“Why does Granddad have a dimensional bubble full of rats?”
“Eh?” His father’s finger’s froze over the keyboard. “Oh, right. I’d forgotten about the rats. Umm, how much multi-verse history do they teach in that overpriced school that you have once again escaped from?”
“Too much. They make it boring. Granddad’s stories are much better.”
“And we’re on vacation until after the Eid.”
“I see. Well do you know that before the Exile, your granddad escaped from NewGene for several years and joined the army?”
“Yep. What does that have to do with rats?” Exzy paused . . . “He didn’t eat rats, did he?”
His dad snickered. “No. That was not his lunch box. Well, on one mission he and his team raided a Russian underground lab where they did their genetic experiments. One level held their experimental animals, and he was order to kill them all.”
“Well, it was necessary . . . except for these three cute little lambs. He bubbled them—that’s were the special Ash sheep got their start—then the rats . . . Well, he said they were organized, and trying to protect the nursing mothers and pups. So . . . he bubbled them.”
Ezxy bounced excitedly. “Because if they were smart it would be murder to kill them. I knew they weren’t normal rats. But they didn’t have capes and swords. I made them some, you know.”
Dad snorted. “Oh, is that what you were up to? I should never have let you read those books.”
“But . . . they’re still bubbled? After all this time? We should let them out!”
“Umm . . . not where there are any people.”
Exzy grinned. “They need their own World. Can I give them their own world, Dad?”
“Umm . . . sure. Let’s go talk to Grandad. Get into your warm clothes, it’s cold in Ash.”
Exzy dashed back to his room—he had a room in every house they owned, and lots of clothes, because there was no telling where they might go next. He knew about Ash in the winter, so it was long jonhs, two pairs of socks, bluejeans and boots. Singlet, t-shirt, and thin sweater. He carried the sheepskin coat.
Dad had changed out of his DISCo uniform and into warm clothes as well. And Pyrite was waiting at the door. The best horse in the entire Multiverse. Dad vaulted up onto his back without, as far as Exzy could tell, any magic at all.
He jumped for his dad’s extended hand and got hauled up to sit atop the saddle bags, then everything changed around them, and they were up in the hills. They moved the gate to Dad’s home world regularly, so the spies couldn’t sneak in.
The gate was a weird spirally whirlwindy sort of thing, white, but sparkling with twinkling colors and it made him dizzy to cross. He pulled on his coat, and clutched his dad’s belt. Pyrite jumped through, surefooted, and Exzy reeled, barely noticing the sudden icy temperature. Clung as Pyrite trotted around the corned and through a corridor. The corridors weren’t nearly as bad as the gates. So he let go and pulled up his hood and got his hands in his pockets.
Forgot my gloves!
The frozen ground crunched under Pyrite’s hooves, but there was no wind and the air was dry. There was snow on the fields, but the road to the village was clear.
Exzy peered around his father. “I don’t see anybody.”
“It’s the Winter Solstice, the Witches are all up at the hotsprings.”
“Oh. Gramma too?”
“Yep, and all your aunts and cousins. Just us guys here, tonight.”
“Oh good. They make me want to kick them.”
A snicker from his dad. Fine for him. He’s not the one who gets treated like a cute little doll! “Oh he’s so precious!” and then they all squeal and get all huggy kissy. Yuck.
“No kicking today. Your granddad’s home and we can go ask about the rats.”
By which time Pyrite was turning the corner and cantering up the track between the barren snow covered herb garden and the Twin Inn. The branching path to Grandad’s winery hadn’t been cleared, but Pyrite high-stepped though the powdery foot of snow and carried them right up to the winery’s steps and turned sideways.
Exzy leaned to grab his dad’s hand and got swung down to the porch, then Dad ducked to clear the edge of the roof and managed to get down with only one boot-load of snow to brush off.
He pulled Pyrite’s saddle off—Pyrite, of course, didn’t wear a bridle—and set it on the porch.
The door swung open and Grandad filled the opening. Really. It was a big door, so he didn’t have to duck—barely—But he had to squeeze his shoulders in a bit to step through. “So, Xen and Exzy. Taking pity on the old man, abandoned in the snow?”
Dad laughed, and shook his own dad’s hand. “Oh yeah, we know how tough it is. I’m surprised there isn’t a forty-eight hour poker game at one Inn or another, to celebrate.”
Then Exzy got a hand shake of his own, like he was a grown up, and it was enough that he had to fight down an impulse to hug the old man. You can’t complain about getting hugged, if you go and do it yourself.
“C’mon in out of the cold. And tell me what’s up.” He led the way in, and, no surprise, had three mugs of cocoa waiting.
Granddad watches the whole valley. Heck, he may have known as soon as we came through the gate, and that’s three hundred kilometers away.
“I wanted to ask you about your rats.” Exzy slid out of his coat and wrapped cold hands around the mug. “I looked at them last time I was here, and I’ve made some things for them.
Granddad laughed. “And what do you have planned?”
“I’m going to give them a world all their own.” Exzy bit his lip suddenly. “If I can find one where they won’t get eaten.”
His dad nodded. “An Empty World, with only small animals on land. Hygiea Branch where all the large animals have been killed. Possibly a very early world with only a few animals transitioning to land . . . except we’d have to add grasses with seed heads and so forth, so the rats could eat.”
Exzy bit his lip. “A world like Embassy would be good, wouldn’t it? But . . . maybe with some animals? So it’s not boring?”
Dad nodded. “Yes, there are several near splits, with small animals. I’ve poked around a few. We can check them out, and pick one with problems small enough that they can be challenged without being wiped out. Maybe. Anyplave that has rat-sized fauna is going to include predators that eat rat-sized critters.”
Granddad eyed him. “Exzy . . . the rats have been raised in cages. They don’t know what a predator is. They don’t know how to find food for themselves. Some of them are going to die, while they learn.”
Four days later he looked over the rugged terrain of an unnamed world.
Dad had shifted and molded rock. The rats would have a shelter from the elements, a store of grains and roots, and all through these hills with their streams and fertile valleys, a source of food in the spring.
Exzy knelt and popped the last bubble.
He stepped back and watched the guard rats, scanning for danger. Two scuttled into the honeycombed passages of what they named “Stone Keep” they returned, and the mother rats started shifting their babies inside. The guard rats remained between them and the humans, until the last were gone, then they scuttled inside.
“Merry Christmas, rats. I give you freedom and opportunity. I hope you like it.”