Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Light My Roamin' Candle, Charlie Boone!

© 2019 by Geron Kees. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.

The Charlie Boone stories are a series. Each new tale assumes to some extent that you have read the previous tales. If you haven't, you really should.

"Just a matter of minutes now," Murcha said, as the watermelon ship approached Engris, the ancient world hidden within the vastness of the mysterious Cooee.

Charlie Boone leaned back against his pylon seat within the Moth-built starship and watched the central viewing globe intently. He was feeling just a hint of nerves, which was keeping him from being completely relaxed. I should be overjoyed to be back out here, he thought, frowning. Instead of worried over what it's all about.

At the other pylon seats circling the viewing globe, his boyfriend, Kippy Lawson, and their friends, Ricky Travers and Adrian Whitacre, also watched their progress, seeing the exact same view as Charlie, despite their different positions. Their faces were a mix of emotions, plainly showing the inevitable excitement at returning to the ancient world, along with a healthy dose of wonder at the secrets it held. A hint of worry was there, too, at just what kind of trouble had prompted their Aussie friend Mike to summon them back to Engris. Mike's call for assistance had been unexpected, and lacking in detail, but its urgency had seemed plain. The boys had called for Murcha to come and get them, and had left Earth almost immediately.

"I hope we're in time," Ricky said, eying the view. "We don't even know what kind of trouble we're coming into."

"Mike didn't say there was trouble," Kippy countered. "He just said he needed us, and to come quickly."

Ricky frowned. "You don't think that sounds like trouble?"

"He could have just been lonely," Kippy returned, trying to look unconcerned, though Charlie could plainly see the worry in his boyfriend's eyes. None of them thought that Mike would have called for them for any reason but a dire one.

Adrian sighed, and laid his chin on his hand, staring at the image before him. "At least Engris looks okay. I halfway expected it to be under attack or something."

"Nobody can take on Engris," Kippy returned assuredly, staring at the growing, shadowy image of the wandering planet. "This place was here before humans even walked the Earth. It's an old hand at looking out for itself."

Charlie nodded in agreement. No one knew who had built Engris. It's origins were lost in the mists of time. But it was known that, like a bright candle set out in the night, the artificial world was a lure for the spirits of the dead of the many intelligent races that populated the galaxy. It was within one of the domes of an eternal city of this world that Charlie and the others had not only spoken with the spirits of their friends, Billy and Will, but picked them up and included them in a recent adventure. Engris was like a doorway, a meeting point between the world of the living and the world of those passed on, and the ancient and impenetrable technology incorporated in the spirit domes was unduplicated anywhere else in known space. Engris was unique, in more ways than one.

That the mystery world also moved about on its own within the no-time of the Cooee - the otherspace through which the starships of many races took shortcuts between the stars of the normal universe - and that the planet seemed selective about who it allowed to land there, only lent to its mythology as a world of true wonders, ancient secrets, and intolerance for those that would misuse its purpose for their own ends.

At one time or another all the great space powers had tried to take Engris for their own, in part because those in residence in the no-time of the Cooee had what amounted to eternal lives. And the technology of Engris was like no other currently in existence, its secrets coveted by those for whom power and prestige were linked to having the best technology available. But the ancient world could defend itself, and had simply shunted those vast, would-be conquering fleets to other parts of the Cooee, and had never allowed them to find Engris again. One had to wish to find Engris, and to have a purpose that was not counter to the world's seemingly inbuilt ethic of peace and goodwill, in order to land there. And that act only happened because Engris found the seeker.

Direction and distance had different meanings here in the Cooee, and only the advanced artificial minds that directed starships could find their way from star to star. But Engris was even unique within the Cooee, seeming to be all places at all times. One could point his ship to any direction within the Cooee in the hope to find Engris, and if that world willed it, it would be found. And it had been found, by many.

Engris was now home to a broad selection of refugees from every quarter of known space. As a sanctuary, Engris was without peer. Those fleeing troubled places and troubled times could find refuge there, as long as they were of a nature that did not conflict with the purpose of the world. Engris was about peace, and in that peace, a sharing of life...and death. The settlements of the Galactics who had come to Engris looking for a peaceful home tended to be built away from the original cities of the world's founders, with the faint notion that those cities were haunted by the spirits of the builders enough to keep most people away. Behind that wariness was a respect, both for the creators of this world, and for the original purpose of its construction. No one wished to interfere with the ancient cities, though they were not off limits, and Charlie and the others had found their previous visits to the dark world both exciting and wondrous.

Much of the trade that went on between the Galactics on Engris was blatantly illegal. The grand bazaar near the spaceport was home to vendors from all over the galaxy, whose wares were often of dubious origin, to say the least. The galaxy was old, and races had arisen, thrived, and then passed into the pages of history, leaving behind the far-flung clues of their passing, in everything from lost space stations and ships to entire worlds covered in moldering cities. The laws of the various star empires forbade the looting of such discoveries, and made them the property of whichever race ruled the section of space in which they were found. Many such artifacts wound up in museums, certainly; but just as much of the trove, if not more, found places in the collections of rulers and wealthy robber-barons, or in the technology labs of their many enterprises. Competition between the star empires was fierce, and every bit of ancient technology and wealth that was found was added to the effort to keep the balance of power as even as possible.

This strict oversight of lost antiquities left the solo entrepreneur somewhat out in the cold, and until the discovery of Engris, there had been no place to sell such found treasures without almost certain discovery and prosecution to follow. But since the ancient world had become a new home to so many of the galaxy's distressed, dissatisfied, or dispossessed, the trade in ancient and 'borrowed' goods from all over known space had blossomed into something that was the envy of every star nation in the galaxy. Here was a trade that could not be followed, could not be interdicted, and could not be halted. Engris was the one oasis where the power of the galactic nations simply could not reach.

Here could be sold the plundered treasures of lost civilizations, without the little worry of the law to interfere. Here could be sold the loot of outright thievery, so long as the heart of the seller was at peace. The planet itself seemed unconcerned about the merchandise that changed hands in the many stalls and shops, so long as those sales were accomplished without harm to other visitors. Only one spaceport served the entire planet, and ships of space were unable to land anywhere else, held at bay by another of the world's mysterious technologies. Those allowed to live upon and use Engris were compelled to do so in peace, and without malice in their hearts, or face being expelled, and banned forever from returning again. This requirement had led to the establishment of a self-organized, self-policed culture, where any threatened by another could count on the entire population coming to his or her aid. Violence was unheard of on Engris, though there were those that did act up now and then - mostly new visitors - who were warned one time only, and then promptly expelled for a second offense. And those warned off this dark and ancient world would simply never be able to find it again.

Engris existed in peace, and always would, for time held no grip upon her soil.

Across the globe from Charlie, in another of the pylon support seats, Max, their elfin friend, opened his eyes and gave out a great sigh. "Man, this place smells good! I can't get over it!"

Charlie laughed. "We're not even there yet."

"Doesn't matter. It's like my kitchen at home, when the missus is cooking up something special. Good aromas travel far!"

The other boys grinned, and Charlie welcomed the break in the subtle tension they were all feeling. Having Max along was always an ace card, the elf's magical abilities beyond even that of the galaxy's chief power users, the Moth. In any confrontation with danger, having Max along could mean the difference between success and failure. It was due to his powers that they had this ship for their own, and the mind that ran it freed from its enslavement to the Moth, and now a friend.

Charlie gave a little sigh. "I'm so glad you could come with us. Mike didn't say what the problem was, only that he needed our help, and that he had to see us as quickly as possible. I know you're busy, and that you have a lot to do for Nicholaas."

The elf smiled. "What busy? It's July, Charlie. The shop is running along just fine, and we're well ahead of schedule on the next Christmas." He looked about the ship, his smile widening. "I wouldn't have wanted to miss this trip for anything. I needed a little vacation, and there's a lot of great stuff out here to see and do."

"And you get to see Pacha'ka again, too," Kippy reminded, smiling.

Max nodded, his eyes twinkling. "There's that, no doubt about it. Always fun to trade pokes with that fella."

The boys laughed.

"I'd like to know how you kept Frit and Pip from coming," Adrian wondered aloud, throwing a quick smile in Charlie's direction. "We left so quickly I didn't get a chance to ask you. I'll bet they raised a real ruckus at being left behind!"

"I wouldn't want to have been the guy that told them they couldn't come along," Ricky added. "I'd never hear the end of it."

" was, um, easy, actually," Max returned, looking a little bit guilty. "I just didn't tell 'em where I was going!"

Kippy gasped, and looked faintly indignant. He was fond of the two younger elves, and often protective of their exuberant attention to anything interesting. That Frit and Pip found just about everything interesting, and that they could become a little too boisterous about at times - which sometimes caused them to get themselves into trouble - seemed never to bother Kip. The two elves were friends, and that was all that mattered to him.

"No you didn't!"

"Sure I did. The Big Guy is always sending me someplace on business. I just said I was off again, and they wasn't even interested." He sighed, noting Kip's disapproval. "Those two woulda been into everything, like they were last time we brought them along! Besides, if we need 'em, I can get 'em here quick enough."

Charlie stared a moment, and then scratched his chin curiously. "You have another starship parked somewhere up north, back home?"

"Naw. I'd just bring 'em along the normal route we elves use to get around. Now that I've been here, and know the way, it'd be a piece of cake."

Kippy blinked in surprise. "You mean you could have brought us all out here without the ship?"

"Sure. But where would be the fun in that?" Max waved a hand around the spare control room. "We wouldn't have been able to hang out with Murcha, for one thing. And if we needed to go someplace I've never been, we'd be stuck. The guidebook knows every place on earth back home, but out here? Jeez, there's places I've never been, just everywhere!" The elf laughed. "And, it's just more fun for us to all be together, ain't it? We needed the ship."

Charlie shook his head. "Wait, wait...the guidebook?"

Max nodded. "Sure thing. Every elf has it memorized by the time he or she is eight years old. It tells you how to get every place on Earth, and to all the surrounding places in the off-side dimensions."

Charlie and Kippy exchanged grins, and Kippy shook his head. "I won't even ask about the off-side dimensions."

Max looked patient. "You've been to some of them. The shop exists in one, and that restful place by the waterfall that you met with the Big Guy that time the malaise got you down, that's another one. Off-side dimensions are all over the place."

Adrian smiled. "Of course they are."

Ricky nodded. "Well, I'm happy we came in the ship. It's cool as hell to zip around in one of these things, and Murcha is a great tour guide."

"I am certainly glad that you called me to take you," Murcha put in. The ship's artificial mind sounded pleased. "I was growing weary of ferrying Bazorki colonists to their new moon. Those people never seem to stop asking questions!"

Kippy laughed at the odd-sounding alien name. "They have a new moon? How'd that happen?"

"Yes. They are a rather prolific people, and their home system is somewhat overcrowded. They have taken to moving the largest asteroids in their system into orbits about their three habitable planets, terraforming them and adjusting the gravity, and then filling them up with their people. A ship can earn some substantial credit as a ferry during these mass migrations."

Charlie frowned at that. "And no one ever asks you where the crew is?"

"No, Charlie. Out here, many ships operate without the need for crews. The ship owner normally receives the credits for work performed, but in this case I am my own master, so what I earn goes into the credit account that Pacha helped me to create. Indirectly, those funds will always be at your disposal, as other than maintenance and upgrades, I have little need for cash."

Kippy grinned. "I could use a new MP3 player. The dog chewed up my old one."

"I am not familiar with the technology you have named, but I'm sure that if you can find it here on Engris, we can get it for you."

Charlie grunted, and rolled his eyes at his boyfriend. "He's kidding you, Murcha. But thanks for the offer."

Kippy gave out a little sigh and looked innocent. "I'm just playing. What do you expect me to do, now that you've yanked me away from our July Fourth preparations?"

Ricky hooted. "What preparations? We were deciding if we we were having Irving's pizza again, and where on Myer's Hill we would sit to watch the fireworks."

Kippy pouted. "Those are important considerations. I like my fireworks to be perfect."

Charlie reached over and patted his boyfriend's shoulder. "Relax, Kip. We know how you feel. But Mike needed our help. We couldn't just refuse to come."

Kippy looked aghast. "Oh, Charlie, I didn't mean that! Of course we had to come. But I'm still hoping we get back in time to see the fireworks." He gave a little wince. "Holidays are special."

Charlie smiled, and squeezed Kippy's arm. "I know they are. And we'll be back in time, I'm sure. Max said he'd jiggle the hands on the clock for us, just like he did before. Besides, while we're here in the Cooee, no time is passing at home at all."

"Sure," Max put in quickly. "I'll just finagle stuff a little and we'll get back not long after we left. Don't sweat it, Kip."

Kippy looked mollified, and then smiled. He leaned closer to Charlie and lowered his voice. "I'm sorry. It's just that I love to sit under the rocket's red glare with you, Charlie."

Charlie smiled. "Yeah, me, too." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Though being just about anywhere is fine by me, as long as I'm with you."

Kippy sighed, his expression going dreamy. "Oh, Charlie. You say the nicest things!"

Adrian reached across his armrest and poked his own boyfriend. "Watch and learn, Rick. That's how two people in love talk to each other."

Charlie and Kippy both smiled at the look of annoyance that crawled across Ricky's face. "Uh...yeah. I know how to do it."

Adrian quickly hid a smile of his own. Ricky was more than romantic down deep, but he could be wary of displaying too much affection in public, and Adrian was often gently teasing him about it. Ricky had grown used to being fond of his boyfriend under the accepting gazes of Charlie and Kip, but he was still a little wary of doing it in front of others.

"Yeah?" Adrian prodded. "Say something romantic to me."

Ricky's annoyance changed to discomfort. "In front of...everyone?" he whispered, sounding slightly uneasy. He cast a quick glance at Max, who was obviously trying to look disinterested in the whole conversation. The elf was sometimes embarrassed by the antics the boys got up to in pursuit of affection, and Ricky was sensitive about saying or doing too much in front of him.

Adrian gave out an exaggerated sigh. "Do you love me any less in front of other people?"

Ricky stared at him a moment, and Charlie grinned at seeing his friend's defenses slowly break down. Ricky sighed, and his frown softened into a smile. "Nope. I love you tons all the time. Even with spectators."

Adrian looked surprised, and then looked pleased. "I'll take what I can get." He leaned across the armrest of his pylon and puckered up, and Ricky leaned over as far as he could, and kissed him.

Kippy brought his hands together in soft applause. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

Ricky wrinkled his nose at him. "I'm just being respectful of Max. He isn't comfortable with us doing that stuff in front of him."

The elf looked surprised, but then laughed. "Aw, geez, I'm used to it now. Go ahead and make happy, guys."

They were saved from further discourse on the subject by Murcha. "I have a message from Illia, the shipmind on Mike's vessel. They are requesting our ETA. I have explained that we are approaching orbit, and will be down at the port momentarily."

Charlie smiled at the faint note of excitement that he detected in the shipmind's voice. Murcha and Illia were friends, and visiting together something that Murcha enjoyed. Despite artificial minds not having a true gender, they were cast in a certain mold, it seemed, and Murcha was a male pattern, while Illia's pattern was obvious female. Whatever subtle magic defined the attractions for such things, it seemed to work just as well if the mind was electronic in nature, instead of organic.

Ah, romance! Even artificial minds were not immune to it, it seemed.

"That's fine," Charlie said, his eyes going back to the view displayed in the central globe.

"I wish Mike had been more specific about what was wrong," Kippy said, watching the view. "It's a little scary not knowing what's up."

Charlie agreed. Mike had definitely sounded less than his normal confident self when he had contacted them on the little communicator they'd been supplied with, and had acted as if maybe even their communications were not private. He had just asked them to come, and to hurry, and that had been enough for Charlie and the others. Even Max had frowned at the barren nature of the request, and had made up his mind immediately to accompany them. The elf had great instincts, and Charlie had seen traces of worry even in Max's experienced eyes.

They were low enough now to see the lights of the settlements, and the strange, soft glow that the forests of Engris seemed to exhale into the very air. A world without a sun, in a place without a single star to light the sky, the surface of Engris should have been pitch black away from the artificial lights of the Galactic's habitations. Yet, no matter where you went upon the planet you could see, the landscape painted in light equivalent to that from a bright, starry night back on Earth. Charlie had found it very eerie on their first visit, and then eminently practical on their second. Engris was a place that had been well thought out, the ancients combining utility with beauty at every turn.

Their empty cities sprawled about in this eerie light, scattered uniformly about the planet, the tall towers of residences clustered around a dozen or more spirit domes within each city. It was supposed that the cities had once been lit, though there was no certainty about that, and Charlie's imagination failed when faced with picturing an eternal life spent with each day shrouded in perpetual shadows. No representations of the ancient race had survived, and any ideas on what they had looked like could only be assumed from the practical considerations of their architecture. But that they were a supremely confident and able people seemed certain, just judging from the things they had left behind.

The Moth ship rounded the curve of the planet below and continued to descend, and the lights of the port city soon grew and spread out beneath them. The great paved circle about the city came into view - the landing field - peppered with the grounded shapes of star-traveling vessels from every corner of the five great star empires. Charlie's eyes roamed among them as the ship settled, looking for one ship in particular, the blue, soap-bubble globe of Pach'ka's Kifta vessel.

He smiled as he finally spotted it, and sighed as Murcha dropped them onto an open stretch of pavement nearby. It would be good to see their friends again.

"I did not observe a single Moth ship ported here," Murcha announced, as their own vessel settled onto it's landing legs with the smallest of bumps.

"You're unique," Kippy said, reaching out and patting the surface of the viewing globe. "The Moth aren't welcome here, but you passed the test on your own."

"Yeah, you're one of the good guys," Adrian added, grinning. "Glad to have you with us."

"I am quite pleased to be here, believe me. Ah. It would appear that company is coming."

Charlie grinned at the run-together feel of the ship mind's sentences. Murcha was very practical, and sometimes changed subjects without so much as a pause.

They heard the soft, whirr-purr of the boarding tube descending, and Charlie turned back to the viewing globe, which now displayed the pavement between their own vessel and the Kifta globe. A single figure was hurrying across towards their ship, a young man dressed in a simple gray ship suit. But even from a distance they could recognize Mike.

"He's lost the Commander Comet uniform, at least," Kippy said, smiling at the image. "Although he was quite handsome in it, no matter how silly it looked."

Charlie laughed, recalling the outrageous TV space opera uniform that Mike had had made at one of the custom clothing booths at the pirate market. He'd been remembering a TV show from his youth, and the nostalgia had apparently swept him away a bit. They had surprised Mike wearing the uniform on their last visit, and Kippy, for one, had had some fun with it.

"He probably didn't dare wear it again, after last time," Charlie said. "I don't think he liked us laughing."

Kippy gave a small huff of disapproval. "We weren't laughing at him, Charlie. We were, um..."

"Laughing at him," Adrian finished, smiling.

Kippy looked annoyed, but nodded. "Okay, okay. But we weren't being mean about it!"

Charlie smiled, and stood away from his pylon and walked to the entry to the control room of the Moth ship. Inside the boarding tube, a soft light lit, and a faint, slightly eerie chime announced that someone was rising to the control room. Mike came into view, smiling upwards at Charlie as the modified gravity field carried him up to the control room.

And then Mike was stepping out of the tube, and Charlie was grabbing the other boy into a hug.

"It's so good to see you, mate!" Mike said softly, hugging Charlie fiercely.

Charlie immediately sensed more going on with Mike than just pleasure at seeing a friend, and pulled back as soon as he could to examine the other.

He was shocked by what he saw. Mike's face looked drawn, shadowed with lines of worry and weariness. His smile looked stamped upon his face, with only the warmth in his eyes to show that he really meant it.

"What's the matter?" Charlie immediately whispered, sensing the others coming up behind him.

"Can I have a turn?" Kippy asked, tapping Charlie on the shoulder.

Mike gave a little shake of his head, and released Charlie, and stepped around him and grabbed Kippy into a hug. Kippy giggled, and Charlie gave a small smile at the expression of delight on his boyfriend's face. But he couldn't get past the way Mike looked, and knew that something grave was troubling the other boy.

Kippy finally released Mike and let the others have a chance at a hug. Even Max stepped up and claimed one; but the smile on his face was spread beneath concerned eyes, as if he, too, had seen something troubling in the way that Mike looked.

Mike seemed especially happy to see Max, although the two had only shared an adventure once before. Mike gave out a big sigh, and hugged Max fiercely, and Charlie could see the relief on the Aussie boy's face.

"Good to see you," Mike said, as Max released him. "Good to see you all."

Max looked at the boarding tube, and shook his head. "Pacha didn't come with you?"

Mike winced, and the look of grief was so plain on his face that Charlie immediately stepped up to the other boy and took him by the arm. "Come over here and we'll sit. Max, can you get us some seating?"

The elf nodded, and waved a hand, and two long, overstuffed sofas appeared in the open area to one side of the control room, arranged so that they faced each other. Charlie pulled Mike over and pushed him down onto the cushions of one, and then dropped to be seated next to him. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be aware of the way Mike looked and acted, and the boys were all silent as they sat down. Max positioned himself on the armrest near Mike, and extended an arm and laid a hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Pacha'ka?" Max asked, quietly.

Mike looked around at the faces, and swallowed hard. And then he seemed to sag, and Charlie tightened his grip on the other boy's arm.

"He's missing," Mike said, his voice breaking. "I've lost him, and I don't know what to do about it. I really need your help!"

Murcha provided them with drinks and something to eat, which arrived via a large conveyance on six padded wheels, replete with arms and eye lenses and all sorts of fascinating tools and doodads, that whipped up their snacks right on the spot. The Moth apparently ate standing up, too, as there was nothing like a table in the ship's central chamber, and Max called up a low one, complete with white linen tablecloth, and placed it between the two sofas. The ingredients of the food were apparently mostly raw molecules, deftly combined, and heated and flavored right before their eyes, and the results laid out on square plates on the tabletop by a surprisingly mobile mechanical arm.

"Now that we're all comfortable," Max said to Mike, smiling encouragingly, "tell us what happened."

Mike took a deep breath, let it sigh out, and nodded. "Well, you guys know that Pach and I wanted to do a little exploring after we left you the last time. We decided to wing it, to just head out and see where in space we wound up. We both needed to let off some steam, and relax a little."

Kippy smiled. "I'll bet you can get quite steamy, too, if you set your mind to it."

Mike blinked at him, looked surprised, and then smiled, himself. "You're just what I need right now, Kipper. Thanks." He settled himself more comfortably on the sofa, and reached for one of the tiny golden cakes that covered a square plate on the table.

"Well, even though we were supposed to just be flyin' about sort of random, you know how Pacha is. He has more little things he knows about than you can shake a stick at. We wound up in an area of space that interested him, some place called Tura-Buyah, which is a Trichani term that means 'dead suns'. It's an area of space that is especially dark, because the gas wasn't thick enough or something there, and instead of suns they got brown dwarfs all over the place. It's a good-sized area, and it also marks a section of the border between Trichani space and Moth space."

Charlie shook his head. "Sounds like there's nothing much there. Why would Pacha want to go to that particular place?"

Mike shook his head. "Because there is something there. Roorapynta is there."

Max gave out a soft grunt. "And what is that?"

For a moment, Mike looked enchanted, and the weariness and worry faded from his face. "Oh, it's an amazin' place! You bucks would love it. Roorapynta is a huge disc, a hundred miles across and about two miles thick. There's a city on top of it, and a spaceport, and mountains, and forest --"

"Sounds like a planet," Adrian said.

Mike nodded. "Might as well be, 'cept it's small, and is a made thing. Got its own gravity like a planet, and a field that keeps the atmosphere contained. Some people now long gone from that part of space built it, but no one now knows who, exactly. The Trichani own it now, and they use it as a sort of trading post - they say - though the Moth think it's a listening post meant to spy on them."

Kippy sighed. "That sounds like the Moth!"

Mike nodded. "They visit the place, but just as customers, more or less. Because there's mostly nothing in that area of space to attract interest, the Tura-Buyah is uncontested between empires, and so makes a perfect border. Roorapynta makes a great waystation, too, because there aren't any habitable planets for a hundred light years in any direction. So everyone uses the discworld as a point of trade, and it's kind of a real frontier place. 'Course, the Trichani, being Trichani, run the place like it's part of their empire, except that they're a little looser about a lot of stuff. Especially the auction."

Charlie frowned. "Auction?"

Mike gave out a soft whistle. "Oh, man." He shook his head. "Guys, you know what an auction is. A place where they sell stuff, and people bid on it. Top bidder wins." Mike blew a little breath between his lips. "Except at Roorapynta, you can buy just about anything you can imagine, stuff from all over the five empires."

Kippy smiled. "Oh, I don't know about that." He turned and gave Charlie a fond poke. "Charlie has a hell of an imagination."

Charlie rolled his eyes, and leaned against Kip in a silent oh, shut up! Kippy just laughed, and tilted his head onto Charlie's shoulder.

Mike nodded. "Well, it isn't just buying or selling stuff, either. Not everyone accepts the universal form of credit out there. So there's bartering, where you can trade one thing for another, or offer a service in exchange for the thing you want, or even choose to fight the owner for it."

"Fight for it!" Ricky laughed out loud. "Sounds more like an arena than an auction."

The Aussie boy looked serious. "It's pretty dangerous stuff, actually. You're safe as long as you don't bid, or don't offer anything for sale. But if you decide to bid or sell, you open yourself to more than just the act of spending or making money. The owner of what you're bidding on can decide to take your credit or not. If not, then you have to put up something valuable enough to cover your bid, and it has to be something the owner will agree to take. You can also offer a service; but again, it has to be something the owner wants. If you don't agree on something, your bid gets disqualified."

"That's all?" Charlie asked. "You just can't bid?"

"That's all," Mike agreed.

"What about the fighting part?" Ricky asked, absently fingering the hilt of the ornate dagger he wore at his belt. Both he and Adrian had brought along the treasures they'd purchased at the pirate market on Engris - Ricky his vibratory blade, and Adrian his Beltracian star map. Both boys had considered that the items might be of use in their new travels, although they had also brought them along on the last trip to space, only to find no use for them.

Kippy had considered bringing along the odd ring he had purchased; but he could conceive of no need for it just yet, and it was a considerable lump to carry around in the pocket of his jeans. Charlie's treasure was a copper-looking plate, that displayed a three-dimensional, live image of the home of anyone that held it. He also could see no use in bringing it along, and Kippy and Charlie both had left their treasures at home.

Mike sighed. "You can put up a challenge to ownership, and fight, but you'd better know what you're doing, because some of these blokes out this way are meaner than a box of snakes. And, even if you do have something the owner will take in trade for the item, you have to watch out for the other bidders, too. Anyone else bidding can elect to challenge you. You then have to fight for the right to keep bidding, if that's what you want to do. I've heard tales of blokes eliminating every single one of the competition through challenges."

Ricky's jaw dropped. "So if you're challenged, you have to fight?"

"Oh, no. You can choose to drop out, but then you lose your right to bid on that item."

"How charming," Kippy said, a little acidly. "What delight will these aliens think of next?"

Max gave Mike's shoulder a squeeze. "And Pacha?"

Mike grimaced, and nodded. "Pach and I were at the auction. Just watchin', we were. The kind of stuff that was comin' up for bids was just amazing. Pach had to tell me what some of it was, and other stuff, even he didn't know. But it was plain to see that some of what was being argued over and sold off was some really valuable stuff."

Mike closed his eyes a moment, as if remembering. "And then...Pach turned and looked off into the crowd, like he was watching something, but when I looked, all I could see were throngs of people movin' about. But Pach senses things, you know? He doesn't have to see stuff to know it's there. He looked off for a while, then he looked at me, and said he'd be right back, and then he went off into the crowd."

Kippy's jaw dropped. "As little as he is? And you let him?"

Mike shook his head. "Come on, Kipper, you know that size doesn't mean much, especially with someone like Pacha. He can hold his own with anybody." Mike dropped his eyes. "Or so I thought."

"What happened after that?" Max asked quietly.

Mike just shrugged. "That was it. That was the last time I saw him."

For a moment no one said anything. Charlie stared at the Aussie boy, finding it hard to believe that Pacha could just walk off and then fail to return. "You weren't worried about him going alone?"

For a moment, Mike looked angry. He pointed at Max, and then glared at Charlie. "Would you worry about Max, if he stepped off by himself for a mo? Pacha is a Ka, and there hasn't been a lad born that can take a Ka by surprise." He looked back at the elf. "Wouldn't you say so, Max?"

Max frowned, but nodded. "It wouldn't be no easy job, that's for sure."

Ricky reached over and patted Mike's knee. "Relax, man. You're with friends."

Mike bit his lip, but took a deep breath, and nodded.

"When did you start to worry?" Adrian asked.

" wasn't that long, really. Pacha has different ideas about time than I do. When he says he'll be right back, it can mean a minute, or an hour. But where we were, I wasn't so easy about him being off on his own. After about ten minutes I called him on the com, but he didn't answer, and Illia said she couldn't pinpoint exactly where he was. That got me anxious, but I still wasn't that worried. I mean, any guy that can put seven Arpies on the ground isn't someone you really worry about being in trouble, you know?"

"So you waited?" Kippy asked.

"Yeah. But not for long. He was gone about fifteen minutes when I decided to go and look for him. If he was doing something important, I didn't want to queer the deal, so I just did a kind of casual walkabout, looking. I went in the same direction he did, but didn't see him anywhere. That doesn't always mean anything, either, because Pach is a polymorph and can look like whatever he wants, you know? As long as it's about the same mass, anyway. There's all sorts of folk walking around Roorapynta that are close to the same size as Pacha, but I couldn't see him changing into one and then just standing there as I walked by looking for him."

"You looked for a length of time?" Charlie asked.

"The whole stinkin' rest of the day!" Mike returned. "I went back to where we'd been standing three times, and he wasn't there. I covered the whole square a couple of times, and had Illia looking with those tiny fliers that she uses to scope stuff out. And I called him, over and over, on the com. Nothing."

By now Charlie was able to see the true depth of worry and despair that Mike had reached, and felt only sympathy. That the boy was blaming himself for Pacha's disappearance was obvious. "So...what did you do next?"

"I went back to the ship. I mean, that's where he'd have to come back to eventually, right? I waited a whole day, and he didn't come back. That's when I called you fellas."

"You didn't alert the authorities?" Kippy asked.

Mike gave a contemptuous snort. "What authorities? Roorapynta is run by the Trichani, and it operates under galactic law. But it's also marked as an open city, and when the Trichani say open, they mean wide open. The place is posted like crazy, too. That means that you land there at your own risk." He let his eyes move among the other boys. "Almost anything goes there, short of murder. As long as you aren't killing people, or trying to sell some plundered ancient artifacts or something like that, the kind of wheeling and dealing that goes on there isn't too closely watched. The local government isn't quick to get involved in anything that happens there short of an obvious murder, because they never know if they might be stepping into some power player's big deal. The Trichani respect trade like it's art, and they're some of the toughest traders you'll ever want to meet."

Max's expression grew distasteful. "People that don't set up clear and plain rules is askin' for trouble."

Mike nodded. "It's different out here. Most planets are pretty well-run, Max. But...there are exceptions." He considered that, and then shook his head. "No, even Roorapynta is well-run. The rules are just different, and there's a lot fewer of them. But a place like that wouldn't survive without all the people that go there going along with the set up."

Mike closed his eyes then, and just looked tired, and Charlie leaned closer to him and put an arm around his shoulders. "I know you're worried. This is not your fault, Mike. I'd be more concerned about Ricky and Adrian driving off in a tank to explore some alien city than I would Pacha going off on foot."

"Yeah," Ricky put in quickly, nodding. "Especially as I don't know the first thing about driving a tank."

Adrian grinned, rolled his eyes, and then rubbed his cheek fondly against his boyfriend's shoulder. "I'm sure you would learn in a hurry."

Charlie sighed, but nodded. "I just mean, I'd have every confidence in Pacha's ability to fend for himself." He leaned a little harder against Mike's shoulder. "I would not have done anything differently than you did."

Mike pressed back against him a moment, and then pulled away a little and smiled at him. "Thanks, mate. But it won't stop me from worrying."

Kippy reached across Charlie's lap and patted the Aussie boy's arm. "We don't expect it to. We're just saying we're here now, and we're going to help find Pacha."

Max slid off the armrest and stretched. "Yeah. We'll have to go there, I guess. This Roorapynta place." He frowned, and looked around the control room. "Murcha?"

"Yes, Max?"

"You're stuffed full of offensive and defensive doodads, right?"

"I am equipped with the best weaponry and defenses that Moth technology has to offer."

The elf nodded. "Better than Pacha's ship?"

The artificial mind made a gentle sound, as if politely clearing its throat. "The Kifta technology is excellent, but they are a peaceful people, and it shows in their spacefaring sciences. I am fond of Illia and her ship, but in a fight...there would be no question that this vessel would prevail."

Mike smiled at that. "Without Pacha aboard ours, maybe."

"Um...yes. Without taking into consideration the added potential of the Ka's power-using abilities, that is."

Max nodded. "I figured that. Pacha's people can be dangerous if you work 'em up and put their back to the wall, but most times they're the nicest people you'll ever wanna meet."

Charlie also stood, and looked at the elf. "Is there a reason for that question?"

"Sure. If we're goin' there, we should take the ship with the best doodads for defense, and also be able to kick some butt if we have to." Max lifted a hand, and rubbed gently at his jaw. "It's just that this Roorapynta is over by Moth space, and there's liable to be Moth there, and we don't want them getting all curious about us when a buncha humans land in one of their ships. Might not be good for Murcha, you know?"

Kippy jumped up. "Oh! They'd think we stole this ship!"

"I am with you willingly," Murcha countered. "There is no question of theft involved."

Kippy sighed dramatically. "I know that, and you know that, but any Moth we meet won't know that. If this ship lands and we come out of it, they'll think we have you by some sort of force, since normally no one else can use one of their ships, right?"


"So what do we do?" Ricky asked. He and Adrian also got to their feet, leaving Mike the only one still seated. That boy looked up at them tiredly, but with a faint smile on his face now, as if he knew that the results of the current brainstorming session could only be good.

"I have no suggestions," Murcha admitted. "Much of this is still new to me. Subterfuge is a talent that must be exercised to become viable."

"We need to disguise you somehow," Max said, grinning around at the bulkheads. "Just the outside, for the present. The watermelon shape of this ship ain't like any of the others I've ever seen out here."

"Moth technology is somewhat distinctive in appearance," Murcha agreed.

"You mean ugly," Kippy said, not unkindly. "Not you, personally, Murcha. But this ship stands out like a big, nasty-looking bulldog in a pack of pretty poodles. It's got more junk on the outside of the hull that looks like it was designed to bite than any other ship at this port."

"The Moth believe in making their presence count, wherever they happen to be," Murcha agreed.

"We need to change that," Max said. "Make you look less, um...aggressive. And less Moth-like, too."

Kippy clasped his hands together then, looking delighted. "Oh! I love makeovers!"

Max turned to the table and waved his hand. The plates of food slid slowly to one end of the table, leaving a cleared spot on the table cloth. He waved his hand again, and a two-foot tall representation of their Moth vessel now occupied the vacant linen. "Any ideas?"

Adrian looked uncertain. "Can you actually change the way the ship looks?"

Max shrugged. "We can't physically change her hull without messin' up her doodads, but we can put stuff over the hull that will disguise the true shape of the ship." He looked around at the boys. "The better we hide her, the less chance someone will take notice."

Charlie considered that, and then frowned. "But if we make the ship look like one no one has ever seen before, won't that attract attention, too?"

The elf scratched the back of his head. "Well, maybe. That we can deal with. We just can't be a bunch of aliens no one knows, rolling around the galaxy in a stolen Moth spacer. The Moth won't like it, and anyone else that sees us will be dying to know how we did it. Better to be strangers than miracle-working thieves."

Kippy patted his chin thoughtfully. "Well, we could start by changing the color." He winked at Charlie. "Black is so uncompromising. So grim. Pink would be much nicer, don't you think?"

"Aw, geez!" Max groaned.

Ricky coughed out a laugh, his eyes going wide. "You're kidding!"

Kippy nodded. "Yeah. But we do need to change the color."

Max gave a soft sigh, and motioned for them to gather around the little mock-up of their ship. "Come on, then. Let's see what we can come up with!"

"I like it," Kippy said, delightedly, not twenty minutes later. "Now it doesn't look like a giant fungus, or a bomb of some kind."

Charlie grinned, and nodded in agreement at the small image of their ship on the table. It certainly did not resemble the Moth ship they'd been traveling in thus far. The upright, black watermelon shape, it's outer surface studded with bulges and deadly-looking protuberances of every kind, had been remade. Even though their vessel was small by Moth standards - hardly more than a scout ship, and often carried by a much larger vessel as a landing or exploratory craft - the Moth did not believe that size made a difference in purpose. All of their ships would be termed warships by any other space-going power, because all of their vessels were armed to the teeth, and quite deadly, no matter their size.

But the ship now standing on the table before them hardly looked Moth in origin. Each of the boys had let their imaginations aid them, and had worked together to make changes, and Max had simply smiled at most of the suggestions, and then waved his hand, adding them to the image. The results looked like no ship any of them had ever seen before.

The hull was now perfectly smooth, and a regal gold in color. The distinctive watermelon shape had fattened down low, until the ship looked like an egg standing on its broad end. A large, protruding ring now ran about the waist of the craft, and two thinner rings ran about the height of the vessel, ninety degrees apart, meeting at the cap and base of the egg. The result looked a little like the classical image of an atom, the rings being the orbits of the electrons in the shell, except an atom that had been gently squeezed, and slightly deformed.

The golden skin of the vessel now bore a large logo, that of the upper curve of a blue planet with a sun rising above the limb of the arc, and a line of flowing blue script beneath it in letters that the boys had made up on the spot. It actually said nothing at all, but that didn't matter to anyone, so long as any observers thought that it did. The made-up letters could not be found in any language known in any of the five empires, thus cementing the appearance of the vessel as a visitor from some unknown quarter of the galaxy.

Charlie had to smile at the utter transformation. Gone was the slightly ugly and definitely threatening-looking black Moth warship. The new vessel looked like the space-going yacht of some pampered playboy, beautiful, yet scarcely deadly.

Adrian sighed, smiling at the image. "It's cute now. But how much work will it take to make our real ship look like this?"

"It already does," Max said, matter-of-factly. "Every change we made to the miniature was made to the real ship."

Charlie gaped, astonished. ""

Max shrugged. "I used krafph." At Charlie's blank look, he laughed. "'s like solidified smoke. You put it where you want it, then make it solid."

Ricky shook his head. "Will that work? I mean...what if we have to shoot at someone? Won't it blow this crap stuff away?"

"Krafph," Max corrected, patiently. "Like I said, it's like solidified smoke. It'll stay right where it is, but anything we want to do, like shooting, will pass through it like it ain't there. It's good stuff, so don't worry."

"I don't feel any changes," Murcha said.

"You won't. There ain't nothing actually attached to you. It's like a costume that don't touch the body. So relax."

"How long will it stay that way?" Charlie asked.

Max looked thoughtful. "Forever, I guess. Or until I take it off."

"I like the change," Murcha said then, sounding happy. " I am pleasing looking now. If you don't mind, we'll leave this facade in place."

The elf grinned. "Okay by me."

Kippy sighed happily, and patted the elf's shoulder. "Love you, Max."

Charlie tried not to laugh as Max's face gently reddened. "Uh...yeah, Kip. Me, too."

Mike, who had stood by and mostly watched the proceedings, now nodded. "They sure won't recognize this ship at Roorapynta now." He turned his gaze to Charlie. "Um...if we're ready to go, I really should bring lllia over to go with us. She's as worried as I am."

Charlie nodded, and smiled at the request. In the past, the Aussie boy had butted heads aplenty with the shipmind that ran the Kifta spacer. But it looked like their shared hunt for the missing Pacha had done much to cement their relationship into a more peaceful one.

"Sure. Tell her to come on over, and we can get going."

Mike grinned, and pulled out his communicator and made the call. Illia must have been waiting for it, for in moments the ship's boarding tube lowered with a soft whirr-purr, and then the little blue globe of the Kifta shipmind was among them.

"What on Kift did you do to this ship?" she asked, first thing. "It remade itself before my very sensors."

"Only for you," Max said, smiling. "For everyone else on the ground here, we still look like a Moth scout. I'll drop that veil once we get goin', and then everybody will see the new us."

"Do you like it, Illia?" Murcha asked, sounding hopeful.

"Oh, yes. It's exotic, and doesn't look like anything in my catalog of galactic vessels. I'm envious. This makes you truly unique."

"Thank you, Illia."

"Not that you were not unique before, Murcha," Illia returned, happily. "Can I come and visit with you?"

In answer, a drawer slid out of the base of the central globe, revealing a compact storage compartment with four small, cylindrical depressions arranged in a square inside. One such depression was occupied by a shiny black cylinder with rounded ends, that fit its niche perfectly. That was Murcha. The other three compartments were all empty. But even as they watched, one compartment shivered, and then flowed into a perfectly circular depression that looked just right to accept Illia. The blue shipmind whisked over to settle into the depression, and the drawer slid closed with a soft click.

Kippy gave a little sigh, and blew Charlie a kiss. Charlie smiled, and made a show out of snatching it out of the air and holding it close to his heart. Kippy was a sucker for sweet emotion, and he could obviously hear the delight in Murcha's voice at his new appearance. Charlie could hear it, too, but it wouldn't do to make too much of a show of it. Shipminds might be able to be embarrassed, too.

"Last call for anything you wanna take along," Max said, looking at Mike. "Then we should get going."

"Our ship is locked up, and I have security in place," Illia responded. "Not that it's much needed here. No one will bother our ship, even if it sits here for a century."

Mike grinned. "Engris might pick it up and sweep under it, but that's about it."

The boys laughed, getting the joke about how clean the ancient planet stayed, even when no one ever saw anyone or anything cleaning up the place. Just more of the fabulous ancient technology of the builders of Engris, as unknowable as the mysterious domes that served as doorways to the spirits of those passed on. Engris was as clean as it was enigmatic, a not undesirable trait in the least.

Max nodded. "Murcha? You know how to get us to this Roorapynta place?"

"Yes, Max. It's a considerable distance, and will take us about three days of subjective time to reach."

"You mean wristwatch time?" Ricky asked, glancing down at his own.


"Then let's a get a move on," Max said, cheerily. "Nothing left to do here."

Kippy gave a sigh, and looked momentarily towards the retracted boarding tube. "It would have been nice to see Billy and Will."

"We can do that on the way home, if you want," Max offered. "I wouldn't mind seeing them fellas again, either."

The deck shuddered almost imperceptibly, and there was a faint rumble beneath their feet as powerful machines awoke in the spaces below them. They all found pylon seats around the center globe, and watched as the surface of Engris retreated, at first slowly, and then with a rush that was breathtaking. Soon the mysterious planet was once again lost within the vast, dark depths of the Cooee.

They were on their way.

Charlie turned to Mike. "While we're traveling, how about filling us in on everything you know about Roorapynta and the Trichani?"

"I only know so much, myself," the Aussie lad admitted. "Pach and I were only there a few hours before he disappeared."

"I can be of assistance in this area," Murcha spoke up. "I have fairly extensive intelligence files on all the galactic powers."

Kippy sighed. "More Moth spying!"

"It is a fact of life out here," Murcha agreed. "But very handy, when you have need of it." The ship mind gave out one of its slightly sinister laughs. "I can project the information in the central viewing globe, and will be happy to narrate for you."

Max nodded, and smiled at the boys. "Get comfortable, guys. We're off to school!"

The Trichani were an old people, even older than the Moth. But their history was less ordered than that of the dark ones, more tumultuous, and the Trichani had come later to space as a result. Moth technology still held an edge in quality, though the Trichani had made things just about even with quantity. Whereas the Moth were not a prolific people, the Trichani were, and their population was a hundred times that of their chief competitor. The two empires were similar in size, though the Moth were thinly spread in their space by comparison, while the Trichani filled theirs quite nicely. Yet both empires still contained enough undeveloped space to keep them happy, and neither had expanded much in recent times, even though their rear frontiers each faced unclaimed territory. There was always time for that later.

The two powers, originally quite edgy with each other after first meeting, had settled into a contented peace over time, each quite satisfied with exploiting the vast amounts of territory they'd already conquered, and so not interested in campaigns against the other at the horrific price that would entail. The Moth and the Trichani had quite extensive trade agreements, and the ships of both nations were common sights in each other's border ports of call.

Both powers also maintained adjoining borders with another of the largest galactic powers, the Braunigan, who operated similarly, but who forbade trade and interaction with the other two empires except at clearly assigned border crossings. While the Moth and the Trichani traded together eagerly and to great profit, the Braunigan were less interested in the exchange of either ideas or merchandise, and they had made it clear that, while they wanted no trouble, any ship crossing into their territory beyond the approved border ports would face instant obliteration. A network of outposts and stations in space monitored the borders from all sides, and the peace had been kept for more years than humans had had calendars to count them.

There were two more very large space powers, for a total of five in the region vying for position of top dog. The Abask and the Loturi each held empires of the same approximate size as the others, but neither of their spaces shared borders with the former Arpathant Hegemony, which space held both the planet of Kifta, and the planet Earth. While the various five great star empires were each roughly globular in shape, their bounds were small next to the great breadth of the galaxy, and it was still possible to reach the borders of Abask or Loturi space without passing through Moth or Trichani territory. One simply needed to loop upwards or downwards, out of the densely packed space of the galactic arm, to go around the intervening star empires.

But the distances were immense, and even in the Cooee, such a roundabout route would take several weeks of subjective time. Charlie looked at the representations of the five great empires laid out within the stars of the Milky Way, and was simply stunned at what he saw. Great as those empires were, huge as they seemed to the limited experiences of those from Earth, all five empires existed within just one section of one of the galaxy's spiral arms. The amount of space left over within the Milky Way was simply beyond comprehension, and all Charlie could imagine was that somewhere, beyond even the farthest borders of the known empires, other peoples and other great star imperiums must surely exist.

Each of the five large empires had smaller nations around them or between them, like the Arpathant Hegemony had abutted one part of Moth space. Again, varying degrees of cooperation were in place between them, from disinterested peace to spirited competition to barely-contained belligerence. Yet no one was at war, or, no one placed so that it could be heard about in the Kifta-Human sphere of space. But all the powers were continually jockeying for position, each trying to obtain an edge over the other, always watching, always planning, and always ready for the day when some incident might turn the carefully-maintained treaties and accords to dust.

But for the most part, the galaxy was simply too large a place to warrant warfare. For every star with habitable planets currently a part of one of the star empires, millions were yet waiting to be explored. With somewhere around two hundred billion suns, the Milky Way was scarcely short on living space.

Roorapynta and the region of space that contained it was in a unique position. Tura-Buyah, the great cloud of brown, not-quite suns, lay at a place where the border of Trichani space touched both the borders of Moth space and that of Braunigan space. Due to its position, it received empire traffic from all three powers, as well as traffic from the lesser peoples that resided within those empires, or in pocket nations abutting them. Nowhere else could such a thorough sampling of galactic life be found, nor such a powerful sampling of the cultures and wares of a multitude of peoples. Roorapynta was more than just a point of sale and trade; it was proof positive that people of every shape and culture could get along with each other quite handily if they simply had some impetus to do so. Like trade, and unfettered trade, at that.

Murcha displayed to them a likeness of a Trichani, and once again Charlie was reminded of the physical frailty of the human race. The Arpathant had been large and powerful beings, the products of a heavy-gravity planet orbiting a giant sun. The Moth were tall and spindly, with leathery skin, bat-like but barely-functional wings, and faces that would stop a truck in its tracks. And they were tough customers, physically a match for even the most powerful human beings.

Other races they had seen on Engris were equally intimidating, and size seemed to be a common factor among many alien species. Not that there were not smaller intelligences out there - Pacha was a prime example of the fact that both intelligence and impressive abilities could be dispensed in small packages. But many of the alien species they had met were larger than humans, more intimidating, and better equipped to stand their ground than were the chief citizens of little Earth.

The Trichani were no exception. At first glance, Charlie was reminded of pictures he had seen of the Kodiak brown bear, standing on its hind legs. The Trichani were furred, mostly brown in color, though some seemed to have patches of other colors among their fur. They were tall, easily topping seven feet in height, and broad and powerful looking in musculature, with enormous arms and hands, and looking quite like they'd be a match for their namesake bears without the slightest of problems.

Their faces did resemble those of Earth's ursine populations - at least on first inspection - with short muzzles and small, brown eyes that seemed to drill into anything they inspected. But upon further study it was plain that the muzzles were shorter and a little broader than any that had ever graced a terrestrial bear, and Trichani teeth, rather than being the sharpened points of a meat eater, were more like an omnivorous human's in nature.

Their ears were also taller than any bear's, more resembling the upright, attentive ears of a timber wolf, each with small, up thrust tufts of fur at the top, which waved in the breeze generated by their movements. The aliens also wore clothing, quite attractive and colorful, if also appearing somewhat functional in nature, that accented their bipedal status and removed any resemblance to the quadruped bear from the waist on down. The Trichani had thick, powerful legs, but their hips were narrower than a bear's, and they lacked the ursine pot belly displayed when bears were reared upwards, giving the aliens a sleeker, more human appearance, overall.

They moved about with a powerful grace that was appealing, and it was easy to see from the clips of them interacting with each other that they were used to cooperation, at least among their own kind.

"Wow," Kippy said softly, smiling. "Kind of sexy, for overgrown bear people, huh?"

Charlie laughed. "Leave it to you to mention that!"

Kippy grinned. "What? I love the way they move. It's very sexy, don't you think?"

Charlie had to agree, but he didn't want to get Kippy going just then.

The scene before them changed. An immense city of towers and park-like plazas appeared, spacious and comfortable-looking, even from a distance. The view rolled quickly forward, towards one of the great, tree-bordered squares - a large plaza surrounded by tall trees densely covered in blue-green foliage, which waved gracefully in a gentle morning breeze. The plaza was covered with all sorts of small stalls and stands, around which clustered a multitude of containers and strange-looking cases. Charlie was immediately reminded of the pirate market on Engris, except that this particular bazaar sat out in the bright, welcoming sunlight.

"This scene was recorded on Iverdahl, a Trichani border world," Murcha informed them. "This is just one of the many outdoor markets sponsored by this particular city. Other markets exist within great malls, or underground warehouses, or even in orbit above the planets. Each market bears an individual catalog number in the items-for-sale index, and anyone on the planet can be at any market, anywhere, in a matter of hours at the most."

"They don't have anything like our Internet back home?" Kippy asked. "That would be a lot easier than going to a market in person."

"You do not understand. For the Trichani, the art of the deal is as important as the actual purchase or sale. For them, bargaining can only be done properly in person."

The plaza thronged with Trichani, many just walking about, talking and observing. But before many of the stands and stalls, small groups of the aliens stood, face-to-face, most often with one of the containers between them. A babel of voices came to their ears, rich, powerful, and utterly indecipherable.

The view zoomed in on one such scene. Two groups of Trichani stood before one of the stalls, facing each other in half-moon formations across a large, low container of some sort. At the center of each half moon, one Trichani on each side stood closer to the container, arms up and engaged in motion. All the aliens wore belted, pistol-like weapons of some sort, and those to the rear all had their hands resting on the butts of the guns. The two Trichani facing each other across the container, on the other hand, seemed very careful to keep their hands away from the weapons they wore, using them instead to gesticulate animatedly as they talked.

Or argued might be the better term. Their voices were raised, a combination of barking growls and maybe-words, mixed in with pointed references via their large fingers to the container between them.

"What are they doing?" Ricky asked, his voice full of the fascination he was feeling. "Looks like a fight brewing."

"They are bargaining," Murcha replied. "The item between them is being sold, and this is how the trade is accomplished."

Ricky frowned in response. "It takes all those guys to buy one thing?"

"The more important the item being bargained for, the more seconds a buyer and seller have present. For daily items, most Trichani bargain one-on-one. This large case must contain something of fair value, for so many to be present in each group."

Kippy blew out a startled breath. "This is a sale? It looks more like they're getting ready to rumble."

Murcha popped out a wonderfully sinister laugh, which somehow seemed quite in keeping with the scene they were observing. The two Trichani in the center of each group had leaned forward by then, each of them placing their hands palm-down on the top of the container, and seemed to be trying to out-yell each other across its polished surface.

"They are close to a deal," Murcha countered. "Once both parties feel safe in touching the item of contention, that indicates that each is pleased with the way the bargaining is proceeding."

Adrian shook his head. "Man, that's weird."

Charlie had to agree. It looked more like the two aliens were about to come to blows. But those standing behind each bargainer seemed unconcerned about the possibility of violence, having gone in the blink of an eye from extreme alertness to an almost casual disinterest in the proceedings. A few of them even looked bored at this point, their eyes moving about the plaza now as if looking for something of more interest to focus upon. A couple had even pulled their hands off the butts of their weapons, looping their thumbs idly in their belts instead - a strangely human gesture that made Charlie smile.

Suddenly, the two bargainers went silent. Each straightened, and extended a hand across the container between them. They grasped hands, shook somewhat violently, and then one slapped the other's hand away. The slapped one looked strangely pleased, turned to the others behind him, and patted the top of the container in what could only be described as contentment. The other Trichani turned to his own people, made gentle herding motions with his hands, and the entire group simply spun about and walked away.

"The sale is made," Murcha said then, with another faint laugh. "From my past observations, I would say that both seller and purchaser were quite happy with the deal."

Kippy scratched his neck, and shook his head. "The way that one guy slapped the other's hand, I thought something had gone bad at the last moment."

"No. He was simply feigning disgust, and telling the buyer that he had robbed him."

Charlie's eyebrows jacked up. "Did he?"

"I rather doubt it. If you noted the seller's hand motions when he turned, urging his fellows away, that indicates a desire to be gone before the buyer has time to question the validity of the bargain."

Ricky laughed. "So who came out on top?"

"It was likely a fairly even exchange. The Trichani excel at getting the best of both ends of any deal, so it seems likely that each was pleased with what he received, while also pleased in taking the best deal from the other."

Charlie smiled. "I've watched my dad bargain over a new car. This looked a little bit like that, although my dad only occasionally looks like he wants to clobber the car salesman."

Kippy laughed. "So the seller felt the buyer was a sucker, and the buyer felt the seller was a pushover?"

"Exactly," the ship mind agreed. "Trichani negotiations seldom break down, because they have a way of arriving at a deal that is fair to both parties, while each feels he or she has outmaneuvered the other."

"I like it," Ricky said, nodding approvingly. "I wonder if any of these guys would be interested in running for office back on Earth?"

The boys laughed, even as the scene in the viewing globe changed once again. Now they were obviously at a spaceport, where a vessel of some kind towered above them. The view shifted, pulled back, and the entire ship came into view. Charlie just stared as the size of the thing really became apparent.

It was impressive looking, and unlike any of the ships that they had seen up until now. The great, gray hull was smooth and mostly featureless, a fat cylinder that gently tapered as it climbed into the sky. But rather than arrive at a point up high, the cylinder was suddenly truncated near the top, with a blunt, flat nose reminiscent of the business end of some pistol cartridges Charlie had seen.

It didn't look like a warship, but it certainly didn't look like a freighter, either. There was a sturdy, businesslike quality to the vessel, and the size of the thing suggested that power was simply not a problem for those at the controls. If the technology of the Trichani was even only slightly inferior to that of the Moth, the vessel must pack a punch that was frightening to consider.

"This is a Trichani trader," Murcha explained. "Like the vessels of most starfaring races, they come in a variety of sizes. This is one of their larger vessels."

"I'd say so," Charlie agreed, finding his voice. "That thing must be five hundred feet tall."

"Almost twice that," Murcha revealed. "And there are some Trichani vessels even larger."

Kippy whistled in wonder. "Wow! Are they like the Arpies, building ships a mile long?"

"The Trichani have no need of quite that much size. This vessel is more powerful than the largest Arpathant vessel, at one fifth the size. The power systems of the top galactic powers do not need continual upscaling in dimension and adding to in number to soon reach a fairly ridiculous output figure, unlike the less sophisticated power systems employed by the Arpathant."

Charlie considered the rather compact size of their own vessel, which Murcha had assured them was the equal of any mile-long Arpie wedge battlecruiser. "Then why the size, if they don't need it for more power?"

"Purely a matter of economics. The Trichani are traders, and the more wares they can transport, the higher the profit margin for each voyage. Most of the size you see in this vessel is simple transport space. Remove that capacity, and it would be scarcely larger than our own vessel."

Charlie gave a low whistle, imagining thousands of ships like this one, each carrying cargo to planets of the Trichani realm, and beyond. The trade these people - and all the people of the five great empires - must enjoy was simply beyond comprehension. He shook his head, considering what it would be like to walk over to the mall near his home and browse in the stores there, among an amazing variety of items that had been designed and manufactured uncounted light years away.

"It's kind of awesome, really," he found himself saying.

"An important fact to consider is that the Trichani mindset is different from that of the Moth," Murcha continued. "A Moth, seeing a human landing at one of their ports for the first time, would be suspicious and quite demanding, viewing you as a potential danger until he was certain that you were not. The Trichani will certainly view us with curiosity at Roorapynta, but their view of us will be as a potential source for new wares, or as a potential customer for their own. Landing at Roorapynta should not be dangerous for our party, so long as we are careful to respect what rules there are in place there."

Max nodded. "Now that we don't look like a Moth ship anymore, there should be no problem landing there."

"There is one difficulty," the ship mind returned. "As a Moth vessel, we broadcast a standard recognition signal, designed to inform other vessels and port stations of our identity. I have disabled this signal since our appearance was changed. Normally, in porting at Roorapynta, this code would pave the way for us to land quickly and easily. Without any sort of recognition signal being broadcast, we will be viewed as an unknown vessel, and strictly queried before being allowed to land.":

Max frowned at that. "Hmm. Well, how about we broadcast a signal, just not a Moth signal?"

"Well...such misrepresentation is of course strictly illegal under galactic law."

The elf laughed. "And?"

"Oh. I see. Um...perhaps you can be creative and make something up? The ship as it looks now will fail recognition scans, anyway, and we will be viewed as a complete newcomer. So we will need some sort of story to tell the port authorities."

Max nodded. "Make up a new recognition thingie, and just have it say we're from some planet way off someplace. The farther from Trichani space, the better." He grinned. "The other side of the galaxy, for instance."

"Oh," Charlie said, suddenly thinking of another possibility. He turned to Max. "What about this new skin the ship has? You said our weapons and things will pass right through it? What about scans from other ships or the port? Will they be able to see the Moth ship underneath?"

"Nah. Krafph is only transparent from the inside, and even then, only if I want it to be. From outside, we will look like a different ship no matter what sort of gizmo they use to look us over."

Charlie breathed a sigh of relief, and smiled. "So it's just a matter of disguising our origin, huh?"

Kippy clapped his hands together in delight. "Who shall we be? Businessmen seeking a deal? Explorers from the great beyond?" He laughed. "Ooh, how about entertainers?" He wiggled his hips suggestively. "We could dance for them!"

Charlie grinned, envisioning Kippy's extreme ability to move about with both amazing grace and unbridled eroticism.

Max's eyes widened, and then rolled skyward. "Aw, geez. Not that!"

Kippy's smile was devilish. "Can't dance, Max?"

The elf looked mildly affronted. "I can hold my own with the missus, okay, but that flexing and gyrating stuff you do''s..."

"Indecent?" Adrian asked, airily, giving his own hips a couple of pleasant turns. If anyone aboard the ship could keep up with Kippy on the dance floor, it was Adrian.

Max's face reddened. "I didn't say that! But I'd be willing to bet some of these galactic folks would think so, if they saw it!"

Ricky and Adrian burst out laughing, and Charlie grinned and patted Max on the shoulder. "Kip's kidding you. I think!"

Mike shook his head, smiling. "Much as I'd love to see you in action, Kip, they aren't really looking for entertainment on Roorapynta. Better to be some kind of buyers, or traders, checking out potential deals, or somethin' of that sort. That way we don't need any wares, and we really won't be expected to buy anything if we're just scoping out the place. And the Trichani will be very accommodating, if they feel like we might represent a new market for them."

Ricky nodded. "Kind of like trade ambassadors, or something? I like that idea."

"Me, too," Adrian agreed. "That way we can look at everything and go everywhere, and no one will wonder what we're up to."

Max shrugged, looking relieved at the change of direction. "I'll leave that to you fellas. You guys got more imagination than I do."

Ricky frowned. "Hey, wait. Have any of these Galactics seen a human before? We were in the Arpie's records, remember? We don't want these guys taking a picture of us, or something, and tracing us back home."

Mike gave a quick nod of his head. "Might be a good idea to disguise ourselves, just a bit."

Charlie laughed at that notion, but nodded. "This might be fun. Maybe we can invent some new clothing to go along with the disguise?"

Kippy grinned. "Ooh! I've always wanted to wear a cloak!" He turned and looked over his shoulder, and moved as if swishing an imaginary cape of some sort behind him.

"I can quickly create anything you imagine," Murcha assured them.

Kippy's grin expanded. "Good. Because I can imagine quite a lot!"

Kontus, third son of the house of Rowf, sat at the overseer's console in the port's main administration center, and stared outwards through the great transparent wall at the starport pavement below. A sea of starships stretched in every direction for as far as the eye could see, parked together in orderly ranks upon the immense stretch of seamless pavement that serviced Derryabah, the great sprawling trade city that covered a quarter of the surface of the artificial discworld of Roorapynta. The administration center floated above the massed ships, moving about on its manipulated gravity drive to wherever it happened to be needed at the moment. In this way, Kontus could supervise both the comings and goings of the many vessels that visited the port, as well as the vast army of automated equipment that handled the cargo needs for all of them.

Not that much supervision was required, actually. The automation technology was excellent, and most of the visitors to Derryabah never interacted with administration at all. They arrived and landed with their identities clearly revealed by their coded IFF signals, the routes they had taken to reach Roorapynta plainly listed, as well as their ultimate destinations after leaving. Cargo offloading and onloading was handled automatically by subsystems as part of the vast, intelligent database that knew everything about everyone and everything located on the surface of the artificial world. Nothing could happen upon Roorapynta that was not quietly documented by some element of the system.

There was only one customs and entry official on duty for the entire port, and Kontus 3Rowf was he at the moment. The vast responsibility of what he technically oversaw was lost on him, however, because in the entire seven years he had been performing this back up function, he had only had to intervene three times. Each instance had been over incorrect data from a planeted ship, that had stated that this or that much room for cargo was available, when in actuality it was considerably less. Nothing harder to do than to fit two hundred square volares of Mookin Platiff into one-hundred and sixty-nine square volares of available space. Such gaffs were very rare, but when they did occur they needed to be addressed by a person, who could make decisions not dictated solely by machine management parameters.

So mostly, Kontus had little do on his shifts but float about the vast starport and watch the many interesting things going on. And there was always something interesting going on.

A constant stream of vehicles moved among the grounded ships as visitors and cargos came and went from the many vessels. The ships themselves ranged from small in size to veritable giants, and displayed the design ethics of a hundred different races. Some ships were quite appealing to the eye, while others were functional and basic - competent-looking, but scarcely beautiful. And still another group, the smallest, ranged from the slightly bizarre to the outright grotesque. Ugly.

But it was not part of the job for Kontus to pass judgement on the aesthetics of the vessels that ported at Derryabah. He was interested in the unusual designs, however, and the truly ugly ones made for wonderful - and perhaps slightly embellished - tales to share with his brothers when they all met at the inn on Jarafis Way in the evenings to share a glass of zith together. Kontus's brothers were also government officials, Jabrist in the mech section that oversaw city maintenance, and Orfrid a member of the city guard. Orfrid had, by far, the most interesting stories to tell, as the city police were always in the thick of the city's goings on, observing mostly, but required to act upon the rare occasions when the normally refined diplomacy between species broke down.

Yet none of them had what could be termed fascinating or dangerous lives. Roorapynta, for all its openness, was well-regulated under the skin, and it showed in the smoothness of day-to-day operations. Kontus was nearing the end of his shift, and had resigned himself to having no real stories to tell that evening. Another basically boring day at the port, one in a string of many of late.

And then an indicator lit on the panel before him, and a tiny warning chimed for his attention.

Kontus waved a large hand at it. "Speak."

"Identification services have failed for an approaching vessel. The offered code does not match any on record."

The big Trichani stared at the panel for a moment in surprise, and then turned his seat to face a large, curved gray display beside him. "Show me."

That display blinked, and several panes opened inside, each offering data on the arriving starship. Approximate mass, dimensions, composition, emitted power signature, and observable offensive and defensive capabilities. Kontus absorbed them in a moment, and then looked at the information stream being sent from the vessel's transponder. It was in standard code, and readily readable:

Vessel name: Lollipop

Port of origin: Bronx Zoo, Bronx, New York.

Location of port of origin: Kontus gasped at this information, as the coordinates worked out to a location over seventeen thousand light years away towards galactic center!

Could the coordinates be false? But even as he wondered that, the database of ship designs for all known races in the five empires indicated that the incoming vessel matched no known pattern. That in itself was not telling, as custom designs were certainly not unheard of, especially among the wealthier races. But all such variants were still required to be listed by law, as absolute identification of any vessel could mean the difference between a cordial welcome and a warning shot fired across the bow. The incoming vessel matched no entry in the database, which held upwards of a hundred thousand different designs.

Kontus examined the image of the incoming craft with a practiced eye. The likeness of the vessel that now appeared on the screen, taken from several angles by stealthy watch satellites stationed in outlying orbits, was vivid and clear. Had there been anything at all menacing in the vessel's appearance - weapons obviously activated and ready for use, say - he would have acted immediately to initiate interception procedures by stealthed interdictor craft already in place. There were certain protocols one needed to follow to guarantee the safety of Roorapynta and all those attending the discworld's facilities.

But there were also other protocols of a different nature - diplomatic protocols - that dictated his actions in the event of a first contact with a possible new addition to the world's trade base. Such meetings were not unheard of, though they were rare, and there had not been a new contact in Kontus's memory. A small thrill of excitement coursed through the Trichani as he considered the luck that it might be happening to him, on his shift. Here was a grand story to tell his brothers this night, should it turn out to be true!

His eyes roved over the image of the incoming craft one last time, and his muzzle twisted up in a Trichani smile. Here was a craft that looked about as warlike as a crib full of cubs taking a nap. The course of action was clear. Appearances could be deceiving, but with no blatant intent to take a shot at the discworld apparent in the approach of the craft, he could at least employ civility in his contact with them.

The language broadcast by the vessel's transponder was Trichani standard, but the words sounded exotic, to say the least. BronxZoo? It had the flavor of a magnificent city, indeed. And if these aliens used the standard naming convention, Bronx would be the name of the world they had come from. Then NewYork was certainly the name of their empire. Quite majestic sounding, certainly!

Kontus gave a growling laugh of approval then. Even the name of the vessel sounded exotic and alien. Lollipop!

The power signature of the incoming vessel was substantial for its size, suggesting a science at least on a par with the Trichani's own. There was no sign of weapons of any sort on the hull, but weapons could be hidden. The vessel did not look dangerous, and it was still a long way out just yet. them first, ask them to halt while some sort of verification was made, and then send the interdictor craft if they failed to comply...

And then the logo on the alien hull came into view. Kontus zoomed in on it, and the planetary database quickly compared the symbols he could plainly observe there to all known languages in all known alphabets, and...

No match.

Kontus was elated. A possible first contact!

He waved a finger at a control, and cleared his throat before speaking. "Vessel Lollipop, this is Roorapynta control. We are unable to identify you by your transponder signature. Please halt your vessel pending further action. Acknowledge, please."

The incoming vessel immediately slowed its pace, and soon came to a halt. The quickness of the response suggested a powerful drive and excellent control of both gravity and inertia. This definitely bespoke of a level of technology worth knowing!

The screen to Kontus's left blinked, and an image appeared there. Kontus stared, even as the imaging system quickly compared the likeness of the alien presented there to all known species residing within the five empires. The words no match popped up immediately, causing Kontus to take a deep breath.

The alien spoke then, in a language totally unfamiliar to Kontus, but which was apparently translated into Trichani by their vessel's com. "Greetings. I am called CharlieBoone. So this place is known as Roorapynta?"

Kontus stared for just a moment, impressed with the alien's sedate composure, before his innate authority reflex in such matters took hold. "Uh...yes. I am Kontus, Port Authority for the discworld of Roorapynta, a Trichani holding subject to the laws of empire. You have business with this place?"

The alien's head titled forward briefly, and Kontus immediately recognized it as a gesture of assent, much similar to the Trichani gesture of affirmation. In fact, the alien was obviously similarly constructed to the Trichani, in that its torso had two arms with five-digit hands at the ends, and one head atop its shoulders. Two eyes and one mouth, though the alien's muzzle was just a tiny thing, and the small mouth not a part of it at all, but instead showing beneath it.

This alien was furless except for a mop of blue atop its head. Its skin was a startling shade of green, and the alien had what were surely horns of some type sprouting from each side of his forehead, from the base of the blue fur there. A tall collar a vibrant red in color reared up behind the alien's head, part of an outfit of some kind, surely. The clash of colors between collar, skin, and fur was considerable, and Kontus, while no master of good taste himself, fought hard not to smile at the combination. Outlandish!

Kontus was acquainted with the likenesses of many races, for he saw them daily in his occupation as port master. But he had never seen the like of these people before!

"Sure, we can probably do business," the one onscreen said. "I've already sent a message back to my father, told him where we are, and informed him that there are new people here." The alien offered up what was surely a smile. "Imagine that!"

"What has your sire to do with this?" Kontus asked.

"Oh, he's chief minister of trade back in the empire. Works for the Lord High Muckety Muck, himself." Again, the strange smile was offered. "I'm sure he'll be interested in all this."

The titular term did not translate, but Kontus got a sense of a personage of some importance.

"I see. May I ask what your people are called?"

The one onscreen tilted its head forward once more. "We are called Mericans. We were just cruising about, and found your beacon. We're kind of a long way from home, so we thought we'd stop in for some R and R."

Kontus nodded, and looked again at the coordinates for the strange vessel's point of origin. "It seems you are a long way from home, indeed. These coordinates are correct?"

"Sure. We just felt like a ride out to the boondocks, and here we are." The alien looked about as if somehow examining stars, and smiled again. "Kind of barren out this way. We were surprised to find so many people."

Kontus offered a smile of his own. "You understand that we have to take precautions where unknown vessels are concerned, do you not?"

"Oh, sure. We'd be the same. What would you like us to do?"

Kontus waved a finger at another control, and a connection was made with the security division of the governor's palace. Another screen popped up out of sight of the one holding the alien, and Groff 2Corgrowl, chief of security, looked out at them. The man quickly surveyed the input feed from the port console, and Kontus almost smiled at the way the chief of security's eyes widened at what he saw. But the man recovered immediately, waved a finger at something out of Kontus's sight, and then nodded.

"Looks like you've got a live one, Kontus."

The audio output to the alien vessel was automatically muted when internal communications were in progress. "They would appear to be from a civilization quite some distance away," Kontus replied.

"Maybe. Ask them if they'll accept a close inspection. Send one of the recon satellites to look them over, and ask if they'll allow a drone inspector to come aboard."

"Sure," CharlieBoone agreed, when the request was relayed. "We'll just sit here and wait on that."

Kontus gave the order, and one of the stealth observers in the security halo about Roorapynta made itself visible, left orbit, and sped towards the alien spacer.

Roorapynta executed a complex orbit between two of the brown dwarves making up the bulk of the Tura-Buyah. The space was dark, and the discworld artificially lit by its own tiny artificial sun, which was held stationary above the disc some half-million miles away. Kontus could see the small orb of the little star, brighter than all the stars beyond it, in the video feed from the stealth observer as it sped towards the alien vessel. Roorapynta itself gleamed like a tiny jewel, basking in the rays of the artificial sun, and Kontus gave a little sigh of contentment at the sight. This was the only home he had ever known.

The alien ship grew in size, and the stealth observer slowed and went into a close orbit around it, probing with its every sensor at the hull and what might lie within it. Kontus watched his display, expecting figures to start popping up, and so quickly grew alarmed when none did.

"Are you seeing this, Groff? It appears this vessel is completely without weapons or defenses of any kind."

The man on the display tilted his head to one side, the Trichani equivalent of a shake of the head in a human. "I find that very hard to believe."

"Agreed. Yet...nothing. Either they are not armed, or their scat screens are so good that we cannot penetrate them." Kontus waved again at the control for com to the alien vessel. "CharlieBoone? It appears we cannot scan your vessel. Will you agree to lower your defenses so that we can?"

The alien appeared again, looking less sedate now. "I don't know anything about that, Kontus. Whatever we have should be visible to you."

Kontus tilted his head to the side. "Your vessel is unarmed?"

CharlieBoone's head made the forward motion again. "Of course. Who has need of weapons?"

Who, indeed?

"Just about everyone," Kontus countered, suddenly wary. "Will you allow an inspection drone to board your vessel?"

He was expecting a refusal, and so was surprised when the other made the head-motion of affirmation. "Sure. I'll open up for you."

A section of the alien hull suddenly darkened, and a hole was visible, a soft light emanating from within. Kontus let his eyes go back to the scanner readouts - still nothing as to weaponry or defenses. He squinted in disbelief, but sent the signal for the drone to detach from the observer and make its way to the open entry. That tiny artificial intelligence did just that, entering the alien vessel and proceeding down a short, softly lit hallway, and into what appeared to be the main operations center of the alien craft.

Kontus stared then, not sure then that his eyes were not deceiving them.

The room was draped in soft golden curtains, which covered the bulkheads everywhere. Two long, low padded seating arrangements stood in the exact center of the room, upon which sat six of the aliens. All of them looked the same, with blue fur atop their heads, green skin, and horns growing from the sides of their foreheads. All were clothed in fine-looking raiment of outrageous colors, bright and clashing, yet that somehow managed to avoid the term garish simply because they were obviously so finely-made.

The room held nothing else at all - no control center, no other seats - nothing. One wall was uncovered, and depicted on it was a view of Roorapynta, as if viewed from close approach. That it was a live view was obvious from the amount of movement they could see below them.

The drone, now inside the ship, and presumably inside any kind of scat screen, immediately ran a full-spectrum scan...and returned no evidence of weapons or defenses of any kind.

"I still do not believe it," Groff said, from the other screen. "But they could not hide weapons systems from an inside scan, could they?"

Kontus squinted, thinking. "We could not, on one of our vessels. That does not mean that they cannot."

Groff made a disbelieving sound. "What sort of people go cruising about the galaxy with no defenses?"

Kontus considered that. "People who have no worries...or people who have other means of defense."

One of the aliens stood, and Kontus could see now that the visitors were also bipedal, just like the Trichani. This alien approached the drone, and gave a brief bow. "Greetings. I am CharlieBoone. Is that you, Kontus?"

The port master reactivated audio to the alien ship, and grunted. "Yes. It appears that you are, indeed, without weapons or defenses."

The alien gave a small smile. "Kontus, no one at our level is without defenses. This vessel can defend itself. Just...not like you are supposing. But as long as no one bothers us, we will not offer any trouble in return. You have my word on this."

Kontus looked over at the security chief on the other screen, found the audio muted while the other was busy speaking on another channel. He waited patiently a moment, until Groff came back to him. "The governor says to allow them to land. She is sending a delegation to meet them at the port."

Kontus felt a sense of alarm at this pronouncement. "Is this wise? We have what looks like aliens of superior ability here. Their technology is obviously able to hide from ours. Who knows what they'll do once they are on the ground?"

Groff looked like he was no happier. "The governor reasons that if they have superior abilities and intended us harm, they need not have approached us openly and asked to visit. She feels that more can be gained by talking to these people, than by turning them away." He gently waved a hand. " Trade, brother."

Kontus sighed, nodding. "Trade, brother. I will withdraw the drone and tell them they can land."

The one called CharlieBoone seemed pleased at the announcement. "Thank you, Kontus. Will we ever meet in person?"

The Trichani felt an unaccountable glow at the idea. "Perhaps. My shift ends soon. I may happen to be near your berth when your ship arrives."

The alien bowed. "Then, until we meet in person."

Kontus withdrew the drone, and let it watch as the alien ship closed up, leaped into motion, and was quickly gone on its way to Roorapynta.

"You were awesome, Charlie!" Kippy said, rubbing affectionately against his boyfriend "You handled that big bear guy like he was a little hamster!" He leaned forward carefully, mindful of their antlers, and deposited a kiss on Charlie's lips. His green lips. "My big, brave, four-point buck!"

Charlie grinned, and reached up to feel one of the deer antlers sprouting from the side of his head. They were small, a yearling's at most, with just two-points on each side. On a human they still looked formidable, and were somehow very sexy, to boot. That Max had somehow attached them directly to their skulls gave them a solidity that was amazing, too.

"The rule with disguises is, nothing that can be knocked off, fall off, or wash off," the elf had said. "So if you guys really want us to have these antlers, they gotta be solidly attached, okay?"

And they were. The boys had playfully poked each other with the antlers after Max had installed them, and found out that that were not to be trifled with. This was just the beginning of their disguise, and the ideas came so fast after that that Max had to put his foot down. "One at a time!"

Kippy had laughingly suggested they be little green men, and the idea had been met with enough glee to ensure its acceptance. Adrian had suggested the blue hair, after his grandmother, whose trips to the salon for a tint and a perm were never completely successful. The clashing color combinations for their clothing were Ricky's idea, who said that aliens in the movies were always dressed better than the humans, and maybe for once we could show a really alien idea of color appreciation.

Kippy and Adrian had mostly designed the outfits, stealing boldly from The Three Musketeers, and they had all wound up in ornamented tabards with high collars and cloaks, matching pants tucked into knee-high black boots with turned-down leather cuffs, and frilly white shirts beneath the tabards, which manifested themselves mostly at the top of the chest and at the cuffs of the tabard. All they needed were swords and floppy hats, and they'd have been welcome in the court of Louis XIV.

Well, maybe. The colors they'd picked at Ricky's suggestion were what Charlie's mom might have termed psychedelic; bright, almost glowing, and guaranteed to clash with one another. Hard on the eyes, to say the least. They'd laughed like crazy about it at first, imagining the reaction they would get from any sane being with working eyes and even a small sense of aesthetic right and wrong. The six of them standing together looked like the shelf at the supermarket where the flavors of Kool-Aid were sold.

Ricky had belted on his vibratory dagger, and it looked so good with his get up that Max was made to supply them each with one. Of course, the elf's versions were the genuine article, double-edged steel blades with a wicked point, and they had immediately decided to keep them in the scabbards unless really needed, as they were much more dangerous than Rick's high-tech piece, which, while it would easily cut through a foot of steel, would only do so if Ricky intended it to happen.

Murcha had offered to create their new clothing, but it was just faster for Max to whip it up, which he did with more than mixed feelings about the selection. "Geez, I hope the missus never sees me in this dandy outfit," he'd complained, as they had all undressed to change into the new uniforms. "It's so orange!"

"She might like it," Kippy suggested, laughing. "They're actually kind of cool looking."

"Maybe where you come from, but not at the North Pole," Max had countered. "Geez!"

So now, after successfully receiving permission to land, they sat back on the sofas and watched as Roorapynta grew larger in the big screen that Murcha had supplied. The control globe and it's pylon seats had been retracted into the deck, leaving pretty much an empty room, which they had just dressed up with a few curtains. They'd grown used to the pylon seats now, and watching things in the center globe, and the change in viewing felt to Charlie like they were sitting in one of those small mall mini movie theaters, waiting for Anakin Skywalker to come onscreen.

Only this was real!

"I am amazed that you were able to screen my weapons systems so thoroughly, Max," Murcha said. "Not to mention the gear stowed away in our many compartments."

The elf shrugged. "I just covered everything with a layer of nothingness. All them fancy doodad detectors of theirs need to react with something in order to measure it, right? Can't react with nothing, now can you?"

Ricky held up the sleeve of his tabard, and grimaced at the intense lime coloring. "You know, it was funny to dress like we were color first. But I think I'm getting tired of it."

Kippy and Adrian both closed their eyes and groaned.

"Oh, thank you!" Adrian said, turning to his boyfriend and hugging his arm. "I hate us looking like a box of crayons. Can we fix it?"

"Why didn't you say so before?" Ricky asked, looking hurt.

Adrian sighed. "Silly. Because it was your idea, and you liked it. So I liked it, too."

Ricky pouted a moment, thought about what his boyfriend had said, then smiled. "I just love you."

"I know. Me, too."

Kippy turned to Max. "How about changing the colors of these costumes, and make them all the same? Like a royal blue with white trim, or something like that? You know - pretty?"

Max's eyes lit up, and Charlie smiled at the elf's patience with them.

"What about that star gimmick on the front?" Max asked. "Even if you make the colors nice, that thing looks like the headlight of a freight train."

The original musketeer tabards had born crosses on the chests, but the boys had felt that a star emblem was more in keeping with their current quest. The current incarnations were large and gaudy, a rainbow of colors, and quite an assault on the eyes.

"They need to be smaller," Kippy said immediately. "And maybe move them from the center to the left breast?"

"And all one color," Adrian followed with.

"Make them gold, and respectable looking," Charlie said, sighing. He reached across Adrian and patted Ricky's arm. "Thanks, bud."

Ricky just sat back and sighed, until Adrian snuggled against him some more. And then he smiled, and looked appeased.

Max made the changes, and Kippy immediately jumped to his feet. "Make me a full-length mirror, Max?"

The elf sighed, but produced the requested item, and Kippy stood and turned carefully before it and examined himself. "Hey! I look hot!"

Adrian and Ricky grinned, and Charlie tossed his head back and laughed. "I've been telling you that for a few years now!"

Kippy's eyes sparkled at Charlie in the mirror. "Well, now I agree with you." He turned, and walked slowly back and forth between the sofas. "Mmm! Everybody looks hot. You, too, Max."

The elf nodded. "Why not?" He stood and approached the mirror, examined himself critically, turned this way and that, and then slowly grinned. "Hey. It is sorta swashbuckly, ain't it? I mean, now that we don't look like a halfa dozen paint cans exploded."

The boys laughed, and Max turned and bowed to them.

Mike sighed, looking about. "Everyone's gorgeous. I just hope it helps us find Pacha."

Kippy turned to look at him, sighed, and went around behind the sofa where Mike was sitting. He bent down, and carefully put his arms around Mike's shoulders, and laid his cheek against the side of Mike's head. "I'm sorry, Mikey. Here we are getting all flippy about our costumes, and you're sitting here worried about Pacha. We'll find him, I promise you. My skwish tells me so."

Mike turned quickly, looking into Kippy's eyes as he pulled away. "Really? You gotta skwish feel about this?"

Kippy closed his eyes, and nodded, "Yes. We'll find him."

Mike squeezed his eyes closed, and nodded. "He's all I have right now. You know? He's my best friend."

Kippy smiled, and patted Mike's hair, mindful not to snag a point on the antler nearby. "That's because we still haven't found you a boyfriend yet."

Charlie smiled, and Ricky sighed and leaned closer to Adrian. "That would help you, no doubt about it," Rick said.

Mike opened his eyes and smiled at Kippy. "Maybe. I still remember that cute bloke from Queensland. I wish now I hadn't been too scared to take him up on that offer, back when." But then he frowned. "Nah. Wasn't meant to be. If I'd hooked up with him, I probably wouldn't have met Pacha, and not you guys, either."

"We're glad that didn't happen! "Adrian said. "We'd miss you if we never met you!"

Ricky laughed, and shook his head, but didn't say anything about the twisted logic of his boyfriend's statement.

"Maybe someday, I'll get another chance." Mike patted Kippy's arm. "You might become available someday, Kipper."

"Hey!" Charlie said, sitting forward. "That's not gonna happen!"

But then he saw the twinkle in the Aussie boy's eyes, and nodded. "Troublemaker. Kippy's happy right where he is." Charlie's eyes went to touch his boyfriend's. "Right?"

Kippy laughed, patted Mike a last time on top of the head, and went around the sofa and stood before Charlie. "Do you really need to ask that question?"

Charlie gave a little sigh, pulled Kippy close, and shook his head. "No."

Max cleared his throat then, and pointed at the large display screen. "Looks like we're gettin' close."

Kippy squeezed back onto the sofa between Rick and Charlie, took Charlie's hand, and patted it affectionately. "Let's go kick some butt."

A different Trichani than Kontus contacted them as they arrived above the port, and sent the data they needed to find the landing slot assigned to the Lollipop. Charlie smiled every time the Trichani mentioned the name of their ship, the alien's tongue seeming to insist on adding a vowel or two each time he said it. Looly-poop.

Murcha spoke fluent Trichani, and had been giving them translations of the conversations. But everyone was able to follow the conversation on their own once they'd stuffed the tiny blobs in their ears that were the Moth translators and communicators. They blended in with the skin, and became quite invisible.

The Lollipop dropped until the port resolved into a sea of individual ships - enough to make them gasp at the numbers and sheer variety - and then the ship floated sideways across the field for what seemed like miles until an open slot turned up between a large, boxy affair resembling a moldy tomato crate, and a short, stubby vessel that immediately reminded Charlie of an old tugboat. Not exactly the glamorous part of the port, it seemed.

Murcha eased them down, and the engines beneath their feet went silent. Charlie looked again at their neighboring ships, and tried not to smile. Looks could be deceiving, he already knew, and that they had been berthed between a pair of real oddballs could not be taken personally. For all they knew, these ships belonged to wealthy and influential members of the Trichani realm.


Ricky laughed at the idea when Charlie mentioned it offhandedly. "Yeah, you can't fool me. They put us between a garbage scow and a pizza delivery van, so that if our ship starts shooting, none of the luxury yachts will get hit."

A large, rounded, open vehicle floated down the aisle between ships towards them, and stopped below their own vessel. Three Trichani were aboard. The large aliens climbed out of the vehicle with a lithe grace, and stood looking up at the ship.

"Company's here," Kippy said, jumping to his feet. "Let's go!"

Max had altered the look of the boarding tube, so that the one that extruded from the hull now and touched the ground before the three Trichani would not be recognized as being of Moth manufacture. Max and Mike insisted on going first, and Charlie and Kippy followed, while Rick and Adrian came last. The six were deposited on the pavement, and the boarding tube retracted and disappeared.

The three Trichani seemed surprised by their appearance. Charlie imagined they'd all seen the recordings made earlier, and the flamboyantly colored outfits they'd been wearing before. The uniform, and even regal appearance they offered now, was quite a change. The three Trichani's eyes appraised them, and Charlie was pleased to see the new note of respect he saw there.

One of the aliens stepped forward and gave his head a shallow bow. "Greetings. I am Athlar 1Tweegrowl, secretary to Marrus 4Roughfur, Minister of Trade for Roorapynta. If I may, I will introduce the minister now?"

Charlie took a step forward, smiling. "I am CharlieBoone, Knight of the Realm of Bronx, central world of the Empire of New York." He turned and swept a hand at the others. "These are my compatriots, also knights in good standing, come to join with me to greet you. We are on a quest, and delighted to have found your fascinating world."

Athlar looked briefly puzzled, but then turned and indicated another Trichani. "Then may I present Marrus 4Roughfur, Minister of Trade for Roorapynta?"

That Trichani stepped forward and also offered a brief bow. "It is my pleasure to meet your group. Can I assume you have some authority to enter into agreements between your people and mine?"

"Certainly not," Charlie said, pleasantly. "We are knights, not bureaucrats. But I am empowered to speak for my father, DanielBoone, who is Minster of Trade for the empire, and all its fourteen thousand worlds."

The three Trichani's eyes widened, and Charlie heard a faint snort from one of the guys behind him. He did his best not to smile too broadly. He just wanted these aliens to let them walk about and look the place over, offering them the faint hope that some sort of trade with a very large empire might come of it all. He didn't want to promise anything he couldn't deliver, nor make enemies of these rather magnificent bear-like people. He'd already come to like them - at least a lot more than he liked the Moth, or the Arpathant, the last two alien powers he had met.

Marrus recovered quickly, and nodded. "Fourteen thousand worlds is rather a large realm."

Charlie nodded. "There were more once, but we sold them to the Canadians."

Again the three Trichani looked uncertain. "Canadians?" Athlar asked.

Charlie waved a hand dismissively. "A neighboring empire, somewhat smaller. Very nice people, actually. There was some dispute over two hundred systems along our borders, and rather than become belligerent about it, we simply sold them to them. Now, everyone is happy."

The sale of two hundred stars and their accompanying planets seemed an unheard of idea to the three Trichani. The aliens looked at each other, and it was again Marrus who recovered first. "Ah...if you are not empowered to trade, what brings you to us?"

"A quest, as I said." Charlie smiled. They'd rehearsed their story, and laughed about it, but Charlie had not realized how hard it would be to deliver it to the aliens while keeping a straight face until now. "We are looking for the golden baseball."

"It was taken," Kippy added then, doing his best to look angry.

"We mean to have it back," Mike continued, biting his lip to keep from losing it.

"It must be returned to its place of glory on the mantel at Yankee Stadium," Ricky grated.

Marrus looked vaguely alarmed then. "I assure you, we do not have it."

"We know that," Charlie went on. "We were simply on the trail of the thieves, which brought us this way. Finding your fascinating discworld was just a pleasing happenstance."

"I see," Marrus said, but it was plain that he did not. He shifted mental gears then. "The Governor sends her greetings, and asks that at some point in your stay here, you favor her with a visit. I was sent to greet you because we were under some impression that an interest in trade was the basis of your arrival here."

Charlie smiled. "Well, if you will escort us about so that we can see your beautiful world, I will contact my father and tell him what wonders there are here to be had. He will then send a proper trade mission, while we carry on with our quest."

That seemed to please Marrus. "We are a very informal people, CharlieBoone. We believe in getting things done with a minimum of confusion. I could have brought a rather large crowd with me, as there are people standing in line to meet you, from the Division of Exobiology to the Ministry of Exocultural Affairs. The meeting of a new people is an extraordinary event, you see. " He leaned closer then, and lowered his voice. "Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and no fur was made to fly. It was agreed that just this trio would come to meet you, until we knew more about what brought you here."

Max stepped forward then, and offered a sweet smile. "There are three of you here, but this entire area is swarming with stealthed watchers of every sort. Not that we mind this, but we did want to let you know that we were aware of them. I would guess that a lot of people are watching this meeting just now."

A total silence greeted this revelation.

Charlie froze at this unexpected development, but recovered quickly, and stepped into the new vacuum in their conversation. "Uh...we understand completely why you would do this, and hope you do not mind that we brought along our own watchers to keep records. They will not bother yours unless provoked, I assure you."

Marrus's eyes suddenly darted about them. "I was not informed...I did not know you brought watchers out with you."

"A standard security measure," Max said, cheerfully. "They'll just watch and record. They're pretty much invisible, so they shouldn't bother anyone. Think no more of it."

But that the three Trichani would think more of it was apparent. Marrus looked apprehensive a moment, and then narrowed his eyes briefly at them, before allowing a smile to return to his face. "Diplomacy of this sort is not exactly my first talent, but I do see what you mean. A certain balance of forces is needed so that both of us may feel secure."

Of course the human group had brought no hidden watchers out with them. Max was all the humans needed for security, as very little got by him. He'd obviously spoken up to let everyone know that they were being observed by a horde of hidden devices, so that they would not think themselves unobserved at some point and drop their cover.

"No such devices were observed aboard your vessel," the third Trichani said then, stepping forward. "I am Kontus 3Rowf, of the Port Authority."

Charlie beamed. "You came, after all!" He stuck out a hand. "So pleased to meet you in person!"

Kontus blinked, and looked down at Charlie's extended hand a moment before smiling. Then he extended his own, and very carefully shook the boy's much smaller appendage.

"I am pleased we have a custom in common," Kontus said then. "May I offer my services as a guide? I do know the port and the city quite well."

Marrus looked briefly unsure at this offer, but almost immediately followed up with a smile. "If no trade is to be discussed at this time, then I am not needed here just now. If Kontus is willing to chaperone you about the city, I cannot think of a better guide. Please call upon me, or have Kontus summon me, if I can be of assistance."

"Thank you," Charlie returned. "We will do that, and I will be certain to inform my father with whom his trade mission should speak."

The Minister of Trade and his secretary bowed again, and returned to the flyer. In a moment, they were gone.

Kontus stepped back a pace, eyed the newcomers a moment, then cast his gaze up at their ship. Charlie could almost hear the man thinking. In a moment, the Trichani stepped closer again, and offered up what was probably a very cheerful smile. "You spooked the minister, I think."

Charlie feigned surprise. "How so?"

The alien waved a hand about them. "The observation drones all about us are supposed to be undetectable."

"They're very good," Max spoke up. "But they ain't undetectable."

The Trichani's eyes deflected a moment, as if he was seeing something they could not - or perhaps hearing something they couldn't. "And yet, we can find no sign of your own."

"Really?" Charlie asked, pleasantly. "How very unusual."

The Trichani tossed his head back and roared out a laugh. Charlie and the others, except for Max, flinched at the sheer volume, but the good nature of the outburst seemed plain. "Oh, how interesting this will be, CharlieBoone! You are not as you appear, it seems!"

"Is anybody?" Charlie returned, smiling.

The big Trichani nodded at them, his brown eyes full of humor. "So. It is a guide you wish, is it? You want to see Derryabah and her markets, and the auction, I presume?"

Charlie nodded. "That would be a good start, I think. I do wish to indicate to father that coming here to trade would be a good move for our empire."

Kontus nodded. They didn't see him do anything, but a few moments later another of the rounded, open cars floated down the aisle between ships and settled to the ground before them. The Trichani smiled at them again, and climbed aboard the craft. "If you will join me, we can begin."

Charlie turned and looked at the others. "Shall we?"

Kippy stepped up and grinned at him. "Let's go!"

"You do understand that Security will follow us about as we take our tour?" the big Trichani asked, as their car floated above the parked starships on its way to the city. "They are most curious about you, and probably alarmed at your ability to detect their watchers."

"And their inability to detect ours?" Kippy tossed in, smiling winningly.

Charlie tried not to laugh, impressed that everyone not only seemed to be picking up well on all the plot changes as the day moved on, but that they seemed relaxed and enjoying themselves, despite the raw newness of their situation. They had come a long way since first meeting Max just a few short years ago, and Charlie felt a sense of satisfaction that they had all adapted so well. It was, in part, due to knowing that being with Max upped the safety factor of anything they did considerably; but there was also something within each of them that had grown more worldly and wise.

"That, as well," Kontus admitted, smiling. That the Trichani seemed to be enjoying his encounter with the humans added to Charlie's own enjoyment of the situation, though he was certain that Kontus would not let his guard down but so far, and that they still had to be careful not to drop their cover or overstep reasonable bounds. The Trichani people apparently had an adventurous spirit, and were willing to see where events were taking them with their unusual visitors, unlike the Arpies or the Moth, who certainly would have tossed them in the calaboose and worried about possible repercussions later. Diplomacy of this sort required a certain willingness to trust, that the other two races seemed lacking. Charlie was hoping this meant they had found new friends, and not just another alien race looking for a way to exploit them.

"This is quite a beautiful place," Adrian said, his eyes scanning the horizon ahead, where the tall spires of the city marched back to a low range of mountains. In a cleft in those peaks, a silvery ribbon sparkled in the yellow-white light from the artificial sun above, surely a waterfall of some kind, taking a gleaming leap as some river dramatically changed elevations in the pursuit of its course.

The flanks of the mountains were blue-green with trees, and the white band of some sort of raised railway wound across the verdant plain at their feet. Roorapynta seemed larger than it actually was, certainly due to the slightly concave disc nature of its construction, with the mountains arising as a border wall in every direction all around them. A globular object this size would have had a horizon virtually at one's doorstep, and much less in the way of a feeling of roominess and comfort.

Kontus leaned his head forward in a Trichani nod. "I wish we could take all the credit for it, but we only moved into what we found here, many millennia after the disc was built. There is no certainty as to who constructed Roorapynta, though most scholars have settled on the Braleebel as the likely culprits."

Charlie smiled at the fanciful name. "We don't know of them."

"A precursor race, one of many. I'm sure you know that civilization is an old guest of this galaxy, and that many peoples have come and gone before our own time."

"Yes, we do know that. It is the same in our space, too." Charlie thought fast. "Ancient ones like the Anasazi, and the Minoans, and the Nabateans. We can only guess at what they were like by the scant works of theirs that have survived them."

Kontus perked up at that. "They are certainly fascinating names - names that hold power. It is a hobby of mine to study such lost civilizations." For a moment the Trichani grew quiet, as if considering the wisdom of continuing. But then he offered up another jovial laugh. " I have a theory, that some great conflict took out many of the lost empires in our region, at a time when my own race was still hunting cheeba on the plains of Rastmis with longspears. Many of the precursor empires, such as the Braleebel, the Nifatilla, and the Beltracians, all seem to have vanished at the same time."

Adrian sat up in his seat, sudden interest painting his features. "The Beltracians?"

Kontus turned to examine him. "Yes. You know of them?"

Charlie felt a brief moment of panic. They were supposed to be from a long way off, and not know much about their present location. The Beltracian empire had once spanned the stars in at least part of what was now Moth territory. Adrian had been pulled into the conversation by the name of the race that had created the star map he even now carried with him, an ancient artifact he had picked up at the pirate market on Engris.

Adrian looked caught in the headlights for a moment to Charlie's eyes; but then he managed to smile and gloss over his gaff with a wave of his hand. "No. But, as you say, it seems a name of power. In our, uh, quest to locate the golden baseball, we have come across references to many ancient peoples. I have been recording the facts on these lost ones in our travels, with the possibility in mind that we may want to go on another quest down the line."

The Trichani smiled, but looked slightly skeptical. "You would go questing for lost empires, based only upon rumors of their existence?"

"Certainly," Kippy spoke up. "They're the best kind. The archeologists among our people study the known past cultures. What fun would that be for us, to go to known worlds and look over the shoulders of a bunch of scholars at old bones and moldering buildings? We wish to explore the unknown, not the known and the boring."

"It's what knights do," Ricky added, hastily, grimacing at Kippy.

Kontus scratched briefly at his muzzle. "The term seems not to translate well. What exactly does a knight do?"

The other boys turned to Charlie, who took a startled intake of breath. Gee, thanks!

"Uh, well..." Charlie's thoughts floundered for a moment, and then suddenly grew calm as he remembered his readings. "Well, in the early days of our culture, when we were still bound to a single planet, a knight was a soldier, often high-born, an educated man-at-arms who would swear allegiance to a noble and support him in all of his endeavors. In return, that noble would provide housing and a base of operations, armor, weapons, and pay. Once a knight was established, he generally had his own armor and weapons, and could move about between lords at his own whim."

Kontus laughed. "We also had such men in our early days. Except we called them mercenaries."

Charlie nodded. "There is a similarity, though mercenaries in our culture were more often commoners - simple men with combat experience, willing to fight for money. Knights are educated, have means of their own, and often fought for principle as much as gain." Charlie smiled. "And they were tempted to quests of discovery based solely upon intellectual arguments...and arguments of the heart, as well."

"I see." Kontus gave a brief nod. "So you are wealthy adventurers, more or less?"

"More or less," Charlie agreed, though he felt embarrassed at the notion. This play acting was too much like lying now. He found that he liked Kontus, and that it made him uncomfortable to deceive the man. He reminded himself that this was a necessary part of the search for Pacha'ka, and that they needed the freedom to move about the city so that Max could search for the Kifta. A once over of the discworld before they had landed had yielded no sign of the little alien, and Max had said he needed to be closer to be sure that Pacha was not still on the surface of Roorapynta.

Kontus let his eyes move from one boy to the next, until they finally settled on Mike. "And what of you? You have been silent thus far. What do you think of our world?"

Mike shrugged. "It's a big galaxy, and I've seen my fair share of it in the last few years." He gazed about then, and smiled at Kontus. "Nothing like this, though. It's pretty amazing, really."

The Trichani seemed pleased at that assessment. "It is my home, and the only one I know." He glanced skyward a moment, shading his eyes and looking away from the artificial sun. "I have occasionally dreamed of being able to do what you do - to explore the far stars, and look for the traces of the lost civilizations that so interest me." He gave a very human sigh. "It is not feasible, really. A ship is an expensive luxury, one I can ill afford. And there are very few among my people that do own ships that want to use them to simply sail about the stars, looking for traces of what once was."

"Not much profit in it, unless you find what you are looking for," Charlie agreed.

That statement caused the Trichani to lean closer. "Have you? Ever found traces of lost civilizations?"

Charlie remembered Engris then, and the many wonderful things they had seen at the pirate market, including the few items they had brought home with them. Each was a mystery, fashioned in the distant past by hands and minds the like of which could only be guessed at. The sense of age about the things they had purchased was clear. Only Adrian's Beltracian star map had a clear link to a people now vanished from this part of the galaxy. The other items they had acquired were the products of unknowns, their histories now lost.

"Yes." Charlie nodded. "We have."

Kontus leaned back, and sighed. His eyes fixed upon Charlie, and the boy could see the wanderlust in them. "I envy you, your travels."

For a moment they moved on in silence. The city of Derryabah grew as they neared its edge, until they could see the many shaded plazas where things were being bought and sold. It was much like the record that Murcha had showed them previously, except here the Trichani seemed to be in the minority. Aliens of every sort moved about the plazas, on two legs and four, and even a few whose source of locomotion was unclear. The boys rested their arms on the sides of the craft and tilted their eyes downward, watching in fascination as Kontus brought them in low and sailed serenely above the crowds like a soap bubble on a light breeze.

"This is one of several hundred plazas of this nature, called secondary points of sale," Kontus explained. "Experience has shown that placing everything to be haggled over in one grand place produces such crowds and such turmoil that neither sellers nor buyers can enjoy the action. Each plaza is registered on the planetary database, with each patron listed and the wares they wish to buy or sell clearly listed. Those visitors here to do business can easily do a quick search of the database and produce a listing of every vendor or buyer with similar interests."

"It is the duty of the buyer to go to the seller, then?" Charlie asked.

"That makes the most sense, yes," the Trichani responded. "and that is the way of it for most things. But some of the booths you see belong to buyers as well, and in those cases it is the duty of the seller to seek them out." The furred man smiled, an action Charlie was coming to enjoy. "These buyers are mostly concerned with...shall we say...the more portable items that people want to sell."

Charlie felt a flash of surprise as he realized that the man was referring to fences - receivers of goods of less than solid provenance. He stared below, wondering how much of the business going there was less than legal by most people's standards.

"You disapprove?" Kontus asked then.

Charlie frowned, his thoughts going back to the pirate market at Engris. He had not disapproved of the sales happening there, even though he had known going in that much of what was sold there had been looted from alien graves, dead cities, or even stolen outright from others on far distant worlds. In fact, there had been a certain thrill to the idea, a romance to the notion of the pirate market itself, especially that it ran so peacefully and efficiently. There, for any traveler lucky enough to find Engris, laid out in plain sight, was the treasure of a thousand worlds, just waiting for the right buyer to come along and become entranced by them. It appealed in some way to the collector instinct in Charlie, and it had been a real adventure walking among the many stalls and stands, just ogling the many ancient and mysterious items to be had there.

But...Engris was under cover of darkness, and hidden away in the depths of the Cooee. Those who found their way there were few in numbers compared to what Charlie could see here, and these sales, by contrast, were occurring in a city plaza, out in the open, and underneath the bright midday sun. Even though the basics were the exact same, the realities seemed different, somehow.

But were they, really?

"No," he heard himself say, and then gave a short laugh in surprise at his own response. "As long as what is bought and sold here was not plundered from dead worlds or lost outposts of vanished empires, I see no problem with any of it."

Kontus gave what certainly looked like a wince at those words. "It is illegal to sell undocumented artifacts, anywhere in the empire. Roorapynta is no exception." He waved a hand at the transactions taking place below their craft. "But many ancient artifacts are indeed sold here, providing their histories are legally documented to the effect that they originated in authorized collections. But you will find no secret treasures being exchanged here."

"Not like on Engris," Max suddenly said.

Charlie tried not to gape at the elf, and noticed that Kontus seemed to be doing the very same thing. What was Max thinking?

" know of Engris?" Kontus asked, plainly startled by the revelation.

"We've been there," Max acknowledged. "There are many clues to be found about the history of the galaxy at that place."

"You've been there," Kontus breathed, his eyes holding what looked like disbelief. "I thought you had only just arrived in this area of the galaxy."

Max nodded. "Yep. But Engris isn't here, like you're probably thinking. Engris is everywhere, as long as you access it from the Cooee."

"The what?"

Max laughed. "The place where ships go to move between the stars."

"My people have tried to find it," Kontus admitted. "It is elusive."

Max shook his head. "You're not looking for it the right way, that's why. Engris will never be conquered by your empire, or anyone else's. The planet knows what is in the minds and hearts of all seekers. If conquest is your goal, you will never see the dark world, ever. No fleet will ever be allowed to find Engris."

Kontus narrowed his eyes. "You act as if the world is alive...and aware."

"It is," Max said simply. "Not alive or aware like you and me, but in its own way. To find Engris, you simply gotta want to go there for a reason that ain't violent, ain't harmful to anybody - not dangerous." He grinned. "A guy like you, who only wants to see old stuff, you'd probably get right in. Providing you weren't trying to take over the place or something sneaky, anyway."

Kontus gave every impression of being beguiled by the idea. "I don't want to take over the place. But I would just love to see it. The rumors...the stories I've seems the market there is just an amazing place."

"Better than that," Kippy said, smiling. "It's beyond amazing."

Max seemed to be studying the big Trichani, and Charlie wondered what conclusions the elf was drawing. That this exchange was a probe of some sort, perhaps even a test...but for what?

"How did you find Engris?" Kontus asked. The want was plain in his gaze now. The need.

Max sighed. "You just put your ship into the Cooee, and wish to go to Engris. And Engris will find you."

Kontus drew back, staring. "That's it?"

"That's all. If you truly mean no harm to that planet, or anyone on it, you will be allowed to go there."

Kontus seemed lost in thought for a moment, but then closed his eyes and gave a great sigh. "You tempt me sorely." He opened his eyes and grinned at them. "Such would be the adventure of a lifetime!"

The boys looked around at each other, smiling, infected by the sheer excitement the big alien was sharing with them.

"So...what is this big auction thing like?" Max asked then. "Are you gonna show that to us, too?"

Kontus barked out a laugh, and shook his great head. "You devil! To change the subject are teasing me!"

Max grinned. "Well, we are here to see stuff. We can talk more later - I promise."

"Very well. My superiors expect me to show you about, not ply you with questions about Engris." Kontus gave a small wince then, and lowered his voice. "Now that they know you've been there, they may ask you about it themselves."

"Oh, they don't know," Max said, smiling. "I cut off the sound to their spy doodads while we were talking about Engris. They've been running around like crazy back at your security building, looking for a blown fuse or something."

Charlie laughed, knowing that was an oversimplification, but carried away by the notion of dozens of big Trachani techs pulling out tiny fuses and eyeballing each one. "We'd better give them their sound back, okay?"

Max nodded. "Yep. Okay, no more about Engris just now, got it?"

Everyone nodded, and Max waved a hand. "Okay."

Kontus simply stared at the elf, as if unable to believe that that was all there was to it. But then he shook his head, and their craft began to move away from the plaza and down a long center concourse, where throngs of people walked and interacted below.

"The main auction square is at the heart of the city," Kontus explained. "It shall only take us a moment to arrive."

Presently, the crowded concourse began to expand, and quite suddenly the center of the city was before them. It was an immense, rounded plaza, with a great, half-moon shaped grandstand at one side of it, before which was a cleared area, cut off from the plaza proper by a low barrier. The grandstand held a row of consoles, behind which sat a dozen Trichani, intent on display screens before them. Behind the barriers a crowd ebbed and flowed, simply a huge number of people of every kind, yet spaced out enough so as not to be crowded.

But the most amazing thing to behold was the large object that floated in the air above the cleared area behind the barrier. It looked to be a large rock, a dark black in color, but shot through with glistening white lines, that covered the surface like veins beneath the transparent hide of some stupendous animal.

"There are several security platforms near the barrier," Kontus said then. "We've been authorized to put down on one, so that you can see the action close up."

Their car crossed the crowd to the barrier, and touched down on a round paved pad to one side of the cleared area, just behind the barrier.

Charlie stared upwards at the great, tumbling rock in the air above them. A voice, highly amplified, was calling out numbers in Trichani at a rapid pace, while in the crowd just beyond the barrier, small, rose-colored orbs of light twinkled as they spun above the heads of a half dozen widely-scattered aliens.

"What's being sold?" Charlie asked, again eying the immense rock above them.

"A small asteroid," Kontus explained. "That of course is simply a representation above us. The item for sale lies in its orbit around some as yet unnamed star. The location of the object is what is being sold."

"A space rock?" Ricky asked, looking surprised. "Seriously?"

"Gemstones," Mike answered, turning to Kontus. "Am I right?"

"Yes. As you can see, this carbonaceous asteroid is filled with veins of Kalacite, a carbon-structured gemstone. Highly prized when cut and polished and placed in a setting, it is one of the premier gemstones on the market today. It sounds like the bids have reached the hundred-million credit mark already."

Kippy looked at the vast crowd, at the small rose-colored orbs above the heads of some of the watchers. Even as they looked, one of the orbs went out above a spindly-legged alien with a long, giraffe-like neck, who stomped his or her feet in annoyance and turned and walked away.

"Those are the bidders," he said, getting it then. "And that one just reached his limit?"

"Precisely." Kontus laughed. "Not everyone has a hundred million credits to play with, I guess."

Even as they watched, two more of the orbs winked and disappeared, followed shortly by the two aliens over which they had floated. Each looked upset in some way, but both just turned and vanished into the crowd.

"Getting down to the serious bidders, now," Kontus said, obviously as fascinated with the process as the boys were.

Finally, there were just two bidders left, one a rather immense fellow in shiny black clothing, with an armored head like a triceratops, with plates and horns seeming to be everywhere; and the other a tall, thin, ropey-looking alien a stunning red in color, who seemed to be wearing no clothing at all.

The two bid back and forth, while the Trichani caller's voice began to take on an excited tone.

Suddenly, the rose orb above the triceratops guy turned blue, and that one spun and looked across the crowd at the red, ropey alien. "Hold! Bidding is become ridiculous high! You bid now to taunt me!"

The alien's translated voice was deep and harsh, quite in keeping with his great size.

The red, ropey alien's orb also turned blue. "Hold. I am doing no such thing. My bid is quite in keeping with the market value in Kalarikki space."

"No know that market!" the triceratops bellowed. "Price too high for Thunwon market!"

"That is your problem," ropey said. "If you wish to bow out of the bidding, do so now, and begone with you!"

Charlie gasped at the look of rage that clouded that armored and horned face. "Cootza! I challenge you for ownership!"

Ropey alien seemed unimpressed with the outburst. Charlie almost couldn't believe the calm with which the red alien acted. It looked like one swipe from the arm of the triceratops guy would blast the red alien into oblivion.

"I accept your challenge," ropey said. "Name your choice of weapons."

The triceratops bellowed out a huge laugh. "No need weapons! Can rip you to pieces barehanded!"

"Hand-to-hand it is," ropey agreed.

"That's a mistake," Kontus said, tilting his head to one side.

"I'd say so, Ricky interjected. "That big guy is gonna pulverize that skinny one."

Kontus looked over at him. "I meant it was a mistake for the Thunwon - the reptilian one - to challenge the Kalarikki to hand-to-hand combat. It will not end well for him."

Charlie, along with the other boys, simply stared at the Trichani. "The red guy is dangerous?" Kippy asked.

Kontus sighed. "Watch and see."

A section of the barrier at the front of the crowd slid to one side, and both bidders made their way towards it. Triceratops guy got there first, passed trough into the empty area, and turned as the red alien came through behind him. The barrier slid closed, and the large reptilian alien leaped at the red one with amazing speed.

Charlie blinked, as what happened next occurred almost too quickly to be believed.

In a single, fluid movement, the red alien hit the ground, writhed through the charging reptile's legs in an instant, and catapulted itself up the backside of the big alien. The two ropey arms circled the reptile's neck and constricted about it like a boa squeezing its prey, and the reptilian alien dug in and stopped, his own hands going for the coils now cutting off his air supply.

But the coils might as well have been made of steel. The huge, clawed hands made no impression on them save to cause them to tighten even further, until the triceratops suddenly sagged and fell to his knees, his face twisted in agony.

"Do you concede?" the red alien asked, calmly.

The reptilian alien made one last effort to dislodge the coils from about its neck, and then seemed to suddenly lose interest in the challenge. It wobbled in a small circle, and fell forward on its face. Red ropey alien leaped away at the last second, and was instantly standing erect again even as the ground gave a small shake to the impact of the huge body.

"I guess I win," the red alien said. It looked up at the grandstand. "I have the high bid?"

The Trichani caller gazed down at him. "Your opponent had the last bid. Do you raise yours by one credit?"

"I do."

The Trichani caller looked out into the crowd. "Any other bidders for this item?"

A wave of what Charlie interpreted as laughter wafted among the onlookers, but no more rose-colored globes appeared above anyone else's head.

"You have the winning bid," the caller said, smiling at the Kalarikki.

"Excellent." The red alien turned to go, but then snaked out an arm and touched it briefly to the prone reptilian fellow's neck. "He lives. I hope he's learned some manners by this incident."

And then he was gone.

From somewhere at the back of the cleared area, a low, cylindrical vehicle raced to the scene, and in an instant multiple mechanical arms were seeing to the medical state of the fallen Thunwon.

Ricky tilted his head back and squeezed his eyes shut. "Was that amazing, or what?"

Kontus laughed. "You cannot judge a kazaff by the length of its talons. Apparently, the Thunwon was unaware of the nature of his opponent."

"I'd say so," Charlie agreed. "That red guy was amazing."

"It is unwise to challenge anyone when you are not familiar with the breed. The many races of the galaxy have some interesting surprises built into them by their native environments. I have seen others that would have dealt with the Kalarikki just as swiftly as he dealt with the Thunwon. We tend to think that most species eventually trade the ferocity and deadliness that made them supreme in their home environments for intelligence and tools that do their battle duty for them, but it is not always so. Some species will always be lethal in capability, no matter how much they progress."

"I wouldn't mind gettin' a little closer to the action," Mike said. "Can we get out of this car and go stand by the barrier?"

Kontus tilted his head forward. "Yes. But do not cross the barrier, please."

They climbed out of the car and made their way to the backside of the barrier. The crowd beyond observed them curiously, but no one seemed to think that a party such as this was too irregular, and with the introduction of the next item for sale, they lost interest in the Trichani and his horned human party pretty quickly.

The great space rock above them vanished, to be replaced by a large image of a statue of some sort. Charlie stared at it, and shook his head. "That thing is butt-ugly."

Kontus tilted his head in agreement. "And yet, it is a priceless artifact of the Ivanota, who once roamed and area of the space that my own people now claim."

A horde of rose-red orbs lit above heads in the crowd, and the mass of onlookers swayed to the accompaniment of many excited voices.

"Look at that!" Ricky yelled, to be heard above the new noise. "It looks like a rock concert!"

"It looks like three rock concerts!" Adrian yelled back, grinning.

Charlie opened his mouth to answer when he saw motion in the crowd nearby, as if someone was suddenly pushing through the mass towards them. He stared, unsure of what was happening, and so saw a head suddenly bob upwards above the masses, looking their way. It dropped back down, but the motion of the crowd continued to show that someone was pushing through towards them.

Shock coursed through every fiber of his body. It had looked like a human face!

Charlie turned and grabbed Kippy. "Did you see that?"

"What --?" But Kippy broke off as a voice came to them then.

"Lemme through! Pardon me! Sorry! Lemme through!"

The head leaped up above the crowd again, the face turned their way, and Kippy gasped. "It's a guy!"

Everyone turned to look now, including Kontus. "What did you see?"

And then a young man broke through the edge of the crowd by the barrier, and turned this way and that, his eyes searching wildly. "I heard English! I swear I did!" they heard him say.

Kippy stepped forward then. Charlie grabbed at him, afraid that his boyfriend would blow their cover; but Kippy shook him off and stepped to the barrier, waving at the stranger. "Here! Come here!"

The young man had dark hair, and pleasant features, and looked to be only slightly older than they were. His eyes locked on them, and he stopped dead in his tracks and stared at them, obviously seeing their human features, but totally confused by the green skin, the blue hair, and the antlers.

"It's okay!" Kippy called. "Come over here!"

The young man's mouth worked slowly as he stared at them, but he took one step forward, and then another. "You speak English!"

Kippy nodded, smiling. "Yep. So do you."

The newcomer reached the barrier, and stood just on the other side of it, staring at them. "How? Who...who the hell are you people?"

Kontus reached out and gently touched Charlie's arm. "This one speaks as you do."

"Wait just a moment," Charlie said. He stepped quickly over to the barrier beside Kippy, and smiled at the stranger. "Hi. I'm Charlie Boone. This is my friend, Kippy Lawson. And who might you be?"

"Bobby Felsen, from McCook, Nebraska." He shook his head. "You look like people, but ...what's with the green faces...and the deer antlers?"

Charlie shook his head and lowered his voice to a near whisper. "I can't discuss that right now." He let his eyes wander to one side, where Kontus was now coming up behind him. Bobby's eyes followed, spied the big Trichani, and his mouth tightened into a frown.

"Trust me," Charlie whispered.

Kippy nodded emphatically, and then Kontus was beside them. "You know this one? I do not recognize the species."

Kippy turned and smiled. "Yes. He's a Nebraskan, from a world within our empire." He turned back to Bobby. "Are you in distress? Do you require assistance?'

Bobby stared, and then closed his eyes. "I don't believe this."

"You should," Kippy said, quietly. "We can help you."

Bobby opened his eyes. "I just wanna go home," he whispered.

Charlie could feel the anguish in those words, and turned immediately to the Trichani. "This is a citizen of our empire in distress. We wish to bring him along with us."

Kontus narrowed his eyes at that. "Really?" He did not sound as if he believed them. His eyes fastened on Bobby. "You bear an identifier?"

Bobby shook his head. "No. I was kidnapped. I don't have anything but what I have on."

"Kidnapped?" The Trichani's frown deepened. "That's a serious charge. I think it best that I call the guard, and you --"

He got no further. An immense shadow appeared suddenly on the horizon and bulleted across the sky, drawing every eye upwards. A thunderous sound accompanied the shadow, which arrived above them and stopped, blotting out the sun. The very air shook and vibrated, and the entire crowd ducked as one.

First one, and then another, and then another, three swirls of black air appeared in the crowd of onlookers, small dark tornadoes ten feet in height, that spun furiously, and violently pushed away those standing around them. More of the swirls appeared, ten and more, and now the crowd was retreating from them on its own. People ran, those on four legs quickly outpacing those on two.

Charlie and the others had simply frozen, staring at this incredible change in events. One moment the plaza was calm save for the excitement of bidding; the next it was quickly emptying, as thousands of people of every sort ran for their lives.

Max was suddenly beside Charlie, Adrian and Ricky in tow. The elf took him by the arm, and pulled him away from the barrier. "Time to go. Come on, Kip! Time to go! Everybody grab hold of me! Now!"

Kippy turned and looked at Max, anguish in his eyes. "We can't leave him!" He pointed at Bobby, who had turned towards the black maelstroms, his back to the other side of the barrier now, with nowhere to run. The nearest dervish was only a dozen paces from him, with no way around it.

Charlie turned to look at Kontus. The big Trichani was frozen in place, staring at the black vortexes, one hand on his sidearm - but seemed unable to move. "We can't leave Kontus, either!"

Charlie had no idea what was happening, but the look of near-panic in Max's eyes frightened him to the very core.

The elf grimaced, but waved a hand at Bobby. The boy jerked up off the ground, and was suddenly over the barrier, on their side. Kippy grabbed him by an arm and pulled him towards Max. Charlie turned and grabbed Kontus by an arm and pulled, but the big man barely moved at all. "Help me!" he yelled at Max.

The nearest black vortex suddenly wound down, and a large...thing...appeared. It was tall and monstrous, all black in color, had tripod legs, a round head with what looked like eyes all the way around it, and a multitude of octopus like arms that waved furiously at shoulder height. The other vortexes also spun down, and more of the things appeared.

The one closest to them bolted with amazing speed at the barrier, and reached across the top of it with several of the long arms...straight at Adrian!

Charlie had no time to even yell a warning. The horror of what was happening had him rooted in place.

Ricky's right arm suddenly moved with lightening speed, and then his dagger was in his hand. It hummed furiously as he stepped in front of Adrian and whipped the blade across in front of them; and in an instant, four of the octopus arms were writhing on the ground. The vibratory blade had severed them cleanly, and the creature from which they had been shorn rebounded away from them with incredible speed, emitting a horrifying mewling sound.

It gave Max the moment he needed. He whirled a hand in the air, and an invisible force seemed to circle the entire group, pushing everyone together. Charlie felt the strange feeling of dislocation that accompanied elf dimensional travel, and then they were standing inside the control room of their ship. Charlie looked about, saw all of his friends present...and Bobby and Kontus, too.

All of a sudden the Trichani unfroze, and grabbed his weapon from his holster. "Stop! No one --"

Max whipped his hand up, and the pistol flew from Kontus's hand and smashed against the overhead with a bang. The Trichani's arms slapped against his sides as Max restrained him, and then the elf was calling for Murcha. "Take off! Get us out of here!"

They all sat down hard as the machines beneath the deck thundered into life. Charlie had never once before felt any sort of motion when the Moth ship took off, but this time the entire vessel vibrated and shook, and an invisible force clutched at him and tried to pull him prone on the floor. He fought it, and managed to stay upright...and then the pressure eased away, and was gone.

"Destination?" Murcha asked, sounding no more worried than he ever did, despite the obviously dramatic take off.

"Just get us into the Cooee and away from here!" Max called.

"We went into the Cooee the moment we passed out of the discworld's gravity well," the shipmind explained. "But I need a destination, or we will just wander aimlessly about in the dark."

Max closed his eyes, and for a moment was silent. "It's no good, anyway. They followed us into the Cooee. They'll stay with us, wherever we go, unless we can find a way to break away from them."

"Who?" Charlie demanded then. "Who is after us?"

Max opened his eyes and shook his head. "I ain't got no idea. But these are some bad guys, Charlie. They got magic, and they know how to use it. And they have Pacha'ka with them!"

Mike jumped to his feet. "Pach? We can't leave him!"

Kippy also jumped up, and wrapped his arms around the Aussie lad. "Easy. Max will do something."

Max nodded at Mike. "Just relax. I won't leave him behind."

Charlie also got up. Ricky and Adrian were seated on the deck together, their arms around each other. "It almost got me," Adrian whispered. "You saved me."

"No," Ricky said, shaking his head. "Don't say it. Don't say anything!" he tightened his grip on Adrian, and kissed him.

Charlie looked around, spied the new boy, Bobby, sitting on the deck, staring at Ricky and Adrian. Despite everything going on, he had to laugh at the comical expression of utter surprise on the boy's face. "What's the matter?" he asked. "You never seen two guys kiss before?"

Bobby looked up at him, and then looked away. "I didn't say anything."

Kippy turned to stare at him. "Even Nebraska must have gay guys!" Mike also turned in Kippy's grasp, looking aggravated by the sudden change of subject.

Bobby looked suddenly confused. "Gay? What do you mean by that?"

Kippy released Mike, put his hands on his hips, and tsked. "Gay. Like Rick and Adrian." He gave a short snort at the look of incomprehension on the other's face. "You know. Lovers."

"Homosexuals," Bobby said, shaking his head. "Is that what you mean?"

Kippy gave a short laugh. "Well, duh."

Bobby suddenly looked tired, and closed his eyes. "Who are you people?"

Charlie looked at Max. "Do we still need the disguises?"

Max turned to kook at Kontus, who had stopped squirming within the invisible force holding him, and was now watching everything quietly. "You gonna cause me any more trouble?" the elf asked.

The Trichani's eyes looked upwards, to where his pistol still remained, cemented to the overhead. "You're power users," he finally said. "No wonder your ship was unarmed."

"It's not unarmed," Max returned. "We just hid the goodies from you."

Kontus gave a small laugh. "It amounts to the same thing. I am powerless against such forces."

Max sighed, and waved a hand, and Charlie looked about at the others again. Gone were the antlers, the green skin, the blue hair. They still wore the fancy costumes, but their bodies were back to their normal appearances.

"Ah," Kontus said, his eyes going from Charlie to Kippy to Bobby." I begin to see now. This one is one of your people."

Bobby looked up at them, gaping again. "What the hell is going on here? Will somebody tell me?"

"We're from Earth," Charlie said, going to the boy and leaning down towards him. "New York, to be exact."

Bobby bolted to his feet, and grabbed Charlie's hand, and shook it hugely. "Well, why didn't you say so? Man! It's so good to see someone from home -" he broke off then, looking wary, "How'd you get out here? Earth's okay, isn't it?"

"It was when we left it," Kippy said, coming over beside him.

Bobby released Charlie's hand, and stepped back from him. "I think I'm going nuts."

"What were you doing on Roorapynta?" Charlie asked. "How did you get out here?"

Bobby straightened. "I escaped from those damned Markite Paglogs, that's what. They left the dark place on a supply run, and I managed to hide on the ship. They put down on that crazy round planet, and then they went out of the ship. I just left then, right after they did."

Charlie and Kippy looked at each other, and Kippy just shrugged. "Don't ask me!"

"What are Markite Paglogs?" Charlie asked.

Bobby sighed, obviously tired and getting grumpy. "Markites are the damned aliens that kidnapped me. They took me to the dark planet, and kept me there for a while. But they eventually got bored with me, and let me wander around on my own. Paglogs are their robots, or whatever the hell they are, that keep things going on the dark planet. They go out every so often and get supplies and stuff. They got so they didn't watch me anymore, and this time, when I knew they were getting ready to go again, I sneaked aboard the ship and came with them. And here I am."

"You were kidnapped from Earth?" Ricky asked, finally getting to his feet, and pulling Adrian up with him.

"You bet. I was walking down the road one night, on my way home from work, and this thing swooped over me and grabbed me right up!"

"If I may interrupt?" Murcha interjected. "I am detecting something on a parallel course, pacing us."

"That's them," Max said. "It's another ship. A big one, too!"

Charlie looked over at him. "Is that what happened at Roorapynta? Someone attacked us there? From that ship?"

"Yep. They used some sort of bilocation doodad to send those big black things down at us."

Kontus made a startled sound. "Such technologies have been theorized, but no one is known to possess them!"

"Well, these guys do." Max shook his head. "I felt 'em coming, and it was a real shock, let me tell ya. Whoever these guys are, they use magic way better than the Moth. They're almost as good as me!"

Charlie felt fear at that pronouncement. "But you managed to get us away, anyway."

"By the skin of our teeth. There was four or five of 'em trying to keep me from doing it. But I got a knack for movement, so we got lucky." The elf nodded. "Even then, we almost didn't get away. At the last moment, I felt Pacha hitting them hard, and that threw them enough that we could slip out."

"Pacha is aboard that ship?" Mike asked. "Can you bring him here?"

Max shook his head. "Not just yet. But I'm already workin' on something that might do the job."

Charlie shook his head, stunned at the sudden turn of events. "You don't know who these people are?"

"Not a clue. I got an impression of a big ship from Pacha's brief contact - a really big ship - but with just a few alien guys on board. But they got lots of those big black things with the wavy arms that attacked us on Roorapynta, and we don't want them sending any here. They're trying to do that, and I'm stopping them right now."

"We've got to save Pach," Mike said adamantly. "There has to be a way."

"There is," Max agreed. "But I can't do it by myself. I need help...just wait a minute. I'm workin' on it right now!"

"They are attempting to close with us," Murcha said. "I am able to maintain our separation thus far, however."

Charlie shook his head. "I thought no other ship could touch us in the Cooee. Just follow us." He turned to Mike. "That's what Pacha said, when Korig was after us. That's why we went to Engris the first time."

"The technology of our pursuers would seem to be even more robust than my own," the shipmind countered. "They are drawing closer, despite my attempts to evade them."

Kippy looked at Charlie, the question plain in his eyes. Who had a superior technology even to the Moth?

"Almost there," Max said then. He had his eyes closed and his hands raised, and Charlie could see the fierce concentration on the elf's face.

Suddenly, Charlie noticed the tiniest of sounds, just at the limit of his hearing. It began as a faint buzzing noise, like that of a fly orbiting his head. But it quickly increased in volume, became the drone of a large bumblebee - an angry one, at that - and then passed beyond any sort of sound he had ever heard before.

"What's happening?" Mike asked, alarm apparent in the tone of his voice.

"I'm doing it," Max said, tersely. "Relax. And don't be surprised by...oh...almost...almost...!"

A pinpoint of light appeared in front of Max, and quickly grew in size. The fierce droning sound increased along with the diameter of the circle, until Charlie had to cover his ears at the sheer volume. The circle of light grew larger than Max, becoming blue and mirror-like, almost as if they were observing a small pond standing on its side. The droning changed in pitch, somehow seemed to draw even nearer. The surface of the blue circle began to ripple, clearly showing some sort of tuned response to the droning sound, and then ---

The surface parted, and Frit stepped out. He was followed immediately by Pip. Both elves turned on their heels and raised their hands towards the blue circle, as if somehow assisting with keeping it open. The azure surface rippled again, and someone else stepped out. And then, quite suddenly, a line of men began to follow, each one clearly an elf, each one displaying the same physical characteristics as Max, which clearly labeled them as older men. Charlie held his breath, counting, until the line ended just as suddenly as it had begun, and ten adult elves stood before them.

Max gave a soft grunt, and the blue circle began to diminish in size. The droning faded along with it, and in a moment, both were gone. Max leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees, breathing hard. The first elf to come through after Frit and Pip went to him immediately and laid a hand on his shoulder. Charlie blinked, seeing something barely visible pass between them, and then Max smiled and straightened.

"Thanks, Rufe. Glad you and the boys could make it."

The other elf nodded. He was the same size as Max, but his hair was blonde with a reddish tinge to it, and a full beard adorned his face. "We came as soon as Frit delivered your message." He turned and waved at the other new arrivals. "Come on over, fellas, and tune in. You gotta see this thing that's chasing us."

The others quickly circled around Max and Rufe, and each elf laid a hand on one or the other.

"Rolling snowballs!" one immediately exclaimed. "That's big!"

Rufe nodded. "Izzy, you and Zeke take point. Take Lukey and Brozzie and Clem with you. There's six users over there - they're good, but they ain't all that - let's warn 'em off. Jac, you and the others look for Pacha. We gotta bring him over!"

"They're trying to suppress him," one of the other elves warned. "He keeps blinking in and out!"

Max turned and dropped a hand on the speaker's shoulder. "I know Pacha, they can't hide him from me! Wait...there he is!"

All the elves closed their eyes, and the room suddenly grew deathly still.

Charlie turned, looking at the walls around him, at the shell of the starship, all that separated them from the depths of the Cooee. Somewhere beyond that gray steel, a fight was taking place. In it were ten elves from Earth, against an unknown foe of an unknown origin.

He was aware of Frit and Pip coming over to stand beside him. Frit put a reassuring hand on Charlie's back, but held a finger to his lips, a warning to remain silent. He turned then, displaying that same warning to the other boys standing near.

Even Kontus seemed to understand the need for quiet, though the human gesture requesting silence was lost on him. "What is happening?" he whispered.

Charlie turned to look at him. "Shh. Not now. Stay quiet, and wait."

The Trichani leaned his head forward in acknowledgement, but his eyes continued to watch the mysterious proceedings with unbridled curiosity. Charlie smiled at that. He had grown to like the man, and felt that something might be worked out with him later on.

"Got him," Jac said. "He sees us! That's right, Pacha, come this way...good. Okay, boys, on my!"

The air near Mike shimmered, suddenly roiled with currents, and then there was a giant pop and Pacha'ka appeared in the room. He still wore the shape of a Koala from Earth, now his favored appearance, and one that Charlie and the others had grown very fond of. Mike immediately fell to his knees and grabbed the koala into his arms, hugging him fiercely. Pacha displayed the little twist of his face that signified a smile, and briefly hugged the boy back.

"Quickly!" he hissed then. "Take me to Max so that I can touch him!"

Mike scrambled to his feet and ran to Max and leaned close to him, and Pacha but out a small hand and laid it against the elf's arm.

Max turned and grinned at him. "Glad you could make it!"

The koala emitted the soft tchick-tchick-tchick that signified a laugh. "I would have come sooner, but you know that movement is not my specialty. I am still learning, and they were able to block the way."

"What the heck is that?" one of the elves said then.

Pacha closed his eyes, and suddenly tensed. "Gravity cannon. They emit intense, rotational gravitational fields. If they hit the ship in uninhibited form, they can severely damage it."

"They're trying to stop us now," Rufe said. He turned to Max. "You're really good with gravity. What should we do?"

"Turn 'em inside out," Max said immediately. "That'll reverse their travel and send them back where they came from."

"Here comes one!" another elf said.

Max closed his eyes again. "Do this, everyone..."

The ship gave a faint shudder.

"More coming in!' someone called.

The ship shuddered again, and then several times more.

"Ooh, they didn't like that!" Izzy called.

"The other vessel is receding at a rapid pace," Murcha informed them.

"They might be able to outrun them," Max said, waving a hand as if the end result did not concern him. "At least it gives us a chance to put some distance between us. Murcha? How far apart do we need to get before they lose us and can't follow?"

"The normal answer to that question would be the limit of their sensory array. But as their technology would seem to be superior to my own, I have no way of knowing what that distance might be."

"I already estimate that they will be able to evade the gravity vortexes before they are beyond our own sensor range," Illia added then. "That would seem to indicate that they will be able to continue to follow us."

"But they will not be able to catch us again until we reduce our velocity," Murcha finished.

Pacha emitted another small laugh. "Illia! I am pleased to hear your voice again!"

"Pacha'ka. I'm so relieved that you are safe."

Mike turned the koala to face him now, and raised an eyebrow at him. "You said you'd be right back, when you left me at the auction on Roorapynta."

"And here I am. A little later than expected, but still no harm done."

Mike shook his head. "You scared the living crap out of me, Pach."

The koala let out a small sigh, and laid a tiny hand on Mike's arm. "I am so sorry to have frightened you, Mike. I had no way of knowing what would occur. And once I was captured, I had no way to warn you what had happened."

"What about that?" Mike waved a hand at the bulkhead. "Who are our new friends?"

"Wait." Pacha turned to Charlie. "We all need to wish to go to Engris, Charlie. Our pursuers cannot find that world, and once we are there, we will be safe from them."

Charlie nodded, and turned to the other boys. "Everyone hear that? We want to go to Engris."

"Since I have no idea which direction to take, shall I just maintain our current course?" Murcha asked.

"Yes." Charlie nodded. "Engris will find us."

Max gave a sigh, and clapped Rufe on the back. He turned then to face all the elves, and gave a little wave of one hand. "Thanks, fellas. You guys were just in the nick of time."

"We brought them!" Frit said then, running to hug his great, great, great grandfather. Max grinned, and received the younger elf into a warm embrace.

"We never moved so fast in our lives!" Pip added. "But once we told 'em, they came running!"

Frit pulled back, and closed one eye at his granddaddy. "You went off with Charlie and Kippy, and didn't tell us!" His tone was accusing.

"And Adrian and Ricky!" Pip added.

"And Mike!" Frit continued, looking around. "And...who's that!" he added, dropping his voice to a whisper and pointing at Bobby.

"He's cute!" Pip whispered, though scarcely quietly.

"Look at that one!" Frit went on, indicating Kontus. "He's big!"

"How big, I wonder?" Pip said, laughing and covering his mouth to contain his grin.

Kontus gave his head a slow shake. "I have no idea what just happened, and no idea what is happening now."

Charlie grinned, taking pity on the big Trichani. He turned to Max. "Can't you let him loose now?"

The elf turned to Kontus and put his hands on his hips. "What about it? Wanna give me your word you won't cause any trouble?"

The ursine head turned slowly, taking in the humans, the elves, and then Pacha'ka. "Isn't it obvious I'd be outclassed, even if I tried?"

Max laughed. "That ain't an answer."

Kontus gave the abbreviated nod of his race. "Okay. Then let me ask you this: will I be allowed to return to Roorapynta at some point?"

Max gave a little shrug. "Sure. Once we're all done with what we're doing, I'll make sure you get home."

Charlie could see the pleased look in the Trichani's eyes. "Than I give my word I will cause no trouble for the time being."

Max grinned. "No trouble, period."

Kontus gave a great sigh. "Agreed. No trouble, period."

Max closed his eyes a second, and then nodded. He looked over at Charlie. "He means it, too." The elf's hand came up and waved, and Kontus took an involuntary step forward to regain his balance as the force holding him vanished.

"Extraordinary," Kontus said then, patting himself as if to see that he was all in one piece. "It has been supposed until now that the Moth were the only power users in this area of space."

"There are others," Max said, vaguely. "The Moth are far from the best."

Kontus squinted a moment, his eyes going to Charlie, and then the other boys. "And yet, not all of you seem so gifted. These were not participants in the battle it seems you just fought with our distant adversaries."

"They're really young," Max said, smiling towards the boys. "They're still learning. They'll get there, some day."

Mike gave Pacha another small squeeze. "You were going to say who the bad guys were."

The koala nodded, and patted Mike's arm. "Put me down."

Mike grunted, and set the Kifta on the deck. Pacha turned and headed straight to Adrian. "You have it with you, don't you? The item you picked up at the pirate market on Engris?"

Adrian looked astonished, but nodded, and patted his pocket.

Pacha held out a small hand. "May I see it?"

"Sure." Adrian dug into his pocket and pulled out the orb of the star map, and handed it down to Pacha. The koala examined the globe, eying the stars inside it, and particularly the one with the halo around it, the target sun. Then he turned and held it up for all to see. "This is what this is all about. Our enemy is after this."

No one said anything for a moment. Then Max gave out a surprised grunt. "That whatsit? All this hoopla over a snow globe?"

"It's a map," Pacha countered. "A very ancient one. And it apparently shows the way to an important Beltracian stronghold of old."

Kontus immediately leaned forward. "The Beltracians? They've been gone for twenty thousand years!"

Pacha shook his head. "Apparently not. Those who pursue us are Beltracians." He held up the globe, displaying the tiny lights of distant suns within. "And they intend to have this map, and will not let anyone stand in their way!"

They found Engris - or it found them - and the moment they detected the wandering planet, the shadowy trace of the pursuing ship vanished from the sensors.

"I was right," Pacha said, nodding. "I knew they had tried to find Engris before, and failed. The moment the planet became visible to us, it and our ship moved to another part of the Cooee. To our pursuers, it no doubt looked as if we simply vanished."

"So they can't find us?" Max asked.

"No. And when we leave Engris again, I have a feeling it will be far away from where we found the world, and far away from our pursuers, as well."

"Hmm," Rufe said, eying the mysterious dark world in the display that Murcha had erected for them. "This place is in the new revisions of the guidebook. We can come and go here without need of the telzee route."

"What's the telzee route?" Kippy asked, giving Charlie's arm a fond squeeze. They'd all moved into a large circle to talk, and Kippy had immediately taken Charlie's arm in his hands and pulled him close.

"That's the way I brought the guys into the ship," Max said. "Whew! Talk about some draining magic! But it's the only way to open a route to a place where you've been, but no one else back home has gone before."

Charlie understood now. Max had somehow contacted Frit and had him alert the others, and then had opened a tunnel of some sort between the ship and the shop where the elves worked, in order to get them there.

Rufe nodded. "Do you think you'll need us again soon?"

Max shrugged. "No way to know."

"Well, me and the boys are gonna head home, then. We can go from here easily because it's in the guidebook now, and we can get back just as quickly. So we'll head back to work, and if you decide you need us before you leave here, just give me a holler and we'll be back."

Max nodded. "Sounds good." He extended a hand. "Thanks, Rufe. Tell all the boys I owe them one."

The other elf laughed, and clasped Max's hand warmly. "I think that was just a small return on what we owe you!"

"Can we stay?" Frit asked, a pleading look in his eyes.

"Pretty please!" Pip joined in.

Max rolled his eyes, but nodded. "Yeah. It's okay. I kinda owe you two a little something, after all you did for us, organizing the rescue and all."

"Yay!" They replied, in unison. Both young elves looked ecstatic, and Charlie and Kippy looked at each other and grinned.

"Then we'll be off," Rufe said. The older elves assembled into a group, smiled and waved at Max and the others, and then vanished with a slight whoosh of displaced air.

"Is that a good idea, to let them go?" Ricky asked. "What if we meet up with those...those Beltracians again?"

"They have a schedule to keep at the shop," Max said, giving his head a little shake. "They can be back here in a flash, if we decide we need them again."

For a moment no one said anything. That there were a lot of questions in the air was apparent to everyone, though, and Max looked about at the many faces with a small, knowing smile. "Everyone feels about like I do, I see. So how about we sit and talk a bit? We're in no-time now, so it won't cost us nuthin', and it may help a lot."

"It will certainly help me," Kontus said, smiling. "I am as totally lost as I have ever been in my life."

"You and me, both," Bobby agreed, nodding. "I feel like I'm visiting Mars, or something."

Max whipped up three nice, comfortable sofas, and asked Murcha to supply grub that everyone could eat. Then they all took seats, and looked about expectantly.

"Who goes first?" Kippy asked, brightly.

Mike immediately raised a hand and waved it, and then patted Pacha, who was seated beside him. "What happened to you on Roorapynta?"

The Kifta gave a little sigh. "You and I were watching the auction. I heard something then. someone calling my name, only it was not sound, but in my mind."

"That's why you left?" Mike asked, looking incredulous. "And you didn't tell me what you'd, um, heard?"

The koala looked up at the boy. "I truly apologize for my error in judgement, Mike. I had a sense of direction, but that was all. It seemed wise to go and have a look, but not to raise an alarm without knowing there was even any danger. My first thought was that it was another Kifta, who had recognized my pattern, and just wished to say hello."

Mike shook his head. "But it wasn't."

"No. It was our new friends. I was lured out of sight of the crowd, and then whisked aboard their vessel by some sort of bilocation device."

"Truly?" Kontus asked. "By definition, a bilocation device allows one to be in two places at the same time."

"Yes. Only in this instance, once the dual location is established, the original is phased out, leaving only the second location for the subject to remain in. So I found myself quite suddenly aboard their ship, where four of them immediately acted together to subdue me."

"They're strong users," Max admitted. "A lot stronger than the Moth."

"Yes, but still not at the level of you or I. It takes several of them to incapacitate one of us. But once I was cut off from escape, they were able to hold me."

"But why?" Mike asked. "Why did they want you?"

Pacha sighed. "It goes back to our original trip to Engris. The seller from which we purchased the star map for Adrian was known to the Beltracians, who had been working to track him down. Apparently, our seller had looted a storage vault on a dead Beltracian outpost somewhere between the stars, and made off with - among other things - a selection of maps to secure Beltracian facilities. Military bases, may be a better term. The Beltracians have some astounding technology, and were able to trace the seller's ship even long after it had left the abandoned outpost."

Charlie nodded, understanding then. "But they lost him when he got to Engris."

"Exactly. The purpose of the Beltracians is not a peaceful one. That ship, and the six aboard her, comprised an exploratory mission to the Whorl, which left while the Beltracian Empire was still at the height of its power. They expected to complete the journey in the Cooee - in no time, in other words - exit at the Whorl and make their examinations, and then return via the Cooee to find their empire only a few short months older. Only that is not what happened."

"What's the Whorl?" Adrian asked. "Something that spins, I take it?"

Pacha looked to Mike. "You call it...what?"

Mike stared in disbelief. "That's M31. The great spiral galaxy in Andromeda."

Charlie gasped at the revelation, having read more than a little about astronomy. "That's two and a half million light years away!"

Pacha nodded. "Yes." He clasped his small hands before him, thoughtfully. "At that time, the Beltracians thought as we do today, that one within the Cooee existed unconnected to the time flow of normal space. Apparently, that is not always the case. They have since learned that time spent in the Cooee may be static relative to the normal universe, or actually flow faster, or, reverse. It depends on the place within the Cooee where you happen to be."

Mike shook his head. "So they left...when?"

"Approximately twenty-five thousand years ago. Five thousand years after they left, their empire here vanished for unknown reasons, and upon their return, it was to find that their people were the dust of legends for twenty thousand years now."

"That must have been a little scary," Kippy decided. "They were upset, I take it?"

"Angry would be a better word," Pacha returned. "They returned to find their own empire vanished, and a new one in its place. The Moth empire."

Charlie stared at the koala. "And?"

"It is their intention to be rid of the Moth, and to reclaim their worlds."

"There's only six of them," Bobby said, speaking up for the first time. "Even if they're hell on wheels in the sack, they'll never rebuild an empire in a single lifetime."

Charlie laughed, along with some of the others.

Pacha nodded. "Their ship contains a great many star maps, and some seem to indicate the sites of Beltracian genetic centers - places they stored DNA structures to ensure the survival of their species. They have been to one such center, found it still functioning and the stores viable. They will be able to reproduce a million of their kind in very short order. And there are a multitude of these genetic vaults hidden all over their former empire."

Charlie blanched, envisioning the reintroduction of a million - or even millions - of Beltracians to this part of the galaxy, equipped with a technology superior to any currently in existence, and a will to conquer and reclaim what they still considered to be theirs. "Oh, crap."

"Yes." The little Kifta also seemed to have considered what might be to come. "I have seen a map of their former empire. Only part of it occupied the space now held by the Moth. They also held space now claimed by the Braunigan, and space now held by " -- he turned solemnly to Kontus - "the Trichani."

Kontus stared, and then cursed. "By the great horned one! My people must be alerted to this danger!"

Pacha raised a hand. "Wait." He shook his head in a surprisingly human fashion. "Even if the Beltracians were to birth millions of their kind, they do not have the wherewithal to take on three current star empires. That was their purpose in hunting up the ancient Beltracian outpost located in the darkness between stars. They were a civilian expedition, but a science expedition, and so held some knowledge of Beltracian military affairs. They knew that their people had a dozen great arsenals hidden among the stars, but their locations were classified, and they had no way to find them."

Kippy blew a burst of air between his lips. "Good for that!"

"Not quite. One among them knew of the hidden outpost between the stars, and was certain that maps to at least several of the arsenals could be found there. Unfortunately, by the time they arrived, the Galoolian thief had already found and plundered the place."

"So the maps were gone," Ricky said, nodding.

"Not all, no," Pacha countered. "Our light-fingered friend apparently selected maps at random to make off with, and left the bulk of them behind. The Beltracians located three maps to ancient arsenals - only the fourth stored there at the outpost had been taken. They followed the maps to each of the three arsenals, only to find them devastated by whatever vast conflagration befell their empire so long ago. The fourth map was to have shown the location of an arsenal at the farthest fringes of their former empire, in a place far away from main centers of population. It is their hope that this last arsenal somehow escaped the fate that befell the others."

"So you say it was a war that befell their kind?" Kontus asked. "I have long held this theory myself."

Pacha grimaced. "I am not certain that war is the correct term. The evidence they have found thus far would seem to indicate that their people were eradicated by a much superior power, one they could not even properly fight."

The room grew silent at that pronouncement, as everyone considered the idea of a power so great that it could eliminate an entire empire on the technological level the Betracians had attained.

"Who?" Kontus asked, clenching his fist before him.

"They do not know," Pacha returned. "And they probably never will. But that some great catastrophe befell their region of the galaxy those twenty thousand years past seems certain. The Beltracians do not wish that to be the final word on their race. These six have dreams of a resurgence - and a new empire."

"Not at our expense," Kontus said. "What can we do?"

Pacha looked from one face to another. "I had it in mind that we would follow this map to its destination, and see for ourselves if the great arsenal still exists."

"Is that possible?" Charlie asked. "You said once before we would have to locate a region of space that had changed considerably in the time interval since Beltracian times."

"I have already begun the task. Or, rather, Murcha and Illia have."

"What would have proved difficult for you is much simpler for me," the shipmind spoke then. "I have access to Moth star maps, and so already have mapped areas from which to extrapolate the movements of stars in the period indicated."

"We've spilt the data," Illia added. "My calculations are that we can review all of it in twenty-one hours of subjective time."

"A single day?" Charlie asked, incredulous. "That's it?"

Pacha tchick-tchick-tchicked. "Remember, when I first mentioned the possibility of following that map, we were considering doing so with Kifta star maps, which were understandably lacking in detail when it came to Moth space. Now we have the Moth's own maps of their territory, in Murcha. That has greatly reduced the time involved in searching."

Kippy squeezed Charlie's arm, and Charlie turned to look at his boyfriend. Kippy's eyes sparkled with excitement, as it he was trying, telepathically, to say, Isn't this great!

Charlie sighed, nodded, and leaned closer and kissed Kippy's cheek. "I'll go anywhere, with you," he whispered.

Kippy closed his eyes and nuzzled Charlie's cheek. "You sure know how to show a guy a good time."

Charlie opened his eyes, smiling - and found Bobby watching them. "What?"

The boy shook his head. "You guys, too?"

Kippy frowned at him. "Got a problem with it?"

Bobby looked around uncertainly, apparently unwilling to step on any toes among his rescuers. " I'm sorry. I's...I've never seen this before. It''s illegal where I come from."

Kippy laughed. "I know it's Nebraska, but being gay has been legal everywhere in America since 2003."

Bobby choked, and stared at them. "Since when?"

"Since 2003," Kippy repeated. "The supreme court said so."

Bobby suddenly became agitated. "What year is it now?"

Charlie and Kippy traded questioning looks. "Its 2019," Kippy said.

Bobby shook his head, staring at them in horror. "What?" He dropped his face into his hands, and started sobbing.

Mike, who was seated next to him, immediately threw an arm about the shaking boy's shoulders."It can't be all that, mate. Relax. You're with friends now."

Bobby heaved another few seconds, and then looked up at them, his face streaked with tears. "How can it be 2019? I just left Earth a few weeks ago! And it was 1957 then!"

Charlie and Kippy both gasped in shock at Bobby's words. Kippy closed one eye, briefly calculating. "That's sixty-two years ago!"

Bobby shook his head. "So I'm eighty-two now? I don't feel like it!"

"You don't look it, either," Mike said kindly, giving the other a pat on the back.

Pacha held up a hand. "If I may." He turned to Bobby. "You mentioned a people called Markites, and a 'dark world'. Can you explain that last more fully?"

Bobby shrugged, wiping at his eyes. "They swooped down and took me right off the road to home. Aboard their flying saucer, they kept me locked in a room, but one wall was like a TV, and I could see outside. It was dark as pitch for a long time, and I slept once or twice while we were going. And then I saw a funny dark blob ahead of us, and soon figured out it was a planet, also dark as pitch. We landed there."

"No stars in the sky?" Pacha asked.

"Not a one!"

"That sounds like Engris!" Charlie said.

"What did the planet look like when you landed?" Pacha asked. "Was there a spaceport, next to a small city?"

"No." Bobby shook his head. "We landed on a dark field that turned out to be dirt. There was no city anywhere nearby that I could see. Just six rows of low buildings, all with lights in the windows. The Markites lived there, a couple of hundred of them. A bunch of thieves, they were. They stole stuff someplace and brought it all back to the dark planet to sort out. They had a few hundred robots - they called them Paglogs - that did most of the work. Least, I think they were robots."

"No cities?" Pacha asked, surprised. "How about forests?"

"No, not them, either. What I could see of the place, it was all dirt. Mountains in the distance, but they were a fair way off."

"But you could see?" Charlie asked.

"Yes. The ground seemed to glow. It was enough to see by to walk around, but it sure wasn't enough that I was going to strike out for those mountains in the dark! I waited for daylight to come, but it never did."

"Not Engris," Pacha decided. He turned to Max. "You said once you sensed more than one planet in the Cooee. Could this be such a world?"

"Don't see why not. If one could be put there, I'm sure others could be, too."

Pacha sat back, thinking. "Well...we've just learned from the Beltracians themselves that the state of no-time is not uniform within the Cooee, as we once thought. One can live on Engris for an eternity without a second passing out in the universe...but suppose there are other places...other worlds, within the Cooee where time is not so static?"

Max pointed at Bobby. "You said you were on that dark planet a coupla weeks?"

The boy nodded. "At a guess. I don't know for sure. But it wasn't no sixty-two years!"

Pacha sighed softly. "I am very sorry for your misfortune, Bobby. Did you back at home?"

Bobby's face pinched up. "Just my grandma Sue." He wiped at his eyes. "My dad was killed on Tarawa, during the war. I was little then. My mom just kind of faded after that, and was never the same. She died two years ago. I was of age by then, but my grandma Sue wanted me to come stay with her." He wiped at his eyes again. "She'll be passed by now. As far as she ever knew, I just disappeared. She'll never know what happened to me!"

Mike looked troubled, and leaned closer to the boy. "I have someone back on Earth who probably wonders what happened to me," he confided. "But no one else. I know how you feel, mate."

Bobby looked over at him. "You're alone, too?"

Mike looked surprised. "Me? No, I'm not alone. I got Pacha there, and all these guys are my friends." He smiled. "You're not alone, either."

Bobby shook his head. "When I get home, I'll be alone. And living in a future time, too. I don't know what I'll do." He looked up at Charlie. "How will I live? I can't say I was kidnapped by a flying saucer. They'll think I'm nuts, like they thought that guy Arnold was nuts!"

"What guy Arnold?" Kippy asked.

Bobby frowned. "Uh...I don't remember his first name. He said he saw flying saucers while he was flying his plane near Mount Rainier. This was ten years ago...well, in 1947. He said later that reporting it was the worst thing he ever did, that people everywhere thought he was the next Einstein, or a total screwball."

Charlie couldn't help smiling. "I read about that. Kenneth Arnold was his name. The account I read depicted him as more sane than the people that reacted to his story. Nothing brings out the nutty responses in people faster than an amazing or unbelievable story."

Bobby nodded. "See? They'll say I'm crazy!"

Pacha laid a small hand on Bobby's knee. "I'm sorry, but this will need to wait. We will determine a course for you later." He offered up the closest thing to a smile he could manage. "But I promise you that things will be okay. Trust me."

Mike nodded. "If Pach says you'll be okay, you'll be okay. Okay?"

Bobby blinked at that statement, but then managed a shallow smile. "I can wait, I guess. I don't want to stand in the way of some war of the worlds, or anything."

Max turned to Pacha. "We got off track there for a minute. I wanted to ask you, if these Beltracian guys was chasing the thief that stole the map, how did that lead them to you?"

"Ah, it took me a while to understand how that happened," Pacha said, a note of excitement creeping into his voice. "The Beltracians apparently had some sort of lock on the Galoolian's vessel, determined by some sort of signature it left behind at the outpost. I didn't understand it all, and they did not care to explain the technology involved. Needless to say, they found the Galoolian's ship and were making for it, but lost him when he landed on Engris. So they simply halted and waited for the signature to reappear again. And it did. They picked him up again when he left. But Engris apparently released the Galoolian a great distance from where the Beltracians lost him, and it took them some time to catch up with him again. But they were able, somehow, to trace his vessel across many light years of space."

"Good trick," Max admitted. "So they caught up with him again?"

"Yes. And quickly determined that he no longer had the map. All of their technology is somehow traceable, and they could detect the map from a long way off. The Galoolian no longer possessed it, having sold it to Adrian at the market. But they were able to infiltrate the Galoolian vessel's data systems, and one item they found there was the record of credit transfer between my account and the Galoolian's account for the purchase of the map. So that is what led them to me."

Charlie shook his head. "That's incredible detective work on their part. Just knowing who you were enabled them to find you? In a whole galaxy of people?"

Pacha sighed. "Credit records are always extensive, Charlie, even on your own world. They were able to get much information about me from that single listing, including the transponder number of my ship. The Beltracian technology is frighteningly efficient. They picked us up at some point and followed us to Roorapynta. And again determined that the map was not aboard my vessel. So the only thing they could do was take me and demand its location. I did not tell them, of course, and they could not force it from me."

Mike threw up his hands. "And then I called the guys for help, and Adrian brings the map right to them."

Adrian winced. "How was I to know?"

"You were not," Pacha comforted. "But when your vessel arrived at Roorapynta, they again detected the trace of the map, and so tried to take you - and the map - at the auction plaza."

"I still don't know how they managed that," Kontus said. "They simply arrived over the plaza and deposited their...troops, or operatives, or whatever they were...right at our feet. They should not have been able to even approach Roorapynta without being detected."

"Their technology cloaks them well," Pacha said. "This is the danger they present to all of known space at this time. The ability to attack without giving any notice beforehand."

Kontus considered that, and nodded. "It's the same with the Moth. We cannot really penetrate the scat fields they use - not yet. Our greatest security with them lies in the completely unprofitable nature of warfare between us."

"It would not be so with the Beltracians, who seek to reclaim what they feel is theirs by right."

Kippy turned to Pacha. "If these aliens had a lock on the Galoolian ship, couldn't they have done the same to us? Doesn't that mean they could find us again, once we leave Engris?"

"I would say yes," the Kifta agreed. "Our hope will be that Engris releases us with sufficient distance between us and the Beltracians that they will be unable to get to us before we get to Mohenja."

Kippy's jaw dropped. "Where?"

"Ah." Pacha tchicked out a laugh. "I'm sorry. That is the name of the arsenal planet we seek."

Ricky gave a faint curl to his lip. "Has a nasty ring to it."

Pacha nodded. "I agree. Especially as, from what I have learned of the Beltracian language in my short stay with them, Mohenja is one of their words for death."

"That's it?" Charlie asked, looking at the star map projected in the air before them. "That's where Mohenja is located?"

"Yes," Murcha returned. "It is to the extreme rear of Moth space, on the frontier. The star systems there do not even have proper names, and are largely still unexplored. This star is known as 341 Duronna in the catalog. But it is the destination indicated within the Beltracian crystal, without question."

Charlie examined the indicated star as it floated among the many others in the projected map. It was a red dwarf star, unappealing to the eye, and he could see why the Moth had yet to take an interest in it. The Moth favored yellow-white dwarf stars, slightly hotter than the yellow dwarf star that smiled upon the Earth and gave it life. By that criteria, the Moth may never have found that this particular star held a surprise, for there was nothing to immediately capture their attention and draw them to it.

Charlie turned to Max and Pacha. "Are we going?"

"I think we must," Pacha decided.

Max looked at the red star a moment, and nodded. "Me, too. We can't have these Beltracians finding this place if it's loaded up for war.

Adrian frowned at the floating stars, and held up the crystal before him. "That star is not the same color as the one in the map."

"No," the shipmind agreed. "Illia and I both agree that the colors of the stars in the crystal map were purposely shifted in order help mask the true location."

Kippy tsked. "Don't even trust each other, huh? Nice people."

Pacha turned to him. "Empire builders come in many flavors, Kip. The Beltracians are true conquerors, unlike the empire builders of today. Races in the Beltracian empire were subjects, not members. The Beltracians make even the Moth look placid by comparison."

"That seems so evil," Kippy said, frowning hard at the star map.

"A matter of perspective," Pacha said, sadly. "The Beltracians see themselves as unifiers - creators of something grand in scale. They feel that it is their destiny to own all of space someday. There is no evil in this, to them. Other races are simply lesser beings, tools with which to assist them in forging an eternal imperium."

"I ain't no tool," Max said, annoyed at the very idea. "And these ain't no benefactors of the galaxy." He snorted. "Even in their day, they didn't have it all their way. They fought with other empires, didn't they? And they finally met someone strong enough to take them out, too."

"So it would seem," Pacha agreed.

Kontus, who had been listening quietly, nodded. "We have records of several very large precursor empires, that were coincident with the Beltracian period. They didn't have it all their own way, definitely. They had competition, some of it as technologically proficient as they were."

"They evidently took precautions against a downward turn in their fortunes," Pacha surmised. "If they seeded their realm with genetic repositories and great arsenals of ships and weapons, they must have foreseen, even then, that things could go wrong for them."

Ricky grunted. "All this crap sure makes me see how well off we are back on Earth. These guys play rougher than we ever did."

"Let's hope it stays that way," Charlie said. He turned to Max. "Should we get Rufe and the others back? We might need them."

Max nodded. "Yeah. But just Rufe and Izzy and Zeke...maybe Lukey, too. That will give us six against six, and we're stronger than they are."

"We're here, too!" Frit said, slightly indignantly.

Pip nodded, his eyes large.

Max smiled, and nodded in return. "Yes, you are. I'm sorry I forgot you.. Now we'll have a real advantage!"

The younger elves looked pleased, and Charlie smiled at the note of affection in Max's gaze. Frit and Pip were far down the scale in power from Max's generation, but what they lacked in experience they more than made up for in exuberance. Their fight with the two Moth in Charlie's bedroom, when the Moth had first come looking for them, had been spirited and courageous, and only their lack of experience had counted against them.

The two younger elves tried hard, and their hearts were in the right places. That made them valuable in any fight that might come.

Max closed his eyes a moment, smiled to himself, nodded to himself, and then laughed and opened his eyes. "They're on the way. Zerfa, too!"

Frit and Pip stared at each other, then jumped up and down excitedly. "Now we know we'll win!" Frit said.

Charlie edged closer to Max and lowered his voice. "What's a Zerfa?"

Max grinned. "Rufe's wife. She said he wasn't going off to fight with any galactic conquerors without her, and that she was coming along. So she is."

Charlie laughed. "Is this a good thing?"

"Sure. Zerfa has a knack for organizing magic. She's a coordinator at the shop, helping to keep all that creative elf magic on track. She'll make us twice as strong...if she doesn't kill us, first!"

The stars burst into light ahead of them as the Lollipop - the name had stuck now - emerged from the Cooee. Front and center in the screen was a sullen red star, looking less than inviting in nature, and strangely alien to their minds as a place where someone might live.

But as the location of a possible alien arsenal of hugely destructive nature, it seemed ideally chosen.

"Ugly," Kippy said, watching the sun as the ship moved in-system.

"Depressing," Adrian added, nodding.

"Whoever heard of a red sun?" Bobby asked, wonderingly. "It's scary looking, isn't it?"

Mike smiled at him, and nodded. "There are a lot of red suns out here. You didn't know much about astronomy as a kid?"

Bobby shrugged. "Oh, some. I've heard of red stars. Read about them. I just never really thought of them as suns with planets, where people might live." He laughed. "I've read lots of good stories about stuff like this - Heinlein, Asimov, Van Vogt, Norton - it's just completely different being out here than it is imagining it in your mind while reading."

Mike blew out a soft breath of air. "It is that. Holy Dooley! There's more great stuff out here than you'll ever find just reading about it in a book."

"I'm starting to see that."

Charlie came over to stand by Kip, and put an arm around him as they watched the display together. Ricky appeared with a small tray of biscuits, and went to stand beside Adrian. Rick offered the tray to his boyfriend, who took one of the crunchy treats and offered a quick kiss in return. "Pass it over to Kip," Ricky whispered.

Frit and Pip were sitting on one of the sofas, also watching the screen, while the elder elves talked quietly nearby about the coming encounter with the Beltracian arsenal. Frit had Pip's hand in his, and periodically lifted it and kissed it, causing Pip to smile.

Bobby watched them all, and sighed. "Are there lots of homo...lots of gay people in 2019?" he asked Mike.

"Sure. There's always been lots. They just don't have to hide anymore."

Bobby turned to look at him. "And it's really okay? You can't get arrested for it?"

Mike laughed. "Nope. Well...not unless you get a little too friendly with your guy in public. But that can happen to any couple!"

Bobby nodded, watching Mike's face. "Are you...?"

Mike's eyebrows bounced upwards in surprise. "Me? Well, no. Well, not exactly. Well..." His face reddened just slightly.

"He wants to be, but he hasn't found the right guy yet," Kippy said, turning to look at them. He smiled. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but you guys weren't exactly whispering."

"I was just wondering," Bobby said, smiling. "I didn't mean to pry."

"It's fine," Kippy returned. His own smile grew. "Curiosity is a good thing."

Bobby looked surprised, and then thoughtful. "It killed the cat, though."

Kippy laughed. "Only because he wasn't looking where he was going. Keep your eyes open, and you'll be fine."

Bobby seemed to like that answer, and sat back, smiling.

The meeting of the senior elves broke up, and they and Pacha came to stand before the display. "Find anything yet, Illia?" Pacha asked. Both shipminds were plugged into the vessel's sensory array now, and could split the duty of protecting the vessel.

"Three planets that we can detect," the shipmind returned. "Two are gas giants, outside the habitable zone. There is one compatible, habitable world, as well."

"That's the one we want," Max said, nodding. He looked at Rufe. "Can you feel that?"

"Yep. Not good, is it?"

Max shook his head. "Nope. It ain't."

"What's the matter?" Charlie asked, turning to look at them.

Max frowned. "This place is booby-trapped like the king's underwear drawer." He looked up at the overhead. "Slow us down, Murcha. We don't want to get too close."

The could feel the vibrations of the ship's machines beneath their feet, but the change in motion was not apparent on the display.

Zerfa, Rufe's wife, was a cheerful lady with long, golden braids and a smile that had probably set many a man's heart aflutter. She had bright blue eyes that seemed to miss nothing, and Charlie and the others had liked her instantly on meeting.

But now her expression looked serious, her eyes closed and one hand held out before her, in the direction of their travel.

Ahead of them, a faint dot appeared against the red flank of the sun, and started to grow quickly, until the recognizable disc of a planet was before them. They were unable to see details beyond a faint glimmer covering the curved edge of the world, an indicator of an atmosphere, Charlie knew.

"I would stop here," Zerfa said then.

"Stop the ship, Murcha," Max said, right on her heels.

Again, the deck beneath their feet vibrated almost imperceptibly, and the disc on the screen stopped growing in size.

Max shook his head. "Murcha, can you magnify that place?"

"Absolutely, Max. We are close enough that I can get a view just about down to the surface."

Max looked over at Pacha, who nodded. "Good. Do that. I wanna see what's there."

In the display, the planet suddenly ballooned before them. In an instant they were atop the atmosphere, gazing down at a multi-hued landscape of red and gold, streaked with green. The image closed with the surface, and mountains appeared, and a few small bodies of water; but mostly, the world was a desert, which stretched from one horizon to the next.

The desert was crowded with objects: buildings of incredible design, some tall, some squat upon the ground. Straight lines seemed to have been shunned; everything was curved, rounded, spherical, or cylindrical in the making. Lines in the sand connected each structure together, like a vast printed circuit board, etched into the hard red silicon sand.

The view moved about, and another great stretch of desert came into view. It was covered with what looked at first to be giant cactus; but as the view drew closer they could see that the objects in question were huge spheres covered with spikes, each looking like the studded head of a mace, or an old fashioned sea mine. Each looked brand new, and each looked quite deadly.

"Are those ships?" Charlie asked, unable to believe his eyes.

"Yes," Pacha said. "They resemble the Beltracian vessel on which I was held captive."

"We never saw it - not really," Charlie returned. "It just looked like a big shadow when it came over the auction. And when it neared us when we rescued you, Pacha, it had no real shape in the scanners, at all."

"Their ability to conceal themselves is excellent," Pacha stated. "To most of the vessels traveling the five empires today, they would not have appeared at all."

"Murcha's sensors are a cut above the norm," Max said, nodding. "Murcha, how big are those things?"

The Moth shipmind had been using human measurements since joining them on their first mission. "Each vessel measures slightly more than seven-hundred meters in diameter."

Max whistled. "And how many are here?"

"I count four thousand, three hundred, and fifty-seven," Illia supplied. "And there may be other storage ports like this one, on other parts of the planet."

Everyone just stared at the display. Here was a vast fleet of warships, that had been sitting on this desert plain for over twenty thousand years. Yet they looked like they had just come off the line, as did all the structures they had seen so far. Here was what the Beltracians were seeking - a method of regaining their lost empire. It would mean war for the empires of the galaxy today, should these vessels and the war materiel here be found by their adversaries.

"What are we gonna do?" Rufe asked. "We're too far away to wreck the place."

"We cannot get closer," Zerfa said, shaking her head. "The security here is unbelievable. These people were proficient power users, and so understood the limitations of distance. Their defenses are set to activate well beyond the range where our powers would be most effective. This ship would not get within a thousand miles of the ground before we were all incinerated. The defensive forces here - just the ones I can detect - are Herculean. There's just no deflecting the stuff they could throw at us at these power levels." She sounded frustrated. "There's a key for entry, but it's based on a nine-digit prime number. Even if I had another thousand years, I doubt I could break it."

Rufe looked disappointed. "That's a first for you, dear."

Zerfa smiled at him. "This isn't simple population/time calculations, love. There are only seven billion people on Earth. Figures for them are easy compared to breaking this entry key."

Izzy turned to Max, looking grim. "If we can't break this place down, then we have to stop the Beltracians themselves, right? Stop them from being able to use it?"

Max looked at Pacha, who did not look happy. "I don't know if we can do that," the Kifta admitted.

"How about the shift thing your people used to push the Arpies into a side universe? Could we do something like that with these Beltracians?"

Pacha nodded. "Yes. If we had time to go back to my world and have the council recreate the Ka for it. But that would take time. I have a feeling our enemies already know where we are, and will be joining us well before we could accomplish such work."

Kippy poked Charlie with his elbow. "What about us?"

Charlie stared at him, uncomprehendingly. "What about us?"

Kippy sighed. "Oh, you...we have the wishes that Kiley and Kiri gave us." He turned to Max. "What about wish magic?"

Zerfa perked up at that. "You boys have wish magic? How much?"

Charlie shrugged, thinking about the little sparks that circulated around the back of his mind. He hadn't thought of them lately, and when he didn't think of them, they tended to recede from his thoughts. But just thinking about them now brought them out of hiding, and once again they swirled about the back of his thoughts, almost playfully. "I don't know. I've tried counting them, but they don't stand still, so it's hard." He shook his head. "Um...more than twenty, but less than a hundred? I used one to help me create a painting I gave someone for Valentine's Day" -- he flashed a smile at Kippy, who flashed one just as quickly in return --"but I still have the rest of them."

Zerfa frowned. "Wish magic is some of the most powerful magic there is, but it has to be used just right. You have to wish for the exact thing to occur that will make the difference, or the wish will be wasted dealing with a multitude of side issues."

"Couldn't you just wish for the Beltracian ship to explode?" Mike asked.

Even Charlie knew that answer to that. "No. It doesn't work for bad stuff. I mean, you can't wish for these guys to just die, and expect it to happen. Wishes come from the heart." Charlie looked around at his friends. "None of us can wish anyone to die."

Kippy shook his head. "I can't, I know that much."

Mike looked surprised. "Even if it means saving maybe millions of lives?"

"No," Zerfa said, nodding in agreement. "Wish magic is a gift, obtained from someone that loves you. It's the only way to get it. Born of love, it cannot be used directly for harm." She looked at them more closely. "Only indirectly, does harm to anyone come from a wish."

"I don't want to kill the Beltracians," Charlie said, patiently.

Mike looked frustrated. "Better six of them than maybe millions of the galaxy's people."

"I must agree," Pacha said. "But I also understand the test you face in applying such a force to our problem. Without a purposed attack upon our adversaries, I see no way to directly influence them."

Kippy stared at the planet in the display, and then turned to Zerfa. "You said the security here is tremendous. That would keep out the Beltracians, too, wouldn't it?"

Zerfa nodded. "Unless they have the key, or can break it, or have some other means of satisfying the provisions for entry, they will be kept out, as well."

"Maybe that will happen, then."

Pacha crinkled his nose at that. "They must have a reasonable expectation that they can enter this place, or why even seek it out?"

"Wouldn't just the fact they they're Beltracians make the difference?" Adrian asked. "Wouldn't it let its own people in?"

Ricky pointed at the planet on the screen. "If that place is anything like a human high-security compound, just being human won't get you in. The Beltracians had to have had a hierarchy, just like everyone else. Pacha said this was a scientific party of Beltracians, not a military one. So why would they have the key to get inside some super-secret military base?"

No one said anything for a moment. All eyes were turned to the distant planet.

Pacha cleared his throat. "I make an assumption here, but I am thinking there is perhaps a process whereby they can gain themselves entry to perhaps a lower security holding section of this facility, where, after that, they simply need to convince the artificial mind that runs this place of their need for complete access."

That made sense. Charlie had forgotten that all the alien facilities were run by artificial minds. That added element of intelligence might make all the difference here. "They might be able to talk their way in, you mean," he said. The thought intrigued him, and an idea started to form in his mind.

Bobby sighed, and looked at Kontus. "You have any idea what's going on?"

The big Trichani smiled. "Not even a little."

"You play cards?" Bobby asked.

"I could learn," Kontus said.

Max waved a hand, almost without a thought, and a deck of playing cards appeared in the air before Bobby and dropped into his hands.

"Come on over to the couch," Bobby said, holding up the deck and grinning. "We'll still be able to see and hear everything that's going on."

Kontus nodded, staring at the cards. "You intrigue me. Proceed, and I will follow."

Max let a quick smile follow them, before turning back to the issue at hand. "So we gotta assume they might get into this place."

Charlie's thought had grown to maturity by then, and he turned quickly to Pacha. "What sort of mind would be here, running this place? One like Murcha, you mean?"

The Kifta was silent a moment, thinking. "Well...I would imagine the technologies would be similar, not taking into consideration Beltracian advancements in the area. I just don't know for certain."

Charlie nodded. "Murcha? Can you give me a rundown on how your mind performs its functions?"

"Yes, Charlie. Easily."

Kippy poked him with an elbow. "You have an idea?"

Charlie nodded. "Maybe." He turned to Max. "If these minds work like I suspect they might, we may have a simple enough way to wish ourselves out of this situation."

Max grinned. "Seriously?" He laughed. "I like the idea of you taking this bull by the horns."

Charlie smiled. "We aren't there yet. This is just an idea at the moment." He looked up at the overhead. "Murcha? I'm ready for that tutorial. Can you make it simple so that even some high school guys can understand it?"

It took four days, wristwatch time, for the Beltracian ship to appear. Murcha spotted it before it was dangerously close, and Max and Pacha and the elves had their defenses up. The Beltracians obviously detected that, and made no hostile moves. Their ship drew closer to the planet, and paused as it came abreast of them, but at a safe distance away.

"I am receiving a communication," Murcha said then.

Charlie looked over at Pacha. "Will we even be able to understand them?"

The Kifta gave a tiny shrug. "Why would they bother, unless they thought we would understand?"

"Let's hear it, Murcha," Charlie said.

"There is video as well," the shipmind added.

The view of the planet on the screen before the sofas dimmed, and a face looked out at them. Charlie stared, along with everyone else.

His first impression was of that of a lion, but in an instant he could see it was a false one. The face was not furred, and the mane seemed to consist of tiny, fleshy appendages, almost like cilia on a grand scale, that waved slowly as if in a light breeze. The eyes were large and black - a predator's eyes if Charlie had ever seen them. The snout was square, with the twin slits of nostrils at the end of it, and the mouth beneath seemed filled with small, very pointed teeth.

A voice came to them, and Kontus leaped to his feet. "That is my own tongue!"

"I will translate," Murcha said then.

The voice that came to them was soft, almost whispery, yet scarcely without volume despite those qualities. If a snake could talk, this would be the voice that Charlie expected it would have.

"So, at last we meet."

Charlie looked about, expecting Max or maybe Pacha to answer; but both of them were looking at him. Charlie started, then swallowed hard and nodded at the display. "Yes."

"I do not recognize you. You are not one of the primitive species of the old empire, now grown haughty against your masters." The gaze moved among them, and fastened upon Kontus. "Your type, I do recognize. You were hunting with spears on the lonely plains of a single world when we last ruled this part of the galaxy."

Kontus cleared his throat, and looked unimpressed. "And yet, now we rule, and your type is extinguished from space."

"Not quite yet," the one onscreen said. "The grand never truly perish. They regroup, and return again. Even now, as we speak, forces beyond your comprehension are awakening. The empire of old will return."

"I don't think so," Charlie said. "We have no place for your kind here now."

The eyes onscreen narrowed. "You are power-users, and of a strength we have never encountered before. That makes you dangerous. Our first mission will be to seek out your place of origin, and erase it from among the stars. Our stars."

"Good luck," Charlie said, feeling angry now at the threat to humankind. "It's been tried before, and we're still here."

"It was not done properly, then. We will do it correctly, I assure you."

Charlie offered up a thin smile. "Six of you? It will take more than that."

"There will be more than that."

"Oh - that's right. Your people have genetic stores all over the old empire, right? You're planning to breed a few million of you, in short order?" Charlie laughed. "We're onto your plans there. I don't think that will be allowed to happen."

The one onscreen watched them a moment, but seemed unimpressed by Charlie's threat.

"In a moment we go to the planet below. There, we will awaken a fleet such as your kind has never seen. Wait about, if you like, and witness our return. We shall be sure to send a few vessels up for you to inspect first hand."

"Why?" Charlie asked. "Why do you need to do this? Your kind has had it's run. Others have built a life here now. You would kill millions just to reassert your power?"

The face on the display watched him a moment, and a brief flash of hope appeared in the back of Charlie's mind.

"We do not believe in needless killing. All that is required is for us to reclaim what is ours. We built the greatest empire this galaxy has ever known. Should we simply turn our backs on it now, when the means to rebuild it are at hand?"

Charlie sighed. "The people that have this space now will not simply hand it over to you. They will fight for it. Many of your kind will die, too."

"Yes. It is the way that greatness is always built - on sacrifice."

"Someone will stop you," Charlie said, in a last, desperate attempt to halt where he could see this conversation going. "Like your empire was stopped once before. You never learned what happened to your people, did you? What killed them off? Aren't you worried it might happen again?"

The one onscreen issued forth a soft sound, an almost sigh. "It is our natures to build. We must, or die. You are strong, but not strong enough to stop us. So we go, to meet our destiny."

Charlie sighed, and nodded, tiring of the game. These people would never listen. "This planet has safeguards. You have to get in there, first. The security is pretty tough, in case you don't know about it."

Something like a laugh crossed to their ears. "We do know of it, and we also know how to get in."

Charlie waved a hand at the screen. "Then be our guests."

"Then farewell, until we next meet again." The image on the display vanished.

"Yeah," Charlie said softly, "I don't think that's gonna happen."

"Nasty," Pip said, shaking his head.

"Trouble," Frit agreed.

They had rehearsed what needed to be done next. Kippy closed his eyes. "I wish...I wish I could see what was happening inside the Beltracian ship."

The screen, which had dimmed, lit again, and they were suddenly looking at what appeared to be the control center of the Beltracian vessel. Six of the aliens were seated in a row before a large display, that showed the growing bulk of the planet before them. The room itself was dimly lit. Things that glowed stood here and there about the deck, but the great display screen was central to everything, and Charlie wasted no time thinking that the room looked more like a darkened movie theater than it did the control center of an advanced starship.

"Establish contact," a whispery voice said then.

One of the other aliens launched into a long string of words, naming the science vessel, its mission, and their authorization code to establish contact with the planetary mind. And then it offered a short synopsis of what they had found upon their return to the empire, and the dire condition of the Beltracian race.

The planetary mind responded, acknowledging that there had been no contact with anyone for x-number of years, and that a discussion would be allowed on what had happened and what might be done about it. The ship requested permission to land in a safe area, and the mind offered up the coordinates for them to do so. The vessel was then warned not to utilize any defensive or offensive technologies, either of which would be deemed as threatening and dealt with accordingly. Those on the ship agreed..

The Beltracian ship descended. Charlie and the others could see the continent grow, and then the desert within it, and then the great structures of buildings and the ranked rows of warships, stretching into the distance. The ship continued to drop, until a great, circular paved area came into view. The ship drifted sideways, toward it, until Charlie was certain that that was where the aliens intended to land.

He sighed, and closed his eyes. "I wish...I wish I could watch the Beltracian planetary mind at work, from the inside. Up close."

The air to one side of them formed a cloud, and then they were looking at...something. An amazing number of tiny lights seemed to be flashing and swirling and moving everywhere, and winking out and reappearing, But suddenly, even as they watched, the flurry of activity slowed as the lights suddenly came to brief rests before moving on again. A congestion of sorts built, and then blocks appeared here and there, and then...

On the surface of the planet, a dozen great turrets suddenly thrust upwards from the ground. Immense muzzles trained skyward at the descending ship, and opened fire. Bolts of energy such as the Titans must have wielded lanced skyward, to converge on the Beltracian ship. The bolts were as large in diameter as the vessel itself, and were scarcely slowed as they reached the unprotected steel of her hull. There was a clap of thunder such as might herald the end of the world, and the ship vanished into a raging cloud of superheated gases. The echoes of the destruction reverberated across the great desert, to fall upon the deaf ears of a now vanished race.

Charlie felt a pain lance through him, an acute sense of loss. Six lives had just ended. Alien lives, enemy lives...but lives, nonetheless.

He sighed, and closed his eyes. "That's all. We've seen enough."

Charlie moped for a while afterwards, knowing in his heart he was responsible for the deaths of six living beings. The others tried to console him, but he simply sighed and said he was fine. The Lollipop withdrew from the fortress world, quickly surveyed the entire star system, and found no others present. Murcha popped them into the Cooee, and the red star vanished from sight.

"Back to Engris," Max said, pointing around at the group. "Want to go to Engris, everyone."

Charlie finally found that he could smile, and let the others draw him back into the fold. Kippy stayed with him, touching, smiling, being close. He knew how much Charlie cared about life, and how the violent ending of the drama had affected him.

"It's not your fault," he whispered, as the group laughed and talked in the released tension after their ordeal. "They did it to themselves."

"I should have figured it would end that way," he whispered back. "As much as they thought of themselves, I should have known they'd have a shoot first and ask questions later mentality built into their artificial minds."

"It's not your fault," Max said, overhearing. "Son, you need to understand that in this universe there are always gonna be people that won't play nice. You can stand up to them, or you can let them run you down. I think you did the right thing, and you know how I feel about life."

That helped, and Charlie smiled with more feeling after that. "Thanks, Max. I just wish there'd been another way."

The elf came and sat next to him, and patted his arm. "Charlie, I'm proud of you. I'm proud of all you boys. You guys always try to do right by the world, and you always try to help it stay on course." He grinned. "You'd make great elves."

Charlie was touched deeply by the words. "That's a wonderful thing to say."

The elf sighed. "It sucks, Charlie, but sometimes there is only one way out of a trap. Having the courage to take that route, especially when you really don't like, is the mark of a good man."

Kippy hugged him some more, and Charlie felt better after that.

"I still have no idea what we did," Adrian confessed, once Charlie was feeling more sociable again.

Ricky laughed. "That's easy! Britannica Brain strikes again!"

"It wasn't that hard, really," Charlie said, as they sat to eat some lunch. "I was reading about quantum computers and how they worked one night back at home, and that gave me the idea on how to use a wish to do what was needed here. Murcha confirmed that the structure of his mind is a quantum device, and so subject to quantum laws. That made me think that the Beltracians probably had a similar system, because it really is the most efficient one available."

Max sighed. "These electronic thingies are beyond me, Charlie. How did a wish make the planetary mind shoot at the ship?"

Charlie closed his eyes, recalling the article he'd read on quantum computing. "Well, computers with silicon chips, like we use every day at home, process information in bits, which exist either as a one or a zero. That limits the speed of the calculations they can perform, because each bit is set in only one state. To change a condition, you have to change a bit from one state to the other. From a zero to a one, or the reverse."

Kippy eyed him. "You lost me already."

Charlie laughed, knowing that was untrue. "Just listen. In a quantum computer, every single bit is not set. These quantum bits, or qubits, can exist in what is called a superposition, which allows them to be both a one and a zero, as well as every point in between. That allows them to perform many calculations at a single time. A quantum computer can work on a million calculations at a time, compared to your desktop computer only being able to work on one at a time. This is why a quantum computer becomes fast enough and powerful enough to host an actual mind - an intelligence."

"I read that quantum computer bits are just atoms or photons, or other particles," Ricky said. "They use a bunch of different methods of controling them."

Charlie nodded. "That's right. And because these bits are subject to quantum rules, they suffer the difficulty of existing under quantum laws. And one of them is very simple: if you observe a quantum bit in superposition to determine its value, the action of observation actually changes that value. That makes it hard for a quantum computer to operate and produce usable results, because simply querying each action, alters it."

"So how does it work, then?" Kippy asked.

Charlie gnawed on his lip, thinking. "Another quantum rule is that if you apply an outside force to two atoms, it can cause them to become entangled, and the second atom takes on the properties of the first atom. The first qubit. That way, you can query the results of one atom in the entangled set without disturbing the functions of the second atom, thereby preserving the calculations. An atom left alone spins in all directions, or a state of superposition. If you disturb it by measuring it, it chooses one spin, one value, and becomes a one or a zero. That messes up whatever calculations it was working on, and slows the operation of the computer. Enough interactions like that by an observer, and the computer is paralyzed."

"That's what happened?" Adrian asked."We paralyzed the planetary mind?"

"Uh huh. By wishing to watch the planetary mind in action up close, we directly observed the qubits in their calculations, which altered their states and began to cripple the mind. It could only view that as an attack, and the only source of that attack was the ship then landing. I didn't know how it would react to that, but I don't think I thought it would destroy the ship"

Pacha eyed him. "Really, Charlie?" he asked, gently. "Be honest with yourself. You'll feel better for it."

Charlie considered the Kifta's words, and knew then that he had really been aware of what might happen. It didn't make him feel any better, but at least he felt like he was not trying to hide the truth from himself. "I didn't want to kill them," he said, and meant it. "But...I guess I did know that might happen."

Pacha patted his hand. "You've a good heart, Charlie. You just need to know that even a good heart sometimes needs to make very difficult decisions. There are billions of people in several star empires that may very well owe their lives to our actions here today. Feel good about that, and let the dead lie in the debris of their own poor decisions."

For a moment, the conversation died as everyone became thoughtful.

"We'll have to go back to that planet," Max said then. "We can't just leave it there. Someone else might find it. Or, the mind there could decide that something had happened to the Beltracians, and that it needed to send that fleet out to look for them. Those weapons are just as dangerous without their real owners there to use them."

Charlie winced at the idea of going back, but knew that Max spoke the truth. "Just let us know when, and Murcha will take us."

"What do you plan to do?" Kippy asked. "Zerfa already said we can't break the code to get in."

Max sighed. "Well, I'm really good with gravity, see? I know a few of the boys at the shop that are really good with gravity, too. We'll come back, and make some adjustments to that planet's orbit. I figure we can alter it pretty handily. Enough that, say in a month's time, it will fall into that red sun."

Kippy gaped. "The whole planet?"

Max nodded. "Terrible waste, but the galaxy needs to be safe, Kip."

Adrian shook his head. "What about the life that lives there?"

"There's none at all, not even little one-celled guys," Max said. "Rufe looked it over really well. The Beltracians apparently sterilized the place to curb any possible contamination or corruption of what they had stored there."

The idea of destroying an entire world was sobering, and it took a little while for the conversation to bounce back. But it did, proving once again that people can get past anything, in time.

"I have a question," Bobby finally said, smiling at Charlie.

Charlie nodded. "Shoot."

"Uh...what's a computer?"

Charlie stared at the boy, and then laughed. "They were around in your time, but they were as big as a room. I think the British used one in WWII to help break codes, even."

Bobby looked shocked, and then nodded. "Oh! A super calculator? With vacuum tubes and stuff? I read about them in Popular Mechanics."

Charlie grinned. "They're a little more compact today."

Bobby sighed. "I can see there's gonna be some amazing stuff to learn about."

Mike smiled at him, and clapped him on the shoulder. "Plenty of time for that."

Bobby turned and grinned at him, and Kippy gasped, suddenly leaning closer to Charlie. "Do you see what I see?" he whispered.

Charlie blinked, and turned to look at his boyfriend. "What?"

Kippy sighed. "Oh, Charlie. You can be so blind sometimes."

Charlie looked back at Mike and Bobby, at the way they were smiling at each other, at the way their eyes were engaged, and immediately thought of his own explanation of quantum entangling. You could almost see the state of one boy, reflected in the other.

Charlie gave a little laugh, and pushed himself against Kippy. "Well, I'll be!"

Sefton, the big Molkar tour guide, let them out at the spirit dome, and stood by the round touring flyer, just as usual. "You go. Have fun. I be here."

After arriving back at Engris, Rufe and his wife, Zerfa, and the other elves, said their goodbyes and went home. That left Charlie and Kippy and Ricky and Adrian, along with Max and Pacha'ka, and Mike, Bobby, and Kontus. The big Trichani had become quite happy to be with them, marveling at the items for sale in the pirate market, and just overawed at being on the fabled planet of Engris. Charlie enjoyed the man's excitement, able to understand it completely because he usually felt the same way himself when confronted with such delicious mysteries.

"I hope we can see Will and Billy," Kippy said, the pleasure at the idea he was feeling plain to Charlie. They held hands as they walked towards the great dome, and Charlie's eyes traveled over the shadowed, quiet towers beyond the dome, before coming back to the huge, ornate doors that let into the dome itself.

"I'm getting fond of this place," he said. "It feels like our place, now."

"I know what you mean," Kippy said. "I feel welcome here."

Inside the dome, they explained the technology to Bobby and Kontus, and that they were going to try to summon up their friends, Will and Billy, for a visit. Kontus looked like he thought they were pulling his leg, but Bobby was thrilled at the idea. "Oh! Like a séance!"

"Better than that," Charlie said, grinning. "This is the real thing!"

The gathered by the great pit in the center of the dome, and began calling Will's and Billy's names. Kontus watched with skepticism clearly marked on his features, and so lurched backwards in surprise when there was a flash of motion near the edge of the pit.

Charlie turned to look, just as a tall, wispy, glowing cloud of light rose up out of the tunnel and hovered in the air above it. It was like a mist that he could see through, with tiny sparkles of light inside. Even as he looked, another of the same things rose beside the first one, and both wispy clouds moved away from the tunnel opening and approached them. Bobby took a step backwards, and looked like he was about to run. Charlie snaked out a hand and grabbed the sleeve of the other boy's jacket, and smiled. "Easy. They're friends."

The two clouds stopped a few feet from them, and the sounds started. It was like voices, but from afar, and so many that it was a chorus, with each separate voice lost among the others. Charlie and the others simply stared, unable to do anything at all but watch.

The two shapes pulsed and flowed, and settled to the paving stones. Slowly, the many voices began to quiet, even as the misty clouds darkened and started to change form. Charlie could not pull his eyes away, even as the two forms took on arms and legs and heads, and the many voices ebbed away, until only one was speaking.

"Hello, Charlie. Hello Kippy."

Will and Billy appeared, ghostly, glowing, but obviously the same two boys they had known in a more tangible, if spectral form, back on Earth.

Kippy stepped forward, his hands clasped before him. "It's so good to see you again! I wish I could hug you both!"

The two ghosts laughed. "It's wonderful to see all of you again. Adrian and Ricky, hello! And Max and Pacha, too! And two new faces! We welcome Bobby and Kontus among us."

The Trichani's jaw dropped. "You...know of me?"

"Yes," Billy said, nodding. "We observed your latest adventure from several different views - several different possible outcomes. We are pleased that it worked out for you in this reality."

Will smiled at them. "There is a great deal of power in this reality - a great deal of luck that arises from the strength of your group's friendship. That seems to be the factor that continuously draws your endeavors here to successful conclusions."

Charlie looked around at the others, and nodded. "We do okay together."

Will turned to gaze at Bobby. "Your plight has saddened us, Bobby Felsen. It is as Pacha'ka has surmised, that the dark world of Kanthakos, where you were briefly imprisoned by the Markites, exists in a time frame where many years pass in the real universe compared to planetary time. And so you have been displaced from the world you knew."

Bobby nodded. "Yeah. I don't know what I'm gonna do about it, either."

Billy smiled. "We have someone with us who wishes to see you. We thought to prepare the way, so that you would not be shocked."

"Someone to see me?" Bobby looked amazed. "Here? Who?"

Another wispy, glowing cloud of light rose up out of the tunnel and hovered in the air above it, before coming over and settling on the the pavement beside Will. It instantly firmed, and the figure of a woman looked out at them.

Bobby dropped to his knees. "Grandma!"

The woman came forward, standing near Bobby, and then sank to her knees before him. "Oh, Bobby! It is so wonderful to see you again."

Bobby snorted, and tears ran down his face. "Are you...are you dead?" He reached out for her, but grasped only air.

"I am passed on," the woman agreed. "But as you can see, I am not dead."

"How...?" Bobby asked.

The woman looked around the great chamber, and smiled. "This wonderful place, that has let me come to see you. The moment I passed, I became aware of your predicament, stolen from earth and trapped on that dark world in the nether regions."

"The Cooee," Charlie said, before he could help himself.

The woman smiled at him. "Yes." She returned her gaze to Bobby. "You have made good friends in these ones, Bobby. Each time you come here, we can visit together."

Bobby shook his head. "But...I'll be going back to earth, grandma. How will I get here again?"

The woman leaned closer. "Is that what you want? To go back to a world that no longer knows you? That you no longer know?"

"But...what else is there? What else can I do?"

Mike stepped forward, and sank to his knees next to Bobby. He carried Pacha, who reached out a hand and laid it on Bobby's shoulder. "Mike and I were discussing you, Bobby. We would like to ask you to join us in our travels."

"To go along with us," Mike said. "Stay with us."

Bobby suddenly smiled. "To travel around the stars with you?"

Mike simply nodded.

"It would be good for you," the figure of Bobby's grandmother said. "And, like I mentioned, we can visit each time you come here."

"I want to," Bobby said, looking at Mike. "I want to go with you."

Kippy sighed, and leaned against Charlie, and took his hand and squeezed it. "Told ya," he whispered.

Charlie smiled, and squeezed his boyfriend's hand in return.

Will turned to Charlie then. "As Billy said, we observed the possible outcomes of your latest adventure, Charlie. You triumphed here, in this reality; but in others the Beltracians were not stopped. I want you to know that in some realities, where you did not think to do as you did here, hundreds of worlds were laid waste, and millions upon millions died. Lost among the casualties in many of those realities was our very own Earth."

Charlie gasped, feeling his knees get weak. Kippy held onto him, and nodded. "See? It was for the best, Charlie."

"I ...I just can't believe that we can be pivotal."

"It is the strength of all of you, Charlie. The unique strength of your group is unlike any other, anywhere. You should cherish what you have found together." Will turned, and smiled at Bobby, and Kontus. "And your strength continues to grow, with each new addition, each new talent. There are many things yet ahead of you, Charlie, where you will need such strength. The universe has taken note of you now. You will forever play a part in moving it onward."

Charlie simply stared at Will. "Uh...but no pressure, right?"

Will and Billy both laughed, as did the others.

"No, Charlie, there is no pressure. Because you and your group will always act when needed, without anyone telling you it needs to be done. It is your nature, and we are happy that it is so."

Charlie put his arm around Kippy and pulled him a little closer as they waited for the first fireworks to burst overhead. Max had whipped them up a great, long sofa, with room for them all, and Charlie had to admit that it was a whole lot better than sitting on the ground.

Nearby, Kontus fanned himself, and gave a short cough. "Is it always so warm here?"

Charlie laughed. "It's summer, I'm afraid. And our planet is not air-conditioned like your Roorapynta is. Sorry."

The Trichani smiled at him. "It is still quite a beautiful world." Something buzzed past him on wings, a bumblebee, perhaps, and the big man's eyes grew wider. "And quite full of life!"

"We'll take you home after the celebration," Charlie promised. He smiled then. "Unless you don't want to go right away."

Kontus cleared his throat, and looked thoughtful. "Actually, the idea of going back to my job at the port, aimlessly floating about, just watching as ships come and go on their adventures in space...bores me."

Charlie grinned and leaned forward and looked the other way down the sofa. "Pacha? Anything you can do about that?"

The little koala tchick-tchick-tchicked. "There is plenty of room aboard my vessel, Kontus, if you would like to go with us."

Mike grinned, and leaned forward, too. "Yeah. We're heading over to Plastark, in the Crab Nebula."

The Trichani's eyes widened. "The Tower of Arimides is there! It was thought to have been constructed by an even older race than the Beltracians!"

"You're welcome to come along with Mike, Bobby, and I," Pacha said. "We can drop you off later, if you like."

"Or not," Mike added, laughing.

Max leaned forward further down, a huge bowl in his grasp. "Popcorn, Charlie? There's plenty."

The other way, Ricky leaned forward and gazed past Kontus. "We'll take some. Right, Ad?"

Adrian sighed, and snuggled closer to his boyfriend. "Sure, Rick. Whatever you want."

The bowl was passed down, and Ricky took it, grinning. Charlie looked back the other way, in time to see Max spin his hand and create another bowl on his lap, heaped high with freshly popped popcorn. The elf grinned at him, dug himself out a handful, popped it into his mouth, and sat back.

The first rocket burst far above them, and everyone's eyes moved skyward.

"Ooh!" Frit called, from beyond Max, automatically squeezing Pip against him. "It's beautiful!"

"It's stupendous!" Pip agreed. "Colossal!"

"It is quite magnificent," Kontus said, shaking his head in small wonder. "And you do this for entertainment purposes?"

Kippy laughed. "It's a celebration, Kontus. Of our freedom. And of our intention to stay that way."

Another rocket burst overhead, and they all fell silent as the show got under way.

Charlie sighed, pleased to be back home, pleased that they were all together.

Kippy squeezed his hand as another rocket burst, and Charlie leaned over and kissed him. "Love you, Kip."

Kippy turned his head, and offered up a kiss. "I love you, too, Charlie. I couldn't have wished for a nicer Fourth of July."

Charlie laughed, and pulled his boyfriend even closer.

"Wishes count, Kip. There's always next year!"

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