upward until he's a mile above Buena Vista. He hangs in the air for just a moment. Long enough to see and be seen.

And then down he goes. Straight down, and not falling, no, shooting downward just as fast as he went up. Bound to kill himself at that speed.

You can't believe you saw it. So you keep watching for a moment longer, a few seconds, and look! There it is again! Too far away to be sure whether it's the same kid or a different one. But if you've got someone with you, you grab them, you say, "Look! Is that a person? Is that a kid?"

"Where?"

"In the sky! Above the high school, look up, I'm saying straight up, you seeing what I'm seeing?"

Down comes the kid, plummeting toward the school.

"He's got to be dead," you say. "Nobody could live through that."

And there it is again! Straight up!

"That's one hell of a trampoline," somebody says.

If you noticed it early enough, you'd see it repeated about thirty times. And then it stops.

Do you think they're dead? I don't know, how could anybody live through that? Should we go up and see? I'm not even sure it was people, it could have been, like, dummies or something. We'd sound so stupid -- hey, you got a bunch of kids getting catapulted straight up and then smashing down again? It can't be what it looked like. Maybe we'll see it on the news tonight.

Three different people got it on their smartphones. Not the whole thing, but the last five or six, and one guy got fifteen of them. High quality video it wasn't, but that actually made it more credible. All three videos got emailed to people. All three ended up on YouTube.

Lots of comments: "Fake." "Why do people bother making crap like this?" "You can see that the lighting's different on the flying dummies." "Cool. Something new and fun to do with your old GI Joe's." The usual.

The local news stations aren't all that local. Lynchburg. Roanoke. Staunton. They don't give a rat's ass about Buena Vista -- the town never amounted to anything even before it died, that's what people think in the big city. If those are big cities.

And the footage is so implausible, the flying figures so tiny that it wouldn't look like anything on TV screens. Besides, the fliers were so high that at the top, all you can see is a dot in the sky, not even the mountains. So it's sky, clouds, and a dot -- makes no sense. Has to be a bird. Has to be a trick of the light. So it doesn't get on the news.

But scattered through the world, there are a few thousand people who know exactly what could cause those kids to fly. Straight up, straight down, incredibly fast and yet no news stories about dead kids at a Virginia high school. Oh, yeah, it makes sense to them, all right.

It's an act of a god. No, not an "act of God," to use the weasel-out-of-it words in insurance policies. Not God. A god.

Or at least people used to call them gods, in the old days, when Zeus and Mercury and Thor and Vishnu and Borvo and Mithra and Pekelnik were worshiped wherever Indo-European languages were spoken.

Nobody called them gods anymore, but they were still around. Weaker now, because they could no longer pass through the Great Gates that used to carry them from Earth to Westil and back again, greatly magnifying their powers.

Only a gatemage could send someone from one place to another instantaneously, but there hadn't been a gatemage since 632 a.d., when the last Loki of the Norse destroyed all the gates on Earth, disappearing through the last Great Gate and closing it behind him.

In the North Family compound, only a few miles away from Buena Vista, one of the kids spotted the longest YouTube video only a few hours after it went up on the web, and within twenty minutes the most powerful mages in the family piled into a pickup truck and headed for the high school. They knew it was Danny North who had done it, Danny the son of Odin and Gerd, a boy who had seemed to be drekka until one day he up and disappeared.

Now they knew that he hadn't gone as far as they thought. Now they knew he wasn't drekka at all, but a gatemage. And a strong one. Because the video didn't show somebody suddenly appearing in the air, which is how gates usually worked. No, the flying figures could be seen as they moved upward. They were moving fast, yes, but it wasn't instantaneous. They rose into the air, visible the whole way.

That meant it wasn't just any gate. It was an attempt at a Great Gate. A spiral intertwining of many gates at once, rising straight up from the surface of the Earth. And even if it only reached a mile into the air, it was one more mile of Great Gate than had existed in nearly fourteen centuries.

Here's the thing. Some of the gods on that pickup truck were heading for Perry McCluer High School in order to find Danny North and kill him. Because that's what you did with gatemages -- they brought nothing but trouble down on the family, and if the Norths had a gatemage and allowed him to live, all the other Families would unite against them and this time they wouldn't be allowed to survive the war that was bound to start.

The Norths had to be able to show Danny's dead body to the other Families -- it was their only hope of survival. If history had taught them nothing else, it taught them that.

But other gods on that truck had a different plan entirely. Danny's father and mother had known perfectly well that Danny was a gatemage -- it was in hopes of creating a gatemage that Gerd and Alf had married each other back before Alf became head of the family and took the name Odin. The two most powerful mages in generations: lightmage Gerd with her power over electricity and light; stonemage Alf, with his strange new talent for getting inside the workings of metal machines. Everyone expected a child of theirs to be extraordinarily talented

But Gerd and Alf had studied the genealogical tables and they knew that gatemages, rare as they were, came most often to couples with very different affinities. Like stone and lightning, or water and fire. And never to beastmages. So they hoped. And when Danny showed no sign of being able to do magery, or even raise a clant -- even the most minimal abilities -- they hoped even more. Because yes, he might have been drekka, worthless, devoid of power; but he might also be a gatemage, unable to raise a clant because his outself was fragmented into all the potential gates that he could make in his life.

And a year ago, when Danny ran away, Thor had used his clant to converse with Danny before he got too far away, and had confirmed that yes, Danny was making gates and yes, Danny finally knew what he was.

So the gods on that truck were evenly divided between those intending to murder Danny before he could make a gate and get away, and those determined to enlist his power in the service of the family.

They got there too late. Danny had already made a Great Gate, and the Gate Thief hadn't eaten his gates. Danny's had friends -- Orphans who didn't belong to any Family -- and some of them had passed through the Great Gate and returned. It made their power irresistible. The Norths were sent home in utter and ignominious defeat.

But none of them had been killed. It was a good sign that Danny and his friends had refrained from doing any serious damage. They still might be able to work something out -- especially if they eliminated the faction of the North family that still wanted Danny dead. Times have changed, Uncle Zog! We can't kill our gatemage, Grandpa Gyish!

We have to get Danny to let us pass through a Great Gate! You saw how powerful his friends became -- a cowsister took your eagle right out of the sky, Zog! A mere cobblefriend was able to open up a rift in the ground and swallow our truck! Imagine what Odin will do with his power over metal and machinery, what Gerd will do with electricity, when they pass through a Great Gate.

And imagine what the other Families will do to us if Danny lets any of them through a Great Gate before us. No, that's not a reason to kill him -- how will we even get near him now? He's warned, he's ready, he'll just gate away from us. You know the stories. The winged feet of Mercury, seven-league boots -- gatemages can be gone before your attack comes close to them; or they can suddenly appear behind you and kill you before you turn around.

Gatemages are slippery! Once they come into their power, you can't kill them. Even if you sneak up on them somehow, passing through a gate heals any wound. We're no threat to a gatemage. We need him -- alive and on our side. So we have to talk to Danny. Appeal to his family loyalty.

And if you can't stop trying to kill him, then we'll have no choice but to put you in Hammernip Hill. For the good of the family.

You understand, yes, you do -- you'd do it yourself. There's a gatemage in the world, one who created a Great Gate and wasn't destroyed by the Gate Thief. And that gatemage is our own Danny. He knows us, he grew up among us. He has roots in our garden. We need to play that up. We need to bring him back to us. Not irritate him with foolish attempts to murder him. Get it? Are you going to leave him alone? Keep him safe? Make friends with him?

Yes, you say so now, but can we trust you? Stay away from him. Let Odin and Gerd do the negotiating. Or Thor. Or Mook and Lummy. People he likes and trusts. Don't let him see you. We want him to forget all the nasty things you did to him growing up.

The Norths weren't the only Family that spotted those YouTube videos -- they were just the closest. The Illyrians, for instance, were already aware that there was a gatemage in the North Family. That's why they were spying on the Norths constantly.

And when their own gatefinder, Hermia, went missing, their suspicions were confirmed. For a while, they thought the Norths' gatemage had killed her -- gated her to the bottom of the ocean, for instance, or out into space. But then one of their clants had spotted her, still very much alive, and she was using the gates.

Now the YouTube videos confirmed that the Norths' gatemage was powerful -- a gatefather, able to raise a Great Gate all by himself, or perhaps drawing partly on Hermia's abilities -- and it was time to get Hermia back under Family control. Chances were good that the Norths' gatemage could be turned, recruited into the Argyros family. Hermia was their tool to accomplish that. To get Illyrian mages to Westil and back again.

Once mages were restored to their full power, who could stand against them?

Left to themselves for fourteen centuries, the drekka had made a mess of things, and they were only getting worse. It was time for Earth to be ruled by gods again.

2

It was early morning, and Coach Lieder was still at home, Danny had run here from the tiny cottage where he lived alone. He could have created a gate, but that would have made a mockery of his decision the night before, after confronting his family, not to make any more gates at the high school. Technically, Coach Lieder's house wasn't the school, but since his promise had been made only to himself, who would he be fooling?

Besides, he had hardly slept last night. He needed the run in the brisk -- no, cold -- morning air. It was better than coffee, when your goal was to become alert rather than jittery.

He knocked lightly on the door, avoiding the doorbell in case someone in the house was still asleep. He also waited patiently before giving another couple of raps. Then the door opened.

Coach Bleeder -- sorry, Coach Lieder -- stood there in all his half-dressed glory. Apparently he slept in boxers and an old t-shirt -- no one would change into such an outfit first thing in the morning. And he looked bleary-eyed, tense, worried. This surprised Danny, since at school Bleeder usually showed only two emotions: contempt and anger. Now Lieder seemed vulnerable somehow, as if something had hurt him or might hurt him; as if he were grieved, or expected to grieve.

"You," said Coach Lieder. And now the contempt reappeared.

Danny expected Lieder to say something about the rope ladder incident yesterday in the gym. But he just stood there.

"Sir, I know it's early," said Danny.

"What do you want?"

Well, if he was going to act like nothing happened, that was fine with Danny. Only now he had to have a reason for being there. Instead of doing damage control from his showing off of godlike powers in the gym, what else could plausibly have brought Danny here? "I wondered if you could time me."

Lieder looked puzzled, suspicious. After all the months in which Danny had taunted him by never letting Lieder time his fastest runs, it was natural that Lieder would suspect a trick.

"I'm tired of the game," said Danny. "I'm in high school. I should care about high school things." And even as Danny said the words, they became true. It might be fun to be a high school athlete, even if Lieder was a complete jerk.

"Like waking up your teachers?" asked Lieder coldly.

Had Lieder really still been asleep? It was early, but not so early that someone coaching the first team of the day at seven shouldn't already be up and dressed.

"I stepped off a hundred yards," said Danny. Actually, part of his gift was a very good sense of distance, with reliability down to a foot in a hundred yards, or a twentieth of an inch in a foot. "Do you have a watch?"

Lieder held up his left wrist. "I'm a coach, I wear a stopwatch."

Danny jogged easily down to his starting place. "Ready?" he called.

Lieder, looking annoyed, put his finger to his lips. Then he put his right hand to his watch, looked at Danny, then nodded.

Danny took off at a sprint. A hundred yards wasn't that much -- it's not as if he had to pace himself. He gave it everything -- or at least, everything he had at six-thirty in the morning after a night of no sleep.

When he came parallel to the walkway leading up to Lieder's door, Danny burst through imaginary tape and then jogged to a stop and faced Lieder expectantly.

"Can you do it again?" asked Lieder.

"Do you want a couple of miles?" asked Danny.

"Just those hundred yards again."

So Danny jogged back to the starting point, waited for the nod, ran again. This time he let his after-race jog take him up to Lieder's porch.

"Do I make the track team?" asked Danny.

"On probation," said Lieder.

"Because I'm only marginally fast?" asked Danny. "Or because you want me to suffer a little for being such an asshole so far this year?"

"Everybody starts out on probation, till I see whether you'll listen to a coach."

"So I'm not fast after all?"

"Even the fastest can get better," said Lieder. "The fast ones are worth the time you spend working with them."

"Just tell me. Am I any good?"

"You'll be starting for us," said Lieder. "Now can I finish my breakfast?"

Danny grinned. "Knock yourself out," he said.

Lieder closed the door behind him.

As Danny headed back down to the street, Lieder's door reopened. "Have you had breakfast?"

"I don't eat breakfast," said Danny.

"From now on you do," said Lieder. "My athletes eat."

"I'm not an athlete," said Danny. "I'm a runner."

Lieder stood there, looking angry, but hesitating.

"I have to stay light if I'm going to be fast," said Danny.

"You're either on the team or you're not." Lieder glanced into the house, then faced Danny again, looking like he wanted a fight after all.

Danny could see that Lieder wanted to yell at him. Something was keeping him quiet. There was someone in the house he didn't want to wake. Or someone he didn't want hearing him yell at a kid.

"Listen, Mr. Lieder," said Danny. "I want to do my bit for the team. But I won't belong to you. You just timed me. If the speed you clocked for me is good enough for me to compete, then I'll compete for you. I'll listen to your advice and I'll try to get better. I'll try to get stronger and build up stamina. Stuff that makes sense. But you don't control what I eat, and you don't control my time. I come to practice when I can, but when I can't, I don't, no questions asked."

"Then forget it," said Lieder. "I don't need a defiant little asshole like you."

"Your call," said Danny. "I offered, and you turned me down. Now I don't have to hear any more complaints from Mr. Massey."

"You didn't offer shit," said Lieder, getting even quieter as he took a step down from the door. "If you're on the team, then you have to play by the same rules as the other kids."

So Lieder still wanted him. Danny must have been pretty fast.

"I can see how you wouldn't want to have one student getting special treatment," said Danny. "But I don't have any choice. My time isn't my own. I sometimes have to pick up and be somewhere. It's not my call, and I don't want to have to put up with crap about it if I miss practice."

"So go, then. Thanks for waking me up, you little prick."

"Cool," said Danny. He turned away, headed back to the street.

"You haven't heard the last of this," said Lieder.

Danny turned around and came right back up to the porch. "Yes I have," said Danny.

"You're a student. Unless your parents provide you with a note for each and every absence, you aren't going to get away with disappearing whenever you want."

"I stay throughout the school day," said Danny. "I don't miss classes. But before and after school, there's stuff I have to do. I offered to share that time with the track team, as much as I can. That wasn't enough for you. I get it -- I even agree with you. I shouldn't be on the team. But that's it. No more crap about it. I let you time me and you didn't want me enough to take me on the only terms on which I'm available."

"Who the hell do you think you are?" asked Lieder, the bully in him at last coming out, his voice rising. "You sound like you think you're some world-class star, negotiating with a pro team. You're a minor, and a student, and the law says you belong in school, and the school says I'm a teacher with authority over you."

"What is it?" asked a weak voice from behind Lieder. A woman's voice -- barely. It was such a husky whisper that it would have been hard to tell, if Lieder hadn't whirled around, revealing a little old woman in the doorway.

A small woman -- just the right size for bullying, thought Danny.

But no, Lieder had been trying not to disturb her. And now that Danny looked closely, he saw that the woman wasn't old, just faded and sagging. Not his mother, as he had first supposed. Nor was she small -- or at least, she wasn't short. Average height, and since Lieder was no giant, they looked about right together as man and wife. Except that she was wasting away. Something was seriously wrong with her, her robe hung on her as if she were a child wearing a woman's dress.

Cancer, thought Danny. At home Lieder deals with a wife dying of cancer or something just as bad. Then he comes to school and takes it out on the kids.

On Danny's tall and skinny friend Hal. It was because Lieder was humiliating Hal that Danny had made a series of gates to help Hal get up the hanging rope to the ceiling of the gym yesterday. A series of gates that intertwined and turned out to be the start of a Great Gate.

It was too easy, to think that a dying wife was the reason Lieder was a bully. It came too naturally to Lieder, a habit, an aspect of his personality. He was probably always a bully. Only now he's a bully with something else to worry about.

"It's all right, Nicki," said Lieder.

"Why don't you invite this boy inside?" asked Nicki. "He looks cold."

"I'm fine," said Danny.

"He's fine," said Lieder.

"Come in and have some cocoa," said Nicki.

"He has to get to school," said Lieder, "and so do I."

Danny had been willing to shrug off the invitation before, but the woman was insisting, and the trickster in Danny couldn't help but enjoy the fun. Plus, he was tired and cold and pissed off at Lieder. "Actually," said Danny, "I don't have to be there till eight-thirty. I'm not on one of those teams that practices before school."

"But cocoa's not good for my athletes," said Lieder.

"I think of it as an energy drink," said Danny. "And I could sure use some warming up."

"Come on in, then," said Nicki.

As Danny came past him, heading for the door, Lieder gripped him harshly by the shoulder and whispered fiercely in his ear, "You're not coming into my house."

"What?" said Danny loudly. "I couldn't hear you."

Lieder didn't let go. "You heard me," he whispered.

Danny gated himself just an inch away. Yesterday morning he couldn't have done that -- created a gate and passed it over himself so tightly that it took only his own body and clothing, and not Lieder's hand. But the gates he had stolen from the Gate Thief last night consisted of the outselves of hundreds of gatemages, and every one of them had been a trickster during his life, and every one of them had had more skill than Danny. He had managed to contain them in his heart-hoard -- his stash -- but wherever that was kept inside him, he was able to access some of their knowledge, or at least some of their experience and reflexes and habits and talents.

He must have absorbed these things unconsciously, because he hadn't thought of doing it, he had simply done it.

If I had known how to do this last year, in Washington, I wouldn't have had to drag that murderous thug with Eric when I gated him out of the back room of that convenience store.

But there was something else that happened, something Danny hadn't expected. When he gated himself an inch without moving Lieder's tight-gripping hand, it moved his own body into space that Lieder's fingers occupied. Lieder's fingers were ejected from that space at such speed that the bones didn't just break, they were pulverized.

Danny heard the gasp of pain, then saw the limp and empty-looking fingers and realized at once what had happened. Before Lieder had time to turn the inhaled gasp into an exhaled scream of agony, Danny passed a gate over Lieder's body, which healed him instantly.

That meant Lieder no longer felt the pain, but he still remembered it, very clearly.

"Don't ever touch me like that again," said Danny.

"Come in and join us, daddy," said Nicki from the other room. Apparently they were one of those married couples who still called each other mommy and daddy long after their children were grown. "You have time. The kids will just run laps till you get there."

Danny knew that the kids would sit around chatting or napping, but he had no reason to disabuse Nicki of her fantasy. He had to deal with Lieder, whose face was still showing the shock and horror of that pain.

"Don't you learn anything?" asked Danny softly. "When I tell you that there are some things I'm going to do, whether you like them or not, it's a good idea to believe me and step aside."

"This is my home," whispered Lieder.

"And that was my shoulder you were gripping," said Danny. "Boundaries, Coach Lieder."

Danny walked into Lieder's house.

Lieder stayed outside for a while. No doubt trying to figure out what it was, exactly, that Danny had done. What had it felt like to him? Agony, yes -- but had he understood that for a moment, his fingerbones had become tiny shards inside limp sacks of skin? Had he felt Danny move by an inch, instantaneously, or had he registered it only as Danny pulling away with incredible strength?

Danny walked into the house and quickly found the kitchen, where apparently the cocoa was already made, for Nicki was pouring it into three cups. She moved slowly. She held the pitcher with two hands. It trembled in her grip -- if it could be called a grip. Danny half-expected it to slip out of her fingers at any moment. No wonder Lieder didn't want his wife trying to show him hospitality.

It was not deliberate, not planned. More of a reflex, as if Danny had seen the pitcher slipping from her grasp and lunged out to catch it. Only the pitcher was not slipping, and he didn't lunge with his hands. Instead, he sent out a gate, passed it over her, around her, and brought her out of it without having moved her more than a hairsbreadth from where she stood.

She seemed to register it as a shudder. "Oh, someone stepped on my grave," she said, with a tiny laugh, and then flinched as if she expected to cough, only she didn't cough.

Because passing a gate over her had healed her. It always did. Whatever was wrong with a person, passing through a gate always healed it, as long as their body parts were still attached and they weren't fully dead.

Not that she immediately became strong and hale -- she looked completely unchanged. Except that her hand didn't tremble holding the pitcher, and there was color in her cheek and she didn't seem so fragile as she continued pouring. "Isn't that odd," she said. "I felt a chill, and yet now I'm suddenly warm. I'm never warm anymore, but I am right now."

"Furnaces are like that," said Danny. "One minute you're cold, the next you're hot. But remember, you're holding a pot of hot cocoa."

"Of course," she said. "No wonder I'm warm! I should feel downright hot."

"It's nice of you to give this to me," said Danny. "I don't usually eat breakfast, but it's cold enough today that even a good run didn't warm me up the way it usually does."

She laughed as she set down the pitcher. The cups were full. Then covered her mouth. "I don't know why I laughed," she said. "Nothing you said was funny."

"But I said it in a funny way," said Danny.

"You say everything in a funny way," she said.

"I lived in Ohio for a while, but I didn't think I picked up an accent."

"No, not an accent," she said. "You talk as if you got the joke, but didn't really expect me to get it. Only just now I think I did get it. Isn't that funny?"

Danny smiled. And as he looked at her, he realized that the hand to the mouth, the way she was looking at the cups instead of at him -- this woman was shy.

Not really shy. Just sort of generally embarrassed. He saw this all the time, but not with adults. No, he saw it at high school. He saw it with girls when some guy talked to them. A guy she kind of liked, or maybe liked a lot, and she couldn't believe he was paying attention to her.

This isn't Coach Lieder's wife, thought Danny. This is his daughter.

She called him daddy, not by the habit of a husband and wife, but because he really was her father.

"Do you mind if I ask how old you are?" asked Danny.

"How old do you think?" she asked. But her face showed that she hated the question.

"I'm deciding between sixteen and eighteen," said Danny.

"What's wrong with seventeen?" she asked. But there was relief in her voice. Nobody had guessed so young an age in a long time. How could they?

"Seventeen is a nothing age," said Danny. "Sixteen is driving and eighteen is voting."

"You can get into R-rated movies by yourself at seventeen," said Nicki. "Not that I go anywhere."

"Not that there's a theater worth going to," said Danny.

"Not in BV," said Nicki. "But there's a theater in Lexington. I just . . . don't go out much. I don't even watch movies on TV anymore. I lose interest, somehow. I fall asleep. No point in renting a movie just to sleep through it."

"You've been sick."

"Oh, I'm dying," she said. "There are ups and downs. Right now I think today might be a good day. A very good day. But probably that's just because of the company."

"This is very good cocoa," said Danny.

"Daddy buys me only the best. There's not much he can do for me, but he can get me first-rate cocoa. He's so gruff with other people, but he's really very kind to me. I like to think that only I get to see who he really is." She looked at him over the cocoa cup as she took a sip. "I know he was angry with you. That's why I came to the door."

"Thanks for saving me," said Danny. "I think your father has a low opinion of my team spirit."

"He cares so much about his teams," said Nicki. "He wants everyone to do their best, but Perry McCluer High School isn't noted for the ambition of its students." Then she touched her mouth again. "I can't believe I said that. I haven't . . . I haven't been sarcastic in years."

"Then you're probably overdue," said Danny. "I think everybody needs to say something sarcastic at least once a week. Of course, I'm years ahead."

"And I'm years behind," said Nicki. "But it's getting late. I don't want you to be called in to the vice-principal's office on account of me and my cocoa."

"I'm far more afraid of Coach Lieder than of any vice-principal. Besides, when I get in trouble I end up talking to Principal Massey."

"Only the best for you," she said.

"Or else it's only the worst for him," said Danny.

She laughed. So did he; but he also got up and carried both their cups to the sink. Coach Lieder's cup remained unfilled on the table.

"I'm sorry you only know my father in his grumpy moods."

"I'm glad to know that he has any other. I'm assuming you've seen nongrumpy moods yourself, and aren't just repeating a rumor."

"That would be gossip," said Nicki. A moment's hesitation. "Will I see you again?"

"I doubt it," Danny answered truthfully. "I think your father is very unhappy that I accepted your invitation this time."

"But if I invited you again?"

"Does your father own a gun?"

"Yes, but he doesn't know how to use it. I think he bought it to make a political statement."

Or because he was afraid of some student coming to assassinate him some dark night, thought Danny. "Thanks for the cocoa. I'm very warm now."

"Me too," she said.

He made it to the door unescorted, but Coach Lieder was waiting outside by his car. Danny expected to be yelled at, but instead Lieder only said, "Get in. I'll drive you to school."

Danny tried to assess what Lieder was planning -- was he only speaking softly because he was afraid Nicki could hear him? But then he thought: If I don't like what he says, I can always gate away.

Then he rebuked himself. I've already made three gates today, and it hasn't been a full day since I vowed never to make another here in BV.

Except the one that would take him to Marion and Leslie in Yellow Springs, and the one that Veevee used to get back and forth between his house and Naples, Florida. He'd reconstructed those last night, when he got his gates back from the Gate Thief.

Inside the car, Coach Lieder was strangely silent. But when he spoke, he sounded as menacing as ever. "What do you plan to do with my daughter?"

Danny wanted to say, You mean besides healing her of whatever was killing her? Instead, he answered, "I don't plan to do anything. She invited me in for cocoa. I drank cocoa. We talked. That was it."

"She likes you," said Lieder.

"I liked her," said Danny. "But no, in case you're worried, I don't like her that way, she's just nice and we had a nice conversation and that's it. Nice. So you don't have anything to worry about."

Lieder was silent for a long time. Not till they were going up the last steep hill to the school did he speak again. "I've never seen her talk so freely with anyone."

"I guess she was having a good day," said Danny.

Silence again until the car came to a stop in Lieder's parking place. Apparently even coaches who didn't have a lot of winning seasons still got their own named parking space.

"You haven't asked me what's wrong with her," said Lieder as Danny opened the car door.

"Nothing's wrong with her," said Danny, letting himself sound puzzled.

"She's obviously sick," said Lieder, sounding annoyed.

"It wasn't obvious to me," said Danny, lying deliberately, since by the time he got home tonight she would be markedly improved, and in a week she would probably look fantastic, compared to before, and Danny wanted Lieder to think it had already been happening before Danny even got there.

"Then you're an idiot," said Lieder.

"Oh, I'm pretty sure of that," said Danny. "Thanks for the ride." Then he was gone.

It occurred to him as he walked into school that Lieder was thinking that Danny might be useful to brighten his daughter's spirits during her last weeks of life. While it might be amusing to watch Lieder try to be nice to him -- it was clearly against the man's nature -- it wouldn't be fair to Nicki. Especially because Nicki was not going to die. At least not of her disease, whatever it had been. When Lieder realized this, when the doctors told him she was in complete remission, he'd very quickly want to be rid of Danny. So Danny would spare them both the trouble and never go back there again.

The real problem today was going to be dealing with the kids in gym class, who had no doubt spent the whole evening last night telling everybody they knew about the experience of going up the magical rope climb and ending up viewing the whole Maury River Valley from a mile high. Whatever Lieder had seen yesterday, he hadn't mentioned it today. Yesterday, he had seemed to blame Danny for the whole thing. "They're riding it like a carnival," he had said. "You did this," he had said. But today he hadn't mentioned it at all.

And as Danny walked through the halls and went into his first class, he didn't see any unusual excitement and didn't hear any mention of the magical rope. It bothered him -- how could high school kids not talk about such a weird experience? But he wasn't going to bring it up himself.

It wasn't till he saw Hal in his next class that Danny was able to ask about it.

"Are you kidding?" asked Hal. "Nobody's telling anybody about it because they'll all think we're crazy. Hallucinating. On something."

"But you know it really happened."

"I do now," said Hal, "cause you apparently remember it. What was that, man? What happened?"

This was so weird. People claimed miraculous things happened all the time, even though nothing happened at all. But this time, when it was something real, they weren't talking about it. It's as if when something really scares people, the blabbermouth switch gets turned off.

"I don't know any more than you do," said Danny. One of the gifts of gatemages was that they were good tricksters, which meant they were good liars, since it's hard to bring off any kind of trick if you can't deceive people.

Hal looked hard at him. "You look like you're telling me the absolute truth, but you're the one who told me to hang on to the bottom of the rope and spin, and then I shot up to the top. You're the one Coach Bleeder told to get me up the rope, and so what am I supposed to think except that you did whatever it was."

"And if I did," said Danny, "what then? Who would you tell? How far would the story go?"

"Nowhere, man," said Hal. "You saved my ass all over the place, you think I'm going to do anything to hurt you? But you took off yesterday, you went outside when the rope trick stopped working, and when I went out after you, you were gone. Vanished. What are you, man? Are you, like, an alien?"

"A Norse god," said Danny.

"What, like Thor?" Hal laughed.

"More like Loki," said Danny.

"Is this your final answer?" asked Hal. "Am I really supposed to believe this one?"

"Believe what you want," said Danny. "Class is about to start." Danny went to the door and Hal followed him into the classroom.

Hermia was sitting in the Applebee's on Lee Highway, looking out the window at cars pulling in and out of the BP next door, when her mother slid into the booth across from her.

"Have you already ordered?" Mother asked.

Hermia felt a thrill of fear. She was too far from the nearest gate to make any kind of clean escape. Mother was a sandmage, which should have meant she was powerless in a place as damp as western Virginia, but as Mother often pointed out to her, her real affinity was for anything powdered or granulated, from snowflakes to dust, from shotgun pellets to salt and pepper and sugar. The table was full of things that Mother could use.

Besides, wherever she was, Father would not be far away, and he was a watermage -- a damward, able to choke her on her own saliva, if he chose. If they wanted Hermia dead, to punish her for running off and not reporting to them about the gatemage she had found, she could do nothing to stop them or avoid them.

So apparently they didn't want her dead. Yet.

"They're getting me a hamburger," said Hermia. "There's not much you can do wrong with a hamburger."

"They could leave it on the counter for twenty minutes, letting it get cold while the bacteria multiply," said Mother. "And then they bring it to you, without apology, assuming that you're the mousy little thing you seem to be and won't utter a word of complaint."

"I'm not mousy," said Hermia.

"They don't know that," said Mother. "And you look so Mediterranean -- they know you don't belong here in this hotbed of Scotch-Irish immigration."

"So you've made a study of American demographics and genealogy?"

"I study everything," said Mother. "People are like grains of sand -- from a distance, they all look alike, but when you really study them, each is a separate creation."

The waiter came over and Mother ordered a salad. But before the waiter could get away, she said to him, "What do you think of a daughter who suddenly disappears and doesn't tell her mother and father where she's going and whom she's with? What would you call such a girl?"

The waiter, who had flirted with Hermia a little when he took her order, answered instantly: "Normal."

Mother laughed, one of her seal-like barks. "Hope springs eternal, doesn't it, dear boy. But I assure you, you're not her type."

The waiter, looking a little baffled, muttered something about putting her order in and left.

"You do enjoy toying with them," said Hermia.

"Observing them," corrected Mother. "Seeing how they respond to unusual stimuli. I'm a scientist at heart."

She was Clytemnestra and Medea rolled into one, that's what was in her heart, thought Hermia, but she knew better than to say so. "So you found me," she said.

"Oh, we've known where you were the whole time," said Mother.

Hermia didn't bother to answer.

"I know you think we couldn't possibly have traced you, with all your jumping through gates, but you see, when we first realized you might have gatemaking talent, we implanted a little chip just under your jaw. We track it by satellite. We Illyrians are truly godlike in our prescience, don't you think?"

It had never crossed Hermia's mind that they might have installed a tracking device in her body. She had given Danny away every time she used one of his gates.

Or maybe not. When she made a jump through one of Danny's gates, it would take time for them to get to where she was. Knowing where she was wasn't the same thing as being there to observe her.

But last night they'd had plenty of time to get to Perry McCluer High School.

"You spent the night here?" asked Hermia.

"In the Holiday Inn Express," said Mother. "It has a nice European feel to it."

"Meaning that the rooms are tiny and have no room to put your luggage?"

"We didn't make ourselves known during the festivities. But we saw some of the Norths challenge you, and watched as a couple of mere Orphans brought old Zog's eagle down and then cracked open the earth and swallowed up their truck."

"They gave it back afterward," said Hermia. "Or did you fall asleep before the end?"

"From these actions, we cleverly deduced, in our Aristotelian way, that somebody had passed through a Great Gate. I think it wasn't you who made the gate, because if you were able to make gates, you would have disappeared the moment I sat down."

"No, I can't make gates. You know I can't."

"I know you have always said you can't. But now I believe you. Maybe."

"I'm not telling you who --"

"It's Danny North who's the gatemage," said Mother.

"Don't you dare lay a hand on him."

"No habanero powder in his eyes or up his nose?" asked Mother. "Why must you always spoil my fun?"

"He's not just a gatemage, he's a gatefather," said Hermia. "In all the history of the world there's never been a gatemage like him."

"The world has a lot of history. And there are two worlds, for that matter."

"He beat the Gate Thief," said Hermia.

"Isn't that nice."

"What do you want, Mother?"

"My darling daughter to tell me she loves me, even if it's a lie, and to pretend she's glad to see me."

"I'm not reporting to you anymore."

"You don't have to report, as I just explained," said Mother.

"Danny and I and the other gatemage --"

"So you are a gatemage, and not just a finder."

"I'm a lockfriend," said Hermia.

"And the other gatemage? Victoria Von Roth?"

"A keyfriend."

"How lovely. It's like you're twins, born thirty years apart."

"The next time Danny makes a Great Gate, we're going to make sure all the Families and the Orphans have equal access to it."

"Even the drowthers?"

"We aren't going to let a Great Gate give one Family an advantage."

"But you already have, silly girl," said Mother. "That cow Leslie now has the power to snatch other people's heartbeasts away from them, and Marion can crack open the earth without causing so much as a three point oh on the Richter scale. They could take down every Family right now."

"And yet they haven't done it," said Hermia. "Doesn't that tell you something?"

"Doesn't the fact that we didn't kill you tell you something, too?"

"It tells me that your hope of getting through a Great Gate is greater than your desire to keep anybody else from getting through it."

"It should have told you that we mean to play nice," said Mother. "We're going to let you and your boyfriend Danny and his aging mistress Veevee set out the rules and we'll play along."

"Till you see a way to get an advantage," said Hermia.

"Wasn't it nice of me to come and inform you? Some of us wanted to kill you and then deal with Danny North separately. We'd pretend we didn't know where you were. They're very angry with you for betraying us."

"I didn't tell him anything," said Hermia.

"You didn't tell us anything," said Mother. "But . . . water over the dam, isn't that what they say?"

"You got your physics degree at Stanford, Mother. Don't pretend to be uncertain of your English."

"We're going to station an observer at the high school," said Mother. "And we're going to expect you to stay there, too."

"I'm too old for high school," said Hermia.

"But you're such a little slip of a thing, they won't doubt that this is your senior year."

"I don't have to be at the high school. I can gate in and out whenever I want to talk to Danny."

"As long as he keeps gates available to you," said Mother. "No, we want you there where we can watch you both."

"And where you can threaten to do violence to me in order to get him to do what you want."

"Would that work?" asked Mother.

"I don't think so," said Hermia, "but with Danny you never know. He's not in love with me. I don't think he particularly likes me. But he's a compassionate kid. You could probably just point a gun at a puppy, take a picture, and then send it to him along with the threat, 'Do what we say or we'll shoot this dog.'"

"Well, we aren't going to threaten to shoot you or a puppy. We think -- some of us think -- that now that you know that we've known where you are all along, and didn't interfere with you, you'll return to us with renewed trust and loyalty."

"Are you among those who think so?" asked Hermia.

"I'm only one vote among many," said Mother. "But it's pleasantly needy of you to ask for my reassurance."

"You know that whoever you send, Danny can just gate away."

"Oh, I hope he doesn't do that," said Mother. "We'd have to shoot the dog."

3

Danny thought he was going to Laurette's house that night for a birthday party. Not the teen-movie cliche of a party so huge that it overflows the house and infests the neighbors' yards and results in the police being called. It was just a get-together at Laurette's house in honor of Xena, Laurette's friend and, since he arrived at Perry McCluer, Danny's.

But when Danny showed up at the house, and the door opened at his knock, he knew he'd been had. His friends were all there -- the girls Laurette, Sin, Pat, Xena, and the boys Hal and Wheeler. But a big banner high on the wall, plainly visible from the front door, said nothing about birthdays or Xena.

It said "Intervention," and Danny knew at once that he was the target, the patsy, the subject.

"What am I supposedly addicted to?" he asked.

"He doesn't even get the 'How I Met Your Mother' reference," said Sin.

"He doesn't watch television," said Hal.

"Wow, we should have intervened about that," said Xena.

"When are you going to intervene with Laurette about always showing off her cleavage?" said Danny. "It scares the teachers. They think they're going to fall in and get lost."

"Let's stick to the plan," said Laurette.

"It's not my plan," said Danny.

"You're not going to dodge this one," said Sin.

"You still haven't told me what you're intervening about," said Danny. "Maybe I'll agree with you and we can move on to the party portion of the evening."

"We want you to stop hiding who you are," said Hal.

Danny turned to him. "I'm President Obama's love child with a Chicago waitress. I'm actually black, but I act super-white and it fools everybody."

"We know you have powers," said Sin.

"You're a fairy," said Xena. "The Tolkien kind."

"'Elf' is a better word," said Pat.

"No, it's definitely 'fairy,'" said Xena, "because it's more fun to say."

"I'm not an elf and I'm not a fairy," said Danny. "These days I'm on the track team. I'm going to get a letter and be an athlete and then I'll be too cool to hang out with you."

"We know you healed us," said Pat. "My complexion has cleared up totally, and Sin's infected piercings got uninfected."

"You didn't do anything for my weight problem," said Xena, "which wasn't very nice."

"Maybe he likes you the way you are," said Wheeler.

"I'm trying to think how I did this magical stuff," said Danny.

"It all started happening after you got here, that's point A," said Xena.

"Post hoc ergo propter hoc," said Danny.

"He's talking Logic," said Hal. "I wish Ms. Schrader hadn't done that unit on fallacies."

"Point B," said Xena, "is the tripping place."

"So I heal people and I make them clumsy," said Danny. "Sounds like a contradiction."

"And there's that flying thing with the rope climb," said Hal. "You're the one who set it up. You told me to move my hands as if I was climbing. That means you thought I'd somehow get up there without actually climbing."

"Is that how you remember it?" asked Danny.

"Notice how he's not actually denying it," said Hal.

"I would deny it if I knew what you were accusing me of." Danny realized once again that it's always a mistake to equivocate. If you're going to lie then just lie. Don't try to make it technically true or almost true or truish.

"I didn't think we should call it an intervention," said Hal. "I thought we should call it an ultimatum." He seemed really angry.

"Admit to this crazy stuff you're accusing me of, or else," said Danny.

"That's what an ultimatum is, all right," said Hal.

"What's the 'else'?" asked Danny.

"Or else you're not really our friend."

Danny knew they were right, but also they were wrong. They couldn't possibly understand what telling them would mean. It's one thing to think your friend has some connection with mysterious stuff. But if they found out what he was, they either wouldn't believe him or they'd pressure him to demonstrate it and he wasn't going to make any more damn gates at Perry McCluer.

"If you were really my friends," said Danny, "you wouldn't decide what the answer is and then threaten to ostracize me if I don't tell you that you're right."

"Then what's the answer?" asked Sin. "We're not going to tell anybody."

"Let's say I admit I'm some kind of fairy. You promise not to tell. But since you already think you know it, and you also promise not to tell, then how would my telling you change anything?"

"You don't trust us," said Wheeler.

"What if I'm some kind of magical guy. Have I done anything evil with it? Hurt anybody?"

"I think Coach Bleeder landed on his ass a couple of times because of you," said Hal.

"Did it ever occur to you that if I had these powers, maybe I was keeping secrets from you for your own good?"

"There are some things that humankind is not meant to know," intoned Laurette.

"'If I tell you, I have to kill you'," quoted Xena.

"Let's put the shoe on the other foot, where it belongs," said Danny. "If we're such good friends, why would you threaten to stop being my friends if I don't tell you something that, if it's true, I clearly want to keep to myself?"

Sin stuck out her feet. "How does that put my shoes on the other feet? These are the only feet I have."

Nothing he did was going to help. Because Danny knew from the family history where this led. You tell drowthers what you are, then you have to show them. And once they see it, they get scared of you, and either they avoid you or they try to become your servant because it's human nature to want to be close to power.

Danny didn't want to find out which way his friends would go. He'd never had friends before, and now he was going to lose them no matter what he did.

Better to lose them without their knowing for sure what he was and what he could do.

"I accept your terms," said Danny.

They leaned forward expectantly.

"I'm not going to admit to any of this stuff, so I guess that means we're not friends." Danny walked back to the door.

"Wait!" said Laurette.

"We didn't mean it!" said Xena.

"I did," said Hal. "He sent us a mile into the sky, and if he says he didn't it's bullshit."

Danny opened the door and stepped outside.

He could hear someone -- several people -- rushing toward the door. He didn't want to play out this scene on the front lawn.

So he gated back to his house and pulled the gate in after him.

Had he even closed the door behind him? For all he knew, they had seen him disappear.

But he was pissed off at them. Why would friends try to force him to tell what he clearly didn't want to tell? They weren't his friends. He barely knew them. So why did he have this gnawing feeling in his gut?

"Where did you gate from?" asked a voice.

Hermia was sitting in his living room.

"How did you get in?" asked Danny.

"I used Veevee's gate," said Hermia. "I was visiting her, and I wanted to visit you, but you weren't here so I waited."

Danny looked at her steadily. "What are you doing here?"

"My family came to me," said Hermia. "My actual parents. I was so honored."

"Was it a happy reunion?" asked Danny, sitting down across from her in the only other chair in what passed for a living room.

"It was all about you," said Hermia. "They want you to trust them. They say they won't try to control you, they don't want a war, but they think you need training."

"Like I'd ever let any of the Westilians anywhere near me."

"I'll tell them that," said Hermia.

"Are you in their pocket? Do they have some kind of control over you?"

"Meaning, can you trust me? Yes and no. You can trust me to keep my word. But they have some kind of tracking device imbedded in me, so wherever I go, they know where I am."

Danny thought about that a moment. "So they've seen you jump."

"Yes."

"By jumping from Veevee's place to here, they know where that gate is."

"Yes."

"Everywhere you go, you show them the gates."

"Yes," said Hermia. "But I told you as soon as I knew, didn't I? What was I supposed to do, seal myself in a coffin like a vampire and never go anywhere again?"

"So they know where I am right now."

"They know I came to these exact map coordinates," said Hermia. "They don't know that you happen to be in this place, but yes, they probably will, very soon."

"Shit," said Danny. She really didn't have much choice, if her own family had decided to track her.

"We have to make contact with all the Families eventually," said Hermia. "Including my Family. If you intend to make a Great Gate and share it."

Three cars pulled up out front, one of them actually screeching on the pavement.

"How long have you been waiting here? Does your Family just hover over you in choppers or balloons or something?"

Hermia peeked out the threadbare front curtain. "No, and it isn't your Family, either."

Danny joined her at the window. His friends were getting out of three cars.

"Damn," he said.

"Make a clean getaway," said Hermia. "Or gate them somewhere."

"I never told them I live here," said Danny.

Hermia flung open the door. Danny said "No!" the moment he realized she was doing it, but by then it was already done.

"He's here, isn't he!" It was Laurette's voice.

"We drove three different routes and he wasn't running on any of them," said Sin triumphantly.

"And there's no way he's fast enough to already be here," said Pat, "not on foot, not even running."

Now they were at the door, piling in. But Danny wasn't there.

Instead, he was behind the house, out of sight, watching the living room through a peephole -- a tiny gate right in front of one of his eyes, so when he closed the other, he could see what was happening in his living room -- and he could hear pretty clearly, too.

"Whom are you looking for?" asked Hermia.

"So he's got a girlfriend," said Xena, sounding pretty put out about it.

"Danny North," said Wheeler. "He lives here."

"How interesting," said Hermia. "Who are you?"

"His friends," said Laurette.

"Sounds more like you're stalking him," said Hermia.

"You still haven't told us who you are," said Xena.

"I actually am his friend," said Hermia.

"You sound British," said Xena.

"Cute British accent," said Pat disgustedly. "Boys are so predictable."

"But she has little boobs," said Laurette.

"You're still the fairest in the land, Laurette," said Sin.

"How did he get here so fast?" Hal insisted.

Listening outside, Danny thought: Hal is able to stay focused. Hal is something. Which is probably why Coach Bleeder zeroed in on him, tormented him. Because he has the potential to accomplish far more with his life than Bleeder ever has. No wonder the coach had to take Hal down a peg every chance he got.

"He's a gatemage," said Hermia.

With a thrill of fear, Danny thought: Hermia was telling me to gate them away. Now she's spilling it to them.

Nobody was asking what a gatemage is.

"He opens up holes in spacetime," said Hermia. "He links one place with another, regardless of distance. He makes them adjacent."

"Do you think you've actually explained something?" asked Pat.

"I've explained it like gravity," said Hermia. "I described the results. I have no idea of the process. That's all that Newton ever did."

"And Danny can do this," said Hal. "Connect things with each other."

"He may be the greatest gatefather that ever lived," said Hermia. "But so far, he's mostly used his power to create little gates at your high school."

"What do gates have to do with his healing people?" said Pat.

"Danny doesn't heal anybody, but the gates do," said Hermia. "If you pass through a gate alive, your body arrives in optimal condition."

"No zits," said Pat.

"No piercings," said Sin.

"So why did he lie about it and pretend he wasn't doing it?" asked Xena. "It's way cool."

"Because it's too way cool," said Hermia. "There are a lot of people who want him dead. By making gates at your school, he ran the risk of being discovered. That business with the rope climb? The worst thing happened. His family showed up and tried to kill him."

Silence.

Then, in a smaller voice, Laurette said, "His own family?"

"I thought his parents were dead," said Hal.

"A lie," said Hermia. "His parents are actually very powerful mages. To their credit, they didn't try to kill him. It was his grandfather and uncle who attempted his assassination."

"Sick," said Wheeler.

"There's a lot of history that you don't know," said Hermia. "And most of it is unbelievable to people like you."

"What do you mean, 'people like us'?" asked Pat.

"Normal people," said Hermia.

Wheeler laughed. "Did you hear that? She called us normal."

"Let me help you understand this," said Hermia. "Danny's father is named Odin. He was born with the name Alf, but when he became head of the North family, he took the name Odin."

"Wow," said Wheeler. "You're talking, like, a god."

"I'm telling you that the gods of mythology are real people. Only each name has been recycled again and again. We're not immortal. But the names are."

"So who is Danny?" asked Hal. "Is he a god?"

"If his family stops trying to kill him and accepts him for who he is, then the name he would be given is Loki."

"Thor's nasty brother in The Avengers," said Wheeler.

"There's no magic hammer," said Hermia. "But yes. There's a Thor in the family, but he doesn't amount to much. None of them do." And then she explained how the Great Gates work. Danny sat outside, listening. Hermia was good at explanations. Why shouldn't she be? Gatemages had the gift of language.

It terrified him to hear her telling his friends. But he also knew that this is what he had wanted to do. This is why he didn't gate away from them. This is why he hadn't left Perry McCluer High School. This is why he had carelessly let them realize his power, as he returned home far faster than his feet could have carried him. He wanted them to know; he wanted to be honest with them. But he couldn't bring himself to answer their questions. Hermia was doing it for him.

When she finished her explanation, she said, "Now I've told you the answers to your questions. Do you believe me?"

"Yes," said Pat and Wheeler and Sin and Hal.

"Why?" asked Hermia.

"Because I rode the rope," said Hal.

"Because he cured my piercings," said Sin.

"My face," said Pat.

"Because it's so cool," said Wheeler.

"And the rest of you?"

"It's pretty hard to swallow," said Laurette. "How do you know all this stuff? I never heard of you."

"I'm a gatemage too," said Hermia. "A lesser one. I can't make gates, but I can see them and I can lock them. And I can help Danny. But now you all have a choice to make."

They waited.

"Are you with him or not?" asked Hermia. "That's why he was afraid to tell you, because once he did, you'd have to make the choice."

"What do you mean, 'with him'?" asked Hal. "He's got this incredible power. What does he need from us?"

"What the gods have always needed," said Hermia. "Servants."

Consternation. Outrage. "I thought we were his friends!" said Laurette.

"Are you his equals?" asked Hermia. "Are you? When the others come to kill him, what do you think you can do? When Danny's mother electrocutes you or his father makes your car stop working, and any gun you point at them fails to work and a hawk comes to peck out your eyes, can you stand up to them?"

"Duh," said Laurette.

"We're useless," said Hal. "So why would he need us?"

"That's why I didn't say that he needs soldiers. Or allies. He needs servants. He needs people he can send with messages. People to watch and notice things, and tell him about them."

"Spies," said Pat.

"And messengers," said Hermia. "The Families will know you're powerless. With any luck, they won't kill you. But they could. If you piss them off. Do you understand? You're powerless. But you can help Danny to put together some kind of peace treaty. Some way to unite the families and share some of his power with them."

"And why would we want to do that?" asked Xena. "If these gods actually, like, exist, why would we want Danny to give them more power?"

"Because if he doesn't, they'll kill him," said Hermia. "It's a matter of time, that's all. Are you his friends or not? You're the ones who demanded the truth, so here it is. Now you have a choice. With him, or not with him."

"With him," said Hal.

"Slow down," said Pat. "This is major."

Hermia had done all she could -- all that Danny needed her to do. Now it was time for Danny to face his friends again. He had been a coward to leave it up to her.

So he gated into the house.

He appeared in the middle of the room. They stared at him in fear.

"It's true," whispered Laurette.

"Cool," said Wheeler.

Danny turned to Wheeler. "This isn't a comic book, Wheeler. It doesn't go from panel to panel until the good guys win. In the real world, good guys lose all the time. What wins is power. I have a lot of it, but I don't have enough to protect you all the time. I advise you to get the hell away from me and pretend you never met me. With any luck, none of the Families will notice you and you'll be as safe as anyone."

"How safe is that?" asked Pat.

"If I create a Great Gate and the Families send people through, so they become gods again instead of elves and wizards, the way they are now, then you won't have a choice anymore. You'll stay out of their way, and if they notice you, you'll do what you're told or you'll die. Our Families aren't nice people. They call you drowthers. They think of you the way you think of cars. Useful when you need them, but fun to crash into each other and watch them blow up and burn."

They were looking sick and scared. So Danny was communicating.

"Do you see why I tried not to tell you?" said Danny.

"I think you're just trying to scare us," said Xena defiantly.

"Is it working?" asked Danny.

"Yes," said Laurette.

"Good," said Danny. "I came here in hopes of having a normal life. Two years of high school. But then I got stupid and did that thing with the rope climb and Hermia saw it and told me that it was a Great Gate. I finally got the knowledge to do some really powerful stuff."

"But it sounds terrible," said Sin. "Why would you let them through?"

"Here's how it'll work," said Danny. "Either I'll work out a way to give all the Families equal access to a Great Gate, or one of the Families will kidnap somebody I care about and kill them if I don't give them exclusive use of a Great Gate."

"Who would they kidnap?" asked Hal.

"Hermia. The woman who pretends to be my aunt. Or maybe you, Hal. It depends on how much they've observed already."

"And if they kidnapped Hal," said Laurette, "what would you do?"

"He'd let them kill Hal," said Hermia. "He'd let them kill me. Because if he lets one Family have a Great Gate, and not the others, then that means that the most violent and evil Family will rule the world. But if they all have a share of the Gate, then maybe, just maybe, they'll balance each other out. Maybe they'll avoid a war. Maybe you drowthers won't all end up as collateral damage."

"Is she right?" Hal asked Danny.

"I hope so," said Danny. "But if it came down to it, I don't know if I could do it. Let them kill you or her or anybody. Up to now, the only life I was risking was my own. But once I made a Great Gate, everything changed. Now the whole world is at risk."

"But you can do things," said Hal. "Like, if you'd been around for 9-1-1, you could have made those planes --"

"No, I couldn't have done a thing," said Danny. "Because I would have found out about it when everybody else did, by watching television. I've got a couple of talents, but I'm not really a god. Not like you're thinking -- a god that knows everything and can do anything he wants. I can do a few specific things, and I don't know very much at all."

"Then what good is it?" asked Pat.

"Not much," said Danny. "All I can do is try to keep the damage to a minimum."

"So what's your choice?" said Hermia. "My Family's on the way here right now, you can count on that. If you're going to choose not to stand with Danny, then he's got to get you away from here before they come. Go get in your cars and drive away and forget you ever knew Danny. Don't do anything to tip off the Families that you're his friends, or you'll end up as hostages. Get it?"

"Shit," said Sin. "That's just -- that's terrible."

"Exactly," said Hermia.

"Why did you make a Great Gate, man?" asked Hal.

"Because I'm a servant of spacetime," said Danny. "Because it's what I was born for. Because I faced a powerful enemy and beat him. Because I'm stupid."

"There's a feeble chance," said Hermia, "that it will be better. For instance, Danny's father and mother, if they went through a Great Gate, maybe they'd come back and use their power to destroy all the nuclear weapons in the world."

"Could they do that?" asked Hal.

"The question is, would they," said Hermia. "The Families don't have a history of trying to make life better for the drowthers."

"Drowthers -- that's us?" asked Xena.

"It sounds like the N word," said Pat.

"It's exactly like the N word, the way most people in the Families use it," said Danny. "But some of us want to use our power to protect you."

"Don't let them through the gate, man," said Hal.

"I told you how they'll make him do it," said Hermia.

"Then kill yourself first," said Hal. "That's what I'd do."

The words hung in the air.

"Maybe you would," said Danny. "But I'm not that kind of hero. I'm not any kind of hero."

"'With great power comes great responsibility,'" intoned Wheeler.

"If only," said Danny. "In the real world, with great power comes great suffering -- by the people who don't have the power."

"I wasn't kidding," said Hal. "You shouldn't exist. If you didn't exist, things would keep on going the way they have been since 632 or whenever."

"Spacetime would only create another like me," said Danny. "And maybe the next guy would be even worse than me."

"He did use his power to help us," said Laurette.

"You were knocking Coach Bleeder on his ass," said Hal.

"Yes," said Danny. "And making him drop his watch."

"To protect me?" asked Hal.

"And because it was funny," said Danny.

"It was funny," said Hal.

"Are you going to destroy the world, Danny?" asked Sin.

"I hope not," said Danny. "Here's what I hope. I hope that the Families will unite to use their power to stop all wars, to stop all the terrorists, to put an end to all the shit."

"Did they ever do that before, back before the gates were closed?" asked Hal.

"No," said Danny.

"Why would it be any different now?" said Hal.

"Because Danny's here," said Hermia. "If one of the Family starts acting like Stalin or Pol Pot or Idi Amin, Danny has the power to gate him to the bottom of the Atlantic, and they know it. They've got no way to stop him. As long as Danny's alive, he has a chance to keep it all under control."

"So you're going to be, like, the god of all gods," said Hal.

Danny sat down. "Yeah," he said.

"Plus graduate from high school on schedule," said Hal.

"Maybe I'm not going to be able to pull that off," said Danny.

"Why did you ever think you could?" asked Pat.

"Because I didn't know I could make a Great Gate when I came here," said Danny. "I didn't know anything. I just wanted to be normal."

Hal made a weighing motion with his hands. "Normal, or supreme god. Supreme god, or normal. So hard to decide." Then Hal reached out his hand to Danny. Offering a handshake.

"I'm in," said Hal.

"In what?"

"In the same shit soup as you," said Hal. "I'm your messenger. Or servant. Or whatever you need. I think you're a good guy. I think if anybody's going to have this kind of power, I'd rather it be you than anybody else I can think of, except maybe Winston Churchill, and he's dead."

Danny solemnly took his hand.

"So Hal gets to be your righthand man," said Wheeler. "Just because he was willing to talk to you when you came to Perry McCluer High."

"Because he's my friend," said Danny, "and he volunteered."

"Well I volunteer too," said Wheeler.

And in a few moments, they had all agreed.

"So get in your cars," said Danny, "and get away from here."

"I thought that was what we'd do if we said no," said Laurette.

"I don't want Hermia's people to know about you. Not yet. Go. You're my friends. Your intervention worked. We've told you everything that we know. We didn't pretty it up. And you chose to stand with me. So the first thing is, if I say get out of here, you get out. So they can't use you as hostages to control me."

They nodded.

"Don't act like drowthers," said Hermia impatiently. "He doesn't want nodding. He wants going!"

And with that, Danny gated them all, one at a time, out to the cars.

After a moment of disorientation and confusion, they scrambled into the cars and drove away.

"That was what you wanted, wasn't it?" asked Hermia. "You wanted me to tell them, right?"

"I didn't know that's what I wanted until you did it," said Danny. "But yes. They asked for the truth. They're not children, they're people. They deserve to have the knowledge to choose for themselves."

"They made a stupid decision," said Hermia.

"True," said Danny. "But all the decisions are stupid. I've made nothing but stupid decisions. You too."

Hermia grinned. "When there aren't any smart decisions, I suppose you just have to pick the stupid decision you like best."

"Your Family is coming, right?" asked Danny.

"I can't imagine they're not."

"Then it's time to move to a different location," said Danny.

"It's time for me to move to one place, and you to another," said Hermia. "Until we're ready to set up the meeting we want. Because they'll always know where I am, and we don't want them to know where you are."

So Danny gated Hermia to a place she knew in Paris. Then he wrote a note to the Greeks and left it on the table in his own little house in Buena Vista.

"I will let you send two people through a Great Gate," said the note. "Go home and wait for my messenger. After today, anybody from any Family who comes to this town will be sent to the Moon. Leave now."

Danny opened the front door, so they wouldn't have to break it down. No reason for the landlord to lose money.

Then Danny gated to Washington, DC, then on to Staunton, to Lexington, and then to Naples, Florida, gathering in his gates behind him so they couldn't trace him if they happened to have a gatesniffer that Hermia didn't know about.

Veevee knew at once that he had come through a gate into her condo. She came up from the beach through the gate he had left there for her. "Just in time for the season finale of The Good Wife," she said.

"Is that a TV show?" asked Danny.

"It's pure fantasy," she said. "There are no good wives."

"What about good husbands?" asked Danny.

"We'll see -- when you grow up. Want a sandwich?"

"I'll make my own," he said. "We told all my friends about what I can do."

"Well, that was selfish and stupid of you."

"They insisted," said Danny.

"That was stupid of them, but they didn't know what they were asking. You have no excuse."

"I know," said Danny. "But other people are going to be involved whether we like it or not. Might as well have some of them on our team, on purpose, by their own choice."

Veevee shrugged, then laughed. "It's going to be so entertaining, to see how this all comes out. Right up to the moment when everything goes up in smoke."

"We're gods," said Danny. "What could go wrong?"

. . . to be continued in issue 31 . . .


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