Ra’d led him behind the looming cubic black building and into a decorative garden, more ridiculous than most, with a completely artificial canyon with a fancy arched bridge and a running stream at the bottom of the landscaped sides.
“Do they recirculate the water, or waste it for esthetics?”
Ra’d chuckled. “Recirculate. Relax. The Comet Fall magicians do things like this, or the plaza out there themselves. For the fun of it. No peasants laboring under the hot sun for their overlords, and no taxes used for it.”
Dave sighed. “Sorry, growing up in wartime, I’m used to austerity. And in India . . . beautiful palaces and . . .”
“Starving peasants. Yes, I remember.”
Ra’d strolled along beside the canyon. “This is a restaurant. Then the school. And a barn for the horses. Let me show you the horses, as school’s not out for lunch yet . . . Oh, never mind.”
A small form shot out of the school door and threw herself at Ra’d.
“Oak? May I introduce Lucky Dave ibn Daiki?”
Big brown eyes widened, as the girl shook back two long black braids. “Really? Lucky Dave!”
Dave snickered. “Yes . . . although your dad may have exaggerated a bit.”
Her lips tightened as she shook her head. “Not my Daddy. Mommy says he’s pattyloggy owl nest.”
“Uh . . .”
Ra’d snorted. “Pathologically honest.”
“Ah. That I believe.” Dave looked down at the child and shook his head. “I’ll take a lucky guess. Are you five years old?”
She squirmed a little. “Sort of?”
“The kids spend a lot of time in bags, when both Nighthawk and I are busy. By the calendar, she’s ten, and Fox is almost six.” Ra’d looked back down the sidewalk, as a second, smaller child galloped out. “Or three. Depending on how you count.”
“Yeah.” Oak bounced and grinned. “We’re waiting for Poet and Erza to catch up to us.”
Ra’d grabbed the boy, hefted him like . . . an experienced parent. “In the meantime, I was about to introduce Dave to the horses. He’s never met any Comet Fall Smart Horses.”
Dave turned his head at the click of horseshoes on pavement. A trio of loose horses, in dark chestnut, bright chestnut, and a bay with splashy pinto spots.
“Smart enough to open gates and escape, I see.”
The bright chestnut snorted. :: As if anyone here would lock us in! ::
“Oh . . .”
The pinto snickered. :: Rael’s told me about him. He doesn’t look funny. ::
Dave turned back and glared at Ra’d, who had a knuckled stuffed in his mouth to keep a grin turning into a laugh. “You should warn people.”
“Some people can’t hear them. And keep right on believing they’re just well trained.”
Dave eyed the trio. “So . . . did these Disco people genetically engineer all of you?”
The dark stallion eyed him . . . and sent a picture . . . a lab, men and women in white coats.
:: New Gene, who designed a lot of the Tellies, designed us. When the Tellies heard they were shutting down the animal labs, they bubbled us, and the puppies. I was one of the six yearlings, and there were three foals. Four puppies, Lord Hell’s original Hell Hounds. ::
A skitter of pictures and memories, a batch of teenagers . . . Could that be Dad? . . . Hugo? An amazingly young Nicholas . . . This horse knew them all!
:: There are a lot of us now, we’re sort of like Oners—mostly weaker because we interbred with ordinary horses and so forth. But we’re finding each other and every generation is getting stronger, even as we keep spreading the genes around. ::
Dave nodded. “Yes, we foolishly call people upcomers, as if we weren’t all part multitude too. But what about ordinary people? How do they treat you?”
A sigh from the pinto. :: Like horses. Sometimes not very well, but on Comet Fall we’re fairly valuable until we get old. :: She rubbed her head on the dark horse. :: I was away from Smart Horses for a long time, before Rael found me, and took me to Ash. ::
“Ash is Comet Fall’s center of magical training.” Ra’d put in. “Most of the horses there are at least half-smarthorse. Not as many talkers as I’d expected.”
The dark horse nodded. :: They need plow horses, not magic friends. A lot of us move Across to Rip World. It’s a colony that a lot of the Ash people moved to, so almost everyone there is magic—humans and horses. :: He lifted his head and looked behind them. :: Like this batch of kids. ::
Apparently school was out for lunch. A horde of children, laughing and running, heading, more or less, for the restaurant.
“At least the school’s down to a decent size again.” Ra’d pointed across the fields. “Embassy now has five elementary schools and two high schools. Now that they’re building houses here, a lot of the people who use to commute from their home worlds have moved their families here.”
“How recent is all this?” Dave looked around. A single city, in the middle of nowhere.
“Two years for the high schools. Before that, all the teenagers were here with the little kids. Or do mean Embassy? Thirteen years since Xen invited the Empire and Earth to come and just talk to each other.”
“Just . . . out of nowhere.”
“Yep.” Ra’ chuckled. “I’ll show you where to hunt for the first news vids. There was nothing here but a big black building, the plaza and fountain, and a graded grid of roads through untouched grasslands.” Fox wiggled and Ra’d set him down, turning to see Nighthawk dodging kids as she walked up to them.
Dave could hear, or maybe feel, her quick exchange with the horses, as she bent to hug both kids.
Then she straightened with a grin. “C’mon over to the house. I’ll show you how us weird Comet Fall people live.”
The silly little arched bridge . . . appeared to be all a single piece of stone . . . with interesting patterns of crystals . . . “That isn’t actual gold, is it?”
“Yep. It’s cheap enough on Comet Fall for people to use it to show off.” A flash of perfect teeth against dark skin. “But just on the surface, not all through the stone. Have you met Ambassador Never? She and Dydit made it, on a dare.”
The kids bolted ahead to a small house, giggling. Dave stepped through the door and the kids were holding another door open, still giggling. He stepped up and . . . looked out on a big room with floor to ceiling glass, glass doors out to a patio, trees to both sides and an unobstructed view of the ocean straight ahead.
Dave stepped through, a twitch of a corridor passage. Aha! And then he strolled over to look up and down the coast from well up a steep hill. A spectacular view, a beach below with big waves rolling in, stretching out to a rocky point, and the bay beyond. Same the other direction.
“Now this is a good use for Corridors.”
They ate lunch on the patio in the fresh air, with the crash of the surf in the background.
“When I was first assigned here, Nighthawk had the whole house bubbled and the time dilation cranked all the way over to twenty times faster than the outside. So I’d work my shift, do a little overtime, and then pop in here for a week . . . go work my next day shift . . .”
“That’s cheating.” Dave laughed. “Did your boss ever find out?”
“Yep, when Fox was born, well, I’d only been here for two months, and suddenly I was registering an almost two-year-old daughter and a new born son. But Oak had been bubbled so much that she was only about six months old at the start. So I got to see all the first steps and the talking and . . .” Ra’d shrugged. “Since I’ve been permanently assigned here, we haven’t used too much fast room. The kids need to go to school and make friends and . . . be normal.”
“Ebsa and Paer’s twins are coming up on three years old. So we occasionally bubble both kids to slow them down a bit. But now that Oak’s school age . . . that’s a little tough.” Nighthawk reached and ruffled Fox’s black hair. “But they’ve almost caught up with Fox, so we don’t want to slow him down any more.”
“Poet’s fun! She’s my best friend already, and I want her to hurry up and be my age so we can go to school together and do fun stuff.”
Dave grinned at the little girl. “So you’ve got it all planned out?”
“Yep. I’m even letting Fox catch up almost to me, but he’s not allowed to get older than me.”
“Very sensible of you.” Dave turned his head enough that she wouldn’t see the wink he sent Fox. “No telling what trouble a big brother could cause.”
So after that exposure to domestic bliss—Ra’d! Of all the men to settle down with a family!—they dropped the kids off at school, and Dave got a tour of Disco Headquarters.
He’d seen the assembly room in movies, often enough. Or perhaps they used other rooms, it was pretty ordinary. The basement had a few jail cells, empty. Ground floor was meeting rooms in various sizes. The upper level was all offices, also in various sizes.
And a library with a man reading aloud while a woman typed.
Nighthawk whispered. “So many of the embassies gleefully mess up any electronics we take inside when we drop by, that we’ve taken to pen and paper notes, and even some reports. So Peter, who can actually read most of the agents’ horrible handwriting and Fire who’s researching Disco while working for us, are in charge of digitizing thirteen years-worth of stuff.”
The man glanced their way . . . and stopped dictating. “Umm, hi. Err, I don’t actually know you, do I? Sorry you look so much like Uncle Daiki . . . Oh, you’re from one of the One Worlds, right?”
Dave nodded. Uncle Daiki! “Yes, Dave ibn Daiki ibn William . . . You must be from that very early Earth?”
“Yeah, I didn’t realize your Daiki was still alive.”
“He’s not, I spent over a thousand years in a time dilated bubble. Umm . . . I’d heard that you guys were a bit . . . unwelcoming?”
“Untrusting. So many of their friends and families have died or just disappeared that they don’t trust any outsiders at all. And worry about me being a security risk.” His eyes unfocused for a moment. He winced. “Umm, no, I can’t take you to meet them.”
Dave shrugged. “I know he’s not my dad. Nor the other really the Prophets. Which, I hope everyone realizes was an excellent con job? But do let them know that there’s extended . . . if not family, people with significant genetic overlap who will help them privately, if they continue to be suspicious of governments.”
“Thank you.” Peter grimaced. “I think they’d just as soon run off into the Maze and lose themselves, except there are so few of them, they really couldn’t make a sustainable civilization by themselves.”
Fire nodded. “There’s only twenty-five of them, including Peter.”
Dave considered that . . . “There are several independent small colonies, aren’t there? They could be another, with contacts through to the other worlds for recruiting people, or finding wives?”
“Husbands. The young girls have the young boy badly outnumbered.” Peter sighed. “And they don’t trust Disco to just give them a world, with no strings attached.”
Ra’d snorted. “His only strings are ‘no wars across the dimensions.’ Otherwise he’s perfectly happy to leave people completely alone.”
“This maze . . . What’s it really like?”
Nighthawk laughed. “Do you ride horses, Dave?”
“Good. We’ll get some volunteers and give you a tour of the maze.”
Peter and Fire exchanged nods. “Us too?”
“Sure.” Nighthawk grinned. “Peter’s probably explored more of the Maze than any of us.”
A batch of teenagers were at the barn, saddling horses when they got there.
:: I get Lucky Dave! :: The pinto mare trotted up to him.
“I didn’t ask what your name is . . . you guys do have names, don’t you?”
:: Of course! I’m Carousel. Hop on. The Maze is fun. :: She turned her head a bit, looking at a leggy pinto filly. :: And don’t get lost! ::
:: That’s Circus. Foals are fun, but I’m a working horse. Maybe I’ll have another in a few years. ::
Dave checked the cinch and hauled himself up on the mare. Although in this group she wasn’t extraordinarily tall. “So, what do you work at?”
:: When Rael goes anywhere she might need a horse, she takes me. :: Sigh. :: It doesn’t happen very often, but it was fun visiting Paris and seeing all the Black Horses. Even if they aren’t smart. I like being around all the Smart Horses here, but there isn’t nearly enough work. ::
Dave grinned. “Well, you could always start up a business, giving tours of the Maze.”
All the horses laughed at that. And he caught, off and on, a background conversation among the horses, as they trotted from gate to gate, from pine forests to soaring mountains, sere deserts with wind carved mesas, shadowy swamps, and a tropical forest full of brightly colored birds and the biggest damned snake . . . Nighthawk killed the snake with a wave of her hand, and whisked the pieces off the path with another.
Circus stayed glued to her Mom’s side after that, as they crossed another gate into grasslands with lines of giant oaks marking the paths of streams.
:: Pity we have to go back the same way . . . :: Carousel raised her head and looked at Nighthawk. :: Or maybe someone could open a new gate that attaches somewhere else? ::
Nighthawk looked back. “Good idea, make a few loops out here. Let’s take a break for water and I’ll see what I can locate.”
Dave stretched his legs, and eyed Nighthawk and Peter sitting on the ground. He glances at Ra’d. “I didn’t think any Prophets had the genes for dimensional work?”
“They didn’t. Best guess is Peter’s maternal grandfather was a Telie from one of the other companies. But Chloe isn’t telling. Their society was extremely anti-engineering, so they repressed their abilities, so the kids are having to catch up to their age mates at the schools on Embassy. Peter’s the only adult who comes to the magic lessons regularly, the rest are still untrusting.”
Peter stuck his hand out suddenly. “That one. That’s where I camped.”
Not that anyone else could see what he was pointing at . . . but a gate swirled open on a green meadow facing a waterfall cascading over a white granite cliff, pine trees, taller mountains in the background.
Dave tightened Carousel’s cinch, and remounted. Two gates and a corridor and they were back on Embassy.
“Thank you for a nice relaxing ride, Carousel.” He pulled off her saddle and grabbed a brush. “I’m really glad to have met you. All of you.” And then he had to brush Circus too, and then clean up in Nighthawk’s house to join Izzo for dinner with the Ambassador.