Previously, somewhere in the main city of the Khe’tek continent on Rirhath B, just outside the Crossings:
“It’s not like it’s a bad look…”
“Mmmm… I don’t know. It’s—”
“No, not like that. It’s just that—”
“I could kind of get used to it.”
“I mean, really really?”
“Take a leak first and then tell me that.”
“Okay. Okay, I will. How long do we have?”
“The guy said five cycles. That comes to…”
“Two and a half hours.”
“Okay. There was a stall over there with some drinks.”
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
And a few moments later: “God, walking is strange.”
“Still sure you like it?”
“Give it some time. And I want a mirror. Not sure I trust the one in the shop.”
“Yeah, they always make you look better somehow…”
4.5 hours later:
“I will not. The spell’s got to work! We just need to spend some more time debugging it—"
“Not. Another. Minute.”
“Oh, come on, we can work it out—"
“We’ve tried working it out. For two hours now. And nothing is working! We’ve tried everything. Time to just bite the bullet.”
“No! There are a couple of things I want to try still!”
“Well, great, go on, try them. Because we’re both already late for dinner and we can’t go home until this is sorted out!”
“I don’t know. Mama always said she wanted a third daughter…”
“That’s real nice for you, but if my Dad sees me like this he’ll pitch the fit of fits! He’s got trouble enough dealing with what I wear when I’ve got the normal equipment. This is going to look beyond abnormal to him, and he’s going to want to know how I got this way, and when I tell him I’m gonna get grounded forever! And he won’t be real happy with you, either. So whatever you’re gonna do, do it and do it now—!”
In the back yard of a house behind high hedges in a Long Island suburb, in the twilight, two figures stand outside the rear patio doors and glare at each other. Behind them, from the fish pond, the sound of snickering can be heard. It’s not helping.
“You do it.”
“Not a chance. You’re why we’re so late. You do it.”
A bristling, furious silence. Then, finally, a knocking at the door.
After a few moments the patio door slides open. A broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted man in polos and jeans, with dark salt-and-pepperish hair and a handsome rough-hewn face, stands there and looks at the two figures standing on the doormat.
One is a tallish young woman, slender, just slightly gawky, as if not quite finished with a growth spurt; dark-haired, with a Hispanic look to her features and her coloring. The other is a young man, paler, brunette, not quite as tall, not quite as lean. What alters the clinical picture somewhat is that the young woman is wearing a floppy T-shirt and jams that don’t particularly suit her figure, and the young man is wearing a V-neck top and a frilly little skirt and flats.
“Well,” says Tom Swale, “this is a new look.”
“Yeah,” Nita says. “And it’s stuck.”
A second man, taller, darker-haired, also in jeans and a much-distressed and somewhat holey Mets T-shirt, comes wandering in from the kitchen and takes in the scene. And starts to smile, and stops himself. Then Carl Romeo says: “Spelling problem?”
The two figures on the mat look at each other and pointedly do not say all the things they could say. It is a visible exercise in Not Increasing Entropy that plainly will only work for moments more unless something starts happening in a hurry.
Then Tom starts laughing. He can’t help it, and Carl isn't far behind him.
"Oh, yeah,” Kit says, annoyed. “We really need this.”
“You guys are supposed to be understanding!” Nita says, just as annoyed.
“What I understand,” Carl said, wheezing with laughter, “is that you’re right on time.”
Carl is now having trouble making words, he's laughing so hard. All he can get out, when he manages another utterance, is “Right on time.”
“Actually,” Tom says, “if you check the records, I said they’d be earlier. I think you owe me money.”
Kit stands there looking put out. “Is he calling us ordinary somehow?!”
“Not at all. In fact this is in some ways a good thing…”
“How is this possibly a good thing!” Kit yells.
Tom sighs… and then laughs again. “Later for that. Just come in here,” he says, “and tell us exactly what you did.”
Shortly they’re sitting inside at the dining room table, under which two sheepdogs are sleeping, while two of the six Senior Wizards for the New York metropolitan area sit there looking at Nita and Kit and trying very, very hard to keep their grins under control. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, especially when the explanation—complex enough to begin with—starts crossing over itself, and local tensions break out.
“…we had to go over to the Crossings because we went shopping before and Kit had some stuff that had to be left off to be altered and then we figured—“
“—why are we just in the Crossings all the time, why have we never gone over to town—“
“Yeah, so we grabbed a transport and went to the market, you know the one—“
Carl hides his eyes. “Oh no.”
“And then when we were in the market he—”
“WE!!—saw this place that was doing bodywork…”
“Oh God,” Tom said, “you went to one of those popup body shops out in the open market, didn’t you.”
“But it was just short-term stuff they were selling, it was going to wear off in a few hours, like one of those temporary tattoos—“
“Genetic-guided selectively contoured contour blank-matter overlay with partial neural linking,” Tom says. “Science trying to be wizardry. It even works, sometimes, when you’re not buying it from cowboy traders…”
“But they had all these testimonials, there was somebody having it done right there, and it came out really well, and we thought, Okay, let’s give it a try, it says they’re certified—”
“'Certified,'” Tom says, with a slightly dry expression. “...This really was spur of the moment, wasn’t it.”
“You were embarrassed,” Carl says.
Glances are exchanged.
“Or more to the point, you were embarrassed that somebody might find out what you were interested in trying,” says Tom. ”Or that you were interested in trying it.”
More glances, very annoyed.
“Well, you see where that gets you,” Carl says. “Somebody has.”
“This’ll teach you not to do serious shopping outside the Crossings,” Tom says. “Bodyshopping or otherwise. The standards controls are way higher in there: there's real certification. Out in the free trade zone, though… not so much. Out there it’s very much ‘buyer beware’.”
“Yeah,” Carl says. “There’s no numbering the woes that would betide anybody inside the Crossings who sold you something like that. You two are known. But out in the Market, where closing time comes and shops and stalls just vanish, and you're left to your own devices? Not an optimal result...”
A brief silence. Then Kit says, “Great, so we’ve learned our lesson, can you please help us get out of these?”
Tom leans back in his chair and idly studies the chandelier over the table. “Well, it may take a while to work out exactly how to undo this…”
“Tom?” Carl says.
“Cut them some slack. It is nowhere written that wizards can’t do dumb things.”
“Carl, come on, these are their bodies we’re talking about, if this had set in hard enough to make permanent changes at the genetic level they would have—”
“Tom, I have one word for you. Schenectady.”
There are some seconds of silence from Tom, and then he sighs and produces a lopsided grin. “Kind of hoped it was going to be ‘Rosebud’. …Okay.”
He gets up, heads out for his wizard’s manual, brings back one of the big volumes and lays it open on the table. While he’s doing this, flipping through the pages and then running his finger down one of them, Carl looks over at Nita and Kit and says, “Now there’s one thing you need to know.”
“What?” Kit says, his annoyance beginning to show again.
“First of all, that it’s not like this is going to go on your permanent record or anything. You did it: it’s done. You’ll know better now.”
The two young wizards grunt and don’t look at each other.
“And this,” Tom says, “which might, I don’t know, be more to the point. Almost every wizardly partnership where the sexes or genders are different does this, sooner or later, just to find out. It’s not doing it that’s rare.”
Kit looks relieved. Now it’s Nita who looks annoyed. “So you are saying we’re ordinary.”
Now Carl starts laughing again, and can’t stop. “It’s also common,” Tom says, “to try the other person’s plumbing, too. Just for size.”
Carl pokes him.
“What?” Tom says. “You trying to say I shouldn’t have told them? Oh come on. If they’re far enough along for this developmentally, they’re far enough along for that.” And a sort of look passes between them that suggests Carl has something else on his mind besides the now-solved problem at hand, and Tom agrees with him. “Straighforward mindswap’s all you need for that. Power requirements are considerable, but…” He shrugs.
“And if you want to genderswap again, just check your manuals next time,” Carl says. “You can do it with wizardry. It’s a shapechange, but you treat it like a straightforward whole-body clone, accelerated. Just keep it virtual, as the genuine energy outlay for a true full physical clone would be more than you want to pay just for an experiment. Won’t be cheap in terms of power, but it's safer than what you did.”
Then Carl rubs his face and gets up to go into the kitchen for a paper towel: he’s actually laughed until he’s cried.
“Okay,” Tom says after a moment, looking up from his manual. “Got what I need. Sit still and think gender-neutral thoughts.”
Five minutes later, Nita and Kit are back in their usual shapes again. Kit, while shifting a bit in his seat, as if briefly finding what’s back as strange as having it gone, says at last, “You were saying… there was something good about this.”
Tom and Carl exchange a long look, then reach an agreement by some obscure wizardly telepathy, or just the instincts of two partners in a tough job who’ve long since learned how to think for and with and ahead of each other.
Tom leans back in his chair. “Well.” He frowns a bit, not at either of them. “There’s a slight problem,” he says, “with the way wizardry‘s set up: at least as far as humans are concerned. Your greatest power comes when you’re new to it. That’s a constant, galaxy-wide, as that’s when the Powers have greatest need of you.”
“Not that They don’t always need you,” Carl says. “But They need those high power levels when they’re there. They can’t afford to wait until you’re older.”
Tom folds his arms, stretches out in his chair. “Now we’re a species with a longish latency period—for humans, that’s the whole time between when you really become an actor in life, in your early childhood years, until around puberty. We’ve all got years to get used to our power, and the business of wizardry, at a time when our brains are still growing. But pretty soon, when you hit the mid-teens, there are other things going on…”
Nita and Kit roll their eyes, more or less in unison.
“Not those things,” Carl says, dry. “...Well, okay, yeah, some of those. The point is, some people have problems with the growing up part.”
“Oh no,” Kit says under his breath. “The Susan Syndrome.”
“Well, not exactly,” Tom says. “Unfortunately there are some wizards who, when they hit the threshold of adulthood—especially the part that involves, not to mince words, their sexuality—who have trouble putting that particular kind of adult behavior together with the wizardly behavior they’ve been practicing in previous years. They find themselves standing at the edge of a metaphorical precipice. Having associated wizardry in their minds with childhood, they come to the threshold and can’t reconcile the physical adulthood to come with what came before. And they find they can’t move forward without leaving something behind.”
Nita and Kit look at Tom in shock. “I thought wizardry was for life…” Kit says after a few moments.
“While the heart remains willing,” Tom says, “of course there’s no power that can pry it away from you. But when the heart becomes unwilling…or starts seeing wizardry as something only children do, something incompatible with being an adult…”
“Something has to give,” Carl says. “And Life itself, and the Powers that manage wizardry in Its name, will not sacrifice human lives for mere power. So the wizardry goes.”
Kit and Nita stare at each other, ashen.
“An outcome,” Tom says, “which today’s events suggest is not something you two are ever going to need to worry about. This kind of experimentation is the last thing you’d expect from people who saw… let’s say, future personal events… as being in conflict with their identities as wizards.”
“So all we need to do now,” Carl says to Tom, grinning, “is work out how much you owe me.”
“I owe you?" Tom says. "Wait just a cotton-pickin' minute; how do you figure? You were the one who said, ‘At least you don’t have to worry about those two,’ and I said ‘No, but it’ll be months yet, maybe years, before we—”'
And they’re off. Nita and Kit look at each other and get up, both of them intent on not hearing any more of this than they absolutely have to. “Uh, we should get home—”
“—thanks a lot for helping with this, you were super—”
“We really have to get back, it’s late—”
“Yeah, thanks, we’ll check in with you later—”
Tom and Carl nod, smile, wave, acknowledge them, and continue. “Oh, really. Show me where you wrote that down.”
“I have a note right here…”
“Like that means we actually agreed on this!”
“…somewhere here…just wait a minute...”
“I’m not sure this bet is even legal if we didn’t both agree to it…”
Nita and Kit escape while they can, ignoring the continuing snickering from the koi pond.
The laughter inside the house becomes really loud. “What is the matter with you? Cut it out. What’s so funny?”
“I was just remembering when you—”
And, as Kit and Nita head up the path to the front walk, they hear a sound that sounds an awful lot like an adult wizard falling off his chair laughing.
And finally, later that night:
Two conversations take place, via manual, with the Seniors. And they both start out like this:
“Just one more thing. Is it normal to think… that he’s/she’s… actually kinda hot like that?”
And in both cases the answer comes back: “I’m sorry, I missed something there. You’re a wizard and you’re worried about being normal?”
…And the conversations continue. But then this is no surprise: because, at the end of the day, all wizardry is Speech.