_Maze of Worlds_ part 2

He listened, heard nothing. Climbed up the back of the truck and laid out the green duffle on top of another . . . Bit his lip and propped up a full bag and edged his under it a bit. Climbed in, shoving his way under the overlapping bag, then pulled his back pack in after.

So if anyone looks in they'll see it, not me.

He reached past it to find the draw cord and snugged it up.

Froze at the sound of a motor, very near. Voices echoing around . . . something about custom filters for some string of numbers.

" . . . bloody last minute additions. Well, let's see . . . oh hell, they're too light to ride on top unless we net the whole . . ."

". . . shift a few sacks to hold it down . . ."

". . . still going to need a net."

Kit froze as he got shoved. A metallic clatter as something large and liughtweight was dropped on top of him, that got pressed down and heavy.

Not too much piled on top, please!

More jerky movements, loud voices, "About time you showed up! Grab the other side of this net, and tighten it down good. Then get out of here. You miss that gate . . ."

"Oh, cool off. The gate's damn near two hours from now." A man's voice, very close. Light shone around his backpack as the mouth of his duffle bag opened, something was shoved in, the cord tugged down tight.

"All right, the net's tight. I'm out of here."

The roar of the engine starting and vibration. The rattle of the garage door opening, then the truck eased forward, stopped, forward again and turned . . .

This is either best idea I've ever had, or the worst.

Chapter Two

Experimental World UE2131617


They couldn't have gone more than a few kilometers before they turned into stop-and-go traffic. A lot of crunching, as of heavy gates closing.

Okay. I read about this. Everything goes though a check point. I wonder what they check for? Do they have drug sniffers? That's not a problem . . . depending on what just got stuffed into my duffle.

Or are they looking for people escaping, like me? Or someone who's broken out of prison, or a spy heading home with the secret plans?

How would they detect them? Thermally, maybe? That's not good. Can my weird stuff make me look cold? I sort of augmented my coat last winter, because it was pretty thin. But that just held my body heat in . . . which is actually what I need right now.

He shut his eyes and thought about what he'd done. Visualized a blanket wrapped around him, holding the warmth in. The thud of heavy gate, door, whatever it was, was close now. And then the noises were muted and echoing as the crunch of the gate was behind them. The truck braked, then drove on before it had actually stopped.

Was that it? So fast?

So much for the super secure gate field.

After several turns, Kit relaxed his mental blanket. I'm sweating like mad, and even if the duffle and everything it's got piled on it isn't air tight, it does restrict the airflow.

He reached over the backpack and the smaller package and pulled at the puckered opening. It didn't give. Drat! He tied it shut! Or almost shut. But it's a little less stuffy if I hold it up . . . and I can sort of look around. What are all those white things, rows and rows of them? They aren't foggy, like corridors . . . are those the gates?

Then the truck made one last turn and stopped. The engine cut off. Slamming vehicle doors and voices.

"Hey Mike, I was starting to wonder if you were going to make it."

"What? Miss my twice a month delivery to Hell? Not a chance."

A laugh, and now a woman's voice. "Well, even the animals need to be fed, and the zookeepers rotate out."

"I'm surprised they don't have their own vehicles, though."

"I heard they don't want vehicles on site, and other than that, they don't want it to look like a government project." The woman again. "Mind you, it's all speculation, and we ought not talk. I'm running empty, this part of the trip, otherwise I wouldn't even get out of the bus."

Male laughter. "We know you, all stiff and proper, where the customers can see you."

She laughed. "Well, they've had a cancellation. Maybe we can get out of here on time. I wouldn't mind catching dinner there."

"Yeah, good chef, even if he is one of the inmates in the asylum."

Asylum? And I running from Social Services . . . to an insane asylum? Or prison? Oh man, I need to get out of here . . . but I'm here illegally . . .

"It'd drive me up the wall, not being able to go outside for weeks at a time."

"Yeah, no kidding. Well, the place is pretty empty, the last two years. Sheesh. I had to make four trips in my little bus, when they shut down . . . whatever the heck it was that they were doing. Maybe they'll just shut it down altogether, when the kids are grown."

"Yeah . . . I wonder what's going on with those kids, sometimes."

This is sounding worse and worse!

A electronic ping. "Whoa, another cancellation! I'm grabbing the slot, let's go!"

But doors slammed, engines started, and the truck jerked into motion. Turned, turned back . . . paused. The engine roared as the truck accelerated hard.

This is going to be worse than a corridor!

He pulled up his shirt and bit it. Don't scream! Don't scream . . . he was spun, tossed, crushed, stretched . . . and dumped back into the normal world gasping for breathe . . . a nasty stink invading . . .

Is the air out there breathable? Oh . . . Kit reached and grabbed the opening of the duffle and clenched it shut. Buried his nose in the bottom of the duffle where it met his backpack and tried to breath slowly.

The duffle's not air tight, but it's better than nothing.

If we're not going too far.

If . . .

The truck bumped over somthing and stopped. The rattle of descending garage doors, a roar like giant fans . . .

Kit swallowed. Right, they had to have the gate outside, because the trucks coming through, moving. But they must have built pretty close.

And if I'm going to leave here, I'll need to know when they'll open the gate, and someway of breathing while I get there. Because a halfhour wait for the gate to open might be fatal.

Or . . . maybe the air is breathable, just ultra stinky.

More vehicle door sounds, voices.

Uh oh. I need to get out of here before they unload . . .


Maze of Worlds

The brain is not cooperating with getting words on the screen, a sure sign I need to hit the zero carb wagon for a week, then slowly let the carbs back into my life.

In the mean time, to keep you entertained, one of the barely started stories that never got picked up again, so this is all there is:


The Maze of Worlds

Chapter One

Trapped in the Foster Care System

April 1, 3528 ce

Spring 1411 px

22 Emre1413 yp

“Christophe Antione!”

Kit stopped, fork halfway to his mouth. His “caseworker” was scanning the rather thinly populated cafeteria and spotted him. Crooked a finger in a summons.

A snicker from down the table. “What did you do wrong this time, Kitty?”

Kit shoved a last bite into his mouth and stood, grabbing the “dessert square” and leaving the rest. Might as well let the others finish it. It’s not like there’s enough, anyway.

Mrs. Lainer looked down her nose at him. “Throw that disgusting thing away.”

He swallowed the “meat” in his mouth and took a bite of the dessert. At least it pretended to be sweet.

“I gave you an order.” Frosty tones.

Kit swallowed and stuffed the rest in his mouth.

“You are the most disobedient child I have ever had the misfortune . . . why don’t you even try to behave!”

“Why don’t you send me to my uncle?”

“Because there’s no supervision there. He works odd hours in a dangerous profession, divorced . . . He’s just not suitable for a problem child.”

“I’m only a problem because you’ve stolen me from my family. I see no reason to behave for kidnappers.”

She came close to shoving him through the office door. “This is Mr. and Mrs. Fontenot. They are opening their home to you. To add you to their family. They have three other foster children . . .”

Kit ignored her and studied the pair of adults. Right. Living off the foster care stipend. Looking me over like a problem to be dealt with as cheaply as possible.

“He doesn’t look fourteen. Twelve, maybe.” The man smiled.

Yeah, rub it in.

“Now go pack. Be quick about it.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Kit slid out of the office, and trotted for the boy’s barracks. Not that he had much to pack, but “not much” was better than nothing. Two changes of clothes, all showing their age and getting tight.

I’m almost fifteen. Three more years, and I can go starve on the streets, unless Uncle Martin will take me in. Guess I’ll finally find out if he really wants me, or if these people are actually being kind and giving me the excuses.

Back at the office, Mrs. Lainer escorted them all to the door . . . and then it was time to figure out which category these two adults fell into.

The man held the car door for him. “Relax. We’re going to get along just fine.”

Hand on his shoulder for a brief squeeze, running down Kit’s back as he climbed in the back seat.

Oh. That kind.

So much for just going along for the next three years.

And I can’t go to Uncle Martin, it would just get him into trouble. I guess it’s time for Plan F. Go hunt down the sperm donor, and see if he’s any better than pervy fosters.

He watched out the car windows . . . heading west, so there should be a transit hub, yeah, there’s the sign . . . He looked at the door. Automatic locks, of course, but what his mom had always called his special “tricks” would release them.

They slowed as traffic backed up and he zapped the lock. Flicked the seat belt latch, grabbed his bag, opened the door, and bailed out. He dodged the slow moving cars in the next lane, hit the sidewalk and ran. Turned at the first corner. Getting out of sight was always the first step.

You don’t see me, you don’t see me, you don’t see me!

He walked down the alley, turned right at the first corner, right again on the street that had had the transit center sign.

The new stepfather hustled around the corner up ahead.

You don’t see me, you don’t see me, you don’t see me!

Kit walked past him, waited at the light and crossed the street. Kept thinking invisible thoughts all the way to the transit station. Zapped the pass reader and walked through the gate.

He checked the map, to be sure his memory was right, and dropped down another level for the right train.

That took him to the right bus . . .

A man was checking each passenger as they boarded. Kit waited until the driver reached for the controls to slip invisibly through the door. He sat on the steps. And braced himself.

You don’t see me, you don’t see me, you don’t see me!

Two years ago his Mom had taken him through a dimensional corridor, on a vacation trip to China. The corridor had been the most wrenching, horrible . . .

You don’t see me, you don’t see me, you don’t see me!

He concentrated on staying invisible as he twisted . . . took a deep breath of dusty hot desert air leaking in around the door edges.

You don’t see me, you don’t see me, you don’t see me!

The bus drove another couple of kilometers, then pulled over under a high roof. The passengers started pushing forward. Kit slung his bag and got friendly with the doors. They opened, and he jumped out and dodged to the side.

Right. I’m in Nowhereistan.

From here on out he was going to have to improvise.

The legitimate passengers from the bus were splitting up, some dropping down escalators with signs over them like “UEAF” “M. Acc.” And “Warehouse Dist” which was at least understandable.

But most of them were headed for other buses also with unintelligible labels. “LC” “DONA” “MD1” “CC” “GA”

He edged closer to the new buses, studied the people lining up for them. And the police walking out and looking around, jaws moving as they looked around, frowning.

They don’t see me, they aren’t looking for me. But he turned and walked away. But whoever they were talking to seemed to be sending them toward him.

He panicked and bolted for the nearest escalator. Down to a turnstile. He vaulted across, and kept running. Down to a tram platform , complete with a tram. He threw himself through as the doors closed . . . I wonder where I’m going?

The people on the tram frowned at him. Not a lot of people. An empty bench . . . he sat, fished in his bag and pulled out a book. Old fashioned, paper. An old form that still hung on, useful for children who broke things and people working in secure areas where electronics were forbidden.

As he’d hoped, it was such a normal thing that people stopped looking at him. It was a pretty fast tram, but the police could call ahead . . .

He stayed on the tram through three stops, and got off on the fourth.

Trotted up the stairs.

You don’t see me, you don’t see me, you don’t see me!

A man on a tall ladder, doing something up high on a wall.

Kit stepped closer. Maybe a cam is down. Or he’s blocking it . . . Blocking . . . He looked around, slowed.

You don’t see me, you don’t see me, you don’t see me!

A trio of men walked past and he went with them, invisible to humans. It has to have been the cams. Someone monitoring the cams spotted me. So how am I going to get to the gates? I need real camouflage. Something the cams will see that won’t trigger any automatic checks, that a person monitoring won’t notice.

The men were walking a bit wide spaced, not together, just heading the same direction . . . toward an escalator. The man in the lead charged up the moving steps. Kit scuttled to stay between the other two. Bent and pretended to be searching his bag, not as if he was staying low where a cam might not see him.

You don’t see me, you don’t see me, you don’t see me!

He quickstepped off the escalator and followed the man in front of him right out the big glass doors. Circled him and trotted ahead of him, the man’s bulk between him and the building, and any cams that might be there. Big plain buildings ahead.

Warehouses.

Do they store stuff, then ship it through the gates?

How do I find one that ships to Embassy?

Does it matter where I go?

No. Not really. Right now, I just need to go someplace that isn’t here where the cops are chasing me!

He trotted down the street. The doors are open on that one . . . Drat, they’re unloading. Okay, next warehouse . . .

He kept going. Got to a street corner that had a store, and dug out the bag he kept around his neck—the only way to keep anything safe in custodial care. Two cash chips and the pocket knife Uncle Martin had given him when he was eight.

Of course it was just a vendo store, but that was perfect. He popped the first cash chip in . . . and used it all on a small pack of cheese and crackers and a drink. He checked the second chip . . . and decided he’d better save it.

Right now I’m just hungry. Tomorrow I’ll be starving.

He walked out, and down an alley. Found a bit of shade to sit in and try to pretend that four crackers with a smear of cheese was a meal.

Actually . . . the shadows were pretty long.

Will it be harder or easier to get through a gate in the dark? They say they run the powered gates around the clock, but the permanent gates wouldn’t have the same limits, would they? The two powered gates have to go to every world that doesn’t have a permanent gate.

Kit hunched his shoulders. And I have no idea where any of the gates are going. Whether it’s better to escape through a permanent gate or a powered gate . . . and I also have no idea where the nearest public restroom is . . .

He wound through alleys and between warehouses, looking for anything . . . he peeked though an open door. Several trucks, loaded and empty, one flat bed, loaded facing a closed vehicle door. No one in sight . . . a door labeled bathroom . . .

You don’t see me, you don’t see me, you don’t see me!

No one there. Whew, what a relief.

As he reached for the door, footsteps.

He bolted down to the last stall, flattened against the wall.

You don’t see me, you don’t see me, you don’t see me!

“. . . late! If he misses the gate I swear I’ll fire him, union or not.” A man’s voice, English with an accent Kit couldn’t identify.

“Still have two and half hours. So long as there’s no problem with security, he’ll have plenty of time.”

“Yeah, if he gets here any time soon.”

Fortunately they just pissed and left.

But they have a truck going through a gate in a few hours. If . . .

He opened the door a crack. Two men walking away.

You don’t see me, you don’t see me, you don’t see me!

He slipped out the door and along the back wall, solid with shelves, and behind the truck. A great huge crate on the end. He peek around the far side. No people. Up to the front. Another crate, but the space in between was filled with sacks. White, labeled potatoes, there was wheat, several long green sacks . . .

Kit looked back at the shelves. Folded cloth, green like those bags.

You don’t see me, you don’t see me, you don’t see me!

The green cloth was sturdy canvas duffle bag.

Just my size.


_In the Bag_the end

And woke in shock, the red glow so close . . .

He darted to the back door. Peeked out . . . nothing. He slid out the door into the bright moonlight. Where would the man be? Did he still have that knife?

A soft sound from the back fence. The loose board swung out of the way and a dark form slid through. Hunched, breathing hard, with a quiver almost like a laugh.

Exzy put both hands out, palms up and gathered moonlight and gravity. Power.

The madman stepped away from the fence and into the moonlight. Clawed hands flexing as if in anticipation of grabbing him. His lips peeled back from gleaming teeth.

“Go. Away.” Exzy could hear the quaver in his own voice, as the madman’s grin widened and he stepped toward Exzy.

Exzy shoved with both hands.

From fifteen feet away.

The madman flew back. Not hitting the fence, because the fence was already falling flat, pieces flying . . .

A fading scream.

A metallic rattle.

Exzy stepped out to where he could see the madman.

On the far side of the big ditch. Clinging to the chain link fence. Rattling it and now screaming incoherently. He turned around and spotted Exzy. He shrieked and ran straight at Exzy. Launched himself as if to fly back across the ditch . . .

His gaze met Exzy’s as his eyes widened in realization. As he fell.

The scream cut off with a thud.

And odd horrible feeling, like the screech of a fork skidding on a plate, but mental, sending a shudder down his spine.

Exzy ran out . . . the sprawled figure was clear in the moonlight. Head at an odd angle . . .

I didn’t kill him. I just threw him across the ditch.

He thought he could fly or something.

It wasn't really my fault.

He shuddered again.

I felt him die.

He backed away, ran back inside, tears running down his face while he huddled in the chair. Eventually he fell asleep. And woke to a hubbub in the back yard. Ruby and Jimmy out yelling across the ditch to the policemen there, and someone down in the ditch as well.

He huddled harder. I’m not going to talk to them. I didn’t kill him.

Eventually the noises stopped, and Ruby and Jimmy came back in.

Exzy wandered into the kitchen and looked at the empty granola bars box. Shrugged and grabbed an orange. He sat in the back yard and wondered how long it had been since he’d last brushed his teeth. Brushed his hair. Taken a bath.

I slept two nights, so this is only the third day.

I need to go home.

The sun light was just hitting the ground, warming him up a bit. He closed his eyes, and could see the red of the blood in his eyelids, hear the pounding of his heart. He looked deeper, and the red blended into purple, into blue. Fizzy and wild.

The inbetween. All the dimensional magicians talk about it. All the bubbles. It seems like I’ve always been able to see the bubbles . . . I just never saw the bubbles in the blue fizz.

And they talk about finding cones . . . like that one . . . to make gates. And someone is moving it. Bumping it with a bubble.

He reached out mentally and tried to grab it. It was spinning too fast, but it was slowing every time it got hit by a bubble someone was using to steer it with.

He reached and this time grabbed it, pulled it toward him. He felt someone trying to pull it away, and pulled harder. It froze, and he opened his eyes. A faint translucency right in front of him. He closed his eyes and looked at the inbetween again. Another cone was being pushed toward him, twisting around his and reach out for a faint crumpled paper looking thing.

He opened his eyes in time to see the translucency pale and spread, turning and becoming the sparkling white vortex of a dimensional gate.

Uh, oh. I hope it’s the good guys whose gate making I’ve just interfered with.

He got up, edging away from the gate.

A figure jumped through. Red hair in a pony tail . . .

Exzy groaned.

“Exzy! What do you think you’re doing, interfering with my gate! I’m working, dammit.” Ryol frowned down at him. “Why didn’t anyone tell me you’d grasped power? And where are we?”

“Beats me.” Exzy looked over his shoulder. “It’s all right. It’s just my sister.”

“Oh?” Ryol scowled, one foot tapping. “And what are you doing here?”

“I’m having an adventure.” Exzy turned and walked back to Ruby. He shrugged off his coat, removed the bubble handles, and handed her the coat. “I have to go now. I’m sorry we never got around to the third wish. But sell the gold whenever you need to, and work to make your wishes come true yourself.”

He turned and trotted back to his sister. “Well, c’mon, you need to close this gate and make the one you were intending to make.”

“One! Little brothers are worse than twin brothers!”

***

The other side was a barren world with a half dozen gates scattered around.

Ryol pointed. “That’s the Gate Field. If you’ve got any sense at all you’ll go to Embassy and get cleaned up at Dad’s house before Mom sees you.”

The young man standing there looked uneasy. “Ryol? He looks kind of young to be on his own.”

Ryol snorted. “Exzy? He’s been getting himself into and out of trouble since he was a toddler. Getting lost across dimensions is something new. But I’m sure he can handle getting home from here. Now hush. I need to close this unauthorized gate.”

Exzy closed his eyes for a moment, and watched her find another cone and ram it, still spinning fast, into the connected cones and blowing them apart and away from the worlds they’d connected.

Huh. That’s not so hard. The next time I have an adventure, I can make one myself.

He jumped through to the Gate Field.

Hey! I didn’t get dizzy!

He’d been here about a million times, so he looked for all the tall buildings, the warehouses . . . So he was off in a corner, and the Embassy gate was over there . . .

He joined the small crowd of pedestrians waiting for the vehicular traffic to clear, then walked through with them. He got a few surprised glances from the uniformed guards, but his implanted ID was good for unlimited gate travel, so no one said anything.

Until he was out on the street.

A trio of boys, all too well known. Two girls he’d never met.

Oh great, someone for them to show off in front of!

“Oh, look at the pwecious widow boy! Did your Mommy wesue you?” Stodie grinned and the other boys laughed.

“Hey, lost your wizard coat? Larry can send you back to get it.” Ferris laughed and Larry cracked his knuckles.

Exzy looked at the just-past-full Moon, setting behind the wall that surrounded the Oner Embassy’s block. Pinched just a tiny bit of gravity, and thought about a nice broad, gentle push, and pushed.

They screamed like little girls as they were lifted off their feet and pressed against the wall.

“Put me down! Put me down!” Stodie squirmed, feet and arms jerking against the push as if he was trying to throw a vertical temper tantrum.

A guard popped out of the gate and checked the situation. Started grinning and walked back to his post.

Exzy stopped pushing and the trio dropped a meter to sprawl on the sidewalk. Exzy sniffed, and brushed at his sleeve. Turned and sauntered away. The sun was rising, wherever he’d been must have been a couple of time zones east.

If he hurried to shower and change, he wouldn’t even be late for school.

Drat.

***

Senior Inspector Jim Kelso eyed the ragged unkempt back yard. The techs were sweeping the area, and Martha was hobnobbing with the pros. “Just a big circle of desert, and two people looking through it?”

“Yes.” Dr. Todd looked mildly amused. “Then the young woman who was sitting cross-legged on the ground stood up and jumped through. Exzy said she was his sister and he had to go back home now, and jumped through with the woman following him. She was carrying on about little brothers.”

Jim looked at the other two men and the middle-aged woman. “You told people he was your grandson?”

She fluffed her hair a bit. “I hadn’t dyed my hair then, it was pretty gray. I know we ought to have called the police, but the way the boy fell out of nowhere, well, there was obviously somethin’ odd goin’ on.”

“And we’re right, aren’t we?” Grissom, the snake-oil salesman, eyed him. “You knew just what to look for.”

Jim shrugged. “Gates like that have a magnetic pulse when they open or close. Once they’re open, they’re really hard to find. But some specially designed satellites can detect the opening and closing, and pinpoint the location. Unfortunately with about a week’s processing delay. So I had another team out scouring the ground of your alley, when this one was reported to us.”

He eyed the four of them. “We’re looking for anything your visitor left behind.”

They exchanged wary looks, then the guy with thinning hair snickered. “He fixed the glass in the house—but you can’t have it, unless you replace it.”

They took him inside to show him. Previously shattered glass that looked like it was welded together. At least the house was clean, and they’d been painting the exterior when the team rolled up.

Six adults living here? Obviously very friendly with each other.

“So . . . all you former winos, drug addicts and prostitutes suddenly cleaned up and banded together to get a roof over your heads. Got any of that magic wine left?”

More looks exchanged.

They all look quite ordinary, probably no genetically engineered ancestors, unlike the dead druggie. Or me.

Ruby Meyers, who according to her ID was fifty-five and looked ten years younger shook her head. “We drunk it all. Worse the luck.”

Ha!

Her eyes narrowed. “So, how often does this happen?”

“About once a year.” Jim shrugged. “We had great hopes of actually being on time to find someone this time. If this kid comes back, give him my card and tell him that our authorities would like to talk to his authorities.” He handed out cards profligately.

I ought to be jumping all over the snake-oil salesman, but since that wine has proven to be a cure-all and anti-addictive, we’re not really going to carry on about the aphrodisiac properties. What we’d really like is to talk to . . . damn near anyone.

Except, perhaps the Animal Gang.

And . . . an eight year old boy? Running around having adventures in parallel worlds?

It just keeps getting weirder.

_In the Bag_ part 4

Exzy whipped out his bag and ripped the handles wide.

The stupid pimp was first out. “. . . lazy cunts get back where . . . What the fuck!” He threw his arms up and blocked the first knife blow.

Exzy backed away, sacks of groceries falling out of the bubble . . . He closed the bubble, grabbed a bag and ran for it as the two men wrestled and fell to the ground.

The winos grabbed sacks as they ran past and they all wound up in front of “their” house, watching the fight from a safe distance.

People were popping out of houses across the street, some talking on phones, more holding them up to record the fight. One man cussing, one screaming non-stop. The knife flew out of the screamer’s hand. The cussing pimp got his hands around the screamer’s throat. Caught a knee to the crotch and flinched back, cussing louder as the screamer broke his grip and scrambled for the knife.

The pimp was slow to block and took the knife in his lower ribs.

Sirens in the distance, but a black car shrieked to a halt and the fat guy leaped out of his car. “Hey! Hey! No killing each other on my property!”

The screamer jerked the knife out and leaped for the fat man.

Who sidestepped, blocked the knife, grabbed the man and rammed him into the car. The screamer staggered back . . . turned and ran.

“No, no, no! Not into the house! I have to sell that house, dammit!” The fat man turned to the pimp, laying on the ground. “Oh, crap.”

Jimmy dropped the sacks he was carrying and trotted back, dropped to his knees and ripped the pimps shirt open.

Oh yeah, he’s a doctor.

Exzy put his sack down and hunted through his bubble for the first aid kit Mom had put in there. He trotted up and opened it to show Jimmy, who started grabbing stuff.

Exzy stepped back beside the fat man. “Don’t worry. He’s a doctor, he knows what he’s doing.”

The fat man sighed. “‘Invest in slum property,’ they said. ‘It’ll be worth so much when the area gentrifies,’ they said. And fool that I am, I listened.”

Three police cars shrieked to a stop.

The first cop took a quick look around. “The ambulance is on the way. Now what happened?”

George answered. “A guy with a knife came screaming out of that house, and attacked this guy. I dunno either of them. Seen this one around.”

Another cop took a look. “Local pimp. Hot Mikey something.” He glanced at the gathering crowd, and Queenie gave him a little finger wave.

The fat guy started talking. “When I drove up—I own that house, unfortunately—they were wrestling around. The guy that was screaming—I think he was high—stabbed this guy. Then attacked me, then he ran back into the house.”

The police were looking around at the stuff on the ground.

“We were walking home with our groceries when the fight started. We dropped a bag when we ran away.” Exzy volunteered. He peered at the house. No sign of that red glow.

Good. He’s gone. Maybe he won’t come back.

More police came, all in bulky black stuff. They pulled down faceplates on their helmets and charged the house.

The ambulance pulled up, men jumping out. Exzy backed away as Jimmy told them to check the pimp’s blood pressure but he thought there wasn’t any arterial bleeding. Talked to someone on the ambulance guy’s radio in medical terminology, and the pimp was loaded up and taken away.

Jimmy stood up and watched it pull away. “I’m going to be a doctor again.”

The only policeman still with them raised an eyebrow, and asked for ID. They all gave him the same address. He looked down the street, and looked skeptical.

The fat guy sighed. “Oh. I’ve got the contract in the car. They’re buying it. Poor fools.” He handed over his own ID and leaned back into the car to pull out a folder.

“Here’s the tax receipt—that smart boy was right about checking that.” He looked at the policemen in black coming back empty handed. Sighed. “Don’t suppose I can sell you that one too, can I?”

Exzy snickered. “Maybe next year.”

The policeman shook his head. “Good Luck.”

Exzy trotted back and forth picking up his scattered granola bars and oranges and taking them back to the house. Checking for that red glow . . . but the weird guy was too far away for him to feel. “Good.” He looked around the house and started bringing out the rest of the groceries, all the chairs and walked from bedroom to bedroom delivering the mattresses.

Looking around at the filthy house. Filthy floor, broken windows, spiderwebs.

He walked over to pick up big shard of broken glass on the floor. He held it up to the splintered remnants in the window frame and could see where it had come from. “Dad could fix this. He said glass was easy, because it’s amorphous, not crystalline.”

“Exzy, you’ve sure got an interestin’ vocabulary for an eight year old.” Ruby scuffed her shoe across the floor and frowned at the dirt. “I ought clean this place up.”

Exzy stared at the broken glass. He couldn’t see the Moon, and anyway it wouldn’t rise for hours. He looked at the sunlight leaking around the edges of the boards nailed over the window. He held out his hand and collected a little bit of light. Then put the glass shard in place and drew a light filled fingertip around the edge. It looked almost like he’d melted it together.

He grinned and picked up another shard . . .

Fortunately not all the windows were broken, because he was whipped by the time he was done.

A soda and sandwich took care of most of that. He snickered as everyone walked around the house, poking at the glass. Mind you, it wasn’t very smooth, but it would do until the grownups figured out how to buy new glass.

With no electricity it was a pretty boring afternoon, and the grownups got restless.

Jimmy poked around, looking alarmed. “Did we drink all the doped up wine? Where are the bottles?”

Exzy shook his head. “I’ve got the left overs. You guys will need . . . what? Little bottles of it to sell, I guess.”

Jimmy drummed his fingers on the counter. “Right. I’m going to go get more wine to experiment with.”

Ruby looked around. “I need to get cleaning stuff. Lots of cleaning stuff.”

Queenie and Cherry Blossom swapped looks. “Hot Mikey’s in the hospital. We could go get all our clothes. And some of the furniture is mine.”

“I’m going to take the boards off . . .” George said. Paul nodded and they headed outside.

Exzy bit his lip, then shrugged and relocated to the tree with another soda. He listened to the various crunchings and crashing, but there weren’t any tinkles of broken glass.

The tarts made four trips from wherever they lived, furniture hanging out of the trunk of Queenies tiny car.

When Ruby returned and started scrubbing the floor, Exzy tried to help magically and was sent away when he started removing something called linoleum.

And once it was clean and dry Queenie and Cherry Blossom rolled out colorful rugs in their rooms and in the living room, and set up their “TeeVees,” that were kind of clunky versions of screens.

Which had them all wondering how to get the electricity and water turned back on.

Jimmy produced two six packs of little bottles of wine, another of beer, and a bottle of brandy. Exzy brought out the bottle with the dregs in it. They all looked dubiously at it.

“It’s going to be really dilute, this time.”

“Nope.” Exzy grinned. “It’s a von neumann’s so it spreads.”

“What?” Jimmy held it away in horror. “That’s so dangerous!”

Exzy shrugged. “Dad says the assemblers are partly made of alcohol, and run on alcohol. When they run out of fuel, they eat themselves. We use it all the time.”

“I . . . see. Well, that will solve the manufacturing process.” His adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “So. I’ve got white wine, red wine, beer, and brandy. Let’s see how they compare. And what dose is effective.”

Exzy rolled his eyes. “I’m going to go climb a tree. Have fun.” Eww. You’d think once would be enough.

It was colder than the night before, so once the running around and laughing had stopped, he ventured back in and curled up in a chair and slept.

Crossing Paths

Looking up old information, I just realized that when Xiat was a wet-behind-the-ears new Princess at the Presidential Directorate, she served under Director Arci and Killer Kaat.

_In the Bag_ part 3

“All right, I’m comin’.” She stumped down the cracked sidewalk. “I ain’t got a bank account.”

“Can you get one? Do you need to have ID?”

“I got ID. Not a driver’s license, but everybody’s got to have ID. You can’t hardly do anything without ID.” She scowled at him. “What are you plottin’?”

“To sell more gold. Can Bernie write you a check for the gold? Then you could open a bank account with it, right? It would look really legitimate, with a check.”

“Twelve thousand dollars is a lot’o money.” Ruby steered him across the street and turned away from the line of stores and restaurants, now with their fancy signs turned off.

“Goodwill” turned out to be a used clothes-and-everything else store.

The clerks looked appalled as the old people spread out looking for clothes that would fit.

Exzy spotted a shelf full of books . . . but they were all love stories. Yuck.

He checked on the old people—the two tarts were getting them fixed up with some fancier clothes, so he left them to it and started looking at furniture.

Chairs. A little table. Beds . . . well, they had a bunch of mattresses standing up in a rack. Black Coat, er, George, came by with Queenie and they giggled and said they need a nice big one.

Eww! I am never going to be like that.

Then the others came and they’d paired off too, so they bought three . . . and Exzy stretched his bubble handles out and scooped up all three.

The clerk stumbled back a couple of steps.

“How about these chairs?” Exzy pointed out the comfortable looking ones, and the women all laughed and chose other ones “that coordinated.” He shoved them into the bubble too.

The clerk totaled it all up and Ruby handed over the cash. They walked further down the street to “the Y” where they could shower and change into their new clothes.

Exzy spotted the grocery store beyond and got money for groceries from Ruby. Not that there was a lot he could get—the house didn’t have any electricity, either. But granola bars, apples, and oh yum! Oranges! A big box of fried chicken, paper plates and plastic forks and napkins and a couple of gallons of water, back track for plastic glasses, sodas . . . He paid for it all and wheeled the cart out of the store and over where it wasn’t visible from inside and shoved everything into his bubble.

Good thing they don’t get full, but I’m going to have to be careful unloading it!

His gang was hovering around eyeing the store, and looking relieved when they spotted him. He was relieved too. They look like regular people, instead of derelicts and tarts. Well . . . they look better.

He pointed at a table and benches under a tree by the Y. “Let’s sit down, you guys haven’t eaten much today. Then . . . what order should we do this in, Ruby? Open a bank account with some of the cash from yesterday? Then Bernie's, to sell gold?” He pulled out the groceries.

“It’s barely noon, Gen . . . Exzy.” Ruby ripped into a box of granola bars and they all went for them. And sodas. Then the fruit. Then they tackled the hot chicken . . . and finally slowed down, content.

And looking around at each other.

Queenie frowned. “I feel really good. I . . . haven’t thought about a fix all day.”

Nods from the others. “I don’t need a drink. Alcohol, I mean.” Jimmy Todd frowned at Exzy. “Did whatever you put in the wine do that? Not to mention how we were behaving.”

Ruby elbowed him and giggled. “And I looked in the mirror, in the Y. I looked pretty good for an old Bag Lady.”

“Yeah. It cures almost everything. And it makes grownups want to do disgusting things.”

And suddenly they were all frowning down on him.

“Grownups?” Paul frowned down at him. “How old are you?”

“Umm . . . what’s the date?”

“January fifteenth.”

“Uh, year?”

“2150.”

“Oh, well. Actually I won’t be born for another fourteen centuries or so. But I guess I’m actually . . .” darn it, what’s old enough to be believable? “Thirteen.”

Skeptical looks.

“Almost.”

Folded arms and stern looks.

“I’m wizard. We grow a bit slow . . .” Exzy sagged under their combined disbelief. “I’m eight. ”

Now they just looked appalled.

“So you’re not a Genie?” Ruby sounded disappointed.

“Well, not like in Aladdin. We get called Genies some places because we had genetic engineering. That’s why we’re magic.”

“And that stuff you put in the wine. Is it going to make us magic?” Jimmy was looking thoughtful. And not wearing glasses.

“No! It just fixes everything that’s wrong.”

More glowers.

Ruby finally asked, “So why are you pretendin’ to be a Genie?”

“Because it’s fun. I’m having an adventure. It’s not quite what I was expecting, but since I can’t get home, I might as well have fun, right?”

“Right. So you’re time traveling and lost your time machine?” Baldy, who was Wood, or Paul. Exzy couldn’t remember which name came first.

“No. Some older kids played a trick on me. Dad will find me, as soon as the kids fess up. Or Aunt Q. She’s good at dimensional stuff. Almost as good as Dad.”

Ruby snorted. “Not real sure I believe you, but what are you doing about that house?”

“I’m getting you a place to live. And money.” He squirmed a little. “I don’t think I can make you rich. But if you don’t start drinking again, maybe you could get a job, before the money from selling gold runs out?”

George grinned. “And that wine, did it just fix what was wrong with us, or will we live a long time?”

“You’ll live a long time. Except, you know, getting run over by a car, or shot, or poisoned, or . . .”

“Enough!” Ruby glared down at him. “And since you seem to be takin’ over my life, what do we do now?”

“How about selling some more gold and then you can open a bank account.” Exzy looked around at the others. “All of you?”

He pried the stones out of the stars and comets and detached the gold and shared it around. Well, Ruby got most of it, since she was (maybe) buying the house. She also grabbed the stones.

***

Bernie was boggled.

The bank lady was horrified but polite, and opened three accounts.

I guess their wardrobes need a little more work.

Jimmy and the tarts already had accounts at different banks. Exzy walked down the street with them. Jimmy’s account was overdrawn and with penalties and such, but it was less work than opening a new one.

Exzy wandered outside and sat on a bench.

The tarts returned from their bank with a man trailing along and threatening them.

Exzy scowled. The bubble had so much stuff in it . . . but it was all he had. He stood up on the bench. The man gave him a dismissive glance and went back to cussing at Queenie and Cherry. Exzy opened the bubble cautiously, but nothing spewed out. The man passed him and Exzy dropped the bubble over him, jumping down to get the man’s feet inside.

Cherry and Queenie looked at him, mouths open.

Cherry sucked in an alarmed breath. “Don’t suffocate the stupid pimp!”

Exzy grinned. “I won’t. But I’ll have to let him out to get everything else out. We’ll have to find a good place for him.”

He trotted down the street to where Jimmy was staring down at something from the bank. He looked over at them. “I was a doctor, see? A surgeon. Then my vision . . . and soon the glasses couldn’t compensate enough. I tried to switch to something I could do, nearly blind . . . my wife divorced me, and I started drinking. But now, I can see just fine, and my alcoholism is cured. I can do anything, now. I can go back. Well, maybe. But Exzy, that wine . . . what you put in that wine has so many possibilities.”

He looked at the tarts. “We need to open an office and sell that stuff.”

“Like all those other quack cures?” Queenie eyed him. “Except ours works.”

“Yep.”

Exzy grinned. “Yeah. That’s a good idea. All you need to do is add a bit to more wine. And never run out.”

“And mail order, advertise on the grid.” George walked up, grinning. “You’ll need staff.”

Paul was rubbing his head. “I swear I’ve got peach fuzz. Maybe I’ll try rubbing some on. Bet a cure for baldness will make more money than a cure for cancer.”

Ruby was looking down at her bank folder. “I’ve got a lot of money. But buyin’ a house is goin’ to take most of it.”

“If that man comes back with a contract, make sure there’s nothing about you having to pay the back taxes.” Exzy skipped across the road. “As soon as it’s yours you can turn on the water and electricity. Then you guys can start any businesses you want.”

He eyed Ruby, and dropped back to talk to her as they wandered toward home. “You look sad.”

“Oh . . . it’s just, I’ve wasted so much of my life. Only worked for a couple of years, then I got married, quit when I had a baby, and another, and another . . . By the time the youngest was grown up, I was . . . I’d let myself go, I was depressed, started drinkin’, started drinkin’ too much. Dirk divorced me and married a blonde bimbo. An’ . . . I just gave up. I’m fat old lady. A homeless wino. Have been for years. Ten or twelve, I guess.”

“Well, you won’t be homeless for much longer. And if you stay away from alcohol you won’t get addicted again. And you’ll still have plenty of money to buy new clothes and see about getting a job. If you don’t wind up working for Dr. Jimmy.”

“Doctor!”

“Yeah, until his eyes went bad, but now . . .” Exzy slowed as they approached the bad house. There was a man, his glow was weird, pulsing and red and . . . he had a knife.

And he met Exzy’s gaze. His eyes widened and he screamed. Raised the knife and sprinted toward them.

_In the Bag_ part 2

Exzy took the bag with the sandwiches, and when they argued over who was trustworthy enough to tote the wine, he put all the bottles in his bubble.

They all stared at him when he tucked the rod back into the inner pocket of his wizard coat.

“Well, where are these houses?” Exzy looked around at them. “Trust me, you don’t want to drink this stuff out in public.”

Except . . . Stodie, Ferris and Larry must have been kidding me about the instant orgy stuff. I mean, they were just playing another stupid trick.

When I get home, I’m going to live in the Fast Room. I already caught up a year, last year. I can get older than they are and, and . . . Drat. They’re so much older than I am, and I don’t want to spend a whole five years inside the Fast Room, just to wind up in the same class with them.

Darn it.

But maybe I’ll sleep there, just so I get old enough to grasp power a little bit faster.

The winos all complained and whined, and wanted the wine now, and no they didn’t want a sandwich first . . . and they turned down a street between a laundromat and a boarded-up restaurant and suddenly they were walking past old houses, small, packed pretty close together. Lots of trash and beat up cars.

“That one’s boarded up, we could . . .”

“No!” Exzy hustled past, cold chills up and down his spine. “Not that one! Trust me!”

But I haven’t grasped power. I shouldn’t . . . feel things.

Three houses later another boarded up wreck just looked tired.

They all looked at him.

He nodded. “This one’s good.”

Ruby manhandled her cart up the cracked driveway and frowned at the boarded up door.

Baldy and Black Coat walked around the side and found a gate to the back yard and jimmied open a door. Once they were all inside—including Ruby’s cart—Exzy brought out the wine, and a corkscrew. While the winos opened bottles, sampling them, Exzy dug though his magpie collection of “things that will be handy someday” and found the little flask. The Wine of the Gods and the Elixir of Long Life. Plus a few other things the Rip Crossers had thought up and added. No telling, really, what this particular batch had in it.

Ruby snatched the first bottle he anointed. “Is that all? Maybe you should put more in.”

“Nope it’s magic, it spreads and takes over the whole bottle.” Exzy finished up the last bottle, as the other held theirs out. He capped the flask and dropped it back in his bubble. “Right. There’s the first wish. It’ll take a bit of time to make you look younger, but it will work.”

Ruby took a gulp from hers. “Heh. This tastes like fancy wine, not cheap plonk. How much did I pay . . . for . . .” She broke into a sweat, and turned to look at Black Coat who was looking poleaxed . . . and met her gaze. And then they started kissing.

And the other ones were too!

“Holy One! It does! . . . I’m outta here before it gets nasty!” Exzy grabbed the bag of sandwiches and hustled out the back door. “I don’t believe that! Ick!”

***

The back yard was pretty dark, a full moon was just rising, but the big tree, even though it was winter bare, made the yard look darker. But it was a nice tree. Exzy picked his way across the messy yard, dragged something he thought belonged on a car over to the tree and leaned it so he could climb it and reach the lowest branch. He swarmed up higher and found a comfortable perch.

He munched on a sandwich and watched the full moon rise. “I wish I was like Arno. He got Dad’s X chromosome, so he can use gravity. I got Mom’s Oner X so I may not ever be able to gather enough power to do dimensional stuff.”

It was getting noisy, inside the house. Lots of laughing, an occasional crash and shriek.

Exzy ignored them. “Ryol can do it too, even though she’s a girl . . . Well, all right, I know witches are supposed to use gravity. Not very many boys can. But my dad, and grandad and brother, and three half-brothers can. So I ought to be able to do it, just like Arno does. He just reaches out,” Exzy reached out into the streaming moonlight, “and pinches a bit of power and uses it.” He pinched.

“Owwww!” Hot white spots on his thumb and first finger. “Yip . . .” he lost his balance and fell off the branch. Crashed past three more branches on the way down. Grabbed the last one long enough to swing around and hit the ground feet first, even if he did sprawl flat on his back on the ground afterwards.

He laid there staring at the two bright spots. They weren’t really hot.

He rolled over and as he put his hands down to shove back to his feet, the spots soaked into the dirt.

“No, no, no, no, no! Come back!” But they were gone. But . . .

“I grasped power! I grasped power!” He leaped up and danced around, tripping over things in the unmown grass, and laughing so loud he couldn’t hear the party going on inside.

He finally calmed down and plunked down on the ground beside the bag of sandwiches he’d dropped, probably while he was falling out of the tree. He shoved them into his bag to keep them fresh, took a deep breath to finish calming down and got up. Walked out from under the tree to where he had a clear view of the moon. The light poured down on him, and hidden in it, a deep pull. He reached and took a tiny little pinch. A bright speck glowed between his thumb and finger.

It wasn’t a fluke. I am now a magician.

He wandered back to the tree and curled up between the big roots that broke the surface and stared at the little spark until he fell asleep.

He woke up in the bright morning light to the sound of someone barfing.

He peered around the tree. Black Coat . . . not wearing anything at all, let alone a long black coat.

Eww! I’m staying out here until they all get dressed.

He pulled a sandwich out of his bubble, and munched while he looked around the yard. Not that there was much to see. The big tree, a lot of trash and a fence that was missing a lot of boards. He stuck his head through a gap in the side fence on the garage side. A narrow side yard to the wall of what he guessed was the garage of the next house, a couple of smelly garbage cans, and a faucet on the wall with a coiled hose attached.

Exzy pulled his head out of the hole and looked back at the wall of “his” garage. Yep, a faucet. He trotted over to it and strained to turn the handle. It gave suddenly . . . and nothing came out of the faucet.

Nobody lives here. The water must be turned off at the main or something.

He trotted to the back door and peeked in. No one in sight. Scattered clothes and two empty wine bottles. He snatched the bottles and bolted back outdoors at the sounds of movement further back in the house. He slipped through the fence and filled the bottles with water, and drank his fill from the hose. He turned it off and coiled it neatly.

There was lots of moaning from down a hallway, Exzy unwrapped a sandwich and cut it up into little slices and left it on the counter on the wrapping paper, with the two bottles of water.

Really, the back yard was the best place to be, until all the old people recovered.

He poked his head through a hole in the back fence, and was surprised to see a big drainage ditch instead of another back yard. Ten feet deep . . . Meters! Use meters, like in school! Three meters deep and wider than that. He swung a loose board out of the way and stepped through. There was just a bit of mud and a couple of puddles down in the bottom. Across the ditch, a chain link fence and a parking lot for some apartments. Along the ditch, more fences on this side, down to a street crossing over the ditch to his right, and to his left it curved out of sight.

“Genie! Genie! Where are you?”

“Back here!” He yelled, then climbed back through the hole. He trotted over to where a greenish looking Ruby was squinting around. “Umm, my name is Exzy Wolfson, by the way. And you’re Ruby?”

“Ruby Meyers. I figured you’d run away.”

Exzy shrugged. “I just got out of the way.” He looked around as the rest of them gathered.

“I’m Queenie White.” The dark one tucked a strand of purple hair behind an ear. “That’s Cherry Blossom Huang.”

“George Grissom.” Black Coat grunted.

Baldy burped. “I’m Paul Wood.”

“James Todd. Jimmy.” The other guy squinted through thick glasses, pulled them off and looked around. “Huh, that’s weird.”

“I think you’re supposed to drink lots of water, for a hangover. Maybe eat a little.” Exzy pointed to the counter, then ducked back into the bedrooms—one small, two tiny—and picked up the other wine bottles. Two of them had a bit of wine left in the bottoms. He poured one into the other, and found a cork to seal it with.

“So how come I’m just hungover like usual, instead of young and pretty?” Ruby frowned at him as he disappeared the bottle.

“That takes a little while. You’ll start feeling a whole lot better in just a couple of days.” Exzy looked around. “Then we’ll start working on the rich part of your wish. If you guys are feeling well enough, I think we should go shopping. You need new clothes. And a bath. And wasn’t there a laundromat on the corner?”

“Shopping?” Ruby sounded like it wasn’t something she did much of. Actually, she looked like it too. “I s’ppose we could step aroun’ to the Goodwill.”

They straggled gradually out the back door and through the gate to the front yard.

Brakes squealed as a car pulled up to the curb and rocked to a halt. A big fat man leaped out, huffing and angry. “What are you doing here? Three different neighbors called to complain. You can’t . . . this isn’t a vagrants’ crash pad! I’m not letting anyone squat here, you got that? I’m trying to sell this house!” He stomped over into the weeds and picked up a sign on a stake and tried to get it to stand up on the hard dry ground.

Exzy looked from the derelict house to the derelict people. They need homes. Or at least “Crash Pads.” They could start here. “How much do you want for it? It’s kind of a mess. Actually it’s a big mess.”

“Sixty thousand dollars.” The man crossed his arms . . . then frowned down at him. “You’re just a kid.”

Exzy ignored that last. “Sixty! For that! I mean, if you repaired it and painted it. Hauled away all the trash and landscaped it, maybe you could get thirty.”

“Hey! It just needs a little sprucing up! It’s a do-it-yourselfer’s dream home.”

“Oh.” What was that term Mom used about her Paris house when she bought it? “If you’re selling it as is, six thousand. Maybe.”

“Six! That’s robbery.”

Ruby hissed, “What are you doin’?”

“Negotiating. Might go eight thousand. Cause of all the money we’d have to put into it.” What else does Mom complain about . . . oh yeah. “Are you up to date on the taxes?”

The guys shuffled a bit. “Well . . . I could go as low as twenty thou.”

“Listen Genie . . .”

“Exzy. Don’t worry, Grandmother.” Exzy grinned at her. “You just got that ten thousand dollars, from the insurance.” He gave her a big wink.

“Well . . .” She looked back at the house. “It’s a wreck.”

The fat man was looking excited, suddenly.

Ha! Yeah, now that he thinks Ruby has actually got cash, he’s ready to deal.

“I looked at the bank statement yesterday, Grandmother. You can go twelve thousand, and not a penny more.” Exzy looked back at the fat guy. “If you want to sell it for twelve thousand, get the paperwork together, and we’ll meet you back here in three days.”

He took Ruby’s elbow and led her away. “C’mon, Grandmother, shopping, remember.”

_In the Bag_ part 1

In the Bag

Eight Years Old

15 Safar 1419 yp

"I'm going to have adventures, when I grow up." Exzy informed his unimpressed audience of older boys. "This is my wizard's coat."

"It's stupid. Even a girl wouldn't wear that." Stodie sneered. "Why don't you just get out of the way, else I'll send you on an adventure right now."

Exzy crossed his arms stubbornly. "Send away. Dad'll get you, if Mom doesn't get there first."

The boys laughed.

"Oooo! The bwave adventurer is going to run to Mommy!" Farris grinned. "Hey, Larry, Can you open and close a gate before anyone notices?"

"No but I can be embarrassed, and surprised at how easy it was, and I closed it right away, sorry teacher."

Uh oh. This sounds serious . . . Exzy pulled his dimensional bag out of his pocket, reaching in for the knife he wasn't supposed to bring to school. A grab and shove, and he was in the bag!

He could dimly hear laughter.

And Stodie. "Hey, if we stick the handles in that empty bottle, he won't be able to open them and get out, will he?"

The handles closed on their laughter. The darkness descended.

"Oh . . . Doodie!" Exzy got himself turned around and located the handles by feel. He pried at them, got them open a few inches, which gave him a view distorted view through green glass. "Oh, double doody! If I can't break the glass, I'll be stuck here until Mom or Dad come looking for me . . . and they're awful busy . . ."

I really wish I was magically precocious, like Dad. Or Aunt Q. I'm eight years old. Everybody in my family is magically precocious. Except me.

I'm going to have to get out of this the old fashioned way.

He shoved the handles out until they hit the glass, brought them almost together and slammed them open. Producing nothing but a loud clank. He slammed then open and closed a few times, threw his weight against one side to try and topple the bottle . . .

Then the view through the glass swung around . . . Exzy closed the handles . . . Maybe they'll fall out . . . opened them wide and fell out himself.

Onto a grimy street . . . a narrow alley festooned with trash . . . and four hideous old people gawping at him.

"A Genie!" The man whose rags were topped with a filthy black coat peered at him.

The old woman held a green wine bottle upside down in one hand. Her other hand darted forward and grabbed him. "He's mine! I let him out! I get the three wishes!"

Uh oh. I think those idiots did open a dimensional gate and throw me through.

He started grinning, and stuck the handles in his coat pocket.

I think . . . I'm about to have an adventure!

***

“I gets three wishes, right? Genie?” The old hag still had a grip on his shoulder, and shook him a little. “Three of ‘em.”

“Umm, that what all the stories say . . . But I may not be able to do all of them.” Exzy eyed her, and her three friends.

“I wanna live ferever.” She leaned over, beady eyes staring at him.

Whew! No problem, except . . . “Well, I have a potion that will ensure that you don’t die of old age, but it can’t stop accidents and stuff.”

“An I wanna be rich!”

“Umm, what do you use for money, around here?” Exzy looked down at his wizards coat. He’d mined the gold and pounded out the decorations himself, and sifted through a whole lot of sand for the diamonds. The garnets had been a bit harder to get out of the rock, and the emeralds weren’t quite gem quality, from that beryl mine in Desolation. Then he’d talked Ezra’s dad, Ebsa the Exploration Leader, into showing everyone how to facet the little pebbles. Of course, Exzy couldn’t do it, but his brother and sister and their friends had had fun doing it. And they looked great.

He fingered a gold star. “Is gold worth much, here?”

“Gold.” She leaned closer and squinted. “Thet ain’t real gold!”

“Is too.”

“C’mere.” She hauled him out of the alley, pushing a cart with one hand. It was heaped with trash. Or maybe dirty laundry. It wobbled and she finally let go of him so she could steer. But she kept a sharp eye on him. They walked down the street and around the corner. This street was full of bright lights, glowing signs, and a few noisy laughing people. Right now it all looked grubby. Another hour and it’d be dark and everything would be all glittery and no one would see the dirt.

A couple of tarts on the corner turned to look. “Hey, what are you old winos doing here? You know no one wants bag ladies and winos around the customers. And what’s up with the kid?” The one talking had purple hair, but her skin looked normal, well, real dark, but not purple like real purps.

The black haired Chinese lady leaned over. “Oh, isn’t he cute!”

Exzy growled. “I am not!”

The tarts laughed, and the hag grabbed him again.

“He’s my Genie! I freed him an I get the three wishes. We’re goin’ down to Bernie’s to see if he’s got any real gold.”

The Chinese lady eyed his wizard’s coat. “I don’t think so, Ruby. If that’s real gold it’s worth thousands.”

“Lots of thousands.” Purple was looking them over, narrow-eyed.

The hag—Ruby?—pulled Exzy away and further down the street. The winos and the tarts all followed.

The store with the Bernie’s sign in bright yellow said it bought gold. And it had double locked doors.

On the other side of thick glass a little man with glasses frown down on them. “Only one person can come inside.” His voice was thin and tinny, coming from a speaker in the wall under the glass.

Exzy worried a couple of the plain stars—the ones with no stones in them—off the leather coat and held them out to Ruby.

She snatched them, then frowned around at the winos and tarts. She looked back at the man behind the glass. “I gotta bring my genie . . . my grandson in with me. Can’t leave him out here.”

The man leaned and peered through his glasses. “All right, but just the boy.”

Ruby glared. “Nobody touches my cart.”

Inside, Bernie (still behind glass) weighed and measured. Then used two different machines. Consulted a chart. “Right. A todays prices, I’m offering four thousand, three hundred and forty-six dollars and twenty-nine cents. Take it or leave it.”

Ruby grinned. “I’ll take it. In cash.”

Back on the street, she fended off her new good buddies. “That’s a bunch’o money, but it ain’t rich. We ain’t done yet. And what about livin’ ferever—an when I say that, I mean lookin’ young and pretty forever!”

Exzy shrugged. “Okay. But remember, some things have side effects.” The old people and the tarts just got closer and hungrier looking. Speaking of which . . . “Is there a store around here? We need food and wine. The food’s for me, the wine’s for the magic potion.”

Well, the nearest liquor store had a chest of things claiming to be sandwiches. Exzy grabbed eight, while the others loaded up on wine.

“How many of them things are you buying?”

“One for each of you, two for me.”

“Humph!” Ruby eyed the others. “And how come I’m buyin’ food and wine fer these no gooders?”

“Probably because you want to show off, and throw a party.” Exzy looked around, and spotted a cold case with other drinks and grabbed a cola.

The clerked eyed them cynically and handed Ruby her change.

Exzy walked out, with Ruby rushing to stay near her genie. “So let’s go home and I’ll mix up the potion.”

They all looked at each other.

The bald guy finally shrugged. “There’s some empty houses a couple of blocks from here.”

They don’t even have homes?