Zodiac laughed. "Ask away."
"Where are you guys from?"
And they don't even look like monsters.
"And how could I possibly be Xen Wolfson's kid when I was born before Disco even opened up Embassy?"
"Because he's a spy. He spied on the One World, and now it looks like he spied on Earth, too. Hardly a surprise, since he destroyed your powered gate, ah . . . fifteen years ago? Something like that."
Kit bit his lip. "Two years before I was born. Everyone says that was an Elf, and . . ." he killed over a thousand people. Well . . . good thing I always thought my father was dead and never dreamed of meeting him! Is a Mass Murderer better or worse than an old wino who got hit by a car?
"An Elf? Huh. I suspect that was disinformation." Zodiac shrugged. "Next question?"
"What are all these gates for? I mean, in one day I've found four worlds, and seen three more gates. It's like a huge maze or network or something."
"Ah, history! And something I know about." Zodiac grinned. "See, the One World discovered our World and started getting cozy with . . . umm, we had about five countries at that point . . . and they were in the equivalent of South America, in a Nation we were off and on at war with.
"The Earth discovered us at about the same time, they were in Asia, and interacted with our people—in the Kingdom of the West."
Zodiac threw his hands up. "And both of them decided that they owned our world. And they were both perfectly ready to destroy us so the other side didn't get us."
"Yeah, well, after both sides had invaded—oh and the Oners down in Auralia attacked Earth with a bunch of half-Oner soldiers—by stealing the Earther's Gate Beacon and attacking through it when the gate opened."
"Yeah, I learned about that in history class."
"Well, anyway, when Rustle figured out how to make our kind of gates, and everyone stopped invading everyone else, we started out spying on the One. Problem was, we could open the gates, but we hadn't figured out how to close them. So we made a maze of gates and corridors. In case we were discovered, we could lose any pursuit."
"Oh, they're sort of like gates, except they go from place to place on the same world. And they're easy to make and fast to take down. So, instead of those gates like you found, that are pretty close, we could put the gates a couple hundred miles apart, with a corridor between.
"So if the Oners were chasing us, we could go through a gate and a corridor, then pop the corridor. And another gate and corridor then pop that one. And we had some side decoys, and we went through some dinosaur Worlds, and swamps and across oceans, well, narrow spots of oceans . . ."
"That is awesome." Kit bit his lip. "And you smugglers added to it?"
"Yep. And students learning how to make gates, or how to find livable worlds and stuff." Zodiac frowned and looked away. "And there's a criminal gang making gates, too."
Kit jumped in with a guess. "Were you a member?"
"No. Never. My mother is one of the leaders, but she abandoned me when I was a baby. My grandmother and aunts," He waved toward the camp, "raised me. She came and took me, once. She was horrible. I escaped and got back home."
"If you meet them out there, just wave and pass by. Don't get friendly with them, like you did with us."
"Right. Good plan . . . So, does the Earth know about the Maze?"
"Yeah, I mean, it connects to Embassy, so everyone there knows about it." Zodiac bit his lip. "I think maybe we ought to close the gate that you used. Just in case they're looking for you."
Kit thought back to the bodies they'd left lying on the floor of the dome.
"They're hunting us. No doubt about it."
Colonel Jiang scowled at the ordinary vendo mart.
"So at roughly the same time the stolen ID was used, dozens of cash cards purchases were also made." Lt. Gaines was fairly competent for a man with barely a year's experience since graduating from West Point.
"Unfortunately the local satellite surveillance is maximized for either mine security or geologic surveys. Covered of the town was spotty, but we picked them up in the parking lot here, then half an hour later, what looks like the same bus, west of here, on a back road out side the town proper. Never seen again.
"The local police said that fired, retired or injured Native miners just build onto the existing system. They said the town makes sure the unpaved roads are wide enough for two vehicles, and graveled, potholes filled in and so forth. Otherwise they just ignore the . . . worn out miners.
"The police helicopters swung out that direction, but not until fifteen minutes after the satellite spotted them." The lieutenant shrugged. "I was headed out to ask the Natives when I got your call."
"Right. Let's check it out." Jiang eyed the lieutenant's driver. At least he looks Han. So he shouldn't have any qualms about killing mutant monsters, even if his ancestors hadn't cut and run off to Taiwan.
He huffed in irritation. I am coming to hate these assignments to classified projects. If I was in a proper army division I wouldn't have to concern myself with the antecedents of privates and newly hatched lieutenants!
Or think up a new lie to cover up a slightly less new lie to a civilian cop.
"Lead on." He turned and walked back to his gyp. Command version with lots of legroom in the rear seat for the officers. His guard waited until the lieutenant was in his ordinary gyp, then slid into the front seat. Rifle always at the ready. Good man, Chen.
They drove out a couple of miles, half of it on a graveled surface then turned into . . . well, it was wider than an alley, and if it had ever been graveled it was not apparent to the eye. Shacks on both sides . . . the lieutenant's gyp stopped in front of an open shed.
"Hey, you guys see a bus come through here?"
Jiang ground his teeth. Casual colloquial accent, might as well crawl in the mud at their level!
"What's in it for us?" An old man swaggered up to the gyp.
Just bash him, that'll get him talking.
Jiang didn't catch what Gaines said, but the man jerked back. "There was a sort of half-sized bus mid morning. It drove out into the corn field, and never came back."
Oh, that fool didn't just toss him a cash card did he?
Gaines's gyp drove on and out into a field of . . . corn, had the Native said? It was only about a meter high, couldn't possibly hide a bus, but the dirt road split at a brushy tangle of trees. The lieutenant stopped and got out, with his driver, walking around.
Jiang got out and joined them. Looked back at the shacks. The road had curved enough that he couldn't see down the road, and so presumably they wouldn't have seen the bus turn.
Even if they got off their lazy asses and watched, would they have told us?
"No sign of which way they went." Gaines walked to the left.
There was a brisk breeze and Jiang stepped to the right to eye the unmarred dust and sand of the track.
Gaines walked back. "If they went left, they'd have been seen."
"Check left anyway. I'll go right." Jiang stalked back to his car. There'll probably be a track back to the city, and by the time we find the bus, those kids will be long gone.
He looked back over his shoulder at the shacks. We'll start by searching through the slums. Or do the town a favor and just burn them.
The dirt track ended at a shack inhabited by an old woman with a pen full of goats. The trees and brush hadn't been crushed by the passage of a large vehicle.
Jiang scowled around and headed back to find out if Gaines had found anything.
Gaines' gyp was crawling toward them, Gaines in the back, hanging out the window. Staring at the brushy verge.
Actually a good idea. If they drove off the road and bent the brush and grass back up. Kiang frowned at the big tree, the outer branches over the road, the brush much reduced in the shade . . .
"Stop here. I want to look under the tree."
Was the short grass squashed, there and there? About a wheelbase apart.
Jiang grinned and swiped an arm to get a thin branch out of the way . . . and his arm passed easily through the foliage and wood.
"Oh, we've got them now. Lt. Gaines let's just see if we can follow a magic trail."
Gaines waved his own hand. Reached up as he walked through the illusion. "Tall enough for the bus, and the ground's pretty scruffed up in here. Pity we're almost a day behind them, but where can they go?"