Exzy grinned. "They had no magic. And . . . you should call us humans."
He eyed the camp. There were a lot more buildings than three people could possibly need. "Let's borrow their ute. Or gyp, or whatever they call it. It's time to hunt cats."
The gyp's controls were easy enough to figure out. Exzy zoomed through the camp and up the hillside, Hood squeaking all the way. Exzy was pretty sure it was glee, not terror.
He stopped halfway between the camp and the keep, as the rocks broke through the soil in a long rock outcrop. Less than a meter high, with a big tabby tomcat sunning himself on the top.
Hood cringed back against Exzy’s neck. “How do you catch a vicious predator like that?”
“Kitty, kitty?” Exzy held his hand out to be sniffed.
The cat ignored him.
“That’s perfectly normal cat behavior. They live with the human and do not act like wild animals. They understand a few words, but are not truly smart, like you rats.” Exzy scrambled up the rocks and looked around. Spotted five other cats.
“I guess I’ll need to containerize them . . .” He grabbed a large stone and formed a box. Thought about it and grabbed more stones and made several boxes. “Cat’s sometimes fight with each other. So maybe I’ll split them up a little.”
Hood Three Spot made a few faint squeaks . . . cussing in rat language? “Red God, why don’t you kill them?”
Exzy wasn’t at all sure how to put that into terms rats would understand. “Because I am strong enough to solve the problem without killing animals who are just following their instincts, and that have been brought here and released in a world strange to them. They are not a threat to me, and I can easily make them not a threat to you.”
Hood huddled on his shoulder. Silent.
Thinking or rejecting? Cats are deadly predators when you’re the size of a rat.
Exzy hiked up the hill to the keep and knelt down. “I’ll put the opening to the corridor across the valley inside. Will you show them how to get away through it, then through the larger corridor?”
“Yes, Red God.” Hood sounded very subdued.
Ouch. Sorry Hood. I just can’t go around killing cats they’ve just thrown out to hunt or starve.
And I’m really glad they didn’t release ferrets!
He knelt and reached deep inside a tunnel and stuck the corridor down. As he pulled his arm back, Hood ran down it and into the keep.
Exzy circled around to the hill crest. He spotted five more cats without trying.
Then he rummaged through his backpack bubble and pulled out all his dishes. Two plates, three bowls. And a can of tuna.
He popped the top of the can, and peeled it open. Apparently the sound was close enough to however those people preserved food. Cats appeared from all over.
Hissing at each other, and crowding around the five dishes.
Exzy scooped one up, dropped her into a stone box, added another, and another, closed that bubble . . . He got eleven total, and only had to stun one that bolted.
He looked at the keep. Rats looking out of every hole. Hood in his red cape was standing on the keeps almost flat roof, shaking his spear.
“Hood! Behind you!”
The rat spun and the pouncing cat got the spear right in his nose. Flinched back with a swipe of claws and thrashed on the ground until he got the spear out. Stood, towering over the injured rat, licking his bleeding nose and growling deep in his throat, tail switching as it focused on the Rat.
Hood raised his left front paw, a faint sparkle of magic. The cat collapsed.
A stun spell. Good job, Hood.
Exzy made himself slow, check that he wasn’t stepping on rats, and climbed up to Hood. Flecks of blood on his coat, one claw had caught him the length of his left cheek, the other’s his shoulder.
Exzy huffed in relief. Nothing life-threatening, probably. But just in case . . . He pulled out his bottle of Wine of the Gods and un corked it. Just a couple of drops . . .
“Eek!” Hood scrambled away from the limp cat.
“I didn’t know you knew the stun spell, Hood. Smart thinking.”
“I saw what you did to the other god . . . humans, Red God. I was thinking about if it would work on the cats, if they attacked you . . . Why didn’t they . . . they expected you to feed them?”
“They are not free. They expect humans to feed them, house them . . . this is all right with not-smart animals. To own smart animals, rats, horses, dogs, humans . . . is wrong.”
Hood touched his bloody cheek. “Like the Walls of Ice. This we will think on. Red God . . . I need to . . . visit in the keep.”
“Right.” Exzy scooped up the limp cat. “I will watch the humans, and see if they will tell me how many cats they brought here.”
The humans had regained consciousness. The two men were standing outside one of the prefab huts, the women . . . Exzy closed his eyes and looked mentally. The woman was inside the hut. Lots of electronic gear in there, he could feel the current . . . and a spike in the radio-wavelengths.
Ha! Calling someone for help, and demolishing their argument that they hadn’t detected the claim beacon.
He settled down on the rock shelf where the cat had been and spread his awareness all around. Not very far around. Dad or Aunt Q could see the whole world. I get a mile. But it a mile with no cats . . . just birds and snakes, a few moles . . . field mice . . . a magical bonfire of Intelligent Rats . . . and moving fast, people.
He opened his eyes and watched three gyps rushing in from the south. Two or three people in each.
Right. She’s called in the rest of the crew. Good. I can talk to all of them.
Exzy stayed where he was, trying to pickup the conversation that the woman had taken inside as quickly as she could. The first two guys stayed outside, staring at Exzy. Carrying rifles, now. The rest of them came out quickly, hustling around. Two started opening the large barn doors of the building at the end of their camp, the rest were collecting weapons and one man got back in a gyp and drove up the hill.
Exzy got up then and walked a little ways down to meet him.
The man stopped his gyp and got out. Looked Exzy over and frowned. “I am Kenneth Lyons. Who are you? How did you get here?”
“My name is Exzy Wolfson. Are you from an uncontacted World? Or just pretending to be ignorant of the claiming regulations?”
“We’ve never found an inhabited world. In fact, this is the first world we found that had breathable air. We’re desperate for farmland, for room for a colony. We are going to keep this world.”
Exzy ignored that last, looking him over, and thinking back to the three he’d met previously. “Well, none of you appear to have been short of food lately, and it’s odd you’ve had so little success finding habitable, but empty worlds. There’s plenty of them.”
He eyed the flashing red light on the barn door building. “Anyhow, I can put you in touch with Disco, or I can . . .”
“The Department of Interdimensional Security and Cooperation. Or I can just find you a different Empty World—that’s what we call worlds with no intelligent life—and a permanent gate back to your home.”
“We are not giving up this world.” Mr. Lyons glanced around as the flashing light turned yellow.
Exzy felt the surge of power through the inbetween and closed his eyes long enough to see where the surging tube of power was coming from, then hastily closed his senses to the brilliant onslaught of electromagnetics.
He sighed as he spotted the light turning green and, presumably, their gate attaching.
“I’m surprised you could signal through the inbetween. Or is this a scheduled gate?”
The man frowned at him. “None of your business. Now why don’t you go away, son, before you get hurt?”
Exzy frowned back. “The rats are genetically engineered to be intelligent. We are leaving them mostly alone, so that they can live and develop a civilization of their own. I’ve given them a good start here, and you are all going to have to leave.” He narrowed his eyes, looking beyond the man. The gyps driving out of the gate were towing what looked a lot like artillery.
“Genocide is an ugly word.” He kept his voice calm and matter-of-fact.