Zodiac was roasting a rabbit when he realized he was about to be overrun. The group of people who had been passing to his east had turned and were spreading out and getting closer. They appeared to be driving the two closer contacts. Two other very distant contacts had stopped at two high points that he could actually see over the dense growth of young pines to his west and north. Snipers? He hadn't been here long enough to judge the relative tech level. One whiff of the air had made it clear that this was a post-industrial world.
He sighed and addressed the rabbit. "I hate overpopulated worlds. I was planning on sticking around long enough to eat you, but I'm thinking that might have been a bit over-ambitious."
But perhaps they wouldn't bother a lone hunter, peacefully cooking dinner. He turned the spitted rabbit and checked that his water containers were all filled and reattached to his backpack. In case he had to leave in a hurry.
The clearing was on the edge of an old forest fire. The log he was sitting on was from a fire killed tree, fallen across some exposed rocks and only partially burned, and he had a good view across the rough, grassy meadow to the older forest. Movement. Two men. Uniforms, pistols. Stopping dead and eyeing him.
Was he in a war zone, then?
He gestured, inviting the men up. Might as well find out quickly how screwed up this World is.
He closed his eyes briefly to check their aura. Nothing special, just the usual human glow. No Magic.
"Kid, you gotta get outta here, there's a drug gang on our heels, and they want us dead." The first man into camp had a deep glossy brown skin. For just a moment he was reminded of Harry, God of Travelers, from one of the rare stable periods of his life.
The second man was pale, probably paler than normal. He looked awful, gasping for breath, sweating, mouth pinched. He looks like he's in shock. He sure isn't going to run any further. The labels on their uniforms were forest service.
Zodiac turned and flipped open his backpack. Pulled out an oiled cloth close to the color of the exposed rock. "Get under this, on the other side of the log." He reached out and jiggled the air thirty feet away, to mess up the theoretical snipers' view of the scene.
"They'll kill you."
"Why? They know I don't know anything. And your friend doesn't look like he can go any further."
The dark one looked back at the pale one and nodded. They tucked themselves up under the ground cloth without any more argument. And of course they didn't notice the unnoticeable spell he wafted over the cloth. Moments later the first of the hunters, the drug gang, broke out into the clearing. They eyed him suspiciously from fifty feet away.
"You see anyone?" The spokesman was wiry and old, they were a pretty wild bunch, bluejeans and T-shirts with various slogans or skulls. They were all one of the intermediate races, tanned and dark haired.
"Couple of Park rangers; told me to clear out. They went that way, if you need them. Yell or whistle, they'll probably hear you."
"Thanks." They were eyeing the crushed path of grass that led straight to him. Hopefully they were not expert trackers and wouldn't notice that the other trail of trampled grass was the one Zodiac had made coming, not the Rangers, going. They turned and cut along the edge of the woods then headed down the trail he'd followed up here.
Zodiac leaned and turned his rabbit. "I think one of them is hanging back to watch me. Stay still." He busied himself, clanking pans and then setting up a tent a little away from the log. The watcher departed. The snipers left their rocky aeries and moved south.
The drug gang didn't return, although they may have given up the chase and gone back to wherever they'd chased the rangers from.
"I think it's safe to come out now." Zodiac politely carved up his rabbit three ways. "Hungry?"
"I can't believe you arrested that kid." Marshal Williams scowled at his boss.
"Yeah, that's what he says. Zero documentation, apart from the stuff that claims he won't be born for six more years. What do you want to bet the Doc is going to go ballistic over us arresting a teenager? A teenager who saved your ass, I might add."
"Yours too." Ross Kincade was almost back to his usual clean and dapper appearance.
"I could have kept going. You were done." Marsh tucked in a smile as he recalled the weaving wreck that had, barely, made it over the Hogbacks to a trail that eventually got them within range of a cell tower. Even with a dinner break and a canteen of water.
Ross snorted. "I can't believe I ate that rabbit. I must have been insane."
"Dangerously low on fuel, dude. You've gotta stop skipping breakfast."
"I'll second that." Doc Tavert stomped through the door. "Arresting children out of pique, now, are we?"
"He claims to be twenty-two. He's certainly tall enough to be full grown."
"He might be eighteen, but I doubt it. He wouldn't give me any contact information, in fact he thought that was amusing." The doctor frowned at the two rangers. "Anyway, he's one of the healthiest people I've ever met. Not a filling or cavity in his mouth, vision's better than perfect, hearing very acute, reflexes, blood pressure all fine, not even a zit to be seen. However, unless you think he's dangerous, you'd best get him out of jail, because he may well be underage."
Ross sighed. "Thing is, he saw and was seen by a drug gang whose marijuana crop is, as we speak, being destroyed. He hid us and misdirected their hunting party, and if they realize that he's in trouble."
The Doctor winced. "Protective custody? Why don't you just give him a ride to somewhere else he can camp, out of state comes to mind. Or do you need him as a witness?"
"No, it shouldn't come to that. Marsh and I saw them and got plenty of pictures before they spotted us."
Zodiac relaxed his hearing spell and rocked on his feet, thinking about it. The Drug Gang might want to find him? Revenge for him hiding the rangers, or were they the sort to eliminate witnesses? That meant the rangers were going to be targets as well. They'd been exasperatingly eager to protect him. First time anyone had apologized for arresting him. He'd been arrested so many times, he'd developed a casual and practical procedure for escaping. It always worked best when no one was paying attention, so he nearly always waited until dark to leave.
Maybe this time he should stick around long enough to be sure the rangers would survive. He hunched a shoulder. It's their own fault, for being cops of some sort. That thought was quickly followed by another. Since when did forest rangers turn into the narcotics cops? Curiosity raised its insatiable head.
Zodiac Jadeson's first escape had been at the age of thirteen, when he ran away from home. Born in 1392, his mother had fled retribution for multiple murders, abandoning him at the age of eight days. Various other relatives had raised him, unfortunbately the ones who’d loved him were more distantly related than the ones who didn’t. Old Gods only knew why so many who detested him felt obligated to raise him. He'd been better off whenever the more distant and less judgmental were allowed to keep him.
At the age of eight, his mother had returned briefly and almost as an afterthought, taken him with her when she left. Jade Ultradaut was not above experimenting on her own children. Genetic manipulations, physical morphs, speed bubbles and nearly starving to death when his mother was killed while he was bubbled. That desperate lesson in manipulating trans-dimensional bubbles had paid off when, in 1403 at the technical age of eleven, but probably a bit more, he watched a witch open a Gate to another world. He was able to see what she did, even though he couldn't do it himself.
He'd run away, escaped, and gone back to the valley of Ash, and his reluctant relatives. Worked at the Twin Inn, or the Tavern, slept mostly in fields and barns with the sheep and sheepdogs and oddities. Several Aunts fed him whenever he showed up, and sometimes took him with them on some of their smuggling trips. He’d learned magic in bits and pieces, until the Master Wizard spotted him and insisted on daily lessons.
And over and over he heard people say they "didn't know what to do with him."
At the age of sixteen he lost his virginity and grabbed his first bubble. It took nearly a year of experimentation to get from there to Gates. Then he knew he really could escape, and finally be completely free.
And one day, with his great grandmother making snide comments, his grandmother slumped and tired and anxious, and his great aunt starting in one how his mother had murdered at least twelve lovers that they knew of . . . He’d walked away and never returned.
He could have found the smuggling aunts, he knew their routes. But they met all too often with his mother’s old colleagues, and he was wary of them even after so many years out from under her reign. No, it was better to hike the empty worlds, the primitive worlds. Stop occasionally in a civilized world for a bit of shopping. Clothes and books mostly.
Zodiac fingered his threadbare shirt. He might as well stay long enough to get some clothes. And a few books. If they had e-books, if he could work up a way to convert them to something his reader could handle . . .
And what the heck. The Rangers were nice fellows, he could put a bit of effort into keeping them alive, as long as he was here.