Ten miles to the southwest, the dots had spotted them and turned toward them. Two men supporting a third. Watson rushed ahead.
“Bloody impulsive . . .” Xen followed at a reasonable pace and got there in time to catch most of the acrimony.
“. . . your fault, and Doc Sam is dying without his magic.” That one was young and intense, dark haired.
“I can’t believe you did that!” The second man was not as young, not as dark, and pudgy.
The third man was elderly, sagging. Thin gray hair and brown eyes, slight epicanthal folds.
Watson looked at Xen. “Cut it out! Quickly!” he turned back to the old man. “This guy can get the Death out of your back. He took mine out.”
The old man waved vaguely. “Too late. It’s done. I am no longer a Chou.” He collapsed on his face.
Xen sighed and brought out the water. “Sips, small sips.” He turned and looked for the smoke, thinning, but the mountains were close enough for him to spot the blackened slope.
He dropped his gaze to the nearest hill where a man in orange stood surveying them.
“Who the heck is that?” Watson shifted nervously, looked at his . . . friends. “Who else was transported?”
“No one . . . this month.” Pudgy propped up the old man and helped him drink.
“It may be one of my people.” Xen turned back to the old man. “In any case, let’s get the poison pellet out of you and make a few plans.”
“What good will that do. It’s too late.”
“Swear to god you lot are pessimists. If it was permanent, they would need to put a dissolving poison in your back, now would they?”
Xen had it down to a routine, now. He was helping to old man back into the overall as the next guy walked up to the group.
“Hi. I’m Karl Mantigo, Earth Prime, assigned to Disco.”
The old man staggered to his feet. “What’s a Disco?”
Xen sighed. “Hi Karl. Disco is the Department of Interdimensional Security and Cooperation. The Dimension Cops.”
The old man rounded on him. “Dimension . . . there’s no such thing.”
“We operate an Embassy World where all polities can talk instead of fight. Your people—I think—have come in to start a fight. Hopefully they will decide to try diplomacy, but, well, we’re out of the fight for now and jut staying alive.”
Karl looked him up and down. “And you . . . look a bit leaner and meaner than when PooBah snatched you three months ago.”
“I’ll bet. I found Jiol, she’s recovering. I take it they didn’t stick a magic suppressor in your back?” PooBah? Oh. My. God. That’s perfect.
Watson looked around. “He’s not magic, why would they?”
“Point. Well, I’m Xen Wolfson, sorry, ought to have introduced myself before surgery.”
The old man growled a bit. “I’m Dr. Samuel Chou, Guangzhou Institute of Science. Or was.” A glare at Watson. “Call me Sam.”
“Jerry Thorne and that’s Connor Johnson.” The pudge jerked a thumb at the young one. “We’re Dr. Watson’s lab techs. And Doc Sam is the Big Boss.”
Dr. Watson hung his head. “I told them it was all my doing, that you guys were ignorant of my . . . aberrant behavior.”
A glare from Dr. Chou. “Failing to disassemble the robotic dog was bad enough. Failing to terminate a biological experiment, lying about it! You deserve this.”
Xen eyed the old man. You’d better not be talking about Cali! But I think I won’t mention her until I have to. Because I suspect you are chock full of information about your society.
“Karl? Do you know of a water source nearby?”
“Nope, the streams all dried up about three weeks ago. There a tiny snowmelt spring half a day up the mountain.” He eyed Xen’s clay jugs. “How much you got left? And do you have a place with water?”
Yeah, and like it or not, I’m going to have to take them there.
“I’ve got two gallons. And I’ve got a house by a stream that was still running a day and a half ago.”
“Umm, give me the empties. I’ll fill them and catch up to you north of here?”
“Yep. The house is probably right on a hundred miles away. If you don’t catch up to us by nightfall, we’ll light a fire . . . umm, was that you playing arsonist?”
“Yep. Worked too, although I was getting worried about Jiol. Anti-magic chemicals, I take it?”
“Yes, but mine and Jiol’s are starting to wear off. Oh, and there’s a half-tame wolf around, but watch out for any packs.”
“Gotcha.” Karl grinned. “Half-tamed wolf? Buckskin pants. House. Dunno why everyone was so worried about you.”
“Have some venison. See you tonight.”
They made five miles at a snail’s pace before Sam folded. The four of them carting him on an improvised stretcher made better time, but none of them complained when Xen stopped on a hill at sundown.
He slid one of his spears out of the deer hide stretcher and used the edge to cut enough brush for a fire. Some combination of signal and to keep predators away.
The PooBahs all grumbled about the jerky.
“Why didn’t you collect nuts and berries instead of killing animals?”
“Because the nuts ripen in the fall, and the birds beat me to the vast majority of the berries. Plants have to be tested carefully, as a lot are poisonous. If we’re stuck here very long, yeah, lots of plant material will be added to our diets.”
Xen stared into the night. Rustling grass. Hunter or Karl? Or something else?
“Hello the camp.” Karl sounded cheerful. “I found your pet wolf.”
He walked into the dim firelight. Hunter was at his heels, but circled around to lay down near Xen. He handed over four jugs of water.
“We’ll be home by noon tomorrow.” Xen eyed the strangers. “What do you call you’re world? Or is it another Earth?”
“Exile Three is the original name. But we call it .”
Xen sat up. “Well, that explains the magic. I’m from Exile Five, now called Comet Fall. Our founder population was exiled from Earth when they turned on the genetically engineered.”
They all shifted uncomfortably.
Watson broke the uneasy silence. “We have laws against genetic engineering. It happens only under very controlled conditions.”
A glare from Sam. “Not controlled enough.”
“Please understand that on Embassy, and my own world, that even directly engineered people are . . . people. With all the rights, privileges and responsibilities that all people have. I suggest that we act in that fashion here, so as to avoid any dangerous conflicts within the group.”
Jerry turned and studied him. “We were unconscious and dropped off alone fifty kilometers apart. Was there someone beside us four dropped off? Say . . . a girl named Cali?”
Watson’s hands fisted and he stared at Dr. Sam.
Sam Chou’s mouth thinned. “Great. The failed experiment, and we’ll wind up feeding her and caring for her.”
Watson’s hands relaxed. “It doesn’t matter here, that she’s designed.”
Karl looked at the PooBahs. “Why was she a failure?”
Sam huffed. “We were trying several combinations of genes, trying to replicate a specific ability. She didn’t have it, so . . .”
“So Watson adopted her, instead of ‘terminating the experiment’ in the usual fashion. Which is apparently to kill the unsatisfactory children.”
One glare, two techs gazing off into the distance. Watson staring holes in the ground.
“How could I kill her? I work with the magic metal, I don’t . . . I couldn’t. Anyone could see she was a little girl!”
The old man scowled. “You should have told me you couldn’t do it. I would have had it taken care of it.”
“Yes.” Watson got up and stared out into the dark. “Actually, you deserved to be Transported.”
It was a very silent group that settled down to sleep.
Karl signaled that he’d stay awake. Xen nodded, and put his head down . . . woke to a growl from Hunter. A rustle in the grass, departing quickly.
Karl shrugged. “Whatever it was, it changed its mind.”
Xen nodded. “I’ll take the watch. Catch some sleep.”
He sat up, crossed his legs, and slipped into a meditation trance. Six glows close by. Sam was the brightest, jumpy and uneven. Watson was jumpy as well. Wonder what I look like, magically? I’ll have to ask Jiol tomorrow. Karl and the two lab techs were ordinary, normal people. Hunter glowed like most of the larger mammals. He soaked up a little heat. And touched a bubble. Grabbed it and pulled it closer. Opened a hole. Closed it. Stuck it on his arm.
A quick check of the surroundings. An owl skimmed by overhead.
Xen settled back and looked at the inbetween. A crumpled paper universe there, and another way over there . . . He couldn’t look any further.