"Read it. I'll be right back." He turned off the cage and stepped out to check for messages.
Ah ha! They used one of their stolen ID cards on a mining world. We've got them trapped. Excellent. We can get rid of the mutants.
The problem is going to be this Kit Antoine. A legal citizen. Damn, I'm going to have to keep Uncle Martin away, because I suspect the General is going to want the kid dead as well. No chance of pleading self-defense or defense of others in a court of law.
In fact, I'm going to have to cut the uncle out right now.
Or just lie like hell.
He stuck his head back inside the room. "We got the kidnappers cornered on a mining world. The local police are on it now."
Antoine's head came up. "Kidnappers?"
Jiang stepped in and triggered the cage. "Yes. Those children in the video are very valuable, a resource that we suspect a cross-dimensional World wants badly. I'll keep you up to date. But if you don't need to return to the Hague, I'll arrange a hotel room locally."
"I'll stay. But you've got a hostage situation? I can . . . "
"No, it's just that they can't get off that world, there's only one gate, and we've got it closed. We still have to find them."
Jiang stepped back out. "Lt. Ruiz, get Detective Antoine a hotel room, and get his signatures logged in." He looked back at the cop. "With luck I'll be back with your nephew in a few hours. Lt. Ruiz will take care of you."
Until I return with the tragic news.
Kit looked at the dense foliage, all the twigs, and winced as he eased the buss forward. "Going to scratch the paint all to heck and gone. I just hope there's nothing bigger . . . What the . . ."
The leafy branches, far from bending or breaking were sliding right through the bus. "It's like a hologram. Some sort of projection?"
A screechy scrape from the right side, and he steered left, slowing his crawl. "So it's a real tree, just . . . augmented?"
"Why? Who would do that?" Tansy peered out. "And why are you stopping?"
"Because I can't tell the real tree from the hologram. I'm going to go out and feel around."
"I want to see the magic tree!" The six-year-old galloped over the piled center aisle, her "twin" on her heels.
"Stay under the tree, where the helicopter can't see you." Kit opened the door and followed Tansy and the twins out.
And the weirdest thing wasn't the intangible parts of the tree . . . it was the other people's reaction to the real tree. Feeling the bark, crunching the dry leaves underfoot. Sniffing the damp earthy smell as they circled the tree trunk, and tripped on the raised roots.
They've never been outside. That dome has been their entire lives.
Kit took off his red T-shirt and swung it around, especially over his head, and quickly found the path under the tree, and then into a thinly treed brushy strip . . . with a dirt road under an illusion of brush.
He listened carefully. No sound of a helicopter.
"Much though I'd like to stay here . . . I think we'd better keep going. Those people in the shacks saw us, so the police will be back on our tracks pretty soon."
Ian looked around. "Do you have a plan?"
"I'd like to find a place to hide for the rest of the day, then see if we can get back to the gate and go to some other World." Kit bit his lip. "We may need to hide for several days."
The kids were reluctantly herded back aboard, and Kit drove carefully down the invisible road. Found a curve by feel, then Tansy and Ian got out and walked ahead of the bus. They found a split in the road and he pulled the bus up to take a look himself . . .
"What's that white circle?" Susan propped herself up. "It looks like one of those gates, doesn't it?"
A gate? Just . . . out in the country? At the end of a magically hidden road? What the hell?
Kit waved Tansy and Ian aboard, then turned and drove carefully through brush and a completely fake tree.
"All I see is more trees over there." Tansy fussed. "I can barely see the edges of the gate."
Kit kept going, centered the bus and through the gate.
The road . . . well, two worn tracks continued for ten meter before turning away from a grove of trees. And then there was nothing. Just bare rock and sand. Low mesas, and shelves of rock, the track winding around and out of sight behind a huge boulder.
Kit stuck his head out the window and sniffed carefully. "The air's breathable. Do you think someone planted those trees on purpose, so the gate wasn't so obvious to people who don't see it as a white sparkly whirlpool?"
Everyone sort of shrugged, and he had to agree.
He followed the faint tracks, and hoped they weren't an illusion.
Or a trap.
And stopped where they split up.
All three tracks disappeared around rocks of various sorts.
Kit exchanged shrugs with Tansy, turned to take the right-most one. Which led to a gate up against a mesa.
"What do you see?"
"Big, tall, really straight trees? And it's going down?"
Kit turned off the engine and opened the door. "I'll check it out on foot, first."
He stepped through the gate a horrible twisty moment . . . then he was on a slope in a pine forest, the tracks leading downhill then turning left to take the slope at a shallower angle . . . there was a light shining through the trees.
"Right, lets see where the other tracks go. Then we'll pick one." He grit his teeth and jumped back through.
It's not as bad as powered gate, but yeesh!
As he turned the bus, he spotted another set of tracks angling off the track they'd taken.
"Does that one meet up with the middle tracks back there at the first split?" Tansy gnawed at a finger nail.
"Let's find out." Kit finished turning the bus around and followed the new tracks.
Two another gate, with three tracks diverging from it.
"That's stuff's called grass, right?" George grinned. "At least it's flat and you can see the tracks."
Kit scowled and drove through. A tall grass prairie. Birds exploding out of cover and away. At least three girls screamed.
Henry grinned. "Those are birds, right? I didn't expect them to be so fast!"
"And what are those?" Ian pointed.
Bison looking their direction. Fortunately not too close.
"Bison. They're dangerous, so we'll stay way over here."
"It's like it goes on forever." Tansy was looking all around.
Kit stopped the bus. "Let's take a stretch break . . . and uh, I need to, uh . . ."
Jane looked around with dawning horror. "There aren't any bathrooms! What are we going to do!"
Kit choked, started laughing. "You just piss and poop in the dirt somewhere. Anywhere. Did we pack any toilet paper?"
If half of them hadn't been desperate, it would have taken forever to convince them to give it a try.
Kit tried really hard to not laugh. "It's not your fault, you weren't ever allowed to be outside, to touch grass and trees."
But when they finally finished by wasting too much water washing their hands, Kit drove forward a bit and spotted two more gates. Turned around and drove back to the gate they'd come out of.
"Not that being lost in a giant sized maze isn't a really great idea, but I think I want to check out the options carefully."