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 Parry 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?”
“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 G.I. 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 Parry 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 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.
Copyright © 2013 by Orson Scott Card