“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.”
“Xen! I was hoping you’d show up.” Karl was grinning, relieved.
Were they that worried about me?
Xen pulled his attention back to the strangers. “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 just staying alive.”
Karl looked him up and down. “Staying alive. 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 pill in your back?” PooBah? Oh. My. God. That’s perfect.
Watson looked around. “He’s obviously not magic, why would they?”
“Oh, I thought they might just do everyone. Can you see glow already?”
Watson wrinkled his nose. “He’s . . . ordinary looking. I mean, you’ve got height, unusual eyes, not a surprise you’re magic. Even though you aren’t Chinese.”
Chinese? Xen eyed the group. Only the old guy looks even a little Chinese.
“Huh. Well, I’m Xen Wolfson, sorry, ought to have introduced myself before surgery.” So, two magic, two not. Might be some indication of a magical elite.
The old man growled a bit. “I’m Dr. Samuel Chou, Head of the 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 kilometers 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 at his heels. The wolf circled around to lay down near Xen. Karl handed over four jugs of water.
“We’ll be home late tomorrow.” Xen eyed the tired strangers. “Well, maybe not. Might take an extra day. What do you call your world? Or is it another Earth?”
“Exile Three is the original name. But we call it Xin Zhongguo.”
Xen sat up. “Well, that explains the magic. I’m from the fifth Exile World, 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. “Yes, that’s how our world got started. And then added more people a hundred and fifty years ago. Now 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, or whatever they called themselves. “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 . . .”
Xen eyed them. “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 when I suggested you take on a bio-division opportunity. I would have had someone else socialize her. Someone with a proper scientific attitude would have who would have taken care of the entire process.”
“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’s glow 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.
Xen soaked up a little heat. And touched a bubble. Cupped his mental grasp carefully around 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.
Xen got them moving at first light. Chewing jerky and complaining. He and Karl carried everything, and he parceled out the water in small sips, gave them frequent rests.
He gave up and let them stop as the sun dropped toward the horizon.
“Only one gallon left. Karl, stay with them. I’m going to take the empties ahead and fill them, check on Jiol and Cali.” He grabbed the empty jugs and trotted off. Hunter ran ahead, and was lapping water when he climbed down to the stream.
The flow was sluggish, but just seeing it eased one of his fears. He clambered over rocks to the waterfall and hailed the house.
“Well, you took your time!” Jiol’s cheerful scold relieved his main worry.
“Daddy? Did you find Daddy?” Cali scrambled down the uneven rock staircase.
“I did. He was too tired to walk all the way back, so I came ahead to refill the water jugs. I’ll get him back here tomorrow. And Jerry, Connor, and Sam.”
He could see her big grin in the twilight, and his heart ached. She has no idea her Uncle Sam doesn’t see her as a person. I just hope the other two are kinder. More human. And I wish her dad was less apologetic about not killing her.
He stuck the jugs under the waterfall. “Oh, and I found Karl Mantigo. He was the one starting the fires. I’ll carry the water back to them tonight. It’s only another ten kilometers or so, but they’re city boys, and Sam’s old.”